Thursday, February 23, 2006

Every Signature Tells a Story: Buck O'Neil, Hall of Famer?

I usually try to sneak a baseball adventure into work-related road trips, and this week I was visiting Kansas City. I might have bumped into the next addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Since the Royals are in Florida and I’ve already toured Kauffman Stadium when it was empty, we checked out the Negro League Baseball Museum, which is part of a rejuvenated historic district and shares space with a jazz museum.

The museum is pretty neat — long on information but short in artifacts. The marketing director said it’s still growing, having once been relegated to a small office.

The best part is a field with 12 life-sized, bronze statues of legendary players. Dave, the photographer accompanying me, noticed a television crew was setting up on the field, and it’s a reflex for print people to find out what such people are doing.

The marketing director said that Buck O’Neil would be down during the day for an interview, tied to the Monday vote on adding Negro League players to Cooperstown.

O’Neil, of course, is the guy who practically stole Ken Burn’s epic Baseball documentary in 1994 with his charm and wonderful stories.

Buck O'Neil didn't mind posing for photos.

I was standing in the lobby chatting on my cell with a school board member when an older gentleman wearing a Kansas City Monarchs jacket came into view. That call ended abruptly, and I walked into the gift shop and got the attention of the clerk.

"The gentleman walking this way, that’s Buck O’Neil, right?"

"Sure is!" the clerk said. "He loves signing autographs. Grab a ball off the shelf and get ready. You can pay for it later."

A very cool clerk.

O’Neil waked in with a great smile and started chatting with man and some fans from New York. He’s 94, but doesn’t look it. And the guy has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen.

He happily signed my ball and posed for a photo, and talked a little about the Hall of Fame. People in Kansas City are convinced he’ll be selected.

The former Negro League All-Star first-baseman and manager — and the first black coach in the majors — is among the 39 candidates being considered.

There are 18 Negro League players and executives in Cooperstown already, not counting legends like Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson who spent most of their careers in the majors.

But none have been selected since 2000, when the Hall decided it needed more research on the leagues and sent 50 historians digging for information.

I think O’Neil has a shot. Of the 39 people on the ballot, only he and Minnie Minoso are alive. And it’s more fun to have a party if the guest of honor is still alive and can make a speech on induction day. I think Minoso has been long over looked, but he belongs based on his career with the White Sox instead of anything done previously.

He’s certainly been a great ambassador for baseball. Everybody seemed to have a Buck O’Neil story.

The staff at the Kansas City visitors information office told he of how one day on O’Neil came out of the museum to find his car blocked by a tour bus. Rather than get angry, he boarded the bus and walked up and down the aisle shaking hands, signing autographs and telling stories.

I met him once before. Burns was hosting a press conference at the 1994 All-Star Game FanFest to talk about the documentary, which was coming out later that summer.

There were players assigned to sit with reporters at each table. I sat with former Dodgers pitcher Joe Black, who was impressed that I knew the proper way to pronounce the name of his Negro League team, the Elite Giants. You’re supposed to say e-LIGHT instead of e-LETE, should you ever be in such a situation.

"You’re the first white guy ever to say that right!" Black said. I took it as a compliment.

As we were sitting there, Burns walked in with O’Neil, who no one had heard of at the time. O’Neil went from table to table, shaking hands and introducing himself to every single person there.

Watching the documentary later, I said "Hey, that’s the guy!"

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Tigers Even Let Me on the Field

The Detroit Tigers get a lot of grief, but sometimes they do things that are pretty cool – like giving the fans a chance to get out on the field.

And I’m happy to report that I’ve taken advantage of these opportunities for advantages ranging from improving my softball game to tripping Yankees fans.

I was reminded of these activities after seeing ads this month for season tickets.

The team is promising anyone who buys full season tickets the chance to get on the field and take batting practice. I thought that sounded too good to be true, so I chatted with team’s media rep.

Surely, this can’t mean bringing fans right on the field into the cage. They must be parading people to some drop-the-token-in-the-slot batting cage set up in the parking lot or something.

But no, the rep insisted that anybody who plunks down the cash for a full season ticket – admittedly a large expense – gets to step up to home plate and take five minutes worth of swings off live pitching, just like the pros.

That’s pretty cool. Granted, not as cool at Comerica Park as it would have been at Tiger Stadium, where you’d be standing in the same spot as Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and Ty Cobb. It’s just not as intimidating saying “I stood where Brandon Inge grounded weakly to second many, many times.” But it’s still pretty cool.

I’ve been able to stand on the field, but in foul territory, in a number of ballparks. But to actually step between the lines is pretty sweet. And I’ve only done that twice at a major league park.

You won’t be shocked to know that I’m not above exploiting the kids for advancing such activities.

Then-Tigers coach Perry Hill demonstrates how to throw.

And when Andrew was 6, I saw that the Tigers were hosting a youth clinic day. If you had a kid with you, you could go out in the field where players and coaches were set up at several stations around the outfield bestowing tips to wide-eyed youngsters.

We spent most of the time wandering around the famed stadium’s centerfield talking photos.

But we wondered over to some of the stations and got some good tips. I’m not saying Tram and Lou were out there discussing how to turn two. The stars were definitely not a part of the clinic. But picking the brains of a real major-leaguer is always a good thing.

One of the guys out there was Andy Tomerlin, who played for the Mets in 1996 and 1997. A big debate around our softball team was how tight you should squeeze the bat. I decided to ask Tomerlin. Hey, if the Little Leaguers are too slow to get their questions in there, that’s not my fault.

Ex-Met Andy Tomerlin helps with my softball game.

The answer, by the way, is not tight at all. “Someone should be able to reach over your shoulder and pull it out of your hands,” he said. “You’ll tighten up as you get into the swing.” Good to know.

Justin Thompson later rolled a ball to Andrew, so it was a good day all around.

I was able to get back on the field again in 2003. It was our annual Executive Game, and it just happened to be photo day, where the Tigers rope off the infield, and allow the fans to gather on the field as the players – this time including the stars – would walk along and pose for photos.

And that’s all good – if you like the Tigers. We were more interested in taking in the view from center and posing for shots of us making great catches.

As things turned out, this was also the day – one of them – that Roger Clemens was going for win No. 300. The placed was packed with Yankee fans.

So I was stretched out re-creating Ron Swoboda’s masterpiece from the 1969 World Series and a guy wearing a Yankees cap fell right over me. He was taking a photo, and started walking backward, not watching where he was going.

You can see his feet in the photo. The guy was making a path for my noggin.

He was sprawled on the grass, and I'm thinking he's going to apologize, saying "Hey, nice Swoboda. Sorry I ruined your shot. Hope you're OK."

But nooooo. Yankee fan sat there, giving me looks of death like I'm in the wrong and as if there was no good reason for me to be stretched out in the Comerica Park centerfield.

Hey, it’s not my fault that the Yankees have no famous catches they can re-create. Unless, that is, they send some kid into the stands to pretend they are Jeffrey Maier.

So if you get the chance to get on to field -- lawfully -- jump at it, because it doesn't happen too often. And look out for humorless Yankee fans.

Friday, February 10, 2006

My New Favorite Minor League Team

I have 25 minor league baseball caps.

If you read this post in December, you know what that really means. But I'm sad to report that nowhere in that, ahem, 25-cap collection, is one worn by new favorite minor league team, the Lowell Spinners.

The Spinners, a Class A affiliate of the Red Sox, have taken up a cause that is near and dear to my heart. And that crusade is ridding the world of Yankee taint.

Oh, the weasels can stay in the Bronx. It’s better to keep Jeter, Giambi and their ilk in one place so we can keep an eye on them.

But I’m talking about the assault on innocent children. And while I’m just sitting around venting, the Spinners are stepping up and actually doing something about it.

The team is searching for youth baseball leagues for teams named after the vile pinstripes, and helping them change their name to Spinners. In exchange, the Spinners will pay for new uniforms and allow the kids to play on the LeLacheur Park field before a game this summer. The Spinners also pledge to work with each youth team to assist with fund-raising.

"Red Sox fans understand how devastating it can be for any child to be on a Yankees youth baseball team in New England," the team said in a release. "The Spinners have heard stories first-hand of children actually crying and refusing to play if they have to play for the Yankees."

I get it. I can’t imagine being forced to wear a uniform with that hurtful logo, representing that shameful history as well as all that is wrong in baseball today. Talk about trauma. You might as well pin a red pointed tail to the backs of the uniform pants.

Just because Johnny Damon has no shame and embraces the pinstripes doesn’t mean the youth of New England needs to follow his destructive path.

Spinners general manager Tim Bawmann said it becomes an issue where kids are devastated when they find out they are on the Yankees.

"Many kids actually pray they will not be on the Yankees when the rosters and teams are announced."

The team estimates about half of the youth baseball leagues in New England have Yankee teams and the other half had already eliminated them because of this issue.

Gabe Kapler is a famous ex-Spinner.

The Spinners — the name comes from the textile industry — have been around 10 years and have sold out every game since 2000.

I salute the Spinners. And it wouldn’t shock me if Carl Pavano, Kyle Farnsworth and other recent arrivals to the Bronx who might not have been to the Kool-Aid dispenser approached the Spinnners as well!

I'm grateful to blogger Deezofeezo, who is always a funny read, for bringing this crusade to our attention!

In other words...

Sometime on Friday I recorded hit no. 10,000 since I added the counter in mid-June. This is both amazing and humbling. I realize that some blogs get that many hits before lunch each and every day. But I’m honored that anyone at all takes the time to invite me into their lives for a few moments.

It’s a nice round number, and a good place to pause and reflect. There are a couple people I need to thank. You see and hear about Will Christensen in many of my posts. He’s been my best friend and baseball adventure buddy since 1990. Will is an amazing baseball researcher and analyst, and you can check him out at

You also see and hear about Tony Hartsfield, who has been like a brother since I subjected him to all sorts of things when we were roommates at University of Missouri. Tony has been a role model in many, many ways. His great writing inspired me to try blogging.

And my cousin, Michael McMillin, is a constant source of encouragement and friendship. His new blog is here.

A totally unexpected benefit of being a part of the blogging community has been meeting some wonderful people. Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing, when not heroically satisfying my cravings for the culinary treats of the homeland, demonstrates his, well, "Amazin’" knowledge of Mets history and shows how it intertwines with our own personal stories.

Metstradamus, Deezo and Joe are just flat-out funny, Mark of Mets Walkoffs is a fantastic historian and Miracle Mets shows that there are a lot of new quality bloggers joining our ranks every day. If I list more it will seem like an Oscars speech, and the band has started to play.

I realize that a big chunk of those hits are from my Mom and Dad, sister Jen, brother John and mother-in-law -- loyal readers and people I love.

And, of course, my wife, Julie. She is not a loyal reader, but endures me talking about the blog all the time. That must be as boring as listening to a rotisserie team ower brag about his team, making her a saint.

Thank you!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

M&Ms, Ozzy and a Revelation

You know you’re getting old when you break out with the dreaded “Kids today. What are they listening to? That stuff is crap!”

I had one of those moments this week, as well as a shocking revelation.

I’ve been filling my iPod with classic songs from my youth, making liberal use of my library card to borrow CDs with songs from the LP and 45 collection from my teens.

And my wife will point out that outside of discovering awesome contemporary Christian rock; my music tastes have not changed that much from those formative years. I was a bit of a metal head, but embraced a lot of the synth new wave stuff. Hey, 20 gigs of space means Rush and UFO and Human League and A Flock of Seagulls can happily co-exist.

So I was excited to find that the Grand Rapids Public Library had a copy of Black Box, the collection of every Ozzy-era Black Sabbath album. I haven’t heard most of those since high school.

Giants Eminems

While I was searching for that, I came across a copy of Eminem’s new Curtain Call greatest hits disc. I confess I’ve always been curious. The Detroit Free Press seems to have a reporter covering the guy full-time, so we can’t help put be exposed to his assorted legal and marital woes and the outcry from whatever oversensitive group his lyrics were offending that week.

But I’ve never heard his stuff, other than that overblown duet with Elton John on the Grammy Awards a few years back and the small part of “Lose Yourself” in the iPod commercial that ran virtually between every single inning during the postseason.

It only costs 50 cents to borrow a disc, so I thought I’d give Em a whirl and see what the fuss was all about. I plunked down my buck and walked out of the library with both collections, and popped Curtain Call in the car CD player.

Yikes. There are 16 tracks on the disc. I think 15 are a continuous loop of F-bombs, and about 14 are about how miserable his life is. There was no joy, no optimism. Some of the tunes were OK, but I couldn’t get past the steady stream of profanity. It was distracting me from hearing what he was actually trying to say.

Nasty Yankee Eminems

I’m not some language prude. Dee Snider lets an F-bomb fly once in a while, but not every other word. And Tony will remind me of a certain W.A.S.P. song I subjected him to in college. Well, him and the rest of the dorm. I was always a little heavy on the volume.

Considering how many millions of discs Eminem's sold, he’s probably in Carlos Beltran’s tax bracket. Can things be all that bad?

Then it happened. I broke out with the phrase: “Kids today. What are they listening to? This stuff is crap!”

I felt a shudder. Am I an official fossil?

Then I popped in some of the Sabbath discs when I picked Andrew up from swimming practice.

I threw Vol. 4 in first. “Supernaut” and “Wheels of Confusion” still seemed cool, but I finally realized that not only is “Snowblind” a drug song – it’s a pro-drug song! Who knew? OK, I was a naive kid.

The riff in “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” still growled with menace. “Paranoid” still rocked, and “War Pigs” was kind of a retro chuckle. Stuff from “Never Say Die,” the least popular of the Ozzy era, held up better than I thought.

Andrew groaned and showed displeasure as each memory blast out of the speakers. He turned up the volume on his GameBoy, as if Ozzy’s wail wouldn’t pierce through those computerized blips and bleeps.

But I realized that much of the rest just didn’t age well. I started skipping through the tracks, faster and faster, cringing along the way at each shrill scream, drug praise and devil devotion.

The first Sabbath CD was … unlistenable.

Ozzy used to seem kind of cool, but now I heard the foghorn vocals and all I could think of was the living cartoon mumbling and stumbling through his MTV reality show.

Then the revelation: When I was a kid, what was I listening to? This stuff was crap!

I used to love this music. I always found it easier to do those outside chores if I could bring my music outside. I’d either take my little red plastic Panasonic tape player or put my stereo speakers in the window and crank it up. I don’t know why the neighbors didn’t complain.

It was confirmation once again that my parents knew what they were talking about. If I’m even half as accurate when I’m bestowing advice upon my kids, they’ll be doing OK.

I ended up downloading a three songs from Curtain Call – more than I expected – and a total of 11 songs from the eight Sabbath albums, a lot fewer than I expected. And I won’t be as quick to criticize Andrew’s musical selections next time he wants me to import some songs to his iPod.

In other music news:

Another 45 I used to play over and over was Terry Cashman's "Talking Baseball -- Mets Version." Cashman rewrote his version of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" for most of the major league teams. I recently discovered that these are available from his label's Web site, and puchased the National League versions plus a special disc he made for the Subway Series.

The original Mets version was from 1982 before the rebirth, hence the "We long to see them rushing, to the stadium in Flushing line." But the CD has a mroe recent version through the 1986 series and then the Subway Series. Good stuff, and no F-bombs!