Thursday, July 22, 2010

Houk Is Next

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

I was hoping I'd be wrong and there wouldn't be another major death for awhile, but another legend is headed to his new eternal life.

This time, former New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk died Wednesday night peacefully because of natural causes at the age of 90 at his home in Winter Haven, Florida. He would have turned 91 on August 9 but was born in Lawrence, Kansas, the home of the Jayhawks.

Here is a trivia question.

Who was the first manager that worked for the late George Steinbrenner?

You guessed it, it was Ralph Houk.

He managed for Steinbrenner for one season in 1973, then resigned to accept a position for the Detroit Tigers where he piloted the club from 1974-1978.

Houk has nine World Series Championship titles. He earned six as a player with the Yankees a pair as manager of the Bronx Bombers and another as a Vice President in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins.

During his managerial career, he had a winning percentage of .514, and won 1,619 of 3,157 games. He is 15th all-time in wins in MLB history.

In Detroit, he compiled a 363-442 mark with a .450 percentage.

Of his three stops, this was undoubtedly his most challenging position. During his tenure, the team sunk to 102 losses in 1975 and had only one winning season. In three other seasons, the team lost 87, 88 and 90 games.

But in his final campaign of 1978, the Tigers finished with his lone winning year compiling an 86-76 mark.

I'll never forget the only time that I interviewed Houk in 1983 during Spring Training when he was managing the Boston Red Sox. I asked him about his experience in Detroit and I found "The Major" to be one of the nicest people I've ever met.

He took the job as Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline was retiring.

I asked Houk if the Tigers job was a bigger challenge than he expected. He laughed with a big grin and said it was but never regretted taking the position.

In fact, he told me because of the support from the Tigers front office, he worked harder to rebuild the franchise and bring it back to respectability.

Despite all of the losses, in 1976, the Tigers were the most exciting 74-87 team in baseball history and Houk had the best seat in the house on the perch of the dugout.

While fans paid good money to see a young pitcher by the name of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the skipper watched the AL Rookie of the Year compile a 19-9 record, with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games.

Fidrych finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting and along with Rusty Staub, Ron LeFlore, played in the 1976 All-Star Game and was the starting pitcher.

As I heard the announcement of Houk's death during the Washington Nationals VS Cincinnati Reds game featuring baseball's newest upcoming star Stephen Strasburg, be limited to 97 pitches and 5.2 innings, it made me think of Fidrych.

It's already been said that the Nationals will shut Strasburg down when he's reached the clubs innings limit for the season.

How many pitchers, especially Strasburg, would ever do what Fidrych did in 1976 when he had two complete game 11 innings wins? One of Fidrych's victories was over future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Would Strasburg have amassed 24 complete games? Absolutely Not!

In Houk's old Yankee Stadium stomping grounds, 52, 707 fans watched the skippers prize rookie win a 3-0 decision over Dock Ellis as "The Bird" talked to the ball, along with the rest of his mound antics, thus leaving more New Yorkers talking about what they saw on that September 12 evening.

To go along with Fidrych's memorable season, Houk piloted the Tigers against the Milwaukee Brewers as Hall of Famer Hank Aaron had his last at bat which was an RBI single to short stop off Dave Roberts in the bottom of the sixth inning on Oct 3 in Wisconsin.

In the end, Houk is the man that build the nucleus of the Tigers 1984 World Championship team which Sparky Anderson managed. Then, in 1987, with the Twins, it was Houk who saw his Twins defeat the Tigers and Minnesota won the World Series.

While Houk has nine championships, he's really responsible for 10 titles!

Houk's work in Boston from 1981-84 enabled him to build the core of this franchise that reached the 1986 World Series.

With all that he accomplished with four cities and even the lessons todays baseball people have learned how to handle young pitchers despite Fidrych's short and sweet career, it's unfortunate that I'm writing another tribute and feel like an obituary story.

Now the total is five legends since May 4 and it gets strange wondering when the next icon will pass. But stay tuned, we're on a roll for all of the wrong reasons. I hope another one doesn't bite the dust anytime soon!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

George Steinbrenner Memories

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

I've dealt with a lot of unbelievable people over the years.

But the most intimidating, yet misunderstood, had to be the late New York Yankees Owner George M. Steinbrenner, who passed away on July 13 at the age of 80.

Back in the 1980's, I met Steinbrenner for the first time at his hotel in Tampa, The Bay Harbor Inn.

We were walking down the hallway and I asked him for his autograph.

At first, he didn't give it to me as he walked past because there were a lot of people nearby. But as I walked further down the hallway, he approached me and asked, "Son where would you like me to sign?" I had a piece of paper and he was very polite. I thanked him very much and he said it was his pleasure as we shook hands.

I used to go to The Bay Harbor Inn a lot because it was very convenient being located off of Route 60 otherwise known as the Courtney Campbell Causeway. I took this route to see my best friends Gus Pantelides and Mike Pantel, who lived in Clearwater Beach. Pantelides once took me to a rib place for a birthday in the hotel.

My next encounter with Steinbrenner occurred at Fort Lauderdale Stadium when the Yankees used the facility for Spring Training and then had a team in the Florida State League.

When I was working with the Hallandale Digest, I convinced Publisher Peter Bluesten to let me cover the Fort Lauderdale Yankees.

His son Dan was totally against the idea because it wasn't local.

I felt the weekly paper needed a South Florida identity. It had to be a factor in the area not limited to our city therefore, I convinced Peter that by marketing in all areas, covering all sports, it could increase revenues and give our publication a major league identity.

It would put the Hallandale Digest on the Media Map.

Peter decided to give me the freedom to run the Sports Department and told Danny that "I have a young writer that I want to see develop and I want to see what he can do!"

Thus, Danny was forced to live with his fathers decision and told him to concentrate on the papers business side.

Dan and I had a respectful working relationship but I felt there was an adversarial side where he wanted to try to challenge me at every opportunity that he could.

Thankfully, Peter was there to be the buffer between us and this enabled me to do my job.

Dan once told me that he felt former Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda wouldn't remember me after an initial interview which we had months earlier. I proved Dan wrong when I played the tape in front of Peter, who gave me a big, smile, hug and kiss.

But back to the Yankees. I loved baseball and knew that it would be a lot of fun to write about the most storied franchise in sports. I thought Class A Baseball would be great because it gave me an opportunity to view "Tomorrows Stars Today" because these future major leaguers have to come from somewhere.

The Florida State League was an excellent training ground for younger players because the ballparks statistics wouldn't be misleading because of spring training.

I enjoyed writing feature stories about future players that went on to have productive & outstanding careers. I enjoyed presenting ideas to Dan and while he reluctantly accepted some of them, as I would track their progress and see them get promoted, while I knew I had Peter's respect, I began to gradually gain Dan's confidence and was questioned less because I depended on my eyes and instincts.

I'll never forget the time when I walked into the office one day and Dan said that he heard that Steinbrenner was at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. I told him "is that right or are you just kidding me?" He told me he was serious. This entire conversation took place in front of Peter.

I told Dan, "what you heard was true but I have to tell you something. I interviewed Steinbrenner and that story will appear in next weeks paper."

I proceeded to pull out the tape and played it to them. These two guys were shocked!

Peter proceeded to rip Danny again and told him that I told you he knew what he was doing!

You could hear this conversation from the United States to Iceland.

During the interview with Steinbrenner, I asked him the easy questions about developing his farm system, why he traded younger players for more established ones, what players he expected big years, how he felt about the teams slow start. He was candid about every question that I asked him "until the very last one."

This question was about why he changed managers so frequently. He explained the success to me in a very authoritative voice on how many championships his teams won under his tenure and after he finished answering my question, he abruptly ended the interview.

I knew even at the age of 20, to start with the softer questions and hit him hard at the end.

By the end of the interview, I had everything I needed and was satisfied with what I accomplished. By no means was I upset as to how things ended.

We're talking about a guy that fired Billy Martin five times and dismissed Dick Howser after a 100 win season. All Howser did was win a World Series after he left the Yankees with the Kansas City Royals.

With Steinbrenner having seen so many people, he never remembered that we met at The Bay Harbor Inn. I didn't care to bring it up either because my role this time was as a writer.

The message I pounded home to Danny was loud and clear. You can find great story ideas anywhere as long as you're out there available to to the public.

By covering the Fort Lauderdale Yankees, this enabled me to be able to write about the New York Yankees for a couple years. I had great memories dealing with Dave Winfield, Martin, Don Baylor, Butch Wynegar, Ken Griffey Sr and many others.

I would gain a measure of satisfaction when Steinbrenner appeared on ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel. Like myself, the managerial firings were one of Koppel's questions and "The Boss" ripped Koppel as he did myself explaining the success of his decision making methods.

The Wonderful World of Journalism has moments where you can't be afraid to take chances and ask the tough questions. It's the publics right to know information and feelings about subjects pertinent to them.

But I feel grateful that in both of my dealings of Steinbrenner that the man was cooperative. I learned different lessons from each experience. I'm glad that Steinbrenner passed away as a World Champion and he has now won seven titles.

When we spoke in the 1980's, he had only one two World Series. He learned to become more patient over the years winning five with two managers. Since 1996, there have only been two Yankees skippers as I mention Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.

Indeed, Steinbrenner mellowed over the years, listened to his baseball people and was rewarded as a result. As "The Boss" rejoins Martin in heaven, will these two men begin attempting to win more titles with the likes of the many past Yankees immortals at the old Yankee Stadium? Whether Martin and Steinbrenner win championships elsewhere, I'm sure the man upstairs will be completely entertained by this duo.

We'll let the imagination take over and draw your own conclusions.

But this story has given me the unique opportunity to share a couple nice memories about Steinbrenner, in addition to my father like relationship with my loving mentor Peter Bluesten.

Steinbrenner's bold behavior taught me to never to take things personally and gain as much out of every interaction.

As for Peter, he was just "one of a kind" and both of these individuals are in good hands with the man upstairs having positive impacts on those people they were around.

I'm grateful to George and Peter and I hope you both rest in peace.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.

Who Is Next?

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

When you hear about deaths, there is an old saying that they happen in threes.

In the past eight weeks, the sports world has been rocked with four legends passing away.

From the Midwest, to the West, to the Northeast, three major cities have lost iconic figures. I'm not going to get into a long drawn out story this time. I've already written two tributes already with another one on the way.

But here is a brief recap.

It began on May 4 when Cancer claimed the life of Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame Broadcaster Ernie Harwell. When I saw Ernie in December of 2008, I really thought he could have lived until 100, but at 92, Harwell came up eight years short.

One Month later, the greatest college basketball coach ever John Wooden (99) passed away on June 4 due to old age. He would have celebrated his 100 birthday on October 14 and I could just imagine the celebration there would have been on the UCLA Campus if he had reached that milestone. We all know that Los Angeles knows how to throw a great party. If there is a disadvantage to having a birthday late in the year, this was it.

It took five weeks as the ESPN family of networks pounced on another tribute. This one came on July 11 as long-time Yankees Public Address Announcer Bob Sheppard (99) passed away. Like Wooden, Sheppard was due to celebrate his 100 birthday later in the year on October 20. It's unbelievable that Wooden is just six days older than Sheppard and they both died five weeks apart.

As if New York and Yankee fans had enough to grieve about, it took 48 hours for another legend to go down.

The baby of this group was Owner George M Steinbrenner.

He just celebrated in 80 birthday on July 4 and on July 13, the day of the All-Star Game, this controversial stick of dynamite found himself in heaven reunited with his old buddy and Manager Billy Martin watching the game at the old Yankee Stadium.

I'll do a separate tribute on Steinbrenner in a couple days because I had a couple of interesting experiences with him that are worth sharing. But for now, I'm just amazed that as I was gearing up to watch the Mid-Summer Classic, I found myself listening to tributes on Steinbrenner all day as Fox and ESPN blanketed this story finding every credible person to voice their experiences.

When you add up the ages of these four men, we're looking at 370 years worth of life. The memories and impact that they had on their communities will last forever. But to see them pass so quickly and close to one another is mind boggling.

There is no doubt that Harwell, Sheppard and Steinbrenner have seen a lot of curve ball's in their baseball careers, so I've decided to throw one myself.

During this May 4-July 13, time frame, Diff'rent Strokes Actor Gary Coleman, who was 4 feet, 8 inches, died on May 28. He celebrated his 42 birthday on February 8, and while he certainly didn't live as long as the other four legends listed above, his impact on television with those of us in our 30's-50's for his great sense of humor on that television show will never be forgotten.

So as the headline says, Who Is Next? I hope we don't find out for a long while. But I have a feeling that won't be the case. I hope I'm wrong.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.


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