The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “baseball”

The Demons That Haunt Even Doctors

He arrived at the old brownstone as if ejected from a garbage disposal, dirty, sore and squalid.  The little black girls jumping rope on the sidewalk recognized him, again.  No way he could look them in the eye.  Uh, uh.  Not like this.  No autographs today, kids.  Not here on the Island.

His face was that of a high school kid searching for a way to avoid afternoon English Lit ennui, second-lunch flowing into third, then a furtive sneak out the back door towards the bus stop on 48th Street.  Fuck Fitzgerald and his jazz-age jerk-off friends.  Their type was always hanging out for a handout, flashing fat wads of cash and gold teeth, like so many shark-gypsies.

The Crack House

The Crack House (Photo credit: Hryck.)

The lower floor vacant like the soul of a disposed evangelist, the upper floor tangy with piss-smell and live vermin.  Crawling out of the shadows under cracked, spinal-cord plaster, black teeth like moldy graves on a new-moon night, those who would sooth this jaded specter, spooning out the crack.  Bottles of brandy, vodka and rum, like a Christmas bell-chime chorus, littered and glittered on the floor in the fading, late-afternoon light.

Now an unlikely bonus companion, a working T.V. set, tuned to a parade not all that distant, though another world away.  Ticker tape and NY logos and limos rolling down the canyon avenues, ten miles an hour, kicked a hole in his soul.

He could be there in the enchanted din, flashing that boyish grin, small chin and curly hair, stooping next to the mayor, profiling postponed so a brother could flow while let alone.  Millions of faces, mostly white, gratified now in the land of the Dow, hoping to hold on to the wave, as it tossed back the day, already a ghost under the shade of the elms along 54th.

But not there, instead, smoking and weeping, definitely not sleeping, as the pain lingered just beyond the fringes of the high, too, too many eyes on him all the time.  His effortless grace always one pitch from disgrace, no vanity but all childhood fear and demons now here, and how does a kid bear it night after night, when love bleeds cash, and nowhere to go once the lights are turned down low, and mom’s not aware that her boy’s dream has nightmares of its own in the silent noise of the street?

Better to bury those parts of himself that aren’t the fastball unseen, the curve that buckles the knees, the three strikes and you’re just another sit down now and think about why you even thought you’d ever get a hit off this kid, a 4-0, one-hit shutout, two balls hit to the outfield at all, Dykstra grabbing one on the track, Straw clearing them all with a granny in the eighth.  Sorry-ass Pirates not knowing what just hit them, and what they didn’t hit at all.

Now darkness falls, and he drifts in the lull of a cool, empty night.  Bold newspaper headline screaming “We Clinch” cover his bare feet, keeping his warm heart beating as he lies on the cool, dirty floor, dreaming of locker-room lights, and mom’s hugs so tight, while the flies sing in his ear and a dark clouded  moon shines no light on this room where fear claws at the walls, for those who listen, it always calls, like a banshee at the death of a dream.

Or, in his own words:

“When the party started winding down, for myself, a lot of times I get to a certain point of using drugs, the paranoia sticks in,” said Gooden. “So I end up leaving the party with the team, going to the projects, of all places, on Long Island.  Hang out there.

“Then you know what time you have to be at the ballpark to go into the city for the {1986 World Series} parade, but I’m thinking ‘OK, I’ve got time.’ Then the next thing you know, the parade’s on and I’m watching the parade on TV. … Horrible, horrible feeling.”

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Baseball Predictions for 2014

Watching the first spring training games on the MLB Network always lifts my spirits.  Some people believe that the new year begins on January 1st.  The rest of us know that it begins on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.

Although each spring makes fans of all 30 teams optimistic for the new season, there are some things that can be safely predicted in advance.  I’ve jotted down a few of them here for your approval.

1)  Somewhere in New England, a Red Sox fan will complain that the Yankees have an unfair financial advantage, though the Red Sox payroll in 2014 is estimated at 148 million dollars, about 42 million more than the average franchise.

2)  Somewhere in the Tri-State area, a Yankees fan will complain about the new austerity that the current regime has imposed on this storied franchise.  Yet, like a drunk for whom every drink is going to be his last, the Yankees payroll in 2014 will be around 194 million dollars, about 45% more than the average MLB payroll.

3)  Somewhere on the North American continent, a player will consider the odds of getting caught using steroids, will rationally think through the consequences of getting caught, and will still decide that it is in his best financial interests to supplement his natural body chemistry to enable him to perform at a higher level of play.

4)  Somewhere on that same continent, a late middle-aged man will consider the odds of enjoying a successful sexual encounter with his wife or girlfriend, will realize that his chances are remote without a supplement such as Cialis, and will, therefore, ingest this drug to supplement his natural body chemistry to enable him to perform at all.  Odds are, this man will rip the baseball “cheaters” who he believes to be steroid users, the very next day.

5)  The Mets will, once again, win between 70 and 80 games.  Manager Terry Collins will do his best to make you believe no finer 74-win team has ever existed on the face of the Earth, and millionaire team owner Jeff Wilpon will somehow continue to enjoy the support of some Mets fans who, for some strange reason, see it as their duty to try to find ways to help him save money.

6)  Perhaps even as I type this, a highly touted pitching prospect will go down needing Tommy John surgery.  No one will be surprised.  Yet somehow, someone will blame the “unusually high pitch count” that the pitcher endured during a spring training game.

7)  A-Rod, noticing he has been off the front pages for a while, will make a statement that is at once offensive, guileless, self-serving and naive.  Baseball’s  Twitterati  will explode in predictably humorless, self-righteous, and self-serving indignation (you know who you are.)

8)  Just for fun, Miguel Cabrera will pull down another Triple-Crown, simply because he can.

9)  The Braves will finally come to their senses and realize that second baseman Dan Uggla is no longer an actual baseball player, nor even a reasonable facsimile of one.

10)  Brewers center-fielder extraordinaire Carlos Gomez will rob no fewer than ten hitters of home runs this year, and will save every Brewers’ pitcher an average of 0.45 on their ERA.  Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman is already plotting several moves ahead, figuring out the circumstances under which he might bring Gomez to the Big Apple.  Meanwhile, Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson is having toast and tea, with his favorite strawberry preserves, watching reruns of the old Bob Newhart Show.

11)  At some point, apropos to nothing, a rabid Pete Rose fan will remind us all, once again, why PETE ROSE BELONGS IN THE HALL OF FAME!!!  (They always type all in caps.)

12)  At the All Star break, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will have hit 30 homers, with 85 RBI and a .309 batting average.  But due to a second-half injury, he will finish the season with 37 homers, 102 RBI and a .289 batting average, and will finish third in voting for the N.L. MVP award.

13)  Commissioner Bud Selig, in his final season at the helm of MLB, will dream of a deep, profound speech he will give at a black-tie dinner in his honor.  But when he wakes up, he will fart loudly, scratch his ass, and realize the only part of the speech he remembers from his dream is, “You’re all probably wondering why I came here to speak to you tonight.”

14)  In a factory in Turrealba, Costa Rica, a women, not yet old, but getting old before her time, will dream of a better life someday for her family as she sits stitching baseball’s together for the Rawlings Corporation for $1.60 per hour, ten hours a day.  If she can stitch above her weekly quota, she will earn an extra 56 cents per baseball she produces.  Meanwhile, each baseball retails for $14.99 in the U.S.A.  Rawlings annual revenue is around $213 million dollars per year.

15)  The noise level at ballparks will finally reach the decibel level first achieved by The Who back in 1978.  No one will have any idea of what’s going on down on the field, but there will be plenty of giveaways, the youngsters will be able to run around on the grass in the picnic area, and the twenty-somethings will occupy themselves taking selfies with their I-Phones and posting Facebook status updates throughout the entire game.  Clearly, this isn’t your great-grandfather’s baseball experience.  But then again, baseball will continue to evolve and survive, just as it has always done.

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Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of this series.  If you are just discovering this series, and you want to go back and take a look at prior posts, here’s the link to Part 1 (which also discusses the criteria I used compile this list) and Part 2, which lists players #11-#20.

Now, on to pitchers #21-#25:

English: Mike Mussina

English: Mike Mussina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

21)  Mike Mussina – Yes, here’s another one whom we might not think of as, strictly-speaking, a 21st-century pitcher.  Yet about 43% of Mussina’s career WAR value occurred from 2001 until his retirement after the 2008 season.

Mussina’s career fits neatly into almost two halves.  He spent the first ten years of his career, through the year 2000, with the Baltimore Orioles.  They were generally his best years.

During that span, he finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times.  In his tenure with the Yankees (2001-2008), he managed to make the top five in voting just once (with a 6th-place showing in his final season as well.)

As an Oriole, Mussina was often a borderline-great pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 130 in ten years.  As a member of the Yankees, Mussina was still a very good pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 114, and a WHIP of 1.212, in his final eight years.

As a Yankee, in the 21st-century, Mussina compiled a WAR of 35.2, and a won-lost record of 123-72 (.631), with an ERA of 3.88.  He made 249 starts with the Yankees, tossed 1,553 innings, and struck out 1,278 batters.

His WAR ranks 10th-best all-time for a Yankees pitcher, and his 1,278 K’s rank sixth-best ever for a Yankee starter.

Mussina’s 4.01 strikeout to walk ratio is the best in the entire history of New York Yankees starting pitchers.

Although Mussina led the A.L. in wins with 19 in 1995 (and he also won 19 games in 1996), the first and only time in his entire career that he won 20 games was in the final season of his career, in 2008, when he posted a 20-9 record, in a league-leading 34 starts, for New York’s A.L. franchise.  Lest you think those 20-wins were primarily about run support, his ERA was 3.37, and his ERA+ was 131.

It’s good to go out on top, and that’s what Mussina did after the 2008 season.  He certainly enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and he definitely belongs on the list of best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Dan Haren

Dan Haren (Photo credit: on2wheelz)

22)  Dan Haren – Haren has been about as solid as they come over the past decade.  He has won 129 of 316 starts, and boasts a fine WHIP of 1.186.

Over a seven-year period, 2005-11, he averaged 34 starts per season, leading the league in that category three times, and pitching over 200 innings in each of those seven seasons.

From 2007-09, inclusive, he posted a fantastic ERA+ of around 140.  He made three-consecutive All-Star teams, and finished 5th in Cy Young voting in 2009 while pitching for Arizona.

An excellent control pitcher, Haren has walked more than 50 batters in just three of his eleven seasons.  At the same time, he has been an above-average strikeout pitcher, fanning at least 192 batters five times, and over 200 three times.

Though Haren’s past couple of years have been somewhat below his historic standards of effectiveness, a move to the Dodgers and to the N.L. West could help Haren post a nice comeback season in 2014.

cain

cain (Photo credit: artolog)

23)  Matt Cain – Similar to Haren in that he has not received the press he should have for the many fine seasons he’s enjoyed pitching for the Giants.  Still just 29-years old, Cain has already been a veteran of parts of nine MLB seasons.  One of the unluckiest of pitchers, Cain has received little run support throughout his career, and usually ranks among the leaders in no-decisions for that reason.

Cain’s career record of 93-88 does not accurately reflect how well he has usually pitched since 2oo5.  From 2009-11, for example, Cain won just 39 of 99 starts, and was left with 30 no-decisions.  His record during that period was 39-30, but with proper run support, it could have been closer to 50-25.

Still, Cain has received moderate attention in Cy Young voting in three of his seasons, and he’s  been named to three All-Star teams in his career.

A veteran of eight post-season starts, he has demonstrated poise and effectiveness on that stage, going 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 51 innings.

Cain certainly has the potential to accomplish much more in has career, which may just now have reached roughly its midpoint.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

24)  Josh Beckett – I saw Beckett pitch twice while he was a Portland Sea Dog (AA-Portland, ME) back in the summer of 2001, in the Eastern League.  He was absolutely dominant on both occasions.  He made 13 starts for Portland, posting an 8-1 record, a 1.82 ERA, and 102 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 74 innings.  At age 21, he pitched like a man among boys.

Beckett had been the Marlins 1st-round pick in the 1999 Amateur Draft (2nd pick overall), and rapidly progressed through the Marlin’s system.  After Portland, Beckett later that season made his debut for the Marlins, making four starts near the end of the year.  In those four starts, he struck out 24 batters in 24 innings, resulting in a 1.50 ERA.

For the next four years in Florida, Beckett’s strikeout rate hovered around one per inning.  But he never stayed quite healthy enough to put it all together.  There were always some sort of blisters to contend with, or one ailment or another that suppressed his starts and innings pitched each season.  It wasn’t until he got traded to Boston in the deal for Hanley Ramirez just before the ’06 season that Beckett finally reached the 200 inning pitched level.

But before we get to his Boston years, let’s back up a bit to the 2003 World Series.  Beckett’s performance in that series provided the Marlins with a competitive edge vs. the Yankees.  The 23-year old Beckett made two starts against the Yankees in that World Series.

In 16 innings, he struck out 19 Yankees, gave up just eight hits, only two earned runs, and posted a 1.10 ERA, along with an 0.796 WHIP.  He shut out the Yanks in Game 6, the final game of the Series, defeating Andy Pettitte 2-0.  For his performance, he was named the World Series MVP.

Josh Beckett then spent his next seven seasons, the prime of his career, pitching for the Boston Red Sox. It was a mixed bag.  At times, Beckett demonstrated the incredible promise he flashed in the minors, and from time-to-time with the Marlins.  At other times, he seemed uninterested, unmotivated, and uninspired.  In alternate seasons, Beckett was either among the better pitchers in the A.L., or one of the biggest disappointments.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, Beckett posted WAR’s of 6.5, 5.1, and 5.8.  In ’07, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting for the A.L.  In ’11, he again finished in the top ten in voting.  In each of those three seasons, he made the All-Star team.

In ’06, ’08, ’10, and ’12, however, he posted WAR’s of 2.7, 3.3, -1.0 and 0.2.  What’s more, in perhaps only one season in his career, 2007, out of 13 seasons, could he be said to have pitched and acted like the ace of his staff.  He generally seemed satisfied to get in his 30 starts per year, not push it to the max, and coast when he was able to.

Finally labeled (fairly or not) an out-of-shape clubhouse cancer, he was shipped off to the Dodgers near the end of the dismal (for the entire Red Sox team) 2012 season.  Apparently, management felt that Beckett (and another pitcher or two) eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games did not set a professional tone in the clubhouse.

Stories regarding Beckett simply not taking the game seriously enough even occurred back in his younger days in Florida.  Manager Jack McKeon used to literally lock the door leading from the dugout to the clubhouse because Beckett and one or two others would simply disappear off the bench during games, go into the clubhouse and start drinking beers during the game.

McKeon actually instituted a hall-pass system for the use of the bathroom during games.  Apparently, he expected Beckett to pay attention during the games even on his “off-days” so he could actually learn something by watching the other team’s hitters.

From his earliest days in Portland, Maine in the minors up until last season, Beckett has always been the Texas stud who has gotten by with his hard stuff, dominating on pure talent and adrenaline in short spurts.  But he’s never appeared to take his craft seriously enough to reach the high level of success predicted for him, or the talent God gave him.

Now, at age 34, whatever Beckett has left in the tank should carry him through another couple of seasons in the Majors.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

25)  Bartolo Colon – As probably already know, the Mets acquired the portly 40-year old pitcher as a free agent this past off-season.  What you may not know is that Colon has a chance to surpass 200 career victories this coming year.  Currently, he has 189 wins in his 16-year career.

Actually, 138 of those wins occurred in our current century.  Colon threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 24 in 1997.  As recently as last season, he led the A.L. in shutouts with three, while winning 18 games and posting a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts.  The big question is, of course, (especially for Mets fans) how much does he have left in the tank?

To a certain extent, a great deal of Colon’s success will depend on the defense behind him.  He throws strikes (just 29 walks in 190 innings last season), so he won’t beat himself with the free pass.  Not at all a strikeout pitcher, he averaged just 5.5 / 9 innings last season, down from his career high of over 10 / 9 innings in the year 2000 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

With the Mets outfield defense vastly improved over this time last season (assuming they start the terrific Juan Lagares in center-field on Opening Day), and considering that Citi-Field is basically yet another pitchers park (as is Oakland, where he pitched last season), and figuring in that this season he gets to pitch against the others teams’ pitchers for the first time since he spent a half-season with the Expos about a dozen years ago, there is room for optimism here.

The Mets may have caught lightning in a bottle here with this three-time All Star (who won a Cy Young award for the Angels in 2005), or they may discover to their horror that the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin.  But Colon surprised many with his improbable comeback which began in 2012.  Perhaps he can continue to do it on a larger stage in New York City.

Briefly, Those Who Did Not Make the List:

Barry Zito – Zito has made over 400 starts this century, and only three pitchers have tossed more than his 2,477 innings.  He also has a WAR of 30.5.  So why did he not make the list?  Well, his career ERA of 4.07 is one reason.  Another is his 1.339 WHIP, higher than any of the 25 pitchers who did make the list.  Also, despite the advantage of pitching his home games in favorable parks, his ERA+ is just 105, a little more than a replacement-level pitcher.

Finally, if you remove his fantastic 2002 season in which he won the A.L. Cy Young award, his career record stands at just 142-138, despite pitching for mostly good teams. This is not to say that Zito has not provided the Giants with any real value, just not nearly as much value as they paid for when they signed him to a contract for over one-hundred million dollars.

Tim Lincecum – Despite two Cy Young awards and four quality seasons, Lincecum did not make my list because his career WAR stands at 23.3 after seven seasons.  Consider that Clayton Kershaw has a WAR of 32.2 after just six seasons.  They’ve each won a pair of Cy Young awards, but the difference is that Kershaw has never had a bad year.  Lincecum has now suffered through two very poor years in a row.

Basically, if Lincecum had even just decent seasons in 2012 and ’13, garnering an additional 3.5 WAR per year, for example, he would have made the list and would have probably been slotted in right behind Kershaw.  But two terrible years, during which he produced a combined -2.3 WAR, cost Lincecum anywhere from 7.0 to 10.0 WAR, a significant drop in production.  In fact, few pitchers in baseball history have ever gone from being so very good to so very bad so quickly, unless they were injured.

As far as we know, Lincecum has not been suffering from any serious arm injuries.  He pitched nearly 200 innings last season, and his strikeout rate is still very solid, if not quite where it was a few years ago.  In short, I have no idea why Lincecum’s career has so suddenly all but imploded.  But whatever the reason, it certainly cost him a place on this list.  I do hope, however, that he finds a way to reverse his recent misfortunes, because The Freak at his best is not only good for the Giants, it’s good for baseball.

Randy Johnson – Johnson was a still a great pitcher in the early first couple of seasons of this century and, like Lincecum, actually won a pair of Cy Young awards while some of us still hadn’t quite grasped that the 1900’s were gone for good.  But eight of Johnson’s best eleven seasons occurred in the 20th-century, and Johnson’s last five seasons in the Majors did not add much to his legacy.

Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly make a case that R.J. belongs on this list, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.  But in compiling this list, I chose to emphasize pitchers whose accomplishments this century would continue to be overlooked if I added nearly every pitcher who began his career back in the ’80’s, but who remained effective through ’01 or ’02.  Therefore, I decided to evaluate each pitcher on a case-by-case basis.  Since over 60% of R.J.’s effectiveness occurred in the last century, I chose to leave him off this list.  You may disagree with my reasoning, and that’s fine.

Roger Clemens –  See:  Johnson, Randy above.

Yovani Gallardo – Despite four consecutive seasons of over 200 strikeouts, and double-digit wins five times, Gallardo annually posts rather low WAR’s.  I was surprised when looking at his career stats that after seven years, his career WAR stands at an oddly unimpressive 13.3.  In fact, he’s never produced a single-season WAR that’s reached even 3.0 in his entire career.

Gallardo, as far as I can tell, lives for the high pitch count, which limits his overall innings pitched, and produces some big innings for the opposition.  For even though Gallardo has struck out nearly a thousand batters over the past five years, his career WHIP is 1.304, which indicates simply too many runners getting to first base, regardless of his live arm and numerous strikeouts.  His career home run rate of around one per nine innings also reduces his overall effectiveness.  And it isn’t simply the home runs that are the problem, it’s that there always seem to be runners on base when they occur.

Gallardo’s career ERA+ of 109 through age 27 either indicates a to-this-point under-achiever, or a he-is-what-he-is preview of his next seven years.  It’s not that Gallardo has been a bad pitcher.  It’s just that he’s sometimes mistaken for an ace, when, in fact, he’s been more of a #3 starter for his entire career. What comes next, entering his age 28 season, will go a long way towards clarifying his probable future.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you on this topic.  Agree or disagree, I hope it was worth your while to read it.

 
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Can You Hear the Magic?

I sat on some old baseball bleachers today, out in the countryside where no one wanders anymore.  The cool wood was dirty to the touch, and seemed to not have been witness to a game in several years, perhaps generations.  An old apple tree nearby drooped and dropped its useless fruit to the ground.  A coal-black crow came and sat down nearby, wondering what I’d come here for.  As he spied me suspiciously, the wind picked up and blew the breeze back toward me.

Crow

Crow (Photo credit: tfangel)

I’d only been out here because there was nowhere else to go.  When the family is away, or busy, it’s a pleasure to pursue the nothing that I used to take for granted.  This ancient spot seemed as good as any other to just sit still, in the quiet of the late morning, like stealing a part of a day that no one knew even existed.

The chalk-line base-paths had long ago faded to a mottled brown, dead leaves leading to a distant corner of the outfield, a scarred wooden fence like a gnarled old man jealously guarding his yard.  Bare spots in the foggy outfield, a pasture gone to ruin like a battlefield after the last charge had slowed to a crawl, then flickered out into a fading mist.  No one left to mourn the missing.  Aggrieved silence shouting in your ear, why are you here?

The crow grew bored with me, pecked violently at a spot on the ground, (more for show than for sustenance), then left me behind in this shadowy realm, a semicircle of dust, broken branches and dreams safely asleep.  Home-plate remained, stubbornly grasping the ground, the spoke around which the wheel of silence whispers.  Had I died and had to go somewhere at all, this would do.

Baseball field

Baseball field (Photo credit: Dendroica cerulea)

Now rain, at first cool pinpricks, then steady and confident, a noisy crowd billowing in from the storm, shivering slightly as it pooled in new puddles.  Taking the broad hint, I sloshed down to the soggy infield, sneakers soaked to my ankles, dripping baseball cap admitting defeat.  No tarp to save the day, nor to eat Vince Coleman.  

In a corner near the third base bench where the young players used to shout and scratch and stretch, a stick of some ancient provenance, not merely a fallen twig, reclined at a jaunty angle, a trapezoid when viewed at a certain distance, geometry all gloomy in the graying landscape.  An old discarded shard of bat, perhaps?  A whittling piece to work at on those long half-innings when the pitcher and the plate are estranged?

Closer now, and pulled out of the first trickle of flood water forming an embryonic new river, notches neatly spaced an inch apart on the stick, a bit less than a foot in length.  Each notch, perhaps, a base-runner coming home, hearing the crowd, feeling the magic of the moment course through his soul.  A game not far off, only an epoch ago.  Cheers and huzzahs filling the field, settling on the leaves and branches, there for the taking, if you will only listen.

Previous to 1746, the score was kept by notches on a short lath: hence the term notches for runs. The notching-knife gradually gave way to the pen, and the thin stick to a sheet of foolscap.  -Henry Chadwick

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The Captain and the Curve Ball

Captain Lindeman of the S.S. Governor General Loudon recounts his earlier experiences on the island of Merat in the Strait of Sunda, off the coast of Java.

“Sunday, 26 August 1883.  As we approached the mere spit of an island called Merak, my thoughts recounted days past when I first visited that tropical idyll.  How calm and peaceful those days spent in the surf and sand!  And how leisurely did I enjoy our games of base ball, which I first introduced to the natives on that outcrop back in ’79.  

The sandy little clearing at the top of the island’s high point afforded an unobstructed view of the Strait of Sunda, and of the island mountain that was Krakatoa, tall and regal in the distant ocean mist.

The Javanese were quick studies to base ball, and once instructed, each insisted on carving his own bat out of the largest branches of cocoanut trees with shark-tooth knives.

While they relished the batted ball flying off into the thick tropical forests on the slopes of the hills of Merat, they had little natural inclination to run ’round the field, circling the bases, but instead, would simply stand and watch their handiwork fly off into the humid horizon. As the island’s only pitcher, it was up to me to instill some proper discipline into these half-civilized natives, whistling one speed ball or another close to their ear should they refuse to budge from the batter’s box.

Before we’d arrived, their pastimes had consisted of the strange art of diving in the narrow strait to grab onto the backs of mako sharks and ride them on the current.

But, within a fortnight, two respectable teams had created an instant sensation among the natives, bare-breasted women ladling water to the weary, though enthusiastic players, naked children prancing and scurrying into and out of the crude baselines as the game progressed, ten thousand kilometers from the Elysian Fields of Hoboken.

1875 Prescott & White CDV Hartford Dark Blues

1875 Prescott & White CDV Hartford Dark Blues (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Second-mate, Live Oak Taylor, of Belfast, Maine had played ball for the Hartford Dark Blues in ’77, and had recently taught me how to curve a ball. Those natives who had been witness to my speed ball, which they called “Crying Lightning,” after the flickering of St. Elmo’s Fire, ubiquitous on some maritime eves, would certainly stand aghast at this newest pitch I would uncork into their wheelhouse. I nearly trembled in anticipation to get back at it on the sands of Merak.

Heretofore, the weather had been muggy, the sea calm, but soon we heard the grumbling of Krakatoa towering over the Strait, a giant bestride his besotted realm. Past midnight, we could sight the green and brown outline of Merat, but now wondered if our travels should be in vain.”

Captain Lindeman tried to remain as much possible to the east of the exploding island, to avoid the ash and pumice rain:

Live Oak Taylor

Live Oak Taylor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Monday, August 27th. Finding that at midnight on the evening of our arrival there was still no boat come off to us from the shore, and as the weather was now much calmer, I sent the second mate Taylor in the gig with a crew of six men to find out what was the reason of this.  

About 1 a.m. he returned, and stated that it had been impossible to land on account of the heavy current and surf; also that the harbour pier-head stood partly under water, and that there was no cracks to grasp or gaps to claw.  

That by 6 p.m. on Sunday evening it had already begun to be stormy, and that the stormy weather had been accompanied by a current which swept round and round (apparently a sort of whirlpool). When the mate had come on board, we resolved to await daylight before taking any further steps.

English: An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 erupti...

English: An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 7 a.m. we saw some very high seas, presumably an upheaval of the sea, approaching Merat. These seas poured themselves out upon the shore and flowed inland, so that we presumed that the inhabitants who dwelt near the shore must be drowned.

 I bowed my head to think how small I was to think of throwing my new curved ball, and my “Crying Lightning” speed pitch just hours ago.  I smiled now, and said to Taylor, ‘Anticipation has a way of setting you up.’

The next time I caught my own reflection, the signal beacon was altogether carried away, and the Berouw then lay high upon the shore among the cocoanut trees. Also the revenue cutter lay aground, and some native boats which had been lying in the neighborhood at anchor were no more to be seen.  A few islanders must have escaped to the relatively higher ground atop the ball field, but how many?

Since it was very dangerous to stay where we were, and since if we stayed we could render no assistance, we concluded to proceed to Anjer under steam, and there to give information of what had taken place, weighed anchor at 7:30 a.m., and following the direction of the bay steered thereupon southwards.

At 10 a.m. we were obliged to come to anchor in the bay in 15 fathoms [27,5m] of water because the ash rain kept continually growing thicker and thicker, and pumice-stone also began to be rained, of which some pieces were several inches thick.  Live Oak Taylor and many of the male passengers began to clear these off the deck, lest we should capsize under the weight of this dangerous slop.

The air grew steadily darker and darker, and at 10:30 a.m. we were in total darkness, just the same as on a very dark night. The wind was from the west-ward, and began to increase till it reached the force of a hurricane. So we let down both anchors and kept the screw turning slowly at half speed in order to ride over the terribly high seas which kept suddenly striking us presumably in consequence of a “sea quake,” and made us dread being buried under them. The passengers for the most part were sent below.

Heavy storms, and prayers for any who made it alive to the top of Merat.  

The lightning struck the mainmast conductor six or seven times, but no damage. The rain of pumice-stones changed to a violent mud rain, and this mud rain was so heavy that in the space of ten minutes the mud lay half a foot deep. Kept steaming with the head of the ship as far as possible seawards for half an hour when the sea began to abate, and at noon the wind dropped away entirely. Then we stopped the engine. The darkness however remained as before, as did also the mud rain.

Of Merat, nothing could be ascertained from my spyglass but the small tip of the tallest hill, barely rising above the violent, frothing ocean. Perhaps my eyes deceived me in the inky blackness, but as the lightning struck around us, I thought I could make out a single, solitary figure at the pinnacle of the hill, driving a batted ball into the darkness of the great, black wave that thundered toward him, a vast mountain of sea distilled to its most awesome fury.” (Report from Captain T. H. LINDEMANN, 1883)

It was later reported that of the approximately 2,700 people on the island of Merak, only three survived the 135 foot tidal wave.

To read the original account of Captain Lindemann in its entirety, please click on the link below:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/history-of-geology/2011/08/27/august-27-1883-krakatoa/

I’ve also added a music video to accompany this tale.  Enjoy.

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Leaving It All On the Field

It wasn’t the mud, the stench, or even the corpses that got to him.  It was the rats.  No matter how many you killed, more would spill out of the sludge underfoot, tearing into the dead as if Hell had come north.

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predomi...

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predominantly those of France and the British Empire, were stalled at trenches on the Western Front. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing in a fetid stew eight inches deep, blood, bodies and spent bullets sloshed and swirled over his boots.  But whatever lie decomposing under his boots was preferable to that which lurked over the top.

Funny, that.  The sky above was a robin’s egg blue, the same hue he remembered from autumn’s evening sky over Harvard Yard not so many years ago.  Evening papers.  Pipe smoke. Brandy.

Yet, only the promise of a quick, impersonal death outside of this trench kept him planted down here among his pallid companions.  In the scrum-space between thinking and dreaming, shards of old poems gleamed like glazed glass in an apothecary shop, inertia spawning iambic pentameter.

“I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats / And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain / Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats / And mocked by hopeless longing to regain.”  – Siegfried Sassoon

Ancient Odysseus could inform on this particular point, the whole show was the getting back to Home, where the runs scored, recorded for all time in those mottled ledgers.  Pinch-running for McLean, sacrificed to second, then Matty driving him in, his only run scored in the Series.  Matty shutting the door on the Athletics in the bottom of the tenth, winning that second game, three-nil.  Stepping on home plate for Matty was all that mattered that afternoon.

[Eddie Grant, New York NL (baseball)]  (LOC)

[Eddie Grant, New York NL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

God, how he missed those boys.  Just five years ago, almost to the day.  McGraw’s Gang.  Drop that bunch in the Argonne, this whole, tired affair would long ago have ended.  Matty and the Doughboys – 1, the Kaiser – 0.  Another shutout.  He grabbed a handful of thick mud from the trench wall, and smiled silently.

The whistle would soon wreck the reverie, as over the top they’d go, each man marked in advance by a German machine-gunner, himself frozen to the bone.  Last letters pinned inside coat pockets, but for him, a scribbled scorecard, his last will and testament, evidence that his run did once count.

Now all was flashing muzzles, cries and blood.  Men tumbling over the wire and into ravines running red, now into the marshes, no longer marching, but tumbling ass over teat as the shells exploded all around, Eddie Grant, commissioned a captain back on Long Island, the last officer standing, directing his men onward into the thicket, never hearing the final blast that separated him from his men, from his Giants, from his Harvard Law School chums, forever.

Third baseman Eddie Grant, leaving it all on the field, going home once more.

Eddie Grant Memorial Plaque

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All That We Leave Behind

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning himself to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

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On Baseball Gloves, and Girls

It is my probably faulty recollection that parents simply did not exist when I was a teenager.  Sure, someone must have paid the bills on our five-room, one-bath, split-level on Colorado Avenue on Bridgeport’s west side.  A person of the feminine persuasion provided us with relatively healthy meals (I could have done with a lot less canned Le Sueur Peas, though.)  And my grandparents did technically live directly upstairs from us (my grandma watching General Hospital, and my grandpa reading his Slovak edition of Pravda.)

baseball glove

baseball glove (Photo credit: theseanster93)

Yet, in a very real sense, my younger brother and I spent most of our days very much unsupervised.  We could have been famous serial arsonists, but as long as we were home by around 9:00 p.m., that’s all that mattered.

Make no mistake, I hold no grudge against my parents or grandparents.  My parents worked hard all day, and my grandparents had worked perhaps even harder for tens of decades before that.  My grandparents still used the very same salt and pepper shakers they’d received back on their wedding day in the heart of the Great Depression in the early ’30’s.  My dad still took the Barnum & State bus to work.  No one in my immediate family could be accused of flaunting their wealth.

I bought my first baseball glove in the late spring of ’76, the Bicentennial year, with money I’d earned from household chores, or had saved from my First Communion and most recent birthday.  I don’t remember the model, but it was mostly tan with dark brown trim.  Perfect for grabbing hard-hit ground-balls off the sweltering summer pavement, it was clearly an infielder’s glove.  No Mark Belanger, but Buddy Harrelson might have met his match.  Shea Stadium was just about 90 minutes from my house.  Surely, a roving Mets scout would someday spot me accidentally while driving through town.

Those honey-hued summer days were sticky and sweet as the peanut brittle in my grandma’s pantry, and time was a distant concept that smelled vaguely of rubbing alcohol and Tuesday afternoon Catechism classes.  The ship I floated on was devoid of sail, and I would gladly have remained drifting on the current for eternity in those empty lots where sweaty boys in close companionship would induce grounders, line-drives and a form of self-hypnosis broken only by the Earth folding into itself, abandoning orphan Night to fend for herself.

My baseball glove was always the last thing I put away before bed, and first thing I’d take off my closet shelf once I got home from school.  Let me make it clear that football and even basketball, like unannounced visits from cousins, would occasionally spend a day or two with us.  Those events, while not unpleasant, only served to make us appreciate the utter seriousness of our relationship with baseball.  Nothing could come between us and our bats and gloves.  Until it did.

I was invited to my first pool party in July, 1978, when I was 15-years old.  My friend Danny, in his usual fashion, simply showed up one mid-day at my house and told me that some of the girls from our class were having a pool party at their place, and that I should come along.  I had no idea where these girls lived, and if you were raised in Bridgeport in the ’70’s, just going three or four blocks away from home constituted an expedition worthy of Marco Polo.

Danny drove me in his mom’s tan Buick up the interstate and on over to near the Trumbull line.  There were few actual sidewalks out here, and certainly no corner stores.  The mall was nearby, however, and everyone seemed to own at least three lawnmowers.  I even saw a couple of kids kicking around what looked like a soccer ball on their front lawn.  Christ, was I still even in America?

The pool was one of those above-ground jobs that you had to climb a ladder up, and then down, into the over-chlorinated water below.  I’d only been in one like this a couple of times before, and, since I couldn’t swim, I’d had little incentive to seek opportunities to partake of this particular form of recreation very often.  Skinny and self-conscious, I did slowly sink into the chest-high cool soup, and instantly noticed Janice’s butt around eight inches from my face, as she climbed into the pool directly after I’d made a relatively safe landing.  Though not previously a big fan of Janice, she did now hold a certain biological sway over me that no evolutionary chain could break.

The tinny F.M. radio on the picnic table under the back upstairs deck over the driveway churned out tunes of the day, mostly just pop noise designed to hold your attention long enough to sell you that one missing item that would make you, if not quite cool, then at least not as big a loser as that other guy over there by himself with that bad haircut and that awful shirt.

Still, one or two songs (“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick, for example) happened to carve out an odd moment for themselves, to be frozen in time for no reason other than a fortuitous confluence of circumstance heightened by youthful sexual energy, and no obvious alternative to what for me was a pretty damned unique experience.

Chasing the girls around, one of them later stepped in dog-shit in the backyard, and the pool games weren’t quite going anywhere.  One of the moms or dads came over and said something or other that I blocked out while their mouth was still forming the syllables, and the false jauntiness of their eyes signaled an end to our nearly nude mirth and merriment.  Screw’em.

I slept over my friend’s house that night, the last night I would ever do so.  Within a year, he’d become a loud, obnoxious bore, and I’d grown my hair longer while finally landing a job at Carvel Ice Cream on Park Ave.  None of the girls from the pool party became a significant part of my life, though I think of them from time to time, and doubt I’ll ever hear the term “pool party” without thinking of that long ago afternoon.

When Danny dropped me off at my house the next day, I returned a changed young man.  Baseball was no longer the Big Thing in my life.  Within a few days, I sold my baseball glove to a younger kid in my neighborhood for six dollars.  It didn’t have much life left in it anyway, and sure enough, Johnny got mad at me (but didn’t stay mad for long), when the webbing broke a few weeks later.

I no longer owned a baseball glove, and wouldn’t again for a few more years.  And certainly, none of the gloves that I’ve owned in all those years since have logged nearly as many kid-hours as that first glove did in the streets and sandlots of Bridgeport.

This afternoon, after some deliberation, I bought a baseball glove for a friend of mine as a Christmas present.  A few years older than me, and a serious baseball fan, he told me he hasn’t owned a glove in many years.  It’s not for me to know why he has gone so long without one, or to inquire as to whatever happened to the mitts he’s owned in the past.  Such questions might be too personal.

But I’m hoping that with his new glove, he might casually put to closure whatever experience he may have had regarding the end of his last glove.  Unlikely that either of us will be invited over to a pool party anytime soon, perhaps we can, in the near future, simply enjoy a calm, hypnotic game of catch.

Selig Imposes Ban On All of Major League Baseball

At an unexpected news conference this morning, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig announced he was imposing a ban on all of Major League Baseball for the foreseeable future.  Selig, clearly tired of all the steroid issues that have plagued baseball for most of this century, stated, “It’s in the best interests of baseball for baseball to simply cease to exist as a spectator sport for a while.  The National Pastime needs a timeout!”

Selig, sweating profusely in a sweater lent to him by former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, urged people to “watch some other shows on T.V. for a while, perhaps some old Cheers reruns, or that dancing stars show that young people seem to like.”

When asked if his decision would be challenged by the Player’s Union, he thundered, “By God, everyone knows the players would be just as happy to sit home and collect unemployment compensation, like all the other low-lifes out there.”  His comments were met with thunderous applause from the thunderous applause machine his entourage had installed in time for the press conference.

Clearly encouraged by the positive response he’d artificially generated, he put his note cards aside and began to speak off the cuff, proclaiming that starting today, he’d begun a “To Hell With Baseball” campaign, insisting that to save baseball, he would first need to burn it down, seed the ground of every Major League Stadium with salt, and sell those who toiled in the low minor leagues into slavery.

“If you can’t enslave those who would someday embarrass the sport with PED use, then, from where I stand, the Commissioner’s Office isn’t worth a bucket of that warm beer they sell at Fenway for $18.00 bucks a pop.”

When reminded that without the revenue generated by ticket and merchandise sales, and cable T.V. contracts, some teams might not last long if this ban should continue indefinitely, Selig scoffed, “Do you really believe that a bunch of teams owned by millionaires and billionaires gives a rats ass about that stuff?  That’s all just funny Monopoly money to them.  Besides, if the Economic Crash of ’08 is precedent, then all Steinbrenner, Jr. and the rest of those guys will have to do is go up to Capitol Hill with their gloved hands out, cry poverty, and someone up there will bail them out.  I’m surprised you guys hadn’t thought of that.  That’s how we think all the time.”

As Selig was completing his remarks, Alex Rodriguez, who had been walking down the hall from his penthouse suite above the conference center where Selig was delivering his speech, happened to drift into the large, velvet-encased room.  Selig beamed as he called A-Rod up to the stage, then lifted A-Rod’s hand up into the air proclaiming, “And I couldn’t have done any of this without my good friend and future business partner, Alex Rodriguez.”

Rodriguez, looking both sheepish and cheap in his Gatsby-inspired attire, responded, “All I have to say is I learned from the best, Mr. Selig.  No one can take a great game like baseball and piss it down the drain like you can.”  Selig, obviously moved by A-Rod’s calculated attempt to ingratiate himself with an older white guy nearly as rich as himself, punched A-Rod lightly in the arm and declared, “My friend, we are just beginning.  By the time we’re finished, absolutely no one in his right mind will ever switch on a baseball game again.”

Rodriguez, distracted by his own reflection in a floor-to-ceiling mirror across the room, winked at himself and responded mechanically,  “I’m just happy to be a part of all this.”

Selig then turned serious to the T.V. cameras that were now overheating his smoldering toupee and concluded, “At least no one not watching any longer will be able to say that baseball is a dirty game, because a game not played at all is as clean as a game can get.”

Baseball Trivia Contest: Hall of Fame Names

Now that we find ourselves here in the dog days of August, let’s have some fun.

On the left-hand column below, I created a list of Hall of Fame baseball players by their surnames only.  On the right-hand side, you will notice a list of the real first names of each of these HOF players.   Your challenge is to match the first name on the right with the HOF player it belongs to on the left.  Each first name will be used just once.

See how many you can match up before you check the answer key at the bottom of the page,  then let me know how you did.  It might help to print out this page so you can do it by hand.

1)  Seaver                                                     A)  Rik

2)  Dean                                                       B)  Adrian

3)  Bender                                                   C)  Leon

4)  Ford                                                        D)  Gordon

5)  Grove                                                     E)  William

6)  Anson                                                     F)  George

7)  Berra                                                       G)  John

8)  Koufax                                                     H)  Edward

9)  Traynor                                                   I)  Jay

10)  Wilson (Hack)                                       J)  Charles

11)  Ewing                                                     K)  Lawrence

12)  Goslin                                                     L)  Robert

13)  Paige (Satchel)                                      M)  Lewis

14)  Fox (Nellie)                                             N)  Jacob

15)  Kelly (King)                                              O)  Harold

16)  Blyleven                                                   P)  Vernon

17) Brouthers (Dan)                                       Q)  Leroy

18)  Gomez (Lefty)                                          R)  Sanford

19)  Cochrane                                                  S)  Michael

20)  Chesbro                                                     T)  Dennis

Answer Key:

1)  F

2)  I

3)  J

4)  H

5)  L

6)  B

7)  K

8)  R

9)  O

10) M

11) E

12) C

13) Q

14) N

15) S

16) A

17) T

18) P

19) D

20) G

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