Week of February 28, 2020

Sneak Peek: State-Bound

Where the dream begins…

and where the dream is realized. Josie Lang, fourth from the left.

Last week I traveled back to Minnesota to watch my niece become the first person in my family to play in the State High School Hockey Tournament. We’ll be posting the long-form within a couple days, but here’s an excerpt. 

Still, this was the State Tourney and, regardless of how many empty seats there were and how lopsided the victory was, traditions are to be observed. A post-game burger and beer at McGovern’s is one tradition, thanks to Grandpa Malaske. So Mom, Dad, Tony, Matt, Lisa, and I pulled our hoods tight and leaned into the night wind towards W. 7th and Chestnut.

It was a quiet Wednesday night at the bar. We sat framed in the front window talking favorite State Tourney memories. Tony knew his right away: he and Grandpa went to the Apple Valley – Duluth East 5OT semifinal classic in 1996. Dad remembered how he and Grandpa, his father-in-law, would always go to an evening session. Grandpa’s trick was drive over to whatever high school was nearest and that happened to make the tournament to buy tickets. I remembered Ryan Kraft and Matt Cullen on those Moorhead teams. Or Dave Spehar of that same Duluth East Greyhounds team netting hat-tricks in the quarterfinal, semifinal, and championship games. The kid was the talk of the state one weekend in March. Lisa and Matt made it habit to take off work, pull the kids from school for a session and mix in the sliders from The Grill at the hotel.

“You don’t need your whole seat, just the edge of it.”- Perhaps Wally Shaver’s greatest line. 

Sitting there framed in the window and sharing memories with fries, it struck me how cyclical hockey is in Minnesota. That’s what keeps the game ingrained in damn near every neighborhood and backyard rink. A local pee-wee coach near where Matt lives was on those mid-90s Duluth East teams. My sister’s oldest daughter is coached by what must be the only Mr. and Ms. Hockey husband-wife coaching duo in the history of the sport. Johnny Pohl (Mr. Hockey 1998) carried a Red Wing team to the tourney. His wife, Krissy Wendell (Ms. Hockey 2000) did the same for Park Center. She later captained the National Team, winning an Olympic silver medal in 2002 and a bronze in 2006. It wasn’t until days after that I remembered that Steve Sertich, a member of the 1976 Olympic team, coached me! He’s the father of a former teammate of mine and 2005 Mr. Hockey winner, Marty Sertich. Round and round we go.

And because we’re a family obsessed with nostalgia, telling each other the same stories over and over again, I know each of us at McGovern’s at least considered this night – watching Josie earlier and post-gaming at McGovern’s – a new favorite memory as it was still in progress.

The waiter asked if we wanted another round. The only answer was yes. – PAL

The full version of State-Bound will be published shortly!

Johnny Bench Stories Are Very Good Stories

(the throw at the :40 mark is jaw-dropping)

TOB turned me onto Joe Posnanski’s ambitious Top 100 essay series counting down the best 100 players in MLB history. It’s a great way to get excited for Opening Day, and this Johnny Bench essay had me hooked. Stories about catchers are the best. Catchers are to baseball players what Westerns are to movies. Nothing but grit and charm, baby, and nevermind what positioned I played in baseball. 

Also, Johnny Bench was my dad’s favorite player. Also, some of the anecdotes in this essay are absolute gut-busters. 

Let’s start with Bench’s dad, Ted. Ted was quite the player back in the day, and when he’d watch games, he’d like to inform his youngest son, Johnny, that his old man could hit so-and-so pitcher.

Ted watched Bob Gibson throwing on television and he said the same thing: “Hell, I could hit him.” In 1968, Johnny Bench faced Gibson for the first time. The first time up, he struck out looking. The next two times up, he struck out swinging. “Dad,” he said to Ted the next time they spoke, “you couldn’t hit him.” 

And then there are the Bench legends. I mean, I knew he’s considered the best catcher*, but I didn’t know how cocky he was coming up. Hell, they retired his number on a minor league team for which he played a total of 98 games. They didn’t retire the number after he became an MVP – they retired it before he left town. 

You should read the whole essay, but the following is too good to keep from you:

Something happened that rookie year, something so absurd that it’s almost beyond belief. It’s my second-favorite Johnny Bench story. Bench was catching a veteran pitcher named Gerry Arrigo, and on this day, Arrigo didn’t have anything on his fastball. Anyway, that’s how Bench saw it. He kept calling for breaking balls and offspeed stuff instead.

Arrigo didn’t see things at all the same way and he kept shaking off Bench.

They continued this dance for a while until finally Bench went to the mound to make his case. He explained that Arrigo’s fastball was just not popping. Arrigo, in turn, explained that Bench was a rookie and that, considering the circumstances, he should just shut the hell up. This disagreement went on for a few seconds until finally, the two men understood that they were at an impasse and Bench shrugged and went back behind the plate.

And he called for another curveball.

And Arrigo shook him off again. Bench called for the fastball, which Arrigo threw with all the fury he had inside him.

Bench reached out with his right hand and caught it barehanded.

What a goddamn cowboy. I can understand why he’s one of my dad’s favorites. 

*I’ve said it before: I saw Pudge Rodriguez play, and it’s damn near impossible for me to imagine someone being better than Pudge.) – PAL

Source: The Baseball 100: No. 30, Johnny Bench”, Joe Posnanski, The Athletic (02/26/20)

TOB: I have not read all 70+ of these stories so far. But I’ve read a decent number. Early on in the list, it was just the players I wanted to read about. Guys from my childhood that I know a lot about. Guys like Ichiro. Tony Gwynn. Ken Griffey, Jr. Then I read about guys I knew a decent amount about, but who were before my time. Guys like Jackie Robinson. Roberto Clemente. Joe DiMaggio (choice Posnanski line: “Every day, you wake up, and you hope that something good will happen. And during a hitting streak, it does.” – Ugh, I wish I had written that).

As Posnanski got into the Top 40, I started seeing legendary names; names I’ve read about since I was a kid but know nothing or next-to-nothing about. Names like Mel Ott. Jimmy Foxx. (choice Posnanski line: “And, most of all, Dell was happy to play ball with his son, Jimmie. He began throwing balls to Jimmie from their earliest days together. There was, Jimmie always insisted, no pressure attached, no expectations, no deferred dreams to live up to. It was just joy. Father and son would play catch every day after farming, and there was nothing in the world that made both of them happier.”). Christy Mathewson. Cy Young. Eddie Collins (choice Posnanski line: “He was in Vermont on his honeymoon. While we can only guess at the splendor of a honeymoon that ends up at a semi-pro baseball game in Montpelier, Coakley saw the 19-year-old [Eddie Collins] play and was blown away by the experience.”).

Those much older guys have been fascinating to read about. Some of the stories seem apocryphal. For example, Posnanski tells a story about Clement and his time in the minors that was debunked in another story we featured just a couple months ago. But it doesn’t matter because Posnanski is an excellent storyteller. I hope he puts these together and sells them as a book. I would buy and read the hell out of it.

For the record, Johnny Bench’s story is my favorite so far. Phil nailed the highlights. On a very rare occasion, one of us opens the Google Doc we share to prepare this blog each week ready to copy/paste a specific passage from a story only to find that the other has already put the exact same passage on there. It cracks me up every time. That happened this week with that story about Johnny Bench, his dad, and Bob Gibson. Perfect.

Modern Baseball’s Defensive Shift Began at Tiny, Hippie, Oberlin College in the 1990s. Wait, What?

The title is an exaggeration. Baseball’s shift has been around as early as the 1920s. Famously, in the 1946 World Series, the Cardinals used a very modern looking shift to symie Ted Williams.

So how did an awful, D-III baseball team in the mid-90s presage baseball’s current defensive shift rage? It starts with the school’s basketball coach. His name is Gene DeLorenzo. Oberlin required coaches to help out in a second sport, so DeLorenzo helped out with baseball. He wondered how he could turn his awful baseball team into something a little more respectable. He looked at his own sport, basketball, and realized his baseball team needed to utilize motion, just like his basketball team did:

At a very basic level, basketball teams alternate between man-to-man and zone systems, and, within the zone, between 1-3-1 and 2-1-2 alignments. Football teams might use the 4-3 front or the 3-4 front. They might go nickel or dime or prevent, depending on the game situation and opponent strength.

In both sports, ultimately, defenses adjust to their opponents, provide multiple looks and cover ground out of practicality, not predestination.

The hard truth faced by the Yeomen was that opponents were pummeling their pitchers, smacking frozen ropes into the outfield gaps and enjoying a Gas House Gorillas-style conga line around the bases. Oberlin’s losses weren’t just routine; they were routinely lopsided.

So, DeLorenzo and Connolly thought, what if Oberlin made the type of adjustment that would be made in basketball or football?

“We wanted,” Connolly says, “to put people where we thought [they’d have] a chance to catch the ball or keep it in front of ‘em.”

So, they went extreme. Although they’d sometimes change things up, their base alignment had five outfielders. They put one infielder on each side of second base. Of course, they had a pitcher and catcher. They called it the flytrap. The idea was to close off the outfield to increase their team’s chance of catching a fly ball, and to limit hitters to a single when they hit a line drive.They even renamed the positions.

But Oberlin didn’t stop there. No, sir:

Of course, The Flytrap requires fly balls. To generate those, Connolly and DeLorenzo decided that the Oberlin pitchers could lob the ball, Rip Sewell-style, high over the plate to encourage the opposing hitter to swing up.

“We had to talk to the umpires to see if the strike zone included vertical versus just horizontal,” Connolly says. “So if the ball came down from on top of the plate, 10 feet high, is that considered part of the strike zone?”

They got the OK. They were ready to set the trap.

Of course, once they decided to implement it, they needed a little showmanship:

On Wednesday, April 20, 1994, the Oberlin baseball team took the field for the first inning of a doubleheader against conference foe Case Western Reserve University. The players trotted out to their traditional positions. All was calm and placid at Dill Field as left-hander Noah Pressler picked up the ball and put it in his glove.

But then Pressler, who was nicknamed “Moose,” stepped off the mound, turned his back to the batter, took a deep breath, and screamed, “Mooooooose!”

Suddenly, all of the Oberlin fielders sprinted to new spots. There were five outfielders. There were two infielders (Lytle at sweeper, Marbury at stud). The Yeomen had repositioned themselves so swiftly, so unexpectedly and so originally that all the batter could do was stand there, astonished and spellbound.

That is until he — and his entire dugout — started laughing.

Some of the Oberlin players were doing the same.

“I was laughing so hard, I had tears in my eyes,” Marbury says. “It was so ludicrous.”

You’re probably wondering how well the Flytrap worked. Not well, my dude! The other team still found holes because the Oberlin players were just that bad, and worse it was nearly impossible to defend against bunts or stolen bases. Oberlin played their last 4 games that season using the Flytrap. The cumulative score was 56-6, in favor of Oberlin’s opponents. 

Ah, well, nevertheless. 

Oberlin’s Flytrap may not have actually sparked the MLB shift rage. But it was certainly ahead of its time.

“Even in the last five years, we’re seeing so many changes in the game,” Sheehan says. “We’re seeing infielders in the outfield, we’ve seen teams take the pitcher and put him in left field, we’re seeing guys fill multiple roles, we’re seeing real two-way players. There’s definitely more athleticism and flexibility in the game. It’s a cool pendulum swing.”

The pendulum will quite likely never swing far enough for The Flytrap to mount a comeback. But last season, 185 plate appearances in MLB ended with the defense in a four-outfielder arrangement, including 86 instances in which a fifth fielder was positioned in the outfield grass, at least 160 feet from home plate.

To quote the Sandlot: Legends never die. -TOB

Source: This Terrible College Team Invented the Shift … Sort of,” Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com (02/27/2020)

Time for David Ayres to update the ol’ Linkedin profile

I love a good emergency goalie story, and h/t to Alex Denny of Brooklyn, NY for sending this our way. 

The emergency goalie story is a one of one in professional sports (at least that I can think of). A regular dude, plucked out of anonymity to play in a game at the absolute highest level. Where else does that happen? Emergency QBs are old NFL QBs. Baseball has several teams of minor leaguers to call up in a pinch. Basketball has a minor league, too. 

Most fascinating nugget from this story: I didn’t know that the emergency goalie in an NHL game is available to both teams playing. In 2016, the NHL instituted a rule requiring home teams to provide a list of emergency goalies, just in case. Just in case has happened several times in the last 5 years. 

Ayres was actually in the seats watching the game when he got the call. Other instances of emergency goalies have stories of them parking in public lot by Madison Square Garden (sheesh, get the dude a parking pass!) or having their phone blow up while getting a trim at “Mastercuts”. But Ayres was already at the game when Carolina’s starter and the backup were injured. 

Speaking to the tone the regular players set, Ayers said,“These guys were awesome. They said to me, ‘Have fun with it, don’t worry about how many goals go in, this is your moment, have fun with it.’”

After a rough start (he let in the first two shots) he settled in to get the W, not to mention setting a record in the process. At 42, David Ayres became the oldest goalie to win his N.H.L. debut. 

Ayres day job: Zamboni driver. – PAL

Source: A 42-Year-Old Zamboni Driver Wins in His N.H.L. Debut, A.P., 02/23/2020)

TOB: Loved this story. Love this video of the team in the locker room after the game (it’s the video of the week below).

Philly Phanatic Gets Work Done

The ass is bigger. Dye job on the hair. And The Philly Phanatic is all-in on the thick eyebrows trend. Yes, the iconic mascot has received a makeover, and it’s because of a lawsuit. 

I’ve never been a mascot guy. They’re dumb. I put up with it at the collegiate level, but we can all agree it’s embarrassing in the pros. And take that “it’s fun for the kids” next door. All I can do is think about the poor sap, Cousin Greg style, in the costume sweating and getting poked. 

Some 40 years ago, the Phillies teamed up with a former Muppets designer in hopes of attracting the kiddos. 

In court papers filed in August, the Phillies said that Harrison/Erickson, the New York-based design and marketing firm that worked on the mascot’s design in 1978, improperly wanted to terminate an agreement over the Phanatic’s copyright.

The team said the firm was threatening to “obtain an injunction against the Phillies’ use of the Phanatic and to ‘make the Phanatic a free agent’” if the team did not pay the firm millions of dollars, according to court papers.

The firm replied in its own court documents that the Phillies did not have a claim to the Phanatic’s copyright and that the team had “no input into the design and creation of the Phanatic.” The firm said it “wanted to negotiate a re-granting of the Phanatic copyright to The Phillies for a fair price, to be negotiated.”

I’ll chip in $20 to have the Phanatic just go away forever. This one made me chuckle. – PAL 

Source: The Phillies Unveil a New Phanatic as  Lawyers Fight Over Mascot Copyright”, Mihir Zaveri, The New York Times (02/26/2020)

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week

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“I thought your vagina was removed during your hysterectomy.”

-Dwight Schrute


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