June 2009

Thinking Out Loud

Randy Wolf has a chance to pitch forever.   He’s still going strong as a reliever, but if he ever chooses to (or has to) go to the bullpen, he’ll be a lights-out LOOGY.  His numbers against left-handed hitters are almost unbelievable.   Heading into Monday’s game against the Rockies lefties were just 7-70 against him (.100 BAA).  Of those 70 AB’s … 34 ended in a strikeout.  That’s outstanding.  In his career he’s averaging over 10K’s per 9 IP against lefties so this isn’t a new thing.

I used to think that batting average was the most hollow of all statistics.  I’ve changed my mind.  It’s RBI.  Runs Batted In is a product of opportunity.  For RBI to have relevance, it should be computed as a percentage.  What percentage of runners on base does a batter drive in?  Then you can compare players who hit in stacked lineups versus players who don’t.  Players who frequently come to the plate with runners on the base-paths … versus guys with fewer opportunities.  There’s an old baseball adage, “Don’t tell me what you hit … tell me when you hit.”  This takes that adage and gives it a modern spin.

The best baseball mascot I’ve ever seen?  It no longer exists except in my mind … but back in the late 90’s in the independent Western League the Sonoma County Crushers struck gold.  The Crushers got their name because of the many wineries in the area (crushing grapes).  Well, the mascot also came from local lore as well.  It was a yeti.  A massive, hairy beast that went by the name of The Abominable Sonoman.  The name was a ringing double, but the costume was a home run.  This hairy-thing had a spot-on costume complete with purple feet stained from crushing grapes.  Perfection.
I love the straight steal.  In late-game, looking-for-one-run situations, why give up an out with a sacrifice bunt, if you have an average to above-average runner on first base?  Pressure the pitcher and catcher.  Make them throw you out on a straight steal.  It takes either a smartly-called pitchout, or a close-to-perfect pitch, throw, and tag to get the base runner.  In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. 
Tampa Bay has figured this out.  Joe Maddon is playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers.
I’m a trivia guy.  Baseball players generally are not.  But there are exceptions.  The player with the most interest in baseball trivia that I’ve met?  Albert Belle.  No doubt about it.
Looking back at the last thirty years, I think I could make a case that Rickey Henderson influenced the games that he played in more than anyone else.  I’m not sure that Rickey H. is respected enough for the career that he had.  If you get a chance, take a look at his numbers.
While looking at numbers, take a look at the only “perfect” player in MLB history.

— Eric Collins

Minor League memories…

With Manny Ramirez beginning his minor league stint prepping for his return to the Dodgers, it got me thinking about my time as a minor league broadcaster.  

I spent four years in minor league baseball, one in Rochester, NY with the Red Wings of the International League … and three with the Schaumburg Flyers of the independent Northern League.

I got a chance to see a no-hitter thrown, a four-home run game, and a player play all nine positions in a nine inning game.   I saw a veteran player hit a homer, round the bases, rip off his shirt and retire at home plate.  I saw a manager order that an opposing player be hit by a pitch for three consecutive at-bats because the offending batter had accidentally fouled a ball off the manager’s daughter the night before.

I’ve heard John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” quite possibly thousands of time and every version of rain delay music you can think of (Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, Here Comes the Rain Again, Can You Stand the Rain?, Singing in the Rain, Rain in the Summertime etc …).

I’ve seen the Zooperstars perform too many times to count … and Myron Noodleman’s act TOO MANY TIMES.

I’ve seen nuns giving massages in the grandstands, pigs delivering balls to the umpires and Ila Borders, the first female pitcher in pro ball, throw back-to-back no-hit innings.

I’ve been on bus trips from Chicago to Winnipeg where players have boarded without a book, magazine, computer or cellphone and looked out the window for an entire 16-hour trip.  Let me tell you, the view doesn’t change much on that trip.  Cornfields and more cornfields.  I’ve also had some of the best baseball conversations in my life over $8 steaks in Sioux Falls.

And that’s what I’ll always remember.

My first year with the Schaumburg Flyers was in 1999.  The Flyers were an expansion team that year.  An expansion team in an unaffiliated independent league.  It doesn’t get any lower than that in pro ball.  The roster is made up exclusively of undrafted college players and players that have been released from the lower levels of big league organizations.  

Back then in was 22 players splitting each team’s salary-capped $82,000.  Meal money was $15 a day.   But you had a chance.  A chance to play pro ball for the summer and hope against hope that you could catch the eye of a scout working for a team in affiliated ball.  Once you got signed … well then you could really dream.

Of those 22 players on the 1999 Schaumburg Flyers, two of them have made the big leagues.  Jim Rushford making it to Milwaukee Brewers in 2002.  And just last year, Alberto Castillo getting a chance with the Baltimore Orioles.  The fact that two guys made it to The Show is astounding.

I’ve had a lot of good times in the world or baseball.  But the moments that make me proudest are the moments I spent in the minors.  You’ve got to earn your way in baseball.   That’s the way its always been.  That’s the way it always should be.

— Eric Collins

Hall of Fame Legends Game

When the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association told me about the “Legends Game” that they were putting together in place of the tired out Hall of Fame Game, I was pretty impressed. Hall of Famers like Paul Molitor, Fergie Jenkins and Bob Feller were going to be there — playing in a game. But I have to admit, there was a lot of dead air on my end of the conversation. Why were they telling ME about this game? I started thinking that maybe they needed an announcer. Nope. They wanted me to PLAY too!

We all know that I’m nothing close to being a legend, but they needed a few guys that were young enough to still run around a little.

So there I was, with guys like Steve Finley—who still wants to play and is in good enough shape to pull it off, Mike Pagliarulo, a happy and smiling Jeff Kent—who won the HR hitting competition, and pitchers Anthony Telford and Ron Robinson.

The Spaceman, Bill Lee was there, and Bobby Grich. I got my first major league hit on a ball that glanced off of Grich’s glove and into center field in 1985.

Mike Timlin got a lot of cheers from all the Red Sox fans in Cooperstown and former Yankee first baseman Kevin Maas was there.

About 8 thousand people lined the streets for a pregame parade through the town and into Doubleday Field and then jammed themselves into a stadium that only seats 7 thousand.
My personal highlight was playing catch with Brooks Robinson and then playing Shortstop next to him on my team.

I played catch with freaking Brooks Robinson!!

90-year-old Bob Feller threw an inning! He and Bobby Doerr are the oldest living HOFers.

I got three hits in the game—one off of Hall of Famer Phill Neikro. I also drove in the tying run and scored the winning run.

Jim Kaat almost drilled me…twice, and our team came from 4 runs down to win it in the 7th and final inning.

Geoff Hixon, the Director of the MLBPAA told us that they wanted the game to be more interactive and more fun for the fans. They didn’t have to tell me twice.

In the first inning I ran out to right field and grabbed a 12-year-old kid with a glove and told him he was coming out to play short with me. He was scared to death but hung right in there.

After giving up a couple runs, with one out and a runner on first, Mike Timlin hit a hot shot to short. My little buddy snagged it, made a perfect feed to Kent at second and then Jeff threw on to first for a double play. The place went nuts!!

I get a little emotional re-living that moment. All I ever wanted to do was extend my 12-year-old days into an entire Major League career, for as long as they’d let me.

Later, the tour of the Hall of Fame was so cool. Now I know why baseball freaks from everywhere make that pilgrimage to Cooperstown.

I got to hold a Babe Ruth bat. It had 28 notches grooved in the bat, around the label to mark the 28 home runs he hit with that bat. One of only two known bats in existence that he notched.

The plaques, and balls and bats—and photos that send you back in time through the history of baseball humbled me.

I even saw my print and photographic file. So yes, I am in the Hall of Fame—along with every other of the nearly 17,000 players all time.

I’m not a Hall of Famer. But with all that happend that day—playing catch with Brooksy, the parade, a few hits, making a kids day and holding Babe’s bat…I felt like one.    

— Steve Lyons

Deep in the Heart

The say that everything is bigger in Texas … well, maybe not everything.  While waiting for the bus after Friday’s game, I caught the Rangers Ballpark at Arlington fireworks display.  They were ok, but by Dodger Stadium standards it was like kids shooting off bottle rockets.  No comparison.
Talked with Andre Ethier and Brent Leach about their former schools heading to the College World Series.  Andre is a former Arizona State Sun Devil and Brent played at Southern Miss for two years before finishing up at Delta State.  Andre never made it to a CWS while at ASU, losing in the Super Regional round to Cal State Fullerton twice.  In 2002 as a sophomore, Andre’s teammates included Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Jeff Larish…yet they didn’t make it to Omaha.  Crazy game. 
Southern Miss is making it’s first trip to the CWS.  In case you’re ever in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, eat at Leatha’s BBQ.  World-class barbeque in a shack off the side of the road.  World-class.  If you call ahead, sometimes they have possum on the menu.  I won’t go that far, but the beef and pork ribs are some of the best I’ve ever had.
The current member of the Dodger Family with the best CWS experience?  Rick Monday.  Rick was an All-CWS pick on Arizona State’s 1965 National Championship team.  On the ASU freshman team that year?  Reggie Jackson.  Arizona State won national titles in 1965 and 1967 but Reggie Jackson only played varsity baseball in 1966.  That means no rings for Mr. October as a collegian.  Crazy game.
Not too many college players are on this year’s edition of the Dodgers.  Logan White, the Dodgers Assistant GM – Scouting, has made a habit out of taking high-ceilinged high schoolers in the draft in years past.  You can’t question the strategy.  Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Broxton, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Blake DeWitt … all high school players that the Dodgers scouted, drafted and developed in a hurry.
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington doesn’t get discussed much when people are talking about some of the best ballparks in the game, but it’s got some real plusses.  I like the deep green of the seats and the overhang.  I like the grassy ramp (don’t say grassy knoll here in Dallas) beyond the center field wall.  I even like all of the signage on the outfield walls.  It reminds me of ballparks of days gone by.  But the real treat in the ballpark is the turkey legs. I think it’s one of the best concessions in baseball.  These things are huge.  I’ve just decided that’s my goal for this weekend.  I’m going to talk with the camera guys and see if we can find some people eating these things.  It’s impossible to not feel like King HenryVIII when you’re gnawing on these things.  There you go … that’s my goal. 

— Eric Collins

Remembering the draft of 1981…

Back in the good old days of the MLB amateur draft, nobody paid any attention at all.
It wasn’t on TV, very few, if any players had agents, and the process was much simpler.
Yesterday, as expected Stephen Strasburg was the #1 overall pick of the Washington Nationals. It was a no-brainer—- 13-1 with an ERA less than 1.50 and he even threw a no-hitter. Oh, and by the way he throws 100MPH routinely.

So this is where I’m supposed to point out how the draft is not an exact science and have numbers and facts about how #1 picks rarely make it to the big leagues. And guys like Bill Russell of the Dodgers was a 42nd round pick and never played high school baseball– but had a great career. Or maybe the most famous Dodger draft story, the great Mike Piazza who was drafted in the 63rd round out of courtesy to his father.

But I’m not going to do it.

I hope Strasburg makes it big. In fact, the number two pick in the draft, Dustin Ackley, is the son of a guy I played with in the minor leagues way back when. I hope he makes it, too.
I have no problem with the kids and the talent level they posess, I have a problem with the agents and the system that’s created so much pressure for the teams to sign these guys—and for BIG BUCKS.

Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras (big surprise) and he’s not just going to get a big signing bonus and a plane ticket to “A” ball the way it used to be. Oh, no. Boras will be involved in intense negotiations to get Strasburg a package in the area of $15 to $50 Million.

Yes, 50 Million!

Of course that deal will be a long-term contract that will contain bonuses and guaranteed call ups to the big leagues– before he’s ready and major salary increases at every level he pitches at etc, etc. But still, $50 Million?

It was always well known that the top players in the draft we’re going to get a nice bonus. “Bonus Babies” was the term used for the Nuke Laloosh’s of the baseball world. But the money and the pressure on the organizations to sign these guys is incredible. And I always wonder why?

What’s Strasburg going to do if Washington says, “no”?

What would any of them do?

It may sound like sour grapes on my part and I promise it’s not—but I do have a point of reference. In 1981 I was the Number 1 daft pick by the Boston Red Sox.

I got $55,000.

One day later I was sent to “A” ball in Winston-Salem NC where I began my Pro baseball career.

My salary was $600.00 per month and meal money on the road was 9 bucks.

I played 13 years of professional baseball, 9 in the Major Leagues and felt like the luckiest guy in the world for the entire time.

I made 2.1 Million in my whole career.

50 Million wouldn’t have made me a better player or any happier.

— Steve Lyons