Turning the page on a new baseball season

Posted: March 31, 2013

Pale purple crocuses out front. A robin at the bird feeder. The dashboard clock finally clicked 1 hour ahead. You pick your signs of spring, I'll pick mine.

For me, it's the arrival of a gaggle of baseball books, written by dedicated writers, published by courageous publishers, to be purchased by hope-springs-eternal fans.

Today, a trifecta: a book about a team (the Phillies), a book about a manager (Terry Francona), a book about a player (Mike Piazza).

If books were judged like beauty pageants, "The Phillies Experience" by Tyler Kepner, would win from here to Atlantic City. This is a handsome, coffee-table book, with Mike Schmidt on the cover, crispy-clean uniform, classic follow-through. And if you close your eyes you can hear the joy in Harry Kalas' voice, exultant, proud, professional, proclaiming, "That ball is outttta here!"

Schmidt's uniform was always crisp, always clean. You hated that. Kalas always called him "Michael Jack Schmidt, the greatest third baseman to ever play the game." It took you years to realize that Kalas was right and by then, it was almost too late.

Kepner covers baseball for the New York Times. Boo! Kepner grew up in Philadelphia. Yay! Nature overcomes nurture here. Every year in Phillies' franchise tawdry history gets at least one page. Really memorable years, including the nightmare of 1964, get two pages.

At the end of every decade, Kepner picks an all-decade team, to stir a little controversy in with the nostalgia. Why else would he name Joe Koppe the shortstop of the 1950s and relegate Granny Hamner to second base? Koppe played one season in the '50s, 1959. Hit .261. Hamner was the shortstop on the Whiz Kids team that won the pennant in 1950, was an All-Star shortstop in '52 when he drove in 87 runs.

Shifted to second base the following year, but by then, he'd done enough to justify being ranked the all-decade shortstop. But, yo, that's nit-picking. There's too much to love in the book.

That 1977 playoff game against the Dodgers, the one in which Greg Luzinski didn't catch that ball Manny Mota hit, followed by that ground ball Davey Lopes hit. "The game seemingly ended," Kepner writes, "but umpire Bruce Froemming mistakenly called Lopes safe, allowing the tying run to cross the plate."

You can read about Harry Wright, one of the best managers in Phillies history; and about Dave Raymond, who inhabited the Phanatic costume for 15 years; and about Mitch Williams and the half-fastball that ended the 1983 World Series.

Don't be put off by the title, "Francona, the Red Sox Years" by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy. This is the best book looking inside the mind of a big-league manager I have ever read, because Francona is sharp and loves the game, because Shaugnessy is eloquent and a dazzling storyteller.

One sample: "Shortly after he was hired, Francona was booed at a 76ers game when his image appeared on the Jumbotron. His tires were slashed on Fan Appreciation Day at Veterans Stadium. He was ridiculed for giving Scott Rolen a day off on Scott Rolen Bobblehead Day. He was ripped when he let Bobby Abreu sit out on opening day against Randy Johnson because Abreu didn't want to face the fearsome southpaw. There was a popular notion that star pitcher Curt Schilling was running the team . . .

"Francona had a roster peppered with players who struggled at the big league level. His closer, Wayne Gomes, was rumored to be a fan of eating hot dogs in the bullpen during games.

" 'I brought him into a game one night, and he had mustard on his uniform,' Francona recalled. 'I told him he had to cut that out, and he claimed the mustard got on him when a fan threw a hot dog at him. The worst part of the whole story was - we were playing at home! I remember walking back to the dugout thinking, Boy, this is where I'm at in my career. My closer has mustard on his jersey.' "

There would be 8 turbulent, mostly wonderful years in Boston, including two World Series championships. Summing up, Shaughnessy writes, "What he loved most was the baseball. The games. During those three-plus hours when the team was on the field and he was in the dugout, Francona could escape the madness and immerse himself in the game he loved."

"Long Shot," the book Mike Piazza wrote with Lonnie Wheeler, twists the Cinderella story like a soft pretzel. Turns it hard, salty as tears, tough to sink your teeth into.

You know it by heart. Phoenixville kid, son of Vince Piazza, an auto dealer and a boyhood friend of Tommy Lasorda. Batting cage in the backyard, an approving visit from Ted Williams, drafted on the 62nd round by the Dodgers as a favor, winds up the greatest-hitting catcher in the cockeyed history of baseball, a 12-time All-Star, finishing in the top 10 MVP voting seven times without ever winning the award.

That's the part that hurts, never being voted MVP, and Piazza makes sure you feel his pain. Thinks he might have been too hostile to the media, too aloof, too focused. Whatever.

Hated the time wasted denying he was gay, denying he used performance enhancing drugs. Has trouble explaining why he didn't punch Roger Clemens in his foul mouth after Clemens threw the thick end of a shattered bat at him in a World Series game.

Turns out Clemens didn't follow protocol, didn't trigger a fight by adding insult to near injury. Instead, the pitcher defused the craziness by asking the umpire for a new baseball.

Maybe Piazza would have gotten more than 58 percent of the ballots cast his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot if he'd punched Clemens in the mouth and wondered aloud what the pitcher was on if he couldn't tell the difference between a baseball and a heavy chunk of a shattered bat.

Things definitely would have been different if he'd signed with the Phillies in 2006 after a gaudy stint with the Mets. Turns out Charlie Manuel and GM Pat Gillick trudged down to Miami to meet with Piazza.

Mike Lieberthal, due to make $7.5 million, was the regular catcher. "Manuel's plan," Piazza writes, "was to have me catch here and there. DH in the interleague games, and put in a little work at first base. As he laid it out, I imagined myself sitting around for two weeks and then pinch-hitting against Billy Wagner . . . in the bottom of the ninth. As cool as I thought it would be to play 81 games in front of my friends and family . . . and as much as I wanted to please my dad, and as grateful as I was for the organization's interest in me, and as enticing as it sounded to swing the bat in Citizens Bank Park for 6 months, that was a big thanks-but-no-thanks."

Lieberthal kept getting hurt, played only 60 games that season. Piazza signed with San Diego instead, hit 22 homers. Might have hit 40 in Philly, might have wound up with more than 58 percent of the Hall of Fame votes.

Who knows? And that's what makes baseball the wonderful game it is. And that's what makes reading about it, almost as wonderful.


Email: stanrhoch@comcast.net

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