This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: January 14-20, 2013
So Long, Stan Musial and Earl Weaver The Ultimate USA WBC Team
Will the Cubs Get What They Want on Wrigley Field? Bloody Socks for Sale

Goodbye, Stan
Every city with a longstanding kinship to big league baseball has embraced one player as their favorite son, the iconic and revered legend for whom folks young and old can chat wistfully about for hours on end. In Cleveland, it’s Bob Feller. In San Francisco, it’s Willie Mays. In Atlanta, it’s Hank Aaron. And in St. Louis, it’s Stan Musial.

A one-of-a-kind star player and genuine good guy, Musial passed away over the weekend at the age of 92 in St. Louis, where he began his Hall-of-Fame career in 1941 shortly after successfully converting from a pitcher in the minor leagues when a sore arm seemed destined to doom his career. His impact as a hitter was immediate; gifted with one the game’s sweetest swings, he hit .426 in a 12-game call-up in 1941, registered at .315 in his first full season a year later, and a year after that won his first of seven National League batting titles with a .357 mark. The power soon followed; six times he clubbed 30 or more home runs, topping out with 39 in 1948—part of a campaign that was clearly his best, adding personal bests in a .376 average, .450 on-base percentage, .702 slugging percentage (the highest seen in the NL until Jeff Bagwell in 1994), 131 runs batted in, 230 hits and 135 runs scored. Musial won his third and last MVP that season—he finished second in the vote four other times—and made one of 24 All-Star Game appearances, which tie him with Mays and Aaron for the most ever. He finished his career with a .331 average, 475 homers and 3,630 hits—exactly half of them (1,815) at home.

Statistics aside, Musial the Man was just as adored as Musial the Player. In stark contrast to the Cardinals’ bullying Gashouse Gang element of the 1930s, Musial brought far more congenial character and an undeceiving smile to the Cardinal clubhouse. That personality extended beyond the ballpark and beyond his playing years, as Musial came to be so admired in retirement that he’s the only person to have not one but two statues of his likeness at the same ballpark, at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. His popularity among the locals was bared out for all to see when Cardinal fans protested Musial’s demotion from the 2009 All-Star pre-game agenda in favor of President Barack Obama—who two years later showed his own love for Musial by presenting him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Goodbye, Earl
On the same day of Musial’s passing, baseball endured another tough loss when it was learned that Earl Weaver, one of the game’s most successful and feisty managers, passed away at the age of 82 while taking part in the Orioles’ Fantasy Cruise. From his beginnings as a minor league manager in the Baltimore farm system in 1956, Weaver developed and presided over the “Oriole Way”—though it really was his way or the highway, especially after he became the top Baltimore pilot in 1968. It was anything but the wrong way; in 15 years managing the O’s from 1968-82, he never once suffered a losing season—winning 100-plus games five times, four American League pennants and (in 1970) one world title. He returned for a second, shorter and far less successful tenure in the mid-1980s, barely eking out a .500 mark under his partial watch in 1985 before finishing last in 1986, his final year.

Weaver was clearly the most pugnacious manager this side of John McGraw. He battled most memorably with umpires, earning an impressive 91 career ejections—but he also meted out tough love (or lack thereof) with his own players. Even in retirement, Weaver remained combative as ever—best illustrated when, during a 2000 charity roast in his honor, he took some good-natured ribbing from former Oriole and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Palmer too personally and practically yelled him out of the banquet room, to the discomfort of a stunned audience.

The World Cup it Just Ain’t
The roster for the U.S. World Baseball Classic team was released this past week, and if anything it reveals just how unimportant and embryonic the tournament remains. There are some elite players listed: Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, premiere closer Craig Kimbrel and perennial All-Star talents in Ryan Braun, David Wright, Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira. But when you think the best of the best, the first names to come to mind aren’t usually Tim Collins, J.P. Arencibia and Willie Bloomquist. Yet there they are, members of the 25 best players America has to offer—or what it can best attract amid the ennui of other players who would rather concentrate on more important things such as the 2013 regular season. It can be argued that even the Pro Bowl gets more love than this.

But if our existence as a nation depended on Team USA’s performance in the WBC, who would make up our Dream Team as, truly, the best players out there? Here’s our quick look at the ideal starting nine, with the likely WBC starters in parens:

Catcher: Buster Posey (Joe Mauer)

First Base: Prince Fielder (Mark Teixeira)

Second Base: Brandon Phillips (Brandon Phillips)

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki (Jimmy Rollins)

Third Base: David Wright (David Wright)

Left Field: Ryan Braun (Ryan Braun)

Center Field: Mike Trout (Adam Jones)

Right Field: Andrew McCutchen (Giancarlo Stanton)

Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander (R.A. Dickey)

The Rejuvenated Confines of Wrigley Field
Rustic Wrigley Field, whose romanticism has was lost on people like baseball pundit Peter Gammons—who calls it a dump—is finally getting a much-needed makeover. But the $300 million renovations to the nearly 100-year-old ballpark, as offered up by the Chicago Cubs this past week, comes with a catch: We’ll pay for it all, the Cubs says, but only if the city lifts numerous existing restrictions and the ballpark’s landmark status. Given the current tense relations between the Cubs and Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and the always colorful element of Chicago politics in general—this potential tug-of-war should be interesting to see unfold.

If the Cubs have their way, a revised Wrigley would include wider concourses, larger team clubhouses, expanded suites and more fan amenities such as restaurants. (Here’s a visual look at it through the eyes of a conceptual artist.) Lifting of city restrictions would also allow the Cubs to hold more night games, concerts and external, street-side establishments within the ballpark structure. If all goes well, the Cubs will need five years to perform the upgrades, all of which to be constructed during the offseason—because, the thought of the Cubs setting up temporary shop at U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the crosstown rival White Sox, is an unsettling thought to Cub fans.

Found in Translation
The globalization of baseball has made communications among ballplayers, coaches and the media a little more challenging; many foreign players typically bring along translators to deal with their lack of English. But while that’s helped out in the clubhouse when reporters are present, how does it all work when a pitcher’s in need of a pep talk on the mound but doesn’t understand what the manager or pitching coach has to say? Apparently, that has been problem enough to force baseball to allow translators to accompany the coaches to the mound when an official visit from the dugout takes place. We’ll see if the interpreters will also be allowed on the field when the pitcher gets into it with the umpires.

Duck, Japan
After an unremarkable 2012 campaign pitching relief in Boston, veteran hurler
Vicente Padilla is taking his act to Japan, where he’ll perform for the Softbank Hawks of the Pacific League. Intimidation is not a common tactic in Japan, so it will be interesting to see how Padilla, cursed by many major leaguers over his career for being a headhunter (he’s hit 109 batters in 1,571.1 lifetime innings) will be received if he starts plunking batters at the same rate as before.

Smear the Beard
Some in the media have posed that
Brian Wilson’s antics were unique, entertaining and tolerable when he was good—but how would they be received once his star began to fall? We may be about to find out. After the closer missed virtually all of last season with his second Tommy John surgery—all while the San Francisco Giants went on to win a World Series without him—he has remained unsigned as a free agent during the offseason and appears destined for a spring training invite and nothing more. The New York Mets checked him out this past week and were hardly impressed, publicly stating, “He’s got a ways to go.”

And what of the incumbents, the Giants? General manager Brian Sabean: “I’m going to be as brutally honest as I always am, I don’t (think Wilson will return). In this case, where you are getting a second Tommy John…it’s the type of rehab where he’s still not further up along to judge exactly where he may be able to come back in major league fashion, let alone as a closer.”

Down With Upton?
One of the more puzzling storylines of the offseason has been the failure of the Arizona Diamondbacks to unload outfielder
Justin Upton. The D-Backs don’t seem to want Upton anymore, not many other teams seem to want him, and the few that do are rebuffed because Upton (armed with a right of refusal) doesn’t seem to want to play for them. Upton has shown so much talent and potential in Arizona, so why all the disinterest? Here’s a clue: Away from hitter-friendly Chase Field in Phoenix, Utley has a career .250 batting average, .325 on-base percentage and .406 slugging percentage. Those numbers almost match those of the average Diamondback (.255, .323, .402) playing on the road last year.

You Can’t Hear Inside a Fish Bowl, So There
Miami owner Jeffrey Loria, rightfully vilified for trading away the bulk of his star 2012 core to Toronto, has since avoided the media—and he’s ordering team president David Samson to do the same, essentially leaving the franchise about as reclusive as North Korea. Samson may not have always said the things the locals wanted to hear, but at least he was willing to talk, even appearing regularly on Miami sports talk to spin the spit from Marlinland. Now, who knows what the Marlins are thinking. Just par for the course in Loria’s Bizarro World.

Physical Education
Whenever there’s a big player signing, you always hear the phrase “pending a physical” that usually ends up being a mere formality. But don’t tell that to Mike Napoli, who’s $34 million poorer this week after actually flunking his physical with Boston last Fall. At that time, the Red Sox and the 31-year-old former Texas Ranger had agreed to a three-year, $39 million pact—but when testing of his body revealed a hip problem, the team backed away and renegotiations began. This past week, they agreed in principle—for a second time—on a much smaller deal valued at one year and $5 million.

For the Love of the Game’s Money
Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, now piloting the Cleveland Indians, gave his former bosses a little punch in a new book he’s releasing about his time in Boston. He thinks that the Sox’ three-ring ownership circle of John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner likes baseball but doesn’t really love it. “It’s still more of a toy or a hobby for them. It’s not their blood,” Francona writes. “They’re going to come in and out of baseball.”

My Colleague Vinny
For those of you who always wanted to pick the brain of Vin Scully—ready to work his 64th year for the Los Angeles Dodgers—here’s a cool little chat he had with Los Angeles of Anaheim broadcaster Victor Rojas in which the 84-year-old play-by-play legend speaks his mind on the Hall of Fame, the designated hitter, and why some broadcasters can be a hit in one market but not in another.

Blood Money
Because he needs the money after his business failed, former pitcher Curt Schilling announced this past week he’ll be auctioning off his famous bloody sock from the 2004 World Series that helped the Boston Red Sox win it all for the first time in 86 years. Schilling’s cursing the earlier moment when he tossed another bloody sock worn during the ALCS against the New York Yankees in the Yankee Stadium trash can. (Good luck digging through the landfills for that prize.) Schilling’s socks were bloodied from loosened sutures that followed an ankle procedure.

Will “Swatting” Also be on the Menu?
Leave it to a minor league team to come up with this one. In the wake of the bizarre Manti Te’o controversy—in which it was uncovered that an “online” girlfriend of the star Notre Dame football player never existed—the independent Brooklyn Cyclones announced that it will hold a “Fictitious Friday” on June 21. The idea? Everything that the Cyclones are publicly saying will happen…will not. Everything, except for the actual game. We assume.

Poor ol’ Mike
Not everyone is rich in baseball. Take St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, after this week. A court ruled that Matheny and his wife are on the hook to repay $4.4 million loaned from a bank for a failed housing development in Chesterfield, Missouri. Methany is contracted for $750,000 by the Cardinals this coming season and made nearly $19 million over a 13-year playing career, but after taxes, agent fees and all the everyday expenses of life through that time, don’t immediately expect a painless lump sum payment to cover the loans.

Enzo Hernandez, 1949-2013
A familiar name in infant San Diego Padres history passed on this week when Enzo Hernandez, who played shortstop for the Padres from 1971-77, reportedly committed suicide in his native Venezuela at the age of 63; details as to what led to him to end his life remain unknown to the public, though one source says he was dealing with recent bouts of depression. Although he was a respected fielder, to say that Hernandez was a light-hitting shortstop is putting it mildly. In his rookie 1971 season, he poked out just 12 extra base hits (nine doubles and three triples) over 549 at-bats; no other player with the minimum number of “qualifying” at-bats has collected fewer long hits. In fact, in 2,327 career at-bats, Hernandez belted just two home runs and a lifetime .266 slugging percentage.

Wounded of the Week
wounded of the weekSpring training hasn’t yet started and already we’ve got activity in the MLB Medical Ward. Milwaukee’s Corey Hart, owner of 30 home runs and 83 RBIs last season, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to miss the first six weeks of the regular season. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez finally had his long-awaited hip surgery, as it was discovered that the damage wasn’t as extensive as first feared. Nevertheless, Rodriguez is not expected back in action until mid-July.

We're Honored
It was announced this past weekend that This Great Game’s Eric Gouldsberry has been selected as a new member of the Internet Baseball Writers’ Association of America (IBWAA). Not to be confused with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (without the “Internet”), the IBWAA is made up of prime members of baseball’s media and Internet community and is headed by Orange County Register sportswriter Howard Cole. Gouldsberry joins TGG’s Ed Attanasio as part of the IBWAA club.

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