Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Slowest Man in the Majors

With a Grand Total of Zero Career Stolen Bases,
Pittsburgh's Chris Snyder Is Making History.

Getty Images  --  Pirates catcher Chris Snyder runs toward
home plate in a game against the Reds this season.

By Scott Cacciola, Wall Street Journal

Chris Snyder is chasing one of baseball's oldest records, although "chasing" might not be the best description. Let's try that again: Chris Snyder, a catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, is lumbering his way toward baseball infamy—he has never stolen a base.

With 2,094 trips to the plate spanning eight-major league seasons, Snyder ranks fourth all-time for most career plate appearances without a stolen base, according to Stats Inc. Not only that, he's on pace (pardon the expression) to creep his way up the list this summer. He needs just 95 plate appearances to eclipse Aaron Robinson, a catcher who retired in 1951, and 130 to plod his way past Johnny Estrada, another catcher who last played in 2008.

The twist is that Snyder would love nothing more than to erase his name from this list for eternity. All he needs is one steal—easier said than done.

"That's the hot topic around here, man," Snyder said. "Everyone's talking about how slow I am: teammates, umpires, the coaches, everybody."

Russ Nixon, a catcher who spent 12 seasons in the majors, from 1957-1968, has the ignominious distinction of holding the record: 2,714 career plate appearances without a stolen base, though not for lack of trying. He attempted seven stolen bases over his first five seasons—and failed all seven times. He played out his final seven seasons, with the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins, without attempting another.

The sad plight of the slow baserunner underscores an increased emphasis on speed, especially in light of what Houston Astros manager Brad Mills referred to as the "post-steroid issue." Through Wednesday, teams were combining to attempt .94 steals per game this season, the most since 1999. "I think there's more focus on it from just about everyone," Mills said.

That includes Snyder, who said he has been begging the coaching staff for the "green light" to run. "This is the year," he said, although he also seems acutely aware of his limitations. "I mean, I'm 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Over the years, I've learned what kind of player I am. So I've learned, for example, when I can take an extra base and when I can't." Quick pause. "I can't more times than not."

As for acquiring that elusive steal, Snyder has been thrown out on both of his career attempts—though he came absurdly close as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. In a game against the San Diego Padres, he was the backside runner on an attempted double steal with teammate Chris Young. But then disaster, just a few feet short of second base. "I face-planted," Snyder said. "Lost it, tripped, fell. And I would've had it, too."

Players who are not particularly fleet afoot tend to remember their stolen bases. For them, steals are baseball's version of the lunar eclipse. "Oh, yeah," said Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee, who does not consider himself a speed demon. "I got one. And if I remember correctly, it was standing up."

When the Brewers visited the Cincinnati Reds on May 18 of last year, McGehee was 581 plate appearances into his career without a steal—which, if not exactly Snyder-esque, was still a source of mild angst. So when he singled to advance teammate Ryan Braun to third base in the top of the eighth, McGehee saw an opportunity: Second base was open, and McGehee knew catcher Ryan Hanigan would be reluctant to throw with a runner at third, 90 feet from home plate. So McGehee took off and made it safely, the first and only stolen base of his career. "It was legit," he said. "They covered second base and everything. The catcher caught the ball. The whole nine yards."

Getty Images  --  Snyder tries to beat out a throw to first
while playing for the Diamondbacks in 2009.
Well, except that Hanigan never bothered to throw to second. (Defensive indifference is seldom called in close games, and the Brewers were leading, 3-1.) But why get bogged down by details? "At the time, it was the highlight of the year for me," said McGehee, who went on to finish with a .285 batting average, 23 home runs and 104 RBIs.

Considering that situations like this arise on occasion, when teams basically concede bases, it almost makes what Nixon did—and what Snyder is doing—all the more remarkable: How is it possible not to pick up a stolen base after hundreds, or even thousands, of at-bats? Sometimes it just takes a while.

With this in mind, we present Cecil Fielder, a prodigious power hitter who rumbled his way around the diamond with the dexterity of a dump truck. Fielder, who retired in 1999, went the first 4,360 plate appearances of his career without producing a single stolen base—the longest such stretch since at least 1974, which is as far back as Stats Inc.'s play-by-play records go. "It just wasn't my job," Fielder said with a hint of resignation in a telephone interview. "Little guys steal bases. Big guys hit taters."

It all came to an end on April 2, 1996, after he drew a ninth-inning walk for the Detroit Tigers in a game against the Minnesota Twins. Fielder said he had been lobbying manager Buddy Bell for an opportunity to steal, and he figured he could take advantage of the Metrodome's speedy artificial turf.

So with teammate Melvin Nieves facing a full count, Fielder bolted for second. Nieves struck out and catcher Greg Myers fired a throw that beat Fielder to the bag—except the ball ricocheted off Fielder's helmet. "I should have been out," he recalled. Instead, he was safe. He raised his arms in triumph. The crowd gave him an ovation.

"That was monumental for me," said Fielder, who disputes accounts that it was a botched hit-and-run. "No way. It was a straight steal."

After the game, the Twins presented him with second base—the actual base—for him to take home. It remains one of his most prized pieces of memorabilia. Fielder said he passes it around to family members as part of an informal joint custody agreement. "My mom, my sister—everybody wants to touch the stolen base," he said.

Kevin Cash, a journeyman catcher who plays in the Texas Rangers organization, has no such mementos, having never attempted a steal over bits and pieces of eight seasons in the majors. "I know I've picked up a couple in spring training, but those don't count," he said.

Like Snyder, Cash said he often has found himself resisting the siren song of the steal. The temptation is strong. "There have been times when I've been on first and I'm like, 'This pitcher's not paying any attention to me whatsoever,'" Cash said. "But you feel like an idiot when you get thrown out by five feet."

Write to Scott Cacciola at

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Before Manny Became Manny

  [Sara Krulwich/The New York Times]
Manny Ramirez, an 18-year-old from the Dominican
Republic known for his fast swing and prodigious power, starred at
George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan in 1991
April 25, 2011
Former NY Times Reporter

Hero. Cheat. Prodigy. Ingrate. Free spirit. Knucklehead. Hall of Famer. Pariah. Enigma. Manny Ramirez, one of the great right-handed hitters of his generation, who retired from baseball this month after once again testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, was many things to many people — fans and family and teammates from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to Cleveland to Boston. Sara Rimer, then a reporter for The New York Times, met Ramirez in 1991 at George Washington High School in Manhattan. Over two decades, she enjoyed a memorable and mystifying acquaintanceship with Ramirez.

When I heard that Manny Ramirez had retired, the first person I called was his high school coach, Steve Mandl. I reached him at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan, where he has coached varsity baseball for 27 years.

He was sad and stunned. I pictured him at the dented metal desk in his cramped office, where a 20-something Manny Ramirez in his Cleveland Indians uniform looms from the autographed poster that hangs on the wall.

“Steve,” I said, “that was real, wasn’t it — the Manny in high school, that swing, his work ethic, all that pure talent?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mandl said, “that was real.”

And then the coach had to run.

I stumbled upon the George Washington Trojans of Washington Heights in the spring of 1991. The high school was bursting with new immigrants, and the 25 varsity baseball players were all Dominican.

Mandl invited me to spend the season following the team. He told me he had a great hitter, an 18-year-old from Santo Domingo who got the bat around faster than any other high school player he had seen.

I knew next to nothing about baseball, but even someone with the scantest technical knowledge of the game or the mechanics of hitting could recognize that Ramirez was a star in the making.

I don’t remember the first time I saw that quicksilver swing. What I remember is what it felt like to be there on that rock-hard artificial surface atop the hill next to the high school, among his euphoric teammates and fans shouting his name, merengue blasting from someone’s boom box in the concrete bleachers behind the third-base line, the major league scouts lined up behind home plate as Manny came up to bat in his baggy black-and-orange secondhand uniform and red cleats and slammed one home run after another, day after day.

Up in the stands Manny’s beautiful 16-year-old girlfriend, Kathy Guzman, would practically be swooning. A vendor in a Yankees cap would push a grocery cart serving pastelitos and the sweet, blended orange juice and milk concoction known as a morir soñando: to die dreaming.

Manny, batting .650, walloped 14 home runs in 22 games. Not one of those home runs was on television or saved on videotape. Mandl could barely keep the team in baseballs and gloves let alone think about videotaping his future major leaguer.

But maybe it’s better that way. Those home runs, the memory of them, are part of the Manny that belongs to Washington Heights. He was the shy, happy-go-lucky boy with the perfect swing who everyone knew was going to the major leagues. The boy who loved to hit more than anything else. The boy who worked harder than anyone else. The baby-faced boy who never drank anything stronger than the nonalcoholic Puerto Rican eggnog from the corner bodega he chugged to bulk up.

That was the Manny who at least seemed knowable, before he disappeared behind the wall of all that surreal major league fame and money. Who is the real Manny? The 18-year-old prospect with everything ahead of him, or the 38-year-old major leaguer who walked away from baseball rather than face a 100-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the second time in recent years? Who knows?

‘See the ball. Hit the ball.’ Far.

But perhaps Manny was never more himself than when he was an adolescent, playing for George Washington and Washington Heights. Maybe that was Manny at his most essential, when more than at any other time he could live by what later became his maxim: “See the ball. Hit the ball.”

One of the home runs: George Washington was playing Brandeis High School at home. The Brandeis pitcher, Kiki Valdez, was one of Manny’s best friends. His first time at bat, Manny clobbered a home run.

The second time he came up, he tapped home plate with his bat, the way you would see him do it later in the majors. He was ready, as perfectly balanced as a ballerina, as Mandl put it.

Then he called a timeout, taking his right hand off the bat. But the umpire did not give it to him.

Everyone who was there swears Manny did not have time to get his right hand back on the bat, that he swung with one hand. I can’t really say that I saw it. Maybe I was too busy taking notes.

The ball went over the left-field fence and all the way to the old handball courts on the street below. It had to be more than 400 feet. His teammates and the fans were screaming: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Mandl, coaching third base, tried to maintain his cool. He may have muttered an astonished expletive under his breath as he waved home Rafael Gonzalez, who had been on first, followed by Manny.

In those days Manny did not indulge in major league theatrics. He simply ducked his head and ran home, into the arms of his teammates.

In the playoffs, the Trojans were facing their rival, Kennedy, on Kennedy’s turf in the Bronx. Manny slammed a shot that came so close to hitting the apartment building beyond the center-field fence that the people who had been watching the game from the building’s terrace ran for cover.

Gonzalez had been standing behind home plate when Manny came up to bat that day. Fifteen years later, I sat with Rafael and his wife, Claribelkis, who had been his high school sweetheart, in their living room across from George Washington on a wintry February afternoon while Rafael, home from his Army tour of duty in Iraq with a Purple Heart, recalled the sound of Manny’s aluminum bat connecting with that ball.

“I’ll never forget that sound,” Rafael said. “I’d never seen anything hit, thrown or shot that far.”

Manny hated being the center of attention. He just wanted to be one of the guys. That was one of the things people loved about him. He’d hit, say, two home runs and a triple for the Trojans. Then he’d go back to his block, and the men on the corner would ask how he had done.

Manny would just shrug and say, “I went 0 for 3.”

But you cannot have a swing like that, a swing that is going to take you to the majors and bring you a $160 million contract with the Red Sox, a $7 million penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton condominiums in downtown Boston and two World Series championships, and keep being one of the guys.

I don’t think I ever got to sit down to talk with him for more than a few minutes at a time. It did not help that I did not know a word of Spanish, while Manny, who had arrived in Washington Heights at 13, spoke little English. He did invite me to his family’s sixth-floor walk-up tenement apartment to meet his father, who drove a livery cab, and his mother, who stitched blouses in a factory, and two of his three older sisters.

It eventually dawned on me that I did not need to talk to Manny. The way to know him was to watch him hit — and run up a hill with a tire.

Working on His Speed

At the start of his senior season some of the scouts had put out the word that they thought he needed more speed on the bases. So he started running up the steep hill beside the high school in the early morning with an automobile tire roped around his waist. The cafeteria ladies on their way to George Washington, the factory workers heading to the subway for the morning shift downtown, everyone cheered him on. It was as if he were pulling all of them up the hill with him.

Those were hard years in Washington Heights, when it seemed like the only people getting out of the barrio were the dealers selling crack cocaine to customers who poured in from the suburbs over the George Washington Bridge.

That season sports did what it was supposed to do. Manny gave people something to feel hopeful about. Everyone could dream along with him.

So much could have gone wrong. One day that spring a gun battle erupted a couple blocks from the high school. Gonzalez and another teammate, walking home after a game, had to jump under a parked car.

Sure, there were some signs Manny was flaky and naïve and easily led by others. But for all his in-the-moment free-spiritedness, Manny must have already known something about protecting his talent.

Back then the high school, with 4,000 students overflowing a building designed for 2,000, was a place where even the most committed students struggled to get an education. There may have been teachers who gave Manny a pass when it came to grades. Maybe that was when he began to realize that for a gifted athlete like him, the rules did not apply.

Unless hitting was involved, he could be maddeningly unreliable. He didn’t show up for team pictures or meetings or even the day Ken Burns dispatched a film crew to George Washington to film the Trojans for his baseball documentary. He stood up the major league scouts, too. It wasn’t like they were going to stop coming to see him.

Manny worshiped his mother, Onelcida. She and his sisters doted on him. His father, Aristides, however, seemed convinced that his son was a bum who would never amount to anything.

Manny turned 19 at the end of that May. He did not graduate from high school. The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the first round, signing him with a $250,000 bonus.

A Glowing Report

Wary about taking on a kid from Washington Heights, the Indians had dispatched Winston Llenas, a Dominican former major leaguer, to visit Manny at home and size up his character. Llenas came back with a glowing report: Manny was a nice kid from a hard-working, immigrant family.

A few weeks into June, Joe DeLucca, the Indians scout who had signed Manny, picked him up at his apartment in his blue Cadillac Seville. Manny was off to Burlington, N.C., to start his professional career in the rookie leagues.

DeLucca had one rule for Manny: Don’t let anyone talk to you about changing your swing.

Two years later, in September 1993, the Indians called up Manny to the majors, and within days he was back in New York, at Yankee Stadium.

By then I had moved to Boston as The Times’s bureau chief. I flew to New York to write about Manny’s hometown debut. The afternoon of the game Manny showed up at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Las Tres Marias, and ate fried steak and plantains with several of his high school teammates.

A block away, his father stood on the sidewalk outside their apartment building, bragging to everyone who walked by. Manny’s mother and three sisters went to Ana’s beauty salon to get their hair done.

Carrying homemade banners, a parade of his friends, and past and present Trojans, walked across the Harlem River Bridge to Yankee Stadium that night.

Manny hit two home runs and a double that night. Then he went home and partied with his block into the early morning.

Not long afterward, Manny presented Mandl with the oversize, autographed poster that still hangs on his office wall. Season after season, the varsity baseball players would stare at the poster and ask Mandl the same questions:

Is it true Manny ran up the hill with the tire?

How did he learn to get the bat around that fast?

How does he wait for his pitch the way he does?

\How can he go 0 for 3 and not care?

Why doesn’t he cut his hair?

Coming Back

The Trojans would fantasize about Manny coming back and helping them with their hitting. They would ask Mandl: Why doesn’t he come back?

Mandl would shake his head. It was complicated and painful to talk about. He did not understand that part, either.

In 1991, it was all about getting out of the barrio. That was the dream: getting as far away from Washington Heights as possible, or at least over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey.

In the beginning, when he was still with the Indians, Manny did come back during the off-season. He took his former high school teammates shopping for the designer clothes he had taken to wearing. He would walk into the George Washington cafeteria and the lunch ladies would ply him with pizza. Manny being Manny, he never called ahead.

As he failed to do so again one winter afternoon when Mandl was in the gym after school talking to the team about — what else — hitting. Manny strolled into the old gym as casually as if he were just another Trojan.

Mandl tried not to make a deal out of it. “Oh, speaking of hitting, ‘Hi, Manny,’ ” he said.

The Trojans, huddled on the floor around Mandl, could not believe it.

“Manny, want to say a few words about hitting?” Mandl said.

The young Trojans were as focused on Manny as they had ever been on any fastball flying toward them at the plate.

And then the great hitter spoke: “See the ball. Hit the ball.”

Mandl had always assumed Manny would help out his old team, though he made a point of not asking him for anything. The players desperately needed new uniforms, at a cost of about $7,000. One of Mandl’s former assistant coaches put in the request to Manny. Manny said, “Sure.”

But then he stuck Mandl with the bill. That was around the time he stopped talking to his former high school coach.

It seemed to stem from a misunderstanding that started when sportswriters asked Mandl why his former star committed so many wacky errors in the field. Mandl gave what he thought was an honest explanation: Maybe Manny had attention deficit disorder.

Mandl did not mean it as an insult. He would never hurt Manny. He was sure a lot of major league ballplayers had A.D.D. Mandl even wondered if A.D.D. had been his problem as a kid; maybe that was why he could never focus on school or anything except baseball.

The comment was tabloid news, and somehow it got translated back to Manny that his high school coach was telling everyone he was stupid. Manny was sensitive about his intelligence and easily hurt. Mandl became a nonperson. Mandl wished he could talk to Manny, explain things to him. But you did not call Manny, Manny called you.

A couple of weeks ago a friend gave me a gift: a pair of tickets to Fenway Park. The Red Sox were playing the Tampa Bay Rays, Manny’s latest team. They were the best seats of my life, right along the third-base line. My friend thought I would enjoy being that close to my favorite player.

You could smell the grass. You could see Johnny Damon’s dimples when he came up to take his practice swings for the Rays.

But Damon’s former Red Sox teammate was absent. Manny had retired from baseball that Friday. The game unfolded without Manny’s dreadlocks and goofy smile, the anticipation of what he might do with his bat.

October 2003

I thought back to one of the last times I had talked to him. It was October 2003. The Red Sox were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

I had gone up to Washington Heights to check in on Manny’s former high school teammates. I found eight of them watching the first game of the series in the basement of a bodega near Manny’s old apartment. They sat on milk crates, glued to a 19-inch color television wedged on a shelf between cans of evaporated coconut milk and beans and bags of rice.

Manny got his first hit, an infield single. In the basement of the bodega, the former Trojans, now in their early 30s, burst into cheers.

Carlos Puello, who was on a break from his job as a hospital boiler room operator, said, “It’s the same swing.”

When my article about Manny’s high school teammates ran in The Times a couple of days later, I happened to be in Vermont.

My cellphone rang.

“Hi,” said a familiar-sounding voice on the other end. “This is Manny Ramirez. Do you remember me? You wrote about me when I was a little kid.”

His Dominican former Little League coach from Washington Heights, Carlos Ferreira, known by the nickname Macaco, had given Manny my number.

“Are you going to the game tonight?” Manny asked me.

I laughed. “Well,” I said, “I’d love to go, but who can get tickets?”

Manny said: “I’ll leave you tickets for tonight’s game with Macaco.”

So I flew to New York, and took a cab to Yankee Stadium. The whole time I was thinking it was a setup, some kind of Manny-being-Manny joke.

I stood in front of a Yankee Stadium gate and called Macaco on his cellphone.

Macaco was waiting for my call. I sat with him and Carlos Puello in the stands behind the third-base line. Manny didn’t get a hit, but it didn’t matter.

I know it was real; I still have the ticket stub. But it was something like a dream, which is what Manny is now for all of us who followed him, who were thrilled and saddened and confused by him.

And who miss him, and will.

Sara Rimer, a former reporter at The New York Times, is the chief health and science media relations officer for Boston University.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Westmoreland Defying Odds After Brain Surgery

Boston prospect has perspective, but keeps baseball hopes alive

Ryan Westmoreland underwent surgery March 16, 2010, to remove a
cavernous malformation in his brain. (Joy R. Absalon/
By Evan Drellich /
March 11, 2011

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was about the only question not asked of Ryan Westmoreland, because it will never really matter.

Oh, to Westmoreland, the Red Sox prospect who's five days away from the one-year anniversary of brain surgery that could have cost him his life, it's important all right. There is still no dream greater than making the Major Leagues, than playing for the Red Sox.

But to ask how strong a chance, how much time he has to do it -- to make it all the way back and farther after a cavernous malformation sapped everything from his vision to his fine motor skills -- would be failing to see the big picture.

Illness, if anything, always begets perspective.

"I just feel like when I'm ready to play, when I feel like I'm going to be able to perform well, I'm going to go out there and play," Westmoreland said Thursday at a lunch table at the Red Sox's player development complex, surrounded by reporters. "The goal at the end of the day is always get to Fenway. If it happens, it happens. If not, it doesn't.

"I'm just hoping for the best every day, and if I play, it's going to be meant to be. If not, it's also meant to be. So we'll see what happens."

So far what's happened is that a young man, a local kid with as much baseball talent as anyone, has made immense strides in regaining not only his diamond skills, but his functional life.

Westmoreland won't turn 21 until April. Boston's fifth-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, he commanded a $2 million signing bonus out of high school in Portsmouth, R.I., and he made a fine outfield debut in the Class A New York-Penn League in '09: a .296 average, a .401 on-base percentage and seven home runs in 223 at-bats. At 6-foot-2, and today close to 220 pounds, he embodies "projectability."

But a year ago at this time, Westmoreland's body simply didn't feel right. There was weakness and fatigue, and routine tasks suddenly weren't routine -- all because a cell mass on his brain stem was bleeding onto his brain.

Less than two weeks after an MRI exam led to the malformation's discovery, Westmoreland went in for surgery in Arizona on March 16. Dr. Robert Spetlzer, a renowned neurosurgeon, performed the operation.

"It was very confusing," Westmoreland said of the whirlwind diagnosis caught him in. "I honestly didn't really know what was going on. I mean, I saw the MRI, I saw the problem there, but at the time, I wasn't really symptomatic. I wasn't in pain at all, it took about a week or two weeks for the symptoms to really start kicking in. Everything kind of spiraled down. I remember at this time last year, I was really unsure of what was going on, and then as the days went on, it became more reality of how serious it was."

Prior to surgery, Westmoreland had lost all vision and had gone completely deaf in one ear. When both his sight and hearing improved rapidly after surgery -- within two to three days -- he knew he was on the right course. Surgery brings no guarantees, though, and naturally, baseball was still last on anyone's mind.

"It's hard for all of us, because it started out, baseball being in the back," Westmoreland said. "We weren't even really thinking about that in the beginning. It was just to get through the surgery alive and lead a normal life. As soon as we all realized that I was going to live a normal life again and I got my eyesight back and everything was becoming normal, we kind of just altogether said, 'You're going to play baseball again.' ... We're trying not to let that go."

Picking up a pen was a trial. So too was tying his shoes, and driving was out of the picture for a time.

Where baseball was concerned, Westmoreland couldn't even see the ball sitting on a tee.

"It was kind of double," he said.

That didn't bode well for someone hoping to earn a living in the pros.

"I had the days where I was really down on myself, and I said, 'You know, am I going to play again?'" Westmoreland said. "I was really unsure about the future."

Time brought steady improvement. Through physical therapy, Westmoreland's been able to regain precision in his motor skills, his balance. Balance, more than anything, is what he lost.

The more robust activities came back first: running, hitting. Slowly but surely, he realized he had a legitimate chance to come back.

"As the weeks and days went on, it kind of became more reality that I was going to get there, that I was going to reach my goal," Westmoreland said. "I just really tried to limit the days that I got down on myself."

By the fall, Westmoreland was actually able to take live batting practice. He's done that five or six times now, and he's already gone deep once, homering on Field 1 at the player development complex. It was about October or November, as he recalled.

"It was amazing," Westmoreland said. "I'm happy with just hitting line drives, but that feeling of hitting the ball and knowing that it's gone right away was something that I haven't seen in a while. Right when I hit it, I knew it was gone right away, and it was just, it gave me a lot of motivation that things are getting really good."

Westmoreland has been able to drive again since mid-summer. He's happy about that, that he no longer has to be chauffeured. Tying his shoe is no longer as arduous.

Self-sufficiency's always more valuable than a baseball career. And somehow, his baseball career is still in the picture.

"I think it's amazing," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I saw him [one] day at Fenway sitting in a wheelchair, and now he's attempting to play baseball. I think it's already a win-win. Obviously, because I'm a member of the Red Sox, I'd love to see him as a productive player. But the fact that he's out there playing, it's already an exciting story."

There is no timetable for when Westmoreland can begin playing competitively again, and he's content with that. Doctors have already been amazed at the speed of his recovery: they've seen video of him hitting, and more than one has been surprised by what they've seen.

Westmoreland's sight isn't perfect yet, though it's not expected to be. He's weak on his right side, too, but not as much as he once was. He does one-hand drills in the cage, extra work in the weight room.

"It's gotten a ton better," Westmoreland said. "And I'm really happy with it, because I know that the doctor said it wouldn't come as quickly as my left."

A left-handed hitter, Westmoreland throws with his right, and at one point, he could barely reach 10 feet on a throw. Now he's at 100-plus.

"There's fatigue, there's certain aspects of balance that I'm still working on, but I started out with basically nothing and now I'm at a very advanced level," he said.

Westmoreland isn't sure where he'll begin the season once Spring Training ends -- he could remain in Florida, he could work out with an affiliate. He just wants to get back on the field, wherever that may be.

Westmoreland's progress with his exercises is charted thoroughly, and it's the most tangible way to see improvement now. Because the big things, like running, have already come, the improvements are more subtle. But they are certainly there, and they're expected to keep coming.

After the operation, when his arm was still numb, Westmoreland got a tattoo that takes up the entirety of his upper right arm. The date of his surgery is most prominent, along with a nod to Saint Christopher.

"Protect me," it says.

"I figured the best time to get a tattoo would be when you can't feel your arm," Westmoreland said, his genial nature still shining through.

There was a time, inevitably, when Westmoreland couldn't understand why he was subjected to it all.

"There was this thought of 'Why me? Why is this happening to me?'" he said.

Now at the one-year anniversary of the most traumatic time in his life, he's a patient optimist. He's a realist, too -- he knows that his health comes first.

Incredibly, though, he's still a ballplayer, too. And his dream is still in front of him.

"I feel great, just to be on the field again and be doing baseball activities is one thing, but to be doing it at a level that I'm doing it now," Westmoreland said. "I've gotten through the worst, and now it's just an uphill climb for me."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Jackie Robinson Day 2011: Baseball Legend Remembered Across MLB

Jackie Robinson Day 2011 commemorates the 64th anniversary of his historic debut in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The anniversary simultaneously commemorates the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, as Jackie Robinson was the first black player to play in the MLB. Almost 14,000 of the 26,623 in attendance at Robinson's first game, which took place at Ebbets Field, were black patrons.

While Robinson's debut changed the game forever, and would make him a legend, the initial reaction by teammates and the press was mixed, but generally positive. However, there was immediately controversy in the Dodgers' clubhouse, as some white players openly stated they'd prefer to sit than play alongside Robinson.

The controversy quickly ended once management got involved, as manager Leo Durocher stood up for Robinson and what he could do for the team.

Robinson would become the 1947 Rookie of the Year.

Before joining the Dodgers in 1947, Robinson first played in The Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, and then in the International League with the Montreal Royals in 1945 (this was essentially the minor leagues). In 1955, after eight of his nine years with the Dodgers had passed, the team won the World Series over the New York Yankees, despite the championship match-up occurring six times over the course of Robinson's career.

The barrier-breaking legend retired from baseball in 1956, and passed away October 24, 1972 at the age of 53.

Robinson's jersey number (42) is the only number to be retired league-wide.

Today, a number of teams around the MLB are remembering Robinson's historic career. Teams including the Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers will all have special ceremonies and in-game remembrances for Robinson. Players around the league will don the number 42 when they take the field today.

Perhaps the biggest announcement is the launch of, a site where over 60 players and professionals from across baseball have compiled videos expressing what Robinson's legacy means to them. You can check out the site for yourself, here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Baseballers Defy Quakes to Begin 2011 Season in Japan

Rakuten Eagles players celebrate after their victory against
the Lotte Marines in Chiba, suburban Tokyo
From CNN
April 12, 2011

(CNN) -- Despite more earthquakes rocking Japan on Tuesday, the devastated country's delayed baseball season was finally able to begin.

Sendai-based Rakuten Eagles, unable to use their own stadium due to damage from last month's initial quake, triumphed 6-4 away to Japan Series champions Lotte Marines in a game held during the day to conserve electricity.

A quake centered in northeastern Chiba registered before the game, while another of magnitude 6.3 which hit Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefectures caused a short delay in the fourth innings, the Mainichi Times reported.

The decisive moment came when Motohiro Shima hit a tie-breaking three-run home run in the seventh innings.

"For me, this game felt as if we were playing our first game in Sendai," Eagles pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma said in quotes reported by the newspaper's website as he celebrated his 30th birthday.

"We fought together as a team and were able to pull out victory. The cheers of the fans reached me."

In the opening match of the Central League competition, the Yokohama BayStars beat the Chunichi Dragons 5-4.

The president of Japan Professional Baseball Players' Association said the teams hoped to lift morale in a country where 400,000 have been left homeless and more than 27,000 dead or missing.

"We'll fight through the season with the feelings of disaster victims on our minds," Hanshin Tigers infielder Takahiro Arai told AFP.

"We will play our hearts out in chasing the ball, that way we can encourage people affected by the disaster."

Japan's top football competition, the J-League, has been suspended until April 23.

However, the country's football association is rethinking its decision to pull out of July's Copa America tournament in Argentina, where the "Samurai Blue" had initially requested to play as one of two guest teams.

"The Japanese association for its part has not reached a final conclusion," JFA vice-president Kozo Tashima told the Jiji Press news agency on Tuesday.

"We will reconsider whether we can send a national team by using our wisdom more than ever."

The JFA has until April 15 to make a final decision.

"We will take part on condition that we call up a certain number of overseas-based players in a way to minimize the impact on the J-League," JFA technical director Hiromi Hara told Japanese media, AFP reported.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bay Area’s Little Leagues Overflow With Would-Be Giants

                                       Penni Gladstone for The New York Times
San Francisco Little League, overwhelmed with new players this season,
sent some to Mill Valley, which felt a squeeze of its own.
New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The good vibrations from the San Francisco Giants’ World Series victory last fall continue to reverberate in the Bay Area, where children inspired by the improbable success of the Giants’ assemblage of castoffs have overwhelmed local Little Leagues. 

Youths who had never played the game suddenly saw themselves as Cody Ross or Tim Lincecum, and local leagues have had to scramble to find enough coaches and fields to accommodate the interest.

“We knew we were reaching capacity, and then the Giants had to do something stupid like win the World Series and add to the fervor,” Mike Singer, the president of San Francisco Little League, said jokingly. San Francisco has about 1,100 players this year, up 100 players, or 10 percent, over last year. The league started a waiting list and had to place some players in suburban Mill Valley, 12 miles north of the city.

Yet Mill Valley felt its own squeeze, with an increase of 181 players in leagues of 750 kids, according to the league president, Chris Kearney.

Ned White, the district administrator who oversees the leagues in San Francisco and its northern neighbor Marin County, which includes Mill Valley, said he had never seen such an increase among so many leagues. “It was really a big jolt into the system to have that many kids coming out,” he said.

The leagues are struggling to find enough fields for games and practices. San Francisco Little League controls three fields on Treasure Island, a windswept former Navy base in San Francisco Bay just off the Bay Bridge, and is seeking more from the city’s parks department. In addition, more players mean a need for more coaches.

“We had to twist some arms,” said Bill Johnston, the commissioner of Mill Valley Little League’s minors division.

And coaches are particularly needed because some of the new players are truly new to baseball. “We had a couple of kids who didn’t know which end of the bat to hold,” Johnston said. “They’re going to be real challenges for the coaches.”

White, who said he had been involved in Little League for 38 years, said he had to write 200 waivers to receive permission for Little Leaguers to cross boundary lines. The most he had to write in a previous year was 20, he said.

Dave Wetmore, administrator for the Little League district east of San Francisco that includes Danville, San Ramon and other cities, said his enrollment was up more than 8 percent, to about 7,500 from 6,924. “Having a local champion is huge,” Wetmore said. “What little T-baller doesn’t want to be on the Giants this year? All of those players were Little League players at one time.”

The Little League’s national Web site last week featured a story about Ross, a Giants postseason star in 2010, and his formative years playing Little League in Allen, Tex. Whether there is another Ross who will emerge from the flood of Little Leaguers in the Bay Area remains to be seen.

Some, clearly, are ahead of others. Oliver Zink, age 9, of Mill Valley, had never been a big baseball fan, said his father, Andy. But when the Giants made the playoffs last October, Oliver and his grandfather began watching the games, and the schoolyard buzzed with Giants fever.

“Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum became almost mythological figures,” Andy Zink said of his son.

Spring arrived, and his son decided to try out, although his father, a biology professor, admitted Oliver did not know “what a batting stance was, or how to catch a pop fly.”

Andy Zink admitted he was not much help, either — “I had never played baseball in my life,” he said — but a friend’s dad stepped in and taught Oliver the basics, and now he is a Little Leaguer.

Then there is 11-year-old Caroline Olesky, who drew inspiration from the fact that the 2010 Giants were filled with position players not really wanted by their former teams. Out she went for Little League and now she is playing a range of positions for the Mets, a team in the Mill Valley Little League minors.

“Nobody thought I would actually make it, but I did,” she said.

Giants fever has manifested itself in many ways around the Bay Area since October. An estimated one million people turned out for a parade to celebrate the World Series championship, the team’s first since it arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1958. Fans wore black beards in honor of Brian Wilson, who is part closer and part performance artist. The Giants took their championship trophy on tour, routinely drawing lines of 1,000 people or more waiting to be photographed with it. And the Giants also sent the trophy to the San Francisco Little League’s kickoff parade, where each team got to pose with it.

A fan festival that the team hosted at AT&T Park in February drew more than the 40,000 the Giants expected, with fans waiting two hours in lines for autographs. Fans also flocked to spring training in Arizona in record numbers. And now come the Little League registration numbers.

“The characters on the team are cool characters to youth,” said the Giants’ president, Larry Baer, citing Wilson and Lincecum, who looks more like a surfer than a pitcher, and others. “We’re really fortunate to have a team with personality. It’s what baseball needs to bring the younger kids back.”

The resurgence has taken Mill Valley’s Little League up to a level it had not been at for 15 years.

“It’s really great to see the popularity of baseball get stronger, because it’s been falling for the last decade or so,” said Ron Campbell, who is on the board of San Francisco Little League.

But just how much the Giants’ championship might be inspiring minority youngsters to play baseball is not clear. White, the Little League district administrator, said that the organization did not specifically track minority numbers, but that local districts with a substantial minority population seemed to be receiving the same boost as other districts.

That the Bay Area has a lot of youngsters with baseball fever as the result of a championship is hardly unique.

“We occasionally see spikes in Little League participation in areas where a major league team has won the World Series,” said Steve Barr, the director of media relations for Little League International in Williamsport, Pa.

In Massachusetts, the Boston Red Sox’ World Series championship in 2004, their first in 86 years, led to about an 8 percent increase in Little League enrollment the next spring, according to John Berardi, the information officer for Massachusetts Little League. In other years, he said, the increase is about 1 percent. However, Massachusetts did not see a second surge in registration after the Red Sox won another title in 2007.

But that was one side of country, and this is the other. If the Giants win it all again, who knows? Bay Area baseball could spill over onto football fields.

Monday, April 04, 2011

It's Time For Baseball To Stop Wasting Fans' Time

Sweetness And Light
by Frank Deford
March 30, 2011
Morning Edition

As a fan, there are always things I wish the various sports would do to improve themselves. For example, I wish more football coaches would go for it on fourth and short yardage; I wish NBA referees would stop giving breaks to superstars; I wish they'd get rid of the goons and the fighting in the NHL.

But most of all, as we begin a new season, I just wish they wouldn't take so long between pitches in baseball games.

Look, I know some folks like punts and field goals, and charity for superstars, and goons and fights. But have you ever heard one person — one human being — say, "Boy, I wish they'd take a little more time out there between pitches?" No, no one. Ever.

In fact, baseball would move along just fine, if they'd only enforce a rule — No. 8.04 — that is already on the books, which says that when the bases are empty a pitcher has to deliver the old horsehide within 12 seconds after the batter gets into the box. We just need a clause added to that rule that the batter has to get into the box pronto and stop fiddling with his batting glove.

The worst thing that ever happened to baseball was batting gloves — because unlike all the other gloves in the world, which people just put on and forget about, baseball batters seem to be born with a compulsion to monkey around with their batting gloves. Batting gloves, to baseball players, are like texting to teenagers.

But baseball can never bring itself to correct itself. Meanwhile, in the midst of the current lockout, the NFL just went about its business and made a major rule change about kickoffs. Baseball and the United States Senate are the two institutions that give "tradition" a bad name.

The main problem baseball has, besides indecisive leadership, is that it firmly believes that clocks are pornographic. It is the catechism that only baseball is pure, because it is timeless. Hey, baseball: Love may be eternal, and a diamond is forever — but nine innings is just about right for 2 1/2 hours.

It's all the more important now to put a clock on the batter, and another one on the pitcher, because more and more relief pitchers are used in games, and that takes up additional time. And modern strategy encourages batters to take more pitches.

Okay, maybe 12 seconds is too short. College baseball has a new rule that the pitcher absolutely must throw the ball within 20 seconds. Now, isn't that reasonable?

Certainly, a batter can sufficiently caress his batting glove, and a pitcher can find the seams on the baseball, in 20 seconds. For goodness' sake, it's just the two of them. Twenty-two football players manage to jump all around, and get a play off in 30 seconds.

Please, baseball. You're boring us. Time is of the essence. Success goes hand and glove with ... hands and gloves.

[Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]