I’ve Been Bought Out

July 24, 2009

News finally broke today that VarsityBlue, my home to Michigan baseball coverage the last 5 months, has been absorbed by MGoBlog – the leader in University of Michigan sports coverage not related to the actual school.  For those of you not familiar with the sports blogging world, Brian, the creator of MGoBlog, is widely heralded for being an innovator when it comes to the medium (college sporting blogs related to a specific school, and to an extent, college sports in general).  His site, created as a writing outlet for a fan, has grown into one of the largest individual sites dedicated to college football.  He became so successful that he was able to give up his job as an software engineer and do the blog full time – and for good money.

Now, after experimenting with a recruiting correspondent for a few months, Brian is looking to absorb VarsityBlue with Tim as a lead reporter, Paul as an Ann Arbor based correspondent (Tim’s not always in Ann Arbor), and me doing baseball.   This is a great chance for me to increase exposure of not only Michigan baseball, but my own writing.  I’m not opposed to either of those, obviously.  Really, that goals post was written the day before I found out there were plans for the absorbtion.  At least I have a plan to put towards Brian now at least?

So while details on my role have been sparse, I’m hoping to start getting things kicking in the next few weeks.  I’ve got to discuss with Brian his thoughts on other minor sports, particularly ones that happen during football season.  I’ve got some ideas about limited volleyball coverage, but I need to run it by him.  The goal of the merger appears to be making MGoBlog into the media center for Michigan sports coverage, which means any new coverage would be warranted.  Brian’s already discussing the problem of providing too much content, which is a very valid concern.  If there’s too much, people will just be overwhelmed by the content.  I’ll play it by ear.

Also, with the transition to MGoBlog, I’m contemplating my current use of anonymity.  With VarsityBlue, as well as commenting on MGoBlog for the last two years, I’ve stuck with the tag name of formerlyanonymous.  I’m contemplating going to my real name for posting there not only for exposure, but more importantly for validity.  By putting my name to my work, I’m taking a larger responsibility in what I say and think.  I can’t hide behind the faceless entity of “formerlyanonymous.”  I would put my work to my name, which will help with my credibility as a writer.  Plus, I mean it makes me even more “formerly anonymous.”  And who doesn’t like clever tags like that?

I’ll be updating some links, tags, and categories on here in the meantime.  Once I know how the new MGoBlog will work, I’ll provide an update along with creating an RSS feed of posts on the new big site.

Excitement.

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A Tragedy: Steve Howe

July 5, 2009

In my research into great Michigan players of the past, I found some players with full biographies, others with just scraps here and there.  Steve Howe was one of the latter.  Being a fairly recent major league player, at least when compared to someone like George Sisler, much of what’s available on Howe is all in the newspapers.  Today, I went and searched the news from 1976 to 2006 to find out more about Howe.  For some of you older readers, his story should be easily remembered.  For those of you who are younger, like me, Howe was the first major league player implicated in rampant cocaine abuse.  He was given chance after chance (7 to be exact), but he never could get things right.  This passage will be far too long to use at VarsityBlue, so I’m posting it in its entirety here.

The story is amazingly sad, but at certain points, you just stop feeling for the guy.  He really didn’t learn from his mistakes.

Read the rest of this entry »


Goals for Michigan Baseball on Varsity Blue

July 3, 2009

This is more something for me, but perhaps some of you might be interested in what I’m working on.-FA

While my posts here at formerlyanonymous are of the sporadic, as-it-happens sort of substance, my posts at VarsityBlue are much more targeted.  It’s plainly obvious that much of what I do there is rehash games and add a little extra opinion to the standard press releases offered by MGoBlue.  My goal for next season is to increase that coverage a little bit more.  I want to help encapsulate the history and tradition that makes Michigan baseball the storied program that it is.

Most people, even pretty strong Michigan fans, don’t have any idea of the baseball juggernaut the Wolverines used to be.  This is a real shame, because, along with winning, all a fan wants is that their team be meaningful.  With the state of college baseball being what it is – south dominates and the north is left to be “mid major” or worse despite having well over half the teams – it’s very easy for fans to be lost when it comes to Michigan baseball.  It’s a non-revenue sport.  It’s played for the most part after students are already off campus.  The stadium is tucked away from the main streets of campus.  There just isn’t much enthusiasm to see games in potential snow storms.  There are just way too many factors against it.

I know I’m not going to change those factors.  What I can do is get people excited about history and tradition, something I’ve found many Michigan fans value more than common sense (see: #1 jersey mess of last year).  The following are some of the ways I’m thinking about cashing in on nostalgia:

  • A series on “Players Past.”  Included in this would be a list of the most famous of Michigan baseball players.  I’d give a bio of players such as George Sisler, Bill Freehan, and Barry Larkin.  I also want a separate section on players currently in professional baseball, both majors and minors.
  • Michigan Records.  This one is a little bit harder with the resources I have available.  I’d like to get a list of Michigan team records, Michigan BigTen records (I have a copy of this), and anything else where Michigan is the “Leaders and Best” type-things.  Comparing Michigan’s overall record and # of wins to the NCAA.  To start the 2009 year, we were #4 in total wins (still #4 as Stanford is 40 games behind us) and #18 in winning percentage (fell to at least #19 behind Texas A&M this season).
  • World Series Recaps.  While Michigan hasn’t made it to a CWS in a long time, they still have a couple appearances.  I want to recap these big moments.
  • The NCAA violations.  With the 1989 sanctions, I think its important that fans get the whole picture, not just the happy moments.  If anything, we can compare it to the basketball sanctions, showing how far a program can come when down.

After that, I’m planning on havnig my season previews much like last year.  I’ll start with the recent class of seniors that left.  Then I’ll move to returners on the mound, recapping their 2009 campaign and summer ball where available.  Then I’ll move to the offense/defense and do the same.  I’ll probably pepper in the new guys with the returners as there is little I’ll know about them going in.

I’ve already got a good jump on the “Players Past” section, with 5 already completed and a couple more on the way later this week.  I think the big plan is to have as much of the early season stuff done early so I get a good jump on next year.  I found that this last season was so quick to escalate into a regular thing that I really felt overworked in the first few weeks.  It started with just a few previews over at Maizenbrew and all of a sudden, I get a call to post on VarsityBlue regularly.

As far as after the preseason, the other thing I really want to work on is obtaining interviews.  It’s going to be a little bit harder to do this from Houston, but I’d like to get an interview with either players, or even possibly Coach Maloney here or there.  If things work well enough, possibly even ex-players.  I find interviews offer the best view into how a team is performing and what players are like.  I’ll be the first to admit that what draws me into baseball is the personalities.  While I haven’t met any of the current players, I have pseudo-personality traits for many of them.  Each guy is one I can’t help but root for.  Things like the Captain’s Corner Blog on MGoBlue just solidified those personalities.  It was great.  I want to be able to share these kids with more fans.  They deserve it, and I really think interviews are a great way to bring that out.

So with that, I think I have my two goals for the next year.  First, I want a tradition laden preseason – something to draw in a few extra fans.  Second, I want to get at least one good interview.


Players Past: George Sisler

July 2, 2009

sislerumProbably the most successful professional player ever to hail from Michigan, George Sisler was a do it all kind of player.  The hard throwing lefty pitched plenty for the Wolverines, but also kept up a batting average around .445.  Sisler chose Michigan almost on a whim; his parents had demanded he put off his big league aspirations for a while and get a college education.  Bypassing the two primary teams recruiting him (Western Reserve and Penn), George came to Michigan following his high school catcher Russ Baer.

While at Michigan, Sisler played for the first-year engineering school team as a freshman in the intramural league.  At the time, freshmen couldn’t play for the varsity squad.  His MVP performance over the juniors of the law school in the championship was enough to catch the eye of Professional & College Hall of Fame coach Branch Rickey.  Sisler became an immediate starter in his sophomore season of 1913.  The 1913 season was a big break through for the Wolverines who posted a 21-4-1 record, their first 20 win season in history.  Sisler was a big part of that, both pitching and playing the field.  While overall stats aren’t easily available, the one game that stood out in Sisler’s career at Michigan was the 1915 start against the Michigan Agricultural College Aggies (now MSU Spartans).  Sisler threw a complete game 2 hitter.  He struck out 10 batters that day, but also went 4 for 5 with a pair of triples, 2 steals, 3 runs, and 5 fielding assists (one started a double play).  How’s that for domination?  Sisler would finish the year with a .445 batting average and win All-American honors for his pitching and outfield play.

from Library of Congress

from Library of Congress

In 1914, Sisler battled some arm trouble but still managed a batting average around .500.  After seeing a doctor about the arm in the off season, Sisler returned for the 1915 season and was an All-American again.  By this time, he had earned his degree and was ready for the big leagues.  After some battles in court over an illegal contract he signed as a minor, former Michigan coach Branch Rickey helped Sisler put the lawsuit to rest and sign Sisler as a free agent.  Rickey was then with the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals) baseball club of the American League.  Sisler left Ann Arbor and was pitching for St. Louis that summer, throwing 6 complete games in 8 starts.  Sisler also started playing first base and the outfield during his days off from pitching, hitting a modest .285 for the season, a career low for a full season.

As the years went by, Sisler pitched less and less due to his value at the plate.  He became the full time first baseman for the Browns in 1916 and became know as “the next Ty Cobb.”  He didn’t disappoint either.  In 1920, he won the batting title with a .407 average with a record setting 257 hits in a season.  That record stood until 2004 when Ichiro finally broke it (they only played 154 games in Sisler’s time, but Ichiro had 162 games to break the record).  Sisler also had a career high 122 RBIs that season.  Sisler won the first ever AL MVP award for his 1922 season, batting .420 with 105 RBIs. His hitting streak of 41 games was a record (not broken until Joe DiMaggio overtook him in 1941), and his 51 stolen bases were a career high.

Sisler would miss the 1923 season in its entirety due to a massive sinus infection that plagued him with severe headaches and double vision.  Upon his return in 1924, Sisler never had that same edge he had before the infection.  Before, he could place a hit anywhere he wanted.  Afterward, he still hit for a good average (.290-.340), but never at the near .400 levels he was accustomed to.  Sisler also took over managerial duties for the Browns.  That job didn’t last too long, ending in 1926.  Sisler admitted he never felt that he was ready to take over as a manager.

Sisler was traded to the Washington Senators (who would become the Minnesota Twins) in 1928, but would only be there a few weeks before being traded to the Boston Braves (to become the Milwaukee then Atlanta Braves).  Sisler did well with his first year with the Braves, but tailed off the following two seasons before being demoted to the minors.  He played a season with Rochester in the International League and one with Shreveport-Tyler in the Texas League.  He would retire from the game in 1932.

After retiring, Sisler opened a sporting good store and started the American Softball Association (the biggest name in softball today).  Sisler engineered the first lighted softball field, leading to an explosion in the sport in the 1930s. In 1939, George was also inducted into the first ever class to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1942, he was reunited with Branch Rickey and offered a position in the Cardinals’ organization as a scout.  He would later work for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a scout and player developer.  Sisler was one of Jackie Robinson’s coaches, teaching how to play first base to ease his transition into the major leagues.  Sisler would follow Rickey one more time to Pittsburgh where he continued as a scout and player developer where he coached Roberto Clemente on hitting.  He would stick with the Pirates for the remainder of his career as a hitting coach at various levels.

George Sisler died on March 26, 1973.

George Sisler, The Baseball Biography Project


Players Past: Bill Freehan

July 2, 2009
freehan

Bill Freehan is arguably the greatest catcher Michigan has ever had.  Freehan came to Michigan in 1959, choosing the Maize and Blue over then baseball power Western Michigan because UM also offered him a football scholarship.  Freehan had actually wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they too wouldn’t allow him to be a two sport athlete.

It worked out well for Freehan and Michigan.  His sophomore season saw Michigan win the College World Series over Santa Barbara University.  In his junior campaign (’61), Freehan hit for a .585 average, which is still the BigTen record for a season.  It’s such a ridiculous record that the closest anyone has ever gotten was Randy Wolfe (UM ’85) at .514.  Three other players have finished with .500 averages (including Scott Weaver, UM ’95 and Scott Erdmann, UM ’85).

I think its safe to assume Freehan’s record will probably stay intact for a long, long time.  Bill lead the league that year with 18 RBIs as well, winning him All-BigTen honors.  That season is the origin of the University of Michigan Bill Freehan Award, given to the team’s top hitter each season.  One of his mother’s favorite facts about Bill was he once caught a triple header against rivals Michigan State.  He caught the morning, afternoon, and evening game, but still had the energy to go dancing that night.

That season brought all the teams calling to Bill’s father’s front door.  This being the pre-draft era, teams lined up at the front door and offered signing bonuses of unreal magnitude in the 60s.  Bill claimed offers up to $150,000 dollars just to sign with a team.  To put that in prospective, minor leaguers only made about $6,000 a year salary.  Bill ended up signing with the Tigers, but he did managed to earn his degree from UM by taking classes in the fall.  Bill’s father made sure the education was the first thing on his son’s mind (from a Baseball Digest Interview):

“The deal with my father was I would never see a dime of my bonus money until I got my college degree. That forced me to live in the YMCA with the rest of the guys and live off the meal money they paid all of us. That was motivational.”

Now if that was only the case for today’s athletes?  Freehan went on to play with the Tigers, getting called up almost immediately.  He spent the pennant stretch of September that year getting a chance to pinch run or hit here or there.  The Tigers were in a battle with the Yankees (this was the season of 61 homers for Maris and 54 for Mantle) for the AL East championship and the management was in no rush to throw a kid out into the fire too soon.  Freehan was sent back down to start the ’62 season, but was named the Tigers starter in ’63.  Did he ever start the season hot.  During one stretch of fifteen plate appearances, he went 9/9 with 3 homers,a triple, 3 doubles, 2 singles, and a 3 set of walks.  While that pace certainly didn’t last, but he did solidify his place in Detroit’s lineup.

Do yourself a favor and skip to 30 seconds in.

Bill would spend the next 13 seasons as the Tigers’ backstop.  He made 11 all start teams and won the World Series of 1968.  The pitching staff in his early career were all young guys, but all raved about how Freehan gave the them confidence.  He called a great game.  He was the team leader and the team – the city – knew it.  Freehan would go on to play with the Tigers through the 1976 season, posting a career .261 batting average and 200 home runs.

While still playing, Bill would release a book, Behind the mask: An inside baseball diary, offering an in depth look at baseball players lives.  Fans didn’t like to think about the players in the way he wrote about them and booed Freehan for a few months, but Bill silenced them by having a great 1971.

freehancoach

Image from Michigan Daily

He would then start working at his own manufacturer’s representative agency, acting as a salesman.  He took on a new job in 1990, the head coach of the University of Michigan baseball team.  He returned to Ann Arbor just as the program was entering probation for NCAA violations under coach Bud Middaugh.  The school had banned all scholarships for 2 years, post season play for 3 years, and off campus recruiting for the next school year.  The program was crippled.

When I took this job, I was advised to expect the worst, andc this is the worst. I was looking to get in heaven or hell, and I am in hell. At least I’m not in limbo.” -Bill Freehan, via Spokane Chronicle February 20, 1990.

Bo chose Freehan for his phenomenal character and hard work to replace Middaugh, and Freehan did fairly well in his first few years given the restrictions.  He stayed on at Michigan through the ’95 season when the team fell far short of expectations.  Despite being picked to finish as high as 2nd in the BigTen, the team finished dead last.  Freehan retired with a record of 166-167-1, the first ever Michigan coach to leave with a losing record.  Along with this last place finish came the suspicion of more NCAA infractions.  Freehan was accused of giving players free pizza as a reward and offering use of his sports car for exceptional performances.  Freehan denied the rumor about the sports car (that it was just a joke), but did admit there might have been minor infractions here or there – nothing serious – and that pizza was occasionally provided for the team.

Since then, Bill has also worked with the Tigers organization as a catching instructor from 2002-2005.  He now is retired and living in the southern suburbs of Detroit.

Bill Freehan at The Baseball Biography Project


Players Past: Jim Burton

July 2, 2009

Jim Burton played for Michigan from 1968-1971.  He was a left handed pitcher who was known to bat right  handed, somewhat of an oddity in today’s game.  He was drafted by the Tigers in the 1967 draft, but he decided against signing the professional contract and came to Ann Arbor.  While his college he had 288 strikeouts in 228 innings.  The highlight of his career in Ann Arbor had to be his no hitter, thrown against Wisconsin (back when they had a team) in 1971.  It was the first no-no thrown by a UM pitcher in 88 years (so long that they don’t even have reliable records for games before that).  It’s one of only 2 complete game no hitters in Michigan history.  That’s impressive.  While I haven’t found his win total for his 3 years on the varsity squad, he did have a ridiculous 19 wins his senior season (there wasn’t a cap on games played in a season until the late 80s/early 90s).

Burton was selected in the 1st round (5th overall) by the Red Sox in 1971. After several years of pitching woes (rampant wildness) and back problems, he finally broke into the big leagues in 1975, a big year for the Red Sox, it was the year of the epic Red Sox vs Reds World Series.

Burton had a successful season with the Red Sox.  In 29 appearances (4 starts), he went 1-2 with a 2.89 and a save.  His bad luck began in the World Series.  In game 3 at Riverfront stadium in Cinncy, Burton lasted only 1/3 of an inning with a walk.  Game 7 was worse.  Jim would be tagged with the loss in the ninth after walking Griffey, getting 2 outs, then giving up the winning run on a Joe Morgan single.  A walk later and he was yanked.  Many Boston fans blamed him (or manager Daryll Johnson for putting him in) for the loss of the series.

Burton was interviewed many years later for the book “Boys of October” by Doug Hornigs:

“Yeah.  You know, over the years Morgan has always given me credit for making a good pitch in that situation […] Which doesn’t change the outcome, unfortunately.  But I threw that pitch because the one before it, which was an inside fastball he fouled off.  I was surprised at how fast he came around on an inside pitch like that, and I decided I better not try it again.  Fisk came out.  We discussed it and decided on the slider.”

“That’s what it was.  I wound up and threw it exactly where I wanted it, as hard as I could throw one.  My slider wasn’t a tight one; it was more like a ‘slurve’ that started in close to a left-hander and broke a lot, away from him.  That’s what that pitch did. It fooled Morgan, and you can see him start to bail out at first.”

You can, but but it’s not by much.  And his recovery is amazingly fast.

“Then he kind of threw the bat at the ball.”  Just trying to foul it off?  “Maybe.  But he got the end of the bat on it and blooped the fly to center.  I turned, and the first thing I saw was Freddie Lynn going back a step or two.  And I thought, ‘Oh, no.’  I knew Morgan hadn’t hit it solid.  I could see Freddie had no play.”

Burton spent the next year at AAA Pawtucket trying to regain his confidence.  He eventually made it back into the MLB for one game in 1978.  He threw 2.2 innings giving up a hit, a walk, and striking out three.  He would spend the next season in the Mets minor league before heading back to his native Michigan to begin life after baseball. After trying a few different jobs in Michigan, he opened his own printing shop.  The job eventually took him to Charlotte, NC, where he still lives today.

A special thanks to the The Baseball Biography Project for so much great information.


Q&A with Behind the Plate

April 20, 2009

So comes another weekend series against a BigTen foe with a blog. I like it. This week I’ll be doing some Q&A with