January 2012

Roy Oswalt once thought it would be easy to walk away from this old game

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”_Jim Bouton.

Roy Oswalt never figured it would be him. There was a time a couple of years ago when he absolutely couldn’t wait until his playing days were over. He wanted to get back to his ranch in Mississippi and say goodbye to hotels and planes and all the other stuff he’d come to despise.

“Every hotel room is the same,” he told me one day. “They’re just boxes. I still love pitching. I still love competing. But it’s the other stuff.”

I wondered if it would be that easy. I mentioned Roger Clemens, who tried and failed at retirement multiple times. Clemens found out that even though his joints ached and his 99-mph fastball had come a distant memory, he still loved it. He realized that pitching a Thursday afternoon game against the Royals would still end up being one of the best days of his life.

Oswalt said it would be different with him. He didn’t need the crowds or the attention. He’d never done it for that stuff anyway. He said some of the best times of his off-seasons were spent alone on his tractor doing chores around his arm. He said he loved the quiet and just didn’t need to have his ego constantly stroked.

Turns out, the game has a little bit more of a grip on him than he thought or was willing to admit. Oswalt wants to pitch a 12th season in the major leagues. He hasn’t found that team, but he will. I can’t imagine he needs the money. His career earnings have passed $92 million, and that goes a long way on a fairly modest lifestyle in Weir, Mississippi.

Like hundreds of players before him, Oswalt has discovered that he loves the game maybe a little more than he thought and that he needs it more than it needs him. He may still hate the planes, trains and automobiles, but he loves being part of a team, loves trying to accomplish a game, loves competing.

His two seasons with the Phillies had disappointing finishes. He still hasn’t gotten back to the World Series for the first time since that one and only trip with the 2005 trip with the Astros. He may have that goal still to accomplish, but I’m guessing his reasons for playing go far deeper than that.

He’s returning for a 12th season because he loves the game and knows he’ll miss it. In the end, the game almost always tells the player when it’s time to go. It’s almost never the other way around. That has been true for almost every player in history, and it’s probably going to end up being true of Roy Oswalt, too.

How will Jim Leyland work it out with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the same lineup? I’m glad you asked.

There was a day many years ago when a baseball writer kept throwing questions at Sparky Anderson about Lance Parish. It was the usual stuff about his catching skills versus his offensive skills, how he fit in, all the good stuff Sparky answered a million times. Finally, though, Sparky got agitated.

“Listen,” he said, “his position is cleanup hitter.”

Huh?

“That’s his position,” he said. “None of that other stuff matters.”

That’s how I feel about Prince Fielder joining the Tigers and the challenge for Jim Leyland to find a place for both of them on his lineup card. In the hours since news of Fielder’s signing broke, that topic has become a hot one in blogs and on talk radio. For some reason, there are people who think Leyland may have a problem.

He does not. He’s elated. I haven’t even spoken to him and can tell you he’s elated. He’s wearing an ear-to-ear smile. In fact, he might be the single happiest man in hardball today.

He now has 68 home runs and two of baseball’s top five OPS guy in the middle of his lineup. Both Cabrera and Fielder batted cleanup last season, and it’s highly unlikely Leyland will have two cleanup hitters. So he can bat one third and one fourth. He can draw the names out of a hat.

Or he can bat one second and the other third. He hasn’t phoned me for advice, but that might be the way I’d go. Moving them up a spot would get each of them around 15 additional plate appearances a season, and that’s a great thing for the Tigers.

Where will they play? To quote Sparky, they’ll play in the middle of the order. To quote Jim Leyland, he just became a lot smarter manager. Players like Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera tend to raise the IQ of the manager.

He’s likely to open the season with Fielder at first and Cabrera at third. Cabrera made 23 errors in 2007, but he is familiar with the position. If he’s serious about the switch, he’ll do fine. There’ll also be some at-bats for both of them at DH, and down the line, it’s not out of the question Cabrera could play some outfield.

Let’s not sweat the small stuff. The Tigers got a lot better on Tuesday. They’ve now good two of the game’s 5-10 best offensive players in their lineup. They’ve got a very good rotation and a closer who was perfect last season. They’ve got that Leyland guy who’ll someday be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

To sum up, all’s good in Detroit.

Carlos Pena is returning to the Rays, and that just feels right.

It was around midway through the 2007 season when Carlos Pena sought out Rays GM Andrew Friedman on a team flight. At a time when rumors were swirling about players coming and going, Pena had a simple message for his new boss.

“I don’t want to be traded,” he said.

That was not the usual thing the Rays heard from their players. Because the Rays had small crowds, terrible teams and no tradition, some players saw Tampa Bay as the last place they wanted to be.

Carlos Pena liked it. He liked the city, and he believed that the smart young general manager and the shrewd manager would get things turned around. He wanted them to know that he would like to be there for that event.

Pena stayed long enough to see the Rays play in a World Series and become widely recognized as one of the smartest organizations in baseball. But small-market teams occasionally have tough decisions to make, and after the 2010 season, the Rays said their goodbyes to Pena, who signed with the Cubs.

He’d be the first to tell you that part of his heart remained in Tampa, and that’s why it feels right that he’s returning to the Rays for the 2012 season. He’s 33 years old and has spent four of his 11 major league seasons with the Rays, so they ought to know what they’re getting. Specifically, they’re getting home runs.

He has batted .216 the last three seasons, but hit 95 home runs and drove in 264 runs in that time. His OBP is .346 during those three seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how Joe Maddon uses him since he has fairly dramatic splits. Against right-handed pitching last season, he batted .255 with an .892 OPS. Against lefties, he batted .133 with a .598 OPS.

He won a Gold Glove at first base in 2008, and seeing how that’s a position Friedman has been attempting to address, he seems to be a nice fit. With the signings of Pena and Luke Scott, Friedman appears to have shored up his offense enough to back up all that pitching as the Rays attempt to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Pena, who made $10 million during his last season in Tampa Bay, will be making $7.5 million once all the paperwork is completed. Like other small-market general managers, Friedman doesn’t have the resources to compete for big-ticket free agents. But with spring training approaching, any mention of the American League’s best team would have to include the Rays, and Pena’s signing is another step in that direction.

Plenty of options as Tigers seek a replacement for Victor Martinez

If Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski goes outside the organization to find a replacement for Victor Martinez, he’ll have no shortage of options. From Johnny Damon and Carlos Pena to Bobby Abreu and Raul Ibanez, the free-agent market is flooded with veterans still on the market.

At this point, there are bargains to be had, and the Tigers offer a nice situation because they remain a solid favorite to win the American League Central for a second straight year. Who wouldn’t want to be in a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta?

Here are some possibilities:

Vladimir Guerrero: He’s 36 years old and but coming off a decent season in which he batted .290 and hit 13 home runs for the Orioles. He also brings some of V-Mart’s leadership qualities. The Rangers raved about his intangibles when he helped them win the American League pennant in 2010. The gamble will be in knowing what he has left in the tank. If the Tigers are looking for lineup protection for Cabrera, he’s probably not the right guy for the job.

Then again, no one else is. Cabrera is on the short list of baseball’s best hitters, right there with Albert Pujols and a few others. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as lineup protection for a hitter as respected as Cabrera. He’s one of the guys opposing managers circle and say, “Let’s let anyone except him beat us.”

Johnny Damon: He spent the 2010 season with the Tigers, so they know all about his leadership and maturity and all that stuff. That 2010 was one of his least productive seasons in the big leagues, and at 38, he’s probably not going to get a lot better. But he did hit 16 homers for Tampa Bay last season, so there’s that.

Raul Ibanez: Like Damon, Ibanez is a left-handed  bat, which probably is a priority behind right-handed hitting Delmon Young and Miguel Cabrera. He’s 39 years old, but coming off a 20-home run season. Could be a good fit.

Derrek Lee: He’s a right-handed hitter, but a productive one. He’s 36 and coming off a 19-home run season split between the Orioles and Pirates last season. He, too, has a very solid clubhouse presence and would fit nicely in a winning culture.

Magglio Ordonez: Health is an issue after he suffered a fractured right ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS. It’s also unclear how much he has left in the tank. His batting average has declined for four straight seasons, and at 37, he batted just .255 last season. His power is no more.

Carlos Lee: The Astros would pick up a large chunk of the $18.5 million he’s owed. Even in decline, he’s still a productive offensive hitter, having batted .275 last season with 18 home runs and 94 RBIs.

Also on the list: Pat Burrell, Eric Chavez, J.D. Drew, Hideki Matsui and Cody Ross.

 

On Andruw Jones, the Yankees and clubhouse chemistry…

It’s fair to say that Andruw Jones has sometimes frustrated his managers and teammates with his inattention to detail. No one ever accused him of being a bad guy or a bad teammate, but he was never perceived as a leader or one who was exactly fanatical about his conditioning.

The Yankees got surprising contributions out of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia last season, and we’ll get to them, too. In Brian Cashman’s eye, Andruw Jones was also a very pleasant surprise, and that’s one of the reasons he was so committed to re-signing him for 2012.

“I was surprised,” he said. “We’ve had some supporting-cast guys like that. John Flaherty. Tony Clark. It’s tough to have a leadership role when you’re not playing everyday, but Andruw had a very positive influence on our club. We thought it was important to bring Andruw back.”

Baseball teams are living, breathing organisms, and over the course of a nine-month season, nerves can fray and tensions build. There are things the manager and his coaches can do to deal with those things, but there are some things that can only be handled within the clubhouse.

That’s where Cashman believes Jones contributed in terms of his work ethic, easygoing nature and becoming a sounding board for players, including Derek Jeter, who became close to Jones.

Now about those two pitchers. Cashman probably never guessed he’d rely on Garcia and Colon the way he did. He probably also never guessed he’d get 311 innings and 20 victories out of them.

“They were low-end, low-risk fliers,” he said. “I give all the credit to those guys. Colon was pure luck. We thought he’d be a guy who would open the season at AAA and be an insurance policy. He threw the ball better in spring training than he did in winter ball.  I can’t say we were smart or had some secret formula. You’ve gotta be good, but you’ve got to be lucky, too.”

Garcia was a different story. Cashman is close to White Sox GM Kenny Williams, so he’d long ago heard plenty of good things about Garcia’s approach and makeup.

“Garcia wasn’t luck,” Cashman said. “He’s a gamer. He has made the transition from power the way (Andy) Pettitte did. He has guts. Sometimes you close your eyes and don’t like looking at it. But he competes and makes it work. He was a hard worker and a good teammate.”

 

 

 

Jorge Posada will be remembered as one of the greatest Yankees, and that’s about the highest honor a player can have

Roger Clemens spoke of Jorge Posada with something akin to reverence in his voice. That is, he trusted him in a way he didn’t always trust his catchers.

Clemens was tough on catchers because he was so combustible. He went to the mound angry, a bundle of nerves and emotions and raging competitive fires. Early in his career, a scout said, “I don’t see him lasting very long, not when he treats every start as a Texas-OU football game.”

Posada had a knack for saying just the right thing, for keeping Clemens somewhat in check, for helping get the most out of him. Five years from now when we’re considering Posada’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame, there’ll be volumes of statistics detailing his greatness as a player, as a teammate and as a winner.

He’ll be forever linked to Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. Together, they had one of the great runs in history. Posada was there for six of their seven pennants and four of their five World Series.

He played in 125 postseason games, including 29 in the World Series. Now there’s just Rivera and Jeter after the news that Posada has decided to retire rather than play for another team. He had offers from other teams, most likely as a DH, but he decided not to wear another uniform.

He leaves on the Yankees’ Top 10 list in games, home runs, doubles and extra base hits and with Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson among the greatest Yankee catchers of all-time.

Among all catchers, he’s in the top 10 in virtually every offensive category, right there behind Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Piazza among players he played with and against.

Still, to the teammates who played with him and the players and managers who competed against him, he’ll be remembered for things that can be measured just by numbers.

He contributed to winning, not just in the things that can be measured, but also in his role as a good teammate and a relentless worker. When you think of his Yankees, you think first of Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte. What do they all have in common?

They carried themselves a certain way. They believed winning was the only bottom line that mattered. They weren’t always great quotes, but they were great players in all the ways we define that vague term.

Posada began his professional career as a second baseman and had to work hard to get comfortable behind the plate. In the end, his presence and leadership were more defining characteristics than glove work.

In 17 seasons, he made the American League All-Star Team five times. He hit 275 home runs and played in 1,829 games. In the end, though, he’ll be remembered for being part of those four championship teams, for contributing to baseball’s most successful franchise.

It would have looked odd seeing him DH for the Rays or Orioles this season, and Posada apparently couldn’t see it as well. So now he’ll move on to the next chapter of his life. He departs with the respect of almost everyone who know him, and isn’t that how we’d all like to be remembered?

While we’re on the subject of the Hall of Fame, shouldn’t there be a place for Dave Duncan?

In recent years when Tony La Russa would reflect on his amazing career, he would almost become emotional in discussing Dave Duncan.

“People sometimes ask who has been the most important person to my success,” he said. “That’s not even close.”

Duncan joined La Russa’s staff in 1983, Tony’s fourth year as manager of the White Sox. Thus began a 28-year relationship. Over the years, a professional bond melted into a close, personal tie that extended to the two families as well.

La Russa said his wife, Elaine, joked that her husband was closer to Duncan than to her, and that’s understandable because of the nature of baseball. Beginning each February, the two men would be together almost every day for the next eight or nine months.

They were both grinders. If the Cardinals were playing a 7:30 game, it wasn’t unusual for them to be in the clubhouse by noon studying video, charts, scouting reports, relentlessly looking for an advantage.

Duncan’s legacy is that he took very good pitchers and helped them become better, and he took struggling pitchers and helped turn their careers around. He assisted Dennis Eckersley in making the difficult transition from an average starter to a Hall of Fame closer. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Woody Williams and Kyle Lohse are among dozens of others who credit Duncan for helping transform their careers.

Duncan has been a big league pitching coach for 32 years. That’s a major league record, well in front of Galen Cisco, who did the job for 28 years. Duncan had eight Cy Young Award winners on his staff. He was part of teams that went to the playoffs 14 times and made five appearances in the World Series, winning three.

He took a leave of absence for a few weeks last summer to be with his wife Jeanine, who has brain cancer. He returned for the final week of the regular season and stayed on the job through the World Series. He intends to take another leave of absence for the 2012 season, and it’s unknown when or if he’ll return.

His importance to the Cardinals is irrelevant when weighed against Jeanine’s care. But his absence continues the dramatic shift with the franchise that began with La Russa’s retirement and Albert Pujols signing with the Angels.

Duncan didn’t just help pitchers get better in terms of mechanics and pitch selection and preparation. They came to count on his presence in the dugout, on his counsel and guidance through games.

He has been in baseball since making his major league debut as a catcher in 1964, and his 11-year playing career turned out to be a small opening act to his greater contributions in his post-playing days. He’s not wildly famous in the way a player or manager becomes famous.

Inside the game, though, he’s a gigantic figure, someone with almost magical qualities for getting the most out of his guys. In the last five decades, he has made hundreds of friends who respect both his competence as a pitching coach as well as his decency as a man.

It’ll be the strangest feeling looking in the Cardinals’ dugout and not setting La Russa and Duncan huddled together, and the 2012 season will be diminished by his absence. His focus now is on something far more important, and our prayers go out to Jeanine and to her family.

There’s something magical about an empty ballpark

Red Sox President Larry Lucchino said he loved two kinds of ballparks: full ones and empty ones.

“It’s the in-between ones, I don’t care much for,” he said.

I’d telephoned him to ask how he felt about Camden Yards after it was finished, if there were days when he just walked around the place and was able to soak in how perfectly it turned out.

He said he indeed had done exactly that many times during that first season in 1992. He had no idea that his inspiration of building a classic ballpark with modern comforts would change baseball forever by inspiring teams to construct their own unique “ballpark” and turn away from the era of the concrete donuts designed to serve both baseball and football.

I’ve had dozens of baseball people tell me through the years that they loved empty ballparks. Team employees take breaks during the day to go stroll the concourses or take a moment to soak in the environment.

It’s a pretty easy way to turn a bad day into a good one, or at least to remember why we love this stuff. It’s hard to describe exactly why people feel that way about an empty structure of brick and steel.

In a place like Fenway Park, there’s a magic to standing there five or six hours before game time. When there’s no game, its quirks come alive, and there’s time to appreciate the place’s beauty.

To stand there and admire an empty Fenway is to be taken back to Ted Williams and Yaz, to Rice and Fisk, to recall all the moments our hearts and minds were focused on this one spot.

There’s history in every ballpark. For instance, Philadelphia. Is THAT the spot Brad Lidge dropped to his knees after getting the final out of the World Series?

For instance, Baltimore. Remember when Cal Ripken took that emotional victory lap after breaking Lou Gehrig’s ironman record?

For instance, Houston. If you’d been there the night Jeff Kent hit that home run to win Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS, you could stand there and seeing him circles the bases, his teammates waiting at home plate, the place going crazy.

I’m guessing all of us remembers the first time we saw a major league ballpark. I’m guessing too many of us were struck by the same things: the perfection of the diamond with its manicured grass and neat white lines, the way it all just felt right.

I arrived at AT&T Park several hours before game time a few years ago and looked down at the field to see a lonely figure sitting alone in a box seat. On a warm, cloudless day, a gorgeous day in the Bay Area, Bobby Cox had taken a few moments to gather his thoughts.

“It’s just so beautiful,” he said. “It’s a good place to think and kind of recharge your batteries.”

We love packed ballparks with roaring crowds and the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth. But there’s also something magical about empty parks, about all that green and all the memories and all the expectations of what’s ahead. Among the hundreds of reasons we love this game, the majesty of the ballpark is pretty high.

 

 

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