Thursday, April 03, 2008

Chief Bender’s Burden

Tom Swift was an editor and writer in GameDay, and some of you may even remember him writing for back in 2003. Or was it 2004? Anyway, for the last few years, he has been working on a biography of Charles Bender, AKA Chief Bender, Minesota's first Hall of Famer.

Tom is going to be at the Twins game tonight, signing copies of his book, which will be available at a 20% discount (I think). He'll also be at Magers and Quinn on Saturday the twelfth talking baseball with some other baseball writers. I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities to talk with someone who is knowledgable and passionate about baseball.

The following story is in the April issue of GameDay:

Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star is a new acclaimed biography of Charles Albert Bender, Minnesota’s first representative in the Baseball Hall of Fame and for nearly fifty years its only one. Bender, who was born near Brainerd and spent his early years on the White Earth Reservation, was the greatest American Indian player of all time. A bright, courageous pitcher who thrived in front of lively Deadball Era crowds and was forced to face constant racial prejudice, he helped lead the Philadelphia Athletics to five American League pennants and three World Series championships.

Tom Swift, author of Chief Bender’s Burden, will sign copies of the book in the concourse inside the Metrodome on Friday, April 4, before and during the Twins-Royals game. He sat down with GameDay to discuss Bender and the book.

GameDay: You’ve already gotten some positive reviews — congratulations. Let’s start at the start. Why did you write this book?

Tom Swift: I think what’s behind the generous feedback some have offered the book is what drew me to write it — Bender’s life story is compelling. After his name popped up in newspaper articles, when other Minnesota-born players began receiving Hall of Fame consideration, I became curious. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn. I discovered a man who had a rare ability to throw a baseball. But I was especially fascinated by the reasons why his success was so improbable. It’s funny, but I never would have known about Charles Bender if I wasn’t a baseball fan, but I never would have written the book if he had been just a great baseball player.

GD: It’s written in a different style than most baseball bios. Was that intentional?

TS: For better or worse, I decided early on not to chronicle every game or season of his career. I think baseball fans have plenty to chew on here. But I was after a story that, personally, I found inspiring. I tell people kind enough to show up at readings that they may have many reasons to not read this book. That its subject played baseball is, at least I hope, not one of them.

GD: You write a lot about how bright Bender was. Is it true he invented the slider?

TS: I don’t know. No one knows. That’s the most accurate answer. The most interesting answer — and this comes from historian Bill James, not just me — is that Bender is the first pitcher we know definitely threw the pitch.

GD: This book obviously required a great deal of research. You delve into regular seasons, the World Series, the prejudice, Bender’s surprising number of hobbies. I had no idea, for example, he was one of the best trapshooters in the country or that he was a terrific golfer. What is the most interesting thing you found on the research trail?

TS: One answer that comes to mind, looking at the arc of his life, was just how much he changed over time. Bender arrived in the big leagues as a skinny 19-year-old kid from nowhere and found himself in a racially intolerant business. He was introverted and noticeably shy. Using intelligence and poise, he essentially taught himself to be a great pitcher. He was constantly improving — his ERA dropped for eight seasons in a row — and over time he embraced the spotlight and, eventually, of all things, became a people person.

GD: He was also pretty funny, wasn’t he?

TS: You’re right. He liked to make people laugh. Late in life he was a regular speaker on the rubber chicken circuit. At one banquet, a man who had had too much to drink kept asking him obvious questions, such as what he had done for a living and what country was he born in. Bender replied, deadpan: “I sell blankets at the railroad station in Albuquerque.”

Chief Bender’s Burden, published by the University of Nebraska Press (April 2008), is available where books are sold. For information visit

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Opening Day Notes

It's late, I'm bushed and cold and wet, so we'll be doing the lighting round tonight, I think....

The Monroe Decision
I assume this one will be covered extensively by other sites, since I had friends showing me internet articles about it during the game. In case you missed it, Ron Gardenhire trumpeted his intention to bat Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe in the designated hitter spot, and to choose which one to bat day by day.

Some might have thought that would have meant a platoon, since Kubel is bats left-handed and struggled last year versus lefties and Monroe bats right-handed and hit .194 against right-handers. So just to make himself clear, Gardenhire started Monroe against right-handed Jered Weaver. And he stayed with that until the Angels brought in a right-handed reliever, so Gardy responded by batting Kubel.

Apparently it was a hunch, and it was seemingly a hunch that paid off, in that the Twins won, Kubel had early success (he got a gift double in that at-bat) and Monroe can feel like something more than a glorified bench player. This sounds an awful lot like Gardenhire outthinking himself. There are those that say that isn't too hard to do, but if we're going to beat him senseless for that, it's only fair that we give credit where credit is due, too. Like:

Pulling Livan
The top of the seventh ended with the Twins holding a one run lead, and their veteran was on the mound and had only thrown 84 pitches so far. What's more, the eighth inning was going to start with the Angels ninth hitter. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that Livan Hernandez would come out and start the eighth inning until he got into trouble.

And I expected he would have some trouble, too, because he's Livan Hernandez and these are the Angels. I'd expected he would have some trouble in the previous two innings too, and he hadn't. But I'd also expected that he would start those innings instead of turning things over to a lockdown bullpen, and he had. That's generally the way the Twins do things.

I was wrong, because Pat Neshek came out and threw those nasty pitches and made the Angels look pretty silly for the most part. The last battle he had, against Vladamir Guerrero, will be one of the more memorable late inning battles you'll see. Neshek kept throwing nasty pitches, the crowd was on it's feet, and Vlad kept swinging like he was trying to break the baseball like a pinata. On the 2-2 pitch, Neshek uncorked a high and tight fastball as a warning shot. And on the next pitch he blew a fastball past Vlad while Vlad, who had just seen a pitch barely miss his ear, swung as hard and as violently as DeNiro in The Untouchables. Classic.

All of which is a little off topic, because what surprise me was that Neshek was in that game. It's probably because Gardy wanted to get Livan his first American League win. But it could just as easily be explained by Gardy coaching with a sense of urgency, which is franly good to see. And it's also notable that this is a case where Gardy clearly didn't overthink things. Neshek owned that inning, despite it being filled with left-handed batters. It was a smart, strategic and confident move, devoid of a lot of clubhouse politics. I hope we see more of that.

Get to Know 'Em
One of the highlight of the opener is getting to know the new players. And, of course, the snapshots the most regret. My friend Kris practically squealed with glee when she saw Adam Everett's headshot. "Ooooh. Can we call him Baby New Year?"

Yes. Yes we can.

See you on GameDay

If you have some time, we just had a nice story done on GameDay by Finance & Commerce. GameDay has been a lot of work this spring, but I'm very excited about some of the things that are going on with it. Ultimately, I think our goal is to help the Twin Cities become an avid baseball city and I just believe an independent and financially sustainable program/newsleetter that focuses on baseball is a part of that. If you would like to be involved, as a writer, vendor, advertiser or other, please let us know. We would love to have you join the team. Thanks.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

10 Reasons to Watch

If you were a Yankees fan who wanted to win a World Series, you could just sit back and wait for the top free agent to hit the market and demand your team sign him. And, I suppose, if you wanted to be a successful parent, you could just adopt a 17-year-old National Merit Scholar.

But Twins fans are like the rest of us parents. We understand that it is infinitely more rewarding to see success come from someone in whom we’ve invested some time. While it isn’t clear that this team is ready to add to the four division championships they’ve had this decade, the players’ minor and major league histories show that they’re not as far as some might think. So, if you like watching kids grow up, here are the Top 10 reasons to watch the Twins this year:

10. Justin Morneau – He has an MVP award in his back pocket, he’s going to be a Twin for the next six years, and he still hasn’t entered his prime. It’s almost become a cliché that baseball players often have a career year when they turn 27, and Morneau’s 27th birthday is May 15th.

But the critical question about Morneau might be: what happens when this guy doesn’t slump for two months of the year? Last year, he had 28 home runs by the end of July, but slumped the last two months hitting just .222 with 3 home runs in August and September. And in 2006, when he won the MVP, he was hitting just .244 entering June. We still haven’t seen this guy’s ceiling.

9. Scott Baker – As he entered the ninth inning of a perfect game last August, it was pretty clear we were watching Baker make “the leap” that we had been waiting for. In reality, this was the second leap. The first was in 2004 when he motored through three levels of the minors and we got all excited. It’s taken three years, but he’s still just 26 years old.

8. Brendan Harris – He showed last year in Tampa Bay that he could hit in the majors, but he’s going to need to show the Twins that he can field for an organization that cares about details. He’s the starting second baseman for now, but watch to see how many rollers make their way through the right side of the infield. If he even becomes average defensively, he’ll likely hold this job until the new ballpark opens. If not, you’ll see him backing up someone next year.

7. Boof Bonser – Apparently, I’m contractually obligated to talk about Bonser’s weight, or at least that’s what I gather based on the thousands of words penned about the topic this spring. Instead, let’s focus on a minor league career that included a strikeout title in the AAA Eastern League. For all last year’s struggles, he still kept striking out batters (136K/173 IP), which bodes well for continued success in the majors. Fatso or no, he projects to be a legitimate #2 pitcher in the next year or so.

6. Jason Kubel – “Before The Injury”. It seems like those three words have almost become a new first name for Kubel. Like “Before The Injury, Kubel was a more exciting hitter than Mauer or Morneau.” Or “Before The Injury, Kubel was one of the top prospects in the minors.” The sad truth is that Kubel may never be the player he was Before The Injury.

Then again, maybe he will be. Shortly after Twins fans started tuning out last year, Kubel started locking in. He hit .341 over the last two months last year, and showed both patience (.400+ OBP) and power (.500+ SLG). Could that be from the increased plate discipline he showed as the year continued? In April he was striking out four times for every walk. By August, the ratio was 1:1.

(Space is getting short. See what I mean about having a lot to watch? Let’s do a lighting round….)
5. Kevin Slowey – “He needs a strikeout pitch!” Really? He struck out 342 batters in his 354 minor league innings. Maybe he can just use the pitch he used for those. I’m just saying.

4. Joe Mauer – “Where’s the power?” He’s 6’ 5”, 225 pounds, 24 years old and is a career .313 hitter. I’m thinking it will come. Just a hunch.

3. Carlos Gomez - “He’s not ready!” Probably not, but over the last three years, he has averaged 45 stolen bases per year. Only three Twins have ever stolen that many in a season – Chuck Knoblauch, Rod Carew and Cesar Tovar.

2. Delmon Young – “He’ll swing at anything!” True, but if he can learn to recognize pitches that he can’t hit, he may have the highest ceiling in this list. In Tampa Bay, he was striking out four times for every walk. This spring he continued that trend, so he certainly has a ways to go. For now, his power, arm, and lack of plate discipline will remind you of Torii Hunter, both the good and the bad.

1. Francisco Liriano – “What’s his velocity?” Quit obsessing about the radar gun and watch the strikeout totals instead. In his last two spring training starts, he struck out twelve batters in nine innings. Giggle.


I'll be at the home opener tonight, and GameDay will be sold across the four corner of the Metrodome as usual. This year, I'm going to be working with the vendors a lot more than in the past, so you might well see me walking around in my red vest (and red stocking cap) tonight. If so, please say "Hi".

And of course, look for GameDay vendors with the red vests and the colorful covers featuring art by Robert Blehert this month. (You can see it at the top of the entry.) This month's guest editor is Nick Nelson and the opposing team's Dugout Splinters is by an Angels blogger from Plus, there are stories by Jesse Lund and Seth Stohs. It's a virtual bloggers cornucopia.