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Friday, August 5, 2011

Ryne Sandberg's Lehigh Valley IronPigs beat Durham Bulls: Talk Talk

Posted by on Fri, Aug 5, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—The Lehigh Valley IronPigs beat the Durham Bulls last night, 5-3, but that was by no means the main event at the ballpark. That would be the presence of Ryne Sandberg, the IronPigs' first-year manager.

There was a press event at 4:30. There were fans lined up behind the visitors' dugout, 30-deep by 6:00 p.m. There was Sandberg himself, a guarded man who dealt with the incessant and unfair distractions that probably attach themselves to him everywhere he goes. He handles these with a practiced combination of ease and wariness.

Ryne Sandberg is a Hall of Fame baseball player. He was notoriously taciturn back when he played. Now he's the manager of the Class AAA affiliate of the best team in baseball, subject to all of the scrutiny that comes with a) a job like that and b) exposing yourself, after a legendary career, to the up-close and inelegant attention of minor-league fans and sportswriters.

The Bulls arranged for some media time with Sandberg in the hot, hot late afternoon, during practice. The "media" were me, the Herald-Sun reporter (wait—the Herald-Sun still has writers on staff?) and a couple of cameramen/question-askers from local TV stations. We pinned poor Ryne up against his dugout wall and asked him our questions, most of which could have been answered in a sentence or two.

But here's the thing: in response to almost every question, Sandberg gave long answers: two minutes, three. Monologues. Why would he do this? Why would he not be pleasant but terse, get it over with, get back to baseball?

Here's why: by going on at length, Sandberg was forestalling more questions. He gave honest answers, seaworthy answer, but they were general and vague. It was as though his long-winded responses were designed to prevent whatever dialogue might arise from a legitimate back-and-forth, from genuine talk. (I'm intending, nevertheless, to put up over the weekend a stand-alone writeup of Sandberg at the DBAP on Thursday, which got added interest from the extraordinary line of autograph seekers he drew. It was really something to see.)

There is talk and there is talk talk. The first, talk, is communication, question-and-answer, clarity, explanation. The second is, well, not exactly non-communicative, but a means of not talking. A way of clouding. A way of making it sound like one is saying something while in fact saying as little possible. Crash Davis gives Nuke LaLoosh a lesson in these tactics in Bull Durham. Former Bull Fernando Perez once told me that the scene was the truest in the whole movie.

There are different ways of going about talking to the media, and Sandberg's seemed to aim for laying claim to the middle of the road by simply taking up all of it. If you don't stop talking, they can't ask you anything. Once or twice, we didn't finish asking a question before Sandberg started answering it.

Can you blame him? No, of course not. I wouldn't want to mean too much, either, were I in his position. I would be polite and cooperative but distant. Who are these small-town guys with voice recorders? Do they know anything about baseball? Did they just get dispatched here by their editors? Do they even know who I am?

Ryne Sandberg, to repeat, is in the Hall of Fame. He is, by many considered arguments, one of the top ten second basemen ever to play the game. (One little side note: would you believe that by some measures, Bobby Grich was actually better? I love Bobby Grich!)

Sandberg deserves immense credit for undertaking his second career. He spends half the year in the grind of a minor-league season, helping young guys work their way up and older guys stuck in Triple-A limbo and other guys on their way out. He stands there in third base coaches' box, exposed. He manages major-league veterans like Roy Oswalt, currently rehabbing with Lehigh Valley, and kids barely old enough to drink, like just-up-from-Class-AA, 21-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis. He could be golfing, hanging out with his family, doing color commentary, going to Fiji. Sleeping.

Instead he chooses this life, this baseball life. A lot of this life is talk. And a lot of it is talk talk.

Let me give you an example of talk talk, as relates to last night's game. It's the play of the game, in fact, and what it reveals is that talk talk can actually be, rather than deliberate blah-blah-blah, what comes about when two people with competing agendas recount the very same thing.

It's 5-2, Lehigh Valley, in the bottom of the eighth inning. Lehigh Valley has scored all five of its runs off of Andy Sonnanstine, all in a single inning. In his last start, Sonnanstine had one bad eight-batter sequence that spanned the fifth and sixth innings, costing him four runs. Last night, he had one bad eight-batter sequence which he compressed into one frame: single, single, double, fly out, double, triple, hit batter, sacrifice fly. Five runs—5-1, Lehigh Valley. The Bulls get a run back in the bottom of the fourth, but it scores on a double-play grounder by Leslie Anderson, killing a rally.

In the last of the eighth, the Bulls get something going against Pigs reliever Justin DeFratus. With one out, Stephen Vogt singles. Dan Johnson singles, his fourth hit of the night—three of them the opposite way, to left field. The tying run comes to the plate in the form of Russ Canzler, the Bulls' leading home run hitter.

But Canzler strikes out, one of those badly mismanaged at-bats to which he is sometimes prone. He doesn't even manage a good swing.

Two outs. Up steps Leslie Anderson. Anderson had the double-play grounder with two men on in the fourth, then a strikeout with two more men on in the sixth—he took a huge hack, trying to hit a game-tying three-run homer, but whiffed over top of a curve ball by Lehigh Valley starter Brian Bass.

Here he is again with two men on, the Bulls still down a three-run homer. Two outs. Anderson laces a 1-2 pitch from DeFratus into the right-field corner. It's the third hard hit in four at-bats versus DeFratus.

Sandberg, later, talk-talking: "Bullpen was good. DeFratus has been outstanding. He battled a little bit, but he got a big out when he needed it."

Here is how DeFratus "got" that big out. Anderson's liner heads for the right-field corner. Brandon Moss gives chase. Vogt scores. Johnson chugs home. Moss fields, throws. The relay from second baseman Kevin Frandsen beats Johnson by a step or so, but it's a tad up the first-base line. Catcher Erik Kratz makes a sweep-tag on Johnson, a tag that hits (or may have hit) Johnson somewhere around the hip after Johnson's foot slides across the plate. Replays confirm this sequence of events. Johnson is safe.

The home plate umpire takes a moment, waits to see that Kratz is still holding the ball, and calls Johnson out.

Johnson, lying prone, protests. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo protests. Neither man protests very hard: it's a judgment call, and not a really egregiously bad one—when the throw beats the runner, umps like to call the runner out—and although that doesn't keep the call from being bad, there's not much anyone can do. It's not like Karl Best, the ump (let's call him Karl Better for the purposes of this report), is going to reverse it.

So instead of 5-4, man in scoring position, two outs, it's 5-3, inning over, bottom third of Bulls' lineup due up in the ninth. They go down in order against 6-foot-8 Lehigh Valley closer Michael Schwimmer.

Now: even if Karl Better makes the right call, the Bulls still trail. They still have the bottom of the order coming up. The difference is, should Johnson be called safe and score, that means leadoff man Reid Brignac is guaranteed one more at-bat. Brignac went 1-4 last night, but he hit the ball hard three times. Once, Frandsen robbed him of a single with a nifty pick of Brignac's hot grounder; later, Brignac lined out hard to first base, sloughing off his bat in disgust after the Pigs' Cody Overbeck caught it without moving a single step.

But Brignac never hits. Foul-out, strikeout, strikeout in the last of the ninth. Brignac is left in the on-deck circle.

Montoyo begins his post-game interview thus: "You guys interview the umpire before you came in here?"

He says: "I thought he missed the call." Then, a minute later: "Of course he missed it, in my opinion."

Both Montoyo and then, a few minutes later, Dan Johnson, tell us that the umpire explained to them that Kratz had blocked the plate. That would be a fine oh-I-see-how-you-did-that explanation but for one problem: Johnson was lying on top of the plate when Better called him out, and protested the call from that recumbent position. He sort of looked like Bobby Grich does in this picture in the Mannerist style, only without the glove and the mustache:

Grich.jpg

For that matter, Johnson didn't think Kratz tagged him at all, and said so to Better after Better called him out.

Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, describing the same play: "Big play at the plate, throwing the guy out from right field, good hustling play by Moss to get to it, get it into [second baseman] Frandsen, great throw and a block of the plate. That was big. If he's safe right there, it's a one-run game, tying run's on second base."

So, what happened?

Talk talk.

More: How was Brian Bass, the Pigs' starter, who went seven innings and allowed two runs? (Bass was last seen at the DBAP almost exactly a year ago, as an Indianapolis Indian, coughing up a late lead in a Durham comeback win.)

Montoyo: "I'm not gonna give him credit. I've seen enough guys that I can give credit to. I thought we swung at a lot of balls out of the strike zone."

Johnson: "[Bass] did a good job tonight. He kept us to two runs."

Sandberg: "He gets better as the game goes on. He goes out there to pitch. Get him a lead, and that's when he's at his best. Mixing up his breaking balls, good curve ball and then some good sliders. Mix those up, and he spotted his fastball. He's a battler out there, and like I said, as the game goes on and he sees the approach of the hitters, he's pretty good about making an adjustment."

The evidence? The Bulls tallied three hits and a run off of Bass four batters into the first inning. Bass then retired eight straight batters. Then he got staked to a 5-1 lead, and promptly gave up another run immediately afterward. His best inning might have been the sixth, two innings later, when he struck out Stephen Vogt and, two batters later, Leslie Anderson—Bass generated four or five of his nine total swings-and-misses (98 pitches, exactly half of them strikes) in the sixth. But between Vogt's and Anderson's strikeouts, Bass allowed singles to Johnson and Russ Canzler. Anderson appeared to be thinking homer when he came up, taking a huge hack at Bass's 1-2 curve and missing badly for strike three.

More talk, or perhaps talk talk: Mike Ekstrom relieved Sonnanstine (92 pitches, exactly half of them strikes) in the seventh. He threw Kevin Frandsen a first-pitch slider for a strike, and Better called it a ball. Then he missed with a fastball. Down 2-0 in the count, Ekstrom had to come in with another fastball, and Frandsen doubled. Ekstrom was mad. He threw close pitches to Erik Kratz, didn't get calls, and needed seven pitches to strike Kratz out. In the eighth, he couldn't believe some of the pitches he threw to Carlos Rivero were called balls. He was muttering into his glove. Better just stared back at him. Ekstrom's disgust paid off, finally, when Better called one of Ekstrom's balls a strike. He also called out Rich Thompson on strikes, looking, on another borderline pitch. Ekstrom walked to the dugout and, passing Better, had a few words. Talk. Really talk talk: Ekstrom was making his point without saying what he meant. I think it's the first I've ever seen the quiet, almost secretive Ekstrom talk to an umpire.

More, and this relates to some injury updates: Brandon Guyer is "not close," Montoyo said, to returning from his oblique strain. Not long ago Tampa Bay Rays beat writer Marc Topkin wrote that Guyer isn't expected back until September. For his part, Guyer tweeted: "man cant wait to get off the DL. this not bein able to play sh*t [sic] really sucks!!!"

Matt Carson was just acquired a few days ago from Oakland, essentially in order to provide some experienced outfield depth in Class AAA for the Rays, should seven of the nine guys on the big-league squad who can play outfield eat the same bad turkey. (By the way, if you love Justin Ruggiano, or if you hate him, watch this.) Carson played in two games for Durham on the road trip to Charlotte, going 3-9 with a double and two walks and throwing out Lastings Milledge at home plate from the outfield by about 30 feet.

Naturally, last night, the welcomed and promising new addition to the Bulls strained his hamstring and was removed in the seventh inning. Well, SMFT. or maybe TTYL. He and Guyer can sit around and reminisce about the good old days when they used to play outfield.

Also, Daniel Mayora strained/pulled/annoyed something in his leg and didn't play last night. Montoyo was asked which of his players was closest to coming off of the disabled list and replied: "Nobody." After dispensing with Guyer, Montoyo was asked about Dirk Hayhurst, who has been out since July 15 with elbow soreness, Hayhurst's second trip to the DL this season. "I don't know about Hayhurst. I haven't asked... about Hayhurst."

Haven't asked? About one of your starters? That was also talk talk. What Montoyo's vague, trailing-off, shrugging reply meant was something closer to this: "Dirk Hayhurst's return isn't even on my radar." Or, more succinctly: "Dirk who?"

***

There was some straight talk last night. Charlie Montoyo was unhappy about Better's thumbing out of Johnson at home not just because of the call itself, but because "we're fighting for something." He said it twice. First: "We're fighting for something. So all those calls now, they make a big difference." And again, less than a minute later: "Now that you're fighting for something, every call is big."

Well, it's August, and there's no talk talk obfuscating what that something is. Go back to a post-game interview Montoyo conducted a little over a week ago, after the Bulls lost big to the Gwinnett Braves. Montoyo said then: "My goal is always, in August, to still play for something." What he meant by "something" was the playoffs. Now it's August, the Bulls have a 1 1/2-game lead in the IL South Division and the league's third-best record. (Lehigh Valley is second best.)

Montoyo is deep into this race, the August turn into the stretch. There's about a month to go, and Montoyo knows from experience whether he should whip his horse toward the finish line or if he's just beating a dead one. That's why he bridled more than usual at last night's blown call, which really got his horse goat. The interesting thing to see was the sudden and irreversible change in Montoyo's demeanor and purpose. No more midsummer night's dreaming. It's time to stop talk-talking and start meaning it. Montoyo is still friendly, and funny, and unassuming, but the talk and the talk talk are now tethered to a goal, and it's the highest one in all of sports: winning a championship.

On that note, here's one piece of talk that stuck out from Ryne Sandberg's 18+ minutes on the record. Asked why he chose, after an illustrious career, to embrace the grind of minor-league managing (other, obviously, than to arrive at major-league managing), Sandberg replied that the one thing that has eluded him in his life in baseball is a championship. He played, as you probably know, for the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908. The Governors' Cup may seem like a rather light trophy to a legend like Sandberg, but he's as committed to capturing it as he was to bringing Chicago a World Series title. Having fallen just short in 1984, the year the 25-year-old Sandberg was named National League MVP, the fire still burns. It's truly remarkable to me that he still wants it that badly—a testament to the peculiar and potent drive of the very greatest sportsmen.

And that drive shows in the way Sandberg's team played last night. They are mostly veteran, well-trained hitters. They drew two walks in the top of the first inning off of the usually pinpoint Sonnanstine. They hit a couple of balls hard off of him in the first couple of innings, and then, when he had trouble keeping his pitches down in the fourth, teed off. They needed just 22 pitches to score their five runs, and swung at 14 of them. They saw 144 pitches last night in all, and swung and missed only 13 times. They drew five walks and were twice hit by pitches. The team's pitchers fought through their own difficulties. They worked around 11 hits, which are impossible to prevent, really. They controlled what they could control, instead: they didn't walk a single batter.

More than that: the IronPigs ran out ground balls, hard. (The Bulls generally don't, except for Brandon Guyer.) They sprinted after fouls that were clearly headed well back into the stands. Kevin Frandsen, who plays Sandberg's old position, second base, made a superb hustling catch of John Matulia's foul pop down the right field line in the ninth, one of three excellent fielding plays Frandsen made last night in his manager's keystone-sack shadow. Sandberg revealed, after the game, this item of just-plain talk: "I keep red stars on the scorecard for good defensive plays, and that's the first time we've had three from a guy in one game."

The IronPigs play with Sandberg's quiet, focused intensity. They carry out the old baseball injunction, one to which Sandberg adheres (and repeated yesterday afternoon), to "play the game the right way." One raises an eyebrow at that hoary old phrase, but Sandberg has his team exemplifying what it means. He may be reserved, veiled, cagey, but one look at his ballclub makes it clear that his talk talk masks serious ardor in action. You don't get to be one of the greatest second basemen who ever lived without that ardor, and without those work habits.

Speaking of work habits, I'm going to close with one more bit of talk from Sandberg. That's not only in case I run short of time and don't get around to writing that story about his interview; it's also because something Sandberg brought up yesterday afternoon, sitting right there before us, wound up hitting home very hard. Sandberg was asked, as many pre-steroids greats often are, for his thoughts about the legacy of steroid users, especially in regard to their Hall of Fame cases. Sandberg noted that plenty of those 1990s juicers are getting low vote totals from the Hall's electors, and reiterated something he's made clear before, including in his Hall of Fame induction speech: that he thinks those players cheated the game, its hallowed record books, and themselves with their ridiculously inflated numbers and bodies. (He led the league in home runs in 1990 with 40, the exact number he cited yesterday as the reasonable standard by which to measure a big-time season homer total.)

Sandberg is 6-foot-1, and played at around 180 pounds. He is agile and slightly wiry, yet strong; he moves fluidly and in full possession of himself. Watching him hit grounders and play catch with his hitting coach during the IronPigs' pregame warmups, one sees a 51-year-old who is still quite fit—maybe he's up to 190 or 195—but physically unimposing. His movements are about grace and evenness; even the way he leans on a bat has a certain well-balanced combination of both ease and coiled-up energy, an analog to the admixture of innate poise and learned vigilance with which he addressed the media before the game. He's light on his feet but firm in his force.

I thought immediately of Ricky Bones. Bones is the pitching coach of the Buffalo Bisons, who were in town to the play the Bulls in June. In the visitors' clubhouse after one of the Bisons' games at the DBAP, as we waited to talk to Buffalo manager Tim Teufel, Bones emerged from the coaches' office.

I have never encountered in person anyone who I knew to be a steroid user. I don't know what one looks like, or if there can even be said to be a prototypical steroid body. I'm sure plenty of athletes have used steroids without really looking much bigger than they did without them.

Well, when I saw Ricky Bones, I thought to myself—immediately, instinctively—"that guy looks like a steroids user." I had no reason, at the time, to think that. I hadn't given Bones a moment's thought since he pitched briefly for the New York Yankees back in 1996, when I was living in the City. His lifetime stats, over a 10-year career, vary only in three seasons from the generally below-average norm he pitched to for a decade.

Black Jacques Shellaque
  • Black Jacques Shellaque
But then I saw that body, which is 42 years old. Bones was enormous. His arms, his chest, his head, everything: enormous. He was so thick and broad that his back seemed to be still in the coaches' office three or four seconds after his pectorals had exited it. His puffed out upper body was almost comically out of proportion to the rest of him, like the Looney Tunes villains Black Jacques Shellaque and Nasty Canasta.

That's despite Bones's actually small frame: he is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, not much bigger than me, and I am a shrimp. He has no natural reason to look as he big as he did when I saw him in June, yet he looked exponentially larger than he seems to have any right or reason to look.

When I got home after last night's game, hours after listening to Sandberg's oft-reiterated moralizing about steroids, I searched Bones's name on the internet. As soon as I typed "Ricky Bones," Google immediately added "steroids" after his name. Bones was, as it turns out, one of the players implicated in the infamous "Mitchell Report" that revealed the identity of many known (or might-as-well-be-known) performance enhancing drug users. Here is what the Mitchell Report has to say about Bones:

In late June 2000, a clubhouse attendant with the Florida Marlins brought a paper bag to the club's athletic trainers that had been found in the locker of Marlins pitcher Ricky Bones. The bag contained over two dozen syringes, six vials of injectable medications—stanozolol and nandrolone decanoate, two anabolic steroids that are sold under the names Winstrol and Deca-Durabolin, respectively—and a page of handwritten instructions on how to administer the drugs. Soon thereafter, the athletic trainers returned the bag and its contents to Bones at his request.

Bones is now employed by a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets and so was required by the Commissioner to meet with us. In his interview, he acknowledged the incident and explained that he had been self-administering steroids and painkillers pursuant to prescriptions that he obtained from a physician in his hometown in Puerto Rico.

***

The Bulls and IronPigs play game two of their four-game series tonight at the DBAP at 7:05 p.m. Ryan Reid starts for Durham. Reid is standing in for Brian Baker, who is currently wearin' the sweatshirt for roster convenience but is in fact suffering from a dead arm. For Lehigh Valley it's Nate Bump. Bump, who just turned 35, is a former first-round draft pick who has battled injuries (and Lyme Disease, at one point) and is still trying to work his way back to the majors. The Bulls faced Bump back in June up in Allentown, Penna., and applied benzoil peroxide, coating him with eight hits and five runs in five innings. He last pitched at the DBAP in late June of last year.

I'll leave you with this little blast from the past, not only to fit today's title but also to remind you that the song isn't by No Doubt. Also, the video includes another Ryne-O.


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