Frank Robinson: Baseball legend

Frank Robinson died today and another piece of my youth slipped away.

Second basemen and shortstops knew they were in for it whenever Robinson came barreling into second base to break up a double play. At bat, he would always crowd the plate, so pitchers would try to back him up by pitching inside. Some even tried to intimidate him by throwing at his head and knocking him down.

They didn’t know Frank Robinson.

This baseball legend would dust himself off, get back into the box without giving an inch, and oftentimes line the next pitch into the left-field corner for extra bases. There was no thought of running out to the mound, no pointing at the opposition, no beating of the chest. It was a different era.

My love for baseball came to me as a kid in the East Village. My friends and I looked up to the older guys in the neighborhood. We hung out together at the park, played hardball, softball, stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball and every variation of baseball we could think of. When we weren’t playing we were listening to stories about the exploits of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees, the greatest show on earth. So we grew up giving our heart and soul to the Yankees, although Maris was traded in 1967, Mantle retired after the 1968 season and the Yankees had not won anything since 1964.

We didn’t know Frank Robinson.

The first World Series I remember was in 1966: the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson vs. the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. It was no contest. Baltimore swept the Series in four games. Frank Robinson had my attention.

The Orioles were back in the World Series in 1969, 1970 and 1971, an era when I realized that the best team in baseball didn’t play in New York but in Baltimore. Frank Robinson led the way, of course. The best player on the best team … the way Mantle was. Before my time.

I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium in 1967. Two things I remember about that day: How green the grass was (we had black & white TV and played our games on cement or asphalt) and watching Mickey Mantle up close for the first time. By the time the early 1970s came around, my friends and I would take the bus from Elizabeth, New Jersey, into the city and get on the subway for the ride to the Bronx. We always made sure we were early, especially when the Orioles were in town. Getting to see the Orioles up close while they warmed up was worth the $4.50 price of a field box ticket all by itself. Mantle was gone, but Frank Robinson was still there. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed about 185 pounds, but to me he was a giant. Just like the stories I heard about Mantle but never really got to see for myself.

We finally knew Frank Robinson. And it was our pleasure.

You be the Judge

It’s been five years since the 2013 Major League Baseball draft, enough time to take a look back and wonder what if … and what the hell?

I’ll get right to it. There were two future superstars selected in the first round that year: Kris Bryant and Aaron Judge. Bryant, I get. The Cubs took him with the second pick overall. Judge is harder to figure out, if only because of all the swings and misses before him. The Yankees took Judge with the 32nd pick. That means a whole lot of teams had their opportunity to take the giant of an outfielder from Fresno State University.

A couple of other names selected in the first round of the 2013 draft are Jon Gray of the Rockies (3rd) and Clint Frazier of the Yankees, acquired from the Indians who took him 5th overall. Other players to make it to the majors without a ton of success yet include Austin Meadows, taken by the Pirates (9th); Hunter Renfroe of the Padres (13th), J.P. Crawford, taken 16th by the Phillies; Tim Anderson of the White Sox (17th); and Marco Gonzales, taken by the Cardinals (19th). Only Gray, Renfroe and Anderson are with their original team.

The first pick in 2013? Mark Appel, by the Astros. Appel played his last minor league game in 2017. He never played a day in the major leagues.

Bryant was considered a can’t-miss prospect and has lived up to expectations, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. Appel was considered a big arm, someone who probably would have gone No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft if not for the concerns that he might not sign. Those concerns proved to be well-founded because Appel, who was picked No. 8 by the Pirates that year, did not sign and re-entered the draft in 2013.

The Astros decided to go with the stud pitcher a year later rather than the stud third baseman, a decision they lived to regret but understandable considering the shortage of top-flight starting pitchers coming out of college.

What is not understandable is the amount of teams who passed on Judge. What’s not to like? His size? He is an absolute physical specimen without peer in professional baseball at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds. His mental makeup? Anyone who did their homework on this young man had to know they were getting something special within the first five minutes of speaking to him. There’s a reason this guy is compared to Derek Jeter, and it’s not overblown.

It had to be the curveball, I guess, or rather his inability to hit the curve ball. I remember he struck out a lot when he first came up with the Yankees (42 times in his 84 bats in 2016), but I also remember that he went on to hit 52 home runs and drive in 114 runs in 2017, his first full season. Rookie of the Year. Finished second to Jose Altuve in the MVP voting. Yes, he strikes out too much for my tastes, but his ability to get on base — especially for a top-of-the-line slugger — and hit the ball out of the park anytime he gets his bat on the ball covers up a lot of sins.

The Yankees saw the potential in this giant of a man, someone who carries an outstanding mental makeup along with his big bat and rocket of an arm, and took a chance that somewhere along the line Aaron Judge would figure it out.

The Mets picked 11th overall in 2013. Bryant was long gone, but they could have had Judge just by calling out his name. Instead, they went with first baseman Dominic Smith. They must have seen something in Dominic Smith that I have yet to see in his short tenure with the ball club. Physically, Smith has been out of shape for most of his career. Mentally, he showed up late for a team meeting and was benched for the first preseason game of 2018. This came after he lost 35 pounds in the off-season and was given an opportunity to win the starting job in spring training. He didn’t win that job and his standing with the 2019 Mets is shaky at best. But the Mets didn’t know that in 2013, of course. It turns out that there’s a whole lot the Mets haven’t known in recent years, and that’s at least part of the reason they have a new general manager.

And any Yankee fan who likes to brag about his team’s ability to sniff out a great talent like Judge while other teams can only dream of including him in their outfield, I have two words for you: Eric Jagielo.

You see, the Yankees had another first-round pick in 2013. At No. 26, six picks before they drafted Judge, the Yankees selected Jagielo, a corner infielder who has yet to play in the major leagues and is now on his third organization, the Miami Marlins.

Pro sports can analyze data and statistics for nearly everything these days, but when it comes to scouting it still is a crapshoot.

Let me know when they come up with analytics that can measure an athlete’s heart, what drives one player to overcome any and all obstacles to succeed and drives another out of the sport altogether. Then you would really have something.

Colts have a lot of work to do in the draft

I know it’s way too early, but there’s a consensus building that the Colts will select North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb with the third pick in this year’s NFL draft.

I just don’t see it. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the Colts are desperately in need of an elite pass rusher, it’s just that I think it may be a down year for pass rushers in this draft. The Colts are in need of a lot of help, and I believe they can ill afford to take Chubb at No. 3 and forfeit a chance to pick up a package of draft picks.

At this point, I think the Colts can safely move down in the draft and still pick up a position of need, probably even Chubb himself. If not, there should be elite talent at safety, inside linebacker and guard available, all positions of need.

Now, I didn’t mention Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. He’s the key to this draft, as far as the Colts are concerned. If the Browns think that they can grab a QB at No. 1 and take Barkley at No. 4 because the Giants need a QB and the Colts have to have Chubb, they will be disappointed.

Barkley is the only guy in the draft that should give GM Chris Ballard any pause at what to do with the No. 3 pick. Actually, there shouldn’t be any pause. If Barkley is there at No. 3, make him a Colt. If not, fall back and grab the best available player and as many picks as you can.

If I’m running the Browns, I take Barkley No. 1 overall and grab the best available QB at No. 4. Barkley looks like a once-in-a-generation talent, while it doesn’t appear to be that much separating the top four quarterbacks in this draft.

Seems logical to me, but this is the Browns we’re talking about and that should give Colts fans hope

Careful what you practice

The Rays are placing screens across the infield to encourage their hitters to improve their launch angle this spring. Hit the ball over the screens, they say. Fly balls are in. Ground balls and even line drives are out. That seems to be the direction baseball is heading these days, as the astronomical increase in strikeouts suggests. Free agent J.D. Martinez and the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor are the poster boys for this brand of baseball as a new generation of general managers tries to reinvent the wheel. I say congratz to Martinez and Taylor, but be very careful. Everyone is not the same.

Give me someone who can consistently bring home a runner from third base with less than two outs. Yes, I’ll take a deep fly ball, but in more cases than not I’ll get a pop up or a strikeout. Instead of getting everyone’s launch angle perfected, how about working on putting the bat on the ball consistently. A ground ball to the right side will do the trick. Just don’t strike out, but that’s what they’re teaching these days. Home run or strikeout, don’t sweat the little stuff.

Don’t like the shift? Why wouldn’t clubs work on situational hitting, taking the ball the other way in order to get on base. Not every time, but enough times that defenses would think twice about using a shift against you. Hey, some analytics are great, especially the ones that emphasize reaching base and scoring runs. Why would you reduce your odds by altering your launch angle to a point where you are an all or nothing hitter? Some players, especially those who clog up the bases, are built in a way that a change in launch angle could improve what they do best. Just don’t have everyone in your lineup swinging for the fences every time.

The commissioner is worried about the pace of play when at-bats where nothing at all happens are increasing. Hit a home run, strike out or walk. I can only hope that baseball comes to its senses soon. At bat, put the ball in play, run the bases hard and keep the pressure on the defense. In the field, have your pitchers throw strikes and have your fielders make all the plays. It’s not rocket science. It’s baseball.

Big pond, little pond. Two champs

(Originally published 2/2/12)

Angelo Dundee died yesterday. The legendary trainer for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard was 90.

When Angelo Mirena got his start in boxing during the 1940’s, he changed his name to Dundee – just as two of his brothers had done – to hide their work in boxing from their parents. Today, all these years later, tributes are pouring in from all over the country. A part of boxing died with Dundee, they all say.

Dundee’s death brings to mind another longtime boxing trainer that I once knew, long since gone. He didn’t swim in the same world-class waters as Dundee, but he left his own long-lasting impression nonetheless.

Tony Orlando Sr. operated the gym in the basement of Kirk Center in Elizabeth, N.J. He trained fighters for five decades and worked well into his 80s. Anyone would be hard-pressed to meet a nicer man and gentler soul in such a violent world than Orlando. Continue reading

Pat Summitt and the right to say ‘when’

(Originally published 3/25/12)

I’m the type of guy who loves an underdog. It’s not often that I root for a No. 2 seed to beat a No. 11 at the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but that’s the situation I found myself in yesterday as Tennessee rallied from a 14-point deficit to knock off Kansas, 84-73, and reach the quarterfinals of the women’s tournament.

I’d like Pat Summitt to get one more trip to the Final Four in what is most likely her last go-around as head coach. Perhaps even win one more championship before walking off into the sunset, retiring on her own terms and with the sounds of celebration echoing throughout the arena rather than the quiet calls for her to just go away. For the good of the program.

Getting old sucks. Getting old and sick is much worse.

The odds are stacked against Tennessee reaching the Final Four this year. The consensus No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Baylor, stands in its way. Most likely, a 38-year career comes to an end Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, but what do I know? Only that I recognize true excellence when I see it. Continue reading

Introducing Lt. Gino Tenpenny

Book cover for Devil's Hollow

Lt. Gino Tenpenny, an old-school cop, goes paranormal to track down a killer.

“Devil’s Hollow” is a detective mystery that introduces Lt. Gino Tenpenny, a well-seasoned, no-nonsense lawman attached to a fictitious city in northern New Jersey.

Once a Marine, always a Marine, Tenpenny says of himself.

Tenpenny is like two of his football heroes: Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, two legends from another time. He’s someone who believes in tradition and commands respect like Lombardi. But he’s also someone who is old-school tough like Brown.

And very much like Jim Brown, be aware that there’s a danger to Tenpenny lurking just underneath the surface. Continue reading

A dog’s tale

A story about family and the magic of Christmas in the old neighborhood.

“One Christmas Knight” is overflowing with colorful characters that sparkle on the digital page. They’re composites of family members, friends and acquaintances, all of whom I grew up with in the old neighborhood. Their names have been changed to protect the innocent – or not so innocent. All, that is, but one.

Jake, also known as “The Christmas Puppy” or simply “Crazy Dog,” is the real deal. And, for some reason, he has become the overwhelming favorite of many readers. So much so that Jake has let it go to his head. He’s let it be known that he expects a larger role in any and all sequels.

This isn’t your ordinary family dog. Continue reading

Of staffs and walking sticks

It must be way cooler to use a staff rather than a walking stick, but outside of Middle Earth staffs are harder to find than hobbits.

Gandalf the Gray had a staff that was simply magic in his hands. It didn’t appear to be much different than a walking stick, and that was the charm of it. As Wormtongue found out in “The Two Towers,” you were playing with fire if the old wizard entered your hall without first leaving his staff at the door.

Thunder erupted from one end of Gandalf’s staff while lightning shot out from the other. In the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Gandalf was something like 64-1 when fighting with his staff. His only defeat came at the hands of his then-boss Saruman the White, who was pretty nifty with a staff himself at the time. Of course, Gandalf scored a first-round knockout in the rematch once he had been promoted to Gandalf the White.

Sort of like earning a black belt in martial arts. Continue reading