July 20, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: January Thaw

January 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The headline above is a hopeful phrase here in upstate NY, where the temperatures are heading for negative double-digits. We don’t always get a thaw, but after a while, the teens start to feel warm. The snow piled up between the roads and sidewalks can be more of a problem for drivers, especially those backing out (blindly) into traffic. But there is one January thaw we can count on.

And that is the thaw in baseball news. (Remember, as a Pirate fan, I do not need to watch for free-agent signings, and do they even hold “winter meetings” to talk trades anymore?) Like clockwork, news rises out of Cooperstown like that white smoke announcing new popes — We have inductees.

Congratulations to Rickey Henderson. I confess that something in me was hoping that he’d not get in on his first try, just to read his reaction. But he deserves the Hall, he had a great career, and may have been the all-time best leadoff batter and base-stealer. Those are old-fashioned skills, of course. The fact that Henderson also whacked more than a few home runs was an extra dimension. And for those who saw him in action, can there be any doubt that he also contributed mightily to his team’s offense by bothering opposing pitchers to distraction? We will never know what he added to the stats of those who batted while he danced off the bases. Let’s be honest, the guy was fun to watch, like Jackie Robinson and probably Ty Cobb.

And then there is Jim Rice. Congrats to Jim, too, and how different his feelings than Rickey’s — Jim was down to his last shot. Must have felt like he had fouled off fourteen straight, and was finally going to get his pitch, or else. I suspect that he will remain a controversial pick, like a Bill Mazeroski, and that’s OK. Maybe Rice’s election is the voters’ way of underlining that character thing, which prevents them from voting for McGwire (wrongly, I believe), and in the future, Bonds. I don’t know, I’ve never tried to figure out the HOF voting.

As it turns out, Jim Rice is one of the few players that I’ve met in person — not just at the ballpark, I shook his hand. That story — which pre-dates NOTES — follows, along with a poem I wrote about Rice for that occasion. It’s not a great poem, it would never get voted any honors.

The poem is in my book A Baseball Family Album, which was released last year (by Pocol Press) and then swiftly captured by obscurity. That’s OK, I’m just glad it’s in print. I like to see baseball as a family, and would not be opposed to having something in Cooperstown for everyone who played the game — not metal plaques, but something besides their files in the library.

RICE AT A WEDDING

[The following was written in February 1993 — a month before NOTES FROM THE SHADOWS OF COOPERSTOWN was launched. I was invited to be the Utica correspondent for a Boston Red Sox publication — the BoSox had, following the 1992 season, affiliated with Utica. At the time, Utica had a NY-Penn League franchise. The relationship with the Red Sox started on this high note.]

Last evening, the Oneida County Sports Facility Authority, sponsored Utica’s first-ever Hot Stove League Banquet, and if the event is any indicator of how the summer game is to go, 1993 should be fun.

Since the last bat cracks of summer (the NY-Penn league permits aluminum bleachers and beer cans, but not bats that ping), Utica has become engaged to a new parent club, Boston, and the wedding feast at the downtown Radisson Hotel drew several hundred folks from central New York, as well as reps of the new parent club.

On a day when baseball headlines carried what we hope will be the last of the shabby Marge Schott affair, the speakers were unanimously upbeat and enthused. Bob Fowler, starting his ninth year as [U-Sox] owner, warmed up by quoting Giamatti on how baseball is a form of writing. (I hoped he’d follow up by drawing next on the fine article Roger Angell sketched last summer when he took time for the paradise of our secret league, visiting Oneonta. He didn’t.)

Utica’s own Bob Julian, a well-respected county politician, is first-term president this season, of “the oldest continuous-playing A-league in the world” — his own phrase. NY-P is a league that has had to fight to survive, just like many cities and villages in the northeast, and Mr Julian is keenly aware that the competition on the diamonds will not go on unless the economic/political competition outside the lines, with the new-stadium-building towns of the south, is won. Thus he inherits a presidency with pressing domestic issues, and even more urgent global concerns, but fortunately, no trillion-dollar deficit.

[Since 1993, Utica became one of many cities abandoned by the NY-Penn League, locales with new ballparks — but not in the south. The Utica Blue Sox ended up in Aberdeen, MD; Staten Island and Brooklyn recruited franchises. Musical chairs: more cities wanting teams, than there are teams wanting cities.]

All minor-leagues are under a certain pressure, occasioned by the Majors-Minors Agreement, to upgrade their facilities to meet quality standards (by 1994). The minors have little leverage in bargaining: like ball players under the old reserve clause, they are told to feel grateful they can play the game for pay, and if they don’t like the terms offered, there are others lined up outside who will gladly take their place. So being “the oldest” league is not just a point of pride, but a threat: Mr Julian noted that the average age of parks in the league is over 50. Happily, Mr Fowler added later, Utica’s Murnane Field is closest to compliance, thanks to the late state senator James Donovan, for whom the Stadium (not the field) is named. New parks are a-building in Auburn, Erie and Batavia as well, and there will be NY-P joy this summer in Sussex County, N.J., after a 25-year absence of professional baseball.

Mr Julian has set a high goal for himself as the new NY-P Commish: to run a league where fans can focus on what the players are doing — in other words, to keep the owners off the sports pages. Major league fans can only hope that Mr Vincent’s successor follows suit.

Next up, Erwin Bryant of Bosox player personnel recalled his own days as a player in the NY-Penn league, in 1977, a summer USox fans recall for Jesse Barfield’s long homers. He went on to report how, as a scout, he saw playing conditions in Utica improve over the years since — as indeed they have. (For a look at how far things had to come, readers need only look up the vivid descriptions of Roger Kahn in his Good Enough to Dream, which remains a fine primer on Utica and short-season A-ball.)

No doubt all ball players have special places in their hearts for the stages on which their first-year as a pro was acted out. The entry level of any trade must be full of hope and fear, of calculating the odds anew daily of rising any higher, of doing one’s damndest to make a favorable impression and to prove oneself to oneself. This is the background against which the summers of the NY-Penn league are played, and the theme never changes.

Mr Fowler introduced Dave Holt, the manager of the ‘93 USox (who at age 35 already has nine seasons of piloting experience, including last summer in the NY-P, at Elmira) as someone who “can win when he has the talent” — he has two pennant notches on his portable helm to date. Of course at this point, Mr Holt has no idea if his crew has any talent at all, and won’t, until just before the season opens in June. The local media has this week found Mr Holt very personable and a good interview, articulate and knowledgeable, with a clear sense of purpose. His brief remarks last night seemed to be addressed to the many families in attendance, on how important family background was in a player’s development. I was reminded of the stories of scouts who insist on meeting mom and dad, on getting a feel for that quality which is invisible in the box score and on the field. (Someone once amplified that by stating, “If you want a good [player], you start with four good grandparents!”)

By nice coincidence, the clean-up spot was reserved for Jim Rice, who was introduced as being now just two years away from eligibility for the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is less than an hour from Utica, a safe and scenic drive, and the Hall’s unique niche in baseball is appreciated by fans all over Upstate. We live near mecca, we can pilgrimage easily and often — those of us who do, are struck by how often we hear others say, “I’ve always meant to get there.” The Hall now buses in grade-schoolers for educational programs, so that regret may be more scarcely heard in the future. In any case, Utica catches tourist spillover on HOF weekend, and looks forward to the Hall of Famers (and two major league teams who come to exhibit) who fly in and quickly back out of our local airport each August. Fitting, that “entry-level fans” should be regularly treated to glimpses of the other end of the playing spectrum. Older fans know a special satisfaction that comes from following players “from the cradle to the grave,” so to speak; those who pass through Utica, however briefly, become hometown boys, sources of pride akin to Andy Van Slyke and Mark Lemke, two genuine locals with the right stuff.

[Another update from 2009: the Hall of Fame Games in Cooperstown are no longer scheduled, a recent casualty.]

From his opening remarks, it was at once apparent that Jim Rice is a man happy in his work, as roving batting instructor for the Red Sox. He seems anxious to get on with it, to get back to the string of diamonds between Utica and Boston, to study stances and talk strategy. He recalled how he himself was helped by Johnny Pesky, and beamed with joy that he could now help others. In the single reference all evening to player salaries, Mr Rice noted that “there is too much money around not to try your best” — in case external motivation was needed. Jim himself is a graduate of NY-P — there were about 100 alumni in the majors in ‘92, Mr Julian had bragged earlier.

Mr Rice’s short and enthusiastic speech was followed by a delightful and unexpected opportunity for anyone present to ask questions. These revealed the strong Bostonian accent present, literally, in the room. (Upstate seems fairly split in its American League allegiance, between the Bosox and the Yankees; the local cable carries only the Yanks and Mets, but other cable systems nearby do bring in Boston, and Uticans can wish that the city’s supplier will adjust to the new affiliation being celebrated.) [They didn’t.]

Why don’t the Red Sox hit & run, run & hit, steal, score? (What can we expect to see this coming summer?) Should Fenway be replaced by a new stadium? (Rice’s reply hedged some: should history be sacrificed for a greater capacity? He finally voted to leave it like it is, and his reference to the politics involved drew a hearty response from the many local politicos in the room.) What about the Lau and Hriniak theories of hitting? (Rice: they work fine for some, not at all for others, every hitter is different.) Where did the Sox hitters go last year? (”I wasn’t there” — Rice hopes someday to instruct at the top level.) Rice sees the game today as less fun and more work, with technology pushing every aspect to the state of an art.

Mr Rice dismissed the Curse of the Bambino (which seems to apply more to the movie industry, in my view), praised Billy Martin’s knack for bringing out the best in his players, and when asked to comment on his famous predecessors in Left Fen, had this to say: Ted Williams “military” approach to hitting was as “spaced out” as Bill Lee’s to life, but Ted’s book held a gem of advice that Rice seemed to make credible as he repeated it: know yourself, and don’t let anyone change you. Yaz was “a quiet guy” who played well under the pressure of Fenway’s expectant fans; when Fred Lynn and Jim Rice arrived, they removed some of that pressure from Yaz. Mr Rice seemed anxious for all to know that of the trio, he was the only one that “played both walls.”

Ed Kenney, a Bosox minor league specialist, wound up the evening by saying how at home he felt in Utica, and observing that “the fans in Boston and New York don’t realize what you have” — a comment that might apply to much more than baseball. His recollection of Roger Clemens’ debut in Double-A was a perfect closer: one thrill of rooting for kids starting out, is to play the scout, to discern the truly talented five per cent who will keep on rising up the alphabet, to predict and (over the coming years) scan the boxes of summer for the names of your horses. We cheer the whole home team, but reserve a special buzz for the kids who pop the ball a shade louder — we’re all close enough to hear — or who rap the ball more consistently.

I was pleased to open the morning paper and read about two fellow fans at my table, who must have been interviewed themselves before or after the dinner. One proudly wore his Red Sox jacket, both were die-hard fans whose emotions had soared and sunk with the Sox for nearly five decades. The three of us were strangers, randomly sat together, yet enjoyed a lively conversation from salad to dessert, talking baseball. I recognized in my tablemates, many friends I’ve had over my own nearly fifty seasons, who grew up in New England, and had simply remained, inside, kids in Red Sox T-shirts and caps.

There’s a pennant to be won in the NY-P league — Utica took its division last year, but lost in the brief playoffs that followed in early September. But the pennant isn’t everything, and far from the only thing. Winning teams will draw better, and that is the real goal, the John McGraw goal: to win, to draw, to survive, to play again. We are boot camps, with recruits raw from school, hoping to send to the front, soldiers armed and ready to fight in a Hundred Years War we hope will never end. Donovan Stadium is a scant 230 miles from Fenway. Fans can drive in a few hours, the distance our troops, in ever-thinning ranks, will take years to cover.

[It’s not mentioned in the article above, but I also met Jim Rice after that February 1993 dinner. And I presented him with a poem, for which he appeared to be sincerely grateful. I don’t think anyone thinks of themselves as the subject of poetry — I sure don’t. So when it happens, it’s a bit startling. Mr Rice was kind enough to autograph a copy of the poem, which I still have, somewhere in my office. JIM barely squeezed into my new book, A BASEBALL FAMILY ALBUM (Pocol Press), just as Rice himself has barely squeezed into the Hall of Fame. I have to believe that he would have made it to Cooperstown much sooner, if he had acquired a flashy nickname somewhere on his way up.]

JIM

Swing as compact as his name
Jim Rice
Was wrists strong enough
To snap a bat
On a checked swing

Heir to the spot
Held by Ted and Yaz
In left
In the lineup
In the hearts of Bosox fans

Rice arrived in seventy-five
With a kid named Fred:
Righty-lefty rookie tandem
Led Boston to October’s Game –
Broken bone, broken heart finish

Consistent hit man with power:
Only Jim Rice ever strung together
Three straight sparkling summers
Of two hundred hits
Thirty-five-plus dingers

Jim bruised the Green Monster
Black and blue
With his rocket shots

Jim played the Green Monster
Decoy and carom
With his rocket throws

Played tall
Like the Wall
Spoke more by just being there
Something that wouldn’t go away
Sooner or later
Had to recognize it
Deal with it
Respect it

The above is an excerpt from Issue #473 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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