He Hit The Ball Real Hard

'15 Gallo AR

Back in the days when ESPN was actually entertaining, Dan Patrick & Keith Olbermann seemed to have an endless amount of clichés that always fit even boring sports highlights. From “En Fuego” to “They’re Not Going To Get Him” to “The Whiff” to “You Can Try To Contain Him But You Can’t Stop Him” and so many more, the viewers were always in on the joke. When it came to baseball home runs, the go-to comments were “Gone” and “He Hit The Ball Real Hard”. With today’s analytical environment, you have to wonder how the boys would feel if they knew exactly how hard a player hit that ball?

 

My closest friend is a long-time baseball fan who goes all the way back to rooting for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in the 50’s. He was also a successful Fantasy Baseball player from 1984-2013, so his knowledge of the game and players had to be very detailed. Last season, we were talking baseball and I mentioned that “exit velocity” can help Fantasy players get a better read on the potential of a player. He looked at me and laughed because he thought I was messing with him and just making up a whimsical statistic. As a (now) casual baseball fan, he can’t be blamed for the skepticism because so much has changed since he stopped scouting players just a few years ago.

 

In 2015, Major League Baseball installed a state-of-art tracking technology in all 30 big league parks. It is called Statcast and allows for the analysis of a massive amount of baseball data. We’re talking Trackman Doppler radar and high definition Chyron Hego cameras. This allows all of us to quantify the raw skills of players in a way that was never even conceived when we first became fans of the game. This is where terms such as “spin rate”, “launch angle” and “pitch velocity” were born and they’re influencing our game every day.

 

“Exit Velocity” has a very simple definition…”How fast, in miles per hour, a ball was hit by a batter”. In the current era of baseball where records are being set for both Home Runs and Strikeouts, it tells teams the kind of damage a player can create when he hits the ball. The easiest example from 2018 is Joey Gallo of the Rangers who had a batting average of .206 and struck out 207 times in 500 At-Bats. In another time and place, he might have been sent to the minors but that’s no longer the case. Why? Because he had the highest average exit velocity in baseball last year (95.4 mph) and that equated to him producing 40 HR’s, 92 RBI’s and a .810 OPS. He hit three balls that left the bat at 117 mph! Earlier this month, he became the fist player in history to hit 100 HR’s before he hit 100 Singles. In case you might believe these are isolated examples, think about this…through May 11th, Strikeouts (10,362) exceeded Hits (9,683) for the 2019 season. If Bob Dylan was a baseball fan, he’d say that “the times they are a changing”.

 

As the first six weeks of the 2019 campaign goes into the books, who are the players with the best exit velocity so far? Are they stars, phenoms or over-looked part-timers? Here are the top twelve (with a minimum of 45 batted ball events)…

 

1) Aaron Judge, Yankees OF (99.0 mph) – Currently on the IL, but his OPS this season is .925

 

2) Joey Gallo, Rangers OF (96.7 mph) – He’s raised his BA to .248 and his OPS to 1.014

 

3) Gary Sanchez, Yankees C (96.1 mph) – Also spent some time on the IL, but his OPS sits at .961

 

4) Christian Yelich, Brewers OF (95.8 mph) – The reigning NL MVP isn’t letting up with 16 HR’s and a 1.216 OPS

 

5) Josh Bell, Pirates 1B (95.6 mph) – Sometimes viewed as an under-achiever, he seems to be breaking out at age 26 with a .988 OPS

 

6) Anthony Rendon, Nats 3B (94.9 mph) – A short trip to the IL hasn’t slowed him down…the OPS is 1.043

 

7) Josh Donaldson, Braves 3B (94.8 mph) – It appears the hitting skills are still there, but can he stay healthy?

 

8) Mitch Moreland, Red Sox 1B (94.7 mph) – A career year at age 33? 12 HR’s through six weeks with a .908 OPS that is 146 points above his lifetime mark

 

9) Nelson Cruz, Twins DH (94.7 mph) – Yes, he’s 38 and yes, he can still rake

 

10) Javier Baez, Cubs SS (94.6 mph) – Was already an incredibly valuable player and now a .971 OPS makes him even better

 

11) Christian Walker, D’Backs 1B (94.6 mph) – A 28 year-old who has never been given a chance to be a full-time player. His .368 OBP & .931 OPS have been eye-popping for snake fans. As a point of reference, Paul Goldschmidt’s OPS is .810

 

12) Kyle Schwarber, Cubs OF (94.5) – One of the few examples of exit velocity not translating into good performance.

 

The next four on the list are all having solid seasons…Yoan Moncada (94.4), Carlos Santana (94.4), Cody Bellinger (94.2) and Joc Pederson (94.2).

 

The next time I talk baseball with my friend, maybe the subject will be “Barrels”.

 

 

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Jackie Robinson’s Cardboard Legacy

'56 Robinson EX 5

If something needs to be warmed up and you punch “42” seconds into the key pad of your microwave, you just might be a real baseball fan. A few weeks ago, MLB celebrated the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15th, 1947. Every player on every team wore #42 to pay homage to Jackie and all he accomplished…both on the field and in our society.

 

A few years ago, a good friend of mine made herself a bet that I would be able to identify three people in a grainy, old, black & white photograph that she sent attached to an e-mail. My response was to tell her that the photo was probably taken in Vero Beach, Florida during the early-to-mid 50’s and the three men made up the broadcasting crew for the Brooklyn Dodgers…Red Barber, Connie Desmond and a very young Vin Scully.  Growing up in Boston, I never had the chance to see Jackie Robinson and the other “Boys of Summer” play, but thanks to a wonderful new contraption called a transistor radio, the evening broadcasts of the Dodgers magically could be heard 200+ miles away in the suburbs of Boston. At the time, this young boy certainly didn’t understand the significance of Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments, especially considering the Red Sox were the last team to have a “colored” player a full 12 years after the Dodgers broke the color barrier. Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Red Sox for decades, never really addressed the issue but was quoted as saying that he didn’t have any feelings against black ballplayers himself and, in fact, employed many blacks on his estate in South Carolina. Wonder how that would play today?

 

In 2013, he movie “42” about Jackie Robinson’s journey through baseball in the 1940’s was #1 at the box office and that’s a wonderful testament to the man and his legacy. It was also great for baseball and a unique opportunity for young people to see how something historic played out on the stage of sports. Once you’ve seen the film, take the time to find “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) and look through the prism of over 65 years as you watch Jackie portray himself in what is almost a documentary. What the movie lacks in production values, it makes up for by giving you a glimpse into the actual hero.

 

There were over 40 baseball cards of Jackie Robinson during his ten-year MLB career, but many of them are from obscure sets produced as a premium with retail products. Included in that category is a set of cards from Bond Bread in 1947 and one from Old Gold Cigarettes in 1948. For purposes of our nostalgic trek today, we’ll concentrate on the cards that were available to the general public as standard issues. The values are based on a card in “Excellent” (EX 5) condition.

 

> 1948 Leaf #79 ($5,500) – Considered by many collectors as his real rookie card, this issue is very difficult to find in decent condition. It followed Jackie’s Rookie-of-the-Year season of 1947, when he batted .297, scored 125 Runs and led the NL with 29 Stolen Bases.

 

> 1949 Bowman #50 ($1,400) – The 1948 campaign was even better for the Dodger great with a .296 BA, 108 Runs, 85 RBI’s & 22 SB’s.

 

> 1950 Bowman #22 ($750) – The 1949 season was the epitome of Robinson’s career from a purely statistical perspective. In his prime at age 30, he captured the NL MVP Award with a .342 BA, 16 HR’s, 124 RBI’s, 122 Runs & a league-leading 37 SB’s. What would you pay at your Fantasy Baseball Draft for those numbers?

 

> 1952 Topps #312 ($2,650) – This beautiful card from the iconic set is in great demand by collectors. Jackie had continued his assault on NL Pitchers with two more All-Star seasons in 1950 & ’51 hitting .328 & .338.

 

> 1953 Topps #1 ($425) – As with all early card sets, the #1 card was susceptible to damage due to rubber bands  holding collections together. This issue followed another All-Star campaign for #42 in 1952, as he led the NL with a .440 On-Base Percentage.

 

> 1954 Topps #10 ($175) – Even at age 34 in 1953, there was no hint of a decline with 95 RBI’s, 30 SB’s and a .329 BA.

 

> 1955 Topps #50 ($185) – The 1954 stats on the back of this card highlight the last All-Star caliber season of Robinson’s career, as he hit .311 with a .918 OPS despite battling some nagging injuries and being limited to 386 AB’s.

 

> 1956 Topps #30 ($135) – The final card in this classic collection, it was issued following the Dodger’s magical 1955 season when they finally beat the Yankees in a 7-game World Series and brought the championship back to Brooklyn. While Jackie’s stats were declining at age 36, he was still the emotional leader of this great team.

 

Robinson retired after the ’56 season and as was Topps policy in those days, no 1957 card was issued as he was no longer an active player. Needless to say, the accomplishments of this heroic man transcend statistics, but just to help fans understand his greatness on the field, consider the following…

 

* In his ten seasons, the Dodgers won six NL Pennants

 

* He was named to six All-Star teams

 

* Was both the Rookie-of-the-Year and a league MVP

 

* Career .311 BA, .409 OBP & .883 OPS

 

* Played 1B, 2B, 3B & OF and even one game at SS

 

* In ten seasons, had 740 Walks and only 291 Strikeouts

 

Well, it’s time to pop something in the microwave, thanks for joining me in the baseball time machine.

 

 

 

1933 Goudey Baseball Cards

'33 Berg

The Old Duck was fortunate enough to get another glimpse at baseball history this past week, as over 50 vintage baseball cards made their way across my desk. So, we’ll take a quick trip in the baseball time machine to the time of the great depression.

 

For baseball cards collectors of any age, the idea of no new cards being produced for 20 years in almost unfathomable. After all, Bowman started producing cards in 1948 while Topps entered the market in 1952 and is still the collectible of choice. Many others joined the fray in the 80’s & 90’s and it could be reasonably argued that too many cards were produced in that era. However, as we look back on the history of the hobby it becomes clear that such a gap did exist in the early 20th century.

 

In the early 1900’s, baseball cards were almost always produced as premium items that accompanied tobacco in one form or another. In fact, the famous Honus Wagner card from the T-206 set of 1910 holds its scarcity from Wagner’s rumored dislike of tobacco and his threat of legal action that caused his card to have a limited run. The final full set of baseball cards during this time was the 176-card Cracker Jack set from 1915 and it was almost two decades before baseball card collecting made a colorful comeback.

 

In 1933, the Goudey Gum Company of Boston decided to produce a 240-card set that would include all the major stars of the period. They had beautiful colors and amazing artwork including both portrait and action shots. And the good news for today’s modern collector is that the cards from this set can still be found in the marketplace. Of course, the cost will vary greatly based on condition, but you can still add baseball’s legendary names to your own collection.

 

To put the timing of the ’33 Goudeys in perspective, the country was in the throes of a terrible economic depression, FDR had just been inaugurated, Hitler was the new Chancellor of Germany and prohibition was ending. Into this setting Enos Gordon Goudey decided that pictures of ballplayers as premiums would help increase the sales of his gum products.

 

As we review some of the cards in this historic offering, the values will be based on a card in “Excellent” (EX 5) condition.

 

#19 Bill Dickey, Yankees Catcher ($375) – At age 26, he was already established as the All-Star backstop of the New Yorkers dynasty.

 

#20 Bill Terry, Giants 1B ($285) – Coming off one of his best seasons where he hit .350 with 28 HR’s & 117 RBI’s. In 1930, he had 254 Hits and batted .401.

 

#29 Jimmie Foxx, Athletics 1B ($700) – “Double X” won his second consecutive MVP in ’33 by hitting .356 with 48 HR’s & 163 RBI’s.

 

#49 Frank Frisch, Cardinals 2B ($285) – “The Fordham Flash” took over as player-manager in the 2nd half of the season and led the Redbirds to the World Series championship in ’34.

 

#53 Babe Ruth, Yankees OF ($11,500) – “The Sultan of Swat” had four cards in the set, which was the most of any player. Numbers 144, 149 & 181 have values over $5,000.

 

#92 Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1B ($4,000) – “The Iron Horse” was in his prime and had two cards in the set…#160 is similarly valued.

 

#119 Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals 2B ($350) – The legendary “Rajah” was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career at age 37 but still hit .326 as a part-time player.

 

#127 Mel Ott, Giants 1B ($375) – Came to Major Leagues in 1926 at age 17 and was coming off a ’32 campaign where he led the NL with 38 HR’s.

 

#158 Moe Berg, Senators Catcher ($210) – One of the great “back-stories” in the history of the game, he hit only .185 as a back-up in ’33, but the following year he was part of a barnstorming all-star team that traveled to Japan. During the visit, Berg (who may have been the most intellectual player of his time, having been educated at Princeton & Columbia) took photographs and home movies of the Tokyo landscape which were later used by General Doolittle’s bombers in 1942. When his playing career ended in 1939, Moe drifted underground and became a spy for the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) in Europe during World War II. His exploits are captured in a 1994 biography titled “The Catcher Was A Spy” and the film of his life was released in the last year.

 

#211 Hack Wilson, Dodgers OF ($325) – This diminutive (5′ 6″) slugger still holds the all-time record for RBI’s in a season with 191 for the Cubs in 1930.

 

#216 Vernon Gomez, Yankees Pitcher ($275) – “Lefty” won 87 games for the Bombers from 1931-1934.

 

#220 Lefty Grove, Athletic Pitcher ($415) – A 300 game-winner in his 17-year career, he went 24-8 with 21 complete games in ’33.

 

#222 Charley Gehringer, Tigers 2B ($275) – Right in the middle of his 19-year career with the Bengals at age 30, he had over 200 hits in seven different seasons including 1933.

 

#223 Dizzy Dean, Cardinals Pitcher ($550) – One of the most colorful characters of the game, he had a short but memorable career. In ’33, he started 34 games and completed 26 of them. In addition, “Diz” also appeared 14 times in relief and had a 20-18 record while leading the NL in Strikeouts.

 

#230 Carl Hubbell, Giants Pitcher ($325) – The master of the screwball, “King Carl” won the NL MVP with a record of 23-12 and a league-leading ERA of 1.66.

 

Other Hall of Fame members in the set include  Pie Traynor, Ki-Ki Cuyler, Paul Waner, Al Simmons, Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin, Micket Cochrane, Tris Speaker, Bill Terry, Leo Durocher, Arky Vaughan and others. For boys of a certain generation, many of these names are familiar from the player discs of the All-Star Baseball board game.

 

Hope you enjoyed our nostalgic visit back to one of the great baseball card sets in history.

1941 Play Ball

'41 Reese EX

1941 holds a unique spot in the history of baseball. In addition to being the last season before World War II, it also contained two of the most famous records in the annals of the game. From May 16th to July 15th, the Yankees Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. During the streak, “Joltin’ Joe” had 91 hits in 223 AB’s for a .409 batting average. While the streak got top billing for two months, Ted Williams of the Red Sox was destroying AL pitchers and his batting average sat at .3995 going into the last day of the campaign. Rather than sitting out and letting the stat be rounded up to .400, “The Kid” went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader to finish at .406.

 

Since 1941, no player has had a streak of more than 44 games (Pete Rose in 1978) and no hitter has finished with a batting average over .394 (Tony Gwynn in 1994).  Think of it, two records established over 75 years ago that have stood the test of time. There were also numerous great performances during 1941 that get overlooked…Dolph Camilli hit 34 HR’s with 120 RBI’s for the Dodgers and won the NL MVP and Bob Feller of the Indians winning 25 games are just two examples.

 

Everything changed for baseball players and fans on that “date which will live in infamy” in December of 1941. Major League baseball was played for the next four years but DiMaggio, Williams, Feller and many others were away defending our country and life changed for all Americans.

 

Another casualty of the war was baseball cards. In 1939, Gum Inc. debuted a new baseball product called Play Ball. The 162 set had cards that were larger and better quality than the old-time tobacco and gum cards produced earlier in the century. It also included the rookie card of Williams as well as a card of DiMaggio. In 1940, the Play Ball set increased to 240 cards and in addition to modern players, also included a “Shoeless Joe” Jackson card.

 

The 1941 version was limited to 72 players but introduced color to the card fronts. As a recent collection that came across my desk included some of these historic pieces of cardboard, let’s take a look at some of the Hall of Fame names you might recognize…values are based on cards in “EX 5” condition.

 

> #6 Carl Hubbell $140 – The master of the screwball, “King Carl” spent his entire career (1928-1943) with the Giants.

 

> #8 Mel Ott $140 – Hit 511 HR’s in 22 seasons (1926-1947) with the Giants.

 

> #13 Jimmie Foxx $210 – One of the great sluggers of the era, he won three MVP awards and hit 534 HR’s.

 

> #14 Ted Williams $775 – The greatest hitter that ever lived.

 

> #18 Hank Greenburg $200 – Helped the Tigers win two World Series and overcame significant prejudice on his way to Cooperstown.

 

> # 54 Pee Wee Reese $375 – This is the rookie card of the famous Dodger SS…it is the top RC in the set.

 

> #’s 61, 63 & 71 Vince, Dom & Joe DiMaggio $150 / $150 / $1,800 – The only time these brothers ever appeared in the same baseball card set.

 

> #70 Bill Dickey $215 – The legendary Yankee Catcher who played with Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig.

 

> #72 Lefty Gomez $250 – Won five World Series as the ace of the Yankee’s staff.

 

Fans had to wait until 1948 for the next set of baseball cards.

 

 

Holding History In Your Hands

'25 Reach #2

If you are a real baseball fan, how often do you come across a collectible, artifact or story that surprises you? Over the last dozen years, my experiences have brought a number of these surprises. From 100 year-old baseball cards in a frame on someone’s wall to an autographed photo of a Hall of Fame player who passed away in 1948 (Hack Wilson) to a Mickey Mantle autographed newspaper advertisement for a vacuum bottle. Now, another surprise has come my way.

 

A recent collection included the 1925 version of the Reach Baseball Guide. For the cost of 35 cents, a fan received over 500 pages of information including editorial comment, statistical records, vintage photos and even a minor league review. Haven’t you always been curious about the 1924 pennant race in the Class D Blue Ridge League? The flag was captured on the last day of the season by the Martinsburg (WV) Blue Sox. Reggie Rawlings was their star player with 21 HR’s and a .379 BA.

 

A.J. Reach & Co. was the largest manufacturer of sporting goods in the country from the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Al Reach was the founder of the Philadelphia Phillies franchise and his company manufactured numerous sporting goods products. In the pages of the 1925 guide, you’ll find ads promoting baseballs (the official American League ball), baseball mitts (gloves), soccer balls, basketballs, football helmets, golf equipment, tennis rackets and more. In 1934, Reach sold all of its rights and products to its chief rival, Spalding, and the name disappeared from the baseball landscape.

 

Part I of the guide reviews the 1924 pennant races and the World Series where the Washington Senators defeated the New York Giants in 7 games. Walter Johnson (the AL MVP) pitched the last four innings for the win in a 12-inning nail-biter.

 

Part II includes a review of the post-season Giants – White Sox European Tour. The details seem to indicate that it was less than successful due to lack of knowledge by potential fans and the inclement weather in October & November. Games were played in Liverpool, Dublin, London & Paris. Certainly a curiosity in baseball history.

 

Part III covers statistical information for the 1924 season…the AL list shows Babe Ruth leading the league with a .378 BA and 46 HR’s. Interestingly, RBI’s aren’t included on the page.

 

Part IV reviews the ’24 World Series in minute detail while Part V includes record setting accomplishments. Then Part VI spends over sixty pages on the minor leagues.

 

Part VII is primarily about the business of baseball reviewing annual meetings of each league and a preview of the 1925 schedule.

 

Photos include Ban Johnson (AL President), Kenesaw M. Landis (Commissioner), Babe Ruth, John A. Heydler (NL President), Rogers Hornsby (led the NL with a .424 BA), Dazzy Vance (NL MVP) and group shots of every team.

 

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also an addendum with the “Official 1925 Code of Playing Rules for Playing Baseball”. Rule 18 says that players in uniform shall not be permitted to occupy seats in the stands, or to mingle with the spectators.

 

Gotta love these trips in the baseball time machine.

The Heritage Of Topps

 

'19 Lindor Heritage

Everyone you know probably considers themselves an expert at something, but Fantasy Baseball players are at the top of the food chain. Even though we play the game for money and bragging rights, the real truth is that we actually think we’re smarter than MLB GM’s & Managers. After all, would Dan Straily be in your rotation? Or would Hunter Strickland be your Closer? Or would you have Hanley Ramirez as your DH when you’re a contending team? Or would you pay Yasmany Tomas over $10 Million to play in Reno? Or would you keep hoping that Matt Duffy will be healthy? The Old Duck participates in a 15-team Fantasy Baseball “experts” league where it is abundantly clear that each owner considers himself to be smarter than the other 14, but none of them would make those moves. It isn’t arrogance, only knowledge gained from experience.

 

Avid baseball card collectors are no different in their approach to the hobby. After watching card manufacturers flail away at each other in the 80’s and overproduce products in the 90’s to the detriment of the industry, it’s easy to criticize almost any product offering. Card enthusiasts are quick to complain about too few autograph cards, but also aren’t happy when the autographs are on stickers applied to the cards because they want the authenticity of “on-card” signatures. They also don’t like redemption cards (when players have not yet had the opportunity to sign), but also whine when the better players aren’t included in a product. It is the nature of the consumer to always want more for less and consider themselves smarter than the folks in charge.

 

In an attempt to remove myself from this category (even temporarily), I’m willing to admit that the people at The Topps Company are brilliant!

 

In 2001, Topps was celebrating the 50th anniversary of their entry into the baseball card business. They utilized the framework of their historical 1952 set to develop a new product. Topps Heritage came into the marketplace with current players pictured on cards that had the format of the iconic 1952 set. The detail of the set and the photography took collectors back to the time when packs were a nickel and included a stick of gum. The set was designed for card enthusiasts to build it completely by opening packs and sorting through the cards. It even had some of the quirks of the original like short-printed cards, checklist cards and even bubble gum…even though the gum was enclosed in a plastic wrapper. To all of this, Topps also added some autograph & relic cards to make the set even more attractive. The real draw, however, was the 1952 look and the opportunity for kids of the 50’s to build a new set of cards for the 2000’s.

 

Topps Heritage has been a consistent top-selling product at a mid-range price (around $3+ per pack) ever since. Each year, the cards mirror the old design of the appropriate Topps set with new players and this year’s release (which just hit stores last month), uses the 1970 card as its platform. If you collected cards in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, this is the product for you.

 

In the last few years, Topps has added a few more twists with short printed cards that have variations of throwback uniforms or an action image. They even tugged at old-timers’ heartstrings by randomly adding a section of white on some of the card backs emulating how they would have looked had a dusty piece of gum been sitting against the card…very cool!

 

The Old Duck purchases a few boxes each year and builds the set from scratch. Of course, you never really know what might appear inside the packs and the first box this year yielded a Shohei Ohtani “Action Shortprint” and a Francisco Lindor Game-Used Memorabilia card.

 

In honor of this year’s release, let’s look back at that beautiful 1970 set of 720 cards, which includes over 25 Hall of Famers. The card values are based on “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

 

> #140 Reggie Jackson, $45 – The 2nd year card of Mr. October.

 

> #189 Thurman Munson, $80 – The rookie card of the Yankee legend.

 

> #350 Roberto Clemente, $55 – Even 15 years into his career, this all-time great is in demand.

 

> #500 Hank Aaron , $55 – Still in his prime…hit 44 HR’s in ’69.

 

> #580 Pete Rose, $60 – Charlie Hustle led the NL in ’69 with a .348 BA.

 

> #600 Willie Mays, $60 – The Say Key Kid was 39 but still managed to hit 28 HR’s for the Giants in ’70.

 

> #660 Johnny Bench, $75 – The heart of the Big Red Machine, this was his 3rd year card.

 

> #712 Nolan Ryan, $150 – The high number run is slightly scarcer and the Express is highly coveted in nice condition.

 

 

In addition to these big tickets items, you’ll also find Ted Williams (as a Manager), Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and the only team card of the Seattle Pilots.

 

The “Heritage” will continue next year with memories of the 1971 set…

 

 

 

Same Time Next Year

Drook & Charles

In 1978, there was a movie titled “Same Time Next Year” starring Alan Alda & Ellen Burstyn. It wasn’t a classic film but was certainly entertaining, which is confirmed by its 7.2 rating on imdb.com. The plot was about two people, both married to others, who meet by chance at a romantic inn and end up sharing a night together. The next morning, they are wondering how this could have happened but decide to an agreement. They will meet each year on the same weekend at the same place and renew their relationship. Originally a stage play, the story takes the audience through the years with the same couple in the same room. The episodes take us from the early 1950’s to the mid 1970’s, as the changes in the world and their lives impact their relationship.

 

As I sat behind home plate at Surprise Stadium for 25+ games this February & March, the title of that movie popped out of my aging grey matter and wrapped itself around this wonderful annual experience. The girl I love each year is named Spring…it just so happens that her last name is Training. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Of course, it was Sonnet 43, so she probably had a Dennis Eckersley jersey.

 

> The weather in Arizona this time of year is absolutely beautiful. Azure blue skies and emerald green grass greet you everyday at the ballpark.

 

> The ballpark is the most comfortable and fan-friendly of all the Cactus League facilities. Even though it opened in 2003, the newer parks with all the whistles and bells can’t compare with the sightlines and intimacy of this gem. It has a single concourse, allowing easy access for all fans. The concessions are on the concourse, so you don’t miss any game action while feeding your appetite or quenching your thirst. There are small upper-decks above 1B & 3B that hang out over the lower seats and add another viewing  perspective to the game. And, a local group of over 500 volunteers called the Sundancers are always there to assist you with everything from parking to charity raffles to wheelchair access for disabled fans to being at the top of every aisle helping fans find their seat.

 

> Of course, the staff at the Surprise Recreation Campus are also top-notch. Travis & Paul do a great job everyday making the experience positive and then there’s Cecilia (CC), the liaison for season-ticket holders who keeps finding additional ways to epitomize exceptional customer service.

 

> What isn’t apparent to most fans is that the ballpark has a second name…Billy Parker Field. When Billy Parker made his major league debut with a game-winning home run for the Angels on September 8, 1971, you probably could have completed the census of Surprise by yourself over a weekend. After his baseball career ended, Billy worked with youth programs for the city and was much beloved for his volunteerism before he passed away in 2003. Today, he would be proud to see the thousands of Little League players who attended youth day at the ballpark last Saturday. The city’s current population is over 130,000.

 

> One of the first things you see when entering the leftfield gate for a game is a small tent hosted by Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins and his charity foundation. Almost everyday, you will find great ballplayers from the past signing autographs in exchange for a donation to the foundation. This Spring, you would have seen Rollie Fingers, Bert Campanaris, Willie Wilson, George Foster and many others greeting fans and talking baseball with them.

 

> Speaking of autographs, these games obviously offer fans greater access to ballplayers and many hope to get signatures from their heroes. Some players sign a limited amount, some don’t sign at all but the nicest memory is the generosity of Josh Hamilton during his first go-round with the Rangers (2008-12). Typically, the regulars come out of a Spring Training game around the 5th inning and head down the foul line toward the clubhouse. Fans congregate in the area hoping that players might stop and sign, but most just take a circuitous route to avoid the inconvenience. For those five years he spent with the club, Josh stopped every day and signed autographs for as long as he could, even standing in foul territory while the game proceeded just to accommodate the fans. We’ve all had someone in our life who has battled addiction and can clearly understand how difficult it can be to overcome. This is a guy we should all admire because he understands what the game is all about.

 

> The National Anthem is a traditional moment at every baseball game and we’re privileged to have talented people perform at the Stadium each day during February & March. From a retired Naval officer with a booming voice to young girls hitting high notes we could never even dream about to an older gentleman doing a saxophone solo, it is sure to give you chills.  Then, as the home team takes the field, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” pipes in over the loudspeakers and we’re ready to “Play Ball”.

 

> The other people in the ballpark also make the experience memorable. For me, it never gets old to engage long-time friends and new acquaintances in baseball conversation. My closest friend and his beautiful wife have had seats in the first row behind the 3rd base dugout since the ballpark opened. Sometimes I go down and join them for a couple of innings but even when we’re at a distance we’re still close. Each day, when he arrives at the park, we catch each other’s eye and say “hi” by flashing baseball signs to each other. My season seats are right behind home plate and even though they are about eight rows up from the field, they are on the railing above the tunnel used by visiting teams. The result is that there is no one in front of me to block the view…the best seats in the house! “Duke” is my wingman for about 2/3 of the games and we talk baseball for hours each day before reaching our pitch count and heading home for a nap (me) or “honey do’s” (him). For the other 10 games, the adjacent seat is occupied by golfing buddies, out-of-town guests or an occasional pretty girl who hasn’t figured out how old I am. The last few years have been even more special, as my Son has made the trek from SoCal three times to join me for a game. Right across the aisle is a dear friend who makes an 11,000 mile round trip from the south coast of England each March to watch baseball. After many years of making the journey, the Customs agents at the Phoenix airport refer to him as the “British Baseball Guy”. This same section is also where the scouts sit with their notepads and radar guns. This allows me the opportunity to visit and talk baseball with really smart guys like Deric McKamey, Kimball Crossley & Jason Grey.

 

> As most of the seats around mine are not season tickets, each day also brings new opportunities to talk baseball. Of course, there are always lots of Royals & Rangers fans in for a long weekend or extended visit.  We talk baseball for the whole game, agree that people who are bored by baseball just aren’t very intelligent and pledge to see each other again next year. And naturally, each visiting team is also represented by folks with jerseys from the Giants, Dodgers, Angels and others. Unlike pro football, there is never any animosity regarding loyalty. Everyone in the park is there for a good time enjoying the national pastime.

 

> Encounters also bring about numerous “small world” stories. While having lunch at a local eatery before a game, a conversation took place with a gentleman and his Son who were also attending the game that day. The usual baseball conversation got around to favorite teams and I said, “Red Sox”, the Father responded, “Me too”. It turns out that he lived north of Boston as a kid at the same time I lived west of the city. We are both huge fans of Ted Williams and remember taking that nickel street-car ride to Fenway Park in the 50’s. Think of it…he and I were certainly in the ballpark on the same day many times as youngsters and now, 60 years later, we’re sitting in Arizona reminiscing about those days.

 

> Another opportunity for old-school fans like me is to talk with youngsters about the game. A dear friend of mine comes to one game each Spring and brings a Mom & Son who are visiting from Texas. This time I was ready for young Charles with a baseball card that had a piece of Adrian Beltre’s bat. The smile on his face was priceless.

 

> Cactus League facilities have standard food menus and a few more upscale items, but this ballpark has two choices worth trying. There are two kiosks on the concourse called the Diamond Grill that serve a freshly grilled Italian Sausage on a soft bun with grilled onions & peppers. And, on the 3rd base concourse is a food truck that arrives every year direct from Iowa and offers both a pork tenderloin sandwich and chicken tenders. If you’re not already salivating, both items come with waffle fries.  When the e-mail invitations are sent in February to my once-a-year guests, they seem more excited about the prospect of consuming one of these culinary delicacies than they are about the ballgame itself.

 

> As a Fantasy player, the games themselves are always exciting, interesting and informational. You can read all the scouting reports you want on the Internet, but seeing the skills in person make the games a joy. This year, we got to see prospects such as Fernando Tatis Jr. & Chris Paddack, who are now in the “Show”.

 

> There is also the occasional “right of passage”, as veteran players try to hang on for one more shot on a major league roster. Hunter Pence pulled it off this year but many others faded from view.

 

> And, of course, there are always a few enthusiastic fans applauding for an unknown prospect wearing #87 with no name on the uniform. You realize quickly that they’re members of his family and just hope he doesn’t strike out or give up a 3-run homer.

 

> Even the most ardent fans can’t know about every player, so Spring surprises like Ildemaro Vargas, Frank Schwindel & Matt Strahm remind us that we’re not quite as smart as we think we are.

 

The Old Duck has only been in love a few times over the years, but the relationship with this girl I call Spring is the most enduring. She is beautiful, loyal, consistent and always in a good mood. I will miss her very much over the next 11 months, but knowing that she’ll be there “same time next year” makes it easier to bear.