Saturday, January 31, 2015

Going Home: Chicago Bids Fitting Goodbye To Mr. Cub

Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson filled the middle of an All-Star roster of mourners Saturday, as baseball royalty joined Chicago and national dignitaries in saying goodbye to Ernie Banks.

Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Joe Torre, were also in attendance at the services in the vast Fourth Presbyterian Church. They were and joined by sprinklings of Cubs players and personnel from several generations, as the one and only "Mr. Cub" was remembered by friends and family. For a second day, baseball fans also were drawn to Mr. Banks’ closed casket adorned with a flag bearing his No. 14, needing, wanting one more chance to say thank-you and farewell to their hero, who would have turned 84 today.

"His durability and consistently made him a constant the hey days of guys like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson," said Torre. But the Hall of Fame manager, like other speakers, spoke of the man, allowing his numbers to speak for themselves. "His story doesn't revolve around baseball," Torre said, adding later, "Ernie Banks is living proof that you don't have to wear a championship ring on your finger to be a pillar baseball and of life."

Torre, as he often does, summed up perfectly how wonderfully intertwined are Mr. Banks and the concept that is The Cubs: He made the confines of Wrigley friendly," said Torre.

The services Saturday featured many other speakers, of course, befitting Mr. Banks’ place in Chicago and baseball lore. Politicians did their due diligence. So, too, did The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who grew up in a city where Mr. Banks’ smile helped smooth baseball’s often rough passages to a more equitable America in the mid-20th Century.

Mr. Banks was the first African American to play for the Cubs, arriving in 1953 after the Cubs purchased his contract from the Negro Leagues powerhouse Kansas City Monarchs for $10,000. He broke the barriers that remained within the confines of the North Side team’s locker room six years after Jackie Robinson’s advancement to the Dodgers broke the major-league color barrier.

The efforts of all such pioneers, including Mr. Robinson, who shares a birthday with Mr. Banks, could not be overlooked. Chicago, The Second City, embraced Mr. Banks. And he embraced Chicago, making it is own. His arrival signaled a celebration of change, thankfully. But we should not forget: This was no small fete. As Jackson reminded the attendees. :Smiling faces can sometimes conceal what’s deep within,” he said, describing Mr. Banks’ demeanor as a thermostat that “helped control the temperature” of his times.

Mr. Banks transcended more than just a racial divide. He exuded an ability to love unconditionally, something generation after generation of Cubs fans, and players, needed to learn merely for purposes of survival.  Mr. Banks made the losing hurt less. He made the dream of winning shine through forever. He made being a Cub, and a Cub fan, reason enough to smile.

"People not only here in Chicago but people around the world recognize the type of individual he was,” longtime teammate Billy Williams said. "It's beginning to sink in now -- I've lost a great friend, you've lost a great friend."

Thus, the emotions that spilled over, as expected, along the route traveled by the funeral procession that carried Mr. Banks on his final journey to Wrigley Field. The procession, which  passed Daley, passed fans decked in Cubs hats, coats, blankets and tears,  ended at the iconic North Chicago ballpark on the corner of Clark and Addison.

So, so, so fitting, that last trip to Wrigleyville: for Mr. Banks graced that hallowed ground for two decades and made it clear with every declaration, right to his dying day: there was no place else he would rather be.

But now he graces a higher league, where games will never have clocks, where the sun shines for all eternity. As Joey Banks, one of Mr. Banks' twin sons, said, "move over, Honus Wagner, there's a new shortstop in Heaven."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Second City Prepares To Say Goodbye to Mr. Cub

The details of the Home-going ceremonies and parade in honor of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, are now set. And it appears that The Second City is prepared to send off its most beloved First Son of the baseball diamond in fine fashion.

The Saturday events will be held eight days after the beloved Hall of Famer died of a heart attack at age 83. They will include a memorial at Fourth Presbyterian Church and then a procession that will pass Mr. Banks’ statue in Daley Plaza and Wrigley Field.

I am thinking that this baseball-loving city by the lake is going to turn out, big-time.

Among those expected to speak during the church services are:
  • Tom Ricketts, Chairman of the Chicago Cubs 
  • Joe Torre, Chief Baseball Officer, representing MLB 
  • Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, Mr. Banks' Hall of Fame teammates 
  • Lou Brock, Hall of Famer and Mr. Banks' one-time roommate 
  • Bruce Rauner, Governor of Illinois and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel 
  • The Rev. Jesse Jackson 
  • John Rogers, Friend of Mr. Banks', and Jerry and Joey Banks, twin sons of the Hall of Famer
The fans of Mr. Banks, and baseball, will play a role, as well, thanks to the scheduled funeral parade. Because of the construction where the Wrigley Field bleachers used to stand, mourners are being prepared for detours in and around the legendary North Chicago ballpark. Guaranteed though, no matter the burden, Chicagoans will manage. Because Mr. Cub will pass that way -- along Waveband, Addison, Clark, Sheffield -- but one more time before joining the eternal All-Star game on high.

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, a 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 his 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 ups 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 at his dinner table, attracting hundreds of fans. Surrounded by security, he signed what the plain-clothed and uniformed guards 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 was only equipped with an autograph book, however. Not knowing Willie's policy, Emery went forward in about 10 different waves, only to be turned away when Willie tired. Emery would walk back to our 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. He remained stoic, and determined. Talk about a mission!

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 to the Hall of Famer. Willie, who wasn’t making much eye-contact with anyone, looked up, then started to chat 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.