Monthly Archives: June 2009

Jerry Weinstein: The Best Baseball Coach I Ever Knew

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I went a couple of summers to a baseball day camp hosted at Sacramento City College. Designed for elementary school-aged children and led by the City College players, the camp let us focus on fundamentals, filming our batting stances, having us hit against pitching machines, and then showing us fine documentaries on baseball history at lunch. I was never a very good player (I look like I have my feet inside two buckets in the black-and-white photos we got of our batting stances) but I have positive memories from the camps. I also got to meet City College’s legendary coach, Jerry Weinstein.

At the time, Weinstein was in the midst of a remarkable 23-season run as City College’s coach. He guided his teams to an 831-208 record, 16 conference championships and one national title over the course of his tenure. He also helped develop a veritable assembly line of future Major Leaguers, including four-time All Star outfielder Greg Vaughn and former Atlanta Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. Weinstein capped his career in Sacramento with the national title, in 1998, then left to take a job working with catchers in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Our paths crossed again in 2003. I was a sophomore at Cal Poly and had just started covering the school’s baseball team when I learned that Weinstein coached the squad’s catchers and pitchers (he didn’t last long with the Dodgers.) We talked extensively on a feature story I did about Garrett Olson, a true freshman who had just cracked the starting rotation for Cal Poly and now pitches for the Seattle Mariners. Weinstein didn’t remember me from the camps, not that I blame him, though we hit it off. I told him how I had worked at an ice cream store in our neighborhood in Sacramento, and we talked at length about Bill Conlin, a sportswriter who spent over half a century at the Sacramento Bee. Weinstein chided me once for scribbling notes during an interview, telling me Conlin never wrote anything down.

Weinstein became my preferred quote among the Mustang coaching staff, much more talkative certainly than head coach Larry Lee, who was a fine manager but may as well have been deaf-mute. I even later advised a fellow writer to seek out Weinstein rather than Lee for a quote. The writer later came back laughing, saying that he and Weinstein had talked at length about Jewish ballplayers before getting to their interview. His story turned out great if I remember correctly.

Weinstein and I have both since moved on from Cal Poly. I graduated in 2005 and Weinstein now coaches the Class A team for the Colorado Rockies, the Modesto Nuts. I saw a story a few years ago that when the Rockies signed former All Star catcher Javy Lopez, who was attempting a comeback at the time, they “encouraged Lopez to visit Jerry Weinstein in San Luis Obispo, Calif.” The story made me smile, even if Lopez’s comeback didn’t work out.

The Joe DiMaggio Standard

I remember a time when Shaquille O’Neal was the most-feared player in the NBA, a 325-pound locomotive, good for about 30 points, 20 rebounds and a wrecked backboard on a standard night.  The only way to stop him was to foul him and hope his shooting from the line was off as usual.  I grew up in Sacramento as a Kings fan and Shaq used to ruin my team’s shit every year.  When Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals got to overtime, I knew my Kings would lose.  One did not beat Shaq and Kobe in overtime.  And my Kings didn’t.

These days, though, 37-year-old Shaq looks less the Diesel and more the Edsel.  His decline has been several years coming, ever since the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat following the 2004 season.  He averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Suns last season, decent numbers, but nothing close to his prime.  Legends do not get traded but the Phoenix Suns gave Shaq and his $21 million contract away to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week for spare parts.

My feeling has been that Shaq has mostly stuck around these past few years to collect his hefty paycheck.  Watching him stumble around, I can’t help but think, conversely, of Joe DiMaggio and how he retired following the 1951 season.  DiMaggio was also 37 at the time of his retirement and probably could have gone a few more years for the New York Yankees if he’d wanted to.  Still, he stopped playing because he couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore.  After his decision, he told the Sporting News, “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”

DiMaggio wasn’t the only player like this.  Jackie Robinson followed suit five years later when the Brooklyn Dodgers star, also 37 at the time, chose to retire over accepting a trade to the New York Giants.  Mickey Mantle quit after having a dream that he was wearing a uniform for the expansion Seattle Pilots.  Mantle’s age at the time he announced his retirement?  You guessed it, 37.

To be sure, there have been many athletes who have stuck around entirely too long.  Willie Mays comes to mind as do Pete Rose and Steve Carlton.  Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and Joe Namath all played a few too many NFL seasons.  Patrick Ewing and Gary Payton should have quit basketball sooner than they did.  And Wayne Gretzky really wasn’t “The Great One” by the end of his hockey career.

Shaq’s hardly the first of his kind.  I suppose they just don’t make them like Joe DiMaggio anymore.

A Ricky Romero story you haven’t heard

I’ve mentioned on here before that I saw current Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero pitch a couple times in college, when he was with Cal State Fullerton.  Here’s a story about him that I doubt too many people know.

I saw Romero pitch for the first time his freshman year six years ago, when visiting Fullerton faced Cal Poly, a Big West Conference rival.  A prep product from Los Angeles, Romero started off torridly that day, hurling first-pitch strikes to the initial ten-or-so batters he faced, throwing shut-out ball.  His fortunes changed around the forth inning when a Cal Poly batter leaned too closely into a pitch and took a pitch directly in the groin.  To make matters worse, he wasn’t wearing a protective cup.

The batter collapsed into a writhing fetal ball and had to leave the game.  He then spent 45 minutes in the locker room, before going to the hospital to deal with the excessive swelling that occurred.  He  later told me his doctor was a former Cal State Fullerton pitcher, ironically.  I had just started writing a column called “Golden Graham” for the Cal Poly student newspaper the Mustang Daily at the time, and the batter made sure I wrote a disclaimer for any ladies that he was fine.

I approached Romero after the game, while Fullerton was preparing to leave, and the baby-faced 18-year-old expressed genuine concern for the fallen batter.  It had been apparent Romero was affected on the mound, as well.  After throwing first-pitch strikes to those first ten hitters, Romero struggled with his control after felling the Cal Poly hitter.  Fullerton held on for the win, but the perennial College World Series contenders looked mortal that day.

Eventually, Romero became a top pitcher for Fullerton and was picked sixth overall in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft.  He stayed in the minors for a couple of years, earning criticism for Toronto’s brass who passed on Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza, among others, to make the pick.  However, Romero debuted this season for the Blue Jays and has done well.  He recently got a positive mention in Sports Illustrated and is currently 4-3 with a 3.59 ERA after nine starts.  Far as I know, he hasn’t hit any more guys in the balls.

Baseball saves the day. Again.

I am now in Week 4 at my new job, continuing to cold call businesses to pitch my firm’s service.  I was on the phone yesterday with a spa owner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas when a thought occurred to me.

Arkansas has long been famous for its natural hot springs, and baseball teams used to flock there for spring training, along with mobsters like Al Capone.  Babe Ruth ended a holdout one winter while at the baths with sportswriter Dan Daniel.  Daniel recounted years later in the memoir, No Cheering in the Press Box, about how he helped broker the deal between Ruth and Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert.  It was pointed out to Ruth that he made more than the U.S. president at the time, Herbert Hoover. “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it?” Ruth reputedly quipped. “Besides, I had a better year than he did.”

Anyhow, I was on the phone yesterday with this spa owner, a woman named Nicole, when it occurred to me to ask if Ruth had ever frequented her business.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I have this uncanny tendency to connect everything to sports.  There was Rick Burleson, the architect I called a few weeks ago who has the same name as a former All-Star shortstop.  One of my clients also has the same surname of a former Sacramento Kings backup (though she’s no relation, I checked.)  As for the spa owner, her business is also located inside a hotel that’s been around since the 19th Century so it made sense that Ruth may have come through at one point.  She wasn’t sure, though.  I told her I would do a quick Google search.

This picture turned up and I sent it to Nicole.  She signed up for a trial account of my firm’s service this morning.

Know your Giants

I went camping recently in Northern California with a group of friends.  While on the trip, one of the girls told me she was a big San Francisco Giants fan.  I smiled.  I like women who can drive stick, shoot pool, and watch baseball.  I would like nothing more than to find a girl to take to ATT Park and eat peanuts with.  The shells would gather at our feet as we took in the game, our bond cementing.

I digress.

I asked the woman if she was a fan of Will Clark, Matt Williams, Kevin Mitchell.  Alas, she had no clue.  I think she’d maybe heard of Barry Bonds.  Jeff Kent?  I’m guessing no.  This of course says nothing of the current crop of superstars. I’ll cut the woman some slack, as there were plenty of Angels fans back in 2002 who were unfamiliar with David Eckstein (those Rally Monkeys were cute, granted.)

Still, a true Giants fan knows a little history.  The names of Clark, Williams, and Mitchell are only the beginning.  The true fan also knows Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, and Bill Terry, who once said of the Dodgers, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?”  There’s also John McGraw, the famed manager of the Giants, back when they were in New York, in the early part of the 20th Century.  McGraw introduced sign language to the game  to communicate with his deaf pitcher, Dummy Taylor.  He also once had his team dress in all-black uniforms for a World Series to make them look more intimidating (it worked.)  Earlier, following the 1904 season, he refused to face the Philadelphia Athletics of the three-year-old American League and hoisted a banner, declaring his team world champions.  They don’t make them like McGraw anymore.

I go as far back as Buck Ewing, who was a catcher for the Giants back in the 1880s and ’90s.  Ewing once yelled to a group of fans during a game that it was getting late, time for dinner.  He then stole home and won the game.

Damnit, I want to be on ESPN

So it used to be I had a nice, quiet, little blog, where I could write odes to baseball, offering cute anecdotes and historical references.  No one paid all that much attention, but I accepted it as the norm for a new sports blog.  I mainly wanted the chance to write about sports, moreover baseball, on a regular basis and my blog granted that.

Until yesterday, that is.

Sports blogging is back on the national radar.  I suppose it was inevitable, though I didn’t figure it would come at the hands of Raul Ibanez.  To those out of the loop, one of the bloggers whose stuff gets reprinted here wrote a post a couple of days ago exploring the possibility that the aging Philadephia Phillies slugger may be on steroids, due to his freakish start this year (at 37, he’s currently on pace for 57 home runs, after never managing more than 33 in a season.)  It seemed fair enough to consider, for probably 10 different reasons at least, though the national media blew a gasket.

First the story spread around the blogosphere.  Then came a column from John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer who quoted Ibanez saying, “You can have my urine, my hair, my blood, my stool—anything you can test. I’ll give you back every dime I’ve ever made if the test is positive.”  (Sammy Sosa also had an impassioned response when Rick Reilly challenged him to take a test back in 2002, as recounted here. To highlight: “This interview is over.  Over motherfucker!”)

By yesterday afternoon, the blogger, Jerod Morris, was appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, along with Gonzalez and Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News.  I watched the segment yesterday evening through a link from the ESPN.com homepage, which had an in-depth story about the article.  Rosenthal and Gonzalez acted more like they were on Bill O’Reilly, ripping into Morris for not protecting Ibanez’s reputation.  It’s the same kind of crap the media said a decade ago after an Associated Press reporter wrote a story about finding androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker.  It’s embarrassing that we’re still at this level.

For Morris’s part, I thought he held his own.  He looked a little nervous at times, with what looked like “Richard Nixon at the 1960 Presidential Debates” stage makeup.  Hey, I sweat too.  But I’m sure Morris would have more polish if he was on the air as much as sports journalists seem to go on these days (ratings be damned.)  And Morris stuck to his guns, not resorting to the condescencion or personal attacks of his counterparts.

Good job man.  We’re all proud of you.  Envious too.

Oh, you’re not that Rick Burleson?

I recently started a new day job in Berkeley, California.  Unfortunately, I can’t make all my money as a baseball blogger/historian.  Thus, I pay the bills doing sales work and have recently begun a position as an account executive for an Internet start-up in the East Bay.  In a given day, I’ll cold call upwards of 50-60 businesses, pitching review services, and I get to talk with some interesting characters.   Occasionally, they have names I recognize.

One of my quirks, dating back to childhood, is that I have an encyclopedic brain.  Some people probably use this to become ace scientists or attorneys.  I simply clean up every time I go to bar trivia, pulling out the names of hit movies and politicians like I was a walking Wikipedia.  My knowledge base unfortunately doesn’t extend to much that has practical use, though I like to put on my resume that I know most World Series winners and the names of all the U.S. presidents from the 20th century– backwards.  If I ever figure out how to make money off this, I’ll be set for life.

I bring this all up because I recently called on an architect named Rick Burleson.  Some may know that there was also once a baseball player named Rick Burleson, who played shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and California Angels in the 1970s and ’80s.  I brought this up in my initial call with the architect and he laughed, telling me had Burleson’s baseball card.  We set up a follow-up call for this morning and to prepare, I did some research on-line on Burleson the Ballplayer, learning he’d been a four-time All Star and had finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1974.  He even placed 13th in Most Valuable Player voting in 1975, when he hit only .252 at the plate.  His nickname was Rooster.

Unfortunately, Burleson the Architect didn’t have much time to talk when I reach him today.  I’ll be sure to tell him about how he once got traded for Carney Lansford when I next call.

A bar I used to drink in

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I used to often visit a baseball card shop downtown.  It was two doors over from a building whose sign was a large, glowing baseball with the words, “Joe Marty’s” emblazoned over it.  I used to wonder what the place was.  As a baseball card junkie (I had a few thousand cards at one point), the ball caught my eye and as a kid, I once went in, thinking it maybe was a card shop.  The swaying drunks I encountered let me know otherwise.  Joe Marty’s was a bar.

Eventually, I learned Joe Marty had, in fact, been a real person, a ballplayer at that.  My senior year of high school, I did my final project on an old Pacific Coast League team that had played in my hometown, the Sacramento Solons.  As it turned out, Marty played for and managed the Solons back in the 1940s and ’50s.  Before that, he played in the major leagues, appearing with the Chicago Cubs in the 1938 World Series.  Injuries robbed him of a long big league career, though as a young man, he was once considered a better prospect than Joe DiMaggio.  The two came up together in the PCL with the San Francisco Seals and while DiMaggio missed the 1934 season with a career-threatening injury, Marty went to the Cubs for a large price.  In the end, though, as one old-timer told me, Marty returned to Sacramento, his hometown, and became his bar’s own best customer.  He died in 1984 at the age of 71.

Eventually, I drank in Joe Marty’s bar once or twice.  It had the coolest old black-and-white photos of famous players.  Sadly, fire gutted the place in 2005.  While the photos were reportedly saved from destruction, the bar hasn’t been open since.

Before they were famous: Garrett Olson

I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention.  Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game.  Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.

The pitcher’s name?  Garrett Olson.

Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes.  But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong.   Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.

He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners.  Still, he’s showing signs of improvement.  Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign.  He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.)  I hope he stays.

My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous.  Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year.  He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno.  I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him.  “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence.  The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.

Early on, talk like this is cheap.  Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters.  But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly.  His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.

Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer.  I’ll be watching, though.