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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential 2004 - Spring Training Edition - 02/26/2004

What’s On Second?

Now that “The Trade” has become official and all interested parties have had a chance to chime in on the merits of Alfonso Soriano vs. Alex Rodriguez (and it is amazing how a few Sabermetricians are now saying that onetime whipping post Soriano isn’t really that far from the godlike A-Rod on the value scale), it’s time for the Yankees to begin their spring training search for a new All-Star second baseman. Or at least one who can pick up a ground ball. Right now, the list of candidates features four participants, but that could change based on a trade or a waiver wire pickup during the spring. Let’s start with the pivotmen currently training with the Yankees down in Tampa.

In House Candidates:

Erick Almonte: He’s probably the longest of long shots to win the second base derby, given his non-roster status and lack of experience at the position. Almonte has struggled at shortstop, so he might be better suited for the other side of the diamond in the long run. I’d expect that he’ll start the season as the Opening Day second baseman for the Columbus Clippers.

Homer Bush: Also a non-roster invite, Bush is working against long odds, especially since he didn’t play in the major leagues in 2003. Offensively, Bush will never compile even a decent on-base percentage since he likes to swing early in the count. On the plus side, Joe Torre remembers the impact that Bush had as a reserve in 1998, when he became a late-inning intimidator with his game-changing speed on the bases. Bush has lost a step or two since then and is no longer a feared basestealer, but he’s still an above-average defender at second base with plus range and the capability of turning the double play. The 31-year-old Bush could emerge as a sleeper in the second-base sweepstakes, particularly if general manager Brian Cashman fails to swing a deal for help outside of the organization.

Miguel Cairo: Of the four in-house candidates, Cairo is probably the weakest hitter; he won’t hit for a high average, doesn’t draw a lot of walks, and has no power. Yet, he’ll probably catch Torre’s attention with his fielding around the bag, where he’s more comfortable than either Bush or Enrique Wilson. Once a favorite of Tony LaRussa in St. Louis, Cairo has good range and soft hands, and turns the double play well. Unlike Bush, Cairo has a fallback option of making the team as a backup player; he possesses enough versatility to play third base, shortstop, or the outfield, whereas Bush can only play second or third.

Enrique Wilson: Despite several unproductive seasons as a Bronx utilityman, Wilson has managed to gain favor with both Torre and Cashman. They like his professionalism and upbeat attitude, which helps them overlook his severe lack of offensive output in pinstripes. Wilson really hasn’t hit since his days in Cleveland, and he’s not as capable a defender as either Bush or Cairo. Yet, Wilson is almost certain to make the team and has already been installed as the pre-season second-base favorite by Torre.

While the list of in-house contenders is relatively short—and somewhat nondescript—the possibilities on the trade market offer a far wider range of options. The name of Jose Vidro has been mentioned by a number of writers, but the Expos’ infielder would likely cost too much in terms of prospects. More to the point, he really doesn’t answer the Yankees’ primary need of better infield defense; their priority should be in finding a second baseman with as much range as possible. Vidro, who is no better than average in the field and was bothered by a strained knee in 2003, is a great offensive player, but the Yankees already have a lineup that runs eight deep.

Putting Vidro aside, here are the players the Yankees will realistically consider from other organizations.

Out-House (So To Speak) Candidates:

Alex Cora (Dodgers): Rated strictly on defensive ability, Cora ranks as the best available second baseman on the trade market. He’s also an extremely weak hitter, making him a kind of modern-day Mark Belanger among middle infielders. If the Dodgers had better hitters around him, they could live with Cora for another summer, but their overall offensive ineptitude makes him a liability. If the Yankees can come up with a young hitter as the bait, they’ll likely be in a better position to put Cora in pinstripes. Unfortunately, the Yankees are lacking in offensive prospects, unless the Dodgers would reconsider the abilities of outfielder Bubba Crosby, whom they traded away for Robin Ventura last summer. In reality, that’s not likely to happen.

Jerry Hairston Jr. (Orioles): The son of the former White Sox outfielder is very much available; the Orioles have Brian Roberts to play second base and would love nothing better than to trade Hairston for pitching help. The Yankees might be a match, since they have the likes of Jorge DePaula, Scott Proctor, or Bret Prinz to offer. While the 27-year-old Hairston brings nothing special to the offensive table (he’s a .270 hitter with plus speed), he has forged a reputation as a solid defender with good quickness in turning the double play. The Yankees, however, will want to take an updated look at Hairston this spring, just to make sure that he’s fully recovered from the broken foot that cost him nearly four months of the 2003 season.

Mark Loretta (Padres): The Yankees passed on an opportunity to trade for Loretta last season, when their primary infield need was at third base. Now the Yankees are considering Loretta for the other side of the infield, where he has plenty of experience and sure hands, if not tremendous range. With a glut of second base prospects (led by California League MVP Josh Barfield), the Padres might still be interested in trading Loretta, but the asking price has gone up after a career season that saw him hit .314 with 13 home runs. The Padres will likely ask for one of the Yankees’ few remaining minor league gems (translated, that’s Dioner Navarro or Eric Duncan), a request that Cashman will almost certainly turn down for the 32-year-old Loretta.

Frank Menechino (A’s): A onetime starter, the overachieving Menechino has hit a roadblock in Oakland, where Mark Ellis figures to play second base until he becomes eligible for free agency. Although Menechino hit under .200 last year, he still compiled a respectable .364 on-base percentage, a testament to the kind of plate patience that Billy Beane and Co. love. Defensively, the native New Yorker is best described as steady and solid, while possessing only adequate range. Given his age (33) and his lack of versatility, he’s more than available on the trade market; that said, Beane won’t just give him away, not when he knows the Yankees have a major need at the position.

Luis Rivas (Twins): After Alex Cora, the 24-year-old Rivas is the best defender among those second basemen who are realistic trade targets for New York. Rivas has good range (though less than Cora), but has a cannon arm which makes him deadly on double plays and choppers hit up the middle. The bad news? He’s a poor hitter who’ll struggle to get out of the .250 range and won’t take many walks—in other words, a suitable ninth-place hitter in the potent Yankee order. The Twins might be willing to move Rivas for some inexpensive bullpen help, which could come in the form of Proctor or Prinz.

Junior Spivey (Brewers): Of all the potentially realistic trade candidates for the Yankees, Spivey appears to be the best all-around talent. He’s a poor-man’s Alfonso Soriano, what with his combination of power and speed, and his tendencies as an impatient mistake hitter who swings too often and too hard. Defensively, Spivey is also similar in style to Soriano, with stiff hands and awkwardness in turning double plays, but he has more range than the former Yankee second baseman. So why are the Brewers willing to trade him? For one, he is scheduled to make $2.3 million in 2004, a pittance for a pinstriped player but an exorbitant sum for a member of the Brew Crew. Secondly, Milwaukee has a glut of veterans at the position, including fellow ex-Diamondback Craig Counsell and holdover Keith Ginter, with stud prospect Rickie Weeks waiting in the minor league wings. If the Brewers are willing to take some combination of DePaula, Prinz, Proctor, and rehabbing minor league hurler Danny Borrell, and don’t insist on Navarro or Duncan, the Yankees might be able to squeeze out a deal with baseball’s troubled franchise.

At least two other second basemen have been mentioned in trade rumors, but neither seems like a realistic possibility for the Yankees. Cincinnati’s talented D’Angelo Jimenez might be considered a lighter version of Jose Vidro; he’s a good, patient hitter with some pop. Unfortunately, he carries some heavy defensive baggage at second base (it’s hard to believe he was once projected as a major league shortstop). And then there’s Toronto’s Orlando Hudson, a youngster with a high ceiling, but I can’t see J.P. Ricciardi making a deal that would help his divisional rivals in any way.

Card Corner

I started collecting baseball cards in the spring of 1972; this Jim “Mudcat” Grant Topps card (No. 111 in the set) was one of the very first I picked up at my local Gillard’s Stationary Store in Bronxville, New York. Even though I didn’t know anything about Grant as a player (he could have been the batting coach for all I knew, and I certainly didn’t know about the “Mudcat” moniker), I loved that card almost immediately—partly because of the green and white Oakland uniform and partly because of those funky oh-so-1970s mutton-chop sideburns. Simply put, Mudcat owned the biggest and best groomed sideburns in the big leagues.

Little did I realize that this would be the last Topps card issued for Grant as an active player. I had no idea that Grant had already been released by the A’s during the winter. I never thought that would have happened, considering the fairly impressive statistics on the back of Grant’s card.

After a mid-season trade to the A’s, Grant had finished out the 1971 season in the Bay Area. Grant had pitched effectively in middle relief for manager Dick Williams, posting an earned run average of 1.98 in 15 appearances. Although Mudcat appeared to have plenty of life left in his 36-year-old arm, the A’s released him after the season, primarily because Charlie Finley didn’t want to foot the bill on the right-hander’s expensive contract. As a seven-year-old baseball fan, I didn’t understand how money could alter a front office’s opinion of a player. Either a guy could play—or he couldn’t.

In what remains a mystery to me to this day, no other major league team would give Mudcat a spot on its 25-man roster. Several teams seemed needy of relief help (including the Red Sox, Angels, Royals, and Cubs) but only one team—the non-contending Indians—gave him as much as a non-roster spring training invite. Settling for what amounted to a glorified tryout, Grant failed to make the Indians’ staff in the spring and received a not-so-generous offer of a demotion to Triple-A Portland. Grant decided to continue his career by pitching briefly in the minor leagues, all the while hoping that a major league team would come calling. When no one showed interest, Mudcat grew discouraged, prompting what seemed like an unfair and premature retirement. Mudcat thus ended his career with a record of 145 wins, 119 losses, a respectable ERA of 3.63, and 53 saves.

Instead of leaving the game completely, the outgoing Grant opted for a job as a broadcaster with the Indians. During a seven-year tenure with Cleveland, Grant doubled as the team’s community director and delivered about 200 speeches per year. After a short broadcasting stint with the A’s, Grant removed himself temporarily from baseball circles, becoming a special marketing director for the Anheuser-Busch Company in the Cleveland area. Grant also worked for the speakers’ bureau of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Grant returned to the national pastime in 1984, when he was chosen as an assistant venue director for baseball at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

About a month after the Olympics ended, Grant ran into former playing great Hank Aaron, who was serving as the Atlanta Braves’ Director of Player Personnel. Aaron offered Grant a position as pitching coach in Atlanta’s minor league system. Grant quickly accepted the offer. Six years later, Grant began operating a nationwide program called “Slug-Out Illiteracy, Slug-Out Drugs” in Los Angeles, where he encouraged former players to put forth an anti-drug message during baseball instructional clinics. And as part of his efforts to help former players who have hit hard times, Grant has faithfully served as a board member of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

All the while, the personable Grant has continued to pursue one of his life-long loves: singing. Mudcat, who began his professional music career at the age of 30 with a group called “Mudcat and the Kittens,” still tours on occasion and performs his song-and-dance act at nightclubs. “I’m a pretty good singer,” Grant told Sports Collectors Digest in 1995. “I was taught by some of the best, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Bobby Darren, O.C. Smith.”

Now Grant’s hoping to get some of the best young African-American baseball talent interested in playing a sport that has become all too foreign to them. Grant, who recently visited the Hall of Fame to participate in a Legends Series event celebrating Black History Month, is currently working on a project called the “12 Black Aces.” The effort celebrates the dozen African Americans who have had 20-win seasons in the major leagues. Grant hopes the project, which is headlined by a book that is currently in progress, will help resurrect the interest that young African Americans have in the National Pastime… In our next column, I’ll provide a partial transcript of the interview I conducted with Grant and his former Pirate teammate Al Oliver, who visited the Hall on February 14.

The Nickname Game

SABR member and researcher extraordinaire Maxwell Kates recently compiled a list of unofficial team nicknames for SABR’s on-line exchange. While all current-day teams have official nicknames, there’s always been a tendency to give some clubs more colorful names, as a way of paying tribute to unique characteristics or personalities within the teams’ dynamics. Using Kates’ list as a drawing board, here are 10 of the most colorful names that have been given to teams over the years, either by fans, the media, or by the players themselves.

“Murderers’ Row:” 1927-1928 New York Yankees - No team nickname has matched the fame of “Murderers’ Row,” which actually originated as a 19th century reference to an isolated row of prison cells featuring some of the worst criminals of the infamous Tombs prison. The baseball version of Murderers’ Row included four future Hall of Famers—Earle Combs (batting leadoff), Babe Ruth (batting third), Lou Gehrig (in the cleanup spot), and Tony Lazzeri (batting sixth). The ’27 Yankees didn’t receive much punch from the bottom of the order, where weak links like Jumping Joe Dugan and Pat Collins resided, but the top six batters in the lineup did the damage of nine full men.

“The Gas House Gang:” 1934-1939 St. Louis Cardinals - This name originated with a neighborhood on the lower east side of Manhattan, where a violent group of young men tormented citizens and came to call themselves the “Gashouse Gang.” The Cardinals’ version of the “Gang” wasn’t quite as vicious as the street thugs, but they did feature a number of ruffians, including infielders Leo Durocher and Pepper Martin, outfielder Ducky Medwick, and ace pitcher Dizzy Dean. The Cardinals of those era played a hard-nosed brand of ball, sliding hard into bases, knocking over opposing defenders, and rarely backing away from on-field brawls.

“Whiz Kids:” 1950 Philadelphia Phillies: - Coming out of nowhere to win the National League pennant, Eddie Sawyer’s “Kids” featured a day-to-day lineup of players almost exclusively under the age of 30. The oldest regular was 30-year-old first baseman Eddie Waitkus, but the stars were the 23-year-old Richie Ashburn and the 25-year-old Del Ennis. The starting rotation was also headlined by two youngsters, Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, whose combined total of wins (37) nearly matched their collective age (44).

“Big Red Machine:” 1969-1976 Cincinnati Reds - Some newspapers and magazines began to refer to Cincinnati’s dynamic offensive team as the “Big Red Machine” as early as 1969 and ’70, but the name really caught on when the franchise steamrolled the rest of the majors in winning the ’75 and ’76 World Championships. The cast of characters changed significantly from 1969 to 1976, with Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Bobby Tolan eventually giving way to George Foster, Joe Morgan, and Ken Griffey Sr. The constants were Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, though both Perez and Rose switched positions in mid-stream; Perez moved from third to first, and Rose went from right field to left field to third base. Combining power and speed, few teams in history have matched the offensive potency of “The Machine.”

“Pittsburgh Lumber Company:” 1970-1976 Pittsburgh Pirates - Using a free-swinging approach that might not have been fully appreciated by some Sabermetricians, the Pirates pummeled their way to five division titles, one pennant, and a World Championship during the first half of the decade. Other than Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson, the “Lumber Company” didn’t like to take walks, which they generally regarded as unmanly. Instead, Roberto Clemente, Al Oliver, and Manny Sanguillen preferred to swing the bat early and often, and they did it well, banging a parade of singles and doubles in a constant barrage against opposing pitching staffs.

“The F-Troop:” 1973-1974 Atlanta Braves - The Braves’ bench players came to call themselves the “F-Troop,” in reference to the popular TV show that starred Ken Berry and Forrest Tucker. Although the Braves finished fifth and third, respectively, in 1973 and ’74, they did have some productive players in reserve. In 1973, backup catcher-first baseman Dick Dietz hit .295 while drawing an amazing 49 walks against only 25 strikeouts. Reserve first baseman Frank Tepedino hit .295 with 29 RBIs. And utilityman Chuck Goggin batted .289 while showing the versatility to both catch and play shortstop. Without Dietz and Goggin, the bench wasn’t nearly as productive in ’74, resulting in a quick fadeaway for the F-Troop nickname.

“The Southside Hitmen:” 1977 Chicago White Sox - The ’77 White Sox of Bob Lemon finished no better than third in the American League West, couldn’t field a lick, and had the third-worst pitching in the league, but still managed to win 90 games while creating a legacy that makes them one of the most beloved Sox teams in memory. The hard-hitting, stone-gloved lineup featured Jorge Orta at second, Eric Soderholm at third, Ralph Garr in left, Richie Zisk in right, and Oscar Gamble at DH, all the while wearing those awful black and white throwback uniforms that featured collared shirts of the “untuckable” variety. Finishing second in the league in runs scored, the “Hitmen” made the summer of ’77 a fun one in the Windy City.

“The Bronx Zoo:” 1977-1979 New York Yankees - This nickname became popular because of the book of the same name written by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock. “The Bronx Zoo” served as a perfect description of a team where arguments took place on a daily basis, players fought in the showers (Cliff Johnson vs. Goose Gossage), the team’s center fielder (Mickey Rivers) spoke in a language all his own, and Lyle himself routinely sat on birthday cakes delivered to the clubhouse. It was all in a day’s work with the Yankees of the late seventies.

“Riders of the Lonesome Pine:” 1981 Detroit Tigers - The ’81 Tigers finished out of the playoff money during the split season and the bench players really were nothing special, but they deserve credit for coming up with one of the most colorful nicknames for a backup squad of players. “The Riders” included the wacky (Johnny Wockenfuss), the obscure (Ron Jackson, Mick Kelleher, and Stan Papi), and the forgotten (Lynn Jones and Ricky Peters).

“Harvey’s Wallbangers:” 1982-1983 Milwaukee Brewers - This nickname was a natural, given the first name of manager Harvey Kuenn and the team’s ability to hit home runs at a moment’s notice. Stormin’ Gorman Thomas led the American League with 39 home runs in 1982, while Cecil Cooper and Ben Oglivie also cracked the 30-home run barrier. The “Wallbangers” advanced to the seventh game of the 1982 World Series, but fell back in ‘83, finishing fifth in a stacked American League East. Two future Hall of Famers, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, played as regulars for the ’82 Wallbangers, while two others, Don Sutton and Rollie Fingers, contributed to an underrated pitching staff.

Pastime Passings

Andy Seminick (Died on February 22 in Melbourne, Florida; age 83; cancer): Seminick was the last surviving everyday member of the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids,” who stunned the baseball world by capturing the National League pennant over seemingly superior competition. Regarded by many as the spiritual leader of the Whiz Kids, the rough-and-tumble catcher batted .288 with 24 home runs in 1950. It was arguably the best season of Seminick’s 15-year career, as he matched lifetime highs in home runs and RBIs, and achieved a personal best in batting average that summer. Respected for his toughness, Seminick played in the 1950 World Series despite a badly injured ankle. For his career, Seminick hit 164 home runs, making him one of the most powerful hitting catchers of the late forties and early fifties. After his playing days, the hard-nosed Seminick became highly successful as a minor league manager in the Phillies’ organization. Considered outstanding in the area of player development, Seminick managed the likes of Mike Schmidt, Ferguson Jenkins, Alex Johnson, and Bob Boone, all of whom eventually became stars in the major leagues. In particular, Seminick helped Boone make a difficult transition from third base to catcher at Double-A Reading in 1971, paving the way for the young Phillies farmhand to make the big leagues only one year later.

COMMENTARY: I was surprised to hear about Seminick’s passing, considering how he looked on a visit to Cooperstown a few years ago. Even though he was well into his seventies at the time, witnesses say he still owned the kind of rock-hard frame that he had as a player. He had apparently suffered from cancer for several years, but it was only within the last few months that his condition worsened appreciably… For years, it’s been reported that Seminick played the ’50 World Series with a broken ankle, but a source who once talked to Seminick said that the catcher actually had sustained torn ligaments in the ankle. Either way, his willingness to play in the Series with such a painful injury was testament to the kind of rawhide toughness that Seminick possessed.

Charlie Fox (Died on February 16 in Stanford, California; age 82; complications from pneumonia): A former player and manager in the major leagues, “Irish” was best known for his tenure as manager of the San Francisco Giants in the early 1970s. After replacing Clyde King midway through the 1970 season, Fox led the Giants to the National League West title in 1971, forging a record of 90-72. The Giants’ performance under his leadership earned Fox National League Manager of the Year honors. Although favored by some to advance to that fall’s World Series, the Giants lost the Championship Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, falling three games to one. Fox remained the manager of the Giants through the 1974 season, compiling a record of 348-327 in the Bay Area. He later managed the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs on an interim basis, and also served as the Expos’ general manager from 1976 to 1978. Fox most recently worked as a scout for the Houston Astros from 1990 to 1993 before retiring… As a player, Fox batted .429 in three games for the New York Giants in 1942, but saw his catching career interrupted when he entered the Navy to serve in World War II.

COMMENTARY: In looking at photographs and baseball card images of him from his managing days with the Giants, I think Fox epitomized what a big league manager should look like: tough, grizzled, no-nonsense, and about 20 years older than his actual age. As Baseball Primer contributor Steve Treder has pointed out, Fox was a distinctive character who owned a good sense of humor and spoke with a heavy Irish accent that made him all the more quotable. He also compiled a pretty good record as a manager with the Giants, considering that his tenure coincided with the declines of both Willie Mays and Juan Marichal, and the horrific trade that sent Gaylord Perry to the Indians for Sudden Sam McDowell.

Lawrence Ritter (Died on February 15 in New York City; age 81; series of strokes): One of the most respected authors of the baseball genre, Ritter wrote the highly-acclaimed book, The Glory of Their Times, a compilation of oral histories of players from the early 20th century. Ritter spent four years traveling and interviewing subjects with a tape recorder. Among those he interviewed were Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, two of the five inaugural members of the Hall of Fame. A devoted and popular member of SABR, Ritter also wrote several other lesser-known but still respected books on baseball, including Lost Ballparks and Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Leagues.

Ted Tappe (Died on February 13 in Wenatchee, Washington; age 73): Although Tappe had a relatively nondescript three-year career in the major leagues, he did gain notoriety when he homered in his first big league at-bat. Making his debut for the Cincinnati Reds on September 14, 1950, the left-handed hitting outfielder came to the plate as a pinch-hitter and hit a home run against Brooklyn’s Erv Palica. It was one of five home runs that Tappe would hit in only 58 career at-bats.

Adriana Orsulak (Died on February 9 in Timonium, Maryland; age 39; brain cancer): Drawing praise for the courage she displayed in battling cancer for many years, the wife of former major league outfielder Joe Orsulak finally succumbed to the disease in early February. Adriana Orsulak first met her husband in Venezuela in 1983; they eventually married and had two children. Joe Orsulak played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, and Florida Marlins during a 13-year career in the major leagues.

Juan Armenteros (Died on October 8, 2003 in Miami, Florida; age unknown; bladder cancer): Playing in the Negro Leagues in the years after Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues, Armenteros was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs from1953 to 1955. A native of Cuba, he also played for the Havana Cuban Giants and for Cuba’s Artes Officio baseball team.

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 (Greenwood Press) is scheduled for release this spring.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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