Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ballpark Anagrams

This one is just for fun. I've always loved anagrams. When I was in college, a classmate and I actually got a "literary anagram" published in the "Saturday Review," the high-brow literary magazine published by Norman Cousins. Our puzzle had anagrammed writers' names on one side and, for each, an anagrammed work. I remember one: "beware addle" (Edward Albee) wrote "Thy Ooze Rots" ("The Zoo Story").

I've been playing with ballpark anagrams recently and had fun coming up with a variety of ways to use the letters in "stadium" and "field" to form words. Here are anagrams for 30 major league ballparks. Some of the parks still exist; the majority do not. With a few exceptions, I have steered away from the current crop of corporation-sponsored names. I'm not asking you to waste your leisure moments figuring out that I've made an anagram of "US Cellular Field." Most of these should be easy enough, especially if you're familiar with the long-extinct parks. I'm listing them here alphabetically except for #30; that park has (had?) such a great name for anagrams that I'm listing all seven I created. It might still be a tough park to guess. [At least for the time being, I am not providing answers. You should figure those out for yourself, and you're free to contact me if you just can't stand not knowing.]

1. A PERKY FAWN
2. A STICKY DURHAM JUMP
3. BREAKS HIP
4. BUSTS AID MUCH
5. CORK IMPS A KEY
6. DEBT BELIEFS
7. DICE FLY, LOSER
8. DICK CAN'T SPARKLE
9. DIG SUTTER AIM
10. DROOL ON, PUGS
11. EAT HUMID ASS
12. FOOLS CRIED
13. G.E. SCENT ERROR
14. IT'S GODDAM RUDE
15. I'M ITS FIFTH GUARD
16. KAY IS A NUDE MET
17. LOBES DIFFER
18. MIKE DONG
19. SHARED MISTER VIRTUE
20. MOD REMOTE
21. MUMMIES: D.O.A. TRAIL
22. PRAGUE LEAK
23. PRO SPANKS SMART
24. REF UNTIL RED
25. RIGID FEW YELL
26. SCARY MADDEN
27. SOCIAL MULE
28. SOOT DREAM
29. WORK BABEL
30. #1: MYOPIA-LED QUEST
#2: DOPES MA QUIETLY
#3: IT'S MY PEQUOD ALE
#4: MOIST PLAQUE DYE
#5: MOPEDS EQUALITY'
#6: QUEASY MILD POET
#7: DIM OPAQUE STYLE

BONUS: BED FOULED DAILY

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Top This, Fred Merkle!

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of baseball's most controversial and misunderstood events, the so-called "Merkle's Boner," the celebrated failure of a 19-year-old rookie to touch second base on what would have been a game-winning single. The controversy raged at the time; did Fred Merkle touch second or not, and was the ball used to touch the base and create a run-negating force play the actual ball that was hit for the single? The misunderstanding has boiled over ever since, as Merkle was mocked during his career and never lived down the legend of his lapse, despite the facts that: 1) he did what every player of his time did, namely flee the field as soon as the game-winning hit occurred, to avoid being stampeded by happy hometown fans; and 2) instead of villifying Merkle, we should instead be praising Johnny Evers, the Cubs second baseman whose knowledge of the technicalities of the rules and insistence on alerting umpire Hank O'Day to what might happen allowed O'Day to make the correct call. Evers' ploy, which can be viewed as either a sore-loser stunt or a brilliant exploitation of a loophole, worked, but nobody remembers him for it. Merkle takes the rap, and that's all anybody has cared about.

But I'm not here to harp on Merkle. I want to celebrate the anniversary of another New York Giants blunder, or "boner" if you prefer the term used at the time, which occurred on September 23. This one happened in 1905, so New York fans who witnessed the later disaster might well have been reminded of the earlier one. In both cases, Evers was the one who cashed in the oversight. Also in both cases, the loss was ultimately felt by Hall of Fame immortal Christy Mathewson. In 1908, the Merkle game had to be replayed at the end of the season with the pennant on the line, and Matty was outpitched by Three Finger Brown that day and suffered one of his most bitter defeats.

In 1905, Matty was a more direct victim of a teammate's fuzzy thinking. This time it brought to a crashing halt a magnificent 15-game winning streak which included five shutouts and six starts where he gave up three hits or less. He was coming off a 2-hitter--raising his record to a whopping 29-6--when he faced the Cubs at Chicago's West Side Grounds. He faced fellow 25-year-old Carl Lundgren, a soon-forgotten hurler who had a 13-5 record that season. They dueled all afternoon, and the game was scoreless in the bottom of the 7th inning when the Giants wandered into the first of two September 23rd "Twilight Zone" episodes. Follow this play:

There were two outs, and the Cubs had two runners on, Johnny Evers at second and Jimmy Slagle at first. Doc Casey hit a ground ball whichBill Dahlen, a longtime star shortstop [who was just put on the short ballot of 10 candidates for the Hall of Fame's next Veterans Committee election] fumbled. Dahlen scrambled after the ball, grabbed it, and raced to second base just as Slagle arrived. It was what is today called a bang-bang play, where the umpire stationed only a few feet away doesn't always know who reached the base first. In 1905, however, there was only one umpire working the game; that decade saw the transition from one umpire to two. Just by coincidence, Emslie, who lasted 35 years as a major league umpire, also worked the Merkle game in 1908.

In 1905, as the only umpire, Emslie was stationed behind the plate, and when a ball was hit he had to race forward to get the best view he could. We don't know how close he was to the photo-finish at second base, but we do know that Dahlen did what many infielders have done before and since, namely try to "buy" the call. As he crossed the base, he acted as if there was no question that he had beaten Slagle to the bag, and did what an infielder would naturally do after recording the final out of the inning. He rolled the ball across the infield. The problem was that Emslie called Slagle safe. Mathewson was walking off the field when Dahlen rolled the ball behind him. By the time he made a dash to retrieve the ball, the alert Evers rounded third and raced home to score. The Giants surrounded Emslie and berated him for not believing Dahlen, but he stood his ground and the run counted. It was the only run of the game.

So Dahlen's attempt to fake out the umpire cost Christy Mathewson a 1-0 defeat that ended a 15-game winning streak. Brutal. But don't feel too bad for Matty. He finished the season with a 31-8 record and topped himself in the World Series by tossing an astonishing three shutouts in the space of six days as the Giants trounced the Philadelphia Athletics.

As for Dahlen, he remained the Giants shortstop through the 1907 season, when as a grizzled veteran of 37 he witnessed the debut of 18-year-old Fred Merkle. Did he impart any wisdom to the youngster? Probably not, or he would have advised him to watch out for the sneaky little imp named Johnny Evers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More Bad Days in Yankees History

My recently published book, THIS BAD DAY IN YANKEES HISTORY, was more fun to write than anything I've ever written. It features everything embarrassing to the Yankees--on and off the field--that happened on each calendar date. For most dates, I had way more that I could have written, and the tough part was narrowing down the Yankee debacles to just a few that would fit on one page. Some of the off-season dates were tough to fill in, but with a little stretching I could do another edition right now with 100% new material.

Of course, the beauty of tracking the misfortunes and misdeeds of the Yankees and their fans is that there will always be fresh material. I'm sure readers will be telling me about this or that event which I omitted, and today a co-worker alerted me to something which had completely escaped my notice, but which is further proof that the Yankees and their fans have a shamefully warped sense of baseball history. Don't you think it's warped that in a sport where, on average, each team should win the championship once every 30 years, one team's fans and owners believe that a handful of years without a title constitutes some sort of distortion of the entire universe? During the last off-season, Hank Steinbrenner declared that the Yankees would regain the title in 2008 and restore order to the universe. Today, as the Yankees teeter on the brink of finishing fourth in their own division, without even a sniff at a playoff spot, let's take a moment to look at their innate insensitivity.

In putting together my book/calendar, one challenge was deciding which date was the best for telling a certain story. Many issues, like the lengthy feud between Dave Winfield and George Steinbrenner, unfolded in bits and pieces, and I included entries on many dates, but for simpler stories I had to pick between two dates. When I do a new edition, I'll have to choose between April 2 and April 16 for this next little gem of a tale.

In the 36 seasons since the death of Puerto Rican hero and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, numerous players have worn his uniform #21 as a tribute to his greatness and his inspiration, including Sammy Sosa, Carlos Delgado, Ruben Sierra, and Esteban Loaiza. It's a wonderful thing to honor an idol in this way. Even though MLB officially retired Jackie Robinson's #42 in 1997, it has seen fit to allow players to wear #42 one day a year as a tribute to his enduring legacy. There is a growing movement to accord the same honor to Clemente, but meanwhile his admirers have honored him by wearing #21, with universal approval.

The universal approval ended on April 2, opening day at Yankee Stadium, when newly acquired relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins took the field for the team introductions wearing #21. The number had been assigned to Morgan Ensberg during spring training, but Ensberg didn't make the team so Hawkins staked a claim to the number as his own tribute to Clemente. When the Stadium fans spotted him wearing #21, they launched a deafening chorus of boos. Were they upset that Hawkins wasn't a good enough player to honor Clemente? No, of course not. Yankees fans couldn't care less about Clemente. They were pissed because Hawkins had insulted them by donning the number made forever immortal in the Bronx by Paul O'Neill during his nine years as a Yankee.

Imagine, the sacrilege of wearing Paul O'Neill's number! For the record, when Babe Ruth left the Yankees after 1934, the team quickly assigned his #3 to George Selkirk, who wore it for the next eight seasons. From 1943-1948, eight other Yankees wore #3, none of them even as talented as Selkirk. Did Selkirk or Bud Matheny wear #3 as a tribute to the Babe? Nope. They wore it because somebody told them to. The team didn't think anything of giving Babe's number to anybody and everybody, not retiring the number until Ruth died in 1948.

It's terrific that the Yankees have retired more uniform numbers than any other franchise. It's a fitting honor for long-time stars. Notice that O'Neill's number hasn't been retired. There has been no grass-roots movement by fans to retire his number. O'Neill was a fine player, but he couldn't do much more than carry Clemente's jock. He knows it himself. But don't tell that to the "fans" who were at Yankee Stadium on April 2. They booed Hawkins as if he had taken a leak on Lou Gehrig's monument. The hostility continued relentlessly until April 16, when after consulting with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (the last player still wearing Robinson's #42 and therefore someone who should understand about honoring heroes), Hawkins decided to abandon #21. "I figure if it's important enough for Jeter and Mariano and some other veterans to ask me about it, it's not worth it to keep wearing the number," Hawkins said. Commenting about the change in numbers, Joe Girardi said, "My guess is it always comes from the Boss." Who didn't know that? I wonder if he also fired the team official who let Hawkins wear #21 in the first place? Or the one who was willing to tell Morgan Ensberg to wear it? Once you start getting pig-headed about things, where do you stop?

I'll concede that Hawkins did give Yankees fans plenty to boo about--once he took the mound. In his second outing of the season, he was torched by Tampa Bay for six runs in less than an inning. His days in the Bronx were probably numbered after that debacle. But it was reminiscent of another Hawkins--Andy Hawkins--who pitched dreadfully at Yankee Stadium and was run out of town just ahead of a lynch mob after going 5-14 with a 5.71 ERA in 1990-1991. In both cases, poor performance was at least partly caused by the hostility of the home-town fans, whose negative expectations were justifiably met. In LaTroy's case, he matched Andy's boo-able 5.71 ERA in his brief Yankees tenure, getting booted out of town at the end of July.

The Yankees had better hurry up and retire O'Neill's number so this travesty isn't repeated. While they're at it, how about these numbers: #11 (Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez), #14 (Lou Piniella/Moose Skowron), #30 (Willie Randolph/Mel Stottlemyre), and #51 (Bernie Williams). All of them lasted longer in New York than O'Neill, and you shouldn't tarnish them by letting some pinhead locker room attendant give away their numbers.

Meanwhile, LaTroy Hawkins will go down as the first (and last?) Yankee to wear #21 after the incomparable Paul O'Neill retired. He'll be in good company. Don't ever forget the legacy of Hal Peck (0 hits as a Yankee), Eddie Bockman (1 hit in 12 AB as a Yankee), Frank Colman (7 hits in 43 AB as a Yankee), and Allie Clark (a whopping 24 games as a Yankee). They all had the privilege of wearing #3 after Babe Ruth was dismissed from the Bronx. I wonder if they enjoyed it while it lasted.