Sunday Notes: Pittsburgh’s Joe Block Broke into Broadcasting With a Blind ManDavid Laurilaon November 8, 2020 at 2:08 pm

Like most big-league broadcasters, Joe Block got his start down on the farm. The radio and TV play-by-play voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates broke into the business with the South Atlantic League’s Charleston RiverDogs back in 2000. That part of his story is isn’t unique. What is unique is that Block first shared the booth with a blind man.

Looking to break into baseball, Block traveled to Anaheim for the 1999 Winter Meetings after graduating from Michigan State University. Charleston had posted a broadcast intern position, and the fresh-faced Spartan secured an interview with the club’s then-broadcaster. The sit-down went well. Block hit it off with Dave Raymond — now the TV voice of the Texas Rangers — and was offered the job.

As fate would have it, they never got to call games together. Later that winter, Raymond took a job with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. Replacing Raymond in Charleston was a duo that had worked together with the St. Paul Saints.

“I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but Jim Lucas and Don Wardlow had been in the minor leagues for a number of years as a tandem,” explained Block. “Don was born blind. He never saw anything in his entire life.”

As an intern, Block’s primary responsibility was doing the pre- and post-game shows. Most appealing among his other duties was the opportunity to do play-by-play when Lucas took time off. What he learned was invaluable, and the unique circumstances played a big part in that.

“I got to do somewhere around eight games of play-by-play,” said Block. “As an intern that’s part of the lure of the job, because you basically get a tape out of the deal. So the first baseball games I called were with Don Wardlow, which means my first analyst was blind. You talk about a trial by fire. This being radio, Don was just like the rest of the audience — he couldn’t see — and that really helped me learn how to be descriptive, and to get it right right away. If Don didn’t know what was happening, our audience surely didn’t, so getting to work with him taught the 22-year-old me a lot of lessons — details that are really important in a broadcast.”

While Wardlow offered wisdom, Raymond had offered something every bit as important: a chance. Had their Winter Meeting’s sit-down not gone swimmingly, Block’s broadcast career might never have gotten off the ground.

“The Butte Copper Kings sent me a letter — I got it on my birthday — telling me that I didn’t get their job,” Block recalled. “But thanks to Dave Raymond, I did get a job offer, and it would have been my only job offer that year. So who knows. If it wasn’t for Dave, I maybe wouldn’t be here right now.”

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Mickey Tettleton knows a lot about plate discipline and power. A catcher/DH for four teams from 1984-1997, the sweet-swinging switch-hitter logged a 16.5% walk rate and banged out 245 home runs. His wRC+ over that 14-year period was a robust, and somewhat under the radar, 122.

A player that Tettleton tutored in the Cape Cod League possesses similar attributes, as well as a higher ceiling.

“I didn’t get a chance to work with him much, but I think Spencer Torkelson is going to be an absolute star,” Tettleton said of the first-overall pick in this summer’s draft. “He was in Chatham for about two or three weeks before he went with Team USA, so I had a chance to kind of pick his brain a little bit. He picked mine as well. More than anything, he’s a little bit… no, not a little bit; he’s a lot ahead of his time as far as what he’s trying to do in an at bat. That kid has a chance to have a long, long career. He is legitimately a big-league hitter.”

I asked Templeton if Torkelson — already the consensus top hitting prospect in the Tigers system — reminds him of anybody he played with.

“Power-wise, I’d have to go back to Dean Palmer,” responded Tettleton. “I don’t know if you’ve been to Chatham, but you’d watch [Torkelson] take batting practice, and you’d think, ‘Man, this is a fly ball,’ and it would end up three quarters of the way up in the trees. He’s just got tremendous raw power. He’s a very intelligent college hitter [Arizona State] that just happens to have a world of talent swinging the bat.”

The Palmer comp is even more eye-opening when you consider an opinion Tettleton had shared with me a few minutes earlier. When I suggested that Cecil Fielder must have had the most-impressive power among his former teammates, Tettleton said it actually wasn’t. It was Palmer.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Lefty O’Doul went 25 for 44 against Jesse Haines.

Al Simmons went 25 for 60 against Lefty Grove.

Bill Knickerbocker went 25 for 74 against Lefty Gomez.

Zack Wheat went 25 for 97 against Lefty Tyler.

Buddy Myer went 25 for 110 against Lefty Stewart.

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A.J. Hinch’s first big move after being named Tigers manager was hiring Chris Fetter as the team’s pitching coach. Most recently in that role at the University of Michigan, the 34-year-old Fetter promises to meld well with the catcher-turned-skipper. Each espouses new-school ingenuity, albeit with ample respect for old-fashioned baseball mores. That in mind, I addressed a question to the two of them during a media session:

What are your philosophies on starter usage, and how much does having a young starting staff factor into it?

“I’ll take this one,” responded Hinch. “I don’t think you necessarily have to have one philosophy. I think you have to combine what you see with what you know. There are times that the third time through the order is perfectly fine, and there are times where you have to make decisions even prior to that — they’re not even guaranteed a second time through the order, whether that’s workload, performance, pitch shapes you see that are different. Any of those can factor into the decision-making of when to make pitching moves. I’m very careful when I talk about an overarching philosophy. It’s something that Chris and I talked about in the interview. Our job is to read and react.”

Hinch went on to say that if a pitcher is able to sustain both his stuff and his performance, he may be trusted to go deeper into a game. At the same time, if the team has “an electrifying” bullpen that can match up well, he may use the bullpen “a little bit differently.” Ideally, he and Fetter will be in sync when making those determinations.

Hinch admitted that he’s been guilty of taking starters out too early, and he’s likewise taken them out a batter too late. That’s unavoidable for any manager. Going forward, the goal is to approach the decisions in a two-pronged manner.

“There will be no two people — manager and pitching coach — that know more about their pitchers,” Hinch said. “The game starts with what our expectations are for that pitcher, and we’ll react accordingly based on performance.”

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A quiz:

Barry Bonds had 45 home runs and 41 strikeouts in 2004. Prior to Bonds, who was the last player with more home runs than strikeouts in a season (min. 600 plate appearances)?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The Brewers have added Quintin Berry as a base coach, and are reassigning longtime third base coach Ed Sedar to an advisory role. Berry has been working as an instructor in Milwaukee’s minor league system.

Julio Becquer, a first baseman for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins (and briefly the Los Angeles Angels) from 1955-1963, died on the first of this month at age 88. A native of Cuba was used frequently as a pinch hitter, Becquer batted .244 over 488 big-league games.

The finalists for the 2021 Ford C. Frick Award were announced earlier this week. They are: Buddy Blattner, Joe Buck, Dave Campbell, Dizzy Dean, Don Drysdale, Ernesto Jerez, Al Michaels and Dan Shulman.

Claire Smith was among ESPN’s layoffs earlier this week. A J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, Smith has covered baseball for nearly four decades.

The SABR Analytics Conference will be held online in 2021. The dates are March 11-14, and information can be found here.

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Th answer to the quiz is Vic Power, who had 16 home runs and 14 strikeouts in 1958. A seven-time Gold Glove first baseman, Power was traded from the Kansas City A’s to the Cleveland Indians midway through that season.

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An unabashed opinion: Calvinball losses should be purged from pitchers’ records.
Case in point: The absurdity of Caleb Thielbar’s being charged with an “L” on the final day of the 2020 regular season. Not only did the Minnesota Twins southpaw
retire all four batters he faced, the 10th-inning ghost runner he was held responsible for was still standing on second base when he left the mound.

Thielbar’s role in the runner’s eventually crossing the plate? Let’s just say he was no more culpable than you or I were. Yet he goes into the record books as the losing pitcher? Puh-lease. This should go down as a team loss only, and the same is true for every Calvinball loss. It isn’t the fault of any pitcher that baseball’s integrity was compromised in such a manner.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Masataka Yoshida has an NPB-best .350 batting average to go with a .453 OBP and a .512 slugging percentage. The 27-year-old Orix Buffaloes outfielder has drawn 72 walks and struck out 29 times.

Ukyo Shuto set an NPB record by recording a stolen base in his 13th consecutive game before seeing his streak end earlier this week. The 24-year-old SoftBank Hawks infielder has 49 steals and has been caught six times.

Justin Bour has returned to the United States and isn’t expected to be back with the Hanshin Tigers next season. Bour logged a .760 OPS over 99 games in his first NPB season. (Per The Japan Times.)

The KBO’s Lotte Giants have re-signed shortstop Dixon Machado 마차도. The former Detroit Tigers infielder slashed .278/.353/.409 in his first season in Korea. (Per the Yonhap News Agency’s Jeeho Yoo.)

Jake Romanski will play for the Australian League’s Melbourne Aces this winter. The former Boston Red Sox catching prospect spent this past season with the Sugar Land Skeeters, and the Eastern Reyes del Tigre, in the independent Constellation League.

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Xander Bogaerts brought up Rafael Devers in our end-of-September discussion about defense. Much as the Red Sox shortstop improved in the field, he expects his younger teammate to do the same as he gains experience.

“It took me a lot of repetitions, and learning from a lot of mental errors,” Bogaerts told me. “Some of the errors I see Devers make are mental errors. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Hopefully with the time and the work he’ll continue to put in, he’ll one day look back and be like, ‘Hey, Bogey was right about that.’”

Devers was charged with 14 errors at third base this season, with nine of them coming on errant throws. Poor decisions contributed to the league-high total, as did work-in-progress footwork. Bogaerts suffered those growing pains as well.

“If you’re in a good position with your legs, everything will just follow,” Boston’s team leader explained. “That’s something I had to work hard on, and Devers will do the same.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Mel Rojas Jr. had a MVP-quality season in the KBO, and Jeeho Yoo interviewed the KT Wiz slugger for the Yonhap News Agency.

Juan Páez looked at Pablo López as part of Fishstripes’s Miami Marlins season review.

Samantha Bradfield broke down Antonio Senzatela’s season at Purple Row.

At The Good Phight, John Stolnis opined that the Phillies and John Middleton are paralyzed by fear.

The flagpole at Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium is still standing. Nathan Bierma and Mitch Lutzke wrote about it at The Tigers History Project.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Atlanta Braves right-hander Luke Jackson has a career won-lost record of 14-4. His .353 BABiP-against is the highest among active pitchers.

The Braves franchise moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, and from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. The Braves had a winning record in all of their 13 seasons in Milwaukee.

Stan Musial was voted NL MVP in 1943 after leading the senior circuit in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases. Musial had 10 sacrifice bunts that season.

Frank Thomas had 10,075 plate appearances and no sacrifice bunts. Vladimir Guerrero had 9,059 plate appearances and no sacrifice bunts.

Carl Hubbell is the only pitcher in the live-ball era to have had a season with at least 25 wins, while allowing 10 or fewer home runs and 60 or fewer walks. The Hall of Fame left-hander achieved that distinction with the New York Giants in 1936. (Per Jeremy Frank and Jim Passon Jr’s Hidden Ball Trick: The Baseball Stats You Never Thought to Look For).

Luis Aloma pitched in four big-league seasons (1950-1953), all with the Chicago White Sox, and went 18-3 with a 3.44 ERA. Aloma’s .857 winning percentage is the highest among Cuban-born pitchers with more than three decisions.

Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice was announced as winner of the American League MVP Award on November 7, 1978. Yankees left-hander Ron Guidry, who’d gone 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, finished second in the voting.

Darryl Strawberry signed a five-year, free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on today’s date in 1990.

Players born on today’s date include Beauty McGowan, who in 1923 was one of three players traded from the Philadelphia A’s to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Hall of Famer Al Simmons. A big-leaguer for parts of five seasons, McGowan went on to become a longtime scout for the Baltimore Orioles.

Sadie McMahon has the most wins of any pitcher born in Delaware. The Wilmington native went 173-127 from 1889-1897. Christy Mathewson has the most wins of any pitcher born in Pennsylvania. A Factoryville native, the “Christian Gentleman” went 373-188 from 1900-1916. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936.
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