Sunday Notes: Brent Strom Remembers His Big-League Debut

Brent Strom had a better playing career than he likes to give himself credit for. His numbers are admittedly nondescript, but he did toss 501 big-league innings and throw 16 complete games, three of which were shutouts. Pitching for the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, and San Diego Padres, the now-71-year-old southpaw logged a respectable 3.95 ERA over parts of five seasons.

My invitation to revisit his MLB debut — with the Mets on July 31, 1972 — yielded both entertaining anecdotes and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. Now in his seventh season as the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, Strom is equal parts gruff and engaging as a storyteller.

Against the Montreal Expos on that particular night, Strom was stellar. He allowed just two hits and a pair of runs — only one of them earned —over six-and-two thirds innings. Strom fanned seven, and despite departing with a lead settled for a non-decision.

His high school coach was on hand to see it.

“Bernie Flaherty, who is since deceased, had promised that if I made it to the big leagues he would be there for my first game,” Strom told me. “He flew from San Diego to New York to watch me pitch against the Expos that night, which was pretty cool. At least I didn’t disappoint him that game.”

Another notable from back home was there as well, and unlike Flaherty he wasn’t watching from the stands. He was calling balls and strikes.

“The home plate umpire was the great Doug Harvey,” said Strom. “Ironically, he used to officiate my basketball games when I was playing at San Diego High School. I remember that he would be running up and down the court with a chew in his mouth. I don’t know where he spit, but he umpired my first game.”

Strom couldn’t recall if it was Tim Foli or “the guy who got hit by pitches a lot” [Ron Hunt], but one of the first batters he faced was retired on a loud out. Shortly thereafter came words of advice from an unexpected source.

“When I came off the mound — the number-two hitter had flown out to deep right centerfield —Doug Harvey met me on my way to the dugout,” said Strom. “He said something to the effect of, ‘This isn’t high school; you better get the ball down.’ That was kind of interesting.”

His pregame warmup session was interesting as well, and not in a good way.

“I’m warming up in the bullpen, nervous as shit, and Jerry Grote is catching me,” recalled Strom. “He’d lost his position as the lead catcher — Duffy Dyer caught me in the game — so Grote has to warm me up. I bounce a curveball that bites him, and he’s [expletive] pissed. He throws his glove on the ground and walks away. So here I’ve just pissed off the biggest red-ass in all of baseball, and I’ve got to go out and pitch pretty soon. [Pitching coach] Rube Walker grabs a glove and he’s catching me as though it was like the 19-[expletive]-20s, half standing up like in the old-time videos you see. I wasn’t feeling too good at that time. Fortunately, Duffy helped right the ship for me.”

When I mentioned that he began the game with six shutout innings, Strom responded: “Well, that sure ended [expletive] quickly. Was I on the hook when I came out? Ending up with the loss would have just added to my illustrious career.”

Willie Mays was playing first base for the Mets that day, and while Strom brought it up, the game itself isn’t what stands out when it comes to the Hall of Fame legend.

“What I most remember about Mays is being in the locker room, surrounded by the likes of him, Tom Seaver, and Jerry Koosman,” shared Strom. “My time with the Mets was short, but that’s something I’ll always remember.”

One last memory, because, well, it’s classic Brent Strom:

“My next game, I lost to the Reds,” said Strom. “I gave up my first home run, to Johnny Bench in the top of the second. That wasn’t the most discouraging thing. After the game, I was icing my arm and listening to Ralph Kiner interviewing Bench. He asked, ‘What pitch did you hit out Johnny?’ Bench said, ‘I don’t know if it was a fastball or a changeup.’ That right there kind of hit me. Like I said, it was an illustrious career.”

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Buck Showalter debuted as a big-league manager on April 7, 1992. He did so with the New York Yankees, and as fortune would have it, that day’s opponent was the Boston Red Sox. The venue was old Yankee Stadium.

Earlier this week, I asked Showalter what he most remembers about the first of his 3,069 games managing at the highest level.

“It was Roger Clemens versus Scott Sanderson,” said Showalter, who now serves as an analyst on the YES Network. “That wasn’t a great matchup for us on paper, but I think I’d rather face Roger in the first game than once he really got going. I remember the last three outs. I remember the pregame introductions. I remember… you know, David, there is so much responsibility that you don’t really have a chance to get bogged down in the emotions of it.”

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t emotions. There were, and the strongest of them came during the National Anthem. Showalter’s father had passed away shortly after he got the job, and that’s who he was thinking about as he stood on the baseline, hand on his heart, facing the flag.

He felt prepared. Showalter had managed in the minors for five seasons, and more recently he’d been a member of the Yankees coaching staff. A stickler to detail by nature, he pretty much knew what to expect from Opening Day.

“Spring training is like preparing for a Broadway play,” analogized Showalter. “You’ve got Act One, Act Two, Act Three, whatever, and then you’re hopefully around for the encore. You’ve rehearsed your lines and familiarized yourself with the scenery. That’s what’s so tough about this year. I was talking to Aaron [Boone] about it the other day. There are many things you don’t know are coming, so it’s hard to rehearse for them. You can rehearse for the baseball game itself.”

Showalter mapped out his lineup in advance of Opening Day 1992, although it wasn’t his penmanship gracing the card itself. That duty fell to bench coach Russ Meyer, with whom he’d worked in the minors. Big on presentation, they’d arranged to have navy blue lineup cards, which were then filled out in metallic silver. Showalter recalls Meyer being so meticulous that if he messed up, he would start over from scratch. “And God help him if I made a lineup change.”

The rookie manager in the Boston dugout was no stranger. Showalter had played with Butch Hobson in Triple-A, and managed against him in Double-A. Fraternization has its limits when you’re on opposite sides of a Hatfield-McCoy rivalry, but at the same time, baseball kinships tend to run deep.

“I remember meting with Butch before the game,” Showalter explained. “But there are so many things in this game, David… and sometimes it’s a look; it’s not necessarily something you say. He was having a similar moment, so it was more of me just catching Butch’s eye.”

And then there was the equally-brief pregame moment with Gene “Stick” Michael. The Yankees GM sauntered over, gave Showalter “that Stick smile” and said “good luck.” He then walked away, leaving Showalter — a neophyte on a one-year contract — to further ponder his first game as a big-league manager.

The Yankees won by a score of 4-3.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Whit Merrifield is 6 for 11 against Felix Hernandez.

Junior Felix 펠릭스 went 6 for 12 against Jimmy Key.

Gus Felix went 7 for 12 against Vic Keen.

Felix Fermin went 10 for 12 against Mark Guthrie.

Felix Pie 피에 went 9 for 14 against Gavin Floyd.

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The Orioles have made great strides in pitching development since Mike Elias came over from the Houston Astros organization in November of 2018. I recently asked Baltimore’s Executive Vice President and General Manager how much the cancellation of the minor league season will hinder that progress. His answer addressed player development as a whole.

“It’s definitely a blow,” responded Elias. “We wanted so many of our prospects to go out and have full seasons, and have the ups and downs that come with a full season… and have the statistics [for us] to evaluate them. And we’re not getting that. But none of the other teams are getting that either, which is a small consolation.

“We’re going to try to get as many of our young prospects here as we can without hurting our ability to navigate the season the way we want to at the major-league level,” continued Elias. “Ultimately, I and the rest of the general managers across the league are really going to push for some type of organized player development experience this year.”

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Tyler Ivey isn’t part of Houston’s 60-man player pool, but that doesn’t mean he’s not well-regarded. The 23-year-old right-hander ranks 14th on our Astros Top Prospects list, and last year he logged a 1.47 ERA in 46 Double-A innings. Thanks in part to a plus curveball, Ivey is more than capable of climbing to the top of the organizational ladder once minor-league baseball is able to get up off the floor.

The pandemic wreaking havoc on the 2020 season has hit close to home for the Texas native.

“I had COVID a month and a half ago,” Ivey told me on Friday. “I’m still kind of getting back from that. I had a fever, and there were some body aches, but the craziest part about it is that you lose every sense of smell and taste. I bit into an orange, and it legitimately was like biting into a water balloon. It was insane. I was really only sick for about a week, but then you obviously have to quarantine for two or three weeks, which I did. A lot of people have been getting it a lot worse, so I felt pretty fortunate.”

We’ll hear more from Ivey — this time on his repertoire and unique delivery — in the coming days.

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A quiz:

Only one player has led both the American League and the National League in hits, and he accomplished that feat in consecutive seasons. Who is he?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

Alcides Escobar is batting .311/.378/.378 for NPB’s Yakult Swallows. Justin Bour is batting .278/.333/.481 for the Hanshin Tigers, Leonys Martin .274/.419/.488 for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

The KBO has reached the 60-game mark of its season with Mel Rojas Jr. competing for a Triple Crown. The KT Whiz outfielder came into the weekend leading the circuit in batting average (.380) home runs (21), and RBIs (56).

Frank Bolling, a second baseman for the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves from 1954-1966, died last weekend at age 88. Balling became the first Tigers infielder to win a Gold Glove in 1958.

Tony Taylor, an infielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, and Detroit Tigers from 1958-1976, died earlier this week at age 88. A native of Cuba who made two All-Star teams, Taylor finished his career with 2,007 hits.

Everton Weekes, who is widely considered cricket’s equivalent to Jackie Robinson, died earlier this month. Named after his father’s favorite English soccer team, Weekes was the first Black captain of the West Indies cricket team.

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The answer to the quiz is Lance Johnson. The left-handed-hitting outfielder topped the junior circuit with 186 hits in 1995 while playing for the Chicago White Sox. The following year he topped the senior circuit with 227 hits while playing for the New York Mets.

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Proponents of “Kill the Win” might be interested in this excerpt from an old SABR Research Journal:

The American League did not adopt earned run averages until 1913.  League president Ban Johnson was so enthusiastic about earned run averages that he dropped won-lost records from the official averages, saying they were not necessary.  Johnson’s decision was not a popular one.  Thanks to the editors for both the Reach and Spalding guides, the unofficial won-lost records were published each year until 1920, when Johnson finally relented and gave approval for both ERA and won-lost records to be part of the official averages.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh looked into whether the shortened season could stop MLB’s unrelentingly rising strikeout rate.

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper wrote about how the proposed MiLB reorganization is part of MLB’s “One Baseball” plan (i.e. power grab).

At Dugout Dish, Chelsea Ladd talked to front office members of the Nashville Sounds and the Reno Aces about the current situation in MiLB.

Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein weighed in on why baseball is losing Black America.

Did Dwight D. Eisenhower play professional baseball before becoming a general, and then the 34th president of the United States? Jordan Wolf wrote about that possibility at MiLB.com.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Buffalo had a Federal League franchise in 1914 and 1915. In the first of those seasons they were known as the Buffeds, in the second as the Blues. Notable players included Baldy Louden and Hal Chase.

CC Sabathia started 560 games and had 38 CG, 12 shutouts, and 251 wins.
Bartolo Colon started 552 games and had 38 CG, 13 shutouts, and 247 wins.

Maury Wills had 8,306 PA, 2,134 hits, 1,067 runs, 20 HR, 586 SB, and 208 CS.
Juan Pierre had 8,280 PA, 2,217 hits, 1,075 runs, 18 HR, 614 SB, and 203 CS.

Mike Trout has 852 total bases over the last three seasons.
Nick Castellanos has 934 total bases over the last three seasons.

In 1951, New York Yankees right-hander Allie Reynolds had seven shutouts and six saves. In 1952, Reynolds had six shutouts and six saves. Per @JamesSmyth621, the latter is MLB’s most-recent six-six season. The last five-five was in 1966, when Luis Tiant had five shutouts and eight saves.

In 1974, Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall made 106 appearances and pitched 208-and-a-third innings. In 1963, Marshall slashed .304/.416/.483 with 14 home runs as a 20-year-old shortstop in the Pioneer League.

On July 18, 1966, the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City A’s split a Sunday double-header with each team winning 3-2 in 10 innings. The A’s walked off the opener on a two-out passed ball. The Red Sox took the nightcap thanks to an inside-the-park home run.

On July 19, 1924, the St. Louis Cardinals swept a Saturday double-header against the Boston Braves, winning by scores of 6-1 and 2-1. Hi Bell, a rookie right-hander who finished the season with a record of 3-8, went the distance for wins in both games.

Players born on this date include Phil Cavarretta, who played for the Chicago Cubs from 1934-1953, and for the Chicago White Sox in 1954 and 1955. The NL MVP in 1945 — he won the batting title while slashing .355/.449/.500 — Cavarretta finished his career with 1,977 hits and four All-Star berths.

Also born on this date was Snake Henry. A first baseman for the Boston Braves in 1922 and 1923, Henry had 14 career hits, including a triple against Hall of Fame southpaw Eppa Rixey.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Brent Strom Remembers His Big-League Debut by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Awesome trivia question today David.

A fun Lance Johnson fact: of his 326 career extra base hits, more than a third were triples (117).