Remembering Doc’s No-No on Anniversary of Perfection

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Halladay and Ruiz embrace after final out of playoff no-hitter

For Phillies fans, it was not that long ago that our team was at the top of the National League, with the best starting rotation in baseball leading the way.

Three years ago on this date the Fightins were in the midst of a franchise record-setting 101-win season, and that vaunted pitching rotation included four pitchers who had been collectively nicknamed “The Four Aces” by fans and media.

Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and arguably the Ace among Aces, Roy ‘Doc’ Halladay. It all seems to be drifting further and further into the rearview mirror now. Oswalt has been gone for a couple of years. Lee is on the Disabled List, and heavily rumored in trade discussion. Only Hamels remains, and is likely to remain, for the foreseeable future.

Halladay finally retired following the 2013 season, one that was frustrating and painful for himself and for fans of both the team and the man whom we had all come to love over the final four years of a brilliant career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays. In what was his 2nd consecutive ineffective season cut short by injuries, Doc Halladay’s gifted right arm finally was spent.

But Halladay left behind a tremendous legacy in just those brief closing seasons here in Philly. There was the Cy Young Award that he won following his first season here in 2010, a 21-win campaign that included that ‘Perfect Game’ on May 29th. There was that magical 2011 season in which he was the Cy Young runner-up for the record-setting Phillies who won their 5th straight NL East title. And there was that ‘Perfect Game’ against the Florida Marlins on this night, four years ago now.

For my wife and I, there was also a special night with Doc. It came on a cool, damp night at Citizens Bank Park in the 2010 playoffs, in what was the very first playoff game of Roy Halladay’s illustrious career. It was what he had come to Philly for in the first place, a chance to win a World Series, in front of a ballpark packed to the rafters with rabid, knowledgeable fans. It was Roy Halladay’s dream.

We are ‘Sunday Plan’ season ticket holders with the Phillies, and back in 2010 our seats were in section 208, row 6. On that night of October 6th, 2010, however, because it was a playoff game, we had been given tickets in section 313. So we were seated up above left field in foul territory, a little ways beyond first base. They were good seats, as are most at the gorgeous ballpark.

The Phillies were up by 1-0 in the series, and as this game unfolded the team staked Halladay to an early lead, scoring a run in the 1st and then 3 more in the 2nd to go up 4-0. Halladay himself had knocked in the 2nd run, and then scored the 4th. It was now up to him to hold that lead, and put the Phillies up 2-0 in the series, within one of advancing to the National League Championship Series.

On this night, there was nothing to worry about. Not only would Halladay hold that lead, he would make history. Somewhere around the 6th inning my father called my cellphone from his home in Florida, asking if I knew what was happening. Did he really think that we were not all aware that Doc Halladay was tossing a no-hitter? I told him brusquely: “Yes, and don’t say anything!

A lifelong baseball fan, as my Dad well knew, I was not going to be the one to jinx our hero.

So the game continued into the 9th inning with Halladay just three outs away from Major League Baseball’s first post-season no-hitter since Don Larsen’s legendary ‘Perfect Game’ in the 1956 World Series. That Larsen perfect effort was the only no-hitter in MLB playoff history up to that point. Halladay was going for history here, and we were there to see it.

I had been attending Phillies games since Veteran’s Stadium opened back in 1971 in my old South Philly neighborhood. I had attended hundreds of games between the years at ‘The Vet’ and then at Citizens Bank Park once it opened in 2004. I had never, ever been this close to experiencing a no-hitter ‘live’ as a spectator. It was thrilling to feel the electricity in the air, and to be experiencing it with my best friend, my wife Deb.

The first two batters of that 9th and final inning went down fairly easily, both popping out. So there was just one batter between Doc, we Phils fans, and the no-hitter, the Cincinnati Reds tough and talented 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips. Doc got the first two strikes, and the fans, already on our feet the entire inning, roared for that final strike to end it.

But Halladay did not get a strikeout. Instead, Phillips barely got a piece of the 0-2 offering, and the ball dribbled out in front of home plate. You could see the entire sequence with perfect clarity from our seats, and a baseball fan who was once a catcher himself could see that this was trouble. Phillips was a speedy runner, the bat had been dropped right on top of the ball, and catcher Carlos Ruiz would need to pounce out and find a grip on that ball quickly, keep from tripping on that bat, and make a difficult-angled throw to get him.

The man known lovingly in Philly as “Chooch”, one of our remaining heroes from the 2008 World Series championship team, did just that. Ruiz pounced quickly from behind the plate, barehanded the ball, and fired just over Phillips left shoulder to 1st baseman Ryan Howard, getting Phillips by a stride. No-hitter! History!

As my wife and I hugged and high-fived both each other and everyone around us, the entire ballpark was in bedlam. Fans roared and rocked the place, and the Phillies players streamed out to mob Halladay and Ruiz, who had met in a joyful embrace in front of the mound.

I will never forget that night at the ballpark for so many reasons. It was the first playoff win that I had gotten to experience at Citizens Bank Park, only the 2nd playoff game that I had ever been to there. But mostly I will remember the gift that Doc Halladay gave to Debbie and I, the gift of true baseball history.

There’s An MLB Draft Too?

There is always a great deal of publicity and conversation in the sports world regarding the NFL Draft and even the NBA Draft process each year.

But outside of it’s most die-hard fans, few others may realize that Major League Baseball also conducts it’s own draft process each year.

One of the main reasons that the NFL/NBA Drafts get more publicity is the nature of those professional sports and how they break in new players. The very best, the top draftees, and even many not at the very top of the selection process, become starters or key contributors for their pro teams in their first season of play, or shortly thereafter. So a player taken 1st overall in the NFL or NBA may start and even become a star right away.

In the MLB First-Year-Player Draft, the honor of being selected, even for those in the first round at the very top of the Draft board, is just the beginning of a process of professional development through the minor league systems that frequently takes years to unfold. Most fans of a Major League team have no clue what the player taken by their favorite team in last year’s Draft even looks like. In fact, many have no clue of even the name of those players.

In MLB, even the best, such as Mike Trout shown in the picture above after being selected in the 2009 MLB Draft, will take at least a couple of years to play at the Major League Baseball level. That is, assuming they make it at all. There is no more difficult task in all of sport than to hit a baseball thrown by a pro pitcher. And for those pitchers, remaining healthy is a growing challenge and concern.

A look back at four decades of MLB Draft history gives you a good picture of just how unpredictable even the very top pick, the #1 overall selection, will be as far as eventually enjoying success at the highest level. Since going to the current system in 1965, only two of those top draftees are sure-fire Hall of Famers: Ken Griffey Jr (1987) and Chipper Jones (1990), with Alex Rodriguez (1993) to be a most interesting such case one day.

Among the top draftees, a number had strong careers, making an impact on the game for a number of years, though none to that Hall-worthy level. These players include the likes of Rick Monday (65), Harold Baines (77), Darryl Strawberry (80), and a handful of others.

In more recent years, only Joe Mauer (01) is likely to even be in the Hall of Fame conversation at this point. For players such as David Price (07), Stephen Strasburg (09), and Bryce Harper (10), all former top overall selections of recent vintage, it is way too early to even speculate on their talents translating into the longterm success needed to reach the Hall of Fame.

On the flip side, there have been many more notable “busts” selected with the #1 pick than there have been even eventual All-Star selections. Among those forgettable players selected first overall are Steve Chilcott (66), Dave Roberts (72), David Clyde (73), Al Chambers (79), Shawn Abner (84), Paul Wilson (94), Matt Anderson (97), Bryan Bullington (02), Matt Bush (04), and Tim Beckham (08), none of whom made their mark.

Perhaps the best example of the #1 bust potential was catcher Danny Goodwin, selected #1 overall twice, in both 1971 out of high school by the White Sox, and again in 1974 out of college by the California Angels. Goodwin reached the Majors, and played in parts of 7 seasons. But with just a .236 career batting average and 13 career homeruns, he was never a starter.

One week from tomorrow, on Thursday evening, June 5th, the MLB Network will televise the first two rounds of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The process was first televised for that 2009 Draft in which Trout was selected, and has grown in popularity among fans ever since. It is an extremely watchable show, presented exceptionally well by the MLB folks.

Among the top prospects this year are high school pitchers Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek, college pitchers Carlos Rodon, Sean Newcomb, and Aaron Nola, high school shortstop Nick Gordon, college shortstop Trea Turner, high school catcher Alex Jackson, and college outfielder Michael Conforto. There is a high probability that, in some order, these prospects will be among the top 10-12 players selected.

Whomever is picked first overall, history says that the odds are good that they will eventually reach the Big Leagues. They most certainly will get a big payday on signing their first professional contract, which will be for anywhere from $2-7 million dollars. So it will be a happy day full of promise for these players and their families.

However, history also says that the odds of whomever is picked with the #1 overall selection having longterm success at the Major League level are long, and that the odds of their becoming a Hall of Famer are only at about 5% at best. The excitement for the teams and players involved will be just the beginning of a long process that will yield mixed results.

If you are even a marginal fan of our National Pastime, make plans to sit down and enjoy the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft with coverage beginning at 6pm next Thursday on the MLB Network with an hour-long preview show, followed by hours of coverage on the network of those first couple of rounds. It will be a night filled with interesting information on the possible stars of tomorrow.

Day Baseball Vital to Game’s Popularity

The picture to the left comes from the 1984 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres. It shows Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell taking a lead, with Padres 1st baseman Steve Garvey holding him close.

In Game #4 of that World Series, Trammell, a borderline Hall of Famer whose case will continue to correctly be argued moving forward, hit a pair of homeruns to lead the Tigers to a 4-2 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series that they would win a day later. Well, actually they would win it a night later. And that would be end end of World Series day baseball.

That Game #4 in which Trammell homered twice had a starting time of 1:30pm EDT. It would be the last World Series game played completely in natural daylight. The following day’s Game #5 had a start time of 4:30pm EDT, but by the time the Tigers were celebrating their victory it would be dark. That would be the last World Series game played in natural daylight at all.

I say “in natural daylight” because Game #6 of the 1987 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Saint Louis Cardinals was played during daytime, but the game was indoors at the Metrodome, and thus was not the beneficiary of a natural daylight atmosphere. Still, at least that game was played at a time when most kids could stay up and watch the entirety.

So it has been 30 years since baseball fans have enjoyed the beauty of the game in a championship setting played when it was most meant to be played, in daylight on a beautiful afternoon under a sun-soaked sky. It has been almost those same 30 since most kids have been able to stay up and watch on TV as a World Series victory celebration takes place.

These days, thanks to more playoff rounds, the World Series is generally played during the last week of October. The average daytime high temperature for that week in Detroit and Boston is in the upper-50’s, in Saint Louis it is the low-60’s, even in climate-friendly Los Angeles the average daytime high is around 70 degrees.

However, the night temperatures at the normal game time for each of those location is about 20 degrees cooler. As anyone who has ever played the game, or sat outside to watch a game, can attest, baseball was most certainly not meant to be ideally played in temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s. But because of television network contracts, that is what we usually get – the championship of our national pastime decided in conditions not normally seen all during the rest of the playing season.

Not only is the quality of the experience diminished for the fans in attendance, and the game itself often made more of a challenge for the players in these conditions, but that aspect of growing the game by allowing young fans to experience the thrill of watching a full World Series game has been lost to at least a couple of generations. Who let’s their 10-year old stay up until midnight to watch the World Series, unless perhaps it’s their hometown team playing?

There is nothing like the experience of sitting outside on a nice, sunny afternoon watching baseball. That experience would certainly be better on a Saturday afternoon in Detroit or Boston or Philadelphia than it would on a Saturday night during the last week of October. It is time for baseball to recognize this vital aspect of their game, and build it into the next television contract, if not amend the current deal.

There should always be at least one World Series game played during full daylight hours. A 2:30pm EDT start time for all World Series games played on Saturday should be the norm, built into those TV deals. There should also be an effort by MLB to ensure that during the regular season, there are at least a handful of weekday games played during daylight hours, ideally with at least one such game every single day.

Day baseball is when many young fans get introduced to the game. There are also many MLB fans who have shift work, and who cannot watch and follow games during night hours. Opening up more opportunities for these fans, even on a limited basis, should be a priority for the folks running the game.

There are billions of dollars involved in these television contracts these days. Having a few dozen of the involved games played during daylight hours by contract would certainly not affect those big deals in any truly measurable way. Meanwhile, the accompanying good will and outreach would be appreciated by many fans currently restricted.

Baseball was meant to be played during the daylight hours, under cloudless skies with the sun shining brightly, on a green grass. The realities of television, and fans ability to follow the majority of the season after work hours during evening and nights is the new reality. That is understandable. But MLB should always be looking for opportunities to embrace more that ideal of the day baseball experience for it’s fans.

Phils Fans Warmly Welcome the Millville Meteor

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Phillies fans gave local product Mike Trout a warm welcome home

Last night in the top of the 1st inning with the Los Angeles Angels batting against the hometown Philadelphia Phillies, the notoriously tough on the opposition Philly crowd did something highly unusual.

As the opponent batter was announced and stepped towards home plate, the crowd rose together as one and gave the handsome young kid in the visiting uniform a rousing standing ovation. There is no doubt that the kid got goosebumps.

The reason that this Phillies crowd was giving the young Angels centerfielder such an unusually warm reception goes beyond the uniform that he is currently wearing. The reception was because of who he is in particular. The player in question was Mike Trout, and the reason for the ovation was that he is a rarity in pro sports circles – he is one of us.

Michael Nelson Trout was born in Vineland and raised in Millville, New Jersey. He has been a Philly sports fan his entire life, still attending Eagles games in recent years. He tailgated at the 2008 World Series, cheering as he watched his hero, Chase Utley, help lead the Fightins to just their second-ever world championship.

But Mike Trout didn’t just cheer, he also played the game, and he played it very well. During high school, like many of the best athletes in the game at that stage, Trout was not an outfielder. He pitched and played shortstop, and even tossed a no-hitter during his junior year in a game against Egg Harbor Township.

In his senior year he was shifted to the outfield, and set a New Jersey state record with 18 homeruns. For the player built like an NFL linebacker, power wasn’t the only impressive part of his particular game, as Trout could also run like the wind. He was so fast that he was given the nickname “The Millville Meteor”, and his rare combination of power and speed caught the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

I remember very well watching the 2009 MLB Draft on television. That was a unique experience in itself, because it was the first time that the event was televised on what was then the brand new MLB Network cable service. While the NFL had already been broadcasting their event, growing it into the spectacle we all experienced last week, MLB was behind in that regard.

For a baseball nut like myself, it was fascinating to be able to watch the process of that first round of drafting take place, and to get to listen to analysts describe the prospects, show video of their amateur playing days, and make commentary on their skills. I had followed this type of coverage online and in print for years, but it was a happy day indeed to see my favorite sport moving into the 21st century.

There was one problem with that first live broadcast and network coverage of the event. Unlike the NFL Draft spectacle, where all the top draftees are present on the day of the Draft, taking the stage happily when their names are called, there were no actual players present for this event. It seemed very weird that these young players and their families, whose lives were about to change forever, would not be present to participate in this event.

It was weird, unless or until you realize that the MLB Draft process is very different from the NFL process. In the vast majority of cases, the players selected in the NFL Draft have no other choice: they will play in the league, or they will not play at all. Oh, they could choose to go play in Canada, or choose another sport if they are good enough. But for the overwhelming majority, it’s the NFL or bust.

With baseball, the prospects selected in the Draft almost always have another option. If they are college kids, they are usually in their junior year, sophomore possibly, and can choose to return to school. If they are drafted right out of high school, as Trout was, they can choose to go to college rather than play for an MLB organization.

The other big difference is that whereas in football, the players selected in the Draft are about to compete for actual jobs with the pro sports club and begin play immediately in the NFL, the baseball draftees are almost always only beginning a process of development through the minor leagues that will take a year or two, sometimes more, before they ever play inside an MLB ballpark.

So in retrospect it probably should have not been too surprising to find that no players were actually present at that first live televised MLB Draft. It was simply that their agents had advised them to stay away, because the Draft is only the beginning of a negotiating process with the team that selects the prospect, and the prospect and his family may instead choose to decline the offer and return to school. Thus, why show up and pull on a cap and jersey, when it may all be for nothing?

So at that first televised 2009 MLB Draft, no players showed up. Well, that is, almost no players showed up. One did attend the process. One player who was anticipated to go in the first round sat lonely in a makeshift dugout in the MLB Network studios. That player was Mike Trout.

He and his family didn’t care that they had a scholarship to East Carolina University accepted. This was too big an opportunity, too big a deal, and it was being held in Secaucus, New Jersey, a relatively short drive. They had vision, and they attended this first live draft.

The cameras frequently panned inside that makeshift dugout for a look at Trout as the Draft unfolded, especially as one team after another passed on selecting the phenom. It was anticipated that Trout would be selected high in the process, but pick after pick was announced without his name being called.

The supposed prize of that 2009 MLB Draft class, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, was selected with the top overall pick, as was anticipated. Then the process wound through a couple dozen choices, including pitchers like Zack Wheeler (6), Mike Minor (7), Mike Leake (8), Jacob Turner (9), Aaron Crow (12), and Shelby Miller (19), all of whom have tasted some level of success now at the Major League level.

Those early selections also included 8 position players: Dustin Ackley (2), Donavan Tate (3), Tony Sanchez (4), Grant Green (13), Bobby Borchering (16), A.J. Pollock (17), Jiovanni Mier (21), and Jared Mitchell (23) – none of whom has been able to establish themselves as a star in MLB to this point. Half of them have never reached the Major League level, at least to this point in their careers.

Then the Angels turn came, and they had two selections. Due to the Mets signing of free agent closer Francisco Rodriguez, and the Yankees signing of free agent 1st baseman Mark Teixeira, the Angels now possessed each of those organizations first round picks at #24 & 25 overall. With the 24th pick, the Angels selected outfielder Randall Grichuk. Unlikely to take two outfielders, it appeared Trout was about to be passed over yet again. How far would he slide?

At this point, the casual baseball fan might be asking the question “Why didn’t any team pick him sooner?” Frankly, that is a question that a couple of dozen MLB organizations have been asking themselves for a few years now. Part of the problem is a built-in industry prejudice against players from the northeast, who due to the weather here play less baseball than players from places like Florida, California, and Texas, who can often play nearly year-round.

So Trout was still around as the Angels contemplated the 2nd of their first round selections. Having just taken an outfielder in Grichuk, they surprised some when the name “Michael Trout” was announced as their next pick. The cameras panned to his smiling face in the dugout as he was hugged by family. Trout stepped up to the podium and donned an Angels cap. MLB had their first draft star, their only face of that first-ever televised draft process, and man did he turn out to be the right one.

That first season in pro ball, Trout was sent to the Arizona League to play for the Angels rookie-level team. In just 39 games, he hit .360 with 25 rbi and 13 steals, and earned a brief promotion to the ‘A’ level of the minor leagues to finish the year. He began 2010 at that ‘A’ level, hitting .362 with 6 homers, 39 rbi, and 45 steals over 82 games. He was also selected for the showcase MLB Futures Game in July, and showcased his blazing speed during that game as well.

Following the Futures Game, he was promoted to ‘High-A’ ball, and that month, Trout was named by Baseball America as the 2nd-best prospect in the entire sport. After the 2010 season, he would be honored with the Topps Minor League Player of the Year award. The youngest player to ever win the award, he was still just 19 years of age.

Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Mike Trout was named the consensus top prospect in baseball. He would make his Major League debut later that summer, and by 2012 had established that he was in the Big Leagues to stay. Keeping this short, since most know what happened next, he became a serious MVP candidate in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, finishing 2nd in voting both years to incredible seasons turned in by veteran Miguel Cabrera.

So when Mike Trout showed up at Citizens Bank Park last night with the visiting team, the hometown fans knew, appreciated, and had been following the exploits of this local kid turned baseball hero for a few years. They knew that he grew up rooting for their Phillies, that he was still an Eagles fan, that at heart he is still one of us. That is why the fans rose and gave him a rousing ovation.

At least hundreds, perhaps a couple thousand, were on-hand from his hometown of Millville and the surrounding area, representing his family, friends, teammates, and others who had known him or played with or against him locally. It was a true homecoming for the kid who at still just 22 years of age has universally become acknowledged as the best all-around player in the game today.

There was some hope that Trout would one day become a Phillie, running the outfield in the red and white pinstripes. For some, that hope appeared dashed when he signed a 6-year, $144 million contract with the Angels this spring. No one begrudged the deal, as quite obviously a young man offered that kind of money has to think about taking care of himself and his family for the rest of their lives, even if it means putting off a chance to play for the team he grew up loving.

But then you realize, Trout will be just 28 years old when that contract expires. He will be in the prime of his baseball career. The Phillies will be working under terms of a new cable TV deal signed with Comcast by then, pumping tons of money into their coffers. The Howard-Utley-Rollins-Hamels crew will be gone by then, having ridden off to the sunset as World Series-winning heroes. The fan base will be clamoring for the next generation of winners.

If he stays healthy for the majority of these next half dozen seasons, and produces at the levels anticipated by his talents and by his performances thus far, there is no telling how much money Mike Trout will command for that next contract. It is likely to be in the 10-year, $300 million range. If he is still healthy and producing then, which is likely, he will be worth every penny to the Phillies organization.

So Phillies fans can still dream on a day that the kid is patrolling leftfield at Citizens Bank Park, leading his hometown Fightin’ Phils back to the World Series in the next decade. For the rest of this one, those appreciative fans will still root for their local hero. And Mike Trout will still root for them, just not on these rare nights when he is playing against them. Thankfully, with the Angels in the AL West division, those nights when he is an opponent come around only once every 4-5 years or so.