Impressions From Rainiers Camp

March 28, 2014

Back home in Tacoma after 3.5 days at Mariners/Rainiers spring training, I’ve had some time to let my first impressions of this year’s club sink in a bit.

I watched three (mostly) full games, and talked to a lot of coaches and a handful of players. Here’s what I came away with:

OFFENSE – This is going to be a good-hitting Rainiers team. The lineup looked impressive, even without players who are/were still in big league camp (specifically: Nick Franklin, Endy Chavez, and Humberto Quintero). I know he got bad press for arriving at spring training overweight, but Jesus Montero was stinging the ball in the games I watched – and he is under a lot of pressure to perform this year; I think he’ll rise to the occasion. I also think we will see improved performances from second-year Triple-A players like Nate Tenbrink and Rich Poythress. Adding PCL veteran Cole Gillespie is a boost to the lineup as well.

DEFENSE – The outfield – with some mixture of James Jones, Xavier Avery, and Endy Chavez to go with Gillespie – is going to cover a lot of ground.  There is nothing alarming about the infield defense, and catchers Jesus Sucre/Quintero/Brandon Bantz are all good on defense.

STARTING PITCHING – This is unexpectedly a big area of concern right now, due to the injuries (Walker, Iwakuma) and opting-out (Wolf, Baker) of several players during spring training. It appears that there will be pitchers who were not originally intended to open in the Triple-A rotation doing exactly that. Right now the only pitchers I expected to be in the Rainiers rotation who are (probably) in it are Matt Palmer and Andrew Carraway. We’re six days from the opener and I have no idea who the other three starters will be.

BULLPEN – Everyone I talked to said that the Tacoma bullpen will be a huge strength. The latest news regarding Bobby LaFromboise (below) could put a damper on that if he gets claimed, but it should still be a strong relief corps. Most of the Mariners final major league roster decisions involve the bullpen, but the Tacoma group should have some young guns.

Opening Night is Thursday. The team is supposed to arrive in Tacoma on Tuesday, so I expect we’ll have a roster for you on Tuesday afternoon, or Wednesday at the latest.

Links:

  • The Mariners named Erasmo Ramirez the No. 2 starter, Bob Dutton writes. This story also has the 2014 Mariners salary information in a sidebar.
  • On Thursday, the team signed veteran starter Chris Young to a major league contract. Young has been injured for years, but if he’s healthy he could be pretty good. That’s a very, very big “if.”
  • To make room for Young on the 40-man roster, reliever Bobby LaFromboise was designated for assignment. If he clears waivers he’ll report to Tacoma. I’m interested to see what happens here – we could certainly use him in Tacoma.
  • Nick Franklin talked about learning to play the outfield.
  • If Roenis Elias makes the major league rotation, it will be another case of the Mariners rushing a prospect to the big leagues too quickly, Jerry Brewer writes.
  • Exhibition round-up: there was no game on Thursday… on Wednesday a late home run wasted another solid start from Erasmo Ramirez.
  • Will Leitch has a behind-the-scenes look at MLB’s new replay review system.
  • Pat Jordan is one of my favorite writers, and he has a long-form feature on Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer. Great stuff.
  • In the PCL, on Wednesday afternoon the Texas Rangers may have set a modern record by announcing the Round Rock roster a full eight days before the start of the PCL season. That’s early!
  • Reno has added veteran outfielders Trent Oeltjen and Aaron Cunningham (a Port Orchard guy), and new manager Phil “Filthy” Nevin has guaranteed 60 degree weather on opening day.
  • The Arizona Diamondbacks assigned pitcher Archie Bradley to Reno. Bradley will be the No. 1 pitching prospect in the PCL – assuming Taijuan Walker joins the Mariners when he is healthy.
  • The big deal in Memphis is done: the St. Louis Cardinals bought the Triple-A team, and the City of Memphis took over AutoZone Park.
  • The new ballpark in Nashville is being built on an ancient burial ground. What could possibly go wrong?

On the flight home from Arizona yesterday, I finished a good book about sports broadcasting: Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic by Ken Korach. Oakland A’s broadcaster Korach lovingly tells the life story of his late broadcast partner, who was considered the best radio announcer in Bay Area history. If you are into sports broadcasting, this is a great read full of tips and anecdotes. Any sports fan will love the “Mother’s Day” chapter. You can get the book here.


Book Report: Class-A by Lucas Mann

December 2, 2013

Let’s change gears a little bit today and talk about a baseball book that came out earlier this year.

Class-A – Baseball In The Middle Of Everywhere is the first book by Lucas Mann, and it chronicles the day-to-day experiences of the author as he spent the 2010 season with the Seattle Mariners Low-A team in Clinton, Iowa.

Mann was granted near-total access by the Clinton team and manager John Tamargo. He was in the locker room, on the road with the team, and in the stands with the fans.

What makes this a unique book is that during the 2010 season, Mann was a 24-year-old academic at the University of Iowa. He was only a few years older than the players, and he was eventually accepted into their world.

It is his account of that world – the world of a group of 19-to-22 year-olds from all over the globe dropped into a small, economically failing midwestern town without friends, family or even cars – that makes the book.

Mann also spent a lot of time with the Clinton season ticketholders, the diehard fans who come to every game and have been doing so for years. Through this lens, he takes a depressing look at the city of Clinton and how its economy is dominated by one gigantic, smelly factory.

I read this book right after the Rainiers season ended, and I found it riveting. It is very different from your typical minor league baseball book. I think that the main reason it is different is that this isn’t just a book; this is literature. Mann is a talented young writer who can really turn a phrase.

Current Mariners Nick Franklin and Erasmo Ramirez both have prominent roles in the narrative – they were the stars of the team, and Munn correctly identified them as the top prospects on the club. I’m sure Nick and Erasmo would like to have some of the more personal passages deleted, but for us readers it is important to remember that they were both 19-years-old when that season started.*

This book is not for kids. I recommend the book for adult readers who at least occasionally dabble in literature. If you think that James Patterson is the modern John Steinbeck, or that Jose Canseco’s Juiced is a great baseball book, you should probably pass on it. However, if you like your reading a little more highbrow, you will enjoy it.

Links:

  • For more on Class-A, here’s a New York Times interview with the author.
  • Speaking of books, the is a new biography on Ted Williams coming out. This excerpt from the Boston Globe focuses on… Ted’s frozen head.
  • Lots of reports out there that the Mariners are going to sign ex-Rainiers infielder Willie Bloomquist to a two-year deal. Bloomquist’s role will be to back up Brad Miller and Nick Franklin/Dustin Ackley.
  • Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln has begun the process of replacing outgoing team president Chuck Armstrong.
  • All-star pitcher Lou Brissie is one of the most incredible stories in professional sports history. He passed away during the holidays – be amazed by his Times obituary.

Monday Night Football tonight – and of course it’s a big one with the Seahawks playing the Saints. The Rainiers are hosting a free viewing party in the Summit Club at Cheney Stadium – info is here, except this is a Special Monday Edition of Seahawks Sundays.

* I find the thought of somebody chronicling my actions when I was a 19-year-old to be absolutely terrifying. I suspect most of you older readers agree.


Loss Of Greatness

January 21, 2013

Baseball lost two of its inner-circle Hall of Famers over the weekend, when both Stan Musial and Earl Weaver passed away.

I’m too young to remember Stan Musial. To me, he’s always been a revered name with ridiculously awesome statistics on the back of his baseball card.

Earl Weaver, however, is another story.

I saw Weaver blow-ups on TV when I was a kid, and I saw him bring his Baltimore Orioles into Oakland in the mid-1980s, when he made his ill-advised managerial comeback. But most of what I know about Weaver comes from books written by an umpire.

American League umpire Ron Luciano wrote a series of funny and entertaining books in the 1980s, and I gobbled them all up as a teenager. In these books, he discussed his career-long feud with Weaver, which started in the low minor leagues and continued in the majors.

If I didn’t have about 15 books in my “To Read Pile,” I would go back and re-read the first Luciano book. I wonder if it is still fun, as an adult 28 years later.

Weaver himself has a must-read book: his 1984 book Weaver On Strategy is generally considered to be the most important book ever written by a manager. In it he discusses many of the strategic ploys he developed. The book has riveting sections on his scouting reports and his in-game maneuvering.

If you love baseball, you can knock out a big chunk of the off-season reading Earl Weaver related stuff.

Weaver Links:

  • Weaver is believed to have the record for most times ejected. His Retrosheet page has a list of his ejections with a brief explanation of the reason why. My favorite is “shredded rulebook.”
  • The Sports Illustrated vault has Tom Verducci’s 2009 feature on Weaver, this is tremendous.
  • The SABR biography of Weaver runs through some of the strategies he developed, some of which were banned, and many of which are still used today. The piece also has the background stories behind the widely viewed (and profane) Weaver YouTube videos.
  • Former general manager Dan Evans remembers his first meeting with Weaver.

Musial Links:

Non Musial/Weaver Links:

We should have some Rainiers-related news later this week. The Mariners hold their annual Pre-Spring Training Media event on Wednesday, and some good tidbits usually come out of this. Unfortunately I will miss it for the first time in years due to a scheduling conflict (a Rainiers speaking engagement), but the team will have somebody there to get some info. The plan is for that to be the next blog update, probably on Thursday.


Reading List

December 15, 2011

I just finished reading James Hirsch‘s outstanding biography of Willie Mays, The Life, the Legend, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written the baseball books post. Time to remedy that.

I have hundreds and hundreds of baseball books. I have more baseball books than I have shelf space for, so they pile up on the floor, making for a rather untidy office. Does anybody have an extra bookcase they could give me?

Here is a list of ten baseball books that I especially enjoyed. You could call this my recommended reading list, I suppose.

In no particular order:

A False Spring by Pat Jordan. Jordan was a hot-stuff high school pitcher who signed a professional contract and entered the low minor leagues as a teenager. Far from home for the first time in his life, he struggles on the field, questions his coaches, experiences self-doubt, gets injured, and flames out. Luckily, he could write – and this book is an extraordinarily well-written journal of a young man experiencing failure. 

The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle. First came Jim Brosnan, then came Jim Bouton, and then we had Sparky. I think each generation has its favorite player-author. Bouton’s Ball Four remains the class of this field, but my contemporary was The Bronx Zoo. I read this as a teenager, and unlike Bouton’s book in this one I knew who all of the players were. This book details the New York Yankees 1978 season in a day-by-day diary. As it was being written, Lyle had no idea that the Yankees were going to pull off a miracle comeback and beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff. The book contains hilarious anecdotes on George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers… you name it.

Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige. If you’ve never read Ol’ Satch’s autobiography, add it to your list. His stories from the Negro Leagues and barnstorming days are classic baseball tales, and then he becomes the oldest rookie in MLB history. Highlights include the story of when Ol’ Satch called in his outfielders, and of course his legendary list entitled “How To Keep Young.”

Babe: The Legend Comes To Life by Robert Creamer. This is the Mount Everest of baseball biographies. It’s difficult to imagine just how popular Babe Ruth was in the 1920s and 30s – until you read this book. Creamer spent decades as a writer for Sports Illustrated; he was an extremely talented sportswriter. He wrote this book in 1974.

Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Full disclosure: Neyer is a friend of mine. This is an excellent and entertaining work that reviews and compares the 25 best teams in MLB history, and the authors reach a conclusion deciding which was the best of all-time. While the authors do use advanced statistical analysis to compare the teams, stats are a mere fraction of the book: there are plenty of stories and historical anecdotes about each of the great teams. Unfortunately, this book was published in 2000 – one year before the Mariners won 116 games.

Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck. Veeck was baseball’s great promotional owner. He bought and sold teams, battled with baseball’s old guard, and tried all kinds of marketing tricks. Veeck was the first to put names on the back of uniforms, he invented scoreboard entertainment, he oversaw Disco Demolition Night… this is the man who signed Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf actor, to a major league contract and sent him to the plate (he walked on four pitches). Veeck had a wooden leg with an ashtray built into it, for crying out loud. All of the stories are in here, and it’s entertaining.

The New Historical Abstract by Bill James. James gets pigeon-holed as a stats guy, but he can really write. This book is a class in baseball history, with enough entertaining sidebars to keep you turning the pages. I actually try to avoid this book because if I open it up to a random page and start reading, there goes the afternoon.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Don’t go see the movie – read the book, its way better. Seriously. Lewis is such a great writer that he makes seemingly boring subjects exciting. One of the fun parts of watching PCL baseball over the last ten years was seeing all of these draft picks in Sacramento. The chapter on Gig Harbor resident Scott Hatteberg is outstanding.

Dollar Sign On The Muscle by Kevin Kerrane. Kerrane, a university professor, delves into the mystery of baseball scouts. In 1981 the Phillies gave him access to their scouts, and he spent the year meeting with them. The scouts share stories on their hits and misses, and the book also gives a history of baseball scouting. If you are interested in scouting, or if you want to read some great scouting stories, this is a good read.

Hoopla by Harry Stein. The only fiction on the list, this is historical fiction. Stein uses a duel first-person narrator structure: one narrator is Buck Weaver of the Chicago White Sox, and the other is a fictional newspaper writer who breaks the story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Both characters are brilliantly developed, and the author does a wonderful job presenting the era. This book has been out of print for decades and is nearly impossible to find in a bookstore – but you can order it online with ease.

One bonus book, Mariners style:

Out Of Left Field by Art Thiel. As far as I know, this is the only history on the Seattle Mariners. From the expansion days to the ugly teams in the Kingdome to the miracle of 1995 to the building of Safeco Field to the 116 wins – it’s all in here.

There, that should keep you busy for a while. All eleven book reports are due on my desk by Opening Day.


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