Monday, August 30, 2010

The Nieces and Thierry Henry

Quite a weekend. First I saw the New York Red Bulls defeat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday night, a party of 7 that included me and my nieces Ashley and Rachel took the girls to their first real baseball game, postponed from an earlier rainout, in which the Somerset Patriots of Bridgewater, New Jersey hosted and defeated the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of Waldorf, Maryland, 5-2.

Dane Richards scored the first Red Bulls goal, assisted by the legendary Thierry Henry. Richards returned the favor, assisting Henry on the second.

I never got to see Mickey Mantle hit a home run, or Johnny Unitas throw a touchdown pass, or (except on TV) Guy Lafleur blaze a slapshot into the net. And I only know Walt (Clyde) Frazier as a broadcaster. Tonight, I was in the building, just 50 or so feet away, and I saw Thierry Henry score a goal.

Because I have never left the North American continent, this was a hard thing to ever see in person. When the New York Football Challenge happened over a 4-day stretch last month, I wasn't able to see the first game, in which Henry scored against Tottenham Hotspur (something he enjoyed doing when he played for Arsenal, Spurs' arch-rivals), because something came up at the last minute. And while Henry did have an assist in the Sunday game, which I did see, against another English side, Manchester City, he did not score.

This time he did, and all the DVD highlights came to life. He did all the familiar moves. Especially that Gallic shrug of his shoulders, as if to say, "This game, it is easy."

Then the game turned into an Arsenal match: Some louse (I'm not using the word I would like to use, as the girls may read this well before they're old enough to read that word) hacked him down in the 86th minute, and he was injured.

He got up, and was subbed, but the Red Bulls have to go to defending MLS Champion Real Salt Lake next week, and I wouldn't even risk him in a game they're almost sure to lose anyway. Let him rest for the big meet-and-greet the following Saturday against the Colorado Rapids.

*

The Patriots game had almost everything. No fight, and no beanballs, although there was one player hit by a pitch that appeared to be completely accidental. There were 3 home runs, 2 but the Pats and 1 by the Crabs. There was some good pitching, including by Bill Pulsipher, the former "Generation K" pitcher who blew out his elbow with the Mets, who went 6 strong for the Patriots. There was some sensational fielding, and the Pats' 3rd baseman, Jeff Nettles, was responsible for some of that -- to be expected, as he's the son of Graig Nettles, a sensational 3rd baseman and a Yankee teammate of Pats manager Sparky Lyle. But the Crabs' 3rd baseman, Patrick Osborn, and their shortstop, Travis Garcia, were even more amazing.

And the game was still in doubt until the end: Although the Patriots had a 5-2 lead in the 9th, the Crabs got the tying runs on base and the potential winning run to the plate, but the Pats got out of it.

Rachel, who's really into music, was very excited about singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch. (Because of the pregame ceremonies, they played "God Bless America" then instead of before "Take Me Out.") She did great.

She was also excited about living out a certain part of the song. She really wanted us to "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack." We never saw a peanut vendor, but a vendor did come bearing Cracker Jack packs. $5.75? That's a lot of money for Cracker Jacks. (I remember being shocked in 1996 when I saw a vendor with a cereal-box sized box of them, at $4.00. This $5.75 bag, 14 years later, was smaller.)

And guess what? Rachel doesn't like them! Rachel doesn't like Cracker Jacks! Ashley sure does, though. They may be twins, but they're not only not identical, but they're very different in some ways. Anyway, it's hard to get disillusioned when you're 3, and I think Rachel's gotten over it already. As she herself would say, "It's okay, it's okay."

The Blue Crabs, based on a peninsula of Maryland near the Potomac River, south of Washington, D.C., have a name, logo and uniforms that are suspiciously close to those of the Lakewood BlueClaws, here in New Jersey.

After the game, as they do every Sunday, the Pats had a kids-run-the-bases event. I held Rachel's hand, and my sister (their mother) held Ashley's hand, and we ran around the bases at a professional baseball stadium.

This would not have been possible for me at the same age. That would have been 1973, and there were no minor-league teams in New Jersey then, and there's no way my parents would have let that happen in New York City. Not at Shea Stadium in Queens, and certainly not at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, then in its final pre-renovation season. Not in 1973, and if you saw the U.S. version of the TV show Life On Mars, or the ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, set in 1976-77, let me tell you that they got just about everything about the urban jungle New York then was right. At the time, the Yankees let fans onto the field to exit the Stadium through an outfield gate, allowing them to see the Monuments that were then in center field, but the orange-jacketed, orange-capped ushers kept fans off the infield.

Besides, big-league teams usually don't do "kids run the bases," although I did see it done in my one game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Some minor-league teams do a "seniors run the bases," although when I suggested this to my parents, now in their 60s, they laughed off the idea.

Ashley had a good time. Rachel absolutely loved it. She seems to get it: While Ashley enjoyed the experience, Rachel seems to revel in baseball. She's already seen more of it at that age than I had at twice that (6). She understands the difference between "safe" and "out." She understands the difference between "fair" and "foul." And when I explained to her why one fly ball was a home run and another was not, she seemed to understand that, too.

I'd like to say that the ran around the bases was one of the great joys of my life. The truth is, I was so worried about making sure Rachel didn't trip and fall, and possibly get trampled by another kid (or, worse, a grownup), that I couldn't soak in the moment. And let me tell you: When you're 40 years old, and have made a few trips up and down the steps to get to the concession stands and the restroom, 90 feet between bases seems like a lot longer. I was exhausted!

Then again, how much longer is 90 feet when you're the size of a 3-year-old?

But those 3-year-olds have so much heart. A few big-league athletes, in a number of sports, could learn from them.

*

I am not a fan of the Somerset Patriots, for reasons I will not get into here. But they ran everything very well, from their salute to veterans before the game to the kids run the bases afterwards. I wish they had warned us beforehand that there was going to be gunfire -- they had an Iwo Jima survivor on hand, and they re-enacted the Marines' storming of the beaches and the iconic photo of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, and then fired a salute coupled with "Taps" when the ceremony ended -- but, other than that, it was first-class all the way.

I wish they had better food, though. I can say the same about their rivals, the Newark Bears. You'd think a city as ethnically (and thus gastonomically) diverse as Newark would have more concession options. Both independent-league teams are way behind the major-league-affiliated Trenton Thunder and Lakewood BlueClaws in this regard.

*

The other day, the Met-fan blogger Metstradamus mused (he also uses the word "Musings" in his blog title) about Jeff Francoeur, whose early-season heroics have collapsed to the point where he's a liability at the plate, and whose usual choice of country songs as walk-up music have been replaced by the current Number 1 song in America, "Love the Way You Lie" by Eminem and Rihanna.

http://www.metstradamusblog.com/2010-articles/august/a-picture-is-worth-a-few-words-a-song-is-worthless.html

Actually, Eminem is a step up for Rihanna, if not for Francoeur. At least Eminem only SINGS about committing domestic violence, unlike Rihanna's ex Chris Brown.

But, regardless of whether Eminem's character in the song is apologizing for his own domestic abuse, or for the stuff that other Eminem characters have done, or for something Eminem may have done in his real life, or helping Rihanna deal with her real life, or is, in fact, an apologist for such abuse (in which case Eminem would have crossed an even worse line than Chris Brown, though I doubt this is what he's doing), Francoeur is an idiot.

Francoeur is an idiot for choosing this song, especially so soon after teammate Francisco Rodriguez's arrest for assaulting his girlfriend's father.

The Mets need to dump Francoeur, who began the season as such a feel-good story. He's not the only one they need to dump, and he's not the worst offender. That would be general manager Omar Minaya, who has pissed off more of his own team's fans than perhaps any MLB executive since... well, since George Steinbrenner in 1990.

To get this back on a lighthearted note: When can we classify what the Mets do to their fans as "domestic abuse"? Bring your kiddies, and bring your wife, the state will come and lock you up for your life!

*

The Chicago White Sox have claimed Manny Ramirez off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The L.A. Bums gave up on the former Indians and Red Sox slugger with the scuzzy hair and the steroid past, and now the Pale Hose have him. Well, that's one way to get him to change his socks!

Stephen Strasburg has a torn elbow ligament. After just 12 major league games, 68 innings pitched (5-3, 2.91 ERA 141 ERA+, 1.074 WHIP), the season's phenom is probably going to have Tommy John surgery, and we probably won't see him pitch again until Opening Day 2012.

So much for the Washington Nationals making a run at respectability in 2011. Look at the bright side, D.C. area fans: Unlike 1972 through 2004, you HAVE a team, however difficult it may be to watch them. The alternative is worse. If you've forgotten already, ask the 22,000 fans who came to watch the Montreal Expos every home game in 1994.

*

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 2, this Thursday night, at home at Rutgers Stadium, against Norfolk State University.

Days until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 11.

Days until the first regular-season Giants game at the new Meadowlands Stadium: 13. Under 2 weeks.

Days until the first regular-season Jets game at the new Meadowlands Stadium: 14.

Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: 24, Friday, September 24, at Yankee Stadium II.

Days until the Devils play hockey again: 38, on Friday, October 8, at home at the Prudential Center in Newark, against the Dallas Stars.

Days until Rutgers and Army play the first college football game at the new Meadowlands Stadium: 47.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: 54, on Sunday, October 24, at Madison Square Garden against The Scum. Just 2 months. Then the Rags come to the Prudential on Friday, November 5. The first game of the season against the Islanders is on Friday, November 26, the day after Thanksgiving, at the Nassau Coliseum, followed the next day by the first game of the season against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Philadelphia Flyers, at The Rock.

Days until the next North London Derby: 82, Sunday, November 21, at New Highbury. Under 3 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 86.

Days until Derek Jeter collects his 3,000th career hit: 262 (estimated).

Days until the Rutgers-Army football game at Yankee Stadium: 438.

Days until the last Nets game in New Jersey: 593 (estimated).

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 696.

Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 779 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 1,049 (estimated).

Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 1,248.

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,712 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,736 (estimated).

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Chicago White Sox All-Time Regional Team

The Yankees begin a 3-game series against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, formerly named the new Comiskey Park.

The easy part was deciding what part of Illinois a particularly player was from: North, which means they’re either in the Cubs’ or White Sox’ territory; or South, which means I’ve probably already listed them with, or considered and then rejected them for, the St. Louis Cardinals.

The hard part was deciding whether to put a player who qualifies for Chicago's region on the Cubs’ or Sox’ all-time regional team. If they -- whether from Illinois, Iowa or Indiana -- were associated with one or the other, it was easy. If they publicly stated a youthful preference for either team, that also helped.

If neither of those factors applied, then I had to guess. From Illinois, and north of the Chicago River? Cubs. South of it? Sox. In that western region of Northern Illinois between the river’s branches? Split it down the middle. If I guessed wrong – if a guy was from, say, Bolingbrook, and I listed him with the Sox team, and he actually grew up a Cub fan, well, tough cookies, he should have told me.

Then there were the other 2 States. Iowa was easy: Despite its connection to the White Sox through the film Field of Dreams, Des Moines, the State Capital, is home to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs since 1981 – although Des Moines was a White Sox farm club, the Iowa Oaks, from 1973 to 1980! As for Indiana, the southwestern tail, including Evansville and Terre Haute, I gave to the Cardinals, while the southern half, including the city of Indianapolis, will go to the Cincinnati Reds.

But the northwestern quarter is White Sox territory. How do I know? That’s in tribute to Jean Shepherd, the legendary author and radio show host, whose book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash became the basis for the film A Christmas Story, which he narrated. (He also played a middle-aged man at the department store who told Ralphie, based on his younger self, where the real back of the line was.) Although filmed in Cleveland, that city is a stand-in for Chicago, and his home town was Hammond, Indiana, just across the State Line.

Jean Shepherd liked to say, “If I was a colonel in some horrible war, and I needed volunteers for a suicide mission to take an enemy pillbox, I’d call out, ‘Any of you White Sox fans? Follow me!’ And those White Sox fans would follow me, and we’d take that pillbox! Because White Sox fans are special. Fifty years without a Pennant? A hundred years? Doesn't matter. We're loyal.”

So loyal that, when the new ballpark was rising across 35th Street in 1990, fans hung a banner from the upper deck of the old one, reading, "WE LOVE THIS COMISKEY PARK." And with the White Sox in the AL West race until nearly the end of that season, attendance spiked, and some fans hung a banner that read, "YUPPIE SCUM GO BACK TO WRIGLEY."

White Sox fans hate the Cubs, and especially Cub fans, a lot more than Cub fans hate the White Sox and their fans. To a Cub fan, a White Sox fan is a greasy, dirty, uncouth hood who likes heavy metal and marijuana -- an image probably ingrained due to the South Side's gritty reputation and Disco Demolition Night in 1979. To a White Sox fan, a Cub fan is a prissy, effete intellectual who is willing to accept losing so long as he has his ivy and his beer -- and, occasionally, his marijuana. In other words, except for the substance abuse part, George Will.

Jean Shepherd has been dead for a few years, but I'll bet he didn't like George Will. Will is still alive, and I'll bet he was never a Jean Shepherd fan, either.

I think part of the Cub/Sox divide -- that is, the Sox fans hate the Cubs and their fans more than the Cub fans hate the Sox and their fans -- is partly due to the Cub-Cardinal rivalry. Cub fans have someone they hate more than they hate the White Sox. The move of the Milwaukee Brewers, considerably closer to Chicago than St. Louis is, to the National League has killed the Sox-Brewers rivalry, which was never all that strong, but neither has it made Cub fans hate the Brewers all that much. In contrast, Brewers fans have grown to hate Cub fans, mainly because they were probably already sick of hearing about Cub fans, Wrigley Field and Harry Caray on "Superstation" WGN.

Hopefully, the White Sox' resurgence under manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Kenny Williams will help them build rivalries with AL Central opponents Detroit, Cleveland and Minnesota, and they can have better attendance as a result of both the winning and the rivalries.

After all, the Sox won a Pennant in 2005, something the Cubs still haven't done since 1945; and won the World Series that season, something the Cubs still haven't done since 1908. And yet the Sox are STILL "the Second Team in the Second City." The Cubs have outdrawn the Sox every season since 1993 -- even though the Sox won the AL West (in their last season before realignment). Actually, that's not that strange, as in 1984, with the Sox coming off an AL West title, they outdrew the Cubs that season even as the Cubs won the old NL East.

But the Sox' per-game attendance has not never surpassed their 2006 peak of 36,511. The Cubs have topped that figure the last 7 years in a row, and will make it 8: Their average in this season is currently 38,453, while the Sox' is at 27,352. The Cubs rank 7th in the majors, 4th in the NL; the Sox rank 17th, 7th in the AL, ranking behind the Cubs, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit and the new Minnesota park despite their having smaller seating capacities.

So what does a team have to do? Maybe they need to put this lineup out there:

The Chicago White Sox All-Time Regional Team

1B Ted Kluszewski of Argo, Illinois. Big Klu was best known as a Cincinnati Red, and they retired his Number 18, and have dedicated a statue to him outside Great American Ballpark, their post-Riverfront Stadium home. In 1954, he was 2nd in the National League's Most Valuable Player voting behind Willie Mays, and led the NL with 49 homers and 141 RBIs. He had a 123 career OPS+, 7 .300 seasons (and just missed 2 others), 5 100-RBI seasons, and 279 career home runs, despite injuries taking their toll to the point where his last full season came at age 31.

He didn't win a Pennant with the Reds, but arrived at his "hometown" White Sox to provide a little pop to their "Go-Go" squad that won the team's first Pennant in 40 years. He hit 2 home runs in the ChiSox's 11-0 Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, and another in their Game 6 loss. Along with a homer by Sox catcher Sherman Lollar in Game 4, these would be the only homers hit by a Chicago player in World Series play between Phil Cavarretta in Game 1 in 1945 and Joe Crede in Game 1 60 years later. Klu finished his career with the American League's expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961, as his Reds were winning the NL Pennant. He coached for the Reds until heart trouble forced him to retire, and he died in 1988. One of the most popular players in Cincinnati history, and well-deserved.

An urban legend is that the misspelling of his name in a box score as "KLUSEWSXI" (or something like that) is what led White Sox owner Bill Veeck to start putting players' names on the backs of their jerseys in 1960. What is not a legend is that, due to his biceps (no weight training then, either), he had to cut off the sleeves of his Reds jerseys so they'd fit him. This began the trend of the sleeveless, vest-style jerseys often seen in the 1960s, most notably worn by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series.

2B Dickie Thon of South Bend, Indiana. Richard William Thon actually grew up in Puerto Rico (his father had been teaching at Notre Dame in South Bend), and played more shortstop than 2nd base, but I needed to fill out the roster. In 1982, the Houston Astro led the NL in triples. In 1983, he had 28 doubles, 9 triples, 20 homers and 79 RBIs. As a shortstop. Playing his home games in the Astrodome, which, unlike most later domes, was a pitchers' park. He stole a total of 71 bases in those 2 seasons, which sounds more like an Astrodome (or at least Astroturf) feat. He was 25 and appeared headed for legend.

But on April 8, 1984, he was hit in the face with a pitch by Mike Torrez, the 1977 Yankee hero and 1978 Red Sox goat, then pitching for the Mets, at Shea Stadium. He returned in the 1985 season, and recovered enough to hit 15 homers and drive in 60 runs with the 1989 Philadelphia Phillies. But 4 years later his vision problems returned, and he hung 'em up. His son Dickie Joe Thon is now in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system.

SS Robin Yount of Danville, Illinois. Another slight cheat, as he went to Taft High School in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles. But this guy never got the credit he deserved. He and Hank Greenberg are the only players to win MVPs at 2 different positions, Yount doing so at shortstop in 1982, when he led the Milwaukee Brewers to what is still their only Pennant, and in center field in 1989. Playing in Milwaukee instead of Chicago or another bigger city meant he only made 3 All-Star Games, but after debuting in 1974 at age 18, he gave the Brewers 20 years, 3,142 hits including 583 doubles, 126 triples and 251 home runs, and 271 stolen bases. Of all players with at least as many stolen bases as he has, only Willie Mays has at least as many home runs and at least as many hits, although Yount has more doubles than Mays (but not more hits, triples, homers or steals), his ex-teammate Paul Molitor has more hits and steals and nearly as many homers, and Alex Rodriguez has a shot at joining them. Career OPS+ 115.

The Brewers have retired Yount's Number 19, which Molitor wore to honor him went he went to the Toronto Blue Jays and found his Brewers number, 4, was already being worn. The Brewers also dedicated a statue of Yount outside Miller Park. He was easily elected to the Hall of Fame, and while he's not the most popular player in Milwaukee baseball history -- both Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews were more celebrated there -- if you're a Wisconsinian my age or younger, he's the best you've ever had. (The Brewers play the Mets late in September, so the Milwaukee All-Time Baseball Team will probably be the last I do before the two New York squads.)

3B Oswald "Ossie" Bluege of Carl Schurz H.S. in Chicago. No Washington baseball team has ever won a Pennant without him -- and, at the rate the Nationals are going, that's likely to remain the case for a while. He helped the Senators win the 1924 World Series and the 1925 and 1933 AL Pennants. Known mainly for his glove, it didn't help him that the Senators' ballpark, Griffith Stadium, had notoriously faraway fences which limited power-hitting potential. Had the All-Star Game begun sooner, he would have made more than the one he reached in 1935. He is honored on the Washington Wall of Stars at Nationals Park.

LF Greg Luzinski of Niles, Illinois. The Bull was a 4-time All-Star for the Phillies, and in 1975 he led the NL in RBIs with 120, total bases with 322 and intentional walks with 17, and finished 2nd in the MVP voting to Joe Morgan. The next year, the Phillies began a string of 4 NL East titles in 5 years, culminating with the 1980 World Championship. It wasn't one of his best seasons, as his weight began to catch up with him, and the Phils saw their future and decided it included Lonnie Smith (born in Chicago, but grew up in L.A.). Fortunately, Luzinski's hometown White Sox picked up him, although the joke was that Comiskey Park's obstructed-view seats included any along 1st base when he played there. Still, in 1983, he clubbed 32 homers at a pitchers' park, and helped the White Sox to their only 1st-place finish between 1959 and 1993.

He finished with 307 home runs, served a few years as the head baseball coach at Holy Cross High School in Delran, New Jersey, and now runs Bull's BBQ stand at Citizens Bank Park, where he's also honored on the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame.

CF Kirby Puckett of Calumet City, Illinois. It was humbling to see a fat guy hustle this much. For a generation, as Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew had been before him, he was the Minnesota Twins. He helped them with the 1987 World Series, and in Game 6 of the 1991 Series, he saved the Twins with a great catch and a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 11th, leading to their Game 7 win. He reached 10 All-Star Games, won the 1989 AL batting title (a rare feat for a righthanded hitter), and led the AL in hits 4 times.

He was so admired in Minnesota that the address of the Metrodome was changed to 34 Kirby Puckett Place, the Twins retired his Number 34, and they dedicated a statue of him outside their new ballpark, Target Field, this past April. He was elected to the Hall of Fame despite playing only 12 seasons, with a .318 lifetime batting average, a 124 OPS+, 2,304 hits and 207 home runs.

Regrettably, glaucoma ended his career when he was just 36 years old. Things went from bad to worse. His weight ballooned, and his health suffered. He was arrested on a morals charge, and, though acquitted, his reputation was forever stained by a Sports Illustrated article which seemed intent on convicting him in the court of public opinion -- written by Frank Deford, who should have accepted the jury's verdict and not risked his own fine reputation. Kirby suffered a stroke and died in 2006, age 45 -- aside from Lou Gehrig, the youngest Hall-of-Famer ever to die, not counting those who died young and were elected to the Hall later, such as Roberto Clemente. Every time I see Tony Gwynn now, and see how much weight he's gained, I worry he'll suffer the same fate -- medically, that is, not judicially. Kirby was also the man who gave Don Mattingly the nickname "Donnie Baseball" after seeing how much batting practice he took.

RF Sam Rice of Morocco, Indiana. A teammate of Bluege's on the Washington Senators' 1924 World Champions and '25 and '33 Pennant winners, Edgar Charles Rice (not sure why he became "Sam") is one of several great players virtually forgotten because their team no longer exists in its current form. (They became the Minnesota Twins in 1961.) He collected 2,987 hits, the closest any player has gotten to 3,000 without getting it. (Unless you count Stan Ross, the Bernie Mac character in Mr. 3000.) Rice later said, "The truth of the matter is I did not even know how many hits I had. A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith told me about it, and asked me if I'd care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape, and didn't want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them."

He had a .322 lifetime batting average, a 112 OPS+, 498 doubles, 184 triples, and 351 stole bases. When this Hall-of-Famer is remembered at all, he is remembered for an amazing catch he made in the 1925 World Series, robbing Earl Smith of the Pirates of a home run to preserve the Senators' win in Game 3. He fell over the short fence at Griffith Stadium, then emerged with the ball. The Pirates and their fans were sure he'd dropped the ball as he tumbled over the fence, but the umpire ruled he had possession, so the ball was dead even if Rice did lose the ball when he fell. Too bad there's no film of this catch: While a highlight film did capture some action in that Series, the catch is not part of it.

DH Jim Thome of Bartonville, Illinois. The Thome-nator is our generation's Harmon Killebrew, albeit lefthanded: A big, chunky guy with enormous power, he started at 3rd base, couldn't field there, but his bat had to be in the lineup, and he was moved to 1st, a little better. He went from the Cleveland Indians to the Phillies, where he helped revitalize that franchise, before injuries led to the rise of Ryan Howard. That made Thome expendable, and he went to his home-State White Sox as a DH (an option not available to Killebrew until he was 36), and bounced-back big-time from his Philly injury. After a brief interlude with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, he's now with the Minnesota Twins. At 39, he's slowed down, but he's still contributing.

He's made 5 All-Star teams. His career OPS+ is an amazing 147. He's got 582 home runs, meaning he trails only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and (barely) Frank Robinson among honest players -- and Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire among steroid users. Has Thome used steroids? Many have speculated, none have proven; after all, he's had pretty much the same body type throughout his career, and aside from 2005 he has been remarkably injury-free and consistent, hitting at least 30 homers every season but that one from 1996 to 2008. He's been a winner, too: 8 postseason appearances, and it's likely to be 9 with this year's Twins. Only Manny Ramirez (steroids), Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson (who played when there were just 2 postseason rounds) and Mickey Mantle (who played when there was just the World Series) have more postseason homers than Thome's 17.

For all that, though, Thome has played on just 2 Pennant winners, the 1995 and '97 Indians, and he has never won a ring. And with 2,386 strikeouts, he's only 212 away from surpassing Reggie Jackson as the all-time leader there. But, barring a steroid outing, he'll make the Hall of Fame, and the Indians should retire his Number 25, as he is their all-time home run leader with 334.

C Tom Haller of Lockport, Illinois. A University of Illinois graduate, he was one of the few players to be a good one on both sides of the Giant-Dodger rivalry (especially since the revival of the Brooklyn edition of the Dodgers in 1941, never mind both clubs' move to the West Coast). A 2-time All-Star, he had 18 homers and 55 RBIs with the 1962 Giants, despite being a rookie, only 331 plate appearances, and playing his home games in wind-swept Candlestick Park. The Giants won the Pennant that year, and it certainly wasn't Haller's fault that the Giants had near-misses in '65 and '66 -- particularly in the latter year, when he had career highs with 27 homers and 67 RBIs. For a catcher in his era, playing most of his home games in Candlestick and Dodger Stadium, 134 homers was pretty good, and his 113 career OPS+ reflects this. He closed his career in 1972 with one more postseason appearance, backing up Bill Freehan on the AL East-winning Detroit Tigers. He once caught a game where his brother Bill Haller, a longtime NL umpire, was behind the plate; there is now a rule that an umpire cannot be assigned to a game where a relative is eligible to play or manage.

SP Urban "Red" Faber of Cascade, Iowa. A member of the White Sox teams that won the 1917 World Series and the 1919 Pennant, he did not appear in the 1919 World Series and can't be considered one of the players who "threw" it. Bouncing back, he won 23 games in 1920, and after the "Eight Men Out" were suspended and later banned for life, he won 25 games in 1921 and 21 in 1922 (and led the AL in ERA both seasons), despite the decimated Pale Hose winning just 62 and 77 games respectively as a team. He was basically a .500 pitcher for the rest of his career, as the team's inadequacy caught up to him. But his career record of 254-213 is backed by an ERA+ of 119. He's in the Hall of Fame, although the White Sox have never retired the Number 18 he hung around long enough to wear.

SP Paul “Dizzy” Trout of Sandcut, Indiana. He didn't have a full season until he was 27, mainly because he was 4-F during World War II. But he made the most of the chance he got, winning 20 games in 1943 and 27 in 1944 (leading the AL with a 2.18 ERA) for the Detroit Tigers, forming a superb righty-lefty tandem with MVP Hal Newhouser. He won Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, which the Tigers won. When the Yankees', Red Sox' and Indians' best players came back from the War, the Tigers' performance suffered, and Trout was a part of that, although he did go 13-5 in 1950 when the Tigers finished 2nd, their best performance between 1945 and 1961. His career record was just 170-161, but his ERA+ was a strong 124.

His son Steve Trout became a lefthanded pitcher for both Chicago teams (but was a bust with the Yankees and Seattle Mariners afterward), and although I considered him for this team, his career record of 88-92 and a 96 ERA+ weren't good enough. And his son Steven Trout was briefly a minor league infielder.

SP Bob Friend of West Lafayette, Indiana. Having grown up in the town that's home to Purdue University, he went to that school before reaching the majors. He's the only pitcher ever to lose 200 games in the majors without winning 200: 197-230. But that was mainly due to the Pittsburgh Pirates being terrible for most of his tenure, including their disastrous 52-112 season in 1952, when Friend was 7-17. When they got good, so did he. He went 22-14 in 1958, and in their 1960 World Championship season he went 18-12. He had another 18-win season in 1962 and 17 the next year. But he got old in a hurry. In 1966, he closed his career by becoming the first player ever to play for the Yankees and the Mets in the same season. (In 1977, Dave Kingman became the 2nd, although he started the season with the Mets, then went to the Padres and Angels before the Yanks became his 4th team of the season.)

SP Jim O’Toole of Leo H.S. in Chicago. His career was relatively brief, with an injury knocking him out at age 30. In Ball Four, Jim Bouton wrote of O'Toole trying a comeback with the expansion 1969 Seattle Pilots, and ending up with a semi-pro team back in the Chicago area. But he went 19-9 for the Cincinnati Reds as they won the 1961 Pennant, and 17-7 in 1964 as they nearly did it again. He was 98-84 for his career, and deserved better.

SP Mark Mulder of South Holland, Illinois. Another one knocked out early by injury, he had his last full season at age 27 and he retired in 2008 at age 30. But in 2001, at age 23, he went 21-8 for the Oakland Athletics, and 19-7 the next season. How many guys win 40 games over a 2-year span in this era of 5-man rotations -- especially at age 25? Part of the "Big 3" along with Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, he helped the A's reach the postseason in each of his first 4 seasons (2000-03), and was 88-40 from 2001 to 2005. The injury that struck in 2006 did not stop him from winning that year's World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, but it did limit his career record to just 103-60, still a .632 percentage.

Dishonorable Mention to Denny McLain of Mount Carmel H.S. in Chicago. He could have been the most talented of these. In fact, Dennis Dale McLain could have been one of the greatest pitchers of all time. The White Sox had this native South Sider in their system, but let him go to the Tigers. Huge mistake: In 1964, at age 20, he was just 4-5, but with a stronger lineup behind him, his 1.210 WHIP might've helped put the White Sox over the top, as they finished 1 game behind the Yankees. He blossomed to 16-6 in '65 and 20-14 in '66, and in '67, when the White Sox finished just 3 games behind the Red Sox, the Tigers finished just 1 back, due in large part to McLain's 17 wins.

In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, he went 31-6, which makes him, now, the only living person to win 30 games in a major league season. His ERA was 1.96, his WHIP 0.905, so he didn't just benefit from the Tigers' hitting. They won the World Series that year, despite him being outdueled by Bob Gibson of the Cardinals in Games 1 and 4 -- McLain did win Game 6 on 2 days' rest. He was named the AL's MVP and Cy Young Award winner. In 1969, he went 24-9, and in a tie vote shared the AL Cy Young with Mike Cuellar. He was 25, great, charismatic, and enormously popular. He was 114-57. And he was married to the daughter of Hall-of-Famer Lou Boudreau. He had it all. The sky was the limit.

He did not reach the sky. Legal trouble and injuries meant that his career would end just before the 1973 season, right after his 29th birthday, and he went just 21-41 the rest of the way, for a total of 131-91, although his career WHIP remained fine at 1.163. He was traded to the Washington Senators, then the Oakland Athletics, and finally the Atlanta Braves. When he was able to pitch without pain, he was still great. But the pain of his shoulder became nothing compared to what happened when he trusted the wrong people and made the wrong business moves. Twice, he was convicted of crimes and served time in prison, including once after he had seemingly rehabilitated himself by becoming a popular host on a Detroit sports-talk station. His second conviction was later reversed, but only after he'd been in the joint for a few years. He now writes a column for In Play!, a Detroit-based sports magazine.

In an amazing twist of events, McLain's last big-league appearance was on September 12, 1972, for the Braves against the Reds. The last batter he ever faced in the majors? Pete Rose, eventually even more scandalous. Rose never batted against Roger Clemens, as they were in different Leagues. In his last season as a player, 1986, Rose managed against a rookie named Barry Bonds, but they never played in the same game.

RP Ed Farmer of Evergreen Park, Illinois. A journeyman, he did manage to save 30 games for his hometown White Sox in 1980. But his luck was bad: He left the Phillies right before they started winning NL East titles, the Orioles right before their 1979 AL Pennant, the Brewers just as they were getting good, the White Sox right before their 1983 AL West title, and the Phils decided to get him back, then traded him in a deadline deal that helped them win the 1993 NL Pennant. He's now a broadcaster for the White Sox.

RP Don Stanhouse of Du Quoin, Illinois. Now, here is a twist of events: When McLain went from Washington to Oakland, one of the guys he was traded for was Stanhouse, then a mere prospect. But the Senators, who then became the Texas Rangers, didn't know what to do with this stereotypically weird pitcher. They sent him to the Montreal Expos where he did well as both a starter and a reliever. Then they sent him to the Baltimore Orioles, and he did great for them out of the pen, helping them win the 1979 Pennant. He became a very popular figure, for his success and his weirdness, gaining the nickname "Stan the Man Unusual."

But an injury knocked him out (is there an echo?), and he was basically finished at 30. In 1991, when the Orioles closed Memorial Stadium, they invited several former players back for the finale, and each wore a uniform contemporary to his period in Baltimore. Stanhouse was the only one who wore one of those hideous bright orange Oriole jerseys with black lettering. Why? Because he was Stan the Man Unusual, that's why. (He was only 40: Given good health, he could still have been pitching.)

MGR Charlie Comiskey of Chicago. While playing for the team then known as the St. Louis Brown Stockings of the American Association (they moved to the NL in 1892 and became the Cardinals in 1901 as their uniform color changed, and are not to be confused with the AL's St. Louis Browns), he practically invented the way the position of first base was played. As player-manager, he led the proto-Cards to 4 straight AA Pennants from 1885 to 1888. "The Old Roman" helped found the American League, and, leaving the managing to others, the White Sox he owned won the first AL Pennant in 1901, the World Series in 1906 and 1917, and another Pennant in 1919.

How much he knew of the World Series fix has been debated. What's not debated is that he was a cheap bastard -- in spite of the fact that he was, himself, a player and a damn good one by the standards of his time. Supposedly, his players were already called the Black Sox by 1917, not for the fix that was yet to come, but because their uniforms were always dirty, since Comiskey wouldn't shell out the cash to get them laundered on the road.

The ballpark he built in 1910 would bear his name, and beyond his death in 1931, his family would continue to own the team in full until 1959 and still in a small part today. He was not a good person. But for his contributions to the game, as a player, a manager and an owner, he does deserve his place in the Hall of Fame. Although the White Sox' new home no longer bears his name as the old one did, and is now called U.S. Cellular Field, the park has a statue of him, and a concession stand called Old Roman's Pizza -- even though Comiskey was Irish, not Italian.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

San Diego's All-Time Baseball Team

The San Diego Padres have already had their last series of the season against the Mets -- unless the Mets go on another "miracle" run and face the National League Western Division-leading Padres in the Playoffs. But the Padres start a series not that far from me tonight, against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Last night, playing at their (relatively) new home, PETCO Park, the Padres lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were wearing throwback uniforms, copies of their 1978-79 uniforms.

In 1978, the Padres had 4 future Hall-of-Famers on their roster: Gaylord Perry, a member of the 300 Wins and 3,000 Strikeouts Club, who that season became the oldest Cy Young Award winner (39, a record since broken) and the first man to win it in both Leagues; Rollie Fingers, the first man with 300 saves; Dave Winfield, a member of the 3,000 Hit Club who hit 465 home runs; and Ozzie Smith, who stole 580 bases and became the most renowned (though not the best) defensive shortstop ever. But they won only 84 games and finished 4th in the NL West, because the Division then had the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of a superb era, the Cincinnati Reds near the end of their Big Red Machine era, and the San Francisco Giants having their best season between 1971 and 1987.

To make matters worse, they were playing in a cavernous football stadium in the middle of nowhere (San Diego/Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium, and this was well before a light rail line was built out to Mission Valley), and their uniforms were hideous. Steve Garvey, then a Dodger and later a Padre (but not, as the joke eventually went, my Padres), said, "In Los Angeles, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I looked like an America flag. Here, I look like a taco." (A little latent anti-Hispanic bigotry there, Steverino?)

The Padres had the aforementioned Hall-of-Famers, and also 3,000 Hit Club member Tony Gwynn. They've got a loyal fan base and a terrific new ballpark in downtown San Diego, one of the most beautiful cities in America. They've have won Pennants in 1984 and 1998, and NL West titles in 1984, '96, '98, 2005 and '06, and are leading the NL West again in 2010. If they hold their lead, currently at 6 games, it will be their 9th postseason appearance in 42 seasons, a little better than once every 5 seasons -- a proportion bettered only by the Yankees, Dodgers (in L.A. only), Braves (in Atlanta only), Athletics (in Oakland only), Diamondbacks and Twins (in Minnesota only). But they've never won a World Series. In fact, their record in postseason games is 12-22 -- just 1-8 in World Series play.

This is a franchise with some things to be proud of. And the city's/region's all-time native team is pretty good, too, with a few good third basemen, a deadly left fielder, and some serious dealers on the mound.

But note that, while he played only for the Padres in the majors, and played both baseball and basketball at San Diego State University, Tony Gwynn was born in Los Angeles and grew up in adjacent Long Beach, and is thus geographically ineligible for this team. His son, Tony Gwynn Jr., grew up in the San Diego suburb of Poway while his father played for the Padres, and now plays for the Padres himself. So he's geographically eligible... but, given that his career OPS+ is 79 (as opposed to his father's mighty 132), and that he's 27 and thus not likely to significantly improve, I think we can rule out Tony Jr. for this squad.

San Diego's All-Time Baseball Team

To be geographically eligible, a player has to have grown up in San Diego County or Imperial County, California.

1B Adrian Gonzalez of Chula Vista. Since joining the Padres in 2006, his OPS+ of 137 has already led them to one NL West title, and they appear to be heading to another. He's had 157 homers in the last 5 years, and 2 100-RBI seasons (and had 99 in a 3rd), 3 All-Star berths and 2 Gold Gloves... and you probably didn't even know any of this until now. That's what playing in San Diego, rather than up the coast in L.A., will get you. Unless the Padres win the Pennant.

Honorable Mention to Eric Karros, born in Hackensack, New Jersey, but grew up in San Diego and went to Patrick Henry High School. He was NL Rookie of the Year in 1992, had 5 100-RBI seasons, and hit 284 homers, 270 of them with the Dodgers, making him the all-time leader for the Los Angeles portion of the team. (Duke Snider remains the overall franchise leader, hitting 371 for Brooklyn, 18 for Los Angeles, 14 in 1963 for the Mets and 4 in 1964 for, of all teams, the Giants, totaling 407.) In spite of this, Karros was never named to the NL All-Star Team. He's now a studio analyst for Fox Sports' baseball broadcasts.

2B Bret Boone of Placentia. (That's "Placentia," not "Placenta.") His big-league debut, on August 19, 1992 with the Seattle Mariners, made his family the first 3-generation family in Major League Baseball. Batting-wise, he's the best in the family so far: 2 .300 seasons, 9 seasons with at least 25 doubles, 252 home runs, 3 100-RBI seasons (leading the American League with 141 in 2001), and 3 All-Star appearances. While not quite the fielder his father Bob was behind the plate, he did win 4 Gold Gloves. He helped the Reds win the 1995 NL Central title and the Braves the 1999 NL Pennant, then went back to Seattle and was the biggest bat in their 116-win AL West Championship season in 2001. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, but I don't think he'll make it. But the Mariners have a team Hall of Fame, and he should go into that.

SS Alan Trammell of Kearny H.S. in San Diego. It takes a lot to play 20 years in Detroit. Ask Al Kaline, Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Steve Yzerman. Like them, Tram did it in style. He was a big force in the Tigers' revival from the age-related collapse of the Kaline-era team, and helped the win the 1984 World Series (he was the Series MVP) and the 1987 AL East title, while keeping them in the Pennant race nearly every year from 1983 to 1993, averaging 92 wins a season from 1983 to 1988. He appeared in 6 All-Star Games, won 4 Gold Gloves, had an OPS+ of 110, 2,365 hits, 412 doubles, 185 homers (pretty good for a shortstop of the 1980s), a .333 batting average in postseason play, and was one of the last really good shortstops before Cal Ripken changed the perception of the position from a skinny, often short guy who was there mainly for his glove to a big one with power.

The Tigers have not officially retired his Number 3, which was previously worn by Hall-of-Famer Mickey Cochrane and another All-Star shortstop, Dick McAuliffe, but neither have they given it back out, except for when Trammell was a coach and then manager (with considerably less success). On Baseball-Reference.com's Hall of Fame Monitor, where 100 = a "Likely HOFer," he's at 118, and that's just for his hitting. But on their Hall of Fame Standardsm, where the "Average HOFer" is at 50, he's at 40. He's been eligible for the Hall since 2002, and his longtime double-play partner Lou Whitaker a year longer than that. By all rights, both should be in. Maybe if Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell, also a songwriter and poet, had given the pair a memorable poem, like the one that got "Tinker to Evers to Chance" all in at the same time.

3B Graig Nettles of San Diego H.S. Played for Billy Martin in both Minnesota and New York -- and not only survived, but thrived. With a .248 lifetime batting average, he'll probably never get into the Hall of Fame, but his career OPS+ was 110. He hit 390 home runs, and while he did play home games at Yankee Stadium for 9 full seasons and Metropolitan Stadium and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for 1 each, he also played 3 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, 2 at Shea Stadium (while Yankee Stadium was being renovated) and 3 at Jack Murphy Stadium for his hometown Padres. Appeared in the postseason 7 times, 5 with the Yankees (1976, '77, '78, '80 and '81) and 1 each wit the Twins (1969) and Padres (1984). Made 6 All-Star Games. Hit 32 home runs to lead the AL in 1976, and hit 37 in 1977 (although Jim Rice hit 39 to league the League). His 2,226 career hits included 390 homers. Received only 2 Gold Gloves, but had to compete against Brooks Robinson for them for the first half of his career and George Brett (with whom he famously had a fight in Game 5 of the '77 ALCS) for much of the second half. His spectacular plays in Game 3 turned the '78 World Series around, and got the Yankees their 2nd straight title. Helped his hometown team win their first Pennant in 1984.

As I said, he's not in the Hall of Fame. The Yankees retired his Number 9 after he left -- but for Roger Maris. He doesn't yet have a Plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park, although he did get a YES Network Yankeeography. Still, he was the greatest Yankee 3rd baseman until Alex Rodriguez arrived. And he's a member of the San Diego Hall of Champions.

Honorable Mention to Troy Glaus of Carlsbad. He's having a good rebound year with the Braves, but is better-remembered as an Anaheim Angel, helping them win the 2002 World Series. At age 33, he currently has 320 home runs.

Honorable Mention to Ray Boone of Herbert Hoover H.S. in San Diego. A rookie with the 1948 Cleveland Indians, he got into just 7 games that season, but one was in the World Series, so he got a ring. With the Indians and Tigers, had 4 20-homer seasons, 2 100-RBI seasons (leading the AL with 116 in 1955), and made 2 All-Star teams. And became the patriarch of MLB's first 3-generation family, living to see son Bob become one of the great catchers and grandsons Brett and Aaron both become ballplayers who, shall we say, had their moments. Speaking of which...

Honorable Mention to Aaron Boone of Villa Park. (Why he went to Villa Park H.S. -- I'm presuming there, not Aston Villa Football Club -- and brother Bret went to Placentia H.S., I don't know.) Statistically speaking, he's the least accomplished of the 4 members of his family to make it to the bigs so far. But he did help the Reds reach their last postseason berth (sort of, the 1999 Wild Card play-in game that they lost to the Mets), and he had 2 20-homer seasons. On July 31, 2003, the Reds traded him to the Yankees. He did next to nothing for the Yankees in August and September, and most of October. Then he hurt his knee in the off-season, and he was gone. He missed the entire 2004 season, but came back in 2005. He needed open-heart surgery in 2009, and still came back sooner from that than Jose Reyes did from a hamstring pull. He has now retired, but there are those 2 big homers he hit as a Yankee in one week, the second in the World Series, although he was 2-for-20 in that Series otherwise. But the moment of 12:16 AM on October 17, 2003 is one that will live forever. Thank you, Aaron.

Honorable Mention to Hank Blalock of Rancho Bernardo H.S. in San Diego. He also hit a big home run in 2003, winning the All-Star Game for the AL. Too bad it ended up NOT helping the Yankees in the Series, the home-field advantage being ignored by the Marlins. A solid slugger for the Texas Rangers, he has battled injury for a while, indcluding this season with the Tampa Bay Rays. They may make the Playoffs, but chances are he won't be available. Still, at age 29 he's already got 153 homers.

LF Ted Williams of Herbert Hoover H.S. in San Diego. No, he wasn't "the greatest hitter who ever lived." Babe Ruth was, and Ted was the first to admit it. But he got his wish: People pointed at him and SAID he was the greatest. They have a pretty good case.

A .344 lifetime batting average, highest of any player whose career began after 1917. An OPS+ of 190, higher than anyone in history except Babe Ruth. Appeared in 17 All-Star Games, including a walkoff homer in 1941 and a memorable one off Rip Sewell's blooping "eephus pitch" in 1946 at his home ground of Fenway Park. Collected 2,654 hits, including 525 doubles and 521 home runs, despite missing 3 seasons (at age 24, 25 and 26) due to World War II and most of 2 others (at age 33 and 34) in the Korean War (where he was a Marine pilot, in a squadron with future astronaut John Glenn, and got shot down and nearly killed). Won 6 batting titles, including a .406 at age 23 in 1941 that is still the last .400 average in the majors, and a .388 at age 39 in 1957 that is the 2nd-highest for a full season since 1941. Won 2 Triple Crowns, in 1942 and 1947, and 2 Most Valuable Player awards, in 1946 and 1949. (When Ted deserved the MVP and when not is a debate for another time.) And had 2 of the best nicknames ever: The Splendid Splinter and Teddy Ballgame.

His Number 9 was the first ever retired by a Boston sports team. Hall of Fame, All-Century Team. Statue outside Fenway Park. Wrote the book on hitting -- literally: The Science of Hitting (published 1969) remains the best book ever written on the subject. Check out this excerpt: http://www.baseballlibrary.com/excerpts/excerpt.php?book=science_of_hitting And his Ted Williams' Hit List (1995) is as good a book on the history of great hitters as we're ever likely to have, at least until someone provides a thoughtful way of looking at the steroid era. He inspired writers as varied as novelist John Updike (Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu) and scientist Stephen Jay Gould (The Extinction of the .400 Hitter). And if that wasn't enough of a legacy, his work for the Jimmy Fund of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute turned it from a local charity in Boston into a nationally-known powerhouse for helping sick children.

Somewhat Honorable Mention to Kevin Mitchell of Clairemont H.S. in San Diego. He helped the Mets win the World Series as a 24-year-old rookie left fielder/3rd baseman. Just 45 days after that Series ended, on December 11, 1986, they traded him to his hometown Padres for left fielder Kevin McReynolds. I joke a lot about "the Curse of Kevin Mitchell," but the Mets have not only had close calls and failures, but they've come in some bizarre ways. Anyway, the Padres didn't benefit much from Mitchell, either, trading him to the San Francisco Giants, where he helped them win the NL West in 1987 and then, in an MVP season, the Pennant in 1989. But he would never approach his '89 performance again, and as his weight rose, his performance dropped. At age 30 he had his last season of 400 plate appearances. His career OPS+ was 142, but he finished with just 234 home runs. At least we can be sure that Dwight Gooden was making up that cat story...

Honorable Mention to Brian Giles. Not the mediocre infielder for the 1980s Mets and Indians. This one, whose brother Marcus was also an All-Star, has a 136 OPS+ and 287 home runs, and reached the postseason 3 times with the Indians and twice with his hometown Padres. He announced his retirement prior to 2010 spring training, but at 39 I wouldn't rule out a comeback.

CF Adam Jones of Samuel Morse H.S. in San Diego. Not to be confused with the criminal football player also known as "Pacman," this is the defending center field Gold Glove winner for the Baltimore Orioles. He's just 24 and already has 68 career doubles, 16 triples and 48 homers. He also plays really well against the Yankees, which pisses me off. But although it seems early to put him on this list, I didn't find another CF who was good enough -- despite finding a bunch of good LFs.

RF Clifford Carlton "Gavvy" Cravath of Escondido. The first native of the San Diego area to reach the majors, with the 1908 Red Sox, while playing back home he hit a ball that killed a seagull -- in Spanish, un gaviota. "Gaviota" became "Gavvy." Starred for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association before finally becoming a big-league regular at age 31 with the 1912 Phillies. Won 6 home run titles, hitting 119 in just 7 full seasons at the tail end of the Dead Ball Era. Had 3 100-RBI seasons. Helped the Phillies win their first Pennant in 1915. Career batting average .287, OPS+ 151! Last played in the majors 90 years ago, last played in the high minors 88 years ago, and died 47 years ago, but he's on the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park, and really should be considered for Cooperstown.

C Bob Boone of Crawford H.S. in San Diego. A 5-time All-Star and 7-time Gold Glove winner, he reached the postseason 7 times, 5 with the Philadelphia Phillies (including catching Tug McGraw's strikeout of Willie Wilson to finish their 1st-ever World Championship in 1980) and 2 with the then-California Angels. His 2,225 games behind the plate are a record for an NL catcher, and his major-league record has been surpassed only by Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodriguez (cough-steroids-cough). Is a member of the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame.

Bob is also the manager of this team, almost by default, for getting the Kansas City Royals to their last 2nd-place finish in 1995. The only other managers from the San Diego area are Williams (who did get the Washington Senators to a winning record in 1969), Cravath, Bob Skinner, his son Joel Skinner (neither made this team as a player), and current A's manager Bob Geren (though he does have them in 2nd place as of this writing).

SP Jim Wilson of San Diego. The San Diego State graduate had some rotten luck: Debuted with the Red Sox in 1945, pitched just 1 game in their 1946 Pennant season and didn't make it to the World Series roster, and then got stuck with 3 failed franchises: The St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Braves. Stayed with the Braves in their move to Milwaukee, but was traded back to the Browns, by that point the Orioles, before the 1957 Pennant. Went to the Chicago White Sox and had his best season with them in 1957, going 15-8 and helping them finish 2nd, but only pitched one more year before the Sox released him -- and then won the Pennant the next year. Still, he went 86-89 for mostly lousy teams, and made 3 All-Star squads.

SP Don Larsen of Point Loma H.S. in San Diego. Does a 3-21 pitcher ever have any hope? Larsen did, after the 1954 season, when he got traded to the Yankees along with Bob Turley in the biggest MLB trade ever, 18 men switching teams. In 1956, Larsen went 11-5 and helped the Yankees win the World Series. Especially in Game 5, when he put up the greatest pitching performance ever: A perfect game, against the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers. It's still the only no-hitter in postseason history.

He also helped the Yanks win the Pennant in '55 and '57 and the Series in '58. After the '59 season he was sent to the Kansas City Athletics as part of the deal for Roger Maris. Came back to haunt the Yankees by winning a game against them for the Giants in the 1962 Series. His career record is just 81-91, but take away '54 and an awful 1-10 season for the A's in 1960, and he was a strong 77-60.

SP Mark Langston of San Diego. Three times he led the AL in strikeouts, but the Mariners didn't want to pay his salary, so they traded him -- to the Montreal Expos, for an as-yet-unknown Randy Johnson, among others. He went 12-9 as a rent-a-pitcher for the Expos, and then they let him get away to the Angels, whom he gave 8 seasons, becoming perhaps their 2nd-best starter ever after Nolan Ryan.

Helped his hometown Padres win the Pennant in 1998, then thought he had Tino Martinez struck out in Game 1, before giving up a tremendous grand slam. Signed by the Indians afterward, thinking they were going to face the Yankees in the postseason again, and thinking, "The Yankees can't hit lefthanders, especially in the postseason." (This also didn't work the next few years with Chuck Finley.) Langston was 38 and done, but he did win 179 games and strike out 2,464 batters.

SP David Wells of Point Loma H.S. in San Diego. What are the odds of 2 pitchers from the same high school both pitching perfect games for the same major league team in the same ballpark? It happened at Yankee Stadium on October 8, 1956 to Don Larsen, and against on May 17, 1998 to David Wells. Larsen was a thin righthander, Wells the prototypical portly portsider. But both were a bit eccentric and both liked their booze.

Larsen was basically a pitcher who was as good as his support. Wells, on the other hand, was a big reason why 6 different teams reached a total of 11 postseasons with him: The 1989, '91 and '92 Toronto Blue Jays (1992 World Champions); the 1995 Cincinnati Reds; the 1996 Baltimore Orioles; the 1997, '98, 2002 and '03 New York Yankees (1998 World Champions, including Game 1 where he beat his hometown Padres); the 2005 Boston Red Sox; and the 2006 Padres. Overall, he was 10-5 with a 3.17 ERA in postseason play. Career record of 239-157. He'll probably never get into the Hall of Fame, but he was a winner.

SP Cole Hamels of Rancho Bernardo H.S. in San Diego. He's just 26, but already 55-44 in the majors, with a fine WHIP of 1.185. In his first 3 full seasons, the Phillies won 3 Division titles, 2 Pennants, and the 2008 World Series, in which he was MVP. Despite injuries that have limited him to 7-10 this season, his ERA is just 3.47 -- an ERA+ of 119, just below his career figure of 121. Write his season, and the Phils', off at your peril. And if he can stay healthy, he'll win a lot more games. Which brings me to...

Honorable Mention to SP Mark Prior of University H.S. in San Diego. In 2003, just 23 years old, he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts and a 1.103 WHIP, and helped his team reach the NLCS. His future seemed limitless. Unfortunately, his team was the Chicago Cubs. Having won Game 2 against the Marlins, Prior was pitching in Game 6 when the Steve Bartman incident happened, and the Cubs went from 3-0 up to 8-3 down. Fellow Cub phenom Kerry Wood looked like he might win Game 7, but... It was all downhill from there for both of them (although Wood is now a setup reliever with the Yankees, so there's hope for him). Both were stricken with injuries, and Prior last threw a pitch in the majors in 2006, shortly before his 26th birthday. Career record, 42-29, ERA+ of 124. He tried a comeback with his hometown Padres, but didn't get back to the majors. He's now with the Orange County Flyers of the independent (non-major-league-affiliated) Golden Baseball League. He's 30. Can a comeback possibly happen?

Note that San Diego native Stephen Strasburg is not on this team. Not after 12 starts, just 68 innings pitched. And, since he's most likely going to be out until the start of the 2012 season, it might be a long time before he gets on it.

RP Heath Bell of Tustin. Didn't reach the majors until he was 26, and didn't become a full-time closer until he was 31. But, pitching for the Padres, led the NL in saves last season with 42 and is leading this season with 37 so far. He's currently 5-0 with a 1.84 ERA. He's not going to make Padres fans forget Trevor Hoffman, but if they hold on and win the NL West, they'll certainly remember him forever.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How to Be a Yankee Fan In Toronto

The Yankees have split the first 2 games of a series with the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto, losing 3-2 on Monday before winning 11-5 last night thanks to 5 homers. Phil Hughes goes tonight, against Brett Cecil.

The Yanks will make one more trip to Toronto this season, so this post is not wasted. Not entirely, anyway.

How to Be a Yankee Fan In Toronto

Before You Go. Make sure you call your bank and tell them you’re going. After all, Canada may be an English-speaking country, and a democracy (if a parliamentary one), and a country with a Major League Baseball team, but it is still a foreign country. If your bank gets a record of your ATM card making a withdrawal from any country other than the U.S., it may freeze the card, and any other accounts you may have with them. So be sure to let them know that you will, in fact, be in Canada for a little while.

And, since June 1, 2009, you need a passport to cross the border in either direction. Even if you have a valid driver’s license (or other State-issued ID) and your birth certificate, they ain’t lettin’ you across into the True North Strong and Free. Not even if you’re a Blue Jays season-ticket holder living in Buffalo or if you sing hosannas of praise to Wayne Gretzky. You don’t have a passport? Get one. You do have one? Make sure it’s valid and up to date. This is not something you want to mess with. Canadian Customs officials do not fuck around: They care about their national security, too.

Do yourself another big favor: Change your money before you go. There are plenty of currency exchanges in New York City, including one on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue. Leave yourself $50 in U.S. cash, especially if you’re going other than by plane, so you’ll have cash on your side of the border. At last check, on the morning of August 25, 2010, US$1.00 = C$1.06 – or, C$1.00 = US 94 cents. But, since the currency exchanges need to make a profit, you’ll probably only get about an even exchange.

Don’t worry about the multi-colored bills. We have those now, too. The $5 is blue, and features Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister 1896-1911). The $10 is purple, and features John A. Macdonald (the 1st Prime Minister, 1867-1873 and again 1878-1891, essentially he’s their George Washington without fighting a war of independence). The $20 is green, and features the nation’s head of state, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. The $50 is red, and features William Lyon Mackenzie King (the longest-serving Prime Minister, 1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948 including World War II). And the $100 is yellow, and features Robert Borden (Prime Minister 1911-1920 including World War I).

The tricky part is going to be the coins – and you’ll thank me for telling you this, but keep your U.S. coins and your Canadian coins separate, for the simple reason that their penny, nickel, dime and quarter are all the same colors and just about the same size as our respective coins. (To make matters more confusing, as we recently did with our States, they had a Provincial quarter series.) All coins have Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on the front, but she’s been Queen since 1952, and depending on how old the coin is, you might get a young woman, or her current 84-year-old self, or anything in between. You might even get a penny or a nickel old enough to feature her father, King George VI. Such a coin is still legal tender, however.

They have a $1 coin, copper-colored, bigger than a quarter, and 11-sided, with a bird on the back. This bird is a loon – not to be confused with the people lunatic enough to buy Maple Leafs season tickets. The coin is thus called the “loonie,” although they don’t say “ten loonies.” They use “buck” for “dollar” the way we would, and in fact the term is connected to Canada, since their first English settlers were the Hudson’s Bay Company, and they set the value of a dollar to the price of the pelt of a male beaver, which, like a deer and a rabbit, would be called a buck. (And the female, a doe.) The nation’s French-speakers (Francophones) use the French word for loon, and call it a “huard,” but since the Montreal Expos are gone, you probably won’t hear that term unless you’re a hockey fan and go to see the Devils, Islanders or Broadway Boozehounds in Montreal or Ottawa.

Then there’s the $2 coin, or “toonie.” It’s not just two dollars, it’s two-toned, and even two-piece. It’s got a copper center, with the Queen on the front and a polar bear on the back, and a nickel ring around it. This coin is about the size of the Eisenhower silver dollars we used to have. This is the coin that drives me bonkers when I’m up there.

My suggestion is that, when you first get your money changed before you begin your trip, ask for $1 coins but no $2 coins. It’s just simpler. I like Canada a lot, but their money, yikes, eh?

This is Canada, the Great White North, so if you're going in April, it may still feel like winter, especially if the wind is blasting off Lake Ontario. In which case the Rogers Centre roof will be likely to be closed. So you should pack a winter jacket. If you're going from May onward, even in late September, it will probably be warm enough to not bring any jacket, but bring a light one just in case.

Getting There. The best way is by plane. Air Canada runs flights out of Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia International Airport, and the flight takes about an hour and a half.

Greyhound runs several buses a day from Port Authority Bus Terminal to the Toronto Coach Terminal, at 610 Bay Street. (Countries in the British Commonwealth, including Canada, call a bus a “coach.”) The TCT is big and clean, although a little confusing. You shouldn’t have any difficulties with it. It's one block down Bay to Dundas Street, and turn left to get to the Dundas subway station.

Amtrak, however, runs just one train, “the Maple Leaf,” in each direction each day between New York and Toronto, in cooperation with Canada’s equivalent, VIA Rail. This train leaves Pennsylvania Station at 7:15 AM and arrives at Union Station at 7:37 PM, a trip of 12 hours and 22 minutes – 9:32 of it in America, 0:10 of it at Customs (4:47 to 4:57 PM) and 2:40 of it in Canada. The return trip leaves Toronto at 8:30 AM, reaches the border at 10:35, and gets back to Penn Station at 9:50 PM. So if you leave New York on a Friday morning for a weekend Yanks-Jays series, you’ll only get in the Saturday game.

So, while Toronto’s Union Station, at 65 Front Street West, is one of the world’s great rail terminals, and is the heart of the city, taking Amtrak/VIA to Toronto is not particularly convenient. Especially since the Maple Leaf is one of Amtrak’s most popular routes, and it could sell out. If you still want to try it, it’s US$130 in each direction ($260 total), and you can add Business Class accommodations for just US$1 extra (each way).

If you’re driving, it’s 500 miles – well, 492 miles from Times Square to downtown Toronto. Get into New Jersey to Interstate 80, and take it all the way across the State. Shortly after crossing the Delaware River and entering Pennsylvania, take I-380, following the signs for Scranton, until reaching I-81. (If you’ve driven to a game of the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, you already know this part.) Take I-81 north into New York State. (If you’ve driven to a game of the Mets’ Double-A farm team, the Binghamton Mets, you already know this part.) Continue on I-81 past Binghamton and I-88 to Syracuse, where you’ll get on the New York State Thruway, which, at this point, is I-90. Continue on the Thruway west, past Rochester, to Buffalo.

What happens next depends on where you cross the border. But first, let’s discuss what you should do when you're actually at the border.

You'll be asked your citizenship, and you'll have to show your passport and your photo ID. You'll be asked why you're visiting Canada. Seeing a Yankees vs. Blue Jays game might (probably won't, but might) get you a smart-aleck remark about how the Jays are going to win, but they won't keep you out based on that.

If you're bringing a computer with you, you don't have to mention it, but you probably should. Chances are, you won't be carrying a large amount of food or plants, which you might have to declare.

Chances are, you won't be bringing alcohol into the country, but you can bring in ONE of the following items duty-free, and anything above or in addition to this must have duty paid on it: 1.5 litres (53 ounces) of wine, or 8.5 litres (300 ounces or 9.375 quarts) of beer or ale, or 1.14 litres (40 ounces) of hard liquor. (If you have the slightest suspicion that I'm getting any of these numbers wrong, check the Canada Customs website. Better yet, don't bring booze in. Or out.) As for tobacco, well, you shouldn't use it. But either way over the border, you can bring up to 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and 200 grams (7 ounces) of manufactured tobacco. What you CANNOT bring from Canada back into the U.S. is Cuban-made cigars. They are still illegal to even possess in the U.S. (So even if you're stupid enough to think that President Obama is a Communist, you need to note that he hasn't had that law changed.)

If you've got anything in your car that could be considered a weapon, even if it's a disposable razor or nail clippers, tell them. And while Canada does have laws that allow you to bring in firearms if you're a licensed hunter (you'd have to apply to the Provincial government for a license), the country has the proper attitude concerning guns: They hate them. They go absolutely batshit insane if you try to bring a firearm into their country. Which, if you're sane, is actually the sane way to treat the issue.

You think I'm being ridiculous? How about this: Seven of the 44 U.S. Presidents -- 9 counting the Roosevelts, Theodore after he was President and Franklin right before -- have faced assassins with guns, 5 got hit and 4 died; but none of the 22 people (including 1 woman) to serve as Prime Minister of Canada has ever faced an assassination attempt. John Lennon recorded "Give Peace a Chance" in Montreal and gave his first "solo concert" in Toronto, but he got shot and killed in New York. In fact, the next time I visit, I half-expect to see a bumper sticker that says, "GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE, AMERICANS WITH GUNS KILL PEOPLE."

(Another note about weapons: If you're an NCIS fan, as I am, and you are observing Gibbs Rule Number 9, "Never go anywhere without a knife," mention the knife to the border guard, and show it to him, and tell him you have it to use as a tool in case of emergency, and that you do not plan to use it as a weapon. Do NOT mention the words "Rule Number 9" or quote said rule, or else he'll observe his Rule Number 1: Do not let this jackass into your country, eh? And another thing: Border guards, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most likely will observe a variation on Gibbs Rule Number 23: "Never mess with a Mountie's Tim Hortons coffee if you want to live.")

And if you can speak French, don't try to impress the Customs officials with it. Or the locals, for that matter. You're going into Ontario, not Quebec. And even if you were going into Quebec, they're not going to be impressed. A, People of French descent are a minority west of Quebec (although singers Alanis Morrissette and Avril Lavigne are both Franco-Ontarians); and, B, They can probably speak English, let alone French, and possibly another language or two, better than you can. If you try to speak French in Toronto, you won't sound like you're from Montreal, and you certainly won't sound like you're from Paris. You'll sound like a twat. If you speak French well. If you don't, you'll be not just a twat, but a damn fool.

When crossing back into the U.S., in addition to what you would have to declare on the way in (if you still have any of it), you would have to declare items you purchased and are carrying with you upon return, items you bought in duty-free shops or (if you flew) on the plane, and items you intend to sell or use in your business, including business merchandise that you took out of the United States on your trip. There are other things, but, since you're just going for baseball, they probably won't apply to you. Just in case, check this link: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg/what_you_declare.xml

Precisely where will you be crossing the border? It could be at the Peace Bridge, built to commemorate the U.S. and Canada having “the world’s longest undefended border,” from Buffalo into the Ontario city of Fort Erie. After going through Customs, this would take you right onto the Queen Elizabeth Way (the QEW). After the Pennsylvania Turnpike, this was North America’s second superhighway, and was named not for the current Queen but for her mother, the wife of King George VI, the woman most people now under the age of 60 called the Queen Mother or the Queen Mum. This road will hug Lake Ontario and go through the Ontario cities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Hamilton before turning north and east toward Toronto. Toronto’s CN Tower is so tall that you may actually see it, across the lake, before you get to Hamilton.

The most common route from Buffalo to Toronto, however, is to go north on I-190, the Thruway’s Niagara Extension, to Niagara Falls. After you go through Customs, the road will become Ontario Provincial Highway 405, which eventually flows into the Queen Elizabeth Way.

If you make 3 rest stops – I would recommend at or near Scranton and Syracuse, and count Customs, where they will have a restroom and vending machines – and you don’t do anything stupid at Customs, such as fail to produce your passport, flash a weapon, say you watch South Park (a show with a vendetta against Canada for some reason) or call Sidney Crosby a cheating, diving pansy (even though he is one) – the trip should take about 11 hours. Though that could become 12, because Toronto traffic is every bit as bad as New York traffic. I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley: Toronto traffic is awful.

Once In the City. When you arrive, I would recommend buying the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. The former newspaper is local, the latter is national, and both are liberal enough to suit my sensibilities (or, should I say, sensible enough to suit my liberalism). And The Star has a very good sports section, and should do a good job covering the Jays, although, being a hockey city in a hockey Province in a hockey country, you’ll see a lot of stuff about the Maple Leafs and nearby minor-league, collegiate and “junior” teams no matter what time of year it is.

I would advise against buying the Toronto Sun, because it’s a right-wing, sensationalist tabloid and every bit the journalistically sloppy rag that the New York Post is. (It also has conservative “sister papers” called the Sun in Ottawa, Winnipeg Edmonton and Calgary, although the Vancouver Sun is not connected.) The National Post, while also politically conservative (and thus a national competitor for The Globe and Mail), is a broadsheet and thus conservative in the sense that is calmer and more sensible with its journalism. If you can get to Union Station after leaving your hotel, you may also be able to get out-of-town papers, including the New York ones, as well as Canadian papers such as the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen.

Toronto does have a subway, Canada’s oldest, opened in 1954 and known as “the Rocket” (I’m sure Montrealers loved that, what with their love of Maurice Richard). Along with Philadelphia, it's one of the last 2 subway systems in North America that still uses tokens rather than a farecard system such as New York's MetroCard. The fare is C$3.00, about US$2.83, so it's more expensive that most U.S. systems. But it's fast, frequent, and clean.

Getting to the Rogers Centre, formerly known as the SkyDome, is not going to be fun. The subway doesn’t go to the dome. The closest stop is the one for Union Station. And the city’s famed streetcars are no help, either. It’s a great city for public transportation, unless you’re going to the Rogers Centre or the CN Tower, which are only the 2 biggest tourist attractions in the city, and right next-door to each other – somebody called them a sperm-and-egg pairing. (I’d say they’re the 2 biggest tourist attractions in the Province of Ontario, or even the entire country, but, as I said, you’ll have to pass Niagara Falls.)

The stadium is, theoretically, just 3 blocks away from Union Station, down Front Street West: York, Simcoe, John. But it’s going to seem like a long walk. (Trust me, I’ve done it.) And Front Street West is perhaps the most touristy street in the entire country, much as Broadway in Midtown Manhattan is in New York.

Tickets. It used to be that getting tickets to any Blue Jays home game, not just Yankee games, was hard, because they were selling the SkyDome out, 50,000 per night. It peaked in their 2nd straight World Championship season of 1993, 50,098. (Officially, seating capacity is currently 49,539 for baseball, and 52,230 for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.)

But the strike of 1994, and the decline of the team (the World Championship roster had already begun to be broken up to save money), was the beginning of the end. They fell to 20,209 in 2002, had an uptick back to 29,626 in 2008, but as of last night (August 24) were averaging 20,848 – and that counts games against the well-traveling Yankees and Red Sox. The move of the Montreal Expos to Washington doesn’t seem to have affected attendance much: The increases in home attendance in 2005, ’06, ’07 and ’08 were mainly due to the Jays getting a little better (in 2006 they finished 2nd to the Yankees, the closest they’ve come to postseason play since ’93), and they lost 6,500 fans per game in ’09 and have lost another 3,000 this season.

Therefore, you should have no trouble getting tickets, and going to one of the many scalpers will be totally unnecessary – this is the Jays, not the Leafs, who haven’t played to an unsold seat since World War II. (Note that all prices I’m mentioning here are in Canadian dollars, which means they’re slightly less in U.S. dollars.) You can get Field Level Bases and 200 Level Bases for $52, 100 Level Outfield for $36, 200 Level Outfield for $30, and the entire upper deck, the 500 Level, is jut $14. It’s really high up, but no worse than the upper decks at the old Yankee Stadium and Shea, and the first few rows shouldn’t be all that bad.

Going In. Originally known as the SkyDome, for its retractable roof, and opening in June 1989, the building was renamed the Rogers Centre in 2005, for the new corporate owner of the Jays, Rogers Communications, founded by the late Ted Rogers and featuring several cable-TV networks, most notably Rogers Sportsnet (although TSN, The Sports Network, ESPN's Canada version, is the more popular).

Most likely, you’ll be walking from Union Station along Front Street or the Skywalk that connects the station to the CN Tower. Unfortunately, despite the physical size of the structure, there are only two points of entry: Gate 7 at its southeast corner and Gate 9 at its southwest corner.

There are, as yet, no statues outside the stadium dedicated to Blue Jays or Argonauts greats. But they do have some exterior sculptures depicting fans, which is nice.

Food. You know the economy is bad when a McDonald’s closes. And there was a McDonald’s in the SkyDome, the first in any stadium in the world, but it’s closed. The Hard Rock Café, the first in any stadium in the world, is also gone. They’ve both been replaced by Sightlines Restaurant, with windows facing the field.

The stadium has standard baseball food, and although none of it is great, most of it upsets Canadian stomachs far less than do the Jays’ relief pitchers.

Team History Displays. The Jays have championship banners in straightaway center field. (Or “centre field” as they would spell it.) They have separate banners for the World Series wins, Pennants and American League Eastern Division Championships of 1992 and 1993. This might seem laughable, except lots of sports teams (not the Yankees, or the Mets for that matter) do it, including the New Jersey Devils, my 2nd-favorite pro team behind the Yankees. The Jays also have banners for their AL East titles of 1985, 1989 and 1991, and for the 1991 All-Star Game which the SkyDome hosted.

The Jays do not retire uniform numbers. Instead, there is a “Level of Excellence” on the Rogers Centre’s 500 Level, honoring Paul Beeston (executive, 1976-present and chief operating officer 1989-present), Pat Gillick (general manager, 1977-95), Tom Cheek (broadcaster, 1977-2005, his “number” being the number of consecutive games he broadcast until illness took him away, 4,306), Dave Stieb (Number 37, pitcher, 1979-92 and ’98), George Bell (Number 11, left field, 1981-90), Tony Fernandez (Number 1, shortstop, 1983-90, 1993, 1998-99 and 2001), Cito Gaston (Number 43, manager, 1989-97 and 2008-10 – he’s retiring after this season), Joe Carter (Number 29, first base-right field, 1991-97), and Roberto Alomar (Number 1, second base, 1991-95). And, of course, Jackie Robinson, whose Number 42 is retired for all of baseball, including the Jays, so no Toronto ballplayer will ever wear it again.

The Level of Excellence also features the All-Time Team of the Canadian Football League’s most successful franchise, the 15-time Grey Cup winners, the Toronto Argonuats, including their 4 retired numbers: Joe Krol (Number 55, quarterback, 1945-52 and ’55), Dick Shatto (Number 22, running back, 1954-65), Danny Nykoluk (Number 60, offensive tackle, 1955-71), and Michael “Pinball” Clemons (Number 31, running back 1989-2000, since 2001 a team administrator, and, by a weird twist, comes from Dunedin, Florida, the only spring-training home the Blue Jays have ever had).

There is no mention at Rogers Centre of the 10 Pennants won by the Jays’ minor-league predecessor, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom the legendary hockey team was named: 1887 (in the original Eastern League, the rest in the International League), 1902, 1912, 1917, 1918, 1926, 1934, 1960, 1965, 1966. Those last 3 came as a farm club of the Boston Red Sox, with the 1960 Pennant featuring Carl Yastrzemski, and the last 2 being managed by Dick Williams, who was promoted to the big club and took some of his Leafs with him and, with Yaz and Jim Lonborg, forged the “Impossible Dream” Pennant of 1967. However, 1967 was also the last year of the franchise, as they were moved by the Sox. It would be 1991 before Toronto got full revenge on the Red Sox, edging them for the AL East title in the first race where both of them went down to the wire.

Stuff. The usual memorabilia is sold, including jerseys with the names of current Jays players on them. Former Jays stars, such as those on the Level of Excellence, sorry, but you’ll have to go to Mitchell & Ness in Philadelphia (or their website) to get those.

The Jays are also weak on video. The official World Series highlight films of 1992 and 1993 are available on DVD, but if you’re looking for The Essential Games of the Toronto Blue Jays, or The Essential Games of the Rogers Centre, you’re out of luck.

At least you won’t have to look at those blue Js. When the Jays were heading into the 1992 postseason, somebody remembered the previous season’s World Series, when the Minnesota Twins made up the Homer Hankies, and the Atlanta Braves made the foam tomahawks to do the Tomahawk Chop. So someone made up about a million big bright blue foam objects in the shape of the letter J. A “blue J.” Get it, eh? (Not to be outdone, when the Jays played the Chicago White Sox in the 1993 ALCS, white socks were given to Chicago fans to wave around. As far as I know, the Red Sox have never given people red socks to wave around.) The blue Js were still better than the foam headgear I once saw, resembling the bird on the team’s then-logo. That looked really ridiculous.

During the Game. You do not need to fear wearing your Yankee gear to Rogers Centre. Although quite a few U.S.-based crime dramas (and other shows, and films, particularly those that supposedly take place in Chicago) have been filmed in and around Toronto, it’s not a particularly crime-ridden city. You might get some verbal from the Jays fans, especially after a Jays win over the Yanks, but this will mainly consist of them yelling, “Yankees suck!” And you’ve heard that before, and you know how to respond: “Five rings since ’93, what have you done since then?”

If it's a day game and it's warm, and there's no wind, most likely the roof will be open. If it's a night game, or a day game but windy or not especially warm, the roof will probably be closed.

The ball travels farther with the roof closed (this is usually the case with domed stadiums, Houston's Astrodome being a rare exception), but with a large amount of foul territory, the Rogers Centre is generally regarded as a pitchers' park.

Since you’re in Canada, there will be two National Anthems sung. “The Star-Spangled Banner” will probably be sung by about half of the few thousand Yankee Fans who show up, but “O Canada” will be sung with considerable gusto. When I’m at a sporting event where the opposing team is Canadian, I like to sing “O Canada” in French. Montreal Canadiens fans like this when I do it at the Prudential Center. Fans of the other Canadian NHL teams just think it’s weird. When I did it in the 2 games I’ve been to at Rogers Centre, the Jays fans, as I warned they would, simply thought I was a twat. But then, they root for the Jays, and I root for the Yanks, so I’d rather have their opinion of me than my opinion of them.

The Jays’ mascots are a blue jay couple named Ace (male) and Diamond (female). Prior to them, from 1979 to 1999, they had a blue jay mascot named B.J. Birdie. B.J. resembled the logo the Jays had at the time, while Ace and Diamond resemble the one they’ve had since the 2004 season.

At the 7th inning stretch, after they sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," they go into “OK Blue Jays.” It was written by Jack Lenz and Tony Kosinec, and the recorded version is by Keith Hampshire & the Bat Boys. They’ve used this song since 1983, and is certified as a gold record in Canada. (That’s 50,000 copies, as opposed to the 500,000 you need to sell to get a gold record in the U.S.) It’s a very stupid song, but then, so are most baseball-themed songs. It’s not like “Here Come the Yankees” is appreciably better.

On occasion, the Jays will wear throwback uniforms at home – but these will be their original road uniforms of the Exhibition Stadium era, 1977 to 1989. And they will be powder blue. There’s a reason why teams stopped wearing that color: It is not particularly athletic-looking! Except maybe at the University of North Carolina.

If the roof is closed, fireworks will shoot out from it following a Jays homer or a Jays win. That’s right, indoor fireworks. But the peak of the roof is high enough that you should not be in danger.

After the Game. As I said, Blue Jays fans may try to take a few liberties, especially if their team has beaten the Yankees. Toronto is an international city, every bit as much as New York, and some of these people may have cut their teeth as sports fans in European soccer. But we’re not talking about hooligans here. And, of course, you can just bring up the 27 rings, or the 5 the Yankees have won since Joe Carter touched ‘em all 17 years ago. Wow, that means a kid currently going to college in Toronto probably has no memory of it. Beats being close to 50 and having no memory of the Leafs winning the Cup, though.

The official address for the Rogers Centre is 1 Blue Jays Way. At 99 Blue Jays Way is Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant. But since he betrayed his former fellow players and sided with his current fellow owners in the 2004-05 NHL lockout, I consider him a traitor to the game of hockey, and I will not set foot in his establishment, and I would advise you to avoid it as well.

I would also advise avoiding Jack Astor’s, a smart-alecky-named chain of Canadian restaurants that includes one at 144 Front Street West, about halfway between Union Station and the Rogers Centre. I ate there the last time I was in Toronto, and the food and service would be mediocre at half the price. They have 2 in the U.S., one in nearby Buffalo and one in (surprise!) Cary, North Carolina.

There’s the Canadian Bar & Grill, at the Holiday Inn at 370 King Street West, which features what it calls “traditional Canadian cuisine.” This includes wild game, as well as regional items like poutine (the rather foul combination of French fries, gravy, and some sickening curd) and Newfoundland clam chowder (apparently, the word “chowder” came from the Newfies, and theirs is closer to New England’s than to the tomato-based abomination known as Manhattan clam chowder).

If rabbit stew isn’t your cup of tea, try the Loose Moose Tap & Grill, at 146 Front Street West. There, as they say, you’ll “eat like a king then party like a rock star!” You’ll be dining like a typical Torontonian, rather than with guys likely to jump into the Monty Python “Lumberjack Song.” (If you’ve never seen it, let me put it this way: Don’t ask, and I won’t tell.) And the Lone Star Texas Grill, at 200 Front Street West, is jointly owned by several former CFL players, and is a fair takeoff on the U.S. chain Lone Star Steakhouse.

Actually, your best bet may be, as Vancouver native Cobie Smulders of the TV series How I Met Your Mother would put it, “the most Canadian place there is”: Tim Horton’s. (Note that there is no apostrophe: It’s “Hortons,” not “Horton’s.”) They have a 62 percent share of the Canadian coffee market (Starbucks has just 7 percent) and 76 percent of the Canadian baked goods market. They also sell sandwiches, soup, chili, and even (some of you will perk up faster than if you’d drunk their coffee) New York-style cheesecake. It’s fast food, but good food. I rate them behind Dunkin Donuts, but ahead of Starbucks.

Tim Horton, a defenceman (that’s how they spell it up there) for the Maple Leafs, and businessman Ron Joyce started the doughnut/coffee shop chain in 1964, while in the middle of the Maple Leaf’s 1960s dynasty. He played a couple of years for the Rangers, then went to the Buffalo Sabres and opened a few outlets in the Buffalo area. He was still playing at age 44, and the only thing that stopped him was death. Specifically, a 100-MPH, not-wearing-a-seat-belt crash on the Queen Elizabeth Way over Twelve Mile Creek in St. Catharines, Ontario. (In other words, if you’re driving or taking the bus, you’ll pass the location.)

Joyce, whose son Ron Jr. married Horton’s daughter Jeri-Lyn, joined with Dave Thomas of Wendy’s and merged the two companies in 1995, becoming its largest shareholder, with even more shared than Thomas. There are now over 3,000 Tim Hortons locations in Canada (including one at Toronto's Union Station and several on Canadian Forces Bases around the world) and over 500 in the U.S. – and they’re heavily expanding in New York including 3 in the Penn Station complex alone (despite Horton himself only briefly having played for the Rangers upstairs at the “new” Madison Square Garden). They are also partnered with Cold Stone Creamery. These Hosers know what they're doing.

Sidelights. Being the 2nd-largest city in North American after New York – if, that is, you count Mexico and thus Mexico City as “Central America” – Toronto is loaded with tourist traps.

This has been spoofed in “The Toronto Song,” a bit by the Edmonton-based comedy duo the Arrogant Worms. (It’s not obvious they’re from Edmonton until the end of the song, by which point they’ve said everything in Ontario sucks, as do all the other Provinces, except “Alberta doesn’t suck – but Calgary does.”)

They’re not far off: Although the city is much cleaner than most American cities (U.S. film crews, trying to save money by filming there, have had to throw garbage onto the streets so it would look more like New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, and then have street-sweepers clean it up between takes), the places does have its slums, its ridiculous rents, its never-ending lakefront high-rise construction (mirroring Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s similar projects in New York), and they do have their share of metalheads, punks and Goths. I wouldn't call Mayor David Miller a dork, as the Arrogant Worms did, although his predecessor, Mel Lastman, was often a Canadian version of Rudy Giuliani. With better hair.

Although Torontonians can’t quite decide whether they want to be Canada’s New York (national media, culture and finance capital, home of the CBC and CTV, and Bay Street is their “Wall Street”), Canada’s Chicago (a gritty blue-collar “drinking town with a sports problem”), or Canada’s L.A. (movie-filming center.) Actually, Montreal is Canada’s New York, Hamilton its Chicago, and Vancouver its L.A.

Toronto is... it’s something else. Scientists have yet to figure out what. But check out these locations:

* Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 Yonge Street, blocked by Yonge, Front, Bay and Wellington. If you go to Toronto and you don’t go to the Hockey Hall of Fame, they should deport you from Canada and never let you back in. This place is great, and the actual Stanley Cup is there. (Well, 2 of them are, the original bowl that was so damaged that they replaced it in 1970, plus some of the bands with old-time winners on it, and a display copy. The one that gets awarded every year is also stored there in preparation for its annual awarding, then gets to go wherever the winning team’s players want to take it for almost a year.) You’ll also see why Canadians call hockey jerseys “sweaters”: They used to be sweaters, as you’ll see in the display cases. You’ll also see why they’re not sweaters anymore: Holes where they were eaten by moths. Hockey eventually got that right.

They also got the location for their Hall of Fame right: While it’s not clear where hockey was invented, and the NHL was founded in Montreal, they put it in an easily accessible city, unlike baseball (hard-to-reach Cooperstown, New York is NOT where baseball was invented), basketball (Springfield, Massachusetts is where it was invented but it’s a depressing place), and pro football (Canton, Ohio is where the NFL was founded but it makes Springfield look like Disney World… Sorry, Thurman.) Union Station stop on the TTC subway.

* Exhibition Place. The Canadian National Exhibition is kind of a nationwide “State Fair.” It was on the grounds, off Princes Boulevard, that Exhibition Stadium, or the Big X, stood from 1948 to 1999. It was home to the Blue Jays from 1977 to 1989 and the CFL’s Argonauts from 1959 to 1988. It hosted only one MLB postseason series, the 1985 ALCS, which the Jays lost to the Kansas City Royals. But it hosted 12 Grey Cups (Canadian Super Bowls), although only one featured the Argos, and that was the 1982 game, won by the Edmonton Eskimos in a freezing rain, with fans chanting, “We want a dome!” The SkyDome/Rogers Centre project soon began, and Exhibition Stadium never hosted another Grey Cup. (Rogers Centre has hosted 3, but the Argos haven’t played in any of them.)

BMO Field (pronounced "BEE-moh"), home of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and Major League Soccer’s rather unimaginatively-named Toronto FC, was built on the site. Exhibition stop on the Lakeshore West line of GO, Toronto’s commuter-rail service out of Union Station.

* Varsity Stadium, 299 Bloor Street West and Devonshire Place. The home of the athletic complex of the University of Toronto, this is the 3rd stadium on the site, replacing one that stood from 1911 to 2002 and the one before that from 1898 to 1911. It only seats 5,000, but its predecessor could hold 21,739, and hosted more Grey Cups than any other facility, 29, from 1911 to 1957. Unlike Exhibition Stadium and (so far) the Rogers Centre, the Argos won 9 of their 15 Grey Cups at home at Varsity Stadium: 1914, 1921, 1937, 1938, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1952. (They also won at Sarnia in 1933, Vancouver in 1983, Winnipeg in 1991, Hamilton in 1996, Edmonton in 1997 and Ottawa in 2004.)

Varsity Stadium was home to the various Toronto teams in the North American Soccer League, and hosted the 1969 Rock ‘n Roll Revival Concert, as shown in the film Sweet Toronto, featuring John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band (of course, also with Yoko Ono, but also with Eric Clapton), the Doors, Alice Cooper (this is where a live chicken was thrown at him from the seats, and he threw it back, thinking it could fly, but it died), and founding fathers of rock Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. Museum stop on the Yonge-University Line, or St. George stop on the Yonge-University of Bloor-Danforth Lines.

* Rosedale Park, Scholfield and Highland Avenues. This is where the first Grey Cup game was held, on December 4, 1909. The University of Toronto defeated the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club, 26-6. There’s now a soccer field on the site of the original stadium. Unfortunately, the closest subway stop is Summerhill, on the Yonge-University Line, and you’ll have to walk a roundabout path to get there. If you really want to see it, you may want to take a cab.

* Maple Leaf Gardens, 60 Carlton Street, at Church Street. Home of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs from 1931 to 1999, this was arguably the most famous building in Canada. The Leafs won 11 Stanley Cups while playing here: 1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 – and they haven’t been back to the Finals since. The Gardens (always plural, never “The Garden” like in New York and Boston) also hosted the first NHL All-Star Game, a benefit for injured Leafs star Ace Bailey in 1934, one of the Canada-Soviet “Summit Series” games in 1972, and the first Canada Cup in 1976, where Leafs star Darryl Sittler stole the show. On November 1, 1946, the first NBA game was held at the Gardens, with the New York Knicks beating the Toronto Huskies, who folded after that first season of 1946-47. It hosted the Beatles on all 3 of their North American tours (1964, ’65 and ’66), and Elvis Presley in 1957 – oddly, in his early period, not in his Vegas-spectacle era. But somebody who doesn’t give a damn about history, only money, decided the Gardens was obsolete, and the Leafs moved into the Air Canada Centre in 1999.

A plan to turn the arena into a shopping mall and movie multiplex, as was done with the Montreal Forum, has been dropped because of the way the building was built: Unlike the Forum, if the Gardens’ upper deck of seats is removed, the walls will collapse. But it has not yet been fully abandoned, as it hosts the CBC TV series Battle of the Blades, in which former hockey stars pair up with figure-skating champions. College stop, on the Yonge-University Line.

* Mutual Street Arena, bounded by Mutual, Shuter, Dundas and Dalhousie Streets. This arena stood at this location from 1912 until 1989, when condos were built there, and was the home of the Toronto Blueshirts, National Hockey Association Champions and Stanley Cup winners 1914, and the Maple Leafs from 1917 to 1931. They were known as the Toronto Arenas when they won the first NHL Championship and their first Stanley Cup in 1918, and the Toronto St. Patricks when the won the Cup in 1922. Conn Smythe renamed them the Maple Leafs, after the city’s minor-league baseball team, when he bought them in 1927. Queen or Dundas stops on the Yonge-University Line.

* Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay Street. The Hangar, the home of the Maple Leafs and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors since 1999 (the Raptors played at the SkyDome 1995 to 1999, with a few games at Maple Leaf Gardens), it is a modern, 18,800-seat facility with all the amenities, built between Union Station and the Gardiner Expressway. Union Station stops on the Yonge-University Line and the GO and VIA Rail systems.

* Hanlan’s Point. This was the home of Toronto baseball teams from 1897 to 1925, and was the site of Babe Ruth’s first professional game, on September 5, 1914, for the Providence Grays – then affiliated with the Red Sox, much as their modern counterparts the Pawtucket Red Sox are – played the baseball version of the Maple Leafs, pitching a one-hitter and homering in a 9-0 Providence win. Unfortunately, Hanlan’s Point is on one of the Toronto Islands, in Lake Ontario off downtown. The stadium is long gone, and the location is only reachable by Ferry.

* Maple Leaf Stadium, at Stadium Road (formerly an extension of Bathurst Street) and Queens Quay West (that’s pronounced “Queen’s Key”). Home to the baseball Maple Leafs from 1926 to 1967, it was demolished a year later, with apartments built on the site. The Leafs won 5 International League Pennants here, and it was the first sports team owned by Jack Kent Cooke, who would later own the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, and the NFL’s Washington Redskins. There’s no good way to get there by public transportation, but it’s a short walk from the Rogers Centre, down Spadina Avenue toward the lake, then west on Queens Quay to Stadium Road.

* Fort York, Bathurst Street and Front Street West. You should see at least one place that doesn't have anything to do with sports, and with the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 coming up, this place is going to become more interesting. In that war, the 2nd and last time the U.S. seriously tried to take Canada away from the British Empire, the U.S. Army, led by Zebulon Pike (for whom the Colorado Peak was named), burned the fort and what was then the city of York, now Toronto, on April 27, 1813. In revenge, the British burned Washington, D.C. It is, essentially, Canada’s Alamo. (But not their Gettysburg: That would be Lundy’s Lane, in Niagara Falls, and I recommend that you make time for that as well.)

* Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queens Park at Bloor Street West. “The ROM” is at the northern edge of Queen’s Park, which includes the Ontario provincial Parliament complex and the University of Toronto, and is, essentially, next-door to Varsity Stadium. It is Canada’s answer to New York’s Museum of Natural History.

* CN Tower, 301 Front Street West at John Street. At 1,815 feet high, but with only its central elevator shaft and its 1,122-foot-high observation deck habitable, it was never a candidate for "the world's tallest building," but from 1975 until 2007, it was "the world's tallest freestanding structure." The CN stood for Canadian National railways, but with their bankruptcy and takeover by VIA Rail, the CN now stands for Canada's National Tower. It's next-door to the Rogers Centre and accesible via a skywalk from Union Station.

*

The Yankees visit Toronto one more time this season: On September 27, 28 and 29, a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with all 3 games listed at a 7:07 start time. (For some reason, the Jays list their start times as 1:07 and 7:07, instead of the usual 1:05/7:05 or the old-time 1:00/7:00 – or, as was the case with the Yankees while I was growing up, 2:00/8:00.) Have fun!