Sometimes, baseball springs stunning surprises
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 4:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 4:20 p.m.
Most years, baseball’s spring training is mild and peaceful, predictable and soothing and, of course, blooming with overgrown optimism. There have been some spring trainings, though, that have been historic, phenomenal, explosive and even terminal. For example:
The Brooklyn Dodgers were about to make history in 1947 by making Jackie Robinson the first African-American major leaguer since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. They took the unusual step of holding spring training in Havana to protect Robinson from the potential of racist incidents in Florida and because Cubans were accustomed to seeing black and white players compete together. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ flamboyant manager, had already quelled a budding revolt of certain players who had threatened to strike over Robinson’s presence and was a passionate supporter of general manager Branch Rickey’s bold move to integrate baseball.
But Durocher never got to manage Robinson in that historic season. In the middle of spring training, baseball commissioner Happy Chandler suspended Durocher for the year for the manager’s alleged associations with gamblers. Clyde Sukeforth, a coach who had worked with Robinson in the minors, had the honor of managing on that most significant of opening days, April 15, 1947. After two games, another coach, Burt Shotton, took over and guided the Dodgers to the National League pennant. Robinson’s stellar season earned him MLB’s first Rookie of the Year Award.
Sure, Francisco Peguero currently is having a heck of a spring training for the Giants, but he’s not having the heck of a spring training Randy Elliott had in 1977. A former first-round draft pick of the Padres who hadn’t impressed in two part-time stints with San Diego, Elliott at the not-so-tender age of 26 got another shot, with the Giants. Still the unofficial king of Giants’ spring-training phenoms, Elliott had 29 hits, including 18 for extra bases, in 53 at-bats for a .547 batting average.
Sure, everyone knows spring training games aren’t much more than glorified practices. Still, a .547 batting average, with line drives sprayed all over the field, is difficult to ignore. In a 2003 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Elliott remembered that venerable Giants coach Hank Sauer “thought I was the next Joe Hardy or Roy Hobbs,” referring to fictional heroes from “Damn Yankees” and “The Natural.”
When the real games began in ’77, Elliott’s spring promise faded. A recurring shoulder injury didn’t help. He batted .091 in April. In 167 at-bats for the season, he batted .240, with seven homers. He did have a tell-your-grandkids moment, though, a pinch-hit grand slam on May 13 at Cincinnati off Fred Norman.
The Giants released Elliott after the ’77 season. In 1980, he resurfaced in the big leagues for the last time, playing 14 games for the Billy Martin-managed A’s.
Fans understand that few managers in the history of major-league baseball ever worked with anything close to job security. But getting fired in spring training? It’s supposed to be the time for the promise of blue skies and green grass, not pink slips. Say hello to Spring’s Fired Four: Phil Cavaretta, Alvin Dark, Tim Johnson and Joe Kerrigan.
The Cubs terminated Cavaretta during spring training of 1954 after he said in an interview that the team was unlikely to finish higher than fifth place. The Cubs went on to finish seventh in an eight-team league.
In 1978, Dark, who had managed the Giants to the World Series in 1962 and won the Series in 1974 while skipper of the A’s, was fired by the Padres during spring training, partly because of feuding with Gaylord Perry, who went on to win a Cy Young Award under new manager Roger Craig.
In spring training in 1999, the Toronto Blue Jays fired Johnson, who had admitted that the motivational stories he had told his players during the previous season, about his military service in Vietnam, were lies. Initially, the team stood by Johnson, but then fired him when it deemed his story of deceit-and-confession had become a distraction.
And in spring training in 2002, Kerrigan, fresh off signing a multiyear contract with the outgoing ownership of the Boston Red Sox, was fired when new ownership took over the team.
In spring training in 2001, Randy Johnson, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 6-foot-10 ace with the 100 mph fastball, while throwing a pitch to the Giants’ Calvin Murray, demolished a low-flying dove, which exploded into a small, feathery cloud. Twelve years later, it remains a YouTube hit, although the Big Unit, to his credit, said at the time: “I didn’t think it was all that funny.”
And for you trivia geeks out there, the plate umpire’s official call was “no pitch.”
Tell that to the dove.
You can reach Robert Rubino at email@example.com.
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