Monday, January 26, 2015

Clayton Kershaw’s Very Impressive Double Slam Dunk

What’s more impressive than a pitching resume that garners not only a league’s Cy Young Award, but an Most Valuable Player Award?

A pitcher who seems truly humbled not only by the honors and grateful for the recognition by peers, fans, but insistent upon thanking the writers who voted him this rare double slam dunk.

Such is Clayton Kershaw, who came to the annual banquet of the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to pick up his impressive catch of trophies.

Now, we writers are used to no-shows. We are used to reasons for declining to attend that are far less impressive than Kershaw’s would have been. Derek Jeter, for instance, set to receive the chapter’s biggest honor -- The Joe DiMaggio Toast of the Town Award -- said no. Period. Oh, well. ...

Kershaw could have bailed, too. He did not, however, arriving in New York on Saturday for the evening event just one day after being with his wife, Ellen, as she gave birth to the couple’s first child in Texas.

Kershaw intended to travel back in order to return to his wife and baby daughter immediately following the dinner. But his sense of what was right and in the moment, led him to spare a few hours to say thanks.

He was tired, but almost giddy, accepting handshakes from children to Hall of Famers. When he thanked Ellen for the huge role she plays in his life, Kershaw’s California-cool cracked for a moment and he choked up. He apologized to the audience, reminding he had, after all, just had a baby. “She makes it all worth it,” he said in a near-whisper.

Can you say “standing ovation?”

What was just as amazing was how the arguably dead-on-his-feet pitcher mesmerized the audience. His speech was simply one of the best I’ve heard on such a platform. If it was given at Cooperstown upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, it would, by now, be the stuff of legend.

Kershaw had us at hello, of course, especially after the awards' presenter, Sandy Koufax, dazzled us with tales of Kershaw’s character and content. And, oh, yes, that singularly spectacular season, in which he went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in 27 starts. 

Kershaw then proceeded to cause jaws to drop and hearts to melt, one after another, as he proceeded to thank every human being who participated on a daily basis in preparing him for the season of his life. Clubbies. Trainers and others on the medical staff. Weight-room attendees. Coaches, both of his hitting and pitching, and fielding (he is an infielder waiting to be discovered!). Front-office personnel and owners were shown appreciation.

He thanked Don Mattingly, joking first that he’d see Donnie Baseball everyday exiting the weight room following one of his “old man” workout routines. The New York crowd, fully familiar with the Don Mattingly who warmed their hearts for so long, roared with laughter. Then Kershaw spoke in terms that showed how much Mattingly means to him as a friend and skipper: “To Donnie, thank you for staying the same. When I want to flip out or lose my cool, you’re always there to talk me off the ledge.”

Then came the roster. One by one, Kershaw thanked his fellow Dodger players from 2014. Didn’t matter if they’ve now exited left. Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon, every single reliever, every fellow starter, his bullpen catcher, his infield, his outfield. He made the crowd laugh again when he thanked Yasiel Puig for doing things on the field he’d never seen before. Then he gave everyone pause by saying Puig is the most amazing talent he’s ever seen.

Perhaps the most intriguing, and surprising thank-you came at the end. Kershaw thanked the St. Louis Cardinals, the playoff nemesis who’ve hung four losses and a 7.15 ERA on Kershaw in their last four postseason encounters. "Thank you for reminding me that you're never as good as you think you are."

That may have been true in a bad stretch or two in October. But, as Sandy Koufax said after extending apologies to the other pitchers on the dais, Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game right now. And he’s not to shabby a person, either.

Talk about a solid-gold double slam dunk!

Thank you for playing

Jeff and Debbie Trout, with Angels GM Jerry DiPoto
There is a river of cynicism that runs through every journalist. You get paid to look at most everything through a jaundiced eye. It’s the nature of the beast if you’re dissecting everything in order to keep ‘em honest!

So when a Mike Trout sends word that he is too sick to collect his American League Most Valuable Player Award from the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, your first instinct is to smirk. ... Until he sends his parents in his place!

That is what the flu-ridden Trout did Saturday night. And, promised his linebacker-like dad, Jeff; and resolute mom, Debbie; Trout was, indeed, really, really, really ill!

Must have passed the age-old kiss-to-the-forhead test. You know, the one that moms administer to check your temperature. Imagine if he’d failed you would have heard the admonishments all the way from their South Jersey home. “Michael Nelson Trout, you get out of that bed right now, Bubba!”

Thoughts of the summer game on a snowy day

After several years’ absence, I had the privilege of attending the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual banquet.

The reasons for the return of the prodigal former chapter chair were three-fold:

I miss my fellow ink-stained wretches, from whom I learned so much about the craft and life these last 35-plus years. I miss writing for newspapers. I miss the organized chaos of the press box that builds and builds, then settles into intense quiet as gifted reporters pound out prose, hour after hour, day after day, game after game, season after season. Most people can hardly take the pressure of preparing even a page of an annual budget. Writers and photographers hit deadline around the clock, thanks to The Internet. Electronic journalism is electrifying. So, too, is print. Hope the world remembers that before it is too late.

The second reason for my return I can sum up in two words: Sandy Koufax.

Third, I once again was lucky to see baseball’s magic as it appears through the prism of a young child’s eyes -- my beautiful young nephew, Emery. More, much, much more on Emery’s banquet debut in a moment! 

As for Mr. Koufax ... One of baseball’s greatest pitchers was one of the honorees, joining Vin Scully and former Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley as winners of the “Willie, Mickey and The Duke Award.

Sandy, being ever the reluctant superstar, insisted beforehand that he was not there to collect, but to give, presenting the NL MVP and Cy Young Awards to Clayton Kershaw. But the audience coaxed him from his seat so that he could recount the game that inextricably linked him to Hendley and Scully -- the perfect game he threw, and won, in 1965, fending off Hendley, who merely tossed a one-hitter. The one-hit game remains a major-league record for offensive futility -- and brilliant pitching.

Personally, Sandy matters so much to me, and has since he caught my attention in 1965. That October, the best pitcher in the game led his Dodgers to the World Series by unfurling a second straight Cy Young Award campaign (he led the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts -- 382; the highest modern day total at the time). Sandy then he stunned the sport when he declined to pitch the opening game of the Fall Classic because it fell on Yom Kippur. Sandy is Jewish, you see, and though not devout, he felt an obligation to honor his heritage, its history, its people. The world took note, and never forgot.

For that, and many other reasons -- such as a remarkable humility, priceless insight into an ever-evolving game, as well as sweet but whip-sharp wit and a gentle soul, Sandy Koufax is my 1-A hero to Jackie Robinson’s No. 1.

Jackie, Sandy, Larry Doby, as well as Ernie Banks and Tony Gwynn (the latter two Hall of Famers we lost during, then after the 2014 season) are cut from the same cloth. They represent all the right reasons adjectives like “class,” “character,” “charm,” “courage” should attach to any human being, whether famous or not.

So if you tell me there is one more opportunity to appear in the presence of a hero-turned-friend, I will be there.

Now, for the beauty of seeing this all reflected in the eyes of a child.

I used to love taking my boys -- son, Joshua; godsons Christopher and Troy, nephew Will -- to these events. They’ve grown up, and grown away, though, and I miss their company. But I do have a new baseball buddy -- my 12-year-old nephew, Emery, sweet little guy with an old soul, who not only likes baseball, but devours its history. He made his banquet debut Saturday and, perhaps sensing the depth and sincerity, most every baseball figure I introduced Em to took to this sharp youngster like an old friend.

Mr. Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, Buck Showalter, Bobby Valentine, Frank Robinson, Brett Gardner, Terry Francona, Bud Selig, Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson, all carried on conversations and asked of Emery if he played baseball, and why; what are his positions, what team does he follow (the Yankees, the resident of Harlem and starting center fielder for
Clayton Kershaw and Emery
the Harlem Little League team said). 

When Jeff asked Emery who his favorite Yankees were, the response -- Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra -- was met with an impressed smile. Marty Noble, the veteran baseball writer, upon hearing Emery’s answer, high-fived my nephew. As I said, there’s definitely depth in this young man!

Buck Showalter
Emery got thumb’s up on his position choices -- center and short. Gene Michael certainly approved. Bud Selig gave me a knowing smile when I said “Money Ball!” 

Buck Showalter’s comment: “You must have some speed! Run track?” “Yes,” said Emery. Ca-ching! 

When told that Emery had already competed on the national level, in chess tournaments, Francona pretended to pout, saying “brains, too? Not fair!"

One more Emery story, and it still sends chills through me:

Willie Mays was my father’s favorite player, so, too, my brother, Hawk’s. So Emery -- Hawk’s son -- upon hearing that Willie Mays would also attend the banquet, made it is mission to meet the all-time great and get an autograph. Now there are a couple things Willie Mays does differently than other stars at such events. He does not hang out in the VIP room beforehand. Nor did he demand a seat at the dais after requesting a ticket (same with Frank Robinson). 

Instead, two of the four Hall of Famers in the sat room  sat in the audience of approximately 1,000 (Sandy and Cal Ripken Jr. and soon-to-be HOFer John Smoltz were a part of the program and therefore on the dais. 

Willie Mays 
Willie spent most of his downtime signing autographs. Surrounded by security, he sat at his dining table and signed what security accepted from children-only. Needless to say, No. 24 was swamped, rivaling the crowd that gathered in front of the dais seeking, and receiving Sandy Koufax’s signature!

Now, Willie does not sign paper, only baseballs. Emery took an autograph book. Not knowing Willie's policy, Emery went forward in about 10 different waves, only to be turned away when Willie tired. He’d walk back to out table, ever-watchful, then queue up, again, when he saw Willie starting to sign, again. Still, one fail after another. Still, one attempt after another. 

Not til his final attempt did he get a real chance, only to be told he needed a baseball.

As he turned to walk away, Marty Noble took Emery’s arm and walked him back to Willie and introduced him. Willie, who wasn’t doing much eye-contact with anyone, looked up, then started chatting with Emery. When told about the baseball dilemma, Willie pulled a bankroll out of his pocket ("Hundreds and fifties and tens," Emery told me in amazement.)

Willie peeled off a $10 and said he'd sign that for Em. Em, bless him, said he could not accept because it was too much. So Willie pulled out a $1 and signed it. Then the two center fielders continued to talk ball. Emery's one regret: he was so excited he forgot to tell No. 24 that his Harlem Little League team plays very near where the old Polo Grounds -- Home to Willie's old New York Giants -- used to stand. Talk about kindred spirits!

Emery also listened as well as talked. He hung on every word that the adults said to him. About baseball tools, about school, about life. 

He listened intently as ALS “Ice Bucket” crusader Pete Frates accepted a humanitarian award for his part in raising $100 million in donations last August. Frates spoke to a still crowd from a wheel chair and through a computerized speaking apparatus. I watched Emery as he watched the scene unfold on one of the large screens. Transfixed was the word that came to mind. As I said, an old soul in a young body. 

Lastly, like his parents, I was very proud that Emery refused to take the $10 bill. The smile he wore the rest of the evening, as he showed the likes of Tito and Buck the dollar bill, well, that was worth much more than $10. It was priceless! 

Balance To Life -- Ernie Banks

Friday, January 23, 2015

Game Called on Account of Tears: Mr. Cub is gone

AP Photo/Jim Prisching"

Such beauty, in a smile, in a swing, in the conduct of a life well-lived. Ernie Banks had it all. Not even The Curse, nor a career devoid of a single postseason game could obscure the fact that when Ernie Banks stepped from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues in 1953, a bright, shining star was born.

Mr. Banks, who became a fixture on The North Side, died Friday, mere days before his 84th birthday. Now, the man who always saw the possibility in the bright light of day, who always thought two games were preferable to a mere one, will play no more.

In baseball, there is a saying that you can rest in the off-season. Mr. Banks, there is no game today, just eternal rest, and the gratitude of a game and a nation.

Mr. Banks, signed by the Kansas City Monarchs as a 19--year-old before World War II, served two years in the military before making the transition from the Leagues of Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, to Wrigley Field. He was not the first to help shatter stereotypes and push the national pastime away from its shameful segregation policies. There could only be one Jackie Robinson, and thankfully only one game-wide color barrier to smash.

But Mr. Banks was the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs,  putting the National League team on the  right side of the ledger in The Second City's baseball history. He then crafted his legacy by using his bat with the skill of a surgeon, his glove with the deftness of an artist, and his personality with more congeniality than found in a thousand beauty contests. He was a perfect teammate for sweet-swinging Billy Williams and Ron Santo. The three future Hall of Famers were inextricably linked, not because of the Cubs' futility, but because their charm and talents made all those near-misses and canceled parades tolerable in a city that never tired of dreaming. 
The tale of the tape, chronicled from debut to Cooperstown, includes Banks 11 All-Star Games, more than 500 home runs and back-to-back MVP honors, a National League first. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year eligible.

Banks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States, by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Even that seems like to little. Thank you for your service, and your belief in us all, Mr. Banks. Thank you for making us smile while always wishing for just one more game.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Piazza, Bagwell And The Puzzlement Our Time

On Tuesday the BBWAA announced its body had voted Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The secondary newser was about who didn't make it.

Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds -- the poster children of the Steroid era -- remained stuck in neutral and well off the pace, chasing in vain the needed 75 percent for election. Mark McGwire, well-ensconced on the poster, as well, continues to spiral down in the annual vote. Sammy Sosa, another prominent fallen home run hero now buried in the revenge-filled PED muck and mire, came within one percentage point of being lopped off the ballot forever.

Then there are Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell.

These two players, arguably the best catcher in the history of the game and one of the best-ever first basemen, respectively, did not make the cut. Piazza drew 69 percent, Bagwell came in the mid-50s. Both are gaining ground, but the fact that the weren't elected made headlines.

As for Piazza and Bagwell, I voted for neither, fitting in neatly with the voters being pilloried for being swayed by the large cloud of innuendo and suspicion that both built their careers using banned or illegal substances.

On Tuesday, I was asked by peers in New York and Houston to justify my non-votes.

My answer to both havens where Piazza and Bagwell made their names is this: I simply need more time and clarification of the era and what occurred in all quarters. I think of Bagwell as one of the most impressive players I’ve ever seen and, like Biggio, I reserve the right to say yes in the remaining years of eligibility he has left to him.

People -- impassioned and infuriated fans -- have to remember that there is a reason each player is given a 10-year window, so that the passage of time can better shape his legacy, and the history of the era in which he played. The debates among writers never cease; they are impassioned and heartfelt. We listen and learn from each other, and massage our thought processes each and every election.

As for many on this ballot, there is no doubt that the era put a cloud over a great many extraordinary players, many of whom have never been charged, accused, or failed drug tests. Sosa fits in that category. Piazza, too. So, too, does Bagwell.  

How this era ultimately fares will likely hinge on how Piazza fares next year. If he is elected, the floodgates will open and the impediments, suspicions and otherwise, will fall away. Quite frankly, Piazza is the best hope, not only for Bagwell, but conceivably Clemens and Bonds, too.

Personally, I have another year to think about it. And both Piazza and Bagwell, have much, much more time on the ballot. They have time to use their numbers to make their arguments, to turn around more voters than just mine. I hold comfort in that. I truly do, because I believe in the process that allows for the evolution of thought rather than a rush to judgment. Remember, many greats did not come close to being elected in the first year, the first decade of eligibility. If Cy Young, with his 511 wins, didn't get voted in on his first ballot (had to wait a year), then other players can and will stand the test of time, too.

As for the "Era," I will say this: it's time for without indication of any stance by The Hall to take a stance on whether Bonds, Clemens, etc., are welcome. It's time for the HOFers to speak of their feelings openly and frankly about the issue of having tainted Steroid-era players join them. Their opinions count -- for a lot. Many speak angrily about the modern players' actions, but they leave it to the BBWAA writers to articulate the atmosphere, and animosity, in The Hall.

I already vote for Clemens and Bonds, have every year for the simple reason thatI believe they compiled HOF-worthy numbers well before they lost their minds during the Steroid era. I am wavering on others, though, not because of their pleas, or plights, but because of the lack of leadership from those already in The Hall.

Without that input, I find myself inexorably drifting towards the laissez-faire attitude that grips Cooperstown. I'm starting to take the silence up there as a green-light, or hands-off when it comes to the tainted era.

Maybe all the already-enshrined want us to do is look past the era, and simply judge the talents of the seven-Cy Young Award guy, the five-time MVP dude, the stars of the Mac and Sammy Summer. If the Hall of Famers don't care, why should we voters? Especially when we also know that everyone, including the media, turned blind eyes.

The whole sport enabled, and profited. If everyone was guilty, then everyone should be ineligible -- players, managers, GMs, owners and a certain commissioner. Or everyone should agree it was an ignoble era, like the spitball era, the pre-integration era, when cheating and unethical and inexcusable, unforgivable behavior was ingrained and accepted, when the otherwise noble and righteous went quiet. Frame it as such, on individual plaques, or whatever, and move on.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“The Redhead Up North” congratulates fellow Frick Award winner

How cool is this? Ford C. Frick Award winner Dick Enberg taking a congratulatory phonev call from Vin Scully! Two of classiest acts in our universe! (Picture by Hall of Fame).y and 

Enberg lauded radio immortals in his acceptance news conference today, but saved the greatest show of respect and gratitude to the man he called “The Redhead up north."

Velvet prose, velvet voice earn Enberg, Gage HOF berths

Lovely start to the third day of Winter Meetings as Hall of Fame announced that the great Dick Enberg is the recipient of the 2015 Ford C. Frick Award for outstanding announcing. Said an emotional Enberg: "When I think of this honor today … ‘Enberg, you hit a grand slam.’” 
Indeed! Congratulations, Mr. Enberg. To use your signature line, “Oh, my!”
Enberg, who will turn 80 on Jan. 9, was a long-time tennis play-by-play announcer for ESPN, calling the majors, such as Wimbleton, the US, French and Australian opens.
He has 22 years of experience broadcasting Major League Baseball, the last five as the television play-by-play voice of the Padres.
He will be joined in the spotlight by Tom Gage of the Detroit News, the BBWAA’s recipient of the 2015 JG Taylor Spink Award for outstanding contributions to baseball writing/reporting. 

Tom could not be at the meetings. The paper he’s graced wrote the following: 

Gage, The Detroit News' Tigers beat writer since 1979,  has covered countless Hall of Famers in his career, and next summer in Cooperstown, New York, Gage will be joining them on stage as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
"We're thrilled for Tom to win this honor," said Jonathan Wolman, publisher and editor of The Detroit News. "He's been a master storyteller from the ballparks of America and he's made the Tigers come alive for our readers. We tip our Olde English D to his terrific coverage, and to the others who were on the ballot. Tom was in strong company from the day of his nomination to the day of his election."
"It has been a great ride, which has included literally years of shared life in Lakeland during spring training," said Detroit News baseball writer Lynn Henning, who first met Gage at Tigertown in 1979, when Gage was a rookie on the beat, and Henning was at the Lansing State Journal. They were colleagues at The News months later.
"I've seen through the years how Tom's steady passion for his work has kept him fresh and galvanized to his beat."
Gage, known in press boxes for wearing his baseball caps and his creative leads, figures he's covered games in 54 ballparks, and written more than 11 million words and covered more than 5,000 games — including five no-hitters — plus one night game in Boston, after undergoing a root canal in the morning.
In 1989, he famously wrote only an act of God could save the San Francisco Giants in the World Series against the Oakland A's. The next day, an earthquake suspended play for 10 days.
"Extremely happy for Tom," said Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president and general manager. "Cannot think of a more deserving individual. Tom is a true professional in every aspect."
Next July, Gage will become the first Detroit News writer to enter the Hall since the late Joe Falls in 2001.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Baseball Tonight kicked off its Day 1 coverage of the Winter Meetings today. Manning the Desk at 11:30 PT:, from left to right Jayson Stark, Buster Olney, anchor Karl Ravech, Tim Kurkjian and Keith Law. Next show: 6:30 PT.

Kevin Cash, Welcome To the Winter Meetings' Mgr. Scrums

Kevin Cash, new manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, led off the annual roundup and interview scrum for the men on the dugout's hottest seat. He appears to the right of Rays Baseball Ops President Matt Silverman.

The only news made here: Cash said all the right things, and he appears to be 15 years old. I feel rather ancient today!

No Room for Dick Allen, Tony Oliva As Both Fall Short

Only one percent of the professionals who played in the Major Leagues are in the Hall of Fame. It is a tough road, as well it should be. It is the Hall of the greatest, not the Hall of the Very Good, as Jim Kaat once said.

Well, today, the Hall's 16-member Golden Era Committee considered more than a handful of their
contemporaries and decided that none rose to the category of Hall of Famer. No nominee reached the required 12 votes (75 percent). Still, the announcement drew emotions as it was announced that Dick Allen and Tony Oliva each received 11 votes from the panel.

So, so close. Allen's son, Richard; on hand and hoping, showed the human side of such decisions, valiantly answering questions about his father's near-miss. 

Jane  Forbes Clark, CEO of the Hall, fielded questions on the Veterans Committee procedures in light of another shutout of candidates. She said the staff ad board continuously examine the procedure. She said "it's not a matter of a trigger, it's matter of our general operating procedure."  


Veterans Committee Decision Looms

Here in San Diego, it is the quiet  before the storm at Baseball’s Winter Meetings. John Lester continues to occupy the lead role in the ever-wonderful free-agent drama this off-season. But the first orcer of business is but 30 minutes away as we await the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee announcement on whether any former legends have been selected to join the immortals in Cooperstown.

The list of candidates:

Dick Allen
Ken Boyer 
Maury Wills
Gil Hodges 
Jim Kaat
Billy Pierce
Tony Oliva
Minnie Minoso
Luis Tiant

Who, if anyone, will emerge as a Hall of Famer? Time will tell!

Monday, December 01, 2014

Career Or A Limp?

One of my favorite stories as told by Don Baylor was about the dueling suitors he had in his senior year of high school: The University of Texas football team and the Baltimore Orioles. 

Don, born and raised in the Austin, Texas, area, always wanted to play for the Longhorns. But the bird-dog baseball scout sent by the Orioles won out after he asked Don a simple question: did he want a career or a limp?

I wonder what the 2014 version of that question is? 

I can only pray that health is still in the equation, and that in this day and age, it is the athlete and his or her family pushing the issue, demanding to know, precisely, what institutions pledge to do to prevent head injuries. Because limps have got nothing on concussions.
Kosta Karageorge

The death this weekend of Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge brought that into clear focus as never before. The 22-year-old’s body was found in a dumpster near campus, police said Sunday. The player, who was reported missing Wednesday, appeared to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to authorities.

Last week, Karageorge’s family told police that the young man had suffered multiple concussions and was being plagued by periods of confusion. Wednesday morning, he’d texted his mother, cited the head injuries and wrote: "I am sorry if I am an embarrassment.’'

The real embarrassment here is that organized sports at the highest levels had to be dragged into this fight against arguably preventable injuries by lawyers rather than doctors. Sadly, no matter how many millions in damages will be won by the walking wounded or their survivors going forward, there is not enough money in the world to right the lives of athletes already permanently damaged. 

We've read the stories, seen the interviews, heard the eulogies. The human toll is stamped on the world-weary faces,  reflected in the frightened, lost eyes of broken gladiators, buried with haunting murder-suicides. Heartbreakingly, the well-documented sagas continue to mount. How many other under-reported results -- nerve and brain damage, concussion-related Alzeimer’s and Parkinson’s -- we may never know.

Players, be they in Pee Wee football, Little League baseball or the highest professional tiers in the world, should be assured by their sporting bodies that every precaution is being taken to protect what is arguably the body’s most precious organ. 

Parents -- remember the dance? -- should ask the toughest of questions. Equipment manufacturers should be made by law to make the toughest, not the cheapest, protective gear. The medical profession, even the portion represented in the team-doctor class, should always vow that “do no harm” will always trump “win at all costs.” 

Protocols need not only be written on paper. They should be chiseled in stone, in every clubhouse, locker room and stadium. And those protocols should drive policy with an authority a thousand times stronger than that of the most prestigious coach in the land.

Lastly, any team, university or professional league that knowingly cuts corners or plays loose and free with an athlete's health should face the harshest penalties. If that means criminal as well as civil litigation, so be it. Because the victims of neglect, deceit or, most ominously,  medical malpractice, need the ability, and deserve the right, to hit back as hard as they were hit playing mere games. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Hello, it’s been a long time.

Thanks to, I can identify just how long my period of hibernation has lasted. My previous post was in 2010. That’s a minute. That’s a writer’s block. That’s over.

So much has occurred since I tucked away to abilities to put words together, abilities that defined me for much of my career. Very much included in those events were life-altering scenarios, some I can proudly say made me stronger, some not so much. But there are constants that I am convinced will never change, no matter how long the dormancy. I suppose that the love of baseball -- one of those constants -- will follow me to the grave.

So what do you say that I come back to one of my loves. If there is something to say, bear with me as I attempt to regain my voice and say it.

Missed you. God bless. Play ball.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Slick: A Good and Noble Man, By Fay Vincent

The following is an essay penned by Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, as he salutes his good friend, Slick Surratt, the Kansas City Monarch who passed away Tuesday at age 87.

Slick: A Good and Noble Man

By Fay Vincent

Alfred "Slick" Surratt died the other day and I am saddened to the core. He was my friend and it is no hyperbole for me to admit I truly loved him. Slick had played baseball in the old Negro Leagues, helped clear the airfield at Guadalcanal as an Army bulldozer operator, and came home from war hoping to play baseball. But he was the wrong color and so he spent some 50 years working on the line at the Ford Motor plant in Kansas City. The first time we met I asked him how he had come to be called "Slick". He looked at me with a broad smile and replied, "Commissioner, I don't know you well enough to answer that question." I still laugh when I think of that line.

We met at a weekend event Joe Garagiola and I organized to honor the alumni of the Negro Leagues who had been so badly treated by their country and by baseball. In 1991 we arranged to bring some 75 former players and their wives or significant others or family members to Cooperstown to the site of the baseball Hall of Fame to celebrate their contribution to baseball by continuing to play the game in a professional setting during the years when they were precluded from playing in the major leagues.

We were reminding them that by keeping the game alive in the black community they made possible the big league careers of such super stars as Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, along with the hundreds of other players of color who have graced the game.

The weekend was a total joy and one of the many benefits was my friendship with Slick. Even at that time, long after his playing days, he looked like he could still out run a rabbit When I asked if he could bunt, his anser was, "Commissioner, if it hops twice, ain't no point in you picking it up 'cause I'm already there." He was as slim as a pencil, and the build of a greyhound. But it was his smile that set the tone. He was always smiling and he always seemed happy. He always seemed to be having fun and he was fun to be with.
Over the first few years after we met, I made sure he and some of his baseball colleagues were included at all star and world series games and after several such occasions, when I knew he had been having a wonderful time, I would approach and ask him if I were getting to the point where he would explain where he got the name Slick. "Oh you gettin' very close Commissioner. Very close." But of course I never got there.
One night Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League, and a dear pal of both Slick and mine, explained to me. "Commissioner, if you are as smart as you are supposed to be , you should have figured it all out by now."

I think I had.

We had kept in touch by telephone so I knew things had turned bad but whenever we spoke, he always sounded upbeat and that smile came through. He was not one to complain.The thing I never will forget about him was his total lack of bitterness. The travails of growing up in the severe segregation of his native Arkansas were dismissed . He pointed out the licence plate of Arkansas has the slogan on it--Land of Opportunity. "Well', explained Slick, " at the first opportunity, I left." Similarly, he never complained at the denial of any chance just to try out for a big league team.

He was thrilled for Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby but he accepted the restrictions Fate had imposed. When I reminded him of those tough days at Guadalcanal when he had to lift the front of his bulldozer to ward off Japanese bullets, his only comment was a regret his all black engineering unit had never received any recognition for their work. But that was it. The sense of anguish he had to have felt when he came home as a member of the victorious citizen Army but was not able to play baseball in the major leagues was never expressed.

"I see no point in being bitter, Commissioner. It won't do no good for no one." I will not forget the lessons I learned from this good and noble man. I will miss him, but I will never forget the joy of being in his company. If there are reserved seats where he is, I hope he keeps me in mind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Claire Smith: Baseball Around the Horn: A great and good man passed today

Claire Smith: Baseball Around the Horn: A great and good man passed today

A great and good man passed today

Slick Surratt died today.

It is likely a name you're not familiar with, so it is my great privilege and pleasure to introduce you to this brave, kind man who epitomized The Greatest Generation.

Slick, born in Arkansas in 1922, served his country without fail, on the battlefields of Guadalcanal, on the assembly lines of Ford Motors for over 60 years.

Slick also played pro ball, teaming with some of the greatest players to ever toe a mound or swing a bat.

Slick was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro Leagues player who called Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson teammates, and Buck O'Neil "Skip."

Slick, like most African Americans of his era, bore the pride of having survived in the Jim Crow south, but never hid the scars caused by that spirit-rending segregation. He lost a brother because no hospital in rural Arkansas would treat a black child with a burst appendix. Slick apologized to no one for his limited education. You see, unless you could attend the one high school dedicated to African Americans in the Arkansas of the 30s and 40s, your schooling came to an end after sixth grade.

It was the law. It was a way of life best left in the dregs of history. Yet, as Slick said, these slights did not break him. As he liked to say, the license plates in Arkansas proclaimed that start "The Land of Opportunity and the first opportunity I had, I got out."

Slick became a member of an all-black unit within the Army'c Corps of Engineers, drove a bulldozer that helped build an airfield while under bombardment on The Canal.

Slick survived the war, and the indiginities of a segregated military. Then he came back to a country that once again tried to pigeonhole him as a second-class citizen. It failed.

Instead he proceded to carve out a career at Ford that lasted over 60 years. He played ball with a passion and joy in the leagues that would have him.

He could bunt, run, hit. If a grounder hit by him bounced more than once, he joked, you might has well put it in your hip pocket. It was a hit, pure and simple.

Slick's fondest memories involved his two-man barnstorming tours with Paige, the "money" player teams would bring in to boost the gates across America. Slick often drove the back roads of the nation as Satchel's chauffeur and companion.

Oh, the stories that emerged from those trips. Slick's fear at being pulled over by a country sheriff only to see that lawman step back in wonder as Satchel won him over with one of the autographed baseballs the pitcher kept in the glove compartment. the sheriff got the ball and Satch and Slick got a police escort all the way to their destination as sheriff after sheriff cleared traffic for these baseball VIPs.

Paige's love of speed - and Surratt's reluctance to temp fate, again - often led to Paige relentlessly teasing Slick as he asked again and again why wheel barrels kept passing them by.

Speaking about Satchel always made Slick laugh. Those who had the privilege of having heard their telling no doubt are smiling at their memories today.

I met Slick when we became members of the Fay Vincent Fellows, a merry group that included Joe Black and Larry Doby. The former commissioner and his band traveled from college campus to campus, speaking to students about The great contributions black America made to the Greatest Generation. Today, Fay and I comforted each other in that our trio of friends are now all gone. Then came the laughter, the gratitude and the love of our friends as we remembered the memories left us.

Slick's lessons were models of grace, tolerance and love of a country that often didn't love him back, but could not shake him in his belief that things would always get better.

Slick often spoke about working in the Ford plant when the news of Jackie signing with the Dodgers broke. Slick cheered as loudly as his fellow workers. It was like a holiday, he said.

Slick would never get that call. But he never let go of that day, because, in his heart, Jackie's victory was always his victory, as well.

In the end, how Slick lived, how this most patriotic, optimistic society within a society lived, was their gift to us all. What Slick, what Larry, what Joe Black, what my parents and my parents' parents taught me was this: The burdens borne, the wrongs suffered do never relieve one of his or her duties to country, family, self.

Thank you for reminding me of that each and every day spent together, Slick. Thanks for the opportunity to know you, to be your friend. I will miss you. Travel well ... and let not one wheel barrel ever pass you again.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Viva C. Viv

Can't think of a better reason to revive this puppy than C. Vivian Stringer.
Vivian was there when my writing career began - my first beats, in the early 1980s, included her dynamo Cheyney State basketball teams, including the squad that played in the first-ever NCAA women's title game.
Tonight, the careers intersect once more. I will serve as News Editor on ESPN's broadcast of the Jimmy V. Classic featuring Stringer's Rutgers team against visiting Florida. This time around, I will be observing the Hall of Fame coach Stringer has become. I just got a lot older. Her induction proves that all she did was get better and better until she simply became one of the best all-time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Twisting In The Wind In The Bronx

NEW YORK _ Let the fallout begin.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knew it had already begun before the ink even dried on the obituaries being written today about the American League wild-card winner's quick demise in the 2007 postseason.

So, too, did Joe Torre, whose quivering voice and request for privacy around his home spoke volumes about the death-row vigil that is now officially under way when it comes to his 12-year run in the most thankless managerial job in baseball.

Torre and Cashman may not want change. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will insist on it, though, especially since he so publicly and humiliatingly tied Torre's future to the success of the American League Division Series now since lost to the Cleveland Indians.

This time around, though, so, too, may some of Steinbrenner's veteran players will have a say in that change. A-Rod can opt out. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada can test the free agent market.

And as Rivera said dispassionately in the quiet of the Yankees' clubhouse following the team's 6-4 loss, "this is business." And if it is the business of the Yankees to do things such as dismiss a Torre, the all-star reliever and future Hall of Famer said, then it will be his business to explore his options, too.

"They had a chance and they didn't do nothing with me," Rivera said of his failed efforts to enter negotiations with the team on a new contract during the season. "So let's see what's out there."

Nothing personal, Rivera insisted. And yet ... just ask him about the team's decision on Torre and what that might do to his own thought process.

"Like I said before, I'd have to sit down and think about that," Rivera said. "I'm proud of my teammates. I'm proud of my manager. I thank God for the opportunities I've had here. But we will see. Nothing against the organization. Nothing against the New York Yankees. But this is a business."

Yes it is. It is also a business Steinbrenner obviously feels has stopped giving him worthwhile return on his billion-dollar investment over the last half-dozen years. For while the Yankees kept their playoff run alive for a dozen years on Torre's watch, the team has not won a world championship since 2003, a lifetime in Yankees years.

Winning but one game in the best-of-five series against the Indians won't salve the owner's angry mood. Cashman's dour mood suggested as much.

"Cleveland earned the right to go forward," said Cashman said. "At the same time, we earned the right to go home," he said of the team that proved so potent during the regular season but hit only .228 in four games in the series.

Now the rebuilding not only will begin, but, in many cases, must.

Will that begin with Torre's ouster?

"I don't know why they would [dismiss Torre]," Rivera said quietly, obviously a man too young to remember the bad old days prior to the Torre era when Steinbrenner changed managers like other owners changed socks.

Torre, for one, tried to put the best face on his thankless situation.

"I'm not going there," Torre said when asked to speculate on his fate. "This has been a great 12 years. Whatever the hell happens from here on out, I mean, I'll look back on with great, great pleasure."

Cashman was non-commital, befitting his place in an organization where the real power resides in the Boss's Tampa headquarters.

"All decisions about next season we're going to have to focus on a lot sooner than we'd hoped," Cashman conceded. But as to whether any have been made he would not say. "I've not started ... we've not started on '08."

Not with the wounds of a disappointing end to 2007 still so fresh.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Rocket Exits, Perhaps For Good

NEW YORK - It took the Yankees only four brief paragraphs to bring to an end the latest, and perhaps final chapter, of Roger Clemens' baseball career.

The 45-year-old future Hall of Famer, betrayed by Father Time and a troublesome, lingering hamstring injury, was removed from Game 3 of the American League Division Series after allowing Cleveland three runs on 2 1/3 tortured innings Sunday. Today, Clemens was removed, again, this time from the team's postseason roster, replaced by 37-year-old reliever Ron Villone.

Both moves, necessitated by Clemens' concession that he was not physically capable of performing.

The move seemed to signal the beginning of the end, if not the end itself for Clemens, a stark realization when it comes to an iron man who seemed intent on pitching forever in order to build onto the already astounding totals of 354 big-league victories and 4,672 strikeouts.

Should the Yankees advance past the Cleveland Indians and on to the American League Championship Series, neither new major league rules nor the injury will permit Clemens to go with them, manager Joe Torre said.
And if the team advances, further still, to the World Series? Well, the rules would allow for Clemens' reinstatement, but ...
"We don't know if he'll be alright," said Torre. "We hope we have an opportunity to find out. At least that keeps him from having to make a decision about the next round."

Thing is, Torre didn't sound any more hopeful about the Series than he appeared convinced that Clemens would ever pitch, again, period.

"I don't want to think that way," the manager said. "Obviously we'll take whatever it is when we get there. And Roger will certainly be honest with us. He's always been that."


NEW YORK - If and when Joe Torre leaves the Yankees' managerial position, a refreshingly honest era occupied by a concise, direct, conscientious pro will come to an end. And the New York sports scene will be all the poorer for it.

Today, Torre, for a second straight day, graciously and openly faced questions about the ultimatum from George Steinbrenner that coldly greeted him Sunday. You know the one: down 0-2 in the best of five division series, Torre was publicly, bluntly told he needed his team to defeat the Cleveland Indians in three straight games or his job was gone.

Not surprisingly, Torre's first concern was his players. No, he said, he did not think that the ultimatum had upped the pressure on the team, or provided the motivation that led to an 8-4 victory in Game 3 Sunday night.

"It's tough enough to win when you're all pulling the same thing in the same direction," Torre said prior to Game 4. "But when you have people saying, 'well, we have to win this game because the manager's job is in jeopardy' - that's nuts.

"Now you're trying to make something that's important more important and that shouldn't be the case."

As for his feelings on Steinbrenner, Torre remained in character, as he has for a dozen years in baseball's toughest venue. "The first thing you have to understand is he's the boss," said Torre. "I think that when you come in and understand that, then it;s a matter of understanding he's entitled to say what he wants. He owns the team. He can be as critical or as complimentary as he wants to be any time he wants to be that."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Winning One for The Skipper

NEW YORK - It may look trite in print, but there was no mistaking the sincerity when Johnny Damon, the hitting hero of the Yankees' 8-4 playoff win over the Cleveland Indians, said the winning was done to stave off the firing of a beloved manager.

"We all love Joe Torre," said Damon of the Yankees' skipper who awoke this morning to the news that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said he'd be fired if the Indians defeated Torre's team in the best-of-five AL Division Series. "we'd all love for him to win another championship."

Damon's three-run home run, pivotal in the win, kept that possibility alive as the Yankees pulled back from the brink in a series they now trail, 2 games to 1.

"We all get to play for him at least one more day, and hopefully long after that," said Damon.

Torre, somewhat bemused by the attention brought by Steinbrenner's threat before the game, seemed more emotional - and grateful - after the victory. "It's an emotional day because losing is no fun in the post-season," said Torre. "... As for Mr. Steinbrenner, I don't want to say you ever get used to it. But you work here, you understand the pressure everybody's under to win all the time.

"The only thing I try to do is allow my players to roll the dice out there and play. because every time we go to the postseason there's nothing that's going to satisfy anybody unless you win the World Series. And that's very difficult. Those are very difficult situations for the players to play under.

"I understand the requirements here, but the players are human beings and it's not machinery here. Even though they get paid a lot of money, it's still blood that runs through their veins. And my job is to try to get them to be the players they are by, you know, allowing them to understand that the best effort you can give is all you can do."

For Hughes, Future is Now

NEW YORK - The present giving way to the future was planned as an off-season ceremony by the Yankees. Then and only then was The Empire supposed to ready for the likes of Roger Clemens and, who knows, Mike Mussina, to give way to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.

Last night, The Rocket took perhaps his most serious obvious step towards Cooperstown and away from a leading active role in the Bronx when he broke down after lasting only 2 1/3 innings as a starter in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against Cleveland.

Clemens gutted it out as long as he could, testament to his Hall of Fame makeup and pedigree. But he allowed two runs before he left and cast in doubt any further assignments coming his way should the Yankees continue on in the postseason. By departing when he did, Clemens also allowed Hughes an opportunity to seize the moment.

The kid did. After allowing the one run he inherited in the third to score on a Jhonny Peralta double in the third, Hughes bowed his back completely. He wound up stranding Peralta by inducing the previously sizzling Kenny Lofton to fly out. Then followed scoreless innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth, a dazzling performance that took the frenzied home crowd the rest of the way in terms of envisioning how bright this young man's future might be.

For Hughes came on and provided the salve the Yankees desperately needed - 3 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two strikeouts and striking out four. In that span, the Yankees awoke, overcame a three-run deficit and went on to win their first game of the series, 8-4.

Not bad for a guy who's used to plying his living as a starter, and one who's got all of 72 2/3 regular-season innings in at the big-league level.

"That kid's got a live fastball, tough breaking ball, started mixing in a changeup a little bit," impressed Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "Posada did a good job with him. (And) if you talk about the difference between Roger and him, and just the way they pitch threw us off a little bit. But the kid showed a lot of poise. He did a good job."

"He looked like a seasoned pro out there," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I can't say more than that. He was happy to give you the innings, and when you looked into his eyes, it wasn't a surprise."

"My job was really just to keep the damage to a minimum, to try to keep us where we were at," said Hughes, 5-3 in 13 games as a starter for the Yankees this season.

Joba Rues

NEW YORK - A funny thing happened on the way to the Yankees' first postseason win of 2007 - Joe Torre acted not only like a man fighting to save his career, but also like a manager freed of the weight of protecting a precious asset, freed to let it fly, tomorrow be darned.

How else can you explain Torre's absolute shredding of whatever was left of the so-called Joba Rules, the commandments chisled in stone by Yankees management during the season once phemon prospect Joba Chamberlain was called to the majors?

You remember the rules: kid pitches an inning, gets a day off, pitches two, gets two off, and so on and so forth. Tonight, not only did Torre bring Chamberlain into the seventh inning of a game the Yankees led by a comfortable five runs. He left the kid on the mound for two full innings, something you figure fries the kid for at least one more game - the critical Game 4 the Yankees will need to win to keep their pennant hopes alive.

The good news for Chamberlain is that his first inning was a breezy 1-2-3 frame. The next, though, was a puzzlingly long, arduous three-hit, one-run, six-batter adventure that infused a laugher with mystery and some mild discomfort among Empire citizentry.

Oh, Torre warmed up a couple arms in the eighth, including that of the venerable Mariano Rivera, who, like Chamberlain, had previously pitched in Game 2 on Friday in Cleveland.

But no one came to rescue Joba, or spare his arm. Quite obviously, this outing wasn't about saving Joba. It was about saving the team from the stark possibility of turning to pitchers of lesser talent, something that bit the Yankees badly in the first two games - losses - of the best of five series.

So, Joba, and the rest of the Empire got a taste of a different reality. Chamberlain is here to take care of today. Tomorrow, Torre will think about, well, tomorrow.

As for next year, heck, that will likely be some other manager's concern, anyway, if Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is true to his threat to fire Torre should the Yankees wind up with anything less than a pennant.

Sounds of Silence

NEW YORK - The silence was deafening, even before the full house at Yankee Stadium went silent with each run scored by the Cleveland Indians tonight.

For the mellifluous voice of Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer who's calls of the lineups in over a half century of Fall Classics at the Ballpark in the Bronx did not greet the faithful tonight when the Yankees hosted Cleveland in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

Sheppard was absent due to a broncial infection. So, for the first time in 122 Yankees' post-season home games, someone other that The Voice manned to P.A. mike.

Sheppard's phenomenal run, which included 62 home games during 22 of the Yankees' World Series appearances, was as familiar an October fixture in the Bronx as Yankees' pinstripes.

A combination of eloquence, class and precision, Sheppard chronicled the Series appearances of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn, to name but a few Hall of Famers.

Sheppard, in his 57th season as the Yankees' public address announcer, began his postseason streak on Oct. 4, 1951, in Game 1 of the World Series against the New York Giants. That debut followed by one day the Giants' famed playoff game victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in which Bobby Thomson hit the "shot heard 'round the world" off the Dodgers' Ralph Branca.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Here's the catch

PHILADELPHIA - The Colorado Rockies, winners of 15 of their last 16, including Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, don't think it a coincidence that Yorvit Torrealba has backstopped the winning streak.

"He's got a real good feel for our staff," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said of Torrealba after the catcher anchored a 4-2 victory thrown at the potent Phillies by starter Jeff Francis and three relievers.

"Every time he comes out to the mound, he's got something good to say," said Francis, who needed a pick-me-up visit in the fifth after yielding consecutive home runs to Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell, shrinking a three-run lead to one. It's not always serious, but that's the kind of catcher he is, a good leader. (And) he does our homework more than we do."

"He's very efficient with a pat on the back or a smack on the backside," Hurdle said of the catcher who's now started 11 of Colorado's last 13 games. "There's only a three-foot difference but a whole lot of dynamics change when he goes out there. It's not always giggles when he goes out there. A lot of times it is a smile, a reassuring hand. Other times he'll just go out there and bite a little bit and get their attention."

The Learning Curve

PHILADELPHIA - Neither the Colorado Rockies or the Philadelphia Phillies boast much playoff experience, so there was a lot of learning on the job in evidence in Game 1 of their National League Division Series today.

Cole Hamels, the starter and losing pitcher in the Phillies' 4-2 defeat, admitted to absorbing a couple needed on-the-go lessons, especially in a pivotal three-run Rockies' second inning.

"Going out there, I know I can throw either off-speed or fastballs, but they were laying off the off-speed stuff when I had two strikes on them and swinging at them the first two strikes," said the lefthander, who was among eight Phillies in the starting lineup playing in their first post-season game.

Hamels, 15-5 this season, saw the major blows in the second inning come on a leadoff triple by Todd Helton and a followup RBI double by Garrett Atkins.

Much of the remaining damage was self-inflicted. For Hamels, very much out of character, issued three walks later in the inning, one of which was drawn by rookie of the year candidate Troy Tulowitzki with the bases loaded.

"That's what I learned a little too late to my liking, to go after them with a fastball, and it showed in the third (scoreless), fourth (scoreless) and fifth inning (scoreless) that I was capable of doing that. ... But I need to do it a little bit sooner," said Hamels, who went on to retire 15 of the last 16 Rockies he faced in his 6 2/3 innings of work.

Lesson No. 2? Well, let's just call it a wardrobe malfunction.

Hamels shed a sweat soaked sleeve from his left arm, but not until after the fateful second inning. "I don't want to use that as an excuse," Hamels said. "... (But), you know, it's just something where it was definitely hot out and having, just that preparation, with the understanding that when it gets hot, I'm going to sweat a little more and when I was throwing my changeup, the sweat was dripping down in my hands ... I wasn't able to get a good grip."

Hamels proceeded to change the sleeve that protects his tender arm often after the second inning. Next time he'll be even better-prepared, he vowed.

"I talked to some guys about it. They explained to me whey with outfits that stretch and fall down a little bit more, that's why they cut them so short," he said, a wee bit sheepishly.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

**** A Dodger fan grows up and meets childhood favorites,
Sandy Koufax and Steve Garvey. ****

Monday, June 18, 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007

Hammering Hank Is A Low Blow

One of the more disconcerting - and disgusting - developments regarding Barry Bonds' pursuit of Major League Baseball's all-time home run crown is how easy it has become to pillory Henry Aaron.


Bonds, the man most baseball fans see as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the steroid era, is a living, breathing controversy in spikes. With 745 home runs, the San Francisco Giants legend, has pulled with 10 home runs of Aaron's record.

He has also pulled along with him, the stench of the steroid era, its resulting debate on issues such as cheating, the degree to which we celebrate, snub or sneer at the new hallmark if and when Bonds passes Aaron.

The debate over Bonds' deservedness is raging, an inevitable outgrowth of a steroid era that keeps on giving Major League Baseball a black eye and many a fans an anger-filled reticence.

That is not to say that Bonds does not have his supporters as well as his detractors.


But why do those supporters feel a need to prop up their case for Bonds at the expense of Aaron?

Henry Aaron has done nothing wrong. Nothing!

Yet once again, Aaron, this quiet, humble man of few words and even fewer airs, finds himself on the scathing side of a baseball controversy not of his making. And once again, his discomfort emanates from pros and cons tinged with racial overtones.

Talk about being slapped back to a era best left forgotten. To borrow a quote from the great Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again for Aaron as the home run king once again finds his crown filled with thorns.

Lest we forget, back in 1974 - the year Aaron seized the home run crown from Babe Ruth - Aaron found his life turned into a living hell simply because he, a black man, had the timidity to pursue Ruth's hallowed mark of 714.

Aaron was not only hounded, belittled and insulted. He was threatened by anonymous white supremacists who thought that in order to "honor" Ruth they had to try to scare off Aaron. How? By using the ugliest racist epithets, by resorting to tactics which would have made only the lowest form of vermin proud.

Aaron endured that trial with little or no support of Major League Baseball which, in the person of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, treated Aaron's pursuit with icy disdain.

Most of the nation would go years, even decades, before being made aware of just how lonely and, yes even dangerous, a road Aaron walked in order to surpass Ruth's then-magical 714 milestone.

In retrospect, Aaron's ability to soldier on was nothing short of heroic, having turned in a performance not only nuanced by his plentiful baseball skills, but also by his dedication, perseverance and strength of character.

Apparently too, too many of us have forgotten the combination of personal and professional traits that made Aaron the Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame person he is.

For here we are, in 2007, and Aaron is again being torn at by critics who possess all the subtlety of a pack of pit bulls as he finds himself labeled a coward, an Uncle Tom, a sellout after making a decision not to be present if and when Bonds breaks his record.

Sadly, astonishingly, what makes this turn in Aaron's story so galling is that this time he is being ravaged by many of his fellow African Americans, some with powerful voices.
The venerable William C. Rhoden, a columnist with the New York Times, lumped baseball, hypocrisy, commissioner Bud Selig and his reticence with Aaron and his cold shoulder all in one damning commentary, writing: "In many ways, Selig and Aaron are making the problems worse, making the cloud over baseball thicker."
Rob Parker of the Detroit News and, like Rhoden, one of the preeminent black voices in sports media, was even harsher on Aaron in a recent column, stating flatly: "Hank Aaron is a coward."
That was just the first sentence. Parker went on: "What's Aaron's problem? Well, he needs to take a stand -- either denounce Bonds' attempt because he's been implicated in the steroids scandal, or embrace Bonds' accomplishment and show up. Playing middle of the road isn't fair -- to baseball, its fans or Bonds. Instead, Aaron has chosen the easy way out -- saying nothing. That's sad."
In recent conversations with some fellow blacks, I've heard yet another theme repeated, one that supports a recent ESPN/CBS poll that finds black America highly suspicious of Bonds' bashing. In these conversations I've heard one constant: bitterness over Aaron's refusal to embrace Bonds, to come to the defense of a fellow African American.
This, the critics charged - and very much sincerely believed, gives aid and comfort to those legions whose dislike of Bonds just has to be steeped in racism.

For why else, this school of thought has it, would Bonds be so hectored by the masses?

Got to be race. Just got to be ...

That rationale, of course, stops just short of the point where one could say, what about Aaron - a black man - who's about to lose a record built on talent and his own blood, sweat and tears as opposed to, say, the best efforts of your local neighborhood chemist.

So Aaron twists slowly as Bonds' inexorable drive hones in on him and his record. His silence is being berated more and more. His planned absence is being dissected and rejected cavalierly. By those who assume they better understand the predicament Aaron's been swept up in than does he.

No one, from the debaters in the barber shops, baseball stands and sports bars,, can ever truly know the depths of Aaron's angst, anger or, in the least, his ambivalence. Nor can any of the columnists and baseball writers and commentators who are turning up the heat on the still-quiet Aaron.

So as Aaron hides away the pain once again, let a chorus rise up and demand that this madness should stop. And let it be said here, that the easiest way to assure that it stops is to have no less than Barry Bonds demand it.

The slugger who professes to love baseball and takes every opportunity to honor Aaron's fellow great, Willie Mays, should acknowledge Aaron's dilemma. And he should demand that the wolf pack that's formed in his defense back away from the Hall of Famer.

Do that, Barry, and even your most ardent critics may take another look at your plight, and reluctantly admit that this was one home run swing that was beyond reproach.

Photo credit: The Sporting News

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why Us This Man Smiling?

Associated Press Photo

Because the ptching strapped Yankees' vision of Roger Clemens being money in the bank is going to put, well, tons of money in the bank for the ever-mercenary Clemens.
Clemens' prorated $28 million, one-year contract announced today by the Yankees shows that, and more.
Cloak this latest return in all the sentimental glop you want. you know: Roger loves Joe Torre, Roger misses Andy Pettitte, Roger needed one more opportunity to plant a big, wet juicy kiss on Babe Ruth's likeness out there in the Yankee Stadium monuments.
Choked up, yet?
Truth is, what Roger Clemens missed was George Steinbrenner, or, more precisely, his ... money.
Getting the lettuce is one thing. Priming the pump with the deftness of a Clemens is another.
Clemens has always played the supply and demand game, and he's got a Hall of Famer's touch, a true great, because he's arguably better at extracting dough from hungry contenders than any player in the history of baseball.
Others may marvel at the brashness of Clemens' annual spring sale which allows him to skip niggling little details such as spring training, long bus rides across Florida or Arizona before or after exhibition games, April snow or bone-chilling rain.
No other Major League player has mastered this art, to be sure. Clemens? These performances are nothing short of Rocket science.