With the baseball draft kicking off this Sunday (the first time it’s been during the All-Star break), here’s a great story about a prospect who grew up in Oakland.
Rickey Henderson was a 3-sport star at Oakland Tech High School, which stands about a 9-iron away from the balcony I’m sitting on at this moment. He loved football, but J.J. Guinn, a full-time Berkeley police officer and part-time baseball scout, saw a different future for the young athlete. More importantly, Guinn made the winning pitch to Henderson’s mom: less injuries in baseball. Once Bobbie, a single parent, made up her mind, there was no changing it. Rickey went to his room and cried.
The decision went against the views of many of the people who had watched Henderson. Football coaches praised Henderson’s physique and lauded his speed. But in baseball, he found less reassurance. Some scouts were concerned with his arm, his crouched batting stance, and the fact that he batted right-handed but threw left-handed.
Those scouts focused on Henderson’s flaws. Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range. Where others saw impediments, Guinn saw possibility.
Only two M.L.B. teams were present for an American Legion game at Bushrod Park on that day in 1976: the Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After Henderson struck out in his first two at-bats, the Dodgers scout stood up. “I’ve seen enough,” Guinn recalled him saying. “I have a plane to catch.”
Henderson homered in his next two at-bats and Guinn feverishly typed out a report to his scouting director. His advice: Sign Rickey Henderson “right away.”
We know how this ended up for Henderson. Guinn’s story is perhaps more interesting. Part-time scout, full-time officer, respected and revered in Berkeley and Oakland.
From Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Guinn would walk some of Berkeley’s most crime-ridden streets looking to connect with the residents he was charged with protecting. Few of them had seen a Black police officer.
“Most people think these kids on the street are dumb, but they’re not,” Guinn said. “They know if they can trust you. I had to instill that trust. But because I was raised in Berkeley, if I didn’t know them, they knew my children, or I knew their parents. They knew I was for real.”
Rickey and Guinn got together a couple weeks ago. The location: Rickey Henderson’s suite at the Oakland Coliseum. They reviewed Guinn’s original scouting report from 1976. More than an assessment, that report is now a time machine.
Henderson sat back and listened, smiling as Guinn recited his strengths, and cackling as he recited his weaknesses. The words transported both men back to Bushrod Park in North Oakland, on a warm April afternoon, two months before that year’s draft.
A heartwarming read. – PAL
Source: “After 45 Years, a Cop Still Looks After His Favorite (Base) Thief,” Alex Coffey, The New York Times (07/09/21)
TOB: Love Rickey. I randomly saw this tweet this morning and had to add to it:
As TOB has touched on many times on this blog (and I have been a skeptic to a degree that approaches unfun), Shohei Ohtani is doing something unseen in the last century of baseball. The dude has hit 30 home runs before the all-star break…and is a starting pitcher, a pretty good one with electric stuff. He throws 101, and he hits 450-foot lasers.
Before we go any further, let’s break for TOB to tell me “I TOLD YOU” while I eat crow:
TOB: *cracks knuckles*
Pull up a chair, this is a life lesson: When you want to believe and you choose to believe, then you will get to revel in the fruits of that belief. When I wrote about him 14 at bats into his career, sure I could have “taken it easy,” as my friend suggested. But no. NO, dangit. Where is the joy in that, I ask you? This week I saw an article suggesting Ohtani is “breaking baseball.” I saw another saying he is “pushing MLB’s boundaries.” I saw another discussing how he is the first half AL MVP, and it’s not close because what he is doing hasn’t been done since Babe Ruth. I wanted to believe we could see the next Babe Ruth and by god we are seeing it. If Ohtani stunk, I wouldn’t care. But no. Here I am. Rubbing Phil’s nose in the dirt as a good friend should. Today, we celebrate Ohtani. But we also celebrate ME.
OK, back to the story.
Here’s some context for Ohtani’s season from Neil Paine, writing for the data-driven fivethirtyeight:
As I wrote in May, this is a modern Babe Ruth season. But that might be understating what Ohtani has been doing. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, Ohtani is on pace for 11.7 total WAR per 162 games this year, including 6.7 as a position player and 5.0 as a pitcher. That would be an astronomical tally — none of teammate Mike Trout’s seasons have reached that level; in fact, it hasn’t been done since Barry Bonds in 2002. But even more remarkably, no player in AL or NL history has even come close to producing 5 WAR on both sides of the ball in the same season. Ruth’s best two-way year saw him put up 6.0 WAR as a batter and 3.0 WAR as a pitcher in 1918, one of his last seasons before becoming a full-time outfielder.
And yet, as I first heard Monday from Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo, the Ohtani season doesn’t feel like it’s as big of a deal as it would’ve been if it had happened 10-20 years ago. While it’s written about, I don’t know if my dad—a casual baseball fan— would recognize the name. And I haven’t heard that a nephew of mine has begged his parents to go to a game when the Angels come through town.
That should scare the hell out of MLB. How this guy hasn’t moved the needle on a national level is beyond me. There was a lot of hype, then injury, and now he’s living up to the hype, albeit a couple seasons later. We have the most incredible story of my lifetime, and it seems to be flying a bit under the radar. What does that say about the future of the game?
Podcast embedded below (jump to the 66:00 mark)
We’ve typed up and shared a bunch of stories about what’s ailing baseball. Here we have what’s fun and great about the game—a charismatic dude from another country upending all modern expectations—and no one seems to pay it much mind. That’s a bad sign for baseball. – PAL
Source: “Only One Player Has Ever Been As Good As Shohei Ohtani,” Neil Paine, fivethirtyeight.com (06/30/21); The Bill Simmons Podcast (07/07/21)
TOB: This is anecdotal, but I think Simmons Russillo (and the two of us) – white, baseball fans – cannot appreciate the affect what Ohtani’s reach might be for non-baseball fans and people of color. My oldest has a best friend who loves sports. But they are not a baseball family. The dad is not originally from the U.S. – he loves soccer, NFL, and golf, but not baseball. But when the Angels were in town to play the Giants and A’s earlier this year, he texted me and asked if we wanted to go to see Ohtani pitch. Again, this is anecdotal. But I would be interested to see if there’s something to that.
The Athletic did an oral history of Ichiro’s career. Here are the funniest anecdotes:
Bret Boone, Mariners teammate: Opening Day, 2001. I’m taking my position at second base, and there was a veteran umpire out there, a guy that’s been there forever. He comes up to me and goes, “Boonie, what’s up, how are you doing?” And he goes, “What the hell’s up with your right fielder?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “He runs by me and I say to him, ‘Hey, Ichiro, welcome to America.’” And Ichiro looks at him and says, “What’s happening, home slice,” and keeps running to his position.
Brian McCann, Yankees teammate: One of the first series when I went to New York, I went in to get batting gloves or something out of my locker in like the eighth inning. Ichiro was in full cleats, and he was doing sprints in the clubhouse. In cleats, dead sprints, 40 years old, to go play defense in the ninth.
Young: He got on second base and I was playing second base. At this point, I had no idea if he even spoke English. We were in Texas in the middle of the summer. It was just blistering down there, and I go, “What’s up, man?” He looks at me with a straight face and says, “It’s hotter than rats fucking in a wool sock.”
CC Sabathia, Yankees teammate: Ichi gave the best speeches at the All-Star Game.
Randy Winn, Mariners teammate: This is 2002. I’m at the All-Star Game and Joe Torre is the manager. Joe brings us all in and says something very nice, very professional, very Joe Torre, very even and monotone.
Sweeney: You could hear a pin drop as Joe Torre’s speaking to us.
Winn: After he finishes, he goes, “All right, Ichiro, what do you have to say?” I was like, “Wow, why is he calling Ichiro? Of all people to say something …”
Jim Leyland, Tigers manager: All of the sudden he pops up: “Let’s kick their fucking fat asses.”
Michael Young, Rangers second baseman: As loud as he could.
A.J. Pierzynski, Twins catcher: And that was it.
Winn: I was like, “Wait, what?” And everybody cheered like, “Yeaaaaah!”
Rick Griffin, Mariners trainer: By the time we got to 2010, he’d added a few more lines to it and had added some more F-bombs.
Young: Every year, whenever the manager said, “Does anyone have anything to add,” everyone would point both their fingers at Ichiro.
Sweeney: It was almost an unwritten rule: Ichiro would always have the last word.
Young: Every year the decibel level would go up a little more to create a different effect. But every year it was the same thing: “Let’s go kick their fucking fat asses.”
Griffin: He dropped many, many F-bombs in many different varieties and different forms. Just screaming and yelling and hopping up and down — and then he walked away and sat down like nothing happened.
Winn: Like nothing happened.
Bryant: He literally ate those [chicken wings] every home game for 10 years. Except on a day game he would change it up and he would have a corndog, of all things. He would have two corndogs. These were the cheap, Costco corndogs, and they could not be microwaved. They had to be baked in the oven so they would get crispy.
Chamberlain: During the game, he would only eat plum balls made by his wife. Plum balls.
Griffin: He knew where every single California Pizza Kitchen was in every city that we stayed in. And whether it was five minutes away or 45 minutes away, he had lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. He had double cheese, extra sauce and lightly cooked. Every time.
Griffin: He would come in every day when he got to the ballpark, and he would weigh himself. … And if he weighed 171.8 then he would eat a little more so the next day he would come in and weigh 172. If he weighed 172.3 then the next day he would eat a little bit less so he would weigh 172.
Bryant: He actually started out with nine wings. He came in one year and said, “Chef J, I’m gaining weight, so I can only have seven wings.” And then he did seven wings for a while. And then by the end he was only doing five because he was thinking he was gaining weight.
Bryant: I went up to Ichi and said, “Hey, what do you think of selling these wings out in the stands?” And he goes, “Let me think about it.” I’m not even exaggerating: Four years go by. I get a call from his interpreter in the offseason. He goes, “Chef J, I just wanted to let you know. Ichiro said go ahead with the wings idea.”
Strange-Gordon: If Ichi makes a really nice play, like he throws somebody out or gets a big hit, you’d say, “That atta boy Ich!” And he’d literally go, “It’s obvious.”
Winn: It’s myself, Ichiro, Bret and Edgar (Martinez). Bret said something like, “Ichiro, how do you do it?” And Ichiro, without missing a beat, turns to him, stone-faced, and goes, “It’s obvious.”
Chamberlain: That should literally be the title of your article: “It’s obvious.”
Strange-Gordon: He had just signed with the Marlins, and we hit every day. You know me: I’m just watching everything. I go, “Ichi, question. At the beginning of the second half last year, they told me they wanted me to walk more, so I started taking pitches, but I started to strike out.” He said, “No, no, no.” I said, “So how do I walk?” He said, “You rake first, then they’ll walk you.”
Sele: His first year, in spring training, guys were taking BP, and I believe that he was hitting with Jay (Buhner) and Edgar. They were cranking line drives all over the place, no big deal. Ichiro was just staying inside the ball and just flipping the ball to left field with no real impact. Lou (Piniella) starts to get on him, saying something like, “Son, you’ve got to get behind the ball. Drive the ball.” Ichiro puts his finger to his lips and says, “Shhhhhh. I’ve got a plan.”
McLaren: Lou asked him, “Son, do you ever turn on a ball? Do you ever pull the ball?” He just nodded his head and said, “Sometimes.” And Lou goes, “OK, well, I’d like to see it. I’d just like to see you turn on a ball.” So we start the game that night, and he hits one to right field way back on the berm. I mean, he crushed it. So he comes back to the dugout and he’s getting ready to go down the steps and he stops and he looked at Lou and he says, “Is that turn on ball, Lou?”
Source: “Untold Stories of Ichiro: Wrestling with Griffey, All-Star Speeches and ‘Ichi Wings’,” Corey Brock, Rustin Dodd, Jayson Jenks, The Athletic (07/06/2021)
Ok, Maybe We Should Pump the Brakes on Robo-Umps
But also, doesn’t the ump have the ability to overrule the roboump? I thought they did. Also, nice work by the song guy. -TOB
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Song of the Week: JJ Grey & Mofro – “Every Minute”
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