Results tagged ‘ Syracuse Chiefs ’

Baseball Gene

By Bill Francis

Born and raised in Chicago, young Gene Walter was a fan of such Windy City legends as Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams. Recently, the former big league hurler visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum to not only revisit his childhood but share his past with his family.

On his way to Boston for business from his home outside Louisville, Ky., Walter, a southpaw relief pitcher for four big league seasons (1985-88) with the San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Seattle Mariners, made a stop in Cooperstown along with his wife and two young sons on Saturday afternoon.

“I definitely wanted to have the family visit Cooperstown and I wanted to get a chance to see it again,” said Walter, soon after he and his family checked out his clipping and photo files at the Hall of Fame Library. “Obviously being a baseball player your dreams at an early age involve one day being a member of the Hall of Fame, but certainly being a part of Major League Baseball was a great thrill and a great honor.”

Walter, who has worked as a financial planner since retiring as a professional player in 1993, made his only other Hall of Fame visit back in 1992 when he and a few teammates from the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, including future big leaguer David Weathers, made the trek on an off-day.

“It sends chills up your spine,” is how Walter explains his feelings when walking through the Cooperstown institution. “When you grow up watching the greats, and I grew up watching baseball in the late 1960s and early ‘70s before free agency when teams played together for long periods of time, those guys are special to me.”

A trio of Walter’s former big league teammates would end up with their bronze likenesses in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery.

“With the Padres, Tony Gwynn was a consummate professional and just a great teammate, Goose (Gossage) was a great competitor who just gritted his teeth and reared back and intimidated and basically threw the heck out of the ball,” Walter recalled. “And with the Mets, Gary (Carter) was someone who just loved being out on the field.”

Reflecting on his own playing career, which included a 4-7 won-loss record and 3.74 ERA in 128 big league games, Walter says it was just a great opportunity to get to the majors.

“There was nothing etched in stone that I’d play one day professionally let alone get to the big leagues,” Walter said. “I was the Padres last pick in ’82 and I had a hurt arm in college that year and was fortunate enough to get drafted. I was the 29th round pick for the Padres and their last, and I was the first guy to make it to the big leagues out of that draft with them. The only thing that was disappointing is that the arm didn’t hold up long enough to give me the opportunity to play as long as I wanted to play.

“When you reach the big leagues and have a certain level of performance, and that performance lasts a year and a half and then you have an injury and you’re no longer a major league pitcher it’s tough. But you battle and you try to hang in there,” he added. “You’ve got to love to compete, you’ve got to love to put that uniform on and go out there. At the end of my career I was better at working out than getting people out, and you can’t hang around a long time like that.”

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

A pitch for Cooperstown

Francis_90.jpgBy Bill Francis

During a May 29 visit to Syracuse to catch a Syracuse Chiefs home game at Alliance Bank Stadium, I ran into former big league pitcher Steve Grilli. Though fireballing phenom Stephen Strasburg was pitching that night, Grilli seemed more excited about the news he had recently received.

06-17-10-Francis_Grilli.jpg“I just got my invitation to play in this year’s Hall of Fame Classic,” a smiling Grilli said. “If I didn’t, I was going to beg to go back because I had such a wonderful time with my family there last year. It’s a great weekend. I just think Cooperstown is a Norman Rockwell city. You can’t help but have a good time over there.”

Grilli, who calls Syracuse home now, pitched for the Chiefs for four seasons (1978-81) and broadcasts their games on TV and radio. A frequent visitor to Cooperstown over the years, he pitched a scoreless fifth inning to help Team Wagner to a 5-4 win over Team Collins in last year’s Hall of Fame Classic at historic Doubleday Field.  

“I can always say I relieved Bob Feller, which I did last year,” said Grilli, referring to the Hall of Fame hurler. “I was on the same team with Bob and I was one of the relievers that relieved him, so I can always say I pitched with Bob Feller.”

Grilli admits to enjoying the change in format from the previous Hall of Fame Game, in which two big league teams played.

“I think this new way of doing it is exciting because you’re getting to see the Hall of Famers, and the guys that I played with that are in the Hall of Fame had a ball, as well as some of us serviceable players like myself,” said Grilli, the father of major league pitcher Jason Grilli. “I got to ride in the parade with my grandson and rub shoulders with some of the better players who have ever come through the game.”

Grilli finished his four-year big league career (1975-77, 1979), spent mostly with the Detroit Tigers, with a record of 4-3. His claim to fame is as the losing pitcher in the longest game in professional baseball history, a 33-inning International League contest in 1981 that saw Pawtucket come away with a 3-2 win over Rochester.

06-17-10-Francis_GrilliPitch.jpgWhen asked about Strasburg, the Syracuse pitcher we were both waiting to see this night, Grilli had only high praise.

“What I’m most impressed with is his breaking stuff. There are guys in the big leagues that throw 96, 97, 98, this kid was two other really well developed pitches to go along with that 98 mile per hour fastball,” Grilli said. “He pitches at 96, 97, he’ll touch 98, 99, 100 when he has to, but his breaking ball is devastating. I was comparing it to Kerry Wood breaking ball when he struck out the 20 or the Nolan Ryan type of curveball. It’s hard and it’s sharp.”

Grilli referred to a former teammate when asked what it had been like to witness in person all of Strasburg’s Syracuse starts.

“It’s something I can only compare to one thing and that was Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych. I was part of that club when Mark broke in with Detroit when he went 19-9 in his rookie season (1976),” Grilli said. “This kid’s got that same kind of electricity. And the attention he’s drawn in this town is something I’ve never seen.”

With Cooperstown only 60 miles from Syracuse, could Grilli see Strasburg with his own plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame one day?

“He has the stuff to be a Hall of Famer some day if he continues to throw as he has.”

Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Strasburg at home in Central New York

Francis_90.jpgBy Bill Francis

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – A half hour before the 7:05 p.m. start of Friday night’s game, traffic was backed up a mile away from the ballpark. A broadcaster on a local radio station said the game might be pushed back some 10 minutes to allow more fans to get inside. All due to a record-setting crowd on hand in anticipation of baseball’s latest phenom.

05-11-10-Francis_Strasburg.jpgThe distance between the upstate New York outposts of Syracuse and Cooperstown is about 66 miles. If projections prove true, baseball’s latest pitching sensation, Stephen Strasburg, currently learning his craft in the Salt City, might one day find himself with a plaque that short distance down the New York State Thruway at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The 6-foot-5, 225 pound Strasburg, the first overall pick in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft by the Washington Nationals, was making only his sixth professional start as well as his Triple-A debut for the Syracuse Chiefs against the visiting Gwinnett Braves on Friday night. The 21-year-old right-hander proved more than prepared, going six innings while allowing one hit and one walk in the 7-0 win. When it was all over, he had faced just 20 batters, striking out six, in his 65 pitches.

“It felt pretty good,” said Strasburg after the game to the 30-or-so assembled media that included reporters from USA Today, the Associated Press and The Washington Post. “I was just trying to keep doing what I’ve been doing, trying to build off of what I learned in Harrisburg and trying to do that up here, and I was able to do that tonight.”

Strasburg had made five starts for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators this season, in which he compiled a 3-1 record and 1.64 ERA in 22 innings.

An announced crowd of 13,766 was on hand at Alliance Bank Stadium that chilly night to see Strasburg, a record attendance for a professional baseball game in Syracuse dating back to 1876.

“It’s great to be pitching in front of a sellout crowd,” Strasburg said. “Everybody was really excited, and you can tell a lot of the players were ready to play today.”

Known for his combination of velocity and control, Strasburg was armed with a fastball that topped out at 99 miles per hour this night. Also in his arsenal are a knee-bending curve, sinker and changeup.

05-11-10-Francis_Gwynn.jpg“The bottom line is you can’t really worry about what caliber of hitter you’re facing,” Strasburg said. “You have to worry about what’s in your control and that’s executing the pitches to the best of your ability. Good pitches should get good hitters out, bottom line.

“I’ve got six starts under my belt, five in Double-A, and I’m starting to get comfortable.”

According to Strasburg’s catcher, Carlos Maldonado, he wasn’t shook off once by his new teammate.

“That’s what was fun about it. I just called the game. I put my fingers down and he executed every pitch,” Maldonado said. “He was like what I was expecting. It was fun to catch him in the bullpen; it was fun to catch him in the game. Every pitch was working for him today.”

Might Strasburg one day join his former coach at San Diego State, Tony Gwynn, as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame? He joins a long line of young fireballers that have dotted the national pastime’s history. Some have ultimately succeeded like Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan; others have flamed out for one reason or another such as Steve Dalkowski, David Clyde and Mark Prior. 

“This game is not easy,” Strasburg said. “I’m happy with where I’m at. I’ll let you guys place a timetable for that. Right now I’m happy to be in Syracuse and happy to be learning from these guys.

“Personally, I’m not going to make any expectations for myself. This is my first year. I’m just going out there to learn. A lot of these coaches and players have a lot more games under their belt than I do and I’m trying to soak it all in and just become a better player and help whatever team I’m on win some ballgames.”

Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Cooperstown stirs Hall of Fame memories

Francis_90.jpgBy Bill Franics

6-15-09-Francis_Doubleday.jpgOn Sunday, Cooperstown’s historic Doubleday Field played host to a pair of Triple-A minor league teams – whose players are one step away from the majors. The game came exactly six weeks to the day before Joe Gordon, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice are inducted into the Hall of Fame as the Class of 2009.

Cooperstown Classic II saw the International League’s Pawtucket Red Sox come away with a 15-5 win over the Syracuse Chiefs. With the game’s greatest enshrined down the street in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the two squads’ off-field personnel who had played with and against Rice and Henderson shared their thoughts on the duo.

“I think I still have a bruise from a line drive hit off my arm on my first pitch of a spring training game in 1982 by Rickey,” joked Syracuse pitching coach Rich Gale, a 6-foot-7 righty who pitched in the big leagues from 1978-84. “I was saying on the way over here that I should go visit the Hall of Fame because there’s a lot of guys I helped get in there.”

6-15-09-Francis_Rice.jpgActually, Rice had only a .147 batting average (5-for-34) against Gale. 

“I happened to have good success against Jim Rice. But boy, I’ll tell you what, I was never overconfident,” Gale said. “Every time he was in the box you knew that every swing could be a home run. You could make a nasty, nasty pitch and he’d rifle the ball to right, right-center or he’d launch one on to the Mass. Pike at Fenway.”

Gale spent his final big league season in 1984 as Rice’s teammate with the Boston Red Sox. “The first time he saw me in spring training he joked, ‘I hope you make our club. Don’t get traded to somebody.’ He remembered that I had some success against him.”

As for Henderson, Gale said, “I’m sure he saw me pitching out there and when he got on base he licked his chops because I had a big, long, slow delivery. My catchers weren’t too happy about that.

“He’s a guy you could throw one pitch to to lead off a game and be behind 1-0 after he hit a home run. Or you could throw one pitch and he’d be on first base, the next thing it’s second, and the next thing it’s third. And then you get an out from the second guy and you’re still behind 1-0. It was a tremendous, tremendous package.”

Pawtucket batting coach Russ Morman, who spent most of his nine-year major league playing career at first base, remembered the pressure Henderson could put on a pitcher.

“Every time he got on base he was a threat to go and cause havoc on the base paths,” Morman said. “Rickey never stayed at first very long.”

6-15-09-Francis_Henderson.jpgSyracuse batting coach Darnell Coles was another contemporary, spending 14 years in the majors (1983-95, 1997), including one as a teammate of Henderson’s with the World Series-winning 1993 Toronto Blue Jays.

“Rickey is Rickey,” Coles said with a smile. “He’s the catalyst of your team, he gets on base, he sets things in motion on the bases that not a whole lot of people have done.”

Coles spent most of time as a third baseman, always alert when Henderson was on base.

“I think it was more of a matter of when he wanted to steal bases. He could steal them pretty much anytime he wanted because he could see things other guys couldn’t,” Coles said. “And he just continued to do that over the course of his career. Then with all the leadoff home runs, he was just a special player.”

Coles recalled Rice as one of the most prolific right-handed hitters that he’d ever played against.

“Rice was just a guy that you want up with the game on the line,” Coles said. “He’s also one of those guys you wanted on your team if there was a brawl. He was somebody who had a clubhouse presence. He was a guy with a certain stature who’d go out and play the game the right way, break up double plays, do the things it takes to play on championship caliber team.”

Tom Foli, the Syracuse manager, was a 16-year veteran at second base who saw a little too much of Henderson.

6-15-09-Francis_Gordon.jpg“He was ridiculous,” Foli said. “He’d dive head first into second base. He’s probably the only guy that ever actually hurt me when he dove in. Everybody else you could kind of stop, but he was so strong he could actually take you out diving. That’s how fast and how hard he slid.”

Rice was just an RBI machine, according to Foli.

“A great hitter you like that you had to go right at them because if you pitch around them you’re going to make more mistakes,” Foli said. “If you make good pitches you have a chance to get them out seven out of 10 times. You don’t make good pitches they’re going to make you pay.”

The 2009 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, featuring Rice and Henderson as well as Joe Gordon, will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 26. Admission is free.

Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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