Falling In Love With Baseball

About a week ago, my wife and son and I visited my parents. We used to make the trip over to their house on the New Hampshire Seacoast two or three times a month and stay for the weekend, but since the boy was born, both the regularity and duration has been halved. Just too tough to load up an infant/toddler and all the required accessories and make sure he’s behaving with his cousins and still enjoy oneself for more than a few hours at a time.

Still, for a variety of reasons, I like to visit. Obviously, I like to see my parents – even at thirty, there’s nothing like my mother’s home cooking, and my father and I have spent many an evening in the kitchen, talking about everything from the Red Sox to Barack Obama – and they like to see their grandson, but more than that, I just like being in the house. While my wife moved around a lot as a kid, I am very fortunate in that my parents still live in the house in which I grew up. Until I moved in with my wife a few months before we married, it was the only home I had ever known, and though it may be lacking in a great many respects – my mother wants nothing more than to win the lottery, buy a ton of dynamite, and blow the place up; if you know my mother, you understand that SHE WILL DO THIS if given the opportunity – the simple truth remains that it is home.

The best part about the house is the backyard. Whereas most of the other homes on the street sit parallel to the road, this 215-year-old monster, built by my father’s ancestor Joseph Locke in the 1790s, stands at an angle, maybe fifteen feet from the road at its closest point. This isn’t always a good thing: when I was nine or ten, a drunk driver mistook my parents’ bedroom for an empty parking space, slamming into the outside wall hard enough to separate it from the rest of the building. It’s a fascinating and frightening thing to stand in your living room and look up at a star-filled sky. Fortunately, the accident occurred early in the evening and nobody was injured. On the plus side, they own an acre of land, and a house that sits near the front of an acre of land allows for a huge backyard. My parents’ yard is bordered on three sides by a stone wall and squeezed another fifteen feet or so by a variety of trees, leaves, and other growth. Down the middle, though, was a wide, open expanse of sometimes rocky, sometimes mossy grass that allowed plenty of room for four children (and later, their children) to run unencumbered.

That wide, open space was where I learned to play and love baseball.

Not long after we arrived last weekend, as I was searching the freezer for something to eat, my father mentioned that my older nephew had decided, at the age of eleven, to try his hand at Little League for the first time. My father and brother-in-law had been taking him out and working with him a little bit on throwing and catching, but my father thought that maybe it would somehow help him to see the ball coming from the left side. So we took him out into the backyard to throw the ball around. In keeping with the family tradition begun by my old man, who taught me to play the game while wearing a ratty old Walt Dropo model first baseman’s mitt (that he still owns and uses), I wore a glove that my grandfather gave me twenty years ago. A Pedro Guerrero model, I rarely touched it as a boy, preferring instead the Don Mattingly model that my dad bought me; I used that glove until my freshman coach in high school ordered me to buy a new one that would allow me to actually catch the ball. That new glove served me well enough, but I don’t think it has anybody’s name in it, which is a pity.

So out we went into the spacious backyard (made even more spacious by the violent windstorms that have made a habit of tearing through every year or so and taking down a handful of mountain ash and maples) and threw the ball back and forth while I looked around and had myself a bit of introspective reminiscence. There was the stone wall separating my parents’ yard from the neighboring Ritzos, the first wall I ever hit a ball over; I had probably lost fifty baseballs over the years in the huge piles of dead leaves on the edge of Mr. Ritzo’s property.

There was the wall at the back of the property, about 200 feet away, where I took aim as a ten-year-old, celebrating wildly whenever a long drive so much as approached it. In my mind’s eye, there was the old metal swing set that doubled as my first base and the tire nailed to the tree that served as second. The tree that I considered third base, where I once made my five-year-old sister stand and act as a third base coach, giving me signals to slide or stand, is still standing – well, part of it, anyway; the rest has succumbed to the wind.

As my son ran wildly across the open space, chasing a ball here, scampering through a puddle there, I thought about some of the baseball-related moments that took place in that yard. My Aunt Rose, who later helped inspire a lengthy obsession with Jewish major leaguers, whipping a low throw that I couldn’t handle, bruising my left thumb for the first time. My brother leaning his upper body back, back, back, his hand almost touching the ground like Juan Marichal, then unleashing towering pop flies for me to circle under and catch. My father, during a routine game of catch, accidentally hitting me on the head with a throw, the impact of the ball actually leaving a small indentation just above the hairline (I still remember the way he tried to make me laugh after the fact, to make me forget the pain).

I learned to play baseball there, often by myself: throw the ball up in the air, hit it, run to pick it up, back to home plate, repeat. Emulating the Red Sox lineup could have turned me into a pretty fair switch-hitter, had I ever dared give it a try when the stakes were real. When he was available, my dad would come out and throw a few, or hit some grounders and pop flies, rewarding good plays with quiet praise and explaining necessary improvements with clear direction.

I tried to do the same with my nephew, offering a few simple instructions on which way to turn his glove and why he needed to move his feet instead of trying to reach out and stab at errant throws. What I found difficult to express, though, was something that my father never really talked about with me, not explicitly anyway: the fact that throwing and catching a ball is just the beginning. To really know the game, to really love it, you have to move beyond those simple acts until you find something deeper and more personal.

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My favorite baseball player growing up wasn’t Dwight Evans, or Jim Rice, or Mike Greenwell, or Ellis Burks, or Marty Barrett, or Wade Boggs (although, as a left handed hitter, I was thankful for any lefty to emulate in the lineup). No, my favorite was Kevin Romine, an extra outfielder who played 331 games in seven seasons with the Red Sox. Romine was a star at Arizona State in the early 1980s, compiling a school-record .408 batting average and 86 stolen bases in two seasons and playing a key role on the 1981 team that won the College World Series. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1982 and signed by scout Ray Boone. In 1996, he was elected to the Arizona State Hall of Fame; in 2006, the school retired his number. His older son, Andrew, was the last player to wear it.

I didn’t know any of that when I was eight years old, though. All I knew about Romine was that he was born in Exeter, New Hampshire (just a couple towns over from where I grew up; who cares if he was raised in California?), he had an awesome ‘stache, and he hit the first walkoff homerun I ever saw.

Most of the details of that game were fuzzy until Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference came along. Without those two resources, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I’m about to tell you.

The homerun came on July 16, 1988, against the Kansas City Royals. Romine entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-runner, part of a four run rally that trimmed a 6-0 Royals lead to 6-4. He stayed in the game in right field and drew his third walk of the season the next inning before being stranded. The Sox tied it with two runs in the eighth. They actually had a chance to take the lead going into the ninth, with runners on first and second, one out, and Boggs at the plate, but the eventual American League batting champion grounded to Brad Wellman at second, who threw to Bill Pecota for one and on to George Brett at first for one of the Chicken Man’s league-leading 23 double plays.

Boggs was the Red Sox best hitter in 1988 – he would lead the league in nine categories, including OPS – and as such was penciled into the third spot in the lineup. Once upon a time, he would have been followed by the dangerous Jim Rice. But because this was 1988 and Rice was deep into Year 2 of a sudden and precipitous decline, he was no longer feared, and no longer Boston’s cleanup man. That honor instead went to Greenwell, the second-year player who had succeeded the legendary triumvirate of Williams, Yaz, and Rice in front of the Green Monster and was making it look like he would one day join them on the Mount Rushmore of Red Sox left fielders. On his way to a second-place finish in the MVP voting behind Oakland’s Jose Canseco, Greenwell finished the season with a .325 batting average, 22 homeruns, and 119 RBI.

When the time came for the ninth inning to start on July 16, however, Greenwell wasn’t in the game. He was the player Romine had replaced as a pinch-runner back in the sixth inning. Why did Joe Morgan pull one of his best hitters midway through a winnable game? Who knows. Maybe Greenwell was feeling under the weather that day. Maybe Morgan thought the team needed a spark after falling behind 6-0. Maybe the new manager just got one of his soon-to-be famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) hunches and decided to make a change. Whatever the reason, when the ninth inning started, eight-year-old Brian was sitting in front of the television waiting for Steve Farr to pitch to Kevin Romine, a fourth or fifth outfielder with almost exactly half the batting average and OPS of Mike Greenwell.

It took so little time for Romine to become a permanent piece of my baseball fanhood. He had hit nearly 50 homeruns in the minor leagues, the majority of them at Triple-A Pawtucket, but none in the majors. That changed on Farr’s first pitch: Romine turned on the offering and lofted it high and deep and gone into the screen above the Green Monster. His first major league homerun won the game for the Red Sox, 7-6.

Almost exactly four months later, at the age of 27, he became a father for the third time when his second son, Austin, was born.

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The familial aspect is one of my favorite things about baseball. You could probably say it’s the thing that makes it personal for me. We learn the game from our fathers and brother and uncles, so there’s something special about looking out on the field and seeing a guy and knowing that your father watched his father play, or that his brother plays for the Reds, or sitting at the kitchen table with your uncle and hearing stories about the great players he saw when he was young. It strengthens the generational bonds and adds a dimension to the game that not all other sports can boast.

The scout who signed Kevin Romine, Ray Boone, was the first piece in the first three-generation family in baseball history; his son, Bob, spent nineteen seasons with the Phillies, Angels, and Royals, and two grandsons – Bret and Aaron – played a combined 26 seasons in the majors.

Three years ago, Romine (now a police detective in California) himself officially became the patriarch of a baseball family when his two boys, Andrew and Austin, were selected by the Yankees and Angels in the fifth and second rounds, respectively, of the 2007 draft. Austin, born four months after his father’s homerun beat the Royals, was taken straight out of high school; Andrew followed Kevin’s footsteps to Arizona State, twice played in the College World Series, and was named to the school’s All-Decade Team.

Though I saw news of the Romine brothers’ exploits – Austin was the Yankees Minor League Player of the Year in 2009 – I had never really put two and two together and connected them to Kevin. Later in the evening, after playing ball with my nephew, I sat down to peruse the Baseball America Prospect Handbook. It was there that I stumbled upon the Brothers Romine and finally realized that they were the offspring of my long ago hero. Austin is the better prospect of the duo – a 21-year-old catcher expected to replace Jorge Posada within a couple years, he is the second-rated prospect in the entire Yankees organization – while 24-year-old Andrew came in at #27 on the list for the Angels and projects more as a player who will have to get by on defensive excellence.

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My son turns three-years-old this summer. He’s not at the level his cousin is, ready to go outside and learn the right way to catch and throw and swing a bat; he’s far more interested in picking up sticks, throwing rocks, jumping in puddles, chasing balloons. And that’s okay, obviously – he’s TWO. The other day, though, somebody gave him a miniature plastic baseball. Every so often, he’ll pick it up, show it to me, and declare, “Bay ball!” which makes me think there’s a love of the game somewhere in him, and someday it will find a way to the surface.

I love parallels. When Kevin Romine hit that homerun to beat the Royals, he was 27 years old; I was eight. In the 2016 season, Austin Romine will be 27 years old; my son will be eight. And I like to believe that even though he’ll probably be playing for the Yankees, Austin will do something to make my son say, “Wow,” and we’ll go out to the backyard with his cousin and my dad and have a catch while I tell them about this guy’s dad, a guy named Kevin who was once my favorite player.

Twenty Percent of Syracuse Fans Are Excited To See Wang In 2010

Just about every team that uses the standard MiLB.com web template has a poll up in the lower right corner of the page.  The questions generally ask something like, “What 2010 promotion are you most excited about?” or “Which player are you most excited to see in _____ in 2010?”

This isn’t amusing on its own.  Look at the home page for the Syracuse Chiefs, however, and you’ll get a good laugh:


I’m pretty sure that 20% for Wang is mine – I threw him a courtesy vote so I could see what the actual tally was – because as cool as it would be to see a guy who won 46 games from 2006-08, including 19 each in the first two years, I can’t imagine anyone would be more excited to see him than Strasburg.

Bret Boone begins Indie coaching career.

The Seattle Times is reporting that former Mariners star Bret Boone is taking a managerial job with the Victoria Seals of the Golden League. The team is located in British Columbia, so the 40-year-old Boone may be in a perfect position to draw fans in the Pacific NW to indie baseball this summer.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for me to start the second chapter of my baseball career,” said Boone, 40. “Returning to the Pacific Northwest is a thrill for me.”

Boone’s position with the Seals marks his first foray into professional baseball management.

The Seals open their season May 21. The Golden Baseball League is an independent league featuring nine teams, from Calgary to Tucson.

[Seattle Times]

Is it just me, or is Boone looking a bit Cal Ripkenesque in this particular photo?

Interview With Texas Rangers Minor Leaguer Michael Schlact

Michael Schlact is a pitcher in the Texas Rangers system.  Last season, his third in the Texas League, he underwent surgery for tears in his rotator cuff and labrum.  We met up on Twitter a few weeks ago, and he was willing to answer a few questions about the mental and physical aspects of the rehab process.

I found a description of your injury in a previous interview. How did you know you were injured? Is this the sort of injury where you feel some discomfort and it ends up being serious, or was it obviously bad from the start?

There were times over the past few years where I felt some arm fatigue, but nothing pain-wise.  My first start of last year, I felt something painful while throwing a slider, and that’s when I knew something was really wrong.

Did you try to pitch or work through it before deciding on surgery?

We tried to rehab my shoulder first.  It was something that the Rangers medical staff and I determined would be more beneficial than going right ahead for surgery.

How supportive have the Rangers been throughout your rehab?

They have been there for me every step of the way.  The medical team the Rangers have on board is great.  Being able to rehab with such knowledgeable people makes the process that much easier.

How has your rehab schedule progressed? For instance, how does a typical day of work in September 2009 compare to a typical day in March 2010?

A typical day in September of 2009 was range of motion exercises, rotator cuff strengthening, light leg workouts, and lots and lots of running.  March 2010 workouts are almost typical of what I have done my entire career.  There are a few exercises or lifts that I can’t do because they are overhead exercises, but other than that, I’m good to go!

What has been the toughest part of coming back?

The toughest part of coming back is the isolation you feel.  Being in Arizona rehabbing while your teammates are out winning ballgames and actually playing is tough.  When baseball is yanked from under you, it kind of hits home.  I went through a very tough period last summer when I realized that my season was over.  Working out and doing shoulder exercises just to get stronger and not to pitch can be very tough!

You were a sinker-slider-fastball pitcher before the injury, right? Will you continue to use all the pitches you did before, or are you changing your repertoire to reduce strain on your shoulder?

I was a sinker, slider, change guy before the injury.  I have pitched with that repertoire for a long time.  There is no reason to change it just because of my injury.  Mechanics more likely caused strain on my shoulder.

You tweeted last week about your return to the mound. What did that session entail?

It was 20 pitches off a short mound.  A short mound is the same distance to home, but the incline of the mound is half of a regulation MLB mound.  I threw all fastballs, and really just worked on the mental side of it.  Trusting my stuff, understanding that I have done enough so that my shoulder won’t hurt anymore, and to start shaking the rust off.

When the time comes to really cut loose, how do you push aside that little voice in the back of your head that says, “Are you sure you really want to do that?”

I think self-talk.  I am a self-talker out there on the mound anyways.  When I hear that little voice (not crazy I promise) I will tell myself out loud what I really want to do.  For instance, if that little voice says, “Are you sure you really want to let it go?” I’ll say (into my glove), “Alright Michael, let’s go.  Trust your stuff, trust your mechanics.  You’re ok.”

How do you think it will feel, the first time you step back onto the mound in a real live game?

It’s going to be the best feeling.  It’s like a new beginning for me.  So many things that I have taken for granted the past years will be soaked in.  Each minute I am out there will be cherished.  I’m going to do my absolute best, give it my all, have fun, and see what happens!

Strasburg Optioned To Double-A Harrisburg

Stephen Strasburg was the Washington Nationals’ best pitcher this spring. In nine innings, he had a 2.00 ERA (both runs coming on solo homeruns) and a 12-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Despite that, and a recent outing in which he struck out eight Cardinals in four innings, the Nationals optioned Strasburg to Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday.  There are two possible reasons as to why: one, starting him in the minors and keeping him there for awhile delays his arbitration and saves money in the long run, and two, getting him a few professional starts in the relative quiet of the Eastern League will allow him to gain experience and work on his weaknesses before being unleashed on the National League.

About two weeks ago, I wondered about Harrisburg’s schedule should Strasburg end up there. Here are the road dates again through the end of June:

April 8-11 @ Altoona
April 12-14 @ Bowie
April 22-25 @ New Britain
April 26-28 @ Reading
May 10-12 @ Altoona
May 21-23 @ Akron
May 28-31 @ Erie
June 1-3 @ Richmond
June 8-10 @ Altoona
June 15-17 @ New Britain
June 18-20 @ Bowie
June 28-30 @ Portland

Will I be watching the matchups and considering a trip to New Britain in April (it’s only 2 1/2 hours away)? Sure, why not? I could probably get to two of the four games if need be, so it can’t be ruled out. Aside from that, the people of Harrisburg will have something to look forward to for at least a few weeks.

Strasburg might be joined in Harrisburg by fellow first-round pick Drew Storen.  Storen was also sent to minor league camp on Saturday, but the news report didn’t say where he would begin.  In his professional debut last season, Storen saved nine games in ten appearances for the Senators after stops at Hagerstown (Low A) and Potomac (High A).

Seeing Strasburg and Paying the Cost

Sorry I am little late in writing this, but did you know The Battle of New Orleans took place two weeks after The War of 1812 ended?

What do you mean, that was 200 years ago?

Last Sunday on a gorgeous day in sunny Viera, Florida, I saw “The Next BIG Thing” Stephen Strasburg make his second spring start as the Nationals squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was impressed as were the Cardinals.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised by Strasburg’s wind-up. Having never seen him pitch before, I pictured him as more of a straight up and down, standing tall pitcher – a la Mark Prior – but his wind-up reminded me a bit of David Cone, except with only one arm angle.

Unfortunately, the Capital City Messiah only pitched three innings. Then the Nationals featured a litany of has-beens, never-will-bes, and future insurance salesmen. The only names I recognized were Livan Hernandez and Ron Villone.

Of course, the Nationals lost.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t mind. As cliche as this sounds, I was there to have a good time. I met up with fellow BusLeagues writer Will, made friends with the Nats Tiki, heckled Mitchell Boggs of the Cardinals, saw former Mets manager Davey Johnson (now working with the Nationals in some capacity), bought a cheeseburger, almost met Mark Zuckerman of NatsInsider.com, talked blues with a random stranger, and saw people wearing some awesome jerseys, to include a Don Drysdale, an Ozzie Smith, a George Foster, a Johnny Bench, and one that just said “Funk”.

Unfortunately (yes, again), my day at the ballpark almost didn’t happen. Even though I was told there were plenty of seats inside Space Coast Stadium, there were no tickets being sold outside the ballpark.

That’s right, it was a sell-out.

Thank you, Mr. Strasburg.

Fortunately (again), I found someone scalping a ticket. 30 bucks for a 17 dollar seat! For a spring training game! Where the main attraction is only in 1/6 of the action!

I am seeing this more and more every spring. When I was a kid growing up in Central Florida, I used to be able to go to the ballpark right before a game and buy a seat in the bleachers for less than 10 bucks. Now the only team you can do that with is the Pirates.

I know it makes me seem old and crotchety, and maybe I am, but I miss those spring training days. Before teams realized they could capitalize on spring match-ups. Before tickets were 30 dollars each (as they are to see the Yankees).

Before the dark times. Before The Empire.

Interview With Former Minor Leaguer Garrett Broshuis

On the heels of last week’s retirement announcement, I asked Garrett Broshuis a few questions about what went into the decision, what it meant to go out on a high note, and what comes next.

First of all, congratulations on your spectacular failure to become a major leaguer. This isn’t a Brett Favre style retirement, is it? You’re not gonna show up in a month with an “aw shucks” smile and a shrug and be like, “Changed my mind!” Are you?

Well, funny you ask that. After further consideration, I’ve decided to (drumroll please)…stay retired. Actually I did just visit our minor league spring training complex a few days ago. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I was just there to visit teammates. I gave a few hugs, shook some hands, offered face-to-face “thank you”s and left. What’s odd is that it didn’t even really feel odd to be there.

Seriously, though, the decision to retire couldn’t have been an easy one. What was the mental process behind the decision, from the end of last season up to Tuesday?

Really I started having thoughts during the season, which is never good. My wife had surgery and I was stuck in A ball at 27-year-old. Then I went up to AAA for one start before being shuffled back to AA. That was probably the turning point, where the thoughts really set in.

There were a lot of sleepless nights during the second half of the season. I played this one song by the Shins over and over again to the point where I thought I was going crazy. (In reality I probably was slightly crazy.) I didn’t actually make the decision though until around a month or so ago.

Who did you tell first? Did they or anyone else try to talk you out of it?

Well, I guess I told my mom and my wife first, but then I had to make the actual phone call to the Giants’ organization. I called up Bobby Evans while I was watching my wife do an indoor triathlon (talk about boring). He seemed a little surprised. They were willing to give me my release if I wanted to try to play with another organization, but I told him it was time to move on.

I talked to a few other coaches as well. Almost all of them told me that I made the right decision. They consistently said that too many players hold on for too long. The game wraps itself around you. It’s difficult to escape its web.

After talking with them, I was confident I’d made the right decision. After all, who wants a soft-throwing, aging righty anyways?

After a rough 2007 season in which you appear to have pitched well but couldn’t buy a win, you bounced back with solid seasons in 2008 and 2009. How important was it to you that your career end on a strong note?

Wow, that was an agonizing year. There were about 17 different moments that I wanted to take a bat to the Gatorade cooler and the Port-a-Potty.

It would’ve been very easy to just give up after my 2007 season, but I kept my head held high and used it as motivation. I re-dedicated myself to working as hard as I’d ever worked. I made a few adjustments. I heightened my focus a bit and had a very solid 2008 season. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in my baseball career (other than pinch-running once and sliding without breaking my neck). I persisted through rough times and didn’t give up.

What comes next? I’ve seen mention of law school, and you’ve shown obvious concern for the way players are treated in the minors – could a second career as a sports agent be in the cards?

So yeah, I’m going to be entering another competitive, challenging field. I visited a law school the other day and looked around me. It’s a totally different world. Instead of talking about the break on a slider or a game of “Call of Duty”, everybody was talking about their LSAT scores and the amount of time they spent in the library. But hey, I have a little nerdiness in me that’s been suppressed for too long. Time to cultivate it a bit.

As for the agent thing, I’m going to be helping my own agent out while in school. I want to explore some other things as well, but baseball has been too large a part of my life to completely turn my back on it.

Do you plan on continuing your writing with Baseball America and your blog? I for one think we could use a good, thoughtful perspective on what a ballplayer goes through after retirement.

I’m definitely going to keep writing. There are some issues that I think still need to be brought to light, and so I’m going to do my best to illuminate them.

It might be hard to always find time to write, but it’s like going to the gym for me. I just have to set aside an hour or two and do it. I enjoy it too much to not do it. And Baseball America has been great. They’ve told me to keep pitching ideas to them, and they’d love to have ’em.

Thanks for the time, Garrett, and good luck!