Miami Meltdown

Jeffrey Loria is a sleaze.

Loria, owner of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, recently dismantled his team by trading its five best – and most expensive – players to Toronto for a handful of cheaper prospects, the balance sheet trumping the scorecard with unabashed clarity. Worse still, the demolition – which actually began in July when disgruntled All-Star third baseman Hanley Ramirez was shipped off to the Los Angeles Dodgers – comes less than a year after Miami’s brand new stadium, Marlins Park, was christened.

The ballpark, a $515 million dollar state-of-the-art athletic palace – complete with aquariums behind home plate and an immense retractable roof, was supposed to usher in a new era of style and success to South Florida. Instead, thanks to Loria, it is now home to little more than the echoes of broken promises and a hollowed out player roster. Rather than a sparkling home for a dynamic team on the rise, Marlins Park is more like a ghost ship, an eerie shell of what was supposed to be.

And the sadistic punch line? Miami taxpayers are on the hook for $300 million of the stadium’s gaudy price tag while Loria laughs all the way to the bank. According to Forbes Magazine, the franchise is now worth $450 million, which includes a 25% equity increase the moment the ribbon was cut on the new stadium. And without the pesky impact of a high payroll on operating expenses, the bottom line for Miami’s penurious owner looks rosier and rosier – the wreckage of a livid and heartbroken fan base notwithstanding.

Despite calls for Major League Baseball to intervene, there’s little chance of mediation of any consequence, because Loria has done this before without so much as a strongly worded reprimand as punishment. In fact, the last time he eviscerated a big league franchise Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig saw fit to not only give Loria an escape from the team he destroyed but also approved a loan for him to purchase a new club.

Selig, it should be noted, was a former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers before assuming the role of acting commissioner in 1992 – a position designed to be the impartial arbiter between labor and management. So, as Selig brimmed with conflict of interest, it was of little surprise that he dealt Loria the most favorable hand possible after the latter wrecked his first team and will likely do nothing after Loria decimated his second team.

And that first team, the Montreal Expos, was utterly and irrevocably wrecked – with Loria manning the bulldozer that leveled every last trace of them.

The Expos had been in Montreal since 1969 and had built an uneven but colorful history in Quebec. Outfielder Rusty Staub, affectionately nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” for his bright carroty hair, was the team’s first star.

Future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter headlined contending ball clubs in the 1980’s, which also featured speedy outfield star Tim Raines and pitching stalwart Steve Rogers.

In 1994, the Expos had the best record in baseball with Canadian-born slugger Larry Walker leading the way. Unfortunately, a players’ strike interrupted the season and dragged on long enough to force the cancellation of the entire post season. So, the year Montreal was most suited to win a championship there was no championship to be won.

Behind the scenes, Loria had parlayed his initial $30 million investment in the franchise into a managing partner role with the team in 1999. As a sign of things to come, he failed to secure English television and radio deals for the 2000 season, meaning the only way fans could follow the Expos when they played on the road was to listen to French radio broadcasts. The unprecedented media invisibility hinged largely on Loria’s insistence on uncompetitive fees for the broadcast rights.

Even then, it was clear that he was in it for the money and couldn’t care less about much else.

However, professional sports teams have a symbiotic relationship with the cities in which they play. These teams necessarily become part of the cultural fabric of the area. While they provide excitement, jobs, and fractional identity to cities, they also need support and revenue from residents in return. And the tacit agreement that holds it all together is that the team willingly fields an entertaining and, hopefully, winning product.

When profit supersedes that equation, though, the relationship with the public can deteriorate quickly. In Montreal, Loria’s disdain for anything that would curtail his personal stake in the club doomed the team.

On the heels of the radio/TV debacle, Loria also demanded a publicly financed new ballpark – largely to increase the equity of the franchise – for a team that lost at least 90 games for three straight seasons. And the city of Montreal was in economic hardship already and simply did not have the ethical indifference to prioritize a baseball stadium over schools and hospitals.

So, Loria turned to Major League Baseball to bail him out.

Had Bud Selig a less gelatinous spine, he might have made sure Jeffrey Loria stayed at least 250 yards from a Major League Baseball franchise for the rest of his days. Instead, Selig took the unprecedented step of having the rest of the league purchase and own the Expos in 2002, run them despite competing against them for two full seasons, and shuttled them off to Puerto Rico for 22 “home” games as a way to “internationalize” the sport (and garner a tidy sum for holding such games abroad).

The Expos staggered through the 2004 season before being sold to Ted Lerner and moved to Washington, D.C., leaving a trail of betrayed fans in Quebec – a funny way to promote internationalization of the game, indeed.

As for Loria, Selig not only absolved him from the mess in Quebec he arranged for a $38,5 million loan, enabling Loria to become the majority stake holder in the then-Florida Marlins. The inmate had not only run one asylum and left it in ruins he had been given money to escape the wreckage and run another one.

Just as he had in Montreal, Loria again pushed for a publicly financed stadium for his new team. However, this time, he got it.

In an apparent sign of good faith, Loria spent the 2011 off season signing some of the biggest free agents in the game as a much ballyhooed run up to the grand opening of the new ballpark.

Shortstop Jose Reyes signed a six-year, $106 million deal. Three days later, veteran left-handed pitcher Mark Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million contract. Closer Heath Bell was also added to the roster for three years and $27 million. In less than a week, the Marlins added three marquee players and $191 million to their payroll. Flamboyant manager Ozzie Guillen, whose fiery antics were the stuff of reporter’s dreams but had also gotten him run out of Chicago, was brought in to lead the team – and the publicity machine.

It seemed like Loria finally understood the responsibility of a franchise to its community. But like much else in his baseball life, he hadn’t the stomach for much of anything other than his own interests. When the team got off to a slow start and struggled to climb in the standings, he began to disassemble his expensive creation.

Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and third baseman Ramirez were jettisoned at the trade deadline in July. After a miserable last place finish, Guillen was fired and Bell was traded to Arizona. In the coup de grace, Reyes, Buehrle, star pitcher Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and outfielder Emilio Bonfacio were sent to Toronto.

In the end, Loria’s good faith with the city of Miami had lasted all of ten months.

As for what lies ahead for the Marlins, perhaps outfielder Giancarlo Stanton – the team’s lone remaining standout – put it best. After the Toronto trade was announced, Stanton, a 23-year-old slugger who hit 37 homers in 2012, tweeted, “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple.”

A lot of fans in Miami echo the thought, and many more in Montreal sympathize.

Not that any of it makes a difference to Jeffrey Loria. He’s a sleaze – Plain & Simple. It’s just too bad he has a friend in such a high place in the game.

Sources:

http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Marlins-Park-Cost-Taxpayers-a-Lot-But-It-Brings-Economic-Benefits-Too-146032985.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10599-2004Jun27.html

http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2011/12/jose-reyes-on-the-verge-of-jumping-to-miami-marlins/1#.UKV8_Yc73a4

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/11/13/marlins-giancarlo-stanton-pissed-off-about-trade-blue-jays/1703393/

Photos:

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Big Enough

For weeks, Sergio Romo told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t sure if he was big enough for the moment.

Turns out, the moment wasn’t nearly big enough for him.

With the 2012 World Series on the line, the exuberant, eyelash of a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants needed one more strike to bring a championship title to his team. However, he needed to push that final pitch past the most intimidating hitter on the planet, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown.

After teasing Cabrera with a procession of sliders bending like elbows of macaroni, Romo summoned his resolve – and all 170 pounds of his lean body mass – and threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch that barreled into the most dangerous part of a right-handed power hitter’s swing – precisely the kind of pitch an accomplished slugger like Cabrera routinely turned into loud headlines.

Under the circumstances, though, it may have been the last thing in the world Cabrera expected to see from his whipcord-thin adversary. So, Romo threw it – threw it with the cool of a safecracker and the conviction of a drill sergeant.

The most vulnerable pitch in the game went directly into the teeth of the most dangerous swing in the sport…and went completely untouched. Cabrera’s bat never moved – as if rusted to his beefy shoulder – and Romo’s iron nerves were rewarded with a happy mob of teammates racing each other to reach their self-effacing savior.

In the end, the moments – and there were plenty of them during an inexplicably magical season – were never too big for any of them. The 2012 San Francisco Giants answered every critic, cleared every hurdle, and conquered every doubt on their way to a second World Series triumph in three years. And they did so with the kind of unshakeable resolve and affable unity representing the truest qualities of the team concept.

A Major League roster contains twenty-five players, and the Giants used every last one of them to find ways to win often enough and timely enough to push past every other team in the sport. Each player left a distinct set of fingerprints on the championship season – twenty-five pairs of hands helping to lift the World Series trophy and carry it back to San Francisco.

And they came from everywhere, landing on the Giants’ roster as if carried by a serendipitous tide.

They came from Dotham, Alabama – like Matt Cain, the sturdy starting pitcher who opened the All-Star Game less than a month after throwing the first perfect game in franchise history. In the playoffs, the Giants relied on him to propel them forward in the deciding game of each round, which he did dutifully and doggedly, somehow squashing the pressure of the moment to answer the call every time.

They came from San Felipe, Venezuela – like Marco Scutaro, who started the year with the Colorado Rockies, his fifth team in eleven big league seasons, and drifted to the Giants at the trade deadline in a deal that barely registered amidst higher profile swaps. But the veteran second baseman wasted little time in being noticed. For a player who spent his entire career doing everything well but nothing great, Scutaro was spectacular from the moment he put on a San Francisco uniform. In 61 games with the Giants, he hit .362. And he carried his torrid hitting into the playoffs, peppering St. Louis with 14 hits over seven games of the National League Championship Series – a journeyman who finally found purpose in the journey.

They also came from nearby Carabobo, Venezuela – like Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s cherubic third baseman, whose unlikely agility earned him the affectionate nickname, “King Fu Panda.” Moreover, Sandoval’s endearing naiveté and buoyant personality brought smiles to fans and teammates all season.

But he was more than just a source of cheerfulness. His slashing, unpredictable approach at the plate produced moments of wonder – none bigger than the three thunderous home runs he hit in the opening game of the World Series en route to being named MVP of the Fall Classic.

They came from Atglen, Pennsylvania – llike Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched across three continents and through major arm surgery to get one last shot in the big leagues. At 35, he didn’t waste it, either. Starting three of the biggest games of his life for the Giants in the playoffs, Vogelsong was superb in each. And San Francisco won them all – in Cincinnati with elimination looming, in San Francisco against the Cardinals with the season again on the line, and in Detroit with a title inching closer. Through it all, Vogelsong allowed just three runs in over 24 innings of work.

They came from Leesburg, Georgia – like Buster Posey, the team’s phenomenal young catcher who missed nearly all of the 2011 season with a horrific ankle injury but came thundering back with a likely MVP year in 2012. Despite having less than three years of big league experience, Posey’s remarkable poise and knowledge of the game commanded respect in the locker room and on the field. Behind the plate, his extraordinary insight into pitch selection earned the unwavering confidence of a pitching staff that excelled when the stakes were greatest. He was also the anchor on offense, the hitter opposing teams justifiably feared the most in the Giants’ lineup. His grand slam off of Mat Latos in the deciding game against Cincinnati provided San Francisco’s final margin of victory in that playoff round and was one of the biggest swings of the bat in the entire postseason.

They came from Las Vegas, Nevada – like Barry Zito, who signed one of baseball’s biggest contracts in 2007 but had delivered a litany of disappointment and misery from the mound ever since. In fact, Zito’s San Francisco legacy deteriorated to such low ebb that his name alone prompted derision and bitterness from fans.

So, when he took the mound against the Cardinals in the league championship series and with the Giants needing to win yet again to stay alive, few believed Zito could save them. But he did. He pitched brilliantly, shutting St. Louis out for almost eight innings – nearly restoring his reputation in one magical night. As if to finish the restoration job, Zito outpitched Detroit’s fire-breathing ace Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series, an 8-3 San Francisco victory.

They came from Fort Worth, Texas – like Hunter Pence, a gangly but powerful outfielder who, like Marco Scutaro, arrived in San Francisco at the trade deadline. But unlike Scutaro, Pence came to the team with sizeable expectations and initially struggled to meet any of them. Although he did produce enough timely hits to drive in 45 runs in 59 regular season games for the Giants, his true impact came right before a playoff game in Cincinnati. After losing two important games to the Reds, Pence tried to rally his deflated teammates. With evangelical zeal, he implored that “no matter what happens we must not give in. We owe it to each other, play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.” His fiery plea turned out to be the rallying point they needed to push past Cincinnati and keep tomorrows appearing on their postseason calendar all the way through the World Series.

They came from Renton, Washington – like Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ unorthodox star pitcher who parlayed his unusual throwing motion and outstanding ability into consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.

However, in 2012, his remarkable pitching prowess vanished, his struggles magnified by the unexpected nature of the erosion. His velocity dipped, he gave up the most earned runs in the league, and no one could figure out what had gone wrong so quickly. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Lincecum had offered little evidence that his fortunes would improve in the postseason. So, he was sent to the bullpen – baseball Siberia for any starting pitcher, let alone one with his sparkling resume. Rather than complain or sulk, the former trophy-winning starter accepted his demotion as a challenge. Fittingly, he had spent his entire baseball life overcoming them. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t supposed to be a power pitcher. But he was. His unconventional delivery wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. And, now, his postseason banishment to the bullpen was supposed to confirm a slide into mediocrity. But it didn’t. With his shoulder-length hair snapping and his diminutive frame contorting furiously, Lincecum regained his extraordinary pitching form when it mattered most and annihilated hitters in his new role. In 13 postseason innings from the bullpen, he gave up just three hits and struck out 17. Baseball’s biggest rock star was back and had the renewed swagger to prove it.

There were so many key contributors to the Giants’ extraordinary season that the heroics seemed to come in waves, with different players showcasing specific skills just as the team needed them.

Brandon Crawford grew up just a few miles from San Francisco, likely never imagining that he would become the starting shortstop for the team he grew up idolizing. But when he did, his spectacular defense and timely hitting proved to be the necessary anchor for the infield. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner won 16 games – tied with Cain for the team lead – and played with such poise and tenacity that it was easy to forget he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Although reliever Jeremy Affeldt recorded so many important outs throughout the year, none were bigger than the five he registered in Game Four of the World Series – cutting right through the heart of Detroit’s fearsome lineup, striking out four of them – including Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Outfielder Angel Pagan provided much needed speed – leading the team in steals with 29 – at the top of the order and energized the team with his terrific defense and passion for the game.

Collectively, the 2012 Giants came back – again and again and again. In fact, they pulled themselves from the edge of oblivion so many times it defied all baseball logic.

In April, the club lost its flamboyant All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, to a season-ending elbow injury but used the remaining relief pitchers in enough variations to finish games until Sergio Romo claimed the job for good late in the season.

In August, one of the team’s best hitters, outfielder Melky Cabrera, was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s rule against performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than explaining what he had done and why he had done it, Cabrera simply fled the scene, leaving his teammates to sort through the betrayal on their own.

The best way to deal with the duplicity, they decided, was to play even better without him. In the 45 regular season games after Cabrera’s suspension, the Giants won 30 of them.

Ten days after Cabrera abandoned the club, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers acquired perennial slugger Adrian Gonzalez from Boston in a stunning trade that most experts believed would propel the Dodgers to the division title.

Instead, San Francisco rallied to increase its hold on first place from two games to eight, clinching the National League West with over a week to spare.

And in the postseason, their restorative powers were taken to an entirely different realm.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Giants lost the first two games of the best-of-five series to Cincinnati at home. The second defeat, a demoralizing 9-0 blowout, seemed an emphatic stamp by the Reds on their way to a dominant series win. After all, Cincinnati needed only to win one more game in the next three opportunities – all in their own ballpark – to eliminate San Francisco. However, Pence preached, Posey slammed, and Cain was able. The Giants won all three elimination games – all on the road, the first time a playoff team survived such a stretch while living out of suitcases.

In the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Giants once again lost early ground, dropping three of the first four games to St. Louis. Although San Francisco faced the familiar scenario of having to win three straight to advance, the team at least knew if they could win one more game on the road the final two games would take place at home in front of 45,000 of the loudest fans in the sport. Once Zito pitched his way back into the hearts of San Franciscans everywhere, Vogelsong and Cain made sure it mattered by shutting down the Cardinals in front of packed Bay Area houses.

Perhaps, as fitting punctuation, Scutaro caught the final out off the bat of St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the very same player who – earlier in the series – barreled viciously into him nearly mangling the much smaller infielder’s left knee. Moments before the final clinching catch, Scutaro extended his arms out from his sides as far as they would go and tilted his head back as a sudden downpour drenched the field. Literally and figuratively, he soaked in the moment as an impending National League champion and series MVP.

In the end, the Giants had played six games in less than two weeks facing the immediate end of their season – and had won them all.

In a way, the World Series was anti-climatic. Sandoval’s three-homer haymaker and Romo’s gutsy gamesmanship served as bookends to a lopsided Giants’ sweep over the Detroit Tigers. The team that thrived on tension and adversity all season long encountered little of it in the final series of the year.

Of course, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy probably welcomed the change – his personality better suited for calm and steady. However, whenever the pressure surged or the amalgam of hardship threatened to swallow the team, it was Bochy who soothed them. His even-tempered nature set the tone in the clubhouse and dugout and out on the field, his deep Southern drawl a soundtrack for thoughtful, committed play.

Behind the placid persona, the Giants’ skipper was relentless in preparing and executing his game strategy. When Wilson was injured, Bochy simply rearranged his bullpen until he found a workable combination, all the while getting his veteran relief pitchers to willingly accept new roles.

After Cabrera vanished and the Dodgers fortified, Bochy motivated his team to rely on each other rather than allow others to push them apart. In the playoffs, he trusted Zito and happily accepted the dividends. In the World Series, he used Gregor Blanco in left field primarily for his defense and watched as Blanco made three spectacular catches in crucial situations.

More to the point, the Giants played relentlessly and confidently amidst near-historic pressure, and the manager of the team deserved a goodly portion of praise for the effort.

Perhaps, few embodied that relentless spirit better than the newly-minted closer Romo. Growing up in Brawley, California – a desolate farming town 20 miles from the Mexican border – the Giants’ undersized bullpen lion probably knew better than most how difficult but rewarding defying the odds could be. After all, he rose all the way to the big leagues as a 28th round draft pick largely relying on one pitch – a knee-buckling, gravity-rebelling slider.

Yet, there he was, staring down big, bad Miguel Cabrera in the World Series and then decided to throw him something other than the pitch responsible for getting him to the majors. That kind of extraordinary belief was an utterly perfect way for San Francisco to crown its title run.

The familiar mantra the team had used to stave off elimination in all of those pressure- packed games was that they wanted one more day together, because they simply weren’t ready to go home.

Well, the 2012 San Francisco Giants finally went home – as World Champions.

Sources:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/10/10/hunter-pence-inspirational-speech/1624633/

http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-1027-sergio-romo-giants-20121027,0,6411058.story?page=1

http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/ml/world-series-shows-san-francisco-giants-bruce-bochy-is-one-of-baseballs/1258999

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/When-Cabrera-left-SF-Giants-thrived-3890499.php

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/scutama01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/v/vogelry01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pencehu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/linceti01.shtml

Photos:

http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/VbwMBc7ocln/Arizona+Diamondbacks+v+San+Francisco+Giants/DR7au51xcLN/Sergio+Romo

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A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/641/830/carl_yastrzemski_mvp_display_image.jpg?1349203197
http://www.veteranstoday.com/story_images/ted_williams.jpg
http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/ted-williams-0209-lg.jpg
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

The Iron Horse and Lesser Men

He knew he was dying.

And all of the eyes that followed him on that still, sweltering summer afternoon in the South Bronx were wide-eyed with anxiety and sadness. It was one of the only times that Yankee Stadium fell absolutely silent on a day the home team was in town.

However, few – if any – of the nervous people in the ballpark had any idea of the horrible secret Lou Gehrig held inside. All they knew was that the beloved first baseman, one of the greatest and most powerful players to ever take the field, had a big announcement to make and it wasn’t good news.

Only Gehrig knew the full extent of the awful contents of the physician’s report from the Mayo Clinic – the grim diagnosis of an untreatable disease he could barely pronounce, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the hard reality of the outcome. He had two-to-five years to live, and most of those would be progressively hellish. He was 36 years old and had little reason to believe that he would ever turn 40.

Still, when it came time for him to publicly ponder the situation, he said something remarkable. He said he felt lucky. In fact, in that moment – the moment his heart was shattering into a million pieces – he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And Gehrig made this extraordinary confession in front of 60,000 people – a dying man giving hope and inspiration to the healthy.

Indeed, he acknowledged them all – those who had cheered him so avidly, his comrades on the field, and mostly his beloved wife, Eleanor.

“I…have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men [alluding to his teammates]. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky… When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.”

He acknowledged everything except his own amazing achievements in the game and the overwhelming burden he now carried with his body on the brink of failing him.

On that day – July 4, 1939 – Gehrig said goodbye to baseball, his heartbroken fans, and the only professional life he had ever known. Yet, he withheld the very worst of it, because he knew that the loss of his career was enough bad news for the day. No reason to turn a retirement speech into a wake. And it had been quite a career.

For 14 seasons, he had powered the seemingly invincible New York Yankees, playing with a brilliant fury that produced Hall of Fame numbers and six World Series titles. But he did so mostly from the shadows.

Up until 1934, Babe Ruth had dominated New York’s headlines and the Yankee clubhouse. In fact, Ruth’s personality – his sheer bravado – steamrolled everything in its way.

Of course, all of that bluster suited the introspective Gehrig just fine. The Babe could have as much of the spotlight as he wanted – and he wanted plenty – because it allowed Ruth’s shy but equally brilliant teammate to play the game in relative peace.

Together, Ruth and Gehrig demolished American League pitching as no tandem ever had or likely ever will. Their dual percussion was relentless, reaching a crescendo in 1927 when they led New York to 110 wins and a World Series sweep. Between them, the pair combined to hit .365 with 107 home runs and 339 RBI’s.

However, aside from the complementary nature of their extraordinary talent at the plate, they were polar opposites in virtually every other respect. There was, of course, the aforementioned disparity in their personalities. But there was much more.

Physically, they were nearly cartoonish in their differences. Ruth was plumpish – almost dirigible-shaped – with only the slightest hint of athleticism, as if he’d had plenty of it once but that it had dulled and rounded into a distant memory. Gehrig, on the other hand, was chiseled – as if from a block of granite – handsomely muscled with a physique that guided his every move with power and grace.

Gehrig even had the rugged good looks of a leading man, while Ruth displayed the weathered features of a celluloid heavy.

However, it was Ruth who lived like a movie star, big and loud and publicly loved. Meanwhile, Gehrig sought quieter spaces, reveling in the arts and education.

In fact, had it not been for the Yankees’ deep pockets, the quick swoon of a veteran talent scout, and Gehrig’s own undeniable love of the game, he would have finished his coursework at Columbia and likely disappeared into academia with his Ivy League diploma as his beacon.

But baseball – and fate – won out. Yankee scout Paul Krichell saw Gehrig play two games on campus, hit three home runs, and pitch a complete game victory.

A weighty contract offer followed, and the Renaissance man exchanged his ivory tower for a rogue’s gallery, accepting the inevitable incongruity of a college man placed in the midst of largely unsophisticated athletic savants.

And there was no bigger rogue than his antithesis, Ruth. While his portly teammate embraced vice with the vigor and tenacity of, well, a vise, the public couldn’t help itself and was drawn to Ruth’s boisterous charisma with Newtonian pull. It was the Roaring 20’s, and the Babe bellowed louder than anyone. His appetite for Prohibition-defying liquor, non-matrimonial dalliance, and culinary excess appeared insatiable.

To his credit, Ruth also walked the walk on the diamond. His game was as massive as his personal life. He hit home runs with such frequency and impressive longitude that the game’s record book became more like a diary than an open tome.

While Gehrig’s drives lacked some of the rapidity and booming arc of Ruth’s, he outdid his more celebrated teammate in two noteworthy areas of the game.

In the ten seasons they played together, Gehrig bested Ruth in runs batted in six times. In fact, Gehrig led all of baseball in the category on four of those occasions. His staggering total of 184 in 1931 remains an American League record. That reliability and dependable success organically led to his enduring legacy in the sport.

For 13 years, he played every single game of each season, eventually setting a Major League record by appearing in 2,130 consecutive contests.

His relentless consistency earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse,” an endearing tribute to his unmovable presence on the field. More than that, he became the rock at the center of the game’s most famous franchise.

By the time an aging Ruth left New York for a final gasping season with the Boston Braves in 1935, Gehrig had come to embody the highest aspirations of athletic character. It wasn’t enough to merely excel on the field.  Success only had value if it was accompanied by selfless effort and humility. And in his own quiet way, he eventually garnered public adoration and the affection of his teammates through admiration of character rather than infatuation with caricature.

And there was no greater test of that character than in the months leading up to the day he said goodbye in the summer of 1939.

The prior season had been atypically difficult for him. His renowned power hadn’t merely ebbed.  At times, it disappeared altogether. He also had disconcerting episodes of clumsiness and confusion. The slow fade of athletic aging – he turned 35 that June – was one thing; sporadic physical failure quite another. For the first time since his rookie year, he failed to hit .300 and finished with one of the lowest RBI totals of his brilliant career. Still, by most ordinary standards, he had a largely successful year – just not one on par with Gehrig’s remarkable vintage.

Something was wrong, but no one quite knew what.

At the start of the 1939 season, it all came to a stunning halt. His physical deterioration accelerated to the point where he could barely perform the most menial baseball duties. The one thing indispensable to a player – his hand/eye coordination – was almost entirely bereft. Although Gehrig’s considerable athletic gifts had evaporated seemingly without reason, he accepted the loss with characteristic grace.

After a string of 2,130 interlocking Major League games on the field, he removed himself from the lineup voluntarily largely because he felt responsible for letting his teammates down with his substandard play.

Two months later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered the devastating reason for his physical erosion. He had contracted a rare, degenerative – and fatal – nerve disease that came with the unusually cruel caveat of utterly destroying nerve and muscle function but leaving mental capacity fully intact. His brain would stay fit while his body died all around it.

Yet, Gehrig was still able to stand in front of tens of thousands and talk about his good fortune amidst being on the edge of a horrific fall into pain and helplessness.

Through it all, Eleanor was there for him. True to their vows, she had shared the glorious days of the better and bravely supported him through the very worst. Sometimes, even an Iron Horse cannot shoulder it all alone. For Gehirg, the renowned rock of the New York Yankees, Eleanor was his rock.

Although it was Gehrig who had to endure the awful physical toll of his disease, Eleanor had to withstand the emotional cost, bearing witness to his agonizing slide without being able to do anything to stop it. She could only comfort him as it continued to worsen, all the while having to swallow her own grief as she displayed her strength for him.

Less than two years after he stepped off of the baseball field for good, Lou Gehrig died – just days before his 38th birthday.

As an extraordinary postscript to this awful ending, ALS typically has a three-to-five year cycle from symptom onset to fatality. In Gehrig’s case, his eventual timetable likely meant that he played at least a full season or two while he was dying of a disease that attacked the primary skills he needed to compete. Not only did he play, he excelled nearly to the very end. And he played every game without let up, earning every bit of his unyielding metallic nickname.

Fittingly, he was buried in Valhalla, New York – named after the mythological Norse hall to honor fallen warriors. Unquestionably, the exemplary manner in which he handled the twists and turns of his life made such a final resting place all the more appropriate.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gehrilo01.shtml

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/07/04/gehrig.text/index.html

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ccdffd4c

Photos:

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/313/800/goosebumpsgehrig_display_image.jpg?1339471462

http://ossports.homestead.com/BabeRuth/babe_ruth_02.jpg

http://www.ultimateyankees.com/Lou%20Gehrig%20Photo%20(19).jpg

http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2011/0817/chi_g_ruthgeh_600.jpg

http://www.nytimes.com/specials/baseball/yankees/gehrig.1.jpg

http://www.biography.com/imported/images/Biography/Images/Profiles/G/Lou-Gehrig-9308266-1-402.jpg

http://abcnews.go.com/images/WN/nm_lou_gehrig_100817_mn.jpg

http://blog.nj.com/yankees/2009/06/Gehrig_wife_Eleanor.jpg

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkV5-49JnNk&feature=related

The Beautiful Madness of Victory Faust

They called him “Victory,” because he brought wins with him – as if pulling them out of his customary derby bowler like some sort of sportsman’s magician.

The real trick, of course, was how he carried all of that winning inside such a modest piece haberdashery. However, the secret behind such sleight of hand resided in only one place – inside the head of the man who wore that magical hat. And a good magician never reveals his secrets.

So, when Charles Victor Faust wandered onto Robison Field in St. Louis seeking the manager of the visiting New York Giants – the legendary and perpetually grumpy John McGraw – he was the only one who knew the furtive key to the team’s inevitable championship success. It was him, only him – Charley Faust, pitcher extraordinaire.

Call it manifest destiny or galactic alignment or whatever term best describes that mysterious mix of fate and symmetrical circumstance, but Faust was certain of its power and his conductive usefulness in bringing McGraw and his underlings baseball glory.

After all, his ironclad belief in such preordained triumph was confirmed by a travelling fortune teller who told him so. And the seer’s vision hadn’t an ounce of vagary – Faust was destined to lead the New York Giants to the 1911 World Series title as one of the greatest pitchers the game had ever seen. Besides, Faust knew that such an agent of the mystic arts couldn’t be mistaken.

There was only one small problem – Faust had no discernible pitching talent. Zero. Nada. Th-th-that’s all, folks.

In fact, Faust’s overall baseball ability was thinner than the lightest dusting of powdered sugar on a stingy helping of french toast. And what McGraw needed for his skilled but floundering ball club during that troubled season was a great, big bag of pure cane sweetener.

The instant the newcomer went into his cartoonish pitching motion and let fly his first lagging throw McGraw felt his stomach churn. Were it possible for a baseball to ooze through the air, that was precisely how slowly the ball crept forward. Ever the pragmatist, the terse New York leader demonstrated his displeasure – and verdict – by dispensing his glove and catching most of Faust’s audition bare-handed.

McGraw hoped that would be that. A little humiliation went a long way with most people. However, Faust was certainly not like most people.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Consider his trek to St. Louis in the first place.

Before that fortune teller conjured up his diamond destiny, Faust led an invisible life. For thirty years, the heat, dust, and hardship of Marion, Kansas had swallowed him up. If anything seemed preordained, it was that Faust – who was born on the family farm in Marion – would die there, too.

And had he a greater level of self-awareness, he likely would have resigned himself to that fate. However, Faust was oblivious to the harsh intersection of social expectancy and personal limitation. Actually, most considered him a simpleton, a dim-witted outcast without a trace of potential.

He was the only one who thought differently. With a childlike naiveté, he latched onto fantastic stories – no matter the unlikeliness of the yarn. So, when he was finally told one with himself as the protagonist, he held onto it with unshakeable resolve – determined to maintain his grip on the tail of that particular frenzied tiger wherever it took him. That it bolted from everything and everyone he knew in Marion solely on the words of a carnival prophet didn’t faze him for an instant.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As John McGraw was to find out, a little bare-handed catch proved no match for Faust’s runaway Bengal that afternoon in St. Louis. The lanky, self-appointed savior simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In an effort to embarrass the prodigal imposter into submission, the Giants’ skipper made him take batting practice.

Still dressed in his street clothes and customary bowler, Faust flailed helplessly at the plate until he finally managed to stub the slowest offering. As the ball sputtered a few precious feet away, McGraw urged him to race around the bases.

As with his pitching, Faust’s base running was uncommonly slow. By the time he ambled to second, McGraw implored him to slide. Since he didn’t know how, he mostly just fell – as if he was on fire and was trying to put himself out. The painful tumble repeated itself at third and finally – mercifully – at home.

All the while, the Giants players and most of the pregame crowd howled with laughter. McGraw, himself, couldn’t help a chuckle. Faust – as always – remained oblivious. Now that he had shown New York’s famous manager his pitching and batting prowess, he was ready to assume his rightful place on the team.

To his surprise, McGraw cheerfully but firmly sent him on his way, and the Giants lost the subsequent game to the Cardinals that afternoon.

Undeterred, Faust showed up at the park the next day to continue to plead his case. This time, he was intercepted by New York players who gave him a spare uniform and – as bullies as always do – made him the focus of their ridicule. For sheer sadistic amusement, they urged him to repeat his wild romp around the bases. What they didn’t realize was that Faust felt none of their intended humiliation. He not only basked in the attention, he felt that such an effort put him ever closer to reaching his destiny.

Sensing the team’s lightened mood, McGraw even allowed Faust to stay on the bench – in uniform – to watch the game and provide levity for his players.

The Giants beat the Cardinals handily – ironically, by running the bases flawlessly and relentlessly.

In fact, New York won the next day and the day after that, as well – all with Faust watching anxiously from the bench.

When they left St. Louis, McGraw decided to abandon his eccentric rabbit’s foot. Accordingly, the Giants resumed their pre-Faust struggles, losing four of six games before returning home – solidly in third place.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball is filled with superstition. For many players and managers – and even fans – winning and losing isn’t just a matter of skill or lack thereof or of random portions of good and bad luck. Historic losing streaks have been attributed to – among other things – a haunted trade, a cursed billy goat, and a fixed World Series.

Individual success is sometimes traced to wearing the same unwashed garments or eating the same pregame meal or letting facial hair grow to impressive tangles. When that winning karma wears off, the next fortune-inducing ritual is deployed in its place.

For a sport that prides itself on painstaking technique and probability-driven game strategy, it is odd that such irrational tendencies coexist with the otherwise overwhelming logic and precision of baseball – it’s akin to going to the Mayo clinic and getting treated by a witch doctor.

So, when Charley Faust reappeared in New York to greet the stumbling third-place Giants, it should have come as no surprise that the team welcomed back its lanky talisman with open arms.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Within a month of having Marion’s luckiest farmer riding shotgun, McGraw’s ball club won 19 of 26 games and surged into first. And it was about this time that Charley morphed into “Victory” Faust – the magical source of the Giants’ winning ways, just as the fortune teller had predicted.

By then, the press had picked up on the story and – realizing what a gold mine of anecdotes and zany adventures they had on their hands – simply let Faust be Faust and raked in the windfall as it tumbled into their laps.

Among the endlessly entertaining things the wide-eyed rural-ite did while unleashed on the unsuspecting city was to secure an inexplicable vaudeville engagement. His “act” was merely to be himself, as he reenacted his base running exploits and his elaborate pitching delivery on stage while audiences hooted with delight.

He was also among the most quotable members of McGraw’s squad. Without hesitation, Faust continued to opine publicly on his confusion as to why he hadn’t been allowed to display his fearsome pitching prowess.

Although he adored all of the attention he received, Faust was troubled by how New York won all of those games – without his direct help. While the impressive string of victories satisfied a part of the vision that guided him to the Giants, it lacked the most important element – as far as he was concerned – him, in the middle of the action.

After all, what good was it to be so close to the field – his toes were practically inside the foul lines – without the chance to lead his team to glory? No, Faust knew he had to convince McGraw to put him in a live game in order to fulfill his destiny.

And when he finally did, the baseball universe would never be the same.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

The Giants clinched the National League pennant on October 5. However, New York still had a full week’s worth of meaningless games to survive before the start of the World Series.

So, on October 7 – the first of such contests – McGraw considered his options; gave a long, hard look at the very end of his bench; and decided to let all hell break loose.

Trailing 4-2 to the dreadful Boston Rustlers, he summoned Faust – the epicenter of ridicule, the very heart of derision – to pitch the ninth inning of this otherwise empty contest.

And from the very moment he stepped onto the field, Faust lived up to every bit of the spectacle. To acknowledge the stunned but lusty applause of the home crowd, he not only took a bow, he performed a luxuriously sweeping genuflection – melting nearly prostrate to the ground in appreciation.

Once on the mound, he went into his dramatic windup – leaning backwards as if pushed by a violent gale, pulling his arms behind his head as far as they would go, and then sweeping his throwing arm forward in big windmill-like fashion. For all of that smoke and fury, the results were just as they were that very first day he stepped on the field in St. Louis – pitches that practically defied all laws of physics by remaining airborne while crawling forward.

Perhaps, Boston’s Bill Rariden – Faust’s first-ever batting opponent – was so mesmerized by the sight of the odd contortions from the mound or that New York’s unofficial mascot was actually in an official Major League game that he couldn’t bring himself to swing at the first two offerings. Nonetheless, both were strikes – slow as hourglass sand but strikes, all the same.

Fearing the utter humiliation of striking out under such circumstances, Rariden came out of his trance just long enough to belt the next pitch deep into left field for a double.

Undaunted, Faust kept going into his manic windup and kept throwing his utterly hittable lobs. Inexplicably, the next three batters made outs. Although Rariden did eventually score on a sacrifice fly, Faust had not only realized his goal of appearing in a live game he performed surprisingly well, pitching a full inning while only allowing a single run.

As if the day couldn’t get any stranger, the game still had another half-inning to go and it did, indeed, get more bizarre.

Needing three runs to tie the score, the Giants were down to their final out when catcher Grover Hartley stepped up to the plate. However, few fans likely noticed Hartley because all eyes were fixed on the player standing on deck, the Kansas phenom himself – Victory Faust.

Although Hartley couldn’t extend the game and made the final out, Faust simply refused to leave. With a juvenile’s insistence to make reality conform to his desires, Faust walked into the batter’s box, anyway.

Sensing an opportunity to enliven an otherwise awful year, Boston players went along for the ride. Allowing the enthusiastic but woefully unskilled hitter to tap a ball into play, the Rustlers bungled throws and tags while Faust furiously circled the bases.

As he rounded third and anticipated scoring, Faust couldn’t help himself and went into a frantic and awkward slide. Unfortunately, he was tagged out – more than ten feet short of home plate.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

If it had ended there, it would have been a remarkable thing. Faust had appeared in a Major League game and would forever be part of baseball’s official record. He had dreamed of being a big league player and – thanks to one inning of cosmic serendipity – he was.

However, it didn’t end there.

On the last day of the 1911 season, the Giants played an arduous and unenviable doubleheader against Brooklyn. And with the light of the long year fading at last, McGraw called on his eager right-hander one more time.

In the ninth inning of New York’s final regular season game, Faust took the mound with the Giants trailing 5-1 and proceeded to retire the side without giving up a run. Although nothing had changed in terms of his pitching ability – or lack thereof – he accomplished what many pitchers of legitimate skill fail to do, hold a big league lineup scoreless for an inning.

As it turned out, his encore surpassed his debut in every imaginable way.

After dispatching Brooklyn without denting the scoreboard, he lead off New York’s half of the ninth – finally securing a much coveted Major League at-bat, the earlier farce against Boston notwithstanding.

Whether the Brooklyn players felt sorry for the enthusiastic but hapless Faust or if they had ultimately been charmed by his unabashed earnestness, they made sure his trip to the plate was a success. Of course, given a hitter of Faust’s “unique” talents, such an undertaking wasn’t as it easy as it sounded.

If he made contact, he would undoubtedly race around the bases without stopping – or thinking – and Brooklyn would be forced to kick the ball around in an actual Major League game until he eventually barrel-rolled into home. The only plausible way to prevent that was to get him to first base without the complications of having the ball put in play.

So, Brooklyn pitcher Eddie Dent hit him.

Once he was on base, Faust had a bit of a quandary. He had been so used to racing around the bases directly from the batter’s box that he wasn’t quite sure what to do from first. So, he improvised, and stole second base.

Sensing how easy stealing bases was – never mind that the catcher hadn’t bothered to throw until after the fact – Faust pilfered third as well. And when New York third baseman Buck Herzog grounded out, the Giants’ most celebrated rookie came lumbering home.

Although the final box score read – Brooklyn 5, New York 2; it just as easily could have read – Victory Faust 1, Probability 0.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Faust’s long, dizzying fall from grace was probably inevitable, but there was an undeniable heartbreak to it.

His fortunes as the Giants’ good luck charm – the only real value he had in John McGraw’s eyes – turned sour when the team needed him most. New York lost the 1911 World Series to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, four games to two.

Although the players, who had come to befriend Faust rather than disparage him, never blamed the affable innocent for the Series defeat, they couldn’t save him, either. McGraw was the king of the castle, and he had no use for his jester once he failed to amuse – and help them win.

So, he turned his back on Faust – refusing correspondence and personal pleas – leaving the simple-minded Kansan to wonder why the greatest pitcher on Earth was no longer welcome on a team he had lifted to such heights.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

It could be argued that giving a deluded fellow like Charles Faust fuel for his delusion only made things exponentially worse. After all, hope to a man like that necessarily provided his mirage with structure and strength. And, ultimately, it gave his fantasy the hunger it needed to devour what little sense of reality remained around him.

Once professional baseball moved on without him, he went to pieces. He found the idea of being a pitching ace – with Major League experience, no less – without a team to save appalling. A glorious and deserved return to the big leagues became an all-encompassing obsession.

However, financial troubles forced him from the East Coast. back to Kansas, and then out West, where he finally settled in Seattle – near one of his brothers. All the while, he insisted that once his money issues were settled he would make it back to New York in time to help his old team win another pennant. As a final, twisted chapter of his rampaging fixation, he was found wandering the streets insisting that he was walking to New York to resume his baseball career.

On December 1, 1914, Faust was committed to the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane in Steilacoom, just outside of Tacoma. He died there six months later of tuberculosis – no doubt wondering why John McGraw hadn’t invited him back to the Giants to fulfill his inevitable athletic glory.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Over time, the strange tale of Victory Faust has become more fable than fact – the central character somehow more loveable cartoon than flawed man. Still, if Charles Faust – not Victory – is owed anything by history, it is that he was genuine in his desires and – for a pair of remarkable days – lived every bit of them while people cheered.

And that is the sort of magic trick worthy of the very best of magicians.

Sources:

Schechter, Gabriel, “Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants.” Charles April Publications, Los Gatos, CA, 2000.

Photos:

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/001/238/572/faustcharliethumb_medium_display_image.jpg?1314756038

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Charlie_Faust.jpg/165px-Charlie_Faust.jpg

http://mitchellarchives.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/yankees-buy-babe-ruth-article-3.jpg

http://www.insidesocal.com/tomhoffarth/10709_1000101999.jpg

http://images.ha.com/lf?source=url%5Bfile%3Aimages%2Finetpub%2Fnewnames%2F300%2F1%2F4%2F3%2F7%2F1437409.jpg%5D%2Ccontinueonerror%5Btrue%5D&scale=size%5B450x2000%5D%2Coptions%5Blimit%5D&source=url%5Bfile%3Aimages%2Finetpub%2Fwebuse%2Fno_image_available.gif%5D%2Cif%5B(‘global.source.error’)%5D&sink=preservemd%5Btrue%5D

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=10709&PIpi=22985112

http://www.baseball-birthdays.com/archives/October/09/images/Charlie%20Faust.png

Matt Cain’s Perfect Night

It was a long time coming, but Matt Cain’s timing – among other things – was perfect.

The San Francisco/New York Giants franchise is 130 years old – one of the cornerstone organizations in Major League Baseball.  So, there were few “firsts” left to be forged in team history.

From the mound, no fewer than eight Hall of Famers have pitched their way into the record books while wearing a Giants uniform.  However, there was one sterling achievement that eluded them all – the perfect game.

Among the great Christy Mathewson’s 373 career wins were two no-hitters, but neither was spotless – with walks or errors as blemishes on each.

During Juan Marichal’s extraordinary 14-year run in San Francisco, he made nine All-star teams and threw a no-hit gem in 1963.  However, like Mathewson, his brilliant performance was slightly tinged by a pair of walks.

Of course, perfection is rarely part of the human condition.  And in baseball, being perfect is an especially profound accomplishment.

Consider the basic structure of the game.

Batters typically succeed less than thirty percent of the time.  Most fielders commit double-digit errors over the course of a season.  And pitchers, on average, allow better than a hit or walk per inning.

On some level, baseball players are expected to fail – in varying increments – every time they take the field.

So, when Matt Cain took the mound for the Giants on June 13 in a game against the Houston Astros, perfection was likely the last thing on his mind.  He just wanted to pitch well and help his surging ball club continue to make upward progress in the standings.  However, what he and his teammates didn’t know – what they couldn’t know – was that they were all about to play the game of their lives.

On a flawlessly placid evening in San Francisco, timing – as they say – was everything.

Cain’s control was uncanny from the start.  He threw his fastball precisely where he wanted, and his curve had the kind of crisp break that maximized its deception.  His fearsome arsenal produced so many empty swings and baffled looks that there was legitimate wonder as to whether or not the visitors would even touch the ball, let alone produce a hit.  In all, Cain struck out 14 hitters.

On the rare occasions when Houston batters eventually made solid contact, the cool night air pulled would-be extra base drives back into outfielder’s gloves and the momentum of hard hit grounders pushed them just foul.

However, one play in the seventh inning typified the serendipity of the game.

Houston’s Jordan Schafer hit the one ball that Cain left too far in the strike zone – the one small mistake that seemed likely to smash everything to pieces – and sent an ominous, soaring drive deep into the right centerfield gap.  Out of nowhere, right fielder Gregor Blanco dashed into the area and made a headlong dive, plucking the ball out of the air just before it destroyed Cain’s masterpiece.

Later, Cain expressed amazement that Blanco was even in position to make the extraordinary play in the first place.  After the game, he jokingly asked the outfielder, “What were you doing there, anyway?”

On the mound, though, Blanco’s thrilling catch provided Cain with the boost he needed to finish his perfect night.  His demeanor settled into characteristic resolve.  Cool and – under the circumstances – inexplicably calm, he dispatched the remaining Astros hitters with the quiet efficiency of a cat burglar.

The moment was finally his.

He’d spent his entire Major League life covered by someone else’s shadow.  Perhaps, it was his quiet public persona – particularly on a team filled with flamboyant personalities – or his steady but understated playing style.  But others always leapfrogged him for media attention.

However, on that night – that beautifully flawless evening – he was rightfully, finally in the spotlight.  And he will now always be able to claim his place in Giants history – a place not even the franchise’s biggest legends reside.

Yes, it was a long time coming.  But because of the class and grace of the man who finally accomplished the feat, it was worth the wait.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/maricju01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN196306150.shtml

Photos:

http://l.yimg.com/j/assets/p/sp/getty/c7/fullj.55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0/55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0-getty-146308763.jpg

http://media.photobucket.com/image/christy%20mathewson/GKreindler/Christy_Mathewson_1911.jpg

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http://espn.go.com/photo/2012/0613/mlb_a_mattcain_cmg_400.jpg

http://mit.zenfs.com/121/2011/07/brian_wilson_ap.jpg

http://www.sportsgrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Matt-Cain-Perfect-Game.jpg

Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTNYsdQWAgc

A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.

Sources:

Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/granted01.shtml
http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/history/upton/lost.htm
http://www.baseballreliquary.org/EddieGrantPlaque.htm

Photos:
http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/7/29/1280431494969/Arlington-close-to-Washin-006.jpg
http://www.thedeadballera.com/GravePhotos/GravePhotos_G/Grant.Eddie.Grave01.jpg
http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Cleveland-Naps-1905-8×10-B-W-Team-Photo-/00/s/MTIxOVgxNjAw/$(KGrHqF,!qEE9d9LigOPBPZIhJPqig~~60_57.JPG http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0qKW3Fsfqzs/Td6B62ecNjI/AAAAAAAASMA/92Okv8JKE0c/s1600/eddie+grant+%25283%2529.jpg
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http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/jpg/0208egrant.jpg

The Last Night of Baseball’s Greatest Gentleman

“Daddy, don’t go!”

Seven year-old Roberto Clemente Jr. knew – absolutely knew – that something was wrong.  On that otherwise placid Puerto Rican winter evening, there was a dark and menacing thing waiting outside.  Little Roberto could feel it, and his father was on his way to catch a plane that would be flying right into it.

“Daddy, please.”

He was crying now, pleading with his father not to go.  Tomorrow might be different, but on that night – December 31, 1972 – there was nothing but sadness and heartbreak in the air.  The elder Clemente tried to reassure his young son.  He would come back home as soon as he could, but it was important for him to go as quickly as possible.

There was food and medicine loaded onto the DC-7 waiting on the tarmac at San Juan airport, and there were thousands – perhaps, hundreds of thousands – who might benefit from the supplies.

Nicaragua was in pieces.  A brutal earthquake days before had left the country in tatters.  Though splintered buildings dotted the landscape, it was the human cost that drew the eyes and ears of the world.

However, Nicaragua was a tumultuous place in 1972.  Even before the violent shift of tectonic plates brought ruin, there was enough manmade chaos to go around.

The country’s not-so-benevolent leader, Anastasio Somoza, ruled with himself in mind first, his military emissaries – the National Guard – secondarily, and his people lastly – inconvenient dependents with limited importance.  The economic and social disarray in which most Nicaraguans lived under Somoza’s selfish rule neither disrupted the dictator’s sleep nor stirred his conscience enough to improve those conditions.  So, when the earthquake struck – and the subsequent outpouring of international relief came – Somoza did as he had always done and scooped up as much as he could carry, leaving the Devil to deal with the details.

To make matters worse, the National Guard had followed his lead and looted the neighborhoods they should have been protecting.  The asylum was on fire, and the most influential inmates – the ones with guns and money – were too busy playing with their newfound baubles to put it out.

Back in Puerto Rico, the island’s most influential citizen couldn’t stand by idly as nearby Nicaragua continued to disintegrate.  He not only felt that it was crucial for him to gather as much as he could to send to those in suffering but that he had to personally escort the goods and use his notoriety to make sure they stayed out of Somoza’s greedy hands.  You see, little Roberto’s father was famous – very famous.  He was one of the greatest baseball players on the planet and had spent the last 18 seasons proving it to everyone who watched him play.

And Roberto Clemente played with a beautiful blend of intensity and grace, an unmistakable fury balanced by remarkable natural choreography.  Although his fame in America was dimmed somewhat by not playing in a media hotbed like New York or Boston, he had grabbed his share of the national spotlight in the previous two years with a pair of extraordinary accomplishments.

The first came in 1971 when he led the Pittsburgh Pirates – the only major league ballclub for which he’d ever played – to the World Series title.  In the Series, he had hit .414 and was seemingly everywhere on the field, all at once.  He’d been involved in nearly every significant play in the seven-game championship set – perhaps, none more impressive than a throw he made from the right field corner in Game 2.

After chasing down a booming fly ball, he planted his foot in the turf and used the natural momentum of his pursuit to turn a perfect pirouette.  The ball shot from his hand like a slingshot and carried directly towards third base, narrowly missing an improbable out.  He had made the most difficult – and farthest – throw in baseball look more like an artistic expression than athletic exertion, and it became the enduring image of the entire Series.

The following year, he collected the 3,000th hit of his brilliant career on the very last day of the season. It was a mark that only ten other players in the history of the sport had reached.  And Clemente had gotten there with his trademark flair.

He hit a line drive into the left center field gap.  As he raced into second base with a double – his arms and legs pumping wildly – the number “3,000” flashed across the Pirates’ scoreboard, and it looked as if he was simultaneously running directly into the huge number and his place in history.

In Puerto Rico, he was a national hero.  In fact, he was probably more than that, because he was equal parts inspiration, heartthrob, and treasured native son.  And he accepted this elevated status with extreme pride and vigilance.  He knew how lightly Latin people were regarded outside of their immediate locales and such marginalization never sat well with him.

If his athletic celebrity afforded him anything worthwhile, it was the opportunity to display the pride of his people to the rest of the world.  After winning the Most Valuable Player Award for the 1971 World Series, he made his acceptance speech in Spanish, infuriating American broadcasters but delighting his family and adoring country.  For years, those same broadcasters tried to address him as “Bob” or “Bobby,” but he politely – and pointedly – insisted on “Roberto.”

When he finally had the opportunity to put his celebrity to true humanitarian use, it was of little surprise that he felt compelled to do whatever was necessary, even if it meant he had to calm down his frightened son before he could even get out the door on New Year’s Eve.

As it turned out, the scary thing Roberto Jr. sensed in the shadows wasn’t lying in wait for his father’s plane it was his father’s plane.

The DC-7 waiting for Roberto Clemente at the San Juan airport was owned by a man named Arthur Rivera, and Rivera only knew a couple of things about flying.  One, he wasn’t very good at it.  And, two, it didn’t matter because there was money in it.  As far as he was concerned, as long as you had a plane, the rest was negotiable.

Among the list of negotiable items was finding a pilot for Clemente’s flight – he enlisted an aviation vagabond named Jerry Hill who had literally been wandering by his hangar the day before.  For flight engineer, he asked one of his mechanics to accept the role.  And, naturally, he needed to look no further than his own reflection for the plane’s co-pilot.

When Clemente arrived and readied himself to carry out his relief mission, he likely had no idea how hastily and carelessly the plane’s crew had been assembled or that those haphazard selections necessarily affected their ability to make the plane adequately ready for flight.  For one thing, they hadn’t bothered to specifically weigh the cargo, only estimating the total.

Officials later determined that the supplies Clemente had thought would bring hope to a broken nation exceeded the capacity of Arthur Rivera’s shoddy aircraft by over 4,000 pounds.  The doomed plane was never meant to get fully airborne.  The laws of physics guaranteed it.

Still. Rivera needed the money, and Clemente was too focused on getting to Nicaragua to stop the flight.

The first news most Puerto Ricans heard on the first morning of 1973 was devastating.  Roberto Clemente’s plane had crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.  There were no survivors.

The initial sense of disbelief was everywhere.  The country’s greatest hero, its embodiment of conscience and soul, couldn’t be gone – turned to vapor as he was rushing to help others.  He had to be out there, somewhere, still trying to get to where he was needed – still reaching out to the lost and broken.

One of Clemente’s Pittsburgh teammates, catcher Manny Sanguillen – who Clemente had affectionately called “Sangy” – shared in the dazed sense of loss.  In fact, he went directly to Puerto Rico after the news of the crash and dutifully searched the ocean where the plane had gone down, hoping to find a trace of his close friend.  Sanguillen dove and dove, for weeks – perhaps, trying to finally convince himself that Roberto was really gone.

Despite Sanguillen’s heartbreaking effort, Clemente’s body was never found.  Truly, it was as if he’d been placed on Earth to evoke thrilling memory and profound emotion and then vanished, leaving only his spiritual fingerprints behind to mark a noble and heroic existence.

Daddy, don’t go.

What Roberto Jr. didn’t realize at the time was that his father had no choice.  When heroes are called, they cannot turn back, even though their little boys wished they could.

Sources:

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2006

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/clemero01.shtml

http://countrystudies.us/nicaragua/11.htm

Photos:

http://media.vcstar.com/media/img/photos/2008/04/20/20080420-194525-pic-254570639_t607.jpg

http://filipspagnoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/colonel-anastasio-somoza.jpg

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http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/678/123/roberto-clemente-action-ap2_display_image.jpg?1296379796

http://www.goldenagebaseballcards.com/showcase/images/59Topps-478Bob%20Clemente.jpg

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/pics/roberto_clemente_autograph.jpg

http://www.thebaseballpage.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/community_article_node_image/images/community/The%20Baseball%20Page/Clemente.jpg

http://www.ct.gov/dcf/lib/dcf/latestnews/images/roberto_clemente_jr_kissing_photo_of_dad.jpg

A Jewish Tiger and His Misunderstood Stripes

Tigers roar.  It’s part of their nature.

In that sense, Hank Greenberg made a perfect Tiger.

From 1933 to 1946, Greenberg was one of the most feared hitters in baseball.  Playing for Detroit, he let his bat do most of the talking, and it didn’t just speak, it roared – fittingly – like a tiger.  And American League pitchers knew it.  A few of them may have heard the snarl before Greenberg even swung.  Damaged psyches tend to have fatalistic tendencies, and Detroit’s strapping cleanup hitter damaged his share of pitching psyches.

In one remarkable four-year span, he hit 172 home runs with a .327 aggregate batting average and 591 RBI’s.  However, he also played with an extraordinary weight on his shoulders.  He was the first Jewish superstar in Major League history, and the first Jewish anything during that period wasn’t going to have it easy.

Perhaps, if the world was slightly more just or if compassion spread its fingers a little wider, Greenberg wouldn’t have been made to endure quite as much as he did.  But the world wasn’t and those fingers didn’t in the 1930’s.  So, Detroit’s noble slugger had to play the game amid an ugly anti-Semitic undertow.

Angry voices came at him from every direction.  And since he was the lone prominent Jewish player in the game, he had to bear it alone.  When opponents failed to jostle him sufficiently with words, they tried to punish him physically.  In one particularly ugly episode, the Chicago White Sox urged one their players to spike the Detroit first baseman while sliding back into the bag on a pickoff attempt.  When the Chicago player, Joe Kuhel, did just that – swiping at Greenberg’s legs with his cleats, Greenberg had had enough.

He bounced Kuhel off the ground like a quarter off of a crisply made military bunk and went to unleash the full brunt of his frustration when teammates separated him from the dazed base runner.  However, Greenberg’s understandable rage had been untethered, and he was determined to confront not only Kuhel but the entire White Sox team about why they hated him – or the idea of him – so much that they wanted to cripple him on the field.

So, after the game, he followed them all into the Chicago clubhouse and proceeded to let Kuhel know exactly what he thought of the abysmal way the White Sox player had conducted himself – eyeball to eyeball, no blinking or looking away.  And Greenberg was an imposing figure, six-foot-three and 230 pounds of furious muscle.

Kuhel said nothing.  And neither did any of his teammates.

Greenberg had made his points – his backbone was stronger than any of the feeble ones encased in Chicago uniforms that afternoon and that it was a very, very bad idea to test the comparison.

Sadly, he didn’t get much relief from the negativity even in his team’s home environment.  Detroit in the 1930’s was not a place overflowing with progressive thinking.  In fact, one of the city’s most renowned patriarchs – Henry Ford, himself – had published a book called “The International Jew” in which he unceasingly linked the country’s most serious problems to Jewish influence.  It was a marvel of anti-Semitism – if, indeed, such a relentlessly hateful thing could be considered a marvel.

Another prominent citizen of the area, Father Charles Coughlin, took to espousing vicious pro-Nazi “sermons” to as many locals as he could reach and then expanded his operation to national radio broadcasts and a weekly newsletter called, ironically, “Social Justice” – which hadn’t a word of socially acceptable righteousness in it.  At his peak, Coughlin reached 10 million followers a week and discussed among other things how Germany’s infamous “Kristallnacht” attack on Jews in November, 1938 was only a result of Christians having been persecuted first.

So, that was the environment in which Greenberg made his baseball home – the place he returned to after opposing teams and their fans had exacted their toll on his constitution.

Unfortunately, his hardships on the diamond were a sliver of a growing worldwide virus, a menacing epidemic targeting Jewish people for isolation and hate. In fact, Greenberg’s greatest Major League season, 1938, eerily coincided with Hitler’s occupation of Austria and the aforementioned Kristallnacht ugliness.  That occupation, of course, marked the beginning of Germany’s designs on conquering Europe – and beyond – and would eventually lead to one of the most horrific ethnic persecutions in human history.

In the prime years of his baseball career, Greenberg was constantly reminded that enlightenment and tolerance could be slow moving things and that his ethnic group did not get to enjoy their protection.

Still, he just kept hitting baseballs, further and more viciously than ever.  If people were going to taunt him, he was not going to let the vitriol push him off his game.  If anything, he used it to refine his focus, to fuel his desire to quiet them all – like ever more coal powering an unstoppable locomotive.

And if he needed added motivation to weather the difficulties raining on and around him, he received it and more from the Jewish-American community, who adored him.  That adoration had a depth and breadth nearly unequaled in the game’s history.  Other players had been celebrated and revered, but Greenberg had come to symbolize an entire people at a time that they desperately needed someone to be a champion.

And Hank Greenberg was certainly that.

In the prime of his career, he won two MVP awards, led the league in home runs four times, and was the driving force behind two World Series champion teams and two more that came within an eyelash of winning the title.  He had also challenged two of the game’s most hallowed single-season marks – hitting 58 home runs in 1938, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, and driving in 183 runs the year before, one fewer than Lou Gehrig’s American League record total.

More than that, Greenberg shattered stereotypes.  For those who believed that all Jews were from frail and inconsequential stock, that they hid in the shadows making money off of the effort and accomplishments of other, Greenberg provided highly visible proof that such things did not apply to him and, by extension, should not be used as a general context to view anyone Jewish.  So, whenever the hands of prejudice started to push people towards thinking that way, many of them knew of at least one Jewish person who was not any of those things.

He was powerful, resilient, and remarkably dedicated.  In 1940, the Tigers decided to move Greenberg from first base into the outfield to make room for an emerging young slugger named Rudy York, even though Greenberg was a stalwart on the team and had been a major part of its continuous success.  As was his fashion, he accepted the change as a challenge and never complained. Instead, he worked tirelessly at his new position, won the MVP, and led Detroit to the American League pennant.

Mostly, Greenberg was extraordinarily proud to be Jewish.  He accepted his elevated visibility – and the attendant responsibilities – with humility and a profound sense of self-awareness.  Aside from the incident with Joe Kuhel and the rest of the White Sox, he handled himself with exceptional composure, because he knew how many were watching him and how important it was never to give anyone a reason to condemn him – or his people.

When war came for America in 1941, he was among the first Major League players to enlist.  In fact, he had actually re-enlisted.  In his first go-round with the Army, he served in peacetime from October, 1940 and was honorably discharged on December 5, 1941.  The next day, of course, the world changed.

For the next four years, he devoted himself to his military service – four prime years excised from his baseball playing days.  His dedication never wavered, and he never bemoaned all of that lost baseball time.  War had called for him, and he had answered.  It was as simple as that.

When he returned from the service after the war in 1945, he resumed his place among baseball royalty.  But his age was pushing him towards twilight – his brilliant career ebbing.  The atrophy that accumulated from the long layoff hadn’t helped.  Despite that, Greenberg’s championship pedigree couldn’t be denied.  He powered the Tigers down the stretch that season and led them into the playoffs, where Detroit ultimately outlasted the Chicago Cubs for a championship. 

In 1947, he was inexplicably pushed out of Detroit, his bedrock of baseball glory, and traded to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.  In his final season in the Majors, he put a remarkable finishing touch on his historic place in the game.

In a game against Brooklyn, Greenberg was appalled at the way his teammates were treating the Dodgers’ rookie first baseman.  The vulgarities being directed at the young player sickened him.  When Pittsburgh took the field in the following inning, Greenberg was trying to complete a play at first and collided with Brooklyn’s beleaguered rookie.

As the crowd and his teammates hooted with delight – hoping the veteran would add to the neophyte’s misery – Greenberg extended his hand and helped the young man to his feet.  As the two players stood near first base, Greenberg talked to him at length and the rookie seemed to relax.

After the game, reporters asked the Dodgers’ phenom what Pittsburgh’s elder statesman had said to him.  The young player – a fellow named Jackie Robinson – replied, “He gave me encouragement.  Mr. Greenberg is class.  It stands out all over him.”

From one extraordinary trailblazer to another, words of understanding – words that only the lonely understand who have been made to scale incalculable peaks alone.  Like tigers of the same stripe.

Sources:

“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, DVD, Directed by Aviva Kempner. The Ciesla Foundation, 1998.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/greenha01.shtml

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/ford.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/peopleevents/pandeAMEX96.html

Photos:

http://www.newvideo.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/NNVG243250-8.jpg

http://www.ootpdevelopments.com/board/attachments/ootp-mods-rosters-photos-quick-starts/222725d1310869917-1940s-1950s-white-sox-golander40-joe_kuhel_-1947_white_sox-_4.jpg

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http://www.baseballinwartime.com/images/greenberg_hank.jpg

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Throwing Kryptonite Curveballs into the Abyss

When the situation called for Superman, he summoned Clark Kent.

As it turned out, the cape was highly overrated.

In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics were baseball royalty. Their loaded roster included four eventual Hall of Famers – three in the heart of a fearsome batting order; the other, a formidable presence on the mound.  From the dugout, the team’s architect, conductor, and patriarch – manager Connie Mack – manipulated his supremely talented chess pieces for maximum effect.

Catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx powered an offense with five players who hit .300 or better.  And it was Simmons who led them all with the rather impressive combination of a .365 batting average, 34 home runs, and 157 runs batted in.

However, it was the pitching staff that truly separated the Athletics from the rest of the American League that season.  Southpaw ace Lefty Grove and fellow left-hander George Earnshaw had a combined 44-14 record in 1929, and Philadelphia allowed nearly 100 fewer runs than any other team in the league as well as besting them all in strikeouts.

And sitting at the head of the table was Mack, in his 29th season as the team’s manager.  He had brought six pennants and three World Series titles home in that span and had established a sterling reputation for leading with a firm but benevolent hand.  He also studied the game endlessly earning him the nickname, the Tall Tactician.

So when the brainy, brawny, strong-armed Philadelphians stormed out of the gate to a 39-11 record in 1929, the baseball world took notice.  And Connie Mack’s bunch never let up, finishing their trek with a 104-46 record, eighteen full strides ahead of everyone else.  Even more impressive, the red-hot Athletics had jostled the legendary New York Yankess of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the throne – a palace coup of commendable scale.

Advancing to their first World Series in fifteen seasons, Philadelphia was matched up against the National League champion Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs, who were a decade removed from their last championship appearance, had a similarly fearsome cluster of sluggers.  Barrel-chested – and barrel shaped – outfielder Hack Wilson hit the ball as hard as he lived.  And he lived very, very hard. 

In 1929, Wilson fulfilled the baseball part of the equation by hitting 39 home runs with 159 RBI’s.  His outfield mates, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson, both hit .360 or better and drove in over 100 runs apiece.  Cuyler even stole 43 bases to add speed into the mix.

However, the jewel at the center of Chicago’s pennant-winning run was Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter who ever played the game.  And his pedigree was spectacular.  A seven-time batting champion, Hornsby hit better than .400 three times and led the league in home runs twice.  Although he was 33 years old in 1929 and entering the twilight of his brilliant career, he could still hit and was, therefore, exceptionally dangerous.  As proof, Hornsby finished the year with a .380 batting average, 39 home runs, and 149 RBI’s.

The Athletics were going to have their hands full trying to deal with that gaggle of noisy Chicago hitters, and Connie Mack knew it.  To further complicate matters, Philadelphia’s two best pitchers, Grove and Earnshaw, were lefties while nearly all of the Cubs’ best hitters were right-handed.  And in baseball, the general axiom holds that right-handed hitters see the ball better coming from left-handed pitchers and are more apt to be effective against them because of it.

So, what was Mack to do for Game One of the Series?  If he offered up one of his aces into the teeth of Chicago’s greatest strength and that ace got devoured, the tone for the entire championship could irreparably darken.  If Mack chose to try to neutralize all of that right-handed thump with a right-handed pitcher, he needed one he trusted enough to accept the challenge.

Enter Clark Kent.

In 14 big league seasons, Howard Ehmke won precisely one more game than he lost.  And the rest of his pitching numbers were similarly nondescript.  His ERA hovered near the league average as did his strikeout rate, and he allowed roughly one hit per inning.  When he threw a pitch, it neither baffled nor intimidated.  It mostly got hit.

Still, he was good enough to find gainful employment in the game for over a decade.  He just hadn’t been good enough to accumulate any discernible star quality.  And on Philadelphia’s star-studded roster, he was the perfect Clark Kent – a neutral face blended almost entirely into the background.

As if to underscore this transparency, he only appeared in 11 games for the Athletics in 1929, pitching a grand total of 54 2/3 innings all season long.  Though, when he was used, he did well.  Going 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA, it had been one of his better years, brevity or not.  And in those sporadic glimpses, Connie Mack must have seen something, because it gave Mack an idea – either utterly brilliant or foolish – addressing the question of Chicago’s heavy right-handed presence.

The answer, he decided, was Howard Ehmke.

Philadelphia’s invisible man took the game’s biggest stage – Game One of the World Series – with the entire sporting public wondering who he was and why one of baseball’s most respected managers selected him over the likes of Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw.  However, Mack didn’t have time to worry about such things, if he even cared at all, because the tactician was too busy doing what he did best – outflanking an opponent.

Ehmke, who did not pitch at all over the last two weeks of the season, was certainly well rested.  More than that, he was handsomely cloaked in the fog of unfamiliarity.  Chicago scouts and hitters had little useful reconnaissance they could use to prepare a game plan, and it showed.

Perhaps, he’d waited his entire life for the opportunity or just sensed the rarity of the moment as it happened.  Whatever the motivation, Ehmke’s transformation – when it mattered most – was remarkable.  The fact that it happened on the road, no less, in front of a hostile crowd in Chicago made it even more amazing.

His assortment of off-speed pitches, which had been the source of league-wide yawns for such a long time, crackled.  Every pitch he threw caused confusion, and the Cubs powerful offense couldn’t touch him.  Strike after strike snaked its way from the mound with a relentless drumbeat.

Chicago fans watched in astonishment as Ehmke, the anonymous journeyman, struck out the side in the third – including Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby to end the inning. 

He did it again in the sixth, fanning Hornsby a second time on his way back to the dugout.

In the seventh, the Cubs put a pair of runners in scoring position – the biggest threat they had mounted all afternoon long – but Ehmke struck out future Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett to keep Chicago from scoring.  The outs and strikeouts just kept coming like a growing stack of split timber in a lumber yard.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally scratched across a run, closing the score to 3-1.  However, Ehmke fittingly brought the curtain down by throwing one last pitch past a befuddled Chicago player, dispatching pinch-hitter Chick Tolson – his thirteenth strikeout of the game.

Ehmke not only made a devastating and soul-crushing impression on the Cubs and their fans, he made history.  His thirteen strikeouts set a World Series record, which stood for another twenty-four years.  He also vindicated his manager by pushing every last word of pre-game skepticism back into the mouths of the critics.

Philadelphia went on to take the World Series, four games to one.  And one of those games continues to live on in franchise lore, because an unlikely soul took the one chance he had to make a name for himself and wrote it into the record books.

However, Ehmke’s time in the spotlight was brief, as it is for most unexpected heroes.  The following season was disastrous for him.  He appeared in only three games for Philadelphia in 1930 – the last, a humiliating 10-1 loss to the Yankees, in which he lasted only two innings.  In fact, it was his last game in the majors.  At 36, he was finished as big league pitcher.

The Athletics defended their championship title in 1930 and had an opportunity to make it three in a row in 1931 but lost the World Series that season to St. Louis in seven games.  After that, the franchise chose the bottom line over a winning line and systematically started to pare the roster of its star players and their contracts.  Simmons, Foxx, Cochrane, and Grove were eventually scattered to the winds, and the team predictably fell out of contention, becoming a perennial American League doormat.

In 1950, Connie Mack finally stepped down as manager, ending a full half-century residency in the Philadelphia dugout.  No manager lived or breathed in the game more deeply than Mack, and none likely ever will.  Unfortunately, his final seasons with the Athletics were a cash-strapped misery.

However, his true legacy is firmly secured.  He is still regarded as one of the great figures in the game. His unmatched baseball life was filled with too many remarkable moments for it to be otherwise – perhaps, none more so than the day he sent Clark Kent out to do Superman’s work and looked all the more brilliant for doing so.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/mackco01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ehmkeho01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN192910080.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws_recaps.jsp?feature=1929

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHA/PHA193005221.shtml

Photos:

http://www.philadelphiaathletics.org/ppp/images/teams/1929Asteam.jpg

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