Why the Rays struggle

The Devil Rays have lost eleven games in a row, and everyone wants to know why. It’s not all that hard to figure out. You have a young team with little veteran leadership, a pitching staff with kids who have never learned how to win, no catching to speak of, and on a team with little quality depth, injuries or suspensions to BJ Upton, Elijah (Big Daddy) Dukes, Josh Paul, and now Al Reyes.
In some respects the big leagues really aren’t that different from little league. I have coached little league and AAU ball for years. I always tell the pitchers the same thing: throw first-pitch strikes and get ahead of the hitters. I also tell them not to throw the ball down the heart of the plate. Some little leaguers listen and at least attempt to do this. Some are only interested in throwing the ball as fast and hard as they can. Some have not a clue how to pitch, but merely throw fastball after fastball in an attempt to overpower the batters. Doesn’t work in little league, doesn’t work in the big leagues. You wonder why Scott Kasmir needs 115 pitches to get through five innings. I’m sure his coach is telling him to cut down on the pitches. He just hasn’t figured out how to do it yet. Hopefully he will before he moves on to another team.
The Detroit Tigers had a very young, inexperienced pitching staff. They had Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman leading the staff and losing a lot. These kids had no one to guide them, so the Tigers went out and signed Ivan Rodriguez off the roster of the Florida Marlins. Rodriguez, one of the five best catchers in the history of baseball, turned the team around all by himself. He was expensive, but he was worth it.
Who do the Rays have to lead their pitchers? Dioner Navarro, a great kid, but a rookie green behind the ears. You watch Edwin Jackson throw fastball after fastball, and you wonder, what is Navarro thinking? He’s doing the best he can. He’s just not ready to be a big league catcher, and every one of our pitchers suffers as a result.
It’s clear to everyone that you can’t build a winning team on the other guys’ castoffs. Yes, management has gotten terrific value from Carlos Pena, Brenden Harris, Ty Wigginton, and Al Reyes. But would you rather have Brenden Harris or Miguel Tejada? Ty Wigginton or Gary Sheffield? At some point, and I do believe this is the point, management is going to have to go out and get a couple of expensive veterans, behind the plate and on the mound especially. The team needs a Kenny Rogers, a Roy Halladay, a guy who not only can win games but can work with the other pitchers as well.
The Rays have been forced to bring up pitchers too early and to let them go too early. Look at Chad Gaudin, who is becoming a star with the Oakland A’s. We could have had Gaudin, Shields, and Kasmir. But we let Gaudin go. And we are paying for that mistake. Brenden Backe was a similar mistake. Because our team is so thin, the Rays just cannot afford any mistakes.
Management was honest when it said that this year will be spent evaluating. Here’s my evaluation: a team without quality veterans is a team without a rudder. I’m one of those who thinks Joe Madden has been a terrific manager. But if he doesn’t have veterans who know how to win out there on the field providing leadership and guidance to the legion of kids, this team will continue to flounder and lose.

In the Country of Brooklyn

My next book, out next summer from HarperCollins, is called In The Country of Brooklyn. It sprang from an extraordinary experience I had almost ten years ago when I was invited to participate in a weekend conference at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University celebrating the life of Jackie Robinson. It was convened by Prof. Joseph Dorenson, who invited an array of fascinating speakers to talk about what Jackie meant to America.
Last year Major League Baseball announced that every April 15th would be declared Jackie Robinson Day. His number would be retired permanently. He would be remembered forever. Which I thought was amazing, because when I wrote BUMS, my oral history of the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1984, I wrote that had it not been for Robinson, it is doubtful the civil rights movement would have succeeded as well as it did. But in 1984
Robinson was barely a memory. When African-American ballplayers were asked if they knew who Robinson was, a number said they had never heard of him. Twenty years later he was being given his proper place.
I thought to myself, you should write a book that answers the questionsWhy was Robinson loved in Brooklyn, but hated everywhere else? In nineteen forty seven when Branch Rickey wanted to bring Robinson up to the Dodgers, the major leageu owners voted 15 to 1 to stop him from doing so. Owners of teams like the Red Sox, the Phils, and the Yankees, would have a black player for another ten years. But baseball commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler, a Kentucky senator and governor, told Rickey to go ahead anyway. And so Robinson came up to the Dodgers.
I called Professor Dorinson to find out what he thought of my idea. He not only was very supportive, but he agreed to email me his hallowed address book of the men and women who had performed at his conference. I took full advantage of his generosity.
I called Doug Grad, my editor at HarperCollins. Doug had bought my Mantle book, and we were looking for a follow-up, and I suggested this Brooklyn idea. Turns out Doug, his father, and his grandfather all had deep Brooklyn roots. He too loved the idea, and we made a deal. Doug also had great contacts, it turned out.
A major theme of this book is that just about everyone who I interviewed came from immigrant stock. They came from Poland, Russia, Italy, Ireland, and Puerto Rico, among others. The Afro-Americans, of course, originally came from Africa and not willingly.
The immigrants fled persecution. The Jews fled from the czar, and the Italians from hunger, and the Irish from hunger and the British. It was the Jews, more than any other group, who supported Jackie Robinson and his quest to break the color line. If Robinson succeeded in proving himself, the Jews felt, their plight might improve as well.
The Jews I interviewed for this book became educators, labor leaders, lawyers, and civil rights proponents. More than any other group, they were victimized by the Palmer raids and by Joe McCarthy thirty years later. Both Palmer and McCarthy had in common as their supplier of information J. Edgar Hoover. Not only was Hoover an anti-Semite like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, but he was a stone-cold racist. Hoover was the single most-powerful enemy of the civil rights movement. After reading this book, you will be right to question who were the heroes and who were the agents of terrorism.
Calling someone a Communist became a tactic of terror. Wait til you read the story of Frank Wilkinson, who wanted to build integrated housing at the site of Chavez Ravine right around the time the Dodgers wanted to move there. You’ll see what I mean.
For those men and women who grew up in Brooklyn before 1957, one of the central focuses in their lives was the Dodgers. It was a local team of colorful characters, and under Branch Rickey fielded competitive teams almost every year. When Robinson came up to the majors, the Dodgers became something bigger than just a ballclub — they were a living statement for integration. Ebbets Field, after all, was the only integrated public accommodation in the entire United States. Those who rooted for the Robinson-Reese Dodgers couldn’t help become adults who cared deeply about civil rights, human rights, and social justice. After you read the stories these Brooklynites tell, you will have no doubt as to Robinson’s importance in American history.
I was able to interview such men and women as Henry Foner, Marvin Miller, Dorothy Burnham, Abe Smorodon, who fought in the Lincoln Brigades; and Lester Rodney, who for years advocated integrating baseball in The Daily Worker . Rodney was as important as anyone in the campaign to bring Robinson to the Dodgers. At age 92 this remarkable man is still with us, sharp as ever.
I also interviewed Neil Sedaka and Bruce Morrow, known to all of us as “Cousin Brucie”. Morrow, Murray the K, and Alan Freed were pioneers in bringing black music to the white air waves. In his own way, Murrow was a hero of the civil rights movement. Kids who saw Robinson play and listened to Little Richard and Chuck Berry knew that the claim by the segregationists that whites were superior was a myth. All you had to do was listen to “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and you knew.
Pete Hamill talks brilliantly about his Irish upbringing, and Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, talks about his Italian grandpa and about the goombahs in his Italian neighborhood. Pete Spanakos, a Golden Gloves boxer from Red Hook, remembers Mohammed Ali and one of his biggest fans, Joey Gallo.
In the Sixties things began to change. The Dodgers fled to Los Angeles, and many of those who lived in Brooklyn fled with them, to Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Their leaving affected Brooklynites greatly. The common thread was gone. As blacks and Latinos moved into Brooklyn in large numbers, a rift between blacks and whites developed, expecially after school busing began. I was fascinated to listen to both the whites and the blacks talk on the issue. The nadir came in 1977 when the lights went out in Brooklyn. The rioting was terrible. Everyone was affected. The last part of the book talks about how Brooklyn has come back, and clearly it has.
The book is completed, but if anyone out there has any special stories about their Brooklyn childhood, or about Brooklyn today, I would love for you to post them. This is a borough that is alive and changing all the time. There are few places in America more fascinating.