Monday, February 28, 2011

Always Duke


       By Ross Newhan

       He returned to Southern California in his prime. The Compton boy, the center fielder who came to be known as one of the Boys of Summer, was 31, but fans who would welcome the Dodgers to Los Angeles in record numbers, would never see the real Duke Snider, the Duke of Flatbush.
       Part of it was the distored distances at the Coliseum, where the Dodgers played their first four seasons in Los Angeles, and part of it was a knee surgery prior to Snider's first season in Los Angeles.

       Still, even now and forever more, Snider, who passed away Sunday at 84, will be remembered at the heart of those storied Brooklyn teams, a mainstay in Dodger and baseballl history--always insightful and honest in our innumberable conversations over a period of almost 50 years.

       The last time we talked was two years ago in connection with the Dodgers' 50th anniversary of their move from Brooklyn, where Snider had hit 40 or more homers in each of his last five seasons.

       Between 1958 and 1961, however, before the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962, Snider hit 15, 23, 14 and 16 homers, of which only 38 were hit at the Coliseum, where the center field fence might as well have been in Pacoima, and right field was little better.

       Snider recalled taking batting practice prior to the opening game against the San Francisco Giants, and Willie Mays, in reference to the distant dimensions, saying to him, "Duke, they killed you."

        By phone from his Fallbrook home, Snider said, "baseball deserves its own identity. It shouldn't ever be piecemealed into a football and track stadium, which is what the Coliseum (was). It was great for drawing those big crowds, but that wasn't good baseball or real baseball people were watching because it wasn't a real baseball field."

       The Dodgers, of course, had little alternative other than 20,000 seat Wrigley Field at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard, which in 1961 became the one season home of the expansion Los Angeles Angels of the American League.

       At the Coliseum, the Dodgers broke all of baseball's attendance records, and Snider, during that last conversation, said he harbored no bitterness at the fact that his 404 career homers might have been 450 or more had the Dodgers played on a legitimate baseball field with legitimate dimensions during those first four seasons in Los Angeles.

        Knee surgery in December 1957, before the first game at the Coliseum, was the principal reason his production fell, he said.

        "That was before arthroscopic surgery and the knee was never the same. I was never the same hitter.

        "I had to change my whole style. I had to try to be more of a contact hitter, a tough adjustment when you've been a free swinger your whole career." 

         The Dodgers were in transition in more ways than one when they came to Los Angeles.

        Roy Campanella was in a wheelchair, and Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and Carl Erskine were all within a year or two of retirement. The Boys of Summer were past their peak or unable to regain it, and new faces and maturing faces dotted the roster in '59 when the Dodgers became the first team to go from seventh place one season to a World Series title the next.

        Snider kept swinging on his one good leg.

       He wasn't the same hitter who had helped inspire the memorable song "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" during the halycon days of those three great center fielders in New York, but he will always be the Duke of Flatbush in Dodger lore, Compton's Edwin Donald Snider who became royalty in name and Hall of Fame performance, and it sadness me to think I will be drawing a line through his phone number, no longer seeing him at Dodger and baseball functions--always Duke..             


Monday, February 21, 2011

Trout and Other Fishy Business

    By Ross Newhan

    --At 19, Angel outfielder Mike Trout may be the No. 1 prospect in baseball, as many publications and scouting services claim, but save me from those comparisons to Mickey Mantle that are sneaking into stories out of the club's training camp. Trout may have Mantle's pre-injury speed (58 steals in 125 minor league games) but he doesn't yet have the power (a total of seven home runs in those 125 games) and he bats only right handed compared to Mantle's ability to switch-hit, which allowed the Yankee great to avoid pitching match-ups. All I'm saying is, slow down.

   --As Commissioner Bud Selig has been cautiously and judicisiouly watching the Dodger ownership turmoil, he may have a bigger problem on the East Coast with the investigations into the ties of New York Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon to scamming Bernie Madoff taking on criminal overtones. It's a complex picture and not a very pretty one.

   --Former neighbor Tom Kenney writes from his new home in the Pittsburgh area that he was avoiding the cold on Sunday by watching the MLB network show a replay of the 2002 All-Star home run derby in which ESPN glorified the power of Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, all admitted or suspected users of performance enhancing drugs.As interesting as it was, Kenney noted, he was surprised --as I am--that MLB would be trying to have it both ways, showcasing the foursome on their own network amid existing industry policy regarding the use of PEDs.

   --An article in the L.A. Times Calendar section Monday dealt with casting directors talking about their unhappiness at the absence of an Oscar in their category. Casting directors, of course, play a major role in the success or failure of a movie, just as scouts play a major role in the success or failure of an organization but still don't have an award entitling them to entry into the Hall of Fame. It's a subject I've touched on many times, with the Hall's response being that in many cases it is difficult to determine whether it was the area scout or the cross-checker or the scouting director who should get credit for the signing of a player. Isn't it possible, however, that a body of work can be honored, as the Hall honors writers and broadcasters with the J.G. Taylor Spink and Ford Frick awards? Of course, until Marvin Miller gains entry no one should be complaining.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

A-Rod, Get Real

   By Ross Newhan

      --With a batting order that includes Madonna, Kate Hudson and now Cameron Diaz, Alex Rodriguez looks foolish complaining about the Fox cameras finding him in a private box at the Super Bowl as Diaz fed him popcorn. And don't you just know that Yankee teammate Derek Jeter, the Prince of New York and a player who could and undoutedly has dated the most beautiful women in Manhattan without his private life becoming public, is shaking his head with a wry smile over A-Rod's latest fiasco.

     --So, as pitchers and catchers report to training camps, a contract story already overshadows all of Florida and Arizona except, perhaps, Michael Young's trade demands, Albert Pujols and agent Dan Lozano have set a Feb. 15 deadline for reaching a contract agreement with the Cardinals or else the first baseman will certainly test free agency during the next off season. Pujols, 31, will make $16 million this year in the final year of a seven year, $100 million contract. He has never been baseball's highest salaried player despite being the game's best hitter with 10 consecutive seasons of 100-plus RBIs and 10 of 30-plus home runs, including six of 40 or more. This off-season he has seen Jayson Werth, with no 100 RBI season to his credit, receive a seven year, $126 million contract from Washington and Carl Crawford, with no season of even 20 home runs, receive a seven year, $142 million contract from Boston. Reportedly, the Cardinals have not even presented Pujols with the outline of a proposal, playing a dangerous game with their highly principled first baseman.

   --Yes, Michael Young would fit perfectly in either the Dodgers or Angels lineups, but it is not going to happen and, in all probability, Young is going to remain a Texas Ranger because the club simply can't make an equitable deal for him with anybody and really doesn't want to. Young, although not specific, says he was misled and lied to, apparently about playing time after the Rangers acquired third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher-DH Mike Napoli and apparently by general manager Jon Daniels, but most people close to the club believe any hard feelings can be and will be eased and Young will end up with enough playing time to maintain his 185-hits per season average.

    --OK, let's say that Young is traded. The Rangers would have to get a front line pitcher in return, and is anybody ready to part with a pitcher who fits that category? The real issue confronting the American League champions beyond placating Young  is the reliability of their rotation with Cliff Lee gone or the vacuum at closer if Neftali Feliz (with his 40 saves)  is moved into the rotation. Right now the starting fivesome is something of a trial balloon after C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, although the Rangers have a sleeper in Brandon Webb, the ex-Diamondback who has appeared in one game over the last two seasons and had shoulder surgery in August 2009 after averaging 18 wins with a 3.23 ERA over the previous four seasons. Webb was signed to an incentive laden contract and remains a huge quetion mark.

   --Andy Pettitte has officially retired, and the immediate question is: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? My answer is yes. He won only a fringe Hall total of 240 games but had a 3.88 earned-run average while pitching 13 of his 16 seasons in the DH American League and made at least 30 starts 12 times. He also is the all-time leader in post-season starts (42), innings (263) and wins (19), for much of which he can thank the Yankees and the expanded playoff schedule. Obviously, his 2007 admission of HGH use will weaken his candidacy among some voters--and, yes, I have said I would not vote for any player where the use of a PED is clear cut--but Pettitte made a stand up admission in his deposition to a Congressional committee and I accept his testimony that the HGH use was limited to two occasions. In Roger Clemens' ongoing court fight to clear his name, insisting he never used steroids or HGH, Pettitte's testimony to Congress that his close friend told him directly that he did use PEDs remains Clemens' biggest obstacle. The Clemens' perjury trial is scheduled to begin in July, and Pettite is expected to be a government witness. The respected left hander, in a news conference announcing his retirement, said he simply wanted to spend more time with his family and that his anticipated trial apperance, likely to be emotional and highly charged, played no part in his decision.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How Vital Are All Those Vital Checks

       By Ross Newhan

       It is Super Bowl morning and I won't be attending any parties this year. My prescription calls for a few more days of 90% bed rest after a surgical procedure last Wednesday.

      The procedure was done at Placentia-Linda Hospital, which has made several significant changes since we moved out of the neighborhood about six years ago.

      There is now a separate and spotless imaging center, an expanded surgical pavilion and beefed up rooms with flat screen TVs and new beds. An attentive staff deserves respect and admiration.

      Like all hospitals, however, Placentia-Linda and the doctors who operate out of it believe in that part of the Hippocratic oath which requies patients to be awakened every two hours to have blood drawn or vitals checked.

      How much are my vitals going to change in two hours? Wouldn't patient recovery be accelerated with four hours of sleep, even three?

     I mean, it is hard enough sleeping in those two foot wide hospital beds with 22 push-button settings, none of which relate to comfort. It is hard enough sleeping with a catheter tied to your leg, bandages across your abdomen and your roommate throwing up or moaning every 15 minutes. All there is to do is watch the clock and wait for the next two hour nurse's visit.

    Fortunately, I spent only one night hospitalized. I was still so tired when I got home that I slept for 10 hours straight, which is a personal record or a record, at least, since I stopped travelling with the Angels or Dodgers and all the writers thought it was part of their job description to close a bar every night and get 10 or 12 hours of alcohol induced sleep before waking for lunch in mid-afternoon and heading back to the yard (scribe talk for the ballpark) again.

    Was I an alcoholic during those years? I have to think I was.

    My drink was VO and water. I had my last one about 20 years ago. The winter baseball meetings were at the Town and Country Hotel in San Diego, and I was staying at a motel across the freeway. One morning I woke up in my room, drenched in sweat, and without any memory of how I had driven to my motel. It was a sufficient calling card.

    We still had several bottles of VO in the garage until recently when, noticing how they dissolved over time, we either gave them away or dumped them in the garden. The roses never looked happier.

    The first amendment to the Traveler's Constitution reads: Nothing Good Happens After Midnight. I paid a big price by ignoring it for so long.

    I had so many 2 a.m. cheeseburgers and one last VO and water at closing hour that I ultimately required a quintuple bypass 14 years ago.

   Now, I couldn't stay up until bars closed even if forced to. We observe the East Coast version of New Year's Eve, and will probably switch to the Australian time zone soon.

    But I have gotten off the track here.

    I'm just saying (one of the more over-used and absurd expressions in the current culture) that if I require another hospitalization I'm going to insist on a four hour window between vitals and blood draws no matter what.

   I may even request a private room. Do they take airline miles or hotel points?