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Entries in peter gammons (5)

Thursday
Jul182013

Peter Gammons: Mariano Stands Alone

The lasting memory of the 2013 All-Star Festival will forever be Mariano Rivera standing alone and its reasoning...his peers respected the fact that, indeed, he has stood alone for nearly two decades, and in that time he has stood for dignity and civility that may be unprecedented.

Few in any field have ever been amongst the best of their peers, and yet stood alone because of their achievements and character, and everyone understands that.

Oh, it was New York, but it was not about the Mets and the Yankees; Mariano is above all that.

When he was a free agent after the 2010 season and was dancing with the Yankees, then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein reached out to Rivera’s agent Fern Cusa and made a three-year offer for $45M. Cusa and Mariano talked it over and realized it could leverage the Yankees, but Rivera asked for Epstein’s number, called him, thanked him and respectively declined.

“As much as I respected the Red Sox and what they were trying to do for me,” Rivera said the next spring, “it wouldn’t be right to pitch in another uniform.”

He did not use it for negotiating purposes. He did what he knew was right, because he is Mariano Rivera, and he stands alone.

The Biogenesis Ripple Effect

So while Rivera stood alone from the rest of the four-day festivities and a large chunk of the news cycles involved the Biogenesis investigation, its leaks and reports and potential suspensions, all of which enabled the free-flow of the words “scandal” and “garbage” and “cesspool” and so forth. Which, in turn, overshadowed the story that shone out from the shadow of the Rivera Monument.

In this post-testing era, when the leaders of the Players Association openly admit that the vast majority of the union they represent strongly want a clean game and are allowing MLB to at least proceed in their prosecution of those involved with the Miami lab, as long as there is due process. Players and lawyers understand that the clouds hovering above the game are the residue of the Steroid Era.

Chris Davis arrived at Citi Field with astonishing numbers, yet there were those who under the anonymous bedsheet of the blogosphere who questioned whether or not he’s another performance enhancing drugs product. Just ask Jose Bautista. He knows how what happened a decade ago has allowed some to spraypaint his wall of achievements. 

Davis is a guy who in 2007-2008 in Double- and Triple-A hit 61 homers in 206 games, in his first 80 games with the Texas Rangers hit 17 homers and posted an .880 OPS. Of course, he went through an adjustment to the adjustment American League pitchers made on him, but when he got to Camden Yards and was rewarded for his left centerfield power, and learned his strike zone the way David Ortiz learned his strike zone when he got to Fenway Park, saw his career take off.

“The shame of the steroids era is that a Chris Davis has to suffer from it,” says Buck Showalter.

Exactly.

The All-Star Festival was a Celebration of Youth

The story of the All-Star Festival was not about the good old days, but the youth.

Tuesday night there was Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Chris Sale, the great Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel. OMG stuff, all.

In the field there was Mike Trout, 21-years old, second in the game in Wins Above Replacement. And 20-year old Manny Machado. And Bryce Harper, who is seven weeks older that Johnny Manziel, whose Wednesday morning press conference at the S.E.C. media day dominated ESPN.

On Monday night, Harper and Yoenis Cespedes put on a stupendous Home Run Derby Show, outgunning established great players like Prince Fielder, David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera.

For all the complaints that baseball didn’t get it by not bringing Yasiel Puig to the exhibition after 38 games and 161 plate appearances, it turned out that, once again, MLB got it right. It put Cespedes, the best young Cuban player in the majors, on the Derby stage and he hits balls that prompted Harper to say “I had no idea” and David Wright to marvel, “Cespedes hit a ball where no one has ever gone in this park.”

Sunday’s Futures Game showed off the breathtaking abilities of 20-year old Twins third baseman Miguel Sano, Boston’s 20-year old shortstop Xander Bogaerts, two more future All-Star shortstops in 18-year old Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Carlos Correa of the Astros, Houston’s power/speed center fielder George Springer and big arms like Arizona’s 20-year old Archie Bradley, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Seattle’s Taijuan (Sky) Walker.

It was as if Harvey and Syndergaard opened a door that finally allowed Mets fans to stop thinking about Adam Wainwright’s curveball to Carlos Beltran and realized there is light on the horizon. Fernandez allowed those identified as Marlins fans to forget the sign-and-trade season of the mercenaries and move on.

It is right to glorify the game’s past, and at this midsummer night, it was especially right to honor a man who indeed stands alone, and to have Rivera and Tom Seaver stand on the same mound on the same night.

But where baseball too often invokes the yawns of the generation that watches Bryce Harper on their iPhones is when it dwells in the past, the texture of this four-day festival was the power and the youthful glory of a bunch of guys like Harper, Trout, Machado, Harvey, Fernandez, Sano, Bogarts, Correa et al, most of whom are Manziel’s contemporaries. 

Friday
Jul122013

Peter Gammons: The Closer

Closer is the position so often judged by the word “blown.”

Some 29 years ago, as his Blue Jays bullpen decayed down the stretch, Bobby Cox said “a bullpen can infect an entire team,” as in these last two months in Arizona and Boston and Detroit and Los Angeles and places where bullpen fender-benders have occurred at seemingly wrenching times, the cries of “do something” in the name of “an established closer” have echoed into the nights.

Call the Cardinals

At these times, John Mozeliak gets calls from other general managers.

The calls are not inquiries about Edward Mujica or Trevor Rosenthal, but, as general manager of a St. Louis Cardinals team that has won two World Series and a third pennant in the last decade and is back in the run in 2013, people want to talk about the consistencies that have constituted this grounded organization.

“I just like to talk to Mo when thinking about what to do about our bullpen problems,” says one American League general manager. “There’s such a history of stability when it comes to building championship bullpens.”

Indeed, the restoration of the Cardinals in the early eighties was all about Whitey Ball, as a major factor in winning their first World Series since 1967 was when Whitey Herzog signed Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter off the free agent market and won the 1982 World Series.

That, of course, seems like ancient history to a lot of current executives

They know that Adam Wainwright was a 24-year old who’d never saved a major league game who, after Jason Isringhausen went down injured, closed out the 2006 NLCS and World Series.

They know 2011, and that Jason Motte had nine career saves going into September, and closed out another world championship that an extremely talented Texas bullpen couldn’t finish.

They know 2013, and see Muijca as the accidental closer.

“There’s a sense that if something happened to Mujica,” says another American League GM, “that Rosenthal or Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha could end up closing down games in October. That’s who they are.”

'Starting' to Groom a Closer

What some of the general managers who weigh in with Mozeliak want to discuss is how the Cardinals groom young pitchers as starters, then bring them up and put them in the bullpen, allowing Tony LaRussa and Mike Matheny to determine their roles.

 “There is no ‘policy’ here,” says Mozeliak. “So much of the success of the franchise is about development, which is a rich tradition here.”

The name George Kissell may not ring to sabermetricians, but for decades he was a giant among baseball men as a Cardinals manager, player, coach and instructor. Now that mantle is passed to Gary LaRocque, senior special assistant to the General Manager, a huge figure in the development of their drafted players. As is pitching coordinator Brent Strom; Astros GM Jeff Luhnow appreciated this and tried to lure Strom to Houston, without success.

“We believe that the more experience young pitchers get as starters, using all their pitches and learning to cope with game situations, is an important part of their development,” says Mozeliak.”When we bring a kid up who’s been a starter and put him in the pen, it’s a good way for him to get experience. We have to be flexible, and this is a way to do it.”

Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Wacha, Martinez and Seth Maness are all examples of the flexibility. Kevin Siegrist and even Shelby Miller could end up late in games come October.

This is not simply a St. Louis Cardinals Strategy

Earl Weaver, a brilliant child of St. Louis, did this in the late seventies with Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor, and after their apprenticeships were up in the Orioles bullpen, they became major starting pieces for the 1979 pennant and 1983 World Series winners.

When Sutter aged, Herzog found Todd Worrell and Ken Dayley to finish games; each had shaky records as starters, but Whitey once said “I watched them pace around the clubhouse before games and realized they’d be better off pitching on short notice.”

Buck Showalter is using that school of thought to develop Kevin Gausman.

It is how the Red Sox are viewing their situation leading into the post-All Star run after injuries to Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller.

The Red Sox try to be like the Redbirds

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, who tends to beat himself up over “failed” bullpen trades for Bailey, Mark Melancon and Hanrahan, is one of those who conferred with Mozeliak. He listened to and read cries to bring back Jonathan Papelbon, but like the Tigers—and one official says there is “no way” they are trading for Papelbon—is not thinking about the historically great closer who was converted to that position by John Farrell in 2006. If the Red Sox had wanted Papelbon on a third and fourth year (at $13M per annum), they would have tried to re-sign him when he hit the free agent market. They see his 5-for-9 rate in closing with one-run leads, they see his velocity is down nearly four miles an hour from 2008, and actually below Bailey in his last couple of outings.

So the Sox will hope to use Bailey and Koji Uehara at the end. They will see what happens with minor league starters Brandon Workman, fireballing lefty Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa and perhaps even Anthony Ranaudo over time...Cardinals style. And look for a couple of other bullpen pieces, either a veteran or perhaps even a struggling starter needing a bullpen venue. Three names immediately come to mind: Mike Pelfrey, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis.

Cherington and Tigers' GM Dave Dombrowski are more concerned about the health and effectiveness of starters Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, and Justin Verlander.

As for the Tigers, Jim Leyland, ever a master of constructing bullpens, has eased Joaquin Benoit into the closer roles. Dombrowski undoubtedly will find one or two additional pieces.

Everybody is talking closers

In the last week, Buster Olney, David Schoenfeld and Dave Cameron have written superb, incisive pieces on the closer issue.

Olney points out that only three teams in the game—the Yankees (Mariano Rivera), Indians (Chris Perez) and Braves (Craig Kimbrel)-- have the same closers they had in 2011. Three of thirty.

Schoenfeld points out that of the 19 closers who saved 30 or more games in 2011, only four are doing the job, one of whom is Papelbon, a US Air stop from Fenway Park.

Cameron warns that the Twins and Mets reluctance to trade Glen Perkins or Bobby Parnell could hurt them the way the Royals fell victims to the siren song of Joakim Soria. Cameron took the top ten under-thirty relievers (by WAR) from 2010. Marmol, Wilson, Kuo, Feliz, Marshall, Soria, Axford, Bard, Venters and Oviedo are all in different places, one way or another.

And yet...

Which brings us back to St. Louis.

Motte is hurt. Mitchell Boggs struggled.

And yet, they’re back in place for yet another October, with yet another closer.

Wednesday
Jun262013

The Annual Summer Inner City Classic

This past weekend we held a fundraiser in Chicago, our summer version of Hot Stove, Cool Music that we have in Boston every January. It is for Paul and Theo Epstein’s Foundation to be Named Later, which benefits several non-profits in Boston, and now with the help of the Chicago Cubs works with the Cubs charities.

The concert was held at The Metro, an incredible venue run by Joe Shanahan across from Wrigley. We had our gathering of outstanding Boston musicians put together by Ed Valauskus, and while I appreciate the pictures of me singing and playing my Strat that Julio Borbon tweeted out, I’m sticking to the day job.

One of the highlights was our first annual Summer Inner City Classic. The Boston Astros from the South End Baseball League—the nation’s largest free league, with more than 50 inner city kids now playing college ball—played the Allstars from the Jackie Robinson West program in Chicago. Flawless baseball, no errors, four double plays, Astros won in extra innings, on the University of Chicago Inner Circle field subsidized by Curtis Granderson. The NCAA has made a conscious effort to keep poor urban kids from playing college baseball, but with men like Robert Lewis running programs like the Astros and South End Baseball, the urban dream lives.

One of the spectators was M.C. Johnson, who in the Sixties played for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson now works from the City of Chicago, but he once played with and against Satchel Paige, and shared this story.

“In 1961, Satchel was retired but we played a couple of exhibitions with him,” said Johnson. “The first one was in Wichita. They told us to strike out as much as possible. We argued, but they said, ‘look up in the stands. There’s twenty-something thousand fans in the stands. They’re here to see Satchel. So make sure he gives them the show they paid for."

“So we struck out."

“Three days later we played in Kansas City, but this time, they told us to go ahead and hit him. You know what happened? We all still struck out.”

Four years later, the Kansas City Royals brought back Satchel Paige to face the Red Sox in a regular season game. He shut them out on one hit for three innings.