Cooperstown Confidential - Spring Training Edition - 03/05/2003
Thinking Of Bobby Bonds: A number of players have been compared to Willie Mays over the past 40 years—Eric Davis, the late Glenn Burke, and Cesar Cedeno are just three that come to mind—but only one has ever played on the same team with the “Say Hey Kid” while having to deal with the burden of unfair comparisons. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Bobby Bonds not only played next to Mays in the Giants outfield but also displayed such an immediate combination of athleticism, pure power, and baseball instincts that some fans were convinced they were watching the new Mays and the old Mays at the same time. And yet, by 1975, both old and new had left the Bay Area; Mays was traded to the Mets and then retired after a dismal 1973 World Series, while Bonds joined the other New York team in a straight-up swap for the talented but athletically inferior Bobby Murcer. Bonds slugged .512 in his lone season with the Yankees (while playing in the pitcher’s haven of Shea Stadium), but he could never make people forget the more popular Murcer and soon became an Angel, in exchange for the uncelebrated package of Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa. From there, Bonds hurt his hand and bounced from club to club, raising questions with his fast lifestyle. On the field, his critics said he struck out too much, didn’t run out routine ground balls, and couldn’t hit the cut-off man. Ever a threat to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases, he remained productive but enigmatic, never quite living up to the foreshadowing of superstardom and always giving teams reasons to move him on to another destination.
These were just some of the thoughts that came to mind last week when it was revealed that Bobby Bonds is very ill, stricken with lung cancer and facing a horrible series of chemotherapy treatments. Another thought that came to mind was this: we’re hearing about an increasing number of players from that era (the late sixties and seventies) who have been hit with lung cancer, the probable result of a culture that too readily accepted cigarettes, in part because they didn’t have the volume of medical information that we have today. Mark Belanger, a persistent smoker, died from lung cancer. John Milner, also a heavy smoker, also died from the same kind of cancer. And just last fall, Dave McNally (one of Belanger’s teammates in Baltimore) succumbed to lung cancer.
Hopefully, for Bobby Bonds, the end result will be better. He turns 57 years old this month and would like to watch his remarkable son Barry play for a few more seasons. He’d like to be sitting in one of the front row seats on the lawn of the Clark Sports Center when his son makes his induction speech in Cooperstown. Let’s say a prayer that it turns out better for Bobby Bonds.
Generation To Generation: It’s become one of the growing tends in professional baseball: the proliferation of second-generation players who have either made the major leagues or have at least cracked the rankings of top minor league prospects. As spring training pushes into its secondary phase of exhibition games, we can expect to see several sons-of-former-major leaguers trying to make impressions on the ballfields of Arizona and Florida. Here are a few such players, none of whom have big league experience, but all of whom are rated among the best prospects in their respective organizations:
Josh Barfield (2b; San Diego Padres): He’s the son of Jesse Barfield, the cannon-armed right fielder with 40-home run power, but a completely different player than his father. An athletic second baseman with good hands, the younger Barfield uses the entire field and has line-drive power, but needs to be more patient (only 26 walks against 105 strikeouts in 2002). The Padres fret that Barfield might grow too big to play second base, but feel that he has enough hitting potential to be a productive right-handed hitting outfielder. That decision won’t have to be made for at least a couple of years, since Barfield isn’t anywhere close to making the major leagues, with no experience beyond short-season A-ball.
Bobby Crosby (ss; Oakland A’s): Crosby’s father, Ed Crosby, wasn’t particularly well-known as a player, but did play shortstop for the Cardinals, Reds, and Indians in the 1970s before becoming a scout with the A’s’ organization. The new Crosby has a chance for more notoriety; he could be the A’s’ starting shortstop in 2004, a fallback scenario in the event that Miguel Tejada leaves the team via free agency. As for 2003, Crosby will start the season at either Double-A Midland (where he played last year) or move up a notch to Triple-A Sacramento. The 6’3” Crosby is a strong defensive shortstop with good hands and a powerful arm, but some scouts question whether he’ll maintain the range needed to play the position. On offense, the righty-swinging Crosby has hit for average and shown occasional power, but needs to draw more walks. One of Crosby’s strengths is his instinctual capability on the field, a product of growing up in a baseball family. If Crosby does make the A’s in 2004 (or sooner), he has a very good chance to do something his father never did—hit a home run in a major league game.
Scott Hairston (2b; Arizona Diamondbacks): Of all the second-generation prospects, Hairston comes from the biggest baseball family. He’s the son of Jerry Hairston Sr., the former White Sox outfielder; the grandson of Sam Hairston, the former Negro Leaguer who later became one of the first black players in the history of the White Sox; and the brother of Jerry Hairston Jr., currently the starting second baseman for the Orioles. While his brother has struggled to hit during his young major league career, Scott Hairston projects as a much better offensive player. With his short stroke and developing power from the right side, some scouts have compared him to Jeff Kent, a comparison that helps make Hairston the top prospect in the Diamondbacks’ system. Defensively, Hairston has drawn some criticism for playing a lackadaisical second base. Even with full effort, Hairston might be suited for a move to left field. Either way, he’ll probably start the season at Double-A.
Lance Niekro (1b-3b; San Francisco Giants): Like Hairston, Niekro has multiple relatives who have played in the major leagues; he’s the son of Joe Niekro and the nephew of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Like his family predecessors, the young Niekro throws a knuckleball, but he doesn’t pitch in the pros. Lance has split his time between first base and third base, showing enough range to play the hot corner. At the plate, the right-handed swinging Niekro is a spray hitter who has yet to show the expected level of power; he also needs to be more selective at the plate, having drawn only seven walks at Double-A Shreveport in 2002. Another concern involves Niekro’s durability, given that he’s had surgeries to his shoulder and wrist over the last two years. In spite of the lack of home runs and walks, Niekro is expected to start the season at Triple-A.
Spring Training Sonnets: White Sox second baseman D’Angelo Jimenez has long been one of the favorites of the Sabermetric world, touted as a better prospect than Alfonso Soriano since the 1999 season. Yet, Jimenez apparently didn’t leave many baseball-playing friends behind in San Diego. Jimenez recently criticized his former club for not being team-oriented, for being too concerned with selfish, individual goals. Several Padres responded in kind, but none more severely than Ryan Klesko. The slugging first baseman called Jimenez “the laziest teammate” he’s ever had in his career, which includes an earlier stint with the Braves. Klesko says that he tried to help Jimenez and offer him advice, but that the young middle infielder simply wouldn’t listen… After making it quite clear that they wanted no part of Rickey Henderson, the A’s decided to pluck another right-handed bat from the ranks of the unemployed. Ron Gant doesn’t fill the Oakland need for a leadoff hitter, but he still hammers left-handers and does play the outfield better than Henderson—at least at this stage of their respective careers. And who would have thought that we’d ever be saying that Ron Gant was actually a better defensive outfielder than Rickey Henderson?... The new, bright orange jerseys—including those awful armpit stripes—being worn by the Mets this spring are truly horrid, worse even than the all-red pajamas used by the 1975 Indians and those bright red/orange uniforms sported by the Orioles in 1971. Even Sigourney Weaver, who was asked to model one of the new shirts at the start of spring training, didn’t look that good showcasing the new look. Thank goodness the Mets won’t be wearing their new “Orange Alert” uniforms in regular season games. After donning them in pre-game warm-ups, the Mets will go back to their usual uniforms. Now if only they’d get rid of the black jerseys and caps and start wearing their pinstripes more often… On a more serious note with the Mets, let’s throw a tip of the cap toward Pat Strange, one of New York’s top pitching prospects despite having offseason elbow surgery. Pat and his wife recently named their newborn son Brian Cole Strange, in memory of the former Mets’ prospect who was killed in a car accident two years ago. Brian Cole, an outfielder with speed and a onetime teammate of Strange, was one of the most highly regarded youngsters in the Mets’ organization and might have been a candidate to fill the leadoff position that has become such a trouble spot for the parent team… While much has been made in Port St. Lucie of Mo Vaughn’s offseason weight loss, an even more significant conditioning story can be found in Bradenton (Florida), where the Pirates train in the spring. Aramis Ramirez, who saw his home runs drop from 38 to 14 and his batting average fall from .300 to .234, reported to camp 21 pounds lighter. Ramirez is one of several “must-haves” for the Pirates, if they are to continue their improvement in the National League Central. Ramirez must have a season like he did in 2001, just as enigmatic Jason Kendall must stop his two-year decline, and Kris Benson must emerge as a No. 1 starter in order for the Bucs to have any chance of approaching 80 wins… Even though the Pirates signed Reggie Sanders last month, they haven’t backed away from the possibility of acquiring another veteran outfielder. They’ve made an offer to former Giant Kenny Lofton, who could play center field for the Bucs and allow them to move Brian Giles to a corner outfield spot, where he belongs. And if the Pirates don’t sign Lofton, they might still be interested—believe it or not—in the Yankees’ Raul Mondesi. Up until now, the Pirates haven’t been willing to pay more than $1 million of Mondesi’s $6 million salary for 2003. If the Pirates were willing to split the money on the contract and throw in a grade-B prospect, they’d have themselves a deal with the Yankees—and Juan Rivera would have a place to play at Yankee Stadium… Pittsburgh’s interest in players like Lofton and Mondesi—along with the offseason acquisition of Matt Stairs—makes one wonder why the Pirates are not more willing to give Craig Wilson everyday playing time. The Pirates seem to think that he’s best served as a bench player, or at best, as a platoon player in right field or at first base.
Remembering One of the ’78 Yankees: Later this year, esteemed author Roger Kahn will help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1978 New York Yankees with his new book, October Men. While the book will likely focus on the central stars of those Yankees—from Reggie Jackson to Ron Guidry to Rich “Goose” Gossage—one of the more obscure members of that team passed away in late January. Bob Kammeyer, a right-handed pitcher and a longtime minor leaguer, died unexpectedly on January 27, succumbing to a pulmonary embolism At one time the top pitching prospect for the Yankees, Kammeyer pitched in seven games for the 1978 World Champions, but was not eligible for that fall’s World Series… In 1979, Kammeyer made his final big league appearance, which turned out be his most memorable—albeit for the wrong reasons—and controversial. Summoned from the bullpen by Yankee manager Billy Martin, Kammeyer allowed eight runs—including two home runs—without retiring a single Cleveland Indians batter. After the game, Martin gave Kammeyer $100, drawing charges from the Indians that the manager was giving his pitcher a monetary reward for hitting Cleveland’s Cliff Johnson with a pitch. Martin denied the accusation, explaining that he had given Kammeyer the money so that he and two other hard-hit pitchers—Paul Mirabella and Rick Anderson—could forget their woes and enjoy a night out on the town. American League president Lee MacPhail investigated the situation and apparently believed Martin’s side of the story (or couldn’t find proof of the Indians’ charges), letting the manager off without a fine or suspension… Kammeyer becomes the fourth member of the ’78 Yankees to pass away, and the second in the last two years. Jim Spencer succumbed to a heart attack in 2002, Jim “Catfish” Hunter died from ALS in 1999, and captain Thurman Munson perished in a plane crash during the 1979 season.
Passings: In addition to Kammeyer, here are other notable baseball figures—including an active player, a prominent umpire, a well-known owner, and a Hall of Fame sportswriter—who have died during the first two months of 2003.
Steve Bechler (Died on February 17; age 23; complications from heatstroke): The young Baltimore Orioles’ right-hander died less than 24 hours after collapsing during a workout at the team’s spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bechler’s body temperature rose to 108 degrees, causing several of his internal organs to fail. As indicated in a report by the Broward County medical examiner, Bechler had been taking the dietary supplement Xenadrine RFA-1, which contains the controversial stimulant, ephedrine. The FDA has linked ephedrine, which has been banned by the NFL, the NCAA, and the International Olympic Committee, to heatstroke and heart disease. According to his mother, Bechler had a history of heat-related illnesses, having suffered heatstroke on two occasions during his high school career. Bechler had made his major league debut in 2002—pitching in three games and allowing seven earned runs in four and two-thirds innings—and was trying to make the Orioles’ Opening Day roster this spring.
Haywood Sullivan (Died on February 12; age 72; effects of a stroke): A controversial figure in the city of Boston, the multi-talented Sullivan worked at most every level of baseball, starting out his career as a player before becoming a manager and then an owner. A catcher throughout his playing days, Sullivan made his major league debut in 1955, when he was called up to the Boston Red Sox. He remained with the Red Sox intermittently through 1960, before joining the Kansas City Athletics. Within two years after his catching days ended, Sullivan became the A’s manager. He lasted part of one season (1965)—forging a record of 54-82—before rejoining the Red Sox organization as director of player personnel. A few years after the death of Tom Yawkey, Sullivan became a part owner of the Red Sox, along with Jean Yawkey and Buddy LeRoux. Filling the dual role of owner and general manager, Sullivan drew the ire of Red Sox fans when he failed to mail a contract offer—as mandated by a deadline—to the team’s star catcher, Carlton Fisk. The missed deadline allowed Fisk to become a free agent under a technicality, resulting in his departure to the Chicago White Sox. Two years later, Sullivan saw his tenure as general manager come to an end when LeRoux became sole owner and then fired him as general manager, a move that Sullivan contested in court. Sullivan also drew media criticism, specifically cries of nepotism, after the Red Sox drafted and signed his son, Marc, eventually bringing him up to the major league roster despite mediocre accomplishments as a minor leaguer.
Stokes Hendrix (Died on February 5; age 89): Hendrix pitched briefly in the Negro Leagues, toiling for the Nashville Elites in 1934.
Jack Hays(Died on January 30; age 48; leukemia): At the time of his death, Hays worked as a western regional scout for the Detroit Tigers. He had previously coached and played in the minor leagues.
Jack Rogers(Died on January 25; age 87): The traveling secretary for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 to 1991, Rogers made travel arrangements for the team’s players, coaches, and their families. Prior to joining the Red Sox, Rogers worked in public relations for the Boston Braves. During World War II, Rogers served as a Navy pilot aboard an aircraft carrier.
Dutch Meyer (Died on January 19; age 87): A six-year veteran of the major leagues, Meyer played second base for the Cubs, Tigers, and Indians. He enjoyed his best full season in 1945, when he hit .292 with seven home runs for Cleveland.
Earl Lawson(Died on January 14; age 79; cancer): The winner of the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award (given to an outstanding baseball writer) in 1986, Lawson covered the Cincinnati Reds for 34 seasons. He first became a fulltime baseball writer for the Cincinnati Times-Star in 1951, before joining the Cincinnati Post in 1958. Known for holding strong opinions and featuring a tough, old-school approach, Lawson worked at the Post until retiring in 1984.
John Ritchey (Died on January 14; age 80): A onetime batting champion in the Negro Leagues, Ritchey starred for the Chicago American Giants before embarking on a seven-year stint in the Pacific Coast League. In 1947, the hard-hitting catcher led the Negro American League with a .381 batting mark. He moved on to the PCL the following season.
Ernie Rudolph(Died on January 13; age 93): The diminutive 5’ 8” right-hander made seven appearances for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, when he finally made the major leagues at the age of 36. Rudolph picked up one win for the Dodgers, posting a 5.19 ERA in eight and two-thirds innings. After his playing days, Rudolph scouted for the Braves and Cubs organizations.
Durwood Merrill(Died on January 11; age 64; complications from heart attack): One of the most colorful umpires of his era, Merrill worked as an American League arbiter for 23 years. His assignments included the 1988 World Series and the 1984 and 1995 All-Star games. Merrill, who was often criticized for his umpiring, was known for feuding with Nestor Chylak, the American League’s supervisor of umpires and previously an umpire himself. Merrill discussed the feud in his book, You’re Out and You’re Ugly Too. Off the field, Merrill drew praise for his extensive charity work, often putting in long hours at Christmas time to feed the poor in his native Texarkana, Texas.
Don Landrum (Died on January 9; age 66): Landrum, a journeyman outfielder who played five seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, and San Francisco Giants, was best remembered for being part of a major four-player trade in the mid-1960s. After the 1965 season, the Cubs dealt Landrum and relief ace Lindy McDaniel to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Randy Hundley and pitcher Bill Hands.
Ed Albosta (Died on January 6; age 84): Nicknamed “Rube,” Albosta pitched two seasons in the major leagues sandwiched around the World War II years. He debuted in 1941 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and then wrapped up his career with a 17-game stint for the Pirates in 1946. Albosta lost all eight of his major league decisions.
Joe Ostrowski (Died on January 3; age 86): The former St. Louis Browns’ left-hander pitched for five seasons in the major leagues, including a stint with the New York Yankees. Nicknamed “Specs” and “Professor,” Ostrowski hurled two scoreless innings in the 1951 World Series, as the Yankees claimed the World Championship.
Jim Westlake (Died on January 3; age 72): Westlake’s major league career consisted of one at-bat (0-for-1) with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1955. He also played for several seasons in the Pacific Coast League, starring for the Sacramento Solons and San Francisco Seals.
Bud Metheny (Died on January 2; age 87): The longtime baseball coach at Old Dominion University, Metheny also spent four seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder. During his 32 years at Old Dominion, went 423-363-6 and was named national coach of the year in 1964. Metheny was one of the last players to wear No. 3 for the New York Yankees, before the franchise retired the number in honor of Babe Ruth in 1948.
Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One.
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