January 2011

Korach: “The great ones love what they do”

A’s radio broadcaster Ken Korach recently passed along a rather personal and endearing piece of writing that I’m very excited to share. He’ll continue writing throughout the season on an occasional basis at his own blog space, which will be created within the next month. For now, though, I’m delighted to share this space as a forum for his thoughts on a few extraordinary baseball men who passed away last year. Enjoy! 

Any year-end necrology
is going to bring a sense of sadness and reflection, but it seems 2010 was a
particularly tough year for baseball.


The Boss and The Voice
were just two of the greats we lost.  


If imitation is the
greatest form of flattery, The Voice, Bob Sheppard, will be the most flattered
immortal of all time.


The list begins, both
alphabetically and appropriately, with Sparky Anderson, the first manager to
win a World Series in both leagues and one of game’s great ambassadors.

I didn’t know Sparky
well; I was starting my career in the American League as he was winding down in
Detroit. But, there are four others we lost in 2010 whose greatness was
endearing and enduring, and who influenced me in a variety of ways.


Dave Niehaus was the
voice of the Marines from their inception until he died shortly after the past
season. Niehaus was one of those announcers whose enthusiasm was contagious,
and it had to be because he suffered with the Mariners’ fans through 14
consecutive losing seasons before the Mariners finally broke through in 1991. His
call, and the unvarnished emotion, when the Mariners advanced past the Yankees
in the 1995 ALDS, is one of the most memorable ever.  


“The Mariners are
going to play for the American League Championship!” Niehaus exclaimed,
and then he added his signature punctuation: “My oh my.”


They say it was Ken Griffey Jr. and that 1995 team that saved
baseball for Seattle. Griffey thinks it was Niehaus, because the broadcasts always
lived even during all the losing.


One time about 10 years
ago the A’s were in Seattle to play the Mariners and we had a night off while
the M’s were finishing a series at Safeco Field. Niehaus invited me to
spend an inning with him on the air. It was an unforgettable experience because
I could sense Dave’s enthusiasm once I put on my headset.   There was
nothing contrived about Dave’s energy — you could feel it — and I’ve always
remembered that night and the lesson that the great ones love what they do
and love the game.


The same could be said
for Ron Santo, who probably lived through more physical and professional
heartbreak than anyone. At the end, Ronnie’s body gave out but his spirit
will live with the Cubs’ fans forever.


It is a shame that Santo
didn’t make the Hall of Fame during his lifetime. Even based on the
numbers, you could make a compelling case. Five Gold Gloves, a
nine-time All-Star, 342 homers, a .277 average and   1,331
RBI.  He led the National League in walks four times.


But, there also has to
be something luminous about a career in the game that was so
exemplary, a Hall of Fame tie-breaker if you will. There have been many
greats in the Windy City — sure Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks (Let’s Play
Two) and Fergie Jenkins (and, I hope, Frank Thomas on the first ballot from the
South Side), but has anyone meant more to his team’s fans than Santo? He
played 14 years for the Cubs and then broadcast for 20.

He hid, because of the stigma, his diabetes until he made the All-Star team
for the first time, but then as an announcer he inspired thousands with his
courage and his dignity. 


I worked many games with
only a thin pane of glass separating our booth from Santo’s — in Spring
Training and also during interleague play at Wrigley, and it was amazing even
last summer to see Santo, with cancer winning its inexorable battle and Ron
walking on his two prostheses, always having time for autographs and pictures
with the steady stream of Cubs fans that started before the game and never ended.


Pat Hughes, Ron’s long
time partner on WGN Radio, told me this year that the Cubs and their
fans kept Santo alive. I think it was the other way around.


I’ve said many times
that I could listen to Ernie Harwell say nothing for three hours and love it. He
had that kind of voice, the southern drawl that was the perfect match for the
game’s laconic pace. Ernie voiced the Tigers games for 42 years, retired
after the 2002 season, and passed last summer at the age of 92.   His
grace is best exemplified by his writing of The Game for All America,
which served as part of his acceptance speech for the Hall of Fame:


“In baseball, 
democracy shines its clearest.  The only race that matters is the race to
the bag, and the creed is the rule book.  Color merely something to
distinguish one team’s uniform from another.”


Ernie was a sage in a
simple, but profound way.   I liked to pose questions to him, knowing
the answers would be little lessons for life. Once, when the Tigers were in the
midst of a lousy season, I asked Ernie how he kept his focus:


“Every game is its
own chapter,” he said. 


The other day, I was
stuck at the airport in L.A. in bad weather. I thought of Ernie as I often do.

I asked him once, when
he was in his 80s and facing another long night of travel after a late game,
how he dealt with the travel:  


 “I have nothing better to do.  
I’ve got a good book.”   


How about this for the
definition of the essence of a baseball broadcast?


“You call balls and
strikes and give the score. But, that would be boring if that was all you
do, so you mix in a little color.” 


For Ernie, nothing was
too complicated.


I first interviewed Bob
Feller when he was touring Minor League parks in the 1980s. Even then, in his
late 60s, I think he thought he could blow his fastball by 90 percent of the
young hitters at the park that day.   He was and always will be Rapid
Robert, the same brash kid who broke into the big leagues at 17.  
Feller was intractable and loved holding court, and his opinions flowed in the
press room in Cleveland, even during the 2010 season at the age of 92.


I asked him once how
many games he might have won — he finished with 266, including three
no-hitters — if not for World War 11. He didn’t hesitate before
answering. “We won the big one.”


Shortly after Feller
died, I got an email from Joe Castiglione, the radio voice of the Red Sox, who
once worked on cable in Cleveland with Feller.  “I loved him,”
Joe said. “And, so did my kids.”


That’s one reason it is
important and not just ceremonial for immortals like Feller to have a presence
at the ballpark long after their playing days. They link the generations.


And, they live forever.

The week that was

As if right on cue, the A’s last week decided to once again celebrate my vacation time with a couple of notable signings, this time in the form of veteran relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes. I know I’m not the first to say this, but I very much like these additions. The A’s already had the makings of a formidable bullpen without them, but Balfour and Fuentes — both strikeout guys — give them a healthy dose of big-game experience, something of which you can really never have enough. Their presence also lends the A’s insurance — Andrew Bailey and Jerry Blevins are both coming off surgery, and Joey Devine hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since 2008.

Do the A’s now boast the best bullpen in the AL? With Balfour, Fuentes, Bailey, Breslow, Wuertz, Ziegler, Devine and Blevins in tow, they surely stand to elicit discussion with mention of the category.

Also of note last week, Grant Green, Jemile Weeks and Chris Carter were ranked among the best prospects at their respective positions by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo. You can click on their names to read more.

One last thing: Don’t forget that single-game A’s tickets go on sale Jan. 29.

Pitchers and catchers report in 22 days. I’ll be there in 19 and expect the transaction wire to stay pretty quiet on the A’s front between now and then. What do you think of this 2011 team?      

A’s to sign Balfour, pending physical

The A’s and right-handed reliever Grant Balfour have agreed on a two-year deal, pending a physical, according to a Major League source.

The 33-year-old Balfour, an Australian native, posted a 2.28 ERA and 1.08 WHIP while averaging 9.1 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings over 55 1/3 frames for the Rays last year.  
Balfour is classified as a Type A free agent, so Oakland — whose first-round pick is protected — will have to hand over a second-round pick to the Rays.
His presence represents a continuing offseason attempt by the A’s to bolster the depth of their bullpen, whose injury woes down the stretch last season proved costly. Andrew Bailey, Jerry Blevins and Michael Wuertz were all sidelined for an extended time during that period.

Pennington expects full recovery soon

While Adam Rosales offered a bit of a surprise today in the form of news that he underwent foot surgery in December and will be limited in spring, good news came from Cliff Pennington, who says he’s experienced no setbacks with his surgically repaired left shoulder. The A’s shortstop recently began taking some dry swings with the bat — first left-handed a few weeks ago and right-handed just days ago. “Everything’s going great,” he said. “I’m pretty much exactly where I should be in my rehab.” There’s no timetable yet, though, on when he’ll begin baseball activity. That’s something Pennington says he’ll figure out soon when he reports to camp and meets with the doctors and trainers. But there’s no reason not to think, he said, that he’ll be ready to go by mid-March. “We’re taking our time and trying to do it right,” he added. “Everything looks good.”

Wolff: “No interest” in purchasing Dodgers

The A’s on Wednesday issued a statement in response to a Tuesday column written by ESPN’s Buster Olney that speculated whether team owner Lew Wolff could become the next owner of the Dodgers. The thinking behind Olney’s curiosity — it’s important to note that it was merely speculation, nothing more — was that Selig could do with the A’s what he did with the Expos and get the owner of a troubled team a new team, subsequently letting Major League Baseball figure out what to do with the other team.

Wolff has been awaiting a report from the three-panel committee which
Commissioner Bud Selig appointed almost two years ago to study the A’s stadium
options. Meanwhile, there’s thought that financial pressure will force Dodgers owner Frank McCourt out of the picture. Olney linked the two together, and here’s what Wolff had to say via press release:

“There is no truth to this report. Mr. Wolff has no interest whatsoever in purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise. Furthermore, he has no knowledge of the source of any such rumor, and he has informed Major League Baseball and Dodgers ownership of his position.”