Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nick Rickles: Baseball's Best Unknown Prospect?

The movie Moneyball has brought the Oakland A’s methods of evaluating players to the mainstream. With position players in particular, Oakland covets those who have a high rate of getting on base and are defensively efficient. Nick Rickles qualifies in both of those categories, and if his 2011 season was any indication, he is well on his way to one day playing in Oakland.

Rickles, a right-handed hitting catcher, was drafted in the 14th round of the 2011 draft out of Stetson University. In his last collegiate season in 2011, he led the Stetson Hatters into the NCAA Regionals by hitting .353, with 12 home runs and 60 RBI, and performing his typical stellar defense. He was consistently good throughout his collegiate career, but not spectacular, which likely contributed to him flying a little beneath the radar.

Once he signed with Oakland and was assigned to the minor leagues, Rickles continued without missing a beat. In 47 total games (6 with Oakland’s Arizona rookie team and 41 with short season Vermont) he hit .310 with 2 home runs and 35 RBI. He also had an excellent .370 on base percentage and threw out 42% of stolen base attempts. Although there is no metric to measure such things, he was the most complete player I saw in the New York Penn League this year.

Rickles was a leader for a Vermont team that went to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. His defining moment of the season came in the last regular season game, which Vermont had to win for any chance to make the playoffs. Late in the game, Rickles smartly went from first to an unoccupied third base on a sacrifice bunt, which led to him scoring the winning run and Vermont making the playoffs. 

Just 21, Rickles is advanced in many facets of the game and looks to progress quickly through the Oakland system. He is the type of complete player the A’s look for, and it would not be a surprise to see him holding down their major league catcher position within the next few years.  I was able to chat with him towards the end of the season, and learned a little bit more about this rising prospect.

Nick Rickles Interview:

How did you become interested in baseball?: When I was a little kid, my Dad was a big baseball fan. He actually didn’t play it as much as I have, but he’s a big Yankee fan. So I grew up around baseball and lived in Florida all my life and he took me to Marlins’ games. As long as I can remember, maybe since I was six to eight years old, I’ve been playing.

Who was your favorite team and player growing up?: The Mets and David Wright. Like I said, my Dad was from New York, and we always butted heads on who we liked. I told him I would like a guy from his city, but the New York Mets are where it’s at.

What was the draft process like for you? How did you first find out that Oakland was interested in you?: Actually they were one of the teams that talked to me the least to tell the truth. I got a packet from them to fill out during mid-season. I didn’t talk to a scout. I got a text in the tenth round asking if I still wanted to sign and play professional baseball, and of course I did, so they picked me up in the fourteenth round, and the rest is history from there.

After you signed with Oakland, did you do anything to treat yourself or your family?: Well, I’ve had the same car since freshman year in high school. When my signing bonus came in I recently bought a Chevy Avalanche. It was my first big purchase for myself.

Prior to getting drafted, what was your favorite moment in baseball?: There was a game my last year in college at Florida State. It actually wasn’t something I did; it was a friend of mine. It was a tie ball game in the top of the ninth… actually, we were down one in the top of the ninth, and he hit a two run home run off their closer, to put us up one. We ended up going on to win that game in 11 innings, and it was one of the best baseball games I have ever been a part of. I’ll never forget his home run.

Off the field, what is the toughest part of adapting to being a professional player?: Just keeping your body in shape and making it a routine. We don’t necessarily start very early in the morning, so you got to get up early and get your day going. You don’t want to sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon and be lazy. You’ve got to keep your body in shape because playing every day is a tough thing, especially catching. 

You get a day off every now and then, and you’ve got to get your sleep. Sleep is a big part of staying healthy and being ready for the game.


You can follow me on Facebook by going to or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quick Hits for the Week 2

Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals for beating the Texas Rangers in seven games to take the 2011 World Series. It went down to the final game of the regular season to determine if the Cardinals would even make the playoffs, making their victory all the sweeter for them and their fans. It is also an affirmation for the concept of the wildcard. Exciting post seasons like this are proof positive that MLB made the right decision in implementing the extra teams in the playoffs, and make the idea of adding a second wildcard in each league a compelling issue to consider.

I have obviously done no official polling or canvassing, but from my friends and what I see on social media sites, announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver appear to be nearly universally hated. How have they managed to escape focus groups over the years? With all the money that Fox has, is that really they can do for baseball announcers? 

Buck comes across as pompous and very plastic-like, while McCarver’s bumpkin/senility routine is really grating. I wouldn’t want to watch a game next to the likes of them in the stands, and I certainly don’t want them doing the play-by-play when I have a game on the tv. Every time I watch a nationally televised game and see that they are the announcers, I literally groan. I found myself watching most of this year’s World Series with the sound muted, so I could make it through each game. 

One thought would be to bring in the best announcers to call World Series games. This would be similar to how umpires are chosen to officiate in the playoffs. While some announcers might be contractually precluded from being a part of this, baseball fans would love to see the likes of Vin Scully and Joe Castiglione calling the biggest games of the year. It would be an exciting wrinkle to add to the World Series, and a way to draw in more fans whose team might not be competing for the championship.

Jerry DiPoto was just hired to be the next general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This means that the first major league female GM will have to keep waiting, as Kim Ng, an MLB executive and finalist for the position, did not make the final cut. In an industry constantly seeking new ways to gain a competitive edge, it is shocking that the gender barrier has not yet been broken when it comes to baseball’s GMs. 

Team’s are willing to follow obscure statistics, use shrinks, and mine talent from the furthest reaches of the globe to field what they will believe will be the best team possible, but for some reason, hiring a woman hasn’t occurred to them as being a new and bright idea. Perhaps Ng was not the right fit for the Arizona job, but it is long overdue for a woman to run a major league team.

The 25th anniversary of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series just passed. It is nice to see the positive attention that Bill Buckner is finally getting. The scapegoat burden he has borne for more than two decades defies logic. He did not lose the World Series for Boston. Buckner’s infamous error came in a tie game, and Boston still got to play a Game 7 (a game where Buckner had two hits and a run scored). 

Other players, like Bob Stanley and his wild pitch that preceded the error, escaped the type of scrutiny Buckner and his family has endured for so long.  Buckner’s baseball career will always be defined by that one error, which is a shame. Nobody seems to remember that he had 2715 career base hits, more than players like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Also lost was Buckner’s value to Boston in 1986. He was one of their best players all season, and gritted through the playoffs despite being in bad pain from a bad back, and suffering an Achilles injury that caused him to wear specially designed high-top shoes. Here’s hoping that he can finally gain back some of the respect for his career that he deserves.


You can follow me on Facebook by going to or follow me on Twitter @RedSoxFanNum1

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Roy Smalley, Jr.- A Baseball Classic

This past week baseball lost Roy Smalley, Jr., another member of the World War II generation that has been rapidly slipping away in recent years. He was a player, a manager, an armed services veteran, and the father of Roy Smalley III, also a major leaguer. He was part of a vanishing generation that played during the golden age of baseball, and had many accomplishments and experiences from that time.

Before the likes of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Derek Jeter made it more commonplace, Smalley was one of the first shortstops of larger stature. At 6’3 and 190 pounds, he was about 5 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than those who typically played the position in his era. 

The right-handed Smalley was signed by the Cubs in 1944 and spent several years in the minors and the military before debuting in the majors in 1948. He went on to an 11 year big league career with Chicago, the Milwaukee Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies. Over 872 career games he hit .227 with 61 home runs and 305 RBI. 1950 was easily his best season, as he hit 21 home runs and drove in 85 runs. More information on Smalley’s career statistics is available at

Smalley was a defensive anomaly. While metrics show that he had excellent range and was renowned for a powerful arm, he was also consistently near or at the top of the league in errors committed. The 51 errors he committed at shortstop for the Cubs in 1950 represent the last time a major league player committed at least 50 miscues in one season.

Other interesting information about Smalley includes him being the last regular shortstop for Chicago prior to Ernie Banks. He was also married to Jolene Mauch, the sister of his former teammate and famed manager Gene Mauch. They got married on August 5, 1950 in Boston, where the Cubs were playing the Braves. Despite the nuptials, Smalley played in the game that day, but went hitless in the Cubs’ win.

Baseball lost a good one when Roy Smalley, Jr. passed away last week. Although he is gone, his accomplishments on the field, his gentlemanly reputation, and the success of his son mean that he will never be forgotten. In 2010 I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Smalley, and gained a lot of insight about his experiences in baseball.

Roy Smalley Jr. Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: My Dad took me to minor league games in Springfield, Missouri, my birth place. We had a Class-C St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team there in a league called the Western Association. 

Back in those days there was no television and none of the other sports had become major, so baseball was it. It was like there was a minor league team in every town. It was a good, solid league, and a lot of good ball players came through there. So that’s what sparked my interest, and I started playing, and began to play in the kids’ league in town that was sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. I went through that program and on into high school, amateur, semi-pro ball, and ultimately to the pros.

You were a great deal bigger than the typical shortstop of your day. Did you meet any resistance from coaches who didn’t want you to play that position?: I don’t think that there was ever any resistance to my playing of the position. My strongest asset was throwing, and a shortstop needs to be able to throw and have a good arm. Even though I only had average running speed, I did have quickness and some agility. I think that’s why nobody ever objected to me playing shortstop.

Did you serve in the military during WWII?: I went into the Navy. I was drafted after my first professional season which was with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. At that time a draftee could choose his branch of service, so I chose Navy. It was just 22 months. I go out in, I think it was late July of 1946.

While in the military, were you still playing baseball on base?: Yes I did. That’s a good question because there was a lot men playing. Almost every military base had athletic teams. I went to boot camp in San Diego and then went to radio operators’ school. While I was doing that I played on the base team. We had a very good team. 

Basically we had a baseball officer, lieutenant junior grade who had been a good major league player. His name was Ernie Koy, and I think he had played for Brooklyn and also the Boston Braves (Koy played from 1938-1942 with the Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies).

Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: Probably hitting for the cycle in 1950, and hitting a home run in the first game of a double header, and then hitting a home run in the second game was kind of a highlight. Other than that I don’t recall anything that really stands out. 

Is there any particular pitcher that stands out that you hated facing?: I always thought that it was Ewell Blackwell of Cincinnati. They called him “The Whip.” He was a side-armed pitcher, a long and gangly frame. He had great stuff. I think he had three or four really exceptional years, then he began to have health problems. He had a bad kidney or something like that. I think once that started, he wasn’t the same.  I think a lot of right-handed hitter thought he was the toughest they ever faced.

Did you have a favorite stadium that you played in?: Yeah, I miss those old ballparks. I think they had ambiance, atmosphere, and of course their features were unique. Like in Cincinnati, the terrace in left field, and the Polo Grounds being in the shape of an oval. It was a very short distance down both lines, especially in the right field corner, only 259 feet. 

I really liked the old ballparks. Forbes Field was one. I always hit well in the Braves’ field in Boston. There were several others I didn’t hit so well in. 

Ebbets Field was unique. The fans, the configuration of the park, and the little Dixie Land band that would go marching through the stands; it was a special place.

What was Frankie Frisch like as a manager?: I can’t speak as to what he did as the best manager in St. Louis. He had managed those Gas House Gang Cardinal ball clubs in the ‘30’s, and they won. So that speaks well for him. He also played; he was a playing manager then.

Frank was kind of a fiery guy. I never thought of his as a real strategist. I liked him and he liked me. It is difficult not to like somebody who likes you and promotes you, but I didn’t think that Frank was a great manager. 

You played against Jackie Robinson in the years following him breaking the color barrier. What type of reception did you witness him experiencing?: Well it wasn’t fun. I think in his first year in 1947, there was more resistance and more resentment on the part of some white players. Then in 1948 there was still some there. 1948 was my first year. The black players had a tough way to go and they did take a lot of abuse. There was resentment, I think particularly from players who had been raised in the South. I think that Dixie Walker was pretty well publicized, among others.

I really admired Jackie. He didn’t seem to let it bother him. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t let it stop him from being probably the best player I had ever seen for the first five years that I saw him. He didn’t get there until he was 28, I think it was. The next five years he was a wonderful ballplayer. He could do so many things to beat you and was so competitive. The respect he eventually got, he more than earned. 

What did you do after you stopped playing baseball?: I managed in the Dodger organization for a couple of years. In ’60 and ’61 I managed the Reno club for the Dodgers. That was a fun experience. I had some really great young kids starting out their careers. We had success, and some of them had pretty decent major league careers. I can think of Ken McMullen, Bill Singer, Dick Nen- Rob Nen’s father, and Jimmy Lefebvre.

You can follow me on Facebook by going to or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Don't Be Fooled By Albert Pujols

Game 3 of the 2011 World Series was a signature moment in the career of Albert Pujols. The three home runs he hit placed him in elite company with Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, as the only other players to accomplish such a feat. Pujols is undoubtedly one of the best players of all time, but somebody is going to make a very big mistake this off-season when he hits the free agent market, by overpaying him an enormous contract.

Although it was just one game, incredibly, Pujols’ Game 3 will have a major impact on how teams view him in free agency. It was the defining moment of his season, perhaps even his career, and will be what general managers remember most vividly when pursuing the slugging first baseman. That one game even turned Pujols into one of the greatest hitters in the history of the World Series. His previous 11 World Series games, where he hit .222 with one home run were absolved from memory, and despite the inherent bad business practice, will be a major factor in earning him more money this off-season.

The problem with most free agent contracts is that they typically pay the player for what they have done in the past, with the hope that it continues in the future.  Pujols turned down very lucrative contract offers from St. Louis this past off-season, banking on the belief that he would get even more money if he waited to hit the open market. Although his 2011 was a tick beneath his normal production, the aura of his performance in just one game, Game 3, will be enough to send his value skyrocketing again. 

Scenarios like this seem to happen over and over again in baseball. Pujols’ historic power output in Game 3 confirmed to many in baseball that he is who they thought he was. His nearly impregnable armor had taken a few dings this past year, with a slow start to this season, and then his disappearing act with the media following the Game 2 loss. However, Pujols wiped the slate clean because of Game 3, and in the process dazzled the free agent market, which will almost certainly overpay for his services, likely even more than if he had not hit his three home runs. 

Pujols is certainly worthy of a rich contract, but he is seeking to obliterate his last deal, which averaged around 14 million dollars per season over eight seasons. If media reports are to be believed, he is looking for a deal averaging at least 25 million dollars over eight years. It is likely that some team will give him what he wants, or at least come close, but if they do, it will be a major mistake.

Baseball has a bad habit of not being able to resist overpaying for aging stars. A current example of this is Alex Rodriguez and the albatross of his 275 million dollar contract that the Yankees will carry with them through the 2017 season, when A-Rod will be 42 years old. He had come off a 2007 season where he hit .314, with 54 home runs and 156 RBI, but it was also his 14th major league season, and it was a reasonable conclusion that such production represented an apex, not a trend. While he still remains an excellent player, albeit one plagued by injuries, A-Rod’s OPS has declined each year since his new deal, with his 2011 mark being almost 250 points below what it was in 2007. He has not yet had one season that has lived up to the contract, and as he gets older, it is increasingly unlikely that he ever will.

Pujols will be 32 (more on that in a bit) at the start of next season. His production has slowly decreased over the past few years. His OPS has decreased in each of the past three seasons, and his .906 mark in 2011 represented the lowest of his career; more than 200 points less than what it at his high point in 2008. This trend is easier to mask because even though the numbers are going down, he is still a star and perhaps the best player in baseball. But that is as of 2011. As a veteran of 11 major league seasons, it is unlikely that he will maintain his current numbers, let alone increase them, over the next six to eight years- the length of the contract he is certain to sign. The team who gives in to his exorbitant demands will likely regret it 

Whether or not it is fair, the question of Pujols’ age should be brought into play by any team considering signing him. There is no evidence that he is not his current stated age, but during his time in the majors there have been enough doubts raised that it is something that should be investigated thoroughly by anyone bidding on him. Any corporation about to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into one employee would be remiss to not perform all due diligence into their background and projected output. The scramble to reach the promised land of baseball salaries has led many players to do worse things than fudge their age, so the unfortunate result in such a climate is to be very careful when evaluating a player who is about to become a major investment.

The Cardinals stand to gain the most from signing Pujols. He has been the face of their franchise for over a decade, and their team is firmly branded in his image. He can bring as much to them off the field in terms of marketing as he can on it with contributing to winning. If he left St. Louis, the Cardinals would practically have to start over again with their product. Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter are nice players, but a team built around them instead of someone like Pujols, is not going to be nearly as successful, either financially or competitively. That being said, the Cardinals had still better tread carefully and make sure that any contract they might agree to with Pujols is in their best interests. They will need to feel very confident about their cost/benefit analysis, and even then hope for the best.

Pujols is a once in a lifetime player who has already done more than enough in his career to ensure he will one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. Despite the staggering numbers, numerous awards and accolades, and tape measure home runs, teams should not let him fool them. He is now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and any team planning on bidding for his services should not let his past influence their future. 

You can follow me on Facebook by going to or follow me on Twitter @RedSoxFanNum1

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tom Shopay

Former outfielder Tom Shopay had the pleasure and the misfortune to play for either veteran or very good major league teams during his career. It allowed him to have some great teammates and experience a winning environment, but it also invariably meant that he never got much of an opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player.

Taken in the 34th round of the inaugural MLB amateur draft of 1965, Shopay went on to play parts of two seasons with the New York Yankees and parts of five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. A left-handed batter, and right-handed thrower, he was a good hitter with some speed at the minor league level, though he never showed much power. He was spectacular at nothing, but a solid all-around player who could play all three outfield positions, and provided a versatile option off the bench. He never got more than 74 at-bats in any of his seven major league seasons, but his staying power belied his value.

One of the high points of Shopay’s career was being a member of the 1971 Orioles team that went 101-57 in the regular season, before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. He pinch-hit five times in the Series, going hitless. Nevertheless, that Baltimore team was one of the greatest of all time; managed by Earl Weaver, it featured four 20 game winners in their starting rotation, and Brooks and Frank Robinson in the lineup.

For his career Shopay batted .201 in 253 games, spanning 309 at bats. He hit 3 home runs, drove in 20 runs, and stole 11 bases. More information about his career statistics is available at

Recently, I had the good fortune to be able to chat for a few minutes with Tom Shopay. He shared many memories with me of his playing career, and let me know what he has been up to since he hung up his spikes.

Tom Shopay Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: I’m originally from Connecticut, and at the time I was growing up there were three channels on t.v.; there were no computers; there were no Nintendos; there were no video games. Whatever sport was in season, we were outside playing. 

Long story short, I tried out for Little League when I was 10 years old, and got cut. I couldn’t even make a Little League team. At that time, kids didn’t have to play. You made it because of your ability.

I played soccer, basketball, and baseball in high school, and then baseball in college. I got interested in all three of those sports, but baseball I was the best at. 

Did you have a favorite team or player growing up?: I lived in Bristol, Connecticut, the home of ESPN now. I was exactly two hours away from Boston and two hours away from New York. So, as a kid, it was cut and dry that you were one way or the other. There was no other way to go. 

When I was younger, the Yankees were my team and Mickey Mantle was my favorite player. I had favorite players on the other side too. Of course you had Ted Williams. One of my favorite players in Boston was Carl Yastrzemski, but Mantle at that time was my favorite player.

What was it like to play next to your childhood hero Mantle during your first major league season?: I got called up in 1967 after the Triple-A season. My first start was in Yankee Stadium, the old Yankee Stadium. I was playing left field and Mantle was playing center. At that point in time Mantle came over to me when we were in the outfield when the game was just starting. He yelled at me and I came over to him. He looks at me and he says, ‘Hey Tom, take everything that you can get. Anything close to me that you can get, take it.’ His knees were bad at that time, but that was just a thrill in itself to be able to play alongside him.

You were drafted by the Yankees in 1965; how did you first find out that they were interested in you?: Actually I was in the free agent draft. That was the draft where Rick Monday was the first player chosen. At that time, playing high school ball and American Legion ball, there were scouts going around looking at players. I’m sure now they have all kinds of computerized systems, rating players, or whatever.

When I graduated from high school, there was no free agent draft. I had a chance to sign with the Phillies, the Yankees, and I can’t remember the third team. I chose to go to college, and at that time the only way you could re-sign is if you went to school for two years, or flunked out of college, and basically that was it. That was when the first draft took place, that was in 1965, and I was drafted by the Yankees. I was drafted in a higher round. You’re talking 34th round; something like that. 

Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: There are a few, really. The first one, of course, was making it to the major leagues. A million kids dream about making it, and my dream came true. I got to play in the major leagues and it was just a thrill.
Another great moment was playing in the 1971 World Series. I got to pinch hit five times in that World Series.

I played on the same team as Mantle, a Hall of Famer; Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, and Reggie Jackson, who was with us before he signed his free agent contract. I got to play with six or seven Hall of Famers, which was a thrill in itself.

I was also at the game where Frank Robinson hit his 500th home run. I was in Minnesota when Harmon Killebrew hit his 500th home run. I was in Baltimore when Al Kaline got his 3000th base hit. There’s not really one that outweighs the other. At the time, that’s your biggest thrill and then all of a sudden something else comes along. 

Out of all of the Hall of Fame players you played with, who was the best teammate?: Probably Brooks Robinson. Brooks was like you and Brooks was like me. Brooks was just a normal human being. Brooks cared about everybody. He cared about people; he cared about fans. He just cared, and he was a good baseball player. That was just him. Jim Palmer was a good guy too, but I would have to put Brooks at the top of the list.

Who was the biggest character you ever played with or again?: A guy I played with was Tony Muser. Muser was a utility ballplayer, and he actually coached and managed at the major league level. He was probably one of the funniest people I have ever known in baseball. He’s just a character.

If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: When I started off with the Yankees I played for Ralph Houk. Ralph Houk called me into his office in the ’69 season when I was up with the Yankees. He said to me, ‘You’re going to start against all right-handed pitching.’ I said, ‘That’s great! That’s fine! That’s perfect!’

The thing was that it never materialized. He was the type of guy who said something out of one side of his mouth and something out of the other side of his mouth. I was disenchanted. He was a veteran players’ manager. I wish I would have voiced myself a little bit more. I never really did because I was a fringe player and didn’t want to rock the boat. If I had to do it all over again, no matter what the consequences were, I’d voice my opinion.

Earl Weaver was a players’ manager, and honest. Earl didn’t sugarcoat anything. What he told you came true. If he didn’t say it to you, forget it, but if he said it to you, he backed it up.

What have you done since you stopped playing baseball?: when I stopped playing baseball the first thing I did, and I have an background in education, was buy a nursery school. I owned the nursery school with my ex-wife for about seven years. 

Then my brother who was in the security business in Miami, wanted me to come into business with him. At that time, when he bought the company, it had security guards and electronics. At that his business had 50 employees. 

He said, ‘come out here with me.’ I said, ‘No, no, I’m happy here.’

After a while he had 150 employees, so at that point I decided I would come out with him because I had a couple of people interested in buying my school. So, for 25 years I was in the security industry. We developed that business, and we sold that business a number of years ago, and we had 1,700 employees at that time. I retired two years ago.


You can follow me on Facebook by going to or follow me on Twitter @RedSoxFanNum1