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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 07/24/2003

The Lost Art Of Old-Timers’ Day

It’s a near disgrace the fate that has befallen Old-Timers’ Day, a once popular promotion that has become just about as extinct as complete games, doubleheaders, and four-man rotations. Other than teams like the New York Yankees, who still stage a full-fledged Old-Timers’ Day each summer, or the New York Mets and Oakland A’s, who are holding 30th anniversary reunions for championship teams of 1970s vintage, few teams are making the effort to honor their alumni as part of their regular season schedules. That’s shameful, and not because Old-Timers’ Days serve some nebulous public relations purpose. Old-Timers’ Days aren’t just good promotions; they’re really the best promotions that teams can stage because they offer a level of enjoyment for all parties involved. Fans who are in their thirties or older love them because they offer a boatload of memories involving teams of their youth. The old-timers certainly enjoy them for the opportunities to reunite with former teammates while enjoying a brief, expenses-paid vacation. Even today’s players appreciate the experience, given the chance to mingle with some legendary figures—while collecting some autographs—from a team’s not-too-distant past.

So why has Old-Timers’ Day become a mere afterthought in the era of the Beanie Baby and the bobblehead doll? Some teams claim they’re too expensive, while others say they simply involve too much work, since there is so much planning and preparation involved. Well, both factors play a role here, but they really serve as excuses more than legitimate reasons. While an Old-Timers’ Day program is certainly more expensive than most promotional events, a good one featuring about 50 former players can still be staged for less than the current minimum salary of $300,000—and that’s nothing in the multi-billion dollar industry that baseball has become. As for the work involved, most major league teams have far more front office employees today than they did 25 to 30 years ago, when Old-Timers’ Days were all the rage. Yes, it’s work, but it’s also fun work, and when it’s done right, it pays off in ways far more rewarding than “Jason Tyner Bobblehead Night.” And in a sport where history is appreciated—no, make that demanded—more than in any other, Old-Timers’ Day needs a revival in the present so that it can avoid becoming a relic of the past.

Still Special In The Bronx

Thankfully, the Yankees continue to stage Old-Timers’ Day, something that they’ve done for over 50 years. They continue to do it well (though I miss the late Frank Messer as the host), with a full slate of introductions, a smattering of Hall of Famers, and the requisite two- to three-inning Old-Timers’ game. Although the Yankees have featured this special day longer than anyone, they sprinkled a few “new” old-timers into this year’s celebration. A number of ex-Yankees attended Old-Timers’ Day for the first time, including catchers Jim “The King” Leyritz and Duke Sims (who hit the last home run at the old Yankee Stadium); infielders Bucky Dent (of 1978 fame and now the manager of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers; Mike Hegan (the son of former Yankee coach Jim Hegan) and Luis Sojo; outfielder Rusty Torres; and pitchers Jim Abbott and Jim Kaat. Kaat’s exclusion from previous Old-Timers’ events was especially curious, given his presence as a Yankee broadcaster for the better part of the last decade.

Remembering 1978

As part of the Yankees’ Old-Timers weekend, the organization honored the 25th anniversary of the 1978 Yankees. Overcoming a 14-and-a-half-game deficit in the American League East, the Yankees rallied to tie the Boston Red Sox at season’s end, setting up a classic tiebreaking play-off game at Fenway Park. Continuing the comeback theme in the postseason, the Yankees rallied to beat both the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Dodgers on their way to repeating as World Champions. With the 25th anniversary of that legendary team on our mind, here’s an update on the fortunes and whereabouts of the playing members of the ‘78 Yankees. (Those marked with an asterisk attended Old-Timers’ Day festivities on July 19.)

Thurman Munson (catcher): His power production having already fallen off in 1978, Munson continued his offensive slide during the first half of the 1979 season. With his knees racked by pain, the Yankees began to consider him at other positions, playing him as a DH and first baseman by late July. With his career at a crossroads, far more tragic circumstances struck the Yankees on August 2. While most of the Yankee players enjoyed an off day during a frustrating season, Munson practiced landings and takeoffs of his private plane at the Akron-Canton Airport. (Munson frequently commuted between New York and Canton, Ohio to spend time with his wife and three children.) During one of his landing attempts that afternoon, Munson’s plane crashed, having fallen short of the runway, and burst into flames. The fiery accident killed the Yankee captain and onetime American League MVP, who was just 32 years old. Less than a week later, Yankee players attended his funeral, where he was eulogized by Bobby Murcer, who had rejoined the organization in July. In Munson’s honor, the Yankees immediately retired his uniform No. 15, kept his Yankee Stadium locker empty, and didn’t name another team captain until 1982, when they rewarded veteran third baseman Graig Nettles with the post.

Cliff Johnson (catcher): After serving as a valuable backup catcher and first baseman for the ’78 Yankees, “Heathcliff” found himself engaged in a lockerroom brawl with Rich Gossage during the early part of a disastrous 1979 season. The clubhouse fight resulted in a broken thumb for the Yankees’ relief ace, which sealed Johnson’s fate in New York. Just moments before the June 15th trade deadline, the Yankees traded Johnson to the Cleveland Indians for left-handed reliever Don Hood. Serving the Tribe mostly as a first baseman and DH, Johnson remained with the Indians until the middle of the 1980 season, when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for a minor leaguer and cash. That winter, Johnson returned to the American League, dealt to the Oakland A’s for infielder Keith Drumright. Spending the balance of his career as a pinch-hitter and DH, Johnson bounced around with several AL clubs, including the A’s, Toronto Blue Jays, and Texas Rangers. While with Toronto, he set a major league record with his 19th career pinch-hit home run, breaking the mark held by Jerry Lynch. Since his retirement in 1986, Johnson has remained out of organized baseball, but still makes regular appearances at Old-Timers’ Day and other “legends circuit” events.

Fran Healy (catcher): As Reggie Jackson’s best (and perhaps only) friend on the 1977 and ‘78 Yankees, Healy played more of a political than playing role during their World Championship run. As the team’s third-string catcher in 1978, the affable Healy played in only one game for the Bombers before drawing his release, and then moved immediately into the Yankees’ radio booth as a color announcer. Healy is now in his 20th season as a cable television broadcaster with the cross-town New York Mets.

Chris Chambliss (first baseman): After the Yankees’ nightmarish 1979 season, Chambliss became a victim of New York’s massive rebuilding project. He was traded to the Blue Jays as part of the package for catcher Rick Cerone. Chambliss never actually played a game for the Blue Jays, who traded him to the Atlanta Braves that winter. He played seven seasons for the Braves (surpassing the length of his tenure in New York) before retiring in 1986, and then made a strange one-game comeback with the Yankees in 1988. In his quest to become a major league manager, Chambliss began his minor league managerial career in 1989. A year later he was named Eastern League Manager of the Year. From there, he became a manager in the Braves’ farm system, and from 1993 to 2000, he served Joe Torre as a coach, first with the St. Louis Cardinals and then with the Yankees. After being fired by the Yankees, Chambliss spent time in the Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates’ organizations before joining the Mets as their hitting coach in the midst of the 2002 season. He is now in his first season as the Mets’ minor league hitting coordinator… Though he has interviewed several times for big league jobs, Chambliss has never received an offer to manage in the major leagues. The reason? His defenders point to his soft-spoken nature, while his detractors claim he lacks the analytical mind preferred in today’s young major league skippers.

*Willie Randolph (second baseman): Randolph proved a mainstay at second base for the Yankees, remaining there through the end of the 1988 season. Replaced by Steve Sax, Randolph signed a free agent contract with Sax’ former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He emerged as the Dodgers’ MVP in 1989 and then spent the first 26 games of the 1990 season in southern California before being traded to the A’s for outfielder Stan Javier. In 1991, Randolph attended the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training camp as a non-roster invitee, worked his way onto the team, and proceeded to bat .327 in 124 games. Surprisingly, the Brewers let him become a free agent, which resulted in his return to New York—this time as a member of the Mets. He batted .252 in 92 games for the Mets before retiring at the end of the 1992 season. Known for his intelligence and enthusiasm, Randolph moved on to the front office, becoming the Yankees’ assistant general manager in 1993. Yet, Randolph felt far more comfortable in uniform; he returned to pinstripes the following season as a coach for manager Buck Showalter. Randolph is now in his 10th season as the Yankees’ third base coach, a tenure that has included New York’s four most recent World Championships. Like Chris Chambliss, Randolph has interviewed for several major league managerial positions, but has yet to guide a big league teams. It remains in dispute whether he was actually offered the Cincinnati Reds’ managerial post; Randolph insists he never received an offer, but some members of the Reds’ organization claim otherwise.

*Bucky Dent (shortstop): After burning the Boston Red Sox with his career-making three-run homer in the 1978 play-off tiebreaker, Dent continued a magnificent October with a .417 batting mark that earned him MVP honors in the World Series. Dent remained with the Yankees until the middle of the 1982 season, when they traded him to the Texas Rangers for another onetime New York baseball heartthrob, Lee Mazzilli. Dent finished out the 1982 season in Texas, and then played two more lackluster seasons before retiring. He immediately moved on to managing, becoming a skipper in the Yankees’ farm system in 1985. After four and a half seasons working his way up the minor league ladder, Dent was hired as the Yankees’ manager in 1989, replacing Dallas Green. Dent closed out the 1989 season in the Bronx, but lasted only 49 games the following spring before being dismissed. Disillusioned by his rapid firing, Dent decided to become a major league coach, working for the St. Louis Cardinals as their third base coach and later for the Rangers as a dugout coach. In 2003, Dent finally returned to the managerial chair as the field boss for the Kansas City Royals’ top minor league affiliate in Omaha. Dent then rejoined the Yankees’ organization this past season when he accepted a post as manager of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Dent’s most recent stint in Columbus has been a stormy one, lowlighted by too many losses and a nasty feud with Clippers batting coach Sal Rende. Despite the controversy at Columbus, rumors persist that Dent might be in line as Joe Torre’s replacement in the Bronx, whenever that time may come.

*Graig Nettles (third baseman): One of the most underrated members of the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees, Nettles stayed in New York through the end of the 1983 season. The release of his controversial book, Balls, expedited his departure from the Yankees during the spring of 1984. George Steinbrenner peddled him to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Dennis Rasmussen and an obscure minor leaguer, in what turned out to be a brilliant move for the future National League champions. Nettles remained a productive player for the Padres before slumping in 1986. He finished out his career as a part-timer and pinch-hitter, playing single seasons for the Braves and Montreal Expos. Since retiring, Nettles has worked as a coach with the Yankees, but was fired by newly-named manager Buck Showalter for alleged “backstabbing” of previous manager Stump Merrill. Nettles is now a special spring training instructor for the Yankees.

Jim Spencer (backup first baseman): Although Spencer contributed to the 1978 cause as part of a deep Yankee bench, he longed for regular playing time, something that would not happen with Chris Chambliss entrenched as New York’s starting first baseman. Spencer thought he had received a reprieve from his pinstriped prison, first when the Yankees traded Chambliss and then again when the Yankees traded Spencer to the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of a package for Jason Thompson; in an historic move, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn negated the latter deal because of the amount of money involved. The Yankees traded Spencer again later that season, sending him to the Oakland A’s for a younger first baseman, Dave Revering. In Oakland, Spencer rejoined former Yankee skipper Billy Martin (who liked Spencer from their days together in Texas), but also found himself reunited with the dugout bench. Batting just .205 in 54 games with the A’s, Spencer continued to struggle in 1982. He batted a mere .168 in 101 at-bats, bringing his major league career to an end. After his retirement as a player, Spencer returned to the Yankees as a coach and also worked in their promotions department, sometimes playing in fantasy camps. He also served as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy... One of four playing members of the 1978 Yankees who have passed away, Spencer succumbed to a heart attack on February 10, 2002. The night before his death, the 54-year-old Spencer had played first base in a charity baseball game that benefited the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida.

Fred “Chicken” Stanley (utility infielder): A light-hitting utilityman, Stanley continued to fill a backup role for the Yankees through the end of the 1980 season. The Yankees then packaged “Chicken” and another utility infielder, Brian Doyle, to the A’s for young right-hander Mike Morgan. Stanley played two seasons in the Bay Area, batting .193 each year. In his post-playing days, Stanley has experienced better success, enjoying a long stint in the front office of the Brewers. Stanley’s administrative career reached a peak when he was named Milwaukee’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations.

Brian Doyle (utility infielder): After hitting .438 in the World Series, the diminutive Doyle played two more seasons in the Bronx before being traded to the A’s. After struggling in his one season with Oakland, Doyle stepped aside from playing and began to concentrate on the Doyle Baseball Academy that he and his brothers founded in Florida in 1978. Along with his siblings, Denny and Blake, the Doyles continue to run one of the most respected baseball schools in the country.

Roy White (outfielder): The quiet, switch-hitting outfielder returned to the Yankees in 1979, which turned out to be his final major league season. White then spent three years with the Tokyo Giants of the Japanese leagues before calling it quits for good. In 1983, White returned to the states as a coach with the Yankees, a position that he held for two seasons (1983-84) and then again in 1986. (During his coaching stint in New York, White developed a rift with Yankees manager Billy Martin, leading to a temporary departure from the organization.) White didn’t return to the Yankees until 1995, when he became a special assignment instructor and then a roving outfield instructor. Leaving the Yankees’ organization yet again, White joined the farm system of the A’s. He is now in his fifth season as the organization’s Triple-A hitting coach and in his fourth year as a member of the coaching staff of the Sacramento Rivercats of the Pacific Coast League, Oakland’s top minor league affiliate.

*Mickey Rivers (center fielder): One of the most colorful members of the ’78 Yankees, Rivers failed to last the 1979 season in pinstripes. With the Yankees facing a major rebuilding chore, they decided to deal him and three minor leaguers to the Rangers (a favorite trading partner) for outfielder-DH Oscar Gamble and three other minor leaguers; the trade took place on August 1, just one day before Thurman Munson’s unexpected death. Rivers played out the final five and a half years of his career in Texas, remaining a tough out until the end. He batted .300 in 1984, his last major league season. Since his playing days, “Mick The Quick” has worked mostly outside of baseball, except for his part-time work as one of the Yankees’ spring training instructors.

*Reggie Jackson (right fielder-DH): In 1982, “Mr. October” left the Yankees to sign a free agent deal with the Angels. He spent five seasons in southern California, matching the length of his tenure in the Bronx. Jackson then returned to the Bay Area to finish out his career, hitting 15 home runs for the A’s in 1987. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993, the same year that the Yankees retired his No. 44, Jackson worked as a consultant and front office executive for the Yankees until resigning in 1998. He has since returned to the Yankees as a community representative and as part of a special advisory group in the front office. In addition, Jackson has worked for the Yankees as a spring training batting instructor, with his hitting projects including the up-and-down fortunes of Raul Mondesi. A resident of Carmel, California, Jackson owns and operates a company that features clients in the fields of electronics and also heads up a foundation that helps youngsters learn how to use computers.

Lou Piniella (outfielder-DH): Perhaps none of the 1978 Yankees has enjoyed as much post-playing success as “Sweet Lou.” Remaining with the Yankees as a player-coach through the middle of the 1984 season, Piniella finally decided to call it quits as a player. He became a fulltime coach, forging a reputation as one of the game’s finest batting instructors. In 1986, he became the Yankees’ manager, a position he held for two seasons before moving up to the front office as the club’s general manager. In 1988, Piniella returned to the dugout when he replaced Billy Martin as skipper, but failed to lead the Yankees to the postseason. Piniella then moved into the team’s broadcast booth, working games on cable as an analyst, before continuing his career as a manager. Hired as the skipper of the Cincinnati Reds, Piniella won his first World Championship as a manager (and third overall) in 1990. After leaving the Reds (and the clutches of owner Marge Schott) in 1992, Piniella became the most successful manager in the brief history of the Seattle Mariners. He led the franchise to three Western Division titles, including an American League record 116 wins in 2001. Seemingly entrenched in Seattle, Piniella surprised some baseball observers last winter, when he left the Mariners after 10 seasons to be closer to home, creating an unlikely union between “Sweet Lou” and the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Gary Thomasson (backup outfielder): As one of the unheralded members of the ‘78 Yankees, the lefty-swinging Thomasson hit capably for New York after being acquired in mid-season from the A’s. He also played well in the outfield, both in left field and in center field, where he filled in for an injured Mickey Rivers. Yet, Thomasson didn’t last long in New York; with an overload of outfielders, the Yankees traded him to the Dodgers on February 15, 1979. He failed to hit in two seasons with Los Angeles, bringing his career to a surprisingly abrupt end at the age of 29.

Jay Johnstone (backup outfielder): Like Thomasson, Johnstone was acquired just before the trading deadline in June of 1978, giving the Yankees extra bench strength for the second half. The consummate journeyman, Johnstone lasted only 23 games with the Yankees in 1979 before being traded to the San Diego Padres for right-handed pitcher Dave Wehrmeister. After the ‘79 season, Johnstone signed as a free agent with the Dodgers. He later spent time as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter with the Cubs before returning to the Dodgers in 1985 to finish out a 20-year career. Since his playing days, Johnstone has remained active in a variety of baseball-related roles. The free-spirited Johnstone has worked as a color announcer on Phillies and Yankees radio broadcasts, has hosted several humor-based television specials, and has written three books on baseball.

Paul Blair (backup outfielder): Used as a reserve outfielder and pinch-runner on the ’78 Yankees, Blair appeared in only two games in 1979 before drawing his release. The Cincinnati Reds signed him for the balance of the season, but “Motormouth” returned to the Yankees for his final season in 1980. Since the end of his playing career, Blair has worked as an outfield instructor for the Yankees and Houston Astros, as a college coach at Fordham University and Coppin State, and as a manager in independent league baseball, but has been rebuffed in his recent efforts to become a coach or manager for a major league organization.

*Ron Guidry (starting pitcher): No player was more responsible for the Yankees’ 1978 championship than “Louisiana Lightning,” who won 25 of 28 decisions, including the division-winning game against Boston on October 1. Guidry never matched that level of success again, but remained a formidable pitcher until 1985, when he led the American League with 22 wins. He retired three years later, making him, Thurman Munson, and Roy White the only fulltime members of the ’78 Yankees to spend their entire playing careers in pinstripes. Since his pitching days, Guidry has resisted the temptation to become a coach or manager, instead working for the Yankees as a spring training instructor.

*Ed Figueroa (starting pitcher): The 1978 season represented the high point of Figueroa’s career; the Puerto Rican native won 20 games for the only time that summer. “Figgy” struggled for the next season and a half in New York, prompting his sale to the Rangers in the middle of the 1980 season. After Figueroa lost all seven of his decisions in eight games with the Rangers, he drew his release. He concluded his playing days with two poor performances for the A’s in 1981, ending his career with a record of 80-67 and an ERA of 3.51. Since his retirement, Figueroa has stayed out of organized baseball, but still makes regular appearances at Old-Timers’ Day in the Bronx.

Jim “Catfish” Hunter (starting pitcher): Rather than test the free agent waters for the second time, Hunter returned to the Yankees to finish out his career in 1979. Hunter first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1985, but had to wait until his third try to enter Cooperstown, finally winning election in 1987. Unfortunately, much of Hunter’s post-playing days met with misfortune. He was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that has also afflicted former Chicago Cubs star Ron Santo. Then in 1998, Hunter learned that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), an incurable illness that affects the nervous system. The likable Hunter died on September 9, 1999, shortly after suffering a bad fall at his home and a little more than a year after learning of his diagnosis. In response to Hunter’s plight, several of his friends and former teammates banded together to form the Jim “Catfish” Hunter ALS Foundation, hoping to raise money in the continuing effort to find a cure. To learn more about the cause or to make a donation, visit www.catfishchapter.org.

Jim Beattie (starting pitcher): Once a heralded pitching prospect, Beattie picked up two key victories in the 1978 postseason, a victory over the Kansas City Royals and a surprising complete-game win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. pitched one more season in the Bronx before being packaged in a deal to the Seattle Mariners. He remained with the M’s for seven seasons, wrapping up his career with a record of 52-87 and a 4.17 ERA. A graduate of Dartmouth, Beattie seemed like a natural for baseball’s front office, which became a reality in 1989, when he rejoined the Mariners’ organization. In 1995, Beattie earned a promotion, becoming the general manager of the Montreal Expos. He worked for the Expos for six seasons before being named the Baltimore Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations in 2002.

Ken Holtzman (relief pitcher): The first half of the 1978 season represented Holtzman’s final days in Yankee pinstripes. Having fallen into Billy Martin’s doghouse, Holtzman was sent packing on June 10, just five days before the trading deadline. The Yankees dealt him to the Cubs (his original major league team) for right-handed reliever Ron Davis, who eventually became Rich Gossage’s set-up man in the Bronx. Failing to regain his pre-Yankee form, Holtzman retired after the 1980 season, leaving the game with 174 career wins and four World Series rings. Currently a resident of Chesterfield, Missouri, Holtzman went to work as an insurance salesman before becoming an investment banker. He also does work for a local Jewish community center. In addition, Holtzman still makes public appearances at Wrigley Field.

Paul Lindblad (relief pitcher): Lindblad’s playing career came to an end with the seven games that he pitched for the World Champion Yankees in 1978. Unfortunately, his post-playing days have been among the most tragic of the ’78 Yankees. The 61-year-old Lindblad has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years, resulting in his placement in a nursing care facility.

Albert “Sparky” Lyle (relief pitcher): Uncomfortable in his role as a set-up man to Rich Gossage, Lyle pressed the Yankees’ front office to trade him after the 1978 season. The Yankees accommodated their onetime relief ace on November 10, sending him to the Texas Rangers as part of the massive 10-player deal that brought Dave Righetti to New York. Lyle remained with the Rangers until September of 1980, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for fellow left-handed reliever Kevin Saucier. In August of 1982, the Phillies sold him to the Chicago White Sox, where he finished out the season before calling it quits. With 238 career saves, he currently ranks 24th on the major leagues’ all-time saves list, a deceptive ranking given the way closers have been used since Lyle stepped aside. Still active in baseball in a non-playing role, Lyle is now in his sixth season as the manager of the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.

Dick “Dirt” Tidrow (relief pitcher): A useful long reliever and spot starter during the Yankees’ championship run, “Dirt” suddenly fell on hard times in 1979, compiling a 7.83 ERA in his first 14 appearances. The disastrous start resulted in a trade to the Cubs, who gave up another struggling right-hander, Ray Burris, in return. The 32-year-old Tidrow regained his form in Chicago, winning 11 of 16 decisions and posting a 2.71 ERA in 63 relief outings. Tidrow continued to pitch well in 1980, leading the Cubs’ staff in appearances. He remained with the Cubs through the end of the 1982 season before moving to the south side of Chicago. After one mediocre season with the White Sox, Tidrow wrapped up his career with 11 forgettable appearances for the Mets in 1984. Still, he finished his playing days with exactly 100 wins and a respectable 3.68 ERA… Tidrow left the game for several years before joining the San Francisco Giants as their major league scout for the American League in 1994. Now in his 10th year in the Bay Area, Tidrow has enjoyed several promotions. In his current position as vice president of player personnel, Tidrow makes recommendations to general manager Brian Sabean on trades and free agent signings.

*Rich “Goose” Gossage (relief pitcher): Gossage remained the Yankees’ relief ace until the winter of 1983, when he left the team as a free agent and signed with the Padres. Pitching in his first season with the Padres, Gossage and another former Yankee, Graig Nettles, helped San Diego to its first World Series berth in 1984. “The Goose” remained with the Padres for four seasons before being traded to the Cubs during the spring of 1988. Bouncing from team to team during his final season, Gossage pitched briefly for the Giants, A’s, Rangers, and Mariners, even returning to the Yankees for a forgettable 11-game stint in 1989. After his retirement, Gossage worked as a spring training instructor for the Yankees, but left the organization after the 2002 season. He now works as a pitching advisor for the Colorado Rockies, who need all the pitching help they can muster.

Major League Morsels

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein deserves credit for making an excellent trade that brought underrated left-hander Scott Sauerbeck to Boston for a still maturing Brandon Lyon. Despite his 4.00-plus ERA this season, Sauerbeck is a good reliever, period, and his sweeping curveball makes him an absolute hammerlock against left-handed batters—and that matters when you’re trying to beat a team that has Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Robin Ventura, and the soon-to-return Nick Johnson. With Sauerbeck and Byung Hyun Kim now around to handle much of the load in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, the Red Sox have a bullpen that’s about 40 per cent better than what it was at the beginning of the season… Contrary to some publicized rumors, the Red Sox never made a formal offer to the Mets for newest Yankee property Armando Benitez. With the recent move of Kim to the bullpen and some legitimate concerns over Benitez’ ability to pitch in a pennant race, the Red Sox had little interest in the enigmatic right-hander. They also had no interest in dealing any of their prospects for a pitcher who would serve as no more than a two-and-a-half-month bullpen stopgap before being allowed to leave as a free agent… As much as Derek “The Jet” Jeter deserves credit for his hustle and savvy in scoring from first on that recent bases-loaded single, the Indians deserve some healthy blame for their indifferent defensive response to the situation. While it’s understandable that starter C.C. Sabathia didn’t want to pitch from the stretch after working the entire at-bat against Jason Giambi from the full windup, the fielding team simply cannot let a baserunner reach second base by the time that the hitter makes contact with a pitch. Allowing a third runner to score on a routine single is simply bad strategy. After Jeter had initiated such an incredible running jump on the first 3-and-2 pitch, the Indians should have adjusted by holding him on at first base, especially given the improbability of Giambi pulling a hard throwing left-hander like Sabathia. To the credit of Indians manager Eric Wedge, he says such an incident won’t happen again; like it or not, his pitchers will now have to pitch from the stretch with the bases loaded and two men out… Unless the “player to be named later” is a sensational prospect, the Cubs’ recent pickup of both Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton has to be classified as a flat-out steal. In the short term, Lofton represents an upgrade over Tom Goodwin in center field while Ramirez represents a major upgrade over the flock of futility the Cubs have featured at third base this season. And let’s not forget that Ramirez is still only 25 years old, which makes you wonder how a team like the Pirates is actually rebuilding by trading away one of its younger, more talented players... In an era of 30 teams, there are always a few that could use pitching help, a reality that explains the Cardinals’ interest in the repeatedly ineffective Sterling Hitchcock. The Cardinals, looking for help in both the rotation (a need that became more pressing when Matt Morris hit the disabled list with a broken hand), prefer Hitchcock as a starter and might be foolish enough to part with lefty reliever Steve Kline in return. The Yankees still have interest in Kline, even with the rather puzzling acquisition of ancient Jesse Orosco. (If the trade with St. Louis happens, he’ll become the second “Steve Kline” to play for the Yankees in their history. The right-handed Steve Kline pitched in New York in the early 1970s.) By the way, if Brian Cashman can convince the Cards to make that exchange, he deserves Executive of the Year consideration… On an even more intriguing front—but less likely to happen—the Yankees continue to talk to the Cardinals about a deal centering on a Jeff Weaver-for-J.D. Drew exchange. With both players badly needing alterations in scenery, that potential trade makes some sense, especially with the Cardinals so badly in search of pitching and the Yankees worried that Raul Mondesi will continue to flail against right-handers in the second half.

Card Corner

This summer and fall, the Hall of Fame is paying honor to the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who celebrate the 35th anniversary of their World Championship this year. Along those lines, Hall of Fame programming intern Caleb Ostrander has developed a Sandlot Stories presentation detailing the fortunes of the ’68 Tigers, who remain a beloved team throughout Michigan and much of the Midwest. With that in mind, it seems like an appropriate time to feature one of the most colorful and critical members of those Tigers in this edition of Card Corner. Norm Cash, pictured here in a 1972 Topps card (No. 150), provided the Tigers with just the right combination of polished glovework at first base and hefty power at the plate, solidifying the middle of a home-run-hitting lineup. The 1972 Topps card is an especially appropriate image of Cash, since it shows him with his two trademarks at the plate: wearing a soft cap instead of a helmet and holding a bat that may or may not have been filled with cork. (The bat also looks like it might have a bit too much pine tar, but that’s another story.) Cash was one of the final major leaguers to wear a cap at the plate, as part of a grandfather clause attached to the 1971 rule that made batting helmets a requirement for most hitters. (Boston Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player to wear a soft cap at the plate.) After his playing career, Cash admitted to using a corked bat at various times throughout his career, including his breakout season of 1961, when he batted .361. Of course, even if he was using cork during Detroit’s championship run in 1968, it didn’t do much to counter the effects of the “Year of the Pitcher,” a development aided by high mounds, an expanding strike zone, and the emergence of larger, cookie-cutter stadiums… Cash also made bat-related news later in his career. With Nolan Ryan in the midst of his second no-hit performance in 1973, Cash decided to walk to the plate without a bat, instead carrying a piano leg in its place. The free-spirited Cash had every intention of using the piano leg, but was forced to discard the makeshift “bat” by the humorless home plate umpire… Cash concluded his career in 1974, the same year that better-known teammate Al Kaline decided to retire. Sadly, Cash’s post-playing days were haunted by tragedy. In 1979, he suffered a stroke, which affected his mobility on one side of his body. In 1986, Cash slipped on a boating dock, fell into the water, and drowned within minutes, ending his life at the young age of 51.

Pastime Passings

Bill Miller (Died on July 1 in Lititz, Pennsylvania; age 75; congestive heart failure); Known by the dual nicknames of “Lefty” and “Hooks,” Miller pitched three seasons for the New York Yankees and one for the Baltimore Orioles. Miller made his major league debut in 1952, sporting a record of 4-6 and a career-best ERA of 3.48. The Yankees won World Championships in each of Miller’s first two seasons, but the left-hander did not appear in either of those Fall Classics. He finished his career with five appearances for the Orioles in 1955.

Jack Bruner (Died on June 24 in Lincoln, Nebraska; age 88): Formerly a right-hander with the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns, the left-hander pitched in two American League seasons. He made a combined 26 appearances in 1949 and ’50.

Harry Kinzy (Died on June 22 in Fort Worth, Texas; age 92): Nicknamed “Slim,” this tall right-hander pitched 34 innings in his lone big league season in 1934. Kinzy lost his only decision for the Chicago White Sox, while forging an ERA of 4.98.

George “Slick” Coffman (Died on May 8 in Birmingham, Alabama; age 92): A veteran of four major league seasons, Coffman pitched for the Detroit Tigers from 1937-39 before concluding his career in 1940 with the St. Louis Browns. The brother of major leaguer Dick Coffman, “Slick” won 15 of 27 decisions despite an ERA of 5.60. After a respectable rookie season, Coffman posted ERA’s of over 6.00 for three consecutive seasons.

Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including the award-winning 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, who has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One, appears regularly on MLB Radio (MLB.com) each Friday from 12 noon to 1:00 pm Eastern time.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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