February 2014

A Visit to the House That Built Ruth

DSC_0212When most people think of Babe Ruth, they probably think of his years as a New York Yankee.  People who know baseball history may think of the time Babe Ruth spent as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, who suffered an 86 year World Series “Curse of the Bambino” after he was traded to the Yankees at the end of the 1919 season.  But if you really, really know baseball history, when you think of Babe Ruth, you should think of the Charm City of Baltimore, Maryland.  That’s because George Herman “Babe” Ruth was born in Baltimore, learned to play baseball in Baltimore, and it’s where he played his first professional games.  And Baltimore is also where you can see the only museum dedicated to the life of baseball’s greatest: The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.

Located at 216 Emory Street, Babe Ruth’s birthplace is located a short walk from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The museum is great for baseball-loving adults and kids, and should be on everyone’s list of “things to do in Baltimore.” You get to see the very room where Babe Ruth lived when he was really just a “Babe.”

This year, the museum is celebrating two important anniversaries.  First, it is the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s rookie season as a Baltimore Oriole, a minor league team in the old International League.  Second, it is the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.  To celebrate the anniversaries, the museum is planning to do some very interesting things, like a tour of some of the important places in Babe Ruth’s life.  For example, you will be able to see the very field at St. Mary’s Industrial School (now known as The Cardinal Gibbons School) where Babe Ruth learned the game of baseball.   You will be able to see St. Paul’s Church in Ellicot City, where Babe married Helen Woodfard.  The museum is also also hoping to have a special night with the Babe’s surviving daughter, 97 year old Julia Ruth Stevens. The museum is also hoping to produce a short film to mark the occasion.  If you want to learn more about these events, follow @BabeRuthMuseum on Twitter, or just keep following @MattsBats or MattsBats.com, and I will let you know about what’s coming up when I hear about them.

DSC_0220 I got a personal tour of the Babe Ruth house from the museum’s director, Mike Gibbons.  After that, I also visited the Sports Legend Museum, a museum that the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation created to commemorate Maryland sports.  The first thing I saw on my visit to the museum is the room where Babe Ruth was born and the exhibit called “Babe Batted Here,” which houses some artifacts from his early life, like a his jersey from St. Mary’s and his bat.  They also have on display Babe Ruth’s “wrong handed catcher’s mitt,” which Mike Gibbons told me is his favorite artifact in the museum’s collection.  Babe Ruth was a lefty, so he caught with his right hand and he threw with his left hand.  (Nowadays you would never have a left-handed catcher in the major leagues.  Why?  Because most players bat righty and they would be in the batter’s box in the way of the catcher’s throw and there would be lots of stolen bases!  But do you know another superstar baseball player who grew up as a left-handed catcher?  Keep reading to find out.) Babe only had a right-handed catcher’s mitt.  He had to do a move like Jim Abbott to quickly throw off the glove and switch hands with the ball.  (Jim Abbott was a one-handed major league pitcher who won an Olympic gold medal and pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993.  If you’ve never seen him pitch, check out this video)  Gibbons explained, “He carried that glove with him in 1914 for Spring Training with the Orioles.  He took it all the way through the season and on to Boston, with the Providence Greys.  Babe Ruth gave that glove to a guy who worked at a restaurant in Providence, a guy he befriended.  That guy kept the glove and eventually moved to Baltimore and brought the glove to us years and years later.”

There is also a display about the 500 home run club. Babe Ruth was the first player to hit 500 home runs in his career.  (He hit 714 home runs in his career).  Today, there are 25 members of the 500 home run club, including Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, and Eddie Murrary.  The museum has autographed balls and jerseys and other things from the members of the 500 club.  The all-time home run leader is Barry Bonds, with 762 career homers.  The museum director, Mike Gibbons, told me that he once got into an argument with Barry Bonds because Bonds said that Babe Ruth wasn’t any good.  Can you imagine that?

The museum has some other very valuable items.  One of them is Babe Ruth’s rookie card as a Baltimore Oriole in 1914.  This card has been declared the most valuable of all sports collectables, even more than the T206 Honus Wagner card.  There are only 11 known cards in existence now, and a pristine condition card would be worth $3.2 million, versus a Honus Wagner card right out of the box, which would be worth about $2.8 million.  The “good condition” card that the museum owns is worth about $750,000.

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The museum also used to have on display a Yankees away jersey that said New York on the front and it had “Ruth” stitched into the back necking.  A man bought it at auction for $460,000 and loaned it to the museum for three years.  His widow took it away when he died and sold it at auction for $500,000.  Then just a year later, a collector paid $4 million for it.  The man who bought it is the actor Charlie Sheen. He was the main character in Major League.

I also learned a lot about Babe as a person.  He was known as a very nice man who gave autographs to anyone who asked, and he would go out of his way to visit sick kids in the hospital 1 hour before a game. There was a whole exhibit about his heroic appearance in a tough time in the nation, which includes his baseball contributions and his well-known kindness.

I asked Mike Gibbons what made Babe Ruth a legend. He answered, “I think that he had an extraordinary skill set.  Probably the best of any athlete who has ever lived.  His hand-eye coordination was second to none.”  When you look at pictures of Babe Ruth from the 1920s, he doesn’t look like a lot of the athletes you see today who are often slim and have big muscles.  Gibbons said, “I think if he was playing today, he would train as athletes today train.  He was a hard worker, a good baseball player, and really took it very seriously.  Babe Ruth, a lot of people think that he was this big fat guy, but he wasn’t until the very end of his career.  In his 30s, he started to put on weight  and his lifestyle got the best of him.  When he was hitting 60 home runs in 1927, he was not a big fat guy.  He took care of himself pretty well.”  Babe Ruth was special because he was both a great pitcher and a great hitter.  He was a four tool player, only lacking speed.

DSC_0222Gibbons probably knows more about the life and career of Babe Ruth than anyone else in the world.  There are two questions I asked him about Babe Ruth that I don’t think he or anyone else can really answer for sure.  But it was worth asking.  First, I asked if he thought Babe Ruth would be as amazing today facing off against pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. “Yes, absolutely.  Why not?  Its hard to compare, because that was a different time and they played differently.  You have to think he would because he’s just an extraordinary athlete, and its more than just muscle memory.  [He knew] something about the sport above and beyond the physical ability.”  I have to agree.  Babe Ruth hit some of his longest home runs off of Walter Johnson, so he should probably be able to hit off today’s hurlers.

We also discussed which player today most compares to Babe Ruth.  Gibbons thought probably Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.  I pointed out that Cabrera is further along in his career and has not matched all of Babe Ruth’s greatness so far.  I suggested Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as five tool players who have only just gotten started.  Everyone has been talking about how Bryce Harper ran into an outfield wall last season chasing a fly ball and injured himself.  Well, Babe Ruth also once ran into a concrete outfield wall, knocked himself out, but stayed in the game and played the second game of the double-header.  And Bryce Harper is the other left-hander who played catcher before he became a major league outfielder!  Because we were in Baltimore, of course Manny Machado’s name got thrown in the discussion.

I also asked Gibbon if he thought Babe really called his home run shot in the 1932 World Series. With a 2-2 count, Babe stepped out of the box, pointed, and then stepped back into the box.  He chased a pitch low and away that he crushed into centerfield of Wrigley Field.  It is still the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley.  We talked for a while about whether Babe called the shot, or whether he was gesturing at pitcher Charlie Root or yelling back to the players in the Cubs dugout.  Gibbons thinks that Babe Ruth was obviously gesturing and pointing.  Maybe instead of pointing in the direction of the outfield, Ruth was telling Root that he shouldn’t get so excited because there were only 2 strikes in the count.  He thinks that Babe Ruth probably did not call the home run.  Root said in an interview Babe did not call the shot, but Lou Gehrig, the next batter, said he did. Gibbons sent me over to the Sports Legends Museum to watch a short movie about the famous called shot, that also has someone’s home movie from the stands where you can definitely see Babe Ruth pointing at something.  It is interesting to ask baseball fans what they think about whether Babe Ruth called his shot or not because there is no definite answer and people have a lot of theories. I agree with Gibbons that “it’s easier to believe, and a lot more fun.”

DSC_0231Even though the museum is kind of small, housed in the Ruth family’s townhouse and 3 other townhouses they bought and joined together, they have a lot of information about Babe Ruth and some of the amazing things he did.  It is good to visit for 30 minutes or an hour.  It is a great place to see before or after an Orioles game, because it is just a few blocks from Camden Yards.  For Nationals fans, the museum is just 45 minutes from Nationals Park. (By the way, do you know where Babe Ruth hit the last home run of his career?  At Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators on September 29, 1934).  For baseball fans anywhere in the world, it is an amazing opportunity to see “The House that Built Ruth.”

Tomorrow Brings the 1st Swings of Spring

The First Home Spring Training Game is Saturday against Atlanta

The First Home Spring Training Game is Saturday against Atlanta

The first Nationals Spring Training game is tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 28) at 1:10 PM Eastern Time. The game will be played at Tradition Field in Port Saint Lucie, FL, Spring Training Home of the Mets. It’ll be broadcast on the radio on WJFK 1580 AM and on TV on MLB Network on delay. Taylor Jordan will start for the Nats.

Luckily for me, tomorrow is a half-day of school tomorrow, so I can be able to listen live or follow on MLB At Bat.

The lineup is McLouth (RF), Espinosa (2B), Zimmerman (3B), LaRoche (1B), Desmond (SS), Ramos (C), Moore (DH), Hairston (LF), Michael Taylor (CF), Jordan (P)

Spring Training is usually not that exciting, but in this game I am excited to see some Nats baseball.  I also hope Danny Espinosa makes a nice return and gets some big hits.  It will just be nice to see some live baseball for the first time in months.

Is Doug Fister the Nationals’ Missing Piece?

Doug Wildes Fister Born: February 4, 1984 (30 years old) in Merced, CA Height: 6’8 Throws: R, Bats L (signs autographs left too!) Drafted: 2006, Mariners, 7th round MLB Debut: 2009 Career E.R.A: 3.53 2013 E.R.A.: 3.67  College: Fresno State HS: Golden Valley Jersey Number: 58 Pitches: 2-seam, 4-seam, changeup, sinker.  (The sinker is his plus pitch). Cat: Mr. Hiss

Doug Wildes Fister
Born: February 4, 1984 (30 years old) in Merced, CA
Height: 6’8
Throws: R, Bats L (signs autographs left too!)
Drafted: 2006, Mariners, 7th round
MLB Debut: 2009
Career E.R.A: 3.53
2013 E.R.A.: 3.67
College: Fresno State
HS: Golden Valley
Jersey Number: 58
Pitches: 2-seam, 4-seam, changeup, sinker. (The sinker is his plus pitch).
Cat: Mr. Hiss

One of the newest and most exciting additions to the Nationals roster for the 2014 season is pitcher Doug Fister.  Fister, a starter acquired from the Tigers, may be the proven veteran in the Nats rotation that Mike Rizzo has been hoping to find for many years.  He may also be the missing link in the rotation for taking the Nationals to the playoffs. But where did that start? Let’s go back a few years.

Early Life

Two hours down the long California freeways from San Francisco, Doug Fister was born in the Northern California town of Merced.  Doug grew up the son of Larry,  a fire captain and police SWAT team member, and Jan, a homemaker. He grew up interested in baseball, woodworking, and remodeling cars.  As a kid,he would take apart his mom’s appliances and then put them back together again, just for fun. Doug grew up a fan of the nearby A’s and Giants.  He was also a fan of the “Iron Man” Cal Ripken, Jr.

Doug went to Golden Valley High School, and played high school ball for the Cougars. He was a pitcher and a utility player, and he hit .425 in his senior year. He was drafted by the nearby Giants as a first baseman, but decided to play baseball in college.  After graduating from Golden Valley, he decided to go to Merced Junior College for two years. In those two years, he was a junior college All Star, and struck out 29 players in just 30 innings pitched. He went on to Division I Fresno State and, in 2006, was voted to the ESPN All-District team, with a 3.33 ERA.  Doug was also a good student because he had a 3.31 GPA in liberal studies and planned to be an elementary school teacher if he didn’t make it to The Show. The Fresno State Bulldogs, as they were called, went to the NCAA tournament that year, but fell to Cal State Fullerton in the Regional Finals that year.

Baseball Career

After watching big names like Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer being picked, Doug Fister was selected with the fifth pick in the seventh round of the 2006 MLB Amateur Player Draft by the Seattle Mariners.  His dream came true as MLB Commissioner Bud Selig introduced Doug Fister as a professional ballplayer.  

After rising relatively quickly through the Mariners’ organization, he made his major league debut on August 8, 2009 with one inning of shutout pitching. Three days later, he started his first game against the White Sox, and eventually finished that season 3-4. The next year, he was given the chance to become a regular starter. He got the job, and posted a 6-14 record with a 4.11 E.R.A. Even with those rough numbers, many people saw the potential in the tall kid from Merced.

On the trade deadline of 2011, after a rough 3-12 start, the Mariners shipped Doug Fister away to the Detroit Tigers. After that trade, he went 8-1, and had a 1.71 E.R.A in ten starts as a Tiger. After two playoff wins, things were looking good for Doug Fister and the Tigers. 2012 had potential to be a big year for them.

Although injured for a portion of the beginning of the 2012 season, Fister came back strong, and managed a 10-10 record that year, recorded a shutout and, in all of his playoff games, did not give up more than two runs in any game, in up to seven innings of work. Doug was a large part in the Tigers’ 2013 Division Championship run. Not only did he post a career high in wins, win percentage and strikeouts, but kept the eventual World Series champions, the Red Sox, to one run over six innings in the ALCS.

On the evening of December 3, 2013, a high school senior in Boston, Chris Cotillo, broke the news that Fister was being traded for the second time of his career.  In a move that surprised the baseball world, Doug Fister was traded to the Washington Nationals for utility player Steve Lombardozzi, rookie pitcher Ian Krol and prospect Robbie Ray.  For a deal like this, it was hard for Nats fans not to be excited.

Source: #Nationals acquire Doug Fister from #Tigers.

— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) December 3, 2013

Expectations

The Nationals are hoping that Doug Fister fills a role in their rotation that they tried unsuccessfully to do with Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren in 2012 and 2013.  Fister is a seasoned veteran going on 5 years of major league experience with lots of postseason experience.  With his clutch pitching and intimidating height, he could be a force to be reckoned with in the already solid rotation. Most likely, he will slot in as the Nats’ fourth starter, although on most teams he would probably slot higher.  Most expect that Nationals starting rotation to go Strasburg (R), Gonzalez (L), Zimmermann (R), Fister (R), and the fifth spot to be decided in Spring Training between Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan or possibly even Christian Garcia.  With a lineup that strong, Fister could even go #5 for real right-left, right-left rotation.  He could also slot in higher in the rotation to mess with hitters’ timing– while Strasburg can go 95 mph and Gio and J-Zimm also throw heat in the 90s, Fister’s fastball tops out in the high 80s but with major accuracy and a sinker that induces a lot of infield outs.  Imagine what it would be like as a batter playing a four game series against the Nats facing Strasburg’s fastball on Monday, Gio’s wicked curve on Tuesday, Zimmerman’s change in velocity on Wednesday, and Fister’s nasty sinker on Thursday.

One big way Doug Fister can help is in the clubhouse. He will be the oldest of the Nationals starting pitchers and can be a great mentor for some of the younger pitchers in the rotation, like Strasburg and Gonzalez.  He has a calm personality that will probably make him fit in well with teammates Strasburg and Zimmermann.

However, the biggest reason Doug Fister can make the Nats a championship team, is the simple fact that he is an amazing pitcher. Even while he was pitching in the third most hitter-friendly ballpark in the country, he posted great numbers throughout his tenure as a Tiger. He succeeds by throwing well-placed pitches and getting hitters to swing on top of the sinker that drops like a rock, which means lots of groundballs to guys like Zimmerman, Desmond and Rendon/Espinosa.  With Fister’s accuracy, he rarely gives up walks, which is as bad as giving up hits.   He studied to be a teacher, and hopefully he can teach the younger guys what has made him excel.  Doug Fister has seen a lot of postseason play with the Tigers, but in those high pressure situations he’s posted a 2.98 E.R.A. for an average of six innings a game.

The Nats already had the potential to be a great team, but with the addition of Doug Fister, they may have taken the leap to become a World Series team. Fister told USA Today, he is going to “approach every day trying to get better and trying to make it to October.” Hopefully, we’ll see the Nationals there this Fall.

Doug Fister at NatsFest.  Doug throws right, bats left, and writes left.

Doug Fister at NatsFest. Doug throws right, bats left, and writes left.

dougfisterball

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Thanks to Will Kubzansky, who collaborated with me on this post.  Will writes a blog called sideofnatitude.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @kubzdc.

Are you interested in biographies or profiles of other Nationals players?  Check out my pieces on Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Christian Garcia, Bryce Harper, Craig Stammen, and others in the Matt’s Bats Archive.

Wrigley Field and Fenway Park: Celebrating 100+ Years of Baseball

wrigleyWith pitchers and catchers already reported to Spring Training camp and Opening Day about 6 weeks away, the 2014 baseball season is about to begin.  This season is going to be a very special one for fans of the Chicago Cubs.  Wrigley Field is turning 100 in 2014.  Even though the Cubs haven’t ever won a World Series at Wrigley (the last win was in 1908– 106 years ago), there is definitely going to be some big celebrations in Wrigleyville this year for Chicago’s beloved “Friendly Confines.”

As you also may remember, Fenway Park in Boston, celebrated its 100th birthday a couple of years ago.  At 102 years old, Fenway is the oldest standing ballpark in the majors. While Red Sox fans, coming off their 3rd World Series win in 10 years, are probably feeling better about their team than fans of the Cubbies, we can’t forget that Sox fans went 86 years between World Series wins.  Fenway Park has gone through hard times, too. The ballpark survived 3 fires, 2 in the 20th century and one in 2012.

Most of the ballparks in the majors are less than 20 years old.  After Wrigley and Fenway, the next oldest is Dodger Stadium, is only about half as old as these two.  Can you imagine a world without TV and computers?  Obviously, those weren’t invented until way, way after Wrigley Field was built.  Can you imagine eating a hamburger without a bun?  Well, you would have had to if you ordered a hamburger at one of Wrigley Field’s first games because hamburger buns weren’t invented in 1914.  In fact, you couldn’t even go to a supermarket in 1914 because those weren’t created until after Wrigley Field was built.

One of the things that’s hardest to believe is that the Cubs only played day games at Wrigley Field until 1988, because there weren’t any lights at the ballpark. The first night game at Wrigley, however, was the All-American Girls Professional League All-Star Game in the forties. Today, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park still have manual scoreboards. The original manual scoreboard at Wrigley has been there since 1937.  The scoreboard is so deep in center field that no batter has ever hit it.

You may be asking yourself why I’m writing about Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.  Well, it’s because I just red two great books about these old ballparks:  F is for Fenway and W is for Wrigley.   These are great books for kids my age who are interested in the history of baseball.  You can find them HERE and HERE.  I really recommend these books.  In this post I will tell you more about the history of the Fenway Park (the “Baseball Cathedral”) and Wrigley Park (the “Friendly Confines”).

FisforFenway Fenway Park:  James E. McLaughlin, a builder from Boston, Massachusetts, got a plot of land in between Ipswich and Lansdowne streets in downtown Boston. Construction of the ballpark began in 1911 and finished in 1912.  102 years later, Fenway Park is one of the most popular spaces in Boston.

The Yawkey family, who owned the Red Sox, named their new ballpark after the section of Boston in which it is built.

The Red Sox won the World Series in the first year they played at Fenway Park.  Strangely, it wasn’t the baseball team that drew the largest crowd to Fenway Park .  The largest crowds came to Fenway in 1914 to watch three elephants parade though the streets on their way to the Franklin Park Zoo!  Almost 37,500 fans watched the Sox win the World Series in 2013, but 50,000 people watched the elephants in 1914!

One of the most unique parts of Fenway Park is the Green Monster, the highest wall in a MLB ballpark.  It is 37 feet tall and 240 feet long and looms over left field.  The Green Monster holds the only ladder on a field of play and a manual scoreboard.

Also, the Yawkey family hid their initials in Morse Code on the manual scoreboard.

Fans at Fenway Park are also very charitable. The official charity of the Red Sox, The Jimmy Fund, collects more than $1 million each week through fundraisers and collections in the red boxes all around the ballpark.  The Jimmy Fund started when a radio station surprised a young hospital patient with signed balls, tickets, and caps from his favorite team, the Boston Braves.

Boston fans went through some rough years in Fenway Park.  Boston was shocked when struggling P/OF George Herman “Babe” Ruth was traded to the Yankees in 1919 and then grew into the probably the best player in baseball history.  “The Curse of the Bambino” had begun, and it would be another 48 years until the team made it to the World Series again.  It would be 67 years until they actually had a shot at the championship, but we all know what happened in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  Of course, it would be 86 years until they actually won the World Series in 2004 (the year I was born!).  And now the Red Sox have won the World Series three times in my lifetime.

WisforWrigleyWrigley Park:  Zachary Taylor Davis was an architect from Chicago who got a piece of land and built a stadium at  the intersection 0f Clark and Addison streets.  Davis also built Comiskey Park, former home to the cross-town rival White Sox.

The stadium Davis built, called Weeghman Park, became the home to the Chicago Whales. The Whales were part of the Federal League, which existed in 1914 and 1915.  The Whales and Cubs merged in 1916.  When William Wrigley took over ownership in 1921, he changed the name of field after his company. Welcome to the beginning of the sports stadium marketing era! Nice job.

The Chicago football Tigers and Bears also called Wrigley their home for a while.  There was a soccer team in the 1970s and 1980s called the Sting that also played at Wrigley Field.

The layout of the Wrigley Park field is a little unusual for modern ballparks.  First, the bullpens are in foul territory, not behind the outfield walls, as in most ballparks.  (A few other ballparks still have this, like AT&T Park and Tropicana Field).

Another unique thing about the park is that there is ivy growing on the outfield wall.  Bill Veeck, the team’s general manager in 1937, got the ivy idea because he saw Perry Stadium in Indianapolis.  Wrigley is the only professional ballpark with ivy covered walls. If a ball hit into the ivy gets lost, it is an automatic ground rule double.

The weather in the Windy City is an important factor at Wrigley Field.  Depending on the direction of the winds coming from Lake Michigan, the park can give up a lot of home runs or keep long fly balls in play.  That’s why it’s important to note the flags around the top rim of the park to see whether the wind is blowing in or out.

Speaking of flags, when the home team wins, a white flag with a blue “W” in flown.  If the team loses, a blue flag with a white “L” is displayed.  That way fans can keep up with how the team is doing from wherever they are in the city.

Wrigley Park also has some fun traditions, like how Cubs fans throw back home run balls hit by the opposing team.

The Cubs haven’t been in a World Series since 1945 when tavern owner Billy Sianis got ejected from the stadium because he brought a goat inside. It is believed he cursed the team for being thrown out of the game.  It is now known as the “Curse of the Billy Goat” that haunts the Cubs.  Here’s the good news for Cubs fans: the team’s farm system is one of the best in the big leagues and they have one of the best general managers in the game.  My prediction is the Cubs are going to win a lot more championships at Wrigley in the second 100 years than the first 100 years, and probably could be contenders for a Series very, very soon.

Again, I really liked the books F is for Fenway and W is for Wrigley.   The author of W is for Wrigley also wrote a book called H is for Home Run, which is also very good.  Even though they are “alphabet books,” these aren’t books for little kids.  They’re probably best for kids in grades 3-9, but even younger kids and older kids (and adults) would like them too.  I bet you, no matter how old you are, you will learn some new things by reading any of them.