Baseball Under Glass Blog

Where’s Players Association to mitigate dangerous cold-weather playing conditions?

Even top baseball management realizes major leaguers needed a playing conditions advocate.

Some 15 years ago I approached then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the Wrigley Field pressbox cafeteria after researching the four consecutive doubleheaders his team played Friday through Monday over the Labor Day weekend at home in 1967.

Manager Leo Durocher, quickly morphing into a slave driver, started Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, 36-year-old Ernie Banks and Adolfo Phillips in all eight games. Catcher Randy Hundley started seven of the eight contests, and came into the eighth late for backup Johnny Stephenson via a double-switch.

Barbaric, right?

“That’s why you needed the Players Association,” MacPhail said of the country’s now-most powerful union, in 1967 getting acquainted with new executive director Marvin Miller, whom I rated in a book the fourth-most impactful “game changer” in baseball history.

From left, Players Association chief Tony Clark, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and Commissioner Rob Manfred before the Fort Bragg Game in 2016. Clark needs to reach across the table to Manfred to establish a baseline of safe playing conditions.

So, that’s why I wonder where Miller successor many-times-removed Tony Clark was when teams played in, again, barbaric conditions over the past two weeks in the extended winter of April 2018?

Worst of all was the now-infamous Saturday, April 14, literally slipshod Cubs’ 14-10 victory over the Braves at Wrigley Field, coming back from an early 10-2 deficit. The conditions were quasi-Arctic, so cold, wet and miserable baseballs were literally squiring out of players’ hands. The risk of serious injury was greatly heightened. Football fans in December at most northern stadiums sat through better conditions.

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A look back at the late Joe McConnell’s White Sox broadcasting career

By Mark Litpak

Contributor to CBM

Joe McConnell, a truly underrated White Sox radio announcer spanning the Bill Veeck and Jerry Reinsdorf ownership groups from 1980 to 1984, died at 79 on April 8.

McConnell’s time with the Sox overlapped his eight-year stint (1977-84) as the Bears’ chief radio announcer. Timing is everything – McConnell left the year before Super Bowl XX.

Like Jack Brickhouse, Joe McConnell broadcast the Bears and Chicago baseball at the same time.

He worked alongside two of the best loved Sox announcers in history, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall. In that time he saw a young manager and future Hall of Famer, Tony LaRussa get his first taste of success. He saw new Sox ownership in Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn take over for Veeck. He saw the formation of a team that had three straight winning seasons, capped off by the 1983 Western Division champion “Winnin’ Ugly” White Sox.

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Cubs in fine shape, but October a crapshoot; Sox place holders await phenoms

The 2018 MLB season is about to start and all the pundits come out with their predictions. Here are my thoughts for the new season. It’s hard to pick against the Cubs to win the National League Central.

And how many years have any of us had that experience of knowing the Cubs were odds-on favorites? It’s still unchartered territory and takes getting used to.

The days of having to contort mentally, if not physically, into finding a way to justify a prognostication of a Cubs division title are still too close for comfort. And maybe in the baseball, by far the most unpredictable sport of all, it’s best to never be comfortable in forecasting.

But at this juncture, the Cubs would have to fritter away an NL Central title, while the White Sox are still in a place-holding juncture for expected waves of prime prospects to build a contender in future seasons.

Even an average power and RBI output from Jason Heyward would be welcome after two mediocre seasons at the plate.

Both outcomes are satisfactory to their respective fan bases. And when has that ever been the mindset going into a new season?

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Innings-eaters consumed by time, overworked bullpens, sabermetrics

Bully for Jon Lester.

Embarrassed by a sub-par 2017, the Cubs well-compensated lefty wants to pitch 200 or more innings and spare his bullpen overwork this season.

Why it’s even an issue of Lester reaching a traditionally modest innings-pitched mark for starter shows the problems of 21st century baseball.

Sabermetrics and new-age front offices believe perils are courted if a starter goes through a lineup a third time. “Five and fly” or “five and dive” are no longer epithets against no-endurance starters, but new standards of performance. Bullpens are bloated to eight arms with a 13-man pitching staff overall. An extra starter is added for a doubleheader.

OK, where is the corresponding expansion of rosters to, say, 27?

Say a team inflates to 14 pitchers. That means eight position players are augmented by just three backups, one by necessity a catcher. If you’re in the National League, that gives a manager limited pinch-hitting and double-switching options. We’ve seen managers run out of players with a six-man bench, so a three or four backups — figuring the reserve catcher must be held back as long as possible — won’t serve the game situation’s needs well.

Theo Epstein's off-season work can be classified as "re-tooling."

If Theo Epstein backs Joe Maddon’s mid-game hooks of starters, then he must advocate expanded rosters, to 27.

Theo Epstein was branded the greatest leader in the world and a future Hall of Famer. But I’d like to see Theo use his stature in the game to balance out the sabermetrics of his front-office posse and Joe Maddon’s itchy fingers for his bullpen with an advocacy of enough players to accommodate the quick hooks for starters. Epstein would have to defy cost-cutting owners. If no starters go seven innings consistently with some pulled before five innings, and also relievers cannot go more than one inning apiece, then teams need 15-man pitching staffs.

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1969 Cubs Bleacher Bum still enjoyed World Series away from Wrigley Field

 

I just can’t get over the stark fact Randy Anderson relayed in a conversation the other day, when a hint of spring in the air suggested the second season since a Cubs World Series triumph was weeks away.

Randy Anderson, adorned in his yellow Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, displays a copy of the famed 1969 Cub Power album — still unopened.

Anderson, still possessing his 1969 Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, did not attend a game at Wrigley Field in the title season. Admittedly a people person who loved going to the bleachers for the relationships and simple ambience of the time, he instead enjoyed the long delayed-and-deferred championship in the company of friends at The Nil Tap sports bar on the Northwest Side.

I still can’t believe an authentic Bleacher Bum, as much a part of the ’69 Cubs as their four Hall of Fame-bound stars, couldn’t count as one of the 3 million-plus in the stands in ’16. Yet Anderson knows things have changed, mostly for the better, in how the Cubs are run and how they spend their money. In contrast, they have moved backward in the quality of fan now attending games.

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New ‘Champions’ book displays the depth of the human spirit

 

Hot off the press will be signed copies of “Champions” at the book launch party.

Part of my job, say, in 2004-06 was to chronicle the ongoing comebacks of Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. World Series hopes, continually dashed, had rested on their formerly lightning-distributing right arms.

Both Wood and Prior came back, all right, though not in the form the Cubs envisioned. Through more surgeries and innumerable towel drills, Wood got lean and mean through workouts and organic foods, transforming himself into a good late-inning reliever starting out his 30s. Prior kept attempting comebacks for a half-decade after he threw his final pitch as a Cub in 2006. None of his comebacks got him back to the big leagues, so at a young age, Prior became a minor-league pitching coach. He’s now bullpen coach for the Dodgers.

Almost any major sports figure has some kind of comeback story, on or off the field/court/ice. I’ve gathered up some good ones in, what else?, a new book, “Champions.” And for the first time since my inaugural book, “I Remember Harry Caray” in 1998, they’re throwing a party to launch the project.

If you can’t get out to spring training on Feb. 22, you have an alternative. At 7 p.m. on that day, you can meet living examples of comeback stories from near and far in sports at Osteria Via Stato, 625. N. State St., just off Ontario Steet, in Chicago’s River North restaurant belt.  Signed copies from yours truly and all the profilees will be available along with drinks and some good food. Tickets are $79 with VIP admission at $179, available at www.signaturestrength.org/events.

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White Sox rebuilding, properly communicated, goes over well with critical fans

Rick Hahn could have experienced a far worse reaction during SoxFest, and it would be understandable. Human nature prompts impatience.

But the pride of Winnetka and cerebral Sox GM had properly communicated from Day One that annual patchwork simply would not suffice anymore, and a total teardown-and-rebuild would be the only way for his listing franchise to proceed. That’s why Hahn was cheered and backslapped wherever he went.

Just be upfront and open about your intentions. Don’t hype it up with “all-in” proclamations. And some of sports most discerning, if not outright critical fans, will cut you plenty of slack.

Fans would not take to middling free agents brought in for hole-plugging and money-wasting. But the best prospects in baseball? Now, that will go a long way.

Dick Allen and his 1972 Most Valuable Player Award

Dick Allen, who completed the Roland Hemond-led rebuild, shows off his 1972 Most Valuable Player Award 40 years later at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Two historical precedents show how the Sox handled rebuilding in different ways, and got different fan reactions. Nobody but the most avid senior fans are left from the first example, but fortunately Hahn figured it out on his own with support from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

Finishing the team record 106-loss season in 1970, the Sox were irrelevant in Chicago. They drew fewer than 500,000 fans in ’70. Only the semi-senile Leo Durocher-fueled Cubs collapses that year, and the doozy in 1969, prevented the Sox from moving through sheer lack of interest. Fortunately, in his first year as owner, John Allyn realized the pitch-and-putt style favored by his brother Arthur of the past decade just could not continue.

John Allyn thoroughly cleaned house. Gone were GM Ed Short, manager Don Gutteridge, longtime radio play-by-play voice Bob Elson and other symbols of boring, losing baseball. Swept in were de facto GM Roland Hemond, positive-mental-attitude manager Chuck Tanner and broadcaster Harry Caray. Allyn let all know he was not in it for incremental change.

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Public got what it wanted, PEDs and all, in McGwire-Sosa HR race

The flip of the calendar to 2018, the pending Hall of Fame announcement and a couple of long-form YouTube videos got me thinking about the Great Home Run Race of 1998, now tainted by PED accusations.

Twenty years have zipped by at warp speed since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated a generally contented public, existing in a boom economy and terrorism-light environment that hasn’t been replicated since. Covering Sosa from my then-assigned pressbox seat at Wrigley Field and in a handful of games in Milwaukee seems it took place last month.

The recriminations have been heavy ever since about how this race was fueled with McGwire and Sosa both achieving home-run totals that previously were straight out of science fiction. There is never more head-shaking and hand-wringing than when the new Cooperstown inductees are announced. At this writing, a true Clean Gene, Peoria’s Jim Thome, is an odds-on favorite to win the writers’ vote. Thome missed by one season playing on the White Sox with Frank Thomas, yet another natural strongman who decried players who apparently inflated their numbers by chemical means.

Fans just wanted to pack their cares away and watch Sammy Sosa slug during the Great Home Run Race of 1998.

And Major League Baseball itself is no longer policing the internet with secret-police zeal. Entire vintage ballgame telecasts are now routinely posted on YouTube. I couldn’t help but tune in again to the warm September weekend when Sosa slugged his 60th homer in a wild Cubs’ 15-12 comeback victory over the Brewers. Slammin’ Sammy, as he was fondly called in this different era, went beyond the outer limits with his 61st and 62nd in another rally-cap special, an 11-10 triumph in 10 innings, the next day. Sosa’s second, Maris-busting clout started a two-run ninth inning rally. Factoring in the Brewers’ 13-11 win on Friday, that may have been one of a handful of three-game series in which all teams scored in football-sized double-digit numbers in every contest.

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Doodling, dawdling starters and nervous managers inflate game times

Greg Maddux used just 76 pitches and two hours, eight minutes of game time to beat the Cubs 4-1 in 1997.

Greg Maddux used just 76 pitches and two hours, eight minutes of game time to beat the Cubs 4-1 in 1997.

It’s the starting pitcher, stupid.

All the in- and off-season hang-wringing about three-hour-plus game times that drive away Millennials and bore tons of TV viewers is misplaced. Solutions like limiting the number of manager’s and catcher’s visits, and even pitch clocks, don’t get to the heart of the problem.

Unfortunately, baseball would have to revert to its 20th century style to drive the game times back toward the two-hour, 40 minute mark or even less.

Starting pitchers working quickly and efficiently for seven or eight innings. And why not all nine? One or at the very most two relief pitchers, preferably starting the inning fresh instead of the usual stall-ball of a mid-inning change.

Which will be the manager who will revert to the good ol’ days rather than panic at the first baserunner in the fifth inning, or believe every arm in the bullpen is there to be used at any time, and we don’t care if we run out of pitchers in extra innings?

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Internet-fueled media job losses now cut into muscle of baseball coverage

Dan Hayes

Dan Hayes

The relentless march of the internet and its hypnotic I-devices – gobbling up old-school jobs and not replacing them with a commensurate number of new-age positions – finally cut into the muscle of Chicago baseball coverage.

Most fans don’t really care how the media operates. They just want their ballgames broadcast and (now) streamed. And if they are more than casual fans wearing team apparel for their once- or twice-annual ballpark trips, a pre-game preview and post-game analysis are also appreciated. They don’t tend to be too discriminating in who originates that content.

But they should. Follow the logic and history here.

White Sox fans have one less experienced “insider” to explain Rick Hahn’s rebuilding program. Dan Hayes, who arrived five years ago from San Diego to cover the Sox for NBC Sports Chicago, has been swept up in a second round of layoffs for the suddenly troubled regional sports channel.

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