February 2012

Spending a morning with Jim Leyland…

I’m absolutely certain there are better ways to spend a morning than to hear Jim Leyland talk baseball, and if you give me a couple of hours, I’ll think of one or two. Until then, here are some Thursday highlights from the incomparable and irrepressible Jim Leyland:

On handling expectations…

 “You don’t say stupid stuff. We’re not kids. People talk about bulletin-board staff. You think the White Sox or Red Sox or anyone else… They’re not worried about us. This is the big leagues. Believe me.’’

On youth…

“We’re a young team. A lot of people don’t realize that. We’re not some old veteran team. Boesch is young, Jackson is young, Avila is young, Delmon Young is young, Cabrera’s young, Fielder’s young. Our pitching staff is young. We’re not some old crusty team. The manager might be a little crusty, according to you guys.”

On expectations…

“I want the fans fired up. I like it when people are fired up about the team. You’ve got a lot of stories. You’ve got the best of both worlds. If we do good, it’s fun for you. If we don’t, you can rip the bleep out of us. You’ve got a story no matter what. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just the way it is. We do what we do, and you guys do what you do. I think it’s great. I’m glad there’s going to be getting a little more national attention. That’s fine. It’ll be good for some of these young guys to know how to handle it.”

On Justin Verlander…

“First of all, he takes great care of himself. He’s got a tremendous lower half. All the good power pitchers I’ve known over the years–Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens–all had strong legs. And his legs are strong. If you look at his upper body, it’s really not that big. That’s kind of a good thing. He’s got that loose arm with a strong foundation. He’s one of the special ones. That’s just the way it is. He’s a little bit different.

“I think people get carried away with us extending him a little bit. If he throws 125 pitches, that’s a walk in the park for him. You watch him from time to time, or if you see some sign he’s fatigued, you watch it. We watch all our pitchers. The thing he has learned handle a little bit better. he’s learned how to get quicker outs earlier. There were a lot of games that is pitch count was really darn good.

“I really trust him. Our pitchers are pretty good. When I tell ‘em that’s enough, if they know they’ve had enough, they’re really good. But there are days they say, `I’m really fine. I’m good.’

“He’s probably the talent I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure he’s the best pitcher. He’s gone over the hump. He’s the best pitcher I’ve ever had. It’s that simple.”

“I think one of his things is that he has matured so much mentally. He’s figuring things out. How to get easier outs. How to handle all the attention. This guy has done a good a job of handling all this stuff as anybody I’ve ever been around. I’m proud of him. I had nothing to do with it.

“That’s not easy to do. When everybody wants a piece of you. I’ll tell you what, he’s got tunnel vision. There’s no question about that. He knows. He’s got it down. I think I’ve read where those Phillies guys talk about Halladay. He doesn’t ever deviate. This Tuesday I’ve got to throw on the side today. Boom, I’m throwing on the side today. That’s where Justin has really picked up. In between starts, he has really picked up his concentration.”

On the best hitter he has had…

“If you really got down to it, I thought about this. I’ve probably slighted this guy, not for any reason in particular. I was thinking about that this winter. Probably the best player–total tools–was Larry Walker. Run. Throw. Hit. Hit with power. A great baserunner.

“He was a tremendous player. I’m not saying his results were better than anybody’s. I’m not saying he’s the best player. But if you looked at the five tools–because Barry’s arm wasn’t quite as good–Larry Walker might be the best that I’ve had. He was a tremendous instinctive player. But Verlander, I’ve never really seen a guy throwing 95-96, 92-93, with a great change, and in the eighth inning, with a 101 mph in your pocket.”

On Rick Porcello…

“When something doesn’t go right, it sends a red flag to you guys, but it doesn’t to me. I know, like in Porcello’s case, he went through the good, he went through the bad and he went through the in-between. He’s settled in. I think he’s really going to be good this year. I can’t make those things happen for ‘em. They have to experience ‘em. It’s very important to learn how to handle both ends of the spectrum–success and failure. When they get through that, they kind of level off and get to what they’re supposed to be. You can’t stuff a two-, three-year player into a six-seven year player. You just have to let some things happen.”

On the Tigers defense…

“I think our defense is pretty good. I think Jhonny Peralta is one of the most underrated shortstops in the big leagues. They can say what they want. They can take ‘em all. Is he going to make an acrobatic play like an Andrus or somebody else? Probably not. But I know one thing. In the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two outs and we’ve got a one-run lead, I like it when it’s hit to him. I’ll take that every time.

“I think we’ll catch what we’re supposed to, and we’ll throw it accurately. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I think we’re better defensively than people think. The other side of that coin–I’ve told everybody and I’m going to say it one last time–we won the World Series–and I’m not talking about winning the World Series; I’m not making any predictions–in 1997, we won the World Series with Bobby Bonilla playing third base. Everybody said that would never happen.

“That’s the end of it. I’m not going to be talking about it. If you guys sit in here and think–of I sit here and think, more importantly–there’s not going to be a ball get by once in awhile, we’re all crazy. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. Some of you guys will. Some of you guys won’t. As a manager, you put people there and accept what you might get.

“Everybody’s always looking for perfect players. There’s not very many. They want a Gold Glover at third, a Gold Glover at short and they want 25 home runs and knocks in 120 runs. If everybody had those, it’d be boring. I talked to the amateur scouts yesterday. If you’re waiting to sign that perfect player, by the time you’re done scouting, you’ve going to have a lot of ink in your pen.”

On Austin Jackson…

“He’s a tremendous center fielder and one of the big keys to our team. If you look last year, when we got going, our club really got going. He tailed off, and our club kept going. He makes us go. We’re not a very fast team. He excites fans. It’s nice to see a triple. It’s exciting. It’s my dad’s favorite play.”

If Mariano Rivera really is retiring, he’ll only be remembered as the perfect baseball player

Mariano Rivera’s legacy will be that he was the perfect baseball player. He did his job better than anyone ever has. He was at his best when the games meant the most, appearing in 96 postseason games and getting the final out of the World Series four times. Even better, he performed with dignity, with class. He was beloved by fans and respected by teammates.

He’ll be forever linked with Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, with Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada and Joe Torre. These Yankees won championships and were always in contention, and we’ll remember that part of the deal for sure because that’s what the franchise stands for.

When we think back on these great teams, we’ll also think of something else. We’ll think about how they did the pinstripes proud. They stood for something beyond winning. They carried themselves the way dads tell their kids to carry themselves. There was a calmness about them.

Try as you might, it was tough to hate these Yankees. Seriously, who could hate Bernie Williams or Andy Pettitte? I mean, that’s just about impossible.

Torre and Pettitte and Williams are gone now, and on Monday, Rivera hinted strongly that 2012 will be his last season. He has flirted with retirement talk in the past, only to change his mind. This time, he says his decision is “irrevocable,” and we’ll see about that.

There was a time when we thought of closers as fire-breathing, flame-throwing crazy men. Rivera–and Trevor Hoffman, too–put a new face on closers. They were low key and confident, did their jobs, shook a few hands and walked off the mound. They were not into hysterics.

Our everlasting image of Rivera will be just that: working methodically, breaking bats with that cutter, saving 603 games with a pitch that has been one of the single best weapons in the history of major league baseball.

Rivera’s 603 saves are the most all-time. He’s a 12-time All-Star and finished in the top three of Cy Young Award voting four times. As impressive as those numbers are, they’re only part of the story.

He never embarrassed the franchise. He always attempted to do the right thing. He was always gracious, always appreciative of both the fans who loved him and the gifts God gave him.

One of the best parts of being a baseball fan is that you either root for the Yankees, or you love to hate the Yankees. This generation of Yankees has ruined all that. Rivera won’t be remembered as the greatest Yankee of them all, only the Yankees who did his job better than any of the others and who made the greatness of the pinstripes even greater. As legacies go, they don’t get much better than that.

When Milo Hamilton met Ronald Reagan…

When Milo Hamilton learned that President Reagan would be at Dodger Stadium that day, he began looking for someone to introduce him to his boyhood hero. He found that someone in Dodgers GM Fred Claire and was escorted downstairs, past security and in front of the President of the United States.

“Look for the blue pack with the red-coated rider,” Hamilton said loudly as he shook Reagan’s hand. Reagan smiled, clearly pleased.

“How do you remember that?” he said. Milo explained that he’d grown up in Iowa listening to Reagan’s radio show on WHO and that he’d forever memorized the closing line of the show, an advertisement for Kentucky Club Pipe Tobacco.

Milo, who will announce his retirement on Wednesday, has lived a long and wonderful life. He’s 85 years old and has done major league baseball for 58 years, including the last 27 for the Astros. He got his start in broadcasting on Okinawa while in the Army. Upon returning to the states and graduating from the University of Iowa, he did a bit of everything, spinning records, doing the news, conducting interviews.

He was having lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Philadelphia a few years ago when, suddenly, he was struck by a sight that took his breath away.

“There was the ship I served on in World War II,” he said.

His first baseball play-by-play was a minor league team 66 years ago. He had found his calling. In the years since, he has become the background music of our summers, his booming voice as rich as ever. He’ll be forever known as the guy who called Hank Aaron’s 715th, but that’s just one small moment compared to the thousands who feel as if they know him intimately.

There’s nothing like baseball on the radio, nothing like the gifted men who pain the pictures, from Vin Scully and Russ Hodges to Mel Allen and and Red Barber. I grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, falling asleep to the sound of Gene Elston doing Astros’ games. Later, I became close friends with Jon Miller. Baseball’s best broadcasters are perfectionists, and many of them don’t suffer fools.

In recent years, as the Astros tumbled out of contention, Milo’s unhappiness came through in his voice and words. He had cut back on his travel in recent years, a concession to an assortment of health problems. He’ll discuss his plans during a news conference on Wednesday.

If Roy Oswalt asked me, I’d tell him playing for the Red Sox is one of the greatest experiences in all of baseball

None of Roy Oswalt’s 326 career starts has come against the Boston Red Sox. I’m not sure he has even seen Fenway Park. The Astros played there in 2003, but Oswalt went on the disabled list the day before the series started and apparently wasn’t with the club. Unless there was a family vacation we don’t know about, Oswalt may never have stepped foot in one of baseball’s real special places.

Maybe that explains his lack of interest in pitching in Boston. Oswalt remains the most prominent and accomplished free-agent pitcher without a job as Spring Training begins. He’s 34 years old and has a career 3.21 ERA and 159 victories. In 11 seasons, he has finished third, fourth (three times) and sixth in NL Cy Young Award voting.

Back issues limited him to 23 starts last season, but in the seven years before that he averaged 33 starts and 216 innings a season. I’ve read that some scouts believe he has lost some of the fire he once had. That’s silly. Even when things began to go bad for the team in Houston, he still took pride in taking the ball every fifth day and giving his team a chance to win.

The Tigers wanted him at one point during the off-season, but Oswalt wasn’t interested. The Red Sox appear to want him still. But Oswalt seems to have his heart set on pitching only for the Cardinals or Rangers. St. Louis and Arlington are more convenient to his Mississippi home, but neither has the room or money for a starting pitcher at this point.

The Phillies may have some interest for the right price, but Oswalt’s decision may be waiting to see if the Cardinals and Rangers are able to free up enough money to sign him. It’s interesting to see someone pass on a chance to pitch for the Red Sox. That’s one of the franchises player want to play for.

It’s a pressurized environment in which every game matters. After pitching in front of very small crowds his last two seasons in Houston, I’d think a packed Fenway Park would look like a pretty good alternative. Regardless, he might be the only remaining free agent who has chance to be a difference maker. If he stays healthy, he’s probably still capable of being an elite pitcher. His work ethic and mound smarts makes him more even more appealing as a role model for younger pitchers.

But he’s an ornery cuss, a country boy who has always done things his way and he has decided he doesn’t want to pitch for the Red Sox, then he’s probably never going to pitch for the Red Sox.

5 things that could make the 2012 season a successful one for the Astros

It has been almost seven years since the Astros made the playoffs. When they won the 2005 National League pennant, it was their sixth playoff appearance in nine years and solidified their place as one of baseball’s best-run franchises. They were competitive again in 2006, staying in contention until the final day of the regular season. They haven’t come close since.

Baseball is funny like that. Minor league systems are a team’s lifeblood, and when it’s cut off, tough times are around the corner. That’s true of big-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, but it’s especially true of teams like the Astros, who do not have the revenues to cover their mistakes in player development.

By the time teams know they’re in trouble, they’ll need at least three years to get back on the right path. In recent years, Astros general manager Ed Wade had the tough assignment of rebuilding the farm system while cutting the payroll and keeping the big league team as competitive as possible.

He appears to have steered the Astros back in the right direction at the minor league level, but the truth is there’s no way of knowing how good his four drafts were. He inherited a farm system ranked at or near the bottom and turned one ranked in the middle of the pack over to his successor. He did plenty of good work in other areas. He hired a bunch of new scouts and put new managers and instructors in place up and down the minor league food chain. He oversaw construction of a Dominican Republic academy and got draft picks signed quickly.

When new Astros owner Jim Crane fired Wade and hired Jeff Luhnow, he promised to give him the time and resources to rebuild the player development system from the ground up. He urged Luhnow, who’d spent eight years with the Cardinals, to use the Texas Rangers as a model for doing things right.

There’s absolutely no way of knowing when the Astros will be competitive again. They’re bringing a slew of young kids to camp, including their last four No. 1 draft picks. Still, they will have a major league team this season. The Astros do not expect to win the World Series, so what would constitute success for a team in a full rebuilding mold?

Let’s count ’em up:

1. To have a bunch of young players take positive steps up the ladder. If Wade’s four No. 1 picks–catcher Jason Castro (2008), shortstop Jiovanni Mier (2009), second baseman Delino DeShields (2010) and outfielder George Springer (2011)–all have good seasons, it would be a huge boost for the timetable.

2. To get productive seasons from center fielder Jordan Schafer and shortstop Jed Lowrie.  They were once highly regarded prospects with the Braves and Red Sox. Now they’re getting a fresh start in Houston. There’s no question they have talent, but so far have been unable to stay healthy or make the necessary adjustments every player must make. If just one of them ends up being a contributor over the next few years, it would be significant.

3. Luhnow’s most attractive trade assets are Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. If he can get a single prospect for each of them by the trade dealine, he will have continued strengthening the organization.

4. Second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Jimmy Paredes and outfielder J.D. Martinez showed some nice spurts after being summoned to the big leagues last summer. If at least one of them could have a solid sophomore season, it would be hugely important for the future of the franchise.

5. Finally, getting third baseman Chris Johnson and first baseman Brett Wallace on the right track would be a pleasant surprise. Both were handed jobs when 2011 spring training opened, and both ended up being demoted to the minor leagues. At the moment, the Astros have no idea what they can expect from either of them. They’ll need to play their way onto the team in spring training.

To sum up: everything in 2012 is about developing young talent or acquiring more young talent. Young players don’t come with guarantees, and far from the days when Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were two of baseball’s rock-solid producers, the Astros really don’t know how much talent they have in their system. If nothing else, the 2012 season is about them assessing what they have and what they still need to add.

If they get a bunch of positive answers, if they position themselves to win in, say, 2013 or 2014, they’ll consider 2012 a smashing success.

Here’s to Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and all the others who want to keep on keeping on. I applaud you.

When Brett Favre was flirting with retirement a couple of years ago, he turned on his radio to hear Phil Simms offering some free advice.

“Play until they cut the uniform off you,” he said.

Simms understood that Favre very likely would never do anything as fulfilling or as fun or as challenging as playing in the National Football League. I’m not sure he felt that way when he was playing, when he was tired, when he was beat up, when his body felt 100 years old.

Once he got some distance between himself and his playing career, he got it. He understood that competing at the highest level is a gift few people get, and that the ones who do have it had better cherish it and stretch it out as long as possible.

About the only thing Roger Clemens ever failed at was retirement. I know him well enough to believe he was sincere those two or three times he tried to walk away from the game. He found the idea of life without baseball appealing. He looked forward to a life when he didn’t have to be up at 5 am to work out, wasn’t constantly dealing with aches and pains and didn’t have to take an array of medication by the handful.

Clemens discovered what a lot of others have discovered over the years. In the end, it’s not about money or milestones or any of that stuff. It’s about playing the game, about being part of a team. There’s nothing better. Living without it can be difficult.

Even Nolan Ryan, who was as prepared for retirement as a man can be, said he missed the game terribly that first year after retirement.

“There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said.

Larry Dierker said the first time he walked onto a field after quitting were incredibly awkward.

“I felt naked,” he said.

Maybe it’s a simple thing like being part of a team and trying to achieve something. Maybe it’s the spotlight or the competition or any of a dozen other things. In the end, though, nothing else Clemens does in his life is going to be as much fun or as challenging as attempting to beat the Kansas City Royals on a Thursday afternoon in a game only the most avid fans will remember.

I’ve thought about Favre and Clemens a lot these last few days as I’ve listened to people wondering why Johnny Damon or Jason Varitek haven’t hung it up. After all, we’re down to the final few days before spring training, and they’re still free agents. There could be a message in there somewhere.

On the other hand, there could still be another opportunity out there. There could be a contender looking to add a veteran presence or maybe a guy to assume a part time role or something. Regardless, I’m happy Damon wants to play again, and I’m guessing it has zero to do with the pursuit of 3,000 hits.

I’m guessing he just loves playing. It’s what he has done most of his life and it’s what he loves. He’s not going to leave until the game tells him to leave.

Damon, like Varitek, has a legacy that’s secure. Both were winners. Both were good teammates. Both were professionals in every way the word can be defined.

Maybe it’s time for them to go. And then again, maybe there’s another ride out there for them. Maybe that phone call won’t come until April or even later, but as long as there’s even a tiny chance they can put on a major league uniform again, they should go for it. Would you trade places with them for a minute? Of course you would.

Ty Wigginton, who spent nine years in the minor leagues, has this routine he goes through right before taking the field. He stands in front of a mirror, adjusts his cap, his uniform, makes sure everything is just right. And then the very last thing he does is look at the MLB logo.

“I just like reminding myself how lucky I’ve been,” he said.

They’ve all been lucky, Damon and Varitek and Wigginton and all the others who’ve been blessed to play this wonderful game. To play in the major leagues is to fulfill lifelong dreams. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to continue. Here’s hoping they get the chance.

Livan Hernandez’s long, strange trip rolls into a 17th season and eighth team

I love watching Livan Hernandez pitch. I loved watching his brother, El Duque. I’m no pitching coach, but I think every pitcher on earth could learn something from watching them work. They’ve never taken 95-mph stuff to the mound. At least they haven’t in a long, long time. They’re a reminder that of pitching’s three variables_velocity, location and movement_that velocity is the least important of the three.

They get by with deceptive arm action, by working the corners and by changing speeds. One way to get a hitter out is to blow a 100-mph fastball right past him. The thing is, if a hitter knows the location, if he knows there’s no movement on the pitch, he’ll eventually catch up to a 100-mph fastball.

At least that’s my unprofessional opinion on pitching. I was also in the Astros clubhouse the night Billy Wagner threw a 100-mph heater past Barry Bonds in the ninth inning. Afterward, the phone rang and it was Bonds telling Wagner, “Don’t let one slip under 100 mph.”

Anyway, hitters who are accustomed to trying to catch up to major league fastballs have a terrible time with the slower stuff too. That’s why the Orioles used to wear t-shirts proclaiming, “Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds.” Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell once told me that Trevor Hoffman could tell them he was about to throw them a change up, and they still might not hit it. I didn’t understand this. Why would it be so hard to hit a pitch that’s softer than the others? Wouldn’t it be easier?

“When you’re accustomed to looking for a certain speed, it’s really hard to slow down,” Biggio said. “Your brain can tell your body to wait, but it’s not that easy.”

Livan Hernandez, who signed a minor league contract with the Astros this week, is a master of this. At 36, he’s still capable of rolling up innings and of making the  most of what he brings to the table. He has an assortment of breaking pitches, but his best pitch is still a fastball that he moves up and down, in and out, seemingly throw it to whatever location and whatever velocity he needs.

He has been absolutely money in the post-season. He’s 7-3 with a 3.97 ERA in 10 postseason starts. He has been to the World Series twice. But eating up innings is his speciality. He has averaged 216 innings a year the last 14 seasons and led the National League in innings three times.

He won’t be remembered as one of the all-time greats. He never won 20 games or a Cy Young Award. All he has done is roll along for 17 seasons, almost always pitching at a high level and delivering in a big way when the games mean the most. In 1997, he was both the NLCS and World Series MVP. When Brad Mills hands him the ball, it will be the 475th, and that’s pretty spectacular. It’s great having him back for another year.