February 2013

February 22 – Happy Birthday Karl Drews

kdrewsThe phone rang and he let it ring one more time before picking it up. His family, friends and coaches who were gathered in his Sarasota, Florida living room that early June day in 1993 all fell silent and turned their attention to the expression on the face of the eighteen-year-old high school pitcher who was now holding the receiver tightly to his ear. As soon as they saw the huge grin break out across his face, every person in the room knew not only who was on the other end of that phone conversation but also what he had just said. The caller was Yankee scout Paul Turco, and he had just told the talented teenager that he had been selected with the Yankees first draft pick (13th overall) in Major League Baseball’s 1993 Amateur Draft.

The kids name was Matt Drews and right after he hung up the phone that day, his Dad, Ron Drews handed him a Yankee cap and told him it was his now. But unlike the brand new New Era team lids most modern day top picks get to place on their heads, the Yankee hat Matt’s Dad had handed him looked a bit aged and odd. That’s because at the time, that particular hat was close to a half-century old. It had been given originally to Matt’s grandfather by Joe DiMaggio as a gift for Matt’s Dad. Ron Drew’s Dad and Matt Drew’s Grandfather was former Yankee pitcher and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Karl Drews. In his rookie year of 1947, Karl had gone 6-6 for New York, appearing in 30 games for Yankee skipper Bucky Harris, including ten starts. Six years earlier, Karl was pitching for the Class C farm team that used to play in my hometown of Amsterdam, NY. He had signed with the Yankees in 1939 and was working his way up the minor league ladder when he was called into the military for service in WWII. That’s why he was already 27 years-old during his first full season in the big leagues.

Drews threw very hard but he had trouble finding the strike zone consistently. Still, Harris had enough faith in his rookie to use him twice in the 1947 World Series against Brooklyn. After his first appearance in Game 3 of that Fall Classic, the gracious DiMaggio walked up to him in the clubhouse after the game and handed him the Yankee cap, telling Drews to give it to his boy as a souvenir of his first World Series game.

DiMaggio would return to three more World Series as a Yankee before retiring but unfortuntely for Karl Drews, 1947 would be his one and only appearance in postseason play. The following season, the Yankees found themselves in a year-long and eventually unsuccessful battle with the Red Sox and Indians to defend their AL Pennant. Drews was actually pitching better baseball than he had the season before, walking fewer hitters and lowering his ERA by over a full run, to 3.79. That didn’t prevent the Yankees from selling Drews to the St. Louis Browns in early August of that 1948 season.

Now pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball, Drews went 4-12 for the Browns in 1949 and was sent back to the minors, where he broke his skull in a base path collision. He got back to the big leagues with the Phillies in 1951 and had his best big league season a year later, as a member of Philadelphia’s starting rotation. He went 14-15 with a sparkling 2.72 ERA and threw 5 shutouts. He would last two more years in the big leagues and then settled with his family in Hollywood, Florida. On August 15th, 1963, he was taking his daughter to swimming practice when his car stalled on a Florida highway. When he got out of the disabled vehicle and attempted to wave a passing car down, the drunken driver of the car plowed into Drews and killed him instantly. He was just 43 years old at the time of his death and he would never get to meet his grandson Matt.

matt.drewsUnlike his grandfather, Matt Drews never made it to the mound of Yankee Stadium. His career started out well, as he went 22-13 during his first two seasons in the lowest levels of New York’s farm system, but during the next five he was 16-58. He left baseball after the 2000 season.

He shares his birthday with this former 20-game-winning pitcherthis one-time Yankee closerthis new Yankee infielder and this former Yankee phee-nom.

1946 NYY 0 1 .000 8.53 3 1 1 0 0 0 6.1 6 6 6 0 6 4 1.895
1947 NYY 6 6 .500 4.91 30 10 9 0 0 1 91.2 92 57 50 6 55 45 1.604
1948 NYY 2 3 .400 3.79 19 2 8 0 0 1 38.0 35 17 16 3 31 11 1.737
8 Yrs 44 53 .454 4.76 218 107 44 26 7 7 826.2 913 493 437 72 332 322 1.506
PHI (4 yrs) 25 25 .500 3.74 93 60 9 22 5 3 453.0 478 221 188 43 117 187 1.313
NYY (3 yrs) 8 10 .444 4.76 52 13 18 0 0 2 136.0 133 80 72 9 92 60 1.654
SLB (2 yrs) 7 14 .333 6.94 51 25 10 3 1 2 177.2 223 148 137 14 104 46 1.841
CIN (1 yr) 4 4 .500 6.00 22 9 7 1 1 0 60.0 79 44 40 6 19 29 1.633
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/1/2014.

February 21 – Happy Birthday Tom Shopay

shopayI’m getting close to posting my 800th Pinstripe Birthday Blog post highlighting the birthday of a member of the New York Yankees’ all-time roster. I’m not sure how many total players, coaches and managers have worn the franchise’s uniform, but my master spread sheet of birthdays still has plenty of names left to write about in the upcoming weeks and months. But I’m definitely getting to a point where even though I clearly remember the Yankee career of the guy I’m writing about, I’m not sure if the readers of my blog will. I know I’ll keep writing about these not-famous members of baseball’s most famous all-time roster for two reasons. I love learning about and sharing Yankee history and I have a huge amount of respect for any human being who was good enough to see or throw a single pitch as a professional baseball player at any level much less the Major Leagues.

I tried playing this game as a kid. I made my Little League’s All-Star team and played a pretty mean first base. But the next step up on my long path to a career with the Yankees was the local Babe Ruth League. In my first game at that level, I sat the bench till the last inning and was sent up to pinch hit. I forget what the score was but we were either way ahead or way behind and there was absolutely no pressure on me. But the kid I was facing on the pitcher’s mound was about three years-older than me and he could throw a really moving curve ball. The first pitch seemed to be coming right at my head and I bet you I jumped about four feet back out of that batter’s box only to watch and listen in shock as the ball swerved downward and crossed the inside of the plate and the umpire raised his right hand and called “strike one.” The opposing pitcher naturally took note of my startled, near infantile reaction to what I’m now sure was not that great of a curve ball and proceeded to throw six more to me. I did get better. By the sixth pitch of that at bat I was only jumping a few inches back from the plate and I actually ended up walking. But the thought of swinging my bat at any of those seven spinning spheres had never even occurred to me. In my very next at bat the following game, I faced the hardest throwing pitcher I’d ever seen up to that point in my playing career. I remember keeping my eye on his pitching hand throughout his first delivery and just when I thought I saw him releasing the ball, I heard the ump already yelling “strike one.”

It has been said that hitting a well-pitched moving baseball with a bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. It is why any human being who even reaches the lowest rung of any Major League team’s minor league organization has my deepest and eternal respect and deserves some recognition. So let’s learn something about the one-time Yankee outfielder, Tom Shopay.

I clearly remember owning the Shopay Topps baseball card I’ve included with this post. Even though it identifies him as a Baltimore Oriole, the photograph of Shopay used on the Card shows him when he was still a Yankee. Notice the pinstriped jersey. You can also see how a not-too-skilled member of the Topps art department blacked out the NY insignia on the baseball cap he was wearing.

This Bristol, Connecticut native was the Yankees 34th-round pick (633rd player overall) chosen in MLB’s very first amateur draft back in 1965. Of the 40 players chosen by New York in that historic draft, only eight ended up playing in at least one big league game and just three, Bill Burbach (the Yankees top pick that year) Stan Bahnsen (4th round) and Shopay, got to play for the Yankees.

Shopay’s turn came in September of 1967. By then he had reached the Triple A level of the minors and just completed a successful first season with the Yankees’ Syracuse farm team. At just 5’9″ tall and weighing only 160 pounds, the left-hand-hitting outfielder would never be a home run hitter but he hit the ball hard, had great speed and hustled every second he was on the field. He was hitting .277 for Syracuse at the time of his call-up, with 13 triples and 24 stolen bases. The Yankee team he was joining was among the worst in the fabled franchise’s history, about to finish in ninth place in the 1967 AL standings.

His first big league appearance came against Cleveland when Yankee manager, Ralph Houk started him in right field. In an October 2011 interview with the baseball Website Seamheads.com, Shopay recalled warming up in the outfield before that first game and hearing Mickey Mantle, who was starting in center that day, calling out his name and motioning that he wanted to talk to the young outfielder. Mantle had been Shopay’s favorite Yankee as a kid and now he found himself playing alongside him in the same outfield. When he jogged over to the aging, by then close-to-crippled outfielder he recalled Mickey telling him.  ‘Hey Tom, take everything that you can get. Anything close to me that you can get, take it.’

Shopay got his first big league hit in his third at-bat, a bunt single against the great Luis Tiant. Six days later, he hit his first big league home run against the Twins, off a very good right-hander named Dave Boswell. He also stole his first two big league bases in that same game. A week later he homered again, this time against Kansas City. Despite an 0-4 final game, he ended his first cup-of-coffee Yankee trial with a .296 average, those two home runs and 6 RBIs.

He started the following season back in Syracuse but unfortunately, he did not have a good offensive season. His average fell into the .240s and he was not one of the Yankee’s September call-ups that year. He rebounded a bit in 1969 and in June of that season he was called back up to New York, where according to Shopay in that same 2011 Seamheads.com interview, Ralph Houk promised him he would start against all right handed pitching. But instead, he hardly ever started, serving primarily as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter the rest of that year. The experience soured the youngster’s feelings for Houk, and he regrets to this day not approaching the Yankee skipper during that season to remind him of his promise and demand to be played more.

His final numbers from that 1969 season were ugly. He averaged just .083 with 4 hits in 48 at bats. It made the Yankee front-office decision to expose him to that December’s Rule 5 Draft a no-brainer and Shopay was selected by Baltimore. He ended up playing for the Orioles’ organization for the next seven years, including five with the parent club as a spare outfielder and pinch hitter. He loved playing for Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. His biggest thrill as a professional was getting five pinch-hit appearances in the 1971 World Series. He went hitless and the Orioles lost that Fall Classic to the Pirates, but they were all good at bats and included a successful sacrifice bunt in the seventh game.

After his final big league game in 1977, Shopay got into the nursery school business in his native Connecticut and eventually became partners with his brother in a successful Florida-based security company. He shares his February 21st birthday with this former Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee outfielder.

1967 NYY 8 29 27 2 8 1 0 2 6 2 1 5 .296 .310 .556 .866
1969 NYY 28 50 48 2 4 0 1 0 0 0 2 10 .083 .120 .125 .245
7 Yrs 253 341 309 40 62 7 1 3 20 11 26 51 .201 .262 .259 .521
BAL (5 yrs) 217 262 234 36 50 6 0 1 14 9 23 36 .214 .284 .252 .536
NYY (2 yrs) 36 79 75 4 12 1 1 2 6 2 3 15 .160 .190 .280 .470
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/1/2014.

February 20 – Happy Birthday Muddy Ruel

muddyHe has one of the coolest names ever for an MLB player. Before Muddy Ruel became the greatest catcher in Washington Senator franchise history, he shared the New York Yankee starting catcher responsibilities during the 1919 and 1920 seasons with fellow receiver Truck Hannah. Despite being physically small for his position at 5’9″ and just 150 pounds, Ruel became one of the best defensive catchers in league history. There was nothing he could not do well from behind the plate and despite his diminutive size, Ruel was famous for his refusal to back down from much larger hard-charging base runners attempting to score. He was also a skilled hitter, averaging .275 during his 19 big league seasons.

With New York, Ruel averaged .251 during his two seasons in the Bronx. The Yankee team he joined as a 22-year-old had not yet acquired Babe Ruth from Boston but it was a quickly-improving ball club under the control of its talented skipper, Miller Huggins. Ruel started 69 games behind the plate for Huggins in 1919 and 76 more the following year. He was behind the plate in the August 1920 game, when New York pitcher Carl Mays beaned and killed Roy Chapman of the Cleveland Indians. Ruel would be asked about that tragic event for the rest of his days and always insisted Mays was not trying to hit Chapman.

When Ruth joined the team during Ruel’s second year as a starter, the Yankees instantly became one of the better teams in baseball and Ruel’s future with the emerging dynasty looked strong and secure. But that future ended abruptly in December of 1920, when the Yankees and Red Sox pulled off a huge eight player trade. The key players involved were Yankee second baseman Del Pratt and Boston pitcher Waite Hoyt, but the transaction also included a swap of the two teams’ catchers, Ruel for Wally Schang.

Muddy would start behind the plate for the Red Sox for the next two years and then get dealt to the Senators, where he would be paired with the immortal Walter Johnson, to form one of the great batteries in baseball history. The pair would lead Washington to the only two World Series appearances in that team’s long history in 1924 and ’25 and it would be Ruel who would score the winning run in the seventh and final game of the 1924 Fall Classic that earned that ball club its one and only world championship.

Ruel played for the Senators through 1930 and then spent the last four years of his playing career with four different teams. He had earned his law degree during his off-seasons with Washington, but instead of practicing law when his playing days were over, he went into coaching, then managing, then front office work and even became a special assistant to Baseball Commissioner, Happy Chandler for a while. He finally left the game for good in 1956 and moved to Italy for a year so his children could have the experience of attending school abroad. Ruel died in 1963 from a heart attack at the age of 67.

Ruel shares his birthday with Old Reliable, this former Yankee outfielderthis brand new Yankee catcher and this one-time Yankee pitcher.

1917 NYY 6 20 17 1 2 0 0 0 1 1 2 2 .118 .211 .118 .328
1918 NYY 3 8 6 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 2 1 .333 .500 .333 .833
1919 NYY 79 275 233 18 56 6 0 0 31 4 34 26 .240 .340 .266 .606
1920 NYY 82 285 261 30 70 14 1 1 15 4 15 18 .268 .310 .341 .651
19 Yrs 1468 5295 4514 494 1242 187 29 4 536 61 606 238 .275 .365 .332 .697
WSH (8 yrs) 903 3406 2875 336 834 116 24 2 373 44 403 123 .290 .382 .349 .731
NYY (4 yrs) 170 588 517 49 130 20 1 1 47 10 53 47 .251 .323 .300 .623
BOS (3 yrs) 262 917 802 81 216 41 2 1 79 6 91 47 .269 .345 .329 .674
DET (2 yrs) 65 211 186 11 38 5 2 0 21 1 22 7 .204 .288 .253 .541
SLB (2 yrs) 46 106 77 13 12 2 0 0 9 0 29 9 .156 .387 .182 .569
CHW (1 yr) 22 67 57 4 12 3 0 0 7 0 8 5 .211 .308 .263 .571
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.

February 19 – Happy Birthday Chris Stewart

stewartAs near as I could figure, Chris Stewart’s most important asset is his ability to effectively frame pitches. That’s a term that describes how catchers  position and quickly move their gloves on pitches that are just out of the strike zone in an effort to deceive umpires into thinking they are strikes. Now you probably find it as hard to believe as I do that the mighty Yankees would reward any catcher with the starting job behind the plate based on an ability to steal strikes. The truth is of course that the richest team in baseball had decided after the 2012 regular season that they were going to lower their annual player payroll to $189 million by 2014, which would save them $50 million in subsequent luxury tax payments. To get the dollars down to that level, they’ decided to gamble, or actually penny-pinch with the catcher’s position. Instead of paying Russell Martin the $7.5 million in annual salary it would have taken to keep him in a Yankee uniform for the next two years, they let Martin go to the Pirates and  put Chris Stewart in the starting catchers’ slot. That’s the same slot once filled by the likes of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Ellie Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada and last winter, the Yankee front office thought it was a good idea to put Stewart in it.

Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi believed that Stewart was as good a defensive catcher as Martin was for them and I guess that might have been true. It appeared that most of the Yankee rotation didn’t mind and might have actually preferred having Stewart behind the plate instead of Martin when they were on the mound. But Stewart lacked Martin’s offensive skills, especially in the power and base-running departments and he’s not as “fiery” as the former Yankee catcher either. My biggest concern with Stewart behind the plate was his near automatic-out track record with the bat. Opposing pitchers had little to fear when they faced him and that wasn’t a good situation for the Yankees, especially during the team’s injury-plagued 2013 season during which every one of their top offensive weapons, with the exception of Robbie Cano spent mucho time on the DL.

As it turned out, the Yankee front office put Stewart in a no-win situation last year. He proved he couldn’t handle the starting catching responsibilities and in the process lost his claim to the role of serving as the team’s back-up receiver. This winter, New York went out and signed Brian McCann. He is everything Stewart was not and if he stays healthy, will help my favorite team return to postseason play. Meanwhile, the Yanks traded Stewart to the Pirates where ironically, he will once again serve as the backup to Russell Martin, a role that suits him perfectly. I wish him well.

In addition to the Yankees, Stewart has saw time with the White Sox, Rangers, Padres and Giants. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee shortstop.

2008 NYY 1 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
2012 NYY 55 157 141 15 34 8 0 1 13 2 10 21 .241 .292 .319 .611
2013 NYY 109 340 294 28 62 6 0 4 25 4 30 49 .211 .293 .272 .566
7 Yrs 257 734 645 67 138 24 0 8 51 6 59 97 .214 .287 .288 .575
NYY (3 yrs) 165 500 438 43 96 14 0 5 38 6 40 71 .219 .291 .285 .577
TEX (1 yr) 17 43 37 4 9 2 0 0 3 0 3 6 .243 .300 .297 .597
SDP (1 yr) 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
SFG (1 yr) 67 183 162 20 33 8 0 3 10 0 16 18 .204 .283 .309 .592
CHW (1 yr) 6 8 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/27/2014.

February 18 – Happy Birthday Chad Moeller

moellerWhen Jorge Posada tore his shoulder muscle during the 2008 season, the Yankees tried to make do with the backstop platoon of Jose Molina and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Originally drafted by New York out of high school in 1993, Moeller decided to instead play college ball for USC. Three years later, he was the Twins seventh round pick, even though he had torn his ACL in a home plate collision on the very last play of his USC career. He made his big league debut with Minnesota in 2000 and the following spring he was traded to the Diamondbacks where he would eventually become Randy Johnson’s personal receiver.

Tall for a catcher at 6′ 3″, Moeller had decent defensive skills but he was always a below-average big league hitter. His only shot at starting had come with the Brewers in 2004 and when he averaged just .208 that season, he was destined to remain a second-string receiver for the rest of his career. If you’re going to be a backup position player and survive in the big leagues, your best shot is as a catcher since every team is forced to carry at least two of them at all times. That fact helped Moeller put together an 11-year Major League career with seven different teams.

When Posada’s shoulder started hurting during the 2008 spring training season, the Yanks signed Moeller as a free agent insurance policy. When Hip Hip Jorge’s injury did not improve, the Yanks restricted him to DH duty and brought Moeller up in mid April to back up Molina. The Upland, California native surprised everyone including me by hitting a robust .350 during that initial call-up. When it was later determined that Posada’s shoulder would require season-ending surgery, Moeller was brought back up to the Bronx where he would pretty much become the personal catcher of Yankee veteran Andy Pettitte and Yankee rookie, Darrell Rasner.

Moeller ended up appearing in 41 games for New York that year. It would have been more but neither he (Moeller finished 2008 with a .231 average) or Molina (who finished with a .216 average) were hitting well and the Yankees’ offense was sputtering. That’s why, on July 30th of that season, GM Brian Cashman acquired veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez from the Tigers for Yankee reliever Kyle Farnesworth. Unfortunately by then, I-Rod’s best offensive days were behind him and he would end up hitting just .218 in pinstripes and the Yankees ended up missing the postseason for the first time in thirteen years. One thing Moeller did exhibit that year was an improved throwing arm. He threw out almost 40% of the runners attempting to steal off of him in 2008, a career high. His lifetime average was just 24%.

New York let Moeller become a free agent after that 2008 season. He spent the following year as a backup catcher with Baltimore. The Yankees re-signed him in April of 2010 and he played his final nine big-league games in pinstripes. He retired with 315 career hits, 29 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .226.

Moeller shares his birthday with this Hall of Fame Yankee second basemanthis long-ago Yankee starting pitcher and this former Yankee closer.

2008 NYY 41 103 91 13 21 6 0 1 9 0 7 18 .231 .311 .330 .640
2010 NYY 9 15 14 2 3 3 0 0 0 0 1 4 .214 .267 .429 .695
11 Yrs 501 1539 1392 146 315 74 7 29 132 2 108 331 .226 .288 .352 .640
ARI (3 yrs) 140 455 400 47 107 28 3 10 47 1 46 94 .268 .344 .428 .772
MIL (3 yrs) 196 669 614 57 125 25 2 14 55 0 38 148 .204 .257 .319 .576
NYY (2 yrs) 50 118 105 15 24 9 0 1 9 0 8 22 .229 .305 .343 .648
MIN (1 yr) 48 139 128 13 27 3 1 1 9 1 9 33 .211 .261 .273 .534
LAD (1 yr) 7 9 8 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .125 .222 .125 .347
CIN (1 yr) 30 49 48 6 8 1 0 1 2 0 0 17 .167 .167 .250 .417
BAL (1 yr) 30 100 89 6 23 8 1 2 10 0 7 16 .258 .313 .438 .751
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.