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Backroads and Ballplayers #23
Stories of the famous and not-so-famous men and women from the days when baseball was "Arkansas' Game." Always free and always short enough to finish in one cup of coffee.
Ups and Downs, Torii in the Hall? Arkansas Favorite Sons,
New Only in Arkansas story about Schoolboy and Edna, A baseball love story.
Christmas for Dad or Grandpa? - Book Update:
The response to Hard Times and Hardball has been excellent. I will try to answer some of the questions I have been getting.
Where to buy:
Support our local bookstores: Hard Times and Hardball is available at Dog Ear Books, Russellville, Petit Jean Coffeehouse, Bookish Emporium, Heber Springs, Wordsworth Books, Little Rock, All Things Arkansas, Hot Springs.
If you want signed Books: Ordering instructions Link
Yes, Amazon has both the new book and Backroads and Ballplayers.
Met me in Greenwood, Arkansas for a presentation and book signing on September 18, 7:00 PM, at Farmers Bank - South Sebastian County Historical Society.
Ups and Downs - Hogs and Bears and a Cub from Conway
As the hot summer of baseball’s long season meanders toward the climax of chilly autumn, I want to look back one last time at the Arkansas players whose “ups” and “downs” were so prominent in this space. Some of their 2023 stories are over and some may still make fall headlines.
On Sunday, August 20, I was editing my post for later that evening about what I was calling a “Comeback in Doubt” by former Cy Young Winner Dallas Keuchel (Razorbacks 2009). Occasionally, I glanced quickly without much concern as the scores and highlights moved below my screen until I thought I saw something about Keuchel’s game against the Pirates in Minnesota. Yes, I read it correctly, “Keuchel takes perfect game into the seventh.” Strike that part of my post about his failed comeback.
Although he is still somewhat inconsistent, depending now on location and finesse, rather than the fastball of his youth, Keuchel is now part of the Twins starting rotation. After five starts, the veteran lefthander has once again proven he is still a big-league pitcher. Why did he do that?
Dallas Keuchel has been an All-Star twice. He has five Gold Gloves and a World Series ring. In 2015, he won the Cy Young Award, the ultimate recognition for pitchers. He has earned somewhere north of a hundred million dollars. Why did he sign a minor league contract, pitch in a league of bus rides and hamburgers, and wait for one more call? In my opinion, he did it for the same reason most of us would do the same. He loved being a major league pitcher. Think about that. Even if you did not have 100 million dollars wouldn’t you want to do that? Congratulations Dallas. See you next year?
My Dominic Fletcher story is another example of my unique ability to misjudge ups and downs based on personal feelings. I loved Fletcher as a Razorback. He looked to be about 15 years old when he arrived. He played a great center field, hit for power, and never lost that kid’s smile. When he reached the Diamondbacks this last April, I thought he was in the majors to stay and that he would contend for Rookie of the Year. I missed a few details.
Dominic Fletcher is the last remaining Diamondback from the Paul Goldschmidt trade (2019 draft pick obtained from St. Louis). Arizona has promoted him consistently through their system and when he arrived “in the show,” he looked ready. He was in the headlines daily for the first couple of weeks until he struggled on the road and was suddenly demoted on May 24th.
Fletcher responded well back in Reno, and he got called back up to the Diamondbacks on June 30th. This time, he only lasted until July 7th. Over 28 major league games and 102 plate appearances, he hit .301/.350/.441, with a .791 OPS. He had five doubles, a triple, two home runs, 14 RBIs. So, Why was he sent down a second time?
Against right-handed pitching, Fletcher hit .369/.423/.523/.946 with 11 RBIs, two home runs, four doubles, six walks, and just nine strikeouts. Clearly, he sees the ball very well against right-handers.
Against left-handed pitching, Fletcher hit a weak .143/.172/.250, with a .422 OPS. He hit one double, one triple, and had three RBIs. This year, Arizona has faced a left-handed starting pitcher 34% of the time. To remain in the majors, Fletcher must hit left-handers better or find a team with a right-handed hitter to platoon with him against left-handers.
So, he goes down to Reno and resumes pounding the baseball. I was sure he would be back in Arizona before the season ended. He was the Pacific Coast League’s Player of the Week of August 14.
Fletcher was hitting .301, with 10 home runs and a .899 OPS when a fractured index finger ended any hope for a recall in 2023. I remain an undaunted Dominic Fletcher fan convinced we will see him in the majors again.
Reds infielder Matt Reynolds could make a surprise return in September… “if you haven't followed the Louisville Bats this season, then you have no idea how good Matt Reynolds has been performing for Pat Kelly's ball club. Reynolds is hitting .284/.383/.563 with 51 extra-base hits, including 19 home runs. Reynolds made a brief appearance with the Cincinnati Reds earlier this season, only to be designated for assignment a few days later. Make no mistake, there are several teams who'd be lining up to have a player like Reynolds on their roster.” - Reds Blogger Drew Koch | 8/14/2023
It didn’t happen. Although he leads the Louisville Bats (AAA) in home runs and RBIs he has not been recalled. Maybe the Reds were going to make Reynolds another post-season trivia question.
In 2015, the Mets placed Reynolds on the postseason roster, despite the fact that he spent all of 2015 with Triple-A Las Vegas. His story was featured in several interviews, and he was on camera in the dugout often, but Reynolds did not get in a game. I don’t know all the loopholes, but he is not on the Reds 40-man roster, so I do not think that can happen again. It is decision time for Matt Reynolds. He will be on some team’s spring roster if he wants to be. He will be 33 years old by the spring of 2024.
Jalen Beeks is that rare Arkansas-born guy. He was not only born in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, he played for the Razorbacks. He has pitched pretty well in 130 big league games, but he fell out of favor in mid-season this year with the Rays. He pitched two games in July, one game in August, and one in September. He is on the 40-man roster, so who knows? Probably decision time for Beeks also.
Jordan Wicks Adventure
As I prepare this post, Conway’s Jordan Wicks has had a charmed season. He has pitched in 23 games and worked more than 100 innings. He has pitched in Class AA, Class AAA, and for the Chicago Cubs. His combined record is 10—0. He won his big league debut. He won a game on his birthday in Cincinnati, and he won his third start on a Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Where do you go from there?
The last year must seem like a blur. He was married last November to Megan Lee, a UCA track athlete from Bryant, Arkansas. Former Razorback and current minor league pitcher Evan Lee is his brother-in-law.
He started the season with the Tennessee Smokies the Cubs farm club in the Class AA Southern League. During the All-Star break, the Wicks were on a two-day getaway at a resort when Jordan got word to head to Des Moines, Iowa, to join the Cubs Triple-A club.
Promotion to the International League would mean a chance for his Conway fans to make a trip to see him pitch in Memphis, but on July 29 he was scratched from his Memphis start. The impending trade deadline made his friends uneasy that he might be a trade target, but he remained in Iowa, until another scratch on his pitching day on August 24.
Iowa manager Marty Pevey hinted something was up. “We want to keep our options open.” The next day it was official when Pevey called Wicks to his office. “Hey, you’re gonna start in Pittsburgh this weekend. Son, you’re a big leaguer.”
Jordan Wicks is the first Cubs, pitcher since 1901 to win each of his first three major league appearances and the first Cubs pitcher to win each of his first three starts since 1912. He should start again on Monday, September 11. We will be watching.
Gavin Stone, Frequent Flyer
UCA and Lake City, Arkansas’ Gavin Stone is getting some valuable major league experience, one game at a time. Stone has spent most of the summer pitching for the Dodgers AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City. He made his big league debut on May 3, before 35,000 or so in Dodger Stadium pitching against the Phillies and the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and Bryce Harper, before flying back to OKC the next day.
Since that first four-inning no decision, he has made four more flights to join the Dodgers against such formidable foes as the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays. Each time, after his one-game stay, he was dispatched back to Oklahoma City.
The LA decision-makers are apparently convinced the one-time Dodgers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year has what it takes to be a big league starter. On August 27, he was summoned to Fenway Park for a start against the Red Sox. On that evening in Boston, Gavin Stone of Lake City, Arkansas, recorded his first big league pitching victory. Stone was the 72nd Arkansas-born pitcher to earn a major league victory.
Now back with the OKC Dodgers, things are looking up for Gavin Stone. He was named PCL Pitcher of the Week for August 28-September 3, by pitching six scoreless innings of one-hit ball and striking out seven versus Round Rock. He remains on the Dodgers 40-man roster and his bags are always packed.
Where is Jonathan Davis?
Davis is another former UCA Bears star. The Camden, Arkansas, native had knee surgery in July and missed the last half of the season. Davis has played more than 200 big league games. He is a good defensive center fielder with speed. Expect him to be back with the Marlins next spring.
Torii Hunter in Cooperstown
Most of you were kind about my optimistic (unrealistic?) evaluation of Torii Hunter’s qualifications for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I will admit it was mostly a proposal to generate some response or perhaps it was just wishful thinking. It has been about forty years since the 1982-1985 Hall of Fame selections included four men born in Arkansas.
I got about a dozen official, unofficial, and in-person responses to my “Hunter for the Hall” post. Most of those responding said some form of “No Way.” Many conceded that he was some degree of great, just not good enough for the halls of Cooperstown. Among Arkansas-born players, Hunter is first in career home runs (353), RBIs, and doubles. He is second in runs scored, and fourth in hits (2,452). The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame selected him in 2008.
Below are some comparisons and a few credible opinions.
1982-1985 Arkansas and Cooperstown
In 1982, Waldo, Arkansas, Travis Jackson was chosen for the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, despite little support from the Baseball Writers Association of America. In his years on the BBWAA ballot, Jackson’s best year was 7.3% of the votes in 1956. The Veterans Committee saw him differently. That could still happen for Torii Hunter.
In 1985, Lou Brock was chosen for induction in his first year of eligibility. At the time Brock was the 20th player chosen in his first year on the ballot. Brock was born in 1939 in Union County, Arkansas. Currently, 162 men born in Arkansas have played in the American and National Leagues. Seventy percent of those men were born before World War II. Most Arkansans who played in the big leagues were born in some of our state’s toughest times. That is especially true of Lou Brock.
His father left the family when Lou was two. His mother moved the family to Louisiana where Lou found baseball in his mid-teens. Some say he was impressed by the success of African Americans like Jackie Robinson. Lou later recalled that he discovered, in researching pro baseball for a school report, that big league players got $8 a day meal money. Lou told Sports Illustrated he imagined how much candy $8 would buy.
I will come back to Travis and Lou in a few weeks, but 2023 is the 40th anniversary of the only occasion that saw two of Arkansas’ favorite sons inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same ceremony.
Brooks Robinson and George Kell were inducted together on July 31, 1983. They had been teammates for a short time, they were both primarily third basemen, and they are both revered in their home state. However, they are not contemporaries. Brooks had just turned three when George Kell played his first pro baseball game for Newport in the Northeast Arkansas League and as teammates in Kell’s last year, they were going in opposite directions. In 1957 with the Orioles, Kell was looking forward to retirement and Robinson was still trying to solve the mystery of big-league hitting.
George Kell was America’s third baseman during the 1940s and 1950s. Brooks Robinson held the same lofty place in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the three ceremonies that featured Arkansas-born honorees, our state has not seen another Arkansan selected. I do not think the wait is over. Do you see an Arkansas-born Hall of Famer anywhere in the game? Look for features on all of our Cooperstown residents in the coming weeks.
Note: During football season and maybe from now on, look for my weekly post on Monday.
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