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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ryan O'Rourke: Minnesota Twins' Lefty Pitching Prospect Preparing for Majors

Left-handed pitcher Ryan O’Rourke was a star right through his college career. However, upon becoming a professional, he has gotten on the straight track for the bullpen, and that is more than okay.

The 25-year-old southpaw dominated at Merrimack College, posting a microscopic 1.25 ERA and school record 93 strikeouts as a senior in 2010. Although the New England native harbored dreams of playing for his home team, the Boston Red Sox, those aspirations were not to be (at least not yet), as he was selected in the 13th round of the 2010 draft by the Minnesota Twins.

O’Rourke started and relieved during his first two seasons in the minors but since early 2012 has worked strictly as a reliever—reaching as high as Double-A. He has experienced success, accumulating a combined record of 14-17 with a 4.16 ERA and 8 saves in 124 games (24 starts). He has also struck out 261 in 277 innings, and could find himself as a lefty specialist in Minnesota before long.

Currently toiling for the New Britain Rock Cats in the Eastern League, O’Rourke is on the verge of being ready. Keep up with his progress and make sure to root for this hard-working prospect.

Ryan O’Rourke Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite player growing up was Ken Griffey Jr. Every kid my age loved him. He was the guy who could do it all. I can remember playing Whiffle Ball and everyone had to pick a player. I was always "The Kid". 

As I grew older and started looking into baseball history I can say I really enjoyed hearing Bob Gibson stories. He had a no fear attitude that I try to bring on the mound.

Growing up in Massachusetts, did you harbor a desire to be drafted by the Red Sox?: I always wanted to play for the Red Sox. Going to Fenway Park as a kid was such a memorable experience. 

In college, when I was about to be selected, I had a lot of conversations with their scouting staff. I got a call the day before, and really felt it would be them who selected me. As it came to be the Twins selected me in the 13th round and I couldn't be any happier now.

How did you find out the Twins were interested in you?: John Wilson, a Twins scout, came to a lot of my games during college. He wouldn't say a word and I didn't know who he was in the beginning. As June approached, our talks grew and he said the Twins were very serious about me. I had to fill out a lot of forms for John, and he said expect a call on day two of the draft. It was just before the 10th round when I got a text saying to be patient. Once my name came across the screen, my phone rang and it was him giving me a congratulations.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think you need to work on the most?:  I throw four and two-seam fastball, slider, curve and changeup. I always need to work on all of my pitches. Learning where I can throw what pitch in certain counts and situations to get the best result is always a work in progress.

I would say attacking lefties with a fastball in is one of my main areas of focus. Also, a changeup is the pitch that takes the longest to learn again after the offseason break, so I will mix that in a lot this offseason.

What kind of knowledge did you have of the Twins organization before they drafted you?: I had little knowledge about the Twins. I knew of Joe Mauer and Morneau, and that they were a power in the AL Central, but I was unaware of their organization. Once I was taken by the Twins, many trusted scouts and advisors told me how I was in a great "family" organization who preaches to promote from within.

Do you ever wish you would be given more chances to start, or do you feel settled in as a reliever?: I was given my chances to start, and I handled the position well. I have now been giving a duty to relieve games, and I feel I have performed well also.

I don't have a crystal ball to predict where I would fit best. The front office has made decisions for me to put me in the best position to succeed. I trust in everything they have told me, and the role I am in now gives me the best chance to make a difference in the majors.

Who has been your most influential coach or manager?: It is tough to single out a specific coach who has influenced me the most. First and foremost, my parents have made so many sacrifices to give me the best opportunities in life and in baseball, so I am forever grateful for them.

In terms of coaches, each one has brought something different. My high school coaches taught me that you need to be more than just a thrower, and you need to pitch. My college coach showed me that a never-lose attitude goes a long way and nothing can be said negatively about someone who out-works the person next to him.

Now in the low minors of the Twins, each coach has left a significant mark on my career. They all have taught me you need to be a professional at all times both on and off the field. Also, there will be some days when you don't have your best stuff, and those are the fun days; those make you the pitcher who makes it or doesn't make it.

What are some things you like to do outside of baseball?: I really enjoy being outside. I am an avid golfer during the season when I can make time for it. I am not too good but I like playing and the individual challenge.

I also take the bus rides to read and have put together quite a collection of books throughout the years. I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan and just started his newest book "David & Goliath.”

Recently I started doing some arts and crafts, and have made some pretty cool things.

Lastly the beach is probably my spot. My family has a house on Cape Cod, so taking a retreat there is always necessary to get some R&R.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Erik Goeddel: Meet One of the Future Mets

The New York Mets have had a tough go of it lately, having not posted a winning record since the 2008 season. Their way back to relevance will undoubtedly be aided by their young players, many of whom are still honing their craft in the minor leagues. One pitcher who appears to be part of the future solution is Erik Goeddel, who is getting close to getting his first summons to the Big Apple.

The right-handed Goeddel was a 24th-round draft pick out of UCLA in 2010. He was 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA in two seasons as a Bruin with all 45 of his appearances coming in relief.

In his first four years in the Mets’ system, the 25-year-old pitched exclusively as a starter, posting good numbers and advancing a level each season. He has reached Triple-A in 2014, and is working as a reliever for the Las Vegas 51s, returning to his collegiate roots and hoping it will help lead him to the majors.

During his professional career, Goeddel is a combined 18-19 with a 3.84 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He is off to a rough start with Las Vegas, going 1-1 with a 15.43 ERA in four games. However, his 2.1 innings is an incredibly small sample size and he has plenty of time to settle into his new team and role.

The hurler graciously agreed to answer some questions about his career prior to the start of spring training. Keep reading for more on this Mets prospect on the verge of the majors.

Erik Goeddel Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Ken Griffey Jr. I think he was everyone’s favorite.  He was the best player in baseball for a little while, and nobody looked like they were having more fun playing baseball than he did.  He was fun to watch and a great player to idolize.

Can you talk a little bit about what your draft experience was like?: I had a rather unusual draft experience.  In the months leading up to the draft, I had talked to every organization except the Mets, and at UCLA, it is finals week during the draft.  Also, we made NCAA playoffs that year, so regionals ended Sunday night, and the first round of the draft was Monday, and the next few rounds Tuesday.  Since I still had finals to study for, and practice to go to, I was pretty busy. 
After practicing Monday and then watching the first round of the draft Monday night, I had to pull an all-nighter Monday night to finish a paper I had due on Tuesday.

Right when I finished the paper at about 6 a.m. and was maybe going to get a couple hours of sleep before the draft started back up, the Mets area scout Spencer Graham called me up and asked me all the pre-draft questions. This was the only contact I had ever had with the Mets.  So anyways, the draft starts and I get a bunch of calls from the White Sox asking if I'll sign in the third round for slot. I say yes and they draft somebody else anyways.  The same thing happens in the fourth round.  Then complete silence. I figure I had overpriced myself and will just go back to UCLA for my junior year.

So a couple hours later I head to practice, and while I’m getting changed in the clubhouse, my phone starts ringing, and its Spencer Graham again, and he says ‘Congratulations, the Mets have drafted you,’ and that was that.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think you need to work on the most?: I throw a fastball, curveball, slider, and a changeup.  My fastball and curve are definitely my most consistent pitches.

I have been throwing them the same way since I was about 10 years old.  My slider and change, I changed how I throw them part way through the 2013 season. The new way of throwing them is definitely going to be better once I get the hang of it completely, but I still have to fine tune them a little and get them more consistent.

If you could back in time and change something about your career, or do it differently, what would that be, and why?: I would go back to when I was in high school and change my delivery.  I used to throw with maximum effort and jerk my whole body to fling my arm forward. I’m pretty sure that was the reason I blew out my elbow and basically missed three seasons rehabbing and recovering from surgeries.

What is your familiarity with baseball history?: Very familiar. My dad grew up a huge baseball fan and passed on a lot of that knowledge of the history of the game.

Who has been your most influential coach or manager?: I've been very lucky throughout my career and had a lot of great coaches.  But as crazy as it sounds, I'd say the most influential coach I've had was my little league minors coach I had when I was nine years old.  His name was Tom Tracy, and at the tryouts he saw that I had a good arm and drafted me first in the draft and made me a pitcher. It was the first time I had ever pitched, and playing on his team that year was when I really started liking baseball. He introduced me to pitching, and was the reason I became passionate about baseball at such a young age.

How much thinking/worry do you do about making the major leagues, especially now that you are getting very close?: I think about it a lot. I don't really worry about it, but the closer I get the more I want it. It’s a great way to stay motivated.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, March 30, 2014

1967 Red Sox: The Impossible Dream Season: A Review

The Boston Red Sox are reigning World Series champions and have won three titles in just the past decade. In the more than 100 years of their existence, they have won eight World Series and been one of the best-known and popular teams in all of baseball. However, their 1967 squad, whose improbable success was known as the “impossible dream” but fell short of winning it all, has arguably endured as the most memorable of all their teams for fans.

1967 Boston Red Sox: The Impossible Dream Season by Raymond Sinibaldi (Arcadia Publishing) details the rise and run of the ’67 team through an impressive collection of 200 black and white photographs. Although Sinibaldi largely lets the pictures do the talking, his captioning provides valuable context, and his introduction to each chapter frames the importance of the season against his own experiences as a young fan dealing with dealing with his brother’s deployment in the Vietnam War.

Red Sox fans had become accustomed to failure leading up to the 1967 season. Boston had last won a World Series in 1918 and endured numerous challenging seasons, occasionally interrupted by great teams that were never able to find themselves as the last one standing at the end.

After going 72-90 in 1966, the Red Sox won 92 games and the American League pennant in 1967 before losing to the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. The team may have come up just short but their out-of-nowhere success and the often thrilling ways they won games with a cast of likable and talented characters firmly stamped their place in the history books and the hearts of Boston fans forever.

Sinibaldi’s work obviously has strong personal overtones. However, many fans can claim a similar affinity to a particular sports team and season because of how they were able to emotionally invest and connect; in many cases helping fill whatever voids existed in their lives at the time. That doesn’t make the importance of the 1967 Red Sox any less important. To the contrary, the timeless sentiment and warm regard is indicative of the special place the team occupies for so many.

The collection of photographs that comprises 1967 Red Sox is impressive and comprehensive. Cumulatively, they form a cohesive and entertaining pictorial essay that tells the story of the historic team. Instead of simply being action shots of important moments during the season, careful attention is paid to include pictures explaining how the ’67 team came to be and its composition, right down to the players who had the briefest cups of coffee and sat at the furthest ends of the bench.

With all the detail comes an ample spotlight on the most important figures from the impossible dream team; with outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, outfielder Tony Conigliaro, pitcher Jim Lonborg and manager Dick Williams being among the most prominent.

The beauty of 1967 Red Sox is the way it puts the magical season in the context of the topsy turvy world that was swirling around at the same time. The war, the Civil Rights movement and the particularly contentious racial issues happening in Boston made for a difficult and uncertain existence. Calling a baseball team a respite could be cliché, but it was never truer than in the case of this one season.

Boston was a hotbed of racial strife in the ‘60s and the Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate (in 1959- 12 years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers). Sinibaldi does cover this but doesn’t make it a focal point of the book. Providing a bit more detail on this issue could have taken the narrative into even more interesting places. However, he does a nice job of spotlighting the African American players who may have been small in number but not in impact on the 1967 team, including Elston Howard, George Scott and Reggie Smith.

1967 Red Sox isn’t just a baseball book. It is also a book about community and finding ways to cope in difficult times through the redemptive qualities of sport. It’s an excellent look back at one of the more memorable times in Boston and baseball, and well worth a look by fans and non-fans alike.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Throwing Hard Easy: A Review of Robin Roberts' Memoires

Baseball fans often get lost in the recollections of former players retelling their life journey through the game. A great example of this hardball trip down memory lane is Throwing Hard Easy: Reflections on a Life in Baseball by Robin Roberts with C. Paul Rogers III (University of Nebraska Press).

First published in 2003, the memoires of Roberts, a National Baseball Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher who had a 19-year major league career with four teams (most notably the Philadelphia Phillies), is now available in paperback.

Roberts, who passed away in 2010, was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball during his career, which spanned from 1948 through 1966. He posted a career record of 286-245 with a 3.41 ERA. Needless to say, this book is not short on stories and analysis of some of his more memorable experiences.

Throwing Hard Easy is in Roberts’ voice and he does an excellent job of describing his rise from humble origins to a professional pitcher who once won 20 or more games in a season for six consecutive years (1950-1955). Attributing his success to hard work, passion for the game and good fortune, he displayed a modesty not often associated with athletes who attained the kind of success he did. However, the last few words of the book are a wink and a nod to the fact that he recognized his physical talents, as he asked, “Surely it wasn’t all luck, was it?”

A highlight of Roberts’ recollections is the description of his relationships he made throughout his career. In particular, his closeness with former teammates like Richie Ashburn and Curt Simmons, and coach Cy Perkins, display the kind of deep connections that can be forged in team sports.

Interestingly, on the other side is the revelation that Roberts had a decided lack of connection with managers throughout his career, claiming he rarely had anything other than simple “Hello” conversations with his skippers. He doesn’t go into great detail explaining why, but there is the general sense he always believed his job was to take the ball when asked and get out batters. To him, something so simple didn’t require elaborate discussion

Even though Roberts professes he barely acknowledged statistics like ERA until late in his career, numbers are an important part of this book. Not only are his own stats recounted in close detail, but so are those of teammates, opponents and important games. This is both good and bad, as the numbers provide important context but are so plentiful they sometime slow down the narrative.

Roberts’ tenure in baseball coincided with the early days of integration in the game. Although he touches on the topic throughout Throwing Hard Easy, he doesn’t goes into the type of detail that would have been intriguing to see from a former player of his caliber.

Perhaps the most compelling revelations from Roberts are regarding former Baseball Players Association head Marvin Miller. Roberts was active as a player representative during his career and then became an integral part of strengthening the union after he retired. One of his biggest contributions was supporting the candidacy of Miller as union chief even though he was not the consensus first choice, or even a necessarily popular choice initially with the players.

Although Miller went on to revolutionize the union and set salary and benefits in a whole new stratosphere, Roberts was very open in stating he didn’t always agree with the methods. As a baseball man through and through, he wanted players to be compensated fairly while also maintaining the integrity of the game. He described Miller in one passage by saying, “He often acted like he was just a hired union gun who had a very narrow view of his job and was not at all concerned about the welfare of the game of baseball.”

Roberts also talks about the 1994 MLB strike and how he got involved in contacting many throughout the game in an effort to aid negotiations to bring about its end. He believed the work stoppage was a black eye for the game and while the advances made by the players over the years were good, they also diminished the game in some ways. A realist, he acknowledged, “Of course, baseball will continue on its current path because of the way it is structured… The owners and players will continue to slug it out through collective bargaining every time the labor agreement is up for renegotiation, each side seeking only its own selfish interests and ignoring the fans.”

Throwing Hard Easy is an excellent baseball narrative. This paperback edition has additional features from the original version, including new photos, a foreword by Roberts’ son James, and a new introduction by Rogers.

Roberts wasn’t as flashy and well known a star as some of his contemporaries like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but he became one of the all-time greats and had the incredible insight and stories one might expect from a player of his status and longevity. Any baseball fan interested in finding out more about them would benefit from reading Throwing Hard Easy.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew