Thursday, August 10, 2006

Remembering Mom

If I have told the story once I've told it a thousand times - there would be no Claire Smith, baseball writer, if it were not for Bernice Anastasia Ximines Smith.

My mother was an avid sports fan. She especially loved the Dodgers - for the reasons most African Americans of her generation did. The Dodgers of Brooklyn had integrated the major leagues by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947, and, by doing so, captured the hearts and loyalties of a fan base previously shunned by professional sports.

My mother regaled me with tales of the Dodgers, Jackie and The Great Experiment that helped change America.

Superman never seemed more heroic to me than Robinson. I, too, became a Dodgers fan, a baseball fan. I didn't realize until much later in life that before Robinson, my hero was my mother - a superb human being and superwoman in the best sense of the word. Because she, like Robinson, was a trailblazer in a time that it was difficult to rise up from under the weight of segregation.

Mom, the daughter of immigrant house servants from Jamaica, became a chemist, worked for General Electric in its space exploration wing. She was a vocalist, a model, travel agent, insurance exec, world traveler, political activist. Did I mention she was a great mother and even better friend.

At every stop, though, Mom was a sports fan. Having spent her formative years in Philadelphia, she eventually gravitated to the city's teams, adding football (the Eagles) and basketball (76ers) and, yes, the Phillies, to her list of loves.

I stuck with baseball. The passion never waned. My mother never judged, but rather encouraged me to explore the possibilities. I did, eventually wedding a love of writing with the love of a game that changed America.

On Monday, my mother passed away at age 82 after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease. She had not been aware of baseball for some years and, in retrospect, that makes me sad. Because I think she would have loved the idea of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, much the way she loved Jackie, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Garry Maddox, Steve Garvey, Don Baylor, Dave Windield and Willie Randolph.

The lady knew ball and she knew talent!

I will always think of my mom when I think of the game. I smile today knowing that somewhere in the section of heaven reserved for baseball, she is again sitting in the sunshine, cheering on her team. And, who knows, perhaps she is even trying to convince an angel or two that the Dodgers are still No. 1.

The Inquirer and Daily News did very nice jobs writing about my mom in today's editions. Their wirters I think captured what I always knew: she was an extraordinary woman. Here are the links. I hope you enjoy at your leisure.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Gone But Not Forgotten

Spending time in Cooperstown last week reminded that the people responsible for my love of baseball were, in many ways, memorialized even though many are no longer with us.

Jackie Robinson. Larry Doby. Joe Black. Ted Williams. Babe Ruth.

I interviewed Ted Williams once - on the steps of Cooperstown's venerable Otesaga Hotel. His body was that of a old man in his final years. His eyes were fiery and his mind sharp. What a memorable experience.

Inever met Robinson or Ruth, but thank all my colleagues before me who put the human faces on these larger-than-life heroes and made them part of a nation's history and, therefore all of our lives.

As for Larry and Joe, I did know both very well. They were a part of the posse of noble men who sought to educate as many people as possible about the legacies of the Negro Leagues and blacks in baseball. That posse still rides - Fay Vincent, Len Coleman, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan.

But the absence of Larry, Joe and Slick Surratt - a delightful former Negro Leaguer who is in failing health - leaves a void that hurts very much.

Not a day goes by without an urge to pick up the phone and reach out to Joe and Larry, to glean from their knowledge and understanding of the game they loved.

Then comes the inevitable - the acknowledgment of their passing and what time takes from us with each such loss.

Remembering Elden Auker

These reminiscences began today due to the sad news that Elden Auker, a peer of Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth and a great friend of Fay Vincent's passed away today at age 95.

Fay wrote the following about his venerable dear friend:

Elden Auker pitched to Babe Ruth as a rookie for the Tigers in 1934.

He roomed with Jimmie Foxx in 1939 the year Ted Williams came to the Red Sox and he won 130 games in the big leagues, mostly with the Tigers where he was a stalwart on the great teams of the mid-30's, including the World Champions in 1935.

He grew up in Western Kansas, the son of a rural mail carrier who delivered the mail by horseback when Elden was a child.

At Kansas State he had been an All-American in football, basketball and baseball. But he also had been married to his beloved Mildred for 73 years when he died this morning at 95.

He is survived by his son Jim and his wife. He lived in Vero beach, Fla. He was a beloved figure in baseball and had been active until very recently.

Rest in peace, all.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Branca, Thomson & A Great Cause

Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson - the pivotal players in the immortal New York Giants playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1951 - will be the honorees at Ed Randall's second annual Diamonds in the Rough Golf Classic to benefit the Prostate Cancer Program and the Cardiovascular Institute of St. Luke's and Roosevelt hospitals of New York.

The star of Talking Baseball with Ed Randall is seeking all who wish to contribute, play and, well, talk ball with some of the area's most legendary names in baseball, hockey, basketball and football.

So if you fans of both games would like to participate in the tourney - and hit their own "shot heard 'round the world - at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough-on-Hudson, N.Y., Aug. 7, contact Belinda Smith at 212-636-8400.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Banking On Torre - And His Word

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, neither you nor any of your
predecessors can actually relate to this, but ...

There are managers, when blessed or burdened with an embarrassment of riches, either choke on it or thrive.

Joe Torre is very much in the latter category.

As usual, the Yankee manager has superstars backed up at most every position, like jets stacked up in holding patterns over Philadelphia International on a bad weather day.

That's what happens when your team owner, in this case, George $teinbrenner, buys you all you want in the form of quality players — then goes out and buys you some more.

Witness the $15 million insurance policy — Bobby Abreu — just added to the Yankees’ stable of all-star outfielders.

Don’t assume that the money rather than the trust factor makes things work. Steinbrenner has thrown millionaires by the bunch at Lou Piniella, Billy Martin, Bucky Dent and Buck Showalter and more often than not they flee, babbling about the sheer madness of power - his, ie. The Boss', not theirs.

Torre took the zoo out of the Bronx in a way that many other Steinbrenner-era managers could not.

His deft touch, tough hide, media savvy and incredibly accurate compass all resulted in easily calcuable success. Witness the 10 postseason berths the Yankees have gained in Torre’s 10 1/2-year tenure.

Year in and year out, team after team of high-priced Bronx Bombers was accepting of the way Torre handles the delicate balancing act.
They trust Torre to find enough at-bats or enough innings for players often used to more.

“I feel good about that; I feel it's an important word you used - trust,” said Torre. “I want them to trust me because I try to be as honest as I can with them.

And, again, the fact is I'd like to think that I am loyal to everybody but the most important thing is being loyal to the 25, and what’s best for the team.”
Over the last decade, Steinbrenner may have opined, even, dare we say, meddled. And Brian Cashman, the GM, is a proven architect.

But have no doubt — Torre is the ultimate arbiter on the field. And he’s made some tough ones during the biggest stages of championship seasons. Remember when he benched one-third of his starting lineup during the 1996 World Series against the Braves?

Torre replaced three noted veterans — third baseman Wade Boggs, rightfielder Paul O'Neill and first baseman Tino Martinez with Charlie Hayes, Darryl Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, respectively.

Bold, to be sure, the moves also proved to be right on. Instead of blowing up in Torre's face they helped get all six of those veterans World Series championship rings.

“Over the years, I was lucky. I had Strawberry and Big Daddy here at the same time - and these guys were ‘go ahead, go ahead,’” said Torre of such moves. “Chili Davis, it was the same thing. Guys have been ready to play whenever I’ve called on them.

“For 10 years I’ve been here, I've had very, very little guys only concerned with themselves, and that's great.”

Torre is counting on more of the same this time around from Bernie Williams — the partime outfield veteran-turned-starting rightfielder-turned role player who Tuesday night gave way to Abreu in right field.
Torre will expect no less cooperation from Gary Sheffield should he return next month from a wrist injury.

The guy Williams replaced will also have to adjust to having Abreu around, perhaps even reinvent himself as a first baseman, something Sheffield and Torre hinted at upon Abreu’s arrival.

“He already told me he’s already ordered a glove,” joked Torre.
Sheffield’s take on it all?

“The first thing I did was give him a hug,” he said of Abreu. “That’s the way this clubhouse is. We want to win. Alex moved to third base when he got here,” a reference to Alex Rodriguez — an MVP and outstanding shortstop making the career shift in order to play alongside all-star shortstop Derek Jeter.

“It’s not about egos,” said Sheffield.

Williams agreed, reminding, as Torre did, that when he signed he never expected to play as much as he has.

“This year is going to have a lot of defining moments,” said Williams. “The way I’m going to look at the year is that I am going to have an opportunity, or maybe two or three to make my mark and I am going to be ready for it.”

Williams then promptly went out on the night Abreu debuted at Yankee Stadium and delivered a three-run double in the Yankees’ 5-1 victory over the Blue Jays.

Williams contributed, alright — just as Joe Torre trusted him to do.

Bad First Impression?

Bobby Abreu would be wise to learn that what flies in Philadelphia may come crashing down on him in New York.

In Phillie land it is not uncommon for the biggest stars to big-league or even stiff the media, win, lose or rainout.

Abreu's new team - the Yankees - do not hide. Haven't since the start of the Joe Torre era. Win or lose, the biggest of the big stars in the Bronx, stand up for the team, as a team.

So imagine the surprise - and disdain - drawn by the newest Yankee all-star when he kept about 50 members of the media waiting for nearly an hour after his first start in pinstripes tonight.

The muttering was unmistakable among the reporters. They'd long since interviewed Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez - and even Bernie Williams, who'd lost his starting job to Abreu. Guys who actually played far greater roles in the Yankees' 5-1 victory.

Abreu, 0-for-3, but none-the-less still in line for the softer questions accorded during a honeymoon, made the scribes wait.

Not smart. Likely not a scene to be repeated, either. The Yankees police themselves - and undoubtedly the scene most of them missed long after they carried out their olbigations to speak for the team will be recounted - and dealt with. That's the beauty of a Torre club - another lesson Abreu will learn.