Jays mailbag: Remembering two great Expos
It was a tough week for the old Expos' organization, with the passing of two popular former Canadian major-league baseball stalwarts, Ron Piche a 75-year-old native of Verdun, Que., and Woodie Fryman, a 70-year-old native of Ewing, Ky. RIP.
First came the announcement at the end of last week of the death of Piche, a former major-league pitcher with the Braves, Angels and Cardinals and a lifetime Expos employee from 1969 to 2004 when the franchise shifted to D.C.
After a couple of seasons in the Expos' fledgling minor league system, trying to get back to the bigs and qualify for his MLBPA pension, Piche retired as a player and joined the front office in any area he could help. He was listed briefly as a major-league coach in 1976 but spent most of his time in stadium operations, public relations and scouting.
Piche was a terrific minor-league pitcher and was a solid contributor in the Braves' bullpens of the late '50 and early '60s. He is a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall-of-Fame at St. Marys. When I started with the Expos in 1973, Piche was one of the first to befriend the 19-year-old college kid printing off notes, running stats and just wanting to be around the major-league game soaking up any knowledge he could.
The friendship lasted throughout the rest of his life, the last 15 years like all good friendships separated by distance. Whenever we were at a press conference where a new player or a current one did or said something self-serving or silly, Piche, always dressed for business in white shirt and tie, would turn with a half-smile and quietly say, “Rich, this game has really changed.”
Whenever I hear that expression to this day, I think of Ron and smile.
I recall fondly Piche's many stories of life in the majors with the Braves. He told of sitting in the lobby of a road hotel reading the newspaper with teammates, looking at the boxscores killing time before going to the ballpark. Johnny Logan was a light-hitting shortstop who didn't get many hits but had proudly recorded one the night before.
Alarmed, Logan looked up from the paper and said to his teammates. “Hey they have me oh-for-four.” Lew Burdette answered, “Maybe it was a typographical error.” Logan snapped back, “It was no error, it was a line drive up the middle.”
The story has been re-told by others, but I believe it started with Piche. Another favourite memory was of the Expos' small area at Jarry Park on the second floor above the executive offices set aside for post-game libations, professional bartender and all.
Some nights, if Gene Mauch and his coaches came in, joining media, front office and coaches it stayed open until 4:00 in the morning. It was a good place for a kid like me to soak up some major-league knowledge – and other things.
One night Piche brought his buddy Burdette into the Jarry Park lounge. By then, a Braves coach, Burdette as a player was a master of the spitter. Piche encouraged Burdette that night to play the “wet or dry” game with a baseball. Rapt attention was paid Burdette as inebriated Expos staff gathered around.
Burdette took a baseball and fiddled with it in both hands back and forth like he was standing on the pitching rubber. Finally he would ask “Wet or dry?” He would have either spit on the ball or not as everyone watched closely. Nobody ever got it right. The guy was good and Piche was in heaven. Now he truly is.
As for the lefthanded Fryman, he was my first example of a good ol' boy, a country gentleman farmer who played baseball as a hobby and with passion.
In 1976, he was a sublime presence on a ridiculous Expos' team that won 52 games in the year of the Summer Olympics, in the final year at Jarry Park. While Tim Foli fought with the manager, Karl Kuehl, who had replaced Gene Mauch, Fryman just went out every fifth day and competed.
Kuehl was fired mid-season because he lost the clubhouse and the bombastic Charlie Fox took over for the rest of the year. Fox apparently had won WW II by himself, as a Navy Seal storming the beaches of Italy from the sea. It was a decidedly weird year. But Fryman's 13-13 record (25-percent of the team's wins) and a 3.37 ERA earned him player of the year, even though his left arm ached every day and he could never straighten it at the best of times.
The simple act of competing in the annual Farm Day at Jarry Park where he was the designated cow-milker, even the simple act of squeezing a teat hurt him. But he never complained and tossed 216 innings. In the off-season, with Dick Williams now on board and the prospect of moving into Olympic Stadium, the Expos were able to deal the 36-year-old Fryman and Dale Murray to the Reds to get future Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez. Fryman always had something wise to say as he bemusedly sat in road lobbies watching the world go by. Hopefully heaven has a lobby. On to the mailbag.
Q. Hey Richard. Last year, the Brandon Morrow-Jose Molina combo really worked well. Do you think the Jays will continue to use them together, or do you think the Jays will try to use J.P. Arencibia with Morrow? Thanks.
Nathan Zaltsman, San Francisco, CA
A. With a new Jays manager, John Farrell, the whole question of pairing a certain pitcher with a personal catcher like Morrow-Molina did last year starts anew. Pitching is very much a mental skill. A guy with average stuff but with great confidence and a game plan can be more effective than a pitcher with great stuff and no clue. If a pitcher thinks that a certain catcher knows his stuff better and is on the same page and he feels he can trust impicitly the fingers the catcher drops for every pitch, throwing it with supreme confidence, he's already way ahead of the pitching game. As a manager, don't fight it.
An example of that lack of confidence that cost a pitcher sending him into a funk last year was Jason Frasor. In 2009 he developed that relationship of trust with former Jays catcher Rod Barajas. But in April last year coming out the chute with two new catchers, installed as the closer, it was obvious early on that Frasor and John Buck did not have that type of “same page” relationship and he soon lost the Jays' closer role to Kevin Gregg.
Frasor is not the “take charge” kind of guy with regard to his own game and in the end he also worked better with the chest-thumping, more vociferous Molina.
Most managers, including Cito Gaston last year's skipper, don't encourage the notion of a personal catcher. It expecially does not work well for a team if you have one catcher that hits lefthanded and one that bats right, because in that case you would rather get the backup catcher his once or twice a week work depending on the opposing pitcher, lefty/righty.
But with both Arencibia and Molina being righthanded hitters and with Arencibia being a raw rookie targeted at around 120 starts, Farrell may give in to Morrow's comfort level since he does want Molina to get some work anyway. Don't look for the personal catcher thing at spring training, though. You'll see Morrow throw a lot to Arencibia and sometimes to some of the minor league guys, but at the end of the spring in the final week, in the final tuneup, if Morrow, slated as the rotation's No. 2 guy, wants Molina as his catcher, he'll likely get him.
Q. Hey Richard. First of all, thanks for the continuing enlightment of our beloved Jays! Looking forward to another mailbag season. That being said my question pertains to the HoF induction ceremony. I know it is a ways away, but a couple of buddies and I will be heading down to show our support of Robbie and Pat. We have booked our room already (thankfully as it was a mess) but we were wondering: As HoF induction rookies, what should we plan on doing and being ready for? Any pointers you could provide us on how to make the most of this weekend would be much appreciated. Thanks!
Isaac V., Toronto
A. The main thing to have on Hall-of-Fame induction weekend is patience. The ceremony for Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Gillick is on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The best idea from my standpoint as far as the chance of meeting Hall-of-Famers is to troll the real estate on Lake, Chestnut and Main Street between the Otesaga Hotel (where the Famers stay) and the Museum on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. Also at Doubleday Field at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon is a free admission event for fans to the induction of Expos' broadcast icon Dave Van Horne, followed at 6:00 p.m. by a parade down Main Street of the Hall-of-Fame members on hand. Once you have a parking spot if your hotel is out of town, you're there for the day. Enjoy. You can stay updated on the itinerary of events at the Hall's website, http://baseballhall.org/
Q. Is it by design or is it mere coincidence that the team seems to be heading in a younger and “by extension” more fleet-footed direction? With the off-season pick-ups of Corey Patterson and Rajai Davis and the departure of Vernon Wells the ball club appears to be re-defining itself (at least on paper, anyway). I like these moves that A.A. has made, in bringing in some speedsters, hopefully to help electrify the Jays' running game. Are the Jays, through these moves, consciously trying to change their image and in-game style, from being a notoriously base-to-base ball club to more of a heart-and-hustle team? If so, then I'm one of those who are all for it.
Darrell Holtze, Guelph
A. The Jays have always believed in being aggressive on the bases (within their capabilities), the ongoing philosophy of third-base coach Brian Butterfield, but that can only include stealing bases if you have guys capable of stealing bases.
Even slow guys can take the next base if they get an aggressive secondary lead and quickly read a ball in the dirt (see: Brad Fullmer, Kevin Millar, Scott Rolen). It doesn't have to go to the backstop to move up a base and change a potential force play at second into a scoring opportnity.
Even slow guys can go from first to third on a single if the third base coach is aggressive, if they know the strength of the outfielder's arm and if you approach each base as if you are going to take the next one as well.
The Jays have always approached base frunning that way, but have never approached base running with the actual intent of stealing bases. Now they have Davis, Patterson, Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and even Aaron Hill and Travis Snider that can steal a base.
They're still not the Go-Go Blue Jays by any means, but have more weapons in the arsenal than in recent years. It's down the line in the pipe where fans should be excited. Other Jays' organization players that can steal a bag include infielder Mike McCoy, outfielders Darin Mastroianni, Kenny Wilson, Jake Marisnick and Eric Eiland.
People tend to forget that the Jays when they won back-to-back World Series stole 129 and then 170 bases in 1992-93. Last season, they stole 58. Unlike what many analysts today would have you believe, it's not a sign of weakness to steal bases. Even the threat of a steal can be a useful offensive weapon. The Jays are consciously heading in that direction.
Q. After reading your article about Delgado's attempt at a comeback, do you think the jays would be interested in services? He would fit AA mold of a DH/1B player and it would be great for the fans and for the organization if Carlos finishes up his career with the team that he spent 11 arduous years with.
Matthew Lee, Toronto
A. I enjoyed writing the Delgado comeback piece, because I like Carlos as a human being and as a great Jays' player in his prime, but he does not fit into what the Jays are trying to do right here, right now.
A few years ago when the Jays were intent on celebrating the past with promotions like Flashback Friday and Kelly Gruber Groundhog Day wherein the former third baseman seemed to be making more top-of-the-dugout appearances than Ace the mascot, the current clubhouse at that time bristled.
The feeling among the guys on hand was that the Jays cared more about the past than the present, that they would rather sell memories than accomplishments. The current front office does not want to repeat that mistake.
Delgado is not a young, controllable player. He bats lefthanded just like Adam Lind the man they are hoping can grab first base by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. His presence would distract rather than focus this group.
They are looking for a new Delgado-Shawn Green, or Delgado-Vernon Wells combo to step up. Carlos is still two months away from being able to showcase himself to teams and probably another two months after that from playing in the major leagues, barring any setbacks to the two surgically repaired hips.
My hope is that some team finds a spot for him and that he reaches his goal of 500 home runs and that some day in the future he can return to the Rogers Centre to be honoured with his number hoisted to the Level of Excellence.
Q. Ricky Romero looks to be a lock to be the Jays opening day starter. I seem to recall that not so long ago (2006-2008) there was a perception that Romero was a failed prospect (I say perception because Romero was ranked in the top 10 Jays prospects in 2006/2007/2008). Perhaps the idea that drafting the “soft-tossin' lefty” was mistake was due to his injury issues, a guy named Troy Tulowitzki, or a dislike of the man who drafted him. Question: Who do you view as an underrated Jays prospect who may still surprise, David Cooper, Kevin Ahrens, Justin Jackson?
Michael Spratt, Ottawa
A. Romero was chosen 6th overall in the 2005 June Draft out of Cal-State Fullerton University. Unfortunately for Romero, the Jays and for GM J.P. Ricciardi, the guy chosen 7th overall, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki became the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year and led his Rockies to the World Series where they lost to the Red Sox.
It looked worse because Ricciardi's first two first-round draft picks had been shortstops Russ Adams in 2002 and Aaron Hill in 2003, neither of whom filled the Jays' shortstop void. Then a legitimate one came up and he passed.
Tulowitzki became a one-word code for Jays' draft failure as Romero struggled with injuries and development. There is still no doubt that Tulowitzki would have been a better pick for the franchise at the time, but Romero's progress under Brad Arnsberg and now Bruce Walton has been redemptive. Unfortunately for Ricciardi, just as the worth of his draft of Romero is being rescued, the rest of his legacy is sinking in quicksand faster than an ivory poacher in an old Tarzan movie.
I think the view of Romero was affected more by Tulowitzki's early success more than anything else. The fact that Ricciardi's reflex was always defensive whenever Romero's name came up, like the SNL sketch spoofing the cigarette executive being questioned by 60 Minutes, it spun off into the rest of his relationship with the local media. (See: Chris Carpenter winning Cy in St. Louis).
As for darkhorse leftovers from high draft picks of the Ricciardi Era that have thus far been perceived as failures, I like switch-hitting third baseman Kevin Ahrens. He'll be playing his fifth Jays minor-league season now as a 22-year-old. Drafted 16th overall in 2007, guys like J.P. Arencibia, Rick Porcello, Julio Borbon, Brett Cecil and Tommy Hunter were selected after him in the first round. Justin Jackson has dropped off the radar on the Jays' shortstop depth chart, while Cooper, the lefty-swinging first baseman could become a major-league player, but likely not with the Jays.
Q. Since the L.A. Angels missed out on all of the big time free agents, do the Jays get L.A's first round pick #17 overall for signing Scott Downs? Thanks in advance.
Terry Giffen, Minesing
A. The Jays apparently get the Angels' second round pick fror Downs. If you finish in the bottom 15 of standings, then your first round pick is protected. Even though the Angels are picking 17th overall, there are three unsigned compensation picks ahead of them in the draft. The Jays also get a sandwich round pick for Downs after the first round.
Q. Is it just me, or has this been a disappointing off-season? We don't make any serious upgrades, missing out on Dan Uggla and Zack Greinke. We have no (willing) 3rd baseman. We create payroll flexibility and the money is pocketed. By the way, is there a Guinness world record for the most former closers on one team? Five must be getting pretty close.
Frank S., Toronto
A. I do agree with you on the five closers issue. It's like a guy bragging about his vintage car collection and you go in his garage and they're all '68 Camaros.
As for pocketing the money, I don't see it that way. The previous front-office regime, if they had made similar savings by trading high-priced players, they would have felt obligated to go out and spend the money just because they had it.
Usually by the end of the winter it was on leftovers and usually it was money mis-spent, but back then the obsession with competing with the Red Sox and Yankees was unhealthy for the organization.
The money saved this off-season has not been pocketed as much as it has been tabled for future use. The third-base situation will work itself out, likely with Jose Bautista moving to right field.
As for Uggla and Greinke, every team goes after a variety of players each off-season and every team fails more than it gets their man. Building a team is an ongoing process. I suppose if a fan was anticipating winning the AL East in 2011 then it has been a disappointing off-season, but if one sees it as finding nine answers in the field and five answers in the rotation, with five (??) answers at closer, then it has been a productive winter.
Q. Good afternoon Richard. What do you think about Michael Young for one or two years at 3rd base for the Jays pending Brett Lawrie's arrival? Maybe he wouldn't agree to a short term deal, but 91 RBIs would be nice from that position for the Jays. Is .950 FPCT too low for a 3rd baseman? Encarnacion was .932 in 2010. I can't figure who they could offer in trade, a reliever perhaps plus Encarnacion (?), however, spring training hasn't started so how do you decide who are the keepers? Thanks for a great column. Look forward to it every week.
A. I do like Young as the short-term answer at third base. No fan should be looking at the $48 million for three years left on his contract because it's not our money so why should we care.
The fact is the Jays are one of the few teams that can afford the contract and with a 20-year-old Brett Lawrie set to inherit the position when he's ready, Young would help the Jays to compete better right now. When Lawrie is ready and the Jays can compete without Young, they can move him and help pay the rest of the contract.
Remember, Paul Beeston said the Jays' franchise can support $140-150 million per year. As for Young's defence, third base is his third position in the majors and mechanically there was a lot of room for improvement given some one-on-one work and a willingness by Young to get better. Hand him over to Brian Butterfield for a spring and see what happens. Young is an infielder and an athlete.