Beantown Bunts - 02/12/2004
Theo Epstein has rightly received credit for completing two master strokes of pitching makeover with the acquisitions of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, but he deserves just as much acclaim for the subtle moves he’s made in fortifying Boston’s bench and platoon options. The recent signing of solid citizen Ellis Burks makes so much sense that there’s virtually no downside. He’s the perfect man to platoon at DH with David Ortiz; over the last three seasons, Burks has thumped left-handers to the tune of a .384 on-base percentage and a .564 slugging percentage, all coming in a decent sampling of 305 at-bats. And even though Burks has played only 28 games in the outfield over the past three years, he still might be able to spell Manny Ramirez in left from time to time. Let’s face it, the more that Ramirez serves as a designated hitter, the better off the Red Sox will find themselves in cutting down the risk of injury and bonehead plays in the field… The pickups of Mark Bellhorn and Brian Daubach will also help the bench, giving the Sox a major advantage over the Yankees’ currently ineffectual core of reserves. Bellhorn can back up at two positions, second and third, while giving Terry Francona pinch-hitting options from either side of the plate. If he makes the team, Daubach should provide another capable pinch-hitter while also giving Francona the option of better defense at first base in the late innings of close games… Yet, the acquisition of Pokey Reese might be Epstein’s best minor maneuver of all. Reese is so good with his glove and feet that he’s the equivalent of having a shortstop at second base. As a blanket on the right side of the infield, he’ll help make up for the lack of range possessed by Ortiz and Kevin Millar at first base. And what about Reese’s limited abilities at the plate? Given the depth of the Red Sox’ lineup from the No. 1 through No. 8 hitters, they shouldn’t at all be concerned by Reese’s complete lack of an offensive game; Francona simply needs to write Pokey’s nickname onto the lineup card as often as possible. The key may be the Red Sox’ ability to keep Reese healthy, as much as any team really has such an “ability.” Reese has missed significant time over the last two seasons, but if he can put in at least 130 games this summer, he might just win the Gold Glove while making Derek Lowe and several of the Red Sox relievers (in particular someone like Ramiro Mendoza) that much more grateful.
Unlike most major league pitching coaches, Rick Peterson has been given nearly unprecedented authority over pitching prospects throughout the entire Mets’ minor league system. Peterson’s high-tech pitching philosophies are being installed at every level of the Mets’ organization, from reliance on videotape to emphasis on repetitive drills to the use of “Shadowbox” pitching, where pitchers simulate pitching motions without using a baseball. In some ways, Peterson is the most radical pitching coach the game has seen since the days of Tom House, but he’s enjoyed far better results than the former pitching guru of the Rangers. In every season of Peterson’s tenure in Oakland, with the lone exception of 2002, A’s pitchers posted a better team ERA than the previous year… One of Peterson’s biggest spring training projects will be former Oriole Scott Erickson, who has signed a minor league contract and will compete for the fifth spot in the Mets’ starting rotation. Erickson’s arrogance (is he really that good looking and does it matter?) and his shenanigans in helping terminate the traditional Baltimore-Rochester exhibition game make him a generally unlikable fellow, but Peterson just might be the coach to extract one more season of above-average pitching from his once powerful right arm. It’s a low risk move for the Mets; if Erickson doesn’t fare well in Port St. Lucie, the Mets can just send him back for an extended second honeymoon with Lisa “Don’t Confuse Me With Mario” Guerrero and give him a jumpstart on his new modeling career… By the way, are Erickson and Guerrero the 2004 version of Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra?
It’s hasn’t received much attention, but the Yankees’ quiet signing of Cuban refugee Yobal Duenas to a minor league contract could be an important pickup come mid-season. Although he was primarily a second baseman during his days in the Cuban League, the Yankees plan to play the six-foot, two-inch Duenas at third base in Triple-A Columbus to start the season. If Duenas shows at least some of the power and speed that made him a star in Cuba and also makes a successful transition to third base—his arm strength seems to be the real question—the Yankees might have the winner to the Aaron Boone Replacement Sweepstakes. At the very least, Duenas might serve a useful role as a utility infielder and outfielder; he’s probably a better player than either Miguel Cairo or Enrique Wilson. Yet, there are a more than a few cautionary tales when it comes to talking about Duenas. The consensus of major league scouts say that a change in position is being forced because he lost so much of his range and footspeed, thereby no longer allowing him to play second base, his original spot on the infield. Furthermore, some of those same scouts claim his real age to be three or four years older than his listed age of 31… Information on the right-handed hitting Duenas has been difficult to obtain, but here are some relevant statistics, courtesy of Cuban baseball expert Cesar Lopez. During the 2002-03 season, Duenas batted .313 with 13 walks and a .483 slugging percentage in 211 at-bats (60 games). He hit seven home runs, but stole only two bases. Not including last season, Duenas had compiled the following career numbers in 13 seasons in Cuba: a .321 batting average with 335 walks and a .473 slugging percentage in 4700 at-bats (1241 games). He also had career totals of 121 home runs and 130 stolen bases, again not including his last season in Cuba… Duenas has a chance to stake claim to the Yankee hot corner if only because the other options are so unappealing. Recent acquisition Mike Lamb is not the answer; the Yankees claim that they acquired Lamb for his defensive skills, but reports on his fielding are mixed at best, which makes his lack of power at the plate an even more glaring concern. Come to think of it, the Yankees might have been better off with “Private Charles Lamb” of M*A*S*H fame.
Gene Clines was hardly a household name in 1974, but his Topps card for that season (based on this photo taken in the spring of 1973) provides a nice illustration of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ early efforts to honor their fallen captain, Roberto Clemente. The future Hall of Famer was expected to take his usual place as the Pirates’ regular right fielder and third-place hitter in 1973, but his tragic passing on New Year’s Eve left a stunned Pittsburgh organization with a major void in both the lineup and the clubhouse. Given Clemente’s stature, it was obvious that the Pirates wanted to do something tangible to honor his memory; rather than place a traditional black armband around their uniform sleeves, the Pirates came up with a special circular patch that featured Clemente’s No. 21 in the middle. Unfortunately, the new patches were not ready by the start of spring training in 1973, forcing the Bucs to come up with a makeshift tribute to Clemente. That temporary tribute took the form of a strip of black cloth (prominently displayed by Clines on his 1974 Topps card, No. 172 in the set), which the players affixed to their left sleeves. Oddly, the strip only partly adhered to the uniform, with each end of the strip left sticking up rather awkwardly. (It almost looks like a piece of Velcro attached to the uniform, but I don’t think that the material was in common use by then.) Frankly, the black strip looks so unseemly and out of place that it hardly seemed like a fitting way to pay honor to one of the greatest players—and men—the franchise had ever known. Thankfully, the Pirates finished off the No. 21 patch by the end of spring training, giving both their home and away uniforms in 1973 a memorable and dignified touch… Only two other Pirates cards from the 1974 Topps set depict the unusual black strip: Bob Moose and Luke Walker. Several other cards, including Rennie Stennett, Jackie Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez, Al Oliver, Ramon Hernandez and Bob Johnson, show the players wearing the No. 21 patch.
Patches and tributes aside, Clines was an intriguing player for the Pirates during his early major league career. A champion high jumper in high school and one of the fastest players in the Bucs’ organization, Clines earned the nickname “Roadrunner.” After making his debut by hitting over .400 in a 1970 September call-up, Clines became a key contributor to the team’s 1971 World Championship cause, successfully platooning with Al Oliver in center field. In 1972, Clines’ playing time increased under new manager Bill Virdon. The speedy outfielder platooned with Vic Davalillo in left field, responded with a .334 average in 311 at-bats, and appeared headed for stardom. After a strong start in 1973, Virdon installed Clines as the Pirates’ everyday right fielder, replacing a struggling Manny Sanguillen. Soon after, Clines tore ligaments in his right ankle, forcing him to the sidelines. When he returned, he struggled at the plate and once again became a victim of the numbers game in the Pirates’ outfield. Clines complained regularly to Pirate management about his sporadic playing time.
Despite a series of trade rumors, Clines remained with the Pirates in 1974 and experienced the most difficult season of his career. Off the field, he dealt with the tragedy of his father’s death. On the field, Clines batted a career-low .225. A wave of young outfielders coming up through the Bucs’ minor league system—headlined by Dave Parker and Richie Zisk—forced Clines to watch more games from the bench. After the season, the Pirates traded Clines to the New York Mets for backup catcher Duffy Dyer. Clines responded to the trade gleefully—and with bitterness toward the Bucs. “I’m happy to be gone from the Pirates,” Clines told the New York Times. “They made up their minds a long time ago that I didn’t fit into their plans, and there was never a thing I could do to change their minds.”
Unfortunately, Clines’ playing time in New York did not increase. In 1975, Clines went to the plate only 203 times and batted just .227. After the season, the Mets dealt Clines to Texas, where he eventually became the Rangers’ regular left fielder. Despite playing fairly well for Texas, the Rangers traded him to the Chicago Cubs for left-handed reliever Darold Knowles. In 1977, Clines batted .293 as a utility outfielder for the Cubs, but slumped to .258 in 1978. Clines again complained about a lack of game action, but manager Herman Franks explained that he considered Clines the “heart of the club.” In an interview with The Sporting News, Clines replied to Frank’s curious assessment with a classic response. “If I’m the heart,” said Clines, “then his heart is having a seizure.”
Early in the 1979 season, the Cubs placed Clines on waivers, effectively ending a career that had once seemed so promising. Instead of becoming a star outfielder and Gold Glove center fielder as some had predicted, Clines settled for a journeyman career as a good situational hitter and No. 4 outfielder.
Some of the stardom that eluded Clines as a player would finally occur during his coaching career. Clines elected to remain with the Cubs’ organization as a coach before joining the Houston Astros as a minor league hitting instructor and then earning a promotion to a major league coaching position in 1988. Clines later worked as a coach for the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers. After the ‘96 season, the San Francisco Giants named Clines their major league hitting instructor, where he enjoyed a number of successes, including the rare ability to strike a positive chord with team superstar Barry Bonds. Clines also drew heavy praise from many of the Giants veteran hitters, including Jeff Kent. In 2003, Clines moved on from the Bay Area, following friend and manager Dusty Baker to the Chicago Cubs.
Yet, Clines’ major league resume is not complete. He longs to manage a major league team, a dream that rightly should have been fulfilled years ago. What else does Clines have to do to convince a general manager that he’s the right man for the job? He’s intelligent, well-spoken, and a student of hitting, and has plenty of postseason experience as both a player and coach. In perhaps his strongest attribute, he can obviously relate to players, as evidenced by his ability to coexist with the sometimes difficult Bonds in San Francisco. Along those lines, he has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt from one hitter to the next, working with some on their mechanics and with others on their mental approach. Hopefully, a big league team looking for a field manager in the next two to three years will see fit to give Clines his first chance at a top job in the dugout. The Roadrunner deserves it.
The Nickname Game
Gene Clines may have been known as Roadrunner (sometimes spelled as “Road Runner”) during his Pirate days, but he wasn’t the best known “Roadrunner” of that era. That honor belongs to former Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels outfielder Ralph “The Road Runner” Garr, who became almost as well known for the nickname as the original Looney Tunes cartoon figure created by Chuck Jones. The Braves’ public relations department gave Garr the nickname after he arrived in the big leagues; in fact, the Braves so wanted to market Garr that they wrote to Warner Brothers, Inc. to receive official permission to use the nickname and the catch phrase “Beep! Beep!” in promotional efforts. Warner Brothers, through its agent, Licensing Corporation of America (LCA), came to a history-making agreement with the Braves. “Our contract with the Braves makes Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world,” said Jay Emment, who was the chairman of LCA at the time. The unusual agreement also made it illegal for any other athlete to use the nickname. (That agreement was probably unenforceable in reality, but Clines’ “Roadrunner” appellation did seem to fade into disuse.) Curiously, Garr’s officially certified nickname was never once included in any of his entries in the Baseball Register from 1969 to 1981.
With the assistance of www.historicbaseball.com and www.thedeadballera.com, here are some recent baseball obituaries that have come to our attention.
Hub Kittle (Died on February 10 in Yakima, Washington; age 86): A longtime pitching guru for several major league organizations, Kittle was probably best known as the pitching coach of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Under his tutelage, the careers of such Cardinals pitchers as Joaquin Andujar and Todd Worrell blossomed. Kittle also worked as pitching coach for the Houston Astros from 1971 to 1975, where he worked with talented youngsters like J.R. Richard, and most recently served as a special assignment pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners. Prior to his career in coaching, Kittle pitched in parts of six different decades, launching his career with the Los Angeles Angles of the Pacific Coast League in 1936.
Jim Russo (Died on February 9 in Wildwood Missouri; age 81; lengthy illness): Regarded as one of the most astute scouts in the history of the game, Russo forged a legendary career with the Baltimore Orioles. As a scout of amateur talent, he signed top prospects like Boog Powell, Dave Johnson, Dave McNally, and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, all of whom became stars in Baltimore. In his later years with the organization, Russo served as a “superscout,” compiling extensive reports of future Orioles opponents in the postseason. In 1966, Russo assembled the scouting report that helped the Orioles sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Russo also offered the Orioles’ front office input on potential trades; in one of his strongest claims to fame, he recommended that the Orioles acquire future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds in a 1966 deal for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson, and Jack Baldschun.
Richard Dennis Powell (Died on February 3 in Glenwood, Maryland; age 92; cancer): Powell served as the business and general manager for the Baltimore Elite Giants, one of the premier teams in the old Negro Leagues and onetime home for future major league stars like Joe Black and Roy Campanella. Believed to be one of the last surviving executives from the Negro Leagues, Powell helped oversee Elite Giants teams that won Negro National League titles in 1939 and 1949. He was also credited with convincing team owner “Smiling” Tom Wilson to move the franchise from Washington to Baltimore in 1938.
Joel Rubenstein (Died on February 1 in Newport Beach, California; age 67; complications from cancer): Rubenstein served as a top aide to Peter Ueberroth during his term as baseball commissioner and as part of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. After joining the Commissioner’s Office as executive vice president for marketing in 1984, Rubenstein helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (known as BAT), which raises money for former major leaguers in need of financial and medical assistance. Rubenstein made his last public appearance at this year’s BAT dinner, which was held on January 27 in New York City. At the dinner, Rubenstein was honored for his dedication to the BAT organization.
COMMENTARY: Frankly, I had never heard of Joel Rubenstein prior to reading his obituary, but given the noble efforts of BAT over the years, I wish I had met the man. With little publicity from the mainstream sporting press, BAT has succeeded in helping dozens of former players from the pre-free agent era, those long forgotten who have hit on hard times and have been ignored by a sports media that sometimes has no institutional memory beyond the days of Michael Jordan. Someone had to come up with the idea for BAT and then have the ability to make it work, and it appears that Rubenstein played a large part in both endeavors.
And Another Thing
Even a year after its release, glowing reviews continue to pour in for Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which recently won the CASEY Award as the best baseball book of 2003. The CASEY, which is in its 21st year, is sponsored by Spitball, the literary baseball magazine, and will be presented to Lewis at a banquet in Cincinnati on Sunday, February 29. In judging performed by a three-person panel, Moneyball received one first-place vote and two third-place tallies. Interestingly, one of the judges was former major league first baseman Wes Parker, who absolutely raved about the book in submitting his ballot. “Every page had something of interest, and there was a clear storyline leading to a conclusion,” said Parker, a perennial Gold Glover who’s probably best remembered as the Dodgers’ predecessor to Steve Garvey at first base. “I loved the writing and inside information… I learned a lot from Moneyball about the inner workings of baseball at the big league level.”… For those interested in attending the Casey Award Banquet on February 29, contact Spitball Editor-in-Chief Mike Shannon at email@example.com. And no, he’s not that Mike Shannon (the former Cardinals third baseman nicknamed “Moon Man”), but a good guy nonetheless.
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which is available at www.amazon.com and at Borders Books. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams, published by Greenwood Press, is scheduled for release this spring.
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