Friday, July 30, 2010

Miguel Tejada represents hope unrealized in Baltimore

Miguel Tejada has been traded to the San Diego Padres for pitching prospect Wynn Pelzer. Tejada leaves Baltimore for the second and presumably final time with a mixed legacy.

He was a three-time All Star and two-time Silver Slugger for the Birds and holds the team's single-season records for hits, 214 in 2006, and RBI, 150 in 2004. His league-leading 50 doubles in 2005 are the fourth-highest total in team history. Apparently swinging at the first pitch isn't necessarily a bad strategy.

Meanwhile, Tejada played every game at shortstop during his first three seasons in Baltimore, an accomplishment for which fan appreciation should have grown over time. If it didn't impress you by 2008 - when the Orioles rolled out the five-headed monster of Juan Castro, Alex Cintron, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, and Luis Hernandez at short - it probably never will.

On the other side of the legacy coin are Tejada's league-leading GIDP numbers for his first three seasons in Baltimore, his alternating love-hate relationship with the idea of playing for the Orioles, and ultimately a confusing trail of mistruths related to steroid use (it started with the Rafael Palmeiro soap opera that introduced fans to B12 injections and ended with Tejada copping to lying to Congress about his knowledge of steroid use in baseball) as well as his own age.

Tejada's pathetic E:60 interview about his age ended with him walking out midstream; a final, surreal touch to an exchange more suitable for the Colbert Report than ESPN. And while the age revelation, along with the guilty plea, happened while Tejada was in Houston both incidents left many Orioles fans wondering, "Who is this guy?"

Baltimore had a second chance at love with Tejada when he returned to the fold this season. The soft-focus lens with which the game of baseball is so often viewed, combined with the unearned favoritism a guy receives whenever he slips on the home-town uniform, allowed for a recasting of Tejada's role from not-quite-villain to almost-hero.

"He's willing to move to third," the thinking went.

"He's happy playing for the Orioles and once more has pep in his step."

"He's holding down the hot corner and ready to treat it like a hot potato once Josh Bell has the necessary seasoning."

In his second act Miguel Tejada was to willingly play the role of stepping stone to the bigger things that presumably were in the Orioles' near-term future, an aging veteran ready to sacrifice some of his own pride for the good of a franchise poised to regain its own. The jury's technically still out, but it appears there are many more stepping stones remaining for the O's.

So there were two different narratives surrounding the Orioles during Tejada's stays in Baltimore.

In 2003, his signing represented big things on the free agency front. The Orioles had inked a deal with a coveted free agent, leaving then executive vice-president Jim Beattie to boast: "We have other players that are big players that we want to add to the club. This is a signal – one of the things we can do to show players that the Orioles are ready to contend, hopefully quickly."

In 2007, the Tejada trade represented big things on the rebuilding front. The Orioles sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners soon thereafter and the new strategy, getting value in trades and building from within, was taking hold. From USA Today: "After years of half-baked attempts to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, the Orioles send a definitive message that they are rebuilding. Dealing Bedard two years before he's eligible for free agency enabled Baltimore to maximize the return package."

Sandwiched between those two narratives, however, was an all-too-familiar theme: Could've, Should've, Would've ... but Didn't.

In 2006, the Orioles failed to reach agreement with the Angels on a deal for Tejada that would've brought Erick Aybar and Ervin Santana to Baltimore. From "Opposing executives praised the Angels' proposal, with one even calling it a 'great offer the Orioles should take.' But apparently, Angelos, who loves star players, felt otherwise."

I don't love Miguel Tejada the baseball player. I don't hate Miguel Tejada the baseball player. For me, his legacy will be one of transactions made and transactions lost. He brought the Orioles a package of five players from Houston and now another young arm from San Diego. But he could have brought two fine prospects to Baltimore in a proposed deal that's difficult to forget. 

Miguel Tejada might therefore be the most fitting symbol of Orioles baseball in the early 21st century. He is hope unrealized.


Baltimore Orioles

Friday, July 23, 2010

Solo Shots: Bob Hale homers off a Hall of Famer

Last week I wrote my first entry for "Solo Shots," an effort to tell the stories of Orioles players since 1954 who finished their careers with one home run while wearing orange and black. Jim Brideweser (1954, 1957) was up first. This week Bob Hale is the focus.

Robert Houston Hale played for the Orioles nearly 20 years before the designated hitter rule went into effect in the American League. Hale is therefore remembered as a pinch hitter and part-time first baseman. He batted in 376 games, but played the field in just 120.

In seven major league seasons with the Orioles, Indians, and Yankees Hale compiled a .273 career average. He batted most in 1956 when he dug in next to home plate 223 times. It was the same year he hit his only home run for the Birds, the first of two career long balls in 670 plate appearances.

Hale homered on July 21, 1956, in a 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Memorial Stadium. Hale's third-inning solo shot off Hall of Famer Bob Lemon extended an early Orioles lead to 2-0. Nevertheless, Lemon stuck around for all nine innings in Baltimore and earned the 12th of his 20 victories during the 1956 season. It was the seventh and final time in his career that Lemon won 20 or more games. Lemon also led the league in complete games for the fifth and final time of his career.

Lemon allowed an average of 0.6 home runs throughout his 13-year career. Players to never homer off him included Hall of Famers Nellie Fox (150 plate appearances), Enos Slaughter (43), Bobby Doer (41), and Joe DiMaggio (24) as well as All Stars Billy Goodman (109), Harvey Kuenn (78), Dom DiMaggio (68), and Johnny Pesky (65).

Clearly Hale wasn't intimidated by a Hall of Famer, perhaps because he came up with one. Hale played on the 1955 York White Roses team with 18-year-old rookie third baseman Brooks Robinson.

Robinson made his major league debut on Sept. 17, 1955, after batting .331 with 11 home runs in 354 at-bats with York. Hale, 21, got the call earlier in the season after hitting .355 with 12 home runs and eight triples in 248 at-bats. He debuted with the Orioles on July 4, going 1-4 with a walk. Hale recorded his first major league hit off Dean Stone in a 6-2 Orioles victory over the Washington Senators.

Hale's second of two career home runs came in his final season on Sept. 6, 1961. Playing for the Yankees, Hale homered off Baltimore native and University of Maryland graduate Roy Heiser. Heiser, a 19-year-old righty, played three games for the Washington Nationals in 1961.


Baltimore Orioles

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Interesting baseball reading

A few baseball-related items caught my eye today. Each would qualify for the traditional "Thought You Might be Interested in This" e-mail subject line.

-First, b's Matt Vensel looks outside the spotlight - well done - for the story of Orioles bullpen catcher Ronnie Deck. Says Deck: “This is an unreal opportunity. I just want to enjoy every day in the big leagues, work as hard as I can and let that take me where it may.”

With all the griping and bad Orioles news that's out there this summer, it's refreshing to read about a guy who's paid his dues and is relishing a rare opportunity.

-More well-known than Deck is former Voice of the Orioles Jon Miller, who will receive the Ford C. Frick Award during Sunday's Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown. USA Today has the write-up.

The anecdote about Miller asking his wife if she's ever slept with a Hall of Famer is good for a laugh. Meanwhile, this line is good for a sullen sigh:
"Miller's reputation and his knowledge of the game have earned him the right, fans say, to criticize the performance of a player or team — oftentimes his own — even though he never played professionally."
Unfortunately, criticizing a player or team (i.e. doing his job) didn't work out so well for Miller in Baltimore.

-Finally, The Boston Globe has a story on the sale of the Field of Dreams location and its $5.4 million asking price.

If you haven't made the pilgrimage to Dyersville yet - thanks to some awesome planning by my wife, I have - The Voice has some advice for you: "Go the distance."

Done any good baseball-related reading lately? If so, share a link in the Comments section.


Baltimore Orioles

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More bobbleheads, fewer T-Shirts equals Orioles victories

The Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 11-10 in 13 innings on Tuesday night. Every Orioles win in 2010 is significant, but this one was especially so given that it was the team's first victory on T-Shirt Tuesday.

So far in 2010 the Birds are 1-3 on T-Shirt Tuesdays, 2-1 on Bobblehead Nights, and 1-1 during 2110 Eutaw Street games.

With apologies to my stat-conscience baseball friends for the small sample size, the Orioles clearly need to give away more Bobbleheads at the ballpark. And as you'll see in a moment, the Birds should feature Adam Jones in promotions more often.

The splits for players look like this:
-On T-Shirt Tuesdays, featured batters have gone 1-8 at the plate while featured pitchers have a blown save and no wins.

-On Bobblehead Nights, featured batters not named Nolan Reimold have gone 4-9 at the plate with a home run and 2 RBI.

-During 2110 Eutaw Street games, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are a combined 2-14.
Adam Jones' struggles during 2110 Eutaw Street games are inconsistent with his otherwise sterling performances on nights when he's the featured player in a promotion. Perhaps he just hates sharing the spotlight.

Jones went 3-5 with a home run and 2 RBI on Adam Jones Mini Bobblehead Night on June 24. Meanwhile, he went 1-2 with a home run on Adam Jones T-Shirt Tuesday on April 15, 2008.

Here's the full promotional rundown:

T-shirt Tuesdays

Matt Wieters - April 13
Rays 8 - Orioles 6
Wieters 0-4, RBI, BB

Brian Matusz - May 11
Mariners 5 - Orioles 1
Matusz (DNP)
Next start - May 15, 7 IP, 7 hits, 6 SO, 4 BB, ND (O's lose 8 -2)

Ty Wiggington - June 22
Marlins 10 - Orioles 4
Wiggington 1-4, R, K

Jason Berken - July 20
Orioles 11 - Rays 10
Berken (BS) IP, H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, K

Bobblehead Nightss

Nolan Reimold Mini Bobblehead - May 26 
A's 6 - Orioles 1
Reimold (DNP, Triple-A Norfolk)

Adam Jones Mini Bobblehead - June 24
Orioles 11 - Marlins 5
Jones 3-5, HR, 2 RBI, 2 K

Matt Wieters Bobblehead - June 30
Orioles 9 - A's 6
Wieters 1-4, K

2110 Eutaw Street

May 16
Indians 5 - Orioles 1
Markakis 0-4, K
Jones 1-4, K

June 27
Orioles 4 - Nationals 3
Markakis 0-3, BB
Jones 1-3, 2B, RBI, R

Upcoming Promotions

Aug. 5  - Nick Markakis Mini Bobblehead

Aug. 7 - Matt Wieters Kids Chest Protector Backpack

Aug. 8 - 2110 Eutaw Street

Sept. 4 - 2110 Eutaw Street


Monday, July 19, 2010

Markakis leads majors in doubles, ahead of pace for team record

With his two doubles against the Blue Jays on Sunday Nick Markakis took sole possession of the major league lead in the category. Markakis' 31 doubles are two better than the season totals posted thus far by Josh Hamilton and Evan Longoria.

Markakis, one of the Orioles' lone bright spots during a dismal 2010 season, is currently on pace to top Brian Roberts' club record 56 doubles in 2009. Roberts had 30 doubles through 91 games; Markakis has 31 doubles in 91 games.

Roberts has three of the Orioles' highest single-season totals for doubles (50, 51, and 56). Meanwhile, Markakis' career-high 48 doubles in 2008 tie him with Aubrey Huff for the team's seventh-highest single-season total. Teammate Miguel Tejada's 50 doubles in 2005 are tied with Roberts for fourth all-time. 

Cal Ripken Jr.  is the franchise's career leader in doubles with 603 in 21 seasons.

Markakis, 26, currently has 190 career doubles and counting. Roberts had his breakout season for doubles at age 26, hitting 50 to up his career total at the time to 90. Ripken had 211 doubles by age 26.


Baltimore Orioles

Friday, July 16, 2010

Solo Shots: Saving the best for last - Brideweser swats first home run in final big league season

Cal, Eddie, Boog, Brooks; most Orioles fans recognize the names that sit atop the Orioles' career home run list. Less familiar are Grady, Arnie, Albie, and Vic, four of the 65 players to have hit just one home run during their time in Baltimore.

Fridays are typically reserved for Orioles history on Roar from 34. This week I'm using the occasion to start a new project that shares the stories of those players who, since 1954, made just one trot around the bases for the Birds. These are "Solo Shots."

Jim Brideweser
(1954, 1957)

James Ehrenfeld Brideweser played seven major league seasons, two of them in Baltimore. The six-foot tall shortstop hit one home run in 697 career plate appearances. It happened during his final season in a May 24, 1957 game against the Boston Red Sox at Memorial Stadium.

Batting eighth, Brideweser deposited a fifth-inning offering from Boston starter Frank Sullivan into the stands to give the Orioles a 3-2 lead. Brideweser's three-run shot scored George Kell and Dick Williams and provided Baltimore its only runs of the day. An eighth-inning Red Sox rally gave the visitors a 4-3 victory before 15,970 fans on 33rd Street.

While the newspapers did report Brideweser's first career home run the next day, the real story was Ted Williams, who went 3-for-4 to raise his league-leading average to .417. (Visit the Google News Archive for the May 25, 1957, newspaper report.) Williams held the lead throughout the 1957 season, finishing the year with a .388 average. He lost a tightly contested MVP race to Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.

Brideweser batted .252 for his career with one home run and 50 RBI. He tallied a .949 career fielding percentage at shortstop (217 games), second base (57 games), and third base (11 games).  His strikeout percentage of 11.2 percent was in line with the MLB average. He put the ball in play 78 percent of the time.

Brideweser is one of four Orioles in the University of Southern California Hall of Fame. Don Buford, Rich Dauer, and Fred Lynn are the others.

[Image source: Baseball Almanac.]


Baltimore Orioles

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ty Wiggington is no Cal Ripken Jr., but their first-half numbers aren't as different as you'd think

People love "best" and "worst" lists, so naturally Ty Wiggington's appearance on the 2010 American League All-Star roster got fans wondering where he ranks among Orioles representatives to the Midsummer Classic. Could Wiggington be the O's least-deserving All-Star?

All-Stars are measured primarily by their offensive numbers, so much attention has been focused on Wiggington's modest slash line of .252/.334/.434. The 13 home runs that placed him among the league leaders in April and May look less impressive after he added just one home run in June.

In essence, an anemic month at the plate doomed Wiggington to join the likes of 1987 Terry Kennedy (.264/.318/.432, 13 HR, 42 RBI) in the conversation for least-deserving Orioles All-Star.

However, my advice to O's fans is this: Don't go down that path, because you won't like what you find. If you're going to use Wiggington and Kennedy's offensive numbers against them then you have to put the Iron Man in the conversation as well.

Cal Ripken Jr. was an automatic All-Star for much of his career with fan balloting carrying him to 19 consecutive appearances in the game. More often than not he deserved the start he earned at shortstop. Nevertheless, Ripken brought Wiggington-like offensive numbers with him to at least a third of his All-Star appearances.

Consider a snapshot of seven seasons where Ripken struggled in the first half (1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2000, 2001) in comparison to Wiggington's performance in five offensive categories: average, OBP, slugging percentage, home runs, and RBI.

In five of those seven seasons Wiggington's 2010 average would be equal to or better than Ripken's average at the time; his OBP was better in four; his slugging percentage was better in six; his home run total was better in all seven; and his RBI total was equal to or better than Ripken's in six.

You couldn't have staged an All-Star game in Baltimore without Ripken, but the Iron Man's 1993 numbers didn't help make that case. While O's fans best remember that contest for Cito Gaston, legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich directed the attention elsewhere:
"As for those Baltimore fans who turned loose their boos at Gaston for the perceived slight to Mussina, where were those fans' sense of justice when their man, Cal Ripken, who was being outhit by seven guys on his own team, was heavily voted into the all-star lineup?"
Obviously, Ty Wiggington is no Cal Ripken. And while I appreciate that Wiggington, a gamer by many accounts, enjoyed an All-Star appearance, I believe Nick Markakis belonged in Anaheim. Nevertheless, I don't begrudge the guy his opportunity.

Wiggington deserved some reward for the month-and-a-half he spent carrying a woeful Orioles team on his back. Besides, to begrudge Wiggington would be to begrudge Ripken. And I don't think any Orioles fan wants to do that.

Here's a look at Cal Ripken's first-half numbers in seven of his 19 All-Star seasons:

         1989 - .275/.337/.416, 11 HR, 51 RBI

         1990 - .252/.354/.397, 9 HR, 39 RBI

         1992 - .262/.347/.397, 10 HR, 40 RBI

         1993 -  .229/.312/.394, 12 HR, 45 RBI

         1998 - .258/.322/.362, 7 HR, 36 RBI

         2000 -.239/.239/.444, 13 HR, 43 RBI

         2001 - .240/.270/.324, 4 HR, 28 RBI 


Orioles History: Baltimore's Earliest All-Stars

"Paul Richards admits his last-place Orioles aren't much of a ball club but he insists he has one of the best pitchers in the league in Jim Wilson, a shop-worn veteran who got a 'bum's rush' in Milwaukee."

It took three years and a position player before Baltimore's All-Star representative saw game action in the Midsummer Classic.

Third baseman George Kell started the 1956 All-Star Game after pitchers Bob Turley (1954) and Jim Wilson (1955) failed to get on the field the previous two years. Each player was the Orioles' lone All-Star for the first three years in Baltimore franchise history. It was the longest stretch of lone representation until the 2000s, when the Orioles went four consecutive seasons (2001-2004) with just one All-Star. Their current streak is five. 

Looking back on the Birds' early years, it would be easy - but inaccurate - to cast Wilson as the least-deserving of the team's early All-Stars.

Turley won 14 games and led the league in strikeouts for a 1954 team that finished 54-100. He later won a Cy Young award with the Yankees in 1958 and finished second in MVP voting after posting a league-leading 21 wins that season.

Kell, meanwhile, represented the Orioles during the final two seasons of his Hall of Fame career.

And then there's James Alger Wilson with his 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings and league-worst 18 losses during his All-Star season in Baltimore.

Wilson took a line drive off the bat of Detroit's Hank Greenberg in 1945. Many concluded his career was over after he struggled mightily for the remainder of the '40s. However, he regained his form following a stint with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League and ended up in the Braves' organization.

Wilson tossed baseball's only no-hitter in 1954 for Milwaukee but was turned loose by the team the following spring.

The Orioles purchased the 33-year-old pitcher's contract in 1955, not long after he had declared that he would "rather pitch for Richards than any other manager."

Baltimore skipper Paul Richards, who managed Wilson with the Rainiers, clearly still believed in his guy as well.

Here's how a United Press article put it: "Paul Richards admits his last-place Orioles aren't much of a ball club but he insists he has one of the best pitchers in the league in Jim Wilson, a shop-worn veteran who got a 'bum's rush' in Milwaukee."

Richards got an immediate return on his $40,000 investment in Wilson.

By mid-July the 6' 1", 200-pound righty had seven victories, four of which came against the American League's top four teams: New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston. Wilson allowed four hits or less in each of those games. He entered the All-Star break with seven complete games, six wins, and a 2.50 ERA.

Overall, Wilson pitched 14 complete games in 1955 and went nine or more innings 12 times. Those totals include two 11-inning complete-game victories and one 12.2-inning loss. Wilson earned four consecutive complete game victories in September.

The following May the Orioles traded Wilson to the Chicago White Sox in a deal that brought Kell to town. Kell and Wilson both played in the 1956 All-Star Game.

Kell, representing the O's, went 1-for-4. Wilson, who had not played in his first two All-Star appearances, allowed two hits and one run in one inning of work during his third and final All-Star Game.

[Note This article appeared on Camden Chat last Thursday.] 


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Baltimore had its own Bob Sheppard in the legendary Rex Barney

Fans in attendance at the 81st MLB All-Star Game on Tuesday  in Anaheim along with millions of viewers at home will hear the recorded voice of Bob Sheppard, the longtime Yankees' public address announcer who died on Sunday, introduce Derek Jeter prior to the shortstop's at-bats. The effort is a tribute to the man Reggie Jackson famously dubbed "The Voice of God."

It has been nearly 13 years since Baltimore lost its own legendary public address announcer. Rex Barney, the man who made "Give that fan a contract" and "Thank Youuuuuu" as much a part of every local fan's summer as a trip to the Eastern Shore, died on Aug. 12, 1997.

Barney moved to Baltimore in 1965 after then-Orioles GM Lee MacPhail encouraged him to do so. He started working Orioles games as a fill-in public address announcer in 1967 and took over full-time duties in May 1973.

His tenure included stays at both Camden Yards and Memorial Stadium, where he delivered a "Thank Youuuuuu" following the team's final game there in 1991 from a hospital bed. Having been hospitalized with exhaustion, he made the appearance on the stadium Jumbotron.

The Orioles paid tribute to Barney on Aug. 12, 1997, by playing their 8-0 victory over the Athletics without a PA announcer. Stadium flags were flown at half-staff and a plaque bearing Barney's uniform number with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 26, was unveiled behind his traditional press box seat, where a scorebook and Dodgers cap rested for the evening.

Here are some things that were said or written about Barney after his passing:

"Some take great talent and squander it. Some are haunted by what might have been -- if only they or their world had been ever so slightly different. A very few, however, have the almost saintly capacity to accept life exactly as it is, complete with all its disappointments and malicious ironies. They take the ball and then, as the old-timers say, they're 'in there for nine.' No bullpen, no relief, no complaints. Barney was knocked out of the baseball box for good when he was still just a kid. He had a no-hitter against the Giants and a couple of losses in the World Series, plus a perfect opportunity to chew on a mouth of sour grapes all his life.

Instead, he turned it around. He laughed with the world at the humor of a man being given a 100 mph fastball and the worst control on earth. Instead of being bitter about what he couldn't get, he was perpetually grateful for what he had. Because of that gift of temperament, he spent the last 30 years being a kind of role model -- and, sometimes, a standing reproach -- to every Orioles player. Could you take the game's best punch and still turn out like Rex?"

-Thomas Boswell, The Washington Post, Aug. 14, 1997

"It's going to be different without hearing his voice. When you think of Orioles tradition and Orioles baseball, you think of Rex Barney's  name. He's going to be sorely missed."

-Cal Ripken Jr.

"I looked forward to seeing him every day and hearing him. I thought we got here early, but he was always earlier."

-Elrod Hendricks

"He was always happy. He wasn't in the best of health, but he always had a smile on his face. I'll miss him. It's a great loss. He was a great friend. I don't now if there's a higher compliment that you can give him than that."

-Davey Johnson

"You're never prepared for this. There are certain constants that are always supposed to be there, and Rex is one of them."

-Mike Flanagan

"I never met anyone as caring as Rex who would take time to acknowledge a little person like me."

-Myrtle Farinholt, Camden Yards custodian.


Related Reading: Cabrera's like one of Dem Bums.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Flashback Friday: Ripken homer carries AL to '91 All-Star Victory

Something - ahem - makes me feel like writing about a hometown hero who stuck with the same team throughout his entire career. So today's Flashback Friday looks at the 1991 All Star Game, played 19 years ago on the date of this post, July 9.

All-Star MVP Cal Ripken - who came into the break with a .348 average and 111 hits, both league highs -  stroked a three-run homer off former teammate Dennis Martinez in the third inning to lead the American League to a 4-2 victory. Ripken finished 2-for-3 before being replaced in the bottom of the seventh inning by current White Sox manager and (former?) Twitter phenom Ozzie Guillen.

Overall, the 1991 All-Star Game featured 15 current, former, or future Orioles and one future interim manager: Will Clark, Bobby Bonilla, Chris Sabo, Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Joe Carter, Harold Baines, Pete Harnisch, Martinez, Scott Erickson, Lee Smith, Mike Morgan, Jimmy Key, and of course Juan Samuel.

Ripken became the first player to win both the All-Star Game MVP and the Home Run Derby (Garret Anderson replicated the effort in 2003). His 12 home runs in 22 swings also set a record at the time. The first seven home runs came consecutively at the start of the contest.

Ripken went on to win the 1991 American League MVP after posting a .323 average with 34 homers and a career-high 114 RBI. He was the league's first player to win the award while playing for a losing team.

Thanks, Cal.  


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Summer Reading - "High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time"

If publishing a book is akin to hitting a baseball in its reliance on timing, Tim Wendel has gone yard with "High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time." The book's 2010 release coincides with the Summer of Strasburg during which, according to Sports Illustrated, Pitchers Rule.

Pitching is in vogue, and there's a 100-mile-per-hour phenom leading the charge.

While Wendel's premise is simple - determine the fastest pitcher in baseball history - finding the answer is less so as the task defies numerical measurement for reasons outlined by the author.

Wendell wisely begins this journey by re-telling the tale of the rather fantastic stunt undertaken in service of timing Bob Feller's legendary fastball. Beyond providing the book some early color, the anecdote articulates from the outset that determining the best fastball has never been a a matter of simply looking at a radar gun. 

Stories rather than stats inform High Heat as Wendel simultaneously chases the answers to two primary questions: Who? and How? At times the latter distracts from the former, but the author ultimately serves as a likable protagonist facing an antagonizing question with which he actively engages - conducting research at the Baseball Hall of Fame, conversing with the game's legends, and even challenging his own arm in an aerodynamic testing lab.

The book is populated with tales both small and tall as Wendel chooses to humanize rather than deify the game's greatest hurlers. Nolan Ryan's story, for example, is more compelling as told through the lens of the early struggles that nearly led him to give up the game rather than the obvious successes that later informed his Hall of Fame career.

Orioles fans will enjoy the generous helping of references to the team that are sprinkled throughout the book, mostly in relation to the almost mythical figure of Steve Dalkowski.

Dalkowski, the real-life inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham," provides a sad counterpoint to the more recognizable figures in the book. Even Earl Weaver was unable to tame Dalkowski's prodigious talent, though he came close during the player's stay with minor-league outfit Elmira.

On a related note, Weaver's advice factors into Wendel's final decision at the conclusion of High Heat when the author reveals his "top-10 list of the fastest pitchers of all time" (p. 227) that in fact features 12 pitchers. 

Wendel ultimately demonstrates that the God-given gift to register triple digits on a radar gun is not always the blessing it is perceived to be. The current examples of Strasburg and Joel Zumaya, both of whom make cameo appearances in the book, illustrate this dichotomy in real time.

The challenge of harnessing a supreme fastball involves physical demands, as seen in Zumaya's case, as well as potentially crushing mental demands to achieve out-sized success. This and other revelations throughout High Heat help Wendel succeed in adding fresh perspective to an age-old baseball argument.

[Note: I'll post my interview with High Heat author Tim Wendel in the coming days.]


Friday, July 02, 2010

Flashback Friday: What really happened between Juan Samuel & the Bird?

While boxing playfully with the Bird before an Aug. 6 game, Samuel accidentally knocked the mascot's head off. The Tigers then won to break a nine-game losing streak.

On Thursday I provided details of past attacks on Baltimore's beloved Oriole Bird and included a mention of Juan Samuel's knockout blow in a fight with the Bird. Samuel was the Detroit Tigers' first-base coach at the time of the throwdown.

(Quick aside: Perhaps Samuel could have given the Royals' Tom Gamboa some useful tips for fending off attackers in the coach's box. Gamboa also could have looked to Conan O'Brien ... "The More You Know.")

This week's Flashback Friday takes a closer look at the battle between base coach and mascot and locates a useful lesson for the 2010 Orioles: If you need to end an extended losing streak, have Juan Samuel attack the opposing team's mascot. 

Here's what former Phillies' reporter Jayson Stark had to say in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the incident a week after it occurred.

Mascot masher of the week: The Orioles' Bird mascot is suing a fan from Philadelphia - and our old amigo, Tigers coach Juan Samuel, may be next. While boxing playfully with the Bird before an Aug. 6 game, Samuel accidentally knocked the mascot's head off. The Tigers then won to break a nine-game losing streak. So Samuel said, "I'm forced to beat him up again." The Bird dodged him the next day, and the Tigers lost. But they had a rematch before the series finale Sunday - and the Tigers won again. Told there was no mascot to fight in the Tigers' next stop in Texas, Samuel said, "I may have to import one."

Word spread far and wide, as evidenced by these comments on Aug. 25, 1999, by Tyler Kepner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when the Tigers came to town to face the Mariners.

During a recent game at Baltimore, Detroit Tigers coach Juan Samuel playfully fought with the Orioles' mascot, pulling off the bird's head. The Tigers won the game, snapping a losing streak, and won again later in the series when Samuel did the same thing.

For a team struggling to find ways to win, mascot-bashing may be the answer - which could be bad news for the Mariner Moose.

"If he comes down here, I'm going to get him," said Samuel before last night's game with the M's. "But he doesn't usually come down."

The 2010 Birds need to go down fighting from here on out. And Juan Samuel should lead by example.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Apparently the Orioles didn't do a background check on Juan Samuel

Philadelphia fans can't catch a break in terms of public perception.

Lots of incidents come to mind; in Baltimore the most egregious offense involved a Philadelphia resident pushing the Oriole Bird off the outfield wall at Camden Yards in 1999 causing the mascot to break his ankle.

Now it appears Philadelphia's mascot also has a public perception problem.

The Phillie Phanatic is being sued. Though the club takes issue with the title, the Phanatic is being referred to as "the most-sued mascot in sports" thanks to a 2001-2002 Cardozo Law Review article by law professor Robert Jarvis.

This isn't an effort to pile on fans from the City of Brotherly Love. Rather, like any good journalist would do, I want to localize the story.

I tracked down Jarvis' article, "Hi-Jinks at the Ballpark: Costumed Mascots in the Major Leagues," to read what he had to say about the Oriole Bird.

All I can say in response to what I read is Tsk-Tsk Juan Samuel.

Jarvis notes "The actors who have played the Bird have been a particularly litigation-prone group" and cites this incident involving O's interim manager Juan Samuel.

"In August 1999, [the Bird] had his costume's headpiece knocked off while engaging in a mock fight with Detroit Tigers first base coach Juan Samuel."

Check out Jarvis' full article for details about the Bird losing the tip of a finger during a game with the Red Sox, injuring his leg after a victory celebration fall from the dugout roof, and having his feathers ruffled by a drunk off-duty cop.