Sunday, January 27, 2008

Time to look ahead to Grapefruit action

Boston 4, Colorado 3.

For the last three months, that’s what I saw whenever I clicked on CBS Sportsline, which I have bookedmarked, and it’s bookmarked to the Major League Baseball scores.

When I wanted to see what was going on in college football, I saw the linescore from Game 4 of the World Series, which the Red Sox clinched Oct. 28 with the one-run victory.

When I wanted to check on the NFL scores, I saw the Rockies rallied with a run in the seventh and two in the eighth but couldn’t stave off elimination.

Now, I have nothing against the Red Sox. They were the best team in baseball last season and deserved to win the World Series.

Right now they are my pick to win it all again this fall, but that could change as the season unfolds.

On Saturday I clicked on the Web site to check out some college basketball scores when to my surprise – and delight – I saw this:

Mets vs. Tigers
Reds vs. Phillies
Nationals vs. Marlins
Rockies vs. White Sox

The date said Wednesday, Feb. 27.

It is the start of baseball’s exhibition season. Three games in the Grapefruit League and one out west in the Cactus League.

Nothing against the BoSox and the Rockies, but with the pitchers and catchers due to report in the middle of February, I believe it’s time to look ahead.

I’m glad CBS Sportsline agrees.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rocky Nelson, 1924-2006

I had not spoken with Rocky Nelson in a while, but I always meant to give him a call.

The one-time Pittsburgh Pirate lived part of the year on Anna Maria Island, and we always said we’d meet for lunch some day, but that day never came.

In the meantime, Rocky was a great source for stories, adding the historical perspective that only someone who spent most of his career in the minor leagues in the 1950s but enjoyed just enough days in the majors can provide.

He’d end our conversations the same way: “Call me any time.”

It caught me by surprise earlier this week when I learned Rocky died last Oct. 31 in his native Portsmouth, Ohio. He was 81.

The name Rocky Nelson is not known to a great many baseball fans, but Pirates fans of a certain age will always have a place in their heart for the left-handed power-hitting first baseman, whose two-run homer off Bob Turley in the first inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series helped the Pirates pull off the improbable upset over the mighty New York Yankees.

Some may remember Nelson as the Pirates' first baseman the night Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose everything – the perfect game, no-hitter and ball game – in the 13th inning.

Nelson spent most of his career in the minor leagues, where he compiled a .319 lifetime average and slugged 234 home runs. Make him a catcher, and he’s Crash Davis.

Nelson won three International League MVPs and three IL batting titles, including the two years when he won the Triple Crown.

He did all that while averaging fewer than 35 strikeouts a year.

It’s been written that Triple-A pitchers didn’t know how to pitch to Nelson, and Triple-A managers wondered why their pitchers were still faced with that problem.

Nelson broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. He also played with the Pirates, Chicago White Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. He played in the 1952 World Series with the Dodgers and won his only World Series ring with the 1960 Pirates.

Early in his rookie season, Nelson was involved in a bizarre play against the Cubs in Chicago.

Batting with two outs and runner on first and the Cubs trailing 3-2, Nelson smacked a sinking line drive to center field, where Cubs center fielder Andy Pafko made what Pafko thought was a shoestring catch. The umpire ruled Pafko trapped the ball.

Furious, Pafko argued the call while Nelson and the other runner continued to circle the bases.

By the time Pafko realized time had not been called, it was too late to get Nelson at the plate.

The two-run, inside-the-glove home run helped the Cards win that afernoon.

Rocky Nelson is already missed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Life is a fantasy at Pirate City

I’m standing in a hallway inside Pirate City on Monday afternoon, waiting for former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Chuck Tanner to finish autographing a few dozen baseballs so we can chat for a few minutes before he has to head back to the fields.

It’s the first day of the Pirates' annual fantasy baseball camp, and a guy walks past me wearing a Pirates (what else?) uniform and carrying a cell phone.

Now, these campers, which included this guy, pay nearly $4,000 for a handful of baseball games, a few aches and pains and a lifetime of memories.

The former Pirates players are gracious hosts. They manage and coach the campers and do their best to make these guys feel like major leaguers for a week, which I think has to be kind of hard for a guy who, I don’t know?, has won a World Series ring or two, but the former players like Steve Blass tell me is not the case.

It’s all about the campers this week and sharing as much as you can share of the big league experience. Heck, they paid enough for the experience.

Anyway, this guy gets on his cell phone and morphs into a little boy right in front of me.

I hear snippets of his conversation because, you know, I’m not eavesdropping, but here is what I heard:

“It was great ...”

“I got two hits …”

“I wanted to catch, because I never caught before, and they let me catch, and I picked a guy off third base.”

Actually, that last line sounded more like this:


You get the point.

This guy was having a great day.

Maybe a career day.

He was talking to his wife, who I imagine was back home somewhere in Pennsylvania, because he gave her a quick weather report: “It’s about 72 degrees. It’s beautiful.”

She must have loved that.

Then he told her something which I’m sure she really loved to hear. I’m sure all the wives back home long to hear these five words from the overgrown boys they married and packed off to Florida this week for six days of fun and games.

“And I didn’t get hurt.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Do we really need more Bud?

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had his contract extended Thursday and will remain in office until the end of the 2012 season.

Now I guess that’s not a bad idea since Selig oversees a business that generated $6.1 billion in gross revenues in 2007 and expects to sell more than 80 million tickets this summer.

But, and I think we know what the but is.

Baseball has been rocked by the steroid and performance-enhancing drug scandal. Selig has been called before Congress twice and called out by President Bush once.

While the game has flourished, the records have been skewed and public trust in players has been diminished. A good number of baseball fans think all the players are using some performance enhancer, which isn’t the case. Still, perception is everything.

And while Selig can take credit for the popularity explosion, he must take the blame for the cheating mess. After all, he and the other owners turned a blind eye while steroid use ran rampant, choosing to listen to the hum of the turnstiles and the cha-ching of the cash registers over the whispers that their sport was tainted.

Selig’s contract was due to expire after the 2009 season.

This would have been the ideal time to usher Selig toward retirement and look for a new commissioner, one who would promise to clean up the game.

That’s Selig’s goal, one he now professes, but only after the names and allegations have been made public.

What baseball needs is a commissioner who will make that the top priority as he starts his term, a commissioner we can believe when he makes those promises.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Thwack, crack, clack: The sounds of spring

There's a reason I talk to Rick Vaughn several times a week, and not only because he’s the PR director of the Tampa Bay Rays and I'm trying to keep up to date on the latest happenings with the local nine.

It's also because Vaughn is a baseball fan, which you would expect from someone in his position. Conversations about what to expect on the trade or free agent front often end with two baseball fans talking baseball.

On Tuesday, the conversation ended with us discussing some of our favorite sounds.

The “thwack, thwack, thwack” of pitchers throwing off the row of bullpen mounds during the first days of spring training.

The “crack, crack, crack” of a wooden bat smacking a baseball on a distant field generated by position players who reported early and are working out on their own.

The sound of players' spikes scraping the sidewalk that separates the spring training clubhouse from the practice field.

“Clack, clack, clack.”

In a teleconference with actor Kevin Costner a few months ago to promote his appearance at the Rays' change-the-name-and-logo party, Costner said the “clack, clack, clack” was one of his favorite sounds. It took him back to when he was a kid trailing his dad to semipro games near their California home.

It’s right up there with “thwack, thwack, thwack” and “crack, crack, crack.”

They are the sounds of pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida.

They're almost here.

I can’t wait.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Podres always the hero

Johnny Podres (above left) moved slowly that night. His legs, which had been giving him trouble, were at it again, and the former major league pitcher with 148 career wins in 15 seasons moved to the dugout at Tropicana Field for a place to sit.

That’s where Podres belonged anyway, sitting in the dugout, spinning tales.

Of course, no tale was bigger than Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, the day Podres shut out the mighty New York Yankees on eight hits at Yankee Stadium to give the Dodgers the only championship in their storied Brooklyn history.

Podres always tired of talking about that game. He’d rather talk of the horses or something else.

But with Podres, the conversation always moved back to Oct. 4, 1955.

Dodgers 2, Yankees 0.

Go crazy, Brooklyn.

The beer flowed through the borough that night.

Podres was at the Trop last June as part of the Tampa Bay Rays' turn back the clock night. The idea was to celebrate Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer’s nearly six decades in baseball.

But with Podres, Carl Erskine and Duke Snider on hand, well, the spotlight barely caught Zim.

Old Brooklyn Dodgers fans flocked to the Trop to pay homage to the original “Boys of Summer.” Snider was the Hall of Famer. Erskine was the steady pitcher. Podres was the hero, though, the only Brooklyn pitcher ever to get the best of the Yankees in the deciding game of the World Series.

On the bus ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx before the game, it was a brash Podres who told his teammates, “Give me one run. That’s all I need.”

Only days earlier, Podres had turned 23. He was born about five hours north of New York City. He grew up a Dodgers fan, rooting for Snider and Erskine while he threw a baseball against the side of his house.

The son of Russian immigrants, Podres escaped the mines to pitch in the big leagues.
That was a familiar story once. No more.

Podres talked of the catch Sandy Amoros made in left field in the sixth inning that saved the day. He talked about Gil Hodges’ two RBIs. He talked about the old Dodgers who had passed, like Gil and Jackie and Pee Wee.

Now, Podres is one of them, having passed away Sunday at the age of 75.

The young lefty wanted one run. The Dodgers gave him two.

Appearing on TV the next morning, Podres looked in the cameras and said, “Bring the Yankees back. I’ll beat them again.”

“That was the champagne talking,” Erskine said.

Podres, as the legend goes, stayed out all night, hitting the TV station on his way home.

You were lucky if you were in the dugout that night in June. The stories were funny, and you wondered how many were actually true, but you laughed anyway.

In 10 years of Rays baseball, there have been a handful of truly great nights at the Trop. That night was right at the top.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

High expectations for Longoria

The Tampa Bay Rays emerged from three days of organizational meetings Thursday and still are not sure what to do with Evan Longoria when spring training starts next month.

Do they hand him the third base job and get out of his way?

Do they make him earn it during the exhibition season?

The Rays know this: Longoria is their third baseman of the future and that future will begin sometime this season, possibly as early as Opening Day.

While the Rays are still hesitant on where he fits in, others are already sold on the 22-year-old right-handed power hitter.

Baseball America lists Longoria as the Rays top prospect and will probably list him as baseball’s top prospect as well.

The Sporting News included Longoria in a feature on “the next wave of stars about to rise over the sports universe” in its Dec. 24 issue.

The magazine called Longoria “one of the biggest and brightest starts in baseball’s universe.”

Monday, January 7, 2008

Three words are three strikes for McGwire

Three words appear on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual Hall of Fame ballot and they are probably the three words that will keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall for the second straight year.

Those words are: integrity, sportsmanship and character.

Any voter sitting on the fence can use those words as a guideline for not voting for McGwire, despite all the home runs, the records and the magical summer of 1998.

McGwire hasn’t been roasted like Barry Bonds, but the suspicions are the same.

I think most of us believe McGwire’s power was the stuff of chemistry.

That he retired in 2001 with 583 home runs is certainly worthy of Cooperstown. He retired ahead of the steroid posse and didn’t suffer the same acquisitions now aimed at Bonds. But he embarrassed himself during his appearance in front of Congress, and the fact that he’s dropped out of sight is, to some, a signal of his shame.

The Hall’s Class of 2008 will be announced today.

Don’t be surprised when the name of one of the greatest home run hitters in the history of the game is not on it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Does Rice hear the call from the Hall this year?

The news will continue to be good for New England sports fans. It looks as if this is the year that former Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice makes it to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday when the Class of 2008 is announced.

With no big names on the ballot for their first year, this is looked upon as an average ballot. That should favor Rice, who had an outstanding career.

Rice is one of those sluggers whose career looks better the deeper baseball sinks into the steroid and performance-enhancing mess.

Plus, he’s nearing the end of his 15 years of eligibility, so he is running out of next years.

Check out his bio as provided by the Hall of Fame.

Fourteenth year on the ballot ... Played 16 seasons, all with the Boston Red Sox ... Named AL MVP by BBWAA and The Sporting News Player of the Year in 1978 ... Finished in top five MVP voting five other times: 1975 (third), '77 (fourth), '79 (fifth), '83 (fourth), '86 (third) ... Finished second in 1975 AL Rookie of the Year voting ... Eight All-Star teams (1977-'80, '83-'86); batted .200 in 20 ASG at-bats ... Led AL in HR three times (1977, '78, '83), RBIs twice (1978, '83), slugging percentage twice (1977, '78), hits once (1978) and triples once (1978) ... All-time ranks 54th in RBIs, 53rd in home runs and tied for 43rd in sacrifice flies ... Seven .300 seasons, four 200-plus hit seasons, three 100-plus run season (consecutively from 1977-'79), 30-plus doubles three times, 20-plus HR 11 times, 30-plus HR four times, 40-plus HR once, and 100-plus RBIs eight times ... Two three-HR games (Aug. 29, 1977 and Aug. 29, 1983) ... Led AL in total bases four times in 1977 (382), '78 (406), '79 (369) and 1983 (344); his 1978 total of 406 total bases was the most since Stan Musial's 429 in 1948 ... One of 31 players with 350+ home runs and a .290+ career batting average ... Only player in history with three straight seasons of 35+ home runs and 200+ hits ... Two AL Championship Series (1986, '88); batted .159 with seven RBIs, two HR, and eight runs scored in 44 ALCS at-bats ... One World Series (1986); batted .333 with six runs in 27 WS at-bats.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Blyleven deserves to be in Hall of Fame

If I had a vote for this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame class that will be announced Tuesday - I don’t, but if I did - I would include Bert Blyleven’s name.

You can visit his Web site at or check out this bio found on the Hall of Fame’s Web site. Sure, Blyleven had only one 20-win season, but he had 60 shutouts. I’ll say it again: 60 SHUTOUTS!

Read the following and tell me you if don’t agree that Blyleven should be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Eleventh year on the ballot ... Pitched 22 seasons ... Ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts, 10th in starts, ninth in shutouts, 25th in wins, and 13th in innings pitched ... Led AL in shutouts three times (1973, '85, '89), innings twice (1985, '86), complete games once (1985), and strikeouts once (1985) ... Tabbed by The Sporting News as AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year (1970) and Comeback Player of the Year (1989) ... One 20-win season (1973) and eight 200-plus strikeout seasons ... Received AL Cy Young votes in 1973 (T-seventh), '84 (third), '85 (T-third), and '89 (fourth) ... Two All-Star teams (1973, '85) ... Pitched a 6-0 no-hitter against the California Angels on Sept. 22, 1977 ... Shares AL single-game record for longest one-hit complete game -- 10 innings (June 21, 1976) ... Three League Championship Series (1970, '79, '87); owns a 3-0 record with a 2.59 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 24 1/3 LCS innings ... Two World Series (1979, '87); owns a 2-1 record with a 2.35 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 23 WS innings ... Member of two WS championship teams, in 1979 and '87.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Gossage makes my hall of fame

The 2008 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced Tuesday, and if I had a vote - I don’t, but if I did - the first name on my ballot would be Rich Gossage.

The former closer, who helped the 1978 New York Yankees to the World Series, helped revolutionize the way managers used their bullpens. With his overpowering fastball and his success at blowing away hitters in the ninth inning, teams began searching for that hammer at the back end of the bullpen.

Before Gossage found his niche in the mid-1970s, managers often called upon their best reliever whenever they felt the game was on the line. That could be as early as the sixth inning.

After Gossage took over, managers began waiting until at least the eighth inning to go to their closer.

Here is Gossage’s bio as found on the Hall of Fame’s Web site:

Ninth year on the ballot ... Pitched 22 seasons ... Led the AL in saves three times (1975, '78, '80) ... Two seasons with 30-plus saves ... Named The Sporting News AL Fireman of the Year in 1975 and '78 ... Named to nine All-Star teams (1975-'78, '80-'82, '84-'85) ... Finished in top 10 in AL MVP voting twice in 1980 (third) and '81 (ninth) ... Received Cy Young Award votes in 1975 (T-sixth), '78 (fifth), '80 (third), '81 (sixth) and '84 (fifth) ... Ranks 17th all-time in saves and 13th in games pitched ... Ranks sixth in games finished ... One AL Division Series (1981); three saves and no earned runs in 6 2/3 ALDS innings ... Four League Championship Series (1978, '80, '81, '84); owns 4.91 ERA and three saves in 11 LCS innings ... Three World Series (1978, '81, '84); owns 2.63 ERA and two saves in 13 2/3 WS innings ... Member of 1978 WS championship team.