The Home Stretch of a Short Race
With one week remaining in the condensed 2020 Major League Baseball season, this bureau is reminded of that latter days of the Oprah Winfrey Show.
As her television run was winding down, the Queen of Daytime TV was occasionally very generous to her audiences. She bestowed vehicles as parting gifts. You can likely go to You Tube and watch an excited Oprah pointing to her audience saying “You Get a Car. You Get a Car. You Get a Car,” etc.
During this COVID season the Lords of Major League Baseball have been Oprah-like in establishing the 2020 playoff structure. You can almost hear Commissioner Rob Manfred pointing to various spots across the fruited plain yelling, “You Get a Playoff Spot, You Get a Playoff Spot, etc.”
In 2020, sixteen Major League Baseball teams will qualify for the playoffs. Saying it another way, sixteen of the thirty MLB franchises (aka: 53.33%) get to advance to Round Two. These are numbers that would make the National Hockey League smile.
Whenever you water down the playoff pool by adding more and more teams, many of those added teams could have mediocre win/loss records. That is not a slight. Rather, it is pure math. To that end, there could be many teams that have around .500 records or below that are in the hunt for those final playoff spots.
That brings us to the local nine.
With one week remaining in the regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals have played fifty games and have a record of 26-24. At this writing they are in second place in the National League Central Division: one game out of fourth place in the NLCD.
The Red Birds have been somewhat mediocre in 2020. While there were games where the pitching was outstanding, there were other when the pitching was not very good. While there were games when the St. Louis bats were strong and timely, there were others when the team could not muster a hit with a runner in scoring position. While there were games when the Cardinals were aggressive on the basepaths going from first to third, there were other games with pick-offs and bad baserunning.
Translation: a .500 team. Regardless of all the happy words. verbal bouquets and soliloquies bestowed by the apologists at the team’s primary funding partner Fox Sports Midwest, to date these Red Birds are basically a .500 baseball team.
However, it’s 2020 and being mediocre just might be good enough. That means a .500 team, heck, a below .500 team could qualify for the playoffs this year.
It’s a very fluid Senior Circuit. Warts & all the Red Birds are very much in the hunt to one playoff spot and/or possibly a second Wild Card spot.
St. Louis has ten games remaining on their docket: eight that are scheduled with two tentative. Two of their opponents currently have losing records and the third is currently at .500. It starts with a three-game series in Western Missouri against the Kansas City Royals and their last-place American League Central record of 21-34. The Royals are managed by former Cardinal Skipper Mike Matheny. That could lead to an awkward/ironic/interesting angle, eh?
It’s possible that two games against AL Central fourth-place Detroit would need to be played. Those were originally postponed when COVID was running wild throughout the St. Louis clubhouse.
But this likely will all could come down to a five-game series in four days with the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium. It begins with a doubleheader on Thursday, followed by two night games and a Sunday afternoon finale at self-proclaimed Baseball Heaven.
The Cincinnati Reds at 27-27 are also in the mix. However, the Reds have a gauntlet in their final week in hosting the Brewers for three games at Great American Ball Park before ending their season with a three-game weekend series at playoff-bound Minnesota and their mission to win the AL Central title.
The Reds/Brewers matchup caught the eye of USA Today’s Gabe Lacques who offered these thoughts: “the series to watch this week the Reds and Brewers, who play three games in Cincinnati beginning Monday. The Reds hope to align their top three starters – Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and, on short rest, Trevor Bauer – to seize control of a playoff berth.”
This will all unfold while the Red Birds are down I-70 against the Royals. Logic seems to tell you this favors the local nine.
But logic goes out the window with only a handful of remaining games.
Given all of that, all the Cardinals need to do is win. St. Louis controls their own destiny. All they need to do is win. All they need to do is win against teams that have at best .500 records.
The real question is: will they?
Cardinal Manager Mike Shildt spelled out the final week nicely in a conversation with our town’s only newspaper: ““That’s the balancing act,” Shildt said. “We’re striking it as well as we can. We’ve done it with our pitching, to the best of our ability. We’re doing it with position players. We’re in competition. We know guys are going to push a little bit, have to push a little bit more than they’re used to by far, and still (we can) stay ahead of a guy who has had a little something going on. We need to be smart in the moment for a longer-term play."
In 2006, the Cardinals lost seven of their last ten regular season games: which included being swept in a four-game series in Houston. On the final game of the season and leading the Division by one game, the Red Birds backed into the playoffs as the Astros lost to Atlanta in the finale. St. Louis finished the season as Division Champs with a final win/loss record five games over.500. That final record includes a regular season 21-26 mark against teams that had a winning record.
That 2006 Tony La Russa team parlayed this good fortune straight to the Fall Classic. It was later capped with a 4 game to 1 win over Detroit in the World Series.
So, the moral of the story is: just get in and then take your chances.
All the Cardinals need to do is win.
We’ll know soon “who gets a playoff spot and who gets a playoff spot and who gets a playoff spot”.
posted August 10
Sooner or later the numbers are just not going to fit.
Over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals canceled another series because of COVID-19 positive tests. This latest cancelation brings the 2020 total to thirteen postponed games. For a schedule with very little wiggle room, the goal of a complete 2020 Major League Baseball season in the Gateway City is growing uncertain.
Logic suggests that a decision must soon be made. This really can’t go on much longer. The window of opportunity is closing.
After these latest canceled series this ominous statement was issued from the MLB Park Avenue headquarters, “In light of the most recent positive test results, MLB and the Club believe it is prudent to conduct additional testing while players and staff are quarantined before the team returns to play. More information regarding the Cardinals’ resumption of play will be announced later in the week.”
The world is upside down in 2020. On the first Sunday August, the Red Birds have played less than a half-dozen regular season games while the St. Louis Blues are playing meaningful hockey games.
For the Cardinals, their shortened season started on July 24. Since then, the local nine has played just five games. At this writing, St. Louis needs to make up thirteen games: again, at this writing.
To compare and to contrast, when this abbreviated schedule started, the concern was with the Miami Marlins. It seems COVID-19 was active in South Beach during late July. Regardless of this early-season scare on the morning of the second Monday of August, the Marlins have played ten games.
Meanwhile the St. Louis Cardinals have only played five games. Trips ranging from London to Dyersville, Iowa have been canceled in the process this summer.
The three most populated cities in our land are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Each city has two Major League Baseball Teams. On the morning of the first Monday of August, those six teams in those densely populated regions, five of those teams have now played sixteen games. The other team (the Chicago Cubs) have played thirteen: because the recent three-game series in St. Louis was canceled.
But back in St. Louis the Cardinals have only played five games.
During the summer of 2020 the self-proclaimed Best Fans in Baseball have been watching their heroes perform on a very limited basis. The Red Birds’ primary funding partner at Fox Sports Midwest has been forced to air canned rain-delay programming over and over and over in lieu of live games. All the fun and hype at Ball Park Village has been subdued and delayed because there has been no action across the street.
So, inquiring minds wonder: how much longer will this go on? It is a fair question.
What’s occurring with the home team is puzzling, frustrating and embarrassing. Reports from 700 Clark Street have been not been encouraging. In an interview on the team’s flagship radio station, Manager Mike Shildt indicated several players went to the Emergency Room for COVID symptoms. Shildt did not elaborate on just how many players are in a “several”.
Over the past dozen or so years, Team President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has always been professorial, measured and at times condescending to the media or in sound bites. But during this past three weeks, Mozeliak’s remarks have been defensive and testy. “I don’t know what our future looks like at this point,’’ Mozeliak said to USA Today. “For all of the optimism we had a couple days ago, it’s frustrating for everyone involved. …I haven’t slept in days.’’
Yeah, puzzling, frustrating and embarrassing
Meanwhile there are loads of conspiracy theories floating from mis-spellers in cyberspace to national pundits on why this is mostly occurring in the 314 and not much anywhere else. This bureau has no insight as to what the underlying cause or causes involved or has any desire to point fingers or shame.
Instead, we prefer to go the bottom line.
The bottom line is that the Red Birds have only played five games of their sixty-game schedule. The shortened regular season is scheduled to end of Sunday September 27. Saying it another way for St. Louis to finish its complete season on time, they would need to play fifty-five games in a forty-five day period: which includes travel and assuming no rainouts or no more positive tests.
As Mozeliak put it, “Mathematically, it would be challenging”.
The untrained experts at this bureau conclude only two solutions exist: neither are good. Either ramrod all this fifty-games games into this small time period or just cancel the Cardinals’ games for the remainder of the season. From a league perspective, if one franchise is experiencing COVID issues, then for the sake of the remaining schedule and post-season broadcast revenue, the most efficient solution might be to eliminate the infected issue: regardless of its origin.
Matt Snyder of CBS SportsLine offers these thoughts: “Not only are the Cardinals a marquee franchise and brand in baseball, but the league functioning in this shortened calendar with 29 teams doesn't work. If the Cardinals were totally shut down, the teams remaining on their schedule would play a good number fewer games than 60 this season. However, this would be a better option, financially speaking for baseball, than (canceling the entire MLB season).”
The Red Birds and Major League Baseball are on the clock and that clock is running out of time.
Assuming no new outbreaks St. Louis will resume play on Thursday August 13 with a doubleheader in Detroit. Then the Red Birds will travel to the south side of Chicago for a weekend series with the White Sox. Then on Monday they will stay in the Windy City for three games against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Assuming all those games are played, the Red Birds head home: hosting Cincinnati for four games, then Kansas City comes to town for three games before the Cleveland Indians arrive in the 314 to end August.
Again, that is assuming no new outbreaks.
Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick.
Sooner or later the numbers are just not going to fit.
Editor's Note: After this was written, MLB and the Cardinals announced that the August 13 STL-DET doubleheader has been postponed.
The Unthinkable Happened One Year Ago...
posted June 14
It happened one year ago.
On the evening of June 12, 2019 at approximately 9:45PM, although the temperature in St. Louis, Missouri was in the mid-60s, hell was about to freeze over.
On the evening of June 12, 2019 at approximately 9:45PM thousands of Gateway City baby-boomers finally scratched an item off their bucket list.
On the evening of June 12, 2019 at approximately 9:45PM the self-proclaimed Best Fans in Baseball were not overreacting to their favorite baseball team being shut out by the lowly Miami Marlins 9-0.
On the evening of June 12, 2019 at approximately 9:45PM, at the end of Game #108 of the 2018-19 season the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup.
Has it really been one year?
As we remain in a coronavirus world without any live sports to watch, debate or complain, sports fans across the fruited plain remain can only reminisce about the past glories and kick around stories. Reams of film of sporting events of past years have flooded airwaves over the past three months. Fans were searching for reminders of the games.
Here is the Gateway City, there have been many of those moments to remember. Eleven times the Cardinals were crowned as World Series Champions.
In January 2000, our town celebrated what likely will be its only Super Bowl Championship,
On April 12,1958, the St. Louis Hawks won the NBA Championship
On March 18, 1948, St. Louis University captured the NIT Tournament title (which back in those days was more prominent than the NCAA tournament).
But there was still one missing for the 314.
That is, until the evening of June 12, 2019 at approximately 9:45PM, St. Louis time.
For years the St. Louis Blues were considered the Chicago Cubs of the National Hockey League. They were the NHL’s Charlie Brown. Die-hard followers always felt that after success, a trap door would eventually open. Whether it be the financial distresses of ownership, the sudden death of an up and coming young defenseman, a possible relocation to Saskatoon, the sudden break-up of a popular Head Coach as he scampered to enemy territory in Detroit, to a first round playoff elimination after winning the President’s Cup, to a lockout and a lost season, long-suffering Blues fans saw the football being yanked from them as they prepared to kick it.
This was the life of a Blues fan.
But it was different in 2019: although the familiar storyline preceded the celebration. In April 2018 the Blues did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then came an Opening Night loss to Winnipeg 5-1 in front of a sellout home crowd On the day before Thanksgiving, the team fired its Head Coach. During the season Blues players were fighting Blues players during a morning skate with local television cameras rolling. Hours after New Year’s Day 2019, the team found itself with the worst record in the NHL.
Days after the big ball dropped in Time Square in January 2019, the St. Louis Blues were a train wreck.
But 2019 would be remembered by St. Louis hockey fans much the same way as 1964 is remembered by St. Louis baseball fans. And just like fifty-five years prior, the turnaround started when a 25-year old whose last name begins with the letter B joined the team.
On January 5, the Blues added goaltender Jordan Binnington to their roster. St. Louis’ record then was 16-9-4 with 53 games remaining in the regular season. Two nights later, Binnington stopped 25 Philadelphia shots as the Blues shut out the Flyers. This would be the start of a run where #50 would win 24 of his next 30 starts (including six shutouts). In Kurt Warner-like fashion, Binnington led the charge to rejuvenate his hockey team.
The Blues would qualify for the playoffs. Suddenly a perfect storm was forming. As the team advanced deeper in the playoffs, NHL powerhouses in Tampa Bay, Calgary, Pittsburgh and Washington were sent to the golf course. Suddenly, a path was opening for the Blues.
You had the feeling that if it didn’t happen in 2019, it might never occur.
It started to fall into place. The Blues advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the Nixon Administration. They would eliminate Winnipeg, Dallas and then San Jose. Only a team remained. But that opponent came from a city that has sent shivers to St. Louis sports fans for over twenty years: Boston.
Beantown seem to have curse over the Gateway City. The Bruins swept the Blues the last time St. Louis reached the NHL Finals in 1970. The Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in the World Series in 2004 and 2013. The Patriots knocked off the two-touchdown favorite St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Now, another team from Boston stands in the way of St. Louis winning a professional sports championship.
The 2019 Stanley Cup Finals were a physical slugfest that went the distance. The deciding Game 7 would be played on a frozen pond in downtown Boston.
But in this showdown, the Blues would conquer the bully. In that Game 7 Binnington was spectacular: stopping shot after shot and making save after save. #50’s performance quieted and declawed the roaring crowd at the TD Garden.
While Binnington led the way, he was strongly assisted by Captain Alex Pietrangelo, who finally displayed the advertised leadership and dominance. Veteran Ryan O’Reilly took over as the center iceman Blues fans were coveting for over a decade. Their example cascaded down throughout the team.
Then at approximately 10:45PM Eastern Time, the final horn sounded. The scoreboard told the story: St. Louis-4; Boston-1. The Blues players skated around while carrying the Stanley Cup in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The magic number became zero. This was playoff win #16. The Blues were the only NHL team in 2019 that ended its playoff run with a victory
Back in the 314 the celebration began. The Blues playoff run united a region in desperate need of a shot of self-esteem. Watch parties became go-to events around town. From the Enterprise Center to Busch Stadium and spots in between, 60,000-80,000 flocked into downtown to experience Games Six and Seven of the Finals
When the final horn sounded and when the Cup was presented, Gateway City fans celebrated heartily but respectfully. No fires were set. No cars were turned over. No windows were broken.
This was a good time to be in the 314.
The quest for the Stanley Cup is the most grueling gauntlet in all professional sports. A team plays eighty-two games over a six-month period for the opportunity to play some more. Then the first team to win the next sixteen games gets to spend time with the Stanley Cup.
As the Cup was handed to each current Blues players on that Wednesday night in Boston, memories of Glenn Hall, Red Berenson, Barclay and Bob Plager, Garry Unger, Dan Kelly, Ronald Caron, Bob Gassoff, Doug Wickenhauser, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter and others that wore the blue note came to mind.
Then the moment hit its crescendo three days later during a parade down Market Street: a parade that many in the 314 are still talking about.
As we approach the fourth month of a professional sports lockdown, we are left to reminisce about past glories. For St. Louis, a big one took place on a mid-June night in Boston.
And yes, it happened one year ago
Comments? Contact Mike at: email@example.com
The Clock is (Still) Ticking
posted June 14
In a normal Major League Baseball season, Memorial Day would be one those benchmark dates to evaluate the state of our National Pastime. In a normal baseball season, roughly one-third of the regular season would be completed. Memorial Days provided teams an opportunity to gage their chances for the post-season or if a better path would be a fire sale of their better/more expensive players the better path.
During a normal Major League Baseball season, the World-Wide Leader of Cable Sports Programming would be flooding their airwaves with games that would start before lunch time and would run straight through until after midnight. Here in self-proclaimed Baseball Heaven, in a normal Major League Baseball season the apologists of Fox Sports Midwest would be spinning patriotic stories while reminding the audience there are plenty of good seats available for future games, upcoming bobble head-giveaways and all the fun that is occurring at Ball Park Village.
But 2020 is not a normal Major League Baseball season.
It’s Memorial Day 2020. It’s the last Monday of May and not one Major League Baseball game has been played. If things went as planned, this bureau would be preparing a Memorial Day barbeque after finishing covering a weekend series with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But this is not a normal time. Instead we are approaching a deadline to decide if there will or will not be a 2020 Major League Baseball Season. The Lords of the Game as well as the MLB Players’ Association have been talking to carve out something to salvage 2020. Along the way there has been finger-pointing and sniping. But the bottom line is there is no agreement.
In this environment, everyone has something to lose. The players are collecting reduced paychecks while helplessly watching a prime season of their career fade away. Published reports that have crunched the numbers predict the cost of a lost season would be $170 million guaranteed and full service time for the players. For those making the minimum, it is spelled out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement: “at the 2019 rate per season plus a cost of living adjustment, rounded to the nearest $500, provided that the cost of living adjustment shall not reduce the minimum salary below $555,000”.
Owners are not collecting ticket revenue and reduced (if any) broadcasting money. While both sides have been talking since what would have been Opening Day, no plan has been finalized.
Plus (and it’s a big plus), the plan would need a thumbs-up from local officials and the Feds.
The folks at ESPN.com sum it up this way: “Owners want players to take a pay cut on top of one mandated by the March agreement, which states players be given a prorated salary depending on the number of games played. Players continue to hold firm, confident that the language guaranteeing them a pro rata share is unassailable. Talks, accordingly, have grown tense. Neither side has made an official proposal. Even if they agree on a deal that covers money and health, MLB needs federal, state and local officials to rubber-stamp play in home cities, a charge complicated by the varying rates of infection and presence of the coronavirus.”
“Major League Baseball owners are really rich, and if they are cash poor and need to borrow money to pay employees and minor leaguers and major leaguers this season, they can and should. Wealth is often built on debt. This debt is an investment in the future of their asset.”
“The health-and-safety protocol will be there. The posturing is over. Deals take flexibility. Embrace it. The appetite for the game is ravenous. The time for a deal, for baseball to return, is finally here.”
So, as we prepare our Memorial Day barbeques, the Owners and Players keep talking in this expensive game of chicken with Baseball fans across the fruited plain watching their every move.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The sands of the 2020 baseball hourglass are fading away.
In this little corner of cyberspace, the hope is something can be hammered out to have some form of 2020 baseball. In a perfect world, an agreement be reached so that June can be used as a quasi-spring training period with baseball resuming somewhere on or around the 4th of July. Again, that is in a perfect world and perfect worlds don’t always occur.
In the meantime, this bureau wonders if this Owners/Players virus standoff is a preview of upcoming attractions. It has been reported in many venues there is a growing animosity and dislike between both parties. Those of us in this little corner of cyberspace wonder if this COVID-19 resumption is laying the groundwork for a bigger battle. That battle can be found on Page 154 of the current Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement:
“This Agreement shall terminate on December 1, 2021 at 11:59 P.M. Eastern Time.”
The hope is two-fold: first, Baseball can be restored in some shape or form during 2020 and the final product doesn’t create any more mistrust or resentment between the Players and the Owners.
Most of the current Major League Baseball Players were either not yet born or were in elementary school in August 1994: the last time the game shut down. Many of today’s Baseball ownership groups were not involved in that battle. But there are some of us, including this bureau, that remembers vividly just how devasting the shutdown to the industry and how difficult it was to restore the fans’ respect.
When the game returned in April 1995, Owners and Players quickly found out this was not Field of Dreams. If you build it. they would come: Not. Instead, the game returned to stadiums were only 75% full and many of the fans who were attendance jeered and mocked the returning players.
It was ugly. The fans did not forget.
The hope here is returning to the field in 2020 is not a preview of upcoming attractions.
In a normal Major League Baseball season, Memorial Day would be one those benchmark dates to evaluate the state of our National Pastime.
But 2020 is not a normal Major League Baseball season.
Memo to the Major League Owners and Players’ Association: Gentlemen, the ball is in your court.
And the clock is ticking.
Diaz, Kurt Warner & Talent Evaluation: Tunnel Vision, Not Knowing
What You Don't Know & Missing Greatness
In June of 1981 I met a
young lady (Susan) who, in
September of 1982, became my wife.
In 1983 we attended a
David Bowie concert at what
was then known as the Rosemont Horizon (in suburban Chicago). By that
Bowie had become a mainstream pop star whose songs were heard all over
It was my first Bowie
show, and the entire
experience catalyzed an acute awareness of David Bowie and his music.
the party, eh?)
In 2004 Bowie performed
at St. Louis' Fox Theatre,
we were there, and those in attendance were mesmerized by what we
were in the presence of a star.
By that time, I had
gained knowledge of most of his
career--in large part thanks to wife Susan, who was far 'ahead of the
Forty years ago (March 3,
1976, to be precise),
Susan attended her first David Bowie concert, at Chicago's
She was eighteen years old and returned home from college to see the show--accompanied by her younger brother.
Bowie's perfomance confirmed what she first suspected years previously after seeing the man on a Saturday night Don Kirshner-style music video TV show: namely, David Bowie was an avant-garde performer with world-class talent, talent impossible to ignore if you knew what to look for.
Literally ten days prior
to Bowie's International
Amphitheater show, that same Bowie tour paused in Evansville IN on
1976, for a Sunday night performance at Roberts Stadium (the home of
Evansville Purple Aces basketball team).
I was seventeen at the
time, still a senior at a
small town high school located a half-hour or so from Roberts Stadium...but
I believed I had better things to do than watch some Brit named David
perform a couple dozen of his songs.
As I look back to
February of 1976, I had plenty of
awareness of the upcoming bicentennial celebration; plenty of awareness
school advanced chemistry, physics, trigonometry and analytic geometry;
of enjoyment of high school golf; a fun job at an area supermarket
laugh: $2.10/hr and time-and-a-half on Sundays); as well as fun and
with friends and a high school sweetheart.
This was my world, and it
was all good.
But my good
world, in February
of 1976, would have been my better world if I
possessed a little more awareness of the earth around me and had opened
to the talents of David Bowie, who, to me at the time, was the guy who
throwaway Top 40 pop song 'Golden Years'.
Therefore, in 1976, I had
no interest in attending
the Bowie show in Evansville, Indiana.
After all, it was a
Sunday night (school the next
day!) and I had never attended anything other than basketball games and
Shrine Circus in Roberts Stadium, a venue that I believed to be
during rock concerts, with pot-smokers and troublemakers that roamed
a world that I did not understand.
In other words, my
perspective was foolishly
limited and suffered from myriad distractions, and my tunnel vision
that world was incomplete.
The result of tunnel
vision? I didn't know
what I didn't know.
Tunnel vision in professional sports?
On a micro scale, Cardinals' rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz comes to mind as a player whose skills were viewed by major league talent evaluators with tunnel vision: they didn't know what they didn't know.
Prior to the 1999 season, the Rams signed free-agent QB Trent Green to a four-year multimillion dollar contract, and viewed Warner, at best, as a back-up--because he (Warner) was made available to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL's 1999 Expansion Draft!
The Browns did select a quarterback in their expansion draft: Tampa Bay QB Scott Milanovich, who was released before training camp commenced. Browns' management were convinced that #1-overall draft choice Tim Couch would be their QB for a decade.
Nearly two decades later, the Cleveland Browns are still looking for a quarterback while Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner hopes for his induction to the professional football Hall of Fame, and Aledmys Diaz is hoping for an invitation to Miami for the 2016 MLB All Star Game.
Rosters They Are a Changin':
Amid seemingly endless COVID-19 news, the press release ("Saluki Volleyball Announces 2020 Schedule") that arrived via email earlier this week was a welcome relief.
Games! A schedule! Sports!!!
If only for a moment, COVID-19 and its politics were shoved aside.
At least in my head they were.
Buried deep in the release are two sets of intel:
(1) "SIU returns 10 letterwinners from a year ago, which includes six that played at least 100 sets a season ago. The returners are led by all-conference returnees Hannah Becker and Rachel Maguire."
(2) "Southern will also welcome a talented group of 10 newcomers to the mix in 2020."
So Saluki volleyball coach Ed Allen has joined SIU's MBB coach Bryan Mullins in reshaping his roster prior to his second season as head coach in Carbondale.
In his first year at SIU, Allen enjoyed some success as the 2019 volleyball team posted a win total nine greater than the 2018 squad, and ten of their 32 matches extended to five sets.
In an effort to get to know Allen, his team and his coaching staff, yours truly attended several practices as well as a handful of both home and away matches.
The result of those efforts? Yes it is obvious, even to a neophyte observer of volleyball, that Ms. Becker and Ms. Maguire were deserving of MVC recognition. They both can play, and as upperclasswomen, more is expected from both in the upcoming season.
Going out on a limb a bit...it is also apparent that Alex Washington is the team's high ceiling player in that in addition to obvious hitting skills--the ball seems to find her at important moments in a match.
Due to what was thought to be a foot injury, Washington appeared in only nine 2019 games as a freshman before being granted a red shirt year.
Also obvious is the respect that Allen seemed to have earned from his players--to my eyes it appeared to be genuine and oh-so-important in these days of college athletics.
With ten (!) new faces in 2020, the process of in-person team-building will have to begin again...whenever SIU volleyball starts up and the entire roster is on campus.
No amount of video-chatting via Zoom, Skype or Google hangouts equals real 'Facetime' as far as that thing that 21st-century coaches call 'culture' is concerned.
We'll look for announcements and post them here.
Coaches, seasons, games and press conferences all run together after awhile.
But if you listen carefully (and you the reader can see and hear virtually all of SIU head football coach Nick Hill's Q&As at siusalukis.com), some things stand out so much that even in the middle of a pandemic...the brain plays like Arnold Schwartzenegger and has 'Total Recall' (or nearly so).
In what I believe was the primary mid-week media event prior to the SIU-Ole Miss 2018 early-season game, Hill was asked about a player whose name was (and remains) distinctive: Jordan Ta’amu, the Mississippi starting quarterback.
Hill's response was rather direct (paraphrasing): "We've seen him on video. I think he's better than the guy that transferred."
On the one hand, Hill's comment on Ta'amu wasn't surprising--most college football coaches know the Lou Holtz pre-game routine ('...our next opponent could compete in the NFL--we don't have much chance'). So pumping up the QB skills of SIU's next opponent is fully expected--every single week.
But I filed the comment away, because from a distance yours truly has followed Michigan football rather closely for several decades...and 'the guy that transferred' (Shea Patterson) left Mississippi after the 2017 season to join Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor.
Heading into the 2017 season, Patterson (a sophomore) won the starting QB job at Mississippi for coach Matt Luke. Ta'amu (a junior) served as Patterson's backup. But in the Ole Miss-LSU game (the season's seventh), Patterson suffered a serious knee injury, and Ta'amu replaced Patterson as the starter.
Ta'amu played well in his five 2017 starts. That combined with impending penalties for recruiting violations at Mississippi (resulting in transfers from Ole Miss not having to sit out a year), and Harbaugh's QB needs at Michigan, led to Patterson's decision to enroll at the University of Michigan.
All of which means that in Nick Hill's preparation for the SIU-Ole Miss 2018 game, he and his staff reviewed game action for both Jordan Ta'amu and Shea Patterson.
And Hill's comparison was clear: in his mind, Ta'amu was the better player.
Hill was right, as Ta'amu was perhaps the best XFL QB in that league's truncated first (and only?) season.
And Shea Patterson served as the starting QB for Michigan for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He was good but not great...at times not even good.
A data point, an NFL roster oddity, an SIU QB roster summary...and a question all follow:
*The data point: After trailing SIU at the half, 38-35, Mississippi outscored the Salukis 41-3 in the game's second half, winning 76-41. The Jordan Ta'amu stat line: 23/33, 448 yards, 5 TD.
**The roster oddity: NFL QB whisperer Andy Reid gets a shot at comparing Ta'amu and Patterson, as the Chiefs signed both as free agent quarterbacks. They will compete for the clipboard position at KC, as Chad Henne is returning (contract in hand, and aanother Michigan QB) as the team's backup.
***SIU QBs: A glance at SIU's roster reveals nice balance in the QB room, with senior Karé Lyles as the returning starter, backed up by junior Stone Labanowitz (who was the 2018 starter before injury), sophomore Nic Baker, red-shirt freshman Zach Zebrowski and 'true' freshman Jaylen DeVries. Sophomore jack-of-all-trades Javon Williams is likely to see significant action as a wildcat QB as well.
****And the question: Pandemic-related uncertainties aside, the elephant in the room as far as SIU football is concerned is centered on QB, and Nick Hill's decision about who will start at the most important position on the field:
With his squad's improved defense and running game in place, can Nick Hill FINALLY find the 'right' mix at quarterback at SIU in what may be a pivotal season for Hill as far as his coaching future at SIU is concerned?
A bit melodramatic, eh?! It's just the future of SIU football...that's all!
Rich Herrin, Aaron Cook
It was a light-jacket kind of day in Carbondale, and early spring was in the air on what was probably a mid-February 2019 afternoon.
While the vultures in southern Illinois were circling around head coach Barry Hinson for much of the 2018-19 season, on this day local media were waiting for the start of one of Hinson’s on-campus mid-week media events, as a player or two had already finished with their press obligations.
I left the conference room, strolled around the athletic complex, and ran into a surprise visitor: Rich Herrin.
I (re)introduced myself to Herrin, as we had not spoken in (yikes!) two decades. I reminded him that, late in the 20th century, he had joined me on my radio show, in-studio, for a conversation about SIU basketball. A highlight of the interview was when (the now-deceased) Charlie Spoonhour joined us live (via telephone) on the air. It was not obvious that Herrin remembered the interview.
Mid-way through my February 2019 on-campus conversation with Herrin, Barry Hinson emerged from the stairway. He saw yours truly and Herrin chatting, and made what seemed to me at the time to be a rather curious decision: the normally voluble Hinson did not stop and say hello.
Not to me, and not to Rich Herrin, either…who, as Hinson walked away, more-or-less raised an eyebrow.
Of course, Hinson had a press conference to get ready for.
I still wonder what Herrin was doing in the building that day.
The most significant portions of my discussion with Rich Herrin concerned his views on (a) who, in his view, was the most talented Saluki to ever play for him, and (b) the pace of play in both college basketball in general and specifically, the Herrin-era and Hinson-era Salukis.
I was delighted when Herrin agreed with me after I suggested that Missouri native Marcus Timmons was my choice as ‘most talented Herrin-era Saluki’.
“I think Marcus Timmons may have just been the most talented player I ever coached here,” said Herrin.
Herrin’s choice of Timmons was no surprise, as Timmons, a Missouri native, was ticketed to attend Mizzou until that particular Norm Stewart team was hit with NCAA-mandated sanctions (recruiting violations).
Herrin and SIU swooped in with an offer and presto (!), Marcus Timmons was a Saluki, and four years of really good…and really entertaining basketball was on display at SIU’s Arena.
In 1994-1995 (Timmons’ senior year, 35 second shot-clock), the Salukis averaged about 78 points and 61 shots attempted per game.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In SIU’s just-completed 2019-2020 season (Coach Bryan Mullins’ first year, 30 second shot-clock), the Salukis averaged about 65 points and 51 shots attempted per game.]
Timmons excelled at this type of basketball—not run-and-gun but certainly appropriately quick.
At SIU, Marcus Timmons was an all-around player with virtually no weaknesses. He was not a score-first talent…instead he often used both his superior passing skills and court vision to orchestrate his team’s play in the offensive zone.
In that way (especially his passing skills), the basketball skills and basketball IQ possessed by Peoria’s Shaun Livingston (whose NBA career spanned a decade-and-a-half, and concluded with a run of NBA championship teams at Golden State) always reminded me of Marcus Timmons.
I had wanted to speak with Rich Herrin for several years, actually…so I had a bit of a mission in mind when I suggested that Marcus Timmons, without playing out of control, enjoyed playing at a quick pace. Not fast, mind you…but quick.
I asked Herrin how Timmons, or a player with his skills, would look in today’s ‘value each possession’ era of college basketball.
I pointed out that Barry Hinson’s SIU teams seemed to enjoy milking the shot-clock on most possessions.
Without directly addressing Hinson, Herrin was pointed in his comments: “You’ve got to let’em play. It is what they want to do. They have to be able to have fun playing the game of basketball.”
I thought of this conversation with Rich Herrin when Aaron Cook’s recent decision to spend his graduate transfer year (the 2020-2021 season) at Gonzaga became public.
I daresay that young Mr. Cook felt like he won the lottery when he agreed to play for Mark Few. Gonzaga is the best-of-the-best as far as non Power 5 conference men’s basketball is concerned, and way-too-early 2020-2021 polls have Gonzaga rated as a Top 5 team.
So Aaron Cook will most likely experience March Madness for the first time as a player—reason enough for a modestly-recruited kid from St. Louis to make the not insignificant move to Gonzaga and the state of Washington.
On top of that, Gonzaga’s pace-of-play statistics are, in my view, more in line with the style of play that Aaron Cook believes he plays his best basketball.
The exact date (but it was a Hinson-era season) escapes me, but there was a post-game media session after a win a couple or three seasons ago at SIU’s Arena in which Cook and Eric McGill were asked, point blank—‘Do you like playing fast?’.
Both players smiled broadly, and shook their heads in a way that was spoke volumes: they felt like their skills were best utilized in a system that allowed them more freedom of movement.
Fast forward to the present.
For the (abbreviated) 2019-2020 season, Gonzaga/SIU averaged 62/51 shots attempted and 74/66 possessions per game.
It will be fun to watch Aaron Cook, playing hard and playing fast, in a Gonzaga uniform. No doubt the winning tradition and post-season opportunities at Gonzaga were of primary import to a player who counted DePaul and Arkansas as other possible destinations for his last season of NCAA eligibility.
But don’t discount the relevance of pace of play, either. Aaron Cook had a courtside seat for much of the 2019-2020 Saluki season, a season in which SIU’s 66 possessions per game was greater than exactly three other NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams.
In other words, 349 out of 353 D1 men’s squads had a larger number of possessions per game than Bryan Mullins’ initial SIU team.
It will be interesting to watch Bryan Mullins fill out the roster for the 2020-2021 SIU season, as Aaron Cook was not the only Saluki with remaining eligibility to request a transfer.
It will be interesting to watch his second-year team play, not only in terms of wins-and-losses…but also HOW they play.
Stay tuned. And remain virus-free.
Batting Orders on the Eights:
1978, 1998 and 2008. 2018?
posted July 24
Let’s pick an arbitrary year in major league baseball—1978.
In 1978, Vern Rapp, Jack Krol and Ken Boyer served as manager of the Cardinals. The batting orders for all 162 Cardinals games that season ‘featured’ a pitcher in the ninth spot in the lineup.
Rapp, Krol and Boyer were following baseball’s 1978 lineup norms: a given team’s pitcher nearly always batted ninth in his team’s lineup.
One year later (1979), Tony La Russa began his baseball managerial career when he was hired to manage the Chicago White Sox.
Fast forward about twenty years to 1998.
During the 1998 season’s All Star break, then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, with nearly two decades of major league managerial experience already under his belt, dispensed with the pitcher-must-bat-ninth ‘wisdom’.
And for the balance of that ’98 season, La Russa broke with tradition and wrote lineup cards in which his starting pitcher was listed in the #8 spot in his lineup.
Recall two salient facts about La Russa’s 1998 Cardinals squad:
(1) the team was average (83-79 final W-L record; third place in the NL Central)
(2) in 1998, Mark McGwire (after hitting 58 homers while playing for Oakland and St. Louis in 1997) was engaged in a historic season-long chase to eclipse Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs
Perhaps La Russa felt an obligation to McGwire, who traditionalists viewed as a prototypical clean-up hitter…to get Big Mac as many at-bats as possible, to enhance his chances to break the record.
The move also served as an attention-grabber, and diverted fans (and media) from the rather obvious fact that the Cardinals 1998 team, as a whole, was not a strong contender for post-season play.
Whenever asked, La Russa pointed out that with a ‘hitterish’ position player batting ninth (instead of a weak-hitting hurler), McGwire, in every inning except the first, essentially could be thought of as a clean-up hitter—thus at least partially satisfying baseball’s old-school thinkers.
So the debate began in 1998—where should the pitcher bat in the lineup?
Ten years later...in 2008, La Russa revisited the issue, when future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols hit third in the Cardinals order. In this case, La Russa aimed to enhance the run production of his line-up by enabling ‘The Machine (Pujols)' to see more runners on base.
Fast forward ten more years--to 2018.
The debate concerning La Russa’s ‘innovation’ continues, with Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon among many of today’s MLB managers who have dabbled with ‘hitting the pitcher eighth’.
With every MLB team accessing supercomputers on a daily basis and hiring ‘quants’ to program those computers to their specifications , you can be certain that literally millions of line-up combinations have been simulated...and everybody from the geekiest team employee to the owner has an opinion based on those ‘data’ that aims to answer the question—should a pitcher always bat ninth in the lineup?
Well, if there was ever a line-up that might see benefits from a position player with some ‘pop in his bat’ hitting ninth...not three positions in front of #3 hitters such as Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols, but directly in front of baseball’s hottest hitter (Matt Carpenter), had the new Cardinals skipper given any thought to what, twenty years ago, was a St. Louis innovation?
In the Great America Ball Park visiting dugout, I asked Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt that very question prior to today’s game (July 24) vs. the Reds, one day after his squad lost to the Reds...2-1 in walk-off fashion.
You can listen to Shildt’s response here (along with Talking Heads and Pretenders music in the background...1978?!) or go old school yourself and scroll down for the written word.
Either way, check those box scores, folks.
Q: There's a twenty year history in St. Louis, going back to '98, of the pitcher hitting eighth in the batting order. Your best hitter is...leadoff. Does that cause you to think about batting order a little bit?
Mike Shildt: It is food for thought. It's not anything traditional I've done. I'm still trying to get my head around, quite honestly, what that looks like, and the reasoning behind it. I know there's different reasons for and against, clearly...to point out to make a commitment to what that looks like.
To your point about Carp leading off, as productive as he's been, to get somebody in front of him...it kind of backs up a couple of days ago what you're thinking about.
You know we hit for Miles [Mikolas] the other day, in the fifth inning, or the top of the sixth inning, rather, in Chicago, you know when he still had some pitches on the table.
And I didn't communicate as well as I'd like to after that game. It is also a decision based on, if we get Jed [Gyorko] on at that point, now we get Carp up, and that's a chance to break the game open. So there is some methodology to what that looks like.
Thanks for reading.
Last Saturday (March 1), Harry Caray would have been 100 years old.
No kidding: It might be—it could be—it is: a century
For those of us baby boomers that grew up in the Gateway City, state of Missouri, the Ozark region or throughout the Midwest, Harry Caray was the soundtrack of summer. For a quarter century, Caray was the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals. His style was unique and no holds bar. His voice boomed describing the exploits of Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and others. For twenty-five years, Harry Caray was the sound of St. Louis baseball.
In the world where one can be immediately identified by their first name (Elvis, Ozzie, Madonna, etc), if back in the day you said that “Harry” was on the radio, you knew exactly who was on the air. For many of us growing up in the 1960s and earlier, Caray’s familiar, bold and dramatic musings heard through a transistor radio muffled under a pillow (as we were hiding it from our parents after being sent to bed) created the perfect ending to a summer’s evening.
Born Harry Christopher Carabina from Italian and Romanian parents, he grew up on La Salle Street on the near south side of St. Louis on 3/1/1914. Caray’s father died when he was an infant and his mother died when he was around eight years old. In essence he grew up as an orphan.
In his youth Caray played semipro baseball before auditioning for a radio job at age nineteen. It was then when young Harry found his calling. He would cut his teeth in the radio business in markets such as Joliet, Illinois and Kalamazoo, Michigan before returning to his home town. He joined the Cardinals radio broadcast team in 1945. It was here in St. Louis and particularly behind a hot KMOX radio microphone where the legend of Harry Caray evolved.
It was Caray’s voice that narrated the stories of the successful seasons of the mid/late 1940s, the challenging 1950s and the memorable 1960s for the Cardinals. But it was during the down years of the 1950s when Caray’s career rose to prominence. In February 1953, August A. Busch, Jr. convinced his Anheuser-Busch Board of Directors to purchase the Cardinals from Fred Saigh. The Big Eagle and Harry Caray were both cut from the same cloth. Both wanted to be the center of attention. Both appreciated pretty girls. Both were Type-A. Both were highly competitive.
But most importantly, both could sell beer. That alliance would make Harry larger than life. Over the KMOX airwaves he was an unabashed homer. But above all, he could sell beer. Busch once referred to Caray as his best beer salesman. The bond was then formed.
Behind Busch’s influence, the powerful KMOX signal and Caray’s bombastic style the Cardinal radio network became the largest in the Major Leagues. Prior to 1957, St. Louis was the westernmost franchise. Cardinal fans were emerging west of the Mississippi. Caray was the evangelist. Casual and non-baseball fans listened to the games only to hear what Harry had to say. During it all, he promoted and pushed Budweiser. The match seemed made in heaven.
The Cardinals went to the World Series three times during the 1960s: winning it all twice. After advancing to the series in 1967 and 1968, St. Louis was expected to make it a three-peat. It didn’t happen. In 1969 St. Louis finished a disappointing third in the newly created NL East. But days after the final out, a bombshell was dropped in the Gateway City. Harry Caray and the Cardinals parted ways. The larger than life broadcaster was out as Cardinal broadcaster.
There have been many of urban legends as to what led to the split. We’ll never know for sure. But we did observe in a pre-cable, pre-internet era, that the divorce was far from amicable.
Leaving St. Louis, Caray took his talents to Oakland where he spent one season working for the colorful Charles O Finley’s A’s. One year later, Caray was signed as an announcer by legendary owner and promoter Bill Veeck of the Chicago White Sox. It would not take long for Harry to discover that Chicago was indeed his kind of town.
During Caray’s tenure on the south side, the White Sox were not very good. In his first season the Sox went 56-106. The high water mark was 1977 when they won 90 games. During Caray’s time on the South Side, the Sox had a losing record in eight seasons.
But despite the ineptness on the field, fans listened to the White Sox games because of Harry Caray. Partnered with the colorful and unpredictable Jimmy Piersall, the broadcasts were more entertaining than the games. Caray introduced Comiskey Park fans to the familiar chant from the musical group Steam as pitchers were removed from the game or when the Sox were going to win: “na-na-na-na---na-na-na-na-----hey, hey, hey---Good Bye”.
Caray and Piersall would broadcast games from the bleachers. On July 12, 1979 Harry spoke over the Comiskey Park PA pleading for calm on “Disco Demolition Night” where the Sox had to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader. Fans rushed the field causing extensive damage.
Yep, the White Sox were not very good then—but it was sure fun to listen to the games.
In 1982, Caray moved to the north side of Chicago: signing a contract to broadcast games for the Cubs. It was there through the magic and power of the WGN-TV Superstation signal where Harry Caray would be introduced to a new generation of baseball fans. The Cubs turned Harry loose over the airwaves and it proved to be reality television at its finest. The Cubs were not very good. But just like when with the White Sox, baseball fans tuned in to hear Caray offer his insight and opinions: from trying to pronounce player’s names backwards to welcoming who at the ball park that day to saluting the smallest towns throughout the fruited plain.
During his stay with the Cubs, Caray introduced his trademark: the seventh inning stretch singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. Regardless of the score or the loyalty, Wrigley Field fans sang along with Harry: as Caray, then in his 70s, used his microphone as a baton.
My last conversation with Harry was in 1996. It was during a Saturday afternoon game at Busch Stadium II between the Cardinals and Cubs. Prior to the game, I was in the press lounge. Sitting very quietly in the corner was Harry Caray watching the Fox Network pre-game show. On the screen was his grandson Chip. As I passed his table, Harry smiled and said to me, “isn’t he great?” I politely smiled, agreed continued some small talk. During it all Harry just kept smiling.
So here is this larger than life personality I grew up listening to via a transistor radio under my pillow savoring the moment as a proud grandfather. I started smiling also.
In 1989, Harry would be inducted into the Broadcaster’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a year later, into the National Radio Hall of Fame. He suffered a stroke in 1987. But Caray would not leave the broadcast booth. Then in February 1998, Caray fell at a restaurant and suffered a head injury. He died February 18, 1998 of cardiac arrest with resulting brain damage.
1998 was the season of the great Home Chase that rescued baseball from the 1994 Work Stoppage. The Cardinals’ Mark Mc Guire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa would blast long flies in pursuit of Roger Maris’s single season home run record. It would have been fun and perhaps fitting had Harry hung around one more year to describe those events as only he could.
Today, television (particularly cable television) is the primary outlet for baseball. The legendary baseball voices from past years have been replaced by some combination of blow-dried polished announcers and former ball players: each parroting team written talking points and are nothing more than an extension of the team’s marketing department. You know: always remember that good seats are available, always look for the positives and never criticize the Home Team.
I wonder if Harry Caray would have been hired as a broadcaster in today’s environment. My thinking is probably not. And that’s too bad. Games were sure more fun during Harry’s day.
Last Saturday (March 1), Harry Caray would have been 100 years old.
On the same date the
Beatles made their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show a half century
earlier, this Sunday will also mark the twenty-fifth anniversary
of the death of long-time St. Louis Blues broadcaster Dan Kelly. He
once was called the "purest, most knowledgeable, most accurate" voice
in hockey. Kelly was 52 years old when he died at his Chesterfield home
after a five-month struggle with cancer.
...from the stlsports.com archives:
Check it out!
originally posted June 17, 1995
In a nutshell, the guy has as much talent as any young broadcaster, since, say, a youthful Bob Costas. Most St. Louis Sports Online readers surely recall that Costas, fresh out of Syracuse University, took St. Louis, and then the country, by storm.
thinking about Joe Buck and the kinds of questions I would ask, two
things came to mind. First, I hoped to bring StLSO readers some new and
timely information about the Cards young broadcaster. On this point I
feel reasonably confident.
In that regard I failed, as Joe Buck played all Shannon-related questions straight down the middle, earnestly saying that “Mike has been extremely helpful to me just starting out in this business.”
Prior to a recent Cards-Braves game, Buck and I sat down in the dining room behind the Fulton County Stadium press box. He is 26 years old...and looks young enough (and fit enough) to be part of a double play combo with Cards shortstop Tripp Cromer. Indeed, Buck said that the Cards had thoughts of drafting him right out of high school. I should have reminded him that the Cardinals drafted Paul Coleman right out of high school, too.
surprise no one that Joe Buck, who makes his living as a play-by-play
sportscaster, is a verbal individual. But I was surprised to find Buck
to be extremely intelligent, as well. Throughout the interview he
listened very intently to the questions, and at times, gave quite
specific and carefully worded answers that sort of demanded that the
original question be rephrased. When a tough question was posed, he
wouldn’t give an inch. In other words, the guy is good...and, at least
in this interview, didn’t really let down his guard too much. In
retrospect, perhaps I could have done a better job interviewing him.
we started, Buck was kind enough to remind me to turn on the recorder...
always good radio to be found the day after the Philly Eagles lose.
That's because 97.5 The Fanatic employs long-time sports-talk radio pro
Tony Bruno, who, with wit and wisdom and alacrity, persuades most (but
not all) of his ever-insufferable listeners not to jump from the top of
the nearest tall building. The wonder of the internet brings Bruno and
his Philly-based station to anyone looking for an entertaining
WDBX Sunday Sports Review
...from the stlsports.com archives:
St. Louis Sports Online
Reluctance & Mystery,
Talent & Expectations:
A Conversation with Rick Ankiel
originally posted June 28, 1999
Rick Ankiel is the brightest lefthanded pitching prospect in all of baseball…and at 19 years of age, is gaining maturity on and off the field…
Earlier this month, Thomas Harding, the Memphis Redbirds’ beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, asked yours truly a simple question.
It was a question I’ve heard before.
But admittedly, the sports context of his question...was new.
Certainly, though, Harding’s query brought a smile to my face.
His question was this: “How was it for you?”
Harding, a friendly bloke, wanted to hear about the Rick Ankiel interview I had conducted earlier that evening in the Redbirds’ dugout.
My answer was polite.
“Good answer!” said the beat writer, making like game-show host Richard Dawson.
Generally speaking, if you want to know something about a professional baseball player, talk to his beat writer.
Evidently, my description of Ankiel squared with Harding’s view of the youngster: reluctant.
MysteryBut the reluctance that Rick Ankiel displays, in his interviews, only adds to the mystery that surrounds him
Here’s an analogy.
Think back to when you were fifteen or sixteen...a freshman in high school.
Wasn’t there a pretty girl, a graduating senior girl, that you found mysterious?
Wasn’t she difficult to approach?
And wasn’t she hard to talk to?
But from a distance...wasn’t she fun to watch?
That’s one way to view the mysterious side of Rick Ankiel.
The first thing you notice about Ankiel, up close, is his demeanor.
No, that’s not exactly right.
It’s the combination of his demeanor and his appearance that is so striking.
It’s like one of those “What’s wrong with this picture?” features, where one thing is out of place in a photograph.
That’s because, while Ankiel is only 19, and his face and body have the unfinished look of a 19 year old, his outward disposition appears to be that of a veteran (or maybe a teenager trying to act like a veteran).
In this reporter’s opinion, an opinion based on a limited set of observations, Ankiel’s disposition displays equal parts detached arrogance and active intimidation.
And as the recent pre-game beaning in a collegiate baseball game evidenced, there is a substantial intimidation component to pitching
(Don’t believe that? Step into a batting cage and dial it up to 80 MPH. You’ll get the picture...and don’t forget your helmet.)
So, for what it’s worth, Rick Ankiel appears intimidating...and mysterious.
TalentFrom a distance, though, Rick Ankiel’s pitching talent is obvious to anyone with even a modest knowledge of baseball.
For starters, Ankiel’s delivery has a bit of (ex-Met lefty) Sid Fernandez flavor to it.
You remember El Sid--he hid the ball behind his front hip and leg for what seemed like an eternity, before projecting an above-average fastball toward the batter.
Ankiel’s trickery isn’t as pronounced, but it’s there, and he uses it to his advantage. As a result, Ankiel’s fastball seems to handcuff hitters in a way that adds a few MPH to its 91-92 MPH velocity.
Ankiel’s breaking pitch looks more like a curve ball than a slider. Its effects are best observed by observing the helpless, weak-kneed batter, who often looks like a Little Leaguer watching his first roundhouse.
That’s because Ankiel can throw his sharp-breaking curve for strikes...which, when combined with his heavy fastball, leads to stupendous strikeout totals.
But that’s not all. Ankiel’s change-up, though harder to spot from the stands, is apparently well developed, too.
So where do those strikeouts come from?
In the words of Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator Mark Riggins: “He has a very deceptive fastball...the ball jumps...it explodes at the plate.
“He can pitch up in the zone...and the ball just jumps by the hitters’ bat. He can use his change-up to strike guys out...he can use his curve-ball to strike guys out...he has weapons that produce strikeouts. He’s a gamer. He’s an intense guy. When he has two strikes on a guy he tries to strike him out and he has the weapons to do that.”
Riggins continues: “It’s amazing that [Ankiel] has the breaking ball and the change-up at 19 years of age.
“We have guys in our system at the AAA level that we’re still trying to teach the change-up to. Rick has all of those pitches already. It’s just a matter of consistency and getting those pitches in the locations he needs to...all the time.”
Which leads to...
ExpectationsAnkiel is 19 years old. The last 19 year old pitcher to make a big splash in the big leagues was Dwight Gooden.
Is it unreasonable to compare Ankiel, the summer 1999 Ankiel, with Gooden?
“I think so,” said Riggins. “You don’t want to put that much of a burden on him. We as pitching coaches treat every kid the same...whether he was a number one [pick] or a free agent...whether he is 8-and-1 or 1-and-8...
“We treat all these guys the same...and try not to put the pressure on him...that’s created more by the media..
“The expectations are also created by the fans,” continued Riggins. “That’s great...I love that stuff. But we shouldn’t put that much of a burden on Rick right now. He’s still a young kid trying to develop his stuff.”
And a young kid that, at 6-1 and 190 lbs, still sometimes looks like the teen-ager that he is.
Yet one final word from the Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator, Mark Riggins.
“His body is still growing. Usually at 21 or 22 years old...they fully develop. He’s got a couple more years...and may grow an inch or two…and his body will harden up,” Riggins said.
“When we signed him he was just a soft kid...a little overweight for his age...
“Last year in Peoria...Rick was very low on a test administered by our minor league strength coordinator.
“Rick, he was very low in the group of pitchers. That really stuck in his mind...but the very next day he was out early, running...
“By the end of the year, last year, he had grown into a man and he’s still growing.”
The Last WordsAnd how might Rick Ankiel finalize his development?
Recently, it was suggested to Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan that a pitcher combining the veteran moxie of Kent Bottenfield with the talent and tools of a Rick Ankiel would be a superstar pitcher.
“That would be a nice combination,” Duncan replied. “Hopefully that’s what Rick Ankiel will be when he gets to the big leagues. He’ll have his physical skills so that he can execute and the only thing that will be missing is what you gain with experience at this level.
“And that’s knowing the opposition and knowing what you have to do to be a successful major league pitcher. He is 19 years old. There’s no getting around that,” Duncan said.
“I think he’s a mature 19 when it comes to baseball...he has a very good idea what he’s doing. He pays attention...he’s been a very coachable athlete and he’s learned a lot in the short time he’s been playing professional baseball.”
And Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty‘s view on Ankiel?
“Rick Ankiel is a young man who just needs a little more seasoning. He’s going to get better with experience. He’s got great ability and great pitches...he has to learn how to get hitters out at the higher levels...how to set up guys....everything comes easy for him right now but it’s going to get tougher as he moves up. But I think he’s very capable of making the adjustments.”
Jocketty’s parting shot, issued in March of 1999?
Not a promise or a commitment; just a declarative sentence.
“I don’t think it will be very long before he gets to St. Louis.”
[recorded June 12, 1999]
StLSO: We’re here in Nashville, Tennessee, visiting with Memphis Redbirds lefthander Rick Ankiel. Good afternoon, Rick.
Ankiel: Hi…how you doin’?
StLSO: We’re doing all right. Rick Ankiel…you’re 19 years old…you finished high school…two years ago?
Ankiel: Yeah, I believe so.
StLSO: That’s not too long ago. Fans are interested in your pitching ability and they are interested in some other things about you. Your pitching ability has brought you along way…do your high school days seem like a long time ago…or just yesterday?
Ankiel: It seems like a long time ago…to be honest. Last year was a long year, this year has gone well and has been flying by and I hope it will continue to be the same.
StLSO: What kinds of experiences from your high school days directly apply to what it is you’re doing now?
Ankiel: What do you mean?
StLSO: What I mean is…did you feel like your pitching skills were pretty well formed as a senior in high school…or not?
Ankiel: I don’t think so. [In high school] I just went out there and threw. I’ve started to learn a lot about pitching rather than just throwing the ball by people. I’m learning a lot and it’s a lot of fun right now and it couldn’t be better.
StLSO: It couldn’t be better…I guess you had a satisfactory for yourself last night…you feel pretty good about your performance yesterday?
Ankiel: I think last night was probably my worst performance of the year.
StLSO: In what way was it not as good as you would like?
Ankiel: In every way…in five innings I threw 92 pitches. As a starter, you’re not going to be able to stay in the game and help your team. As a starter, you just can’t pitch like that.
StLSO: We cover 40 or 50 games with the Cardinals every year…and you can hardly do a post-game interview with Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan without either of them using words like ‘adversity’ and people being able to come back from adversity…was yesterday as adverse a set of conditions that you’ve faced as a minor leaguer?
Ankiel: I don’t know as a minor leaguer…but definitely this year. It just wasn’t a good outing…I couldn’t really find a zone and things just didn’t really go too well.
StLSO: Rick, what is it that you like best about minor league baseball at this point…your teammates, the traveling…or not?
Ankiel: Everything…I mean…you’re playing something that you love to do and you’re playing in a dream when you’re doing things like that.
StLSO: So things are in a real positive sense for you…you’re happy where you’re at, biding your time, and looking to make good pitches…
Ankiel: I guess so.
StLSO: I’m wondering if there’s something I can ask you outside of baseball…that you’d be interested in talking about…high school…favorite classes…something you were interested in or not?
Ankiel: No man…baseball…that’s it.
StLSO: When you were eight, when you were ten, when you were twelve…you wrote on a paper somewhere that you wanted to be a baseball player…how long has this been a dream of yours?
Ankiel: I think, like, most kids in America, just growing up…it’s always a dream…for me, I don’t know. I guess ever since I’ve been little…right now, I’m trying to fulfill that and just keep focused on baseball.
StLSO: Do you have any sense of the anticipation that the folks in the city by the Arch, St. Louis, have for you?
Ankiel: I don’t pay attention to that…I leave that up to you guys…I just try to stay focused on pitching…and not worry about media…and other outside influences.
StLSO: Frankly, we’re interested, in the media, as well as the fans, in seeing that, that can happen for you, Rick Ankiel…good luck the rest of the year.
Ankiel: Thank you.
Out on a Limb?
posted August 27. 1998A look at the way the St. Louis media handled the publicity surrounding Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione
DATE: August 27, 1998
....on KMOX radio, Hall-of-Fame sportscaster Jack Buck said it was a “non-story”, and pledged not to talk about the Mark McGwire androstenedione controversy.
Ex-St. Louis Sports Online contributor Randy Karraker, ably working the KMOX mike alongside Buck, agreed.
KTRS’ Kevin Slaten pitched in with his own bombastic opinion, saying that the original AP account of the story, and the front page androstenedione follow-up by the Post-Dispatch, only confirmed his own view that print journalists, and sportswriters in particular, are the lowest form of life on this planet.
In essence, Slaten completely agreed with the stated Buck-Karraker on-air opinion, saying that the whole Mac-andro affair was a “non-story”.
On KFNS AM-590, host Frank Cusumano expressed his view that “it’s legal, and therefore I don’t have a problem with it”.
St. Louis media veteran Scott Simon, another former St. Louis Sports Online contributor who now plies his trade at Kansas City’s CBS AM outlet, KMBZ, informed yours truly that the story was overblown...that he himself suffers from asthma, and the medication that he takes to control his condition renders him ineligible for the Olympics.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m thinking of the Jamaican bobsled team...Mr. Simon.)
Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, a recent guest of the Saturday Sports Review, chimed in with a rather balanced view of the McGwire andro connection, noting that (1) the Olympic ban of andro can’t be taken too seriously in light of the IOC’s banning of various over-the-counter medications (such as Sudafed); and (2) the NBA ban of andro is ridiculous, too, since pot is not on the league’s list of banned substances.
But Miklasz covered all bases by espousing the view that androstenedione is legal, considered to be a nutritional supplement, and not banned by baseball’s establishment.
In other words, it’s OK to take andro because it’s not against the rules to do so.
KFNS’ Brian Stull, yet another former St. Louis Sports Online contributor, noted that the current media attention to Mac’s andro usage is, in his view, overblown, since Stull claims that McGwire openly discussed his use of supplements on at least two occasions in the weeks prior to the AP “scoop”.
And in their initial comments on the McGwire story, which were apparently based on early media accounts of the controversy, St. Louis Sports Online columnist (and WGNU sportscaster) Mike Huss, and St. Louis Sports Online photographer Eric Niederhoffer both leaned toward the view that the story was overblown...and that a possible driving force for the story was the media’s incessant desire to tear down the heroes that they themselves elevate.
So, despite all those opinions, all which sound logical in one way or another...
…why does McGwire’s use of andro leave a funny feeling in the pit of the stomach of this observer?
I don’t know.
Well, maybe I do.
Maybe it’s because all of Mac’s defenders sound, to my ears, a lot like President Clinton’s defenders.
Literally straining to defend their man.
Parsing their words.
And sounding like lawyers.
The Clinton defenders...and the McGwire defenders...their statements sound OK...they just don’t sound right.
Complicating issues include the fact that yours truly voted for Clinton.
And McGwire’s mammoth home runs have lit up summer for this particular sports consumer like no other recent time in sports.
But one thing seems certain.
In the 1998 baseball season, there is almost nothing connected with Mark McGwire that can be referred to as a non-story.
And the McGwire-androstenedione connection is, in fact, a huge story.
And, to this observer, it seems wrong to blame the media for publishing a story that, in more than one aspect, defines sports in the ‘90s.
We haven’t heard the last of Big Mac and androstenedione.
It does seem unfortunate, though, that in this one-in-a-lifetime baseball season, that Mark McGwire’s historic chase has been tarnished.
One more thing, though.
Recall that longtime St. Louis baseball observers--guys like Bob Broeg, Red Schoendienst, George Kissell, and the aforementioned Buck (that’s about two centuries worth of baseball there, folks)--all grin and utter more or less the same line, when asked about McGwire.
“I’ve never seen anything like him.”