Monday, March 23, 2009


It's time for baseball season again, and more unusual records for stat freaks.


Hall of Fame Third Baseman Brooks Robinson holds this record all by himself. A triple play is one of the rarest plays in baseball. Robinson hit into 4 in his career, eclipsing Hall of Famer George Sisler's previous record of 3. Incidentally, Ty Cobb hit into 2 triple plays, and Babe Ruth hit into 1.


That honor goes to the 1967 version of the Denker Park Giants of Los Angeles in the under 12 league. The team featured slugger Eddie Murray and defensive whiz Ozzie Smith, both switch hitters who both made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The team was coached by Earl Brown Jr. who schooled them well in fundamentals. On the same team was Chet Lemon, later an all-star outfielder with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. Needless to say, the team went undefeated. Murray and Smith went on to star at Locke High School in Los Angeles. Playing together on the junior varsity as freshmen, they regularly beat up on the varsity. Years later, in the majors, Murray banged out over 3,000 hits including more than 500 homers, while Smith pounded out more than 2,700 hits and was the slickest fielding shortstop of his generation.


In 1968, the LA Dodgers pitching star Don Drysdale set a record (since broken by Orel Hershiser) of 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. The streak ended when Philadelphia outfielder Howie Bedell drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. It was his only RBI of the whole season. He had only 3 RBI's in his whole career in 145 at-bats, with a lifetime batting average of .193. Bedell had to do something to get to the Majors in the first place. His claim to fame was that, playing for Louisville in the American Association in 1961, he hit safely in 43straight games, and he holds the record for that minor league which folded in 1997. Unfortunately, that hitting prowess didn't carry over to his major league career.


The immortal pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige signed on to play for the Kansas City A's. in 1965, at age 59, although he may have been a year or two older (his mother told conflicting stories of his birth). On September 25th, he started the game against the Boston Red Sox. He still had his mojo. He pitched 3 scoreless innings, allowing 1 hit (a double by Carl Yastrzemski) and striking out one. Paige, in his heyday in the 1930's and 40's was the best pitcher in the old Negro Leagues and often faced major leaguers in barnstorming games. Joe DiMaggio called him "the best and fastest pitcher I've ever faced."


This really happened. St. Louis Cardinals Third Baseman Fernando Tatis hit 2 in the second inning on April 23, 1999 against Los Angeles. Both came off pitcher Chan Ho Park who gave up 11 runs (6 earned) that inning to wipe out a 2-0 lead. The Cardinals won 12-5. The winning pitcher was Jose Jimenez (not the Bill Dana character). Tatis went on to enjoy his best season in an injury plagued career, batting .298 with 34 homers and 107 RBI's, which included 8 in that one inning.


On August 11, 1990, Ozzie Guillen and Craig Grebeck, the 8th and 9th place hitters in the Chicago White Sox lineup, went deep against Nolan Ryan, who was going for his 301st lifetime victory. It happened in the second inning, giving the Chisox a 4-0 lead which held up for a 5-2 win. Not only was it Grebeck's first major league homer, but it was the only homer of the season for both players. The next time Grebeck came to the plate, Ryan drilled him in the ribs with his first pitch.


Current White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen apparently didn't scare many pitchers in his career. He made the record books on this one also by receiving only 10 bases on balls in 150 games in the 1996 season. He batted 528 times that season. In an earlier season, he walked only 11 times. Old timer Whitey Alperman of Brooklyn went to the plate 442 times in the 1909 season and walked only twice, although he made up for it by being hit by pitches 6 times. Among modern players, Oakland shortstop Rob Picciolo also walked twice in 1980 in 281 plate appearances. In Picciolo's career, spanning 9 seasons, he walked only 25 times.


The speedster Rickey Henderson received 2123 unintentional walks in his career (plus 67 intentional walks and 98 hit by pitches)). Recently admitted to baseball's Hall of Fame, he played 25 years and holds the record for most stolen bases with 1406 (he was caught 335 times and holds that record too). In second place is Babe Ruth with 2062 unintentional walks. Ruth didn't get many intentional walks with Lou Gehrig batting after him. Barry Bonds holds the record for most walks in a career. He received 1842 unintentional walks plus 675 intentional ones.

Finally, here's a football record by a baseball player.


Roger Maris, playing for Stanley High School in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1951 returned 4 kickoffs for touchdowns in one game. This high school record still stands. Maris was recruited for the gridiron by the football powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners. Maris took the bus to Norman, Oklahoma, but was upset when nobody was there to greet him. He turned around and went back to Fargo and devoted his attention to baseball. Of course, we remember him for breaking Babe Ruth's long standing home run record with 61 homers in 1961. He received no intentional walks that season with slugger Mickey Mantle batting after him.



Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The NCAA college basketball playoffs are upon us again, with office pools around the country gearing up for one of the biggest gambling events of the year. Despite the obvious great shooting and ball handling talents of the athletes, many crucial games will hinge upon the ability of teams to sink their free throws late in the game. Many a tournament has been lost by the inability of a player to hit a crucial free throw. When a team takes a small lead late in a game, the opposing team will often foul the weakest free throw shooters in an effort to get the ball back. Thus, coaches will often remove a poor free throw shooter late in the game, although he may be otherwise the best player on the team.

Sometimes that will backfire on the coach. For example, in the 1975 Louisville- UCLA semifinal game, Louisville took a 74-73 lead in the final minute of overtime and had possession of the ball. Their coach, Denny Crum brought his best free throw shooter into the game, senior guard Terry Howard, who had been a starter the previous two seasons. Howard had not missed a free throw the entire season, making 28 for 28. He held the school record for free throw percentage. When he entered the game, UCLA coach Johnny Wooden screamed to his players, "Don't foul him!" Well, with 20 seconds to go, they fouled him, and he strode confidently to the free throw line to shoot the one-and-bonus. If he makes the first one, he shoots the bonus. If he makes them both, Louisville wins the game and maybe the national championship.

You can guess the result. Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one, UCLA got the rebound and scored a basket to win by a point, and they eventually won the NCAA championship.

Howard, now a successsful Louisville businessman said recently that sympathetic fans sometimes send him get-well cards and gift money. Angry fans still send hate mail. Howard said "You'd think, after a while, people would just forget about a missed free throw, but really and seriously, it still comes up in my life every single day." In his online bio for his company, it says that he was the Number 1 free throw shooter in a season--96.5%. At least he didn't dwell on his one missed free throw that season. After all, 28 out of 29 ain't bad.

In another example, in 1981, Chicago's DePaul University, coached by Ray Meyer, was the Number 1 college basketball team going into the NCAA tournament with stars like Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. In the opening round, they faced St. Joseph's, a team with zero chance to win, or so the experts said. Coming down to the closing seconds, the game was surprisingly close, with DePaul holding a slim one-point lead. Standing at the free throw line for a one-and-bonus was Skip Dillard, their best free throw shooter, nicknamed "Money". He held the school record with 45 free throws in a row. Not this time. Dillard threw up a brick, St. Joseph's got the rebound and drove the length of the court to score, on an unguarded layup by someone named John Smith with 3 seconds left, winning 49-48 in a major upset.

Several years later, Dillard's life went downhill, and he was sent to prison for armed robbery. Interviewed there, he said that the missed free throw had turned his life into a living hell.

On the positive side, the Michigan Wolverines recall fondly the performance by point guard Rumeal Robinson in the 1989 championship game against Seton Hall. With 3 seconds left in overtime and Michigan trailing 79-78, Robinson, the weakest free throw shooter on the team at around 60% was fouled attempting a shot. He went to the line for 2 free throws. Michigan fans groaned, but Robinson, a gamer, who was homeless at age 12, said "no problem." He drilled them both, giving Michigan a one point win and the national championship.

According to a study by the Coaches' Association, free throws account for 25% of the points scored in Division I men's basketball games. Also, winning teams score on average 67% of their points in the final minute at the free throw line. In recent years, Division I players free throw percentages have actually gotten worse. Professional players have problems also. Coaches and consultants have torn their hair out trying to teach NBA star Shaquille O'Neal to make his free throws. The great Wilt Chamberlain was an awful free throw shooter, although lightning struck once--he made 28 of 32 FT's in the 1962 game in Hershey, PA. when he scored 100 points.

Octogenarian free throw shooting consultant Tom Amberry says in disgust at today's players, "Nobody listens, because nobody is interested in free throw shooting. Players like dunks and three-point shots, and they just don't get it. Free throws might be boring, but they're the most important shots you'll ever take."

Amberry, a retired surgeon, decided to prove in his old age that anybody could become a great free throw shooter. He went to the gym every day and shot free throws for hours. In 1993, he earned mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, by making 2,750 consecutive shots in one day. He was 71 and suffering from shingles at the time, Of course, his body was bruised all over from the fouls he took that day.

The bottom line here is that when it's crunch time, and the player is in the spotlight, he'd better make those 15 foot shots when nobody is guarding him. There is nowhere to hide. If he doesn't it's a long time until next season.



Thursday, March 12, 2009


Thursday January 29th, and the trip was nearing the end. After that wonderful day in Petra, we set out early the next morning on the motor coach through the stark desert to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a fairly large inland lake which is so extremely salty that nothing lives in it. Its elevation is about 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest point on Earth. By way of comparison, Death Valley, California, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, is about 270 feet below sea level. New Orleans is about 8 feet below sea level.

The Dead Sea water is thought to have theraputic powers, and people bathe themselves in the mud. You can scoop it up yourself or you can pay premium prices in the hotel to buy it. It is used to treat various skin conditions.

We visited the Panorama Museum on a mountainside, several thousand feet above the Dead Sea to learn about the supernatural forces that created that body of water. It is part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches down through the Red Sea and into East Africa--about 6000 miles in all. Earthquakes are common along this rift, and in fact many of the ancient temples we saw were destroyed by those earthquakes, particularly the one in 27 B.C.

The Dead Sea level is dropping a few centimeters a year because water from the Jordan River is diverted for irrigation projects. It looks like any other large lake, but if you jump in for a dip, you'll find yourself encrusted with salt. Most people don't wade around in it because the bottom is covered with jagged rocks. Instead, you just sit down and your feet pop up to the surface. You can float without moving your arms. It is impossible to sink. Our hotel provides a shower by the beach to wash the salt off your body.

We checked into our hotel, the Marriott Jordan Valley, next to the Dead Sea. It is a popular tourist attraction for Jordanians who bring their whole families. The place was teeming with small children. Their Muslim mothers don't swim in the pool, but rather in an enclosed women's only section of the Spa. Very few women were swimming in the outdoor pool--the ones who were are generally Western women. The Muslim women, wearing black scarves on their heads, tended to their children swimming in the outdoor pool.

We had the rest of the day free and spent some time with the other folks from the tour. They are all adventuresome sorts who were willing to disregard a shooting war in Gaza to travel to the Middle East to see ancient sites they've seen on the History Channel or National Geographic. All of the 35 people on the tour have previously traveled overseas, many to exotic locales. Several have traveled to India, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Many, but not all, are retired.

For example, Darrell M. a self described country boy from Oklahoma teaches English (with a Southern drawl) in Rome, Italy. He gets the opportunity to meet and spend time with his mother, Linda on trips like this one. He was a night owl like us, and we stayed up late talking with him several nights in the hotel lobbies and bars. He is a very bright young man with a unique perspective on the sights we experienced.

Alan and Stephanie from New Jersey took a tour of Morocco after this tour ended. Both very friendly, Alan is a prominent plastic surgeon about my age but in better physical shape. He was able to climb the 700 or so steps in Petra to the Missionary with the young and fit people in our tour. His wife, Stephanie, is a retired nurse with a friendly and sweet disposition and a voice like that of Gov. Sarah Palin. She took that as a compliment.

Susanne Ma, a bubbly, beautiful young Asian American lady was traveling with her equally attractive mother, Jennifer, originally from Taiwan. Susanne, a UCLA grad who lives in Los Angeles, posted pictures from the trip on her Facebook site. Her last name, Ma, means "horse" in Chinese, but she is not related to violinist Yo Yo Ma. She especially loved the Dead Sea mud and covered herself with mud from head to toe. We've got pictures.

Our local tour guide, Ibrahim explained local customs, national politics and everything else we would need to know. This young man, approximately 30 years old, recently married with an infant daughter in Amman, lived for several years in Pittsburgh and speaks American. He was born in Jerusalem but won't go back there because he fears he will be hassled by the Israelis who do profiling of people coming into the country. He is a young Arab male--well you've got the idea. Actually about 2/3 of the people of Jordan are Palestinian.

Regarding Arab politics, he explained that the Jordanians want peace, and they want the U.S. to exert influence to achieve it. Unfortunately, there are two things they want that Israel won't accept: (1) Make Jerusalem an international city (run by the U.N.) and (2) allow all Palestinians around the world to return to Israel to live. That would mean, of course, they they would outnumber Jews. So a permanent peace to the 60+ year old conflict appears unlikely. Hey, everyone wants peace, but here you have 2 parties with mutually exclusive goals. Since I'm in a foreign country, I keep my mouth shut about politics.


The next morning, we drove up to the John the Baptist site on the banks of the mighty Jordan River. Actually mighty is overstating it a bit! This is the actual location where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Many Christians come here to be baptized. One lady on our tour, whom I won't name was overcome with emotion. After seeing me dip my toes in the cool water, in the footsteps of Jesus, she did the same, and had tears streaming down her face.

The Jordanian government built a large, partly enclosed, wood deck on the site with 3 steps down to the water. The river at this spot is only about 15 feet wide. We'd call it a creek. The border with Israel runs down the center. On the Israeli side is a large concrete and marble complex. You can get baptized on either side of the border.

Until fairly recently, this site was inaccessible to the general public because it had a military installation and mine fields. To get there, we had to pass through a military checkpoint with armed soldiers roaming around. They don't like to be photographed.

A few yards from the site is a lovely Byzantine Church with gold domes. We couldn't go inside because it was closed that day. It was built with the (financial) help of Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos. We saw a very unusual sight there--a white dove flew up into the belfry, a sign of peace--and many of us were able to snap the photo.


We continued on to Mt. Nebo where the great prophet Moses died. He was 120 years old at the time, but was apparently in good shape because he had to climb about 4000 feet to the top. The Bible (in Deuteronomy) said that God told Moses to climb up there to view the promised land. Hopefully, for Moses, the weather was clear--for us it was hazy, and we could barely see Jericho, about 20 miles away. Moses died on the mountain, and nobody knows where he is buried.

You'll recall how his successor, Joshua, "fit" the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down--probably because of an earthquake. Joshua was reported to have said, "we'll take a win anyway we can get it."


The next day, Saturday, we drove up through the Jordanian capital city of Amman, which was originally built by the Greeks and called Philadelphia. I'm not making that up. W.C. Fields would have been proud. Amman is a large city of over 4 million people, and the parts we saw from the expressway appeared relatively modern with shopping malls and well maintained apartment buildings. We passed the Mecca Mall and Carrefours Department Store, but shopping was not on the itinerary.

Our destination, about 30 miles North of Amman, was Jerash, a well preserved Roman provincial city now being restored. It is well preserved because it was buried in sand for over 1000 years until excavations began in 1925. It was known as the City of 1000 (Corinthian) Columns. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. In Roman times, it was an important crossroads city on the major trade routes. It had 4 gates corresponding to the directions. Through the North gate was Damascus. Through the South gate was Petra. Through the East gate was Baghdad. Through the West gate was Jerusalem. The streets were paved with large cobblestones. The walk was bumpy because the rocks tend to settle. The round stones were manhole covers. The Romans ran a sewer system under the streets.

A prominent feature is the South Theater, built in a semi-circle with 32 tiers of seats, accommodating 4000 people and wonderful acoustics. We were treated to a performance by a troupe of bagpipers.

The most imposing structure is the Temple of Artemis. built in the year 150 on the highest point of the city. Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, is the patron goddess of the city. In Classical mythology, she is the goddess of forests and hills, often depicted with a bow and arrow. Besides Artemis, the archaeologists have uncovered shrines to many of the other gods also.

The huge Triumphal Arch (Bab Amman), the South gate to the city, is being restored. It was originally dedicated to Emperor Hadrian in the year 130 A.D.

The most famous native of the city was Nicomachus of Gerasa (60-120 A.D.), one of the greatest mathematicians in history. He wrote a book called Introduction to Arithmetic (now you know whom to blame). The book was written using Arabic numbers which at the time had to be translated into Roman numerals. That textbook was used for over 1000 years. I don't know what people did before the book, but he was apparently the first to write it down, using the numerals we use today.

Nearby, in Jerash city, we stopped for a lunch of Middle East fare. The food was the normal local food with lots of delicious hummus and pita bread. The interesting thing was that the manager, Omar, wearing a blazer and tie, was a dead ringer for President Obama. I thought of the scene from the movie Coming to America where Eddie Murphy, playing an African prince, met one of his syncophantic, bowing subjects at a New York Knicks game. I didn't have the nerve to do that to poor Omar, but he was flattered anyway and agreed to be photographed with me. President Obama is popular in the Middle East.

Our tour guide Matt hosted a going away party the last night in our hotel with a steak dinner. We enjoyed the company of our fellow travelers, taking many pictures. Several continued on for a day tour of Jerusalem the next day. Frank and Bonnie (from Texas) headed to Malaysia to see their grown kids. The rest of us drove back to Amman for late night flights back to the U.S. to get back in time to celebrate the U.S. national holiday--Super Bowl Sunday.