I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in Pitch Talks, a traveling series of baseball talks that was in Kansas City last night, hosted by the Negro League Baseball Museum. The event, which benefited the museum brought a good crowd of Kansas City baseball diehards to talk baseball with panelists such as myself, our own Minda Haas Kuhlmann, and Kansas City Star writer Sam Mellinger. But the headliners were baseball legends Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, and Amos Otis, who delighted the crowd with stories from the 1970s and 80s.
Amos Otis had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he shared some of best confrontations, such as the time Nolan Ryan, his friend and former teammate with the Mets, cracked him in the head with a fastball. "He said it was the hardest pitch he ever threw," recounts Otis.
The Royals Hall of Famer gave some good tips on how to read pitchers in order to steal bases, describing how Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich had a surefire tell that was so easy to pick up, Otis could steal second base standing up. Instead of dusting off his legs, he would dust off his shoetops, to show off how easy the heist had been.
Otis lamented the new rules of the game, calling today's game "softball" in comparison to the hard-nosed game of the past. But he didn't admonish today's players for seeking an edge in the game, admitting he had corked his bat at times - but only for the late innings of games.
"I don't condone steroids or any of that," he smiled, "but if you offered me $10 million, I might consider it."
The main event however, featured Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and potential Hall of Famer Tim Raines, both in town to be inducted into the Negro League Baseball Museum "Hall of Game." In a panel hosted by long-time Expos fan and baseball writer Jonah Keri, Dawson and Raines recounted the days when the Expos were among the best teams in baseball. Raines admitted he had never even heard of the Expos when he was drafted by them, and instead considered accepting a scholarship to go to the University of Florida to play football, his favorite sport. But he signed with Montreal, beginning a career that Keri believes will get him inducted into the Hall of Fame next year, his last year on the ballot.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion involved the free agency of both players following the 1986 season. Despite being two of the premiere players in all of baseball, neither found any interest on the free agent market due to what was later discovered as illegal collusion between owners. Dawson claims the Expos offered him a $200,000 paycut, despite the fact he was a three-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover, and was coming off a solid season. He says he wanted to spend his entire career in one uniform, but the offered pay cut stung his pride.
Frustrated, Dawson said that if he was going to take a pay cut, he would want to play on natural grass, to save his knees, rather than the harsh artificial surface of Montreal's Olympic Stadium. He planned visits with the Cubs and Braves, and after meeting with Cubs General Manager Dallas Green, left Green a blank contract. "Fill it in with whatever you think I'm worth," he told a stunned Green. The Cubs soon signed him and Dawson hit 49 home runs and won National League MVP that year.
Raines also found tepid offers from the Astros and Padres despite coming off a batting title, so he decided to return to Montreal on a three-year deal. However, MLB had a quirky rule at the time that prevented Raines from playing with the Expos until May 1. He missed all of spring training due to the contract standoff and admitting not being ready to play. But the Expos gave him just one game in extended spring training before activating him to start a nationally televised game against the powerhouse Mets. Despite an admission that he was not in baseball shape, Raines went 4-for-5, falling a double short of the cycle, and hit a grand slam to win the game.
Other panels included 610 KCSP hosts Danny Parkins and Carrington Harrison and Kansas City columnist Sam Mellinger, who recounted a few examples of how bad things were for the Royals in the early part of the 2000s, including the fact that a line of team photos over the years was missing the 2005 team. "Who would want to remember that team?" was the response Mellinger got from team officials. ESPN Desportes reporter and author Arturo Marcano gave the history of Caribbean Leagues and noted how many teams that once welcomed huge stars like Pete Rose, Frank Robinson, Josh Gibson, and Barry Bonds, are now struggling to stay afloat. The night kicked off with a panel of bloggers from Royals Review, including myself and Minda Haas Kuhlmann, as well as Mike Engel and Darin Watson from Baseball Prospectus Kansas City.
Raines and Dawson will be on hand Saturday evening at the Negro League Baseball Museum for the Hall of Game ceremony, as well as Hall of Famer and former Royals first baseman Orlando Cepeda and former Twins All-Star slugger Tony Oliva. The museum will also honor MLBPA executive director Tony Clark for his contributions. Tickets to the ceremony are $75, or $60 for museum members. Tickets for dinner and the ceremony are $150, or $125 for members. They can be purchased at nlbm.com.