Baseball’s Newest Ballpark

MARLINS PARK:

Thursday, September 26 – Sunday, September 29, 2013

I felt something pulsating in my pocket. First it was a vibration. But it quickly changed to the sound of a bluesy piano riff. I saw numbers flashing on the screen as I answered my cell phone.

“Hi Dad, I’m here,” said a familiar voice.

“Matt, where are you?” I asked.

“I’m here in Miami at the airport, calling you via Skype. Where are you?”

“I just got off the plane,” I said. “I’ll meet you at the rental car center.”

I quickly boarded the People Mover and weaved my way through the Miami airport, arriving at the Sixt rental counter in a matter of minutes. I saw a familiar face and gave my son a big hug.“I haven’t seen you in….”

“Ten weeks,” he said, completing my sentence. It was now late September, the final week of baseball’s regular season and the beginning of a new father/son journey.

In my mind, I flashed back to a Nicaraguan beach where my daughter Sarah and I had joined Matt for a Central American adventure. The summer solstice had kept the sun high in the sky, until the orange ball kissed the blue Pacific waters and descended into the sea.

Nicaraguan Beach

Nicaraguan Beach

In early June, Sarah and I had traveled fifteen hours to visit Matt, who was designing soccer fields and city parks for the town of Matagalpa, nestled high in the coffee-rich hills.

Now, Matt and I were meeting in Miami for a new baseball trip, this time to see a game in our 33rd ballpark.

We loaded our gear into our rental car, a silver Nissan Sentra and started driving to Marlins Park, where the home team was hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. We headed south on La Jeune Road to exit the airport and took a right onto State Road 836.

Something felt wrong.

“Dad you should be going east not west,” my son shouted.

“It looks like Wrong Way Mike has done it again,” I said to myself.

I quickly reversed course and hit the gas, knowing the first pitch was just 20 minutes away. We couldn’t be late. It would be sacrilege to miss the start of the game. Luckily, the baseball gods were with us that night as we navigated our way through traffic and into the parking lot. At the walk-up ticket window, we scored great seats.

“You see, spontaneity is good,” Matt lectured me. “You don’t always have to buy tickets in advance. Sometimes it’s fun not to plan anything at all, but go with the flow.”

 “Just go inside,” I countered.  We found our seats along the 3rd base line, a mere 8 rows behind the action.

Marlins Park

Marlins Park

The stadium was nearly empty and ours to explore. The retractable roof was fully extended to cover the entire skyline, shutting out the oppressive humidity but also blocking our view of the stars above.

Deep behind the centerfield wall, I noticed a massive monument to the Marlins, standing seven stories tall. It consisted of art deco style images of fish and flamingos surrounded by palm trees and water.

The structure was designed to sparkle and dance whenever a Marlins player hits a home run, but for this game it was a silent night.

75-foot tall home run structure

75-foot tall home run structure

“I’m hungry,” Matt declared.

“Okay let’s eat,” I said.

Matt was meat-deprived in Nicaraugua and settled on a ballpark hamburger, while I selected a local seafood delight of fresh oysters dipped with lime juice and hot sauce. It was pricey but delicious.

Oysters at the ballpark

Oysters at the ballpark

Matt and I clicked our bottles of beer and took in the sights of the game. In the second inning, Marlins slugger Adeiny Hechavarria tripled off Phillies ace Cole Hammels to drive in two runs and give Miami a 2-0 lead.

The Marlins are big on entertainment, which includes male and female cheerleaders dancing and singing throughout the stadium. It’s the only baseball park where I can recall seeing cheerleaders. Nightclubbing is also big in Miami and so the Marlins have created a hangout, known as the Clevelander for the hipster crowd. 

It features a pool and dancers clad in go-go boots, rocking out to music with a Latin beat. It’s got a homegrown Miami vibe and certainly a different look and feel compared to the hallowed halls of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.  

The Clevelander

The Clevelander

Inside the Clevelander, you can get an up-close view of the visitor’s bullpen, where we saw Cesar Jimenez, a young pitcher from Venezuela, warming up for the Phillies. Upon entering the game, Jimenez walked two Marlins, but did not surrender a run, in a game the home team would eventually win 3-2.

Sneak peak inside the bullpen

View from the bullpen

Marlins Park is also the only stadium that  features a fully loaded Bobblehead museum, consisting of miniature players from every Major League team.

Bobblehead Museum

Bobblehead Museum

Parents and kids of all ages hovered around the bobbleheads to get a closer look. For some reason, it triggered an emotional response in my son.

“I’m a bit homesick for America,” he confided.

“Why, they don’t have bobbleheads in Nicaraugua?”

“Well the point is, I miss American culture – not just bobbleheads but burgers and fries. I like the innumerable choices you can make here about restaurants, travel and freedom of expression. It’s easy to take democracy for granted, but when you live in a socialist country for a while, you begin to understand how important it is to have individual rights, not to mention hot showers and  a dryer for your clothes. Those things are only luxuries in Nicaragua.”

“It sounds like you’ve become more patriotic,” I said.

“I appreciate how good we’ve got it in the United States,” came the response from my son who was showing signs of wisdom beyond his years.

“Well tomorrow I’ll show you more of it. We’re driving to Key West.”

Highway 1 meanders from Miami slowly southward  through the Florida Keys, a chain of islands surrounded by the  crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s normally about a three hour to journey to Key West, unless you pull over every fifteen minutes to take pictures, which I insisted on doing. I was mesmerized by the multi-hued shades of blue water.

“Just one more photo,” I told Matt as we made our 14th stop.

“No worries, no hurry,” came the suprisingly calm response from a kid who used to complain every time we got out of the car.

Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean

“Wow, you’ve mellowed,” I stated.

“Older and wiser now,” he said as we approached the Six-Toed Cat, a restaurant across from the Hemingway Museum that to our delight, was still serving breakfast at 2:30 in the afternoon. Matt devoured the pancakes flanking his eggs benedict.

Six-Toed Cat

Six-Toed Cat

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Hemingway lived at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West from 1931 – 1939.  It was during that time span that he wrote some of his greatest works, including The Snows of Kiliminjaro and To Have and Have Not. Hemingway was also obsessed with cats and today his former house is home to literally dozens of felines that roam the place freely as if they own it. And in a sense they do, since the museum makes sure the cats are well fed.

The Hemingway House

The Hemingway Museum

Hemingway also loved his life in Cuba, which is just 90 miles away. Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States, a fact reinforced by thousands of tourists who line up every day to have their pictures taken at the concrete buoy on the tip of the island.

And much to my surprise, Matt even agreed to make a cameo appearance with his old man.

“You’re allowing me to record this moment in time?” I asked. “I thought you don’t like to be used as a prop for pictures?”

 “Just one photo,” he snapped. “That’s your quota for the day.”

Key West

Key West

We walked for miles along the beach, soaking in the sun and the salt water.

“Let’s head back to the hotel and put on our swim trunks,” I suggested.

Within minutes, we were diving into the balmy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’m feeling really good,” Matt said.

“And I have no agenda,” I replied.

“That’s why I’m relaxed Dad. Let’s not make any plans.”

“Deal.”

I closed my eyes on the beach and drifted into dreamland.

When I awoke, the sun was little more than a golden glow on the horizon.

“Are you thirsty?” I asked.

“Hungry too,” Matt said.

 We quickly changed, then walked down to Sunset Pier, the perfect place to watch the sun dip from the sky into the ocean. We dined on fish tacos and drank beers until well past sunset, watching the sailboats go by as our evening entertainment. Life was good.

Florida sunset

Florida sunset

A bright light appeared in the newly darkened sky.

“That’s the planet Venus,” I proclaimed. “It’s the one they call the evening star because it’s the first one you’ll see at night.”

“I doubt that’s Venus,” said the mouth that roared. “It’s probably just another star.”

“Let’s watch it for a while,” I said. “If it moves in the next hour or so, we’ll know it’s a planet, not a star.”

Matt nodded his head as we tipped back our beers and watched the celestial show above.

The waitress reinforced us with refills, so I poured mine into the ice-cold glass, which created lots of foam that seeped out onto the table.

“Dad, when are you going to learn how to pour a beer? This is how you do it,” Matt said as he poured his IPA perfectly into the glass, with no spillage.

“Where did you learn how to do that?”

“I went to college,” he said. “Beer drinking 101.  But obviously you didn’t take that class.”

Schooled by the kid, I said nothing.  Incrementally, the bright light in the western sky began to move.

“It’s probably a plane,” said Matt.

“No it’s Venus.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded.

“What’s that I didn’t hear you?”

“MAYBE YOU’RE RIGHT,” he shouted, as heads turned all around us.

“Yup it’s Venus,” I said to the crowd.

“Good for you,” Matt said. “I guess you can’t be wrong all the time.”

Ouch.

The next morning we were up early to go snorkeling on a coral reef, where I hovered over a nurse shark, just twenty feet below me. Luckily, it wasn’t hungry and swam away. We saw jellyfish too but avoided their stingers.

We finally made it back on dry land, where we headed north in the rental car to Key Largo, home of some of the best Key Lime pie anywhere. After dinner, we drove back to Miami, where Matt insisted on getting new underwear at Macy’s.

“You’ve been living in Nicaragua for a year and that’s what you want? Underwear?”

“Yeah Dad, we have no washers or dryers in Nicaragua. I have to wash my boxers by hand and dry them on a clothesline. But now I want to get boxer briefs. White ones, to be exact,” he informed me.

“Are you serious? You used to tease me about wearing briefs. You called them Tighty Whiteys.”

“Yeah, but I’m grown up now and I want boxer briefs. And white ones are cool.”

“Don’t you see what’s happening here? You’re becoming more like me?”

“Don’t worry Dad, I’ll grow out of it.”

Matt wanted to sleep in on Saturday, but I was back in agenda-mode and couldn’t allow that. “We’re heading to the Everglades today,” I informed him. “We’ll head west from Miami for about 25 miles and you’ll see a whole different side of Florida.”

Highway 41 is known as the Tamiami Trail because it traverses the Florida swamps between Tampa and Miami. The Trail intersects the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is home to Buffalo Tiger’s Airboat Rides. Buffalo Tiger is the legendary chief of the Miccosukee Indian Tribe that was historically part of the Seminole Nation.

Buffalo Tiger's on the Tamiami Trail

Buffalo Tiger’s on the Tamiami Trail

We rented an airboat for two and our tour guide Fabian instructed us to put on headphones for our ride into Florida’s natural wonder.

The Everglades

The Everglades

After 10 minutes of gunning the propeller blades that served as our engine, Fabian cut the motor to explain the history of the Everglades, Nature’s River of Grass.

“This is the slowest river you’ll ever travel on,” he told us. It flows from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean and is teeming with wildlife. Here’s one of our local gators now,” he exclaimed as the 13-foot monster approached the boat.

Hungry Gator

Hungry Gator

Fabian began clicking the roof of his mouth as the gator swam closer.

He held out a lumpy load of white bread and dropped a nugget into the hungry reptile’s open mouth that was lined with a razor-sharp row of powerful teeth.

“His vision is basically peripheral. He looks sideways to see,” Fabian explained as he waived his hand in front of the gator’s snout. “He doesn’t see this,” Fabian said calmly.

“Well that’s probably good,” I exclaimed.

“Otherwise you might lose a finger.”

Too close for comfort

Too close for comfort

“He has a very good sense of smell,” Fabian explained. “If you ever get cut and bleed, he can smell the blood. He can also smell small animals. That’s why I always tell people if you really love your pet, it’s best not to bring them here.”

On the airboat

On the airboat

The Everglades have a primitive beauty and I came away from the experience more awed than ever by the power of nature. Matt and I were silent on the drive back to Miami. We hung out in the hotel, reading quietly until the phone rang.

“We’re here in the lobby,” my Uncle Richard announced. He was waiting with my Aunt Joan to drive us to the ballpark where the Marlins were hosting the playoff bound Detroit Tigers.

I was excited about seeing Miguel Cabrera step up to the plate. The Tiger slugger was about to win his third straight batting title with a stellar .348 average. He also had 44 home runs and 137 Runs Batted In.

No one in Major League Baseball had won three consecutive hitting crowns since Wade Boggs did it from 1985 – 1988. Rod Carew also hit the trifecta from 1972 – 1975, while the legendary Ty Cobb did it three times (1907 – 1909, 1911 – 1915, 1917 – 1919).

The drive to the ballpark was frustratingly slow as we came to a grinding halt in gridlock on NW 6th Street. Making matters worse, it had started to rain. The retractable roof would be shut tight over Marlins Park tonight. The umpire would be shouting “Play Ball” in just 20 minutes and we were stuck in traffic a mile from the ballpark. My uncle sensed I was getting antsy.

“Why don’t you and Matt hop out and we’ll meet you there?” he said. “Take my umbrella,” he added.

“We won’t need it,” I replied.

 I was so wrong.

Thirty seconds later, as Matt and I were running to the ballpark, a blinding light split the sky in two, as lightning pierced through the darkness.

KABOOM!

The thunder roared like cannon fire as the skies opened up with full Florida fury.

CRACK!!

Suddenly, Matt and I were caught in a torrential downpour.  We sprinted back to the shelter of my uncle’s car. The rain gods were angry and let us have it for 15 uninterrupted minutes of hell on earth. The traffic moved at a snail’s pace, crawling inch by inch to the park.

And then suddenly, it stopped raining.

“Go!” my uncle exclaimed. “Go now while you can still catch the first pitch.”

Matt and I bolted for the ballpark, just in time to see Nathan Eovaldi deliver the first pitch to Detoit’s Austin Jackson.

“Strike one,” yelled the home plate umpire. On the next pitch, Jackson lined a single to right. But he couldn’t advance beyond first base because Torii Hunter struck out swinging.

Then Miguel Cabrera stepped up to the plate, generating a raucous ovation from the crowd. The Venezuelan slugger was a big hit in Miami, where it seemed that half of the 28,750 in attendance were wearing the orange and blue Tiger colors and openly rooting for Detroit.  

Tigers fans fill Marlins Park

Tigers fans fill Marlins Park

On a 1-2 count, Cabrera stroked a single to right, sending Jackson to second base, much to the delight of the Tigers fans in attendance.

Cabrera belts a single to right

Cabrera connects on a single to right

But Detroit’s  rally was cut short when Prince Fielder lined out to third and Jhonny Peralta grounded out to end the inning. In the bottom of the first, Anibal Sanchez was dominant for Detroit. The former Marlin struck out two of the three batters he faced in the bottom of the first.  The Marlins were hitless and placed a goose egg on the scoreboard.

My aunt and uncle finally arrived in the bottom of the second inning of a scoreless ballgame. “It’s 0-0,” I shouted out for them.

“You see we didn’t miss a thing,” my Aunt Joan said.

Matt and I looked at each other.  “Sounds just like mom,” he said.

My Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan

My Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan

“Watching baseball is like watching the grass grow,” my aunt reaffirmed. “It’s painfully slow.”

“But that’s what I love about this game,” I stated. “You can see the strategy behind every play. There’s drama before every pitch.”

As it turned out there was plenty of drama on this night, as the Tigers took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Marlins started a one-out rally when Christian Yelich singled to center and Giancarlo Stanton walked.

The Miami fans started chanting for a hit but my aunt had another plan in mind. “I hope they hit into a double play,” she said. “I want to go home.”

But the baseball gods had a very different outcome in mind. With two outs, Miami’s Ed Lucas singled to center off Joaquin Benoit to tie the game. We were going into extra innings and my aunt was not a happy camper.

“Maybe we should go,” Matt suggested. “We can listen to the game on the car radio.”

Leaving a game before it’s over is just not part of my DNA. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done it. But in this case, I didn’t want to put my aunt through torture, so I agreed to bite the bullet.

Had we stuck around just one more inning, we would have seen the Marlins load the bases on two walks and a hit batter, setting the stage for Giancarlo Stanton to single home the winning run for a Miami victory. For the last-place Marlins it was their first walk-off win since July 13.

As it turns out, just one day later, Henderson Alvarez would pitch a no-hitter for the Marlins over the first-place Tigers. Seeing a no-hitter in person is definitely on my bucket list, as I’ve never actually witnessed one, despite attending hundreds of games.

But on this night, I was eager to see the ESPN highlights of our game. I was watching the winning run score when Matt opened his mouth.

“Can you turn off the TV now?” he shouted. “It’s after midnight and we have to get up early.”

I was stunned. “Wow, talk about role reversal,” I said.

“You used to be the night owl. Now I’m the one burning the midnight oil and you’re concerned about not getting enough sleep. How did that happen?”.

“I guess I’m becoming more like you Dad,” he said. “And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

“You mean we finally understand each other?” I asked.

“Yeah, something like that,” he said.

 I switched off the light.

Baseball truly is a perfect game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What A Team: 9 Players Added to Sacramento’s Hall of Fame

The La Salle Club added nine players to its Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday night, highlighted by Buck Martinez. The former Elk Grove High School and Sacramento City College star played seventeen years in the Show for the Kansas City Royals (1969 – 1978), Milwaukee Brewers (1978 – 1980)  and Toronto Blue Jays (1981 – 1986) , where he is the play-by-play announcer for the team.

Buck Martinez was the headliner at Christian Brothers High School on Saturday, February 15.

Buck Martinez was the headliner at Christian Brothers High School on Saturday, Feb. 15.

Martinez was the keynote speaker at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, where he mesmerized the crowd with stories from his playing days in the big leagues. Martinez is perhaps best known for having participated in the only 9-2-7-2 double play in Major League Baseball history.

Hundreds of baseball fans honored Buck Martinez into the La Salle Club Hall of Fame.

Hundreds of baseball fans honored Buck Martinez, who was inducted into the La Salle Club Hall of Fame.

As a catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985, Martinez was slammed to the ground following a close play at the plate. Martinez held onto the ball to tag Seattle’s Phil Bradley, but the collision was costly. Martinez suffered a broken leg and a dislocated ankle, but that didn’t stop him from trying to gun down the Mariners’ Gorman Thomas at third base. The hobbled catcher threw from a prone position but the ball sailed into left field. Thomas headed for home where Martinez miraculously caught the ball and swiped the runner with a clean tag to complete a 9-2-7-2 double play that has never since been repeated.

He has a lifetime of baseball memories, but Martinez told me one of his greatest thrills came in 2002 when he was managing the Blue Jays. It was during spring training and Martinez elected to put his own son Casey into the lineup. “He took three straight pitches right down the center of the plate,” Martinez told me. “It was a strikeout, but at least I got to see my son have an at bat.”

 

Buck Martinez shares a favorite baseball memory.

Buck Martinez shares a favorite baseball memory.

Not many fathers can say they were in the dugout, watching a son bat against Major League pitching.

The La Salle Club, headed up by Hall of Fame chairman Joe McNamara,  inducted eight other players into Sacramento history, including  Rowland Office, the McClatchy High School stand out who had a 29 game hitting streak for the Atlanta Braves, second longest in club history. Other honorees: Carl Boyer, Don Hammitt, Mike Baldwin, Oscar Broyer, Larry Wolfe, Curtis Brown and Scratch DeFazio.

While at the ceremonies, I had a chance to catch up with good friend Ron Hyde, my former colleague at KCRA 3.

Ron Hyde

Ron Hyde

Ron is retired from broadcasting but stays active covering sports, especially those involving his three children.

Also in attendance was Leron Lee, a 2012 La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Leron Lee

Leron Lee

Lee was a Grant High School star and a #1 draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in the Majors for for the Cardinals, Padres, Indians and Dodgers before launching a successful baseball career in Japan, where he still holds the record for highest career batting average (.320) for players with at least 4,000 at bats. He told me the Japanese players are well trained in the fundamentals of baseball. While there he would prepare by hitting 500 to 700 balls a day, which helped make him a more consistent hitter.

Leron’s brother Leon Lee also played with him in Japan. Leon was inducted into the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and is the father  of former Major Leaguer Derrek Lee, who graduated from El Camino High School (along with KCRA’s Lisa Gonzales).

Derrek Lee would go on to play first base for the San Diego Padres, Florida Marlins, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. Lee’s 2003 Marlins team beat the New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Derrek Lee will undoubtedly be a future Hall of Famer at the La Salle Club.

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Baseball Honors Sacramento Legend Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker was deep in prayer the night he was drafted into Major League Baseball. “Dear Lord,” Baker told hundreds of fans and supporters Saturday night at William Jessup University in Rocklin. “Please don’t let me be drafted by the Atlanta Braves.”

The year was 1967 and Baker, a native Californian, was troubled by the prospect of playing in the racially segregated South. So when the fateful phone call arrived, the Del Campo High School star answered it nervously. “Congratulations,” said the voice from far away. “You’ve been selected by the Atlanta Braves.”

Baker’s heart sank. “I guess God didn’t hear me,” he told the crowd. But sometimes, he confided,  God works in mysterious ways. Baker joined the Braves and got to play in the same outfield with Hank Aaron, one of the game’s greatest players.

After eight years in Atlanta, Baker was traded in 1976 to the Los Angeles, where he would lead the Dodgers to three National League pennants and a World Series championship in 1981.  Before hanging up his spikes in 1986, the two-time National League All-Star hit 242 Home Runs, with 1.013 Runs Batted In, with a lifetime .278 batting average.

But Baker’s true influence on the game was only just beginning and it would take form not only on the field but in the dugout. Baker served 20 seasons as manager for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. He took the Giants and the Cubs to the World Series, becoming only one of  three African-American managers to get there. He’s also only the ninth manager to lead three different teams into the playoffs. I had the privilege of meeting Dusty — and his team of Sacramento legends, at a Major League Baseball reunion dinner Saturday night.

Dusty Baker, a Sacramento Legend

Dusty Baker, a Sacramento Legend

Throughout his storied career,  Baker became a mentor for a whole new generation of  Major Leaguers, players  with roots in Northern California — including Willie McGee, Greg Vaughn, Ricky Jordan, Derrek Lee, Butch Metzger and many others who were on hand Saturday night to honor Baker, along with Jerry Manuel, who managed the Chicago White Sox (Manager of the Year in 2000), before he took helm of the New York Mets from 2008 – 2010.

Jerry Manuel and Dusty Baker surrounded by Sacramento greats

Jerry Manuel and Dusty Baker surrounded by Sacramento greats

Jerry Manuel is a great teacher, both in the classroom and on the field. His Jerry Manuel Foundation is a rigorous academic magnet program in the Elverta School District, designed for kids who love baseball. Jerry’s son Anthony Manuel, a former minor leaguer, is a baseball  instructor and coach at the school. The fundamental building blocks at JMF  are education, character development and the training of baseball skills on a daily basis. Here’s the link to learn more about the Jerry Manuel Foundation.

One of JMF’s goal is to overcome one of baseball’s shameful secrets: the game has lost it’s appeal to kids living in America’s inner cities. Today just 8 percent of Major League ballplayers are African American, compared to 33 percent some thirty years ago. JMF’s mission is to “increase the number of African American men becoming leaders and ignite a new-found passion and commitment to pursuing America’s favorite pastime at all levels.”

Manuel is now the head of baseball operations for William Jessup University, where he hopes some of his kids may one day play on what is now just a field of dreams.

Field of Dreams at William Jessup University in Rocklin

Field of Dreams at William Jessup University in Rocklin

Dusty Baker is committed to helping Manuel reach that goal and he’s not alone. Dozens of former players and scouts are supporting Manuel’s mission of teaching kids the nine core values practiced by Jackie Robinson: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence.

Sacramento players

Sacramento players

The list of supporting players reads like an All-Star roster:

Cardinal great Willie McGee.

Cardinal great Willie McGee

Willie McGee grew up in Richmond, California and helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 1982 as a rookie. The center fielder won three Gold Glove Awards and collected 2,254 hits in 18 seasons with St. Louis. In 1985, he led the National League in hitting with a .353 average.

Greg Vaughn hit 353 homers in his career

Greg Vaughn hit 355 homers in his career

Greg Vaughn was born in Sacramento and graduated from Kennedy High School. The left fielder played for the the Milwaukee Brewers (1989–96), San Diego Padres (1996–98), Cincinnati Reds (1999), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000–02) and Colorado Rockies (2003),  and finished with with 355 home runs, 1072 RBI, 1017 runs, 1475 hits and a .242 batting average.

Former Major Leaguers Willie McGee, Greg Vaughan, Derrek Lee and Jerry Manuel

Former Major Leaguers Willie McGee, Greg Vaughn, Derrek Lee and Jerry Manuel

Derrek Lee graduated from El Camino High School in Sacramento, along with KCRA 3′s Lisa Gonzales. Lee helped the Florida Marlins capture a  World Series championship in 2003 and he won the National League batting title in 2005 as a member of the Chicago Cubs. The two-time All-Star also won a Gold Glove Award three times. Derrek’s father, Leon Lee, played professional baseball in Japan.

Leon Lee and Dusty Baker signing autographs

Leon Lee and Dusty Baker signing autographs

Also in attendance, Richmond’s Ricky Jordan who played first base for the Phillies and the Mariners from 1988 – 1996. He’s now active in the construction business in Sacramento and told me he’s hiring more people now that the economy is heating up.

Ricky Jordan

Ricky Jordan signs a baseball

But the biggest beneficiaries of Saturday’s baseball bash for Baker were the kids from the Jerry Manuel Foundation. They got to mingle with all the former players, who graciously answered their questions and signed autographs.

Sacramento legends sign autographs for JMF kids

Sacramento legends sign autographs for JMF kids

These players believe that baseball can be the catalyst for change. Baseball made the difference in their lives and now they are dedicated to giving their time and resources back to the community where they grew up, so that other kids can have a chance. If you’d like to help, you can contact the Jerry Manuel Foundation at P.O. Box 1127, Loomis, CA 95650 or just click here: How to Donate

 

Future All-Stars

Future All-Stars

It’s through the magic of baseball that sometimes, dreams can come true.

 

 

 

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The Spirit of Sportsmanship in St. Louis

The World Series may be over, but the Spirit of St. Louis lives on. The Cardinals may have lost the title to the Red Sox, but their fans are considered by many to be the best in baseball.

Busch Stadium

Busch Stadium

St Louis fans are passionate about their team, but will applaud good plays, even if it’s the visitors robbing the Cardinals of a home run. Cardinal fans are very polite in a friendly Midwestern kind of way.

So it came as a big surprise to see the Boston Red Sox take out a full page ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, thanking the Cardinal fans “from one great baseball town to another”. The ad shows two young baseball fans, dressed in opposing Cardinals and Red Sox gear, cheering on their teams in the spirit of sportsmanship.

See the ad here: Red Sox thank Cardinals fans.
In the ad, the Bostonians thank the people of St. Louis for “The warm Midwestern welcome extended to our team.” The ad is signed by the Red Sox owners, who proclaim,”So we tip our caps to each and every one of you. We look forward to seeing you again next August. Let’s hope it’s just a prelude to meeting again in October.”

Well played, Boston! The Red Sox are not only the team of the century with three World Series wins, but are also a very classy organization!

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Who Will Win The 2013 World Series?

It’s great to see the two best teams in baseball facing off in the World Series. The Red Sox and Cardinals were both 97-65 during the regular season and both have a storied history. Boston swept St. Louis 4-0 in 2004 to break the curse of the Bambino. The Cards beat the BoSox in seven games in 1967 and also 1946.

St. Louis has won 11 World Series championships (tops in the National League), while Boston has 7 titles. Add them together and it’s still less than the Yankees 27 trophies, but that’s another blog for another day.

The Cards have the 1-2 punch of veteran Adam Wainwright and rookie Michael Wacha (MVP of the NLCS) on the mound along with Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn while the Red Sox will counter with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy. The Sox have the better front four, but with Wainwright and Wacha likely to pitch two games each, the edge is neutralized.

Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals ace, warming up against the A's in Oakland.

Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals ace, warming up against the A’s in Oakland.

The Red Sox have the best bullpen in the Major Leagues with Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara (MVP of ALCS). Uehara throws strikes consistently and has been virtually unhittable in the post-season. The Cards counter with Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Advantage: Red Sox.

The Cardinals have arguably the best catcher in baseball in Yadier Molina, but Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia is solid behind the plate. Advantage: St. Louis.

At 1B, St. Louis starts rookie Matt Adams, while the Red Sox will have Mike Napoli in games at Fenway Park. Napoli has been a monster in the post-season. Edge: Red Sox.

At second base, the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter was #1 in doubles (55), runs scored (126) and tied for first in hits (199), while Boston’s Dustin Pedroia hit .301 and is solid at second. Carpenter is the better player on paper, but he struggled in the playoffs and Pedroia is a tougher out in the post-season. Edge: Even.

At shortstop, Boston’s Stephen Drew is brilliant defensively but a weak hitter. The same is true for St. Louis’s Pete Kozma. Advantage: Even.

The Cards have the slumping David Freese at 3rd, while Boston will start the lighting quick but untested rookie Xander Bogaerts (or the slumping Will Middlebrooks). Freese always seems to shine in the post-season (21 RBI in 2011 World Series). Edge: Cardinals.

In the outfield, St. Louis has the light-hiting John Jay in center, Matt Holliday in left and the new Mr. October Carlos Beltan in right. Beltran is hitting .337 overall in his total postseason play, with 16 home runs and a slugging percentage of .724. He is indeed Mr. Clutch. Boston has Shane Victorino in right (2 post-season Grand Slams in his career), along with Jocoby Ellsbury in center (his 52 stolen bases was tops in MLB), and Daniel Nava in left (replacing Jonny Gomes against the Cardinal righties). Slight Edge: Boston.

DH: If Allen Craig is healthy, he’ll start as the Designated Hitter in Boston, then pinch hit in St. Louis. Craig is terrific with men on base and overall he hit .315 with 13 homers and 97 RBI for the Cardinals before getting injured in September. But he’s swinging the bat now and sounding like he’ll play ball. The Red Sox have David Ortiz, who is one of the best hitters in baseball, but here’s the X-factor: in St. Louis for Ortiz to be in the lineup, he’ll have to play 1B where he is a definite defensive liability. Advantage: St. Louis.

Prediction: Since the All-Star break I’ve been predicting the Cards would win it all, but there are some intangibles here: Boston has the better bullpen and greater depth than the Cardinals, plus home field advantage. The Red Sox have shown persistence in coming from behind late in the game. Combine that with the Pedroia factor (the guy always finds a way to win), makes me believe the Red Sox may truly be the team of destiny this year. So after crunching the numbers, I’m changing my prognosis:

Boston in 7 over St. Louis.

 

 

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The Hunt For Green Oak-Tober

It’s hard to beat the sounds, sights and pageantry of post-season baseball, Oakland A’s style. For the playoffs, the Athletics have opened the upper deck of the Coliseum, where on Friday night they captured a crowd of more than 48,000 fans, their biggest in nine years.

photo-4

 

Rodney Hobbs and his 11-year-old son Braden were among the first to arrive at the Coliseum. “We left Sonora, California at about 3:45 this morning and had to drop off the wife at the airport,” Rodney told me. Hobbs explained  that he and Braden “decided to go ahead and (we) found some tickets and here we are.”

Walter Vita of Sacramento brought his enthusiasm and his A’s tattoo to the ballpark. “We left home about 8 o’clock. We were actually second in the gate so you know it was great.”

And Nick Giampaoli of Lincoln also left early for the Coliseum. “I got on the road at 9:30 this morning. I’ve been here since noon and I was one of the very first people to get through the gate and I’m very proud to be an Oakland A’s fan.”

Tailgating is a strong tradition in Oakland, where fans enjoy grilling and chilling before the game.

Tailgating in Oakland

Tailgating in Oakland

I asked A’s fan Laurie Jones about the art of pre-gaming. She told me, “My husband is a master barbequer, so we’ve got tri-tip going, we’ve got sausages, chips and dip and all kinds of stuff and even adult beverages and it’s a good time. I even called in sick.”

A's fans know how to tailgate

A’s fans know how to tailgate

The fans in Oakland are passionate about the Oakland Athletics, but the core of the team is the Sacramento River Cats. In fact, 21 of the 25 players on the post-season roster played this year in Sacramento. “I’m here from Sacramento to cheer on the River Cats, who are now playing on the Athletics,” A’s fan Ana Sandoval told me. “I know I’m a huge fan of the River Cats, whether it’s Josh Donaldson, Eric Sogard or Stephen Vogt, so it’s really great to come out and see them on the big club and playing for a championship this year.”

Game 2 starter Sonny Gray is one of those former River Cats. In the A’s clubhouse, I asked him to describe how the chemistry of the River Cats helped prepare the A’s for the playoffs. “Yeah the chemistry is awesome,” Gray told me. “It’s amazing and it’s made it such an easy transition for me coming up here. The guys have  been awesome from day one. I think it goes to show we have not only a good team, but a good organization.”

Sonny Gray

Sonny Gray

The A’s have a strong family tradition that includes fans like Don and Jason Newman, a father and son team from Sacramento. “The A’s are the hottest team right now,” Don Newman said. “We wanted to come down and be here for the first game of this division series.” His son Jason added, ” This playoff game is an exciting experience for us but for me it’s spending time with my dad. It’s really special to spend time together at an A’s game.”

Let's play ball!

Let’s play ball!

Also at Game 1 was lifelong fan Donald Marquez, who wrote a book called “Generation A’s Fans” to describe his love affair with the Athletics. Marquez is on the book’s cover, as a 4-year-old, in the arms of A’s legend Reggie Jackson. “Dad, mom, used to bring me to the games way back when,” Marquez told me. “My oldest brother, the entire family used to come and pretty much spend all the major holidays in the bleachers.”

Lifelong A's fan Donald Marquez

Lifelong A’s fan Donald Marquez

The A’s won back-to-back-to-back championships from 1972-74. They also captured a World Series title in 1989 when they beat the San Francisco Giants, their cross-Bay rivals. A’s fans are hoping a little of that magic will return this year.

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Dodgers First to Clinch, Last in Class

Have you seen the pictures?

Dodgers Dive In

Moments after the Los Angeles Dodgers became the first team to clinch a playoff berth, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Michael Young and other Dodgers plunged into the pool at Chase One Ballpark, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks:

Not Classy

Sure they were excited, I get that. And some of the players are very young and inexperienced in the ways of winning. But there were enough veteran ballplayers there to know better. Somebody should have said, “Stop, this is a really bad idea.”

Have you ever seen Derek Jeter pull a stunt like that? Or Albert Pujols? They know a lot about winning and the first rule is to celebrate like you’ve done it before.  Act like it’s no big deal. Give a few high fives and back slaps and then head back to the weight room to gear up for the playoffs. Keep your eye on the prize of winning the World Series. Then and only then, can you you pop the champagne and carry on like crazies, but make sure you do it in the locker room, not your next door neighbor’s pool.

Don’t ever rub it in the face of the home team, especially in their pool. The Dodgers disrespected the Diamondbacks and the game of baseball and showed no class by hijacking Arizona’s pool. No individual, no team, no celebration should ever be bigger than the game itself.

Winning a division doesn’t make you a champion. The Dodgers will find that out when the St. Louis Cardinals win the pennant. And if the Redbirds clinch in Dodger Stadium, you can bet they won’t be racing go-karts down Chavez Ravine to mock the home team. With 11 World Series championships and 18 National League pennants, the Cardinals know how to win and do it with dignity.

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Jackie Robinson’s Legacy Lives On

I’ve had the honor of meeting Rachel Robinson twice now. The first time was in 2007 at the California Museum in Sacramento, where her late husband Jackie was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. She was energetic and a beacon of light on that cold December night. I told her we had something in common. It turns out both of us lived for many years in Stamford, Connecticut, my home town. Rachel, a California native, lived in Stamford with Jackie when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stamford is the place where I grew up, with many happy memories.

And then on Monday, I had the chance to meet Rachel Robinson again, this time at the California State Capitol. The California Legislative Black Caucus paid tribute to Robinson for her work on behalf of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she founded in 1973, the year after her beloved husband died.

Rachel Robinson honored at the California State Capitol

Rachel Robinson honored at the California State Capitol

“Of course we were devastated by his death, ” Robinson told me. “But we needed to find a way to have the legacy live on. And both he and I – and all of our family and friends who were interested in education.” She explained they knew that “education was the key to a good life.” The Jackie Robinson Foundation is a national, non-profit organization established to provide greater access to higher education for disadvantaged youth. To date the foundation has provided college scholarships for more than 1,400 students nationwide. “And we have almost a 100 percent graduation rate,” Robinson told me.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

While in Sacramento, Robinson hosted a special screening of the movie, “42″, the story of Jackie Robinson’s historic rise to the Major Leagues. He was the first African American player to break the color barrier when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The movie is a powerful, but painfully accurate depiction of a segregated American society, in which blacks faced oppressive racism and had to drink from separate “colored” water fountains. 

But Rachel Robinson has heard from many of today’s youth who have seen the movie. “They’re horrified at some of the things they see in the movie,” she told me. “But they’re also surprised by it and then they get excited about fighting back. You know we didn’t just fade and (not) meet the challenges.” Robinson said.

Robinson has counseled kids about meeting their own challenges – everything from poverty to bullying. “So when I write back I ask them to consider what they’re doing and their own family, their own neighborhood, their own school so that they can feel positive about being able to go forward and have strength and have a good life, despite what’s in the environment.”

Jackie Robinson was an All-Star second baseman for the Dodgers, whose number 42 has now been retired by every Major League Baseball team, except for one. Mariano Rivera, an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees, also wear number 42, but after he retires this year, the number will never be seen on a player again. “We’re very proud the number was being retired,” Rachel Robinson said.

As for Rivera, she said, “I’m meeting him for a ritual, his goodbye at Yankee Stadium next week. And I’ve been so proud of him, because he’s not only a superb ballplayer but he’s a charming good man and has carried it with dignity. And I think he’s added some special sentiment to that number.”

Over his 10-year career, Jackie Robinson was a .311 hitter with 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in and 197 stolen bases, including nineteen thefts of home. But statistics don’t begin to tell the full story. Robinson’s leadership, his courage under fire and his grace under pressure made him a perfect role model for  Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey  and generations of African American ball players who were inspired by him. 

While Robinson fought hard to integrate Major League Baseball, ironically today African Americans comprise just 8 percent of the rosters of all 30 teams — that’s roughly half the number the number from the 1970′s. It’s a fact that’s not been lost on Rachel Robinson.

“I’m sad about that,” she told me. “And I’ve talked to the commissioner about it and I’ve talked to the higher ups in baseball. They say that they’re working to change that situation and to move more people forward. But I think it’s happening too slowly and now with enough emphasis. Diversity is still a problem for us.”Rachel Robinson at age 91, is still battling for civil rights today. And judging by her reception at the California State Capitol, where she was swarmed by admirers, there’s no doubt that Rachel Robinson is making a difference.

It was an honor meeting Rachel Robinson

With Rachel Robinson at the Capitol

 

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The Most Exciting Player in Baseball

He’s 22 years old and plays the game with unbridled enthusiasm. Until he gets benched for throwing a temper tantrum at the plate,  then walks like a slug instead of running to his position on the field.

Such is the dynamic of Yasiel Puig, who is both electrifying and agonizing as the rookie right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dodger Stadium

He’s known as the Wild Horse, but sometimes he acts like a spoiled stallion that won’t be tamed, even if he bucks his rider and trips over his own feet.

Puig is hitting .351 with 19 doubles and 14 homers in half a season of action:

Puig Statistics

And when he comes to the plate, everyone stops what they’re doing to watch the guy who just may be the most exciting player in baseball. His ability to mesmerize 50,000 fans reminds me of Barry Bonds in his prime — a player who sizzled in the spotlight and brought everyone to their feet. You don’t want to be hustling a hot dog at the concession stand when he comes to the plate, for fear of missing something big.

Puig

 

I had a chance to see Yasiel Puig play in person last Saturday night in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers hosted the San Diego Padres. Puig was both brilliant (when he nailed a runner at home with a dart from right field that bounced on one hop to the catcher for an easy swipe of the baserunner) to baffling(when he walked

1st Base

but then got caught stealing at second by 10 feet). Puig went 0-4 with a boneheaded base running move but made the defensive play of the game that allowed the Dodgers to hold the Padres to 1 run in a 2-1, come from behind victory.

The Wild Horse wears no saddle but has much to learn. His playful exuberance and passion for the game are infectious, but his immaturity and miniscule minor league experience work against him. Given time, training and proper instruction from his coaches and teammates, Puig has potential to be one of the greats of the game. But in the meantime, he is a work in progress and what fun it will be to watch him grow up.

As for the Dodgers, they are rock solid now with the addition of former Giant Brian Wilson. The Bearded One took the mound in the 8th inning in relief and earned a victory after pitching a scoreless inning, followed by a Dodger rally in the last half of the frame.

Brian Wilson

The Dodgers have also added veteran Michael Young from the Phillies, giving them another solid infielder and steady bat for the stretch drive. The Dodgers are a lock to win the National League West, but I predict they will fall to the Cardinals in the battle for the pennant. St. Louis has five superb starters and is strong at every position. Second baseman Matt Carpenter leads the Majors in runs scored with 103. Pitching ace Adam Wainwright is tops in MLB with 5 complete games and leads everyone with just 1.26 walks per nine innings.

Sure the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, whose 1.89 ERA is the best in baseball, along with just 0.92 walks plus hits per inning. Both teams are great, but I give the Cardinals the edge with playoff experience. And even though the Dodgers have the most exciting player in baseball, he is just a rookie after all, who has never played in the postseason. Perhaps the Wild Horse will gallop his way to the World Series, but I  wouldn’t bet on it. Either way, it sure will be exciting to see him in action this October.

 

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Baseball Legends Speak Out On Suspensions

Sacramento’s baseball legends are very vocal about the suspensions of a dozen players by Major League Baseball. The 50-game ban includes Nelson Cruz, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers, Jhonny Peralta an infielder with the Detroit Tigers, Everth Cabrera, a shortstop for the San Diego Padres and others for their role in using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The 211-game suspension against Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez is under appeal.

“I think children are getting the message. I think parents and coaches are getting the message that it is not acceptable,” said Leon Lee, a current baseball instructor with the California International Baseball Group and former star in the minor leagues and Japanese baseball. Lee is also the father of Derrek Lee, an All-Star in 2005 and 2007 with the Chicago Cubs.

I met Leon in Folsom, where he was throwing batting practice to 19-year old prospect, Charlie Hammond.

Leon

“Now baseball’s starting to send a message,” Lee told me. “You have to do it on your own merit. I like that.”

I asked Lee about the use of performance enhancing drugs during his era, the 1970′s. “During the time I played, the amphetamines were an issue,” he said. “You know we called them greenies. You stay out until 3 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning, you come dragging in there and the guys say, ‘hey man just pop one of these and you’re ok’. And guys were always looking for that advantage. And hopefully kids coming up now will realize — don’t put that in your body. You don’t need that.”

Lee’s student Charlie Hammond agreed. “I’ve always been of the opinion that you should never put any substances in your body,” he said. As for the big suspensions, Hammond told me, ” It definitely shows that the consequences do not outweigh the benefits.”

Lee added, ” I think the kids are saying this is not going to be cool to do this any more.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Jerry Manuel, a former Major League manager with the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. “The young players have to recognize that this sport, our sport, is trying to do everything it can to keep the playing field level,” Manuel told me at his baseball academy in Elverta, California.

Manuel now runs the Jerry Manuel Foundation with his son Anthony Manuel. JMF’s mission, as stated on its Web site, is “to educate African American young men with Charter School standards and train them in the fundamentals of baseball.”

Manuel noted that baseball’s punishments seemed to affect one group of players in particular. “I’m a little bit concerned with the disproportionate number of Latin players on that list,” he told me. “Are they getting the right messages from Major League Baseball? Are they understanding that? Are they getting clarity on that? Or are they getting it from their agent,” he wondered.

I asked Manuel if baseball’s recent crackdown on steroids was perhaps getting lost in translation. “I think so,” he said. “Because I know a couple of those guys. And when I was with the Mets, one of the young men barely spoke the language. And sometimes, coming from abject poverty, you’ve got a whole group of people who you are responsible for that you got off the island — and you’re trying to do everything you can to provide not only for yourself, but for family members.”

“Does Major League Baseball need to do a better job of communicating with these players,” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. “We need to do a better job of when these players are represented by someone, then they understand clearly the laws of the land of Major League Baseball.”

The Jerry Manuel Foundation is a magnet program for kids interested in baseball. They take classes at Alpha Middle School in Elverta. “We’ll discuss this at length,” Manuel told me. “We’ll have a day where we’ll have a home room, an hour of discussion about this particular situation. This will be one of the subjects that we will definitely attack.”

Jerry’s son Anthony Manuel is the head coach at the  Foundation, where he was giving batting lessons this week to 12-year old Jackson Haney.

Anthony

“There’s no room for cheating,” Anthony told me. “That’s not going to be acceptable.  Hard work and (a strong) work ethic can take you a long way.”

The culture of baseball now seems to be changing, with more players than ever demanding the sport be clean, with no tolerance for PEDs. “You’re cheating the fans,” Anthony said. “You’re cheating the family, you’re cheating the game. Because it’s not real results that you’re getting.”

It was a lesson quickly absorbed by Jackson Haney. “If you break the rules, you got to pay,” he said.

 

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