Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strasburg makes a quick, lasting impression

Time of course, will tell if Stephen Strasburg winds up with a plaque in Cooperstown, but so far the Washington Nationals phenom (I’ve always love that word) has lived up to his prodigious advance billing.

The thing that impressed me most during his 6 1/3-innings of shutout dominance against the Rochester Red Wings Wednesday night wasn’t his explosive 99-mph fastball, but his competitiveness and his pitching acumen. He kept the Wings hitters completely off-balance by mixing in an occasional sweeping curve or change up. Of the 23 batters he faced, only two really hit the ball hard. And Strasburg didn’t get flustered after two men reached on walks and two others reached on errors.

Toward the end, the Syracuse Chiefs fireballer was toying with the Wings, striking out six of the final seven batters he faced. Seven of his victims were completely frozen by off-speed pitches.

It all made for a very enjoyable night for the standing-room only crowd of 12,590 who showed up at Frontier Field.

A tip of the cap to Rochester’s classy and knowledgeable baseball fans. After Strasburg completed his 9-strikeout, 3-hit outing to improve his record to 3-0 in Triple-A, he received a standing ovation. Of course, it would have been nice if Strasburg had acknowledged them with a tip of the cap, but the 21-year-old is so intense and he claimed he was somewhat surprised because he had never received a road ovation before. If I’m the Nationals brass, I think I’d gently tell him that some sort of acknowledgment would be appropriate. Otherwise, an appreciative crowd will turn into a booing crowd, as it did at Frontier, because it believes it’s been snubbed by yet another conceited athlete.

Although Strasburg contributed to another Wings loss, I was happy to see him put on a memorable performance. Like other fans of baseball history, I want to be able to say I saw the young pitcher at his best before he was promoted to the major leagues and went on to a Hall of Fame career.

As is usually the case with big events, the Wings did another stellar job as hosts. The only glitches were when the speed pitch gauge beyond the left field bullpen didn’t register the mph of some of Strasburg’s pitches. Apparently, some folks in a restricted area actually walked in front of the radar gun. It worked OK, though, in the first inning when 15 of Strasburg’s 18 pitches topped 94 mph, with three of them reaching 99. That obviously added to the fans and players sense of awe.

So here are the staggering numbers for the Nationals’ $15-million arm so far: He is 6-1 with a 0.89 earned run average in his seven starts between Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg. In 40 1-3 innings, he has struck out 49 batters and yielded just 17 hits and 10 walks. Opposing hitters are batting an anemic .124 (17-for-137) against him.

The two-time San Diego State All-American and No. 1 overall draft pick is expected to make two more starts for the Chiefs before being called up. It’s almost certain he will make his first big-league start June 4 in Washington.

Expect a packed house. And expect greatness, because barring injury this kid looks like he could have a career that lives up to the enormous hype.


When my long-time friend and colleague Jim Mandelaro and I walked out of Frontier Field after filing our stories Wednesday night we were surprised to see about 200 fans waiting patiently behind a string of saw horses that had been set. Two of my friends and fellow 19th century base ballists - Ryan Brecker and Joe Territo - were among the hoard waiting to procure an autograph from Strasburg. Ryan told me in an e-mail that his and Joe's patience paid off. He said Strasburg was very accommodating and signed for about 10 minutes before heading back to the team hotel. You like to heard that stuff.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mother Nature sidelines Strasburg

They don't call us Rainchester for nothing. Pitching phenom Stepehn Strasburg was scheduled to show off his 100 mph heater against the Red Wings at packed Frontier Tuesday night, but an unforecasted day-long drenching postponed the festivities.

Not to worry.

Strasburg, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball history, has been re-scheduled to pitch Wednesday night at 7 p.m. when the Syracuse Chiefs play a day-night doubleheader vs. the Wings.

To see why this is a big-deal, please read my previous post.

Stpehen Strasburg will give us a night to remember

I admit it. Even if I weren’t covering Stephen Strasburg’s highly anticipated appearance tonight for The Associated Press, I probably would have journeyed to Frontier Field any way – just so I could say I caught a glimpse of the 21-year-old pitching phenom with the 100-mph heater and the Cooperstown potential.

The opportunity to witness super prospects climb the rungs of the ladder – especially guys who can throw balls through brick walls or launch them over light towers – is one of the great appeals of minor-league baseball. I wish I had a dollar for every Rochesterian who told me, “I remember when Cal Ripken Jr. was just a skinny kid playing for the Red Wings.’’ I’d be rich.

So far, Strasburg, baseball’s top draft pick last June, has lived up to the humungous hype, going 2-0 for the Syracuse Chiefs, allowing just one seeing-eye base hit in 12 Triple-A innings while striking out 13. Throw in his stats for Double-A Harrisburg, and he’s 5-1 with a 1.06 earned run average, 40 strikeouts and just 8 walks in 34 innings pitched. Little wonder famished Washington baseball fans, who haven’t tasted a World Series since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, have been clamoring for the Nationals to bring Strasburg up ASAP.

They aren’t alone.

Curt Schilling, a pitching prospect himself with the Red Wings before his stellar big-league career, already has anointed Strasburg the next great one before the kid has even thrown his first major-league pitch. “I’ve never seen anything close, not at that age,’’ Schilling said recently. “(When) he comes up, he’ll immediately, potentially, be the best pitcher in the game.’’

Nothing like putting King Kong on the kid’s back, Curt.

Sports fans, especially ones who’ve been subjected to mediocrity for long stretches, are an impatient lot. But there is wisdom in going slowly with “can’t-miss’’ pitchers, because baseball history is rife with what I call “David Clyde stories” – cautionary tales of high school and college flame-throwers who were rushed to the bigs and flamed out quickly.

Plus, there is a financial incentive to have Strasburg stay put. By not bringing him up until June 4, the Nationals will push back the pitcher’s free agent eligibility by a few seasons, thereby delaying the inevitable offers that will be made by the Yankees, Red Sox and other big-buck franchises who'll be covetous of Strasburg should he live up to his press clippings.

As a historian of Rochester baseball, it will be interesting to see how the Wings do against Strasburg. As we learned Friday night against Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, Rochester hitters aren’t always gracious hosts when a big arm comes to Frontier. They roughed Chapman up pretty good.

The most famous mal-treatment of a pitching prospect by the Wings, of course, came on June 30, 1997, when they turned Yankees prospect Hideki Irabu into Hideki “I Rock You,’’ smacking “the Nolan Ryan of Japan’’ around for four runs in six innings. That rude greeting in front of a regular-season Frontier record crowd of 13,485 proved a harbinger of what would await Irabu in the major leagues. Failing to live up to the hype, he finished with a 34-35 record and incurred the wrath of Yankees boss, George Steinbrenner, who crudely labeled the pitcher a “fat toad.’’

Looking back, Irabu’s visit to Frontier was one of the most electric nights I’ve ever covered at our downtown ballyard. Here’s hoping tonight is every bit as exciting.

Perhaps, down the road, we’ll be able to tell people, “I saw Strasburg pitch in Rochester.’’

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's been a privilege to be a part of this charity event

I’ve been involved with the Rochester Press-Radio Club in various capacities for 20 years and I can’t remember a Day of Champions Children’s Charities dinner the equal of this year’s. It was a rousing success from start to finish and I couldn’t be more proud of the job done by the members of our all-volunteer organization. I’ve called Rochester home for more than 25 years and last night’s banquet was just a reaffirmation of what a caring community this is.

These dinners for 1,200 people are a bear to pull off and they never would take place without the tireless and generous efforts of our volunteers, especially my fellow officers, Pat Grover, Mike Kauffman and Keith Ryan. The number of hours these folks put in is mind-boggling. You talk about champions – these three truly are.

As I step down as president of the club, I’m grateful to all of our volunteers who have made the last three dinners in particular so incredible. The club has selfless, visionary people in place to carry it successfully forward, and I have no doubt that they will.

As our headliner, Drew Brees, said last night: “You don’t do something for 61 years unless you’re doing something right. This event has a great reputation around the country, but I can honestly say by being here tonight that this is one of the best events I’ve ever been to, not only because of the people in this room but because of what it stands for.’’

That’s pretty high praise from a national sports figure who’s proven to be an MVP in football – and in life. We’ve been so fortunate to land people such as Brees, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Torre, Arnold Palmer, Emmitt Smith and Joe Montana in recent years. But we’ve also been fortunate to be able to honor local folks such as Mark Muench, whose graceful battle with brain cancer has inspired a community.

So, I hope my fellow club members take a bow and a moment to bask in the glow of their efforts. They are a remarkable group of people.

And it has been a privilege not only to work with them, but to be able to call them my friends.

Friday, May 7, 2010

L.T., Roethlisberger have become big-time losers off the field

Went to the mail box yesterday to retrieve my Sports Illustrated and saw that the cover story was about scraggly Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his out-of-control life. Then, came back in to the house, signed onto my computer and was greeted by the lead story that legendary New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor had been charged with rape.
So much for sports being an escape, huh?
I was happy to see that Tim Tebow and Donovan McNabb had the top-selling jerseys in the NFL. I’m sure that many of those Tebow Broncos jerseys were purchased by rabid Florida fans who supported him so devotedly during his stellar college career with the Gators. And McNabb’s jersey is being gobbled up by the fans of his new team, the Washington Redskins. Still, it’s nice to see two good guys rather than outlaws top the list for a change.
I know I’m in the minority, but I still think Tebow is going to be a success in the NFL, and I would have taken my chances on him over the three guys the Bills have at QB. I think he has some intangibles that you look for in a quarterback and that you can’t teach.
It’s always interesting to me how so many people dislike Tebow merely because they perceive him as a goody, two-shoes. I believe, given all the bad role models in sports, we should be celebrating rather than denigrating guys like Tebow and McNabb, but that’s just me.
Speaking of good guys who have unjustly felt the fans wrath, Greg Paulus, the former Duke point guard and Syracuse quarterback is getting a tryout with the New Orleans Saints this weekend. Yes, he’s a long, long shot, but I’d definitely sign him to my development squad and see if he can regain the form that made him a high school All-America at Syracuse’s Christian Brothers Academy.
I really enjoyed last week’s SI story on the Yankees “Core Fore’’ – Derek Jeter, Jore Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. We won’t see their likes again in this mercenary era of free agency in professional sports.
If these Yankees-Red Sox games last any longer, they’re going to have to move them from ESPN to C-Span, where filibusters are common place.
Friend and baseball broadcast historian Curt Smith ranks Ernie Harwell No. 3 on his all-time broadcasters’ list, behind No. 1 Vince Scully and runner-up Mel Allen. I would agree.
I’ll be emceeing the annual sports and scholarship banquet for the local chapter of the Syracuse University Alumni club next Tuesday night at the Burgandy Basin Inn. Assistant head football coach Bobby Casullo and radio voice of the Orange, Matt Park, will be the featured guests. Tickets ($30) are still available and can be purchased by contacting George Criticos at 585-337-0146 or
I’m also looking forward to the next day, when I’ll be closing out my term as president of the Rochester Press-Radio Club at our Day of Champions Children’s Charities banquet, featuring Saints Super Bowl MVP quarterback Drew Brees. He fits perfectly into our mission as an organization, combining sports excellence and community service. The Brees Foundation has raised nearly $5 million to help with the reconstruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And, knowing Brees’ commitment to the Bayou, I’m sure he’s going to be equally involved as folks down there deal with the devastation of ongoing oil spill that threatens to wipe out their seafood industry.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My take on liquored-up fans, Ernie Harwell and one of Rochester's great photographers

If we continue to see liquored-up, YouTubers jump onto the field during games, we might have to urge Mike Curtis out of retirement. Back in the 1970s, some knucklehead ran onto the field at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, and the Colts linebacker took matters into his own hands, slamming the fool to the ground.

Of course, if a taser gun isn't enough to deter certain Phillie phanatics from interrupting games with their foolish antics, then being tackled by an NFL linebacker might not be enough either.


I didn't grow up in Detroit listening to Ernie Harwell broadcast Tigers games, but I heard enough of him doing national broadcasts to understand why he became a favorite uncle to folks throughout Michigan. He was a masterful story-teller, and, unlike many in his business, he had no airs about him. My one experience with Ernie came three years ago when I was gathering anecdotes for my "Memories of Yankee Stadium'' book. I called Ernie up and he couldn't have been more accommodating. The friendly guy talking to me over the phone was the same friendly guy chronicling Tiger baseball games every night. I understand completely why many Mo-Towners who grew up listening to dulcet tones feel as if they've lost a member of the family.


Spent last night at Frontier Field watching the Rochester Red Wings play the Durham Bulls. The Wings try to add new things each year to entertain the fans, and I love the new mascot race they stage nightly between giant-sized likenesses of Wing legends Joe Altobelli, Luke Easter and Cal Ripken. Very cool.


My prayers and thoughts go out to my friend and longtime colleague, Jamie Germano, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer Monday. By all accounts they've caught the cancer early and Jamie can expect a complete recovery.

I was blessed to work with a lot of talented photographers during my 35 years in the business and none were more skilled or better people than Jamie.

Back in the days when newspapers would routinely do indepth stories, Jamie and I collaborated on a number of off-the-beaten path projects. They included taking a road trip with the old Batavia Clippers minor-league baseball team; chronicling the life of a Waterloo native who walked onto the University of Notre Dame football team; showing the despair and hope of South Central L.A. as the city prepared to gorge itself in the wretched excess of a Super Bowl; and reporting the fall from grace of a local high school football legend and NFL starter who was serving time in prison for selling drugs.

We had a whale of a time collaborating on those and scores of other assignments, and I think we produced some pretty good journalism along the way.

Heal quickly my friend. Several cold Guinesses are on ice, waiting to celebrate your return.