Saturday, August 17, 2019

Cups of Coffee During the Original Best 32 Days of the Year

My wife is a month older than, and since the early days of our nearly two decades together, I have celebrated what I like to call, “my favorite 32 days of the year.” (She does not find this amusing.)

One of my favorite random factoids is that because she was born in September 1979 and I was born at the end of October, she was alive the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series, while I was not. (She also does not find this amusing.) The other day, something else occurred to me: maybe there were players who played their entire careers in that gap between her birth and mine. Wouldn’t that be fun!

And of course there were, and of course it is! (There are two, actually, and as an added bonus I just noticed that one played for the Pirates and the other played for the Baltimore Orioles, the team the Pirates beat in the World Series.)

The first was Pittsburgh’s Gary Hargis, on September 29 against the Chicago Cubs. With two outs in the 13th inning and the Pirates trailing 7-6, shortstop Tim Foli flared a single to right against Bill Caudill for his second hit of the day. Hargis, the team’s second round pick in 1974, was brought in to make his major league debut as a pinch-runner for Foli. I didn’t understand why this happened so I tried to find a game story or something on Google; nothing doing there, but I DID find video of the game broadcast on YouTube (apparently it was NBC’s Game of the Week). Play-by-play announcer Joe Garagiola didn’t mention specifically why Foli was lifted except to note that he had a bad leg; I also didn’t catch him saying anything about it being Hargis’s major league debut, but did point out that first baseman Bill Buckner made a show of looking at the name on the back of his uniform as if to figure out who this guy was. He eventually moved up to second on Dave Parker’s fifth hit of the day but was stranded there when Hall of Famer Willie Stargell struck out to end the game.

And that was it for Hargis in the major leagues. He was just over a month shy of his 23rd birthday, still a young man, but was done with baseball after two more seasons in the minors. It’s kind of wild to think that all he did as a major leaguer was run 90 feet.

The next day, September 30, was the last day of the season. The Baltimore Orioles visited the Cleveland Indians, with Dennis Martinez getting the start. Martinez had given up three runs, two earned, on six hits when he headed out to the mound to start the sixth. A leadoff homerun by Cliff Johnson and a Ron Hassey single later and he was headed to the showers with the Orioles trailing 4-3.

Enter Jeff Rineer, a 24-year-old lefthander making his major league debut. He stopped the budding rally before it could get started, getting Ron Pruitt to fly out to left and inducing a ground ball from Dave Rosello to start a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.

And that was that. Two batters up, two batters down, and Rineer’s major league career was over. Two Baltimore runs in the bottom of the sixth put him in line for the win, at least, but Don Stanhouse coughed up the lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Orioles lost in eleven innings.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Side of Baseball

I attended the induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame for the third time this past weekend. The speeches are usually the least memorable part for me - in all those years, I think the best moment was the reaction Pedro Martinez got from the crowd - but this year something stuck.

In Lee Smith's speech, he mentioned that when the Cubs told him they were moving him to the bullpen in 1979, he took it as a negative and wanted to quit the game. Only the intervention of Billy Williams, the former Cubs great turned coach (and eventual Hall of Famer) changed his mind. Williams explained that the game was changing and that relievers were going to be valuable in the future. Smith decided to come back, he made his major league debut the following season, and the rest was history.

This caught my attention because just a few days ago, I began rereading Joe Posnanski's "The Soul of Baseball," his account of a year spent on the road with legendary player, scout, coach, and overall ambassador to the game Buck O'Neil. It's a fabulous book, full of stories about O'Neil and insights into the way he put a positive spin on aspects of his life that would bring most of us to our knees.

One of the great stories in the book was from O'Neil's days as a scout. A young minor leaguer he had signed quit and went home, and Buck was sent to bring him back. He did, visiting the family for dinner, taking the player to soak in the adulation of local youths and remind him how good he really had it, and eventually driving  him back to his team in Texas himself.

The player? Billy Williams.

Who knows if Williams was thinking of that ride with Buck O'Neil when he intervened with Lee Smith, but I love the way humanity interjected itself into the business side of the game and two Hall of Fame careers were the result.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Ballad of Stephen Strasburg

It was the fall of 2007 when my friend Eric and I decided to start a blog about minor league baseball. We were both bloggers already – Eric’s specialty was college basketball and mine was “esoteric bullshit,” at least according to a commenter on Awful Announcing, the blog where we met as commenters and ended up becoming fellow contributors and friends – but the goal here was to just kick back and have fun writing about a sport that was meant to be exactly that.

The timing of Bus Leagues’ debut was pretty typical for the way we approached life in general – for the uninitiated, the bulk of minor league baseball action ENDS in the fall; it was like we showed up to a game in the ninth inning – but we still took to it with a delight that never fails to surprise me when I think back on it. We were just a couple of random dudes, writing about random teams in a random sport, and we had a blast.

We tried to look at the game from a fan’s perspective, since that’s what we were (later, we gained experience as “insiders” and while that was fun as well, and led to a number of remarkable memories, it didn’t spark the same organic joy), which meant that one of the first things we focused on was the players. And ironically, one of the first players to catch our eye wasn’t a professional, but a promising college pitcher named Stephen Strasburg.

In 2019, Strasburg is a ten-year veteran with a career 3.16 ERA and more than 1,500 strikeouts, all with the Washington Nationals. In 2014, he led the National League with 34 starts and 242 strikeouts en route to a ninth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. In 2012, he was infamously shut down while the Nationals were still very much in the mix for a championship, the team putting long-term arm health ahead of short-term competitive goals (they still haven’t reached a World Series). In 2010, he turned in one of the most remarkable debuts in major league history, striking out 14 Pirates and walking none in seven innings to pick up his first career win. And sometime in 2009, Eric dubbed him Lord Vishnu, a nickname that was both completely nonsensical and one of my favorite things in Bus Leagues history.

But the moment Strasburg first appeared on our radar was in 2008, when as a San Diego State sophomore he took the mound one night in April and struck out 23 Utah batters. That was what started it all, both for us and the baseball world in general. That was when Stephen Strasburg announced his presence for all to see.

The reason I thought of this wasn’t Strasburg’s 1,500th career strikeout, which came on May 2nd this season against St. Louis, or his 100th career win, which he recorded on June 4th against the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t even anything Strasburg did, though he is certainly putting together a nice Hall of Very Good career and looking back on his first decade makes me unreasonably happy. What made me think of Strasburg was a performance over the weekend by Vanderbilt freshman Kumar Rocker, who took the mound for his team in an elimination game and completely dominated Duke, striking out nineteen batters and pitching the first no-hitter in NCAA Super Regional history.

This performance scratches so many personal itches. The name, Kumar Rocker – even if this young man doesn’t reach the major leagues (and his performance this seasons – 3.50 ERA, 97 strikeouts in 87.1 innings – would seem to indicate that he’s well on his way), he should donate his name to someone who does, because that name BELONGS there. It’s like Madison Bumgarner. His size – at 6’4”, 255 lbs, he’s built more like an NFL defensive end than an elite pitcher (and according to his Vanderbilt bio, his father was a standout college football player who went on to play in the NFL). The age – he won’t turn 20 until November; my college “athletic” highlight when I was his age was running the table to win a pool tournament in my school’s game room. All of it together gives me Strasburg bumps. (That sounds weird but I don’t care.)

Kumar Rocker (I want his fastball to be named Harold, the pitch he desperately needs but spends all night trying to get a feel for to be named White Castle, and his out pitch to be Mary Jane’s Last Dance; if he doesn’t have three quality pitches, then GET MORE PITCHES) may be great, or he may amount to nothing. (If he enjoys even a portion of the success that Stephen Strasburg has, he’ll be doing alright for himself.) Most likely it will be somewhere in between, like the rest of us. But at the very least, he brought a nearly forty-year-old mostly former blogger a bit of joy and a flash of memory and awoke that old feeling of “this is great – I want to write about it!” And I appreciate that.