Friday, August 07, 2009

Hal McCoy: link to a golden age

To my far right in the Great American Ball Park press box sits one of the last great newspapermen, a link to the golden age of baseball beat writing.

As Hal McCoy chomps on his cigar and taps on his laptop keys I can almost picture him sitting in a smoke-filled press box at an old ballpark pounding out prose on a typewriter then hopping on the train to the next town.

After 37 years on the Reds beat, the longest current tenure of any Major League beat writer, McCoy is calling it quits. Only it wasn't entirely his call.

McCoy's "early" retirement from the Dayton Daily News came in the form of a buyout. He hopes to continue to write for the DDN in some capacity, but the paper will no longer cover the Reds as a beat.

McCoy, who has continued to cover the team despite being declared legally blind, doesn't welcome the change. But, he and his lovely wife, Nadine, are looking forward to the dawning of a new life.

McCoy's ouster isn't entirely surprising.

The DDN had upped his time off each season since his illness. In the beginning, he was backed up by DDN staffers, then a stringer. This season, and most ominously, the paper has chosen to run AP wire stories for its Reds coverage. I assume this practice will continue next year.

As a know-nothing rookie stumbling my way through the clubhouse and press box roughly 10 years ago, McCoy took me under his wing. He had no reason to.

Why would a then-future Hall of Fame beat writer of more than 30 years bother to help a cub reporter writing for a weekly paper? Because that's just Hal.

McCoy's influence benefited my writing career more than even he realizes.

I learned by watching how he interacted with players and managers, how he targeted his questions in interviews, how he conducted himself in the clubhouse, press box and at batting practice.

On several occasions McCoy Hal took time to compliment me on stories I wrote. He never hesitated to answer questions, or to offer unsolicited suggestions on how to best handle certain situations.

But, the best tribute offered to McCoy was from the players -- respect. In this age of adversarial relationships between athletes and media, McCoy managed to bridge that gap.

This post reads like an obit. It is not, of course.

Hal has nearly two months remaining on the Reds beat. After that, he and Nadine can jet to their favorite haunts -- Aruba, Key West or elsewhere. They can hang on the back porch at home, savor life, make new memories.

Hal's departure isn't nearly as sad for him (he's pushing 69 years of age) as it is for the business of sports writing.

One must wonder in this age of economic downturn and new media if the role of baseball beat writer is going the way of the dinosaurs. Is Hal McCoy among the last of a dying breed? Let's hope not.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Cubs: The Un-Lovable Losers?

"I hate the Chicago Cubs," goes the oft-uttered refrain these days.

For what, squandering a century?

"No, no, let me explain," goes the popular retort. "It's their fans that I hate."

For what, being miserable? For having their hopes, dreams and aspirations crumbled annually like plastic beer cups in the Wrigley Field bleachers?

For having no better excuse for their team's ineptitude than a black cat wandered in Ron Santo's path, or a goat owner cursed them, or a Notre Dame graduate wanted a souvenir?

For enduring '69, '84, '89, '03, '07, '08 or insert season since 1908?

On the surface, disliking Cubs fans makes little sense. Pity them, yes.

That is, unless you spend time with them of course.

I know, I'm one of them.

It's not by choice, really. The Cubs are a family curse.

Before I entered the business of professional sports writing, the job where's there's no cheering, no team or player allegiance and no healthy food, I was a card-carrying Die Hard Cubs fan.

I was that blue-clad, beer-chugging, 7th-inning stretch-singing Cubs fan, who strutted into your ballpark proclaiming himself a superior fan because his team sucked for 100 years and he still cheered for them, bought tickets, souvenirs and willingly lined the players' pockets and inflated the owners' coffers despite their chronic failings.

I was that guy.

Oh, and I drank a lot. A lot. How else can you explain the aforementioned behaviors?

To be honest, I've just described the new breed of Cubs fan.

Not my generation, I'm referring to the ones so naive (and I can only assume young) enough to believe that division titles occur at 1060 W. Addison as frequently as snow in January.

The old guard, a.k.a. Me, knows this isn't so.

Which is why for the first time in my baseball life I took some solace, just a wee bit, in the Cubs being swept out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

That's how it feels, my Cubs brethren.

In order to be a true Cubs fan, you have to feel the pain, the hurt, the emotional heartache.

Humility comes swift and sudden for us, or at least it should.

So, while you're guzzling your (insert quantity) beers this week at Great American Ball Park doing your best to annoy the Reds fans around you, please consider this:

It's OK to be proud. But, arrogance has no justifiable space in Cubdom.

Despite no World Series titles since '08, the Cubs do boast a tradition like no other, aside from the Yankees.

Cubs fans have Wrigley Field, a baseball experience like no other.

We've had Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, Hartnett, Wilson, Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Sandberg, Maddux, Sosa (yes, him) et al. (Notice I didn't mention Roy Smalley).

The Cubs have won a few World Series too, just none since the automobile took hold.

Humility has a number: 101. That's years, folks.

So, New Breed, as you rock GABP with your "Here we go Cubbies, Here we go ..." chorus, does the pain of the past 10 decades-plus eat at your very soul? It does mine.

See, the true Cubs fan doesn't look at the glass of water and judge it to be half-full or half-empty.

The true Cubs fan asks, "When's it going to spill?".

Baker bashing misdirected

The backlash was almost immediate.

Seconds after the release hit the wire announcing the Reds' hiring of Dusty Baker as their new manager the naysayers went to work, "Baker wears out pitchers, look what he did to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood", "Baker coddles veterans", "Baker (insert beef)".

Please understand, this isn't my personal Dusty Baker = Connie Mack diatribe. I do enjoy working with Baker. He's accomodating, professional and the most quotable and articulate Reds manager since, well ...

There are plenty of times when scribes in the press box are left scratching our heads about his in-game decisions. But, Reds fans need to look in the mirror, and take a closer look at their team.

For the first three months of the season, Baker had largely a Triple-A club hanging on in the NL Central race. Injuries have riddled this club, as did a 50-game absence of the club's best player - Joey Votto.

When Baker was hired he arrived with the most impressive big-league managerial resume of any newly-hired Reds skipper in recent memory, and that includes Sparky Anderson who had virtually none.

"Well, Baker had plenty of talent on those teams".

Isn't that the point? Find me a manager with a record worth its salt who didn't.

"Yeah, but look what he did to the Cubs ...".

Yep, he had them 5 outs from the World Series. The Reds could be so lucky.

Is Baker the man to guide the Reds to the promised land? Maybe, maybe not. He's guiding a .500 or worse ballclub currently. Not even Tony La Russa's self-proclaimed genius could change that.

Which begs the question: why is Baker getting the heat for the Reds' current condition and not GM Walt Jocketty and/or Bob Castellini?

Reds choose to Rolen over

It's not often that trading two unproven pitching prospects and a maligned third baseman for a career .284 hitter, five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner would be a bad deal. But, such is the case with the Reds' acquisition of Scott Rolen.

It's so much the trade itself, but the timing. Count me among those who are scratching their heads.

Dealing for Rolen made a great deal of sense in early June when the Reds were clinging to contention in the NL Central race. But, not now.

Rolen is a great clubhouse guy, and a veteran presence that should help provide proper influence to the Reds' youngsters. He's playing close to home (Jasper, IN) and likely will have a couple more productive years before coasting into retirement.

But, this benefits the Reds how?

The Reds were relieved of a portion of Rolen's contract for next season, but not all. Add to him the contracts of Aaron Harang, Francisco Cordero and Bronson Arroyo, and the Reds are financially strapped for next season.

Edinson Volquez will be unavailable until late 2010 following Tommy John Surgey. Wait 'til next year just got postponed.

Most disturbing of all is the inclusion of Zach Stewart in the Rolen deal. The young hurler is quietly mentioned by scouts as the Reds' best pitching prospect.

Hours before the trade deadline the Rolen-to-the-Reds deal was reportedly dead. Perhaps that was just wishful thinking on the part of many at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way.