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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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bryan Johns: The Young Glue Guy of the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have one of the most impressive farm systems in all of baseball, placing a ridiculous nine players on’s 2014 top-100 prospect list. Naturally, the team has many high draft picks and big bonus players that have helped boost the youngster development. But not all of the minor leaguers can claim such a distinction, including infielder Bryan Johns, who has based his professional career on hard work and doing the little things that create a winning environment.

The 25-year-old Johns signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 after a college career with Howard Junior College and Vanderbilt University. Although he got into 43 games with the Commodores as a senior, he received just 57 at-bats and hit .211 with a home run and five RBIs. His ability to latch on with a professional team was a testament to his versatility and ability as team super glue.

A right-handed batter, the 5’9” native of Plano Texas can play third base, short stop and second base. In three seasons in Boston’s system, he has played at four different levels, reaching as high as Double-A with a two-game stint in 2012.

All told, Johns has combined to hit .205 in 137 professional games with two home runs and 41 RBIs. In 2013, he played in 40 games between Single-A and High Single-A, hitting .183 with two home runs and 19 RBIs. More information about his career statistics is available here.

Although Johns may not profile as a star, he is the type of player that every successful baseball team needs. He may not post flashy numbers but much of what he brings is not something that shows up in a box score. The historical baseball landscape is littered with such players, and as such, he should never be discounted as he continues to work on his goal of one day playing in the majors.

This past offseason, I had an opportunity to ask Johns some questions about his career. Keep reading for more on the Red Sox’s young infielder.

Bryan Johns Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Derek Jeter. I love the way he carries himself on and off the field. Also, he's a winner.

What was your back-up plan if you hadn't received an opportunity to have a professional baseball career?: I hadn't really thought about what else I would want to do besides play baseball. When that time comes, I’ll figure it out. My focus is only on baseball and getting ready for the next season.

What was your experience at Vanderbilt like? As a baseball-centric school, what kind of coaching and mentorship did you have at your disposal?: Playing baseball at Vandy was such a great experience. My biggest takeaway was the lifelong friendships that I made. We all were each other’s coaches and always tried to make each other better. Now, a lot of us live in Nashville and train for the offseason.

How did you first find out that the Red Sox were interested in you?: I developed a good relationship with a Boston scout during the season, and that's when I knew I would have a chance to play for them.

Can you describe the thought process/emotions you and friends/family went through once it became clear you were going to have a professional baseball career?: We were all very excited when I found out I was going to get to play in the Red Sox organization. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the big leagues, so when I got the chance, we were all excited. My family has always been very supportive of my baseball career

What is one part of your game that you hope to improve on the most?: There's always something I can improve on. There's not one aspect of my game that I focus on more than the other. It's all equally important.

You personify the definition of scrappy when it comes to baseball. Does that make it easier or more difficult for you to get noticed?: I don't worry too much about getting "noticed." All my focus is on becoming the best baseball player I can be and how I can help my team win. It's all about winning. I'm not worried about what kind of player I'm labeled as. That doesn't matter. If the team I'm on continues to win, that's all that matters.

What are the best things about getting to play professional ball?: The best thing about playing professional baseball is the friends that I make. Playing baseball will only be a certain part of my life, but the friends I make will last forever.

Traveling all over the U.S. is also one of my favorite things about pro ball. I get to experience all different kinds of cities and atmospheres that most people don't.

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