Friday, April 25, 2014

"3 Baseball GMs from 1 Tiny College" by Dad

     There were a handful of articles this spring about how three MLB general managers all went to Amherst College, a small school in Massachusetts that is not known as a baseball powerhouse, except for the few years when it makes a run at the D3 title. That’s D3, as in, “No, we don’t play UT.”
     Nevertheless, tiny Amherst, as it keeps getting called in these articles, is where Dan Duquette of the Orioles, Ben Cherington of the Red Sox, and Neal Huntington of the Pirates all played their college ball.
     Odd coincidence? Something in the drinking water up there? 
     No. It was who was in the coach’s chair.
     All three future GMs played for an amazing guy named Bill Thurston.
     For the record, I went to Amherst, too. I didn’t play baseball, but I was sports 
editor of the student newspaper, unimaginatively named The Student, and occasional baseball radio announcer. I won’t claim to have known Coach Thurston at all well, but I do want to make known a few things I admire most about him.
     First, simply that he stayed at Amherst as long as he did. Bill was and is, as I will hope to make clear, a distinguished baseball guy -- highly respected and well connected. But he came to Amherst to coach baseball in 1966 and stayed until his retirement in 2009, winning 811 games. 
     But simple longevity isn’t what makes Bill unique, not even to the Amherst baseball program. The guy he succeeded, Paul Eckley, coached the team from 1923 until his own retirement in 1965. This means that from 1923 to 2009, while the country ran through 15 presidents, Amherst had two baseball coaches. And for the record regarding Amherst and baseball longevity, and whatever this little piece of baseball trivia is worth, the first collegiate baseball game ever played pitted Amherst against Williams in 1859. Amherst won.
     What is actually most admirable about Bill has been his lifelong commitment to the health and safety of young baseball players, a commitment that has proved important on two fronts.
     He has been a leading proponent of returning to wood bats, arguing that baseballs come off aluminum bats with too much force and velocity, putting fielders, especially pitchers and third basemen, at risk. He has spoken to anyone who would listen, even testifying before Congress.  Two promising results have been that now wood bats are once again being used in many high schools throughout the country, including the State, er, Commonwealth, of Massachusetts and the City of New York.
     And he has been a prime developer and promoter of safer, less arm damaging pitching practices, including advances in the wind up and pitching motion itself. He has done much of this work in tandem with James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who has probably performed more Tommy John operations on major league pitchers than anyone but the late Frank Jobe, the inventor of the procedure.
     But the last word on Coach Thurston should probably be about the keen perspective he’s always shown regarding baseball, a game he clearly loves, but still just as clearly a game. It’s no doubt what enabled him to stay all those years at Amherst, a school better known for SATs than RBIs. 
     And so here’s my one personal Thurston story. 
     Some years ago, I shot back up to Amherst with a buddy who actually did play there to watch him pitch in the annual alumni game. 
     Once there, seeming to revert back to my chipper, sports editor self, I way too brightly asked Thurston, “So Coach, what do you think you have this year?”
     He shot me a look and answered, “What I always have, 20 guys who can read and three who can hit.”
     This is the guy who is the true link between those three MLB GMs.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Taking Care of Sha-Bizness" by Bojo

While the recent championship by the UConn Men’s basketball team solidified them as a serious powerhouse program in their sport, it left behind another different, but also stirring debate, if only in the state of Connecticut. And that debate was which point guard was better during their time at UConn, Shabazz Napier or his predecessor Kemba Walker.

                                The guards in question, Napier and Walker

The 2014 championship run was one that was very reminiscent at times of the 2011 Big East and NCAA championship runs, leading many Connecticut fans to inevitable comparison.  The similarities are not unfounded, as both their playing styles, and their numbers (Napier 2014: 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.8 steals per game, Walker 2011: 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.9 steals per game) line up pretty closely. So the question comes down to one of either who contributed more, who had a tougher schedule, or who had the better teammates.

While both were the unquestionable leaders on their team both in terms of emotion and most stat categories, just by pure eye test, it’s my opinion that Shabazz was more important to his team than Kemba was to his, even though Kemba was a year younger and scored more points.
The team this year was not poised to win, and television analysts almost to a man picked against the Connectict squad every round. This year’s team were serious underdogs, so even though Kemba was great, what Shabazz has accomplished is even more impressive. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Did Pitchers Used To be Tougher?" by Dad

     The notion that today’s pitchers are coddled is a pet subject of sports talk radio.  Callers point to the seeming epidemic of Tommy John surgeries, and blame pitch counts, inning restrictions, 5-man rotations, and a general lack of toughness. Not like the old days, they say, when men were men and pitchers went 200 innings a year for 20 years, rubbing dirt on sore arms and soldiering on.
     And there does seem to be a sudden rise this spring in Tommy John surgeries, being performed on the really promising young arms of pitchers like Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy of the Braves, Jarrod Parker of the As, Patrick Corbin on the Diamondbacks and, most recently, Bobby Parnell joining Matt Harvey on the Mets’ pitching casualties list.
     But were the good old days really so good? Did a tougher breed of man stride the mound back in the day, as the callers all like to say?
     I say no. I maintain that pitchers are having this surgery because now they can, and that pitchers are generally having longer, more productive careers than was the norm before the revolution in sports medicine.
     And how revolutionary have the advances in sports medicine been?
     Well, we all can cite chapter and verse about Tommy John surgery, especially having sadly read the recent obituary of Frank Jobe, the father of the procedure. But have we forgotten that simply being able to see torn ligaments and other soft tissue injuries without surgery, via CT scans and MRIs, dates back only to the 1980s?
     I think it true that a lot of pitchers over the years simply left baseball young because of the commonly called “sore arm,” mysterious, undiagnosable and untreatable, never to be heard from again.  And we’ve forgotten about them.  We remember just the durable stars and tell ourselves that their few careers were the norm.
     Just to check myself, I went back to my two favorite teams growing up – the 1962 Yankees and the 1969 Mets.  These are good test cases because, beyond being World Series winners, they were anchored by the kind of durable stars we look back on as the rocks that tower over today’s pitchers. Whitey Ford anchored the ’62 Yankees, and Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman the ’69 Mets, and yes, they had long, durable, impressive careers.  But what about the other pitchers on those starting rotations?
     First, the ’62 Yankees. Their number two pitcher was Ralph Terry, the Bulldog. And yes, he was a tough guy, and had the second longest career after Ford. And how long was it? 12 years, with just three years of 200 or more innings.
    The number three starter that year was a young guy named Bill Stafford, who had two good years – 1961 and 1962 – and who was out of baseball in 1967. 
     The fourth starter? The rookie Jim Bouton, and we know all about him, thanks to his amazing book, Ball Four.  He went on to have two great years in 1963 and 1964, blew his arm out (maybe a candidate for Tommy John, had it existed then?), taught himself a knuckleball and hung on to his career, just barely, until the 60s ended.
     And now the 1969 Mets.  Seaver and Koosman and…
     Well, there was the older veteran Don Cardwell, who did in fact have the kind of long career we imagine everyone did back then.
     But the true number three starter that year was rookie Gary Gentry, about whom Orioles manager Earl Weaver said after his team lost the Series in five games, “We knew about Seaver and Koosman, but we didn’t know the third guy was that good.”  Gentry was good through 1972, then was out of baseball in 1975, at the age of 28.
     The fifth starter that year was a promising young pitcher named Jim McAndrew. He lasted 7 years in the majors, never pitching 200 innings in a season, and clearing 100 innings just three times.
     A funny thing, memory. But the facts seem to state that the golden age of pitching may be… right now.