Ed Randall

Dodger for life – or not

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In the course of a few traumatic days in May 1998, Michael J. Piazza’s world was turned upside down.

After all, he was baptized to be a Dodger.

Tommy Lasorda and Vince Piazza, Mike’s father, both grew up in the Philadelphia working class suburb of Norristown. The two were best friends and Lasorda was godfather to Vince’s son Tommy, Mike’s younger brother. When Lasorda signed a contract to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became Vince’s idol.

At 13, when the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, Mike Piazza was their batboy. Years later, after two undistinguished years of college baseball, Lasorda pleaded with the Dodgers to draft his dear friend’s son.

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They did…in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, after 1,389 players were selected before him. That’s impossible today with a twenty-round draft.

Fast forward to 1998 when, at age 29, Piazza was becoming the greatest offensive catcher the game had ever known, coming off a season batting .362 with 40 homers and 124 runs batted in. His burnished credentials included National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1993 and an All-Star designation in each of his six seasons in Los Angeles.

In May of ’98, Piazza was a year and a half away from free agency. The Dodgers had offered $80 million over six seasons which he turned down, seeking a seventh year.

But up in the corporate suite, things were changing that would affect his status.

The Fox Entertainment Group purchased the Dodgers from the O’Malley family in September 1997 for a reported $350 million. Fred Claire, the general manager at the time of the sale, told me there were concerns in baseball circles about a television network buying a team. The impact – for Claire, Piazza and the franchise – turned out to be enormous.

“I well recall the sale,” Claire said. “Soon thereafter, Fox, without my knowledge, which is unusual, unheard of and unprecedented in Dodgers’ history, made the trade of Mike Piazza to the Marlins.”

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Dodgers President Bob Graziano was in the Dominican Republic when he called Claire, who was in his box at Dodger Stadium watching the team play.

“He said, ‘Fred, there has been a deal that you will need to announce tonight. We have traded Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for several players.’ He gave me the names of the players that included Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla.”

“I represent the Los Angeles Dodgers and I represent something more than this trade,” said Claire who, if he knew about the deal, would have, in his words, “gone through the roof.”

This set into motion another dramatic move.

Claire told me: “I said to Bob, there will be two announcements then if you’re telling me that this trade should be announced. After the trade is announced, I will announce my resignation because you don’t need me. This isn’t the way a baseball team is run. This isn’t anything like what the Dodgers have ever stood for or how they’ve operated and very frankly, it’s very damaging to the Dodger organization. I remember walking back to my office at Dodger Stadium realizing my world had changed.”

So had Piazza’s, who had no idea a deal was coming.

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But, wait, wait, there’s more!

Fred Claire received a call from the Dodgers’ media director telling him he couldn’t announce the trade because Gary Sheffield had a no-trade clause in his contract.

“Of course, Gary Sheffield has a no-trade contract,” said Claire. “Every general manager in the game knew Gary Sheffield had a no-trade contract. When Bob gave me that information, it was my assumption that had been resolved. Well, it hadn’t been resolved.”

And because it hadn’t been resolved, the trade couldn’t be announced.

Nor could Fred Claire’s resignation.

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After the game, Piazza and Zeile were told to come to the private area outside the trainers’ room where they were informed what was taking place. Ironically, Zeile, in the first year of a three-year contract, had made it clear to his agent that he wanted to play at home in his native Los Angeles.

Everyone in baseball knew the Marlins were a pit stop for Mike Piazza. The club had begun dismantling their roster within ten days of their World Series championship on orders from ownership.

After Sheffield’s contract was resolved, the deal was finalized. Piazza played five games for the Marlins before being traded to the New York Mets just eight days later.

That’s the hat that appears on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Fred Claire ultimately didn’t resign over the trade, but his 30-year tenure with the Dodgers ended a month later, in June 1998, when he and manager Bill Russell were unceremoniously fired. And to this day, Claire isn’t sure who in the Fox Entertainment Group traded Mike Piazza without his knowledge.

What he is sure of is no one talked to the general manager of the Dodgers.

White Sox vs Guardians: Remembering the Cuban Comet

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Last December, the Golden Era Committee of the Hall of Fame, which considers players whose primary contributions occurred from 1950 through 1969, met and finally righted a wrong.

Those years marked the time when the baseball world was introduced to the dynamic Orestes ‘Minnie’ Miñoso, the Cuban Comet, whose exploits in the outfield and at bat were finally recognized by the committee for enshrinement last month.

Until that moment, he was the best player waiting outside 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, New York, 13326.

Too bad he couldn’t live to see it. Having passed away in 2015, his wife and family members represented him at the induction ceremony.

Consider this: From 1951 through 1961, he was second only to Mickey Mantle in runs scored, extra base hits and total bases. Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial are the only players who matched Minnie during that time in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He ranked third in hits behind Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn. Miñoso had more steals and a better OPS than both and each preceded him into the Hall.  He also received nine All-Star designations and three Gold Glove Awards.

Inspired by Jackie Robinson’s signing in 1945, Minnie Miñoso emigrated from his native Cuba. He then spent three years in the Negro National League, where he helped win a championship for the New York Cubans.

Before the 1948 season, Cleveland owner, the great Bill Veeck, bought Miñoso contract for $15,000. But the major league club was so talented, ultimately winning a World Series that season, Miñoso spent two years tearing up the Pacific Coast League.

Bill Veeck’s son, Mike, the long time, highly successful baseball executive, told me this year, “I don’t think Miñoso thought that playing in the major leagues was possible until Jackie Robinson. He certainly realized that maybe there was that opportunity for him.”

Once he arrived in 1951 for good, Miñoso began blazing a trail for Black and Latin American athletes to come. A player who had looked to Jackie Robinson’s example, he became a similar source of inspiration for his community.

But that opportunity came at a price. In his first full season, Miñoso was hit by a pitch 16 times. He led the majors in that category nine times in his career.

While other Cuban and Latino players had made it to the majors before him, Miñoso’s dark skin made him subject to much of the same racism Robinson faced. But just a few years removed from his life in Cuba, he didn’t have the command of the English language to respond.

“He was the recipient of flagrant racism,” said Veeck. “But he had very little vitriol in his system. He never acted as if he was dealt a bad hand even though one could argue that he was. And the way he played, he was a huge inspiration for younger players, running out every ground ball, no matter what.”

As the White Sox prepare to take on the Guardians this Sunday on Peacock, it’s worth remembering that Miñoso was a pivotal and memorable figure for both teams.

He was traded by Cleveland to the White Sox early in 1951. After the 1957 season, he was dealt back to Cleveland where he played two years before returning to the White Sox after they lost the 1959 World Series to the Dodgers.

That team was now owned by Bill Veeck.

The younger Veeck told me of the dynamic between the two franchises: “In the old days, this was a tremendous duel of the titans. There was a huge rivalry between Chicago and Cleveland. Miñoso wasn’t in the ’59 World Series and yet, my dad gave him an American League championship ring as a token of their esteem.”

Minnie Miñoso retired after the 1964 season and remained in Chicago as a team ambassador.

Bill Veeck sold and later reacquired the White Sox and had an idea in 1976: letting Minnie Miñoso, by then working in the club’s community relations department, suit up once more to become a four-decade player.

At age 52, he went 1-for-8 and struck out only twice.

Bill Veeck wasn’t done.

1980 was the dawning of a new decade so it was time, once again, to reactivate Minnie Miñoso.

At age 56, he went 0-for-2 but didn’t strike out in becoming a five-decade player.

When Mike Veeck became an owner of the minor league St. Paul Saints, Miñoso made another cameo in 1993, having his name written in the scorecard in six different decades.

Then, in 2003, Miñoso became the first player to play professional baseball in seven decades when he returned to St. Paul.

He walked…at age 77.

Minnie Miñoso never forgot what Bill Veeck did for him.

“When my dad died,” Mike Veeck said, “Minnie showed up as the highest-ranking official from baseball. He showed up in the ’76 White Sox uniform.”

Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas Miñoso got a late start in the major leagues at age 25. But he made up for lost time, his best years putting him in the company of the game’s eternals, Mays, Mantle and Musial.

On the South Side of Chicago, “Mr. White Sox” was bigger.

Tigers vs Yankees: The Chase for the 1961 Pennant

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Trust me, there will not be a repeat in 2022 of the Yankees-Tigers classic pennant race of 1961, staged in a ten-team league. The gift of the wild card was generations away.

For the 1961 season, the American League expanded from eight teams with the additions of the Washington Senators (replacing the Senators team that fled to Minnesota) and the Los Angeles Angels. To keep the schedule balanced with the expanded number of teams, the regular season was stretched from 154 games to 162.

The Yankees won 109 of them, second-most in franchise history to the 1927 Murderers’ Row lineup that won one more with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The team would perform so well that they immediately entered into the debate of “greatest Yankee team ever.”

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The Detroit Tigers with Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash and Jim Bunning were the Yankees’ closest competition. Kaline had a terrific season, befitting a future Hall of Famer. He was the runner-up in the batting race at .324, led the league in doubles with 41, struck 19 homers, drove in 82 and won a Gold Glove in right field. The Tigers would win 101 games, tying the franchise record set in 1934. Cash would win the batting title with a .361 average and never again bat .300 in the remaining 13 seasons of his career.

The season before had been tumultuous in Detroit. On the eve of the 1960 season, Cleveland traded the reigning American League home run co-champion, Colavito, in exchange for the reigning batting champion, Harvey Kuenn. For his three seasons in Tiger Stadium, Colavito was magnificent, averaging 35 homers and 114 runs batted in.

But that swap was nothing in comparison for what lay ahead.

In early August, the Indians and Tigers TRADED MANAGERS at a time when both clubs were slumping. Cleveland had lost 18 of their last 25 games, Detroit, 12 of 15. Jimmy Dykes went to Cleveland, Joe Gordon, once a coach and scout for the Tigers, was back in Detroit. But he was gone for the ’61 season.

On September 1, 1961, with the Yankees leading by one and a half games,

the Tigers came to Yankee Stadium for a crucial weekend three-game series that would draw 171,503 fans.

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When the Detroit series began, Roger Maris had hit 51 homers and Mickey Mantle, protecting him in the lineup, was at 48. Both clearly had a chance to break the most important record in American professional sports, Babe Ruth’s 1927 record of 60 home runs.

On a sweltering Friday night, the Yankees won the first game 1-0 when Bill Skowron’s base hit through the shortstop hole drove in Elston Howard with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The shortstop on that club, Hall of Fame broadcaster Tony Kubek, told me, “Our third base coach, Frank Crosetti, detected that Tigers pitcher Don Mossi would throw a curve. He let Skowron know, and he hit it through the left side for the game winner.”

On Saturday, the Tigers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning on Colavito’s 40th homer. But Maris’ 52nd homer gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead and his 53rd helped punctuate a 7-2 victory. The Yanks defeated Frank Lary, who built an illustrious history defeating the Bronx Bombers, earning the nickname, “Yankee Killer.”

Tigers ace Jim Bunning started the third game Sunday afternoon and surrendered Mantle’s 49th home run in the first inning. Down 5-4 in the bottom of the 9th, Mantle led off and struck number 50. Three batters later, Elston Howard, batting .359, hit a three-run homer to deliver an 8-5 victory and a sweep. Luis Arroyo, the best relief pitcher in the league, won two of the games and saved the other.

The Tigers left town four and a half games back. Just five days later, with the two teams traveling in opposite directions, the Yankees’ lead had grown to ten. The sweep began a thirteen-game winning streak for the Yankees and an eight-game losing streak for the Tigers who departed Yankee Stadium completely demoralized, awed, and buried.

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Detroit manager Bob Scheffing told United Press International his club was not in the Yankees class. “A tip-off on this Yankees club is that a strong hitter like Bill Skowron bats seventh,” Scheffing said. Skowron would finish with 28 homers and 89 runs batted in.

The 1961 Yankees were a team for the ages. The M&M Boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, stole the show. Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61 homers and 142 RBIs to win MVP honors while Mantle, injured at season’s end, hit 54 with 128 RBIs while batting .317. Four others — Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard — hit 20-plus homers as the team set a major league record with 240. Whitey Ford won the Cy Young Award with a 25-4 season and Luis Arroyo won 15 games in relief and saved 29 others.

In the World Series, the Yankees faced Cincinnati, who had grabbed first place in the National League for good in early August, and overwhelmed them in five games by a cumulative score of 27-13.

Bobby Richardson, the 1960 World Series Most Valuable Player, who,

to this day, remains the only MVP to play for the losing team, played all 162 games in 1961. He won a Gold Glove at second base and had nine hits in the five games, batting .391.

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The Yankees second baseman told me “I enjoyed World Series. That Detroit series was like a Series for us. It meant a lot, we gave it World Series-type attention and were able to come out on top. Al Kaline was the most consistent player I played against in my career. He was outstanding. I played at the right time with the right team.”

But Richardson takes a dim view of the current post-season set-up, expanding this fall to a dozen teams. “When I think of baseball today, because of the way it is set up, the winner of the World Series is not necessarily the best team in baseball, Richardson said. “When we played, it was the winner of the American League against the winner of the National League. It was just so much better.”

While the Yankees would win three more American League pennants from 1962-64, the Tigers would not contend again until 1967.

These many years later, Bobby Richardson remains grateful to be part of a team for the ages. “I played at the right time with the right team.”

For his doubleplay partner, Tony Kubek, the ’61 club “has to be considered one of the best teams in baseball over the long haul.”

How to Watch Tigers vs Yankees on Peacock

Aaron Judge and the first-place New York Yankees host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers from Yankee Stadium on MLB Sunday Leadoff live this Sunday, June 5 at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock. This week’s MLB Sunday Leadoff coverage begins with the pregame show at 11 a.m. ET on Peacock. NBC Sports’

CC Sabathia, the 2007 Cy Young Award-winner and 19-year MLB veteran, including 11 seasons with the Yankees, will join Ahmed Fareed as an analyst on the MLB Sunday Leadoff pre- and postgame shows. Sabathia, who won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees, was a six-time All-Star, earned 251 career wins, and is one of three left-handed pitchers in Major League history with at least 3,000 strikeouts (Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson). Sabathia currently co-hosts the R2C2 podcast.

How to Watch:

Date Show Time (ET) Platform
Sun., June 5 MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame 11 a.m. Peacock
Sun., June 5 Tigers vs. Yankees 11:30 a.m. Peacock