Tom Hamilton has been the radio voice of the Indians since 1990. Very early into that tenure there was a chance — albeit a small one — that he would move on and spend the bulk of his career elsewhere. How might that have happened? In the winter following Hamilton’s second year in Cleveland, the Detroit Tigers inexplicably informed iconic broadcaster Ernie Harwell that 1991 would be his final season in the booth.
“Ernie told me that I should apply for the job, or at least go if I got called,” Hamilton explained. “I felt uncomfortable about that — nobody wanted to see Ernie have his career end that way — but he came to me and said that I should. The Tigers did call, so I interviewed even though I didn’t really have an interest. Not only was I happy in Cleveland, I didn’t want to be the guy following Ernie.”
Rick Rizzs, who is now in Seattle, ended up getting the job. Predictably, he wasn’t well-received. While Rizzs was, and remains, a quality baseball play-by-play announcer, that means little when you’re stepping into the shoes of a legend.
Another Wolverine State sports legend made Hamilton’s reluctant interview more than worthwhile.
“It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life, because I got to spend a day with Bo Schembechler,” Hamilton said of the longtime University of Michigan football coach. “He’d become the president of the Tigers, but we talked football more than anything else. I don’t know how much we even talked about the actual job. I was enraptured. He talked about things like Woody Hayes, both the days they were together and when they were coaching against each other. It was a special day.”
Just how special was it?
“When I called my wife, she asked me how the interview went,” recalled Hamilton. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I just had the best day of my life. I just got to talk football with Bo Schembechler.”
Matthew Boyd is good at baseball. He’s not a star — at least not yet — but he does have 90 big-league pitching appearances under his belt. The 27-year-old southpaw started 31 games for Detroit this year, and logged a solid 4.39 ERA over 170 innings of work.
Once upon a time he was pretty good at hockey, too. Boyd played for 12 years while growing up in the Seattle area, and he did so at a high level. Twice he made the Team USA state developmental program, and the year he decided to hang up the skates he was on the regional developmental program “as an alternate, because of baseball season.”
Had he not chosen America’s Pastime over Canada’s favorite winter sport, he may have had a future as a sniper.
“I was a defenseman my first 10 years, but my last two years they put me up on wing,” Boyd told me this summer. “I’d scored something like seven goals up to that point, and then my first year of Bantam they said, ‘Hey, we need you to play wing.’ I had two hat tricks in my first two games.”
His hockey hero played on the blue line.
“I loved Chris Chelios,” said a smiling Boyd. “I grew up a Blackhawks fan, because my grandpa was from Chicago. He was a Cubs fan, a Bulls fan, a Bears fan, a Blackhawks fan. Everyone back home was a Canucks fan, but I was like, ‘No, I’ll be a Blackhawks fan.’
That changed somewhat— Michiganders will enjoy hearing this — when Chelios was traded from Chicago to Detroit in 1999.
“I kind of became a Red Wings fan when that happened,” admitted Boyd, who was eight years old when Chelios moved to Motown. “That was back when I would eat, sleep, breathe hockey, at all moments of the day. I still love it. I miss hockey. I haven’t been on the ice for about a year, and I definitely want to get back out there. Non-contact, of course.”
Kevin Biondic signed with the Red Sox this past summer after going un-drafted out of the University of Maryland. He did so as a pitcher, despite having thrown just 24 innings, all of them as a senior. The former infielder came to his current position with a secret weapon.
Biondic was playing in the Northwoods Summer Collegiate League after his junior year, and when a few of the pitchers on his team came up lame he volunteered to give it a whirl. Asked which pitches he throws, the Oak Lawn, Illinois native answered, “A knuckleball and a cutter. That’s it.” The next thing he knew, he was tossing both of them from the bump.
Not long thereafter he was taking the mound as a Terrapin. When he told his coach at Maryland that he’d been pitching, the response was a career-altering, “Well, we need some arms.”
In Biondic’s estimation, close to a third of the pitches he threw in his final collegiate season were of the slow, dancing variety. It was more of the same in short-season ball. The butterfly was self-taught. He’d been fiddling with a floater since he was nine or 10 years old.
He’d also been stopping pucks. Before ultimately opting for Maryland and baseball, Biondic intended to go to Bowling Green University with hopes of walking onto the hockey team as a goalie. One of his biggest sporting thrills came in net, although it didn’t involve a blocker or a pad.
“I was good with the puck as a goalie,” explained Biondic. “I could shoot it really well, and in one of our final games, in my senior year of high school, the other team pulled their goalie. I played the puck, shot it down the ice, and scored. That was pretty cool.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Zach Britton experienced a sea change of data usage when he changed teams in July. As the Yankees reliever put it when I talked to him prior to last night’s ALDS Game Two, “There’s a gigantic difference in how we use analytics here compared to Baltimore.”
As you might guess, that difference is to the lefty’s liking.
“I’d never been exposed to that amount of information,” said Britton, who was drafted by the Orioles in 2006. “And it’s not just ‘Here’s a stack of stuff to look over.’ It’s (targeted) to each individual player. I don’t want to get into specifics, but some of it is how my ball moves, both my sinker and my slider, compared to different hitters’ swings. It kind of opens your eyes to things you maybe didn’t think of when you didn’t have that information.”
Astutely, the southpaw recognizes that the Yankees aren’t alone in October.
“If you look at the teams in the postseason, most are well-known for their analytics departments,” observed Britton, who proceeded to name-check the notables — one of which merited a modifier: “Especially the Astros.”
The Red Sox have historically relied on home runs, with the stolen base little more than an afterthought. With a smattering of exceptions, the team that plays its home games at Fenway Park has been one of bangers, not jackrabbits. Tommy Harper, who pilfered 408 bags for seven teams — including the Sox — from 1962-1976, once put it this way: “How do you stop a player from running? You trade him to Boston.”
These aren’t your father’s Red Sox. In Alex Cora’s first year as manager, the no-longer-plodders swiped 125 bases — the franchise’s second-highest total in the last century —and they were efficient to boot. Caught just 31 times, they had an 80% success rate. The Jacoby-Ellsbury-led 2009 iteration boasted 76% efficiency when they stole 126.
According to a trio of opposing managers I talked to, that ability to run — paired with an ability to bop — makes Cora’s team more challenging than ever to game plan against.
“They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways,” said Astros skipper A.J. Hinch. “They have dynamic hitters throughout their lineup… and you have to stay alert and not give up 90 feet for free. (Alex Cora) starts runners a lot. That makes the pitcher have to deal with two separate things: the hitter, and controlling that 90 feet. It’s rare in this ballpark. You’re used to coming to a Red Sox team that bangs. These guys bang a lot, but they also run a lot. They’re a complete offense.”
“Teams that can hit the ball out of the ballpark and run the bases make it more difficult,” said Cleveland’s Terry Francona. “Some teams rely on a three-run homer, and if they hit ‘em, good. Teams that can also run have another dimension. Now you’re asking pitchers to slide step, and they can go first to third. It’s one of the first things I look at when we come to play a team. It’s nice to have guys who can hit a three-run homer, but it’s also nice to be able to score when you’re not.”
Don Mattingly, who played in close to 150 games against your father’s Red Sox as a member of the New York Yankees, shared a similar perspective.
“They’re a mixture of guys that hit for average, put the ball in play, use the whole field — they’re actually hitter hitters — and have power to go with that,” said the Miami Marlins manager. “They’ve got a number of guys who will run on you, so they can put the game in motion on the bases. They put pressure on your pitchers to hold runners. Alex has more speed and is maybe more aggressive than some of the Red Sox teams we’ve seen in the past. They cause a lot of problems for you, up and down.”
The Sugar Land Skeeters — managed by erstwhile slugger Pete Incaviglia — won the Atlantic League championship last Sunday, beating the Long Island Ducks 4-1 to capture the best-of-five-series three games to two. Former big-league lefty James Russell garnered MVP honors.
Peter Bjarkman, a leading authority on Cuban baseball history, and a recipient of SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award for his contributions to baseball research, died of a heart attack earlier this week in Havana. Bjarkman was 77.
Marty Pattin, who pitched for five teams from 1968-1980, died earlier this week at the age of 75. His winningest season came in 1972, when he went 17-13, 3.24 with the Red Sox. His final big-league appearance came in the 1980 World Series as a member of the Kansas City Royals.
Ballpark Digest has named Pat Hughes, the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs, their MLB Broadcaster of the Year. Hughes began broadcasting Cubs games in 1996.
On Thursday, Yomiuri Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano became the first NPB pitcher to throw eight shutouts in a season since Keishi Suzuki did so with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1978. On the season, the 28-year-old Sugano is 15-8 with a 2.25 ERA in 201 innings.
Bull-penning is in vogue these days, and to a certain extent so is ‘the opener.’ I asked Tyler Clippard for his thoughts on both when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park late in the regular season.
“The opener… I don’t think a lot of organizations are going to implement that,” opined the veteran reliever. “I think we’ll see it more and more, but at the same time, the winning formula, for however long baseball has been around, has been to have three or four good starters. But in this day and age, you do need a deep bullpen. Starters aren’t going more than 100 pitches, if that.”
“But as for the opener… if you’re going to do that you still need to have a guy who can go five or six innings. That’s still a starter in a sense. It’s kind of semantics, or an arbitrary thing.”
The Indians don’t get nearly as much buzz as the other three teams doing battle in the ALDS. Market is the primary reason. Terry Francona’s club doesn’t lack star power. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Corey Kluber are elite, and their supporting cast includes multiple stalwarts, particularly in the starting rotation. It’s a talented and often-enthralling group.
There are some soft spots. The once-vaunted bullpen is no longer spoken of glowingly — a one -year ERA jump from 2.89 to 4.60 will do that — and the bottom half of the lineup is nothing to write home about. The Indians have horses, but they aren’t a top-to-bottom juggernaut.
Francona views his glass as being half full.
“I really like our team,” the Cleveland skipper said during a September series. “I don’t think you always have to have the perfect team.”
Are they close enough to perfect that they can reach the World Series and end the franchise’s seven-decade championship drought? If so, we’ll actually get to see it happen in prime time. Imagine that.
Just now, what is arguably this year’s best division-series matchup is being relegated to midday hours, and the reason is as plain as the nose on one’s face: In the minds — and ever-important pocketbooks — of network TV executives, Cleveland-Houston can’t hold a candle to New York-Boston. For the vast majority of baseball fans across the country. that qualifies as a glass-is-half-empty viewing experience.
Alex Cora had a little fun at Francona’s expense when he met with the media prior to ALDS Game One at Fenway Park. Addressing Francona and A.J. Hinch, Cora shared the following: “Those two guys… they are different, very different. One is sharp, and the other one is Tito.”
Cora, who delivered the quip with a smile, played for Francona in Boston from 2005-2008.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Ballpark Digest, Jesse Goldberg-Strassler shared how this is an important time for women in minor league broadcasting.
John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, was interviewed by Levi Stahl of The Chicago Blog.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Oakland’s Khris Davis has batted exactly .247 in each of the past four seasons. In each of the past two seasons, he had the same number of doubles (28), triples (1), and sacrifice flies (7).
Mookie Wilson batted .276 in each of the 1983, 1984, and 1985 seasons.
On this date in 1935, Goose Goslin’s walk-off single gave the Detroit Tigers a 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs, and the first World Series title in franchise history.
Detroit Tigers left-hander Hal Newhouser won the AL MVP award in both 1944 and 1945. He finished second in the balloting in 1946.
In 1922, a total of 26 players received at least one vote in American League MVP balloting. None of them were named Ken Williams. The St. Louis Browns outfielder batted .332 and led the circuit in home runs (39), RBIs (155) and total bases (367). He also stole 37 bases, making him baseball’s first ever 30-30 player.
In 1956, Chicago White Sox rookie Luis Aparicio led the American League in stolen bases with 21. Only seven AL players had as many as 10 steals that year.
Ted Williams struck out three times in a game on just four occasions. He walked three-or-more times on 117 occasions.
On October 8, 1972, Oakland’s Campy Campaneris flung his bat at Detroit right-hander Lerrin LaGrow after being drilled by a pitch in Game Two of the ALCS. Campaneris was suspended for the rest of the series, and fined $500, but then allowed to play in the World Series, which the A’s won.
Legendary NFL coach George Halas played in 12 games for the New York Yankees in 1919. The football Hall of Famer logged two hits in 22 at bats.
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.