Cold Calling Harry Caray

March 3, 2014

We have lots of links surrounding the Mariners and Rainiers down below, as the spring training media machine keeps churning. I don’t have anything to add to those links today, so instead I’ll tell a story about Harry Caray, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday.

I was a huge fan of Caray when he was Cubs TV announcer at the end of his career. His daily national telecasts on WGN were a soundtrack to my college years. I think most baseball fans from the 80s and 90s enjoyed the old-man-who-doesn’t-care candor he brought to the booth.

I had the privilege of meeting Harry in 1998. I think that the story of how this happened is kind of entertaining, so here goes.

I was working for the Class-A team in Rancho Cucamonga, California in 1998. We met Harry because of the actions of a sales guy we had named Mike Junga, who was a big Caray fan.

Junga had one of the crucial jobs for any minor league baseball team: sales. His job was to sit in a cubicle and make phone calls to strangers all day long, trying to sell season tickets, group tickets, and luxury suite rentals. That was his job: show up for work, make a hundred cold calls, try to sell a few tickets, go home. Not the most exciting gig in baseball, but Junga had a creative mind and he would do things to spice up the day.

The ticket office had stacks of phone books for areas all around Rancho Cucamonga. Knowing that Caray had a winter home in nearby Palm Springs, Junga grabbed the appropriate phone book, looked under the C’s, and there it was: Caray – no first initial, no address, but a phone number.

To entertain himself between cold calls, Junga decided to call the Caray number. He called once in the morning, and again in the afternoon. The phone rang and rang, but nobody picked up. There was no answering machine.

Junga did this every day for a while before telling a few of us about it. Once a group of about four of us team employees were at lunch (probably at Nancy’s Cafe; seems like we always went there), and Junga told us what he was doing. Someone brought up an important question: what was he going to do if Harry ever answered the phone?

We kicked it around and eventually decided that if anyone ever answered the phone at the Caray house, Junga would identify himself as a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes employee, and see if Harry would be willing to sign a few baseballs for our annual charity auction.

Then we all forgot about it – except for Junga.

He kept calling and calling the Caray number, and it would always ring with no answer. He knew Harry lived in Chicago and the Palm Springs house was a winter getaway. The winter was winding down.

The calls became routine for Mike. He didn’t even get excited about it anymore, but he kept trying. One day in January it happened.

Junga had dialed this number a hundred times during the off-season, so when someone actually picked up the phone, it was a total shock.

Harry: “Hello?”

There was no question it was Harry Caray. That voice was instantly recognizable.

Stunned Mike Junga: “Harry! It’sMikeJungawiththeRanchoCucamonga-QuakesandI’mcallingtoseeif”

Harry: “SLOW DOWN!”

Mike calmed down and had a pleasant conversation with Harry. Harry agreed to meet us and sign a few baseballs for our charity auction – but only if we met him at his place. It was about 45 minutes away.

The conversation ended with Harry Caray giving my friend directions to his house. At the end of the lefts and rights, Harry says “It’s the house with a cow on the mailbox.”

Two days later, Mike, myself, and our VP of Finance Jay Middleton (a huge baseball fan who was not missing this) drove out to Harry Caray’s winter home. Sure enough, the mailbox was painted to look like a cow.

We knocked on the door at the appointed time, and were let in by Harry’s wife Dutchie. She took us out back by the pool, where Harry was sitting in the shade, with about five newspapers stacked up next to him.*

Harry was very friendly. He asked a few questions about our team, which was a Padres affiliate at the time. He signed our baseballs. I asked him a question or two about how he got started in baseball. Then I went for the home run.

I was hoping Harry would record a “liner” for me – just him saying, “This is Harry Caray, and you are listening to Rancho Cucamonga Quakes baseball with Mike Curto.” How awesome would that be?

Harry politely declined. He said that other than the Cubs, he had an exclusive with Budweiser for any promotional voiceovers. “I’ve been with Budweiser for many years and I’m not doing anything that might mess that up.”

We each had our picture taken with Harry, said our thank-yous, and left. We spent the 45-minute drive home basking in how awesome it was to have just visited with Harry Caray.

Three weeks later, Harry passed away. He suffered a heart attack while having Valentines Day dinner with his wife. He was 83.

Harry is on the right.

Happy 100th, Harry.

Links:

  • The Mariners starting rotation is in disarray, as it is becoming more evident that neither Hisashi Iwakuma nor Taijuan Walker will be ready for opening day.
  • The door is open for Randy Wolf to walk into the Mariners starting rotation. All he needs to do is perform.
  • Apparently Ryan Divish was feeling extra-inspired while writing this excellent story on Danny Hultzen‘s spring training.
  • Good stuff from Shannon Drayer on James Paxton, who improved his delivery by watching video of Clayton Kershaw.
  • New TNT Mariners writer Bob Dutton took some fan questions from Twitter and gave longer, more elaborate answers on his blog on Friday. There is some solid insight from spring training camp here.
  • Dutton has a story on the battle between Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, with the title “Winner to Seattle, Loser to Tacoma.”
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports talked to Robinson Cano about improving the Mariners. Cano has some specific ideas – all of which involve raising the payroll from last year. It is unclear if the M’s are willing to do this.
  • Cano’s comments spurred Art Thiel to write a column on the issue.
  • Some exhibition game notes: yesterday, potential Rainiers infielder Gabriel Noriega – known for his smooth glove – had a rough inning defensively in a loss to Cleveland… Saturday, new dudes Cano and Logan Morrison had multiple hits in a win over the Angels… and on Friday, likely 2014 Rainiers James Jones and Nate Tenbrink homered in a 12-1 wipeout of San Diego.
  • Here’s another good story: Tim Booth previews Russell Wilson‘s appearance at Ranger spring training, which started today. He talks to Mariners minor leaguers who played with and against Wilson in college.
  • Catch up with Ichiro right here. He doesn’t really have a role with the Yankees this year, but he plans to play “many more seasons.”
  • John McGrath dropped by Cheney Stadium this weekend and talked to UW pitcher and draft prospect Jeff Brigham.
  • We’ll close with a fun one: Jeff Sullivan looked at all three bunt doubles that were hit in the majors last year. One of them came on a very smart play by Cano. The third one is simply hilarious.

Check back Wednesday for our final positional preview. We’ll take a look at the Raniers bullpen candidates.

* Pre-internet, that’s how baseball announcers did their research: by acquiring as many different sports pages as possible.


Winter League Wrap-Up

January 8, 2014

The regular seasons in the Dominican, Venezuelan, and Mexican winter leagues have come to an end, so let’s check out the stats of some Rainiers players who participated.

HITTERS

Abraham Almonte played in just eight games for Escogido in his native Dominican, going 6-for-24.

Jesus Montero got 86 at-bats in Venezuela, playing for the Mariners-linked Cardinales de Lara. Montero hit .279 with one homer and 13 RBI. His OPS was .698. Worth noting that Montero played strictly DH and 1B.

Gabriel Noriega could be a Rainiers infielder in 2014. He started 50 games at shortstop for Lara, batting .239. He reportedly is a defensive wiz.

Carlos Peguero launched two dingers in seven games in the Dominican. Peguero is out of minor league options for 2014 so it’s going to be a big spring training for him.

Jesus Sucre caught 16 games for Caracas, but hit just .178. Health is the important factor here.

Nate Tenbrink managed to play in both the Dominican and Venezuela. Not sure how that happened. I think he liked Venezuela better: he batted .300 there, and .080 (only 25 at-bats) in the Dominican.

Carlos Triunfel appeared in 28 games for Tigres de Licey in the Dominican, hitting .178.

PITCHERS

Jonathan Arias pitched in the Dominican briefly, and Mexico extensively. He had a 2.16 ERA in Mexico.

Logan Bawcom pitched in ten early-winter games in Venezuela before being shut down. He had a 8.22 ERA in 7.2 innings.

Roenis Elias is a likely Rainiers starting pitcher in 2014. He made three starts in Venezuela, going 2-1, 4.26.

Stephen Kohlscheen is a name to learn (and for me, learn to spell) as he will probably be in the Rainiers bullpen after a terrific 2013 season in Double-A. He punched out nine batters over 5.2 innings in the Dominican.

Hector Noesi dominated in the Dominican. In nine starts for Tigres de Licey, he fashioned a 2.30 ERA. Like Peguero, Noesi is out of options and this is a big spring training for him.

Matt Palmer started four games for Magallanes in Venezuela, with a 4.82 ERA.

Erasmo Ramirez was dealing in Venezuela, posting a 3-1, 2.86 mark in six starts for Lara.

Ramon Ramirez pitched in 21 games in his native Dominican, posting a 3.15 ERA with nine saves for Gigantes de Cibao. One can speculate that this performance led the Mariners to sign him last week.

Anthony Vasquez made six starts for Lara, going 0-4, 6.04.

Still nothing on the Rainiers coaching staff announcement. It’s gotta be coming any day now.

Links:

You’ve probably heard by now that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas were elected to the Hall of Fame today.

Surprisingly, none of them ever played a game at Cheney Stadium. Maddux played parts of two seasons for the Iowa Cubs, but they were in the old American Association back then. Glavine did his Triple-A time with Richmond of the International League. As for the Big Hurt, he jumped straight from Double-A to the big leagues in 1990.

The guy who missed election by two votes played in Tacoma: Craig Biggio came through town as a member of the Tucson Toros in 1988.


Hey, We Got A Hall-Of-Famer!

December 9, 2013

Baseball’s Winter Meetings began this morning, and one of the first announcements came from the Hall of Fame, which will induct three managers this summer: Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox.

Tacoma can lay claim to one* of the three: Bobby Cox played for the Tacoma Cubs at the start of the 1966 season.

Cox was a third baseman as a player, and he spent the entire 1965 season in the PCL with the Cubs affiliate in Salt Lake City. Affiliations changed after the 1965 season, with Tacoma losing the Giants and signing on with the Cubs – and Tacoma inherited their Triple-A third baseman, Cox.

Cox played in ten games for Tacoma at the start of the 1966 season – struggling mightily, going 4-for-34 at the plate. On April 28 he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Billy Cowan (who would play for Tacoma and also five major league teams). The Braves assigned Cox to their Double-A team in Austin.

Cox would kick around the minors for a few more seasons, and also get a year-and-a-half in the big leagues before going into managing. He managed four years for Triple-A Syracuse before the Braves would once again come calling – this time to start his Hall of Fame managerial career.

At this point in a blog post like this, I would insert a photo of Bobby Cox in his Tacoma Cubs uniform. However, I am sad to say that we don’t have that photo in our archive. If you have any leads on where to find one, please shoot me a message.

We’ll have lots of links this week as the meetings are on.

Links:

Current plan is to be back with a fresh post on Wednesday, but if any big news breaks from Orlando I’ll chime in on Tuesday.

* I believe Tony LaRussa appeared at Cheney Stadium managing Oakland in exhibition games in the late-1980’s/early 1990s, and he certainly played here with visiting Vancouver in 1968.


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.


No New Hall Of Famers Today

January 9, 2013

The results of the Baseball Writers Association of America hall of fame voting was announced today, and they elected… nobody.

This actually wasn’t all that surprising, and it’s not the first time it has happened (last time: 1996). With all of the extreme opinions on the PED issue, plus the fact that a lot of old-school writers make a distinction between “first ballot Hall of Famers” and “Hall of Famers,” it just seemed like this was the road we were headed down.

I think it is a one-year anomaly and next year we will see Craig Biggio, Greg Maddux, and possibly others get in. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will see their percentages increase dramatically as writers who dinged them for one year because of PEDs change their votes.

Edgar Martinez‘s votes stayed right about the same, approximately 36%. If he ever gets elected by the writers, it’s going to be at the end of his 15-year ballot eligibility.

Links:

  • Larry Stone writes that at least one national opinion of the Mariners farm system is very high.
  • In the PCL, the Las Vegas newspaper caught up with new 51s manager Wally Backman. This could be entertaining. Also, Backman and new Rainiers hitting coach Howard Johnson were teammates, Doug Sisk is always around in Tacoma. 1986 Mets reunion, PCL-style, anyone?
  • Ron Hassey returns for a second season as the New Orleans skipper.
  • Former Rainiers pitcher Doug Fister is pinch-hitting for a no-show Tom Seaver at the Fresno Grizzlies preseason banquet. Fister is from the Fresno area.
  • Stunning but true: MLB paid $1.2 million for the “Rockies.com” web domain.

As I post this, there is a developing news story that the Sonics are coming back to Seattle, perhaps as early as next season. That would be sweet!


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