Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Kicking and screaming

George Steinbrenner's protestation to Hal Bodley of USA Today with respect to the World Baseball Classic remind me of the arrogance of baseball. It represents archaic thinking driven by power bases unwilling to even consider change to protect status quo. One example of course is the Players Union which failed to take action earlier to actually act in the best interest of its constituency. Only before stars and leaders were dragged before a bunch of preening congressmen did something happen on steroids. But that's another post or several posts. But both examples represent how any change comes in baseball after significant kicking and screaming.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Two who may be ready and may have to be

When ball hits bat is baseball's equivalent of metaphors "where the rubber hits the road "or "the cutting edge." The human eye cannot see this magic moment, and only recently can it be captured on film. Nowhere else can civilians witness this wondrous moment closely unless they are ever fortunate to sit behind a batting cage while a pitcher is throwing to a hitter. Its an umpire's view. The catcher normally rests his butt on the back of the cage as its pushed as far forward as can be.
A first memorable moment for me came during the spring of 1985 and I was watching one of these batting practices on a Joan Payson field in St. Petersburg. Coaches Al Jackson and John Cumberland watched with me a young righthander throw to a hitter in the cage.
Jackson was marveling at some wondrous sinking life on a fastball while he chewed on some sunflower seeds. He whispered, "sweeeeeet heart."
Cumberland responded, "no shit."
The righthander was Rick Aguilera who found himself in the big leagues a few short months later. Many successful years followed.
Similar moments are occurring this spring with Henry Owens and Mike Pelfrey. Newsdays's David Lennon does a wonderful job this morning in capturing this for Mets fans with yesterday's session with Pelfrey.
Hope springs eternal that Pelfrey will be able to assume the number one starter role for the Mets. And soon. With a Pedro Martinez getting longer in tooth and pushing off on a big toe that no one's willing to let on their concerned about, Pelfrey may be needed by mid-summer. Any organization would hate this, the Mets included. The best case scenario is for five starters to emerge from camp healthy and give the club the quality innings it needs to get to Billy Wagner. Pelfrey can then get his innings against minor league hitters and make his way to Norfolk by midsummer, but be placed on thre roster in August to be eligible for any playoff run. But if the former isn't what materializes, expect to see him by June. He'll be needed every fifth day by September for a certain pennant drive.
If misfortune occurs at the top of the rotation, a lead in the division will be unlikely and much will be needed from a bullpen that's likely to have some innings taken up by Henry Owen.
Two things cannot be taught to pitchers. One is the natural sinking life on a fastball like that of Aguilera's or a Roger McDowell or even a Doug Sisk. All college pitchers, their time in the minors was short, their impact immediate.
The other which cannot be taught is natural deception. Sid Fernandez had this and one could witness this for yourself in the batting cage. Sid hid the ball well and when it came out of his hand, he appeared to be pushing it at you. Ron Darling once described a Fernandez curveball as, "the curve that's seldom swung at."
Owens has similar deception, already picking up a reputation for such as explained by Adam Rubin in today's Daily News. Owen's unique delivery creates the perception the ball is coming out of his throat. Deception plus velocity equals outs. Baring something unforeseen, Owens's Shea Stadium debut will most assuredly come sooner rather than later.
So the two pitchers which received such caution here last week, are finding themselves in the Mets plans for this season. With acquisitions and the age of this year's club, the Mets are all-in, and with no time for caution with young arms and psyches.

Blog notables

It looks like the Great Metstradamus agrees with me about the relevance of the three hole in the Mets line-up. Dave Murray does a wonderful bit of musing about meeting Buck O'Neil. Also, go see John Buro's wonderful father and son story at NY Sports Day. I'm proving to be a sap. Ryan McConnell at Always Amazin is proving to be a must stop for Met updates. Greg and Jason of Faith and Fear in Flushing continue to impress me with considerable lunacy tempered by keen insight into the history of the franchise. Go read a nice story by a talented Cecilia Tan at Gotham Baseball about Mike Mussina. Go see The Metropolitans. You'll find a great bit about Jack Bauer, everyone's favorite terrorist fighter.

Remembering Doc ..... But on this day, the music died

Matt Cerrone brings the link to another story about Dwight Gooden. A book by Dayn Perry is excerpted on Baseball Prospectus . The book is titled, "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And its not the way you think). Within, Perry dedicates an entire chapter to Gooden's career. I found Perry's work to be thorough and even handed, and recommend you take a look.
Having said that, I must say I'll always be saddened by his legacy and how it's perceived as I knew Gooden. And knew him well.
Gooden was a rather simple and normal kid. On the outside, you could easily see he was a nice kid from a loving family. And I really believe to this day he is much the same. In the early years around the clubhouse he seemed most at ease with the clubhouse kids. Clear contemporaries by age, he treated them as equals indulging in their pranks and horseplay. It was genuine the affection he had for people. His love for food like a growing kid was well known and he liked to show off the little dives around the league he could find for eating to Steve Garland, Jay Horwitz, bullpen catcher, Rob Drumerhauser and me. He exuded class was gracious and a gentleman. These traits I'm certain he's not lost.
But I suppose its a bit of piling on the have written about this day that occured during spring training in 1987. It will be included with revesions in my upcoming book by the same title as this blog. There are many days that can be called the day the music died for the 1986 Mets and this was the first.

April 1, 1987 Huggins-Stengall Field

The morning clubhouse was still buzzing from yesterday's debut of a young righthander that we got from the Kansas City Royals for Rick Anderson and Ed Hearn. David Cone pitched three innings against the Cardinals, allowed only two singles, no runs, no walks and struck out five. One of Cone's victim's had been Jack Clark, who he struck out when he dropped down and threw sidearm. Hernandez had been almost giddy, expressing with glee that The White Rat now had a new headache. We were going down to Bradenton that day to play the Pirates. Steve was going to take the trip, because he knew of my apprehension of riding over the flimsy Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Bullpen Coach, Vern Hoscheit liked to be in charge of when we left on the bus, saying to be on it or under it at the designated time of departure. He'd left Steve and me before, and in his zealousness actually once left Frank Cashen. As people put on gray pants and blue tops for the game, word came from Cashen to hold the bus. No big deal. Maybe we made another trade or something. But a few minutes later, instructions came to clear
the clubhouse of all the media and it became obvious that something was wrong. After a few minutes, everyone realized what it was. Doc Gooden was not there.
Doc had briefly entered the clubhouse and his keys still laid on the bench in front if his locker. No one really said much as everyone kind of just puttered around the clubhouse waiting for some kind of word. I met Mazzilli just outside the doubledoors in a shaded area by the field. He told me "I think Doc's going on a little vacation."
* * *

Doc had agreed in his contract to undergo drug testing and just a few days before had submitted to one. He could have said no, or maybe he thought he'd been clean at the time, but just maybe, as Tom McKenna said, "It was a cry for help". Tommy had collected the fateful urine specimen for the club.
I will always remember the deathly silence and stoic faces of everyone when Frank Cashen gathered everyone together in the clubhouse to tell them the news and that he would undergo rehabilitation at The Smithers Institute in New York. Cashen had sat on it for two days while he informed ownership. Gooden's presence meant more than people realized. Doc had unique people skills and easily forged relationships with everyone he encountered from the youngest clubhouse kid to the most important front office person. An easy laugh and warm smile seemed to always to be there. The 22 year-old Gooden was still more affectionately known for his love of food and things a normal young person would. But those days were now over. The Mets could not protect him as they had done in his early years. A world of innocence would now be replaced by a cruel, cold and lonely public battle with substance abuse. And it would tragically always be part of his story.

* * *

Trouble had started to enter Gooden's life during the last few years in his hometown of Tampa and actually had made noise about moving to New York to get away from it. He overslept and missed the ticker-tape parade, and there had been rumors about cocaine use so he agreed to the testing to try to end them. However, when he was arrested in December after the World Series with four friends in a confrontation with police, it became clear that Doc wasn't surrounding himself with good people. This contrasted sharply to the the love and presence of a strong mother and father. We lost Doc until June 5th when we were in 4th place, 6 games back.

* * *

Legendary comedian Danny Kaye visited the clubhouse in San Francisco in 1985. A huge baseball fan, he sought out Gooden and visited with him for several minutes. Dwight was very respectful and gracious with Kaye and seemed to enjoy the conversation. He smiled warmly and shook his hand when they parted and walked into
the training room and asked me, "Who was that, anyway ?"
Only six years separate Gooden and me, yet I knew who Kaye was. However, in my early twenties, I was still at Florida State drinking beer and trying to meet girls. Gooden was a big league baseball star from a tough part of Tampa, Florida. He was famous, had money and had experimented with cocaine-something I had never even dreamed of. Here I was the one who was innocent and naive. I was as shocked as anyone was when Doc tested positive for cocaine as I thought that baseball just meant everything and could not understand how anyone would jeopardize it.

* * *

I had not been a good spring. Only two days before, Roger McDowell's wife Karen was awakened by her husband who had gotten up complaining of intense pain in his left groin area. She drove him to the hospital and Fiske Warren was summoned from his hotel at 4:30 AM to check him out. A small hernia had been detected by Dr. John Olichney in February, but it had been thought to be inconsequential. People walk around with hernias all the time. They gave Roger an injection and it quieted it down, but the decision was made the next morning to go ahead and get it fixed. We didn't want it to flare up again in September. Roger and Karen flew to New York the next day. Losing McDowell was like losing an everyday player. He wouldn't return until May 14th when we were in 5th place, 4 1/2 games back.

Friday, February 24, 2006

There's a legacy to batting third in Queens

Davey Johnson met with the media after acquiring second baseman Tom Teufel from the Minnesota Twins in December of 1985. One telling comment Davey had was this:
"You make trades for your line-up."
The Mets left camp in April of 1985 intending to platoon second basemen Kelvin Chapman and Wally Backman and bat them second behind Mookie Wilson. When Chapman struggled, he was banished to Tidewater and we went with the switch-hitting Backman at second. But Backman struggled from the right side, hitting less than .200 for the season.
Among other things, the old NL East was stacked with lefthanded starters. And Davey had seen Teufel play for the Toledo Mudhens in 1983 where he was player of the year in the International League. The platoon suited both players. It enabled them to play their strengths and gave Davey another player to use off the bench late in the game.
Teufel proved to be as ordered, batting over .300 for the season, the majority of it against lefthanded pitching. He made his value apparent early, homering off John Tudor in the pivotable four-game sweep in St Louis in April.
But the importance of who hit first and second in Met line-ups in the mid-eighties was made even more manifest by the man who hit third, Keith Hernandez. Only Tony Gwynn put together the type of numbers that Hernandez put together from 1984 through 1986. I maintain that Hernandez would be in the Hall of Fame had he not begun suffereing from recurrent hamstring pulls starting in 1987. I imagine these began as a result of his back which finally forced him into retirement early in the 1990's.
Hernandez particular dominace, aside from his defensive prowess, was his proficiency at batting third in the order. It is here from which his legacy was secured, and one in which Met fans remember him for. Hernandez was about winning and not his personal stats, and was a master at moving baserunners. He thrived when a runner was at first, taking advantage of the hole on the right side like few could. He also executed a hit-and-run as well as anyone. In 1985, his best as a Met, with the team behind in the final three innings there was no better player at getting a lead-off walk to start a rally.
So in Flushing, herein lies the expectation from anyone who hits third. After his departure, Gregg Jefferies, Dave Magadan and Howard Johnson among others tried, but could never live up to the Hernandez standard. It was only when a Mike Piazza in his prime came to New York did any other hitter live up to it. And it took one of the best right-handed hitters of our generation.
This spring will be time for experimenting with the order by Willie Randolph. Hitting Paul Lo Duca second I'll bet will be discarded early, as his stats last year from the two spot were lacking. This will enable him to moved down into the order to sixth or seventh and being the best thing for the team. Having Lo Duca hit second places a burden on him early in the game when he needs to be communicating with the starter. Its no secret that Jason Veritek has maintained its better for the Red Sox he hit further down in the order as his focus is on working with the pitching staff. Varitek's leadership skills are well known around the game. This may well prove to be true for LoDuca as well.
I've often maintained we made a mistake not hitting Juan Samuel second after his 1989 acquisition from the Phillies as his best lifetime stats we're from this slot in the batting order. But this was during the time the club was putting all their eggs in the Gregg Jefferies basket. Carlos Beltran's stats reflect the same as Samuel's. Beltran's elevation to second in the order would leave the best candidate to hit third as David Wright.
With speed on base and power behind, visions of a season that compare to those of the great one's in Hernandez and Piazza could mark the beginning of a new era. These visions though are tough to fill with the standards for comparison being those to these Hall of Famer caliber players. Along with the wants of dominate starting pitchers of days gone by is that of whomever bats third in the Mets line-up.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Individual sport and team game...or is it the other way around?

Long time coach and manager Mike Cubbage once told a story about an exchange he had with Gregg Jefferies in the minor leagues. Jefferies frequently bellowed loud obscenities after unsuccessful times at bat in a manner which echoed about the smaller, more intimate minor league parks. Cubbage, wanting to change the young talented player's behavior called him into his office.
To make his point, he asked a bit of a rhetorical question, "What would you mother say if she heard you?"
Jefferies easily brushed it aside by saying, "she's heard it before."
I've learned something as a high school teacher I hadn't realized working in professional athletics. Kids need to develop social skills. Schools are as good a place as any as we don't expect them to be perfect. They're kids. Their going to make poor choices, make mistakes and learn from all. Sins and misteps are addressed and their held accountable for them. Discipline is applied. For better or for worse, they grow.
We encourage after school activities such as sports, musical ensembles, marching band, service clubs, academic clubs, student councils, special interest clubs. The list goes on and on. Any activity that keeps a kid after school exposes them further to invaluable lessons. Maybe its just friendly fellowship or something simple as knowing what a sense of belonging means. Often its learning the value in group efforts through the channel of common goals. Here's where team sports come in. And here's where parents make it or break it.
Little League and Recreational Soccer are extremely popular and valuable for kids to develop physically and socially while building self-esteem. Some are talented enough to excel in their sport and take further steps by playing for school teams and various forms of competitive teams. Some parents have a tendency to get involved in their training and advancement of individual skills. Sadly some forget their son or daughter is playing a team sport and disregard team goals as they nurture them along. Parents will openly demonstrate their emphasis on their child's individual success and things as playing time or what position they play. It goes beyond advocacy and many live vicariously through their children.
I've witnessed some kids reject their parents , embarrassed by their behavior. But others buy in and we'll witness a selfish, narcissistic athlete and one who's socially unskilled.
Recent behavior of American speedskater Shani Davis at the Winter Olympics comes to mind. After blowing off the opening ceremonies, he snubbed his teammates and opted not to take part in team pursuit. The bizzare behavior of his mother has spoken volumes as well. Make no mistake. As part of the team, Davis was obligated to take part in this team event. Yet values developed in his long quest for individual goals enabled him to easily make these snubs of his teammates and countrymen.
The increase in the number of high school and undergraduate basketball players entering the NBA has affected the league in a way that's been bemoaned by knowing observers for some time now. At an early age, players are spoiled by sycophants and those seeking to take advantage. Individual skills and goals are over emphasized and placed at a premium. An underdeveloped player arrives unable to play into a team concept and socially unskilled at accepted criticism and coaching. The coach becomes an impeding to the player's individual goals. The player either learns quickly or fails miserably, and quite publicly.
Such examples of a failure at the parental level to both demontrate and instill values at an early age are becoming more common and in more sports. More than ever there's a financial gain to be made from sports in adolescents. Private training, traveling clubs , summer camps are the norm that weren't so 25 years ago. Exploitation by the adults who should be providing adult supervision is slowly, but assuredly taking us away from the value that team sports and concepts have provided for generations.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

We've come a long way, baby

A young Greg Maddux had piched many innings in winter ball and was in the midst of his breakout season with the Chicago Cubs in the late 1980's when he developed tendonitus in his throwing shoulder. After a physicisn's consultation, Cub trainer John Fierro started Maddux on light dumbbell exercises, most of which are still utilized today. Cub's manager Don Zimmer came into the training room and witnessed Maddux using the 2 pound weights and put a halt to it. Fierro was told that if Maddux ever had a weight in his hand again, it would cost him his job.
The delightful cromugeon of a dinosaur Zimmer endured, but thankfully the thinking hasn't. Major League Baseball is our oldest professional sport, but it tragically lagged behind in sports medicine. Much of its training philosophy was mired in the muck of 100 years of doing things the same old way. Weights were once considered evil, with baseball needing to be played by an athlete with long, flexible muscles. Lifting weights simply shortened muscles and created too much bulk for a player to be successful.
To be sure, the recognition of sports medicine is a relatively new thing as compared to the existence of the organized sports it thrives in. Some of its specialized careers-most notably those of a certified athletic trainer and a strength and conditioning coach aren't nearly as old as the sport. Certified Athletic Trainers (ATC) came on the scene after World War II and Strength and Conditioning Coaches (CSCS) even more recently. Both are supported by effective and highly respected organizations with cerifictaion requirements that are both comprehensive and rigorous. As college football along with major league baseball being the biggest shows at the time of their inceptions, these are the settings these professionals found themselves in. The ATCs long before the CSCS. But the acceptance of what they do and the expertise they possess has only been recently accepted in baseball.
Scenes this spring have been of Randy Johnson's skateboard for balance, certainly a product of his many back exercises. And in Mets camp its the tests which specifically test for lower bady strength. My, my things have changed. Such things were once scoffed upon.
I've often wondered if baseball had given better support and respect to these dedicated and highly trained and educated professionals early, made their positions less tenuous, and given them the respect and influence they deserved what might have been. As they were the only group with the knowledge of its danger and ramifications, the steroid juggernaut might well have been halted when it started to creep in during the 1990's.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Curt Gowdy and remebering how it was

For most of us 40 plus year olds, Curt Gowdy was the voice which brought us baseball. His passing today at 86 from Leukemia marks another passage of time. Gray hair is more plentiful. Chins are more numerous. And memories of a childhood need to be fondly remembered.
Unless you lived in a metropolitan area with a major league team you had little hope of seeing a big league ballgame on TV during the 1970's and you anxiously awaited Gowdy and Tony Kubek's Baseball Game of the Week Saturdays on NBC. Until the self-proclaimed super stations of Chicago and Atlanta came about, this was it. Or if you were a fanatic as I was, you huddled hopefully next to a huge radio for a signal on AM radio. Maybe as it was rare and precious and maybe even mysterious is what kept the allure going. One could only imagine the game, and perhaps this was the reason why just the sight of a big league field inspired awe and wonder. Unimaginable beauty was a freshly cut and marked field for the thirsty eye. Nevertheless it was Gowdy's voice which sparks memories for many like me. I for one feel fortunate to know the game this way.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Phenoms of a Florida Spring

Two formative years were spent by this writer as the trainer, traveling secretary, equipment guy for the Tidewater Tides. They've since be renamed Norfolk Tides with the building of a new stadium. It was an extremely demanding job that prompted me to call myself the person in charge in the event anything at all went wrong. I say formative because of the relationships I developed. One of which was with the late editor of The Viiginain-Pilot, George McClelland. Long before my arrival he'd been nicknamed Scoop.
Scoop never seemed to mind and clearly relished his time with the team. Scoop saw all of our games, a rarity that a AAA Team have a full-time beat writer. I once asked Scoop how he got away with it and he said simply, "I'm the Editor."
Scoop loved the game and when he retired, he went to work for the Mets down in Port St. Lucie and had some player development role. Keeping in mind all the phenoms he's seen come through Tidewater in parts of three decades, its easy to understand the query he made to wise old sage, the late Darrell Johnson.
"Do the Mets over rate their pitching?"
The former major league manager easily replied, "Yes."
The history of the Mets franchise is relatively sort when considered retrospectively. Its only 45 years old. And after some understandably hapless years in the early 60's, the magical season of 1969 sprang upon the world. The names Seaver, Kooseman, Ryan, McGraw permanently became embedded in the subconscious of the Mets and their fans forever becoming the standard for any pitcher to follow. The expectations became one and the same. Intead of accepting a Craig Swan or a Tim Learly as they were, a combination of bloated expectations and hype allowed for a reality perceived as failure. And then along came Dwight Eugene Gooden, and with him a second generation of unobtainable expectations.
Mets' grown talents in Anthony Young, Pete Shourek, David West and Paul Wilson all faced expectations from a very short window of history being held to a Seaver, Ryan and Gooden standard.
George McClelland's question for Darrell Johnson should be kept in mind when considering the new phenoms of the spring. This morning in the tabloids it was Mike Pelfrey and Henry Owens. And for them comes a 45 year-old burden of expectations.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Skipper Speak

Yesterday saw the first real sit-down with the New York media for Willie Randolph. New York Newsday has the details. Sharp guy, Randolph. Here's some reasons why.
When I was at Florida State and worked as an extremely obscure student trainer, it was a priveledge to observe legendary college football coach, Bobby Bowden. Bowden consistently gave two rules to the players with respect to the media. First, to never give your opponent added incentive. This covers trash talk of course. Juicy quotes do indeed make their way onto bulletin boards. The second Bowden rule, which is appropriate here, was to never pay any attention to what he said the press.
But its now different. And especially so between college and professional sports.
To be sure, when I first heard the Bowden Rules, things were different in 1977. There was no talk radio, no message boards, no blogs, no online newspapers, and not even any ESPN. My, my. Times sure have changes in the last 30 years haven't they?
And you can be sure the majority of players carry laptops now on the road. Many players are extremely media savvy in their own right. Take for example Tom Glavine and David Wright using Matt Cerrone's Metsblog to push their own charity work. No fools, Glavine and Wright both know that Mets fans read blogs. And you can be sure players don't limit themselves in any way to what they will pay attention to.
So this brings us to Randolph and the way things have changed from the Bobby Bowden era of the late 70's. Managers will now motivate and communicate with players through the media. As one of the voices of the club along with Omar Minaya, his generalities are realities of the message they desire to get out. Managers don't have team meetings daily less the become ineffective. And individual conversations about player roles don't take place as often as you might think.
In his comments yesterday, Randolph sought to motivate, encourage and remove preconceived comfort levels.
With respect to the competition for second base, he let all the candidates know they had a chance as to insure their best efforts. The quiet line about what management had told him with respect to putting the best team on the field regardless of how much money they make, is an attempt to let Jeff Keppinger and Anderson Hernandez to know that Kaz Matsui's contract won't beat them out. Randolph kind words about knowing Matsui will do well were intended to soothe any bruised ego on Matsui's part. Bret Boone needs no motivation as he's just looking to show all clubs he's not lost it.
Much the same is true about starters. While keeping Victor Zambrano, Aaron Heilman, and Steve Trachsel on their toes, he's letting John Maine, Brain Bannister, Mike Pelfry and Alay Soler know they have their chance to make the rotation. And, yes. Jose Lima, too. Its hard to imagine without and injury or total meltodown that any of the Zambrano, Heilman, Trachsel group don't go north, but Randolph wants to keep the later group's hope's alive. Good showings in the spring against big league bats leave lasting memories in the minds of manager.
So times sure have changed. Managers know players are paying attention now to what is said to media. Its a subtle form of manipulation that serves more than one agenda.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Balancing the burden of a season

After a game in which Doc Gooden struggled in early 1986, I shuffled back to the player's lounge to grab a beer. Keith Hernandez' locker was on the corner where he and Ray Knight spoke in hushed tones. Hernandez didn't have to get his own beers as a small cooler in his locker held Michelobs. I didn't linger and the only line I overheard was from Hernandez.
"Our ace in the hole is struggling, Ray."
Number one starters, especially the dominant ones, are a team's lifeline through struggles and mediocrity. Losing one during the season is similar to a football team losing its starting quarterback. Pedro Martinez is this for the Mets.
We learned early on as athletic trainers to call a big toe the great toe. How appropriate. One's great toe serves a significant role in that with it we balance our weight. The metaphor it offers is telling. The balance of a season is placed upon the right great toe of Pedro Martinez.
This is on Martinez' drive foot, and any pitcher's toe here goes through significant hell during a career. By design baseball cleats are thin and give little cushion to the bottom or sides. Pitchers cleats or spikes are usually delivered with extra glossing of a hard plastic near the great toe as friction here is indescribable. Shoes easily wear out and pitchers might go through several pair during the season. This sort of harsh, repeptitive friction causes hot spots and often blisters. n a Solid buildup of calluse occurs as well. And age old product called pinch pads are probably still applied directly to the side of a pitchers foot before they even put socks on. Stress isn't limited to the skin though and it often goes deeper as it does for Martinez. Here's where the problem lies as its affecting the joint at the base of his great toe.
The 1970s witnessed the introduction of what was then known as Astro Turf, now artificial turf. Sports medicine noted an increased occuarance of turf toe, which is a sprain at the base of the great toe. The rigidity of the surface and the high speed of the sport-particularly football - marked the beginning of its recognition. Its a most often a chronic condition with onset being rather insidious. Long term symptoms are quite similar to what Martinez has been experiencing. And experiencing over the last three seasons.
Aside from pain, symptoms include joint laxity, arthritic changes and hypertrophy. Joint laxity is unwelcome instability of the joint, arthritic changes infers the wearing down of the joint itself, and hypertrophy means a build-up of scar tissue. This hypertrophy is what reporters observed this week in the Mets' clubhouse. These symptoms, coupled with what is described in the above paragraph, is troubling.
Its not good new that Martinez had to stop running this week because of pain in his toe. This is significantly less stress than will be placed on his toe when pitching. Running represents normal gait and extension. Pitching will apply a unique force from the outside as Martinez follows through during delivery.
I'm certain the athletic training staffs of both the Red Sox and Mets have thrown the training room at Martinez over the last three seasons. Every imaginable treatment, tape job and padding technique has been applied. The discription of whats been attempted as cushioning, leads me to believe its more of a problem with friction and pressure than instability. This might be where the good news exists.
But some problems can come upthough as if Martinez is unable to run for conditioning. He can use other options as a stationary bike, but he should be wary though of developing an imbalance between the quads and hamstrings. During one late 1980's season, the Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe attempetd to get his conditioning in this manner and suffered a hamstring tear. Consistently being unable to throw off the mound between starts can cause a loss of velocity and perhaps even command.
You can be sure both Ray Ramirez and Mike Herbst are well aware of this. Here's to hoping that taking the cleat away from directly under the toe will relieve significant pressure. Yet circumstances cannot be controled and its not helpful that symptoms have lingered from the previous campaign and are present at the beginning of camp.
Don't be mistaking its a question of pain tolerance either. Martinez has proved his mettle here many times over and he knows what he means to the team. Putting him on the mound with a pianful toe would most assuredly alter his delivery and put both his shoulder and elbow in peril.
Martinez is behind a bit this spring, but its not really a problem. How he'll do in Grapefruit League games isn't important either, though the call from his country to pitch in March may have an affect. But as its been three seasons and its here again, we see that never has the act of crossing one's fingers made so much noise.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Where's George?

Only in Baseball Musings would we find a link to an English blog about Japanese baseball. And only here would we find out that former Met George Foster is a special instructor for Orix of the Pacific League . I can see how George would excel here, working with individual players like this.

Of faith and fear for a pitching staff

You just have to go read Greg's hysterical bit today at Faith and Fear in Flushing. Its a riot!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Only at Wrigley....

My friend Joe McDonald at NYSD posted an excerpt from my upcoming book, "...getting paid to watch" yesterday on his site. As its his site, he edits as he sees fit and can leave something out for various reasons. I can understand why he did. In this circumstance, the section I segwayed spoke to Chicago and Wrigley Field as it was the main scene of the action which took place. Find below that segway with the understanding I've sought to put the reader in the story. Enjoy.

A delightful character, known simply as "Ronnie", usually greeted ball clubs at Wrigley Field. Ronnie could always be counted on to salute each visiting club's bus with dueling middle fingers. His never ceasing, "Cubs, woo...Cubs,woo...Cubs,woo" could be heard as you went to use one of the urinals in the visiting clubhouse as vented windows faced the front of the stadium. Ronnie seemed to hold special affection for us, and once recruited a woman to flash our bus after a game. He and his accomplice then hopped on the L and met us on the way back to the hotel for a repeat performance.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Another excerpt of my book is on Joe McDonald's NYSportsDay. This one covers the unfortunate circumstances surrounding George Foster's departure during the 1986 season.

There's more to Lo Duca than you might think

Charlie Samuals used to staff the clubhouse with kids from the Bronx, and I doubt much has changed. Maybe only the burrough. Rich, distinctive accents will fill the place. The local dialect has a tendency to drive team lexicons and in New York, male names have a tendency to get a 'y' or an 'ie' on the end. Allow me another venture back to the late 1980's Mets here: Timmy, Sikesie, Ronnie, Dougie, Sidney, Stevie, Ellie, etc, and so on and so forth. You bet the idea. Only the iconic Hernandez escaped such things, although I once heard Arthur Richman refer to him as Keithie. It just didn't work.
The new Mets catcher will quickly be stuck with Paulie. And I'm sure Paul Lo Duca won't mind a bit. Afterall, he's from Brooklyn.
LoDuca spent a long time in the minor leagues before breaking in with the Dodgers. He soon became one of the leaders in the clubhouse. Like many, I'm still shocked the Dodgers traded him. You don't trade guys like that, and you don't often get guys like that either. Unless there's a fire sale like there was in South Florida again. Knowing what kind of player Lo Duca was, Omar Minaya put on hold the negotiations with Bengie Molina and swooped in and grabbed a player talented and loaded with things you can't measure.
David Wright is quoted today in the New York Post in a way which indicates that Lo Duca's clubhouse reputation precedes itself. But its some subtleties of the role that the catcher can play which will highlight his value.
Lo Duca has proved quite durable, catching in around 130 games the last four seasons. He's also played some games at first and in the outfield. And as many of you saw yesterday on MetsBlog many preliminary line-ups have him batting second. To be sure, Lo Duca has proved to be an accomplished number two hitter in his career. But where other significant value exists in him when he is not in the game.
Unlike many catchers doing the bulk of the work for their teams, Lo Duca has become exceptonally adept at coming off the bench. He's distinguished himself as a pinch-hitter and as a good situational hitter. He gives Willie Randolph another weapon on the bench, someone to use when the team is behind. And in particular, when on the road.
Although most attention will be afforded Lo Duca as a starter, it may be that some of his most memorable moments may come in late-inning comebacks when he began the game on the bench. Teams who win titles will win games like this and players like Paul Lo Duca are the one's who often deliver them.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Face of the Franchise

When Omar Minaya appeared last week on Stephen A. Smith's, "Quite Frankly, " it continued to be clear that times have changed in Flushing. And there's a new sheriff in town. One with a little bit Andy Taylor, a little bit Matt Dillon. One with gun, one without.
I didn't see the show, but the content isn't the point. We've also see him of Neal Cavuto's show on Fox News and countless times on the back page. Aside from the now media savvy, Steve Phillips, I have a hard time seeing Frank Cashen or Joe McIlvaine or Al Harazin on set to take on an inquisition from someone like a Smith or a Cavuto. Has Omar done Page Six yet?
Whether consciously or not, Omar Minaya is the face of the Mets. But like the television sheriff analogy, there are two ways in which he is doing this.
First, his relationship with the media. I'm not sure if the Wilpons knew they were getting a media dynamo when they hired him. How could they? Wise to the world of the New York media juggernaut, and still acolytes to the Frank Cashen School of keeping the media at arms length-yours and theirs-the Wlpons still seek little publicity. Couple this with a Willie Randolph who's become a master of reticence, and a vacuum of nothingness might exist. Enter Minaya, a New York kid who understands, emraces and is awfully good at the game.
The second is more subtle, but much more important. Minaya has clearly developed the kind of sound people skills necessary to administrate and lead a baseball operation. First a passion
for the game and playing it. Then many formative years as a scout, observing and convincing players to sign contracts with his organization. You never ever really stop scouting, by the way. Some stops as a baseball executive, and it was time. Enter a needy and directionless Mets.
Minaya's years in the game at the baseball level enable him to both engage and relate to both on and off-field personell. Neither standoffish nor unapproachable, he clearly likes people. Thus, a critical thing becomes clear. Omar Minaya establishes, builds and nurtures relationships.
But he takes it a step further. Its called trust.
Minaya's signature moment came last year-not with the Pedro Martinez signing, but with the mid-season flirtation to acquire Manny Ramirez. When it was all said and done, he was asked about it. His answer meant everything to a franchise deperately seeking legitimacy again.
When queried about the effort he made to get the deal done, he responded thusly, "how could I go down into that clubhouse and face a Tom Glavine, a Mike Piazza, a Pedro Martinez, and not done everything I could to help a bunch of guys who are battling."
Previous regimes and other teams to be sure would have said something about mortgaging their future. Not Minaya. That mid-season attempt to get a future Hall of Famer in his prime showed what the man and the Mets are all about now.
Yes, its Omar Minaya's team. And if a World Series title does return to the Mets, it will be to Minaya whom the spoils of adulation go.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

About that code...for me, there are two

My early forays into the New York publishing world in the late 1990's hawking my book about the Mets of the 1980's left me disillusioned. A naive writer assumed much and knew little. The publishing houses I was contacting didn't deal in unsolicited manuscripts, but would do so from agents. Two old acquaintances from my days in baseball who'd had books published kindly passed along the names of their's. The nobody knew who I was angle I could handle. The we only want dirt angle I couldn't and never will.
Unlike the uniform code against gambling that's posted in every clubhouse in America, there is no such thing about the code inside the clubhouse. Yes indeed, what goes on there stays there. Private conversations between teammates, the raw langauage, what happens on the road-all stay there. But its more than a rule. Anyone who's ever shared the same no-limit hold-em hand for a season knows what I mean. Its a bond that isn't easily explained, yet internally understood and precious.
People who've served in the military know what I mean, the bond of combat inexplicable, knowing friends for a lifetime. Its most certainly where the sharing a foxhole metaphor originates. No one in sports would ever presume to compare sports to combat, but it serves its purpose to demonstrate the mutual feeling held by teammates. Many things are best left unsaid and never repeated.
I'm no exception and could never give myself the mental okay to tell where the bodies are buried. No purpose would be served save greed and perversion. The men I shared the time with mean too much to me, and the experience shaped the man I am today. To betray would be discard everything, and I could never, ever forgive myself. There'll be no Canseco book, No Ball Four, no Bronx Zoo. To do so would be to break the first of two codes.
The second, though less dramatic, holds equal value for me. As an athletic trainer, I was bound by a code of ethics. The most simple of which is confidentiality. Things shared in confidence, told in confidence will continue to stay that way.
Its a fine line that trainers are asked to walk in professional sports. On one hand, its simple for everyone to understand that injuries related to something the happens on the field to be an open book with all parties concerned. But there are the other things. Players begin to trust you and confide things to you. These are to be kept in confidence. Some aren't able to, or choose not to, are coerced otherwise, or maybe to curry favor from powers that be simply don't. I can safely say that neither Steve Garland or I ever betrayed a confidence. And though I've sadly not spoken with Steve now for several years, I know he wouldn't do so now.
So the stories I tell will be heartfelt first person accounts of what it was like to be there. I want to put you in the dugout-to make you feel as it did for me. I want to tell the story of this very special team and the men who played it. For them, for you, and for me everything I write about our Mets of the late 1980's I want it to be like it was again. Close your eyes. Its almost as if.

Thanking new blogging buddies

With this little humble space being three weeks old today, I need to thank some folks for being so nice to me. First, I need to thank David Pinto of Baseball Musings . It was David who graciously posted an excerpt from my manuscript, and his continued posting of my ramblings have done much for this space. Pinto's becoming the Instapundit of baseball blogs. His recent recognition by Peter Gammons for his work, his attention to detail and his particular strength in statistics gives us all hope. Thank's Dave. Next, Matt Cerrone of Metsblog. Matt's publisher of what may indeed be the most popular Mets Blog out there. His advise and support have been invaluable. There are no greater Mets fans than Greg and Jason from Faith and Fear in Flushing. Man, those guys are serious fans. You'll have to check out Dave Murray's excellent Mets Guy in Michigan . Anyone who post a photo from a KISS concert and reverently refers to Ozzy Osbourne is my kind of guy. Metstradamus has frequently had my back when I've made dopey mistakes like referring to Aaron Heilman as Eric Heilman. ( Gee, did I even spell it right this time?) And Joe McDonald's NY Sports Day has given me an incredible forum in such a short period of time. You don't need to wait to pick up your paper at the bridge or tunnel anymore to get the story for the first time. Joe does it now! There are others I'm forgotten I'm sure, and thanks to you all!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What Ricky's excellent ten days might mean

News that Ricky Henderson, the all-time stolen base leader will be in Port St. Lucie prompts some thoughts. As I spent 12 years in professional baseball and was getting paid to watch, I spent much time, well, watching.

First and foremost, Willie Randolph wants more stolen bases from Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. And included in this will be getting more walks-particularly for Reyes. I imagine you may even see Henderson coaching some first base in spring training games and sitting next to Reyes in the dugout. Unless Henderson has other obligations or has an offer to try-out, his time could be extended.

Another thing you may see Ricky doing is working with baserunners on going from first to third. This involves getting jumps and intricate details as cross-over steps. Proper mechanics here can cut down on the number of steps it takes for any runner to get to third from first.

I love what George King said today about Ricky. He's the only player who could coach without officially retiring. But it speaks to a natural evolution of athletes to mentors and then to coaching. He appears to have a taste for it while playing with independent teams these past two seasons. A new kind of gratification occurs in many athletes when they find they can pass something along. Often it evolves to coaching full-time and a natural career change.

I observed Lee Mazzilli and Clint Hurdle going through this phase in their careers. When my own career change to teaching occurred in the 90's, a wonderful female colleague told me that teaching is a calling. Like teaching, coaching becomes the same for many.

Some observers have commented that they found Ricky's presence curious;that Randolph can already do this. This is true to an extent, but managers don't want to commit themselves to hands on instruction in spring training. They just can't give it the time it requires. Managers are just too busy with meetings, the press, and being able to observe. Coaches in all sports benefit from watching their players get instruction and training from others. This is one of the reasons you see so many extra coaches in camp.

As this is an high-profile hire for camp, both Randolph and Omar Minaya signed off on it. Randolph certainly knows Henderson well and has significant regard for him. All-in-all this is a good move by the Mets.

Its natural to speculate that Henderson could get a look as well, but the numbers don't necessarily work. Assuming Randolph keeps at least eleven pitchers and two catchers, you consider seven other everyday players and only five spots remain.

Two will most steamily be from the Victor Diaz, Xavier Nady, Tike Redman and Endy Chavez group. That allows for three infielders, one of which is certain to be Chris Woodward who also a true shortstop. If Julio Franco will be on the club and Jose Valentin represents the only lefthanded bat off the bench. Either Chavez or Redman will make the club as they can play centerfield and lead off an inning as a pinch hitter. Little room for Henderson is here to be considered.

The battle to watch in spring training will be to see if Anderson Hernandez beats out Kaz Matsui for the second base job. If the Mets are unable to find someplace for Matsui, Woodward's spot will be imperiled. This of course is all cart before the horse material. What one speculates in February is usually far, far different than the reality of who's on the team charter going north in April.

But getting back to Henderson, what may materialize is a silent commitment from Minaya to him that if he's unable to find the employment he's looking for, a player-coach role might be in the cards in Tidewater. And then the potential is there for Randolph and Minaya to summon this legend should need arise.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The 100 Greatest Mets

I love the list of 100 Greatest Mets compiled by Greg and Jason at Faith and fear in Flusing Some key inclusions are Terry Leach and Kevin Elster that unknowing observers might leave out. I know its somewhat fan driven, but I'm still saddened to see George Foster left off.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Desire...the incomparable Bobby Ojeda

Much is being said and much is certainly dependent upon the rehabilitation of Octavio Dotel, And there should. If indeed Dotel is ready to pitch in front of Mariano Rivera in the Bronx during April, it will only be good news for the Yankee bullpen. He'll be way ahead of schedule for the elbow surgery that was performed in June. Only ten months of rehab for this painful injury would be phenomenal. Another amazing elbow rehabilitation took place 19 seasons ago. In Queens.

Bobby Ojeda came over from the Boston Red Sox prior to the 1986 season, and proved to be better than expected. Frank inquired about two Boston lefthanders-the other being Bruce Hurst. Somehow the fate of it being the less known Bobby Ojeda brought another piece of the incredible team of 1986 with its off-the-charts moxie. Ojeda won 16 games during the regular season and twice took the mound in the 86 post-season on the road with the team down in the series. Both times the incomparable Bobby Ojeda secured Met victories. And he did so in pain.

Ojeda probably won't talk about it much, but I'd imagine his elbow had been hurting him for some time. I recall that during a September 1986 game in Philadephia he came up between innings and had me coat his elbow in analgesic heat balm. It was odd as I Bobby rarely asked for anything.

So on through 86 and into 87 did Ojeda pitch until one May day in the steamy old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium did he come down into the dugout and call Steve Garland over to let him know he just couldn't go anymore. Jim Parkes performed an ulnar nerve transplant soon afterwards and it was believed that Bobby would be lost until next year.

But Ojeda would hear none of it. Many players who have such injuries disappear for long periods of time, but not Bobby. He stayed with the club, stayed in shape and relentlessly rehabilitated. His timetable was different than the rest of us. Eccentric, yet wise, Jim Parkes knew what was afoot. And so did Steve Garland. A unique trust and understanding existed between the three of them and it was only this that allowed Ojeda to pitch again in September. I doubt that Parkes would have let anyone else attempt this stunt. But it took a special patient, too.

The desire to win and compete burned within the soft-spoken Ojeda. Pain wasn't a limiting factor, and neither was a threat to a career. The desire to repeat 1986 was incalculable in Ojeda. Tremendously loyal to his teammates, he would do anything in his power to be there and returned for what was almost an incredible surge in the final month of September in 1987.

Four months is indeed too quick for this particular rehabilitation. Protocols are still similar and the surgical technique hasn't change much. But circumstances for the man involved in this one were different. Personal values drove him. It rubbed off and was absorbed by the rest to become part of the reason why the Mets were what they were.

CORRECTION: A knowing reader mailed in that Bobby won 18 games in 1986. I stand corrected, and know that Bobby will let me have it if he finds out I short changed him two wins.

We called him Dude

Another excert of my upcoming book is published on my new friend's , Joe McDonlad site, NYSportsDay. Take a peak at Joe's excellent place for a New York sports junkie.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Remembering the Titans

The announcement from Flushing yesterday that the 1986 World Series Champion Team will be recognized is exciting news for everyone. An on-field presentation before a game on the weekend of August 19th will highlight all events. Jeff Wilpon was the voice of the announcement and hopefully will use his continuing influence to make this the special event it deserves. Its most politically correct to say, "invited back."

There will be some easy ones to be sure. Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling will already be in the ballpark doing TV. Gary Carter, Howard Johnson, and Randy Niemann will easily get permission to miss days from work as they are already employed by the Mets. I understand from speaking with Ed Hearn, that Davey Johnson has had some health problems of late, but I'm sure the Mets will be able to get hom here nonetheless. Frank Cashen, the man who put the Mets back together in the 1980's will easily be there. And the Mets have thankfully re-embraced Darryl Strawberry, so his attendance is assured.

There are concerns that the Mets may have some difficulty pulling this off, as aside from card shows and the like, few of the guys have stayed in touch. And no real effort seems to have existed by the club to maintain its legacy from this era. The 1969 team was alive in more than spirit during the 80's, and it is mostly through blogs that any real nostalgia exists for this team. Perhaps its a generational thing, but the 86 Mets clearly weren't you father's New York Mets.

Jeff Pearlman's lively book, "The Bad Guys Won" gave great attention to the juicy, and well, dark side of the 86 Mets. And it underscored the philosophy that permeated the powers that be afterwards when the championships became elusive. It was they way they were the suits in the offices upstairs felt.

The bad boy stuff was fun, I guess.... while they won. The 1987 season proved a wash with all the injuries and Doc Gooden's first club-mandated suspension. And the club that year that was together in September certainly bested a Cardinal team in the final month. The Cardinals were grateful to have clinched the night the Mets arrived in St. Louis for what would have been a three-game showdown. But after what was a domination of the 1988 season, the seventh-game loss to the Dodgers in the NLCS proved especially bitter.

A sort of institutional loathing began from above. Frank Cashen sought what he described as a "fire in the belly." Fred Wilpon asked Johnson whether or not the club was going to quit on him. The club performed below expectations per a collective opinion of sub par professionalism. Other factors were at work-most of them documented, but the prevailing wisdom of the time was wrongly focused on desire.

Davey had the pulse of the team and protected and embellished it. So it was Johnson who was emasculated after the 1989 season with two loyal coaches, Sam Perlozzo and Bill Robinson being fired. Johnson's influence clearly diminished, the die was cast for one of many beginning's of the end.

A new attitude prevailed upon Johnson's and all the other departures. Perceived character and professionalism dictated player acquisitions and it marked the beginning of lean years and several regime changes. It was only the unlikely acquisition of Mike Piazza and the hiring of a manager with his own swash-buckling style in Bobby Valentine did a return to excellence take place.

Through the 80's the 1969 team was perched iconic around Shea Stadium, with the 1986 team all but forgotten during the 90's. True, some of its most notable members have not distinguished themselves in the post playing years. But the 1986 team was about winning and being the best. It was about overcoming long odds and subduing foes in hostile venues. Yes, many of them indeed lived hard, but they covered the bottom line and brought to the city and franchise one of baseball's most storied world titles.

Hopefully, the return of Strawberry to the family and the inclusion of Lenny Dykstra at spring training signals that its time to forget the bad, and remember the glory. I hope the Wilpons will continue to personally reach out. Bring them all back this summer-Danny Heep and Rafael Santana and Bobby Ojeda and Jesse Orosco and Wally Backman and Ray Knight and Sid Fernandez and Roger McDowell. Bring them all back. Bring them all back home.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Triumph and a truly giving legacy

He walked upstairs after a game at Shea Stadium to be part of a reception for Cystic Fibrosis. When he sat at a table, a little girl came up and asked to sit in his lap. The tall, powerful professional athlete with the gentle voice and kind way said that she could. The little girl informed him that he knew her sister. Ed Hearn met his future wife, Trish, a nurse at North Shore Hospital that night during the endless summer of 1986. Its a love story that has endured through more than any couple ever should. Yet its ultimately about triumph.

Ed told me today on the phone that Trish, "has been my nurse ever since we met."

This means more than you'd imagine as after a vital life of a professional athlete, Hearn fell victim to an illness which led to three kidney transplants. He takes more than 25 pills a day and still undergoes expensive treatments monthly. Throw in a bout with cancer later and it would be understandable why someone would give up.

But Hearn told me today, "I always knew that to play in the big leagues would make me a role model. I expected it of myself."

Hearn along with pitcher, Rick Anderson were traded to Kansas City the spring after the World Series for Davis Cone.

He was with Trish while having dinner with John Gibbons, another catcher when Joe McIlvaine of the Mets called to tell him of the trade. He and Gibbons had caught snook that day and having a cook-out with their significant others.

Hearn said, "I turned over everything to Gibby at that point-apartment, furniture, everything and made my way to Fort Myers where the Royals trained.

Trish went with Ed to Kansas City. It was to be an exciting time as Hearn would be the everyday catcher for the Royals. But a blown rotator cuff ended it all and Hearn sadly finished with less than the four years he'd need to get Major League Player's Union health insurance as a retiree. It would come in handy now for Trish and Ed Hearn.

But none of this is the story of the man Ed Hearn really has become in his post big league life. Ed's become an inspiration for many about overcoming the road blocks that face us all. Go to his web site, He's now a widely sought motivational speaker for youth groups, churches and corporate america. He's been so good, in fact, that he's the only professional athlete from a professional team ever to receive the National Speaker's Association's prestigious Certified Speaking Profession (CSP).

Hearn says, "from the letters and personal testimonials I get tell me this is what I'm supposed to be doing. When powerful, successful people have pulled me aside afterwards and have tearfully told me what my message meant to them, I know I'm where I should be."

He voice conveys the strain of illness, but the clever mind and keen wit are still evident. He brightens when he speaks of his love for his wife and how lucky he is to have her. And when he talks of his eleven year-old son, Cody, it brightens further.

Cody's a black belt in karate and a baseball player in his own right, and Hearn enjoys seeing his son grow. He laughs when he's asked about playing baseball and says, "I hope I don't mess him up."

Go to Ed's web site and say hello. He enjoys hearing from fans. But it will also be a chance for you to be warmed by true success over adversity and a man's ultimate triumph, and a truly giving legacy.

UPDATE: I'm having a terrible time getting my links in according to what BLOGSPOT wants me to do, Chalk it up as operator error. This is Ed Hearn's site.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lion in Winter

The dinner at a Yonkers Italian restaurant had been hastily put together one fall evening in 1996. Some sort of card show for the 86 Mets was being put on and the dinner was part of the deal for the John Hancocks.

I found myself at a table having dinner with Mookie Wilson, Ed Hearn and Doug Sisk. Keith Hernandez came over to the table to say hello.

After he left Sisk said, "Best player I'd ever played with."

Hearn replied, "for me it was George Brett."

Quickly, Sisk emphasized, "I said the BEST player."

Somehow the conversation went elsewhere quickly, but Sisk's keen observation stayed with me. Sisk, who had also played with Cal Ripken, found Hernandez to be best at the game of any previous teammate. This is a strikingly rare, yet telling assessment of a man who could almost appear mystic in his relationship with the game.

His awareness of surroundings were astonishingly particular. He once told me at the batting cage during BP in Montreal that he found the color of the indoor stadium to convey an odd yellow hue. Sensitive to color he noted this on thrown balls to him in the infield.

He once snuffed out a squeeze play from the Cubs just by watching manager Jimmy Frye in the dugout. The Cubs knew afterwards that he had beaten them at their own game, too.

Hidden from view in the tunnel in Philadelphia he managed along with Davey Johnson and noted Davey putting on the hit and run with Ray Knight at the plate. "Sweet, Davey, sweet", he marveled. Johnson's back had been to Hernandez who even knew Davey's signs for his coaches on the bases. Few players go to this extreme to be aware of things.

A player survey was done once by the Sporting News in 1985, and along with Tony Gwynn, Hernandez was recognized as the most feared hitter in the National League with the game on the line. Perhaps if the Mets instead of the Cardinals had prevailed in 1985, Hernandez would have been league MVP and been the nudge that moved him to Hall of Fame status. Or maybe if he hadn't missed significant time in the later 80's for hamstring tears. Sisk might agree that Keith Hernandez is one of the BEST players not to be in the Hall of Fame.

Often reserved and aloof, I expected Hernandez to leave the game altogether after he retired. Maybe that acting career would work out. But perhaps he missed the rush of being in the game he grew to become so good at. And being able to watch and be with the game within the game satisfies the thirst.

It may yet be that the big stage that Hernandez will find himself on with NY Sports Net this summer will again distinguish him as one of the best at his craft.

I, for one, can't wait.

Friday, February 03, 2006

"....the makings of a beautiful friendship"

As team photos go, this one distinguished itself with the lovely backdrop of the Adirondacks. The sun shown and young, eager faces smiled during the summer of 1980, with big league dreams dancing in their heads. Sadly many are called, but few are chosen. Only a handfull of the young men in the team photo of the Little Falls Mets were destined for the major leagues.

Of those in the team photo, Lloyd McClendon had the longest tenure as a player, with him being most notable as manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This humble writer is on the extreme right of the photo, still unbelieving he actually wore those obnoxious white pants. He achieved his own big league dream a short five years later,

But there were two more. One was a first round pick, the second of three that June the Mets had. Billy Beane was sent from central casting. Tall, lean, articulate, and a smile made for shirt commercials was this California teenager. Another was a college man taken in later rounds when organizations merely sought to fill out rosters. Short, wiry with a face and accent that reminded of Phil Rizzuto. A small and obscure college in Massachusetts produced JP Ricciardi.

As fate would have it, the two arrived on the same day and the local GM bunked them together at the same home. An odd pair upon glance, yet they were perfect together and became fast friends. And it was a friendship which would endure well beyond the time they both played professionally.

Ricciardi was a calming influence on the high-strung Beane. Probably having few illusions about a big league playing career, yet seeing that Beane did, Ricciardi became a wise big brother for Beane, perhaps even a bit of a role model.

Ricciardi left to become a scout a short time later. Beane got the proverbial cup-of-coffee in the big leagues. Their paths separated, but not surprising and seemingly synchronously they came together when Beane was the GM for the Oakland A's. He hired Ricciardi as his assistant.

Now they sit with the same jobs, Beane still with the A's and Ricciardi having his own team, the Toronto BlueJays. Both are recognized as being of the new breed of baseball executives, their wise focus on things you can measure. Its easy to imagine either of them bringing World Series trophies to they're respective cities.

And I always wonder whether or not these two friends remember and talk about that summer in upstate New York where they met and developed this beautiful friendship,

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Urban Legends and Practicalities

A memorable photo of Doc Gooden appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated during the spring of 1985. The shot done while Gooden was throwing off a Payson Field mound in St. Petersburg, Florida, was a unique shot from below. The angle was quite telling as it showed just how much torque and range of motion a pitcher of Gooden's physical skills possessed. Sadly, though, it fails to take into account practicalities of any athlete's longevity and shelf life.

Take Tiger Woods for example. I was heard a golfer friend of mine describe a young Wood's as one of those young, "limber backs." We all marveled at the excellence of the Wood's power game at the beginning with the remarkable range of motion he displayed on his now over scrutinized swing. Occasionally beset by knee problems and back problems, Woods has undestandably altered his swing over the years. He knew his body changed from when he was in his teens and early twenties to where he is now at 30.

Now consider Gooden. As a teen, he was in the major leagues, a feat perhaps as rare as perfect games. He was dominating at age 20 in 1985 as few have. We knew that Gooden had grown between 1984 and 1985. But it also signaled the fact that his body was changing as all of ours do. Effects of gravity and natural evolution of muscle-skeletal structure would indeed have its say in the way in which Gooden's body took shape in his early 20's. Photo's of Gooden the teenager and Gooden in his mid 20's certainly validate this.

Gooden was neither soft nor lazy and remained a tremendous competitor. He trained hard. Tom McGraw once described what a professional athlete has as a pride factor. If an athlete has established a level of excellence they persevere to maintain that. This explains why many do get out, even if they can perform at a competent level. Gooden certainly had this pride factor.

And as an the old sage and mentor Tom McKenna was fond of saying, "the body wasn't meant to throw a baseball."

It delicate nature and tight surroundings don't bode well for the human shoulder throwing a baseball. Few are indeed able to throw a ball 100 miles per hour. Those that do often don't do those for long. Exceptions of Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson indicate and incredible work ethic maintained over the years and well, divine intervention.

Gooden started experiencing a stretching of the capsule in his shoulder, something common in all pitchers. The shoulder's capsule is best described as a thickening of the ligaments of the shoulder. Ligaments provide any joint's stability. Subsequent effects of this stretching vary from pitcher to pitcher. This capsular stretching often leads to instability, pain , tears of the capsule and other rotator cuff difficulties.

Doc Gooden was the face of the New York Mets franchise of the late 1980's. An organization-wide panic ensued when Gooden began having shoulder trouble. Late Team physician Jim Parkes tried as he might to calm the waters, but the classy Gooden had many speaking in his ear. New technology both provided answers while creating new questions. MRI's were new at the time. Wondrous as they were for diagnostics, we didn't always know what we were looking at.

An MRI view of Gooden's shoulder lead one observer to feel it was a tumor. Enter more panic. Parkes knew that it wasn't but the panic needed to be abated. The tumor was subsequently ruled out and the diagnosis was changed to small tear in the rotator cuff. So as per instructions from the powers that be, an MRI was taken every two weeks or so and to we watched the small tear shrink to nothing.

Later on during the brief tenure of Buddy Harrelson, Gooden felt something pop in his shoulder while getting something extra on a fastball for the Dodger's Pedro Guerrero. He continued pitching, but Gooden knew it wasn't right. More panic about the capsule via the MRI's followed. But Gooden trusted Parkes and acquiesced to letting him scope his shoulder and Parkes trimmed up some soft tissue.

Looking back I suspect that Jim Parkes had little faith in the surgical technique of the time to deal with the anterior instability of a pitcher's shoulder which Gooden suffered from. This may have been revealed by the next physician who operated on Gooden's shoulder, David Alcheck. Mets Head Trainer, Steve Garland told me that Alchek had said, "Jim Parkes showed tremendous restraint when he was inside Gooden's shoulder.

None of this came as a result of Mel Stottlemyer's tinkering. Although a popular legend among knowing Met fans, this just wasn't the case. Gooden was a victim of Mother Nature. She's not always kind. And her rules for a blessed Doc Gooden dictated that there would be only one season like that, albeit one of wonder in that summer of 1985.