Nobody wants to be in my pants right now” - Twins reliever Juan Rincon, after giving up four runs in a third of an inning in Minnesota's 6--5 loss to the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Division Series:

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Phenoms of Minnesota Spring Trainings Past: Part IV


John Castino 1979:
Seasons of Passion & Fire, Albeit Brief

In another lifetime, I see John Castino as one of those Pony Express riders - bringing in the mail through a hail of arrows from hostile Indian batteries, enduring the wrenching heat of the Old West. He was the guy that teammates wanted on their side, whom fans loved for his working class grit.
"Go ahead, try to spika me,
 I messupa your face." ---
I know.  I know. 
Cliche I-tai...Italian never spoken
in the Castino home in Evanston.

The story of how the Twins became entwined with the skinny kid from Illinois begins with a game he played against them before the Twins ever heard his name ( enjoy superb John Swol interview at his site, the excellent Twins Trivia ). In what had become a rite of spring, Castino's college team, the Rollins Tars, played the Major League Twins in their annual spring game on March 6, 1974. Rollins is located near Winter Park, Florida, near the Twins former spring training home of Tinker Field, in Orlando.

Lost to me now is the final score of that contest, and exactly who pitched and played for the Twins.  Amateur players are usually giddy just to make contact with professional pitching. They almost always end in blowouts for the big boys.

Castino went 2 for 4, with two singles (see back, 1980 Topps).

I remember listening in horror to that spring game broadcast back to the Twin Cities.  Our ace Blyleven (reasonably sure it was Bert!) giving up hits to some snot kid just out of high school? How could this happen? What's this "Castino" thing? An exotic Italian ice cream?! A extra from "The Godfather?" cast?  Dumbstruck.  What will the pros do to our hurlers this year?

My pre-teen sense of  pride in the Twins was severely rattled.  It was as if someone had told my girl she's ugly at the 6th Grade rollerskating party, then punched me in the stomach as a parting shot.

John Castino, 1980 Topps Rookie card

The Twins, knowing a gem had dropped into their lap, began scouting John. Castino was taken in the third round of the MLB 1976 amateur draft with the10th pick. Drafted just ahead of him with the 9th pick was future Twin Dan Schatzeder. Allan Trammel went to the Tigers in Round Two.  Round One saw future Twin Ken Landreaux picked by the Angels, future Twin-Killer  Pat Tabler to the Yankees, and Mike Scioscia go to the Dodgers as a catcher. Scioscia would also go on to manage the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim past the Twins in the 2002 American League Championship Series.  A solid draft, at that.


John had to beat out the incumbent Mike Cubbage for third base in '79.  Cubbage had been there since he'd come over in the 1976 Bert Blyleven trade to Texas, and Mauch usually showed preference towards the veterans.  That figures.  Castino was still a thin guy lacking man muscles, appearing to be a choir boy barely able to shoulder a Louisville Slugger.  Appearances deceive.

Manager Mauch chose a formulaic platoon for his third sackers, where Cubbage batted against righties, Castino against lefties. It took until the middle of May for Castino to begin receiving the majority of starts at third (see day by day game stats). Cubby was a solid major leaguer, but the disparity in their talent was obvious. Castino batted over .300 most of that year, finishing at .285, showing an obvious love for hitting triples (8) in only 398 at bats.  He had excellent range, getting to so many balls that he was nearly beyond peer in the league (see Baseball Ref link with advanced fielding metrics-take the time to peruse, esp. the double play section right of chart  - fascinating! Castino was right there with George Brett, Buddy Bell, defensive stalwarts).

The defensive tactician side of Mauch had to like that. Nice ball-hawkin' and then some "bling" to bolster that genius title - for the Rookie of the Year Award, the writers flinched: it was a draw between his new third baseman and Alfredo Griffin of the Toronto Blue Jays. That after John was told he was a longshot to make the team out of spring training.

Beyond the numbers, Castino had an innate pluck and sense of a leader to stand up to others in the baseball ranks, including the manager AND the Twins team owner...

When Calvin Griffith had blasted the team (see Castino article) for poor play during the 1982 season in the media, Castino shot back. "I'm not in charge of assembling the team.  You'll have to ask Mr. Griffith about that." Calvin then issued this statement:
Griffith, Mid 1960's
If Castino is a man, he will come see me face to face, if not, he’s a mouse.”
Castino takes it from there:
"Well, Calvin knew I’d come see him. When I got to his office he said, “Castino, you’re the most overrated third baseman in the American League.” I said, “Then trade me Calvin.” He replied, “I can’t trade you, you’re the best third baseman in the American League.” I just walked away and couldn’t figure out a way to debate his logic (or lack thereof). Both 100 percent true stories. He was an interesting character. Anyway, it gives some insight to Calvin’s boldness and lack of tact. Having said that, however, I liked the man and respected him. You always knew where you stood with him."(Seam heads link).

Relations gone awry at Tiger stadium: Fri, May 14, 1982.
Tiger Lance Parrish is man-handling a Twin, lower left.
On right, #22 Randy Johnson and #19 John Pacella of the
Twins are chanting peaceful James Taylor lyrics to pacify the
crazed jock-mob. Pacella had just pitched his first game
for the Twins the day before, coming over from New York 
in the Wynegar / Erickson trade.


 There was another on-field incident in 1982 that deserves mention in the Castino saga. The Twins rivalry with the Detroit Tigers had flowered into palpable animosity over the years, probably beginning in earnest with the arrival of Manager Sparky Anderson in the late 1970's.  The rancor between the two teams continued all the way up to the 1987 League Championship Series showdown.

Then, the May, 1982 brawl errupted, culminating in Detroit pitcher Dave Rozema attempting to karate kick Castino (see Rachel Blount, Minneapolis Star Trib.). The whole, unsavory display of fisticuffs first began with an errant pitch from our favorite reliever and whipping boy, Ron Davis.


See the video for Sparky's account.  Lousy quality, but still fascinating!


Anybody know if Charles Manson had a bobblehead Day yet?



Still sad to me is how John's back betrayed him, prematurely ending his career. A succession of injuries and spinal fusion operations forced him to call it quits in early May, 1984.  What was most frustrating for me was the fact that right up to the very last day, he was improving in all phases of the game: he was fielding at an all-star clip, and fittingly reached base 4 times in 5 plate appearances in his finale (three hits plus a walk) against the Angels on May 7, 1984. And then he decided the pain was just too much,  packed his gear, and left. An unfinished college education awaited his attention, and a career as wealth enhancement advisor beyond that.

Taking his place on the Twins roster the next day in Anaheim was a young outfielder with only two years of minor league experience: Kirby Puckett. His line?  Reached base...4 times in 5 at bats (4 singles).

John prospered, but definitely watched with wistfulness and grace 3 seasons later when the Twins won it all ( see video no. 2 at link of him in retirement, summer, 1986).

 ***

"When I was 24, and in the majors, I felt I was
invincible. I thought I could play until I was 45."
 Factoid: Castino graduated from New Trier (Ill.) High. That school also numbers Liz Phair, Donald Rumsfeld, and Rainn Wilson ("The Office") among its graduates.

I'm not sure you could get a more assymetrical collection than this to gather at an all-school reunion.


Quotes about John Castino:

*Bruce H. (Castino fan), at Baseball Ref said:
"What a pleasure it was, to watch John Castino play the hot corner. He was as good at third, as anyone I ever saw at the Met."

*Kent Hrbek (Twins first baseman) from "The Twins At The Met: "I was always a fan of Johnny Castino.  I admired him and the way he played, the hard-nosed player he was until he hurt his back.  He was the third baseman when I came to the Twins.  During my rookie season he was the guy I chatted with the most and looked up to the most."

As good ol' Herb used to say: "...and the count rides along." - TT

Monday, April 25, 2011

Twins Card Spotlight: The 1961 Peters Meats Set

As may be inferred, the copy writers for this 1961 Twins set took liberal literary license in their player profiles. The de facto staff ace, "Pete" Ramos is hung with an nickname that could only be a pure reflection of a less worrisome time, where using ethnic references culled from TV shows like "Zorro" were commonplace.  I, for one, have a hard time seeing Pedro arriving in the Twins locker room on the team's very first Opening Day in 1961, and announcing "Boys, jump on my back - The Gay Caballero  will bring it home for ya today!" ( a la Kirby Puckett before Game 6 in 1991)  But that's just me, .

It may be argued that such insertions make this perhaps the most interesting, compelling Twins card set of all time. Pedro did in fact, pitch our North Star State heroes to victory over the mighty Yankees and Whitey Ford that day.  That Pedro served prison time after being caught running contraband over the border should in no way cover up the fact that this bird was, along with Pistol Packin' Dave Boswell, easily the most all-round goofy character in Twins history. Maybe the whole mishap could have been avoided by his asserting himself thusly with the border police: "Don't you guys know who I am?"

The Gay Caballero, indeed.
Just as obvious is the need of the Twins resident Bill Shakespeare to paint Ray "Old Blue" Moore as a character right out of the children's classic "Where The Red Fern Grows." It's rather ambiguous for me, from the folksy "Moore is no stranger to these parts" (what...did he just wander in from an episode shooting of "Gunsmoke"?) to the questionable meaning in the final paragraph: "Although a right hander, he is very tough on liking to pitch." Is this in some way equating "Farmer Ray" with left handers of dubious morality, like an ambidextrous Bill "Spaceman" Lee? Or is it an implication that he'd just as soon chuck this baseball thing for a go at a-pickin' and grinnin' on the back porch down in old Virginny? 

Fact of the matter, "Old Blue" gave stability and professionalism to the Twins 'pen at a time in its history when it needed it most.  You can put that one in your corncob pipe an' smoke it.

Would have loved to hear good ol' Herb Carneal describe either of these two pitch, back in the day.
"...And the count rides along."
TT

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reno Bertoia: The Twins Original Third Baseman Passes Away

It happens so often. That person or circumstance in life that you thought you had figured out - and then, new facts are revealed that remind one once again: I'm a rube about a million things, will forget that fact, and will eventually receive the memo that puts me back on the straight and narrow.

I had gained a fairly cynical view from a book I read years ago (which I'll reference shortly) that Reno Bertoia was just some hapless character taking up space in the country of baseball.

Then, another memo was given to me yesterday from long distance friends about the man who became the Twins' original third baseman: Reno Bertoia had passed away.  He came out of Windsor, Ontario, and played the bulk of his career with the Detroit Tigers. He died of lymphoma cancer yesterday morning after a short battle with the disease, surrounded by family. He was lauded nicely by Al Kaline, his old friend, teammate, and Baseball Hall of Famer. He was 76 years old.

Reno was one of the few MLB players ever to be born in Italy. He moved to Windsor with his family when he was 22 months old. Perhaps his greatest claim to baseball fame was displacing Ted Williams at the top of the batting race until late May of the 1957 season. 

It is now a footnote in Twins history that Reno Bertoia hit the second homer ever for the club, in its Inaugural Game on April 11, 1961 (box score) in the 8th inning off Ralph Terry of the Yankees.  Bob Allison went deep an inning previous. But it was no footnote for Bertoia - his stepdaughter, Beth Daly, reveals this was his #1 choice as the favorite opener in his career.

That homer would be his one and only in a Twins career spanning 35 games (see 1961 Twins game logs), all at third, including 4 games he entered as a pinch hitter.  He was traded on June 1, 1961 with Bill Tuttle to the Kansas City Athletics for Paul Giel.

A treat: view Reno in this clip from the Mister Baseball website. Do it! You'll see him visiting in his native Italy. You may agree, he's the picture of a man brimming with humility, dignity, and an awareness of what is truly meaningful in life. This view of him is also totally contradicted by today's internet news piece of the great Hugh Hefner and the 85-year old's latest excursion into marriage (his 29th?), with a woman looking old enough to be a junior in high school.  No doubt, it is destined to be a "very special" union, as Hugh commented...

That book blurb I mentioned? Here's the excerpt I recalled from the sublime book "The Great American Baseball Card," (Amazon.com link).  It is an irreverent treasure trove about 1950's and 60's baseball players and their Topps Cards. To wit:
"Quick, name a major league baseball player who was born in San Remo, Italy, lived in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and couldn't hit. That's right--Reno Bertoia.
OK. Name another one. 
The back of Reno's card is interesting. It says that his average last year was .162 and that, although he did not get to play in too many ballgames, he gained valuable information about American League hurlers that would help him in the future. I suspect that the information he gathered was that every pitcher in the American League could get him out, and that perhaps he should try another line of work."
THAT'S the version I ingested as a young man of Reno Bertoia. 

Nevertheless...his being one of the few players that have been lucky and talented enough to find their way into that line of work is remarkable enough.  This is not to take the whacking stick to the authors Boyd and Harris - they were contemporary observers of Reno's career, and it's not against the law to have an opinion. Nor do I care to pillory Hugh Hefner for that matter (very much). More clearly, a man who became a history teacher, and did it well according to all accounts, deserves to be lauded. “He was in many ways prouder of his teaching career [at Assumption school in Windsor]” added Daly. “Because he felt he impacted a lot of people’s lives.” In my mind, his aura of modesty and integrity links him to another Twin profiled at this blog, Lenny Green (see post), who also appeared in the Twins 1961 Opening Day lineup.

I will attest to that impact thing.  With my own elementary teaching career now over ten years past at this date, I still feel that it was the most significant thing I've done in my life.  And how my preoccupation with the Twins and the game of baseball is just mere filler and diversion in the cosmic scheme of things.

As Herb Carneal used to say: "And the count rides along..."
TT

Reno Bertoia, 1961 Kodak snapshot
April 16, 2011 - from Reno's Legacy.com page


Mr. Bertoia was my favorite teacher and taught me History, my favorite class at Assumption. I was very saddened when I heard of his passing announced on the radio. My father and mother also knew him as my Dad attended Assumption with him. Mr. Bertoia will be remembered to me as one of the nicest Teachers that I had in my lifetime.


~ Judy Glendenning (George) Class of '78, Windsor, Ontario



Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Column Feature Tom Powers: Baseball lifer Phil Roof enjoys fleeting fling in majors - TwinCities.com

Tom Powers: Baseball lifer Phil Roof enjoys fleeting fling in majors - TwinCities.com

Phil Roof, 2002 Photo













(photo right: Roof, 1974 Twins Yearbook, vs Jorge Orta, White Sox)

Tom Powers did a marvelous job with his piece today in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today on great Twins catcher Phil Roof.  My memory of Phil comes from his batting exhibition against his old battery mate, Jim Kaat in a game from Sunday, Sept. 9, 1973.  Kitty had gone over to the White Sox earlier that season; I recall Herb Carneal's radio call on Roofie's big hit (below):
"...Here's the pitch...swung on and it's a high drive going back, back - way WAY back out there - and it's OFF THE WALL in deep left field! Roof rounding second, on his way to third, and he goes in standing up with a triple! Boy, he really put the wood to that one, about 385 feet off that left-centerfield wall here at the Met...!"
From Roof's Oakland Athletic days: bovine
skills revisited for the farm kid from Kentucky.
 Herb went on to give some background of Roof's and Kaat's friendship, of how the lefty was trying his best to strike Phil out, while the defensive-minded catcher was doing everything he could to get a big knock of Kaat.


(B&Wphoto: Roof with fans, 1972 Twins Yearbook) Another image, probably from the same year, is a post-game interview Phil did with Twins legendary broadcaster, Ray Scott.  I don't remember what Roof did in that particular game (most likely, it didn't involve hitting), but I mainly recall Scott's last question:
Scott: "Still living in Paducah?" [twinkly smile in his eyes]
Roof: "Still living in Paducah." [smile returned in kind]
A pleasure reading Powers' column!

As Herb used to say:
"...and the count rides along..."
TT

Saturday, April 9, 2011

TonyO, His Statue, and The National Anthem Done Well



Opening Day, 2011. Along with the classic pitcher's duel supplied by starters Carl Pavano of the Twins and Brett Anderson of the Oakland Athletics (and a save by returning closer Joe Nathan) in yesterday's 2-1 win, there was the wistful, great unveiling of Tony Oliva's statue outside of Target Field. Tony made it a classic, speaking from the heart his gratitude for the people that helped him in life, and for the art of sculptor, Bill Mack. For so many of us, Tony is our all-time greatest Twin. You have to agree with Tony: Mack DID make him look so good! Then again, the artist was already given a wonderful subject to work with - the Oliva swing was art unto itself.




Photo from mid-1960's Twins yearbook.
 There's a reason why Tony Oliva was considered by fans and baseball Hall of Famers alike as being one of the select, great hitters of the 1960's. He won three batting titles in an era that had vastly reduced statistical numbers - the time was ruled by the pitchers, who could deliver from a 15-inch high mound. Now it is 10-inches. Why is that significant? It's physics. The pitcher has more leverage on a higher mound while the greater angle produced from the higher mound makes it more difficult to hit the ball squarely (see excellent Harold Friend article at Suite101.com for more on this discussion). What was a .320 batting average then would be good for .350 or better in today's hitter-friendly time. Despite those conditions, you could count on Tony to either line one over the third baseman's head, hit a blue darter into the gap in rightfield, or outright bomb one over the centerfield fence.

But those were yesterday's glories.  The present has arrived to give the man his due, and not just for him - it is to create a collective joy, for us all. Again, there is the art...

Below is a nice video from Rick Prescott (from the BallPark Magic site) of  yesterday's National Anthem performance by singer Maria Versalles and guitarist Rick Oliva. They, of course, are the children of Twins greats Zoilo Versalles and Tony O. Nice touch! Watch for the well-timed jet flyover at the end! Rick also posted this wonderful video of Tony's speech, from another perspective.  You can see Jerry Bell, Dave St. Peter, Juan Berenguer, et. al., joining in the festivities honoring Tony.  Well done, Rick!




Here are two wonderfully filmed videos. First is an opening day "from the ballpark" sights and sounds piece, then another(from Rick Oliva's vaults!) from the Sept. 3, 2010 Twins legends game. Look for Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Jack Morris in the clip. As a Star Spangled Banner connoisseur, I really enjoy the rendition - stylish, without the overblown production as rendered by so many singers (see "cater walling," "Christina Aguilera"). A Twins Treat!

Opening Day - Beautiful Stuff!

2011 MN Twins Opening Day // Target Field from capture studios on Vimeo.



What a treasure that Tony Oliva is!
As Herb would say "...and the count rides along..."
TT

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Phenoms of Minnesota Twins Spring Trainings Past: Part III

            "Harold" Wynegar. 
             Let's stick to the nickname!
             1977 Topps Rookie Card
Butch Wynegar, 1976:
The Bicentennial Backstop...
SORRY! POST BEING FIXED!
[NOTE: due to monumental material for use in this post, and my aching, sentimental attachment to the subject, the sections on John Castino and Carlos Gomez will await another time for publication, to give them their just due!]

During the winter of 1975-76, Butch Wynegar was expecting nothing higher than a promotion to Triple A, or at least a Double A hop upward in the Minnesota Twins system.  So, it was with shock that he opened up the  letter from GM Howard Fox informing him of his invite to the Twins Major League camp. The needle on the Donna Summer "Love To Love You Baby" LP made a sudden skip, his mind screeching with it to a halt...

His surprise was realistic.  Even though he'd batted .315 at age 19 in 1975 for the Twins A-level Reno Silver Sox, he'd only played in 199 games over two minor league years, and that was including the 60 games he'd played previously in rookie league after being drafted #14 in the 2nd Round (38th overall) of the 1974 draft.  "I thought, 'You've got to be kidding,'  said Wynegar after he retired. "I expected to get a quick look and be sent to Triple A. I was excited being around players such as Rod Carew and Larry Hisle.  But there wasn't much pressure on me.  I had nothing to lose.  Realistically, I never thought about sticking with the club."

Of note: Dave Bergman had been drafted ahead of him in that round, while Dale Murphy (5th pick-c), Lonnie Smith (3rd pick-of), Willie Wilson (18th-of), Garry Templeton (13th-ss), Lance Parrish (16th) and Rick Sutcliffe (21st-rhp) had all been taken earlier in the first round. One of  the '70s draft bumper crops.
 Of course, the Twin were sportin' a bumper crop of lousy-hitting big league catchers, and felt they had nothing to lose promoting Wynegar. Phil Roof was 35 years old, and couldn't be expected to be anything more than a capable, defensive backup. Glenn Borgmann had proved a major bust as a big league hitter. His sickly 1975 .207 BA, .303 OBP, with more walks (45) than RBI's (33) had driven the Twins upper management to pray before the porcelain god, and Manager Frank Quilici to permanent vacation.
Photo from 1979 Twins Program & Scorecard


Butch embraced his new
Yankee status, and
Dave Rightetti too,
following no-hitter.
New Twins Manager Gene Mauch quickly became a fan of the switchhitting kid from York, PA.  The old National League skipper told reporters "Butch can turn things around for us. I know he doesn't have much experience, but he can swing the bat, catch the ball, and throw it.  There's just not much more to the game than that" (he, of course, forgot to add "have a working knowledge of hot New York night clubs" and "never ask about the epic '64 Philadelphia Phillies season-ending collapse"). That Mauch-managed team melted under the weight of a thin starting staff and general dissension. Mauch got his wish: Butch would be squatting behind home plate in Arlington, Texas on April 9th, against the Rangers.  The kid notched his first basehit that night off greasin' cheater, Gaylord Perry.  The Butch Show was on the radio, and in the air over Minneapolis-St. Paul!

If the mania for Butch Wyngar never reached the monkey scream hero-status of  Joe Mauer,  he nevertheless made an indelible impression on fans in the upper Midwest.  In a Twins TV spot legendary among Twins fans of that era, he exclaimed "I love this game so much, I'd play it for free," followed by a shot of Calvin Griffith gushing "I love that kid" (other vintage ad videos here). Of course, this didn't do much more to improve Calvin's earned reputation as a cheap, chiseling, old coot, but it was definitely a watershed moment in sports team promotions in Minnesota (see link to Calvin post at link above).

The highlights I take from that season are his home runs against Catfish Hunter in New York, and then, vividly, the one took deep off Jim Palmer at the Met on April 25. In the exhilaration of the moment,  I recall Wynegar rounding third with a smile that was akin to the one on that kid Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" who'd just received his Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.  His batting average at one point was as high as .314, and was at .294 just before the All Star break.  The fans got behind him, and rocketed Butch onto the All-Star team on the strength of 560,000 write-in votes.


He played in the game in Philadelphia at the dirty, old concrete outhouse known as Veteran's Stadium.  He certainly didn't "shoot his eye out" or  in the foot, for that matter.  The 20-year old pinch hit for the 76-year old former Twin Luis Tiant in the top of the 7th, drawing a walk off John "The Count" Montefusco. Nicknames! The American League lost, as per custom in those years, 7-1.  The AL in the '70s had only one victory notch on their bats, that being the 6-4 win in 1971.


I look at this collection from my youth, still slack-jawed.  Damn. I'm gettin' old.
The Boy Butch is in the last row, standing, third from the right. Those White Sox unis? Hah!!!

Even before the AS game, Butch was impressing the old guard with his deftness in handling pitchers, so beyond his years.  That. and his overall defense would become his greatest contribution to his teams as time wore on. He finished the season batting (see game logs) .260, with 10 HR, 69 RBI's, a .356 OBP, numbers which compare fascinatingly to Mauer's 2005 season (as ciphered by Aaron Gleeman, 3/13/06). These stats easily outdistanced the competition on the roster, and basically equaled the league average offensive performance at catcher. He rated a WAR of just over three games for his team that year. 

Coming in second to pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych in the '76 Rookie Of The Year voting  was no shame, as he never expected to be in that position anyway.  The whole year was like one big fairy tale for him, sans the talking animals and whimsical characters (a situation left unfulfilled until Mickey Hatcher joined the Twins in 1981).  In my opinion, he never reached his potential - but what the hades do I know?  He hit in a difficult era,


Wynegar  has served as the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach in recent years, and is employed currently in the New York Yankee minor league system, giving tutelage to their young stars. Most recently, he's been credit for his work with up-and-coming catching stud, Jesus Montero.  By the way, we'll have to cut him some slack on that Yankee thing - they were his favorite team growing up, and some guy named Mickey was his favorite player. Go figure. 

He has some interesting comments on the Twins and his first season at this Nov., 2009, YouTube video.  The Kid comes across as really pretty humble. 

As good, ol' Herb used to say:
"...and the count rides along..."
TT