July 19, Rick Ankiel celebrates 36

The Rick Ankiel story starts off unfortunate, turns happy, then dismal, and finishes uplifting.

Lying, stealing and drugs littered the 11-year MLB player’s childhood. His father regularly embarrassed him and even his own family tree held unknown secrets.

Throughout Rick’s Little League days his father coached him, all the while making frequent trips to jail for drug smuggling and dealing. In total Ankiel’s mother left home after a history of violence.

Ankiel used it as fuel for his baseball career, winning the Player of the Year in Florida. Out of high school, the Cardinals signed the lefty pitcher for a $2.5 million signing bonus.

ja042 At age 20 he took the mound in the National League Divisional Series and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Scouts raved about his talent, and Ankiel lived up to the hype.

Until he didn’t.

In the same NLDS against the Braves, he blew up in front of the entire baseball world. His regular season earned him a start in Game one of the playoffs. But his implosion is almost too hard to watch with five wild pitches in the same inning. That tied a record for WP in a single inning that had been in place since 1890.

The wheels completely fell off, but his Cardinals advanced to the Championship Series. Which meant Ankiel had another shot on the mound. It’s almost even tougher to watch.

The same incident unfolded later in the same series.

Baseball had a history of pitchers who completely lost control, as detailed by Pat Jordan.

Then Bruce Weber tried to pin point the exact reason, but how can you pick one thing that starts a snowball of wild pitches and balls?

He laughed it off, he’d been dealt some tough breaks. He just wanted to improve.  But he didn’t. The control issues followed Ankiel to the minors, where he clearly had much better talent. He had bottomed out.

So he started the long journey back to Major League pitching. In 2004 he came back to the mound for the Cards and went to spring training with the team the next season.

Control issues resurfaced and he got cut. Needing to make a change, he turned to the outfield – a place he could still display his plus-plus arm and stay in the game.

A lot has been made about his comeback to baseball. His agent Scott Boras sent him to de-stress in California after the meltdown in 2000. And, though it took a while, it seems Ankiel is less uptight about just about everything.

His numbers didn’t make anybody jump to sign him, but the comeback story did.

Most recently, the Nationals hired him on as Life Skills Coordinator, which Ankiel seems more than qualified for.

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July 18, Joe Torre turns 75

FILE - DECEMBER 9, 2013: It was reported that the Baseball Hall of Fame elected retired managers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, and Bobby Cox on December 9, 2013. NEW YORK - APRIL 27:  Manager Joe Torre of the New York Yankees looks on before playing the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 27, 2006 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – APRIL 27: Manager Joe Torre of the New York Yankees looks on before playing the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 27, 2006 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Most famous for managing the Yankees through their late 1990s dynasty, Joe Torre celebrates his 75th birthday today.

The right-handed catcher and infielder accumulated nine All-Star Game appearances in 18 Major League seasons. Even with a respectable .297 career batting average, the Hall of Fame inducted Torre in 2014 as a manager.

Not that batting a hair under .300 isn’t impressive, but that’s certainly the right move.

Torre played under manager Yogi Berra in the tail end of his playing career.

In 1977, Torre served as one of baseball’s last player-managers, coaching the Mets for 117 games. He enjoyed little success, not only there, but as the manager of Atlanta and St. Louis, too.

Spanning 14 seasons, he only coached one team to a first place divisional finish. The Yankees fired Buck Showalter in 1995 and immediately knew Torre was their guy. At least George Steinbrenner knew.

As Jack Curry writes, “Steinbrenner wanted Torre… so desperately that the Yankees did not even interview another candidate.”

But Curry also picks at why the “hardly overwhelming Torre” turned into a unanimous choice. Torre brought a .471 winning percentage and even more questions to the Bronx.

Steinbrenner and General Manager Bob Watson met with the 54-year old manager for just an hour before agreeing to hire him. It took much longer to learn that the Yankees exhausted three other resources before turning to Torre as the fourth choice.

On the surface, Torre looked like a figurehead – already with most of his assistants put in place by Steinbrenner. Bill Madden published an article just after Torre’s hiring, holding nothing back with the title “Crowning of a Puppet.

Further, media thought he walked into an impossible situation. Working for Steinbrenner hadn’t worked out for 13 other managers to that point. Torre is no different, wrote Ian O’Connor.

O’Connor legitimately thought Torre made a career-altering mistake by taking the job.

Career-altering? Definitely.

In his first year, the Yanks won the World Series. (LINK: Pretty awesome footage from the nosebleeds.)

Derek Jeter started his career that season. He and Torre teamed up for Series wins again in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

But there is something to be said to the “figurehead” manager. Steinbrenner and Watson’s replacement Brian Cashman loaded the Yankees with talent. The 1998 lineup entirely existed between 26-31 years old, with the exception of Darryl Strawberry and Paul O’Neill.

That season they acquired everyday players Scott Brosius, and Chuck Knoblauch. In 1996, Tino Martinez joined the team. In ’97, they brought Chad Curtis aboard – all these players coming to the Bronx in their primes.

Not to mention signing David Wells, David Cone and reliever Mike Stanton.

The World Series looked like Torre’s to lose at that point, which he did twice. His relationship with Steinbrenner remained close until the Boss died in 2010. The two built an empire which took over baseball teams and casual fans.

He finished his career in an awkward departure from New York and the Dodgers’ manager. He turned a mediocre winning percentage to trailing only Connie Mack, John McGraw, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox in wins.

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July 17, Lou Boudreau’s 98th birthday celebration

FILE--Former Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau is shown in this March 1942 portrait in Clearwater, Fla. Boudreau, a Hall of Fame shortstop who gained fame as a player and manager died Friday, Aug. 10, 2001 at Olympia Fields Osteopatic Hospital in Illinois. He was 84. Boudreau began his career with the Indians in 1938. He was the shortstop and manager of the 1948 World Series champion Indians and later was a broadcaster with the Chicago Cubs. (AP Photo/File)

FILE–Former Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau is shown in this March 1942 portrait in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/File)

Were he alive to see it, today would be Major League player, manager and broadcaster Lou Boudreau’s 98th birthday.

When players like David Ortiz or Nelson Cruz come to the plate, infields shift accordingly to play the, heavily likely, pull.

Shifting infielders is nothing new in baseball. In the late 1940s, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau favored lefty Ted Williams’ pull. His defensive alignment became known as “The Boudreau Shift”

The history of the shift reads as commonsensical. According to Joe Ponanski’s article, Williams grounded “right into the teeth of it, as if playing along, and he was thrown out by Boudreau himself, who as shortstop was standing between the first and second baseman.”

The player-manager basically trademarked the shift, even forcing Fleer to print a card detailing the move.

As Baseball-Reference confirms (though with incomplete data) Williams grounded out to the right side about 80% of the time. Boudreau’s vision to keep Williams contained was not the only time he looked like a visionary.

Pitcher Bob Lemon (HoF 1976) threw seven twenty-win seasons and walked away with a .618 winning percentage. Even with his insane numbers, Lemon didn’t always pitch. His full-time career on the mound came about from his 1948 manager (well, player-manager), Boudreau.

That same season, Lemon and Boudreau teamed up for a World Series.

Boudreau totaled a modest .295 batting average while he played. He reached eight All-Star games in the 40s and the Indians have retired his number five jersey.

After his playing days, Boudreau joined WGN’s radio broadcast of Cubs games. He remained there until 1987. With one exception.

In 1960, Chicago became so peeved by manager Charlie Grimm that they swapped Boudreau for Grimm – going booth to dugout, and dugout to booth. The trade and his broadcast career is well summarized by Stephen Nidetz here.

He’s the definition of a man who lived for the game of baseball. Upon his Hall of Fame induction in 1970, Boudreau said, “This is reaching the top. That’s what we all strive for no matter what profession we’re in. I feel that my life is fulfilled now.”

Intertwined with the great stories from some of baseball’s best, Bob Feller recalls Boudreau calling pitches as a player-manager from the shortstop position.

Today, he is honored with an award given to the Indians’ best Minor League position player.

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July 16, Shoeless Joe’s birthday card full of cash

jackson

I know, I know… Another White Sox player. Today would be Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 129th birthday.

Well before Pete Rose or A-Rod, Shoeless Joe Jackson stood as baseball’s long-standing villain. In a backwards way though, his greed kept baseball on the straight and narrow.

If you go look at the above link, you can see how impressive Jackson’s numbers looked. Keep in mind, this is the Dead Ball Era, so there’s no knock on .300+ batting averages and .500+ slugging percentages. No knock at all.

Of course Jackson will always be remembered for throwing the 1919 World Series along with other Chicago White Sox teammates for a pre-determined amount of money. Well, sort of. Most players made off with $10,000 but Jackson only got $5,000, which bummed him out since he got promised four times that amount.

That ordeal has been well documented here, here, and – with the League’s spin on it – here. So no need to spend telling the story.

Note: The first World Series in 1903 was a best-of-nine series (as opposed to the best-of-seven series now). The only other times that the Fall Classic went best-of-nine was between 1919-1921, conveniently right in the middle of Shoeless Joe’s story.

Interestingly, Rob Neyer’s 2004 article claims the 1903 World Series also reeked of foul play (no pun intended) and that baseball was as corrupt as an organization could be until 1920. Read that clip, it’s interesting stuff and shows off MLB’s best commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Recently, we discovered actual footage of the “Black Sox” in action.

Scandals unfolding on tape are nothing new. But, as Deadspin’s Tim Marchman puts it, the fallout of the scandal still stands as one of baseball’s crowning moments on its way to becoming America’s Pastime.

This is crazy that we actually can watch one of baseball’s most historic moments unfold. Deadspin probably oversells the importance of the “precise moment when the problem became too obvious to ignore… which forced baseball to decide whether or not it would be a level game. It’s right there with Jackie Robinson’s debut among the most significant moments in the game’s history.”

And while that may be slight hyperbole, Deadspin did correctly identify a point that could’ve easily turned into long road of mob ties, like many fans allege in boxing.

Check out the top comment from Neil deMause for more context/debate.

Landis suspended the eight players involved for life after he assumed the Commissioner’s office in 1920. The testimony is pretty black and white (again, no pun intended. Killing it today).

Dead to rights, Jackson threw all of his teammates under the bus, though I’m not sure what else you would do in front of a Grand Jury who has substantial evidence on you….

One last note: Pete Rose broke Major League Rule 21(d), which specifically bans “betting on ball games.” The difference, though slight, is that Jackson violated rule 21(a), pertaining to the accepting of gifts for throwing games.

Small distinction, but new Commissioner Rob Manfred hasn’t indicated any inclination to reinstate either ball player.

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July 15, Miguel Olivo’s 37th birthday

olivo

As Major League Baseball teams and scouts poured more resources into Latin America and the Carribean, a right-handed catcher named Miguel Olivo popped up in the Dominican Republic.

The Oakland Athletics signed Olivo in 1996, just before Billy Beane took over as Oakland’s general manager. Baseball minds loved the catcher’s defensive upside.

His time on the Bay got cut short when Beane dealt him to the White Sox for Chad Bradford. The pitcher, famous for his submarine delivery, played an integral role in Beane’s “Moneyball” strategy.

While Bradford enjoyed a solid career in Oakland, Olivo’s got off to an interesting start in the White Sox system.

The Southern League (AA) levied a six-game suspension on Olivo for using a corked bat. Olivo then turned around and blamed his old club, the A’s, since the bat had the team logo on it.

His ho-hum .237 batting average in 2003 with Chicago got him traded to Seattle where his numbers continued to nosedive for good. Here’s a fun one: in 2011 Olivo had the lowest walk rate for batters with more than 300 at bats, walking in just 2.2% of his plate appearances. Take a second to consider how bad that is.

Worst part was, that season wasn’t the first time he’d shown impatience at the plate as detailed in Dylan Jenkins’ If He’d Only Walked (Away): The Miguel Olivo Story.

In 2007, Olivo showed more character flaws when his jawing back and forth with Jose Reyes turned into this.

The final nail in Olivo’s MLB coffin came last season when he literally bit a teammate’s ear a la Mike Tyson.

Read that section that talks about his .368 batting average and 1.013 OPS, which was certainly enough to get him called up to, his then parent club, Dodgers. BUT WAIT.

In spring training of the same season, a reporter asked Olivo what he would do if he didn’t play baseball. Check out his response.

Now he’s in Mexico, which for some reason is hysterical.

I don’t want to draw too many correlations between almost sub-zero patience at the plate and brawls with third basemen from your native country/ear biting, but…

Happy Birthday, Miguel Olivo-Tyson.

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July 14, Robin Ventura hits 48

1988-robin-ventura-topps-traded-218x300

On this All-Star Monday, we celebrate a player twice named an All-Star. Robin Ventura played with four Major League teams in a career spanning just more than 15 years. Now the manager of the Chicago White Sox, Ventura came up with Chicago when the roster expanded in September 1989.

By the time he became a full-time addition to the White Sox, the team wondered how they ever got along without him. Through 150 games in 1990, he batted .249. Over the next few seasons, his glove caught more attention than his bat.

But Ventura’s most famous baseball moment came in 1993 against Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. An inside fastball turned into a 20-second headlock-to-sucker punch frenzy. For Ryan, it came to be one of the most defining images of his 27-year baseball career.

The pitcher was 46-years-old at the time and he’s just wailing away at a newcomer to the American League. And all because Ryan pitched the way he always did – by owning the inner portion of the plate.

As Rob Goldman points out, Ryan’s beef with Chicago had been a long time coming.

And while Texas fans still back their pitcher-turned-owner, Ryan and Ventura don’t seem to harbor any ill will these days.

Inconsistency sandwiched error-riddled seasons between Six career Gold Glove Awards. In 1995, 17 errors at third base moved him across the diamond to first. The very next season, Ventura earned another Gold Glove.

Clutch home runs boosted his middle-of-the-road .267 career batting average in the court of public opinion. The lefty batter smacked two grand slams on September 4th, 1995, becoming the first player since Frank Robinson to hit two in the same game.

Perhaps his most clutch home run came after he departed the White Sox for the Mets.

In the 1999 NLCS, Ventura came up in the 15th inning with the bases loaded against the Atlanta Braves. What both you and I both consider a grand slam technically got scored as a single, since his Mets teammates mobbed him before he made it around the bases. The “Grand Slam Single” did not help New York to the World Series.

Much like his trip back to Arlington, Ventura now travels around the American League as manager of the White Sox. He took the team over in 2012 and expressed his loyalty to the South Siders:

“When I rejoined the White Sox this June, I said this was my baseball home and that part of me never left the White Sox organization,” he said.

Ventura ascended through the White Sox farm system, getting the 1989 call from AA Birmingham. He also spent time with Cape Cod’s Hyannis Mets.

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