Thursday, June 30, 2011

Remember The Maine

Actually, there are really two Maine's to remember: The USS Maine, a battleship that blew up in Havana Harbor February 15, 1898 under questionable circumstances, and pitcher John Maine who's career with the Mets blew up on May 20, 2010 against the Washington Nationals. The sinking of the pre-dreadnought version took with it 274 lives. The former Met righthander went down on his own.

Maine was a guy with major league stuff and you can't blame former general manager Omar Minaya for this one. The Orioles drafted Maine in 2002 and the following year led all minor league pitchers with 185 strikeouts. He made his Orioles debut in 2004 and after shuttling back and forth from the minors and picked up his first major league win, a 1-0 shutout of the Blue Jays in August of 2005.

Meanwhile pitcher Kris Benson was having problems with the Mets. Or I should say the Mets were having problems with Benson's wife Anna. A smokin' hot Southern Belle from Atlanta, the former stripper (gee, I wonder how a ballplayer would come in contact with a stripper) who says "she had a baby and then a husband when she was seventeen," quickly began giving the Mets front office more agita than a two-pound pastrami on rye. During the off season in 2004, Anna posed on the cover for FHM Magazine and was named "baseball's hottest wife." That surely must have made her a hit with the other Mets wives. And to add spicy hot mustard to it, Anna appeared on "The Howard Stern Show" later that year and said that if husband Kris ever cheated on her she would take revenge by sleeping with the entire Mets organization (public relations man Jay Horowitz too?) Something I'm sure the players would've found highly objectionable.

Despite Omar Minaya's insistance to the contrary, Kris and Anna were sent packing to Baltimore on January 21, 2006. In return the Mets got Maine and reliever Jorge Julio. Me and Julio down by the school yard better known as Shea Stadium. "We just made a baseball trade," said Omar.

Ironically, Maine's first game with the Mets came against the Nationals on May 2, 2006. He took the loss, but the baseball gods were already giving him "the finger." He was place on the disabled list with an inflamed middle finger he says he hurt during that start. After a short rehab stint in the minors, Maine started to look like a legit two or three guy. He returned and pitched a complete game shutout against the Astros. That began a 26 inning scoreless streak, the longest ever by a Mets rookie starter. He ended the season 6-5 with a 3.60 ERA. Not bad. A year later Maine went 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA. He even struck out 14 in a win against the Marlins in late September, so his stuff was there.

But bad stuff started to happen a year later. On August 4, 2008 Maine was placed on the dl with a strained rotator cuff. He came back to make three more starts but went back on the dl and manager Jerry Manuel decided to end his season right there. Maine underwent shoulder surgery and doctors removed what they said was the largest bone spur they ever saw.

Now here's the thing. After this operation, the Mets took a major gamble. The following January, the team avoided arbitration and signed Maine to a one year $2.6 million contract. Mega bone spur, 2.6 mil. Go figure. Would this have anything to do with the boys in the Bronx signing both CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to mega deals a few months before? Gotta keep up with the Jones' even though the Jones' just drove out of the showroom with a Lamborghini and you just scooted off the lot with a Buick Regal. Damn those Jones'!

Maine stunk up the joint in April going 1-2 with a 5.40 in four April starts. He then started to work his way back in May going 4-1. But the Regal began to sputter in June as he was placed on the dl with "arm fatigue." Translated, that means a pitcher's arm aches so bad he can barely brush his teeth. He came back in mid-September and looked good in a game against the Astros, so the Mets figured "Houston, there is no problem" after all. They signed him to another one year deal, this time for $3.3 million. But there was indeed a problem. He got off to another slow start and spent more time on the dl. Then it all went kaboom.

On May 20 his start against the Nationals was shorter than Jose Reyes' attention span after getting on base. In a non-walk season that is. Maine walked the leadoff batter on four pitches all in the mid-80's. Kinda like a boxer just coming off brain surgery starting a bout with his hands down taking four quickies off the chin. After one more pitch Manuel cried "No Mas!" and took Maine out of the game. The two had a heated discussion in the dugout. Pitching coach Dan Warthen said Maine "wasn't throwing as hard as he could because he was hiding yet another injury" and that he "was a habitual liar" when it came to his health. I remember using a Maine soundbite during my morning sports report on Bloomberg Radio the next morning where Maine said his arm didn't feel great, but that's how it usually feels. Nothing out of the ordinary. Turns out it was the last pitch he'd throw not only for the Mets but in a major league uniform. In July he had arthroscopic shoulder surgery and was done for the rest of the season.

The sad part of it is his age. He's only 30. What's even sadder is that after signing a minor league contract with the Rockies, he couldn't even look halfway decent in Triple-A. Last week Maine allowed eight runs on 10 hits in four-plus innings in a game against the Diamondbacks farm team. His ERA is 7.43 with 37 walks in 46 innings. He was so bad this season that he left the team and is considering throwing in the towel.

It all comes down to an athlete's pride vs. his common sense. Pride says, "Be macho. The guys and skip will respect me." Common sense says, "Don't be a schmuck. Self preservation's the name of this game bro."
In Maine's case it looks like pride won. And when Maine does throw in the towel chances are it won't even be that hard. On the radar gun that is. 


Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Game Just Isn't The Same

Going to a baseball game just isn't like it used to be when I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn. I'm sure a lot has do with what I do for a living - radio sportscasting. You have to be objective. You can't let your love for your favorite team cloud your judgement. Unless you're a sports talk host where management wants you to be as opinionated and outrageous as possible,  you have to be neutral. So the rare times I get to a ballgame as a paying fan and not a member of the media, I sit in my seat much calmer and less out for blood than I used to.

When The Game Was A Game
I remember when I was a kid, Al Kaline tore his shoulder making a catch against the Yankees for the final out. "I hope he dies!" I cried. I mean I really cried. My father said, "Joel, don't ever say that." I thought he was crazy. How could anyone not want someone who just made a ridiculous catch to beat the Yankees dead?

There are other reasons the game has changed for me. Money. When I played amateur ball and tried so hard to make it to the pros, I never, ever thought of money as part of it. It was ego. Me smokin' my heater past the guy at the plate. Having my arm get me to where I wanted to go - the mound at Yankee Stadium where I could tip my hat to my dad in the front row by the Yankee dugout and make all the sweat and struggle to get there worthwhile. Walking out of the same players entrance where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle used to, signing autographs with a sexy blond with big hair and a tight skirt holding my (left) arm. And after a road game going to dinner with Ron Guidry and the guys feeling privileged and on top of the world. Never money though. Never an issue with me. Just making it was my goal. So seeing what ballplayers (and owners) make does take away a lot of the childhood passion I once had. No more Seaver vs. Stargell or Clemens vs. Big Papi. Now it's down to one guy making $23 million a season against another guy making $14.5 and how they could be wearing the other's uniform a year from now.

A Test of My Devotion
Two years ago I decided that I'd do all I could to see the first-ever game at the new Yankee Stadium. Not an easy thing to do especially since I live in Port St. Lucie, Florida.  I managed to get a ticket through one of the online ticket resellers and book a flight to New York.

 My plan - to get to the Stadium early enough to take in the sights, take a few pictures, see the game and get out with enough time to make my return flight.

I got to the airport real early and to my surprise saw a few guys wearing Yankees hats. "Is this just another couple of ex-New Yorkers wearing Yankees hats as part of their fashion statement or are they crazy enough to be doing what I'm doing?" I asked myself.  One guy sat across from me on the plane. So I asked him. Sure enough he was a transplanted New Yorker taking his kid to opening day. But not returning the same day like I was.

Yankees and Indians, first game ever at the New Yankee Stadium. Gorgeous day. The place looked like a brand new sparkling version of the old stadium, the real one before the 1974-75 renovation. I got a couple of those $6.50 hot dogs and at the condiment stand stood next to a guy with a Red Sox hat on. What kind of schmuck would do this to himself? And the Red Sox were no where in sight! I usually avoid conversation with strangers but I couldn't resist. "Aren't you in the wrong place?" "Just checking things out," he said. So an enemy with at least some awareness of this historic day.

As I sat in my seat in the upper right field stands I couldn't help but pay attention to everything except the game. CC Sabathia against Cliff Lee. Didn't matter. Hey look at that scoreboard! Damn, that facade looks just like the one in the old place! I wonder how much they're charging for a scorecard...The game itself was a mere distraction. I could hardly keep my attention on what was happening on the field. Before I knew it, the Indians were up by like 10 runs. Now I'm keeping my eye on my watch. Should I take a cab to LaGuardia or chance it and leave in the 7th and save a few bucks by taking the subway? I couldn't deal with this anymore. Cab it was. Leaving a ballgame before the final out was never in my vocabulary. Heresy. Real fans don't do such a thing. At least anywhere outside of LA. Today, in the first game ever in a place that will be around a lot longer than I will, I have to throw in the towel. It's a long flight back I told myself. But deep down I knew better.

The game just wasn't the same anymore.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Reporters Worst Nightmare...My Own at Least with the Late Great Herb Brooks

It came one night at Madison Square Garden during the 1983-84 season. Herb Brooks was the Rangers head coach. As you may recall, Herb coached the 1980 U.S. Men's Olympic Hockey Team to a tremendous upset victory over the Soviet Union en route to the gold medal at Lake Placid. He was in his third season as coach of the New York Rangers and was doing a good job turning a group of talented and semi-talented individuals into a team capable of upsetting the top teams in the NHL on any given night.

Now I can't tell you about his lockeroom demeanor, but I can tell you Herb was a very personable man off the ice. Sometimes on an off-night, he would go to an Islanders or Devils home game to scout the opposition on his own. And for whatever reason, he seemed to take a liking to me even though (he didn't know) during my free time I was a fan of the hated rival Islanders. We would often sit in the media room before the game and casually chat about hockey and other things.

On this night at the Garden, the Rangers offense couldn't get untracked. They lost a low scoring game and the team was in the middle of a scoring slump.

I was standing in front and to the right of Herb as he answered a reporter's question about the lack of offense (or OH-fense as he would pronounce it). He was giving his explanation in coach-speak...lots of technical x's and o's; good for newspaper reporters, very boring for radio listeners. He went on for a couple of minutes, and as he did my mind wandered on things like "will there be any food left in the press room when I go back for my coat," and "I hope I don't miss my train." As Herb finished, I figured I'd jump right in and ask him about the Rangers lack of offense.

"Herb, what about the lack of offense?"

Cackles, gaffaws, and laughter of all kinds erupted from the group of newspaper and television reporters seated behind us. Herb looked down at me, paused, and grabbed my thin leather tie (popular at the time) from the bottom and slowly rolled it up in his fist into a ball.

"What did I just finish saying?"

The laughter grew louder. I turned beet red. Herb smiled gently and let go of my tie. He could've screamed, thrown something, called me a name or embarrassed me in front of my peers in any number of ways. Instead, he paused and gave a shorter more radio-friendly answer. This on a night where his Rangers lost a tough one. I slithered out of the press conference with a wet shirt on a very cold night.

I learned a simple yet very important lesson that night- always listen to what the person you're interviewing is saying. And thanks Herb, wherever you are, for being a gentleman.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What A Mess in Dodgertown

I normally wouldn't feel bad for Dodgers fans. I'm still hurting from the '81 World Series when my Yankees had a 2-0 series lead but lost four straight after playing without an injured Reggie Jackson and playing with Dave Winfield and his impotent bat. Not to mention Aurielio Rodriguez at third instead of Graig Nettles and the unforgettable image of Fernando Valenzuela's eyeballs rolling up to the heavens during each pitch as if to say, "Thank you God for letting me get these guys out with this Mexican League crap."

Anyway, today's a new day. California's a beautiful place, and with former Yankee great Donnie Baseball getting his managerial feet wet, I gotta have at least some sympathy for the Dodger faithful.

This War of the Roses-like courtroom fight over control of the franchise bewteen Frank and Jamie McCourt has strangled the ability of the front office to spend money to improve the team.

Because my own mom royally screwed my dad in an ugly divorce when I was a kid, I usually side with the guy in such matters. But this one's different. He was a cab driver.
I see Frank McCourt as Dennis Kozlowski wearing a Dodgers hat. You know, the former CEO of Tyco, now a convicted thief who "misappropriated" $400 million in company funds, and allegedly had the company pay $30 million for his NYC apartment and spent $1 million for his wife's 40th birthday party on the Italian island of Sardinia.
McCourt has apparently double-talked his way into bleeding this storied franchise dry. And now Jamie is asking a judge to order the sale of the team because her ex-husband has brought the team "to the brink of financial ruin."

Of course she's no angel either. She wants top dollar and a quick sale, probably so she can take her loot and make off with some office intern to her own Italian island. Her lawyers say the Dodgers and its properties could be worth more than $2 billion.

Less than a month ago, baseball commish Bud Selig appointed former Texas Rangers President Tom Schieffer to oversee the team's finances. Baseball officials say McCourt wasn't able to make the May 31st player payroll. He says everything would work out fine if only Selig would let his television deal with Fox, that he says could be worth more than $3 billion,  go through.

It looks like MLB didn't do enough due dilligence when deciding whether Frank McCourt would be a financially stable owner. And because of that dark rain clouds will continue to hover over Dodger Stadium.

A $30,000 umbrella stand anyone?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

He Spoke When Spoken To

The 1980's weren't pretty for the New York Yankees. It was the first decade since the 1910's they didn't win a World Series. The Dark Ages of Yankees baseball picked up where it left off in in the mid 1970's prior to the Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson regime. Bad trades and poor free agent signings (Steve Kemp, Ed Whitson, Ken Griffey and Roy Smalley to name a few) along with George Steinbrenner's 15 managerial changes made going to the "ball orchard in the South Bronx" as much fun as a stroll in Central Park with Robert Chambers.

In mid-1990 a reporter friend of mine asked if I could cover the game for him and send the sound bites to his radio network. It was the first Yankees game I ever covered and I was learning the do's and don't's on the fly. The Yankees were well on their way to a 67-win season under Stump Merrill (that pretty much says it all- a team run by a guy nicknamed "Stump." What comes to mind? I think of the remains of a dead tree with no hope for life) and later by Bucky Dent.

The Yankees won big that night and Claudell Washington had three or four hits, drove in a few runs, so of course he was on my short list of interview subjects. When the cramped Yankees clubhouse opened I saw a bunch of players relaxing on couches and chairs, some playing cards, some eating, others heading to the shower. Washington was at the far side of the room and I noticed that he was sitting by himself with no reporter within 40 feet of him. I bolted from the pack of reporters, turned on my tape recorder and walked over to him. He gave me kind of a surprised look. I asked him four of five questions and he politely answered them all. I thanked him and walked back to Bob, my reporter friend who regularly covered most of the team's home games. Bob gave me a strange look.

"Did you just talk to Washington?"


Bob laughed. "Because he doesn't talk to the media."

I laughed back. "Well he just talked to me."

I let Bob dub the interview so he could feed the stations he was stringing for, and then headed back to the press room.

A lesson was learned that night even though it was through pure ignorance on my part. The old saying is true after all..."It never hurts to ask."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Day I Nearly Killed Joe Dimaggio

Aside from former baseball legends like Bob Feller and other pitchers who faced the great Joe D. from the 1930's through the early '50's, there aren't many people who could say they did what I did on that late summer day in 1987.

It was the first Sunday in August. My friend Mike, who worked as an auditor for The Bowery Savings Bank invited me to their annual corporate summer outing in Connecticut. Plenty of burgers, dogs, beer and bank teller cuties to indulge in so it was a no brainer. But there was going to be a very special guest - none other than Joltin' Joe Dimaggio who at that time also served as a tv pitchman for the now defunct Savings and Loan.

Dimaggio appeared at Mike's branch earlier that week and being the thoughtful friend he is had Dimaggio sign my baseball. I had Ted Williams sign the same ball a few years earlier, but it was stolen from my home in 2004 - that's another story.

I was still playing Stan Musial baseball, and although my control was erratic to say the least, I could still bring it. So getting a chance to see Joe D. in person and maybe getting a picture of him would make quite a memory.

Whenever I could, I'd pitch to Mike, just to keep sharp. Although he was an accomplished martial artist, Mike wasn't the most gifted catcher I ever threw to. Slow reflexes. Kind of an amateur Jorge Posada as far as balls getting past him.

So here we were having a catch in this wonderfully wooded park on a lazy, hazy summer afternoon. I started loosening up, feeling like a poor man's version of Goose Gossage, and I felt it was time to let it fly. A high hard one that I can still see clear as day 24 years later. Sure enough, Mike couldn't get his glove up in time and the slick white ball went zipping past him, ricocheting off a tree about 20 feet behind him. It then took a detour at the exact moment a group of business suits emerged from the thicket. Holy sh*t! It just missed Dimaggio by inches! He had his head down while he was talking to the corporate yes men and never even saw it. Mike and I froze for a moment with petrified grins before thanking the powers that be that he wasn't going to get fired and I wasn't going to join Bernie Getz on the front page of The New York Post.

Dimaggio and his group walked to a grassy spot and stopped, completely unaware of what nearly happened. Out of curiosity, Mike and I walked up to them. There we were standing right next to the man voted "The Greatest Living Ballplayer" and here he was, the guy who was the idol of hundreds of millions worldwide, who actually brought Chicken Delight back home to Marilyn Monroe (for a short time), and who looked me right in the eye and continued to say whatever he was saying to the suits, just like I was a close personal friend. I still get goose bumps just thinking about it.

Joe D. and me. Go figure.

Later that afternoon Mike and I played in the company softball game. I smoked not one, but two pitches over the left field fence, both over 340 feet away on the regulation baseball field. I actually won a trophy for being the star of the game. But the real trophy will always be the picture in my mind of the legendary Joe Dimaggio walking, head down, completely oblivious to the heater that nearly made me a Trivial Pursuit legend.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Joba Built Like A Hut

 It looks as if the 25 pounds CC Sabathia dropped during the off season after cutting ties with Captain Crunch went right to Joba Chamberlain's torso. Joba Rules, the set of innings-outings restrictions placed on Chamberlain when he first came up and blew batters away in 2007, never seemed to mention reporting to spring training looking like Fat Albert. According to The New York Daily News Chamberlain has put on 25-30 pounds and now weighs in at 250-260.

Chamberlain hasn't been the same pitcher since he hurt his shoulder in a game in Texas late in the 2008 season. After getting pulled, he went on the DL and since then lost anywhere between 7-9 mph off his fastball. I remember watching his Yankees debut when he came in relief against the Blue Jays and hit 100 on several pitches.

Could he be trying to gain some of that heat back by getting fat? David Wells had a nice career going that route, but most pitchers can't. You have more weight behind your throws, but you feel slow and your reaction time slows down too. But the man he has to impress the most, GM Brian Cashman doesn't appear to be convinced right off the bat. “He's heavier, he's heavier” said Cashman. Manager Joe Girardi, who will have to balance a pitching staff better than those guys who used to balance spinning saucers on the old Ed Sullivan Show said it's never good for a young man like Chamberlain to put on that many pounds, but the bottom line will be performance.

All of this can't be but another negative for a career that has quickly spiraled downward. After his awesome major league debut, Hank Steinbrenner came out and basically said anyone who doesn't think Joba should start is as moron. I have to admit that I was one of those morons. Starting stuff and relieving stuff are two very different things. The biggest adjustment is endurance. You have to take something off and pace yourself if you're going to pitch six or seven innings as opposed to one or two. His 100 mph heat shown during one or two innings can't be sustained by most hard throwers over six or seven. And with Chamberlain it quickly showed. In 2008 and 2009 he went 13-9 in 43 starts and his 4.75 ERA in 2009 must have had Hank scratching his head like Homer Simpson.

So it comes down to whether Joba's extra weight will add another 5-6 mph to his fastball or end up making him even more dead weight than he has already become. Mariano is still Mariano, and now they have Rafael Soriano as the bridge. That leaves Joba battling David Robertson for the seventh innings setup role. My bet is on Joba losing the extra pounds and developing an out pitch or getting mentally ready to have the clubhouse man fit him for another uniform – an xxl without pinstripes.