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He was the shortstop on the Tigers’ first world championship team in 1935.

He was involved in one of the most bizarre plays in World Series history.

He was nicknamed “The Fire Chief” because of his competitive (some would say combative) style of play.

After retiring as a player, he was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1941 and served for 38 years.

At age 96, and wheelchair bound, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Frontier League game on July 24, 2001, in the last organized baseball contest ever played at Tiger Stadium.

And he got his start as a milkman in Illinois.

You may ask yourself: “Who is this man you speak of?”

It is none other than Billy Rogell, the Tigers’ shortstop from 1930 to 1938.

Rogell was born in Springfield, Illinois on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1904. Soon, his family moved to Chicago, where young Billy spent his childhood. He loved baseball from an early age, and played it all summer long in the sandlots of the Rosedale section of the city where he lived. He was so good, he became a semi-pro player in his middle-teenage years.

Around that time, he got a job driving a milk wagon in his neighborhood. The job was a good one, not just because it paid decently, but because Rogell figured it would strengthen his muscles, carrying all those bottles around all day. He could get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Not to mention he could drink all the milk he wanted.

One of Rogell’s stops on his route was the home of Oscar Melillo (also known as Ski, but his friends all called him Spinach). Melillo, a few years older than Rogell, had heard of him because by that time Billy had acquired quite a reputation as a semi-pro player. Melillo was also impressed with Rogell’s boundless energy as a milkman. When Melillo heard later that Rogell had signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox, he knew Billy would make good. Turns out he was right. Melillo made good, as well, starring for the St. Louis Browns as a second baseman for many years.

Rogell played a few seasons in Beantown before the Tigers acquired him in September of 1929. He didn’t become a full-time player until 1932. Rogell and Charlie Gehringer were a great double-play combination in the Motor City for many years. They were part of one of the best hitting infields in history in 1934. Rogell, Gehringer, first baseman Hank Greenberg, and third baseman Marv Owen combined for a whopping 463 runs batted in. Not coincidentally, the Tigers also won the pennant that year. And Rogell was at the center of a commotion that will forever go down in World Series annals under “Wacky.”

It was Game Four, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, bottom of the fourth inning. The Tigers and pitcher Elden Auker were leading the Cardinals and Dazzy Vance, 4-to-3. St. Louis had runners on first and third with nobody out.

According to one account, Cardinals’ manager Frankie Frisch wanted to send in a pinch-runner for the lumbering Spud Davis on first. Frisch scanned the dugout, and was shocked to see Dizzy Dean suddenly leap up from the bench, race out to first, and tell Davis to beat it back to the dugout, that he was going to run for him.

Dean, of course, was a pitcher, and a very good one, having won 30 games in 1934. He could also be a bit flamboyant. Frisch wanted to yell out to Dean what the hell he thought he was doing. But Pepper Martin, the next Cardinal batter, was already digging in against Tiger pitcher Auker.

That’s when things got crazy. Martin hit a perfect double-play grounder to Gehringer at second, who scooped it up and flipped it to Rogell covering the bag. But his relay to first never made it; instead, the ball bopped an onrushing Dean right in the forehead. The ball caromed into the outfield, and the star pitcher went down like he’d been shot.

Dean lay unconscious on the ground, as all of St. Louis held its collective breath. He had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, and rushed to a nearby hospital. The Tigers wound up winning the game, 10-to-4, to even the Series at two games apiece. But most people in the crowd were wondering about the fate of Dean, who was scheduled to pitch the following afternoon.

Dean turned out to be ok, and, in a possibly apocryphal tale, a newspaper headline the next day read: “X-Rays of Dean’s Head Reveal Nothing.” He didn’t miss a beat, giving up only two earned runs in eight innings in the Tigers 3-to-1 win.

Years later, Rogell, who threw the ball that plunked Dean in the head, recalled it this way: “It really bothered me. That poor sight being carried off the field. Of course, it was Dizzy’s fault. He threw up his head in the way intentionally. Even said so. He wanted to break up the double play. And to tell you the truth, I never saw the play because I was coming to the bag at an angle. I caught the ball and threw. Actually, if I’d have known his head was there, I would have thrown the ball harder.”

In case you missed it, Detroit lost the Series, four games to three. And Rogell continued to carry his milkman union card in his wallet for the rest of his playing days. Just in case.

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We’re rounding into the end of November, and while we have seen some key signings around the league — like the Braves inking Travis d’Arnaud for $16 million — the only hot stoves in Detroit are in the homes of whoever is in charge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year.

As we reflect on what it is we may be thankful for in the coming days, let’s take a gander at what’s going on for the Detroit Tigers and the rest of the league.

Mr. Fix it
The Tigers’ new hitting coach, Joe Vavra, recently made a trip to the Dominican Republic to check in on Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and Dawel Lugo — three guys that could probably use his help. Vavra has a tough road ahead of him this year in his efforts to turn around what, by all accounts, was a dismal offense. He seems to be focused on individual accountability, stating that getting better is on the player, and that they need to have a plan.

“This is going to be all about you. This is your deal, but you have to know what you’re up against and who you’re up against on a daily basis, and you have to come up with plans. And your plans have to be solid, because you’re going to be called out in front of your teammates every night on your plan. So, if you’re not prepared to have your plan or understand what a plan is, that’s what we’re here for, to get you through that, so you can actually understand what you’re planning. And that’s not an easy task.”

Vavra spoke also about knowing how to change approaches depending on the strike count, and spoke a bit about the incorporation of a modern analytics approach. Vavra should bring improvement in 2020; he has a low bar to clear.

A little bit pitchy
If you think hitting is the only area where changes are being made, you would be wrong. The organization has brought in a Director of Pitching Development and Strategies, as well as a Coordinator of Player Development and Analytics. Both of these are brand new positions. If you would like a clearer picture of who these two people are and what exactly they will be doing, David Laurila of FanGraphs spoke with general manager Al Avila about it and has a bit more detail for you.

Seek and destroy
Well, it seems MLB commissioner Rob Manfred may have gone and stepped in it. The backlash to the initial outlay of the ill-advised minor league overhaul brought forth by Major League Baseball was strong and swift. In response, MLB put out a statement that went something like, “Oh, hey guys my bad. Chill. I just want to make things better for… the players. Yeah, the players. That’s right.”

It didn’t take much time for most of the United States Congress to come out in opposition to the plan, and for New York senator Chuck Schumer to dip his foot into the “maybe baseball should lose it’s anti-trust exemption” pool. MLB responded with a letter laying out how they subsidize the minors. They are also continuing to beat the “we’re in this for the players” drum, identifying the substandard facilities of 40 minor league teams, a number that is almost double of what the league stated just months prior.

Bill Madden of the New York Daily News takes a deep dive on what is really going on here; spoiler alert: it’s basically that MLB is trying to save a few bucks — and it’s a very few — by instituting a plan that appears to be not too well thought out. The ends don’t seem to justify the means, but when has that stopped Major League Baseball?

Labor relations
When asked about negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and the characterization of the the statements he reportedly made to the players reps in negotiations over the summer, Manfred stated that those characterizations were inaccurate, and the players reps offered a proposal that would seek to “turn back the Basic Agreement 50 years.”

Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports does an excellent job of dissecting just how disingenuous and dumb that statement was while going on to further interpret Manfred’s statements in a manner that doesn’t look good for future negotiations. In short, it may be that MLB is unwilling to budge in the face of a threatened labor stoppage. That’s a pretty hard line to take at such an early stage. Who’s looking forward to a strike?

She’s a hit
Professional baseball continues to inch slowly forward. In recent news the New York Yankees reported that they have hired Rachel Balkovec as a full-time hitting coach at the minor league level. To piggyback on that good news, the Chicago Cubs also announced that they brought Rachel Folden on board as a hitting lab tech and the fourth coach for their rookie league squad in Mesa. It’s a good day to be a Rachel.

Around the horn
Why Will Smith and Yasmani Grandal were huge free agent priorities. Johnny ‘Schoolboy’ Taylor may be Hartford’s greatest baseball player. MLB investigation into sign stealing widens. Old friend Dixon Machado is going to play in Korea.

Baseball is awesome
Everybody likes a good bobblehead.

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Some of the most intriguing free agents for the Detroit Tigers don’t begin the offseason as free agents.

We’ve seen evidence of that already.

Eric Thames dropped onto the market on Monday when his option was declined by the Milwaukee Brewers. Wilmer Flores was added to the list of free agents last week when the Arizona Diamondbacks bought out his deal.

There will be more to come as teams finalize their decisions about who they will sign and who they will “non-tender” in the weeks ahead.

These players can be more alluring than traditional free agents (with six years of Major League service time) because they’re younger and sometimes cheaper.

Free agency is just getting under way and there’s no rush for the Tigers to sign anyone. They could even wait until January or February to do much of their shopping.

But they have money to spend and more needs than they can count. Here are five guys whose agents they should call right now and say, “Don’t make any decisions until you talk to us.”

AP photo by Jim Mone

Jason Castro

Yes, the Tigers have two young catchers (Jake Rogers and Grayson Greiner), but the Tigers desperately need some offensive help at the position.

If they could snag a veteran on a one-year deal (preferably a left-handed hitter), it would be ideal.

Castro, who turns 33 in June, fits the bill. A well-respected defensive backstop, he’s coming off a very solid offensive season with the Minnesota Twins. A left-handed hitter, Castro would fit nicely into a strict platoon with Greiner or maybe a 50-50 split with Rogers, depending on how the Tigers decide to approach 2020.

How much would he cost? He’ll probably seek a two-year deal, but we’ll say one-year, $6 million plus an option.

Backup plan: For all the same reasons listed above, how about Alex Avila? He’s a veteran lefty and, having played for the Tigers twice before, is very familiar with the pitching staff.

AP photo by Andrew Harnik

Eric Thames

The Tigers need to add some power to their lineup, and there’s usually no easier, cheaper way of doing so than signing a first baseman.

Thames, who turns 33 this month, has had success in Korea and might opt to go back overseas. But perhaps the Tigers can convince him to stick around.

Thames hit 25 home runs and slugged .503 in 149 games with the Brewers in 2019. He’s terrible against lefties, but that’s OK because the Tigers have plenty of right-handed options for a platoon (Jeimer Candelario, Brandon Dixon or maybe even Miguel Cabrera) at first base.

How much would he cost? No idea. The Brewers didn’t think he was worth $7.5 million. So let’s say one year, $6 million.

Backup plan: Justin Smoak. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a Tiger who could draw a walk every once in a while? The ex-Blue Jay would be a great fit in Detroit.

AP photo by Rick Scuteri

Wilmer Flores

Did you know that over the last four seasons Flores has posted a 110 OPS+ in 1,411 plate appearances? He’s very quietly been a solid and consistent hitter. And now he’s a free agent at the still-young age of 28.

Why is Flores unemployed? While he can play every spot on the infield, he plays none of them very well.

He could play first (and maybe even platoon with Thames or Smoak!), but he would deliver more value as a second baseman, where he’s been only a little bit below-average defensively, according to the metrics. He would deliver a huge offensive upgrade over Harold Castro or Ronny Rodriguez at second.

How much would he cost? One year, $4 million.

AP photo by Alex Gallardo

Kole Calhoun

The Tigers could use a veteran outfielder. If they can find one who plays great defense, that would be even better. That’s what makes Calhoun such a great fit. It’s been a while since the Tigers have had a competent defensive right fielder.

Calhoun had 33 home runs in 2019, a feat that he is unlikely to repeat in 2020. But he’s still likely to provide league-average run production with above-average defense. That’s worth a one-year deal, right?

How much would he cost? One year, $7 million.

Backup plans: Among affordable corner outfielders who play above-average defense, Corey Dickerson comes to mind. For a bounce-back candidate on a minor-league deal, what about Lonnie Chisenhall?

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Fifty years ago, a Catholic kid from St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland took the baseball world by storm.

Mickey Lolich, a child of the Croatian community that peopled Slabtown, pitched and won three games for the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series win over the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals. The left-handed 1954 graduate of Cathedral School and Lincoln High School threw on short rest, winning Game 7 over legendary St. Louis flamethrower Bob Gibson.

Boys across America began mimicking Lolich’s windup, fluid but with stiff arms raised over the head before delivery.

“The Detroit Tigers and Mickey Lolich and his men brought a Hollywood movie finish to the World Series,” Sentinel writer Herb Larson wrote that fall.

Lolich threw 435 pitches in three games over seven days, a feat that now seems mythic, given the use of relief pitchers in the major leagues.

“God gave me a great arm,” Lolich told John Furey, a Sentinel freelancer in 1998. Amazingly, Lolich never had shoulder or elbow trouble.

He was born right-handed but at age 2 broke his collarbone in a tricycle crash. His parents tied his right arm behind his back to force him to rehabilitate the injured left side.

Lolich was one of the disciples of Rocky Benevento, the Italian-American groundskeeper at Vaughn Street Ballpark in Portland. Little Mickey hounded Benevento to let him be a bat boy for the hometown Portland Beavers. The lad watched the ballplayers and learned.

After graduating from Cathedral, Lolich attended Columbia Prep in the fall of 1954 and pitched the squad to the state championship game, losing but achieving the best finish of any team in the school’s history. Columbia Prep shut down and he transferred to Lincoln. It was just as well for Lolich, who found the academics at Columbia Prep out of his league.

Meanwhile, his pitching led Portland teams to national youth baseball championships. During high school, Lolich was ready to sign with his favorite team, the New York Yankees, when his uncle spoke to another Slabtown legend, Johnny Pesky of the Boston Red Sox. Pesky, born Paveskovich, told the uncle that the Tigers were in sore need of left-handed pitching and that signing with them would help Lolich get into the major leagues sooner. By 1964, he was a fixture in the Tigers rotation, where he would stay for 11 years.

As a child, Lolich had promised to play baseball and earn enough money to buy a brick house for his parents, Steve and Marge Lolich. Steve Lolich, longtime caretaker of Wallace Park in Northwest Portland, told his son to forget about buying houses and just play baseball. In the early ’60s, Lolich bought his parents a new Pontiac. Margie died in 2002 and Steve in 2008.

No pitcher has won three games in a World Series since 1968 and it happened only twice before then.

“I was going out and doing my job,” Lolich told Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune last month. “I was only doing what I was supposed to do.”

After the memorable moment, Lolich continued to be a dominating pitcher. In 1971, he led the major leagues in wins (25), innings pitched (376) and strikeouts (308). He played 16 years, notching 217 wins. After retiring from the diamond, he bought and operated a doughnut business in Michigan for 18 years. He still lives near Detroit, is married and has three daughters.

Lolich this year co-authored a book about the 1968 World Series, “Joy in Tigertown.”

Watch the entire 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1968 world series here.

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The offseason has just begun, but the rumors have already started up. Earlier this month, we learned that the Detroit Tigers had “scouted the Phillies extensively over the final weeks of the season,” according to a report from NBC Sports Philadelphia. Somewhat speculatively, the article went on to connect the Tigers to third baseman Maikel Franco, who appears running out of time in the Phillies organization.

Franco, 27, debuted in 2014 and has been the Phillies everyday third baseman since early in the 2015 season. Through 80 games that year, he batted a tidy .280/.343/.497, which tallied to a 127 wRC+. Regarded as an excellent prospect at the time, those numbers appeared to be confirmation the Phillies had a good future major leaguer on their hands. Unfortunately, he has been less than stellar in the four years since. Although he’s inhabited the hot corner full-time for the club during that timeframe, he has only been worth 1.8 fWAR over the past four seasons.

October marked the end of another disappointing season for Franco, who played below replacement level for the second time in three years. His offensive output graded as 30 percent below league average, according to wRC+. While his 17 home runs would have led the Tigers, it’s still not what you would like to see from a player with double-plus raw power playing a power position like third base.

Due $5.2 million for his services in 2019, Franco is projected to receive a $6.7 million salary in 2020 by Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors. Between his poor performance and multi-million dollar price tag, the Phillies are rumored to have designs on unloading their veteran third baseman, and were reported on Friday to have interest in Josh Donaldson. And while the Tigers already have a few players on the roster capable of playing third base, Franco could be a big upgrade, making the two teams a natural trade partner.

A deal between the two clubs could take a variety of forms. While it’s impossible to predict trades with even a modicum of accuracy, we can get at least a fuzzy picture of a variety of types of deals the two clubs could pursue.

Possibility 1: Salary dump for the Phillies
This is a no-nonsense option; the Tigers would receive Franco and a low-level prospect in exchange for some organizational fodder. It’s the scenario that presents the fewest complications for either team. It’s also pretty consistent with Avila’s previous roster construction strategy from the past couple years of acquiring castoffs and veterans to plug holes in the lineup.

While much of the league has promoted a more heavily fly ball and pull power approach, Franco may be a case of too much of a good thing. The Tigers may be able to help himtap into his once lofty potential by emphasizing a line drive approach that uses the whole field. Swing changes aren’t a cure-all, but in this case, there could be a match. Franco’s batted ball profile shows a balanced spread between ground balls, fly balls, and line drives, but he is very pull-centric and has a tendency to get under a lot of pitches, leading to a 24.1 percent infield fly ball (pop-up) rate in 2019 that helped crater his offensive value despite solid strikeout-to-walk numbers. These might be issues that the Tigers are positioned to improve despite the lack of progress offensively within the organization.

At this point, this type of deal seems like most likely of the potential options. However, it doesn’t have much upside for the Tigers. In a vacuum, having more prospects is better than having fewer. However, instead of tying up payroll with a below-average player already in his 30s, Franco provides at least a little upside, More likely, it just cements a different mediocre player at third while we wait for more prospects to reach the majors. More interesting options are still on the table, though.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Possibility 2: Tigers make a prospect grab
Another possibility involves the Tigers essentially taking the opportunity to “buy” a decent prospect by taking on Franco’s contract. The idea in this scenario is that instead of simply sending a player the other way as a placeholder, the Tigers could send Philadelphia a piece with moderate value. In exchange, instead of a lottery ticket from Low-A, the Phillies include a prospect with a decent shot at the majors.

For example, the Phillies may decide to address their somewhat shaky bullpen and ask for someone like Buck Farmer. Farmer was already mentioned as a trade chip in July, and finished the 2019 season strong. He also still has three years of club control remaining. As part of the deal, though, the Tigers may ask the Phillies to part with a better prospect than could be obtained in the first situation, adding value to what they would have received just for taking Franco’s contract.

This is probably the situation most compatible with the Tigers’ current direction. As badly as we would like them to be putting together their core for the next World Series winner, the Tigers are still trying to build their foundation — at a much slower pace than most would like. They have all but said they won’t be spending much this winter, at least until Jordan Zimmermann’s contract expires after the 2020 season. If the Tigers can get an MLB-ready player back by parting with a useful but expendable piece and taking on Franco’s money, they absolutely should.

Possibility 3: Phillies pursue most substantial trade talks
Let’s venture after bigger game for the third possibility. In this scenario, Franco becomes a secondary part of a larger deal to not only address payroll concerns, but also improve the Phillies roster. The Tigers front office has stripped the team down to its bones over the last few seasons, but there’s still a little meat left on the carcass.

The Phillies pushed in all their chips last winter by signing Bryce Harper to a staggeringly large contract, but they still failed to make the postseason. One of the culprits was difficulty assembling a complete outfield. They may see this as a low-key opportunity to improve their outfield situation by making an offer on Niko Goodrum or JaCoby Jones, both of whom have 2 WAR upside and could help them make the leap into real contention simply by removing a replacement level player from the starting lineup.

Another possibility is that the Phillies retain interest in Matthew Boyd. They scouted Boyd extensively near the trade deadline, but did not pull the trigger on a deal. The Phillies rotation was a disappointment in 2019, and they seem unlikely to want to invest big money in another veteran starter. Boyd would give them a durable lefthander to slot in the middle of their rotation, one under club control for a few more years. Philadelphia would be betting on Boyd’s substantial gains in strikeout rate over the past two seasons, and hoping to trim some of the home runs from his profile.

Of course, the involvement of Boyd, Jones, or Goodrum — or someone else of interest — would require commensurate return from the Phillies beyond Franco. Undoubtedly, they would have to up the ante to make a trade like this work. While this is the least likely of the three trade scenarios presented here, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

In the end, this rumor doesn’t have a lot of traction yet.
The Phillies and Tigers have both done quite a bit of scouting on each other in recent months, so while many of these scenarios require a substantial escalation in talk, there is at least mutual interest involved as the hot stove season gets underway. This could be an opportunity to address holes on the roster and add a little something to the farm system in the process — and just perhaps, this interest could expand into a more substantial deal between the two clubs.

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That Ronnie Warner nearly made it to this year’s World Series as a third base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals — beaten in the National League Championship Series by Washington — begs the question.

Has there ever been Redlands participation in the Fall Classic?

Best anyone can attest to a local ballplayer being part of the World Series dates back to former Angels’ catcher Dan Whitmer, a Redlands High product, who was a Detroit coach.

Whitmer’s playing career concluded in the early 1980s, but somehow he attracted the attention of Detroit Tigers’ eventual Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson.

By 1984, Whitmer was bullpen catcher for the Tigers, a team that won 35 of their first 40 games en route to beating San Diego in the World Series. Whitmer wasn’t around for that hot start, though. He picked up his coaching job at mid-season, having started 1984 playing in Detroit’s minor league system.

Among Whitmer’s duties was warming up relief pitchers.

Willie Hernandez, a southpaw, had a monster year out of the Tigers’ bullpen. He was that year’s Cy Young Award winner, not to mention the American League’s MVP off a 9-3 record, 32 saves, 1.68 ERA, 140 innings over 80 relief appearances.

There was Whitmer, sitting in the Tigers’ ’pen, waiting for that call from Sparky to crank up his bullpen ace.

That’s one reason they won the World Series. Warner came close. Whitmer pulled off a ring.

While Warner, an infielder, never made it to the majors as a player, Whitmer’s brief appearances for both the Angels and Toronto totaled seven RBI and a .229 average.

­Ever since Rod Anzai left as a Redlands High School track/cross country coach, truthfully, there’s been a downward spiral in the distance-running success from that campus.

Hate to say it, but Anzai had some significant naysayers. Which relates to the fact that he’s now long since departed.

Too bad.

Anzai coached 800, 1600 and 3200 runners on those Lady Terrier 2014 and 2015 CIF, Division 2 track & field championships. He made his mark as a cross country coach for years.

Throw Lew Farwell into that coaching mix. He had plenty of connection — still does, in fact — with the sensational hurdler-sprinter-jumper Juanita Webster.

Anzai, now the cross country at Irvine Portola High — new school with no senior class — had his team is ranked No. 5 in CIF Division 3.

He spent one season at Banning, taking second in the 2018, eight-team Desert Valley League, for a longtime weak program.

There was some significant success at Moreno Valley Vista del Lago.

Anzai-coached teams racked up plenty of success at Redlands. Tough, tough guy. Believes strongly in a disciplined approach. It could’ve led to his undoing.

Anzai, now 79, sold his Redlands home, moved to Laguna Beach, not that far of a jump from his current Irvine coaching digs.

So much more to all those stories — amazing, in fact. Good stuff. Questionable stuff. You name it.

* * *

Recent interviews conducted:

Redlands High’s Doug Haugh, playing his red-shirt sophomore season at Valparaiso in Indiana.

Former REV cornerback Isaiah Armstrong, a BYU graduate this past spring, playing his final collegiate season at Northwestern Louisiana.

Armstrong, incidentally, went up against LSU, then ranked No. 2, earlier this season for NWL.

Look for their stories in coming weeks. Still waiting for something with Arizona State’s Claire Kovensky, a one-time Citrus Valley volleyballer. Hasn’t called back.

Wonder if ASU will take on Auburn next season? We’ll check. It could be that Kovensky and soon-to-be-graduated Jackie Barrett, who is Auburn-bound, will cross paths in college. * * * ­Lance Evbuomwan, a significant piece in Redlands East Valley High’s football past, also played basketball for the Wildcats. It’s that background that’ll carry him into this season as Arrowhead Christian Academy’s boys’ hoops coach. ACA’s Russ DeKock, incidentally, was on the lookout for a tennis coach to replace the departed Ronnie Griffin.

* * *

Maybe it’s time, noted a significant Redlands-area coach, that the trio of Redlands-based public high school shouldn’t all be participating in the traditionally significant Citrus Belt League.

Nothing official, especially since the 2020-21 school year will enter into a newly aligned league that ushers in Beaumont High and ushers out Rialto Carter — with Citrus Valley, Cajon, Redlands, Yucaipa and REV rounding out the six-school grouping.

Nothing — repeat, nothing — has even been discussed yet, at least officially. Truth is, athletics could be taking a serious dive in talent over various sports.

Looking ahead, here’s a fair head start for a six-team CBL: San Gorgonio, Fontana Kaiser, Citrus Valley, Yucaipa, Cajon and, well, name that sixth school. Beaumont has the numbers.

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I grew up watching baseball as a kid in the 1980s. I remember the upright, very proper batting stance and perfect hair of Steve Garvey, the mustache and eye black of Don Mattingly, the powerful right arm of Dwight Evans, and the tall, gangly body of Dale Murphy. Tommy John was the soft-tossing veteran lefty whose career seemed to last forever. Lou Whitaker was the other half of the Trammell-Whitaker middle infield for the Detroit Tigers.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I saw an ad in Baseball Digest for one of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. After reading the first one, I was hooked. I read every one thereafter, then the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract book in 1985, Win Shares in 2002, and The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2003. I found BaseballProspectus.com in the late 1990s and Baseball-Reference.com in the early 2000s and FanGraphs in 2009.

This exposure to Bill James and BP and FanGraphs changed how I looked at baseball and how I felt about the players I was watching. I realized the statistics I thought were important when I was watching baseball as a kid weren’t as important as I’d been led to believe. Pitcher wins and hitters’ RBI and batting average were sent to the back of the line while FIP, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wRC+ moved to the front. WAR, what is it good for? Valuing baseball players.

The players on the Modern Era Ballot exist in a weird space for me. I grew up watching these players before I embraced advanced statistics, so in some cases there’s a significant difference between how I remember them as a kid versus how I consider them now. With that in mind, this week I’ll go over each player on the ballot with assessments from Me as a Fan in the 1980s versus Me as a Fanalyst (combination fan/analyst) today. Today, the two catchers and one pitcher—Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, and Tommy John.

Catcher Ted Simmons

Me as a Fan: My clearest memory of Ted Simmons was when he was the catcher for the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. That was the team that came to be known as “Harvey’s Wallbangers” after Harvey Kuenn took over as manager during the 1982 season and led them to a 72-43 record and the AL pennant. Simmons was a power-hitting catcher on a power-hitting team. He hit 23 homers that year, second-most by a catcher in the American League, yet was just fifth on his team behind sluggers Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, and Robin Yount. In addition to the 23 bombs, Simmons had 97 RBI, which led all AL catchers.

By the time I became aware of Simmons, he was already 32 years old. I thought he was great in 1982 and again in 1983, when he had 108 RBI (despite hitting just 13 home runs). He also made the all-star team for the eighth time in 1983, but most of those all-star appearances were before I became a baseball fan. He played a couple more years with the Brewers, then finished out his career as a part-timer with the Atlanta Braves, which I really don’t remember at all.

Me as a Fanalyst: Like the other catcher on this ballot, Thurman Munson, Ted Simmons was really good, much better than I thought he was when I was young. I remember him mostly for his time with the Brewers, when he was a league average hitter. Prior to that, he was a well above-average hitter with the Cardinals.

From 1971 to 1983, Simmons hit .294/.356/.459, while averaging 143 games played. The only catcher in baseball who was more valuable than Simmons during this 13-year stretch was the legendary Johnny Bench, and the difference between them was fewer than two wins. The third-best catcher during this time was Carlton Fisk, who was roughly eight wins behind Simmons.

Imagine having a catcher you could count on to play 130-150 games per year, score 60-70 runs, hit around 20 homers, and drive in 80-100 runs. And he does it for more than a dozen years. According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, Simmons is the 10th-best catcher in MLB history. That’s Hall of Fame-worthy, in my book.

Catcher Thurman Munson

Before we start on Thurman Munson, don’t miss this OTBB post from a few years ago on the Munson, Carlton Fisk rivalry and why it might be baseball’s best ever.

Me as a Fan: Sadly, Thurman Munson died in a plane crash on August 2, 1979, when he was just 32 years old. I don’t have any memory of seeing him play. Years later, I read Balls, by Graig Nettles, and The Bronx Zoo, by Sparky Lyle, so I learned a bit about Munson. I think of him as a bad-ass catcher with a sweet 70s mustache who didn’t take any guff. I knew he battled with Reggie Jackson and I loved that about him, but I never had any idea how good he was when I was a kid watching baseball because of his tragic death.

Me as a Fanalyst: Munson was much better than I thought he was. He was a good hitter, solid behind the plate, and remarkably durable. From 1970 to 1978, he averaged 144 games per season; 129 games at catcher. That’s comparable to the most-durable catcher of the current era, Yadier Molina, who averaged 133 games behind the plate from 2009 to 2017. Munson wasn’t the fielder Molina was, but he was a much better hitter, with a 116 wRC+ to Molina’s 99.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, Munson is the 12th-best catcher in baseball history, nearly equivalent to Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane. Before his death at the age of 32 during the 1979 season, he had 2.4 WAR in 97 games. He likely would have finished between 3 and 4 WAR that year and added more value in the years to come.

As it is, he played 11 seasons and 10 were above average. The only year he finished below 2 bWAR was a 26-game stint in 1969, before he earned the starting job in 1970. His 10 above-average seasons were distributed across the spectrum, with four in the “solid-to-good” range (2-4 bWAR) and six in the “all-star or better” range (greater than 4 bWAR).

Munson also has some impressive hardware, with the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1970 and the AL MVP Award in 1976. He made seven all-star teams and won three Gold Gloves. He hit .357/.378/.496 in 30 post-season games, which included back-to-back World Series titles with the Yankees in 1977-78. I think Munson deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Starting Pitcher Tommy John

Me as a Fan: Tommy John was already 36 years old when I started following baseball in 1979. Still, he was a 20-game winner for the Yankees in 1979 and 1980, the first two years I really paid attention to the game. It didn’t register much with me as a kid, though, because I followed the National League more closely than the American League. I also hated the Yankees, so that was a strike against him.

After my family moved to Seattle in 1981, I could take in a game at the Kingdome if I wanted to see Tommy John pitch for one of the three AL teams he pitched for in the 80s. I didn’t make it a priority, though, because he wasn’t must-see TV. I never went to a game because Tommy John was starting for the other team. To the much younger version of me, he was just an old left-handed pitcher who had a surgery named after him.

Me as a Fanalyst: John pitched 26 years in the big leagues and won 288 games. He also famously missed a season in the middle of his career to have an experimental surgery that would be named after him. It’s funny how that worked out. The surgery could have been named after the surgeon, Frank Jobe, but it wasn’t, so it will always be known as Tommy John surgery.

It’s almost certain that John would be in the Hall of Fame if he had won 12 more games and finished with the 300 wins that have historically meant a ticket to Cooperstown. Should falling 12 wins short be enough to keep him out?

More than any other player on this ballot, there’s a big difference between how FanGraphs values Tommy John and how Baseball-Reference values him. At FanGraphs, John ranks 19th among starting pitchers, with 79.3 fWAR. He’s just ahead of Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins (78.8 fWAR) and Phil Niekro (78.3 fWAR), and even further ahead of Warren Spahn (74.8 fWAR) and John Smoltz (70.9 fWAR).

At Baseball-Reference, John is 53rd among starting pitchers, with 62.1 bWAR. He’s behind all four of the Hall of Fame pitchers mentioned above, along with many other pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame. The pitcher closest to him in Baseball-Reference WAR is Dennis Eckersley (62.2 bWAR), who is in the Hall of Fame, but accrued significant value as a starter and reliever, unlike John. At the same time, John is above Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (61.8 bWAR) and Drysdale (61.3 bWAR) at Baseball-Reference.

So which is it? Is John a top-20 starting pitcher or a top-50 starting pitcher? If you split the difference and put him in the mid-30s, that certainly seems Hall-worthy.

Breaking down his career by the caliber of his individual seasons using bWAR, we find that John pitched 26 years and was above average in 15 of them, but seven of those 15 seasons were in the “solid” range (2-3 bWAR). That’s good but maybe not Hall of Fame good. He had one season in the 3-4 bWAR range, three in the 4-5 bWAR range, and four in the 5-6 bWAR range. John is the most difficult member of this ballot to place, but I’m leaning towards the “Yes, he is a Hall of Famer” side of the discussion. Of course, I could wake up tomorrow and think the opposite.

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The 1968 Detroit Tigers finished the regular season with 40 victories in which they were either trailing or tied in the seventh inning or later. Of those wins, 28 featured the Tigers taking the lead in the final inning. Free Press special writer Bill Dow takes a look at those games:

April 11: Gates Brown hits a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Red Sox, 4-3, in the second game of the season.

April 14: Bill Freehan singles with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to beat the White Sox, 5-4.

April 17: Willie Horton hits a two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th to beat the Indians, 4-3.

More: Detroit Tigers great Denny McLain has regrets, but damn he could pitch

Dick McAuliffe, an infielder for the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers, died May 13, 2016. He was 76 years old.
Dick McAuliffe, an infielder for the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers, died May 13, 2016. He was 76 years old. (Photo: File photo)

April 20: Dick McAuliffe’s two-run single, followed by Norm Cash’s forceout to score McAuliffe in the top of the 10th beats the White Sox, 4-1.

April 28: Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup hit solo home runs in the top of the ninth to beat the Yankees, 3-2.

April 29: Don Wert’s single scores Norm Cash in the bottom of the ninth to beat Oakland 2-1.

May 1: Willie Horton’s sacrifice fly scores Dick McAuliffe in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Twins, 3-2.

May 7: Tom Matchick’s pinch-hit, two-run double in the top of the ninth beats the Orioles 2-1.

May 17: Jim Northrup’s grand slam in the bottom of the ninth beats the Senators, 7-3.

May 19: Gates Brown’s pinch-hit single scoring Dick Tracewski in the bottom of the eighth beats the Senators, 5-4.

May 20: An error on a Bill Freehan ground ball scores Al Kaline in the top of the 10th inning to beat the Twins, 4-3.

Mickey Stanley
Mickey Stanley (Photo: Detroit Free Press)

June 7: Mickey Stanley’s two-out, two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth beats the Indians, 5-4.

June 11: Tom Matchick scores on Cesar Tovar’s throwing error in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Twins, 3-2.

June 12: Dick McAuliffe’s home run in the top of the ninth beats the Twins, 2-1.

June 14: Don Wert’s home run in the top of the 14th beats the White Sox, 6-5.

July 7: Willie Horton’s solo homer in the bottom of the ninth beats the Athletics, 5-4.

July 19: Tom Matchick’s pinch-hit, three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth beats the Orioles, 5-4.

Aug. 6: Dick Tracewski single scores Bill Freehan in the bottom of the 17th to beat the Indians, 2-1.

Aug. 10: Norm Cash’s home run in the bottom of the 8th beats the Red Sox, 4-3.

Aug. 11: Gates Brown’s pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the 14th beats the Red Sox, 4-3, in the first game of the doubleheader.

Aug. 11: Gates Brown’s single in the bottom of the ninth beats the Red Sox, 6-5, in the second game of the doubleheader.

Bill Freehan’s homer on Aug. 17, 1968, was a game-winner for the Tigers.
Bill Freehan’s homer on Aug. 17, 1968, was a game-winner for the Tigers. (Photo: Detroit Free Press)

Aug. 17: Bill Freehan’s home run in the top of the ninth beats the Red Sox, 10-9.

Aug. 21: Jim Price’s pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the 10th beats the White Sox, 3-2.

Sept. 2: Bill Freehan’s home run in the top of the ninth beats the A’s, 4-3.

Sept. 3: Jim Northrup’s two-run single in the top of the ninth is the game-winning hit that beats the A’s, 6-3.

Sept. 14: Willie Horton’s single in the bottom of the ninth beats the A’s, 5-4, and gives Denny McLain his 30th victory.

Sept. 17: Don Wert’s single scores Al Kaline in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Yankees, 2-1, as the Tigers win the pennant.

Sept. 25: Gates Brown’s three-run homer in the top of the ninth beats the Orioles, 4-3.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila will be seeking a veteran catcher on the free-agent market this winter. He’s also looking to add a big bat — perhaps a first baseman or outfielder — to inject some life into a moribund offense.

But perhaps the most interesting tidbit he shared on Tuesday afternoon was about a position that the Tigers don’t plan to fill externally.

The Tigers plan to give Niko Goodrum every opportunity to win the starting shortstop job in spring training, Avila said during a break in the annual General Manager Meetings at the Omni Resort in suburban Phoenix.

“All the indicators seem to point to him being the guy that can play shortstop for us in 2020,” Avila said. “He’ll certainly receive that opportunity. He’s done a fantastic job as a super-utility guy and that’s really probably his best role. But in our situation right now, (shortstop) might turn out to be the best bet.”

What about 22-year-old prospect Willi Castro, who made his Major League debut last September?

“In a perfect world Willi Castro probably needs a bit more seasoning in Toledo,” Avila said. “In saying that, in spring training he’ll be allowed to compete and see what happens. But the player coming back that we feel good about that can possibly give us the most innings at shortstop is Niko Goodrum.”

Goodrum got an extended look at shortstop after Jordy Mercer was hurt and graded out well defensively. That audition may have convinced the Tigers to give the 27-year-old a longer look at one position rather than bouncing him around the diamond.

Signed as a minor-league free agent before the 2018 season, Goodrum has played in 243 games for the Tigers over the last two seasons, appearing at every position except pitcher and catcher.

Catcher Jake Rogers didn’t do as well in his late-season audition with the Tigers, and Avila confirmed that the Tigers will definitely sign a veteran catcher to pair with Grayson Greiner. Rogers is likely ticketed to Triple-A Toledo.

“I think last year we brought him up out of necessity,” Avila said of Rogers. “He got some experience, but it showed that he was a little overexposed and he probably needs a little more seasoning.”

Despite Rogers’ struggles at the plate and occasional defensive lapses, the Tigers haven’t soured on one of their top prospects.

“We have a high level of confidence that he’s going to become the player we think he can be. From a defensive perspective for sure. From an offensive perspective, I think that when a player struggles, it opens his mind and his eyes and he would be more open to making adjustments. I think we’re at that point and hopefully it works out for him and for us,” Avila said.

In addition to a catcher, the Tigers are seeking a “bat” to add some pop to a lineup that was the worst in baseball in 2019.

Will that be a first baseman, an outfielder, something else? Stay tuned, Avila said.

“Therein lies the issue,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’d just like to acquire a bat for sure.”

Brandon Dixon played first base for much of the year after Miguel Cabrera was consigned to DH duty and Jeimer Candelario moved to first after Dawel Lugo started playing every day at third base late in the year.

The Tigers have not given up on Candelario, Avila said, although it remains up in the air on which side of the infield he’ll play in 2020.

“Last year he obviously didn’t have a good year. We feel like he’s a good candidate to get back on track,” Avila said. “That could happen at first or at third. If we end up getting a first baseman, there might be more competition between him and Lugo at third base, which is good. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The loser of the battle could just go to the bench, Avila said. (Both players are out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers before being sent to the minor leagues).

“There will be competition. It’s time we give these guys some competition,” he said.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila expects to see a slim, motivated Miguel Cabrera arrive at spring training in three months.

“I’ve talked to Miggy. I’ve talked to his agent. He’s committed to make sure that these last four years go as well as possible,” Avila said Tuesday at the MLB General Manager Meetings.

Four years is the magic number for Cabrera, 36, because it represents the number of seasons left on his monstrous contract, a span in which he’ll make $124 million no matter what happens.

Cabrera’s weight ballooned in 2019, which put pressure on his balky knee.

There is no surgical solution for Cabrera, but Avila is convinced he’s making the appropriate lifestyle changes.

Cabrera has hired a full-time, in-house chef who serves up meals approved by his personal nutritionist.

“Of course there’s a workout routine, strength-and-conditioning, weight loss, the whole bit. It’s full-scale,” Avila said. “If he follows that program, I have no doubt that he’ll come in in really good shape. Obviously he would have to continue that throughout the season to stay strong and healthy.”

Despite his knee problems, Cabrera never missed more than two consecutive games until the final week of the 2019 season. But in a year notable for an explosion of home runs, he hit only 12 in 549 plate appearances. He posted a .744 OPS, just under league average (96 OPS+ and 96 RC+).

“The injuries that he’s suffered are not going away. They’re there to stay,” Avila said. “‘There’s no more surgeries for me.’ That’s what he said. There’s no surgery that’s going to fix what he’s got.”

The first challenge for Cabrera will be the off-season weight loss. Then he’ll have to commit anew to in-season work.

“It’s no different than a pitcher going through a shoulder program,” Avila said. “If a pitcher does it throughout the season religiously, chances are he’s going to stay healthy. If a guy gets lazy and then abandons that program. If he does it off-and-on and he’s not committed to it? Then chances are he’s not going to make it through the season.

“Now, injuries will happen no matter how hard you work, but at the end of the day it’s about doing everything you can stay healthy.”