Sunday, September 25, 2016

Jose Fernandez: Death Shocks Baseball World


Reports are pouring in that Miami Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez has sadly died in a tragic boating accident.

Details are sparse at this point but the death has been confirmed by multiple sources. Baseball has lost one of its youngest and brightest stars.

The 24-year-old right-handed native of Cuba (later came to the United States) came to the Marlins as a first-round draft choice in 2011 out of high school. He made the majors just two years later (winning  Rookie of the Year Award), and despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014, came back as good as ever.

2016 was Fernandez’s first full season in the majors since his rookie campaign. In 29 starts this year, he had gone 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts in 182.1 innings. His 2.29 FIP and 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings both currently lead the National League, and he made the All Star team.

In 76 career starts, he was 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA and 589 strikeouts in 471.1 innings.

Because of it being his first full year back from surgery, the team was still being cautious with his workload. Despite his dominance, the way he was handled with kid gloves meant that he never threw a complete game during his career. However, it is likely that he would have been turned loose in 2017, having reached a safer point in his recovery to let it all hang out.

With a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a devastating slider, Fernandez possessed an arsenal that made him a candidate to be one of the best pitchers in baseball for the next decade. A frequent target of trade rumors because of his value to the lower-budget Marlins, the team had elected to keep him to date, which was not only a testament to what he meant to the Miami community but also his immense talent.

Any death is tragic. That Fernandez was one of baseball’s best rising stars only takes that to a new level. Major League Baseball’s history is peppered with a number of in and out of season deaths but this immediately takes on historical significance. Other than Thurman Munson and Ray Chapman, one would be hard-pressed to think of another player of greater renown that passed away during a season.

The baseball world will be in shock for some time, and rightly so. One of its best and brightest has been lost. Fernandez’s star did not burn as long as many but in its abbreviated crest it burned so bright. He is leaving an indelible mark on the game and a sad legacy of what might have been. Rest in peace.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Boston Red Sox Ending 2016 Regular Season on Many High Notes

The Boston Red Sox have put their fans in a glass case of emotions this year. The time is quickly counting down on the illustrious career of beloved slugger David Ortiz. Additionally, even though they are currently in first place in the American League East, the team is still fighting for their playoff spot with their finger nails, as a veritable pack of hopefuls nip at their heels. That being said, no matter what happens the rest of the way there are a number of positives that will come out of the 2016 campaign and can be applied to the future.

When starting pitcher David Price was signed to a massive $217 million contract this past offseason there was the assumption he would lead the team’s pitching staff for years to come. To the contrary, he stumbled out of the gate, posting a 4.34 ERA in the first half of the season and allowing 16 home runs in his first 19 starts. A collective sigh of relief can be taken given his performance since the All Star break. In those 11 starts he has gone 7-2 with a 3.30 ERA and has permitted just nine home runs. A slight decline in his fastball velocity (92.9 average MPH represents a career-low) and a lower strikeout rate 10.1/7.9 per 9 innings before/after the All Star break suggests the previous blip in results may have simply been an adjustment to pitching with slightly less octane stuff for the former Cy Young winner.

Veteran second baseball Dustin Pedroia is another player who had seen diminished results in recent years. A team stalwart for a decade, injuries and age seemed to be creeping up on the 33-year-old. However, he has proven that there is definitely something left in the tank. Putting up one of his best seasons ever, he has appeared in 142 games, batting .327 with 13 home runs and 66 RBIs. Although he is no longer much of a threat on the base paths, he is still one of the best defensive players in the game.

Instead of slowing down as the season has progressed, Pedroia has only gotten stronger. In 57 games since the All Star break, he has hit a robust .362 and contributed a .900 OPS. He is simply hitting the ball with authority, as 32.6% of the balls he has put in play this year have been with hard contact, a figure he has not matched since his rookie year in 2007. Signed to a team-friendly deal through the 2012 season, there is still plenty of reason to hope he will finish out his tenure in Boston on a high note similar to his teammate Ortiz.

Even without the veterans, Boston looks to be sitting pretty with their triumvirate of young stars on the offensive side of the ball. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. can all hit for average and power and play defense that ranges from good to outstanding. Additionally, all three made the American League All Star team in 2016 and will all be 26 or younger at the start of next season. Even better, Bogaerts (2020) and Betts/Bradley Jr. (2021) have a ways to go before they are eligible for free agency.

Rick Porcello was brought in via trade prior to last season to help shore up the rotation. The team thought so highly of him that they signed him to a lucrative four-year extension before he ever made an official start with the team. When he went on to lose 15 games and post a 4.92 ERA there was a collective groan emitted from Red Sox Nation. However, not content to sit on his laurels and count his money, Porcello has roared back in 2016 with his best season to date. The 27-year-old right hander has gone 20-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 30 starts. Blending four pitches, he has also seen his walk and hit rates plummet to career lows. It appears he is exactly the pitcher the team thought they were getting and should be an important cog for years to come.

Another young pitcher expected to do great things was 23-year-old left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who impressed with 10 wins as a rookie last year. Unfortunately, lingering injuries caused him to miss time to start this year, and to be ineffective when he did finally return (8.59 ERA in his first six starts). Although he has gone just 1-4 in his next 11 starts, his 3.25 ERA, climbing strikeout rate and falling home run rate show that without a doubt he is back on track. Much like Porcello, he could very well be a lynchpin of the Boston rotation for years to come.

Another pitcher ending the 2016 seasons on a positive note is right-hander Clay Buchholz. An enigma of extraordinary proportions for the past decade, over the years he has in turns pitched brilliantly and disappointingly along with regularly missing time due to a litany of injuries. A miserable first half this season saw him post a 5.91 ERA and allow 17 home runs in just 80.2 innings. Being in the final of year of his contract, the countdown literally began as salivating fans all but tarred and feathered him and rode him out of town on a rail.

Initially demoted to the bullpen, Buchholz has since shuttled back and forth between starting and relieving and has made great strides in redeeming his season. In 45.2 innings since his disastrous first half, he has put up a very good 3.94 ERA and allowed just four homers. Although his contract is ending, a 2017 team option for $13.5 million (or $500,000 buyout) is in place and the once unthinkable is starting to look extremely possible. With starting pitching at such a premium across the league, the strong finish to this season is putting the 32-year-old in position to return to Boston for at least one more year. His recent results are making the proposition of committing another year’s salary (his 2017 rate is now quite reasonable given the current market) much more palatable.

As the Red Sox wind up their 2016 season, there are still a lot of possibilities and potential glory left for the taking. However, no matter what happens there is already plenty to look forward to for anyone wanting to take a peek at next year.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Minor League Baseball Attendance Tops 41.3 Million in 2016

September 12, 2016 

Minor League Baseball Attendance Tops 41.3 Million in 2016 

54 teams post average attendance increases over 2015 

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A total of 41,377,202 fans passed through the gates at Minor League Baseball games in 2016, marking the 12th consecutive year the organization drew over 41 million fans. 

The 2016 season saw eight teams set single-season franchise attendance records and seven set franchise records for largest single-game attendance. The 176 Minor League Baseball clubs across 15 leagues combined to record the ninth-largest attendance total in Minor League Baseball history. 

“In cities large and small, our teams continue to offer their communities the very best in affordable, family-friendly entertainment in a clean and safe environment,” said Minor League Baseball President & CEO Pat O’Conner. “Minor League Baseball continues to offer what I believe is the best entertainment value in sports, and we are very appreciative of the tremendous fan support received again this year.” 

The Triple-A Indianapolis Indians led all teams in total attendance, as 636,888 fans visited Victory Field this season. The Triple-A Charlotte Knights recorded the largest average attendance at 8,974, edging Indianapolis by four fans per game. The Columbia Fireflies drew over 260,000 fans in the inaugural season at Spirit Communications Park, the only new ballpark to open in Minor League Baseball in 2016. Since 2000, Minor League Baseball clubs have opened 62 new ballparks, with new, or significantly renovated, stadiums scheduled to open in Hartford, Kinston, Lakeland and Tampa for the 2017 season. 

The attendance leaders in each classification of Minor League Baseball and their overall numbers were: Triple-A — Indianapolis Indians (636,888), Double-A — Frisco RoughRiders (463,564), Class A — Dayton Dragons (548,574), Short Season-A and Rookie — Vancouver Canadians (222,363)

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About Minor League Baseball Minor League Baseball, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida, is the governing body for all professional baseball teams in the United States, Canada and the Dominican Republic that are affiliated with Major League Baseball clubs through their farm systems. Fans are coming out in unprecedented numbers to this one-of-a-kind experience that can only be found at Minor League Baseball ballparks. In 2015, Minor League Baseball attracted 42.5 million fans to its ballparks to see the future stars of the sport hone their skills. From the electricity in the stands to the excitement on the field, Minor League Baseball has provided affordable family-friendly entertainment to people of all ages since its founding in 1901. 

For more information, visit www.MiLB.com. Follow Minor League Baseball on FacebookInstagramand Twitter


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Eddie Gaedel: His Meteoric Rise and Tragically Mysterious End

He died too young, passing away at a young age with enormous untapped potential. When he was found in his mother’s house, unresponsive from a beating suffered during a mugging and a subsequent heart attack, he had just turned 36. Despite having had a career in show business, and even a brief stint as a major league baseball player, he never found the comfort or respect most would expect from such opportunities. Insecurity, alcohol and always feeling on the outside all contributed to his lot in life leading up to his final days. As it turned out, Eddie Gaedel wound up being as overlooked in death as he was in his much too brief life.

Edward Carl Gaedel was born on June 8, 1925 in Chicago; the second of Carl and Helen’s three children. Carl Gaedel had emigrated from Lithuania more than two decades earlier, settling in the Windy City. Helen Janicki was born in either New York or New Jersey to immigrant parents. She and Carl married in 1919, and he supported their young family by selling shoes in a department store.

Eddie weighed a robust eight pounds at birth. While his brother and sister both grew normally, his own progress stunted at a young age, topping out at his adult height of 3’7”. His parents spent hard to spare money trying to seek help for him, but there was and is no cure or treatment for dwarfism.

Sadly, Eddie was a frequent target of teasing and bullying—something that occurred from childhood right through the end of his life. His mother recalled in later years that "He'd say, `Mom, it must be your fault I'm small.' And I'd say, `No, it's Almighty God's will.' He was self-conscious. He felt bad he was so small. He was always scared."

Eddie may have been fearful but he was not one to back down, and many times his tormentors were surprised to see him fight back. Kids ganged up on him even after he graduated from high school. There was one incident where he struck a child who had tormented him, and the boy's mother had Eddie arrested, although the matter was later dropped.

During a 2001 episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, titled At Bat- Eddie Gaedel, some of his family recalled the indignities Eddie suffered from those who wouldn’t let him forget that he was different. His sister, Pearl Rosa, described the turmoil day-to-day life caused him. “He cried a lot because the people used to bother him. And he'd come home swearing.”

If Eddie was more vulnerable at home, it seems like he put on a tougher facade to those who weren’t in his inner circle. His niece, Gayle Esposito, remembered how “He was a happy-go-lucky guy on the outside, but I think he was really sort of crying on the inside.”

The teasing and bullying contributed to his ongoing insecurity with his size, and the combative stance he took against those who he believed dared to slight him. Additionally, he developed anxiety about being away from home as he grew older, making him hesitant to travel or be away for any stretch of time. While he forced himself to take some jobs he might not have done otherwise, he also turned down others because of his reluctance to step outside his comfort zone.

As an adult, Eddie took a variety of jobs, including being an office employee for the Drover's Daily Journal, a local newspaper. He also worked in circuses, rodeos and the entertainment circuit, which were (stereo)typical jobs one with dwarfism might expect at the time.

One of Eddie’s most unique positions was working as a riveter during World War II. His size allowed him to crawl inside the wings of planes to do the finish work a full-sized person would not have been able to do. The demand for the rapid production of aircraft was practically non-stop during the war, but died away just as quickly when peacetime came; making it something he was unable to build a career around.

His first big “break” in show business came after the war in 1946 when he was hired by Mercury Records to portray the "Mercury Man," which was the company’s mascot and logo. In full costume, portraying the Greek god Mercury, his likeness adorned advertisements promoting the label which was in its early days but grew into one of the largest and influential in the industry. The gig was enough to land Eddie other bookings in need of a person of his stature, and ultimately led to the role for which he will forever be remembered—that of a professional baseball player.

In 1951 the St. Louis Browns were the worst team in the American League and had a track record as one of the most moribund franchises in the game. They went just 52-102 that year and had averaged just 59 wins per season during the previous five years. Consequently, their attendance was a fraction of most teams. However, hope was percolating due to a new majority owner, who had assumed control of the club earlier in the year. 37-year-old Bill Veeck obtained an 80 percent stake in the franchise. Despite his youthfulness, he was no stranger to a baseball front office. His father Bill Sr. had been a sports writer prior to acting as president of the Chicago Cubs for nearly fifteen years. His vocation rubbed off on his namesake, who held his first ownership stake in a professional team before his thirtieth birthday when he and former Cubs star Charlie Grimm bought the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers in 1941. After claiming three pennants in five years, he sold his share in the team in 1945 for a significant profit, which he used to purchase the Cleveland Indians the following year.

Veeck had success with the Indians, including winning the 1948 World Series. However, a divorce from his first wife complicated his finances to the point that he had to sell. When he got back on his feet, he re-entered baseball via the Browns.

Veeck’s teams were not only frequently successful; they were also fun to watch. He liked to shuffle his roster through trades and also had a significant reputation as a showman, making a trip to the ballpark a full entertainment experience instead of simply watching a game. Promotions were his specialty, as he wanted fans to expect the unexpected and leave the bleachers talking about what they had seen. Although not a novel approach, the word-of-mouth approach was successful, especially when trying to make the turnstiles sing for basement dwellers like the Browns.

Falstaff Brewing Corporation was a St. Louis based brewery that also had a sponsorship with the Browns. An event was planned to celebrate them and the 50th anniversary of the American League. Gaedel was hired by the Browns under great secrecy, to the point he was concealed under blankets when being transported to the ballpark. He was not only going to be a focal point of the celebration, he was also to take the field as an actual player.

Gaedel was dressed in Bill DeWitt Jr.’s (the nine-year-old son of the club's vice president who is now the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals) uniform. The number on the back was changed from 6 to 1/8. He was signed to a contract for $15,400, which gave him a prorated paycheck of $100 for the one day term of August 19, 1952. The Browns had a doubleheader scheduled that day versus the Detroit Tigers. Veeck arranged for his newest acquisition to jump out of a papier-mâché cake during the first game. It was rumored that Falstaff was underwhelmed by the stunt but Veeck kept his lips sealed on what he had planned for the second game.

Very few photographs exist of Gaedel’s game but there was a very good reason for that. In the hubbub of it all, the entire thing was nearly ruined before it even happened as the team neglected to let press photographers know that something special was planned. When Gaedel made his famous plate appearance, only Bob Broeg from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who Veeck had tipped off, was present.

Gaedel got his appearance out of the way quickly, pinch-hitting for Browns’ lead off batter Frank Saucier in the bottom of the first inning. Under explicit orders to not swing his bat (Veeck allegedly told Gaedel that he had a sniper on the roof of the stadium prepared to shoot him if he dared defy him), the right-handed batter took four consecutive pitches from Tigers hurler Bob Cain before trotting down to first base with a walk.

To ensure the walk, Gaedel had been shown a crouched batting stance that would have made it nearly impossible for Cain to catch the strike zone. However, he abandoned that once he reached the plate in deference to doing his best impression of star Joe DiMaggio. Can later said, “My teammate Dizzy Dean told me if he’d been pitching, he would have plunked Gaedel right between the eyes.”

Outfielder Jim Delsing came out to pinch run. He later described what happened when he exchanged places with his temporary teammate. “I trot over there, he gets off the bag, pats me on the derriere, says good luck and walks back to the dugout. That was the last I saw him.” Gaedel’s major league career was over.

The 18,369 fans that clicked the turnstile for the doubleheader comprised the Browns’ largest crowd in four years. However, it became a myth that the Gaedel stunt ultimately boosted attendance. To the contrary, the next eight home games drew just a combined 21,382. Only four of remaining 21 home games drew in 1951 as many as 5,000 fans.

Counting on the league office not immediately checking thoroughly, Veeck had filed Gaedel’s contract late in the week. League President Will Harridge voided it the day after the stunt, telling press that the Browns’ owner was making a mockery of the game. Subsequently, all player contracts must now be approved by the Commissioner of Baseball before they are able to play.

Although he never appeared in another major league game, Gaedel continued to be hired sporadically by Veeck over the years. He also used his baseball fame as a springboard to make thousands of dollars making various in-person appearances and on multiple television shows. He could have probably parlayed his fame into even more opportunities but his reluctance to travel was a strong deterrent.

Just two weeks after drawing his walk, he was in Cincinnati, working a rodeo. After a couple of police officers mistook him for a child and asked why "a little boy" was out so late at night, he berated them to the point that he was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Described by some as having “beer muscles,” Gaedel was quick to anger if he had been drinking and felt slighted. This was particularly problematic because he increasingly turned to drink, and when he was working it was often at bars or other venues that served. His cousin Richard Czub once explained, “I think his size bothered him when he drank. You know, he realized that he's just a little guy in a world of big people, and he don't fit in too well.”

By June 18, 1961 Gaedel was 36, unemployed and living at home with his mother in Chicago. He went to a bowling alley and got into a drunken altercation with someone who is still unknown to this day somewhere between the watering hole and getting home. He suffered a severe beating and his mother found him lying dead in his bed the next day. Bruises ranging from his legs to his face told the story of what his tormentors had done to him. A later autopsy showed he had also suffered a heart attack, which was likely a direct result of the assault.

Gaedel’s sister, Gayle Esposito, recalled, “My mother and I went over to the apartment. I remember my grandmother saying that he had died in their bed. And then she also held up his clothes, and showed us his clothes, and they were all bloody. So it was apparent that he had taken a beating.”

Because of his reputation of being belligerent, the police were at a loss as to how to start the investigation. Bob Cain, who had been long retired from playing, was the only major league representative to attend the funeral. He and Gaedel had struck up a friendship of sorts since their face-off, even exchanging Christmas cards for a number of years. The pitcher drove over 300 miles to pay his respects to his former opponent.

It was believed that Gaedel had been robbed, as his family believed money was missing. The police determined it was most likely he was robbed and beaten before arriving home, collapsing and suffering the heart attack that finished him off. Unfortunately, his reputation and a decided lack of evidence to follow led to the case turning cold quickly; a state in which it still exists to this day.

Cain kept a prayer card that he was given at Gaedel’s mass. Its concluding words still ring appropriate for a tortured soul who became one of the most famous people in baseball history despite having but one plate appearance. ". . . Merciful Savior send Thy angels to conduct Thy departed servant to a place of refreshment, light and peace. Amen."

List of Sources

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