Friday, July 28, 2006

On Pop Quizzes and Tough Questions

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Milwaukee Brewers trade OF-Carlos Lee, OF-Nelson Cruz and a PTBNL to the Texas Rangers for P-Francisco Cordero, OF-Kevin Mench and OF-Laynce Nix.

Word had it that yesterday Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin would decide whether to

a) trade away Carlos Lee or
b) make a run at the Wild Card.

It appears today that he chose

c) all of the above.

This isn’t your usual “free agents for prospects” deal. Melvin gained some pieces for next year, since the Brewers will either hasvea contract or own the rights of all three players in 2007. But none of the players are likely to be particularly valuable after 2007.

Instead, he gained some help for THIS year. My guess is that Mench will replace most of Lee in the outfield, and ex-closer Cordero will be given an opportunity to fix the closer spot for the Brewers, which has been a real problem spot for them. Furthermore, the trade of minor leaguers seems to favor the Rangers, strangely enough, with Cruz outplaying Nix in AAA.

It's bad news for Twins fans, anyway you slice it. It appears the trade market had one less seller than we thought, and the Rangers were never thought of as buyers. I suppose it's some consolation that the four teams the Twins are really competing with (White Sox, Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers) ended up with him.

The question in Twins fans minds is probably “Could Terry Ryan have made this deal?” The answer is probably “Yes”, but Juan Rincon would likely have had to be included, and it’s not clear the Twins had a comparable player for Mench (perhaps Rondell White, depending on whether Melvin believed in him).

This is another key example that the market for solid bullpen help has gone through the roof since the end of last season. Contracts to mediocre acquisitions like Kyle Farnsworth and Flash Gordon last winter demonstrated that teams were valuing relievers far more than they had before. A majority of the trades as we’ve approached the deadline have involved relievers as well, with last week’s Reds/Nationals trade being the prime example of what one can get for decent relief.

Which raises a question that Twins fans haven’t asked much in the past. Would the Twins move Rincon or Joe Nathan in a trade? Don’t cop out and throw out the name of Jesse Crain – the opposing GM won’t. It’s a question that will be asked this weekend as teams look for a third or fourth team for a complicated swap. And it’s a questions that has likely been answered already by Terry Ryan, and maybe asked by Doug Melvin.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Year of the Bird

Powered by Peter Schilling, Jr.

Normally, being a Tigers fan is an exercise in self-abuse, but this year has been a joy. The Tigers have dominated the weaklings, and though they’ve barely made a dent against the terrible trio of the Yankees, Red and White Sox, they seem to be making a run for at least a first round playoff exit (skepticism still reigns for this fan). This is also the 30th anniversary of the Tigers fabulous 1976 season. For despite the fact that the Detroit lost 87 games, Mark Fidrych burst onto the scene.

There could be no question that the star of 1976 was the former gas-pumping kid from Worcester, Massachusetts. Tall and lanky, Fidrych had a friendly mug and a mess of curly blonde hair, and resembled Harpo Marx more than Big Bird, for whom he was nicknamed. Mark raced out to the field (as opposed to the slow saunter of most every pitcher), spoke to his ball, smoothed the mound, cheered on his fellow players from the dugout, and shook hands with his teammates after a good play. With every pitch, he would bob up and down and up and down before firing the ball in around 93 mph. That made him kooky enough to stand out. That he did these theatrics while also being the best pitcher in baseball is what made him a star.

The Bird made his first start on May 15, 1976, leaving his box apartment in the faceless suburbs of Detroit, and driving to Tiger Stadium in a beat-up Dodge Colt. Since his relief debut on April 20, Fidrych had sat on the bench, blowing gum bubbles, going nowhere. But thanks to a number of rainouts, Tigers manager Ralph Houk had to juggle his mediocre rotation, and Fidrych got the call. So that afternoon, after a 26-minute rain delay, just fewer than fifteen thousand Tigers faithful watched young Mark throw six innings of no hit ball as he eventually beat the Tribe 2-1. His conversations with the baseball were so unnerving that the home plate umpire, Marty Springstead, would have thrown him out of the game if he hadn’t been warned in advance of the Bird’s antics. “He’s a strange boy,” Springstead remarked.

This victory brought the Tigers record to a respectable 13-11. In typical fashion, they would go on to lose six straight and twelve of the next fifteen.

But Fidrych, at least, was the real thing. He lost his next game, but then took seven straight. In his third start, he got a thrill fanning the great Hank Aaron en route to an 11-inning complete-game victory over the Brewers. Five days later, Fidrych bested Bert Blyleven in Texas - again an 11-inning complete game! - before a sellout crowd in Arlington, eager to see Bert over the Bird in a contest that sounds like it was sponsored by Sesame Street. In his next start, Fidrych out-dueled Nolan Ryan in the prime of his career, then shut down the mighty Royals, and in his next outing beat the Twins in front of barely 12,000. All but the last were complete game victories, without a break in the five-man rotation.

By now, Fidrych was gaining momentum. After The Bird took his seventh victory in a rematch against the Red Sox, he appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and People, and was named to start the All-Star Game. By now he was a national phenomenon and ABC picked his next start against the Yankees for its signature Monday Night Baseball.

I have a DVD of that game—the first baseball game I ever watched, incidentally, and the one that sent me into a tailspin from which I haven’t recovered. To watch Fidrych today is to see a relic and a pitching style far removed from today’s game. There’s no hesitation between pitches, no walking around licking fingers or blowing in the hand, none of the nods and shakes and disagreements with his catcher. Fidrych moved fast. He would bob up and down from the crouch, yakking the whole time, before he would fire the ball in with great precision. Throw, catch, return, repeat. All in one hour, fifty-one minutes.

Fidrych won that game, too, 5-1, against a battery that included seven left-handers. Afterwards, seemingly unfazed by the fact that he just beat the first-place Yankees in front of the entire country, he asked ABC’s Bob Uecker, “Where’s my gift? Don’t I get a gift at the end of Monday Night Baseball?”

By now, Michigan was in a tizzy for The Bird, and the Tigers rode his coattails. Eight years earlier, the Tigers had won one of the greatest World Series’ ever, and in 1972 a bunch of old men squeaked out a division title, and took the mighty Oakland A’s to the fifth game of the playoffs before bowing out. The ’76 club was part of the rebuilding process, full of youngsters and a few notable veterans.

Fidrych would go on to win the Rookie-of-the-Year award and finish second in Cy Young voting, losing to Jim Palmer. His mug would grace the covers of two awful biographies (one written by Paris Review editor Tom Clark), Rolling Stone, Sport, Sports Illustrated, and would meet a number of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra. His numbers are forever burned into my memory: 19 wins and 9 losses; a painful 24 complete games (including 4 shut-outs); 2.34 ERA in spite of just 97 strikeouts (he walked 53 and gave up only a dozen homers). He led the league in ERA and complete games.

Unfortunately, those complete games probably cost The Bird his career. He wrecked his arm the next season, in what many people today believe was probably a torn rotator-cuff. Slowly, he went on to throw in 27 more games over the next four years, going 10-10. Now he’s a farmer in Massachusetts, a guy who doesn’t have much to do with baseball, eschewing Tiger events because someone has to get the work done on the farm.

And how did he like Detroit? “Great,” he said. “I haven’t been beaten up yet.”

On the Hill
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Friday: Zach Miner (6-2, 4.07 ERA)

  • 2005 (AAA): 7-16, 217 IP, 124 K, 4.02 ERA

  • 2006: 48.2 IP, 53 H, 30K, 15 BB, 5 HR

  • Miner is a pretty good example of what is going on with the Tigers young pitching lately. They identify the talent, develop them, and put them in a position to succeed in the majors.
  • At this time last year, he was 2-7 with the Braves AAA farm team. The Tigers acquired him in a deadline trade for Kyle Farnsworth.

  • This year with Detroit, he tightened his control, and had a 2.82 ERA in AAA when starting pitcher Mike Maroth was hurt.

  • Called up to take a spot in the rotation, he hasn’t been dominant, but he’s been pretty steady. His numbers are league average across the board, but for a fifth starter, they’re great. And the Tigers offense is getting him the “W”s.

Saturday: Nate Robertson (9-6 3.70 ERA)

  • 2005: 7-16, 196.2 IP, 122 K, 4.49 ERA

  • 2006: 129 IP, 124 H, 87 K, 42 BB, 17 HR

  • Another surprise on a team full of them. For two years Robertson has been a league average pitcher. This year the 28-year-old improved his changeup and has been considerably better than average.

  • His weakness before this year has been giving up home runs, and that much is still true.
  • He’s struggled recently. His ERA in July is 5.65.

Sunday: Jeremy Bonderman (11-4, 3.66 ERA)

  • 2005: 4-13, 189 IP, 145 K, 4.57 ERA

  • 2006: 137.2 IP, 123 H, 132 K, 38 BB, 12 HR

  • Wow. In a few years, 2006 is going to be remembered as the year so many young pitchers had breakthrough seasons. Any other year, the 23-year-old Bonderman would be drawing all kinds of attention for his dominance. This year, he’s not only overlooked nationally, but he’s not the biggest pitching story on his own team.

  • Bonderman was thrown into the fire in 2003 as a 20-year-old who started 28 games, and struggled for the next two years.

  • In May, he gave up five runs in 6.2 innings versus the Twins. The Twins won that game with a ninth inning rally.

The Power of Power

By Intern Sharkey

North Korea has been spending a lot of time in the news lately. Kim Jong Il’s military has been testing a new series of attack boats, able to slowly but consistently deliver gradual damage to whatever targets they select. This new-found military power has drawn global ire for the way these ships have de-stabilized the Pacific region.

Or not.

The Twins finished off a three-game sweep of the White Sox on Wednesday afternoon. Twins hitters pounded out seven home runs in the series, providing the key runs needed for the set of victories. From Joe Mauer’s three-run dinger in the opener to Justin Morneau’s two-run bomb in the finale, the Twins used the long-ball to pull even with Chicago in the Wild Card race.

Over the last few seasons, the Twins’ offense has been more of the slow-and-steady variety than the quick-strike attack seen over the last three games. Just as a long-range missile capable of delivering warheads long distances is more frightening than a fleet of ocean-borne gunships, an offense with the threat of the long-ball brings huge benefits.

Much has been made of the Twins’ long-standing lack of a thirty home-run hitter. Since this recent run of success began in 2001, the offensive attack has relied on being able to string together base hit after base hit. But those days look to be over. Justin Morneau could crack that thirty-home-run barrier by the end of July, and others like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are showing legitimate power strokes as well.

The second game of the series is a perfect example. After falling behind one to nothing on a Jim Thome solo shot in the bottom of the first, the Twins came right back with a Jason Kubel bomb to tie the game. After that, two of the best pitchers in the American League traded zeros until the seventh inning. The Twins got two runners aboard in front of Jason Bartlett, who then lifted a fly ball into the wind and over the left field wall. Suddenly it was four to one, and the Twins went on to win four to three. Being able to strike quickly is especially important against elite pitchers (the kind that tend to pop up in the post-season) because of the difficulty of stringing together multiple hits.

Twins fans have seen this first hand: how often does Johan Santana get knocked around for five hits in an inning? Not very. Most of the damage dealt against El Presidente seems to come off of the long ball (all three runs he allowed on Tuesday came off of homers, for example). This ability to strike quickly can be the great equalizer, and should be cause for just as much excitement in Twins-land as the top of the rotation: Minnesota has finally traded in its 19th century gunships for some modern ICBMs.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Changes to the Twins Airwaves Blowin' in the Wind

Powered By Jim Thielman

Standing on his Field of Dreams corn patch with the ghost of Joe Jackson leering at his movie wife, Kevin Costner is told the one constant through all the years has been baseball. Costner's 30-something Iowa screen character lives in Twins' Territory, so more precisely, the one constant for him has been Twins' broadcasts on WCCO radio.

The Twins have been heard on AM 830 since they arrived in Minnesota in 1961, despite coming close to leaving the station twice in the past 10 years. It was long anticipated this summer that their association with WCCO would end when rights expired at the end of 2006.

Teams divorcing venerable flagship radio stations is the trend in baseball.

For 52 years KMOX beamed St. Louis Cardinals games farther than, well, Minneapolis. The Cardinals jumped that 50,000-watt flagship station for 5,000-watt KTRS this season. It was such big news that two St. Louis television stations interrupted programming to carry the news conference.

It was not a first.

The Detroit Tigers left WJR three years ago. Next season, the Red Sox will move from WEEI to WRKO for $13 million, according to the Wall St. Journal. That's the largest such deal ever, and a meaningful one because local broadcast revenue is exempt from baseball's revenue sharing model. The Sox keep every sack of cash.

If the Twins move to KSTP, that would mark four teams to leave megawatt stations for signals with less reach. WCCO’s signal is a 50,000-watt fastball while KSTP’s electromagnetic waves have a knuckleball’s wobble.

What's the story? Well, the flagship station's value has been diluted. streams games over the Internet. That and XM satellite radio mean a Seattle native in Miami can tune in every Mariners' game. This dilution was KMOX’s concern.

So KMOX proposed a revenue sharing plan that offered less guaranteed money but allowed the Cardinals to more than make up the difference in advertising sales. The Cards instead purchased a half stake in KTRS, a niche station looking to boost its Arbitron ratings and willing to bid higher for sports programming. The Cardinals gained more control over ad sales; XM radio plugs the holes in the KTRS network.

After XM Satellite Radio agreed last year to broadcast every major league game over the next 11 seasons for $650 million, subscribers vaulted from 2.5 million to 6 million. An XM survey found that 23 percent of those signed on primarily because of baseball. At a subscription fee of $12.95 per month, that's $120 million per year in new XM revenue directly attributable to baseball.

Radio is just playing catch up. About 15 years ago 80 percent of locally broadcast baseball was available with a set of rabbit ears. Today, pay TV carries about 80 percent of those games. The world changes.

Breaking with WCCO just might be an acceptable change for one reason: Herb Carneal is winding down his career, and now works about as many innings as Juan Rincon each season. Maybe it’s best if the Twins essentially left Herb, rather than the other way around.

Carneal is so rarely part of summer’s soundtrack these days that sometimes a few batters have swung before a WCCO listener realizes Carneal is in the booth. It takes awhile to notice Carneal because, as former Detroit Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell was saying one afternoon a few summers back, good baseball announcers are like good umpires or someone capably driving through traffic.

Harwell was specifically chatting about Carneal.

"I think the real touch of art is making things look easy," Harwell was saying. "In America, everyone thinks he can build a fire, run a hotel, write a song and broadcast a baseball game. There are a lot of things you have to report on in a game, and I think Herb has a degree of ability that’s so consistent and so consistently high that you take him for granted."

Harwell, who did his last broadcast in 2002, and Carneal once traveled with their teams. Harwell favored Carneal as a well-read, fascinating dinner companion who was a student of economics. Yet Harwell struggled to summon an extraordinary anecdote about Carneal.

Bob San has one. After arriving in the U.S. from China at age 16 he found himself working as a janitor at the University of Minnesota while he put himself through college. San has been known to attend dozens of Twins games a season, but he reached college without ever seeing a baseball game.

Night time janitorial work at the U was boring, but a radio was always on. San’s American buddies listened to baseball. Carneal painted pictures as San mopped floors. One day San decided to catch a bus to Metropolitan Stadium to see what this game was all about.

“It was just like Herb Carneal described it,” San recalls. “Herb would talk about the 6-4-3 double play. And there it was. I understood everything perfectly.

“It was a revelation. Like religion.

“Herb Carneal taught me baseball.”

Imagine explaining something your listener has never seen in their non-native language, and making the subject and jargon understandable. Praise doesn’t get any better than that. Carneal thought high praise might be elusive when he arrived reluctantly in Minneapolis at age 37. He was unknown in the market and uncertain how he would be received in the midwest.

The Richmond, Virginia native had worked in Baltimore since 1957 at a time when Hamm’s Brewery owned the Orioles’ advertising rights. Hamm’s acquired the Twins’ rights in ’61; Carneal was offered a job in the booth starting in ‘62.

It was a potentially great opportunity in a field that fascinated Carneal so much that after playing amateur baseball in Richmond and planning to enroll at Syracuse University he instead found himself knocking on the doors of Syracuse radio stations. One station offered him a job.

It is likely Carneal would be long forgotten had he been a good enough ballplayer to make the major leagues. As an announcer, he has enjoyed remarkable longevity in a single market and has received the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford Frick Award, an honor he shares with 30 other broadcasters, including Harwell.

But the job is a challenge for a man of 82. It wasn’t long ago that Carneal would arrive at the Metrodome around 4:30 p.m., hours before his voice would reach into the night air thick with humidity to greet fans with, “Well, hi, everybody. This is Herb Carneal.”

The ritual would begin with Carneal creating the night’s big-league schedule by penciling teams in pairs onto a yellow legal pad. Computers spit out updated scores during the game, but he preferred this habit. Carneal would then descend steep flights of stairs into the Metrodome’s basement field and chat with players before climbing the steps to the booth to record some segments.

Between bites of a meal and conversation he would study press notes, but not too much. He said announcers who over-prepared tended to inappropriately cram all that knowledge into a broadcast.

Carneal would repeat the pattern on the road, which 20 years ago might mean a late-night getaway flight from Cleveland would take him and the Twins into Hamilton, Canada rather than Toronto. Toronto’s late-night noise curfews restricted early morning travel into the city, so the team would bus 50 miles to Toronto and sleepwalk into the hotel lobby at 5 a.m.

That schedule separates octogenarian announcers from younger counterparts, and Carneal always called himself a man who preferred routine. He said proper rest and a sensible diet smoothed out that lifestyle, which meant he abstained from green onions during the game – against the advice of Halsey Hall. Carneal’s broadcast partner from 1962-72, Hall enjoyed a press box diet of Muriel cigars and onions; he maintained onions were “scavengers of the stomach.”

It might be difficult for Twins’ fans to believe that it’s been nearly three decades since Halsey established residency in Section L, Grave 405 of Fort Snelling National Military Cemetery. So it’s understandable why fans think their team’s association with WCCO has been all too short.

But fans survived Harmon Killebrew signing with Kansas City and Rod Carew going to California; Tommy Herr’s arrival and Frankie Viola’s departure. Kirby Puckett’s death. A baseball team leaving a radio station isn’t the end of the world, and after all, Twins’ fans have been fortunate. Herb Carneal taught us baseball.

Jim Thielman covered the Minnesota Twins from 1977 to 1993. His book about the 1965 Minnesota Twins is available at

Monday, July 24, 2006

Links of the Day for 7/25/06

Powered by Intern Thomas is one of the single greatest inventions known to mankind. Ok, ok, I’ll admit it that’s an overstatement. Why? Because, despite allowing me to watch my beloved Twins whenever I want out here in Washington, D.C. (and I mean whenever, since you can watch archived broadcasts), also brings some of the worst broadcasters in the world right to my desktop. I’m not trying to imply that Dick ‘n’ Bert are in Vin Scully’s class, but they aren’t Hawk Harrelson and DJ. These two make me pine for the dulcet tones of Jack Buck and the insight of Tim McCarver or even Joe Morgan. If there’s a hell, those two will be doing the play by play.

Now, there are many of you who probably don’t understand what I’m talking about. You’re the lucky ones; the ones who get to sit down on their couch, tune into FSN North or WFTC and just enjoy the game. You don’t know what it’s like. And you should be thankful that you and your family aren’t subjected to the travesty that is the White Sox broadcast team. So you might not believe me. You might even think I’m exaggerating. Well guess what? White Sox fans agree with me. So when Bert is on a circling jag, or going on about pitch counts, be glad you aren’t stuck watching and trying to decide how best to break things after you hear “the Hawk” yell “He GONE” or “PUT IT ON THE BOARD!!!! YESSS!!!!”

Now that I’m done ranting (bonus points if you can tell which inning of tonight’s game I started writing this), it’s time for some quick links:

  • This analysis of Joe Mauer’s swing is one of the coolest things ESPN has done in a really long time. I probably wouldn’t be so sick of their brand of sports “coverage” if they replaced most of their fluff with analysis like that.

  • Brad Radke has confirmed that he is going to retire at the end of the year because of the pain in his shoulder. In and of itself, his turnaround has been remarkable, but doing it while pitching through a shoulder injury that requires off season surgery? Now that is gritty folks. (And now there is one more reason to win it all this year—it’s Rad Brad’s last chance.)

  • I like this idea, I like it very much.

  • Remember when Sandy Alomar Jr. was good? Me neither. Luckily he’s a White Sox now. Despite Kenny Williams managing to pick up such a veteran presence, I have to say that the Twins probably still have the edge when it comes to backstops.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Links of the Day for 7/24/06

Powered by Intern Sam

  • The Twins’ astonishing turnaround that began in early June is continuing, and that’s undoubtedly making life very difficult for GM Terry Ryan, who has about a week left to decide whether it might be worth sacrificing a prospect or two (if there are any left in the system) in an effort to acquire the puzzle piece that might just put the team over the top and into the playoffs. (At this point, intelligent people can clearly disagree on whether the Twins are buyers or sellers as the July 31 deadline approaches.)

    If baseball occurred in a one-year vacuum, this would be a much easier decision, but Ryan will also need to be thinking well into the future. Livan Hernandez is available, and the Twins desperately need another reliable starting pitcher (although many observers are saying that they’re more likely to go after an outfielder.) But what if Washington wants, say, Denard Span or Matt Moses? That might be a higher price tag than Ryan’s willing to pay, but with Brad Radke’s admission to the beat writers this weekend that he really is hanging it up after this season, that starting pitcher becomes important not only for the current stretch run, but for next season as well.

  • Speaking of the dearth of starting pitching on our favorite ball club, someone should get to work on a catchphrase on the order of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” partly because it would make the Twins seem old school, but mostly because everybody loves a good catchphrase. Intern Sam took a stab at it, but damned if he can get anything to rhyme with Liriano. Hmmmm… Frisco and Johan and pray for… um, a wonton? A really big pointy wonton that can bring down the roof at the Dome? Needs work, I know. Anyone else care to give it a shot?
  • Scott Baker may not be working out the way everyone had hoped, but apparently, some good things are going on down in Rochester. If the Twins fall out of contention between now and the end of August, it’s a good bet we’ll be seeing Matt Garza and Glen Perkins at the Dome when rosters expand in September.
  • Not that this means anything in particular, but the Twins have moved up to 6th in ESPN’s “Power Rankings” of all 30 MLB teams. Just two months ago, they were 22nd on that same list. ESPN also points out that Minnesota has the third-best run differential in all of baseball for July, having scored 23 more runs than they’ve given up.
  • As much as we Minnesotans love tradition, and as fine a song as “We’re Gonna Win Twins” surely is, we can perhaps agree that it doesn’t really go very far in the intimidation department. It’s not exactly the Superbowl Shuffle, is what we’re saying. More like a toothpaste commercial than a fight song, really, and that’s a shame, because we are nothing if not a state fond of praising our sports heroes in song.

    While Intern Sam would never think of suggesting that we throw the old darling on the scrap heap entirely, wouldn’t it be something special if, instead of running out on the field to the strains of what sound like the Lawrence Welk singers, the Twins tried something like this? We’re just saying…