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Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Review of No No: A Dockumentary

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-handed pitcher Dock Ellis no-hit the San Diego Padres 2-0 while under the influence of LSD. For many, this type of incident would define a career or a life. Incredibly, this was just another moment in the fascinating story of Ellis, which is beautifully told in the new documentary film, No No: A Dockumentary (directed by Jeffrey Radice and distributed by The Orchard).

Ellis was a pitcher of moderate talents, winning 138 games with a 3.46 ERA over 12 major league seasons with five different teams. However, by his own admission, he was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction throughout, making the success he had all the more remarkable.

Radice’s film redefines the career and legacy of Ellis from the guy who once threw a no-hitter while on acid into something much more complex and meaningful. Shot with a trove of original footage and interviews with numerous family, friends, former teammates, colleagues, and with Ellis (who passed away in 2008) himself, No No does a wonderful job of taking the viewer through the life and times of the complicated hurler.

Ellis, who was African American, played on former Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer’s youth team as an adolescent, using his tutelage and connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates as stepping stones for his own baseball ambitions. He signed with Pittsburgh in 1964 and was in the majors by 1968—becoming an important part of their franchise for the better part of the next decade.

From the very beginning, Ellis was a brash young man playing a game that was still relatively fresh off integration, and in a country that was embroiled in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Radice moves beyond the stats and standings to detail the pitcher’s outspoken behavior (dressing flamboyantly, saying what was on his mind, wearing curlers in his hair, etc…) to show what a firebrand he was in such a transformative time—including the horrible racism he and his black teammate faced on a regular basis.

Although Ellis developed close relationships with his teammates, especially Hall-of-Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente, he came to have an increasing reliance on substances as his career progressed; a proclivity he shared with some of his mates. His problems only worsened following the tragic 1973 death of Clemente in a plane crash.

Like many players of the era, his dalliance with illicit substances began with alcohol and stimulants (greenies). Unfortunately, he veered into other drugs like marijuana, cocaine and LSD, later admitting that every game he pitched in his career was done while he was under the influence.

Ellis’ no-hitter has been the stuff of baseball legend for years, with only his own admission and the observances of his teammates to verify the veracity of the story. In the film, he admits, “During the time I was pitching the no-hitter in San Diego, I really didn’t see the hitters. All I could tell was if they were on the right side or the left side. As far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers so I could see the signals.” His numbers from the day bear that out, as he walked eight batters and hit another, walking a veritable tight rope though nine no-hit innings.

It would be easy to keep this film’s focus on the positive attributes of this colorful personality. To the contrary, Radice makes sure to fully expose him to the viewer, the good, the bad and the ugly. This includes the time he threw at every batter in the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup until he was finally pulled from the game, and even darker behavior like the fits of violence he committed against his ex wives while high or drunk.

Ultimately, when Ellis’ playing career ended, he came to understand what a problem he had. To his credit, he sought treatment, got clean, pursued an education and began to help others who had their own issues with substance abuse. With the narrative coming full circle like this, it allows Ellis to be both the hero, the villain, and finally the hero once again in his own story.

It’s not easy to both root for a person and loathe their actions in the same film. This is accomplished here pretty seamlessly. The obvious impact Ellis had on so many comes pouring out on the screen from the many interview subjects who touch base on every imaginable angle of Ellis’ life.

No No: A Dockumentary is the profile of one of baseball’s most colorful and memorable baseball players. But it is also much more than that. It’s a story of struggle and redemption nestled in a baseball setting. Most importantly, it’s the profile of a man who experienced highs and lows of extreme levels that few ever get to truly know. To see his journey through this extraordinary life, and how those around him saw him and his actions, is quite the feat, and the way Radice pulls it all off is nearly as special in film as Ellis’ no hitter.

Theatrical Release Date: September 5, 2014
VOD Release Date: September 2, 2014

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the film but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The "Firsts" of the Boston Red Sox

There is a youth movement afoot with the Boston Red Sox. Deals that sent a number of veteran players packing at the trade deadline have turned the 2014 season into giving opportunities to the young players to see who will be important building blocks of a successful future.

Already, Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez, Anthony Ranaudo, Garin Cecchini and Alex Hassan have all made their major league debuts this year. Additionally, youngsters like Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and Heath Hembree have all received varying degrees of playing time after graduating from their former statuses as top prospects.

The future success of a young player is built piece by piece from a good game here and first moment there. It’s something every player goes through. Looking back, here are some important firsts from members of the Red Sox.

First Major League Home Runs:

Mookie Betts: July 2, 2014- two-run home run off Carlos Villanueva and the Chicago Cubs.

Xander Bogaerts: September 7, 2013- two-run home run off Jim Miller and the New York Yankees.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.: June 4, 2013- two-run home run off Justin Grimm and the Texas Rangers.

Yoenis Cespedes: March 29, 2012- two-run home run off Shawn Kelley and the Seattle Mariners.

Allen Craig: July 19, 2010- solo home run off Kyle Kendrick and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Brock Holt: May 31, 2014- two-run home run off Jake Odorizzi and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Mike Napoli: May 4, 2006- solo home run off Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.

Daniel Nava: June 12, 2010- grand slam off Joe Blanton and the Philadelphia Phillies.

David Ortiz: September 14, 1997- two-run home run off Julio Santana and the Texas Rangers.

Dustin Pedroia: September 9, 2006- solo home run off Luke Hudson and the Kansas City Royals.

David Ross: September 2, 2002- solo home run off Mark Grace (yes, that Mark Grace) and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Shane Victorino: September 22, 2005- three-run home run off Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves.

Will Middlebrooks: May 6, 2012- grand slam off Tommy Hunter and the Baltimore Orioles.


First Major League Wins:

Burke Badenhop: May 7, 2008- Beat Dave Bush and the Milwaukee Brewers 6-2.

Craig Breslow: May 14, 2009- Beat Bobby Seay and the Detroit Tigers 6-5.

Clay Buchholz: August 17, 2007- Beat John Lackey and the Los Angeles Angels 8-4.

Rubby De La Rosa: May 27, 2011- Beat Clay Hensley and the Florida Marlins 3-2.

Joe Kelly: June 22, 2012- Beat Vin Mazzaro and the Kansas City Royals 11-4.

Tommy Layne: September 4, 2012- Beat John Ely and the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-3.

Edward Mujica: August 11, 2008- Beat Rocky Cherry and the Baltimore Orioles 13-8.

Anthony Ranaudo: August 1, 2014- Beat Chris Capuano and the New York Yankees 4-3.

Junichi Tazawa: August 11, 2009- Beat Chris Lambert and the Detroit Tigers 7-5.

Koji Uehara: April 8, 2009- Beat Chien-Ming Wang and the New York Yankees 7-5.

Allen Webster: July 4, 2013- Beat Eric Stults and the San Diego Padres 8-2.

Alex Wilson: May 17, 2013- Beat Josh Roenicke and the Minnesota Twins 3-2.

Brandon Workman: July 30, 2013- Beat Joe Saunders and the Seattle Mariners 8-2.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Corey Hart: A Baseball Original

Corey Hart is an outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter with the Seattle Mariners. Corey Hart is also a retired baseball player and current coach. Before you get too confused, let’s dive in to the “original” Corey Hart.

Corey David Hart was an infielder drafted out of the University of Oklahoma in the 23rd round of the 1998 draft by the Kansas City Royals. He had previously been selected in the later rounds by the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks but had passed on signing in order to continue his college career.

The switch-hitter was a scrappy sort with a tough-nosed approach and ability to play all over the field. He steadily progressed through the Royals’ system until he reached Double-A in 2001. However, he spent the next four seasons kicking around between that level and Triple-A.

In 2005, he played for the Bridgeport Bluefish in independent ball and also the Milwaukee Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate. Unfortunately, after eight professional seasons he had not made the major leagues and he retired from playing.

In 714 career games, he hit a combined .242 with 17 home runs and 248 RBIs while posting an impressive .371 OBP. More information about his career statistics is available here.

Ironically, as he was wrapping up his final season in the system of the Brewers, the current major league Corey Hart (Jon Corey Hart) was just reaching the bigs. They even played most of the year together for Triple-A Nashville.

Since his playing days ended, the “original” Hart has taken up coaching, working for multiple organizations. He currently serves as the hitting coach for the Miami Marlins’ advance Single-A affiliate Jupiter Hammerheads.

This past offseason, Hart answered some questions about his career. Keep reading for some great stories from somebody who has had quite the career in baseball.

Corey Hart Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: Roberto Alomar was my favorite player growing up. He was my favorite because he was a switch-hitting second baseman, and so was I.

Can you describe your draft experience(s)?: I went to Connors State Junior college out of high school and was drafted by the Astros (draft and follow) my freshman year. Then I was drafted again by the Diamondbacks my sophomore year, where I was offered a decent amount, but elected to go to the University of Oklahoma where I always wanted to go. Finally, I was drafted my senior year by the Royals in '98, where I finally signed.

How would you describe your game/skill set?: When I got to pro ball I was quickly labeled a utility player because I could play everywhere pretty well and I was a decent hitter that hit from both sides of the plate. I played mostly in the middle infield and found myself at third base quite a bit as well. I would say that my glove definitely prolonged my career.

How often are you confused with the "other Corey Hart?" Any good stories there?: I still to this day get confused with the other Corey Hart. I receive his cards in the mail (for the last 10 years or more) and people ask me to sign his cards in person. I'm 6'0 with a shaved head and he's 6'7 with long hair.

A couple of good stories:

When I was in Double-A and he had just signed, I started receiving his cards in the mail. People were asking me to sign his card with an envelope to send them back. After I received a handful, I actually signed a couple and sent them back (as a joke). The next year we (Royals) played the Brewers in spring training. I was playing third, and he made it to third as a base runner and we started talking. I told him I get his cards all the time and that I actually signed a few. He told me, ‘That's ok I've signed some of yours too.’

A few years after, we played together. I was coaching in the Brewers organization and was in big league camp with them. We went on a trip to Mesa to play the Cubs and he didn't make the trip. A fan called me over to sign a card, and it was one of his cards. The card had a signature already on it that was preprinted from the factory. It was my signature (same one I had since the seventh grade). I told him about it and he said he had seen it, so jokingly I told him that I wanted half of the money from the card deal.

My last year to play, we actually played together in Nashville in 2005. My first at-bat in the Brewers organization, I pinch hit for him. So, I walked up to the plate and told the umpire Corey Hart hitting for Corey Hart. The catcher and the umpire got a pretty good kick out of it.

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: My favorite moment of my career had to have been winning the PCL championship in 2005. It was my last official game.

What are the most important things you took away from your playing career?: I learned work ethic. I learned to work together with others as a team. I learned how to play the game. I made friends that I will have for life.

And last but certainly not least, I met my wife while playing in Nashville.

What are you up to since retiring as a player?: Since retiring, I am approaching my ninth season as a hitting coach. I coached with the Brewers for four years, and about to start my fifth year with the Marlins.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Breaking Down the Boston Red Sox’s Trades

The Boston Red Sox were busy as proverbial beavers on Wednesday’s trade deadline, shipping five mainstays from their 2013 World Series-winning squad out of town. With a 48-60 record and last place in the American League East, it’s little surprise that the team decided to cash in some of their veteran chips and look towards the future. Here’s a look at how the various deals break down.

Boston trades pitcher Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and a 2015 competitive balance draft pick: The southpaw Lester has done enough in his nine seasons with the Red Sox to earn all-time great status. Since they couldn’t agree to an extension with the impending free agent, moving him made the most sense.

In Cespedes, the Red Sox get a strong defensive outfielder with right-handed pop and a somewhat questionable plate approach that has led to a poor walk/strikeout ratio during his three major league seasons. He is signed through 2015, and at just 28 could be a candidate for a long-term deal to help anchor the middle of the Boston batting order as David Ortiz enters the final stages of his career.

Since the Red Sox won’t get the compensatory pick if they had held on to Lester and lost him in free agency, the competitive balance pick (which will be around the value of a second-round selection) is a nice pick up.

This trade looks like a positive move for Boston. However, if they were able to somehow sign Lester this offseason, it would make it completely lopsided. Unfortunately, fans waiting with bated breath for this to happen probably should exhale. With so many teams about to line up and bid on premium pitching, the Red Sox would have to pay a king’s ransom, which was apparent they were loathe to do earlier this season, to retrieve the popular lefty.

Boston trades pitcher John Lackey, minor league pitcher Corey Littrell and cash considerations to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Allen Craig and pitcher Joe Kelly: The 35-year-old Lackey was finally living up to the big contract he signed with Boston prior to the 2010 season, posting an 11-6 record with a 3.60 ERA in 2014. Under team control for the league minimum next year was something that made him even more of a commodity.

Kelly is a young right-hander with a strong slider and experience with a winning organization, going 17-14 with a 3.25 ERA in parts of three seasons- pitching in both starting and relief roles. Although he might stick in the back end of the rotation, his stuff may play up better in the bullpen. Either way, he is a quality major league arm who should contribute to Boston for seasons to come.

Craig has endured a miserable 2014, hitting just .237 with seven home runs and 44 RBIs. However, he is a career .291 hitter, has some pop from the right-hand side, and has played in two World Series. The 30-year-old outfielder may face a battle for playing time with Cespedes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino all vying for at-bats in the outfield. Fortunately, he can also play a little first and DH as needed.

If he isn’t traded, Mike Carp could see himself designated for assignment to make room for Craig, who essentially replicates his abilities.

Boston trades shortstop Stephen Drew to the New York Yankees for infielder Kelly Johnson: This rare transaction between the bitter rivals seems to be more about opening up playing time in Boston for youngsters like shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Will Middlebrooks than anything else.

Drew hit a listless .176 in 39 games since joining the Red Sox on a prorated contract in May after a failed excursion to the free agent market.

The versatile Johnson can play all over the field but at 32 is clearly past his prime. Hitting just .219 with six home runs at the time of the deal, he will primarily be insurance for the aforementioned younger players and Brock Holt, who figure to get the lion’s share of the playing time the rest of the way.

Boston trades pitcher Andrew Miller to the Baltimore Orioles for minor league pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez: Since flaming out as a top starting pitching prospect with the Detroit Tigers and then the Florida Marlins, the lanky left-handed Miller became a shutdown reliever for the Red Sox. His 2.34 ERA and 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings this year made him one of the more appealing arms on the market. Last-place teams like the Red Sox don’t need lethal lefty specialist as much as contenders do, so moving him became the smart move.

Rodriguez, a 21-year-old lefty starter is from Venezuela and has been gaining in notoriety. Most recently, Baseball America named him the 65th-best prospect in baseball prior to this season. He is 7-10 with a 4.55 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A over the past two seasons. Although the results haven’t been stellar, he is still young for the league and has a future that many consider to be very bright in front of him.

Overall, it was undoubtedly tough for fans to see the Red Sox send a full fifth of their 2013 roster packing. The upside is that when a team is struggling that much, it becomes more of a long game, and the assets the team acquired should give them a good boost entering 2015 with thoughts of getting back to their contending ways. With so many new faces, the remainder of this season will be a great opportunity to see who steps forwards and asserts themselves to claim a spot for the future on a team that can only go up from here.

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