Thursday, June 24, 2010

Opining on Wesley Johnson, our soccer victory and the phenom named Strasburg

Wesley Johnson wowed several NBA teams with his workouts this spring and could go as high as third to the New Jersey Nets tonight – though most mock drafts have him being chosen No. 4 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he’ll be reunited with former Syracuse teammate Jonny Flynn.

The sleek forward’s rise is pretty remarkable when you consider that coming out of high school, Johnson received just one Division I scholarship offer. (The answer to that trivia question is Louisiana-Monroe).


Johnson’s Orange teammate Andy Rautins is on the draft bubble. Some mock drafts have him being selected in the second round (there are only two rounds). While others have him not being chosen. I believe Andy is better off not being drafted. By going the free-agent route, he’ll be able to choose a team that most needs his skills. Either way, I think he’ll wind up on somebody’s roster as a solid reserve off the bench.


I was excited to see Team USA score its dramatic 1-0 victory and advance to the knockout round of the World Cup. Even soccer-haters (of which I am NOT one) had to be impressed. But for some commentators to compare the victory to the Miracle on Ice is pure lunacy. Methinks their perspective has been impaired by too much exposure to the incessant drones of those obnoxious vuvuzelas.


On the fourth day of Strasmus (that’s what baseball folks are calling Stephen Strasburg mania), my phenom gave to me . . . nine more strikeouts and a 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals. Hey, the kid wasn’t going to go undefeated for his major-league career. He’s going to have many hard-luck games like this playing for an improving, but not quite there yet Washington Nationals team. So, Strasburg is now 2-1, but he continues setting records. His 41 K’s in his first four big-league starts is a new standard. And I’m sure he’ll set another record during his fifth big-league start.


Volunteered at the 18th annual Challenger Little League World Series at Frontier Field last Saturday morning and came away – as always – feeling inspired by the kids and the volunteers. A record 263 kids played ball at the downtown Rochester ballyard this year. It continues to be one of my favorite sporting events.


I was climbing the stairs of our townhouse when that 5.0 earthquake struck yesterday afternoon. Didn’t feel a thing. But my wife did. The computer was moving. She initially thought the tremors were caused by me running up the stairs. Guess I better work a little harder on my diet.

Friday, June 18, 2010

These interpretations of baseball remind you of the game’s power and goodness

I picked up my new Flower City Base Ball Club uniform this morning – the one I’ll be wearing when we open our 10th season of playing and interpreting the 19th century game Sunday at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford. And I must admit I felt a tinge of excitement similar to what I experienced when I picked up my first Little League uniform in Rome, N.Y. some 44 springs ago.

As I pulled the jersey over my head and gazed into the mirror, I was reminded of the grip the game continues to have on me all these years later. There is something truly special about putting on a uniform, regardless of the sport. Something transformative, something that can make you feel good about yourself.

Although the body that wears that uniform Sunday will be sure to remind me that I am 55 and not 15, my soul will argue otherwise.

Tomorrow, when I head to Frontier Field to help out at the annual Challenger Little League Baseball World Series for young people facing mental, physical and emotional challenges, I will witness similar transformative powers of a uniform. Kids who normally wouldn’t get a chance to experience the sensation of putting bat to ball and traversing the bases will be out there in full baseball garb. It will be their time to shine, their time to feel good about themselves.

Although the glove-less 1864 and ‘65 game we interpret and play in Mumford and the Challenger Little League game on display Saturday at Frontier are dramatically different from the baseball most are accustomed to, the core values are the same.

And while the kids in the wheel chairs and walkers and us creaky-kneed geezers in our funny 19th century regalia don’t have big-league talent – or even minor-league talent for that matter – we’re every bit the equal of the big boys in one respect: We love the game as much if not more than the men with the jillion-dollar contracts. And that passion can’t be measured in dollar signs.

So, if you are looking for something to do this Father’s Day weekend, head out to Frontier Saturday or the Genesee Country museum Sunday. You’ll see plenty of joy in Mudville. I can assure you that.

In honor of the Challenger World Series and the opening of the 19th century base ball season this weekend, I reprint two columns that, hopefully, will give you some insight into the uniqueness of these two disparate interpretations of our national pastime:

Challenges met at Frontier Field
The boy was somewhat reluctant at first, almost scared. He
had never been around physically and mentally challenged
children before. He didn't know how to act or what to say as he
walked onto the field at Frontier Field last July and saw kids in
wheelchairs, kids on crutches, kids without arms or legs.

He had signed up to be a "guardian angel," a helper at the
Challenger Baseball World Series, matching teams from Fairport
and Greece. But as he wheeled a girl with cerebral palsy to the
plate, he sweated bullets, wondered what he had gotten himself

The girl swung the bat and hit the ball, and he began pushing
her toward first. She shouted joyously as they chugged down the
line and past the base safely.

She high-fived him.

He smiled.

There would be many more smiles before game's end. Smiles
from kids sitting in wheelchairs. Smiles from kids pushing them
around the bases.

After the game, in which hugs outnumbered hits, the boy
shared a hot dog and a coke with his teammate in the picnic area.

The simple act of putting a bat on a ball had brought them
together for two hours. It would be two hours neither would forget.

They will play another World Series at Frontier tomorrow
morning. The game is open to the public. Admission is free. Go if
you get a chance. It will be two hours you won't forget.

You will see kids once restricted from playing ball wearing
uniforms and taking their turn at bat. You will see stereotypes get
knocked over the wall. You will see 'buddies' and 'guardian angels'
focus on similarities rather than differences.

Youth sports leagues take a beating, and in too many cases
the criticism is justified. Parents become overzealous. Coaches put
winning above all else. Kids suffer.

But Challenger Baseball is sport at its best. Outs are recorded
but not counted. Half-innings are determined by nine batters not
three outs. Everybody plays. Nobody loses.

These kids approach the game with a passion often missing
from the guys in the big-league uniforms. You won't hear any
whining. You won't hear any threats of work stoppages.

"It's a great feeling to put that uniform on and get a chance to
Play just like kids in other leagues," says Brendan O'Riordan, a
senior-to-be at Fairport High School and a veteran of several
Challenger seasons.

O'Riordan has cerebral palsy. He also has a glove and a bat
and a strong desire to play the game. For years, he had been a
spectator, helping out with his brother's Little League team,
serving as the manager for the Fairport varsity football and
baseball teams.

"It's kept me involved, but there's nothing like playing," he
says. “Getting out and doing it yourself - that's what's most

O'Riordan will be out there tomorrow, attempting to hit and
field like his Yankee hero, Don Mattingly. He will be joined by
roughly 75 other Challengers.

Each of them will have an able-bodied buddy or guardian
angel. Some are sure to be as nervous as a batter stepping to the
plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the

But the crack of the bat and the thud of ball into glove will put
them at ease. On this day, fear will strike out, joy will smack a

Our pastime without TV, megadeals and egos

When I told one of my son's Little League baseball teammates that I play in a 19th century league where they don't use gloves, he looked at me as if I had three eyes. He wondered if I also played football without a helmet and drove my car blind-folded.

"You mean you catch the ball with your bare hands?" he asked. "Geez, that must hurt like hell."

At times, it does.

Jammed and broken fingers occasionally are the price we pay to transport ourselves and visitors to the Genesee Country Village & Museum back in time. But any vintage baseballist worth his salt will tell you that the price is right. We are having too good a time to be stopped by minor inconveniences such as bruised hands or bloody knees.

In many respects, we are like those folks who reenact Civil War skirmishes. We enjoy interpreting history. We believe the past helps us understand the present and the future.

Plus, we are hams. The thespian and the little kid in us often comes out during these matches. The diamond is our stage and our playpen. This is one of those places where men will be boys.

There are some obvious differences between us and our Civil War brethren. For starters, we interpret the 1800s on a ballfield rather than a battlefield. We wield double-knobbed, bottle-shaped bats rather than rifles with bayonets. And the ball, while capable of hurting you, isn't nearly as hard as a bullet or a modern-day hardball. It is made of a leather cover wrapped around yarn and an India rubber core. (For that, we are thankful.)

We all go by nicknames. Yours truly is "Scribe," after what I do for a living. We have a University of Rochester med student known as "Doc," a quick-footed leprechaun of an outfielder known as "Irish," a wily hurler we call "Perfessor," and a long-ball stroking first baseman known as "Country Mile."

In character, we often resort to language that sounds foreign to the 21st century fan. When we want a teammate to hustle, we implore that he show a little ginger. Our bats are willows, our ball an apple, pill, horsehide or onion. The catcher is a behind, infielders are basetenders, and outfielders scouts. A daisy cutter is a well-hit grounder, while a dew drop is a slow pitch. Batters are strikers and fans are cranks.

The rules sound foreign, too. Pitches are delivered underhand with a locked elbow - slow-pitch softball style without the arc. A striker can ask the umpire to tell the hurler exactly where to place the pitch. Foul balls don't count as strikes, but if you catch one on the first bounce, the striker is out. The one-bounce rule also is in effect for fair balls.

Hitters are required to bat flat-footed. There is no striding into the ball, meaning your power must be generated by your arms and torso. (Our game is a chiropractor's dream.)

The umpire has final say in all matters, though on occasion he'll seek the help of the fans or the tallykeeper.

Matches are truly social events. There are pre-game parades through the village, featuring military bands and horse-drawn wagons. Players court single women at the park (that hasn't changed) and reporters (that has). Positive publicity occasionally can be garnered by bribing a base ball scribe with a bottle of his favorite whiskey. (Sportswriters clearly had lower standards in those days.)

Playing surfaces are rocky and uneven. True hops are the exception rather than the rule, even at lush, green Silver Base Ball Park, the only 19th century replica diamond in the United States.

Our uniforms are somewhat odd looking. We wear wool-blend long-sleeve jerseys with bow ties and caps that remind you of a railroad conductor. Metal spikes aren't allowed. Neither are Nike swooshes or adidas stripes.

The emphasis is on hitting 'em where they ain't rather than over the fence. Sorry, Mr. Bonds, but home runs are looked down upon. Singles hitters are the rage in vintage base ball, particularly those who can direct the ball to the opposite field. There is no stealing or leading off, and bunting is frowned upon, though some attempt to cloud the issue with what is known as a slow hit.

The game we interpret stresses sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior. Players blurting profanity are usually hit with a fine by the umpire.

We interpret a purely amateur game. We are a century removed from the era of whiny millionaires. When we say we play for the love of the game, our words are as solid as one of our northern white ash willows.

Although I've competed in the 19th century game for three years, I'm still learning that I have to unlearn so many 20th and 21st century rules. This is not your father's game. Or your grandfather's game, for that matter.

But it is a lot of fun. An opportunity to take ourselves and others back, back, back in time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Yankees drafting of Rochester shortstop is a dream come true

We don't get too many kids from the Rochester area drafted by Major League Baseball teams, so it was great to hear that Irondequoit High School shortstop Chris "Cito'' Culver was taken by the Yankees with the 32nd pick of the first round.

I've always contended that a lot of baseball prospects from the Northeast get overlooked because they don't play year-round the way kids from warmer climes do.

Culver, a switch-hitter who batted .561 with 9 home runs and 38 RBI in 66 at-bats this spring, is considered a reach by many scouting services. And the pick already has elicited scores of skeptical comments on Yankee-related website chat rooms. I suspect, though, that the potential of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle also would have been roundly questioned had the Internet existed during their day.

The Yankees have had Culver on their radar screen for more than a year, and his play in travel tournaments around the country during that time convinced them that he has the potential to become a big-leaguer.

It's cool that he's followed the team since he was 3. Who knows, maybe one day his other dream of replacing Derek Jeter at shortstop will come true, too?


I keep hearing rumors that Bills discontented running back Marshawn Lynch is going to be traded. Which begs the questions: Who would give up more than a few tackling dummies for him at this point? If I'm a team even moderately interested in him, I'd take my chances that the Bills will release him.


Speaking of Marshawn, did you see where Bills safety Donte Whitner called Lynch the most talented back in football? Methinks, Whitner is delusional. Perhaps they should check him to see if he is suffering lingering effects from an undiagnosed concussion. It's time for Whitner - another first-round bust - to start making plays instead of foolish statements.


The Professional Football Writers of America have named Drew Brees winner of the organization's "Good Guy Award.'' Based on my dealings with the Saints quarterback at the recently Rochester Press-Radio Club's Day of Champions Children's Charities Dinner, I think it was a great choice. He received my PFWA vote, and that was before I even met him.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pearls of wisdom from the Wizard of Westwood

Like many, I was saddened to learn of John Wooden's passing yesterday at age 99. I had an opportunity to interview the legendary UCLA basketball coach ten years ago before the Bruins played Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. I found him to be gracious and kind, a real gentleman. The following is the column that resulted from our conversation. I hope it gives you some feel for the impact he had on those who played for him - an impact felt well beyond the rectangular box of the basketball court.


Not a day goes by when one of his former players doesn't call. Some, like Bill Walton, phone two, three times a week. Occasionally, the conversations are about the good, old days when the UCLA Bruins were the Yankees of college basketball. But usually the callers are more interested in John Wooden's health or in seeking his advice about life.

The calls always bring a smile to Wooden's 89-year-old face because the enduring friendships he has with the men he once taught are what's most important to him - far overshadowing the unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, the 885 coaching victories and the 88-game win streak.

One of his players recently summed up the admiration Wooden's former players have for him with this verse:
I found love once, 'Twas not pretend, He was my coach, He is my friend.

"I love to talk with them and hear from them," Wooden said by phone from his Encino, Calif. townhouse earlier this week. "I love to hear about what's going on in their lives."

They are what he misses most about coaching - his players and the practices that often were as much about being a good person as they were about being a good basketball player.

"That's where the friendships are formed and the real lessons are taught," Wooden said. "The practices during the week were the journey, and to me the journey is better than the end."

Tomorrow afternoon, the program that Wooden built will play the Orangemen for the second time ever and the first time in Syracuse. A crowd close to 30,000 is expected to show up at the Carrier Dome. Most will be there because the Orangemen are enjoying a special season with Final Four potential.

But some will come because of the UCLA mystique. Though the Bruins are struggling, there's still a link to the past, to the 1960s and '70s, when the bespectacled, professorial Wooden sat courtside at Pauley Pavilion with that rolled up program in his hands, and a twinkle in his eye; to a time when John Wooden was college basketball.

He still attends every home game he can, but he doesn't go on the road, nor does he watch much television. Wooden still loves the basketball. He just doesn't love what's being done to it, especially on the professional level.

A hoops purist, he has no use for the selfish, individualistic style of play often found in the NBA. He hates how officials have allowed the game to become so physical.
Wooden said if he wanted to watch large men tussle, "I'll go to a pro wrestling match because that's what post play in the pros has become. And if I want showmanship, I'll go see the Globetrotters."

Don't get him wrong. Wooden marvels at the athleticism of today's players.

"It's remarkable," he said. "But the athleticism has become so great, it hurts team play."

And team play was the hallmark of Wooden's teams. Part of the genius of his coaching was that he convinced some of the greatest players of all-time, players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, to sacrifice individual stats for the greater good.

"I wanted them to be team players, to always be conscious of the pass first, and defense," he said.

An All-American at Purdue during the Depression, Wooden believes the best pure basketball he ever saw was played by the old New York Wrens in the 1930s. That team included Pop Gates, who later played for Les Harrison's Rochester Seagrams, the forerunners of the NBA's Rochester Royals.

"They were one of the first all-black teams and I played against them when I was playing professionally in Indiana," Wooden said. "They had so many great players, but the thing that impressed me most was how they played together. It was the most beautiful basketball I've seen."

UCLA basketball under Wooden was a thing of beauty, too. He doesn't have a favorite team among the ones he coached, but he believes his first title team, the smallish, overachieving 1964 squad, "came the closest to maximizing its potential."

He said he hasn't seen the Orangemen play this season, but he's impressed with what he's read and heard about them. He has run into Jim Boeheim at numerous clinics and Final Fours through the years. In fact, Boeheim was an assistant on the Syracuse team that reached the NCAA semifinals in 1975 - Wooden's final season.

"I think Jim's done an excellent job," he said. "To have your team on the doorstep of the national championship several times is quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, people tend to judge you on titles, and I believe that's totally unfair."

The storied basketball programs - UCLA and Syracuse have 2,981 victories between them - didn't meet until last season, with the Bruins romping, 93-69, in front of Wooden in Pauley Pavilion. Coming off their first two losses of the season this week, and with memories of last year's whupping still fresh in their minds, the Orangemen are expected to be fired up.

Wooden said that could be good or bad.

"You want to have a little incentive," he said. "But you don't want to have too much incentive. It can hurt you. I always tried to keep my teams on an even keel. I never wanted them too high or too low."

That even-keeled approach was a rousing success by any measure. It resulted in 10 nationals championships, 885 victories, 88 consecutive wins and an air-tight bond between a coach and scores of players that grows stronger with time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Galarraga, Joyce taught us a lesson in sportsmanship

Sometimes something very bad winds up turning into something really good.

Sometimes an imperfect moment is followed by a perfect one.

My lasting memory of Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect performance the other night won’t be the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce that cost the young Detroit Tigers pitcher a shot at baseball immortality.

But rather what occurred afterward.

Galarraga, who would have had every right to lash out at the wrong decision that cost him a perfect game, instead showed his class by not blaming Joyce. He said the umpire was human, just like he was, and that mistakes happen. And Joyce, in a classy act that we never would have seen from most of his peers, sought out Galaragga immediately after the game to apologize for blowing the call.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the story got even better when Tigers manager Jim Leyland, knowing that Joyce would be working behind the plate, sent out Galarraga with the lineup card. Joyce wiped away tears, and patted the pitcher on the back.

Although Galarraga will not be listed as the 21st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to have tossed a perfect game, I believe he will be better remembered than most of those who have retired all 27 hitters they faced.

And, it’s my hope that coaches and parents from Tee-ball on up will use this moment as an example of how you handle adversity.

To me this was a perfect example of sportsmanship.


I’ve been vacillating about whether commissioner Bud “Lite” Selig should have stepped in and changed Joyce’s ruling and given Galaragga the no-hitter after-the-fact. I still think it would have opened up a real can of worms.

I do believe the use of replay in baseball needs to be expanded. The bottom line should be doing everything in your power to make sure a blown call doesn’t either cost a team a game or a player a shot at history.

And I don’t want to hear the baloney about it adding to the length of games. If the commissioner would just have the umpires enforce the pace-of-play rules already in the books – call high strikes, require batters to stay in the box and pitchers to deliver pitches in a timely manner – the game would be played at the crisp pace it was 25 years ago.


I love feedback from readers and I have two I’d like to share with you. The first is from long-time Rochester Red Wings President and all-around good guy Gary Larder. He offers an interesting take on the imperfect-perfect game:

When you make a decision to allow an after-the-fact change, based on a re-play, as the Commissioner is being asked to do, it is a SLIPPERY SLOPE.

Suppose that the reverse situation had occurred – ie, the runner was called out, but the re-play showed that he was really safe. Or suppose that the incident had occurred in the 3rd inning. Etc, etc. Or supposed that the next 4 batters in the game in question had hit home runs. Would you reverse the score and take away their homers?

My solution is that you cannot later CHANGE the outcome. What you can do, however, is adjust historic records. Specifically, what I mean, is that on the official list of baseball’s no-hitters, this game could be included, by act of the Commissioner. If necessary, it could include an asterisk. But it could be on the official list, at the direction of the Commissioner. Galarraga would be immortalized on the list.

That’s my solution.

The second e-mail is a wonderful tribute to Ken Griffey, Jr. penned by Jason Aldred. (Lost, of course, in the blown-call-heard-round-the-world story was the news that Griffey, one of the game’s all-time greats, was retiring.)

And so another era in life comes to an end . . .

Growing up as I did as a Yankees fan, Munson’s death slapped a 12 year old in the face and crushed the spirit of a franchise . . . Mattingly came along to restore hope to that damaged franchise only to have that hope dashed by a bad back and Father Time . . . Jeter emerged and lead the franchise back to glory and continues to help drive it today.

However, as I was emerging from college in 1989, a young face burst on to the scene, a face that was always smiling, playing a game the way it was meant to be played.

A player who, with his bright smile and glowing talent, became the headliner in a sport full of headlines, even though he played on a tiny stage tucked away in Seattle. And when he had the opportunity to use the free agency lottery to pick the franchise that gave him the best opportunity to reach the World Series and command a record setting salary, he instead chose to go home, accept less money and attempt to take a once proud franchise on his shoulders and carry it back to the prominence it had held when his father had worn the Redlegs.

And while he wasn’t able to achieve that championship goal, his mere presence helped turn the lights on in a new stadium in Cincinnati, a stadium that today finds its team tied for first place. In the twilight of his career, with the opportunity to hook on with a team that could give him a shot at a ring, he once again spurned logic and unselfishly went back to the Mariners to help them rebuild, to end his career where it began.

It has been said that because baseball is played every day and follows the seasons of nature, that it becomes part of our lives, it marks the passage of time, like a calendar. Twenty-two years of my life have gone by since I first saw Ken Griffey Jr. playing the game we both love. I got a job, got married, had kids and have watched them grow.

My life has become much less about me and much more about the people I love and my life is much richer for it. And his career has been much less about him and much more about playing the game they way it was meant to be played, in front of the fans it was meant to be played for. While he has never played for my favorite team, I have checked the box score nearly every day to see how he was doing. Whether it was a remarkable defensive play or another game stolen by another injury, he has always been there, smiling in the background of my life.

I will miss him.

Jason, well said. And I would add that Griffey has never been mentioned as a performance-enhancing-drug user. That he was able to achieve what he did while so many of his peers (Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, etc.) were using is another testament to his greatness.


On a final, self-promoting note, longtime friend and colleague Jim Mandelaro and I will be signing copies of our new book, Silver Seasons and a New Frontier: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings from 6-7 tonight before the Wings game against the Toledo Mud Hens at Frontier Field. We’ll be joined by one of my all-time favorite people in sports, Joe Altobelli, the former Wings, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles manager. We’ll be signing near the Wings gift shop just inside the main gate. Hey, don’t forget, Father’s Day, is coming up.