Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Lasorda’

The Night That Ted Turner Managed the Braves

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Some things aren’t meant to last.

Prime time television’s roster has a handful of shows that didn’t endure more than episode, e.g., Co-Ed FeverPublic MoralsSouth of Sunset.

Major League Baseball’s annals boast tales of players who only played in one game.  Perhaps the best known in this category is Moonlight Graham, portrayed in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.

On May 11, 1977, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner added another story when he ventured from the owner’s suite to the dugout to manage the Braves.  His helming lasted only one night; Major League Baseball’s powers that be reminded Turner that a rule prevented managers from partial or full ownership of a team.  The Braves lost the May 11th game to the Pirates 2-1; it was Atlanta’s 17th consecutive loss.  Phil Niekro pitched a complete game, a noble outing in a 16-20 season yielding a National League-leading 262 strikeouts for the Braves knuckleballer.

Though Turner expressed a Veeckian ardor for baseball and its fans, the likes of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Tommy Lasorda had nothing to fear from the man dubbed “Mouth of the South” for his brashness flavored with ambition, dedication, and southern charm.  Managerial aspirations may have been fleeting, but they were, nonetheless, on display in the Braves dugout.

Commitment to success did not constrain Turner to his accountants and bookkeepers.  A communications magnate who created the Superstation template by offering his Atlanta station WTBS on cable systems across the country and revamped the news industry with Cable News Network (CNN), Turner has a passion for his portfolio beyond dollars and sense—an approach that continues today, long after these assets are no longer under his aegis.  His is a passion for excellence, enjoyment, and engagement.  In a 2001 profile of Turner for The New Yorker, Ken Auletta wrote, “To insure continuous baseball coverage that could not be taken off his Superstation, Turner, in 1976, bought the Atlanta Braves; although he paid a bargain price of ten million dollars, he went into debt to do it.  He attended most of the Braves home games: he ran out onto the field to lead the fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; sitting behind the Braves dugout, he’d spit Red Man tobacco juice into a cup and swill beer, in hot weather peeling off his shirt; when a Brave hit a home run, he’d jump over the railing and rush to the plate to greet him; he played cards with his players and insisted that they call him Ted.”

Putting the Braves on WTBS meant piping games into areas lacking major league teams—and, in some cases, minor league teams.  Thereby, Turner branded the squad “America’s Team.”  As inventive as P.T. Barnum, Turner employed a strategy to set the Braves games and other WTBS programming apart from network and local fare—by starting programs at five minutes after the hour or the half hour, WTBS stood out in the program listings in TV Guide.

Turner owned the Braves till the mid-1990s, when he sold the club to Time Warner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 11, 2017.

The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Piniella

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Lou Piniella is one of baseball’s greatest journeymen—a player with the Orioles, the Indians, the Royals, and the Yankees, in addition to stints as a manager with the Yankees, the Reds, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Cubs.

Piniella’s achievements as a manager include winning a World Series championship, AL Manager of the Year twice, and NL Manager of the Year once.  With 1,835 career wins, Piniella is #14 on the all-time list—ahead of Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, and Clark Griffith.  Also, Piniella managed the Mariners to an American League single-season record of 116 wins in 2001.

And yet, Piniella is not graced with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Surely, his managerial success indicates a career deserving of inclusion into the exclusive club in Cooperstown, located at 25 Main Street.  And that success emanated from determination.  Piniella managed as he played—with fierceness to win and reluctance to lose.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner gave Piniella his first manager job.  Working for Steinbrenner came with legendary tension.  But in a 2002 article by Ira Berkow in the New York Times, Pinieall acknowledged the opportunity.  “I owe my managerial career to George,” said Piniella.  “He made me the manager and it was on-the-job training.  He saw something in me—I know he liked my intensity as a player—and he gave me a shot.”

“Intensity” to say the least.  Piniella had the resolve of a bull charging the matador.

For Yankee fans, Piniella was a fixture on the “Bronx Zoo” teams that brought three American League pennants and two World Series titles to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s.  It was a volatile era, indeed.  When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees before the 1977 season, Piniella knew a storm was brewing around the star player and manager Billy Martin that would have made the tornado from The Wizard of Oz look like a slight breeze.

“It was obviously going to be explosive,” said Piniella in Bill Pennington’s 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.  “And Billy was right, it did cause problems with Thurman [Munson] and Craig [Nettles].  But at the same time, let’s face it, Reggie was never Billy’s kind of player.  I think Billy did resent him a little.  He didn’t like most guys who called attention to themselves.”

On June 16, 1984, Piniella played in his last game.  Naturally, he had the game-winning RBI.  Even though Piniella went 0-for-5 on the day, his efforts contributed value to the Yankees beating the Orioles 8-3—the crucial RBI came from a ground ball.

George Vecsey of the New York Times described Piniella’s psychological makeup in an account of the June 16th game.  “His temper kept him in the minor leagues for most of the 1960’s, but later that temper hardened into a fierce athletic pride.  Only rarely did the temper come through in New York—but when it did, the tantrum was a beauty.  Who will ever forget Piniella sitting on the grass, pounding his fists on the east, raging over being called out by Ron Luciano during the 1978 playoffs?”

Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1969, notching a .282 batting average, 139 hits, and 68 RBI for the Kansas City Royals.  “Sweet Lou” retired from playing during the 1984 season.  His career statistics include a .291 batting average, 1,705 hits, and 305 doubles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 16, 2016.

Kingman’s Performance

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Never at a loss for words, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda uncorked a verbal geyser of “F” word variations in response to a reporter’s inquiry on May 14, 1978.  Dave Kingman earned the privilege of setting off Lasorda by going yard three times and tallying eight RBI in that day’s Cubs-Dodgers game.  It was a display of power awing the 31,968 attendees at Dodger Stadium in the same month that Pete Rose notched his 3000th hit, Al Unser won his third of four Indianapolis 500 races, and Ron Guidry went 5-0 on his way to an American League Cy Young Award season with a 25-3 record.

After the Cubs’ 10-7 victory, secured by Kingman’s three-run homer in the 15th inning, sports reporter Paul Olden of KLAC radio asked Lasorda, “What’s your opinion of Kingman’s performance?”

And that’s pretty much when the wheels fell off the wagon.

“What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance?  What the f*** do you think is my opinion of it?  I think it was f****** horse****!  Put that in!  I don’t f******…opinion of his performance?  Jesus Christ, he beat us with three f******* home runs!”

That is merely the beginning of a monologue that lasts approximately 90 seconds, with Lasorda repeating the phrase “opinion of his performance” in disgust.

Frustration is often a signal of respect—such was the case with Lasorda, who admitted, “He put on a hell of a show.”

Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune remarked upon Kingman’s recent respites—none sparking delight—after showing signs of slump busting in a Cubs-Padres game.  “Kingman had two hits that night, then was benched against right-hander Gaylord Perry and against Don Sutton of the Dodgers,” reported Dozer.  “This did not please him anymore than being waved to the bench defensively on several occasions earlier this year.”

Kingman caught a Dusty Baker “wicked liner near the foul line” for the Dodgers’ last out of the ninth inning.  “It’s just a part of contributing,” declared Kingman.  “Some people around here think I can’t play defense, but maybe they’ll change their minds.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan quoted Kingman about his day of glory, noting the slugger’s association with Los Angeles dating back to his USC days.  “I consider this my home,” said Kingman.  “It’s always a great feeling to come back to Dodger Stadium.  I can’t put it into words.  It’s one of the most beautiful parks in either league.  The whole atmosphere is pure baseball.”

Kingman’s magical day provides a snapshot of strength, e.g., 442 career home runs, 35 or more home runs in a season six times.  Power had a cost, however.  It came in the currency of strikeouts for the Illinois native, who compiled a .236 batting average in his 16-year career.  Two outstanding years show the terrific contrast.

1979

  • Led the major leagues in home runs (48)
  • Led the National League in slugging percentage (.613)
  • Led the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage (.956)
  • Led the National League in strikeouts (131)

1982

  • Led the National League in home runs (37)
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts (156)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 14, 2016.

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues.  From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock.  Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.

Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly.  Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.

Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats.  A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:

  • Career hits (2,884)
  • Doubles (476)
  • Triples (171)
  • RBI (1,248)

Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.

A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture.  OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers.  Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.

Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player.  His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career.  As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age.  He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”

In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211.  Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average.  It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.

Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication.  “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat.  “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition.  I think they are a lot of bunk.  The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.

Bobby Valentine, Tommy Lasorda, and the 1970 Spokane Indians

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Among its symbols, Spokane boasts The Historic Davenport Hotel, the Bing Crosby Theatre, and the Monroe Street Bridge.  They are, to be sure, propellants of the city’s physical, cultural, and architectural landscapes.

Baseball contributes an equally significant identifier to this foothold of the Inland Northwest.

And so it was—and continues to be—with the 1970 Spokane Indians.

Indians shortstop Bobby Valentine won the Pacific Coast League MVP Award, with a .340 batting average, 211 hits, and 122 runs scored.  IN a 2015 Hartford Courant article by Owen Canfield, Valentine praised Tommy Lasorda, the Indians manager, for offering positive reinforcement at a low point.  “After one particularly tough fielding game for me, he came into the locker room and said to the other players, ‘Go and get yourselves a pen and paper and get Bobby’s autograph, because some day he’s going to be great.'”

At the time, the AAA Indians belonged in the Dodgers’ minor league hierarchy.  Lasorda, of course, succeeded Walter Alston as the Dodgers’ manager, stayed at the helm for the next 20 years, and became a Chavez Ravine icon.  Spokane was a highly significant facilitator for the Dodgers—Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Von Joshua, Joe Ferguson, and Charlie Hough played for the Indians before getting called up to “the show.”

In his 1985 autobiography The Artful Dodger, written with David Fisher, Lasorda described his strategy of converting ballplayers to different positions—Davey Lopes, for example.  “He was a bona fide, blue-chip, big league prospect,” explained Lasorda.  “His only problem was that he was an outfielder, and the organization had an abundance of talented outfielders.  We needed shortstops and second basemen.  Since Russell and Valentine were already working out at shortstop, I told Davey I wanted to make him a second baseman.  He resisted the idea at first, but once I’d convinced him he would get to the big leagues a lot faster as an infielder, he accepted it.”

Lopes became a mainstay of the Dodgers infield in the 1970s, along with Ron Cey at third base, Russell at shortstop, and Garvey at first base.

In 1970, the Indians notched a 94-52 record, captured the PCL’s Northern Division by 26 games, and won the PCL championship by defeating the Hawaii Islanders in a four-game sweep.

From 1958 to 1972, the Indians belonged in the Dodgers organization, with subsequent affiliations to Texas, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Kansas City.  The team’s genesis began, effectively, on December 2nd, when the Dodgers and the Giants agreed to pay $900,000 in damages to the PCL for transporting into the league’s territory upon their exoduses from Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively.

A three-team move followed, rearranging the Los Angeles Angels to Spokane, the San Francisco Seals to Phoenix, and the Hollywood Stars to Salt Lake City.  Hollywood and the other PCL teams—Vancouver, Seattle, Sacramento, Portland, San Diego—split the $900,000 equally, receiving $150,000 apiece.

Of the realignment, Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times clarified, “Long Beach, which has been a strong bidder for the Hollywood franchise, has no chance of landing it.  Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, among others, are solidly opposed to the beach city because of its proximity to Los Angeles.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 14, 2016.

Opening Day

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Remington

Opening Day is a metaphor for life.  It helps inaugurate Spring with hope, the very base of the season’s renaissance.

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The Most Important Person in Dodgers History

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Topic:  The most important person in Dodgers history.

Discuss.  This could take awhile, if at least one participant bleeds Dodger Blue.

Jackie Robinson comes to mind, of course.  His courage opened the door for integration to revolutionize baseball.

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Happy Birthday, Baseball Hall of Fame!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Opened on June 12, 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a time tunnel that journeys its visitors through a cornerstone of American history. More than a mere sport, baseball is a vehicle of social change.

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Of Baseball and Bombshells

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Baseball is full of clichés. So is Broadway.

In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Kirk Gibson hit a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning to win the game for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Oakland Athletics. But this moment was not merely a veteran major leaguer committing an act of prowess at the plate. Gibson was injured. Badly.

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