One of the wonderfully unique aspects of major-league spring training is to wander around the camps of the long-established iconic franchises and see the old-time superstars of the game in uniform, wanting to help out, wanting to stay connected, always eager to stop and chat baseball. For many former greats, baseball is for life.
Such was the case at Tigers camp in Lakeland on Tuesday, standing out near the home clubhouse in the right field corner watching the rain pelt down and having Hall-of-Fame outfielder Al Kaline push through the door and wander by a group of Toronto scribes, in full uniform.
I shook his hand and asked Kaline his thoughts about the late Duke Snider. It should be noted that Snider and Kaline shared the stage in 1980, when both were greeted to Cooperstown and baseball immortality.
“Duke was a great gentleman,” Kaline said. “When you go into the Hall at the same time, you sort of get a bond between the two of us. We got to be pretty close and for the couple of years he came back (to Cooperstown) it was always great seeing him. He was a super guy, just a great man.”
“The ability to treat people with respect is just the way I've always seen him. He was perceived as a real friendly guy and he appreciated the fact that he was able to play baseball. In New York, in the heyday of baseball (with three teams) it was Mickey, Willie and The Duke. It was a great song and it was tremendous for him to be compared to those two great players.”
There is no doubt that 1980 was a great year for the Hall-of-Fame.
On to the mailbag.
Q. This is not about the Blue Jays but rather your article on Duke Snider...a man who along with Gordie Howe, was my childhood hero. Here's a little story that tells all about the Duke. When my son was 10 years old, I planned to take he and his pals to an Expos game. On a whim, I checked the Montreal telephone directory and lo and behold, there's Duke Snider's name and number. (Now tell me, how many celebrities list their contact information in the phone book? Most are hiding their identity.) Anyway, Duke agreed to meet me, my son and his pals before the game, he spoke with the kids, signed their baseball gloves and overall, was just a great guy (not to mention giving me a thrill). A real gentleman and a great player.
Paul Newman, Oakville
A. I have thought further about Duke Snider, the person, and what likely made him so revered and respected. He is not unique in what he did in social situations, but is still special as a sports icon. I'm a keen observer of life and there are a lot of celebrities who treat people well in one-on-one conversation by self-effacingly, with doses of false humility, taking a step down, trying to convince their audience that, hey we're all the same, we all put pants on one leg at a time. That's good but when the moment is over, they know it's not true.
There are other celebrities like Duke Snider who was comfortable with his status in life as a sports hero and didn't try to hide it. He tried to share it. For the short time they are together, athletes like Duke elevate their new friend du jour to their own level and make them feel for a shining moment that they also are very special, more important than when they entered the room. Duke never apologized for celebrity and was always willing to share it generously.
Q. Richard. Your story on the 'Duke' was superb, I listened for years to Dave & Duke on CFCF in Montreal and he was a great announcer and 'colour commentator'. It is truly a shame that he won’t make the Hall of Fame with Dave Van Horne. As an old Dodgers fan, the Duke must be close to the last of the Brooklyn players left. It’s always sad to say goodbye to those players who meant so much to us when we were growing up.
David Delcloo, Kingston
A. What's amazing to me is that the list of Expos' TV analysts before Duke Snider included Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson. That's a pretty impressive list. As far as the remaining living Dodgers from the final Brooklyn team in 1957 before they moved to Los Angeles, that list includes a higher total than you might imagine: Charlie Neal, Gino Cimoli, Don Zimmer, Randy Jackson, Joe Pignatano, Jim Gentile, Rod Miller, Don Newcombe, Denny McDevitt, Roger Craig, Sandy Koufax, Ed Roebuck, Carl Erskine, Ken Lehman, Bill Harris and Fred Kipp. As for Dodger fans, they are seemingly immortal.
Q. Hi Richard. Can you tell me why draft picks are never traded in baseball?
J. Fleming, Huntsville
A. I admire major-league baseball for not allowing the trading of draft picks. It would allow bad general managers to compensate for incompetence in scouting by trading their long-term choices for instant gratification thus burying their franchise in perpetuity.
Shrewd GMs could all of a sudden trade minor-league excess depth for future draft choices, while bad GMs could cover up incompetence with temporary Band-aid solutions.
In fact, the current system of free agency Types A & B is almost like trading picks. It's a system that allows teams compensation picks for lost free agents, helping teams that are losing players either obtain extra picks for their departing player or else have a floor of talent from which to operate in terms of trade demands.
For example at the July 31 trade deadline if you are looking to trade a Type A free agent for a half season, you know you must give up at least the equivalent of a late-first-round pick and a second round talent from your system. It won't change soon.
Q. Almost 20 years now since we had baseball in October. I would like to know who to blame for that. Was it Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick who, hot with recent success, lobbied for inclusion with the two-headed monster of the East or did that decision come out of the league? Flip the Jays and the Indians and Toronto gets a history of playoff races and good rivalries with Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota.
J Galli, Windsor
A. That's a very interesting question trying to trace the demise of the Jays since the strike in '94. The Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992-93 then came the strike and the change in division and playoff structure.
Since the addition of two teams to the MLB playoff hunt in 1995, the brainchild of Bud Selig, in the ensuing 16 years only the Yankees have ever won back-to-back World Series (1998-2000).
As for Beeston or Gillick being at fault in deciding they wanted to join the AL East, I would prefer to blame world geography for the alignment that has the Jays tilting at windmills. It's pretty well impossible to argue that Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland is farther east than Toronto. I Googled it.
Besides, both former Jays executives realized that nine home games with the Red Sox and the Yankees each could make their attendance numbers sing, which is worth more than the possibility of winning a wild-card in the weaker AL Central. There would be no guarantees in that circumstance, ether. The fact is even with a second wild card being hypothetically added going back to '95, the Jays give the standings would only have made the playoffs once.
Q. Hi Richard. A few weeks ago, you piqued my interest with the possible interest by the Jays in Michael Young. Whatever happened? Why did he remain with the Rangers if there is no home for him there? Love your column and thanks for your insights.
Ryan Maxwell, Meaford
A. The Jays were definitely interested in Young and inquired at the winter meetings in December after the Adrian Beltre signing by the Rangers. It would have been $48 million for the next three years, minus what the Rangers were willing to pay, but the Rangers had with sincerity told him they wanted him to be DH, super-sub. He is a clubhouse leader for the young Rangers. After that while the Rangers furtively explored trade options and pissed him off, the Jays remained on the periphery.
When Young found out about the back-door negotiations for his services, he then demanded a trade. The Rangers have tried hard to heal the wound and it seems under control, but if Jays' GM Alex Anthopoulos could find a good deal for his club, especially if it included a third team with multiple players, then he would go back to work. Young is not necessarily a Ranger for the opener.
Q. After enjoying the NBA all-star festivities, it got me thinking about the MLB game. Why don't they try to mix things up by adding different skills competitions instead of just a home run contest? Why not get some of the other players involved, perhaps the most accurate throw from the outfield, or fastest around the bases? Any ideas?
Matt Hazel, Antigonish
A. I'm pretty sure that at a particular all-star game in the '80s there were other skills competitions than the Home Run Derby. If I recall correctly, someone got hurt by over-throwing or running too hard.
The extra baseball skills would be far more stressful and dangerous to valuable team properties as far as expensive players are concerned than the NBA's skill set. How do you hurt yourself by shooting three-pointers or throwing a bounce pass into a barrel? But running the bases and throwing from the corner, especially the length of time that TV draws out these events. The home run derby concept goes back to the days of Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron as a TV event and the fact of the matter is the Monday ratings at the All-Star Game are great. If it ain't broke...
Q. Richard. Hope you're enjoying spring training in Florida. I see that Baseball America has released their top-100 prospects list. I'm interested in your take on the list. Kyle Drabek, Travis D'Arnaud, Brett Lawrie and Deck McGuire made the list. But Anthony Gose, J.P. Arencibia, and Adeiny Hechevaria were nowhere to be found. There were 15 pitchers rated higher than Drabek. Our top-rated prospect at No. 29 is the lowest we've had in a few years. Is our farm system truly on the upswing or is it overhyped?
Frank S, Toronto
A. First of all you have to consider that on a Top 100 list with 30 major-league teams that the average per organization would be 3.33 players per organization. The Jays have four. So it would be pretty tough to be that much far above the average considering the Jays' farm system in the recent past has been ranked in the 20s out of 30 for the past four years. For me, in the top 100 prospects, I would have five Jays – Drabek, Lawrie, Gose, Arencibia and Hechavarria. It's a very hit-and-miss list almost as tough as when you are drafting players...but not quite. D'Arnaud is very mobile and athletic behind the plate but has a long way to go offensively and rating him in the Top 100 is a leap of faith. Arencibia has already been PCL MVP and should be rated ahead of him. McGuire is a nice prospect but has a lot to learn and before he approaches the majors and may in fact be passed by the more experienced Zach Stewart and a bunch of other Jays' 2010 June picks, some of whom were invited to minor-league mini-camp. Regular readers know how strongly I feel about Gose's future. Good kid. Good player.
Q. In your years since covering the team as a columnist, would you say that (in Travis Snider, Scott Podsednik, Corey Patterson, and Juan Rivera) this is the weakest of all Jays' outfields, as far as home run power and offence/arm-strength is concerned?
Darrell Holtze, Guelph
A. You forgot about Rajai Davis. However I don't think the addition of Davis improves the scenario for the outfield in the skill areas you describe. Without the departed Vernon Wells and without third baseman Jose Bautista in the Jays' outfield, at the moment it is not very good. This group in any Fantasy League advice magazine does not feature an outfielder in the top 50. Yes it might be the worst going into a season, but if Snider becomes the player he is expected to, it may improve.
Q. I was reading recently a statistic that said only 5 per cent of young prospects who sign a contract with an MLB team actually get to the bigs. Makes we wonder about all the talk about the renewed vigour in the Jays farm system. Realistically, how many new stars are we likely to be seeing per year come out of the farm system? And of the high profile more advanced prospects like Gose, Lawrie, Hechevarria etc., what percentage of that crowd are likely to meet the high expectations that are held for them?
Donald Wright, Los Gatos
A. That's a very good comment and helps to explain the reason why the Jays were right to sign Jose Bautista and not even think about waiting until the trade deadline to obtain two or three prospects.
The Jays already are suddenly deep at Double and Triple-A. Why keep feeding the minor-league beast when optimistically, only about three players from each level are going to make a true impact in the majors.
However, it should be considered that baseball has 50 rounds times 30 teams, plus sandwich compensation which amounts to 1,530 players drafted per year, some 1,200 of whom sign. Looking back unscientifically, it seems about an average of four or five players per franchise ever reach the majors. That's higher than the NBA which of course has two rounds and 12 players.
The Jays farm system is certainly re-invigourated in the last two years and it's good that fanatic Jays fans seem to have as much interest as they do in the guys on the farm. The fun now is in following the many potential hopefuls throughout the year and trying to guess which players are going to make it. Just remember when the experts are rating the Top 100 it's all an educated guess.
Q. Hello Mr. Griffin. Thanks as always for you information and insight into the Jays. Would the Jays ever consider having Kyle Drabek start the season in the bullpen? Similar to Chapman did with the Reds last season? This could give him MLB experience and make the 4th and 5th starters decision easier? Thanks.
Phil McCloskey, Orangeville
A. The Jays would never consider moving Drabek to the bullpen, even though one of their many young starters is eventually going to become the closer.
Keeping him on the major-league roster as a long reliever would be counter-productive not only to Drabek but to the Jays. It always seems like long relievers enter after a starter has been ya-hammered in a game and, in that case, where's the improvement, the learning curve.
There's an uncertain pitching pattern in long relief and never seems a stressful situation that is the difference between winning and losing when you enter a game with your team far behind. In Drabek's situation or anyone that soon has a chance to be a major-league starter, the season is long and every year a major-league team needs at least a depth chart of nine starters. Better to have Drabek pitching every five days at Triple-A and catch a flight from Vegas in a moment of need than have him waiting on the sidelines in Toronto with no flow to his year.