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New York Yankees: Memories of a Special Place

I attended my first game at the “new” Yankee Stadium last summer, folks; it’s hard to believe the “old” one has been leveled and the reality of the whole thing is still sinking in.

It was called “The House That Ruth Built”—now reduced to a pile of rubble while a new, greed-fueled edifice begins to grace the skyline just a few feet away. Ah, but they can’t haul away the many memories of a place that was MORE than just a stadium to many of us. It was a shrine, a landmark, simply THE BALLPARK to be in. And regardless of when the land beneath all the piled rubble becomes totally visible again, it will always be considered sacred ground. A few thoughts/memories:

* I remember my first game—my Dad taking me on a bus trip to the Bronx to see the Yanks play the White Sox; must have been 1967 or ’68. We pulled up to the desired destination—this great big building with flags flying around it—and just as we approached the stadium entrance, I clearly remember asking Dad, “Hey, Pop, I thought they played baseball OUTDOORS!” Yes, the naivete of the young. And as we reached our seats, I remember the strong aroma of hot dogs and how GREEN the grass was; I already couldn’t wait to come back again.

* While in high school, a childhood buddy of mine and I actually gave NOTICE to our teachers that we were skipping school to catch a Yankee game one afternoon. I remember how surprised/shocked we were when we found out that our “superiors” truly didn’t mind as they were all keenly aware of our intense passion for baseball; I guess it didn’t hurt that we were exceptional students, too.

* I recall my years at Fordham from 1978-82 and how my college experience began in such a spectacular way during my freshman year, as I was able to gain entrance to Game 3 of the Fall Classic between NY and LA. How lucky I was to see the “Graig Nettles Show” that evening—the gifted third baseman’s fielding magic propelling the home team to victory. On each magnificent play, the crowd roar was deafening—and I can still hear it today whenever I see a diving stop by anyone playing the “hot corner.” A magical evening for a wide-eyed teen from CT, for sure.

* I surely took advantage of my time living in the Bronx. While a few of my roommates were pre-med majors and rarely had time to take in games, this journalism student would happily make the 30-block trip via subway alone to almost EVERY home game while school was in session. It reached the point where I felt guilty when I was back home in CT and missed a game—maybe on a weekend when I was home visiting my parents.

Why the guilt? I don’t know—maybe because I loved baseball so much along with the bothersome thought of missing out on another truly AFFORDABLE evening at the ballpark. Yeah, I’d take a $10 bill with me each night which would MORE than cover a bleacher seat, round-trip subway fare, a pretzel and a soda. I know—who was luckier than me, huh? My frustration these days regarding the lack of affordability at sporting events remains dwarfed by those special days that I DID have while in college. I miss those days.

* When I graduated, I couldn’t stay away. One year after leaving Fordham, a family friend graciously gave me a ticket to the July 4, 1983 game vs. Boston. Sitting behind home plate in stifling heat, I watched Dave Righetti pitch the game of his life; when his no-hitter was complete after striking out Wade Boggs, the deafening sound of the raucous crowd rivaled the “Nettles crowd” that I was part of just a few years before. To this day, it’s the lone ticket stub (out of THOUSANDS accumulated) that I’ve chosen to save.

Ah, so many more personal memories of the “Big Ball Park in the Bronx”, i.e. the anticipatory rides down “The Hutch” with friends, Bob Sheppard (the “voice of God”), the countless batting practices we spent watching before games and Mickey Rivers throwing balls in the stands while shagging in the outfield.

I recently asked my “Monday Night Sports Talk” co-host Tony DeAngelo—who grew up in Stamford—for a few of his own fond memories: “I remember 1968 when I saved three books of S&H Green Stamps to get three seats in the upper deck for Bat Day—Yanks vs. Indians,” he told me. “Tiant pitched a one-hit shutout that day. The only hit was by Mickey Mantle—on one leg—beating out a bunt. I also remember the Yankees/Twins Old-Timers Day that year, driving down in Charlie Moulketis’s ’61 Comet—black with red leather seats, no AC, hot as heck outside.

Mantle hit a couple of “bleeder” home runs off Jim Merritt. And after the game, as we were standing where the Twins bus would leave from, Bob Allison of Minnesota actually stepped on my friend’s foot! I also recall the night when Mantle homered off Earl Wilson to tie Ted Williams on the all-time list—a night when there were only around 12,000 in the park! Finally, I’d often see Yankees executive Mike Burke walking in the upper deck talking to fans—giving them the peace sign. Just so many things I’ll never forget.”

Me too, Tony. I’ve only referenced remembrances by two individuals in this column; part of my future enjoyment of baseball in general will be hearing from many others about their own recollections of Yankee Stadium—yes, the OLD one. And as time goes by, those few, select memories mentioned above may have to be compressed a bit in order to make room for so many more that will surely surface.

Thanks to an unforgettable building that lost its battle with a wrecking ball. One thing’s for sure, though—our fond thoughts/memories of such a special place will always remain intact.

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Barry Bonds: An Open Letter To The Disgraced Home Run King

Dear Barry,

I can now say it with a clear conscience: you’re a BUM, Mr. Bonds. I know, I know, you’ll probably tell me that there’s been no conviction yet and that the perjury/obstruction charges you now face are STILL bogus; after all, you’re Barry Lamar Bonds—home run king, big-shot.

You surmised that constant denial would make the steroid allegations go away; after all, the feds had never played “hardball” with a sports figure as big as you. I hate to break the news to you, Barry: facing a federal indictment is just a tad tougher than facing those big league pitchers whose ERAs you helped to inflate.

You took for granted that the American public’s thirst for heroes would simply allow you to cheat your way to legendary status, and you’d walk away unscathed. Well, you DID become a “legend,” Barry—I’ll give you that. But as the feds now tighten their grip, was it really worth it?

C’mon, Barry, were we NOT supposed to notice? Physically, your head AND body ballooned like current gas prices once the new millennium arrived. Your surliness multiplied, too, once people began to notice your physical appearance change from a lean, talented outfielder to a blown-up, chemically-changed freak.

Did you think that we’d ALL chalk that up to good nourishment, flaxseed oil, and working out just a “little” more than usual? Geez, Barry, you insulted SO many of us with your assumptions, the main one being that you mistakenly grouped tons of us outsiders with your clueless, inner-circle of supporters in terms of intelligence.

And were we NOT supposed to notice when your home run totals rose significantly after 2000—and simply chalk that up to an unknown phenomenon that renders better eyesight and reflexes after the age of 35? Shame on you, Barry.

Here’s what puzzles me, Barry: you were ALREADY well on your way to Cooperstown and immortality during the 90s—hitting tons of homers, driving in 100 runs every year and collecting Gold Gloves as if they were $100 Picasso masterpieces.

Why, Barry,WHY? WHY did you feel the need to go the illegal route and try to increase numbers that were ALREADY staggering? Tell me, Barry, was it the money? Did you think that you WOULDN’T become a rich man if you continued to play by the rules? Oh, now I think I know the real deal. I guess you wanted to be FILTHY rich and feed an ego that was bigger than San Francisco Bay.

And it surely seems that you were willing to do it at ANY cost, Barry—even so far as to have possibly used trenbolone, a steroid used to improve the muscle quality of cattle. I dunno, Barry, maybe when you brought your selfish, drug-induced freak show to cities throughout the league, fans should have yelled “MOOOO” instead of “BOOOO.”

You should have NEVER let it come to this, Barry; a few of us already KNEW there was a steroid problem in baseball even before the late Ken Caminiti was ridiculed as being “delusional” after bringing attention to it in that famed SI article. You could have come clean AWHILE ago and gone down in history as a player who bravely tried to clean up the sport.

Sure, the union would have hated you, Barry, but the American public would have embraced you. Remember one thing, Barry: Americans are a very forgiving bunch, but you surely went past the line when you insulted us along the way.

Shame on you, “Bar-roid” (thanks Steve Somers) for letting your former personal trainer, Greg Anderson, rot in the “big house” for more than a year while you bathed in accolades, kept the “denial machine” rolling, and partied it up along the lines of a fellow athlete-turned-criminal named Simpson.

I can only guess that your conscience exited your body at some point due to the influx of some strong, nasty substances, ones a bit stronger than just the “cream” and the “clear.”

Finally, you’re a BUM, Barry, for having sent the following message to youngsters throughout the land: It’s O.K. to compromise your body and break the rules because ‘roids rule; ‘roids will make you famous, rich, and help you do the extraordinary.

Therein lies your biggest crime, Mr. Bonds, the naive kids and fellow pro players out there who’ve followed suit simply “because Barry did it.” Speaking of kids, what about your OWN children, Barry? Will they be proud that their Dad made a mockery of the American pastime—that he cheated for some sick, egotistical reason that may someday bring THEM negative attention?

Barry, did it ever occur to you that your kids might need a terrific role model as THEY continue to mature, and NOT a Dad who soon may be playing left field for the prison team at Terminal Island? Tell me, Barry, seriously, will you someday tell your own kids that it’s O.K. to cheat, do drugs, and break the law? Please say no.

Don’t worry—you won’t do 30 years, Barry; we all must remember that you have no prior convictions. But your ego got in the way—and you’ll soon pay. You’re no home run king, “Bar-roid”, just the “Sultan of SQUAT” in my book.

Shame on you for tainting the game that I once LOVED (past tense). Perhaps the prison warden will have a sense of humor and put an asterisk on the back of your prison garb while you show your muscles off in front of adoring convicts. Just remember, Barry: it DIDN’T have to be this way. Shame on you.

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Bob Feller: Remembering "Rapid Robert"

The numbers are staggering: 266 victories, over 3,800 innings pitched, 279 complete games, 12 one-hitters—all while missing nearly four seasons due to military service.

Oh, he was also a World War II hero (gun captain on the USS Alabama), World Series champion and an eventual baseball Hall of Famer.

When I first heard about the death of legendary pitcher Bob Feller recently, I immediately thought, “Man—there was a guy who did it ALL.”

He was a cherished sports icon in Cleveland, for sure. Elsewhere, he was sometimes thought of as being a bit stuffy, grumpy and a bit full of himself. One thing was never debated, though: The man could flat-out PITCH like few others EVER have.

I look back on Feller’s 1946 season with Cleveland and just say, “Wow.” People were wondering before Feller’s first start that year if the guy could ever be a dominant starting pitcher again. Yes, he HAD pitched effectively in nine games after returning from the service in 1945, but the question still remained: Could he ever shake off the extended military-stay “rust” and be a 20 to 25-game winner once again?

Feller’s answer: 26 wins, 36 complete games, 371 innings (you read that correctly) and 348 strikeouts. Yes, Bob Feller never DID have a problem answering critics throughout his lifetime—and when he spoke, he made SURE he was heard.

I met Bob Feller for the only time back in 1980 at a West Haven Whitecaps (Eastern League) game; he was there during a promotional tour—available to sign autographs for the first few innings.

I was in college at the time and was keenly aware of the man’s legendary status—mostly due to my dad having always told me that Feller and Sandy Koufax were the best pitchers he’d ever seen (ironically, my dad knew the woman who’d later become Feller’s second wife—Anne Gilliland—and carried her books to school on occasion as a youth).

I just HAD to get a ball signed by him that evening; it’s not often that you’re in the company of true baseball royalty. I had also known that Mr. Feller could be a bit standoffish and gruff; how would he react when I reached the front of the line? Should I say something? What would I say?

When I finally handed him the ball to be signed, I recall nervously saying, “Mr. Feller, it’s an honor to meet you—and my father STILL says you’re the best pitcher he’s ever seen.” I remember him replying something like, “Thank you, kid. Was your father a Cleveland fan?” I think I was too nervous to answer at that point, and my friend Bob, who accompanied me to the game, proceeded to engage in some small talk with the legend.

It didn’t take long for Feller to realize that we were true baseball fanatics, as my friend and I proceeded to start reeling off some famous Indians over the years. Then, while exchanging handshakes, our jaws nearly dropped when Feller said, “When I’m done here, boys, I’ll come look for you in the stands and we’ll talk more baseball.” I didn’t fall down/pass out at the time—but I came close.

Would baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller REALLY seek us out and spend some time with us? I had my doubts as we returned to our usual, behind-the-plate bench seats.

Two innings later—almost inconspicuously—Feller and an aide entered the ballpark seating area; we waved at him, and he simply pointed back at us. Without hesitation, he walked up the stairs and took a seat next to us; yeah, the game suddenly became secondary. I kept thinking/wondering: So this is the ornery, uncooperative man with the questionable personality? I didn’t see it. Not that night.

I recall us talking about some modern-day players, how the game has changed over the years and then finally asking him who the toughest hitter was he ever faced. He replied, “Ted Williams was the best hitter—but DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich always gave me more trouble.”

After another few minutes of stimulating conversation among “the three Bobs” (he also talked about his military record, which he took great pride in), Feller excused himself, lamenting, “Well, guys, I have a flight to catch. A pleasure meeting you.” The autographed ball is still displayed in my bedroom; I gaze at it from time to time and remember that special conversation from 30 years ago. Yeah, I always smile.

My Monday Night Sports Talk co-host Tony DeAngelo on Feller: “I had to laugh when he (Feller) went to the Baseball Encyclopedia once and asked them to put In the Service of Our Country next to the names of players who missed time during the war; they told him it would be an “inconvenience” to do so.

“Feller then remarked, “Inconvenience? What do you think it was for me getting bombed and shot at on an aircraft carrier every day?”

And this came from a man who did his running and throwing on the boat between attacks. Yes, what an inspiration for those who will choose to listen.”

Yeah, I guess there was only one Bob Feller, “Bullet Bob” back in the day. Again, many fans/colleagues didn’t care for the man due to his disdain for the modern-day player (he consider them spoiled, and hadn’t earned what they reaped); they also considered Feller egotistical—on the verge of being boisterous.

Yes, perhaps it came down to which Bob Feller you met on a particular day. I’m just glad I was able to meet the Bob Feller who simply enjoyed talking baseball with two “pie-eyed” young men on a summer evening a few decades ago. I’ll prefer to remember him in a positive way the rest of my life too.

Rest in peace, “Rapid Robert.”

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2010 MLB "Awards"

Yes—a month or so until pitchers and catchers report, folks.  But recognition is in order based on the 2010 regular season:

*The STAY AT FIRST Award: No doubt—goes to Torii Hunter of the L.A. Angels. Hunter tried to steal 21 times this year and was thrown out on 12 occasions—a SB success rate of just 43 percent. Just a reminder, Torii: You’re NOT 25 anymore.

*The PETE ROSE/GEORGE BRETT HONORARY THROWBACK PLAYER Award: Roy Halladay of the Phillies. When I see this guy pitch, I think it’s 1970 again. A stud, a horse—you get the picture. Led ALL MLB pitchers in complete games, innings AND shutouts; when he DOESN’T go nine, he looks like Clint Eastwood in a “Dirty Harry” scene. Yeah—my kinda guy.

*The TONY BENNETT/BEST YEARS BEHIND HIM Award: Without question—goes to Brewers reliever Trevor Hoffman. In 50 relief appearances at age 42, the all-time saves leader blew five saves, went 2-7 and pitched to an ERA of 5.89. This is a guy who used to average around 40 saves per season and pitch to an ERA of at least three runs LESS than the inflated number he put up this year. Yes, Trevor—it’s time.

*The LITTLE BUCKS/BIG NUMBERS Award: Goes to Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies. The man earned the league’s minimum salary and put up MVP-type numbers—34 HRs, 117 RBI, .336 batting average. Yeah—a MAJOR return on the team’s investment. Milwaukee’s Casey McGehee and Trevor Cahill of the A’s finished high in this category.

*The BONNIE AND CLYDE/HIGHWAY ROBBERY Award (for stealing large sums of money): Sadly, goes to Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies. Once the best hitter in the game, Helton hit .256 with just 8 HRs and 37 RBI in the thin air of Coors—and was paid almost $18 million (ouch). Helton could have easily qualified for the aforementioned Tony Bennett Award, too. Barry Zito finished second—earning even MORE than Helton and winning just nine games.

*The BLACKSTONE/HOUDINI DISAPPEARING ACT Award: Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies. When he was 15-1 at the All-Star break, it was simply a question of if he’d win 20 by Labor Day. He proceeded to go 4-7 the rest of the way—failing to hit the 20-win mark while making Colorado fans wonder if burnout will be an issue with him as his career unfolds.

*The PITIFULLY PUNCHLESS Award (for lack of offense): Hands down—goes to the Seattle Mariners. They hit a pathetic .236 as a team and finished last in the majors in runs, hits, OB percent, total bases, doubles, triples,—well…EVERYTHING. Somewhere, Felix Hernandez is weeping.

*The ARSONIST OF THE YEAR Award: I’ll give this one to George Sherrill of the L.A. Dodgers. Appearing in 65 games, he pitched to an ERA of 6.69 while hitters tallied a .311 batting average against him; right-handed hitters hit a blistering .427 off Sherrill. Yes, vs. right-handed batters, Sherrill might have been better off letting them hit off a TEE—and Joe Torre would concur.

*The BUM OF THE YEAR Award: Oliver Perez of the N.Y. Mets. The man pitched 46 innings and walked 42 hitters in 2010. In fact—since signing a three-year, $36 million pact before the ’09 season—”Ollie” has now put up ERA’s of 6.82 and 6.80 and won just THREE games. I don’t know a SINGLE Mets fan who wants this guy to even SHOW UP at spring training in five months—and he’s owed another $12 million.

*The second annual EARL WEAVER/FULL PACK Award: This one goes to Hideki Okajima of the Red Sox. If manager Terry Francona DID smoke, he would have gone through a pack of cigarettes QUICKLY (like Weaver did with Don Stanhouse) every time Okajima pitched. He gave up 59 hits in 46 innings, was susceptible to the HR ball and opponents hit .314 against him. Red Sox Nation collectively holds its breath EVERY time he jogs in from the bullpen. A Double-A pitcher at this juncture.

*The HIT OR MISS Award: A “no-brainer” as D’Backs infielder Mark Reynolds wins this award for the third year in a row—in a LANDSLIDE. The man slugged 32 home runs but also struck out 211 times—the third year in a row he’s topped the 200 mark. Winning this award is usually only “slightly” embarrassing; the REAL embarrassing part of Reynolds’ 2010 campaign was that he hit .198—yes, below the famed “Mendoza Line.”

*The MAYTAG/DEPENDABILITY Award: As mentioned last year, Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners is a shoo-in for this award YEARLY—as long as he’s breathing. Once again, he played in ALL 162 games; he also garnered 200+ hits for the 10th year in a row. Also played great in the outfield once again and stole 42 bases at the age of 36. Bottom line with this guy? When you have an “off” year and bat at a .315 clip, Cooperstown will be calling in the near future.

*The AVERSION TO WALKING Award: Pedro Feliz—who split time with the Astros and Cardinals in 2010. The man came to bat 409 times this season and walked just 13 times—yes, just once every 31 at-bats. This guy takes pitches about as often as yours truly dates supermodels.

*The GERITOL/AGE DOESN’T MATTER Award: The Yankees Mariano Rivera wins this award for the second year in a row. At age 40, he gave up just 39 hits in 60 innings—allowing just two home runs and pitching to an ERA of 1.80. Opponents hit .183 against him as he saved 30 or more games for the 13th time in his career. I’m beginning to think that Rivera is aging just as well as Christie Brinkley—well, ALMOST.

*The RODNEY DANGERFIELD/LACK OF RESPECT Award: Paul Konerko of the White Sox. Made the All-Star team only because Justin Morneau got hurt—yet put up huge numbers this year: 39 HRs, 111 RBI, .312 BA. Plays a decent first base, too—though that’s overlooked at times. Adam LaRoche of the D’backs received votes in this category—going “under the radar” while driving in 100 runs for a last-place club.

*Finally, the DOLLY THE SHEEP/REASON TO CLONE Award: Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. What more can you say about a guy who’s hit 30 or more HRs/drove in 100 or more runs in EACH of his 10 big league seasons (seemingly in CLEAN fashion, too)? Rarely misses a game—and a slugger who’s NEVER struck out 100 times in a season.

Great fielder (almost underrated) who made just four errors in 2010. Good family man, too, who launched the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005 (dedicated to Down’s syndrome) with his wife Deidre. Congrats, Albert—to a guy who does it on the field AND off.

Enjoy the rest of the winter, folks.

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