Thursday, December 13, 2012

Part 6: Antonelli's Road to the Show Hits a Snag

When pitcher Zack Greinke signed a 6-year, $147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was hard not to think about players like Matt Antonelli.

As TV revenues increase and more and more guys like Greinke sign wildly lucrative contracts, you can't blame baseball fans for feeling farther and farther separated from the athletes they support. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that most professional baseball players aren't like Greinke or Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Josh Hamilton etc. It's easy to forget that those players are still the exception, not the rule.

Most professional baseball players are like Matt Antonelli.

Antonelli isn't a multi-millionaire. In fact, at the moment he's unemployed. The former 17th overall pick in 2007 has played 21 major league games – all in 2008 – and 513 minor league games since being selected by the Padres. He was released by San Diego in 2010 after three years of battling injuries. Since, he's played minor league games for the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees' organizations.

But he hasn't made it back to the majors. Even after hitting .297/.393/.460 in 86 games for the Syracuse Chiefs in 2011, Antonelli wasn't so much as given a September call-up.

Entering last off-season, the Peabody, Mass. native was as healthy as he'd been since 2007 and confident he'd be back in The Show in 2012. His aspiration seemed even more obtainable when the Orioles signed him to a major league contract. Even general manager Dan Duquette's quotes in the team's press release intimated he'd be with the big club.

After 34 at-bats with the O's in spring training, though, he was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk where he expected to be the starting third baseman.

One of the reasons I came to Baltimore is that I thought I'd have an opportunity hopefully at some point to play in the majors,” Antonelli said over the phone last April after his minor league assignment. “Whether it would be at the very beginning or whenever to be contributing at that level. That's my goal.”

But when he wasn't in the lineup on opening day, Antonelli began to wonder if things were going to work.

When he did get in the lineup, the plate discipline that intrigued the Orioles was still there, but the line drives and home runs were missing. And the thing about playing in the minor leagues is, with one-year contracts and little patience for slumps, pressure mounts quickly.

A few weeks later – while he'd been bouncing in and out of the lineup and struggling at the plate - the second baseman tweeted a picture of a snow-filled, Single-A ballpark. The stadium has wooden advertisements as a wall and bleachers that only fits about 2,000 without alerting the fire marshall. Norfolk was there to play the Scranton Yankees, who were without a home while their new stadium was being built. It was still a Triple-A game, but it felt like one of those how-did-I-get-here moments.

It was my weirdest season by far to say the least,” Antonelli said last week.

In the following weeks, the Orioles started shaking up their roster. They signed several players who would play a key role in their run toward the playoffs, including outfielders Nate McClouth and Lew Ford. Antonelli, however, was the odd man out. On May 13 – only about two months after a spot on the MLB roster seemed possible - he was released. He finished with only 116 plate appearances for the Tides.

Obviously I was disappointed at how it went,” he said. “But if I had shown up to Baltimore and played well and played like I did in Syracuse, things would have been different. So I can only blame myself.”

Four days later, he was picked up by the New York Yankees. They assigned him to Triple-A Scranton. Things didn't work out much better there than they had in Norfolk. The Yankees' lineup was pretty much set by the time he walked in the door and when he did play, he didn't hit. Then, he injured his hand.

At that point, I was thinking 'this is the season from hell,'” he said.

The former first-round pick only played 15 games with the Yankees. He was DFA'd, picked back up and DFA'd again along the way. His final stat line for the season was 44 games, .201/.324/.286, two home runs and 11 RBI – nothing close to what he'd hoped.

Antonelli doesn't want to call this upcoming season a crossroads, but there's no other word. He's 27 and fully believes he can fulfill his potential as an everyday major league infielder. However, the reality is that mountain gets harder and harder to climb each year that it doesn't happen. Every season, a whole new crop of rookies enter the league who are pegged to be everyday players. It's like a game of musical chairs with 1,000 players fighting for one seat.

That's the life of a professional baseball player. Not mansions and Maseratis. It's time away from home, low pay and long bus rides. It's being cut and traded, sometimes even misled. If you aren't a star, there's a constant self dialogue about what's next and when you'll call it quits.

But Antonelli isn't ready to have that conversation yet. Even when things were down, he was inspired by his former Syracuse teammate Gregor Blanco, who was the starting left fielder on the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants. Blanco was mostly a minor league player and fourth outfieder who took over in left field when Mekly Cabrera was suspended for PEDs.

Blanco made several key plays during the World Series. Antonelli was watching.

Gregor is a great player,” he said. “Sometimes a guy has a bad season and people write him off, then the next thing you know he's contributing in the majors. It happens with tons of players. So, I know I'm not young anymore, but I'm only 27 and I still think that can be me.”

Antonelli said he and his agent are still working on finding a spot for next season. 



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Defense of John Sterling

A few days ago, a caller to a Rochester, New York, talk radio station buzzed in to the nightly sports talk show to tell the world that John Sterling is the worst play-by-play broadcaster in baseball. The caller said he was disappointed in the station for carrying New York Yankees games because their listeners deserve better. (Forgive the man for not really understanding how it works.) Mr. Caller was insistent that Sterling "failed to paint a picture" and was too busy "worrying about statistics." The host agreed. He suggested that Sterling stop wasting his time coming up with new jingles for each player's home runs and focus on the game. The call ended with both men undoubtedly nodding proudly.

Their opinions, no doubt, are widely shared. There are many blogs dedicated to mocking Sterling and even more Twitter accounts that snark at his expense. And sometimes said blogs/Twitter accounts are pretty darn funny. But is he really the worst in baseball?

Sterling is absolutely the worst in baseball at a lot of things.

He bumbles over simple descriptions of on-field events. Sometimes he messes up so badly you think he's in the Bronx and the game is being played in Manhattan and he's trying to make out the action with low-power binoculars.

His interactions  with color analyst Suzyn Waldman are awkward at best, condescending at worst. Inning after inning, Waldman will make fair - albeit shallow - observations and Sterling will respond with either dead air, "and thaaa pitch" or "of course, Suzyn," and then carry on about his business. Waldman is widely mocked for calling Roger Clemens' return like Babe Ruth had just stepped out of the dugout, but her comments aren't always so silly. In fact, they are at least equivalent to that of most ex players holding the same position. But Sterling often sets her up to sound foolish.

Then there's the home run calls. They are a parody of themselves. They are abominably corny and often leave you with the same feeling as when your buddy has a little too much and decides to sing karaoke. Only Sterling's singing doesn't come off as funny or cute, it makes you think he wants to be the star of the show - that he's bigger than an A-Bomb or Tex Message.

So, yes, Sterling has more noticeable and easily discernible flaws than your middle-of-the-road mic jockey. \

But the man is entertaining as all hell.

When you listen to Sterling, you strap in for "John's Emotional Roller Coaster Ride," in which each inning  there's a chance you'll see something magical and when it's over, win or lose, nobody's more disappointed than him to go home.

Sterling cares about the Yankees like an old man that has a train collection in his basement. Getting on the mic is like him putting on his pinstriped conductor hat and heading down stairs to futz with the fake little landscapes and tell you about how he loves to accelerate around the curves. He chuckles at it all, often proclaiming, "isn't it amazing?"

When the Yankees lose, Sterling doesn't get angry, he gets disappointed. It's like A-Rod broke one of his favorite box cars. He knows there will be another, but he's still a little sad.

In the big moments, nobody could ever be more excited than he is. Many are better. Nobody is more pumped to be calling it. Sterling's pace will pick up. His voice will begin to quiver. He becomes a vocal volcano, hoping upon hope that his club allows him to erupt. And when Raul Ibanez hits that game-tying home run in the playoffs, his unabashed joy resembles a golden retriever that's been waiting to go out to play and the door is finally opened and Frisbee thrown.

Even if you hate the Yankees, hate Sterling, hate Roger Clemens, hate Micky Mantle and hate that over-priced soulless stadium and its $10 hamburgers and empty lower bowl, you can't hate a golden retriever chasing a Frisbee.

And about those home run calls. The endings are terrifically bad, but the beginnings are great. When the batter  hits the ball and Sterling yells, "swung on and hit deeeep to right field...." how can you not grip your chair waiting for him to say, "gawnnnn."

Heck, you can even make a little game out of whether the ball actually leaves the yard or ends up a pop out near first base.

The point is, there are probably 29 other radio broadcasts that are more accurate and even keeled, but few that are more fun than the Sterling's. In other words, his painting isn't exactly a Rembrandt like listening to Vin Scully, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy looking at it.

Of course, sometimes you have to get over yourself first.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Baseball Memories Pt. 1

He called for the change up. St. Louis Cardinals' catcher Yadier Molina threw down four fingers, flashing the sign for the change to his right-handed pitcher Adam Wainwright. The gangly rookie looked back with one eyebrow raised, then nodded. Center fielder Carlos Beltran was at the plate. He had slammed the Cards in the 2004 National League Championship Series as a member of the Astros and with the bases loaded and down by one, Beltran had a chance to be the biggest hero in Shea Stadium since Mookie Wilson.

The puzzled rook must have thought Molina was picking a strange time to haze him. Should he shake it off? Nobody shakes him off. Two-seem fastball, cut fastball, slider and curve ball. They ran through his mind. Wainwright, a top prospect starter, was out of his element here. He had been jammed into the closer's role after veteran Jason Isringhausen had gone down with an arm injury. He had been living off a plus fastball and a curve that would cause hitters to jump like they'd seen a crack of lightning. Not a stupid change up.

Strike one. Beltran raised his brow.

A few foul balls and a crack of lightning later and Molina was somewhere in the middle of the pile; his mask, glove and chest protector laying on the grass just beyond the celebration.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What I learned around the ballpark...

It's been awhile since I've written anything here, but lately I've been thinking about my upcoming season with the Batavia Muckdogs, single-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Thing is, last year was my first experience showing up at the ballpark every day as part of a team. When you are a journalist working for an outside source, it's more difficult to get your hands on candid conversations. Everyone thinks you are going to run and tell the world. But when you are a play-by-play broadcaster, folks around the game assume you won't be revealing too much on the air. And to be perfectly honest, they probably figure nobody important is listening even if you do.

In my time hanging around scouts, coaches, roving instructors and even some high-ranking executives, I was privy to many interesting conversations. The amount I learned from these people about the game of baseball, I couldn't possibly put a value on how much it helped me do my job.

The most interesting aspect of being a sponge, soaking up knowledge from those whose careers depend on knowing the game, was that there are many different ways of looking at the same thing. So, I figured I'd pass along, with no names mentioned, the some interesting parts of chats I had with these people. Keep in mind, this is the stuff these guys would say to pretty much anybody, I kept any information that would be harmful to anyone off the record where it belongs.

I'll start out with my favorite quote, coming from a former major leaguer:

"I tell these young players, if you want to make it to the show, it's not about hitting, running or pitching. Who can't do that stuff? Fuck, man, everybody has tools. If you want to play every day in The Show, you have to be like The Wizard of Oz. I say, if you want to make it, you better have fucking heart, you better have fucking courage and you better have fucking brains."

Same guy, on what it takes to hit in the big leagues:

"I don't care one bit if you can hit a curve ball or slider or change. Don't care. Nobody cares. There are 100 guys in The Show who can't hit a curve. It's all about the fast ball. You won't make it past double-A if you can't turn around a 95 mph fastball. You know why? Because guys in the majors don't make too many mistakes with the fastball, and when they do, you better hit it. Hit those, wait on the hanging breaking stuff and you can do it."

Staying with the same theme, another ex-MLB'er turned scout on why so many young players fail:

"It's a boring game. Think about it, if you play in the outfield, you spend most of the time looking around, staring at the grass, singing a little song to yourself. It's boring. Then, you get three, maybe four chances to do something in a whole game. And you have to keep your concentration. After awhile, you are riding five hours on a bus to stand in the outfield looking at the grass and you say to yourself, 'why am I doing this?' See, you better freeking love this game or you will lose motivation quickly."

Another scout on players' competitive nature:

"I've thrown BP to the (MLB team) before. (two star players) were sitting there competing on who could rip it off which sign in the outfield or who could hit a one-hop line drive on the edge of the grass. They were kind of betting each other like, 'I bet you can't do this.' Those are two guys making millions and millions of dollars and they are so obsessed with competition that they are competing in BP in August on a Thursday. That's what I look for."

AL scout:

"Watching Jamie Moyer pitch is fucking poetry, man."

 Another scout on whether leadership matters:

"(a current MLB star) invited (the team's No. 1 draft pick) over to his house for dinner a week after the kid got drafted. That's the guy who's supposed to some day take your job and you are inviting him to dinner. Think about what that means when other guys see that. They know that in this franchise, the team is bigger than anyone and it's all class. And that if you don't act like a professional here, you can go somewhere else."

 Another scout on how his job has changed the way he looks at the game:

"It's funny, doing this job kind of ruins baseball for you a little. I was watching a game with my son, he's 12, and a guy threw a runner out at second base. My son says, 'dad, that guy has a great arm.' I said, 'yes he does, buddy.' I couldn't help but think, 'meh, that was only a 55 or 60 at best.' Then I thought, where did the fun go of thinking everybody was great?"

Scout on judging "make up"

"We ask a lot of guys like you, 'how is this guy in the club house? Is he a nice guy?' And you know what? If a player is a nice guy, good, but we don't care at all. The biggest jerk ever was Barry Bonds. He was also the best player ever. You know what I care about? If the guy wants to be the best that ever played. If he has a killer instinct. Honestly, not too many nice guys also want to kill you for taking them out of the lineup."

NL scout on judging an outfielder's arm:

"If the first thing you say about a guy is: 'he's got a good arm' then I know he can't hit for shit."

Executive on statistics:

"I used to play strat-o-matic. Who knew that would come in handy, huh."

Scout on statistics:

"In the minors, stats are like a report card. If a kid brings his report card home and he's smart enough to have A's but he's got all C's, you wonder about him because you know he should have A's, or say, be hitting .350 instead of .200. You don't give up on him, just wonder if he can ever get A's. In the big leagues, stats are everything. You are a .300 hitter or you aren't."

A different scout on stats:

"I don't give a fuck about your stupid numbers."

Scout on range:

"I'd take Jeter over someone like Furcal all day. You know when the game is on the line, Jeter is going to make the play."

Scout on why a particular player was traded:

"He's an idiot. We don't put up with idiots."

Scout on judging fielding range:

"I look at who has the best range in the game and I count down from there. BJ Upton has the best range in center in the majors. His reads are flawless, speed incredible. When I see a guy going after a ball, I say, 'is he as good as BJ Upton?' Nope. He ain't an 80 then."

Coach walking by a scout (not 100 percent sure he was joking):

"I'll tell you what my wife says about scouts...she says you assholes get paid to write down your stupid numbers. Oh, 55? 45? Who gives a shit. You must laugh yourself to sleep every night thinking you get paid to write down stupid numbers."

Another scout on making it:

"I knew a guy with average everything, but that sonofabitch showed up hours before everyone else and asking every day for help on his swing, his throwing, everything. You can absolutely outwork your talent, no question."

Two scouts on the same pitcher:

Scout one: "He's tipping all of his pitches, they'll kill him at the next level"

Scout two: "He's got good deception, I think he could be a real good pitcher"

Friday, August 5, 2011

Over the top?

So, game is 3-2, man on 3rd base, 2 outs in the bottom of the the call over the top?

Oh, and I have no idea why it says Feb. 18, 2008 or why there are Penguins. Just go with it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Former Yankees No. 1 pick Culver handles expectations

Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, N.Y., isn't much of a stage. It's an old stadium, better fit for high school than professional baseball. It holds 2,000 people and rarely comes close to capacity. The grass is green and yellow, lights dim and sometimes the PA system cuts out. It's six hours away from the World's biggest baseball stage in the Bronx, but feels like a heck of a lot farther than that....

When the New York Yankees called Cito Culver's name with their first pick on draft day 2010, the response from Yankees fans was: "who?" Fans hadn't heard of him because baseball players don't come from Rochester, N.Y. A few NFLers and even an NBA player or two have come from the Western N.Y. area, but few big leaguers. Former right-handed pitcher Tim Redding is the most notable - but he only sniffed the majors. Culver is different. Not just because he was taken 32nd overall by the Yankees, but because he is a shortstop and wears No. 2.

The expectations for most late first-round draft picks is becoming a major league starter. Culver is expected to take the shortstop position from Derek Jeter. You know, the guy with more hits than any player in the history of the franchise, five championship rings and the type of super stardom only previously achieved by Michael Jordan. "Yeah, Cito, that's your gig next," the Yankees said by spending a first-round pick on him.

Somebody had to play guard for the Bulls after Jordan. Somebody had to play quarterback for the Broncos after John Elway. Culver is pegged as the guy to play shortstop after Jeter. Brian Griese and Jay Cutler couldn't handle it, neither could Pete Myers or any of the guards, even Derek Rose for Chicago. Mike Cameron was a descent enough center fielder, but he'll always be that guy who roamed the outfield post-Griffey. That's the thing about filling unfillable shoes: it takes someone special.

Yankees scout Tim Alexander told his club that Culver is that special. He watched the shortstop play more than 200 times. The arm is plus-plus, range outstanding, hands quick with a little bit o' pop. But lots of guys have all that. "Good kid?" I ask Alexander. "No," he says staring down from his wrap-around sun glasses. "Great kid."

Alexander said makeup is often overstated. He doesn't care if a kid is arrogant or friendly, smart or dumb. He wants to know if he can play ball. But, with the expectations for Culver, it's a different ballgame. "For that kid to go through what he went through and still play? That tells you something," he said.

The 19-year-old infielder watched his father try to burn his family's house down. He watched his father go to jail. He watched the draft from his home in Rochester with everyone but the man who taught him baseball.

One year after being picked 32nd overall, Culver is in the rusty confines of Dwyer Stadium of the New York Penn League. Standing at the bottom of the mountain, he can barely see the Bronx at the top. He's wearing No. 2, batting second with the word "Yankees" across the chest. Only the words "Staten Island" are above it. There's a nervous ovation as he steps in to the batter's box, only a 45 minute drive from the back yard he grew up throwing the ball around with his dad.

He doesn't look back at his mom or at the local media cameras. He looks at ball two. He's facing what scouts call an "org" pitcher. Which stands for organizational and is a nice way of saying he'll never amount to anything. The org pitcher grooves one. Culver, a switch-hitter batting left, snaps the wrists and launches a home run over the right field wall. It's his first home run of the season. The crowd exhales, then cheers.

In the fourth inning, he hit another home run. You could almost hear Suzyn Waldman screeching, "of all the dramatic things...."

Culver greets the media with a grin in the glittery media room known as the visitor's bullpen. He smiles politely at questions about coming home. "What would Jeter say?" Seemed to come out in all of his answers. Cliches about loving the game and having great teammates. But what about being the next Brian Griese? Or Mike Cameron?

"I just try to play hard, man," he says with a little less ease. "I'll take his spot only if he wants to give it to me."

What's surprising is that Jeter does want to give it to him. Alexander says Jeter has invited Culver over for dinner and talked to him about what it means to be a professional baseball player. "He's a really great guy, he teaches me things and I just try to listen," Culver says.

You can tell he's been listening.

Culver won't be playing in rusty stadiums at the bottom of the mountain for very long. Soon, Yankee fans won't say: "who?" anymore, either. The 19-year-old is hitting around .300 and playing defense fit for higher levels. We don't know yet whether he can hit a 97 mph fastball; we won't for some time. We do know that he's not afraid of expectations. Or afraid to wear No. 2.