Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yo, Meathead!

So baseball has been over for a few weeks, and the NFL is starting to rev up toward its inevitable regular-season conclusion six weeks from now. The races are starting to come clearer. As of this moment, in the AFC, only Pittsburgh and Tennessee seem like locks to make the playoffs. The Jets are doing great, but the rest of the AFC East is no more than 2 games back and there are enough teams close in the conference that maybe even a wild card is no sure thing. (Who’d have ever guessed after 10 games this season that the Dolphins would be tied with the Patriots at 6–4 and only a game out of first place?)

In the NFC, things seem a little plainer--the Giants, Cardinals, Panthers, and Bucs all figure to make the playoffs this year. I make no predictions on the NFC North--the Packers, Bears, and Vikings are all tied for first at 5–5, with the Lions dead last at 0–10. Pretty miserable division! Seems like Brett Favre’s departure for New York left a power vacuum that no one else wants to fill.

I am looking forward to seeing how the stretch run plays out, if for no other reason than to see if the Giants can finish strong and head into the playoffs on a high note like they did last year. They have to play Arizona this afternoon, and they still have three division games left against tough opponents. Still, the Giants and the Titans seem like they are playing at another level than the rest of the NFL this year--still think the Giants’ Super Bowl win last year was a fluke?--and if this ends up being the matchup in this season’s Big Dance, it would be a title bout for the ages. The Titans might be the only team the Giants could meet and still claim that they are the underdogs--their “us against the world” mentality is what propelled them to their great upset victory against the Patriots last season.

I know, I know, my fans (?) might be getting tired of what they could see as many puff pieces on the Giants, but what can I say? The Mets let me down hard. The A’s were out of it by the All-Star break last year. The Knicks still stink, and until they find a way to dump Stephon Marbury, they won’t ever be able to wash the reek of carrion from their franchise. And while the Dolphins look pretty good, they can’t hold a candle to the bulldozer that is Big Blue, so my attention remains riveted on the Meadowlands. Sorry, folks! But unless the baseball offseason gets a little more interesting (yeah, I know, the A’s got Matt Holliday) or the Knicks find a way to make me take even the slightest interest in hoops again, I’ll be plastering these pages with more praise of Eli and Co. in the weeks to come!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Nate Knows Baseball

I have interviewed almost 50 retired major league baseball players throughout the years and few have made me feel as comfortable as Nate Oliver. A soft-spoken and extremely articulate man, I have talked to him on several occasions after meeting with him initially in early 2005. His stories of his years as a player and a coach are both fascinating and candid.

Nate is the son of Jim Oliver Sr., who had played in the Negro Leagues. James Oliver Field in St. Petersburg, named after Nate's father, was the first field to be refurbished under the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Field Renovation Programs. Nate's brother, Jim, also played professional baseball.
Nate was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959. He hit just .224 for the Green Bay Blue Jays and Fox Cities Foxes that year. In 1960, he hit .329 for the Great Falls Electrics and appeared ever so briefly for the St. Paul Saints. He played in the minors for the Spokane Indians in 1961-65 and in 1967, topping .300 in '62-'63. He came up to the majors for the first time in 1963, a year the Dodgers won the World Series. He appeared in 65 games, playing primarily second base, and hitting .239. He did not play in the World Series that year.
The next year, in 1964 at age 23, Nate had his most at-bats in the major leagues, getting 321 at-bats in 99 games. He hit .243 with 9 doubles and stole 7 bases.
In 1965 he appeared in only 8 games with the Dodgers, but in 1966 he played in 80 games with a .193 average. He appeared in game 4 of the World Series as a pinch-runner.
In 1967, his batting average improved to .237 in 77 games. In the off-season, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in the deal involving Ron Hunt and Tom Haller. He appeared in only 36 games in 1968, hitting .178/.189/.205.
In the off-season before 1969, he was traded to the Yankees, and played one game with them before they traded him to the Cubs, where he finished out his career in 44 games hitting .159.In 1989, Oliver managed the Arizona League Angels, and in 1990-91 he was at the helm of the Palm Springs Angels. In 1998, Oliver managed the Arizona League Cubs and in 1999 managed the Daytona Cubs, and in 2000 was a roving infield instructor in the Cubs organization. In 2003, he took over the managerial reins of the Saskatoon Legends of the Canadian Baseball League in mid-season from Ron LeFlore.
In 2006-07 Nate was the bunting instructor for the Chicago White Sox organization.
On former Cubs teammate Ron Santo: “I cannot believe this man is not in the Hall of Fame. If you look at what Ronnie has done-he won 8 Gold Gloves, he was in 6 or 8 all-star games, he has 378 home runs, he might still have the best fielding percentage of any third baseman, I think he still holds that record. He was no average Joe. He was an outstanding player. He was our team captain. I don’t know what else they want the guy to do.”
On the Cubs fans: “Oh, Jesus. Everybody always talks about the Cardinals fans, the Yankees fans, the Red Sox fans, but the Chicago Cubs fans to me were the very best. They were the greatest. Until this year (2004) I had never heard them boo one of their own players, but this year I did hear them boo Sammy (Sosa) which was sad. I thought I heard them boo Sammy this last season. But, as a rule, they never booed their own players. They were just unbelievably supportive. But, I don’t need to tell you that, because wherever you go, you see Cubs fans. It’s like it was with the Red Sox fans. You’d see them everywhere-praying, dreaming, hoping. And now that the Red Sox have won it all, people are starting to say that it must be the Cubs’ time. If they don’t win it within the next six years, it will be a century of no championships for the Cubs.”
On the Dodgers in the ‘60s: “The Dodgers were known around the league as a very arrogant team at that time. People said they were very conceited, but it wasn’t that at all. They were just really confident and people misinterpreted that as arrogance. It was instilled in them from the first day with the organization and the people who played there respected the tradition and fostered it. Every year, there was only goal and that was to get to the World Series. Everything else was second best.”
The famous Roseboro, Marichal fight: “We had Johnny Roseboro, probably the most respected guy on that team, because he was such a tremendous student of the game and when he spoke, regardless of who was in the room, everybody listened, because everything he said was profound. Marichal and Roseboro were probably two of the most respected men in baseball. They were also the two most competitive people in sports, period. They were also two of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, in terms of being human beings and in terms of being gentlemen. If you recall or have heard the story, because of that fight and the fact than Juan hit Johnny with the bat, Marichal was having some initial problems getting into the Hall of Fame. And it was Roseboro who made the phone call to the powers-that-be and said ‘are you kidding, this is one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen.’ That was an isolated incident between two clubs who did not like each other and it was part of that rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers.”

The self-managed Dodgers of 1963: “Junior Gilliam was essentially the manager on the field. He had no problem taking on that role. If a pitcher was in trouble out there and something was going awry, Gilliam would step up immediately and act as the manager. Our pitching coach Red Adams would only come running out if he saw something mechanically wrong with the pitcher. Because if a pitcher fell behind; if he was wild or his concentration level wasn’t there, it would be Gilliam that would call time and walk over to the mound. All our manager Walter Alston had to do was sit there and push buttons, because we had so many guys like Gilliam, Maury Wills, Jim Lefebvre and Roseboro who were such tremendous students of the game of baseball.”

On teammate Maury Wills: “He was so valuable to that Dodgers team, because when he got on base, everybody knew he was going to steal. You can’t imagine how exciting it was to hear 55,000 people at Dodger stadium yelling ‘Go! Go!’. If 55,000 people knows he’s going to go, then you know the opposing team certainly knows it. But, it didn’t matter, because they couldn’t stop him. He was going to go within the first three pitches; they just didn’t know when. What Wills did was create havoc for the other team. He got more fastballs for me and anyone else who batted behind him in the lineup. He also drew the infielders in because of his speed. And he kept the defense on edge at all times, which basically means that they were distracted and out of position. As a result, ground balls that would normally have been routine infield outs are now going through as base hits, because they’re defending Wills and not defending the hitter. He did so many things just by being so aggressive and by being the greatest base stealer I ever saw.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Yo, Meathead!

Wow, the first week of November! Did everyone have a Happy Halloween? We sure did at our house!

I can’t say how unhappy I am that the Phillies won the World Series, but I guess they earned it—by the end of it all, they were clearly the best team in baseball. Of course, it galls me greatly to have to say that about a Philadelphia team.… Too bad the only thing I have to hide myself behind in the New York–Philadelphia rivalry is the Giants’ last Super Bowl win, since the Eagles went to the Big Dance only once out of four appearances in the NFC Championship Game from 2002 to 2005 and lost that game to the Patriots.

It will be a grueling season for the Mets next year, having to hear all about the Phillies’ big win—but then, the Mets haven’t done much to endear themselves to the rest of the NL East with their celebratory antics the last couple of years. Their division rivals all feel extra-motivated to beat them due to their immature posturing. Maybe seeing the Phillies with some championship bling will finally make the Mets more serious about winning and less concerned with antagonizing the other teams in the league.

So—now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s go on to the more pleasant (at least, for me) subject of football! Even as I write, the early slate of games is playing itself out, but the game I’m looking forward to this afternoon is Dallas–New York—another notch in the long history of games between these two rivals (even though the Cowboys have bested the Giants in their overall regular-season series, it’s always fun to point out now that the only time the teams met in the playoffs—last year—the Giants won). I am hoping the Giants can turn on the dominance and once and for all put to rest all those early predictions that said the Cowboys were the team to beat in the NFC and had the best shot of going to the Super Bowl. Even before this upcoming game, who would you be more likely to pick as a really good team, the 6–1 Giants or the 5–3 Cowboys?

I understand the Cowboys have injuries (and a suspension) to deal with—everyone does at this point of the season—which is why depth also matters. Maybe Jerry Jones should hire himself a general manager and take a step back for a change. He’s getting more like Al Davis every day, and look where the Raiders are right now!

After their terrific showing on defense last week in defeating a hard-as-nails Pittsburgh team (possible Super Bowl preview, anybody?), more strong defensive play from the Giants and home-field advantage, as well as Tony Romo’s broken hand, should tip this one in favor of Big Blue. With a 7–1 record at the halfway point of their season, it will be tough for anyone to question that the G-men are the tops in the NFC, and perhaps in the NFL, Tennessee’s undefeated record notwithstanding.

SEASONINGS: Anyone know the last time the Giants—or any team—had a safety in two consecutive games? That’s some defense!