Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Souvineer Baseballs

The other day, my esteemed KCBS colleague Stan Bunger told me that he has never gone home with a souvineer baseball, despite having attended hundreds of big league ballgames since he was a child. Not even one. That got me to thinking about the souvineer balls I've come home with, each one including a unique and memorable story, all its own.

1) My first catch was, quite literally, a catch. Down the right-field line at The Stick, during batting practice, off the bat of Giants' second-baseman Tito Fuentes, when I was 15 years old. Many years later, I interviewed Tito for a feature article in the now-defunct Peninsula Times-Tribune. I brought the ball, told Tito the story, and he loved it. He signed the ball, "To Steve, For a great catch when you were 15." I've still got the ball, along with a few others I've come up over the years, including:

2) Back at The Stick in 1989, I was sitting in the lower deck boxes above third-base, when the Astros' Terry Puhl fouled one off the upper deck facade, straight down to the row right behind me. I emerged from the scrum, ball in hand, to a nice little ovation.

3) My next souvineer ball didn't come at a big league game, but rather, at a minor league game, between the Sonoma County Crushers and the Tri-City Posse, in 1995, at Rohnert Park Stadium. I was announcing the Crushers' games on KSRO radio in those days, along with Kevin Radich and Dave Raymond. And on this particular Sunday afternoon, under glorious sunshine, my wife and two young daughters were sitting down below, three or four rows up, just to the right of home plate. So when I handed the mike over to Kevin for a couple of innings, I went downstairs to sit with the family. The first batter up for the Posse was a likeable and talented outfielder named Kevin Booker. He popped one back just over the screen. It took a high bounce on the first row, came back right to me, and I bare-handed it easily, without getting out of my seat.

The great thing about this ball was that I treasured it every bit as much as I did the previous two I ended up with off the bats of Tito Fuentes and Terry Puhl. In fact, when I arrived at the ballpark the next day, I went down to the Posse clubhouse, found Kevin Booker, told him the story and asked him to sign it. He was a little surprised, but became absolutely stunned when I told him I planned to display the ball in one of those clear plastic cubes, alongside several other autographed balls I had, from the likes of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal. He couldn't believe it, but I was dead serious. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he still tells that story to this day.

4) Prior to game one of the 2000 NLDS between the Giants and Mets, I was sitting in the left-field bleachers at Pacific Bell Park, alongside Rebecca Corral and Doug Sovern, as part of a KCBS remote broadcast, when Mets' catcher Mike Piazza launched a batting practice pitch into the seats a few rows in front of us. Moments before, Doug had told me that he could not understand why fans go nuts trying to get balls at games, and insisted that he would never do such a thing. Sure enough, when Doug saw me bolt downstairs in pursuit of that Piazza homerun ball, Doug suddenly became that very same fan he professed to not understand. The result was our own private scrum, with both of us diving to the pavement (knocking each other down?), with me coming up with the ball.

5) This one's my favorite, story-wise. I was in the A's broadcast booth at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, in 2005, sitting alongside Ken Korach, announcing the A's-Indians game, when the Tribe's Jose Hernandez fouled one back toward the booth. Mind you, I was actually doing the play-by-play this inning, so there I was, calling this foul ball, saying something like, "It's heading back right toward us!" That's when I stood up, the ball sailed right into the booth, right toward me, I cradled it with my hands, dropped it right onto the desk in front of me and grabbed it. Korach ribbed me good-naturedly about the failed effort to make a clean catch, but I was delighted.

As you no doubt expect by now, I was on the field the next day, during the Tribe's batting practice, ball in pocket. Now, broadcasters and writers are strictly prohibited from asking for autographs, and with good reason. But there's no prohibition against asking for assistance in getting that special signature. So I told the Indians' direction of media relations the story, showed him the ball, and he thought it was great. I didn't even have to ask. When BP ended, he approached Hernandez, told him the story, Hernandez signed the ball, and I've got that one as well, in a plastic cube, stacked alongside the others, in a special place at home.

Every time I look at those baseballs, I remember the story behind each one. And it always brings a smile to my face, none moreso than the ball autographed by most of the 1958 Giants, all of whom I interviewed for the book I wrote on the Giants' first season in San Francisco: The Original San Francisco Giants; the Giants of '58. I purchased that ball, before beginning my series of interviews, but given the five years that went into researching and writing the book, that ball remains my favorite.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Baseball's Best Hitting Pitchers

The legend of Micah Owings is growing.   The 6-foot-6 second year right-handed pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks is not only off to a 4-0 start on the mound, but his hitting prowess is becoming legendary.
As a rookie Owings hit .333 in 60 at-bats with four homeruns and 15 runs batted in.  This year he's hitting .421 in 19 at bats, after entering yesterday's game against Milwaukee as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth, with a runner on, trailing 7-5.  Brewers manager Cecil Cooper, knowing at least a little about Owings' ability with the bat, went to his bullpen and brought in a right-handed reliever.  First pitch:  Gone.  In the right field bleachers.  The fans went nuts.  Owings' teammates in the dugout went nuts.  Cooper was beside himself with exasperation, after an 8-7 loss, saying his team got beat by a "damn pitcher."  
Well, not just any pitcher.  Owings has a career .354 average in 79 at bats, with five homers and 18 RBIs.  That, after hitting .377 in the minors, and .448 as a high school senior, during which he wacked a Georgia state record 25 homers.  Owings has a chance to become one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball history.  The best of them all, many say, was Wes Ferrell, who pitched for Cleveland and Boston in the 1930s, hitting .280 with 38 homers.
Other notables include Warren Spahn and Earl Wilson, both of whom hit 35 homers, albeit with a .195 average; Don Drysdale hit 29 homers, but batted .186; Bob Gibson had 24 homers and a .206.  Don Newcombe and Mike Hampton both hit 15 homers, with .266 and .242 averages, respectively.  Former Giant Don Robinson hit 13 homers with a .231.  And Cubs' ace Carlos Zambrano hit his 13th career homer today, with an average of .220.  
In short, if Owings stays anywhere near his current pace, he'll pass them all, and become the game's best hitting pitcher ever.  If the Diamondbacks weren't so loaded offensively, manager Bob Melvin might consider playing Owings in right field on days he's not pitching.  Put another way, if Owings were on the Giants, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him in the outfield, and batting cleanup, while pitching every fifth day.