Thursday, May 18, 2017

My Summer of Love

This is a love story. My love story. It was when I found my first true love.
It was 1967 – the Summer of Love – when I dove and fell Pete Rose style head over heels in love with the Boston Red Sox. Oh, I like liked them prior to 1967  – a Facebook team if you will that I checked on every so often to see what they were up to which usually wasn’t high in the American League standings. But that all changed for me and Red Sox fans around me in 1967 when the six state region of New England got attached to the team like Norm to the  bar at Cheers. That’s when we became aroused then obsessed by a team that ultimately led us on a roller-coaster journey of heartbreak and misery that took, for me,  37 years to evolve into bliss and piss-in-my-pants excitement.
For the vast majority of Red Sox fans like myself, 1967 was a life- and mind-altering year and it had nothing to do with drugs, sex and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, the Summer of Love is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and here in the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live they are dripping with tie-dye psychedelic nostalgia. I, however, am logging into my memories as a 13-year-old growing up in a small town in Maine who became captivated by a baseball team in Boston that spawned what is now known as Red Sox Nation.
My Summer of Love had sharp contrasts and stark differences from the one they are remembering out here.
San Francisco had Scott McKenzie. We had Johnny “Pie” McKenzie.
San Francisco had Golden Gate Park. We had Fenway Park.
San Francisco had Haight-Ashbury. We had Lansdowne-Jersey.
San Francisco had Timothy Leary. We had Dick Williams.
San Francisco had beat-niks. We had George “Boomer” Scott and taters.
San Francisco had hippies. We had Hawk Harrelson.
San Francisco had LSD. We had Tony C.
San Francisco had Jerry Garcia. We had Jerry Adair.
San Francisco had Flower Power. We had Yaz.
Yet there was no evidence that a social phenomenon of sorts was brewing in Boston in 1967. On Opening Day only 8,324 fans showed up for the first Red Sox game of the season. The only good to come out of that was my favorite go-to Red Sox trivia question:  Who was the Opening Day second baseman for the Red Sox in 1967? Answer: Reggie Smith, then a rookie who went on to play five more games at second base and 1,668 in the outfield.
Mind you the Red Sox at that time in 1967 were about as popular in New England as the war in Vietnam. Though the Celtics were nearly at the end of a dynasty run when they routinely won 11 NBA titles in 13 years, Boston was a hockey town with a budding rookie named Bobby Orr. The Red Sox were the losers – a ninth-place team with 100-to-1 odds that hadn’t had a winning record since 1958 -- who shared Fenway Park with the Boston Patriots. The only “Babe” playing in Boston then was Babe Parilli.
Then something magical happened. For me, it was the diving over-the-shoulder, back-to-home plate “tremendous” catch by Carl Yastrzemski in Yankee Stadium on April 14 off the bat of Tom Tresh that saved a no-hit bid by a left-handed rookie pitcher named Billy Rohr making his major league debut. His luck didn’t last – Rohr won only two more games in the big leagues – but the fascination with Yaz and the “Cardiac Kids” continued and went viral come summer. When the Red Sox capped a six-game road trip with a 10-game winning streak, thousands of fans were waiting for their plane to land at Logan Airport to celebrate. In July. With the team in second place.
There was suddenly a belief in this Boston team and it was spreading all around New England like lobster on rolls. I remember humid summer evenings when Bob Buzzell, the uncle of my best friend Darrell on Cherry Street, would sit and listen to Red Sox games on his porch. In those days, there was no cable TV. We had three TV stations in Bangor and only one of them showed Red Sox games on TV and then only on weekends. But the team took off and so did rabid interest. Everyone was tuning in and binge listening to games and you literally could walk down a street in Maine and hear play by play of Red Sox games without missing a word of the action.
An improbable team was now engineering an impossible season. It was called “The Impossible Dream” team and was chronicled at season’s end with an LP album filled with highlights narrated by Ken Coleman in a poetic tribute about how the Red Sox rebounded from the tragic season-ending beaning of its revered rightfielder, young slugger Tony Conigliaro.
“And then, one August night, the kid in right lies sprawling in the dirt. The fastball struck him square. He’s down. Is Tony badly hurt?  The doctors say he’ll be OK, but he won’t be back this year. If Tony’s through, what will we do? Who’ll carry us from here?”
Cue the Carl Yastrzemski song: Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski, the man they call Yaz!
There were unforgettable moments before team captain Yaz single-handedly took over the team.  Spaghetti-armed outfielder Jose Tartabull throwing out Ken Berry at home in the ninth inning to preserve a win in Chicago in a rare televised weeknight game. The Red Sox rallying from an 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels 9-8 on a Sunday afternoon in front of a crowd of 33,840 at home.  And Ken Harrelson, released by the Kansas City Athletics, three days later becoming an overnight hero in rightfield at Fenway.
On September 7 there was a four-way tie for first place in the American League. Yaz delivered a September to remember. For the month, he batted .417 with nine home runs in 96 at-bats. In his final 15 games, Yaz batted .491 with five homers and 18 RBIs. In his final 10 games he batted .541 with four homers and 14 RBIs. His in final six games he batted .619. In the last game of the season, in a must-win game, Yaz went 4-for-4 with a clutch game-tying two-run single in a five-run sixth inning to rally the Red Sox past the Twins to the American League pennant.  The final out was a soft liner to shortstop Rico Petrocelli and, as radio commentator Ned “Mercy” Martin announced, “there’s pandemonium on the field.”
The Red Sox, with only one future Hall of Famer (Yaz) on its roster, lost the World Series in seven games to a St. Louis Cardinals team that had four future Hall of Famers. Yet, that was the least disappointing of all the aggravating World Series defeats in Red Sox history because nobody expected the team to get there and everybody fell in love with it from Eastport to Block Island.
In the end, I didn’t fall apart. I had fallen in love.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Spring training is finally over in Arizona. Save your money for next year!

Spring Training in Arizona used to be baseball’s best-kept secret.  It was like going to an Easter egg hunt and only half the kids in class usually showed up. Woo hoo!
While the majority of major league teams and their winter-weary fans flocked to Florida surrounded by the seductive lure of sandy ocean and gulf beaches on both sides, fewer teams and fans would journey into the Arizona desert where the prospect of spring training baseball at one time was a four-lettered proposition extending from Mesa to Yuma. In the landscape of baseball, that lies somewhere between Timbuktu and the End of the World.
The net result, however, was this: Small crowds casually following big leaguer players in a relaxing atmosphere in a tucked away destination far less appealing and expensive than South Beach et al. For autograph-and-thrill seeking baseball fans Arizona was Utopia. More eggs for all.
Not anymore, eggheads. Arizona is the new Florida. What it lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for in modern convenience and cache. The ballparks are newer and closer together and they are flanked by chain hotels and boutique restaurants. The minor league feel has been replaced by major league prices. I can pay less to park next to AT&T Park nowadays than the Cubs’ new Sloan Stadium.
Spring training once upon a time was a ritual. Now it has gone retail. Those two words – spring training – automatically double the cost of a T-shirt, which can purchased in customized spring training souvenir shops across the greater Phoenix area that have sprouted faster than Circle Ks. I walked into one such store, a vacant building the size of a Costco converted into a money-making machine with baseball merchandise.
Whatever happened to the good old days?
The Pink Pony in Old Town Scottsdale, once an after-hours hangout frequented by players, managers, coaches and executives and the essence of spring training, is now closed. Don and Charlie’s Restaurant -- the hottest and hippest and hardest place to RSVP to dine in its hey day– is now more a museum than a meeting place for baseball’s best and elite. And Scottsdale Stadium, once an intimate ballpark made of wood, is aging brick and mortar and outdated compared to the multitude of sparkling baseball multiplexes that now have multiple tenants. Spring training has turned into time shares.
When I covered spring training in the 80s and 90s in Arizona, a Giants’ or A’s road trip usually meant having to drive 100 miles to Tucson to play the Cleveland Indians or a whirlwind two-city roadie of 600 miles round trip to play the Padres in Yuma then the Angels in Palm Springs then go back to Phoenix. You actually saw and passed real cactus in the Cactus League.  Now all you see are traffic lights.
There currently are 15 major league spring training teams housed in 10 ballparks in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area within a 15-mile radius of Scottsdale Stadium and they are not cheap. Ticket prices range from $8 (to sit on grass) to $42 (to sit in an actual seat) and that’s only if you are smart and buy them in advance. If you have to have to buy them on StubHub or some other ticket marketing website, expect to pay and an arm, a leg and the wall on the border. Now that they are finally World Series champions, the average price for a Cubs spring training game in Arizona this year was $106.30.
For a meaningless game that doesn’t count in the standings?! This is not fake news.
I was lucky and paid $17 apiece for front row seats on the leftfield line near the third base dugout and saw the best team in Arizona – the Puerto Rican World Baseball Classic team. The next time I returned to Scottsdale Stadium, I paid $180 for four metal bleacher seats in the next-to-last row of the rightfield corner. I was closer to Osborne Road than Hunter Pence.
Sadly, spring training in Arizona is no longer an original. It used to be a special up-close-and-personal experience to go there to watch exhibition baseball and one felt like he or she had hit the lottery to be so lucky to have such access to a ballpark to get near a big league ballplayer. You have to actually win the lottery to do that now. You have to pay big league money for that privilege and then it might be a split squad game, meaning you will need a roster to recognize half of the players and even a roster costs money.
My how things have changed. I read the other day that Phoenix is now No. 6 on Forbes’ list of the top travel destinations. Phoenix?!
Well, go for it. Fly there for spring training and see for yourself. If you want to go see batting practice, much less a game, beware of the price you might pay and the realization that comes with this spring training fantasy trip. You could be shut out just like The Pink Pony.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Baseball Hall of Fame voting experiencing climate change

There is a climate change controversy going on in this country right now and it has nothing to do with extreme weather, atmospheric changes, environmental impact or whatever scientists say and Donald Trump tweets.
It has to do with the Baseball Hall of Fame and its voters and how more of them are warming each year to dismiss the taint of Performance Enhancing Drugs in the so-called Steroid Era, and the elite players who purportedly used them. There is a noticeable, albeit slight, shift in the voting electorate to forgive Hall of Fame candidates and forget circumstantial, visual, and hard evidence that their feats were boosted by PEDs. Maybe this is a craze that will come and go – like Pokemon Go – but more voters are gradually and grudgingly willing to give them a pass and provide them with a golden ticket to baseball’s Wonka Bar in Cooperstown.
I am not comfortable being one of those voters. I am having a difficult time accepting the movement that is afoot. I may be stubborn, though I admit I am tempted. I may be wrong, and I may change my mind. Not yet.
This is why. Before I became an Honorary Member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), I was an active one.  From 1981 to 1986, I regularly covered the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers before becoming a beat writer and sports columnist covering the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. For more than 25 years I covered ball and not a year went by when I did not hear a manager or a player at least once utter these words: “You have to respect the game.”
Respect the game. Expletives deleted.
That’s what causes me to balk when considering whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and others who are accused/suspected of obtaining (illegally!) and using (secretly!) PEDs should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, it’s just a museum, but it is the most hallowed and sacred resting spot in the game. Their incredible and amazing achievements already are recorded in the Hall, but the controversy is about whether they deserve a bronze plaque and baseball immortality.
I’m not naïve to think that there are people in the Hall of Fame already who cheated or bent the rules. I’m in no space to ride high on the horse of morality into the church of baseball. I’m just trying to pick the very best from a very select group of outstanding players that I actually have seen play and not simply judge them from a WAR/JAWS/WHIP/OPS spread sheet. I study and research their accomplishments at their position, their regular-season, mid-season and post-season awards and compare them to players in their era, not somebody else’s.
Finally I ask myself, “Did they respect the game?” This, of course, falls in line with the so-called “character” clause in HOF fame voting election criteria. Yielding to pressure – mostly from HOF critics who do not have a HOF vote -- the Hall of Fame Committee has made a series of changes recently to phase out “old timers” like myself, implementing new rules such as requiring more attendance at MLB games and limiting voting terms to 10 years for BBWAA Honorary members (I have two more years). This is building a wall, not a bridge, between the fraternity of sportswriters.
Yet, in this effort to create a younger voting base that theoretically would be more receptive to alleged users who are listed on the HOF ballot, the Hall of Fame Committee has yet to strike down the so-called “character” clause and eliminate it and the word “integrity” and “sportsmanship” from voting guidelines. As long as that clause is there, I will recognize it.
The new HOF voting rules already have indicated a shift in the electorate in favor of Bonds, Clemens et al. Now comes news that Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner who oversaw the Steroid Era, is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The thinking is if the Commissioner of Baseball, who “enabled” the Steroid Era, is elected into the Hall of Fame then the best of the best alleged steroid users should be elected, too.
Forgive and forget. Get over it.
Sorry. Selig may take credit for “solving the problem” by instituting rule changes to vastly improve PED testing and weed out users, but lest we forget that it took a friggin’ Congressional hearing to force Bud and baseball to act and address the Steroid Era and the public humiliation, disgust and shame it brought to the game.  
Selig was voted into the Hall of Fame by a new veterans committee – “Today’s Game Era 1988 and On” – that consisted mostly of current Hall of Famers. Of note is that same committee failed to elect Mark McGwire, another Popeye poster boy for the Steroid Era. It’s telling to me that people already in the Hall of Fame don’t deem McGwire worthy of joining them, though he hit 583 career home runs, 11th on the all-time list
McGwire’s name no longer appears on the HOF ballot because HOF voters, BBWAA members past and present, didn’t give him enough votes to remain on the ballot for 10 years. Yet now some of those voters are either continuing to vote for or flipping to vote for Bonds and Clemens, who obviously benefitted from the Steroid Era. Maybe McGwire ought to ask for a recount or be readmitted to the HOF ballot. At least he was honest and came clean.
Maybe the message is you are better off as a HOF candidate to not admit you did something wrong. Or misremember. Manny Ramirez, on the HOF ballot for the first time, got caught twice under the new drug testing policy, yet Bonds and Clemens escaped that web, though they remain under that dark cloud of suspicion. I understand that PED use was a means of staying healthy and competitive – perhaps a necessity in that era -- but it was driven by greed and ego and not by respect for the game.
So it’s time again for the Big Dread  -- filling out my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Let’s hope the Russians don’t hack into this.  They didn’t rig the Cubs from winning the World Series.
The easy thing to do is to vote for the maximum 10 players who statistically and historically – throwing out well chronicled PED allegations and dismissing words such as character, integrity, and sportsmanship – who qualify for Hall of Fame induction. That’s easier: Bonds, Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Trevor Hoffman, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Yet, to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, one needs 75 percent of the vote, which is really the only thing truly fair in this process. To get three out of four sportswriters, much less anybody these days, to agree on the same thing is remarkable in itself.
Now comes the hard part: Evaluation, separation, trust, and respect. How will these players be best remembered by fans if their plaques are hung in the Hall of Fame?  Case in point: Will Ryan Lochte be best remembered for winning gold medals and setting swimming records or lieing?
I voted again for Raines, whom I first saw play as a second baseman for the Denver Zephyrs in Mile High Stadium. I also voted again for Bagwell, Hoffman, and Kent, one of the greatest offensive second baseman ever. I voted for the first time for Edgar Martinez because if we are going to reward specialty pitchers with HOF induction now it’s time to reward specialty hitters. And I sheepishly voted for Pudge Rodriguez  -- a  14-time All Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner whom Joe Torre called the greatest catcher he ever saw  -- because, though Pudge’s name appeared in Jose Canseco’s book it did not appear in the more credible Mitchell Report. Plus I have great admiration for catchers and the physical demands and team responsibilities that come with that territory.
Of course I assume that three of out of every four people might disagree with that. Sometimes voting comes down to a gut feeling.
For what it is worth, I did not vote for Donald Trump for the same reason.