Friday, May 24, 2013

May 23- Pittsburgh Pirates

I really can’t explain why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Prior to last season of all the ball parks that I ever wanted to visit, let alone the city, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park was slated in at #2 behind Fenway Park in Boston. I think a lot of it has to do with the Pirates’ storied past, the players who played day in and day out in the infamous black and yellow, but it’s really hard to answer that considering that I had never been there. When I finally had the opportunity this last August I was at peace every second I was there. I realize that I’m probably one of a very small percentage that feels this way, but from everything I encountered and everyone I interacted with it quickly became one of my favorite places I’ve ever traveled to. If you ever get the chance to get out to a game, or even just take a trip to the city, make it happen.

Pittsburgh has always been an ardent supporter of the troops. It’s shown for decades with every ounce of steel that gets produced in the city and sent to the battle lines in some form. I wrote about the Pirates’ ties with the military back on May 5th, but I really should have focused on this moment. On April 5, 2012 the Pirates kicked off Opening Day with an unfortunate loss to their in-state rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. As much as the loss may have stung a few fans, the overall attitude of the day was set during the pre-game festivities. The Pirates had invited Jeremy Feldbusch, a Pennsylvania native, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Feldbusch graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in biology before joining the Army in August of 2001. He became an elite infantry soldier, graduating from airborne school and joining the Army Rangers where he quickly climbed the ladder up to the rank of sergeant. On April 3, 2003 Feldbusch’s life was changed when an artillery round landed 10 meters away from him while he and members of his unit (3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment out of Fort Benning, Georgia) were working to seize the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq. Everyone else in his until took cover and Feldbusch was the only person physically affected by the blast. Feldbusch lost his right eye and the shrapnel severed the optic nerve of the other. Shrapnel embedded in the left frontal lobe of his brain and he spent six weeks in a medically induced coma. The events that caused his permanent disability never got him down. Feldbusch and his mom have teamed up with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) to help raise awareness for the needs of injured service members. Jeremy became the first national spokesman for the WWP, an organization he sees as his second family, and was one of the individuals who spoke in Washington, D.C. for the creation of traumatic injury insurance. With all of his accolades and service within the community it was no surprise that Feldbusch was an appropriate member of the Pittsburgh community to be given the honor of throwing out first pitch. With his guide by his side he aimed out the area in which to throw and fired a pitch in to Charlie Morton. With only a rough idea of where the ball would go the ball sailed right down the middle for a strike. The sold out crowd in attendance at PNC Park gave Feldbusch a standing ovation.

Since 1971 the Pirates have gone 25-17 while only missing three games on Memorial Day. Their best stretch came from 1971-1976 when the Pirates went 8-1 with the first seven of those wins coming consecutively as the Pirates won both end of doubleheaders against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972 and the San Diego Padres in 1974. Their streak came to an end against the New York Mets in the first game of a doubleheader in ’76; however, they won the nightcap easily. Their best record on Memorial Day is 3-0 against the Florida Marlins which took place 2000-2001 and 2005. They also currently have a four-game winning streak against the Chicago Cubs which dates back to 2002.

Of all the players who have gone through the Pirates organization and enlisted or been drafted into military service there was one player in particular who came to mind when marking up this cap. The story of how I got to it is a bit unusual; however, I’ll do my best to show how it all makes sense.

.279/369/1015- This particular post is written with a great deal of personal irony when compared to where I was around this time a year ago. Somewhere around the second week of May I was sitting around the MLB Fan Cave, more than likely watching that day’s baseball games because I was pretty much the only person who actually took pride in that part of the experience. I’m having a bit of difficulty remembering the exact date and which game I was watching when Tyler Hissey, the content advisor who runs the Fan Cave Facebook page and Twitter account, came over and asked me if I would write an article based on an interview the New York Times did on whether or not Johnny Damon is Hall of Famer. My reply to him was, “No.” He looked at me in a confused manner, waiting a moment and then asked, “how come?” I then starting firing off a few of Damon’s stats and his lack of accomplishments, to which Hissey interrupted me with a smile on his face as he had misread my original answer. After we clarified each others’ response I agree to take it on later that night.

I was all ready prepared to give it a hard “no,” but I looked over the NYT article for reference and double checked a few stat sites to make sure my answer were correct. Sure enough, they were. It took me about 20 minutes or so to put it together, and other five minutes to edit it before I sent it in. On May 14th the article was posted to the Fan Cave Web site and almost immediately I received a lengthy complaint of someone calling me an “asshat” and trying to make an argument that I was wrong because of other players who were all ready in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with worse numbers than Damon. Being the reserved person that I am (sarcasm) I took to the message board and ripped him/her a new one simply based on the facts, not necessarily my opinion. For the chatter that led to this, including the article I wrote, click on the link here. The first two responses are our chatter.

One thing that I should point out is that I got reprimanded for responding to the instigators response. This was a common theme that I dealt with in the Fan Cave as I’m not the kind of person to let ignorance and aggression toward me go without having a say. No matter how many times I was told not to engage, I still did it. I never called names; I just let the facts do all the talking for me. The response I got from the powers that be was not something I was particularly going to adhere to for the sake that I’m not, and will never be a voiceless puppet. Anyway, I’ve rambled. So, with my setup in place, I give you Ralph Kiner.

Ralph M Kiner was born in Santa Rita, New Mexico on October 27, 1922. Kiner's father died when Ralph was young and his mother moved to California. He played baseball at Alhambra High School and was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates immediately after graduating. His professional career began in 1941 as an outfielder with the Albany Senators in the Class A Eastern League. In two seasons with the Senators he batted .288 and .268 and hit 14 homers in 1942 which led the league.

Kiner joined the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1943, but within a few weeks he was inducted in the Navy. As a cadet he attended St Mary's Pre-Flight School in California and earned his pilot's wings and commission at Corpus Christi in December 1944. He flew Martin PBM Mariners from Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station in Hawaii on submarine patrols, accumulating 1,200 flying hours and playing hardly any baseball during that time.

Kiner had his Major League debut on April 16, 1946 and played 146 games for the Pirates that year. His stats: .247/23/81. Kiner’s 23 home runs were the most in the National League which helped land him in 30th place in the NL MVP vote that season. Kiner more than likely would have won the Rookie of the Year award; however, it would be another year before that honor was created.

What every few expected over the next six seasons was for Kiner to be one of the most dominant power hitters the game has ever seen. In 1947 Kiner went deep 51 times, the most in the Majors. On top of that he brought in 127 runs and batted .313 on the season while only striking out 81 times. Kiner somehow only managed to finish sixth that year for the NL MVP, a problem he would face throughout his entire career. From 1946-1952 Kiner lead the NL, and the Majors a few times, in home runs. Even more impressive is that his batting average during this time was a steady .279, including three years when he hit .309 or better.

Kiner only played seven-and-a-half years for the Pirates, the other two-and-a-half years came with the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians respectively. Kiner dealt with serious back problems throughout his career which forced him to retire at the end of the 1955 season. Therefore, his career numbers of .279/369/1015 in eight years with the Pirates is something to truly marvel at. Not to mention the fact that he was a pilot in World War II before his career even started.

Kiner, as I mentioned in my Fan Cave article, made the Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility in 1975. Aside from his home run dominance he also made six All-Star Game appearances and has had a stellar broadcasting career with the Chicago White Sox, and most notably the New York Mets. At 90-years-old he is still one of the few older players still sitting behind a microphone for games. Oh! And with that, he’s also the third-longest tenured broadcaster for any team. The first two guys? Jaime Jarrin, the Spanish voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers and some guy named Scully. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

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