Wednesday, July 29, 2009

We win!

I had the pleasure of coaching one of my church's two co-ed softball teams, consisting of probably the coolest group of people ever.

We're celebrating a big win in Wednesday's tournament, claiming the consolation championship in a 16-3 pounding of the Double-Baggers.

Thanks for a wonderful season!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Place No. 46: Cardinal Gibbons School; Place No. 46A) South High School, home of the Grand Rapids Chicks

Listen closely, and you can hear Madonna sing "This Used to Be My Playgound."

I’m going to flip Josh Pahigian’s book back a few pages.

He tapped the Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore as spot no. 46 in the "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out."

That’s where Babe Ruth was sent as a youngster, when it was named St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and served as an orphanage and reform school.

The original building burned in 1930s, and the Bambino helped raise money for a new building. It closed in the 1950s, reopened in the 1960s as Cardinal Gibbons. It’s a Catholic secondary school today.

We didn’t go there during our stop in Baltimore, but I offer up something right here in Grand Rapids.

Alternate Place No. 46 A) South High School, former home of the Grand Rapids Chicks.

And it’s where President Gerald R. Ford went to school, too.

I’ve been interested in the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League since the early 1990s.

There’s a chance I ticked off my editors in Flint because I kept proposing sports stories. Might not seem like a bad thing, except that I covered schools and local governments.

But in 1991 I bravely pitched one story I suspected they couldn’t resist.

Rickey Henderson was about to break Lou Brock’s record of 939 career stolen bases, and be, as you know "the greatest of all-time."

Except that I knew he wasn’t.

The professional record of 1,114 bases belonged to Sophie Kurys of the Racine Bells. And, best of all, she was from Flint.

I found the "Flint Flash." at home in Scottsdale, Ariz. and was thrilled to hear stories about the league. This was before the movie "A League of Our Own," and not too many people knew about the AAGPBL.

She sent a note a few weeks later thanking me for the story. She liked it — mostly. I could have sworn she said she might watch Henderson break Brock’s record on television if it wasn’t too late at night.

But Kurys chided me, saying she would never fall asleep watching baseball. I was torn between being crushed and pledging allegiance.

Since the movie, some of the players make the rounds at major baseball card shows and All-Star Game FanFests, signing autographs and telling wonderful stories. I always check out their booth to see of Kurys is among the signers.

We moved to Grand Rapids in 1999, and I’ve always thought it was neat that the city hosted one of the teams — and a good one, too.

The franchise originated in 1944 in Milwaukee, won the championship, moved to Grand Rapids and made the playoffs every year until the league folded following the 1954 season.

The team had some great players. Pitcher Connie Wisniewski earned her nickname "Iron Woman" because in 1945 she started 46 games, and finishing with a 32-11 record. She was named "Player of the Year."

Gabby Ziegler earned the honor in 1950, and was one of the league’s longest-serving players.

My wife found a neat Chick’s pennant for me, and the Public Museum of Grand Rapids once had a whole exhibit dedicated to the league.

But I’ve always wondered where the team played. Some sleuthing revealed that they played at South High, except for 1950-1952, when games were played at Bigelow Field in one of the near suburbs. Bigelow Field was destroyed in a fire, and the team returned to South until 1954.

South is better-known in these parts as the place where President Ford attended classes and played football. Today it houses a Jobs Corps program named in Ford’s honor.

I had an assignment there this week, and arrived a little early so I could walk the grounds and see what was left of the stadium where the Chicks played.


There were some rather untended fields, but nothing left of the bleachers or anything else that would lead someone to think that professional baseball was played on the site.

There were two backstops, but I have no idea where the original diamond was situated.

I was surprised, because Grand Rapids does a good job of recognizing its history. We even have a marker noting that we were the place were fluoride was first added to the drinking water.

Old South High does have some neat features. This stone pattern surrounds the door to the auditorium.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Place No. 65: Mall of America/Metropolitan Stadium

Josh Pahigian takes us back to Texas for spot No. 64 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out,” and I’m going to set that destination aside for a bit and head north to Minnesota.

Josh heads to the Mall of America, built on the site of Metropolitan Stadium for No. 65. There are precious few remnants of the yard on display, and I was able to check them out on a trip to Minneapolis for an education writers’ conference in 1996.

The visit is worth a trip to the archives, because the Met might have had a sweet name, but that’s about the best thing you could have said about it.

Imagine a ballpark so bad that a domed, plastic-grassed multipurpose barn was an improvement.

Picture a ballpark so woebegone that tearing it down and replacing it with a mall was actually a pretty good idea.

We can only be talking about Metropolitan Stadium, home to the Minnesota Twins from 1961 to 1981.

Metropolitan Stadium was built for the Minneapolis Millers of the minor leagues in 1956, but it was clear it was intended to lure a major league team. It had a curved, triple-decked grandstand stretching from first base to third, and some temporary bleachers.

The Washington Senators arrived and were renamed the Twins in time for the 1961 season, and the first and second decks of the grandstand on the first base side were extended down the left field line. But for some reason, only better bleachers were added along the right field line, creating what I’m assuming were some horrible sight lines.

What was already a hodgepodge became even worse when the Vikings football team added a double-decked pavilion in left field, kind of an early version of the disaster in Oakland where the Athletics and Raiders share a stadium.

Given all these issues, it wasn’t long before there was talk of leveling the stadium, with the usual debate about who would be picking up the tab. Apparently maintenance was scaled back to accelerate the pace, and it got so bad that in the ballpark’s final season the third deck was considered a safety hazard because of broken railings.

But a bad setting doesn’t always make for bad baseball. The Twins went to the World Series in 1965 and took the division crown in 1969 and 1970. Zolio Versalles earned an MVP and Jim Perry a Cy Young. Hall-of-Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew played at the Met, along with Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Bert Blyleven, players who still get strong Cooperstown consideration.

Metropolitan Stadium was leveled in the early 1980s to make way for the Mall of America, which I learned is only a $1 bus ride away from downtown Minneapolis. I had some time after to conference ended and caught the bus, curious to see if anything remained of the stadium.

The mall itself is not especially exciting. It’s pretty much the same stores you see in every other mall — just more of them — with a small theme park in the middle.
A Camp Snoopy employee pointed me to a plaque in the floor that rests in the approximate location of home plate.

And high on a wall sits a stadium seat — with no way to get to it. That’s the spot where Killebrew hit the longest home run in Metropolitan Stadium history, a 520-foot blast on June 3, 1967.

The Twins escaped to the Metrodome, and I had a pretty neat adventure there, but we’ll save that for spot No. 70.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reason for Mets 2009 struggles revealed: It's Hallmark's fault. Santana is cursed.

All has been revealed. I now know why the Mets season has gone into the dumpster.

Yes, the injuries. But I’m talking about what caused the injuries.

It’s the Hallmark curse.

I popped into a card store Saturday for the unveiling of the 2009 ornaments, and there, much to my horror, was Johan Santana hanging with the other over-priced Hallmark collectibles.

I’m all for decorating my baseball room Christmas tree in colorful Mets designs. And I even bought a Santana ornament made by Forever last year.

But I didn’t want Hallmark even knowing that the Mets existed. Because every player picked by the company for its “Day at the Ballpark” series soon watches his career and life spiral down.

1996: Nolan Ryan

The series started out with Ryan, a safe, reasonable choice. But there was an obvious faux pas. The ornament depicted The Express as a Ranger, where he is best remembered for giving Robin Ventura noogies, instead of with the Mets, where he won his only championship. And did you see the photo of Ryan with Tom Seaver in the latest Sports Illustrated? He looked like Don Zimmer! Retirement has not been kind.

1997: Hank Aaron

Also safe. Who wouldn’t want Hammering Hank ushering in the holidays? I hang this one front and center on my tree. Sadly, Hank had to watch his glorious career home run record broken under a cloud by Barry Bonds.

1998: Cal Ripken Jr.

The Iron Man, of course, set the consecutive games record several years before this ornament was released. The next season? Ripken went from playing in 161 games in 1998to just 86 in 1999.

1999: Ken Griffey Jr.

It was hard not to love Junior in his Mariners days. Sadly, two months after Christmas, Junior browbeat the M’s into shipping him to the Cincinnati Reds.

2000: Ken Griffey Jr.

After the whole trade debacle, Hallmark asked for a mulligan and issued another Griffey ornament. It was actually the same pose, but with a new paint job. A bad one, in fact. It showed a solid red jersey with only a sleeve patch to indicate it was in fact a Reds uniform. And, of course, Junior has never been the same.

2000: Mark McGwire

This was he first two-ornament year. Hey, why mess with one player’s career when you can trash two? McGwire was hurt for much of 2000, but still hit .305 with 32 jacks and was rewarded with an ornament. The next season a broken-down Mac gimped with a .187 stick and 29 homers and four years later showed up before Congress all weepy and looking like a deflated balloon from the Macy’s parade.

2001: Mickey Mantle

After the double jinx of 2000, Hallmark played it safe by picking a player whose career couldn’t possibly be hurt. Heck, they picked a player who’s life couldn’t be ravaged by the curse – one who was dead for six years. Not that it appears on my tree. I don’t put Yankees on my Christmas tree.

2001: Sammy Sosa

Sammy hit 64 homers in 2001, and then showed up on Christmas trees. He had one more decent season before going from King of the Windy City to corking bats, ticking off teammates and getting run out of town. Next thing you know, Sammy, who seemed to speak English well enough in his assorted television ads, needed a translator to say practically nothing when hauled before Congress. After a season where he seemingly was not quite the Sammy of old, he found himself out of a job, and finally, his positive test from 2003 leaked.

2002: George Brett

Brett, a clean-cut and respected guy, was already in the Hall of Fame when Hallmark decided to test the curse and make him an ornament. Truth be told, a guy like Brett was needed to off-set the horrible karma from the other guy selected for that year.

2002: Derek F. Jeter

Talk about cursed. Derek F. Jeter went from being an over-rated, smug Yankee punk with no range to an even bigger over-rated, smug Yankee punk with even less range. And the Yankees have not won World Series since Hallmark cast him in plastic.

2003: Ted Williams

After the whole Jeter fiasco, Hallmark must have decided that it needed to salvage the whole line of ornaments. And why not the Splendid Splinter? He was one of the best players of all time, though a little crusty in his later years. And he had died the year before, so there was nothing embarrassing that could happen. Except, of course, when it was revealed that his son talked Dad into lopping off his head and freezing his body after death, and having the rest of the family going to court to reclaim the body.

2003: Jason Giambi

Oh, if that wasn’t enough, the second guy selected that year was soon to be linked to an alleged steroid scandal. Did Hallmark learn from Jeter? Apparently not. Look, when you dance with the Yankees, bad things are going to happen.

2004: Willie Mays

Ahhh. Here we go. The Say Hey Kid. No ‘roids, no goofy family members. It’s all good. Except, of course, that the former Met is for some reason depicted as playing for some other team.

2004: Barry Bonds

Well, Barry’s life pretty much went to hell after Hallmark dropped this baby. He barely played the season after the ornament was released, and we all know what’s happened since. Hmmm. With Bonds, Sosa, Giambi and McGwire, you could have a little theme tree working.

2005: Albert Pujols

Hallmark clearly tried to learn from its past mistakes and picked a picked a squeaky clean player from a great baseball city. The next season, Pujols broke down and missed three weeks of the season, losing just enough of the season to allow Ryan Howard to pad his stats just enough for misguided sportswriters give Howard the MVP award.

2006: Alex Rodriguez

OK, let’s see. Since getting his Hallmark ornament, ARod:
-- Slipped into a prolonged batting slump that became so bad that Manager Joe Torre batted him eighth in some post-season games.
-- Used his contract escape clause to get out of his record-setting contract, inviting mountains of criticism, even after taking the Steinbrenners to the cleaners for an even bigger contract.

-- Was caught by the New York Post trailed him leaving assorted establishments in Toronto with a young lady who didn’t appear to be Mrs. A-Rod. Then, he was found leaving Madonna’s apartment, also without Mrs. ARod.

-- Discovered that Mrs. ARod didn’t want to be Mrs. ARod anymore.

-- Was alleged to have tested positive for steroids back in 2003 trying to earn that monster contract, tarnishing whatever positive reputation his still had.

-- came down with a mysterious hip ailment that caused him to miss a chunk of this season.

2007: David Ortiz

Hallmark robbed Ortiz of his power. Big Papi went from 54 homers to 35 to 23 to 11 this year, with his average dipping to .221. Keep in mind that Ortiz is a DH, so all he’s supposed to do is hit. Since he’s not doing much of that anymore, well, the Chowderheads aren’t going to want to keep him around.

2008: Nomar Garciaparra

This was a surprise pick, because Nomar was already in decline when he was fitted for the tree. But 2008 was a nightmare. Battered by injuries – including one that mysteriously came when the Dodgers needed a roster spot for Manny Ramirez – Nomar played in just 55 games and drove in just 28 runs. Now he’s in Oakland, with just two home runs and a weak .267 stick.

And now Hallmark has chosen to curse Our Man Johan. We’ve already seen some of the carnage. The Murphy drop. The disastrous game against the Yankees. The Mets inability to score runs when he’s on the hill. And, finally, the disintegration of the entire team around him, one at a time.

Thanks a lot, Hallmark.

Look, would it be too hard to mix in a couple Phillie ornaments?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Baseball Place No. 63: House of David Museum

Years ago I gained the appreciation of my son’s friends’ parents by stepping up and enduring something painful on their behalf.

I took the boys to the first – and later, the second – Pokeman movie.

They were too young to just drop off. I just had to sit there and take it. It was excruciating.

The only benefit to this has been that I’ve held it over my son’s head ever since.

Well, after a trip to Benton Harbor earlier this year to the House of David Museum, he says we’re even.

He’s wrong, of course. Those Pokeman movies were brutal. And the House of David Museum is very cool.

Josh Pahigian liked the museum, too, naming it place No. 63 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I got the impression that the museum was the outgrowth of some folks’ passionate collecting, starting in a room of their houses and spreading a little until their wives gave an ultimatimum.

I can relate. And I loved it.

The House of David was a Christian commune formed in the early 1900s in Benton Harbor, which is in southwest Michigan near the Indiana border. Members of the colony agreed to refrain from sex, smoking, drinking, eating meat, cutting their hair and shaving.

Picture a whole team of Johnny Damons, before he turned traitor.

But there were fine craftsmen and businessmen, running a popular amusement park and selling their products.

And, of course, they were passionate about baseball.

We arrived on a rainy day this spring, warmly greeted by Chris Siriano. He walked us through the museum’s amazing collection,

The House of David’s baseball team barnstormed around the country, using the games as an opportunity to tell about their way of life and send money back to the commune.

The team didn’t just play well; it entertained, kind of like a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters. The teams are credited with inventing “Pepper,” and traveled with portable lights to play games at night.

Soon, the commune had several teams touring at once. Siriano said they were good, because if a player on an opposing team displayed great skills, a House of David representative would soon approach him and offer a nice salary to come on board and grow his whiskers.

The teams often played Negro League teams, and demanded their competitors eat and sleep in the same restaurants and hotels. That earned them a spot in the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.

Every inch of the museum is covered in clippings, posters and displays, including the train from the amusement park that Siriano and friends are restoring. It’s clearly a labor of love.

The House of David was a fascinating group, and I could have spent the day listening to Siriano tell its story.

I would have, too, except for the kids getting bored and Siriano’s dog was running around the museum and I’m violently allergic.

I liked that the museum was a mom-and-pop operation. As much as I loved the impressive Cincinnati Reds museum, with his flashy exhibits and hands-on activities, it was neat to see a small group of folks caring so much about something that they work together to keep a little bit of it alive.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Baseball place No. 62: Yankee Tavern, and No. 62A: The Dugout

Maybe it’s time for Josh Pahigian’s fellow Red Sox fans to call for an intervention.

Because once again, Josh is bringing us to another stinking Yankee haunt as place No. 62 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Let me state for the record, I can think of no reason to enter The Yankee Tavern. For one thing, I wasn’t exaggerating when I called it a “stinking” Yankee haunt.

Josh says fans and even players have been showing up in the bar, located at 72 East 161st Street in the Bronx, since 1923. He claims the walls are covered in artifacts – including some from Derek F. Jeter -- and that fans pack the place after games.

Just imagine the stench of arrogance and entitlement reeking from the walls of that place! It would take more than a Costco-sized vat of Pine-Sol to deal with that.

Obviously, I’ve kept my distance.

But there was a worthy dining establishment not far from home while I was growing up in Massapequa Park. That would be:

Alternative Place No. 62A) The Dugout.

Like Shea, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, some baseball landmarks remain only in our memories. The Dugout is one such place.

Co-owned by Ed Kranepool and Ron Swoboda, the restaurant was located at 1000 Broadway in Amityville, N.Y.

The ads in the Mets programs and yearbooks beckoned. “Every day is Banner Day.” “Prime Ribs, Our Specialty.” “Reduced Children’s Menu.” “Birthday Cakes.”

We went to the Dugout on a special occasion one year. I expected to see Ed and Ron there, in uniform. It was the only way I’d ever seen them. And if you had a real Mets uniform, you’d wear it all the time, too.

Alas, they were nowhere to be found. And I have little recollection of what we ate, or even of the d├ęcor, other than it being kind of dark.

But I remember in a glass case by the register sat the most glorious collection of treasures I’d ever seen – baseballs autographed by Kranepool and Swoboda.

Later, Dad came back from paying the bill and presented me with one of the inscribed orbs – my first autograph. I was one happy kid.

And for years, the ball was proudly displayed on a shelf in my room with other treasures.

The Dugout didn’t last too many years. Thanks to Google Maps, I checked out 1000 Broadway to see what sits on the site today. It’s a KFC, probably without a plaque or any other marker noting the history of the acreage.

But I’d still rather go to a KFC – which always smells better than it tastes – than that Yankee Tavern.