It will be near 80 degrees at noon today in the Valley of the Sun. In Fort Myers it will reach 77 degrees under sunny skies. Spring is back and changes are in the air.

As pitchers and catchers and others report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona, there are changes everywhere. Over in the American League, in Tampa, the Yankees will have a new starting pitcher who prefers to lease a jumbo jet to fly in from his home; a new center fielder and a new catcher. In downtown Fort Myers, the World Champions have a new catcher, center fielder and a new shortstop. The Rays still have one of the best pitchers in baseball and have held their playoff team solid. The Orioles really didn’t add anyone and may start the season without Manny Machado. Toronto has a lot of snow.

The Tigers have a new manager, new first baseman, new second baseman a rookie at third and one of the game’s top closers. The Indians have a fading closer via St. Louis and Milwaukee. The Royals have a great lead-off hitter courtesy of #Melvinitis and a new second baseman. And the White Sox may have the most exciting new player in the game in their new Cuban first baseman. The Twins have their old catcher now at first. Perhaps this will help him stay off the DL.

The A’s have really rebuilt their pitching staff with a new closer and a host of bullpen new faces. The Rangers have the Prince at first, a new second baseman and a Choo in center. Seattle has a new first baseman, second baseman and a new GM. The Angles made changes, along with a new left fielder but their hopes are pined on a Pujols return to normalcy. The Astros have been dealing with their TV contract to make sure they get paid by the firm who just bought Time Warner Cable but claims its subsidiary is bankrupt and can’t pay the Houston club. Good luck with that.

In the Senior Circuit, the Braves have a new catcher. Nationals have a new manager. The Phillies have a new starting #2 pitcher from Pittsburgh. The Pirates have lost a starting pitcher and a first baseman. The Mets have a new center fielder and still a couple of first baseman. The Marlins are in Miami. And they still have Giancarlo Stanton. That in itself is a major miracle.

The Brewers have a new right fielder, a new left fielder a host of new players at first base (in fact they hold a record for most first basemen eating bratwurst in between innings) and a new starting pitcher while losing one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. The Cards have an almost entirely new infield, center fielder and right fielder. The Reds have a new manager and a new center fielder. The Cubs have a new manager and a new spring training facility in Mesa. Plus, they have Lenny Faralli desperately hoping for a winning season.

The D’backs have a new starting pitcher, a new left fielder and lost a bunch of coaches. The Giants have lost 42 pounds from Pablo. The Padres have a new starting pitcher. The Dodgers have four outfielders in an attempt to tie the Brewers in accumulating the most players in one position. The Rockies will no longer have Todd Helton and that is a loss for baseball.

So on this glorious Sunday in Arizona and Florida, hope is in the air but it is all about change.

Play Ball!

In The Air

“I love playing this game and every spring training feels like the first.”, said Rickey Henderson. ‘People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.’ stated Sandy Koufax. Harry Carey, the great announcer for the Cardinals, the A’s, the White Sox and the Cubs gave us a fans perspective. ‘It’s the fans that need spring training. You gotta get ’em interested. Wake ’em up and let ’em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll.’

Everyone has a different view of how spring training is part of the most wonderful times in our lives. Spring training is all about hope. Today, it is in the 70’s in Arizona and Florida. The air is beginning to warm up. No clouds in the high, blue sky.  With very little wind, it is a great spring day. For those in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, its a different story. And it it that which makes spring training the first ray of hope of the coming year.

Down on the 101 in Scottsdale, the sound of bats hitting balls, balls slamming into gloves is loud and clear. At Camelback Ranch, the same sounds are beginning to be heard. Twenty miles apart, the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers begin their training ahead of all the others because they will be playing in the first regular season series of the year…down under in Australia at the end of March while the other big league teams are reaching their peak of spring training.

Steve Earle probably summed it up best when he rambled, ‘I love baseball. I’ll probably be one of this old farts going to spring training and drive from game to game all day.’ It’s that kind of wonderful dream many desire and dream about but few achieve. Chasing that dream to see our heroes in the cathedrals of spring is never ending.

But that is what spring training is all about. It is now the season of hope. Now we know this winter of misery will end. Baseball is back. Our worries are over.

Play Ball!


1954 Topps #239 Bill Skowron, New York Yankees

1954 Topps #239 Bill Skowron, New York Yankees

In just a few more days, in two weeks to be exact, pitchers and catchers report for spring training. It is a place where the grass is green, the sun is out and the weather is warm.  In the years past, it was a time when the players who had been off working at other jobs for the winter would get themselves back into shape.  Yes. Players in the ’50s and ’60s actually had to have jobs to support their families during the winter as their pay was not what it is today and the financial support of a second, off-season job, was necessary. Today’s ballplayer, has stayed in shape or gotten into shape for the past couple of months to arrive at spring training ready to get into the groove for the coming season. No second jobs for today’s ballplayer as they, at a minimum for one season, make more than most families earn in several years. Tweeners, those who are good Triple A players but not quite good enough to make it in the Bigs for a sustained period, make good money. For that good fortune, thanks should go to Curt Flood.

My first recollection of a player at a spring training camp was Bill Skowron, the big, burley first baseman for the New York Yankees. I remember a picture of him in The Sporting News when that magazine was the bible of baseball. That’s the only sport it really talked about. The ‘hot stove league’ must have been invented by The Sporting News. And that one year, in the middle of winter, at the drug store magazine rack, there was this picture of Skowron leaning into the camera and reaching for a bunch of bats in the on-deck circle.

‘Have you paid for that copy?’, the owner of the pharmacy asked. ‘Can’t read it unless you are at the counter and drinking a Coke or Malt’, he’d explain for the 800th time. So you would go over to the far end of the counter, take a seat on that round red cushioned plastic circle on top of a pedestal that swiveled, and order a Cherry Coke for a nickel. You then had the pleasure of being able to read The Sporting News without paying for it as long as there weren’t customers waiting to do the same thing. ‘Don’t spill on it if you’re not buying it’, he would always say as he walked away giving you a straw for your drink.

Why was it the memory of Skowron that I associated with spring training? He was a football player from Purdue and a punter on their teams. Wisconsin had been playing Purdue forever and that is probably why the association occurred. But for many of those days in February, it was cold…sometimes bitterly cold. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a chance to escape and go down to spring training where it was sunny and warm.

There are several things wrong with that last thought. First, it was a dream. And dreams end when you wake up. Second, as a kid, you don’t control your travels. Like most, I was stuck in the snow and cold until it melted away and became that messy, dirty mush on a pewter grey day that seemed to last forever. Grabbing a bat at that time of the year in the cold basement was foreign. It felt big and heavy. Your swing even was labored. Everything was tight. The glove was stiff and the ball a bit slippery. It just had to get warmer. Third, a kid doesn’t chart his ‘spring break’. During these times you yearned for that comfortable warm corner with The Sporting News to read in order to fill your mind with all of the baseball minutia that one could possibly stuff into your head. After all, there was no telling what break you would get to answer that all important question about … ‘Who was a former football player from Purdue who now stars for the New York Yankees?’…for one million dollars and a trip to spring training. You and only you knew that the break was just around the corner. You see, to be a baseball fan, you are always in a season of hope. That is especially true if you are a Cubbies fan. My next door neighbor was one such labored fan. Each winter he would talk about how great the Cubs would be this coming season. Each spring he would trade every card in his possession for a Cub player. He was my baseball card ‘Bank’. I could trade him Dee Fondy for Mickey. Talk about a season of hope. For a Cub fan it is a lifetime of hope.

In The Sporting News you would read about what was happening or could happen or should happen if this guy was traded to that team for that other player. This was the magic of imagination. With one simple copy of TSN, you literally had the world in your hands. Then, as if magic happened, on a Saturday in March, with the weather still crummy and you would swear that you would run out of cardboard for that hole in your shoe before the snow fully melted, an actual broadcast of a game was on radio. They said it was sunny and warm and fans in the stands were in their tee-shirts. The melodic voice of Earl Gillespie along with his sidekick, Blaine Walsh, brought the Milwaukee Braves into the home back up in the cold, wintry north. ‘Miller High Life and Clark…Bring You Out To The Park’ the opening jingle rang out. At first, you thought it was a mistake and you should run to your mother and tell her about the hallucinations you were having. Surely she would rush you to a hospital and summon Dr. Maurman to save you. It was certainly that dreaded disease, baseball fever that Dr. Maurman always warned your Mom about. ‘That child is going to have to be watched’, he would have said if he were actually in this dream. ‘Baseball fever is nothing to laugh at. It is a disease that affects the nervous system of young boys who read The Sporting News too much.’

The only saving grace what that The Sporting News was not banned and placed on the Legion of Decency list. For once I was safe from Sister Ramegia’s uncanny see-all/know all elastic arms of the law. This was a nun in a wheel chair that would actually ‘chase you down’ if she wanted to speak with you. Hell. She was on wheels.

But I digress. The Sporting News was everything to a real fan. It brought us all the nuance we thought only we knew. It was our hidden treasure trove of information that would save the world from destruction and….

‘Wake Up! You’re day dreaming again. Were you thinking about baseball again’, she would say, as your Mom was all-knowing. ‘You can’t let baseball rule your life or you will be destined to write about it.’

Yikes! Mom….cut that out. I’m all grown up now and you are still invading my consciousness when it comes to baseball. No. I’m not reading The Sporting News. You know why? It doesn’t do just baseball anymore. It hardly ever does baseball anymore. And besides, I’m just thinking that my birthday is only a few days away and that is the time when spring training begins.’

She responded in my head, ‘I suppose you would like to go and see them play. Don’t worry. Before you know it they will be back up north and you can listen to them all you want. And besides, Bill Skowron has just been traded to the Dodgers’.

Play Ball!

Henry Aaron Milwaukee's Greatest Baseball Player

Henry Aaron
Milwaukee’s Greatest Baseball Player

On Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When he first came up he played in left field. A few feet away, I saw him move gracefully along the outfield grass, never over extended. Always in complete control. He will always be a part of the Milwaukee community. Today he is 80. Here’s to having many, many more, Hank.

Mr Baseball

For 42 years, he has been trying to have us all forget his less than stellar major league performance as a player. When examining his career on the field, he is on the same level as Tom Nieto, Bob Davis, Ron Tingley, Bill Plummer and Walt Tragesser, surely names that ring in the lexicon of baseball everywhere. Imagine, for those who struggle with the thought of never making it to The Show, here is a guy who was 27 before he came into the light of a major league park. During his six-year playing career, he hit .200 with 14 home runs and 146 hits in a career 843 plate appearances. He said, “It is dangerous for an athlete to believe his own publicity, good or bad.”

Number 8, 9 or 12 on his uniform, but number one in your hearts, Robert George Uecker, the legendary voice of the Milwaukee Brewers, signed with his hometown team the Milwaukee Braves before the 1956 season as an amateur free agent. His life would never be the same after he was traded by his hometown nine on April 9, 1964 to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jimmie Coker and Gary Kolb.

For most people from Wisconsin, this time of the year is not really spring until his voice comes over the radio, from that far away place called Arizona, where it is sunny and warm. The crack of the bat, the murmur of the crowd, the polite applause for the home team players coming to the plate after he is announced, all are signs that summer is coming and the land of beer and cheese will be in full bloom shortly. (Yes. Beer and cheese are flowers in the Badger State.) But it is Uecker’s voice that assures us that all is well and the routine of our lives is back in rhythm. We can now move forward assured of normalcy…of a certain confidence that all is well…and will be.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, he is the pope…he is the vicar…he is the voice of assurance. Good or bad, his voice is familiar and comforting, win or lose. Sure it is his usual calls of ball and strikes and even mildly criticizing the umpires call against the home team (“Although it seemed a bit outside to most in the stands, many of us understand that Tom could have eaten just one too many ‘wurst’ last night after that extra innings game.”). But the real winds of the spring come when one of his friends from the past stops by to share a few moments with him and with us.

My favorite time is when Bob Costas stops by and starts by sitting in for a half inning which always last for many, many innings that include stories that rekindle the life and times of one Mr. Uecker. A typical banter usually begins with an inquisitive question from Costas such as “How does a catcher handle a knuckler like Dickey?”, to which Ueck snaps back with “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling, Bob, and then pick it up.” and we are off to the races. “How did you know when your playing career was over, Bob?”. “Well in my case, there were a couple of things I noticed. When I came up to bat with three men on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I looked in the other team’s dugout and they were already in street clothes. Then when I turned to look at the third base coach for a sign, he turned his back on me. Those were signs.”

“But the real sign was when I led the league….number one….numero uno in the National League in….errors (1967 led the league with 11 errors) and our general manager, Paul Richards told me the Braves wanted to make me a coach for the following season. And that I would be coaching second base.”

These are the real signs of hope to come. It is spring. Mr. Baseball is here for his 43rd season. Let us all enjoy and understand that all hope begins with renewal and renewal begins in the spring.

Play Ball!

Spring Draining

The magic that is spring training has been held up a bit due to the playing of the World Baseball Classic, an event which brings mayhem to the major league training sites every four years. During this time it is called Spring Draining.

The other day in Maryvale, the Arizona Diamondbacks took on the Milwaukee Brewers. While the crowd was in a good mood before the game started, the murmur of ‘who’s that’ was fully in the air. For the Milwaukee nine, the only familiar starter from last year in the lineup was Carlos ‘Go Go’ Gomez in center field. The rest of the team was unrecognizable from last season. For the D’Backs, there was very little familiarity with last season’s team.

In both cases, it was not because there was a roster turnover but it was the return of the WBC. Most of the starters for both teams were now playing for one national team or another. For the Brewers, 8 players were with various national teams. John Axford, Jim Henderson and Taylor Green were playing with the Canadian team. Ryan Braun and Jonathon Lucroy were playing for USA. Yovani Gallardo was the leading pitcher and Marco Estrada played for Mexico, while Martin Maldonado was with the Puerto Rican national team.

Add to this unusual circumstance that Aramis Ramirez was out with an injury and Jean Segura along with Ricky Weeks were nowhere to be found, the infield was filled with complete strangers, one had no name on his back. He was merely number 94.

In the outfield, ‘Go Go’ was paired with some that were unfamiliar. Norichika Aoki was missing with a rare day off.

So, for the price of admission you saw the lineup filled with players like Josh Prince (always good to have a Prince back in the Brew Crew’s line up), Caleb Grindl and Khristopher Davis. In the infield there was Scooter Gennett and #94 along with Alex Gonzalez at first and back with the Brewers after a year away. Behind the plate was Blake Lalli. That’s right. Blake Lalli.

Oh well. Everyone needs a Lalli in the spring.

After the 19th of March, after the last ball has been thrown in San Francisco in the WBC final, order will be restored. Spring will once again be sprung. And the normality of the game will be restored. The rhythm of the season will come back again. Braun will be in left. Lucroy will be behind the plate. Axford and Henderson will be in the bullpen. And the days of Lalli will become a faint memory. You can see the smiles from here.

Play Ball!

The Green Of Spring

When you first glance at it in the spring, the field is like a carpet where only those heroes of the game are privileged to walk upon. It is perfectly cut and trimmed, green as green can be. In this time of chasing the statistical universe, one can only marvel at the setting where the basics of the game are played.

Legends bring the game into perspective. Joe walked toward that position. You should have seen him play. Did you see him? Was he as good as they say? He was certainly one of the greatest Yankees of them all. Henry played right there. ‘Slough Foot’ they called him when he first came up. He seemed to glide when catching a fly in left field of old County Stadium. Unbelievable bat speed. “Stan The Man” played there. Every kid in the nation copied his unique batting style regardless if you were a left hander or not. He was one of the few, at least in the games I saw him play, who was never booed at an opposing ballpark. So many stepped on that platform of green on their way to Cooperstown. Willie, Mickey and The Duke. Robin, Reggie and Teddy Ballgame. Who will be next to take this trip from outfield to The Hall?

Spring allows all to show us their wares. Trout, Harper, Cespedes and Aoki all showed exceptional talent in their first year patrolling the outfield, last year. Their rookie seasons presented great promise. Mike Trout had quite a year. At age 20, he hit .326, scored 129 runs, had 182 hits which included 8 triples, walked 67 times and had 315 total bases. He also had 49 steals. Oh yes. He had 30 home runs. In the field he had 4 errors for a .988 fielding percentage. Norichika Aoki, a 29-year-old rookie, batted .288 with 150 hits of which 37 were doubles. As a lead off hitter, he drew 43 base on balls, had 30 stolen bases and had an amazing 10 home runs. With 81 runs scored, he had 255 total bases. In the field, he had only 3 errors for a .988 fielding percentage.

Bryce Harper hit .270 on 144 hits with 26 doubles, 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases. He scored 98 runs. In the field, he had 7 errors for a .979 fielding percentage. At 19 years of age, he unquestionably has a future of brightness in front of him. Yoenis Cespedes, at 26, had 142 hits with 25 doubles, 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in while producing a .292 batting average. He had 70 runs scored and 246 total bases. In the field he had 3 errors for a .987 fielding percentage.

Who will step out and make those giant strides to Cooperstown? Any of them? None of them? That’s why the game is so much fun in the spring. The green of spring brings hope for all, including those of us who cannot seem to get enough of it. Lucky for us, we have a full month left during this amazing time of the year.

Play ball!