Garland Shifflett — The Pitcher From Elkton

Elkton, Virginia is the halfway point between where you are now and where you want to be.

elkton-virginia

It is snugged tight between the Blue Ridge Mountains on its east side and the Massanutten Mountains on its west side.

It is halfway between here … and there.

It’s an anonymous town. The town you pass through, but where you never stop unless you need gas, a snack, or a bathroom.

All my friends around here tell me they’ve been to Elkton. But, when pressed, I discover they mean they’ve been through Elkton, or driven past Elkton, or they’ve stopped out on the highway at the Dairy Queen, but they’ve never actually been to it.

Garland Shifflett, who pitched in the majors, but mostly the minors, from the 1950s into the 1970s, was born in Elkton in 1935.

garland-shifflett-washington

The Los Angeles Times once profiled him on their front page.

His major league career was brief, just 16 games. A few games in 1957, a few more in 1964. But, his minor league career, over 16 seasons, was much longer and richer.

But, there he is on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1972. Next to stories about the Hanoi Offensive, an indicted New Jersey Congressman, and President Nixon’s doctor’s enthusiasm for acupuncture.

Top of the fold. A story about Garland Shifflett and his long career in the minors.

anonymous-man-los-angeles-times-4-12-1972

“Anonymous Man.”

A front-page profile in the Los Angeles Times about a player I didn’t know should have made this story simple. Instead, it has bothered me for a couple weeks now. Ever since I found it and ever since we made our visit to Elkton.

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Free Baseball: Things Are Not As They Seem Edition

It snowed today. Well, just a little …

dusting1

Can’t see it? Here, look again …

dusting

A dusting of snow and, look, a mystery cat!

Well, it snowed enough that lots of things around me closed for the day.

While this smattering of snowlets has closed things in Virginia, it’s the kind of snow that someone in North Dakota wouldn’t even notice. “It snowed last night? Really? I didn’t notice the dusting on top of the other 20 inches that have been here since September.”

I lived in North Dakota for awhile, I should know.

So, this may not seem like anything to you.

But, sometimes things are not as they seem … and this dusting has upended Central Virginia.

And, as a result, hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren around here got to sleep in, blissfully unaware for one more day of important things like Algebra, adverbs, and Chester Alan Arthur.

Today in “Free Baseball,” three other things that are not quite what they seem.

10th Inning: Tommy Hunter, Retail Dude

Tommy Hunter is one of the Baltimore Orioles longest-tenured and pretty steady (mostly steady, often steady … or, at least, more-often-steady-than-not steady, 2.97-ERA-in-2014 steady) bullpen relievers. I’m soft on the boys of the bullpen. It’s a thankless job being a reliever. Even when you’re great – or at least steady more often than not – you’re unheralded. You’re probably never going to win a Cy Young (although occasionally relievers do), you’re probably not going to be an MVP of anything, and, apparently, unless it’s the 8th or 9th inning, you’re not going to be recognized, even by your own fans.

Tommy went “undercover” to work at the Orioles Fan Store in nearby York, Pennsylvania last summer.

tommy

 “The Hunter jerseys just came in, man. I’ve got a couple of them, too.”

Watching him hawk Tommy Hunter jerseys is why I believe bullpens – and the boys who live there – are one of the best parts of the game. Watch here.

We (heart) Tommy.

11th Inning: Baseball in Japan

Anraku

“It’s not just baseball. It’s something else. It’s something more.”

Each spring dozens of high school teams from around Japan come together at Koshien for a nine-day tournament that captivates the country. Like “the Super Bowl and World Series rolled into one,” it is one of Japan’s biggest sporting events.

In “When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough,” writer Chris Jones tells the story of Tomohiro Anraku, a 16-year-old pitching phenom from Saibi High School and one of the top baseball prospects in the world, and his appearance at Koshien.

The culture of youth baseball in Japan – the dedication to perfection at any physical or emotional cost – is fascinating. And, when you read of how Anraku throws 772 pitches over five games in nine days, it’s also frightening.

The article first appeared in ESPN: The Magazine, and, most recently, in the 2014 Edition of The Best American Sports Writing.  Read here.

12th Inning: The Birth Of A Twins Fan

twins

Because I am a loyal (some would say annoying) Orioles fan, people assume I live in Baltimore. Not true. Although I lived in nearby Northern Virginia for a number of years, I’ve never lived in Baltimore. To get to Camden Yards today takes us a good three hours, usually in terrible I-95 traffic. When we’re about halfway to Baltimore, I will thumb my nose at much-closer Nationals Stadium as we pass by it. I’m a loyal Birdland Girl.

This week Verdun – who writes the fabulous Verdun2’s Blog – explained how he, a lifelong Dodgers fan, inadvertently turned his son into a Minnesota Twins fan simply because of one seemingly innocuous act when his son was small.

verdun

It’s a great read. Read here.

(Although, had he handed a Yankees card to his son on that fateful day, it would have been a tragic and sad story. Whew!)

Pitchers and Catchers Report in just 35 Days!

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Free Baseball refers to the extra innings that occur after a nine-inning game ends in a tie. For me, “Free Baseball” are the extra things that don’t quite fit into my regular-sized posts.

 

Don’t Skip The Commercials

“I used to play sports. Then I realized you can buy trophies. Now I’m good at everything.” ~ Demetri Martin

The Baltimore Orioles look like the guys who might deliver a truckload of mulch to your house.

(Did you know that people have truckloads of mulch delivered to their houses? Truckloads. I didn’t know someone would need that much mulch, but apparently there are mulch-mad people out there. I have no idea what you do with mulch. Seriously, I know nothing about mulch.)

The O’s look like the guys who will change the oil in your car, put the gravel on your driveway and push the snow off of it. Ordinary guys.

No crazy, mountain-man beards. (Not allowed.)

No dreadlocks. (Also, not allowed, which was, I’m sure, shear sadness for Jemile Weeks who joined the club fully dreaded in December, but is now the undread.)

No mustaches. (Unless they are “neat.” Yes, that’s the Orioles’ rule. Neatness counts, fellas.)

snidely whiplash

Neat? Not Neat? Close call.

So, no wacky allowed in Birdland. No wacky at all.

I like a little wacky and I know you do, too. (I’ve gotten to know my readers – both of you – and I’ve checked your Facebook pages. I know how you appreciate a healthy dose of irreverence, bad puns, and third-grade potty humor:  What’s the difference between mashed potatoes and pea soup? Anyone can mash potatoes. Really?  Really?)

But, back to the Orioles.

I appreciate Baltimore’s working guy thing. I like that the sports world gives the Orioles no chance … no chance … to do anything in the AL East this season.

As the Orioles will tell you (when they’re not tidying up their mustaches and memorizing the dress code), they like this fly-under-the-radar thing.

No expectations in April will, of course, make their almost-assured World Series championship in October that much sweeter.

Closer Grant Balfour was nearly-almost-thisridiculouslyclose to signing with the Orioles in December. Then, he failed his physical and the deal was off.  But really, I think the deal was off when the Orioles discovered he drove this …

balfour truck

That is not a workingman truck. (And, good luck parking that in Tampa.)

But, back to the Orioles.

They are allowed neatly groomed mustaches, they have a ping-pong table, and on super hot days they get to wear shorts for batting practice.

Other than that, they keep the crazy locked down tight in the clubhouse.

You won’t see any goofy television commercials from Birdland.

(Let’s not blame the team. Let’s blame the team’s PR firm.)

So, check out some new sweet, sassy ads from other teams.

Here’s Minnesota Twins’ legend Kent Hrbek giving playing tips to Joe Mauer.

hrbek1

This Twins’ commercial has a back story. Click here. (Gant was safe, by the way.)

Here are two from the Oakland A’s

The Home Run Tunnel

homerun tunnel

(That’s University of Virginia alum Sean Doolittle with the beard.)

Josh Donaldson’s “Tarp Therapy”

tarp therapy

From the Seattle Mariners

Kyle Seager is Old School

kyle seager

And, Felix Hernandez is King.

king felix

And, from the San Francisco Giants

Mi Amor from Sergio Romo and Buster Posey

buster sergio

The Two Brandons (Belt and Crawford)

brandon2

“New Guy” Michael Morse

mike morse

The Giants, overachievers that they are, have a bunch more and you can see them all here.

But, back to the Orioles.

They picked up a lot of talent in the off-season. Acting chops, too. Who knew?

Here’s the Orioles’ newest starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez when he was with the Colorado Rockies in 2011.

ubaldo

And, here’s the Orioles’ newest home run smoosher Nelson Cruz when he was with the Texas Rangers in an ad for a video game in 2010.

nelson cruz

Just two days ’til Opening Day …

 

In Praise Of The Bullpen

“The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen.” ~ Bob Lemon (Cleveland Indians Pitcher, 1941-1958. Manager of the Royals, White Sox, & Yankees.)

What’s the difference between my good friends and the Orioles’ bullpen?

None of my friends melted down on Monday night. (Also, not as much spitting. Thank you for that.)

The Baltimore Orioles’ bullpen fell apart Monday night in Arizona. (It’s was a pitchfork-hot 108 in Phoenix yesterday, but that was nothing compared to the meltdown inside Chase Field.)

One by one the Oriole relievers came out to the mound. One by one, they gave up runs. Tying runs, go ahead runs, tying runs, go ahead runs.

Finally, with the game tied in the ninth, Darren O’Day, the trusty sidearmer, came out, threw one ball – just one lousy pitch. Emphasis on lousy. Homerun. Game over.

Oh sure, we all have bad days. But, I’m grateful that I don’t have thousands of people peering over my shoulder, second-guessing, and jeering when I have mine. It’s a gift, I think, to endure a bad day in the shadows … where no one can see you sulk.

The Orioles weren’t the only team with a leaky bullpen last night. By the end of the night, there were three blown saves recorded in that game. THREE. And, only one belonged to the Orioles. The Diamondbacks won, despite two blown saves from their relievers.

So, a bad night to be a reliever.

Baseball fans say that a lot.

But, instead of jeering and heckling and second-guessing, I’m here to praise the bullpen. The Orioles bullpen. Every bullpen.

Next to Umpires, the most thankless job in baseball.

It’s where starting pitchers are punished. A few bad outings, a few hinky pitches, and a starting pitcher is banished to the ‘pen. One is seldom “promoted” to the bullpen.

(And, how about the use of “hinky” in a sentence? I should stop right now.)

It’s where mascots are crammed together, squeezed in tight with the relievers, as they await a race around the warning track.

??????????

If you look carefully, you can make out the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cat relievers in the bullpen trying to ignore all the mascots.

It’s where Minnesota Twins’ relievers spend a year patiently waiting for that one brief perfect moment to prank the cameras. Oh, come on I know you want to watch … here.

Twins punchout

It’s where pitchers catch homeruns in their caps.

It’s where rookies carry backpacks filled with candy and snacks. (What else is there to do while you wait for your starting pitcher to fall apart?)

sean doolittle

MLB.com @Cut4 via Twitter

A’s Reliever Sean Doolittle’s Twitter Bio says this: I get to play baseball with my friends for a living and sometimes they even let me be pitcher for an inning!

It’s where no one ever gets to be hero and everyone is the goat eventually.

When you come in from the bullpen and fail, most likely you’ve cost your team the game. Even the greatest bullpen pitchers will fail from time to time. (Yes, even Mariano Rivera.)

They will be booed and heckled. Mercilessly. By the time they come into the game, your nastiest hecklers are already well into their cups … many, many beers to the wind. The more beer, the louder and stupider the heckle. It’s a fact.

When bullpen pitchers succeed, when they hold the lead, you won’t hear a word. The batters will be rewarded for scoring plenty of runs. The starting pitcher will be lauded for not letting a game get away. The bullpen? Hey, they were just doing their job.

Remember Jay? My new favorite thing to do is bounce ideas off of him. So, Jay, what do you have to say about relievers?

It is the nature of the role that relief pitchers make you nervous. The term “relief” implies you aren’t the real thing — you are on standby in case something happens – i.e., a relief valve. That is why relief pitchers got no respect at all until they invented euphemisms to class them up — thus, the “closer” – sounds important; “set-up guy” – sounds tricky; “long man” – actually sounds superfluous, but you get the idea.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a game. My Editor/Husband will moan like a cat with a hairball whenever a bad play unfolds. But, when the bullpen gets lit up, that’s when he gets really animated. (“Animated” is sort of like heckling but without all the beer.)

A position player can strike out once or twice in a game. But, as soon as he does this … all is forgiven.

crush landing

A starting pitcher can have a tough first inning, but somewhere tonight in America a broadcaster will say, “He’s settled down from a shaky first.”

Bullpen pitchers don’t have the luxury of a shaky first.

So, the Orioles bullpen had a bad night. But, they’ve had plenty more good nights.

So, yay, for the bullpen.

And, relievers everywhere.

For Moe Drabowsky, the wacky prankster. For Mike Marshall, who in 1974 became the first reliever to win the Cy Young (and in true quirky reliever fashion actually became a big league pitcher simply because he wanted to study pitching arm injuries for his PhD.)

And, for every reliever who has had a bad game … or blown a save (or two or seven). Rest up, guys, because we’ll need you to be ready to try again for us tomorrow.

#1: Home Sweet Home ~ Spring Training in Charlottesville, VA

In baseball – as in life – the goal is to come home.

Spring Training ended Saturday.  Opening Day is (officially) Monday.

Hope Springs Eternal.

I have one spot left on my top five Spring Training series.

And, I come home to Charlottesville, Virginia.

It isn’t home. Not exactly. But, it’s just a few minutes up the road and that’s close enough.

Charlottesville isn’t the most amazing or the most interesting or the most historic Spring Training location.

No Babe Ruth. No Jackie Robinson. No island, no dance hall.

Charlottesville is my #1 Spring Training place, not because of what happened here, but because it’s home. And, every home should have somewhere to warm up your baseball bones.

Between 1890 and 1916, many teams spent Spring Training in Charlottesville.

The Boston Reds in the 1890s. The Boston Beaneaters (today, the Atlanta Braves). The young Boston Red Sox. The Washington Senators (who had officially changed their name to the Nationals in 1901, but who everyone still called the Senators, until the team just gave up and changed it back in the 1950s. So really, call them whatever you like here).

The Washington Post

The Washington Post

Teams unpacked at Wright’s Hotel near the train station (it was later the Clermont and is now the Starr Hill Building). Or, they rented local fraternity houses.

They trained on cold and snowy days – and there were plenty of them in March – indoors at Fayerweather Gymnasium (now home to the University of Virginia Department of Art). It was a state-of-the-art facility with one of the longest indoor tracks in the country.

They played at UVa’s Lambeth Field, which one reporter at the time called “the best college field.” (It’s still in use today for intramural sports).

Lambeth Field, Charlottesville. Early 20th-century. Photo Courtesy of UVa Small Special Collections Library

Lambeth Field, Charlottesville. Early 20th-century. Photo Courtesy of UVa Small Special Collections Library

Walter “Big Train” Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game, spent a couple Spring Trainings there as a National/Senator. (How good was he? He would win more than 30 games a season – twice – and consistently had an ERA around a sinful 1.50. Yeh, The Big Train was good.)

Teams jogged through Charlottesville as part of their training. They played games against UVa’s team. They took day trips to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and rode the trolley to Fry’s Springs resort, known for its healing mineral baths and “Wonderland” amusement park.

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5-4-3, Triple Play!

It’s an even greater thing of beauty when it looks … effortless.

From last night’s game … A’s – Twin’s.

5-4-3 … Triple Play!

Embedding a video into a temperamental blog?  Not so effortless.  But, it should take you to the clip.

Do I Tweet, Do I Call, Do I Just Watch?

I was watching an Orioles game the other day.  On television.  And, after a couple innings I went and got my Droid (no iPhone for me, I like to be a contrarian), and started following the comments from people who were at the game and “tweeting” about it.

And, I wasn’t sure.  Was that a good thing?  Or just a noisy distraction?

After all, some of the tweeters had some nice observations.  Some were even based on statistics and facts.

So perhaps it made my game-watching experience a bit richer.

Still, it’s always so strange to look out into the crowd and see so many people with their heads down.  They aren’t even watching the game.  They’re watching their emails, texts, and tweets.  They’re talking on their cellphones.

Oh, sure, a few hardy souls are scoring the games, counting pitches, and creating their own pencil-marked treasure trove of statistical data.  They’re allowed to have their heads down from time to time.

But, do you know how many videos exist of people catching foul balls while talking on their cell phone?  Trust me … a zillion.  But, I like these two guys best … because they’re a nice contrast.

First, meet Mr. Excited … he’s an A’s fan and had two chances at a foul ball.  A’s Fan Catches Foul Ball While on the Phone.

Now, here’s Mr. Ho-Hum … he’s a Twins fan who has somehow let a foul ball interupt his phone call.  I like the “Oh, yeh, hey, no big deal, I do this ALL the time,” smile at the end.   Twins Fan Catches Foul Ball, Keeps Talking

Part of what first drew me to baseball was the ability to cocoon yourself inside the stadium, away from the stresses and challenges of real life.  A whole new world was inside.  No one can find you, unless you want to be found.  The grass is always lush and green (and, nowadays, real!).  A perfect view of the field.  A crazy array of food and drink — and someone willing to bring it right to your seat!  A giant mascot running around.  And, three hours … or more … of nothing to do but watch a game on a lazy day.

So, it’s kind of sad to see my cozy baseball sanctuary invaded with smart phones and tablets and other distractions.

In that respect, I’m a purist.  Or, I’m boring and a bit twee.

But, then again … I’m the first person to watch a video of something zany that happened at a game and that a fan was quick to capture on their phone.  (The streakers earlier this season at Baltimore games?  Banned from television, but, yeh, I watched ’em all on YouTube.)  And, the tweeters often see things that the cameras don’t catch.

In which case, I’m a hip, techno-saavy Droidster.

Oh, and here’s one of the streakers.  Although, as you will see, the term “streaker” is fairly loosely defined here, since he neglected to take his pants off.

I guess I’ll just be happy to walk the middle way — as Yoga always reminds us, being balanced is best!  So, yay, for the purists who enjoy the true “getaway” from the world that a baseball game offers.  And, yay, to those folks who share their games with those of us on the outside.

And, yay, for that A’s fan who finally caught a foul ball!