1) As many of you know, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter passed away yesterday at the age of 57. Carter was coaching college baseball in Florida when he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. He was able to make a final trip to see his team’s first game two weeks ago.
As an M’s fan in the early 80s, National League stars existed as stories, rumors, and highlight packages on This Week in Baseball. Maybe it was the state of the AL West at the time (with the M’s having recently acquired Bob Kearney from the A’s, Jim Sundberg’s end-of-career struggles and Bob Boone’s late-career batting ineptitude), but Mel Allen kept showing me a catcher blasting home runs and flirting with a .300 average. It seemed a bit bizarre, and the fact that he played in Canada, in a French-speaking city, just magnified my confusion.
The biggest catching star in the AL was probably Lance Parrish, and as an AL partisan, I initially suspected that Parrish was better because he played against better competition (like the Mariners!) in games using English rules (not whatever the Montrealers were doing, what with Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Jeff Reardon, Steve Rogers all putting up video-game stats). But then Carter moved to the Mets and was a cog on one of the best, most memorable teams of the 1980s, and I had to admit that not even Parrish’s appearance on Diff’rent Strokes could close the gap. Carter was the best catcher of his generation, and I didn’t really have a sense of him until he was in his 30s. It was only really in the past few years that I’ve learned just how good he was defensively. He routinely threw out 40% of would-be base-stealers, leading the league twice with 47% marks.
2) Tim Wakefield announced his retirement today after a 19 year MLB career. He pitched for the Red Sox from 1995 through 2011. Drafted as an IF, he switched to pitching as a 22-year old in the New York-Penn League and steadily rose through the ranks before making his MLB debut with the Pirates on July 31st, 1992. That day, against the Cardinals, the rookie earned a win with a complete-game, 10K performance. He won his next start (pitching 8 innings) and by the end of the year, Wakefield was 8-1 and a key member of the Pirates rotation in the NLCS against the Braves. He went 2-0 in the NLCS, tossing complete games in the 3rd and 6th games.
The Pirates won the NL East that year somewhat comfortably, but they were tied with Montreal on July 30th, the day before Wakefield’s debut. His dominance down the stretch (and his two post-season wins) make for one of the more important late-season call-ups in recent (I guess calling it ‘recent’ is a stretch) memory. And then, like so many Shane Spencers and Kevin Stockers, he lost it. In 1993, Wakefield had an ERA and FIP in the mid 5’s, and walked 75 (with 9 HBPs!) with only 59 Ks. The Pirates finished 5th that year and haven’t had a winning season since. Wakefield toiled in the minors in 1994 and was, improbably, even worse than he was in 1993. Again he gave up more free passes than Ks, and his ERA climbed to nearly 6 en route to a 5-15 year with Buffalo. Given the disruption due to the MLB strike, it actually took the Pirates until April of 1995 to release him.
And then, just as suddenly, he was back. His first game was May 27th, a 7 IP, 1R gem against a very good Angels line-up. He took the hill again 3 days later (?) and blanked the A’s over 7 1/3 IP. His 3rd start came against the Mariners, and Wakefield went 10IP to get a 2-1 win (after Bobby Ayala gave up a walk-off HR in the 10th). He ended up going 16-8 on his way to 186 wins in a Red Sox uniform.
3) On a happier note, today’s the opening day for Division 1 college baseball. Baseball America’s weekend preview looks at some of the big match-ups, including #10 Vanderbilt traveling to Palo Alto to take on #2 Stanford. The UW Huskies are in San Diego to take on San Diego State, whose manager, Tony Gwynn, underwent surgery this week to have a tumor removed from his cheek (can I pause here to say F#$! you, cancer). The surgery apparently went about as well as it could have – for a 14 hour procedure which involved removing nerves in Gwynn’s face and replacing them with nerves from his shoulder), and Gwynn hopes to be back in the dugout this season.
UW’s a young team with a number of JC transfers, but they’ve also got sophomore Austin Voth, who returns after impressing scouts in the Cape Cod league this summer. Northwest JC Player of the Year McKenzie ‘Mac’ Acker is an undersized lefty with very good velo, and could also get some time in the OF.
WSU begins its season with three games at Mississippi State. The Cougars are led by slugging 1B Taylor Ard, who led the Pac 10 in HRs last season with 10. OF Jason Monda’s another player to watch. Their top three starters from a year ago are gone, so they’re going to need some freshmen to step up. The Pac-12 coaches picked WSU to finish 9th, one spot ahead of UW.
Seattle University kicked things off with a series against Utah Valley University. Due to the forecasted winter storm, the Redhawks were scheduled to kick their first game off today at 11am. Don’t know if they were able to beat the rain or not. Starters Seafth Howe and Brandon Kizer return from last year’s team, as does 2011 OBP leader Trent Oleszczuk. If the weather clears at all this weekend and you’re eager to watch some baseball, check out the Redhawks.
4) Larry LaRue’s got an encouraging blog post up on Franklin Gutierrez, who weighed in at 201 lbs. So he’s now gained closer to 20 lbs since last season. I’m encouraged that his IBS symptoms haven’t returned and that he’s been healthy enough to put on weight, but it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to playing at a new weight. Obviously, this is a much easier adjustment than the ones he tried to make last year, but this strikes me as something that could take a few months to work out. The M’s carried two black holes in CF last year, with both Gutierrez and Mike Saunders struggling through their worst seasons as professionals. A healthy Gutierrez would go a very long way towards getting the M’s offense back on track, while his defense might make the back of the M’s rotation look OK.