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Front Row

July 12, 2010

Cogitate And Ruminate: It's A Baseball Delight

Frank Robinson.
(Courtesy of Sports Legends)
It was nice of the Orioles to stage "Turn Back The Clock Weekend" in honor of the 1970 World Series champion team that was feted right in the midst of the first four-game win streak in what seems like … oh, about four decades or so. It brought back a lot of memories, too. Like when a streak was winning 100 games three years in a row.

That record stretch shattered the next year thanks in part to another trade involving Frank Robinson, one that wouldn't have been made had the American League pulled the trigger on the Designated Hitter rule one year earlier.

"We probably wouldn't have been traded," said Pete Richert, the left-handed reliever few will recall as part of the deal that sent Frank Robby to the Dodgers for Doyle Alexander and a couple of suspects who proved to be just that. "But the word was the National League was going to approve the DH the following year (1972)."

If in fact that rumor was true, as Richert suggests, it explains at least in part why the NL never jumped on the DH bandwagon. The league was afraid of being the tail waved by the AL dog, especially if the AL jumped the gun on an idea initially broached by the senior circuit.

It certainly gets at least a little credence from the fact the two leagues had a long-standing reluctance to agree on most anything, including the positioning and equipment worn by their respective umpires, until Bud Selig convinced them to basically abolish the league concept and get under the same Major League Baseball umbrella.

Whether the AL jumped the gun in the 1973 season is a moot point now. But, had it done so a year earlier, the destiny of what has to be considered at the very least a mini-dynasty, not to mention the franchise itself, would have been severely altered. These were pre-free agency days, remember, and it is now mostly forgotten that the reason Robinson was traded to the Dodgers was not as a "favor" to allow him to finish his career close to home, as was generally accepted at the time, but rather to open a spot for a flourishing farmhand who couldn't be restrained any longer.

If you really want to turn back the clock, here's how it was 40 years ago. While Robinson was helping the Orioles to their third pennant and second World Series title in five years, the O's had a young outfield prospect at Triple-A Rochester who hit .327, with 22 home runs and 107 RBI while playing 140 games. His reward was a courtesy call-up in September with another "blue chip" prospect who had batted .383, with nine home runs and 42 RBI in 63 games and a return trip to Rochester for both while the O's won a third straight pennant in 1971.

Don Baylor was the minor league Player of the Year in 1970, then "slumped" to .313, 20 home runs and 95 RBI in 1971. At the same time, Bobby Grich hit .336, with 32 homers and 83 RBI, succeeding his teammate as the best prospect in the minors. They would ultimately spend the most productive part of their careers as teammates with the California Angels and remain close friends today.

Grich now works in the Angels' front office and Baylor is in his second stint with the Colorado Rockies, this time as the hitting coach.

After hitting 42 home runs and driving in 202 in two years at Rochester, Baylor was the reason Robinson, 36 at the time, was traded. A year later, the Orioles, after manager Earl Weaver failed to convince the front office Grich could play shortstop (sound familiar?), traded Davey Johnson to the Atlanta Braves in the infamous Earl Williams trade. And the DH came into being in 1973, a year too late.

You can conjure up all kinds of scenarios had Robinson stayed on the scene, not only to mentor but also to protect Baylor and Grich in the lineup. Most likely the trade for Reggie Jackson (which included Baylor and pitchers Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell) would have never taken place. And though you can't rule out the possibility of Baylor and Grich signing as free agents with the Angels as they did after the 1976 season, it isn't hard to imagine Robinson finishing his playing career here while continuing his managerial education as a coach and eventual successor to Weaver. Remember, Robinson went to Puerto Rico to replace Weaver as manager in the winter league while he was still playing.

Nobody can produce a blueprint for how things would have turned out, but in retrospect, even without the DH, the Orioles would have been much better off with an aging Robinson teaming with Baylor and Grich for the next three or four years (his last year on the field was as Cleveland's playing manager in 1975). Who knows how history might have changed? Maybe Robinson wouldn't have been the first black manager but instead stayed on to inherit the job here, as he most certainly could have.

What if? What if? What if fans couldn't speculate about what might have been? Isn't that one of the great things about sports and baseball in particular? Especially while closing in on a baker's dozen of losing seasons?

-- Jim Henneman

Woodson Was First With 'Frozen Tundra'

An item in last month's PressBox caused a firestorm -- well, make that a campfire -- among several readers who dispute the origin of the popular NFL term: "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field."

The PressBox article pointed out the "Voice of God," announcer John Facenda, never uttered that phrase as is popularly believed and attributed it to ESPN funny man Chris Berman, who was doing a takeoff of Facenda's unforgettable voice during a TV skit.

Dissenting readers insisted they had heard Facenda, or someone who sounded like him, verbalize those words in a highlight film.

Further probing revealed veteran voiceover announcer Bill Woodson, who had a lengthy history in TV and movies including the chilling commentary on the Herman Wouk-inspired serials, "The Winds Of War" and "War And Remembrance," indeed was first to articulate those words. He used the phrase during the Dallas Cowboys' highlight film after the Ice Bowl in Green Bay following the 1967 season.

Steve Sabol, who created NFL Films along with his father Ed, recalls the expression quite well -- because he wrote it.

"John Facenda never read those words," Sabol once told Sporting News. "I know because I wrote them. I wrote as the opening of the Ice Bowl film ‘in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.' Vince Lombardi (an English major as well as coach) had to approve all the films that were done on the Packers. For that opening phrase, he called back and said, ‘You're going to have to take frozen tundra out.' It was redundant; every tundra is frozen. I changed it to the ‘ice-bucket chill of the Wisconsin winter.' How it became popular in the lexicon was from the Cowboys' version of game film."

Another reason Lombardi wanted the term out of his team's film was because the Packers had spent a huge amount of money to install an under-the-turf electrical system to make sure the field did not freeze. On that day, however, when temperatures reached minus-13 degrees, any system would have been overpowered.

It wasn't until later Berman pounced upon the term and turned it into a slogan that has helped to popularize Green Bay as a place no team wants to go in December.

The inaccuracy in grammar can even be forgiven, insists Brian Sutton, an English professor in Wisconsin. "It's a redundancy worth keeping," he once told the New York Times. "When I moved here from Chattanooga, my friends said, ‘You're going to the frozen tundra.' It gives us an identity. Without the Packers, we're Skokie, Ill."

--Larry Harris

City Continues Push For Big-Time Soccer

(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Despite conversation about the United States being vanilla in its excitement over the sport of soccer, Baltimore has made strides to catapult Charm City as America's own Soccer City. The friendly pitting two international powerhouse teams July 31 at M&T Bank Stadium is one step in that direction.

"Supporting the Inter Milan-Manchester City game is critical in our bid to obtain the World Cup in Baltimore," said Kevin Healey, general manager of the Baltimore Blast and resident soccer expert. "Just a year ago Baltimore was not even in consideration as one of the cities for the World Cup in the USA. However, after the tremendous support the Chelsea-AC Milan game got in Baltimore, along with the excellent job the Ravens did in game operations, Baltimore became a finalist in the bid process."

The city hopes again playing host to two premier teams will cement the perception of Baltimore as a site that not only has the facilities but the fan base to stage an event like the World Cup.

"[In Baltimore], World Cup organizers see an area with a rich tradition in soccer," Healey said. "They see a city and state which does a great job supporting their tourists. In addition, they saw the international game last year supported very well and organized very well.

"I had the good fortune of being at Chelsea last year in the middle of August for their first game in the English Premier League. I was at the game with front office people from Chelsea. They could not have been more positive about their comments about their game in Baltimore and the way they were treated. I believe that we built a good reputation in how we handled that game."

Amid talks of building facilities to support soccer-related events, the lack of soccer-specific stadiums is not seen as a deterrent in hosting the World Cup. In fact, NFL stadiums are preferred because they have the capacity to accommodate massive crowds. All Baltimore has to do is prove its worth.

"We have to show the world that our stadium, our fan base and our city can gear up for a soccer match," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. "Last summer was a great first step. This summer will be that next step. Then you put the two together, now you have a resume. And our resume is saying that we are a soccer city, and we are a soccer state."

-- Krystina Lucido  

Steve Nash Assists In NBA Africa Plan

Amadou Gallo Fall picked a good time to bring the NBA across the Atlantic.

A little over a month ago, the NBA expanded its NBA International offices to Johannesburg, South Africa, taking Fall, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks, away from changing players' lives to changing a nation's worth of lives.

Steve Nash plays soccer with young athletes in South Africa during an NBA Africa event.  (Courtesy of Roberto Coquis)

NBA Africa was designed to bring a permanent presence to the continent of Africa. Fall had been conducting Basketball Without Borders programs for seven years, but the camps only became beneficial while the players were there. Fall felt a lasting presence would help basketball to develop more efficiently.

"We want to make sure we impact participation in the game," Fall said. "We want to make the game accessible and then, from a development standpoint, we cannot only talk about players learning to get better on the court, you also have to train coaches to be teachers of the game. We want to work with all of the local basketball stakeholders, organizations, sports ministries and collaborate to see what we can do to bring what we think we do best in terms of expertise and basketball development."

One of the first steps was using the World Cup to create a "basketball meets soccer" event, merging the two in an attempt to increase basketball's exposure to the youth of Africa. Children from the Nelson Mandela Children's Foundation met at the new Discovery Soccer Park at the Wanderers Club in Illovo, Johannesburg, June 19, to train and learn new soccer and basketball skills from leading superstars in the two sports.
Patrick Vieira (formerly French national team, Manchester City), Lucas Radebe (formerly South African national team), Luc Mbah a Moute (NBA's Milwaukee Bucks) and Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns) were all on hand to assist the young athletes and play with them.

"To be here for the World Cup and at the same time get to know some kids from this area and understand a little bit more about the culture here, it's really special," Nash said.

Nash, who grew up playing soccer, was born in Johannesburg, where his father played professionally. He is excited about the opportunity NBA Africa will afford him in being able to return to his roots to assist the youth of South Africa while growing the game of basketball.

"It's a perfect opportunity for me to come back and to have some connection to the country I was born in," Nash said. "I would love to further it, and I know I'm working with the NBA to be a part of making an impact here in Johannesburg and throughout Africa. It's an exciting time and I'm just happy I can have that little connection to it to South Africa."

Soccer in Africa is embedded in the culture and the way of life. The game is highly accessible and easy to pick up and play. The success of basketball in Africa could hinge on whether or not the sport can achieve these same qualities and make it easy to play for youngsters who have nothing.

"I think the game of basketball could be huge in Africa," Nash said. "What's important is that it's an easy game to play. … If the NBA comes to Africa and builds a bunch of hoops and gives kids balls, they'll be out there playing. It's a simple and accessible game, and once that happens, more and more kids play, you get more and more coaching. Obviously the game will flourish."

The children from the Mandela Foundation started on the newly-installed soccer pitch, while the players gave a short speech before splitting them up into four teams for two short matchups. After the scrimmages, Nash and the other players showed off their skills before making the short walk to the basketball courts on Discovery's campus. It may take a little while, but basketball in South Africa could grow if given the right tools.

"What we hope to achieve is very simple -- grow basketball," Fall said. "Hopefully assess and see how we can develop infrastructure. … We want to have an impact, not just in South Africa but across the country."

-- Krystina Lucido

Annual Mayor's Cup Event Set August 7-8

Baltimore's International Festival is being held Aug. 7-8 this year. According to the festival's Web site, the weekend-long function "promotes opportunities for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds living in the Baltimore region to come together, build relationships and embrace unity." The highlight of the weekend, for the past five years since its inception, has been the increasingly-popular Mayor's Cup.

The Mayor's Cup, a two-day, 47-game soccer tournament played at the Baltimore Polytechnic/Western fields, features 20 club soccer teams from around the world competing on a smaller, more relaxed stage.

In years past, delegates from Cameroon and Nigeria have dominated, but other African clubs representing Trinidad, Liberia, Mali and Ethiopia have a chance to upset their reigning African neighbors. European nations such as Greece, Italy and Germany usually put up decent numbers as well. But the real challenge for the Africans are the teams from: Brazil, Jamaica and Mexico.

The organizers no doubt hope to play off the record American interest in the 2010 World Cup to increase attendance numbers at this year's Mayor's Cup and the festival in general.

Set up almost identically to the World Cup, the smaller tournament features four groups (A-D) from a combined 16 nations. Cameroon, South Korea, Ethiopia, Italy and Sierra Leone will make up Group A. Nigeria, Brazil, Romania, Jamaica and Togo will be in Group B. Senegal, United States, Mexico, Liberia and Mali are in Group C while Trinidad, Greece, Germany, Indonesia and Guinea make up Group D.

One team emerges from each group based on its record against teams inside that group and then proceeds to the knockout stages.

Since the Cup is played in only two days, the games will not be as long as viewers have seen in the World Cup in South Africa. First-round games will be played with 20-minute halves and no time interval allowed for halftime. Knock-out round games will be lengthened to 30-minute halves with 10 minute halftimes, and the final match will be 20 minutes shorter than a normal FIFA game, allowing teams 35-minute halves and a 10-minute halftime.

Organized by volunteers, the tournament enjoys a great turnout year to year. Since Baltimore isn't one of the top 15 largest cities in the United States, the fact that the city has been able to draw such a large contingent from almost every populated, soccer-playing continent in the world speaks wonders for the organizers. Six years strong, the Mayor's Cup appears to have a bright future.

-- Colin Campbell

Larry Harris' From The Cheap Seats

Sky Is The Limit: It's true an athlete is entitled to whatever he can get during his playing days, but the salary boom in the NBA is frightening. Can Joe Johnson, sound but not super, really be worth $120 million in Atlanta? Brendan Haywood is getting $55 million in Dallas; the Nets are paying Travis Outlaw, a sub, $35 million. Remember, those NBA figures, unlike the NFL, are guaranteed.

No, There Is No Limit: Wes Matthews, a nice player from Marquette, went undrafted last year but made the Utah Jazz starting lineup and got the minimum salary of $475,000. This season he will be making at least $9 million because last week Portland made him an offer of $34 million for five years with an upfront guarantee. Utah can match it, but in any case Matthews is suddenly a wealthy man.

In Real Life: By contrast, an average sportswriting hack of a certain age never came close to making $2 million total over 45 or so years at the daily grind.

Memory Fading: Dean Smith, the great UNC basketball coach who's now 79, has developed severe dementia and can't recognize many familiar faces. "Father Time humbles us all at some point," said a grieving Jerry Stackhouse, one of Smith's myriad star products.

No Crowning Him: Jeremy Green, 38, who sometimes answers NFL questions for ESPN, has been hit with drug and kiddie porno charges. Guess Jeremy isn't who his father, Dennis Green, thinks he is.

Crash! Bam! Pow!: Best line of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh mockery came from Orlando general manager Otis Smith: "Somebody's got to play Robin." Remember, LBJ hasn't broken any rules -- but he sure broke a lot of hearts.

Issue 151: July 2010