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That Time I Interviewed Yogi Berra

I interviewed Yogi Berra in 2004 when I was working on my book The 50 Greatest Yankees Games. I might still have the cassette tapes of the interviews I did for the book somewhere but I’m honestly not sure. Of the players I interviewed for that book, several have passed on: Tommy Byrne, Tom Tresh, Ryne Duren, and now Yogi.

Most of the interviews I did were during spring training, and at the time Yogi was working as a spring training instructor for the Yankees. In 2004, at age 79, Yogi was still hitting fungoes for fielding practice on a daily basis. His memory of the great games in his career was extremely sharp–possibly because he’d told the stories of them so many times–and so our interview almost took place in a sort of shorthand, where he knew exactly what I was talking about and I knew what he was talking about.

I know, that’s not what I was told to expect: knowing what Yogi was talking about. But when it came to baseball, trust me, Yogi knew what he was talking about.

My favorite moment is when he tells me he was an awful catcher at the start of his career. See if you can figure out which great games in Yankees history we’re discussing in this transcript:

Masanori Murakami speaks at #SABR45

This year we have many distinguished speakers at the SABR convention, as usual, but one I did not want to miss was Masanori Murakami. “Mashi” as he is known, was the first Japanese player to appear in the major leagues back in 1964. He is the subject of Rob Fitts’ new biography (Mashi: The Unfulfilled Baseball Dreams of Masanori Murakami, the First Japanese Major Leaguer) and they’re doing a nine-city U.S. tour, starting here, Boston Monday, and several cities in California including Fresno and San Francisco.

The program began first with a quick nine-minute preview of the film Diamond Diplomacy by filmmaker Yumiko Gamo Romer, which will be a documentary about “US-Japanese Relations Through A Shared Love of Baseball.” Tracing that relationship from Horace Wilson, who brought baseball to Japan in 1871 where he was a teacher until 1877. (Here’s an interesting NPR article and story about his descendants being invited to Japan in 2000: National Public Radio). I hope we will get to see the finished film at the SABR convention in 2 years?

Rob Fitts, for those who don’t know him, is a previous winner of the award for best presentation at a SABR convention (if I’m remembering correctly), and the author of Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan, and a book about Wally Yonamine as well. After the film clips were done, Rob got up and narrated Mashi’s story, turning to the man himself to speak at various points to illustrate or explain various parts.

Here are some excerpts from the talk they gave:

Rob: As some of you know, in Japanese baseball the training is very infused with the martial arts. Sometimes to toughen up the players they were not allowed to drink water.

Mashi: We could not drink the water. But sometimes we would very quickly drink some water. You would go to pick up the ball and there would be the little bit of water with the baby moquitoes in it. [Puddles.] Sometimes you would put a towel in that water and (*slurp*).

Rob: As you saw in the film clip, the manager of the Nankai Hawks came to Mashi’s house when he was in high school and asked if he would sign a contract to play with the Hawks. Mashi said no, he wanted to go to college. But just as Manager Shuroka was about to leave, he said if Mashi would sign, that they would send him for training in the United States.

Mashi: My third year [in high school] in the summer time, Hawks manager came to my house. he said hey Mashi, please sign contract for my Hawks. But I said no, I want to go to college. But he said if you sign the contract, we will send you to the United States. So I changed my mind. I had seen Rawhide, Hollywood movies with John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, and I wanted to come over here.

White Sox Player Panel at #SABR45

One of the highlights of today’s SABR convention was the White Sox player panel. I also think I saw the best two presentations so far of the convention today, as well, but I’ll try to write up research presentations later! Right now, here are a couple of the amusing anecdotes and funny stories told by the players to moderator Dan Migala.

The players were Carlos May, Ron Kittle, and Mike Huff. This is a bare fraction of the panel, because these guys talked fast and were packed with stories! Hopefully they captured video or audio of the whole thing for the SABR website because I didn’t manage to get down stuff like the time a family named their kid after Mike and much more.

Dan Migala: A lot of White Sox history in this hotel [thehistoric Palmer House Hilton]. Roland Hemond used to set up camp here. A lot of trades happened here. I think we’ll be adding to this legacy here today! Could you each tell me about coming to Chicago? Ron let’s start with you. (Continued)

Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR45

SABR’s national convention very often features a panel discussion on “women in baseball.” (I have spoken on the panel in the past.) The speakers vary from former female players in the All American Girls (AAGPBL) and Negro Leagues to current women trying to make it in baseball or in umpiring to writers, front office personnel, and wives. As moderator Leslie Heaphy put it, “We take the broadest possible view of women’s participation in baseball.”

With such disparate experiences, sometimes there is not a lot of direct back and forth between the panelists, but each one always has fascinating and insightful things to say about the game we love. So here I present a smattering of quotes from today’s panel. I didn’t come close to writing down everything that was said by everyone, so it’s only a pithy percentage of the complete experience. (You should all get to a SABR convention someday if you love baseball. No really.)

Today’s panel included:

  • Caroline Phillips from the Cubs — working on the premiere club seating/renovation development
  • Martha Jo Black from the White Sox — working in Fan Experiences (and btw Joe Black’s daughter)
  • Christy Spisak, player for the South Bend Blue Sox (all women’s team)
  • John Kovach: former chair of the SABR women in baseball committee, curated the Diamond Dreams exhibit, longtime coach and advocate for women’s baseball
Christy Spisak, John Kovach, Martha Jo Black, Leslie Heaphy, Caroline Phillips at the SABR 45 Women in Baseball panel

Christy Spisak, John Kovach, Martha Jo Black, Leslie Heaphy, Caroline Phillips at the SABR 45 Women in Baseball panel

Leslie opened by asking each panelist how they got their start in baseball. (Continued)

SABR’s first rock concert! (I think)

bpballI’m here at the SABR convention in Chicago, and today we had a lackluster performance from the Cubs at Wrigley, but that’s okay, because the nightcap was the absolutely bang-up job by The Baseball Project. Has there ever been a rock concert at a SABR Convention before? We’ve had plays and theatrical productions, movie previews and premieres, but I don’t recall anything like this.

THE BASEBALL PROJECT is a supergroup of alt-rock veterans including founders Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5, R.E.M.) and Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Gutterball), drummer Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Zuzu’s Petals), and Mike Mills (R.E.M.). Also usually with the group is Peter Buck (also of R.E.M.) and some days their keyboard player is even Josh Kantor, the Fenway Park organist.

I’ve been to see a lot of aging alt-rock lately (I’m 48, remember–heck, this blog is now 16 years old) including bands like X and The English Beat, and recall that my first big stadium rock concert was R.E.M., Joan Jett, and The Police at Shea Stadium in 1985. How odd a coincidence to have seen Mike Mills at a baseball stadium when we were both so freakin’ young (it poured rain during R.E.M.’s set and so some of it we only heard from the concrete corridors inside Shea), and to now be taking a selfie with him and getting his autograph on a baseball at a baseball research convention.

An Angelic Weekend at the Big Ballpark in the Bronx

Thank you, Yankees, for another lovely weekend at the ballpark. Now that I’m not actively covering the Yankees or MLB as a member of the media, I get to be “just a fan.” This means I get to do fun stuff like enjoy the perks of being a season ticket holder at Yankee Stadium for over 10 years.

Today was Photo Day, at which a couple thousand season ticket holders got to line up on the warning track (so as not to tread on the sacred grass) and wait for the Yankees to come say hello. The event was slated to start at 10:15 and end at 11:15 sharp. We arrived to get in line outside the stadium at around 9:45 in the morning and were amused that at that hour we could see many of the Yankees driving down 164th street and into the player parking lot. Michael Pineda, Didi Gregorious, and Alex Rodriguez were among those who waved from their vehicles. Looked to me like Didi still has Arizona plates on his car. (Continued)

First outing of the spring!

Well, that was fun.

I just took in my first baseball game of the spring. I’m not exaggerating when I say it has been a tough winter. It has been, in fact, the worst winter in the history of weather records in the city of Boston. We had both the most snow and the coldest temperatures. The result was snow banks six and seven feet high lining my street for months, as well as transit shutdowns and a lot of general hibernation.

So here I am in Tampa–where my parents retired to some years ago–to see baseball and thaw out. The weather was a mere 66 degrees this morning and that felt so warm by comparison to me that I had no hesitation to get in the swimming pool with my mother, who teaches a water aerobics exercise class here for other retirees. (The pool is heated. Oh bliss.)

This evening’s entertainment though, was provided by the Tigers and Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. (Continued)

Jeter Walks Off Into the Sunset

The scene is a conference room, shades drawn, coffee cups scattered across the table as the scriptwriters gather for a brainstorming session.

“Okay, how about this?” one of them says. “The kid, totally green rookie, gets a shot because a veteran player goes down, and then he hits a home run in his first game.”

“Yeah, okay,” another one says, “But then he also needs to hit a home run in the playoffs that year!”

“Too cliched,” a third one opines, “unless there’s a controversy about the homer. A fan reaches over, pulls it in, but…”

“But that just makes it all the more magical!” The first writer leaps to her feet, waving her pencil perilously close to the one next to her. (Continued)

SABR 44 Ends With a Flourish: A Fantastic Time at the Ballpark

Today was the last day of the SABR convention in Houston. I think this might have been the best one I’ve been to since Boston in 2002, which was my first and therefore special. Every convention has had some outstanding things about it–Jim Bouton’s keynote in Seattle comes to mind–but this one was on a high par in every aspect. I didn’t see a single research presentation that I felt was a dud, and all the panels were top notch, especially since all the panelists were top notch.

But it was all wonderfully topped off today by the Houston Astros themselves. First they invited us into the ballpark for two last amazing panels, one with three former Astros–Alan Ashby, Larry Dierker, and Art Howe–and one with three members of the front office–Sig Medgal, David Stearns, and GM Jeff Luhnow. Those guys really hit it out of the park, figuratively speaking.

But then the actual young Astros hit it out of the park, literally speaking. We saw one of the most entertaining games of baseball imaginable. If you were going to take a person who didn’t know baseball to a game to show them how exciting and nifty it is, this one would have been a good candidate. Here, I made a list of awesome things that we saw in this game: (Continued)

SABR 44 Day Two Research Presentations

Went to three fascinating research presentations today at the SABR convention. Today’s topics I chose to attend were ballpark advertising and how it relates to branding, the influx of Cuban defectors, and William Hulbert. Presented respectively by the son and grandson of a former major leaguer, the current English-language expert on Cuban baseball, and one of SABR’s leading economists with multiple publications in the Baseball Research Journal.

Also today were the 1980 Astros panel, the Women in Baseball panel, the Media panel, and the trivia contest finals. Trivia gets more and more entertaining every year: they really have it down pat these days and the answers are just as entertaining for the audience as the questions are for the contestants.

Here’s the official description of the first presentation I went to: (Continued)

SABR 44 Research Presentations: Injuries, Surgery, and Drugs

These SABR researchers are sharp as tacks. Or maybe needles: the first three research presentations today were on surgery, injuries, and drugs. All of these are complex issues and of course each research presentation is only 20 minutes long, so you really only see the very tip of the iceberg on each presenter’s research. I urge anyone reading this who is interested in what you see to contact each researcher individually to find out more.

In this set:
Framing of Experimental Medical Procedures in Baseball, Coral Marshall
Just a Little Bit Outside…, Nicholas Miceli and Tom Bertoncino
Too Much, Too Fast, Too Young: Major League Baseball’s Struggle to Control Its Menacing Drug Problem, Joe Thompson

Under the cut: (Continued)

Reid Ryan addresses #SABR44

Here are my notes on the SABR 44 keynote by Reid Ryan in Houston. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Ryan you might have thought you were about to hear a speech by a dull front-office wonk. Savvy folks however might have realized that Ryan is a pretty big name in Texas baseball.

Houston Chapter President Bob Dorrill introduced the speaker with a recounting of Reid Ryan’s career and accomplishments, which are significant. Among other things he pitched for the Texas Rangers after graduating from TCU, was the founder of the Round Rock Express minor league team, and of course more recently has taken the job as president of the Houston Astros. He left it to Ryan himself to reveal to anyone not in the know that he also happens to be Nolan Ryan’s son.

What followed was an anecdote-packed recounting of some of Ryan’s favorite memories of the journey through baseball that led him first as a kid following his Dad from major league city to major league city all the way to what he’s trying to accomplish with Houston today. (Continued)

Interview with Gary Darling, because Umps Care

It’s time for the annual UMPS CARE auction. If you haven’t heard about it before, you haven’t been reading my blog for very long. UMPS CARE is a charity run by major league umpires and this annual auction is their main fundraiser. Everything from items autographed by Mariano Rivera and Vin Scully to meet-the-umpires ballpark vacation packages is up for bid from now through May 11th. (That’s not a lot of time so if you want to bid, get over there NOW.)

The best part about the auction for me is I usually get to talk to a major league umpire, though. This year I got to speak with Gary Darling.

Cecilia Tan: Umpires already have one of the toughest jobs in baseball. Why UMPS CARE? Don’t umpires already do enough?

GARY DARLING: We do a lot on the field. But most of us want to do some good off the field. That’s part of being a human. We started it years ago and it has grown into what it is today. We do a lot of good things, but to do that we have to raise the money and this auction is one of the biggest things we do. The last couple of years MLB has hosted it on and I think that really helps us get a bigger audience.

CT: What’s your advice for that one kid out there who goes to a game and imagines themselves behind the plate instead of in the batters box? (Continued)

April 27 2000: Book Review – Slouching Towards Fargo

book cover Slouching Toward FargoSo, the other night, while sitting in the stands in the freezing cold wind of Yankee Stadium’s upper deck, my brother gave me my birthday present, lovingly wrapped in a page of the sports section of the local paper with Ken Griffey, Jr. photo large on it. (I couldn’t help but say, as I ripped the paper to shreds: “Omigod, I killed Kenny!”) It was just a coincidence that that night’s game was near my birthday and that I happened to be in NYC.

Julian, ever the thoughtful brother, bought me a copy of the Major League Rule Book, which I have already used twice, and also another baseball-related book, “Slouching Toward Fargo” by Neal Karlen. The subtitle of the book tells it all: “A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie, and Me.” (Continued)

April 15 2000: Pre-Game Show – Arriving Early at Yankee Stadium

April 14th finally arrived, the day of my first pilgrimage this year to the national temple of baseball, Yankee Stadium. (I was tickled to hear Michael Kay call it “baseball’s cathedral” on the radio the other day–seems I’m not the only one who holds the House That Ruth Built in such regard.)

Originally I had hoped to get tickets for Opening Day, and had scheduled myself to do a reading at Columbia University on Thursday the 13th. But I couldn’t get tickets to Opening Day, and I decided to try to go Friday, the day after the reading, rather than Wednesday, the day before. And a lucky thing I chose Friday, too, since Opening Day was postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday afternoon because of imminent rain and snow, and Wednesday night’s game was then put off to August some time…

The day of the game, I went into Manhattan to meet a film producer, who interviewed me on camera for an MSNBC documentary about tattoos (I have a couple of small ones I did for commemorative reasons — no, none of them are the Yankee logo!) Then headed for the Bronx around 3pm. Traffic on the West Side Highway and the Deegan was terrible, so it took me an hour to get from midtown up to 161st Street, but I can’t say that mattered to me much, since the gate didn’t open until 5pm, or so I thought.


SABR 43 Research Presentations

After only making it to one research presentation yesterday, I hit three in a row today. I was too fatigued upon waking this morning to make it to the Media Panel. Having made myself rather ill last year by pushing too hard and doing too much (at all conventions, not just SABR’s), I made the decision to go back to sleep and hope that the audio or video of the panel will be online later.

Including yesterday, here are four of the RPs I saw:

* What About Solly Hemus? (Mark Armour)

* Analyzing Batter Performance Against Pitcher Clusters (Vince Gennaro)

* Baseball in the Age of Big Data: Why the Revolution Will Be Televised (Sean Lahman)

* Statistical Predictors of MLB Players’ Proneness to Long Hitting Streaks (Alan Reifman and Trent McCotter)

SABR 43 Lunch Keynote with Larry Bowa

I couldn’t come up with a good way to transcribe the luncheon keynote and still eat lunch and have room for my computer, so instead I tweeted just some of the choice comments from Larry Bowa and his interviewer Barry Bloom from my phone! Here’s the text of those:

@whyilikebb So we have a pinch hitter for the keynote. The MLB rep (Rob Manfred who was supposed to, I guess is tied up with BioGenesis stuff? So we got Larry Bowa!

@whyilikebb Apparently Barry Bloom will actually be grilling Bowa for the talk. This should be good.

@whyilikebb But first a standing ovation for John Zajc, SABR’s former director, who is here. :-) (Continued)

SABR 42 Panels, Morning of Friday August 2

Two panels this morning:
* Scouts & Front Office Panel
* Imagining Baseball Panel

Whew! Made it to the SABR Scouts panel! I was 5 minutes late thanks to loooong Starbucks line, but the panel were 5 minutes late starting. Perfect timing. (And the team at Starbucks was really crack, four on the register, including one just on pastry duty, and four baristas working the steam. I now have a Soy Green Tea Latte, Unsweetened, because you know I’m sweet enough.)

Now to the first panel. Here’s my transcript, typed on the fly as it went along:


Barry Bloom presiding. Introducing the legendary Roland Hemond (Diamondbacks now, formerlyWhite Sox, etc), Tom Tippett (director of information for the Red Sox), and Ian Levin (who is in analytics for the Mets and now is doing more international stuff with them). Tippett is one of the instrumental figures in building the analytics approach for the Red Sox.

Bloom: Roland, what do you do as Special Assistant for the GM with the Diamondbacks?

Hemond: Well, I get to come to the SABR convention. (*big laugh*) (Continued)

SABR 43 Thursday August 1 2013

Hello, my baseball-loving friends. I’m at the annual SABR national convention, where the presentations, research, connections, and interests run both wide and deep.

Unlike in some past years, where I’ve literally taken in 5-6 research presentations AND liveblogged the keynotes and panel discussions, this time I’m having to slow down a little. I was so tired this morning I had to sleep through the SABR business meeting and the keynote opening by Phillies CEO David Montgomery. (Fortunately for me, Montgomery’s speech can be heard live on The audio and a recap can be found here:

The result was I started my day not with a brain-bending dose of stats or an eye-opening look at a sliver of fascinating baseball history, but with a bowl of crawfish ettouffee from Beck’s Cajun stand in the Reading Terminal Market, which is right across the street from the hotel. It was pouring down buckets, but I brought an umbrella with me!

I may have to accept the data that my umbrella-carrying habits are not, in fact, causal to the weather. Usually if I bring an umbrella it doesn’t rain, but if I forget one, we get poured on. This time I brought one and it poured, but the good news is… that meant I had an umbrella in the rain. The ettouffee was delicious and very filling.

Then I saw three presentations:
* RP06: Rube Waddell and the Great Straw Hat Mystery of 1905
* RP12: A Probabilistic Approach to Measuring the Excitement of Baseball Games
* RP14: Markerless Motion Capture Technologies For In-Game Player Performance Assessment

Baseball Prospectus 2013: Like the phone book in more ways than one

So now you guys know what I was doing all winter. I was co-editing the new, more massive-than-ever Baseball Prospectus 2013 annual. The tome this year is 592 pages and contains capsule descriptions and stat projections for over 2,200 players, more than ever before.

Two thousand names is a lot to work with as an editor, but keeping the data on these players, and getting their names right, is a huge part of the editing process. Of course, some guys recently changed names, like the Player Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona, and Giancarlo Stanton… but we manage.

In the long dark winter months, as we toil in the serial comma mines, some names jump out like an opal in the coal. Names like Kevin Quackenbush, Beamer Weems, and Max Fried. As I mentioned in this interview with me at Bugs & Cranks about BP, let me tell you, at three in the morning, when your co-editor IMs you to say “Did you realize there are TWO players named Guillermo Pimentel?”–you feel Max(imally) Fried.

Then there’s that moment when I realized that Gavin Cecchini and Garin Cecchini were two different players, not a typo. They’re brothers, and I wonder what their mother was thinking. (While we’re at it, why was the mom of Jayson and Laynce Nix so fond of the letter “y”?)

I think the most oxymoronic name, of the 2,210 in the book, is that of Sonny Gray.

Are they selling the naming rights to players now, as well as stadia? Viz: Ehire Adrianza.

As an editor, the names that catch my attention the most, though, are the ones I’m absolutely certain are misspelled the first time I see them. There are a lot of them.

Top Names That You Think Must Be Misspelled: (Continued)

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