Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Invisible Fan

Steve Bartman, pictured in 2003, is one of the most recognized
Cubs fans of all time. (Scott Strazzante/Tribune photo)
Scapegoat Bartman has managed to remain undetected for 8 years
By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune reporter
September 26, 2011
He isn't on Facebook, though his fake profile and a fan club for him are. He doesn't Tweet, at least under his name. He never did the talk show circuit, cashed in any of the lucrative financial offers thrown his way or accepted the official overtures to return as a VIP to his beloved Wrigley Field.
Instead, Steve Bartman disappeared.
Forget about 15 minutes of fame or, perhaps, infamy. Bartman is approaching eight years of silence.
Bartman's brother-in-law read a statement from Steve on Oct. 15, 2003, one day after Bartman unwillingly entered Cubs folklore by trying to catch a foul ball that left-fielder Moises Alou hoped to snare with the Cubs five outs away from their first pennant in 58 years.
Since then, Bartman's silence has spoken as loudly as the venom that spewed from a supercharged fan base. The emotion even led to death threats for the suburban youth baseball coach and consultant after security escorted him from the stadium where the Cubs lost Game 6 and, eventually, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins.
Yet in this age of 24-hour news cycles, social media and Kardashian-tinged celebrity, Bartman is a ghost.
"Yes, he is happy," says Frank Murtha, a lawyer, agent and longtime family friend. "Because that's who he is."
Murtha talks to Bartman regularly. Sometimes, their conversations involve business, as when Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney sought Bartman's presence in his documentary on the subject that premieres Tuesday on ESPN. Bartman turned that down, just as he turned down, according to Murtha, a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.
Mostly, though, their conversations are personal.
"The kind of person he was growing up and throughout the time I knew him at Notre Dame, I'm not surprised he chose not to commercially profit from this incident, which many others have and would've," Murtha says. "That was consistent with my advice. But it was his idea. And it wouldn't have been difficult for him to profit considerably."
Murtha is asked if Bartman's vanishing act is a permanent position.
"If he ever chooses to speak publicly, it will be in a time and place and medium of his choice, not one that has been imposed on him by others," Murtha says. "That's not to say he will do that. At this point, he has no immediate plans for discussion."
And so others are left to talk for Bartman. Perhaps equally amazing as Bartman's silent stand is that those who do analyze him don't know him. His friends don't talk about him. His employer, Aon Hewitt, has swallowed him in a protective cocoon. Save for a brief comment from his father the day after the incident, his family has stayed quiet as well.
"Those who know Steve saw this incident unfold and its ramifications," Murtha explains. "No one was holding a gun to their heads. But they respected Steve and his posture on it that with no real exceptions, they did whatever they could to respect his privacy. When it was all first going down and 14 satellite trucks were parked in front of their house, a neighbor went on the 'Today' show. But that's about it."
An ESPN.com reporter followed Bartman to his office parking complex and waited 10 hours for him to emerge for a 2005 feature. Even then, Bartman disarmed the reporter with his response, saying he'd consult with his legal team and politely scolding him for stalking.
And so, for some reason — following Bartman's lead or perhaps trying to assuage the initial torment he experienced — the media has become partners in the equation. Bartman can be found. It just seems clear he isn't talking.
"He must be fiercely private," says Erica Swerdlow, managing director for Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm specializing in crisis communications. "Even beyond disloyal friends or family members selling things, Kevin James wanted to do a movie about it. A lot of money may have been thrown his way. He could be on 'Dancing With the Stars' right now if he wanted to. Money often extends people's 15 minutes. He stepped away. And he did it early."
Swerdlow lives in the same suburb where Bartman's parents do and saw the satellite trucks parked outside their home. She admits to being "embarrassed" by the angry fans' reaction.
"The only thing he didn't include in his statement — and I remember screaming at the TV at that moment and still would today — is he should've put everybody in his shoes," Swerdlow says. "He was very apologetic. He said he was a big Cubs fan. But he should've said, 'I believe I did something every single fan would've done if they had been sitting in that seat.' It would've made all the haters stop and say, 'It's not his fault. It's just another bad luck thing for the Cubs.'
"That doesn't work in every case. Tiger Woods couldn't say, 'A lot of people cheat on their wives.' But in this case, it was a honest mistake."
Try telling that to Mike Lebowicz. Standing outside Wrigley Field on a recent rainy day, the lifelong Cubs fan, who had just toured the park for $25, said he's still "frustrated" by Bartman's decision.
"He was totally oblivious," Lebowicz says. "He had headphones on. He should've known the situation."
Lebowicz's son, Ari, who watched Game 6 live at 3 a.m. while in Israel, offers that most fans would've reacted how Bartman did. Any fan who carts a baseball glove to a stadium, pounding it in anticipation, can relate.
"Well, he does have a legacy for now like the goat and the black cat," counters Mike, referring to other infamous Cubs curses. "But maybe when the Cubs win it all, it will be forgotten."
That's what Grant DePorter says he aimed for when he purchased the ball — ultimately snared by a lawyer — in an online auction for $113,824.16 in December 2003. Two months later, in a surreal scene covered live by national news outlets, the president and managing partner of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group blew up the ball, which remains on display in his downtown restaurant.
"To be in the tent, you had to be pro-Steve Bartman," DePorter says of the event that Bartman declined to attend. "Harry would've got a hold of the ball, let the fans be a part of it and then move on. If people believe in the curse and this ball is cursed, blow it up. Then maybe the curse is gone and people can think of other things."
Bartman, apparently, moved on long ago. DePorter sent him a book he wrote in 2008 with autographs from Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg expressing their support. He got no response. Another time, DePorter said then-Cubs President John McDonough sat next to Bartman's boss at a dinner. Bartman turned down those entreaties as well.
"Most people would've gone the other way and tried to make a fortune," DePorter says. "He became invisible."
Not entirely.
Bartman, in part to honor Ron Santo's struggles, identified the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation early on in his nightmare to benefit from the random donations he would receive from sympathetic fans. DePorter, who followed Bartman's lead, says some of the most touching of the 20,000 emails he received about the ball blow-up were from young kids battling diabetes.
Amy Franze, then a senior executive at Illinois' chapter of JDRF, held a fundraiser.
"Steve Bartman came up to her," DePorter says. "He had a hat on. He just said, 'Do you know who I am?' She said, 'No.' He said, 'I'm Steve Bartman and I wanted to thank you.' She said it was a nice conversation."
And then Bartman was gone again.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ted Williams's .406 Is More Than a Number

[Look Collection/National Baseball
Hall of Fame Library]
Ted Williams, demonstrating his swing
in the clubhouse, made a science of
hitting, discussing its finer points with
players and umpires. He practiced his
famous swing for hours every day.

September 17, 2011
By Bill Pennington
New York Times

Inside his room at Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Hotel on Saturday, Sept. 27, 1941, Ted Williams was jumpy and impatient. That might have been an apt description of the mercurial Williams at most times, but on this evening he had good cause for his unease.

His batting average stood at .39955 with a season-finale doubleheader to be played the next day at Shibe Park, home of Connie Mack's Athletics. Since batting averages are rounded to the next decimal, Williams could have sat out the final two games and still officially crested baseball's imposing .400 barrier.

At the time, Williams said, "If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line."

But waiting it out in the hotel was asking too much. Recruiting the clubhouse man Johnny Orlando for companionship, Williams marched into the streets of Philadelphia. They walked for more than three hours, with Orlando stopping at bars for occasional sustenance as Williams, who rarely drank alcohol, sipped a soft drink outside.

"I kept thinking about the thousands of swings I had taken to prepare myself," Williams said years later. "I had practiced and practiced. I kept saying to myself, 'You are ready.' I went to the ballpark the next day more eager to hit than I had ever been."

Williams, concluding his third season with the Boston Red Sox, went 6 for 8 in the two games to finish at .406, and no one has since hit .400 or better for a season. No one, in fact, has hit higher than .390, and that was 31 years ago.

As another regular season winds toward a close — with no batter above .350 — it may be time to more fully appreciate Williams's profound, singular achievement. For 70 years, Williams's .406 season has often been a baseball accomplishment positioned just to the edge of the brightest spotlight.

It was insufficiently acknowledged in 1941 largely because five players had hit better than 400 seven times in the previous 20 years. Only 10,268 fans attended the doubleheader in Philadelphia, and out-of-town newspapers like The New York Times published only brief wire-service accounts.

[Associated Press]
Ted Williams with Joe DiMaggio. During
DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Williams's
average was 4 points higher.

Acclaim for Williams's feat increased each decade as no other hitter reached .400, but the attention rarely reached the awe and veneration attached to, say, Babe Ruth's home run records. Williams's season, and the number .406, may be known to all serious baseball fans, but does it carry the magic attraction of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941? That summer is cast in the animated light of DiMaggio's dauntless pursuit, a beacon of stylish triumph for a dashing figure.

Overshadowed is Williams's conquest, completed on an overcast, raw day — a last-day-of-the-season footnote. Even in Boston, where it made front-page news, the celebration was abridged. A day later, the sports headlines focused on the coming Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers World Series. The front-page headlines involved war in Europe. In a short time, DiMaggio won the Most Valuable Player award with nearly twice the number of first-place votes as the runner-up Williams, who had led the league in home runs and missed the triple crown by five runs batted in.

Over time, Williams's .406 season earned a different, almost backhanded distinction. It was used to illustrate the end of an era: before baseball was desegregated, before night games and before the advent of modern strategies like specialized relief pitchers. It was treated like a relic — amazing but artifact.

Seventy years, however, may finally be enough to view Williams's season differently. It may be the most thorough reflection of a player often called baseball's greatest hitter. Although Williams was just 23 at the end of the season, 1941 has become the calling card of his career, no small achievement considering he retired in 1960 standing third on the career home run list behind Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.

The 1941 season revealed in total the precision, the resolve and the potent mix of aptitude and ardor that exemplified Williams the hitter. It is a 20th-century baseball masterpiece unlike any other, carved not across one World Series, one month or even 56 games but from April 15 to Sept. 28. Every single at-bat figured in the outcome, unlike when a hitter chases home run records.

"It was something that required a kind of nonstop consistency," Williams said on the 50th anniversary in 1991. "I never thought of it as going 2 for 5 every day, but that's what it adds up to. I had to maintain my focus throughout. Although I never imagined that all these years later, no one else would do it again.

"If I had known hitting .400 was going to be such a big deal, I would have done it again."

'A Lesson to All'

The steadiness of Williams's season is best, and most appropriately, borne out in numbers.

¶ Begin with these: 185 hits, 147 walks, 27 strikeouts and a .553 on-base percentage in 606 plate appearances.

¶ After missing most of April with a broken bone in his right foot, Williams hit .436 in May.

¶ From May 17 to 30, he hit .536.

¶ During his 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio batted .408. During the same stretch of games, Williams hit .412.

¶ Williams started a 23-game hitting streak, the longest of his career, on May 15, the same day DiMaggio began his streak. During his hitting streak, Williams batted .489.

¶ Williams hit .470 against the Yankees, who won the American League pennant by 17 games behind a pitching staff that yielded the fewest runs and hits.

¶ He was hitless in only 22 of the 143 games he played.

¶ His longest hitless stretch was seven at-bats.

¶ He had just three infield hits.

¶ His slugging percentage was .735. Until Mark McGwire in 1998, only five players in either league had recorded a higher single-season mark.

¶ Sacrifice flies were counted as at-bats. Under today's rules, Williams might have hit .411 to .419, based on accounts of games that season.

In an essay within the 1994 book "Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures," the Harvard paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould called Williams's 1941 season "the greatest achievement in 20th-century hitting" and "a lesson to all who value the best in human possibility."

Williams's manager in 1941, the future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin, put it more succinctly: "Nobody could get him out."

Williams spent the rest of his life — he died in 2002 — explaining that the .406 season was a result of his tireless dedication to what he labeled the science of hitting, and refining it consumed him. He did not, for instance, usually talk about fielding, base running or bunt strategy, but he would make strangers show him their batting swings. Then he would correct their flaws.

Williams did not consider 1941 his best season. He was just as likely to mention 1957, when at 39, he led the league with a .388 average (with 33 intentional walks). But Williams recognized several distinctive circumstances about the 1941 season.

After an unsteady acclimation to the East Coast in 1939 — Williams had been raised in San Diego — and after a rocky welcome in the veteran-filled Boston clubhouse, 1941 was the year Williams finally settled into a routine that suited his active mind.

According to "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero" by Leigh Montville, Williams would rise at 6 a.m. and, with his teammate Charlie Wagner, drive 20 minutes west of Boston to Sunset Lake, where they fished undisturbed for a couple of hours. With the games starting at 3 p.m., Williams arrived before noon and started swinging a bat or a broomstick in the clubhouse. Waving an object to mimic his baseball swing, even if it was a hair brush in front of a mirror, took up hours of Williams's days.

After many games, he took extra batting practice. A quick dinner followed — he was a famously fast eater — then he loved an evening watching a Western at the movies.

Adding to his comfort, he was familiar with most of the pitchers in the American League and had memorized their tendencies and pitching repertories. He mined the daily box scores for clues about each pitcher to update his mental databank. And because he was popular with umpires — he never argued balls and strikes — he could glean useful information about pitchers they had recently seen. Reaching base, Williams would converse with the nearest umpire, hoping to learn if someone had a new pitch or seemed overly reliant on his fastball. No insight was too small to Williams. (Such fraternization between umpires and players is now prohibited.)

The Missing At-Bats

Of all the advantages he might have had in 1941, the biggest was the spring training injury to his right ankle. It limited him to fewer than 20 at-bats in April, most of them as a pinch-hitter.

"That was big because I missed the cold weather, when most hitters can't hit anyway," said Williams, who could accurately recall details of his baseball career well into his 70s.

He reinjured his ankle just after the All-Star Game, which forced him out of the starting lineup for another 12 days. His average had dipped to .396. When he returned, he immediately went 12 for 22 and raised his average to .408 and never dropped below .400 again, at least by baseball's official mathematics.

Rod Carew, one of the few to make a serious run at .400 since Williams, has studied the .406 season and contends that Williams's absences were a blessing.

"The fewer at-bats any hitter has over the required number of plate appearances, the better his chance is of hitting over .400," Carew wrote in an e-mail responding to questions about 1941. "When I hit .388 in 1977, I had 694 plate appearances and 616 at-bats (239 hits). Ted had something like 450 at-bats in 1941 when he hit .406, and I think George Brett and Tony Gwynn had fewer then 450 at-bats when they made their runs at .400.

"All in all, the less at-bats, the better."

Williams had 456 at-bats in 1941. Brett, who hit .390 in 1980, had 449 at-bats that season. In 1994, Gwynn had 419 at-bats in 110 games and was hitting .394 on Aug. 11; then the players went on strike and the rest of the season was canceled.

John Olerud was hitting .400 on Aug. 2, 1993, the second latest that anyone has carried a .400 average in a season since Williams. (Brett was hitting .400 on Sept. 19, 1980.) Olerud raved about Williams's eye for the strike zone and his plate coverage but wondered whether he had benefited from playing when starters usually pitched complete games.

"If you're seeing a pitcher for the fourth time, it is easier," Olerud said.

Carew agreed.

"Even back when I played, more pitchers went nine innings," he wrote, "and I was more likely to get a hit when I faced a pitcher for the third or fourth time than I would be facing a fresh Lee Smith or Mariano Rivera in the eighth or ninth inning."

On this issue, Williams always conceded that some changes, like a bullpen full of specialists, might have made hitting harder since the 1940s, but that other changes might have made it easier, like the major league expansion to 30 teams from 16, which probably diluted the overall pitching talent.

An Emphatic Finish

Williams was convinced that another .400 hitter would come along. When Nomar Garciaparra was hitting .403 for Boston in late July 2000, he had frequent conversations with Williams.

"The phone would ring, and when I answered I'd hear a voice roar: 'You're going to do it, Nomar. This is the year,' " Garciaparra said. "He was really into it. He wanted somebody else to do it. He wanted somebody else to enjoy it as much as he did."

Williams did enjoy his .406 season, right down to the final hit on Sept. 28, 1941 — a rocket that crashed into a bulky loudspeaker atop a fence in right-center field. A piece of the loudspeaker broke off as the ball bounced back into the outfield for a double.

The second game of the doubleheader ended after eight innings because of darkness. Otherwise, Williams might have gotten another at-bat. And a chance to hit .407.

Afterward, teammates congratulated Williams with a gusto that would have been unfathomable two years earlier, when he was perceived as a cocky rookie. Williams kissed his bat for a photographer.

Then he went back into the streets of Philadelphia. How did Williams celebrate?

He walked from the ballpark until he found a shop that served chocolate milkshakes. That was Williams's best recollection. The baseball parts he knew for sure. The other stuff?

"I think it was chocolate," he said many years later. "I really can't remember."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Former Dodger Wally Moon Has More Shots to Deliver, at 81

By Tom Hoffarth, Staff Writer
L.A. Daily News

As long as the sun is shining, Dodger fans will be forever over the moon about Wally Moon.

The All-Star surprisingly traded to L.A. from St. Louis in 1959 created a Coliseum phenomenon that only Vin Scully could best describe at a point in history when the Soviets and United States were immersed in space race.

Moon's "moon shot" was launched by an inside-out swing from the left-handed batter's box, forcing the ball on a sky-high trajectory that often cleared the 40-foot left-field screen that started just 250 feet from home plate down the foul line.

The last one happened 50 years ago Monday, in the first inning off the Phillies' John Buzhardt.

The 81-year-old's new autobiography, "Moon Shots: Reflections on a Baseball Life" (Mill City Publishing, 340 pages, $24.95) sells on his official website (www.wallymoon.com) and will be available during a book signing tour through L.A. next week that includes a stop at Dodger Stadium before Tuesday's game.

"I'm a happy camper," he said the other day from his home in Bryan, Tex., just outside College Station and his alma mater, Texas A&M. "My old heart's pumping now, because I'm getting anxious to see all my friends in L.A. again."

He explains more in a Q-and-A:

QUESTION: What spurred you on to write the book? Were there some things you wanted to say about today's game?

MOON: I think initially I just wanted to kind of hand down the memories to my children and grandchildren, but in the last couple of years, since we've had this website, I've connected with a lot of fans, and gained a lot of encouragement there to put it all on paper. That's been some undertaking, I must say. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew. But it was a labor of love. I played in the Golden Era of the game. So now that I'm in my eighth decade, I thought, 'You're a pretty lucky fellow.' And it was fun to spark some memories. I think I benefitted from it as well as anyone else.

Q: Anyone who saw you play at the Coliseum had to enjoy that experience.

A: There won't be another Coliseum. That's sort of a special place to me. Where else could you play before 90,000 or 100,000? I don't think that'll ever happen again. And there was Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett, educating every one of them, because the depth perception in the Coliseum was so bad - the fans would cheer a pop up and not say a thing when someone was really hit well. I don't have the words to describe what it was like winning that first world championship in 1959, my first year. I tried . . .

Q: Do you think many know about how Stan Musial gave you the best advice on how to hit those shots to left field at the Coliseum?

A: He was a great mentor. He told me, 'You gotta learn how to play in that ballpark. Here's what I would do if I were you.' It was good advice. I worked at it, and I think I was able to accomplish something that many left-handers couldn't.

Q: You describe some great times living in Encino, taking your $11,000 World Series players share and buying a house on two acres, with an orange grove and grave vines, setting up your own Wiffleball field. Can you imagine what it would be worth to have that house today?

A: Oh, I don't even try to think about that. Maybe we should have stayed there, over on White Oak. Maybe if we didn't have five children we could have stayed. I fell in love with Los Angeles, and I think the fans did with me, too. That was a great little community we had there. We had the great singer, Billy Vaughn, living there, and we'd go to boxing matches. Tex and Dorothy Ritter were great people, and their son, John. Such a great kid. I miss them. My closest friends still live there down the hill, and we'll go visit them this trip. You know, people are the answer. The fans are the answer. They support this game and have so for years and years. I'm so appreciative of those who just want to say hello and remember me.
-Born: April 3, 1930 in Bay, Arkansas
-Major League Service: 12 years: Five with St. Louis, seven with the Dodgers.
-Career highlights: A .289 batting average in 1,457 games, with 142 home runs and 661 RBIs; The 1954 NL Rookie of the Year once led the NL in at-bats (716 in 1954), triples (11 in 1959) and on-base percentage (.434 in 1961). Fourth in the NL MVP voting in 1959. Won a Gold Glove in 1960. Retired in 1965 as a member of three Dodgers World Series championships (1959, '63, '65).

Monday, September 12, 2011

On the Air, Vin Scully Reflects 10 years after 9/11

Dodgers Blog L.A. Times
by Steve Dilbeck

Here’s the treasure that is Vin Scully, on the air Sunday after a pregame 9/11 ceremony in San Francisco:

"We had a lead, gray morning, slowly burning off to a brilliant sunrise, making you think of that beautiful day in New York 10 years ago, Sept. 11, 2001. Certainly a day in which God must have wept, wept over man’s inhumanity to man. A day of heroes and a day of horror.

"And there are numbers we always talk about in baseball. We know of the total number of people who passed away that day. But I think of two particular numbers -- 405 and 343. Four-hundred and five were the total number of first responders who died that day trying to help others. And the 343, all of those brave firemen who as most of those people who did escape were going down the stairs, 343 firemen were going up the stairs on the way to meet their destiny.

"Yes, it was a day to remember. We all take a promise now, we will never forget. But you know in retrospect, we’ve kind of forgotten Pearl Harbor. We’ve kind of forgotten D-Day and World War II. I guess it’s a tendency to try and push aside something that brings us so much pain.

"But it should also bring some honor for as we watch rising from the ashes of New York, like the Phoenix itself, the high-rises that will once again be a testimony to the heart and soul of this great country.

"I remember Ronald Reagan once said, 'If we ever forgot that we were one nation under God, we will be one nation that goes under.' And you might notice today, above all days, you will hear God’s name mentioned, and we hope, not in vain.

"So that’s the scene here at AT&T Park. We will do as we did 10 years ago. We will try and turn the page, at least for a couple of hours and concentrate on a child’s game called baseball. But all the while, each and every one of us should carry a small ache in our heart for what happened. And please God, we will never forget what took place 10 years ago today. And with that, we’ll pause for this."

The camera then panned to a scene outside the stadium that had a banner that read: "We will never forget 9/11."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Spinners' Schwindenhammer Credits Thome with Career Breakthrough

Seth Schwindenhammer, Red Sox Prospect
August 16, 2011
By Dave Willis

LOWELL — Following two difficult seasons to start his professional career, Lowell's Seth Schwindenhammer experienced the meeting of a lifetime with his hometown idol — longtime major leaguer Jim Thome.

"When he was in Florida this spring rehabbing we went out to eat," said Schwindenhammer. "He talked to me about the game and gave me advice about how to approach the game. It was great."

That wisdom from the potential future Hall of Famer, who on Monday became the eighth member of the Major League Baseball 600 home run club, seems to have had a major influence on the young slugger.

Last night, Schwindenhammer represented the Lowell Spinners in the New York-Penn League All-Star Game at LeLacheur Park and won the All-Star Skills Competition. He also ranks No. 2 in the league in homers this season.

"What (Thome) said has been working so far," said Schwindenhammer. "Just go out, have fun and don't dwell on the bad at-bats."

Expectations were high for Schwindenhammer when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 MLB draft, after he hit .434 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs as a senior at Limestone Community High School (Ill.)

The massive 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, who had committed to play at the University of Illinois, immediately signed with the Red Sox $175,000 signing bonus.

But the transition to professional baseball proved to be a difficult one for the youngster. In his first two minor league seasons, he hit a combined .193 with only one home run and 19 RBIs in 69 games.

"It's tough, but you try to come back the next day and do the best you can," he said. "You try to forget the bad at-bats. You try not to dwell. But it's hard."

His fortunes began to turn this spring while playing extended spring training in Florida, when he made contact with Thome.

Thome, who had starred at Limestone Community High School (1987 graduate) just like Schwindenhammer, was in Florida rehabbing an oblique injury and offered to buy him dinner.

"He is a great guy and I am so glad it happened," said Schwindenhammer. "He talked to me about having fun. He said if I have any questions he is there for me."

True to his work, Thome — the five-time All-Star who is currently the designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins — has remained a sounding board for Schwindenhammer this season.

"We have kept in touch," said Schwindenhammer. "If I need to ask any questions, he's there to talk. I don't want to bug him, but it's amazing to know you have a guy that's done so many amazing things in baseball there for you.

"When he hit his 600th career home run (Monday against Detroit) I texted him and congratulated him."

With Thome as an influence, Schwindenhammer has taken off at the plate this year.

Through 42 games, Schwindenhammer ranks second in the New York-Penn League in home runs with nine, trailing just Tampa Bay's No. 9 prospect Jeff Malm (12). His 28 RBIs are good for second on the Spinners but just 11 off the league lead.

"He has been working so hard," said Spinners manager Carlos Febles. "It takes time. We have told him nothing happens overnight. He is getting better, and if he keeps working hard things will work out for him."

Schwindenhammer's issue has continued to be strikeouts. His New York-Penn League-high 89 strikeouts are a main reason he is hitting .215. Ironically, Thome ranks second in major league history in strikeouts (2,453).

"I have been working on it a lot with (Spinners hitting coach) Rich Gedman," said Schwindenhammer. "It's tough to get through, but I am to the point now where I realize everyone is going to strike out. It really is just another out."

The Spinners do not want their slugger to dwell on the strikeouts.

"It can be very hard to overcome," said Febles. "But he can't be afraid to strike out. That will put him in a hole. He has to stay aggressive. He isn't consistent yet, but he is getting a lot better."

But Schwindenhammer does plenty of damage when he puts the ball in play. When he makes contact, he is hitting .446 (37 for 83).

While he popped out in his only at-bat last night, he homered twice to win the skills competition, done instead of a traditional home run derby.

"When you really hit one you don't feel it in your hands," said Schwindenhammer, who also made a great play in right field. "You feel it mentally, but you don't feel it off the ball. That's how you know you got it."

All in the name

If Schwindenhammer makes the majors, he would break Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's record for the longest last name in MLB history.

"Everyone always says, 'If you get to the big leagues it's going to be history.'" he said. "It's going to be history by one letter, but I have to make it happen first. I haven't met Salty yet, but I'm sure he'll find me and give me crap about it."


If Lowell's Seth Schwindenhammer were to make the majors, his 15-letter last name would be the longest in major league history. Here's a look at other epic MLB names:

NameLetters Time in Majors
*Jarrod Saltalamacchia – 14 – 2007-present
William Van Landingham – 13 – 1994-97
Jason Isringhausen – 12 – 1995-present
Mark Grudzielanek – 12 – 1995-2010
Nomar Garciaparra – 11 – 1996-2009
Carl Yastrzemski – 11 – 1961-83
* — Tops all-time

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wiffle Ball: Born and Still Made in the USA

By Chris Arnold
NPR - September 5, 2011

The long Labor Day weekend is a time for backyard barbecues, catching up with friends and family, and for some, a game of Wiffle Ball.

Over the years, the Wiffle Ball has wound its way into the fabric of America. Those who don't even like baseball very much have taken a swing at that white plastic ball with the oval slots around one side.

There is something about the Wiffle Ball that's kind of irresistible — toy stores and even some hardware stores across the country sell them. And for consumers looking for a ways to spend more time outside, they're pretty cheap.

Many people might figure that a cheap plastic toy like a Wiffle Ball is made elsewhere, in someplace like China. After all, how can American companies compete on the cost of labor for little plastic toys?

But that assumption would be wrong — every Wiffle Ball ever made has come from Shelton, Conn.

And David Mullany, whose grandfather invented the Wiffle Ball, plans to keep it that way.

Wiffle Ball World Headquarters

The Wiffle Ball world headquarters is a small brick building by the side of the highway. David's brother, Stephen, says sometimes families driving by on vacation see the old Wiffle Ball sign on the building, will get excited and pull off the road.

[Chris Arnold/NPR] Stephen Mullany, who runs The Wiffle Ball Inc.
with his brother David, poses in front of the machine that presses
the two plastic ball halves together at a factory in Shelton, Conn.
Mullany's grandfather invented the Wiffle Ball in the 1950s.

"And the guy slams his brakes on and comes around and is like, 'This is it! You know, the Wiffle Ball factory,'" Stephen Mullany says. "And they expect the world headquarters, they expect to see this big building, and this is it."

Sometimes the brothers will show such visitors around the building.

[Chris Arnold/NPR] The Wiffle Ball headquarters in
Shelton, Conn. Every Wiffle Ball is made in the U.S.
At the heart of the small operation is a single machine that presses the two plastic halves together to make the finished Wiffle Balls. The machine resembles the glass-sided popcorn maker seen in movie theaters and pubs, but it popping out Wiffle Balls instead of popcorn.

"Once those two halves are made, you really need to get them put together, so this is where that happens," Mullany says.

Four balls at a time fall out of the bottom of the machine every eight seconds. And that's eventually enough to fill big crates full of Wiffle Balls that are then shipped out to thousands of toy stores around the country.

Not Made In China

So why isn't this being done, cheaper, in China? David Mullany says he's not interested in that.

"We're very happy producing our products here," he says. "No reason we can't make a top-quality product here at an affordable price and stay in business."

Part of the answer also seems to be that making Wiffle Balls has become pretty automated. Melting down the raw plastic involves two computer-controlled machines, and the factory only employs about 15 people, which keep costs down.

"Our defect rate and scrap rates are ridiculously low," Stephen Mullany says.

The Mullanys' grandfather, David N. Mullany, invented the Wiffle Ball. The story goes that in the early 1950s, he was an out of work semi-pro baseball pitcher, so he set about to make a ball that kids could throw curveballs with. And then he started selling the balls at a local diner.

"[The owner] put 'em on the counter to see what happens, and he went back a few days later, and they were gone," David Mullany says.

And the rest is Wiffle Ball history.

[Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Humility by the Pack

Joe Giza/Reuters
Rookie relief pitchers are being forced to wear schoolgirl
backpacks to transport gear and snacks to the bullpen
By Andrew Keh
New York Times
August 31, 2011

Snarling relief pitchers see themselves as baseball's meanest breed. Asked to take the mound at the most pivotal, pressure-packed moments — in the late innings, with the game on the line — they often develop a steely shell to hide any rattled nerves.

But decades of hard work could be coming undone thanks to the smiling faces of Hannah Montana, Dora the Explorer and Hello Kitty.

In this tradition-bound sport, in which managers wear the same uniforms as the players and Cracker Jack can still be bought at concession stands, a hazing ritual that has gone on for years seems to have reached a new level of absurdity at major league ballparks: rookie relievers are being forced to wear schoolgirl backpacks — gaudy in color, utterly unmanly — to transport gear.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
The burden for Mets reliever Pedro Beato is a
Dora the Explorer backpack. He accepts the
not-so-macho assignment, saying, “It's my duty.”

"Everybody laughs at me," said Bryan Shaw, a 23-year-old rookie reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Before each game, he makes the long, painful walk to the bullpen toting a pink bag adorned with an image of a white unicorn. "They all yell, 'Cute bag!' " he said.

The most junior reliever on each major league team is in charge of carrying the stash of snacks, drinks and pain medications from the clubhouse to the bullpen. For decades, an extra equipment sack or plastic shopping bag sufficed. But leave it to big leaguers to find new ways to torment their tenderfoots.

"It's just one more way to get at your rookie," said Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak, 37. "You have to walk all the way across the field to get to the bullpen, so you make the rookie carry this pink bag, and you can kind of humiliate him."

Before a recent home game, Pedro Beato, 24, the Mets' youngest reliever, was diligently stuffing a fuchsia Dora the Explorer backpack with chips, cookies and candy bars. When Jason Isringhausen, one of the team's veterans, had gone shopping online to find a suitable bag for Beato, he knew exactly what he was looking for. "Something pink," Isringhausen said.
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
San Diego reliever Erik Hamren shouldering
a backpack featuring R2-D2 of “Star Wars.”

The flamboyance of a floral pattern running down either side of the bag forms a striking juxtaposition with its wearer. "The first day I showed up, and it was just in my locker, I knew what I had to do," said Beato, a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a vicious fastball. "It's my duty."

That duty, and that color scheme, extend across the league.

For much of this season, Michael Stutes of the Philadelphia Phillies was forced to wear a Hello Kitty backpack and a pink feather boa purchased by Brad Lidge, a 10-year veteran, during a road trip to San Francisco. "I thought it wasn't right for Stutes to be carrying a plain black bag," Lidge said. "I was in Macy's shopping for my kids. I just knew we wanted something pink."
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
The Padres' Anthony Bass, left, and
Josh Spence evoked “Star Wars.”
Jonny Venters of the Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, toted an assortment of bags last season that recalled the TiVo recordings of an 8-year-old. First there was Hannah Montana. Then iCarly. By September, the team's veterans added SpongeBob SquarePants and Cinderella.

"I heard stuff from fans on the road, you know, 'Nice backpack, man!' " Venters said, laughing. "But, whatever. It's a fun time."

No one quite knows when the playful practice began. Trevor Hoffman, baseball's career leader in saves, said that this type of rookie hazing did not occur when he reached the majors in 1993 and that he never noticed the bags in the proceeding decade.

"But now it seems like we're seeing a ton of them everywhere," Hoffman said. "I think it's amusing for the fans to see. It's kind of a way of pointing out who's the low man on the totem pole."

Major League Baseball for now has no issue with the bags, as long as they maintain a spirit of innocence, a league spokesman said.

Al Behrman/Associated Press
The Phillies' Michael Schwimer
carries a bright pink backpack.
Baseball's famously nitpicky attention to dress was exposed last year when it briefly barred Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, from wearing a team-branded hooded sweatshirt over his uniform top in the dugout.

For a sport that has seemed to resist any diversion from the sacraments of its rich history, then, this colorful rite is an unlikely trend.

Hoffman, who retired before the start of this season, said the bags were harmless. But other shenanigans, he said, could overstep the boundaries of baseball's accepted manners. In 2007, for example, Hoffman and the other San Diego Padres relievers bought a motorized cooler for the rookie to ride to the bullpen. But it was stopped after one outing.

"We just thought it was too over the top," Hoffman said. "We didn't need to bring that much attention to ourselves."

When Hoffman left the Padres before the 2009 season, the bullpen was left under the stewardship of Heath Bell. A long and fraught process to find the perfect bag soon followed.

"We did, like, a school bus driver, a crossing guard, a fisherman, a construction worker, and it just wasn't good," Bell said of the search in his first year as the team's closer. "And then I came across Yoda."

Bell encountered the backpack with the "Star Wars" theme while taking his children to Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., and felt it was perfect for the team. The ensuing winning streak sealed the matter. Two other bags, one featuring R2-D2 and one a stormtrooper, have since made their debut with the Padres, and Bell said he had Chewbacca and C-3PO at home in reserve.

These days, before every game, Yoda is slung over the shoulders of Erik Hamren.

"It's part of the gig," Hamren, 25, said. "I've grown to love it."

The nature of the game, meanwhile, means that this fluorescent pink wave will most likely endure for years.

"Guys are starting to move up that had it first done to them, so it seems like it's starting to get passed on," Hoffman said. "Guys that are carrying them now are going to want to make sure they get the chance to make someone else do it."

Last month, for instance, Stutes was able to rid himself of the Hello Kitty and boa ensemble when the Phillies called up Michael Schwimer, 25, a 6-foot-8 right-hander.

"He was very happy to hand it over to me," Schwimer said. "I'll just wear it with pride."