March 2012

“Down on the corner”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageIf, on March 27, 2010, I had told you that on March 27, 2012, the following would be included in an official press release by the Cleveland Indians, what would have been your reaction?

“Today the Indians optioned INF LONNIE CHISENHALL and INF MATT LaPORTA to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.”

Not a pleasant one, I would surmise.

After all, two years ago at this time, the expectation was that these two guys were eventually going to be the anchors of the Tribe infield, once Chisenhall reached the bigs and LaPorta was no longer blocked by Russell Branyan at first.

Chisenhall was, of course, one of the organization’s top prospects, ticketed for Triple-A Akron and two years removed from the Indians taking him with the 29th overall pick in the Draft. LaPorta was penciled in for 500 at-bats, either at first base or in left, two years removed from the Indians acquiring him in the CC Sabathia trade.

The expectation, at that point, was that LaPorta’s Triple-A days were done, given that he posted a .917 OPS at that level the year before. And the expectation was that he would build on his initial exposure to the Major Leagues with an impactful sophomore season.

LaPorta broke into the big leagues in 2009, played 52 games and stepped to the plate 198 times, with the following result: .254 average, .308 on-base percentage, .442 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 21 RBIs, 99 OPS+.

Chisenhall broke into the big leagues in 2011, played 66 games and stepped to the plate 223 times, with the following result: .255 average, .284 on-base percentage, .415 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 22 RBIs, 93 OPS+.

Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

Here’s something the Indians hope doesn’t look familiar by the end of 2012: .221/.306/.362. That, of course, is LaPorta’s slash line from the 2010 season — a season in which he logged 110 games (mostly at first base, after the Branyan situation resolved itself with a midseason trade).

What, then, should we make of Tuesday’s announcement that “The Chiz Kid” is headed back to Columbus?

Well, two things…

1. The Indians, perhaps drawing from their experience with LaPorta, aren’t sold on Chisenhall as an everyday player at this stage.

2. Jack Hannahan is the new Russell Branyan. Sort of.

Like Branyan in 2010, Hannahan is a bit player who is going to retain an everyday role on this club purely on the basis of one standout skill. With Branyan, it was, of course, home runs (he hit one every 17.1 at-bats in his time with the Tribe in ’10). And with Hannahan, it’s his defense at the hot corner — a skill especially appreciated when extreme groundball pitchers Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe or Roberto Hernandez are on the hill.

With LaPorta two years ago, the situation was actually a little more complicated. Branyan arrived to bump LaPorta to left, but then another veteran hired hand, Austin Kearns, got hot in left, and suddenly the struggling LaPorta was a bench-warmer, eventually ticketed for Triple-A until Branyan was dealt.

With Chisenhall, the situation is somewhat remarkable if you step away and look at it broadly (as esteemed Tribe scribe Paul Cousineau did in his latest “DiaTribe”): The Indians are, for the moment at least, blocking one of their more highly regarded young talents — a guy who already got that first, initial exposure to the big leagues out of the way — by giving what would have been his everyday at-bats to Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old with a lifetime OPS of .675 in 1,347 plate appearances.

Amazing.

And it’s even more amazing when you look elsewhere around the diamond and note, as Cousineau did, that the Indians, at this moment, project to have three guys in their everyday lineup who were non-roster invitees in their camps just one year ago — Hannahan at third, Shelley Duncan in left and Casey Kotchman at first.

Hey, at least corner spots aren’t considered pivotal power-producing positions or anything…

But while Kotchman qualifies at first because LaPorta failed and Kotchman is coming off a career year (if he repeats his .378 OBP while playing stellar defense at first, the Indians will have gotten their money’s worth) and Duncan qualifies in left because, well… because he’s standing, Hannahan vs. Chisenhall was a legit competition. One that Chisenhall didn’t win, even as Hannahan battled a back injury.

The thinking in the Indians’ camp is that Chisenhall pressed too hard to win the job, resulting in his .205 average in 16 Cactus League games. They were pretty pleased with his D. I certainly don’t think the Indians were so wowed with Hannahan’s second-half surge (.321 average, .874 OPS in 121 plate appearances… all in a part-time role) that they think he’s suddenly going to reach his peak in his early 30s. Because that’s crazy talk.

ImageI think they just want to protect themselves on the defensive end while simultaneously protecting Chisenhall from becoming the next LaPorta.

It’s a simple matter of coincidence that LaPorta’s inevitable demotion and Chisenhall’s marginally controversial one occurred on the same day.

But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned in it.

What the Indians don’t need — for Chisenhall’s future or their own — is for The Chiz to struggle out the gate and/or share or split time with a short-term solution like Hannahan. They need him playing every day, and they need him feeling confident in the process, not looking over his shoulder and waiting to be replaced.

I can’t say I whole-heartedly agree with this decision, but I get that element of the thinking behind it. If Chisenhall’s not ready, you can’t force it. He’s 23.

But I will say this: The Indians better hope Chisenhall tears it up in Triple-A, because a lineup with Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman in three of the four corner positions is in dire need of some offensive upside.

~AC

Bobcats, Tar Heels and corndogs

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

NOTE: The following has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. Sorry.

ImageSomewhere along Interstate 77 — the main artery connecting Athens, Ohio, to Chapel Hill, N.C. — there is a Flying J gas and diesel station. It’s the kind of place where truckers bathe and weary passengers re-energize themselves with 64-ounce fountain drinks.

And at this particular Flying J on a particular afternoon in February 2002, the great American dream that is the 99-cent footlong corndog was indeed a reality.

There were five of us crammed into a Chevy Cavalier (a vehicle that, as any owner of a Chevy Cavalier can attest, comfortably holds about 2 3/8 people) when we happened upon this Flying J and this amazing luncheon availability, and my buddy Brad was inspired enough to call the emergency assistance phone number listed on the side of the highway to report neither an accident nor a disturbance but rather the corndog discovery.

So began, in earnest, one of the more remarkable road trips of both my journalistic and my college career. In that car were four aspiring sports reporters and one corndog-crazed poly sci major from Ohio University, traveling to Tobacco Road, bound for the Dean Dome come hell or flat tire. Our Bobcats were facing the North Carolina Tar Heels on national TV, but, for us, mere ESPN2 would not be sufficient enough for a matchup of this magnitude.

I was, at the time, an OU junior and Athens Messenger beat reporter. Also shoved in that car were three fellow J-schoolers named Dana, Bryce and Matt, all of whom worked for the campus TV station. And then there was Brad, a good friend for whom I had rather unethically finagled a Messenger press pass, so that he could see his beloved Bobcats on the big stage.

The seven-hour trek to the UNC campus was marked by the cramped quarters, the bad jokes, the fast-food stops and an untimely empty gas tank at Fancy Gap. But we made it. And to a group all-too-accustomed to half-empty Mid-American Conference gyms, there was something mystical about stepping into that arena, packed with patrons in poofy blue.

Brad and I took our spots on press row behind one of the baskets. I instructed him that we must refrain from showing any emotion. “No cheering in the press box” and all that. But who was I kidding? For one, Brad was that rare Ohio student who was actually a fan of the school’s teams (he invented the greatest fan tradition that never became a tradition — “The Claw,” which was some kind of hand motion vaguely resembling an attacking cat but that really just wound up looking like a lame show choir routine). And though I’d like to think I did a fine job of maintaining some semblance of impartiality during my four years as a student reporter, this was about as close to the national stage as any OU team had come in my tenure there, and I wanted them to shine.

Really, that entire 2001-02 season was supposed to be special. This was an OU team that entered the season as the purported class of the MAC. They had a CC Sabathia-sized power forward named Brandon Hunter, who could often be found driving his oversized Hummer down the tiny brick streets of Athens. They had a lanky beanpole of a center named Patrick Flomo, a true man about town who my friend and fellow writer Jon Greenberg once described as “an ebony exclamation point on a campus of white dots.” They had a couple sharp-shooters named Steve Esterkamp and Jon Sanderson and a sixth-man sparkplug named Sonny Johnson, who averaged about 16 points per game.

It was a good team, one I was certain would go deep into the MAC tournament and maybe, just maybe, reach the NCAAs. OU had dumped its longtime leader Larry Hunter after a 19-win season the year before and hired a rookie head coach named Tim O’Shea, who had this awesome habit of name-dropping Boston College (where he had served as an assistant) and Troy Bell (whom he had recruited) in every single press conference he ever conducted. He was quirky and cocky and quotable and therefore was a dream to cover.

O’Shea had scheduled this UNC game as the Bobcats’ national coming-out party, and he had good timing. The Tar Heels were terrible. They were in the thick of the utterly abominable Matt Doherty era, en route to an 8-20 finish.

Still, it was North Carolina, and these were the former stomping grounds of Smith, of Worthy, of Jordan. This was a distinct change of pace from the Toledo Rockets and Akron Zips.

The game remains one of my favorite sporting events I’ve covered to date. OU took a 33-29 lead into the half. Then they went up 69-53 late in the second half on a two-handed dunk by the Ebony Exclamation Point. It was all Brad and I could do not to stand up and start deliriously high-fiving and hugging each other.

Then came the run. It all happened so quickly that the details don’t even register anymore. All I know is that from about the six-minute mark to the two-minute mark, UNC went on one of those NBA Jam-type outbursts where the basket goes aflame. I’ve been to countless (OK, actually 34) Springsteen concerts, I was there when Nelson Cruz couldn’t catch David Freese’s line drive in Game 6, I’ve sat next to crying babies on airplanes. But perhaps because I was emotionally invested in this titanic tilt, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything louder than the eruption when UNC cut the OU lead to 73-70 that night.

Suddenly, the whole experience was in jeopardy. If OU blew this lead, the corndogs wouldn’t be the only things causing indigestion.

ImageAnd that’s when Hunter did something I’ll never forget.

He played the point.

A 6-foot-7, 270-pound beast of a man took the ball, waved his teammates down the court as if to say, “Get out of my way,” dribbled behind his back, drove through the paint and dished it to Flomo, who put down another thunder dunk.

The Tar Heels never threatened again.

And the Bobcats, frankly, were never all that fun to watch again. Not only did they not win the MAC tourney that year, as so many had predicted, they didn’t even advance out of the opening round, despite playing the tournament’s 13 seed at home. They were similarly disappointing my senior year.

In the time since, the entire culture of OU athletics has changed. The football team, which went 1-10 my junior year, now goes to bowl games (even, ahem, when it blows 20-0 halftime leads in the MAC title game). The basketball team has been to the NCAAs not once not twice but thrice in the last seven years, beating Georgetown in 2010.

And now, for the first time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, the Bobcats are in the Sweet 16.

And they’re facing North Carolina.

I am, needless to say, utterly envious of the student reporters traveling to St. Louis this weekend, and I hope they soak in every element of the experience not just for their own clips and broadcasts but for the stories they’ll one day be passing down. And I am, of course, a very, very proud Ohio fan and alum.

I don’t know what’s going to happen Friday night. I suppose the odds are pretty decent that the Bobcats will get drilled by a UNC team vastly superior in size and standing.

But then again, in a world in which you can buy 99-cent footlong corndogs by the side of the road, anything seems possible.

~AC

UPDATE: Found a YouTube video of that evening… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfX1G6TLF4

“Tonight you’re gonna break on through”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

Albert Belle was back in the news this week, and my mind got to reminiscing…

We scalped tickets to Albert nee “Joey” Belle’s first Major League game. It was a Saturday night — July 15, 1989 — and, for one of the few times in my lifetime of going to games at old Municipal Stadium, a decent crowd was expected to be on-hand.

And so my dad, brother and I couldn’t commence with our usual routine of showing up at the gate, buying a general admission ticket in right field and parking ourselves in the amply available front-row seats behind Cory Snyder.

Besides, in what certainly signaled the beginning of the end of the remarkable Cory Snyder Era, it was Belle getting the starting nod in right field.* And the arrival of this power-hitting prospect, combined with a Nolan Ryan appearance for the visiting Rangers and the fact that the Tribe was actually flirting with .500 after the All-Star break, all added up to an announced crowd of nearly 30,000 in the 74,000-seat stadium — an overwhelming tally at the time.

*When I look at Baseball Reference now, it’s little wonder Snyder wasn’t starting that night. I see that he was 9-for-his-last-49 and batting .233 with a .640 OPS on the season. This can’t possibly be correct, though, because, in my 8-year-old mind, he was on pace for the Triple Crown.

We scalped a trio of tickets in the upper deck, but not without incident. A cop approached as my dad bartered with the broker and threateningly informed them that no scalping on stadium grounds would be tolerated.

“Oh no, officer,” my dad assured him, “we wouldn’t do that. This is my cousin!”

My dad and the complete stranger put their arms around each other and carried on about old times and old acquaintances.

All of which would have been believable, had my father not been a 5-foot-3 Sicilian and the scalper not been a 6-foot-3 African-American.

But hey, it worked. The cop shook his head and walked off.

It was at this moment that my 8-year-old Catholic conscience (long since departed) got the best of me. My hands shaking, my lips quivering as we headed into the ballpark and up toward our seats, my dad asked me what was wrong.

“You lied to that police officer!” I said through tears.

Ah, but the tears would quickly give way to the smiles provided by the beauty of ball. That’s how it is when you’re 8, after all.

The game itself? Well, it was one of those nights that instill and affirm your love of the sport at an early age. Belle got a base knock off Ryan for his first Major League hit, the immortal Joe Carter went 3-for-4 with four RBIs, Ryan got rocked and Greg Swindell went the distance. The Indians won, 7-1.

Truth is, though, I don’t even remember caring too much whether the Indians won or lost back then. Most of the time, we’d end up leaving a couple innings early and listening to Herb Score call the rest of the game (on “3WE… WWWE… Cleveland,” as the in-game station identification would go), and the outcome was, quite typically, defeat.

But something changed that particular night — something that could only be gathered in retrospect. Albert Belle made his debut, and he would prove to be the first piece of the larger puzzle.

In December of that year, the Indians would net Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga in the trade that sent Carter to the Padres, and Alomar would emerge as the Rookie of the Year in 1990 — the same year Charles Nagy first appeared in the bigs.

In ’91, Belle (a year removed from an alcohol treatment program at the Cleveland Clinic and the reclaiming of his birth name, Albert) and Baerga became Major League regulars, and Jim Thome debuted.

In ’92, Kenny Lofton arrived from Houston and Paul Sorrento from Minnesota.

In ’93, Manny Ramirez debuted, just weeks before the Indians played their final game in old Municipal (Jose Mesa was a starter that year).

By the time they moved south to Jacobs Field in ’94, with Omar Vizquel acquired from Seattle and hired guns like Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez brought aboard in free agency, the Indians had, at long last, assembled a legit contender in the newly formed American League Central Division.

And in ’95, they were a powerhouse — one of the greatest teams in history to not win a World Series.

It all began on July 15, 1989, when Joey Belle stroked a single off Nolan Ryan to bring home a run.

And I wouldn’t have been there to witness it without the help of my first cousin, once removed.

~AC

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