Wood Bat Baseball in Town

Wood Bat Baseball in Town

There’s a familiarity when you walk onto a baseball field. You don’t even need to open your eyes to know where you are. The smell of cut grass, the feel of dirt under your cleats and the energy of a dugout the comes from baseballs and gloves in their own random, organized spaces.

The familiar sound of a baseball being hit by a bat would easily confirm your belief that you couldn’t be anywhere else but on the diamond. That sound in the last three decades became a hard “ping” of aluminum or a “thwack” of ceramic against a horsehide covered sphere.

If you wanted to hear the “crack” of the bat, so mythologized through the history of the game, the Baseball Grounds was the only house of refuge.

This summer, Atlantic Coast High School and J.P. Small ballpark added that “crack” of the bat to the ambient sound of a game being played there thanks to the new Coastal Collegiate Baseball League.

The brainchild of Chris Lein, who quickly called his friend Fran Delaney, the Coastal Collegiate Baseball League is giving college players a chance to hone their skills and hopefully, take the next step in a wood bat summer league.

“We’re the fifth wooden bat summer league in Florida,” said Lein who has more than forty years in pro baseball as a player, coach and scout. “My son played in one of the South Florida leagues the past two summers. And I wondered why there wasn’t anything up here.”

“It’s all about development,” Delaney, who has more than twenty years’ experience as an umpire, explained. “We have guys from Junior College or smaller colleges, these players are looking for that next step. This league can help those guys out.”

Both of these “baseball lifers” have full-time jobs. Lein as a financial advisor and Delaney as a “Customer Success Manager” for a software company. They’d been kicking around the idea of creating a wooden bat league in town for a couple of years. And despite the constrains of the pandemic, they got serious about it last fall.

“Sometimes I wonder why I picked up his call,” Delaney said with a laugh of his involvement thanks to Lein. Lein is officially the Commissioner of the league while Delaney is serving as the Vice President of Operations. In reality, both have handled everything from securing the fields, buying uniforms and lining the basepaths.

Lein contacted more than 1,400 schools with baseball programs around the country, letting them know there would be wooden bat, competitive, developmental baseball in Jacksonville this summer.

“Fran and I decided it’s not a fly by night thing,” explained Lein. “This area needs this ball. A lot of coaches already had their players set up to play somewhere. So, we started from scratch.

The local colleges couldn’t provide their fields this year because summer Covid issues. Coach Aaron Bass of Atlantic Coast said they could play all of their games there. But the city was very cooperative with JP Small, and they gave the CCBL a grant because they’re bringing guys from out of state.

Fifteen different states are represented among the four teams in the league. Half of the players are from junior college but there’s a sprinkling of Division One, Two, Three and NAIA players as well.

Going into his senior year at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, corner infielder Alex Ogletree is playing in the Coastal League in Jacksonville for a variety of reasons. Growing up in a military family, Ogletree was recruited to La Sierra while his parents were stationed in Italy. His parents are currently living in St. Johns County, but it was the baseball that ultimately brought him here.

“Guys here mature more quickly when it comes to baseball,” Ogletree said of the game here versus California. “Guys really know the game, know the nuance of the game earlier. In this league, the competition is phenomenal.”

Delaney’s career as an umpire has given him a close-up view of just how good baseball is in Florida and specifically in Jacksonville.

“The game here is faster. Guys here can play the game. They understand the game. That’s great for the players because it’s the coaches who have taught that. It’s impressive.”

The original thought was to have six teams in the local league. Pitchers are hard to come by though, so rather than water down the competition, they’ve started with four teams playing nearly forty games in eight weeks.

It’s $1,250 to join the league. Players pay for about four-fifths of their hotel on Baymeadows with the league picking up the rest.

“The goal is to have both sides of the balance sheet read zero,” Lein explained. “Uniforms, college umpires, college flat-seam baseballs from Rawlings and good fields. We wanted some legitimacy immediately.”

They’ve also gotten about twenty restaurants on the southside to offer discounts to the players. So, for about $2,000, players can get plenty of at-bats, pitchers can get some innings, and one more thing.

“First off, we don’t want anybody get hurt,” Delaney explained. “And we want guys to work on what they’re working on. But we also want them to enjoy themselves. Enjoy Jacksonville, go to St. Augustine, go to the beach.”

The next generation of major league players will have grown up rarely taking a swing with a wooden bat. This gives current players with a professional dream a chance to make that transition.

Former Major League pitcher John Wasdin is one of seven “ambassadors” the league is using to help teach that transition.

“Hitters need to really learn how to hit again, and pitchers have to re-learn how to pitch with a wooden bat,” the former first round pick out of Florida State said. “There’s a learning curve on how to pitch and how to hit with wood. The goal is to play at the next level so we’re looking for development.”

Wasdin’s time as a player and coach in professional baseball in Major League Baseball and in Japan showed him that command of the strike zone is the key to success on the mound. That’s what he’s trying to help with here. A hitter standing at the plate with a wooden bat is a very different challenge. Pitchers need to pitch inside.

“Typically, as a pitcher we’re looking for command of the strike zone,” Wasdin explained. “With an aluminum bat you can get a hit on an inside pitch but with the wood bat, we’re looking to see if guys can have command over the plate Inside and outside. A pitching coach wants a guy who can pitch, not just throw it a hundred and walk the world.”

Kyle Houts is an assistant coach at Iowa Lakes Community College and is spending his summer here in Jacksonville coaching one of the teams in the Coastal Collegiate league. He says the league has been good, especially for the first year. And he expects the best form of advertising, word of mouth, will only make it better.

“The players are getting extra reps that are necessary, especially from the pitching side,” he explained. “Guys are getting reps they didn’t get during the season.”

Working on his skills as a hitter with the wood bat is only one of the things Ogletree is trying to accomplish this summer. He’s working on his mental game.

“Mentally going into my senior year, I really want to be an example for younger guys coming in,” he said. “I wanted to mature emotionally. I’m trying to stay true to that. I’ve learned some things about myself and myself as a player. I’m not trying to ride the emotional rollercoaster.”

Playing in Florida is a draw for the league. About a third of the players are from the Jacksonville area and the rest, players and coaches, have come in from elsewhere.

“Jacksonville is a great baseball town, great baseball minds, great facilities,” Wasdin added.

“Living here is great and easier,” Ogletree agreed, comparing this league to others he’s played in during the summer. “The amenities are better. Gas is cheaper. The league is accessible across the board.”

“Jacksonville is an attraction for sure, Delaney agreed. “We’re not South Florida and we’re not Orlando. I’ve seen a lot of games around the state, this is one of the places that has the best overall team baseball.”

Lein plans to add a sales director to the staff for next year after building the league’s resume this season.

“We’d like to have six teams, add more pitching and add more fields,” he added. “We hope to be at Episcopal and we’ll talk to Bishop Kenny and the local colleges. That’s prime Jacksonville real estate, We’d like to talk with the Baseball Grounds about playing there. This thing is going to go.”

“I learned that’s there’s a lot of baseball talent in this country!” Delaney said of the first year. “We just wanted this to happen and to hear people say they couldn’t be enjoying it more is so gratifying. We want Jacksonville to be identified with this. We want guys to want to come play here. We want some of our local guys who go off to play out of town, we want them to come back and bring some teammates with them.”

Brooks Robinson

Sports Idols

It was easy having sports figures as childhood heroes growing up in Baltimore. At various times as a kid, depending on the season, I was Frank Robinson at the plate, Brooks Robinson at third, and Paul Blair in the outfield. I was Johnny Unitas in my front yard throwing at bushes. Playing catch, I was Lenny Moore flanking out wide or Raymond Berry making a tip-toe sideline catch. During basketball season, as much as I wanted to be Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, because I was the tallest kid on the block, I was always Wes Unseld, trying to perfect the two-hand overhead outlet pass.

Because of my job, I’ve been lucky to meet all of my boyhood heroes. I’ve had a chance to shake their hands and tell them what a positive impact they had on my life as a kid. I caught Chuck Thompson, the Orioles play-by-play announcer in the Baltimore dugout during the ’83 World Series and told him he always made that job sound like fun. I stopped Joe Namath in the lobby at the Marriott at Sawgrass. Even luckier, I was never disappointed by any of them, even sharing a laugh with Namath that he became my idol despite beating the Colts in Super Bowl III.

“Having a hero means you have somebody to look up to and to emulate,” Frank Palmieri, a professional psychotherapist and counselor explained this week. “A lot of times kids are so young they haven’t figured out that they have parents who could be their heroes.”

Palmieri, who idolized the Yankee’s Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford as a kid, also said its easy to have sports heroes when you’re young because they’re removed from reality.

“They’re not making me go to bed, eat my vegetables, and they’re not disciplining me. So, it’s easy to idolize them,” he said.

Having sports heroes as a kid was just a part of life to most of my friends. But when I asked about that this week, I got several different answers. They’ve never met their heroes and sometimes, their heroes showed to be flawed, on and off the field.

“I wanted to be Stan the Man,” Pedro said immediately referencing the St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial when I asked about his childhood idols. “He was a lefthanded hitting first baseman and I was a lefthanded hitting first baseman, I was going to the Majors to be Stan the Man.”

I knew I was sad when Frank Robinson died two years ago and asked Pedro if he felt the same when Musial died in 2013.

“I was sad, but I thought about what a great life he had,” Pedro said. “But honestly, I thought back to how upset I was as a kid when they moved him from third to sixth in the lineup at the end of his career.”

Palmieri laughed when I told him that story.

“You might be able to figure that out when you’re twenty or thirty, like why they moved Mickey (Mantle) to first base. They did the same thing to DiMaggio, and he didn’t like it,” he said. “But you can’t figure that out as a kid. You don’t realize that they probably extended their careers a few years by doing that. You don’t have the depth of experience.”

“When Yogi and Whitey died, I was sad. But I thought about it as an adult, and I was so glad that I got a chance to see those guys play. They were great examples of excellence at what they were doing.”

When sports idols fall from grace, it can take some sorting out as an adult to take them off that pedestal and bring them down to earth, flawed, like everybody else.

“O.J. was my guy,” my friend Mike said when I asked about his boyhood idols. “I wanted to be O.J. I was a running back, I wanted to wear #32. I tried to be just like him.”

“What did you think when he was on trial for murder?” I asked.

“I just thought, ‘How can you be that kooky?’’ he answered. “I just wanted to say to him, ‘Man, how could you act like that?’”

When Pete Rose got into trouble and was banned from baseball, my friend Billie had to take some time to sort that out.

“I was all about Pete Rose,” he said. “I wanted to hustle like him, play like him. When he got into trouble, I was an adult and I defended him for a while. But as I worked through it, I thought, ‘Hey, that was wrong,’ and I stopped defending him.”

“It’s a positive thing, even into adulthood. Especially when you’re emulating somebody who doesn’t fall from grace,” Palmieri noted about having a sports idol.

“I looked at Mickey in my work and I was able to say professionally he had a problem. Mickey even said, ‘Don’t be like me,’ at the end of his life, realizing that he had his own failings. You see them as human beings, having the same faults and failings that you might have.”

Being on the other side of the equation can be just as baffling. Just ask former University of Georgia and NFL quarterback Matt Robinson. Being the quarterback of the New York Jets right after Joe Namath, brought a level of celebrity that carries on to this day.

“My brother was sitting in a bar in Montana a few years ago and heard a couple of guys talking about me down at the other end,” Robinson explained. “He walked over and introduced himself and tells them he’s my brother. The guy said, ‘My dad is such a big Jets fan he named me and my brothers after Jets quarterbacks. I’m Matt.’ My brother is absolutely dumbfounded and gets me on the phone. I talk to the guy, and eventually I talked to his dad. I still have his number.”

So, what’s that like when you’re such an idol that people are willing to name their kids after you?

“It was flattering, and sometimes I would chuckle because I never thought of myself in that way,” Matt explained. “But it was also a reminder that you never know who, or when somebody’s watching you and knows who you are.”

When I first met my friend Brooks more than thirty years ago, I casually asked him if he was named after Brooks Robinson.

“I am,” he said with a laugh, explaining that he was asked that pretty often. “My parents lived in Maryland before they moved to Jacksonville Beach. My dad was a big sports guy and quite an athlete. I was the only one of three brothers who played sports, so they gave the right name to the right son.”

Brooks said he didn’t feel any special responsibility to Robinson but did get to meet him at a golf tournament in Ft. Meyers a few years ago.

“I followed Brooks when I was young, but I played first and he played third,” he said. “I did think as an adult it was unique that he played for one team. You don’t see that much anymore. When I got to meet him and told him I was named after him he couldn’t have been nicer. He asked, ‘Do I know your family?’ with a smile. We had a few laughs and he insisted we have a picture made together.”

In the ‘90’s Brooks Robinson was in town for a book signing in Mandarin. I had arranged with his publisher and the store manager to be there to interview him when he was done for a story in that night’s sportscast.

The line was around the building when I got there, surprising since Brooks hadn’t played in twenty years. I walked to the signing desk and waited to the side for him to finish. Since it was before September 11th, there was no TSA checkpoint at the airport and while Brooks was signing he was asking the organizers how long it would take to drive to the airport to make his flight. He wanted to sign until the last second.

I had met him a few times before, but somebody must have prepped him as well because when he looked up, he said, “Hi Sam,” and went back to signing adding “We’ll only have a minute when I’m done, I hope that’s OK.”

“No problem,” I said.

There were still over a hundred people in line when Robinson, apologetic and disappointed he had to disappoint so many people, put his pen down and walked to the back of the store motioning for me and my photographer to follow.

He stopped at the door of the waiting car and answered a couple of questions politely, apologized and slid into the back seat. As he did, he noticed the Orioles hat I had in my hand. Without a word as the car started away, he grabbed it, closed the door and was headed to the airport.

I had a laugh about it with my photographer and the store manager and said something silly like, “Guess Brooks needed an Oriole hat!”

A few days later the manager called me to say she had received a package with my name on it. I went to the store to pick it up and when I opened it, there was my hat, signed by Brooks, with a note from him apologizing for having to “run off so quickly.” He also included a picture signed personally to me.

I often think about how I idolized Brooks when I was a kid and the formative impact, he and Frank and Wes and Johnny and Lenny had on me growing up.

Along the way I eventually realized I couldn’t hit like Brooks, and I might have been the half the fielder he was. But as an adult I’ve often thought I could still follow his example and be as kind and as gracious as he was that day.

I hope I never forget that.

Jacksonville Suns Bragan Field

AAA Upgrade

For nearly a hundred years, Major League Baseball had an agreement with numerous minor leagues to operate as a farm system to evaluate and develop talent. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues represented the minor leagues and franchises but when their agreement with MLB ran out on September 1st, the whole system changed.

“Jacksonville came out smelling like a rose,” former Jacksonville Suns owner and baseball historian Peter Bragan, Jr. remarked this week.

Once the reorganization started, Major League Baseball told team to do what they wanted with their farm clubs. Dominos began to fall, and Jacksonville was positioned, literally on the map, to benefit by upgrading to Triple A baseball.

Since there was no minor league baseball in 2020 and only a sixty-game major league season, MLB teams created what they called an “alternate site” where they stored thirty players who continued to train, play and be ready to be called up to the big leagues.

The Minnesota Twins put their alternate site in St. Paul, using the Independent League’s St. Paul Saints facility. It made it very convenient to bring players up from just across town. It worked so well, the Twins decided they’d put their Triple A in St. Paul and with no agreement with a minor league organization, other clubs followed suit.

Since Jacksonville has a geographic proximity to Miami, the Marlins decided it would be more convenient to have their AAA team in Jacksonville instead of Wichita.

Actually, the Wichita affiliate never played a game. After being promised a Triple A franchise (moving from New Orleans) for building a $73M ballpark, the Marlins decided Jacksonville was closer so no Wichita Wind Surge for the Marlins. Instead, the Wind Surge will be the Double A affiliate of the Twins. And for now, New Orleans has no baseball. Fresno and San Antonio also lost their Triple A franchises.

In all, Major League Baseball is eliminating forty-two teams, streamlining each of the big league’s minor league system to just four teams: Triple A, Double A, hi A and low A.

“Getting rid of forty-two teams puts over a thousand players and coaches out of work,” said former Major League catcher Rick Wilkins. “I don’t think that’s such a great thing.”

MLB has encouraged the forty-two teams to create their own independent leagues, in essence “farming out” their farm system to develop talent without paying for it. So perhaps those jobs won’t be lost.

Our Triple A franchise history started in the early ‘60’s. The Havana Sugar Kings had relocated to New Jersey from Cuba when Fidel Castro nationalized all US interests there. They were bought by a Jacksonville group headed by Sam Wolfson. He had brought baseball back to town with the Single A Jacksonville Jets and in 1962 he brought the Sugar Kings here and they became the Triple A Jacksonville Suns.

The Suns were affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Colt .45’s before becoming the Mets affiliate from 1966-1968. They won the International League Championship in 1968. Players like Luis Tiant, Tom Seaver, Tommy John, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw all wore the Suns uniform.
Why did we lose Triple A then?
When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, the minor league team, the “Crackers” went to Richmond. Jacksonville was left on an island without a “Southern Swing” partner and the Triple A affiliate here moved to Norfolk in 1969.
And now, fortuitously, we have AAA back, if they start playing minor league baseball in 2021.
“It’ll be great for Jacksonville, it’s great for the perception of the city and the baseball,” Bragan said. “The first few years we were here a lot of our older fans would say, ‘I wish you’d get Triple A back. It was much better baseball.’ It’s a big deal and should translate into more tickets sold and corporate sponsorship.”

And better baseball.

“Double A is considered upper-level baseball but with every step the players get incrementally better,” Wilkins explained. “They’re a lot of good baseball players in Triple A. The pitching gets deeper, the lineups are deeper and better. You have some guys who are outs at the end of the lineup in Double A but in Triple A everybody can hit.”

And more importantly Rick added:

“If you’re playing every day as an established player in Triple A, somebody gets hurt in front of you, you’re going to ‘The Show.’”

Wilkins was on the ‘fast track’ when he signed with the Cubs, playing a year in A ball, Winter Ball in Venezuela, and a year in Double A in Charlotte. He started 1991 in the Cubs ‘big league’ Spring Training camp in Mesa, Arizona. With about a week left in spring training, he was assigned to the Minor League Complex down the street and the Triple A Des Moines Cubs.

“I was a little disappointed, you never know what’s going to happen. You’re getting opportunities to open some eyes in the big-league camp. I felt so good about where I was as a player and mentally, I knew I was ready to play in the big leagues that year and needed to wait on my opportunity.”

After about six months in Des Moines, Wilkins got ‘called up’ on his 24th birthday, June 4th.

While Wilkins spent eleven years in the Majors, he also spent part of eight of those seasons in Triple A at the beginning and the end of his career and on injury rehab assignments. He knows the culture at that level.

“It’s different in Triple A in the clubhouse,” he explained. “Above 24 or 25 years old in Double A you’re wondering what those guys are doing there. In Triple A it’s very serious. There will be guys in their mid 30’s in Triple A and it’s their livelihood. They’re trying to clean something up and get back to the big leagues. There’s no projects in Triple A. It becomes more of a narrow focus.”

In Triple A there are two kinds of players: Young guys trying to break into the big leagues and veterans trying to get back there. It makes for an interesting dynamic in the clubhouse.

“Everybody kind of has an idea about what’s going on,” Wilkins remembered. “Guys are talking about ‘how’s this guy not in the big leagues right now’ because you’re right there. That old saying is true: It’s hard to get to the big leagues and it’s harder to stay there because there are a million guys vying for you spot. It’s every day.”

“It’s like the big-league club’s spare parts bin,” is how Bragan says Triple A has changed. “Your next starters, you hope, are mostly in Double A. In Triple A there are guys who are there “just in case.”

Wilkins agreed that the ‘finishing school’ aspect of Triple A seems to be gone.

“Different clubs have different plans,” he explained. “The Cubs wanted everybody to have a year at every level. The Cardinals wanted everybody out of Double A by the time you were 21-years old. Now they’re rushing a lot of guys to the big leagues and finishing their development up there.”

In the last three years of his career, Wilkins spent about 40% of his time in Triple A and occasionally got the feeling he was one of those ‘spare parts.’

He spent most of the ’99 season with the Dodgers Triple A in Albuquerque when he was 32 years old, had what he called “a pretty good year” but also a revelation.

“I didn’t get called up in September,” he said. “I thought some politics were involved. When you’re in your 30’s and you’re in Triple A you start thinking, ‘how long do I want to stay here.’”

“It’s frustrating for guys who have been established major league players who aren’t getting a chance to show what they can do. You know the front office is saying ‘We know he’s an established big-league player, he can hit and throw and call a game. But we’re going to look at this (younger) guy.”

Finishing his career with San Diego, Wilkins got two hits in his final game, including one in his last at bat of the year. Rickey Henderson got his 3000th hit that day and it was Tony Gwynn’s last appearance in the Major Leagues.

“That’s a fun memory,” he said with a laugh.

And with Triple A coming to Jacksonville?

“People will see a lot of good players come through here,” he added. “It’s serious, it’s a callup away, an injury away, they’re trying to break through.”

Peter Bragan, Jr.

Bragan Adds to the Legacy

Watching the World Series the other night I was impressed with the kind of baseball being played by both the Dodgers and the Rays. The long ball is still the biggest part of offensive tactics in this era of metrics, but baserunning, defense and pitching are on display in the 2020 version of the Fall Classic.

“I was worried a good team all season long might not get through,” former Jacksonville Suns owner and lifelong “baseball man” Peter Bragan, Jr. told me when I called him this week to see what he thought about this year’s World Series. “With the two teams in it though, the best two teams are there.”

It’s not unusual for me to pick up the phone just to talk baseball with “Pedro.” We also have dinner together once a month as part of a business group here in town, but I was surprised how candid he was about this season and its eventual playoff format.

“I originally thought it was going to be a joke, just sixty games,” he said. “That’s normally. just about a third of the way through. But in light of the coronavirus, it was wonderful to watch. Even with the canned music and the cardboard cutouts. Some friends said they weren’t going to watch. But I love the game, balls in the gap, defensive players moving. I just liked watching how good these guys are.”

After his father bought the Suns to start the 1985 season, Bragan originally came to town as the Director of Marking for the Double A club. Before getting here, Bragan took what he calls a ‘masters course” on running a minor league baseball franchise from Larry Schmittou in Nashville. Schmittou owned pieces of nearly a dozen minor league teams in his career and was named the Southern League Executive of the Year in 1978. Pedro came home asking his father all of the right questions about running the Suns and was elevated to the General Manager’s role the following season.

This year’s World Series has several Jacksonville connections, starting with Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts. Roberts bounced around in both the minors and the majors in his fifteen-year playing career, including three stops in Jacksonville.

“It was when we were with the Tigers,” Bragan recalled. “We won the championship with him here. He was kind of a fourth outfielder, what I call a good ‘scratch hitter’ with good speed.” Roberts hit .326 in the first half of the 1998 season as the leadoff hitter for the Suns, was traded to Cleveland mid-year and was in the Majors with the Indians the following April.

“Austin Barnes was a big part of that 2014 championship, playing second base and hitting second. He hit great for us,” Bragan said of Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher. Barnes split time between playing second and catching over two seasons in Jacksonville. He’s done much of the same for the Dodgers.

One of the most dominant pitchers in the game today, Kershaw pitched here over two seasons. “He didn’t pitch that well, a little wild in his first year,” Bragan remembered. Kershaw spent some time with the Dodgers in 2008 but Bragan says his performance in Jacksonville solidified his major league status.

“He was here in July and August and dominated the Southern League,” Bragan said. “He went back up and has been in the rotation ever since.” Kershaw had a 1.91 ERA in thirteen starts in Jacksonville that year and was in the Dodgers starting rotation the following season.

When Pedro sold the Suns in 2015 (for somewhere north of $20 million) it’s the first time in 78 years there hasn’t been a Bragan in baseball. His uncle Bobby was in the game as a player, manager and executive starting in 1937.

With that history, it’s no surprise Bragan says he still misses going to the ballpark every day and admitted it took him about two years to adjust to not heading downtown.

As you might imagine, he still has some specific ideas about the current state of the game.

“We need an electronic strike zone,” he started with, pointing out his displeasure with umpires still calling balls and strikes. “These guys are better athletes. It showed up in this shorter season. Pitchers are all throwing 98-100, curveballs look unbelievable”.

“I hate the idea of the pitchers never batting again because sometimes it was fun,” he said of the National League adopting the Designated Hitter. “That was a one-year experiment in the American League, but crowds and scoring went up. And they never went back.”

Bragan has no problem with some of the other changes proposed to shorten games but doesn’t think you can “legislate” the shift out of baseball. I thought that was a funny answer having played a bunch of baseball with Pedro in Senior Leagues and Fantasy Camps in the past. A left-handed hitter, I never saw him hit a ball to left field.

“I hit some to left field,” he disagreed with a laugh. “When we played the Vikings (a great amateur team here in town from the Northside). “I’d have to wait on the fastball from their best pitcher and hit it to left.”

“It’s up to the coaches and hitter to beat the shift,” he explained. “I hate seeing that scalding ball hit right by the pitcher that’s supposed to be a single to center. You can’t legislate against that. You have to work the game around it. The hitters can handle it.”

Since getting out of the game, Bragan and his wife are building a house in St. Johns County. He’s been working on a book and has “seven or eight chapters written” and he’s playing more golf. He’s very interested in building a Jacksonville Baseball Museum and is willing to fund a big part of it but hasn’t been able to get a meeting with the current political placeholders.

“Down by the ballpark would be perfect,” he said with enthusiasm. ”I have a collection of historical things about baseball in Jacksonville. I’d finance most of it to get it done and work with the city. Hopefully that will happen sometime in the future.”

As much of a baseball legacy that Bragan has, perhaps the biggest part of his notoriety is his recitation of “Casey at the Bat” at schools and civic clubs. He encouraged kids to read and learn the famous baseball poem in schools and is reminded of his presentations almost every day.

“I did over a thousand clubs and schools over twenty years,” he said. “The other day we were moving my sister into her house and somebody there asked her about ‘Casey at the Bat.’ Said they saw me when they were in school.”

Bragan is obviously and rightfully proud of his impact with ‘Casey’ and offhandedly said, “I could fall out of bed and get that done with a one word start.”

So I said, “Oh, somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright.” And without hesitation, Pedro picket it right up. “The band is playing somewhere, somewhere hearts are light. And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout. But there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey has struck out.”

It was impressive, as was Bragan’s stewardship of baseball in Jacksonville.

“I love baseball,” he said.

Fenway Park

Wait! It’s Almost June? I Miss Baseball

As a kid growing up in Baltimore I was a big baseball fan. Still am. Often if I’m just scanning through the channels I default to the MLB Network.

When my TV career was ended, I was home nights for the first time in my professional life. That was different for my wife, who after ten days looked at me and said, “OK, the only rule is we’re not going to watch baseball every night.”

So I guess I’m still a big baseball fan.

Recently they’ve been running classic games on TV and the other day I stopped to watch Dave McNally, a pitcher, hit a Grand Slam for the Orioles in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series to beat the Reds. I hung around to watch the first couple of innings of the 1971 All-Star Game. I was fixated on the talent in the game.

Vida Blue started for the American League and faced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench, all future Hall of Famers, at the top of the National League order. I counted no fewer than 25 future Hall of Famers in that game. And I realized, wow, I miss baseball.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

“I miss it. I miss watching baseball, I miss trying to figure out a trip to Atlanta or Tampa,” former Suns owner Peter Bragan Jr. said this week. “I want to go see that ballpark in Pittsburgh.”

Baseball has been in Bragan’s whole life, literally, since he was born. His is a baseball family from his uncles through his father, his own college career at Southern Alabama playing for former Major Leaguer Eddie Stanky and into his days of minor league ownership.

“You have no good idea when they’ll come back. Maybe July? Maybe with just a quarter of the fans,” he said when I asked about the uncertainty of the game being played. But then he reminded me about one of the threads that runs through the game.

“I miss the game terribly, he said. “But the greatest thing about baseball is ‘hope springs eternal.’ All baseball fans have that in their DNA.”

I’ve been told feeling nostalgic during this pandemic time is normal. But I’m not nostalgic for baseball of a bygone era. I just miss baseball. I glanced at a calendar the other day and said, “Wait, it’s almost June?”

Growing up in the game, with a college and an 11-year Major League career, followed by running a baseball academy and coaching his own son, Rick Wilkins has been around baseball since he can remember.

“I’ve never not had a baseball in my hand for more than a month in my life,” he said.

“It’s a marker and a measurement of time for me,” he explained this week. “My rhythms seem to be a little bit off. I’m used to having spring training, Opening Day, the first half, the All-star break. My timing is off.”

A pitcher for the JU Dolphins and now president of the university, Tim Cost agreed.

“I live by when pitchers and catchers are reporting,” Cost said of matching the calendar with the game. “I miss baseball in our lives terribly. It’s a great right of spring. When is Opening Day? The second week of July is the All-Star break. It marks time.”

When I asked my former dentist Dr. Ron Elinoff, the biggest baseball fan I know, if he was a little out of sync without baseball, he just laughed.

“Not a little, I’m a lot out of sync. Particularly growing up in New York,” he said.

Ron knows more about baseball than anybody I’ve ever met. Most of my visits to the dentist were dominated by baseball talk. A picture that hung on the wall in his practice even helped me answer a Stump Sam question once.

“We had three Major League teams in New York when I was growing up,” he said, recalling his roots in the game. “We’d cut school to go to Opening Day, Tuesday was Ladies Day; the games were in the afternoon.”

Marking time through the game started when Ron was just a kid in Brooklyn, long before a stint in the Navy that included service in Vietnam found him stationed at NAS Jax.

“April we really looked forward to,” he explained. “Days were getting longer. My grades went down. April and May it was hard to hit the books we were so thrilled to be at a game.”

Elinoff has been visiting the Dodgers in Spring Training since 1980 and has followed them to Arizona since they moved to Glendale eleven years ago. He’s one of about 10,000 fans who saw the last Major League Spring Training game played. Ron was at the Dodger game on March 11th, shortened to 6 ½ innings by rain. The next day they called the games off.

“I was there for five straight days of baseball and to see John Shoemaker (the former Suns manager). So I flew back Friday. Coming back the Brazilian baseball team was on my flight to Atlanta. They were out there trying to qualify for the World Baseball Championships. We all weren’t sure what was going on.”

Both Elinoff and Cost talked about being at a game, the lack of a clock, and the symmetry of the field, the game itself.

“Basketball and football are built around massive personalities,” Cost explained. “Sometimes baseball is seen as not of this time, but the beauty of the game is how much is going into every matchup per at bat, per inning. Pitcher against hitter, fielder against runner, catcher against base stealer.”

Elinoff agreed. “There’s no sport you can appreciate as much as baseball by being there,” he explained. “TV is fine, but you can’t visualize what the players are doing. It’s like a ballet going on, there’s artistry to it. The cutoff man, the catcher running down the first baseline to back up the first baseman.”

“Just to watch them chalk the lines and see the green grass,” he continued. “The grounds crew working, getting the mound ready. I really miss that. If you show up for just the Star Spangled Banner, that’s not enough.”

Ron and his wife Susan have made the trip to Cooperstown for the last thirty years for the annual late summer induction ceremony. He knows the city will suffer since there will be no ceremony for Derek Jeter this year, perhaps expecting their biggest crowds ever.

As you can tell, Elinoff and Cost are big baseball fans. Elinoff eventually bought ten season tickets to Dodger games when they were in Vero Beach and set his professional calendar around spring training games in March.

“I’d look at the spring training calendar in December and go to my book and block off the days I’d be in Vero. I’d take the kids to Sunday games and a guy’s trip to the Wednesday games,” he said, marking time through the game.

When Cost was the Executive Vice President of the Aramark Company in Philadelphia they ran more than twenty stadiums in Major League Baseball. It was his job to check on the stadiums, meet with the owners and make sure things were going right. He always had great tickets. At home at Phillies games he’d make a walk to the upper reaches of the stadium to find a parent and a child together and give them his tickets right behind the screen.

“The more you give to the game, the more it gives back,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “I’d be in a coat and tie so they knew I was somebody official. When I’d escort them down to my seats, to just see the look in the kid’s eyes to be that close to the game . . . it was fantastic.”

I caught up with former Major League pitcher Brett Myers right as he was heading out to practice with one of his three sons this week. Between his 12-year career and working with his kids, Brett couldn’t remember the last time he went this long without a baseball in his hands. But he didn’t mind it.

“When this thing came through we had a chance to do some different things,” he said. “We kind of took it as our summer. We’ll be back into it with lots of travel ball.”

Myers is generally concerned that young players are asked to “overthrow” their arms when they’re young, so forcing them to rest through this shutdown might be helpful in the long run.

“This whole thing gave me time to breathe. My older boy has had tournaments on the weekend since August. We cancelled our nine-year-old’s season just go keep their arms safe. Some parent weren’t happy but I think it’s the best thing to do.”

Throwing batting practice is a natural thing for Myers to do with all of his sons teams, sometimes four times a week. He hasn’t done that in a while and it gave him some new perspective.

“I just threw for 2 ½ hours just yesterday,” he explained of the first day they were allowed back on the field. “That’s one of the things I think about. If I’m sore, what are they going to feel like?”

There’s currently a debate as to whether baseball will have a Major League season this year. Wilkens, Myers, Cost and Elinoff all have differing opinions on how that can, or even should happen.

“It’s tough for the major leaguers,” Myers said. “They can’t take a chance to get hurt. They make a financial decision. How many guys are throwing bullpens? They’re not facing live hitting. Who knows how they’re going to come back.”

“If the issue is really the health of the players it doesn’t make sense,” Elinoff said. “Are 24 year olds going to get on the bus in their uniforms, go to the hotel, shower and stay there? Of course not. My hope is that it’s conveyed as a health issue and not as a money issue. If it’s a money issue, then they’re in trouble.”

Cost hoped the games would return but with a renewed idea.

“I hope it comes back in a form where they rethink how they’re presenting the game. Maybe more afternoon games, a chance to bring more kids and more young people to the game.”

“There’s no families out on the weekend, no kids playing, it’s just bizarre,” Wilkins said of the absence of the game. “It’s a Wilkins family way; the boys play baseball. It’s strange. It’s part of the fabric of who we are. It’s no good, not being able to go to games and watch kids grow as people and as players. There’s no other way to say it, it’s something that needs to be there. I just miss it.”

I used to say when I was asked to speak at banquets that baseball is the game that best emulates life. It’s an individual performance as part of a greater team goal.

That’s never been truer than now. We’re all in this game together, marking time. Let’s keep doing our part.

Season of ’73 Saved Baseball in Jax

There’s s rich list of names and dates that are a part of Jacksonville’s baseball history: Henry Aaron 1953, Tom Seaver 1966, The Bragan’s 1984, Alex Rodriguez 1994 and even 2019 as current All-Stars Brad Hand, J.T. Realmuto, Christian Yelich and Clayton Kershaw all spent time In town during their ascent to the Majors.

But there’s an untold story about the 1973 season makes much of that list possible.

Since building the Baseball Grounds in 2003, fans have flocked downtown to see baseball games. But in 1972, baseball in Jacksonville was anything but a foregone conclusion.

“We had to borrow $75,000 from the parent club, the Kansas City Royals in ‘72 to stay in business,” former Suns General Manager Dick Kravitz recalled.

You might know Kravitz from his political career on the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida House of Representatives. Before that, Kravitz was the GM of the baseball Suns, the football Express of the World Football League and the soccer Tea Men of the North American Soccer League. He also served the City of Jacksonville as the Executive Director of the Sports and Entertainment Commission during the Godbold administration.

After getting his undergrad at Temple, Kravitz went to Ohio University to get his masters in sports administration. He then went to work as the business manager in Oklahoma City for the Kansas City Royals’ AAA ball club. They asked him to come to Jacksonville the next year to run the Suns under new ownership.

“They told me we needed to pay back the $75,000 that year or we’d be out of business,” Kravitz said of his charge for the season. “We had four employees, including me, and we all did double duty.”

Ownership was two investors from Oklahoma City; Keith Price was in the oil business, and banker Carl Grant. They were anything but absent.

“Price liked to come to games and watch from upstairs,” Kravitz recalled. “It was wild. He got thrown out of a game from the press box for arguing with the umpire. The ump sent a policeman to he press box and he physically threw him out of the ballpark.”

The business plan was simple: Raise as much money as possible and spend as little as possible. They started selling sponsorships and season ticket packages in the fall of 1972.

And it wasn’t easy.

“We had to fight against what had happened before. Some people wouldn’t even talk to us,” Kravitz said of the business climate regarding minor league baseball in Jacksonville at the time.

They sold five sponsorship nights to Prudential. They had a cow-milking contest that included one of the players with some farm experience. “Rocky Gibraltar” was a regular promotion, throwing a ball into a replica of the famous Rock. Kravitz even arranged for one of his players to race a horse in the outfield.

“We were playing a day game and I knew we needed a promotion,” he explained. “So I tried to ask one of our players, Minnie Minoso’s son, if he’d race a horse. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish and I couldn’t find an interpreter. But I pulled out a $100 bill and he eventually figured out what I was asking. He said he would so I went to Bayard where they were running quarter horses at the time and we set up the race, foul line to foul line. A handicapper gave Minoso a head start. And he was winning but heard a thousand pound of horse coming and jumped out of the way!”

It was an uphill battle, even facing the weather. Because of a lack of staff to put the tarp on and off the field, the city provided eight workers out of the daily labor pool to do the job. They weren’t very skilled at handling the tarp and the team had 14 rainouts in 72 games. Once they pulled the tarp off the field but only had seven workers finish the job. The eighth had been rolled up in the tarp.

Minor league staples Max Patkin, Eddie Feigner and the barnstorming/retired Bob Feller were regulars.

“I knew we were in the entertainment business, not the baseball business,” said Kravitz.

Minimizing expenses was the mantra for that year. Every dollar counted. There was no money to send the play-by-play person on the road so he did re-creations of the game, a half inning delayed, from Jones College. Re-creations generally stopped in baseball during the 1930’s. Travel was done on a church bus until one night the team ended up in a ditch on the way to Chattanooga.

“The driver worked for the church and he was working all day and then driving all night,” Kravitz explained.

Local kids were paid 50 cents to retrieve foul balls and home runs so the balls could be reused. Scuffed baseballs were rubbed down with milk to give them a new white shine. The visiting clubhouse was a Spartan affair.

Even Kravitz now admits he cut too many corners.

“One night I forgot and left the baseballs in the milk,” he explained. “After the game the umpire asked me about the baseballs because they were like lead weights! Cal Ripken, Sr. was managing the Charlotte AA club and came into my office railing about the lack of towels in their locker room. That’s when I knew I had gone overboard trying to save money.”

The club’s books were being run out of a bank in Oklahoma City. Kravitz deposited the money and filed the receipts each night and went back to selling. He didn’t keep a ledger of whether they would make enough money to stay in business.

Around Labor Day when the season ended, the Royals sent word that the Suns had done enough to pay the parent club back their $75,000 and had made another $100,000 to boot. Kravitz was named AA General Manager of the Year by the league and the Sporting News.

So add 1973 as an important date in Jacksonville baseball history.

Shoot Your Age 500 Times Former Cubs Manager Jim Frey Did That This Week

You never know who you might run into on the golf course. A few years ago I saw Jim Frey headed to the first tee at Marsh Landing. Sports fans know Jim as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-‘80’s. The Cubs were broadcast every day on WGN “Channel 9” on the cable out of Chicago. Same as the Braves were on the “Superstation WTBS” from Atlanta. The Cubs were a national team. Harry Cary was doing the play-by-play, drinking Budweiser in the left-field bleachers; Jim Frey was running the team from the dugout.

Growing up in Baltimore, I knew Jim from his fifteen year stint with the Orioles as a scout, coach, and the guy who was coaching first base or sitting next to Earl Weaver on the bench in their heyday of the 1970’s. That stint is part of a more than four decades career in baseball as a player, scout, coach, manager and general manager. So we’ve had a lot to talk about.

It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes in other sports playing golf at a high level. Michael Jordan’s money matches are legendary. Steph Curry’s play at the event last year turned some heads. John Smoltz, Tony Romo and countless others have game.

The same can be said for Jim Frey. This week, the week of his 88th birthday, Frey shot “his age” carding an 80 at Marsh Landing.

It’s the 500th time he’s done that.

A baseball man through and through, the golfer they call “Coach” at Marsh Landing is used to keeping track of a game based on numbers and statistics, Frey has documented the 500 different times he’s shot his age, from the first time when he was 72 at Cave’s Valley in Baltimore to this week at Marsh Landing.

And it’s amazing he’s even still playing. Just last year Frey, who moved here in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, had a health scare that included chemo, radiation and double pneumonia. So serious that at one point, as he puts it, “I thought the party was over.”

Once with a handicap as low as six, Frey has never relied on length rather using accuracy to get the ball in the hole. “I’ve always hit it straight,” he said remembering golf games with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who consistently outdrove him. But much like his plus-.300 batting average in his 14-year minor league career (two of those in the South Atlantic League here in Jacksonville), Frey’s golf game relies on his hand-eye coordination and his ability to think through the game.

When his playing career was over, Frey served as a scout and a coach before managing in Kansas City and Chicago. He took the Royals to the World Series in 1980 after winning 97 games in the regular season, losing to the Phillies in six games.

In his first season as the Cubs manager, they won 96 games to win the division and held a 2-0 lead over the Padres for the National League Pennant. But San Diego won the last three behind Steve Garvey to go to the World Series.

Baseball is a game built on failure. Get a hit three out of ten times and they put you in the Hall of Fame. As fans, the ups and downs stick with us. But when you’re in it Frey says, the downs really sting.

“You get your heart broken in baseball,” he said as he recalled a few of the near misses. “We got to the 7th game of the World Series in Baltimore in ’79 and Willie Stargell beat us with a home run.”

“I still lay in bed at night and think about games in 1991 that didn’t go so well,” he said of his final year as GM of the Cubs.

Maybe that prepared him for the ups and downs on the golf course. He had a chance to shoot his age they day before he did it for the first time fifteen years ago.

“I didn’t tell anybody, but when we got to the 18th that day at Caves, a pretty strong par four up the hill, I had a 7-footer to shoot 72. And I missed it. The next day, I had a six-footer for 72 and I stepped away and told the guys I was playing with what was going on adding, ‘I’m making this putt!’ he said with a huge laugh. And he did.

Shooting your age is a big deal in golf. I’m sure Chris Kappas at Sawgrass did it all the time. John Tucker and Wesley Paxon notched that with regularity.

But 500 times?

“I played a lot of golf after I retired down in Estero in the winters and in Baltimore in the summers. When we moved here in 2008 I was still playing three, four times a week.”

Knowing Jim, it’s no surprise that friendship and relationships are at the core of the two games he’s been involved in his whole life.

He was the young scout in the Midwest who alerted the Orioles that the Reds were willing to trade Frank Robinson. It’s considered one of the greatest heists in Major League history.

“I had breakfast with and old scout from Cincinnati and he said, “I just came from a meeting and they want to trade Frank Robinson!’ I went to the phone and called Baltimore. I had just started scouting for the Orioles. I talked to my boss, and they brought me home.”

He met with the Orioles brass including Lee McPhail, Harry Dalton and Manager Hank Bauer.

“How good to you think Frank Robinson is?” Frey was asked. “A better offensive player than Brooks?” He didn’t hesitate, ‘”Yes I do.”

And shortly thereafter the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Reds and got Robinson who won the MVP, the Triple Crown and helped Baltimore win the World Series over the Dodgers in four straight in 1966.

“All of the sudden, I’m not a little scout in the Midwest,” Frey said with a chuckle.

Frey hedges a bit when asked who the best player he ever worked with was, but admitted, “When I was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson was clearly the best player. He never quite got his due. He was the best player for nearly 20 years.”

That trust, camaraderie, friendships and the relationships he found in baseball are the things Frey says are important to him now in his golf game.

“I belonged to three or four other clubs before I came to Jacksonville. I joined Marsh Landing and I’ve appreciated the membership there, they’ve really embraced me. The group of guys I play with there has been a lot of fun. At this point in my life I’m appreciative of how they’ve taken me in.”

Hey Jim, that was the easy part.

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

“Pedro’s Last Dance: Far From Goodbye

As your friends retire and move onto another phase in their lives, you’re libel to feel a full gamut of emotions.

For Peter Bragan, Jr., I’m nothing but happy.

“Pedro” (or “Pee-dro” as his Dad used to say) sold the Suns franchise to baseball entrepreneur Ken Babby after 31 years running the team as a family business. Babby paid a reported $25 million for the team, acquiring the Suns as his second minor league franchise. His first is the Rubber Ducks in Akron, OH.

No doubt Babby will bring a different feel to the ballpark. He’ll upgrade some things; he’ll implement some of the things that have worked in his short ownership in Akron that have worked. He’s increased ticket sales there dramatically, so he’ll no doubt have a positive impact on the franchise across the board.

But he won’t be Pedro.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’ll just be different. Babby already has a management team in place, bringing in a new GM, sales people and the like from his experience in Akron as well as his relationships from his previous life on the digital side of the Washington Post in DC.

Pedro’s came by his family feel for ownership naturally. He’s part of a famous baseball family that stretches from his father through his uncles. But it’s not as if the Bragan’s, here or elsewhere were a soft touch. They’re known as tough businessmen and moneymakers. Nonetheless, when there was a game at Wolfson Park and then the Baseball Grounds, Senior, as he was known, and then Pedro, were there every night, shaking hands and giving a resounding, “Thanks for coming,” to the fans headed to the exits.

Getting close to the Bragans wasn’t easy. They didn’t let you inside right away. They measured you to see if you measured up. But once you did, you really were family. That’s why I’ve fished with Pedro, smoked cigars with Pedro, traveled with Pedro, played baseball with Pedro, played guitar with Pedro and sat in his office for hours talking baseball and life.

We once sat on a boat listening to our Dads talk about life in the ’40’s, how Senior made some money coming out of WWII and eventually bought a baseball team. “I’ve never heard those stories,” Pedro told me later. Luckily, both of us sensed it was such a special moment we didn’t say a word.

His commitment to kids reading in Jacksonville is legendary. His recitation of “Casey at the Bat” impeccable. His impersonation of Babe Ruth, spot on. So nobody should be surprised that Pedro wrote a song and performed it in the pregame ceremony at Monday’s game.

“Pedro’s Last Dance” is far from “Goodbye.” He and his wife Nancy want to travel, build a beach house, and stay involved in the community with their philanthropy.

I’m excited and happy for both of them. And happy for me as well.

Maybe I’ll get to see them more!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

“Pedro’s Last Dance” Should be Fun

Many an afternoon I sat in the stands at Wolfson Park or in the upper deck at the Baseball Grounds with “Senior” and “Pedro” listening to common wisdom, getting life lessons, hearing fantastic stories (that were all true) and enjoying a cigar (when it was legal). I knew those moments were special and I savored every one. Oftentimes the evening was spent on the “Chairman’s Bench” watching baseball, hearing baseball wisdom and watching the endless stream of well-wishers who came by just to say hi to Peter Bragan, Sr. and Peter Bragan, Jr. and express how much they enjoyed being there. I saw kindness and humility, passed from father to son and watched a local business become an institution and flourish.

Monday’s announcement that Pedro was selling the team to an out of town businessman was inevitable, of course. Having bought the team from the Eliopoulos family (good people and owners in their own right) for $330,000 in 1984, a 30+ year run as the owners of the Double A franchise in Jacksonville seemed enough. When Senior died in 2012 and Pedro passed into his 60’s, the idea that somebody else was going to own the franchise soon was getting close.

“If Daddy saw those numbers he’d say ‘Sign the papers boy,” is how Pedro told me he came to his final decision to sell the franchise. It’s been widely reported that Ken Babby is paying about $25 million to be the new owner. “That’s funny money,” according to Pedro and “more than me and Nancy will ever be able to spend.” But at the very least the Bragan legacy in Jacksonville seems secure. With that “funny money” Pedro intends to start a baseball foundation and perhaps build a museum to honor Jacksonville’s baseball history.

“He’ll make it a better franchise,” Bragan said during the announcement in the locker room at the Baseball Grounds. Babby, the owner of the Akron Rubber Ducks is media-savvy having worked for the Washington Post Company. So it was no surprise when he encouraged applause regarding the baseball foundation announcement.

“We like affordable family fun,” Babby explained when asked about his philosophy regarding running a minor league franchise. “But a few championships thrown in here and there wouldn’t hurt either.”

Bragan will run the franchise for 2015 calling it, “Pedro’s Last Dance.” He stepped out from behind the podium, and in classic Pedro fashion, danced an abbreviated jig for the media. “It’s not quite right because I still have this boot on,” he explained having had foot surgery two months ago.

Interestingly enough, Shad Khan was interested in buying the Suns but Babby was willing to pay top dollar and Khan let the deal go.

Pedro wanted to announce the deal at his annual Christmas party in December but couldn’t complete the paperwork for the deal to go through in time so he figured the beginning of spring training was his next best option.

What the Bragans did was bring exactly what Babby says he wants to continue: affordable family fun. They also build relationships with advertisers and sponsors, the city and most importantly their paying customers, the fans. Babby has increased attendance nearly 30% in the first two years he’s owned the club in Akron.

That can’t be overstated. If you went to the ballpark and didn’t see Pedro and his Dad there, it would have been strange. I guess that’s why I can’t remember a time when I was at the ballpark and didn’t see one of them there. That will end after this season. Chris Peters has done a great job of learning the business and running the show for the last few years and hopefully, he’ll be given a chance to continue to do the same.

That local, common touch is important in any minor league baseball operation but perhaps more pronounced in Jacksonville.

As Pedro said, “I never really owned the Suns, the fans and the city did, I was just a steward.”

And it’s because he thinks that way that made it work so well.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Arod’s Legacy Now In Question

One day you’re a hero, the next a goat. That describes a lot of professions but none more perfectly than professional sports.

Alex Rodriguez was generally considered the best among the best of all time. But he was revealed as a steroid user and admitted to it two days later, leaving his legacy and his place in the game in question.

The good thing from ARod’s perspective is that he has nearly a decade of a career in front of him. He claims he’s been clean since 2003 and that he used “performance enhancing substances” for the three years between ’01 and ’03.

“I don’t know what I was taking,” he told Peter Gammons in an exclusive interview. “I was stupid, naive and I was young,” is how ARod described his confession for using a banned substance. He says he got caught up in the “everybody’s doing it,” mentality of Major League Baseball at the time.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to make of his use or his confession.

Rodriguez claims he didn’t know he was on the list of 104 players who tested positive until a reporter from Sports Illustrated told him a week before it was revealed to the public. He says the union said he “may or may not’ be on the list so he figured whatever he was taking in Texas was OK. I don’t know if that’s a lie or not, but it sounds plausible given baseball’s history of ignoring their problems off the field.

Drinking, Drug use, “greenies” and who knows what has been a part of baseball’s culture since the game was organized. They knew steroids were a part of the game for a while. They knew players were doing whatever they could to stay in the game, put up bigger numbers and make more money. But until there was a public outcry and a variety of media reports baseball accepted the inflated numbers and the corresponding jump in fan interest and attendance that went with it.

It wasn’t against the rules and barely illegal so players, insulated by the league and their teams, took pills, shot up and made concoctions of whatever they thought might make them hit better, run faster and last longer.

So if “everybody was doing it” where does that put the numbers? Mark McGwire was probably still going to lead the majors in home runs, but probably not 72 in a season. Sammy Sosa was probably going to finish second, but instead of hitting 66, he might have hit 50-some. ARod was probably still going to be the MVP in ’03 but might not have put up the gaudy numbers to go with it. So season-by-season, player-by-player comparisons in that era are probably fair.

But baseball is such a game of numbers and the custodians of the game consider themselves such purists that comparing Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs to Hank Aaron’s 755 is important to them. So Barry Bonds’ single season record for home runs is illegitimate to them. I’d say Bonds’ single season record is fine based on the competition he faced. It’s his overall production that should have an asterisk.

ARod’s immediate admission that he was involved is an attempt to put it behind him, to be as upfront as he can for one reason: to protect his legacy. Rodriguez might put the numbers out of sight in the next eight or nine years and wants those records for his own. He wants to be considered among the best of all-time. He doesn’t want to have a tainted career. He wants to go to the Hall of Fame.

This is one of those wait-and-see situations. He’ll be under unbelievable scrutiny as his career goes forward comparing his numbers to those in the years he admitted to using a banned substance.

I took creatine for a while to help in my workouts. While it’s not a steroid, it’s definitely performance enhancing. It didn’t make me hit a baseball farther, or run faster but it did allow me to workout harder and more often. My workouts were more productive. So much so that I was growing out of my clothes. Taking a performance enhancer doesn’t make you hit the ball more often, but it does turn about 10 warning-track fly-ball outs into home runs. It does allow a player to continue to play at a high level in August and September where he used to get worn out.

But the big factor might be that the public doesn’t care. Nobody’s worried about athletes, especially baseball players using a drug that makes them bigger and stronger to produce bigger numbers. A lot of people would just as soon see the players get as big as they want and see where the numbers go.

ARod’s legacy?

It’ll have to wait.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Still A Game of Shadows

The Mitchell Report took a while to compile and $20 million of Major League Baseball’s money. So why then is every body in it denying the findings or just ignoring it completely? Probably because there is no real enforcement risk based on baseball’s current relationship with the players union.

The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2011 and doesn’t allow MLB to really punish players for using illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Why hasn’t Donald Fehr, the players union representative, come out with a big statement either saying the problem is fixed, is still going on or never existed? Because he’s already positioning for the negotiating that will go on looking for the new agreement.

The baseball era just past was full of steroid and performance enhancing drug use and clearly some of the administrators of the game thought that was just fine. When the 1994 World Series was cancelled because of a players’ strike, the game was crippled. Cal Ripken Jr.’s march past Lou Gerhig’s record revived some fans interest in the game but it was the long ball, and the home run chase in 1998 that really brought the game back.

Now we know that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and company were all using drugs to help hit those home runs. Somebody at the top of the game knew it. They might not have been there when guys were getting injections but they had some suspicions that the game was tainted.

And they did nothing.


Because people were flocking to the ballparks and watching the game on television. MLB had unprecedented growth to a $6 billion dollar game in 2007. People like the long ball and were paying money to see it. So in one-way or another, baseball turned a blind eye to what was going on.

I heard an interview with a player the other day that said he was aware of what was going on but that any illegal “actions” were performed outside of the ballpark. It’s not that there were a bunch of syringes sitting around the clubhouse, but that players were aware that if they needed some help, they could get it from one of their teammates pretty easily.

Storm Davis said the other day he wouldn’t have admitted it ten years ago but now says that he was well aware of performance enhancing drug use and it’s availability during his playing days.

Nobody wants to throw anybody else under the bus and even some say that the Mitchell Report is “incomplete.” But at the same time, nobody’s come out and said, “Yeah, I did it. I knew it was illegal and I did it because I thought I could make some more money.”

Andy Pettite admitted to taking HGH during a rehab but he didn’t exactly trumpet any willing “illegal” drug use.

I just think somebody either has to stand up and be counted in the Major League Baseball office or the commissioner and Donald Fehr should both resign. Players won’t be punished because of the collective bargaining agreement and there’s a bunch of muddling around going on instead of some explanations.

I guess it’s still a “game of shadows.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Teams, Clint And The Rockies

One of the attractive things about sports for me has always been what it reveals about people. Whether it’s a team sport like football or an individual effort like golf, playing it, and observing others playing has always been as much of a mind game for me than a physical challenge.

I still enjoy going to the gym, running, riding my bike and other forms of exercise but the real fun is in the playing, and competing when it comes to sports. I’ve encouraged my kids to get involved with sports, not from a “crazed sports-dad” perspective (although some who have observed me at my kids games over the years could accuse me of that) but rather to keep them active and occupied and learn some of the things about life that sports can supply.

“Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” is a slogan that rings very true, especially when your “playing” days are over.

“I can tell the people who never played a team sport,” one of my children said to me when talking one night about a real life experience. “They have a different outlook on problem solving and how to get from the start to the end of a project.” They said this without malice or judgment, but rather as an observation of how different people manage their lives, personally and professionally.

I’ve had great success and pitiful failure on athletic fields. I’ve been exalted and embarrassed for things I’ve done in sports. But I’ve tried to take something positive from all of it each time.

For a few years in a row, my friends Lex and Terry and I attended several baseball fantasy camps. It’s called a fantasy camp because usually it’s the players’ fantasy to mingle with their childhood heroes. I doubled off Mickey Lolich the first time I faced him on the mound.

Hanging around the batting cage with Hall of Famers Al Kaline talking about the science of hitting could be considered a fantasy come true. But there is the playing of the games that’s also a part of the experience. Some guys are very serious, other couldn’t care less. They’re either there to make up for some deficit they perceive from their younger days or just looking for an escape to green grass and the chance to wear a uniform again.

I always enjoyed being on the team. The banter in the clubhouse, the observations in the dugout (not always about baseball) and the winning and losing as a group. I played for Darrell Evans one year at Tigers camp. He could have cared less about the baseball but was very engaging when it came to off the field activities.

Tom Pacoirek was always fun to play for. He knew what we were looking for and provided the right blend of fun and inside baseball knowledge that you can’t get in a five-minute conversation. Ralph Garr watched me backhand a ground ball behind third base and throw a guy out by five steps while telling me, “You’re not that good anymore!”) And then pulling me aside to tell me what a great play it was.

John Shoemaker worked on my balance in the field while a major league hitting coach whose name I can’t remember told me to drag the butt of the bat through the hitting area before rotating into the ball. (That really worked!)

In those camps, the one guy that really stuck out though was Clint Hurdle. Hurdle kicked around the majors for a while, after being tabbed as “The New Phenom” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the cover as a kid, and Clint broke it out on the first day of camp, giving himself some credibility while explaining that sometimes it doesn’t all work out that way.

Hurdle told me to quiet my body in the batters box, but also explained that I had to make the routine play in the field if we wanted a chance to win. He encouraged guys who looked like they never played the game as if they were major leaguers. He’d talk about the technical refinements of hitting or the stupid baseball blunders he’d witnessed in his time in baseball.

And the more you got to know him, the more you realized that he cared about the game, but he cared about you as well. He wanted your experience to be what you were looking for and created an atmosphere that you could succeed in.

He’d been a coach for a while when he started running the Braves camp but you always had that feeling that he’d soon be a major league manager. He understood the complex relationship between being intense and relaxed all at the same time that is necessary to be a baseball player. And it shows now on his Colorado Rockies team.

“Sometimes, I just try and stay out of the way,” Hurdle told some reporters the other day.

I’m glad I’m getting a chance to write this because I thought that the Rockies might get rid of Clint because he hadn’t won enough in his first few years in Denver. But they knew he didn’t have the talent he needed, but was creating an atmosphere of success. So they kept him around to continue the process.

The Rockies were out of it in mid-August, but their late season and now post-season run is unprecedented. I mean it’s never happened before in Major League history. And I think a lot of that is how Clint puts things in perspective.

After this run and the national publicity the Rockies and Hurdle will get, he should never have a problem getting a managing job in the majors again. Can you tell I’ll be rooting for the Rockies?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

300; 3,000; 500

I was driving the other day flipping through the stations when I came across Jim Rome talking with Bob Costas. Obviously much of the conversation centered on Barry Bonds with Rome giving Costas a chance to rebut some things Jon Miller had said the week before.

“I like Jon,” Costas said, “but he does work for the Giants so perhaps in this case he should recuse himself.”

Rome spent two segments with Bob, giving him a forum to get into the whole situation with Bonds, the Giants fans, steroids, Bonds’ denials (or not) and baseball’s position on the whole thing. Costas was able to distill much of every fan’s feelings down to their essence: Bonds cheated.

But it was a very solid argument, noting that Bonds was a great player through his career up until 1998-99 when his alleged performance enhancing drug use started. But that his numbers since then are somewhat artificial and that perhaps his “cheating” has allowed him to extend his career to this point.

Whether it’s on his nationally syndicated radio show or his current “Costas Now” on HBO, Bob has always had a long-form outlet for his ideas and opinions, and they’re usually well thought out and insightful. In this case, he filleted both Miller and Bonds (who had called Costas a “midget who never played the game”), leaving anybody with a logical thought with a very convincing argument.

As Bonds “takes” (Costas’ characterization) instead of breaks Hank Aaron’s home run record it comes at the same time as Alex Rodriguez hits a milestone at 500 home runs and Tom Glavine wins his 300th game. Is it just the time we’re living in that allows us to see such monumental feats in baseball? Is it how the game is played now? Are the players just better?

It’s actually all of those things.

The careers are longer, the players are better trained, some naturally, and in fact, it’s the time we live in. I’m sure you’ve seen the stat regarding the time frame for 300 game winners. Eleven before 1925, a couple in the next 57 years and eight since 1982. There won’t be a bunch in the near future based on the players currently in the game.

The three real milestones in baseball are 300 wins, 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Of the three, 300 wins only comes from a long career, solid performances and playing on some good teams. Three thousand hits means you played a long time and stayed healthy. You had to be a solid player but a long career is part of 3,000 hits. Twenty years, 150 hits a year and you’re there.

Five hundred home runs are all you. Nobody’s got to make great defensive plays, and you have to have that pop in your bat that gets the ball over the fence.

At 32 years old, ARod is at 500 and could easily eclipse wherever Bonds sets the bar at some point in his career. Eight hundred? Absolutely attainable if he stays healthy and wants to get there.

I did the play-by-play for the Florida High School association baseball championships for about six years and I remember doing the title game when ARod’s team played in it. He pitched and played short. (Same with Chipper Jones). You could see he was a special player right away and he’s fulfilled that potential five-fold.

Without the steroid era, that’s one of the things I like about baseball, the stats hold up from decade to decade, century to century. The players, the fields, the agronomy, the bats, the balls, they’ve all gotten better, but it’s all relative. The numbers match and they matter.

Just think about this one fact that continues to amaze me.

Despite all of the changes, one constant is 90-feet between bases. Ninety feet from home to first. And every play seems to be bang-bang. If it’s 91, everybody’s out. If it’s 89, everybody’s safe. But it’s not. It’s 90 and perfect.

Hopefully we’ll figure out where to put Bonds in the context of his numbers versus the history of the game. For me, I’ll stay a baseball fan, Barry or not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hey Barry, You’re No Babe

I haven’t been a Barry Bonds fan from the beginning. I thought he was a great player, and continue to think that, but I’ve never been a fan. His years with the Pirates were punctuated with the occasional tirade, the most celebrated was one directed at then Manager Jim Leyland.

Bonds didn’t like PR department’s ability to allow journalists to do their job, and photojournalists to take Bonds’ picture during spring training. Bonds went into a profanity laced diatribe aimed at the PR director, who was backed up by Leyland. So Bonds turned his venom on the Manager, who didn’t back down. And Leyland proved to be right and Bonds proved to be a bad guy. He says the Pirates never made an offer to keep him, and he’s probably right. A city like Pittsburgh isn’t going to put up with a sulking star, so Barry was out, off to San Francisco.

It’s one thing to have a bad relationship with the fans and the media, but when your teammates are willing to throw you under the bus at the drop of a hat, then you’re the problem. Bonds had his own corner of the locker room created, taking up three lockers with lounge chairs and a big screen TV. And the TV’s were tiled so only Bonds and his “visitors” could see them.

I’ve been on enough teams and have been around enough athletes to know that some have a reputation that precedes them. And people buy into it and it’s self-perpetuating. But if you’re around them long enough, you know what kind of person they are, what their values are (if they have any) and if it’s an act, or the real thing. Baseball especially with its long hours and extended season of 162 games feeds off the chemistry of a team. Teammates know who you are, and none of Bonds’ teammates have ever backed him up. They all hate him too.

So in his insulated world, Bonds is existing as a baseball player with a constant shadow. Actually two shadows. One is his personality that turns off just about everybody, the other is the shadow of steroid use as a performance enhancing drug that helped him get bigger, faster and stronger. At this point, it doesn’t matter if Bonds did steroids or if he admits to it or denies it. The question will always be there and it will always taint any milestone he reaches.

Major League Baseball decided not to do any kind of celebration for passing Babe Ruth’s mark, rather calling it a “milestone” and putting specially marked balls into play to authenticate the actual home run ball. “We’re not going to have a celebration for passing into second place,” was their thinking. You can be sure it would have been different if Bonds didn’t have a shadow or two following him all over the place.

You might remember he derided Babe Ruth about a year ago saying nobody would remember Ruth once he passed him. Wrong again Barry. Ruth was no saint but his mark was an enduring standard only broached by one player, who did it through hard work and long seasons.

There are no shadows following Henry Aaron around. If Bonds ever gets to 755 baseball will be obligated to have some sort of celebration. Which might finally answer the question: What if you were to throw a big party and nobody came? Is it still a party?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Baseball’s New (and Old) Problem

I suppose you can’t come to any other conclusion than Rafael Palmeiro is lying. He sat in front of a congressional committee on March 17th, waved his finger and said, “I have never used steroids.” When Major League Baseball suspended him for 10 days last week, he altered that statement adding, “I have never intentionally used steroids.” So he gave himself an out, giving rise to the theory that he took a supplement that had a steroid product in it, unwittingly.

But then it was reported that he tested positive for Winstrol, and that whole theory went out the window. You don’t get Winstrol by accident in your system. It’s either done through a pill or through an injection. Maybe his doctor, not associated with the team gave him the pill to help rehabbing an injury, but that’s not an excuse either.

As a pro athlete in these very sensitive times regarding steroids, if you sat in front of congress and waved your finger, you better know everything that you’re putting in your body.

It’s a real shame too, because Palmeiro was looked on as a sympathetic figure after the congressional hearings. He didn’t look like a steroid guy, so it was plausible that he had been named as a user because of some kind of grudge. But that all goes out the window now. Congress has asked for the documents regarding his failed drug test and if the test was before March 17th, they’re thinking about charging him with perjury, for lying under oath.

Mark McGwire came off poorly during those hearings because he kept protecting himself. Palmeiro, on the other hand, seemed to be the guy baseball was counting on to drag them out of this morass. A bona fide major league hitter with Hall of Fame numbers who didn’t look like he was about to bust out of his uniform. Now the question is reminiscent of the Watergate hearings and the question asked often, “What did baseball know and when did they know it?”

There are reports that baseball knew as early as May that Raffy had failed his drug test and tested positive for steroids. But, they held off the announcement until after the All-Star break and until after Palmeiro broke the 3,000 hit mark. (He’s the fourth player in history to hit 500 home runs and have 3,000 hits.) If that’s all true, baseball will have another black eye, and the game will take another step backwards. Not in places like Boston or New York or St. Louis, but in the non-major league cities where daily contact with the majors only comes through news reports. And those reports in recent years have been more about baseball’s problems than it’s glories.

Bud Selig has never been a strong leader for MLB, but now, more than ever, he needs to turn the reigns of this problem over to an outside agency. People are losing faith that baseball is capable of policing itself when it comes to drug testing. Hire the World Anti-Doping Agency or somebody like it to run the testing. Get out of that business and make the punishment swift and meaningful. We can hope can’t we?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

A Baseball Town?

When the city announced that the ACC baseball championship would be contested at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville in 2005, there was a small amount of excitement in town. Not a lot, but not a collective yawn either. Nice event, nothing spectacular.


The ACC championship drew over 66,000 fans over the five days, and could have easily been more if there had been a night game on Saturday to determine who was going to the finals. As it was, the tournament had every thing you hope an event in your town has. Good weather, competitive games, a great venue and happy fans.

In all, eleven teams came to town with a chance to win the conference championship. Three play-in games on Tuesday put Wake Forest in the main draw, a double elimination tournament beginning on Wednesday with the top seven teams from the regular season. (The conference will cut the tournament down to eight teams next year with no play-in games)

There were all kinds of games in the tournament. Low scoring, high scoring, tight finishes and blowouts. In the end, Georgia Tech was named the winner, beating Virginia 4-3 in the title game on Sunday afternoon.

But the real winner was Jacksonville.

It’ll be hard for the conference to move the game anywhere else. The attendance eclipsed the previous record by the time they had played games on Friday. Florida State got beat by Tech on Saturday afternoon, but if they had been able to force a second game Saturday night, you can add over 12,000 more to the final total.

Although it’s a two-year contract with a third year option for the ACC, no doubt they’re looking to keep the game in Jacksonville for a while. But there are a couple of other options, including a very attractive one at Fenway Park. Apparently because Boston College joins the fray next year, Fenway would like to host the tournament with the Eagles as the home team. That would be tough to pass up, no matter how nice things were here in Jacksonville. And with its roots in the Carolinas, the conference probably wants to put the tournament in its home state every once in a while. So while Jacksonville is the preferred venue, it’ll take some lobbying and some guarantees to keep the tournament here.

What it proves is that Jacksonville is more than just a one-horse (football) town. Anytime there’s been a well promoted, worthwhile event here, people have turned out. The ACC Championship isn’t supposed to be a big time event, but it attracted fans from all over the conference and all over the city. If it’s not here permanently, don’t worry, it’ll be back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Baseball, Steroids And You

It’s not hard to discount anything and everything Jose Canseco says. He’s been a self promoter and a characiture for most of his career. In a nutshell, he’s not smart. But he has admitted to using steroids during his career in Major League Baseball, and has implicated most of the big names in baseball in the process.

His book about steroid use explains how, and why, top-notch athletes use performance enhancing drugs to make good athletes better and as Canseco writes, “great players legendary.” It’s not hard to look back at Canseco early in his career and see a very different body style than the one he had as his carrer ended. He was tall and muscular, but was almost wiry. He stole 40 bases and hit 40 home runs in the same season. He ran balls down in the outfield, and legged out doubles with his speed. But as his career progressed, Canseco became a heavily muscled bomber, somewhat injury prone, but more prone to outlandish behavior and prodigous home run blasts.

In other words, the poster boy for steroid use.

Whether he actually injected Mark McGwire with steroids in a bathroom stall in Oakland as he claims in his book is not very relevant. McGwire clearly enhanced his body style and his performace with some kind of substance. He’s admitted to using androstinedione, not a steroid per se, but rather a drug that allows an athlete to work out harder and more often with less recovery time.

McGwire went from a strong, tall home run hitter to a strong, tall, huge home run hitter. No doubt he spent a lot of time in the gym, and no doubt he used drugs to get big. Did Canseco inject him? Did he use illegal drugs? Who cares? Either way he did it with help, and that help put him in the record books with 70 home runs.

As a fan, just think about the players you know in your mind who went from regular looking pro athletes to sculpted Adonis looking mashers. Barry Bonds, Brady Anderson, Ron Gant, McGwire, Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, all guys who are substially bigger than when their careers started. So were they all on steroids? Did they just get bigger with age and hard work? We’ll never know. Unless of course, more players like Giambi come clean.

Canseco might be a cartoon character, and desperate for money, but at least a portion of his claims are true. Baseball players went outside the game trying to break the bank. And most did. But at what cost? Whether there’s an asterisk or not next to the records, the last ten years will always be known as the time in baseball when the players used drugs to inflate the numbers.

And how about the latest allegations?

Did MLB know this was going on, only to turn a blind eye in order to bring some new excitement to the game?

Boy, I hope not.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Yankees Go Home

While you can call it the greatest comeback in baseball history, which it was, you can also call it the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Yankees with a 3-0 league clammed up and stopped figuring out how to win while the Red Sox were focused on every pitch and every at bat trying to get to the next game. While you can excuse a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere among the Yankees after spanking Boston 19-8 and going up 3-0, it was an uneasy feeling even after the Sox won game 4 with a David Ortiz home run.

What did the Yankees do after that?

They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after Ortiz singled in the winning run in the 14th inning the next night? They seemed to jog off the field in anticipation of the next game. And what did they do after losing game 6? You know the drill.

There wasn’t any sense of urgency, nobody in the Yankees clubhouse seemed to be seething with the competitive fire that’s necessary in the post-season. Where were the leaders? Starting with their captain, Derek Jeter, they seemed to forget how to win. The Yankees are super talented, chisled and well dressed. The Red Sox seemed to try to portray themselves at the opposite. They grew their beards, they messed up their helmets and wore their uniforms baggy. So what! The Sox were just as talented and it showed on the field. Even Joe Torre said after game 6, “We’re evenly matched, so now we’re tied. What else is there to say?”

But Torre failed to mention heart.

Did you see the Red Sox players hugging each other in the dugout? When was the last time Gary Sheffield hugged anybody? Alex Rodriguez is easy to root for. He’s talented and plays the game impecably. But with runners in scoring positon, Rodriguez was a .250 hitter. And with two outs he was down around .200. The Yankees needed a grinder in this series and they didn’t have one.

It’s now four years in a row that they’ve had enough talent to win the World Series, but haven’t come home with the hardware. Should we expect a George Steinbrenner meltdown? Probably not, but a real evaluation of the team’s psyche is in order. Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage, even Reggie Jackson seemed to have that intangible that translated to their teammates when it came to crunch time. This version of the Yankees seemed to check their briefcase before going up to bat. What they should have been looking for was their heart.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Wolfson Park

I let a girl take advantage of me at Wolfson Park once. Actually, she pretty much did whatever she wanted, and I just stood there, without any say in the matter. After about 3 minutes, she was finished with me, kind of chuckled, and sent me away. She had struck me out. That’s right, a girl struck me out. Not just any girl actually. As a pitcher for the “Silver Bullets” a traveling promotional all-girls baseball team, this pitcher spent some time in baseball’s minor leagues before retiring. But she struck me out along the way. Twice.

At Wolfson Park.

That was just one of the memories that floated by this weekend for me during the final regular season games at the 47 year old baseball stadium. There’s been a lot of baseball played there, and some softball too. Since the Bragans took over ownership of the minor league franchise in Jacksonville, they’ve made Wolfson Park a friendly place. Not just for minor league games, but for all kinds of ball playing. There have been celebrity softball games, home run hitting contests, Senior Men’s baseball match ups and the games with the “Silver Bullets.” I hit off Bob Feller at Wolfson Park. And two of the three fights I’ve been in in my adult life were right in Wofson’s dugouts.

But the best thing about the ballpark is it was just that, a ballpark. You knew baseball was played there. You could feel it; you could smell it when you walked through the front door. That musty, well-worn, rosin bag, glove oil, popcorn, hot dog, hamburgers-on-the-grill smell that only a ballpark can create.

And it was friendly. Between the early “Hey boy!” calls from Peter Bragan Sr. as he greeted fans who stopped by his seat on the way to theirs, to the earnest “Thanks for comin'” from Peter Jr. (Pedro) as he shook hands by the stadium’s exit, there was a lot of fun to be had at the ball park. My kids learned about professional sports there. Unlike the football stadium where the action seems sterile and removed, at Wolfson Park it was right in your lap. The on deck circle was an arms length away and foul balls were on you in a hurry.

Wolfson Park used to be known as a pitchers park. With a brick outfield wall a mile away, fly balls were gobbled up easily and the wind kept everything in play. But once Pedro put up “Bragan’s Blue Monster” the double-decked, sign-filled, outfield wall inside the bricks, it became a hitter’s paradise. It also made it more fun for the fans. Not just because the wall created all sorts of caroms and knocked enough of the wind down to let balls fly out of there, but it also moved the entire field back 15 feet, leaving a measly 45 feet between home plate and the back fence. Sitting in the front row gave you the feel of being in the batters box. Once, while sitting up front, I was caught on tape eating a salad at a game. A salad! I encouraged Pedro to add salads to the menu a few years ago for “something lighter” I think were the words I used. Boy did I catch grief for that!

Although many future stars and even Hall of Famers have played at Wolfson Park, it’s not a magical place. It more friendly than anything, and the Bragan’s have made it a priority to keep it a friendly, family place. From the candy on Mr. Bragan’s desk to the untold memorabilia in Pedro’s office, there’s not a spot you’d feel unwelcome in at Wolfson Park. And because of that, we’ll remember Wolfson Park.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Baseball Strike

Even though they set a strike date of August 30th, Major League Baseball players continue to tell just about everybody privately that they’re not going on strike. Certainly the owners are hearing this, and in turn have hardened their position at the bargaining table, trying to effect sweeping reform on the economics of the game.

The players are hearing the public loud and clear; a strike or any kind of work stoppage, and we’re gone. So what’s the truth? That’s always been tough to ferret out when it comes to the players and the owners in baseball. For nearly 100 years the owners kept the players under their thumb, lied consistently about how much money they were making, and laughed all the way to the bank. With the advent of free agency, the players have tipped the scales, grabbing cash and not relenting when the owners cried poverty. And why should they?

The owners devious tactics made them millions on the backs of the players, and for the last 25 years, the players have been getting what you could call pay back. Three times in the ’80’s the owners were found guilty of collusion, trying to hold down salaries by not competing for the top players. There’s plenty of distrust on both sides to go around, enough dislike as well to make a work stoppage a real possibility.

The players have moved toward the owners in some areas, and even made a pre-emptive announcement about steroid testing. Although diluted, the announcement was clearly a public relations move, trying to show that they are willing to listen to public demands.

The strike of 1994 alienated fans by wiping out the end of the season and the World Series. Cal Ripken’s drive to break Lou Gehrig’s record started to bring them back, especially with Ripken’s willingness to stay for hours after each game to greet fans and sign autographs. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s attack on Roger Maris’ home run record recaptured the imagination of fans and seemed to put any labor problems well in the past. Barry Bonds isn’t an embraceable hero, despite his on-field exploits, and he hasn’t charmed the public. In fact, there’s not much that’s embraceable about baseball at all, except the game itself. And if the players and owners can’t come to their senses and make a deal, even the game will seem hollow if they ever return.

I read that Vin Scully requires the producer of Dodgers’ broadcasts to show kids in the stands at every game, whether they watching or ignoring the game. At least they’re there, is Scully’s thinking. But they’re taken by their parents, usually their dads as part of the parent/child bonding process. No kids go to the games by themselves. Baseball doesn’t have a young fan base. After a work stoppage, they’ll have no base at all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Baseball Strike

Just the mere talk about a baseball strike raises the ire of most sports fans. The average salary is more than 2 million a year, they say, and they’re going on strike? “I’m not doing it for me,” said Nomar Garciaparra, “I’m doing it for that little leaguer who will get here and say ‘I wish I played in that era.” I laughed out loud when I heard that one. Both sides have inordinate greed and selfishness, only to be outdone by their hatred for each other.

Since 1972, baseball owner and the players union have never resolved a labor disagreement without a work stoppage. When free-agency became a reality, it truly freed the players from what had been years of indentured servitude. When you were drafted by a team, you belonged to that team until they said you didn’t. The “reserve clause” was invoked by owners at the end of players’ contracts to keep them in the organization. When challenged, the reserve clause was struck down by the courts, and quickly. Players then bargained as a union for the terms of free-agency and salary arbitration and the incredible rising salary became a part of everyday baseball life.

“It’s not free-agency,” George Steinbrenner once told me, “It’s that damn arbitration that’s killing us. Second-rate second basemen don’t deserve that kind of money.” George was right, in theory, assuming that all owners were dealing from the same deck, operating on level ground. Which we know is not the case.

Steinbrenner’s local television package dwarfs anything else in baseball, and enables the Yankees to pick and choose players as they please. (see Mondesi, Raul and Weaver, Jeff in the Baseball Guide) The Yankees raiding other teams talent is nothing new. The Kansas City A’s served as an in-season farm team for the Bronx Bombers for years. Sharing their wealth for the good of the game is what the Yankees (Steinbrenner) have to be convinced of.

Although we’ve seen recently that money isn’t the final answer, just check out the Orioles recent record compared to their monstrous team salary. But without a lot of cash, you’re just not going to compete year after year. When the current contract runs out, there will be talk of a salary cap, which the players won’t agree to, and revenue sharing, which the owners won’t go for. And that’s why they’ll strike or be locked out, depending on which side you want to listen to.

Attendance figures can be pushed all over the place, but it’s pretty apparent that not as many people are going to major league ballparks. If they stop the season, and call off the World Series, like they did in 1994, the casual fan will walk away from the game and not come back. Ever. Sure, they’ll have a passing interest in the pennant races, and probably watch the playoffs and the World Series, but they’re not going back to the ball park. There are too many other options to spend their money on. Baseball doesn’t own the consciousness of the sporting public anymore. It’s part of the sports landscape. If they stop playing, that part is going to look pretty barren.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Baseball Managers

I was doing my regular appearance on the Lex and Terry Morning show today when new Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle called in. Hurdle is a former Major League player who was once called the “Next Phenom” by Sports Illustrated magazine on their cover. He was a solid player who now talks mostly about his own limitations during his career.

When the Rockies fired Buddy Bell, they hired Hurdle who was on their staff as the hitting coach. Lex and Terry and I have gotten to know Hurdle over the last 5 years as the Commissioner of the Fantasy Camp we attend each February. Clint has been the “perfect manager in waiting” and now has gotten his shot.

If you look around the league, the successful managers these days are the ones who aren’t seeking the spotlight, but rather creating an atmosphere for success. Outside of Joe Torre, none were great players but all had careers where they saw the ups and downs of many seasons, and came to understand the rhythms of the game. That’s why Hurdle is the perfect manager, and an example of a guy many fans have never heard of who becomes successful leading a Major League baseball team.

Anybody can make pitching changes, and put pinch hitters in the game. A good manager has to accept failure nearly as often as success. If he wins six out of every ten games, they’ll hail him as a hero. A baseball manager doesn’t have to dress in flashy clothes, he wears a uniform every night. He doesn’t have to suffer for a week between losses, because they’ll play again tomorrow. And he doesn’t have to baby-sit much. By the time players make it to the majors, they’re grown men. Or at least they’re supposed to be.

Not many great players have made good managers. The theory is that they don’t understand how less-talented players can’t perform at a higher level. I don’t know if Clint Hurdle will be a great manager. I do know he’s the right pedigree. Part thoroughbred, part quarter horse, part workhorse.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

A-Rod’s Millions

There’s been a large outcry from sports fans this week about the $252-million contract Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers. Over the next ten years, if he chooses, A-Rod will be the highest paid player in baseball.

It’s in his contract.

He has to be or he can leave.

People are screaming about this because they’re dealing from the wrong premise. Baseball, or any other sport played at the professional level these days is not the sport we played, or watched as kids.

Pro sports aren’t part of the backdrop of society anymore. They’re what defines communities, defines fans, and in many cases define the cultural fabric of our country. It’s a rare exception that an athlete is identified with one team, one city throughout his career. Free agency has taken care of that.

In the off-season of any sport, athletes are headed off to better tax havens, warmer climates and the good life. How many Ravens hang around Baltimore in the summer? Where are the Pirates in the winter? Pittsburgh? Are the Browns sitting around in the Flats in Cleveland on New Year’s Eve?

There’s no slipping into the corner tavern and bumping into your favorite player. I worked in a bar in Washington, D.C. while I was in college and it would have been unusual if a night went by when I was behind the bar that a player from the Redskins didn’t walk in. Not anymore.

They’re entertainers, they’re stars, and they’re paid accordingly. The games have gone from just that, games, to a big show. Have you seen the opening of an NBA game lately? They’d gotten so outrageous with smoke, lasers and loud music that the league had to put limits on what teams could do. It’s a big show, and that’s what the fans are paying for. And don’t lament how nobody can afford to go to a baseball game. How many Garth Brooks fans have actually seen him in person? Most can’t afford it.

Rodriguez’s $25-million a year is about right for a top flight entertainer these days. Robert DeNiro, Meg Ryan, Elton John, they’re all in that range. Nobody’s yammering about their salaries. We accept they have talents we don’t have. So does A-Rod. And that’s why the owners are paying that kind of money.

Baseball’s problem is the escalation of salaries over the long haul. When will it stop? Only when the owners can’t pay that kind of money. It’s not the superstars who are tilting the books. It’s how they drag up the utility infielder to a salary structure that doesn’t allow all clubs to be in the bidding. At some point, the league will realize that the competitive balance in the league is so out of whack, tilted toward the big market teams, that some clubs like Kansas City, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee fold their tents and go away. Not relocate. Just fold because they can’t compete.

Lately at owners’ meetings you hear the word “contraction.” That means they’re thinking about it. Considering getting rid of teams for the first time since 1900.

Don’t think it can’t happen.

U.S. Steel?



On the way out.

Fewer teams will mean fewer jobs, less power for the Players Union, better talent on a smaller number of teams, and the owners can control the salaries. If they want to.

The common theory is that anything a guy makes is what’s he’s worth, because somebody is willing to pay it. Clearly, Texas billionaire Tom Hicks can afford to pay Rodriguez $25-million a year. He’ll probably make money over the long haul on the deal between ticket sales, promotions, broadcast rights and the overall value of the team.

The problem is, will he have anybody to play? A 162-game schedule between the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Rangers, Braves, Mets, Angels and Dodgers could get a little boring.

Don’t blame A-Rod. By all accounts he’s the perfect player to get the perfect deal: Can do it all on the field offensively and defensively, knows the history of the game and respects it, great in the clubhouse and is a model citizen off the field.

I hope he wins the Triple Crown. Somebody we’ll pay to watch perform. He’s an entertainer.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Seattle All Star

When they play the All star game in Seattle next week, it will have a definite Mariner feel to it. Four Mariners were named to the starting lineup, selected by the fans through paper ballots and Internet voting. While fans in other cities are crying about ballot box stuffing, which player would you take out of the lineup?

Ichiro got more votes than anybody, the first rookie to lead the balloting, and rightfully so based on the year he’s having. Brett Boone is putting up numbers that, well, are all-star numbers. John Olerud is hitting .317 and Edgar Martinez is a lifetime .320 hitter.

Who gets in and who gets jerked around has become part of the All-Star ritual. The restrictions on the rosters ensure that somebody having a big year is going to stay home. And if you said the wrong thing to the wrong manager, the one running the show when you’ve had you’re big year, most likely you’re looking at a 3 day vacation instead of Home Run Derby.

Cal Ripken was elected to the game as a starter, while Tony Gwynn was not. Both have announced their retirement at the end of the year and deserve a big day in the sun on the national stage. The commissioner’s office should figure out how to give Gwynn a start in this game, even if they have to change the rules.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Summer Dog Days

These are the true dog days of summer. Football teams are in training camps, sweating the sweat they hope separates them from the other teams who are sweating equally in another city. Baseball teams have come to the conclusion that they’re contenders or they’re not. The haves are getting players from the have-nots.

Being from Baltimore, this is usually the time as a kid when I would have a passing interest in what the Colts were doing at Goucher College in between checking the box score of the latest Oriole game. The Colts are long gone, and the Orioles aren’t even a shell of their former self. Summer is no fun when your team isn’t in contention. Now I know what those Royals fans felt like for all those years.

For about a twenty-five year stretch starting in the mid-60’s the Baltimore Orioles rivaled the Yankees, the Canadiens and the Packers as the winningest franchises around. The Orioles won pennants, won World Series and when they weren’t winning, they were contending until the last week of the season. All that’s changed. And how.

But some parts of it are still the same. Go to Camden Yards and there are legions of knowledgeable fans in the ballpark, paying customers, now getting to know the new names, numbers and faces of the players wearing the Oriole uniform. It is the uniform people follow. The organization, the tradition, the pride of a team “belonging” to their city.

There was always an “Oriole Way.” In fact, they wrote a book about it. It came down to very simple things like how to hit the cutoff man, how to start the double play, how to execute a sacrifice bunt. All basic, but all the “right” way to do things. Players liked it. I know, now you’re saying “he’s old school.” But even players now like it. Look at B.J. Surhoff’s reaction to getting traded to the Atlanta Braves last week. Surhoff was going to a team in contention from a team without a chance. He didn’t pack his bags and go running. He cried. He bemoaned leaving Baltimore, the city, the people and the fans.

There is something special that bonds a player to a city like that, something akin to what happens in St. Louis. That’s why it was doubly appalling to hear Will Clark say how exciting it was in a Cardinal uniform after being traded there from the Orioles.

Baseball is different from other sports. You don’t have to be 7 feet tall or 300 pounds to play it. Everyday, normal looking guys excel at the game. The rituals of spring training, the excitement of opening day, the long season, the home stands and the road trips, the history of the game all separate baseball from everything else. It’s a marathon with its own rhythms. The season has its highs and lows. A team that wins six out of every ten games dominates the league. A batter who is successful just three out of every ten attempts is a star.

Fans come from all over to see a game. They already know the players. And they know just about everything about him. Batting average, slugging percentage, hometown, and minor league history, none of it gets past a baseball fan. Some make it to one game. Others are there, night after night, checking to see the small things that can make a difference.

So how did Baltimore fall from grace and into the pack of Brewers, Royals and Rangers? Ownership. An owner sets the tone for his franchise. When Peter Angelos bought the Orioles, he brought his own brand of brash leadership to the organization. Did I say leadership? Angelos’ self-styled ownership has taken the Orioles from a once proud position as an organization to the near laughingstock of all of baseball. Win now, or else has been his edict to all who have worked for him. That’s not how you win in baseball! Even George Steinbrenner finally figured out that your baseball people need to run your baseball team. The Yankees have nurtured players like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams through their organization, making them the backbone of winning.

Angelos doesn’t understand any of this. I’m still checking the box score everyday; I’m still waiting for Cal to return to the lineup. I’m still wearing my Orioles hat and each day somehow is a little brighter after an Oriole win. But for the first time, I’ve thought twice about going to a game. Put money in Angelos’ pocket?

I’m sure I will at some time.

But I wish somebody would bring my Orioles back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Brush Back

There’s a space right below the tip of a person’s nose and right above their chin that’s just about exactly the size of a baseball. That’s where Roger Clemens was throwing at Mike Piazza. Not exactly at Piazza, but rather where that part of Piazza’s face was when Clemens let go of the pitch. He expected Piazza to be gone by the time the ball got there. Was he throwing at him? Absolutely! Did he expect to hurt him? Probably not. Clemens’ only mistake was not checking on Piazza when he went down. But even that was more of a message. Clemens is not the dominating pitcher he once was, and needs to work inside to keep guys from loading up on him. Even his Yankee teammates called him a headhunter when he was with the Blue Jays.

A little warning, an old fashion message, a brush back. As old as the game itself, an inside pitch, especially around the head is always a reminder not to dig in to deep.

Over the past 10 years or so a few things have happened that have kept the brush back pitch at bay. Hitters have cried loud and hard about pitching inside. They say it puts them at risk. No kidding. That’s exactly why Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale worked the inside of the plate. Gain possession of the inside, and you’ve got the advantage. Some hitters have tried to combat the inside pitch by going to the plate with all sorts of armor. An ear flap, an elbow guard, a wrist pad, a back-of-the-hand pad, and a shin guard or some combination thereof can be seen on most major league hitters these days. What are they gladiators? If the ball’s approaching a bit inside, they just “turtle up” and it harmlessly glances off. Watch classic sports one day when they’re showing games from the 60’s and 70’s. Most hitters look like stick figures. Weight lifting was considered taboo in baseball at the time. Nobody at the plate is wearing anything but the league-mandated helmet, with no flap. They don’t ever wear batting gloves!

There’s also a theory of hitting that promotes moving toward the plate at the beginning of the swing. Some call it ‘diving’ into the pitch. That’s exactly what Piazza does. It’s his first move. In toward the plate, so a running fastball up and in hits him every time, probably just a few inches from being a strike.

After he wrote Ball Four Jim Bouton attempted a comeback in baseball, becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Ted Turner was a bit fascinated by it and took Bouton into the Braves’ minor league organization. In my first story ever as a broadcaster, I went to Savannah to see Bouton and talk about his return to baseball. He was still considered quite an outsider because of the content of his book, and I was surprised he agreed not only to talk with me, but also show some of his stuff at 40 years old by letting me take some swings against the knuckleball. I’ve played a bunch of baseball my whole life, and was excited at the opportunity.

Bouton was gracious at my arrival, showed me to a locker room to change into a uniform and said he’d see me on the field. William L. Grayson stadium was the home of the AA Savannah Braves, an old ballpark even then, providing the perfect backdrop for a story on an ex-Yankee’s return to the game.

On the mound in baseball “sleeves”, pants and no hat, Bouton asked if I was ready. I dug in and nodded. The first pitch was right at my head, a fastball with no movement. I dove for the dirt and without a glance to the mound, got back up and brushed myself off. Back in the batter’s box I took my stance, as the second pitch was a fastball, again right at my head, with no movement. Back in the dirt I went, brushed myself off and got back up. I knew exactly what was going on, but adhering to the “code” in baseball, I went on, without complaint. This went on for five straight pitches.

Finally I yelled to the mound.
“Hey Jim, you’re gonna need better control than that if you want to get to the majors.”
Bouton yelled back, “Look hairspray, part of batting is fear, fear of being hit by the ball.”
“Part of pitching is going to be fear,” I replied, “if I come out there and beat you upside the head with this bat!”

With that, the perfectly conditioned Bouton laughed and threw the ball over the plate. We got along famously afterwards, with Bouton saying he could tell I’d played a little baseball just by the way I put on my socks. But he had to test me, to see if I understood “the code.” Bouton and his knuckleball did make it back to the majors with the Braves. He pitched in five games for Atlanta with a 1-3 record and a 4.97 era in 1978.

Much of the press coverage of the Clemens/Piazza incident got off the track. All of the sports channels covered it, dealt with it and moved on. I was surfing the cable about four days later only to come across CNBA and (I never thought I’d write this name in a column) Geraldo Rivera conducting a debate on whether Clemens’ act contributed to the “violence” of the game. His panelists, sportscasters Warner Wolf and Len Berman, and a sportswriter from New Jersey had differing views, but all were perplexed at the uninformed Rivera’s questions about “how can this happen?”

Baseball in particular, and sports in general, has its own specific culture. It’s when people like Rivera, outside that culture, try to put their own values on what’s happening inside the sport that causes the media frenzy.

Stay out of it Geraldo. Go back to Capone’s vault and see if there are any baseballs inside.
But watch out for that high hard one.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Cal Being Cal

It was a confusing scene I had just witnessed on television. There’s Cal Ripken, one of the most revered baseball players ever coming back to first base in Minnesota after a single for his 3,000 hit. He hugged Eddie Murray, his long-time teammate and friend, a fellow 3,000 hit club member, acknowledged the crowd, and then turned toward the visiting dugout to see his teammates rushing out to congratulate him. Nothing strange about that, except the first guy out of the dugout with open arms and a big smile was Albert Belle. Albert Belle? Here you have Cal and the anti-Cal celebrating together and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then Cal shakes Belle’s hand and embraces him! Wait a minute! Isn’t Belle supposed to be a jerk? Isn’t Cal supposed to be one of the best guys to ever play the game? What’s he doing hugging Albert Belle? I can’t stand Albert Belle. Never liked him when his name was Joey, and everything he’s done since then has sent my opinion of him down somewhere between rookie ball and the independent leagues. When the Orioles signed him, they might as well have put pinstripes on their uniforms. How un-Oriole can you get? Who’s next I thought, Dick Allen? Alex Johnson? Who likes Albert Belle anyway? Somehow, Cal Ripken sees something in Albert Belle he likes, and it made me think twice. Just Cal being Cal, choosing to see the best in people, and perhaps bringing out the best in them, which should be good enough for anybody.

“Everybody thinks of me in terms of The Streak,” Ripken has said several times, “but that’s not how I think of myself.” Problem is, Cal has never said how he thinks of himself, and so we’re left with his stats and his actions to put some kind of definition to his career.

Noted writer Thomas Boswell wrote a profile of Ripken last week in The Washington Post, outlining Ripken’s achievements against some of the top players at his position in the game. Boswell covers the Orioles, and has seen Ripken play perhaps more than anyone other than his teammates. Here are some of his points: Of the 7 players with 3,000th hit and 400 home runs, only two played the important defensive positions on the field, “up the middle,” at shortstop, second, catcher or centerfield; Ripken and Willie Mays.

The rap on Cal has always been range, but because of superb positioning, good anticipation, great footwork and a complete knowledge of the competition, his range has actually been phenomenal. The current top three at shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are All-Star players. Ripken’s glove work dwarfs their accomplishments. To back that up, Boswell poses these numbers: Ripken has lead the league in assists seven times, in 1984 he had 583 assists, the American League record. Last season, Jeter Rodriguez and Garciaparra had 391, 382 and 357 assists, respectively. Ripken averaged 497 assists over an 11-year period. That’s an edge of 100 a year over Jeter.

The double play also gauges a shortstop’s ability to play his position, and again, Cal’s numbers loom large over today’s top stars. Ripken averaged 113 double plays for 10 years, Rodriguez had 104 last season, but Garciaparra turned a paltry 72 in ‘99 and Jeter 87. All this at 6’4”, 220, and doing it all day, every day.

Offensively Ripken holds almost all records for a shortstop, and perhaps other shortstops in the future will break those records in this offensively inflated era of baseball. His 3,000 hits and 400 homers stand as a testament to his offensive prowess. Lasts year he hit .340 and slugged .584, pretty good for a guy needing back surgery at 38 year old.

I’ve always liked Cal’s response when asked about his 2,632-concecutive games played. “Because I can, and therefore I should,” he has said in much more eloquent ways. In his autobiography, Ripken explains how a day off here or there wouldn’t have made him any more effective, and how he and his father agreed it would be disrespectful of the game to not play. When you have that talent, desire and ability, you owe it to those gifts to put them on display everyday. Otherwise, you’re cheating.

He single-handedly saved the game from itself in 1994, signing autographs and continuing The Streak. Through his various batting stance adjustments, he showed his willingness to try new things, to be coached. I used to bristle at people’s criticism of his playing everyday, but now I know, it was just Cal being Cal, something we could all learn a little from.