July 2013

July 11 – Happy Birthday Stan Thomas

thomasYou’ve almost certainly never heard of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant unless you’re a resident of Rumford, Maine. This right-handed pitcher is the only Major League ballplayer ever born in that New England hamlet. But Stan Thomas was also the winning pitcher of a pretty significant victory in Yankee history.

Thomas had played his collegiate baseball at the University of New Haven and was one of the last draft picks ever made by the old Washington Senators team in 1971, just before that franchise relocated to Arlington, Texas and became the Rangers. During the summer of 1974, he was called up to the Rangers, where he pitched for manager Billy Martin for the first time. The following spring, he made the Texas Opening Day roster and became one of Billy’s go-to guys in the bullpen, getting into 46 games, putting together a 3.10 ERA and earning three saves. He also followed orders. During a spring training contest against the Yankees, Martin most likely told his pitchers he wouldn’t be too upset at all if they threw at Yankee outfielder Elliott Maddox. A week earlier, Maddox had called Martin a liar. In 1973, Maddox was a Ranger outfielder when Martin was hired as the team’s manager. According to Maddox, Martin had promised him playing time with Texas but never followed through. Billy’s method of payback for Maddox’s accusation was revealed early on in that 1975 exhibition game, when Ranger starter Jim Bibby hit the outfielder’s shoulder with a pitch in his first at bat. Then in the sixth, it was Thomas’s turn to defend his skipper. He threw a fastball that whistled over Maddox’s head. Naturally, the Yankee pitchers retaliated and an on-field brawl ensued, which was usually a rare occurrence in a big league spring training game, unless Billy Martin happened to be involved.

As fate would have it, Martin was fired by Texas before the 1975 season ended and then hired by George Steinbrenner to replace Bill Virdon as Yankee skipper. That move doomed Maddox’s future as a Yankee and probably paved the way to the Bronx for Stan Thomas. The pitcher had been traded by the Rangers to the Indians after the 1975 season for ex-Yankee Johnny Ellis. Thomas had pitched well for the Tribe during the ’76 season, appearing in 37 games, winning 4, saving 6 and amassing a career low 2.30 ERA. That July, in a game against Martin’s Yankees, he also got another opportunity to prove to his former and future skipper that he wasn’t afraid to send messages with his fastball. The Yankees were teeing off on Cleveland pitching and drubbing the Indians when late in the game, Thomas hit both Thurman Munson and Willie Randolph with pitches.

As good as Thomas pitched in ’76, Cleveland still chose not to protect him and he was selected by the Mariners in the 1976 AL Expansion Draft. He was having a horrible year for the first-year Mariners, when in August of 1977 he got the word that he had been acquired by the Yankees. He was sent to Syracuse for a while but got called up in September. That 1977 Yankee team had already clinched the Pennant and was going for the club’s 100th victory in its final game of the regular season versus Detroit. Fourteen years had passed since the Bronx Bombers had achieved the century mark, so the game was significant for many Yankee lovers but Billy Martin rightfully couldn’t care less. He was trying to get his team ready for postseason so he rested half his starting line-up and used rookie Ken Clay as his starting pitcher.

Still, despite the second tier lineup, the Yankees had just taken the lead and were ahead of the Tigers 3-2, entering the top of the sixth inning, when Martin inserted Thomas into the game. It wasn’t pretty. Thomas surrendered the lead twice but New York battled back to regain it both times. You wonder why Martin kept Thomas in to finish the game because with his late-season 40-man roster in effect, he had plenty of other choices. Perhaps it was his way of thanking Thomas for sending Maddox that message two year’s earlier or perhaps it wasn’t. Whatever the reason, it was Thomas who pitched stayed on to pitch a hitless ninth inning to earn his only Yankee victory and New York’s 100th win of the 1977 baseball season. The then 27-year-old Thomas, would never again get to throw a pitch in a Major League game.

Thomas shares his birthday with another former Yankee pitcher and this former Yankee outfielder.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WHIP
1977 NYY 1 0 1.000 7.11 3 0 2 0 0 0 6.1 7 7 5 0 4 1 0 1.737
4 Yrs 11 14 .440 3.70 111 17 42 3 0 9 265.1 263 135 109 16 110 123 10 1.406
TEX (2 yrs) 4 4 .500 3.60 58 1 23 0 0 3 95.0 94 46 38 3 40 54 3 1.411
CLE (1 yr) 4 4 .500 2.30 37 7 15 2 0 6 105.2 88 33 27 5 41 54 4 1.221
NYY (1 yr) 1 0 1.000 7.11 3 0 2 0 0 0 6.1 7 7 5 0 4 1 0 1.737
SEA (1 yr) 2 6 .250 6.02 13 9 2 1 0 0 58.1 74 49 39 8 25 14 3 1.697
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/11/2013.

July 10 – Happy Birthday Sam Marsonek

marsonekEven though he had been one of the heroes for the Yankees in their 1999 World Series win over the Braves, Chad Curtis’s days in Pinstripes were numbered following that Fall Classic. Why? In August of that year, he had vocally criticized Yankee idol Derek Jeter for not actively defending his teammates in a brawl that took place during a game between New York and Seattle. Sure enough, that December Curtis was traded to the Texas Rangers for two Ranger pitching prospects, Brandon Knight and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.

Of the two, Sam Marsonek was considered more likely to make it to the big leagues. He was a six foot six inch right-handed native of Tampa, FL, who had been a Ranger first round draft pick in 1996. His numbers were not impressive during the three seasons he had spent in the Texas farm system and they really didn’t improve much during the next four years he spent with four different Yankee minor league clubs. Still, he was called up to the Bronx just before the 2004 All Star break and made his big league debut in a relief stint against Tampa Bay on July 11 of that season. He pitched 1.1 scoreless innings, New York won 10-3 and after the game the Yankee players scattered to enjoy their 3-day All Star break. Marsonek had planned a fishing weekend but he hadn’t planned on slipping on a pier and straining his knee. The injury landed him on the 15-day disabled list and then the 60-day disabled list and then a reassignment back to the Yankee farm system. He would spend the next three years trying to get back to the majors but he never did. Instead, he retired and started the Score International Baseball organization, a combination baseball camp and Christian mission for teenagers.

Marsonek shares his birthday with another former Yankee reliever.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
2004 NYY 0 0 0.00 1 0 1 0 0 0 1.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 1.500
1 Yr 0 0 0.00 1 0 1 0 0 0 1.1 2 0 0 0 0 0 1.500
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/9/2013.

July 9 – Happy Birthday Jack Powell

powellIn just their second year in New York, the 1904 Yankees, then known as the Highlanders, almost captured their first-ever pennant. Their MVP that year was a spit-balling right hander named Happy Jack Chesbro who set a modern day record that season by winning 41 games. But the Clark Griffith managed Highlander squad won a total of 92 times that year which means pitchers besides Chesbro had 51 more wins. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant had 23 of those 51 victories.

One of the joys I had as a baseball fan and a father was watching my oldest son Matt pitch when he played youth baseball. He started doing so at the age of ten when he was still playing in the first level of our local youth baseball league. At that level, the mound was just 45 feet from home plate and at that distance Matt’s fastball was pretty intimidating. As he advanced to the next levels of play the distance between the mound and the plate grew and my son quickly realized he couldn’t win games throwing just his fastball. Instead he became one of the youngest junk pitchers in history. He began experimenting with different arm angles, grips and speeds. Watching from the stands, it sometimes looked like he was lobbing the ball to the plate and the coaches of teams facing him would scream at their players who were batting that they should be hitting his pitches all over the park. But more often than not, they’d take off balance swings that resulted in outs instead of base-runners and Mattie-boy won a lot more games than he lost.

That’s why as I researched the career of Jack Powell, I came to the conclusion that his pitching philosophy was a lot like my son Matt’s. His entire objective on the mound was to fool hitters, not overpower them. Throw the ball near the strike zone at various speeds using different arm angles with the objective of keeping opposing hitter off-balance. Powell threw so effortlessly that sportswriters covering his games swore even they could hit him. He was one of the very few MLB hurlers to use no windup when he pitched and because he threw so easy, he could start often and give you lots of innings each time he did.

A native of Bloomington, IL, Jack “Red” Powell began his big league career in 1897 with the National League’s old Cleveland Spiders. He also pitched for the Cardinals and the Browns until he was traded by the latter to the Highlanders in March of 1904 for a guy named Harry Howell.

Unfortunately, Clark Griffith overdid things with his two best pitchers trying to win that 1904 pennant. Powell made 45 starts for the Highlanders that season and pitched a total of 390 innings. Add Chesbro’s unimaginable 454  innings that same year and these two guys pitched over 60% of the innings the Islanders played that season. It was absolutely no coincidence that both men developed sore arms in 1905 and neither ever again approached their win totals of 1904. In fact, Powell’s lifetime record through 1904 was 157-134 and just 88-120 afterwards.

His record was 8-13 in 1905, when the Yankees released him late in the season. He returned to the St. Louis Browns, where he continued to pitch until 1912.

Powell shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WHIP
1904 NYY 23 19 .548 2.44 47 45 2 38 3 0 390.1 340 154 106 15 92 202 10 1.107
1905 NYY 8 13 .381 3.50 37 23 12 13 1 1 203.0 214 107 79 4 57 84 6 1.335
16 Yrs 245 254 .491 2.97 578 516 57 422 46 15 4389.0 4319 1991 1450 110 1021 1621 120 1.217
SLB (10 yrs) 117 143 .450 2.63 294 264 27 210 27 11 2229.2 2083 900 651 43 486 884 49 1.152
STL (3 yrs) 59 54 .522 3.79 131 117 14 101 7 3 999.0 1109 559 421 38 212 297 30 1.322
CLV (2 yrs) 38 25 .603 3.06 69 67 2 60 8 0 567.0 573 271 193 10 174 154 25 1.317
NYY (2 yrs) 31 32 .492 2.81 84 68 14 51 4 1 593.1 554 261 185 19 149 286 16 1.185
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/9/2013.

July 8 – Happy Birthday Zack Monroe

zack_monroeMickey Mantle will always be my favorite baseball “name” but “Zack Monroe” isn’t too bad a moniker for a ball player either. Both names ended up appearing on Hall of Fame plaques. Of course Mantle’s plaque is in Cooperstown while today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s can be found in at the the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame.

This native of that city in Illinois was a two-sports star at home-town Bradley University when the Yankees signed him in 1952. He then played just one season of minor league ball before doing a two-year hitch in the military during the Korean War. He returned to the Yankee farm system in 1955. The right-hander put together two straight 16-win seasons for the Yankees’ single A affiliate in Binghamton and was a stellar 10-2 for their triple A club in Richmond when he got the call to report to the Bronx at the end of June, during the 1958 season. He made his big league debut against the A’s on June 27th of that year. He held the Kansas City lineup hitless in his three-inning relief stint but he gave up four bases-on-balls. It was that inability to throw strikes at the big league level that would come back to haunt him.

Five days later, Casey Stengel gave Monroe his first start in Baltimore and he gave up just one run (and 5-more walks) during his eight-inning appearance against the O’s to earn his first big league victory. He ended up winning four of his five decisions during his rookie season and posting an impressive 3.26 ERA. That was good enough to earn Monroe a spot on the Yankees’ World Series roster that year, but in his only relief appearance against the Braves, he was shelled for three runs in the single inning he got to pitch. That bad October inning against Milwaukee, the 27 walks he issued in the 58 regular season innings he pitched that first year, plus the fact that he was already 26-years-old at the time, most likely soured his long-term potential in the eyes of Stengel and the Yankee brass. Though he made New York’s 1959 Opening Day roster, he found himself back in Richmond in early May, after two straight bad relief outings. He never again pitched in the big leagues.

Monroe shares his birthday with one of the Yankees greatest fourth outfielders of all-time and this one-time Yankee prospect.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1958 NYY 4 2 .667 3.26 21 6 10 1 0 1 58.0 57 29 21 8 27 18 1.448
1959 NYY 0 0 5.40 3 0 2 0 0 0 3.1 3 2 2 2 2 1 1.500
2 Yrs 4 2 .667 3.38 24 6 12 1 0 1 61.1 60 31 23 10 29 19 1.451
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/8/2013.

July 7 – Happy Birthday Chuck Knoblauch

I had taken my two sons to the second game of the 1998 American League Championship Series against Cleveland. It turned out to be a pitchers’ duel, first between David Cone and Charles Nagy and then each team’s bullpen. The score was tied one to one in the top of the twelfth when Jim Thome led off the inning with a single off of Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson. Enrique Wilson came into run for Thome and the next hitter, Travis Fryman, laid a bunt down the first base line. Knoblauch was covering first when the throw hit Fryman and the ball squirted into foul territory. Instead of going for the ball, Knoblauch decided to argue runner interference with first base umpire John Shulock.

As Knoblauch stood there arguing, Wilson rounded third and scored the go-ahead run as me and my boys and about 57,000 other fans in the Stadium that evening screamed at the clueless Yankee second baseman to get the damn ball. The incident turned what could have been a baseball classic into an extra inning nightmare and I was never ever able to completely forgive Chuck for that bonehead play.

As it turned out, Knoblauch was just not a good fit for the Yankees. The artificial turf in Minnesota had helped him average better than .300 with the Twins and he was never the same hitter on Yankee Stadium turf. He also developed that horrible case of the “Steve Blass” throwing disease that eventually forced Joe Torre to play him at designated hitter.Knoblauch was born on this date in 1968, in Houston.

Knoblauch shares his July 7th birthday with the only former Yankee player to become a big league umpire.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1998 NYY 150 706 603 117 160 25 4 17 64 31 76 70 .265 .361 .405 .765
1999 NYY 150 715 603 120 176 36 4 18 68 28 83 57 .292 .393 .454 .848
2000 NYY 102 457 400 75 113 22 2 5 26 15 46 45 .283 .366 .385 .751
2001 NYY 137 600 521 66 130 20 3 9 44 38 58 73 .250 .339 .351 .691
12 Yrs 1632 7387 6366 1132 1839 322 64 98 615 407 804 730 .289 .378 .406 .783
MIN (7 yrs) 1013 4573 3939 713 1197 210 51 43 391 276 513 453 .304 .391 .416 .807
NYY (4 yrs) 539 2478 2127 378 579 103 13 49 202 112 263 245 .272 .366 .402 .768
KCR (1 yr) 80 336 300 41 63 9 0 6 22 19 28 32 .210 .284 .300 .584
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2013.

July 6 – Happy Birthday Roy Hartzell

hartzellThe 1910 New York Highlander season had been successful in terms of wins and losses but an embarrassment for the club in all other ways. The team had surprised everyone by finishing a strong second in that year’s American League Pennant race with an 88-63 record but during the season the team’s manager, George Stallings had been replaced as skipper by Hal Chase, the team’s star first baseman in a scandalous episode. Stallings had been so sure that Chase was throwing games that year that he had finally reported him to the team president, Frank Farrell and league president, Ban Johnson. Since Chase was the darling of New York’s fans at the time, both men not only sided with him, Farrell actually fired Stallings and made Chase his player manager.

Now Chase may have been crooked but he knew his baseball. He felt that if he could acquire a better hitting third baseman during the offseason, his club would have a great shot at winning it all in 1911. Jimmy Austin had started at the hot corner for New York in both 1909 and ’10 but though he was a switch-hitter, he wasn’t very good offensively from either side of the plate and had averaged just .218 in the just-completed season.

Ironically, the third baseman Chase was able to get in exchange for Austin had also hit just .218 that year, playing third for the St. Louis Browns. Chase knew, however that just one year earlier, Roy Hartzell had hit .271 for the Brownies and banged out 161 hits. He was hoping his new third baseman’s 1910 slump was just temporary and he was right.

Hartzell had an outstanding inaugural season for New York, averaging .291. Even more impressively, the then 29-year-old native of Golden, Colorado led the team with 91 runs batted in. Hal Chase had been right about the impact a new third baseman would have on his team’s lineup. The problem was that New York’s pitching collapsed in that 1911 season and the Yankees finished a disappointing 76-76.

Unfortunately for Hartzell, he had joined the team at the beginning of the darkest era in the franchise’s history. In his second season with the ball club, New York finished with a woeful 50-102 mark and during the five full seasons he played there, the team’s cumulative record was a horrible 332-439. But you couldn’t blame Hartzell. He did everything asked of him during his Yankee career, including playing third, short, second and all three outfield positions when the need arose and averaging a solid .261 lifetime for New York. He was also respected enough by his teammates to be named team captain.

By 1916, Hartzell had turned 34 years of age and the Yankees were ready to move forward without him. He accepted an offer to manage the Denver club in the Western Association, permitting him to move home to his native Colorado. In the article announcing Hartzell’s new job, the New York Times called him “the handiest utility man the Yankees ever had.”

He shares his birthday with another Yankee team captain and this WWII era Yankee catcher.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
1911 NYY 144 616 527 67 156 17 11 3 91 22 63 34 .296 .375 .387 .763 *56/O
1912 NYY 125 495 416 50 113 10 11 1 38 20 64 35 .272 .370 .356 .726 5O6/4
1913 NYY 141 577 490 60 127 18 1 0 38 26 67 40 .259 .353 .300 .653 4O5/6
1914 NYY 137 577 481 55 112 15 9 1 32 22 68 38 .233 .335 .308 .643 *O/4
1915 NYY 119 466 387 39 97 11 2 3 60 7 57 37 .251 .351 .313 .664 *O/45
1916 NYY 33 78 64 12 12 1 0 0 7 1 9 3 .188 .297 .203 .500 O97/8
11 Yrs 1290 5223 4548 503 1146 112 55 12 397 182 455 382 .252 .327 .309 .635
NYY (6 yrs) 699 2809 2365 283 617 72 34 8 266 98 328 187 .261 .355 .330 .686
SLB (5 yrs) 591 2414 2183 220 529 40 21 4 131 84 127 195 .242 .293 .285 .579
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/6/2013.

July 5 – Happy Birthday Dave Eiland

eilandOne of the things that always confused me is how guys who could not hit well at the big league level somehow become highly respected hitting coaches for Major League teams. Remember Charley Lau? Here’s a former player who couldn’t crack a starting lineup during the eleven years he played in the bigs because he averaged in the two-fifties, yet if you ask George Brett who it was that made him one of baseball’s great hitters, he credits Lau. The same mystery applies to bad pitchers who become great pitching coaches. Leo  Mazzone was considered one of the game’s great ones during his tenure in that role with Bobby Cox’s Braves yet he wasn’t good enough to pitch even to a single batter at the Major League level.

Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was considered a top Yankee pitching prospect in the late 1980′s, when the team was in desperate need of starting pitchers. Drafted by New York out of the University of South Florida in the seventh round of the 1987 draft, Dave Eiland was being pegged as the next great Yankee right-hander after he was named the International League’s Pitcher of the Year in 1990. But he was a bust for the Yanks and the two other teams he pitched for at the big league level between 1988 and 2000, finishing his playing career with a 12-27 record and a career ERA of 5.74.

That’s when he turned to coaching. The Yankees hired him as a minor league pitching coach and he immediately impressed the organization with his ability to effectively work with young pitchers. He quickly worked his way up the New York farm chain, establishing an excellent rapport with prospects like Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain along the way. That’s why it seemed to make sense when the Yankees announced Eiland would replace Ron Guidry as the Yankee pitching coach in 2008. Brian Cashman was betting the team’s postseason chances on the young arms of Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain that year and he felt Eiland was the guy who could successfully transition them from minor to major league pitchers. That did not happen.

Eiland however, escaped front office wrath for the failed experiment and when the Yanks won the World Series in 2009, the young pitching coach was credited for helping AJ Burnett overcome the inconsistencies in his delivery to finish wit a 13-9 record and a huge win in Game 2 of that year’s Fall Classic.

It all unraveled for Eiland in June of the 2010 season when Eiland took a mysterious leave of absence from his Yankee coaching responsibilities for most of the month of June, citing personal family issues as the reason. During his leave, AJ Burnett literally fell apart, going 0-5 and never again reaching the comfort or performance level in Pinstripes he had enjoyed during his first season in the Bronx. Though it wasn’t officially given as the reason, most Yankee fans and pundits suspect it was Eiland’s leave that caused the team to dismiss him after the 2010 season and bring in current pitching coach, Larry Rothschilds. Eiland has since landed on his feet, getting the pitching coach position for the Kansas City Royals in 2012.

He shares his July 5th birthday with this Hall of Fame closer, this former Yankee pitcher and this one-time New York outfielder.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1988 NYY 0 0 6.39 3 3 0 0 0 0 12.2 15 9 9 6 4 7 1.500
1989 NYY 1 3 .250 5.77 6 6 0 0 0 0 34.1 44 25 22 5 13 11 1.660
1990 NYY 2 1 .667 3.56 5 5 0 0 0 0 30.1 31 14 12 2 5 16 1.187
1991 NYY 2 5 .286 5.33 18 13 4 0 0 0 72.2 87 51 43 10 23 18 1.514
1995 NYY 1 1 .500 6.30 4 1 1 0 0 0 10.0 16 10 7 1 3 6 1.900
10 Yrs 12 27 .308 5.74 92 70 6 0 0 0 373.0 465 274 238 46 118 153 1.563
NYY (5 yrs) 6 10 .375 5.23 36 28 5 0 0 0 160.0 193 109 93 24 48 58 1.506
TBD (3 yrs) 6 12 .333 6.54 39 26 1 0 0 0 137.2 181 111 100 16 48 71 1.663
SDP (2 yrs) 0 5 .000 5.38 17 16 0 0 0 0 75.1 91 54 45 6 22 24 1.500
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/5/2013.

July 4 – Happy Birthday John Sterling

John_SterlingThe phrase “You either love him or you hate him” may just have been coined for today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. I love the guy. In fact, the one thing I regret about being able to watch every Yankee game in high def on a big screen is that I no longer listen to them on the radio unless I happen to be in the car when they’re playing. That means I don’t get to listen to John Sterling do his stuff, often enough.

I admit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to when the Yankees are winning but if I’m forced to “listen” instead of “watch” the Bronx Bombers play a game, I appreciate the fact that Sterling and his booth partner, Suzyn Waldman keep me entertained with their broadcast styles and idiosyncrasies.

Sterling is a native New Yorker (born July 4, 1938). He got his start as a game announcer in Baltimore, doing Bullets basketball and Colts football games. He came back to New York with WMCA, where he did Nets and Islander games and then migrated to Atlanta and commentated for the Hawks and Braves. He joined the Yankee radio booth in 1989 and has a Gehrig-like streak going of not missing a Yankee game during the past 23-plus seasons he’s been on the job.

What I find real hard to understand is the level of animosity that exists among Sterling haters and detractors. There are actually blogs and web sites devoted to criticizing and making fun of Sterling’s gaffes and calls. Some guy named Phil Mushnick who writes for the NY Post seems to have dedicated his column’s editorial mission to trying to convince whoever happens to read it that Sterling should be fired. Talk about a waste of newsprint!

As far as I’m concerned, baseball is and always will be a game. Games are supposed to be fun. Yankee games are one of the great joys in my life and Sterling’s great broadcasting voice, signature calls and his unique schtick make those games even more enjoyable. Many may roll their eyes and make believe they think its corny but I know the majority of Yankee fans absolutely love to hear Sterling shout, “Inning over. Ballgame over. The Yankees win! Thuuuuuuuuuuuuuh Yankees win!”

So Happy Birthday John Sterling, happy birthday America, and happy birthday to this former Yankee owner, this former Yankee pitcher, and this former Yankee utility infielder too.

July 3 – Happy Birthday Art Fowler

fowlerMy first encounter with Art Fowler was his 1962 Topps baseball card pictured here. He was a member of the first Los Angeles Angels baseball team and according to Bill Rigney, the skipper of that ball club, when Fowler got hit in the head by a batting practice line drive and was lost for the rest of the infant team’s second season, it destroyed any chance the Angels had of shocking the world and winning the 1962 AL Pennant.

The more I learned about Fowler, the more he sort of grew on me. For example, he didn’t just have an older brother who had pitched in the big leagues, he had a much much older brother. His name was Jesse and he made his big league debut in 1924, when his younger sibling was just one year old. Art himself didn’t get to pitch in the big leagues until 30 years later, in 1954, when he was a 31-year-old rookie member of the Reds starting rotation. He went 12-10 that season and then won 11 games in each of the next two years with Cincinnati. But by 1957, he had been converted into a full-time reliever with the Reds and when his ERA climbed above six in that role he was traded to the Dodgers. He spent the ’58 season in the minors and then got into 36 games for the Los Angeles team that ended up winning the ’59 World Series. He then went back to the minors until May of 1961, when his contract was purchased by the newly formed Angels.

One of the things Fowler enjoyed more than pitching was drinking and when he joined the Halos, he was entering the big league heaven for booze. That Angel team featured an All Star line-up of imbibers that included Ryne Duren, Bo Belinski, Eli Grba, Dan Osinski, Ken Hunt and of course Fowler. With their better than expected pitching and a potent lineup that included Leon Wagner, Lee Thomas and Albie Piersall, the second-year Angels were in first place as late as August 12th, finally finishing in third place behind New York and the Minnesota Twins. Fowler spent the rest of his big league playing career pitching out of the LA bullpen until he was released in May of 1964.

Instead of quitting, he signed on to continue pitching for the Denver Bears, the Twins triple A franchise in the Pacific Coast League. Billy Martin was the manager of that club and he took enough of a liking to his new 42-year-old right-hander to make him the Bears player/pitching coach. It was rumored that Fowler got the job because he happened to be Martin’s best drinking buddy. Whatever the reason, it was the beginning of a partnership that would continue off and on for over the next two decades in five different big league cities.

It started when Martin was named manager of Minnesota in 1969 and continued in Detroit from 1971 through ’73 and then in Texas for two more seasons. When George Steinbrenner hired Martin to manage the Yankees late in the second half of the 1975 season however, his baseball people had told him that his new manager had a serious drinking problem that needed to be controlled and they warned the Boss that Fowler was Billy’s best drinking buddy. The Yankee owner thought hiring Martin but not Fowler would somehow reduce Billy’s taste for booze. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, Steinbrenner finally relented to Billy’s request and Fowler was hired as Yankee pitching coach in 1977.

The Yankee pitching staff got along fine with their new mentor. Ron Guidry still claims to this day that Fowler was the best pitching coach he ever had. The fact of the matter was that Fowler’s coaching philosophy was pretty simple, throw strikes and stay in the game. Fowler expected his starters to give him lots of innings and he expected his relievers to warm up and appear in games as often as necessary. One of the other reasons Martin loved Fowler was because he would do whatever the manager wanted. That included answering “yes” whenever Martin asked if so and so could pitch tonight.

Martin was famous for blaming his pitchers for Yankee losses. If one of the team’s hurlers was struggling on the mound, an irate Martin would tell Fowler to go out there and give the guy hell. Instead, when he got to the mound, the portly coach would often explain to whoever was on the mound how angry Martin was back in the dugout and then plead with the pitcher to please start getting the ball over the plate or Billy was going to get even madder.

Though Steinbrenner and many sportswriters considered Fowler something of a joke, he did obtaint some impressive results. During his tenure in the big leagues, he mentored 18 twenty-game winners, a record for pitching coaches.

Still, the relationship between the Boss and Martin was too rocky to enable smooth pinstriped sailing for Fowler. Every time the manager angered the owner, Steinbrenner would threaten to fire Fowler. Finally in 1983, during Martin’s fourth tour of duty as the team’s skipper, he carried through on that threat and dismissed Fowler in June over Billy’s strenuous objections. He tempered the harshness of his actions by giving Fowler his full salary plus a $20,000 bonus. When the press asked the terminated coach if he had been unfairly treated, Fowler told them he thought the Yankee owner was a great guy but that he didn’t know nothing about baseball. He publicly urged Steinbrenner to listen to what Billy Martin tells him to do and the Yankees would get back to the World Series. He then went home to South Carolina and waited for Billy to call.

The phone rang again in 1988, when Billy was hired for his last tour of duty in the Bronx. That job lasted just half a season and when they were again fired, Martin’s managing career was over which meant Fowler’s was as well. Billy didn’t last too long after that, getting killed in his pickup the following year. Fowler lived in his Spartanburg, SC home until 2007, when he died at the age of 84.

He shares his birthday with this Yankee GM.

July 2 – Happy Birthday Jose Canseco

The first and only time I attended a game at Fenway Park was a July 17, 1996 night game between the Red Sox and the Yankees. As I settled into the most incredibly uncomfortable seat I had ever been in, the Yankees were surprisingly running away with the AL East Pennant, holding a nine game lead at the time over the Orioles and a full fifteen-game margin over third place Boston. Unfortunately, Kenny Rogers was on the mound for New York and he was facing Boston’s Tom Flash Gordon, who was in his last year as a starter. As usual when he wore the pinstripes, Rogers was not very effective that evening. He was knocked out in the fifth inning after loading the bases, with Boston leading 3-2. Joe Torre brought in Jim Wickman and the right-hander promptly gave up a bases-clearing double. When Wickman put two more Red Sox on base in the sixth, Torre replaced him with big Jeff Nelson.

The first batter Nelson faced was Jose Canseco, who had began his big league career as one of the Oakland A “Bash Brothers” with an end-of-the-season call-up in September of 1985. The following year he hit 33 home runs and was named AL Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later he led the league with 42 home runs and 124 RBIs plus he hit .307 and stole 40 bases becoming the first member ever of MLB’s 40-40 club. He also won the AL MVP that year. During those early years of his career, he was considered one of baseball’s greatest rising stars but as we later learned, that rise was being fueled with human rocket fuel.

Canseco’s string of injuries and DL stays began in 1989. By ’92, the A’s decided he was expendable and they traded him to Texas for Jeff Russell, Ruben Sierra, Mike Witt and money. He spent large portions of his two plus years with the Rangers on the DL. Boston then signed him as a free agent after the 1995 season and again he couldn’t seem to stay healthy. That’s what confused me about Canseco’s later admission of steroid use. I always thought steroids helped athletes not just train harder but also overcome injuries quicker. Jose must have been getting some bad drugs, no?

In any event, Canseco was not on the DL that night I visited Fenway and he had worked the count to 3-2 against the curve-balling Nelson. I will never forget the results of the next pitch. Canseco hit it on a line toward the green monster. I swear, as it passed my eye level, I could hear the ball swoosh. It was still rising when it went over the Green Monster. It remains to this day the hardest hit baseball I have ever seen in my lifetime. To put it in perspective, think back to all those famous bombs Mark McGuire hit during the All Star Home Run Derby contest held at Fenway in 1999. Canseco’s cannon shot was hit harder and travelled further than every one of them. Canseco’s three run blast made the score 9-2 and half of the Fenway crowd got up and left, thinking the game was over. We were able to move to much more comfortable seats behind home plate and as soon as we did the Yankees mounted a comeback. In fact, New York scored nine runs over the last three innings to take the lead. But John Wetteland failed to hold it and Boston ended up with a 12-11 victory in what turned out to be one of the most exciting baseball games I’ve ever seen live.

That home run turned out to be Canseco’s last one of the 1996 season and his final one as a Red Sox. A few weeks later he was again on the DL. The final five years of his career were spent playing for five different teams. They included the Yankees, in 2000. He had been placed on waivers by Tampa Bay that year and New York had picked him up. He appeared in 37 games as a Yankee and hit six of his seventeen-year career total of 462 home runs while wearing the pinstripes. He has since become one of the most controversial ex-big-leaguers of all time.

Update: The above post was originally written in 2010. It has become pretty clear since Canseco’s playing days ended, that his life has turned into a publicity hunting freak show. His long baseball career has become pretty much an afterthought in the memory of most fans who when they think of Jose now, see him testifying in front of that congressional committee hearing in 2005. But like it or not, Canseco changed the course of baseball history. As baseball fans around the world marveled at the almost superhuman achievements of modern day ballplayers like McGuire and Bonds, Jose pulled back the curtain on their games and showed us all that a critical component of their magic came from a needle or from an ingredient in a rubbing cream. Jim Bouton did it with amazing skill forty years earlier and Canseco’s story-telling paled by comparison, but both men simply told the truth about how those who played the game lived their lives while doing it.

Canseco shares his July 2nd birthday with this former Yankee reliever.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2000 NYY 37 137 111 16 27 3 0 6 19 0 23 37 .243 .365 .432 .797
17 Yrs 1887 8129 7057 1186 1877 340 14 462 1407 200 906 1942 .266 .353 .515 .867
OAK (9 yrs) 1058 4531 3970 662 1048 186 8 254 793 135 469 1096 .264 .344 .507 .851
TEX (3 yrs) 193 849 733 126 197 37 3 45 151 22 100 200 .269 .363 .512 .874
TBD (2 yrs) 174 766 648 106 176 33 1 43 125 5 99 200 .272 .373 .525 .898
BOS (2 yrs) 198 882 756 132 225 47 2 52 163 7 105 175 .298 .389 .571 .960
NYY (1 yr) 37 137 111 16 27 3 0 6 19 0 23 37 .243 .365 .432 .797
CHW (1 yr) 76 306 256 46 66 8 0 16 49 2 45 75 .258 .366 .477 .843
TOR (1 yr) 151 658 583 98 138 26 0 46 107 29 65 159 .237 .318 .518 .836
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/2/2013.