Sunday, January 27, 2013

Former Mets pitcher Darling's love for baseball fulfilled in many ways

Former Mets pitcher and current SNY sportscaster Ron Darling
spoke at the Rider University baseball team's First Pitch Dinner.
                                              [Donte Carty/Rider University]
By Paul Franklin,
January 27, 2013

LAWRENCE – He figured he would go to law school, business school or maybe work on Wall Street.

"I was going to do what everyone at Yale does,'' Ron Darling said Saturday night, prior to speaking at the fifth annual Rider Baseball First Pitch Dinner. "I thought I'd do four years and then got on to my life.''

Instead he went on to play professional baseball, being drafted by the Texas Rangers his junior year of college.

But even then, in the spring of 1981, he still thought he would spend most of his days in a suit and tie.

"When I got a signing bonus I was like, "Ah, hah-hah, I got you now!' Once they figure out I can't play I'll use that money to go to law school.' Sixteen years later I was still playing.''

Most of his years were spent pitching for the New York Mets, including the 1986 World Series championship season.

After completing his pitching career in 1995, Darling eventually returned to the game as an announcer, and for a while now has been a TV analyst for Mets games and nationally for TBS.

Darling, 51, was introduced as the keynote speaker by Allentown resident Tom McCarthy, TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Phillies.

The event, which included a silent auction of impressive memorabilia, acknowledged this year's Rider baseball team and coach Barry Davis.

"Quite honestly, the last time I was able to have fun playing baseball was in college,'' Darling said. "After that it becomes a real occupation. Not everyone moves on to the major leagues, not everyone moves on to the minor leagues.

"But you remember these college days forever. I still have friends from those days.''
He still loves the game, though he wasn't really reminded of that fact until beginning his broadcasting career in 2000.

"When I started watching games and talking about them, and getting paid to do so, it was just about the neatest job in the world. I'm as lucky as can be,'' Darling said. "I'd like to say I prepared for this my entire life, but I didn't. I'm just blessed, and made the most of my opportunity.

"A lot of these kids will be going into different fields in life,'' he added, transitioning to the evening, "and when you get those opportunities they will be very much like in baseball. You have to get that hit, you have to get that strikeout, and you will be presented with those challenges probably thousands of times.

"How many times you're successful will probably determine how successful you'll be in life.''

Baseball has certainly been that for him, a game, he said, that offers a rhythm rarely felt in other sports.

"Baseball is like watching a play, or a great movie,'' Darling said. "If you're a lover of baseball, time doesn't mean anything to you.

"I've never seen him play, but when baseball's great it's gotta be like Miles Davis; like free-form jazz. That's what gets me going. The Mets had a difficult year last year but on June 1 Santana threw a no-hitter. You never know when baseball is going to sneak up on you and give you a gem.''

Just like in life. Sometimes even in college.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Former Major Leaguer Don Buford Keeps the Dreams Alive

Don Buford is the new director of MLB's
Urban Youth Academy. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Bill Dwyre, L.A. Times
January 22, 2013

The 75-year-old Buford, who played football and baseball at Dorsey and was part of the famed Orioles of the late 1960s, comes out of retirement to be the director of MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton.

It is early Monday morning, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But Don Buford is not standing on a stage and talking about having a dream.

That's not his style. Besides, he has already lived one himself, the kind Dr. King preached about.

Buford has a new job, which is to enhance dreams for others. Few could be better suited.

The former major league baseball star will turn 76 on Feb. 2. He lives in Sherman Oaks and was happily retired to a life of four rounds of golf a week. The family was raised, he had done his work, his stature as a major league player for the White Sox and the Orioles over 10 seasons was established. Life was summertime, and the living was easy.

His was a story of success and good fortune, at a time when minority athletes swam upstream a lot.

He played high school football at Dorsey, a running back weighing 150 pounds, "soaking wet," he says.

He also played infield on Dorsey's baseball team, although the term "infield" was questionable.

"Just dirt," Buford says.

He wrote lots of letters to big schools, even visited UCLA and a few others, but was turned down. This was 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the major leagues' color barrier. Walls remained up.

Asked whether the college turndowns were because he was 150 pounds or because he was black, his eyes flash and he says, "Both."

He went to L.A. City College for a year, was recruited off the campus to play quarterback two weeks before the first game with Pierce College, knew little about the position and ended up making a long touchdown run for a 6-0 win.

"Quarterback," he says, laughing. "I didn't throw for 600 yards. I didn't even throw for six."

The next year, he walked on to the USC baseball team. He asked legendary coach Rod Dedeaux whether he could, Dedeaux said OK, and Buford became the first black baseball player at USC. That was 1958, the year USC and Dedeaux won one of its many national titles. Buford even played running back and defensive back, still 150 pounds, on the Trojans football team. He needed financial aid, Dedeaux had none, and they worked out a deal in which he would play both sports and be funded by football.

"I remember starting spring football practice No. 7 running back on the depth chart," Buford says, "and by the end of the camp, I was No. 1."

For Buford, this was all a prelude to a major league baseball career that got him to the Orioles, from the White Sox, in 1968, and made him part of the famed Baltimore team that produced legends such as Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and Frank and Brooks Robinson. Buford was the left fielder and leadoff hitter with that bunch.

They were managed by Earl Weaver, a legend himself, who died last week.

"Earl gave me my shot," Buford says. "I had known him in the minor leagues. He once ordered Dean Chance to hit me with a pitch. When I got traded to Baltimore, Earl was the third base coach and Hank Bauer was the manager."

Buford came to the Orioles as a utility player. Second and third base, where he played with the White Sox, were taken. So he asked Weaver to tell Bauer he could also play the outfield. Weaver suggested Buford tell Bauer himself. Buford did, but Bauer said he was sticking with the lineup he had. Then Bauer was fired at the All-Star break, Weaver took over, and the switch-hitting Buford was on Weaver's first lineup card in the outfield, where he remained for five years.

He ended with a career .246 batting average in 1,286 games. That included an incredible statistic that marks his career: In 4,553 at-bats, he hit into only 34 double plays, a major league record.

He remained with the Orioles, eventually serving five years as the team's farm director. That was under Frank Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammate and Orioles manager.

Recently, Robinson, now an MLB vice president, came knocking on Buford's door again. The result has been a decline in Buford's golf game and a rise in his sense of commitment and achievement.

Buford is the new director of MLB's Urban Youth Academy. It is off Artesia Boulevard on the grounds of El Camino College Compton Center. Its facilities include two full-sized baseball fields, one softball field and one Little League field. No dirt infields here. The grass is well-manicured, there are batting cages and soon more lights will be added so the facility can stay open later.

"I call this our community field of dreams," Buford says.

This is part of MLB's program for reviving baseball in low-income communities. It started in 1989 and the Compton youth academy is the first of what will soon be five across the country.

The once-retired Buford now fights the traffic out of the Valley and into Compton every day, and returns home about 7.

"I've found I still have some juices left," he says.

The academy serves thousands. It is in a heavily minority area; all youngsters of both genders and any talent level are welcome. They average 60 new signups every Saturday, Buford says. They have programs that help with school. They even have a poster boy for that, Dominic Smith of Serra High School in Gardena, a MLB draft prospect this year. He came to the academy with a barely 2.0 grade-point average and now has it up to 3.1.

One Academy mission statement: "Promote greater Inclusion of minorities into the mainstream of the game."

That is being done. Martin Luther King would nod.

He'd also give Don Buford a pat on the back.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black Baseball Pioneers Aided King's Message

There they stood, Pee Wee Reese's arm draped casually over Jackie Robinson's shoulder. And the world became a little bit better place.

"Something in my gut reacted to the moment," Reese would tell The New York Times some 50 years later. "Something about -- what? -- the unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don't know."

It was 1947 or 1948 during (or just before) a Dodgers-Reds game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, and Robinson was enduring some of the ugliest taunts -- profanities, racial slurs, threats -- he would hear.

Reese had taken a more private stand for Robinson at the beginning of Spring Training in 1947 by refusing to sign a petition protesting the presence of a black player. And then that day in Cincinnati he could listen to the hatred no longer.

His gesture quieted the crowd and sent a message to his Brooklyn Dodger teammates who were still uncomfortable with Robinson. That a son of the Deep South would offer his very public acceptance of baseball's first black player became a seminal moment, not just in baseball history, but in the American civil rights movement.

Actually, it might have begun right there in Cincinnati, rather than in a Birmingham, Ala., jail in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. outlined the battle to come with: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

King would later tell Robinson and other black baseball pioneers -- Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, others -- how much he admired them for their courage and for how they'd changed the country and helped clear a path for all who would follow.

A few weeks before King was killed in 1968, he told Newcombe, "You'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field."
Newcombe remembered those comments during a 2009 interview with the New York Post's Peter Vecsey.

"Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by dogs and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier," Newcombe told Vecsey.

And so on this day in which we honor King and pause to remember the men and women who suffered and sacrificed in the name of racial fairness, Major League Baseball should be proud of its role in forcing people to see the world in a way they'd never seen it before.

Perhaps that's Robinson's most important legacy: He changed a game, and along the way, he helped change the world.

He didn't just open doors for Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and the hundreds who followed in his footsteps. Nor did he simply help make the Major Leagues possible for Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal and other Latino players.

He did way more than that. There were countless battles still to be fought in the civil rights movement, battles over schools and restaurants, over hotels and housing, when Robinson played his final game for the Dodgers in 1956. But the battle was joined right there on a baseball diamond in 1947.

Commissioner Bud Selig proudly calls baseball "a social institution," and as he often says, with that label comes the responsibility to always try and do the right thing. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a moment to salute King's courage and his dream. But it's about the foot soldiers, too.

It's about Jackie Robinson, who made the world a better place by having the guts to put on a uniform and endure incomprehensible ugliness. He did it because he saw an opportunity to strike at racism's ignorance and cruelty.

It's about Frank Robinson, who became the game's first black manager and opened doors for Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker and others. It's about Bill Lucas and Bob Watson and Kenny Williams and others, who as front-office executives showed there should be no ceiling on black men and women in baseball.

Sure, there's still work to be done. Racial fairness is a constant battle. It's why Selig retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 and why Major League Baseball sets a day aside each season to honor him.

It's a way to keep his memory alive, to tell his story again and again and to be inspired by his courage and his grace. And today as we celebrate one American hero, we remember another. He, too, lives forever.
Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Scouts Dinner Thrills Star-Studded Audience

Actor Harrison Ford with Commissioner Bud Selig before
Saturday's Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner.

By Quinn Roberts /

LOS ANGELES -- The stars came out Saturday night at the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation's 10th annual "In the Spirit of the Game" dinner at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.
Not only were the baseball greats out in full force for the event, but Hollywood icon Harrison Ford was in the building to raise money for the foundation and to hand out a few awards.
"You don't get many events like this one," Hall of Famer Dave Winfield said. "This is when we all come together and get to see people and share stories, give awards and raise money. Baseball is a great family.
"It is a great chance to catch up with old friends and support a great cause."
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner took home the Dave Winfield Humanitarian Award for his leadership with the Red Sox Foundation, while Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully were also honored. Mattingly was given the Tommy Lasorda Managerial Award and Scully received the Bud Selig Executive Leadership Award.
"It is an overwhelming thrill to be recognized and receive the award," Scully said. "I enjoyed every minute of it. It really is a marvelous, wonderful evening.
"The scouts are the backbone of baseball. I have always thought it is the hardest part of the game -- not just to say someone is a good player, but they project how far they think a player will go."
Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Ferguson Jenkins were also on hand to receive awards, while Larry King was a special presenter.
The Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation was established in 2003 to help scouts in need, whether from job loss, illness or financial hardships. More than $1 million has been raised.
Much of the money raised on Saturday night came from a silent auction that coincided with the dinner. Guests walked through rooms filled wall-to-wall with sports, music and movie memorabilia ranging in price from $40 to $10,000.
Dennis Gilbert, chairman and co-founder of the PBSF said collecting memorabilia for the silent auction is a year-round process.
"It is a whole year's worth of work, but it is worth it for these scouts," Gilbert said. "Everyone in baseball understands how important the scouts are. It really warms my heart to see so many people here and watch them interact with each other."
Mattingly, who still recalls the scout who signed him, was amazed at the turnout.
"With this being my first time at the event, I am just taking it all in and learning about everything that the foundation does," Mattingly said.
"It is a good night for baseball. The Foundation is so important. They are the ones who find the guys in small and big towns all over the world."
Current Twins general manager Terry Ryan and former Pirates GM Larry Doughty also received the George Genovese Lifetime Achievement Award in Scouting, while the Hairstons -- Jerry, Jerry Jr., John and Scott -- were awarded the Ray Boone Family Award.
Mike Arbuckle, Wayne Britton, Doug Gassaway, Larry Himes and Gary Johnson also received the Legends in Scouting Award.
Saturday marked the second consecutive year that MLB Network broadcast the event.
"This truly is a powerful example of how much baseball cares," said Selig, who presented Scully with his award.
"It really is a remarkable evening. This shows how much the baseball community cares about the sport and the people in it."
Quinn Roberts is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Baseball scouts benefit from Beverly Hills fundraiser

Hall of Fame Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins
will be honored at the Scouts Foundation Fundraiser
hosted by Dennis Gilbert [Photo: Jim McKnight, AP]

By Bob Nightengale, USA Today Sports

He lives next door to Stevie Wonder.

He hangs out with Larry King. And he has done business with everyone in the entertainment industry from the late Michael Jackson to Madonna to Dr. Dre to Mary Hart.

Dennis Gilbert may be an insurance salesman by trade, but he quietly has emerged as one of the most influential and trusted men in Major League Baseball.

He has Commissioner Bud Selig on speed dial. He chats several times a day with Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. He regularly dines with Oakland Athletics owner Lew Wolff. He'll lunch one day with former All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and soccer star Mia Hamm, and have dinner the next night with Hall of Famer George Brett.

"There's no one in baseball that has more passion in this game than Dennis," Wolff says. "If he's not a Dodgers' game, he's at an Angels' game. If they're on the road, he's watching games on TV.

"In my earlier days after I bought the A's, it was kind of embarrassing. I'd walk into the locker room with Dennis, and my own players would know Dennis more than me.''

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer will be honored at the
Scouts Foundation Fundraiser in Beverly Hills.[Photo: Gail Burton, AP]
What Gilbert is perhaps best known for is hosting MLB's version of the Academy Awards show. It's called the Professional Scouts Foundation's "Spirit of the Game'' Fundraiser and will be held Saturday at the Beverly Hills Hyatt Regency Plaza. A sell-out crowd of about 1,500 will honor legendary scouts, players, executives and managers. Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Ferguson Jenkins will be honored, along with Hall of Fame Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. The presenters will be Hall of Famers and actor Harrison Ford.

"It's one of my favorite nights of the year,'' Selig said.

Says Boston Red Sox special assistant Gary Hughes: "You know how big this thing has become? It used to be held at the same hotel as Golden Globe awards, but we outgrew it. (The hotel) was big enough for Hollywood, but not big enough for us.''

The foundation, hatched 11 years ago by Gilbert, Arizona Diamondbacks executive Roland Hemond and White Sox special assistant Dave Yoacum, has raised nearly $4 million. Dozens of out-of-work or retired scouts have gained financial assistance through the foundation, assuring that their mortgages and health insurance are paid. And, in some cases, funeral costs.

The advent of the Moneyball era and teams replacing scouts with statistical analysts created the need for the foundation.

"There were 103 scouts let go that winter,'' Hemond said. "Dave Yoacum said, ''m really concerned about all my friends that have been dismissed.'  Right away, Dennis says, 'Let's start a foundation.' This is beyond my fondest dreams. To think, if it wasn't for Moneyball, there would be no foundation.''

If not for Gilbert, 65, a former Boston Red Sox minor-league outfielder who later became a premier baseball agent and is now a White Sox special assistant, baseball's Academy Awards show would have all of the pizzazz of a Gilligan's Island re-run. The after-party runs into the next day when Gilbert and his wife, Cindi, host a luncheon for about 250 scouts.

"The thing I'm amazed about is the enormous amount of time Dennis spends on this,'' Reinsdorf says. "This is not where he makes his living, but he sells virtually every ticket himself. When Dennis is passionate about something, he throws all of his energy into it. He's a tremendous help to me.

He's got a book in his mind about every player, every agent, every GM. There's not a move I make that don't bounce off him first.

"He would be a great GM or owner. I'm personally very disappointed he wasn't able to purchase any teams that have come up recently.''

Certainly, it's not for lack of trying. Gilbert made unsuccessful bids for the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers. If no other ownership opportunities come along, he'd love to run a franchise.

"I've done so many things in this game,'' Gilbert says, "but to be able to put a team together, and run it on a regular basis, that would culminate my baseball career.''

Stay tuned, he may become coming to a team near you.

"I'd love to see it happen, not so much for Dennis,'' Gillick says, "but for baseball. He would do things that really push the game along. It wouldn't always be revenue-driven, but fan-driven, player-driven and people-driven. We need him.''

Just ask the scouts.