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Maple Street Press Cardinal Annual

by Michael Riehn
Whiteyball Staff
cardinals1The amount of information on the web today is astounding.  When I was growing up, I lived in a small town in Southeast Missouri.  All of my information about the Cardinals came from the local news, a few columns in the paper, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon.  This is not exactly heavy hitting analysis.  Every once in awhile, I’d see a game on TV or read an article about my favorite team in Sports Illustrated or Baseball Digest.  To put it midly, things have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. 

 
Fast forward several years later, through the Internet revolution and the explosion of ESPN and espn.com. I remember the first time I found the ‘Redbird Nation’ blog that was run by Brian Gunn.  I was so excited and confused.  This was a great resource from an intelligent writer, without the mainstream point of view, and it didn’t cost anything to read him.  His blog had a profound effect on me, and expanded my Cardinal knowledge and viewpoint.  When Larry Borowsky started Viva El Birdos, he added a new level of critical analysis with daily updates and fascinating viewpoints.  He made me think about new types of statistics and player evaluation that opened my eyes to a whole new world.  These are the “Godfathers” of the Cardinal Blogosphere and combined with long time bloggers Dan Moore, Eric Manning and Dustin Mattison, make it what it is today. 

Today, we have a large number of free websites and blogs that give us up to the minute information and analysis about our local 9.  Derek Goold of the Post Dispatch and Matthew Leach of MLB.com have even started “Twittering“, giving us up to the second information from SPRING TRAINING games!  Countless other sites are available at your fingertips for layers of information, statistics and the history of the game.  You can barely keep up with it all.  It’s a whole new world and we are richer for it.

So when I opened my mailbox yesterday and found the new Maple Street Press Cardinal Annual, you would think that I wouldn’t be as excited as I am.  I have all of this information at my fingertips, so why would I care about something wrote weeks ago?  On the contrary, I tore open the package and opened up the book as soon as I found it.  The smell of the printing press hit me with it’s unmistakable aroma as I flipped through the book.  As much as I am addicted to the web and the information that it gives me, it can’t replace holding a book in my hands, as I open it to page 1.  It took me back to the days when I would be excited to open the mailbox and find a new sports magazine waiting for me or when I discovered the excellent “Ball Four” book at my local library.

Dustin Mattison is the founder of the Whiteyball website and writes for Scout.com at the Birdhouse (Minor League Correspondent).  He is one of the talented group of writers that Larry Borowsky has gathered to provide the new Maple Street Press Cardinal Annual.  Borowsky is the editor of the book, and authors several stories; which features Will Leitch (founding editor of Deadspin, current New York Magazine writer), Jeff Sackman (Minor League Splits.com), Dan Moore (Get Up Baby, Viva El Birdos), Josh Kalk (From Small Ball to the Long Ball), Chuck Brownson (Viva El Birdos), Vince Gennaro (Hardball Times, Yahoo Sports), Aaron Schafer (Viva El Birdos, Riverfront Times), Erik Manning (Future Redbirds, Play a Hard 9), Alex Eisenberg (Baseball Intellect), and Dayne Perry (Foxports.com).

If you are like me, and enjoy a great read about the Cardinals, order the book today.  You will be glad you did.

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God only knows

by Michael Riehn
Whiteyball staff

If you should ever leave me,
Though life would still go on believe me,
The world could show nothing to me,
So what good would living do me?
God only knows what I’d be without you…

Brian Wilson’s haunting song runs through my head every time there is discussion of Albert Pujols and free agency. Those two things should never be uttered in the same sentence and makes me cringe every time I hear it. When I was a boy, my fandom was more innocent. I loved Tommy Herr and Vince Coleman because they were Cardinals and they could do no wrong (in my eyes). Tommy Herr played the same position as me when I was in pee wee league, and every time Coleman stole a base, they’d put “InVinceable” on the scoreboard and I would go nuts. When they were traded away, I was devastated, and lost a little bit of my devotion.

As an adult, I’m not prone to unconditional fandom and I don’t invest in sports stars as heroes. I love the Cardinals, but I don’t get attached to players anymore. Albert Pujols is different, his combination of hitting, fielding, leadership, attitude and community relations is once in a lifetime. Like Stan the Man and the Wizard of Oz, he NEEDS to retire a Cardinal, and I believe he is worthy of my adult adoration.

Luckily I didn’t grow up in the early 1940’s. It was a different time for Cardinal Nation, and they didn’t have the revenue that they currenty enjoy. Everyone has been breathlessly debating Albert Pujols comments on possibly becoming a free agent. What if he was traded at the height of his Hall of Fame career? Pujols just completed his age 28 season. As preposterous as it may sound, the Cardinals traded a similar first baseman after his age 28 season, whose name is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

 

Johnny Mize started his career with the Cardinals and played for them from 1936-1941. During those 6 seasons, he was one of the best players in the game, and one of its brightest stars. Like Pujols, Mize was gifted around the first base bag and nicknamed “The Big Cat” for his smooth fielding. They were also similar hitters. While with the Cardinals, Mize led the league in OPS 3 out of his 6 seasons, Pujols has led the league in OPS twice.

From age 23-28 Mize put up this line for the Cardinals:

Johnny Mize      
Year Age BA OBP SLG OPS+
1936 23 0.329 0.402 0.577 161
1937 24 0.364 0.427 0.595 172
1938 25 0.337 0.422 0.614 175
1939 26 0.349 0.444 0.626 178
1940 27 0.314 0.404 0.636 176
1941 28 0.317 0.406 0.535 156

 

Pujols put up this line from 23-28:

Albert Pujols      
Year Age BA OBP SLG OPS+
2003 23 0.359 0.439 0.667 187
2004 24 0.331 0.415 0.657 172
2005 25 0.330 0.430 0.609 168
2006 26 0.331 0.431 0.671 178
2007 27 0.327 0.429 0.568 157
2008 28 0.357 0.462 0.653 190

  

Johnny Mize

Johnny Mize

OPS is defined as on base percentage plus slugging percentage. OPS+ is an advanced statistic that measures OPS against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors. To give you a basic idea of its purpose, it compares players from different eras and different ballparks and puts them on a level playing field. OPS+ over 100 is better than average, less than 100 is below average.

Pujols’ peaks are a bit greater, but he and Mize were among the best hitters in the league from their age 23-28 seasons. Mize was traded to the Giants by legendary General Manager Branch Rickey after the 1941 season for 3 journeymen and $50,000.00.  He had a very productive year with his new club before he was drafted into World War II. He spent 1943 through 1945 in the military service and returned to baseball with 3 more great seasons. Mize had the following line in his Hall of Fame career, which spanned 15 years: .312 BA, .397 OBP, .562 SLG, 158 OPS+.  (Just think what numbers he would have put up with 3 of his prime years added in from the war!)

Be thankfull for Pujols while he is here. What we are witnessing is greatness, and no matter how the Cardinals do, he’s worth the price of admission. When the time is right, let’s hope that the Cardinals recognize what he means to the team, and sign him to a long term extension.  Hopefully, he can wear the birds on the bat for the remainder of his career. God only knows what we’d do without him.

Photo courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame

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The team of the “aughties”?

Michael Riehn
Whiteyball staff

wstrophyThe decade of the 2000’s have been a good one for the Cardinals. They’ve continued their run of dominance in even numbered decades (World Championships in the 20’s, 40s, 60’s, 80’s and 2000’s) and submitted their name for discussion in the team of the decade debate. A World Series Championship, 2 pennants and 5 division titles, 1 Cy Young Award and 2 MVPs have made it a magical ride, and it’s fascinating to see how they compare to the other great teams of the decade.

With one year left in the 2000’s, can the Cardinals really make a claim as the team of the decade? Before we get into the American League (and the other heavyweight contenders: the Yankees and Red Sox), let’s take a look at the teams that have won the World Series in the National League:

 

Team Win % Playoffs Playoff WP Playoff W Div. Titles Penn. Champ
St. Louis 0.564 6 0.541 33 5 2 1
Philly 0.520 2 0.647 11 2 1 1
Florida 0.497 1 0.647 11 0 1 1
Arizona 0.504 3 0.519 14 3 1 1

 

It’s pretty easy to see that the Cardinals are well ahead of the competition for the NL title.  It would take a second World Championship by the Phillies, Marlins or the Diamondbacks to put any other team in the discussion.  A World Series Title in 2009 would make a compelling argument for any of these teams, but the Cardinals would still have a nice claim to the decade as they would most likely win every other category.

The National League has been down this decade though, so it’s not hard to see why the Cardinals have the inside track.  The American League has dominated the 2000’s so let’s look at the Cardinals versus the AL’s  two main contenders:

 

Team Win % Playoffs Playoff WP Playoff W Div. Titles Penn. Champ
St. Louis 0.564 6 0.541 33 5 2 1
Boston 0.566 5 0.630 34 1 2 2
NYYankees 0.593 8 0.526 41 7 2 1

 

A couple of things struck me about this table.  First, the Cardinals still have a chance to be team of the decade.  I really didn’t think they had a shot against these two American League teams.  They would have to win the World Series this year and the Red Sox could not win the pennant, but they still have the opportunity.  If this happened, I could still see an argument for the Red Sox, but it would be difficult to say either one was better. 

Second, I never expected the Yankees to have a compelling argument of overtaking the Red Sox for team of the decade.  I thought the Sox were a lock.  A World Series Championship by the Yankees wouldn’t just get them in the discussion, I think they would be the winner.  Boston would have a better winning percentage in the playoffs, but the division titles, playoff appearances and regular season winning percentage would tip the scale, in my opinion.

As Cardinals fans, we often complain about the team not doing enough to win and we question the moves of the ownership and front office.  If we take a step back though, we can see how truly blessed we’ve been in this decade.  Whether you believe it to be luck, skill or a combination thereof, we’ve had an amazing run that doesn’t happen to teams (not named the Yankees) very often.  Here’s hoping the Cardinals finish off the decade right and cap off one of the best decades in this storied franchise’s history.

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Closing Time… a new beginning

Michael Riehn
Whiteyball staff

Chris Perez at the 2009 Winter Warmup

Chris Perez at the 2009 Winter Warmup

With John Mozeliak slamming the door on a possible Jason Isringhausen return, it’s becoming apparent that we will see a new closer to start the season for the Cardinals in 2009.  Last year was not a good one for our relieving corps, as they combined to lead the league in blown saves with 31.  Many people have been critical of the Cardinals offseason efforts and plans for the closer role. 

One camp has been adament that the Cardinals sign the next big free agent, and are severely disappointed that we did not sign Brian Fuentes or Francisco Rodriguez (for a boatload of money and a first round pick).  The second main group thinks we should just roll the dice with our player development.  Chris Perez or Jason Motte should sink or swim, and we should annoit one of them as the closer for 2009 at the start of spring training.  This will show us what we have, and only give confidence to make them better for the years ahead, right?

Of course there is the third camp, which most importantly happens to include Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.  

“You still want to improve your bullpen,” La Russa said. “The optimum thing is not to ask Chris or Jason to close in ’09. Let them grow into the role when they’re ready to take it.”

I haven’t seen a lot of analysis on the “competition angle” and whether this is the right move.  I believe this deserves scrutiny.  Tony La Russa has gone on record to say that he doesn’t belive the kids are quite ready for the closer role.  He has pushed them through the media and presumably behind the scenes, but will not publicly anoint one as the fireman for this year.  Duncan has made it a full blown competition:

“If no one takes the job by the horns, you could go into the season trying to mix and match,” Duncan said. “That’s not your preference. But it can be done.”

Is it the right method to question the ability and competence of your young relief staff through the media? Will this push Perez to throw strikes under pressure or increase Motte’s ability to develop a secondary pitch? What positive outcome might these comments provide?  Remember, La Russa and Duncan are very smart and experienced men.  This ‘ain’t their first rodeo’ and they don’t make off-handed comments through the media without a purpose.

Jason Motte in Memphis 2008

Jason Motte in Memphis 2008

Contrary to popular belief, La Russa and Duncan might want Perez or Motte to win the job outright.  Cries that they don’t like young players and that they don’t give them a chance are really not accurate.  For every Anthony Reyes and (to a lesser extent) Dan Haren, there is a Bud Smith, Rick Ankiel, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.  They are no dummies, and can see a player’s abilities, probably better than we can.  They aren’t totally adverse to throwing a rookie out to the mound in tight, late game situations (see Wainwright, Adam circa 2006). 

Some coaches/ managers use the media to drive or push players to varying success (it didn’t work with Scott Rolen, but some players fuel on critical comments… look at Michael Jordan or Albert Pujols). While it might not be the way you would do it, pushing a player publicly can work (as long as you are not demeaning them).

Motte and Perez have plenty of stuff (high K rates, successful minor league stats) and deserve a shot to close, but I’ve come up with 10 reasons why La Russa should push them and not anoint one of them as closer just yet:

  1. Pushing a player makes them work harder on conditioning in the offseason (especially someone with weight issues like Perez).  It looks like Tony’s comments on Perez getting in shape has paid off as he has reported to camp leaner
  2. Decreasing expectations (a young player CAN lose confidence in his abilities if pushed into a role he is not ready for)
  3. Push management to add more options.  While the Cardinals did come up empty on a free agent closer.  They made the best offer to Brian Fuentes.  He turned the muggy midwest down to be closer to his home in California, but you can’t say that they didn’t make a competitive offer.  Many people decry that the Cardinals always seem to make the second best offer.  They didn’t in this instance. 
  4. Keep young players grounded and from becoming overconfident and/or cocky
  5. Give a goal for a player to shoot for instead of giving someone a job to lose.  This is important because if you fall just short of your goal you are still pushing upward instead of regressing.
  6. Chris Perez is only 23 years old and Jason Motte is 26.  There is plenty of time for them to take the closer role if they are able to earn it.
  7. Perez does not have a good walk rate (and never has), he had a few issues with the long ball last year with 5 in 41 IP (not terrible, but not where you want it to be).  He may be our best option, but while I have a lot of confidence in his ability, I do not believe he will be a dominant closer this year.  It’s not like LaRussa and Duncan would be holding him back from being one of the best closers in the league.
  8. Perez has toyed with the idea of replacing his secondary pitch (slider) with his third pitch (curve ball) this spring.  This does not instill confidence that he is ready. 
  9. Jason Motte does not have an effective second pitch yet.
  10. Creating less expectations for a fan base is a good thing.  The closer role might be the most mentally strenuous position on the team.  We all saw how fast the fans turned on Izzy, and he had a track record for being great.  Could a young player really handle that?  Remember how tough mentally that Izzy was as a closer.  Do we really think Perez or Motte could handle the extreme negativity when Izzy had trouble with it?  I don’t care how many games Perez saved in the minors or college, the big leagues are different.  Thinking about it, this could be the number one reason to NOT anoint them the closer going into camp, and possibly making it a closer by committee for the year.

Photos courtesy of Dustin Mattison

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Comparing Slick Rick to Smokey Joe

By Michael Riehn
Photo courtesy of: Every Stock Photo
“Can I throw harder than Joe Wood?  Listen my friend, there’s no man alive (that) can throw harder than Smokey Joe Wood” 
                                                 – Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in a 1912 interview*
Smokey Joe Wood

Smokey Joe Wood

Sometimes I think we forget how special the Rick Ankiel story really is.  One of the most promising pitching prospects in all of baseball, he truly dominated the National League in his rookie year of 2000.  He did this at the tender age of 20 with a great fastball and a cartoon curveball.  His future looked as bright as anyone in the majors. 

Everyone knows what happened next.  During the first round of the playoffs that year, it all came apart.  Suddenly he couldn’t find the plate and lost all of his confidence in pitching.  There was no cure or remedy for his wildness and he never came back to form. 
 
Through years of trials and tribulations, Ankiel finally gave up on pitching, seemingly heading into retirement, a tragic story of wasted talent and promise unfulfilled.  Then suddenly, he changed his mind and decided to make a comeback.  He was going to be a hitter.  What started out looking like a joke, Ankiel began a slow climb back to the majors as a “born again” power hitter, culminating in his return to the majors as an outfielder.  In 2007-08 he expanded on this promise to become a very good hitter and fielder and an integral part of the Cardinal offense.

Since Ankiel signed a new contract with the Cardinals yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to be reminded of this amazing feat.  While preparing for his arbitration hearing,  many experts were saying how difficult it was to compare Ankiel to his peers.  No modern day player has made the switch, and you can look back through history and there is very few players who have successfully made the conversion from pitching to hitting.  Sure, Babe Ruth was an All-Star pitcher before he became one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but how do you compare anyone to him?

I am currently reading “The Glory of Their Times” and was surprised to find a story about a player who converted from pitcher to outfielder, after showing much of the same promise of Ankiel.  Of course this happened 90 years earlier, but I wanted to learn more about him.  I had heard of Smokey Joe Wood before, but I had forgotten about his hitting career and what he went through to make it again.  With Ankiel’s arbitration case fresh in my mind, I thought I’d take a look at how they compared at similar ages. 

 This is what Rick Ankiel and Smokey Joe Wood did in their age 20 seasons.  It was Wood’s second full year (his first was as an 18 year old) and Ankiel’s rookie year.
 

Player Year Age ERA ERA+ IP SO BB
Ankiel 2000 20 3.50 134 175.0 194 90
Wood 1910 20 1.68 152 198.7 145 56

 

Now these two pitchers were different in a lot of ways, but in their age 20 seasons they were quite comparable.  I’d like to highlight one statistic in specific.  ERA+ is not your run of the mill baseball card statistic.  To give you a basic idea of its purpose, it compares players from different eras and different ballparks and puts them on a level playing field.  So if you played in the deadball era (as Wood did) where strikeouts were more uncommon (but your ERA was lower), you can compare them to someone in the “juiced ball era” of 2000.  Anything over 100 is above average and both Ankiel and Wood were very good pitchers at 20.  Wood was a little better.

Unfortunately this is where the two pitchers diverge on the pitching side.  While Ankiel showed promise, he didn’t have the ensuing seasons that Wood had.  In fact, for a short period of time, Smokey Joe Wood was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.  In 1912, he led the league in wins with a 34-5 record, pitched 344 innings, was 2nd in the league in strikeouts with 258 and second in the league in ERA with a miniscule 1.91.  He led the league with 10 shutouts and tied a record for the most wins in a row with 16.  He also won 3 more games in the World Series and helped the Boston Red Sox to the championship.

In 1913 Wood hurt his arm and was never the same.  You can speculate that he threw too many innings in 1912 at a young age, or that modern medicine would have put him back on track, but he would never pitch a full season again.  While he pitched effectively over the next 3 years, he was in constant pain and had to take extra days off between starts.  He finally retired in 1916 and was out of baseball. 

Like Ankiel, Wood decided to make a comeback as a hitter.  Now we get to the spooky part.  Ankiel and Wood both made their full season hitting comebacks at age 28 and this is what they did:

Player Year Age AB BA OBP HR SLG OPS+
Ankiel 2008 28 413 0.264 0.337 25 0.506 119
Wood 1918 28 422 0.296 0.356 5 0.403 120

 
OPS is defined as on base percentage plus slugging percentage.  OPS+ is an advanced statistic that measures OPS against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors.  An OPS+ over 100 is better than average, less than 100 is below average.  Rick Ankiel and Joe Wood were almost IDENTICALLY effecitive hitters with 119 and 120 OPS+ scores in their age 28 seasons.  Now Ankiel had more power, but Wood had more on base ability and played in a tougher era for hitters.  Wood’s 5 home runs were actually 5th in the league. 

Wood played 4 more seasons.  Over the next three years he was a part time player, but in his last season he was again a solid regular with a 109 OPS+.  Curiously he retired after that season to coach at Yale University, even though he was offered another contract to play.  He had a 20 year career coaching at Yale and had no regrets about retiring early from major league baseball at 32.  He felt he accomplished something through his comeback, and was ready for the next phase of his life.

We don’t know what twist or turn is going to happen in the Rick Ankiel story.  Like 2000, the future holds a lot of promise for the former pitching phenom.  Will he follow the same path as Joe Wood, or continue his progression and become an All-Star?  Lucky for Cardinal fans, we have a front row seat to the action.  Hopefully this fairytale movie has a happy ending.

*(Excerpt from “The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter)

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Cardinals and Ankiel settle on contract

Rick Ankiel at the 2009 Winter Warmup

Rick Ankiel at the 2009 Winter Warmup

The Cardinals avoid arbitration with Rick Ankiel today, agreeing on a 1 year $2,825,000 contract.  The settlement was completed just hours before an arbitration hearing that would have determined his contract.

Michael Riehn

(Photo courtesy of Dustin Mattison)

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Ask not what Kennedy can do for you…

Adam Kennedy - Cardinal Winter Warmup 2009

Adam Kennedy - Cardinal Winter Warmup 2009

Adam Kennedy was never an extremely popular player on the Cardinals, but he was worth more than people think.  While I’m not heartbroken over his release, he had some value. Granted he’s been a terrible hitter since he joined the Cardinals in 2007.  Even without looking at statistics, it always seemed to me like he hit a medium fly ball to right center or topped the ball to second or first EVERY TIME I WAS WATCHING HIM.  So what was his value?

While growing up, I was a baseball card junkie.  I collected over 20,000 baseball cards and loved looking at batting average, home runs, rbi and especially stolen bases (it was the 80’s and I was a Cardinals fan).  While these basic stats give you a snapshot for what a player has accomplished, it really doesn’t show how good a player is.  Someone that hits .280 with a .350 on base percentage (OBP) is MUCH more valuable than someone that hits .280 with a .321 mark. To simplify it, Player A is on base more and scores more runs (which helps the team win).

This brings us to why Kennedy was terrible.  Yes he improved his batting average last year, but it was VERY ’empty’, as he didn’t take a lot of walks or get hit by a lot of pitches. He got on base at a .321 clip last year and only slugged (SLG) .372.   So what’s wrong with that? For a guy that doesn’t hit the ball very hard (.413 SLG is league average), you need to be a little better than league average in on base percentage (.330 average), to have some value.  A +.350 OBP is usually considered good and Chipper Jones led the league last year with a .470 mark.  Thus, he couldn’t get on base and he couldn’t drive the ball very far… not a good combination.

This doesn’t mean he didn’t have any value to the team.  What about his fielding?

Measuring how good a player fields has always been much tougher than hitting.   Everyone knows the traditional fielding metrics (errors, fielding chances, sportscenter highlights), but they are a poor way of measuring defensive skill.  Your pitchers could be a ground ball staff (meaning you get more chances and more errors), or a fly ball staff.  Everyone knows how good Ozzie Smith was just by watching him, but how do you define his greatness when he might have more errors (and a lot more chances) than someone else? 

You need to measure how many balls a player SHOULD get to, and how many balls he got to that are out of a normal fielder’s range.  This is the question that the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) stat tries to answer.  This fielding metric takes the fielders chances and turns them into runs that a fielder saves or costs a team.  For instance, a zero would mean that a player didn’t cost the teams any runs with bad play or save the team runs with good plays (averaged out over the season).  So if he made an error, he also made a good play that he shouldn’t have made to cancel it out.

Last year Kennedy was one of the best second basemen in the league per the UZR advanced fielding metrics.  He saved 10.4 runs over the course of the season.  This may not seem like a lot, but it put him 4th in all of baseball, even though he only played in 84 games.  While this doesn’t totally offset his hitting ineptitude, it does give him value.   We need to take this into consideration when we are looking at Skip Schumaker’s stats and dreaming about how much better he’d be in the lineup than Kennedy. (Skip has to prove he’s at least passable at second base this spring, which is going to be a tall order). 

Of course I do have fond memories of Kennedy.  I was in Wrigley Field last year the day after he requested a trade.  He hit a grand slam home run and almost single handedly beat the Cubs with a fantasic day, going 4-5 with 3 runs and 5 RBI (the Cardinals only win of the series) .  I’ll always remember that day due to the friends that were with me and the show Adam Kennedy put on.  For one game at least, he was Babe Ruth.  Any player can have a career day and be the star in baseball, which is one of the great things about the game.

Michael Riehn

(Photo courtesy of Dustin Mattison)

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