Ralph Houk: 1919-2010

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Longtime Yankees manager and executive Ralph Houk died yesterday at his Florida home. He was 90.

Before we mention his contributions to baseball, let us mention this: Houk’s nickname — “The Major” — was no cutsey moniker. Ralph Houk was a war hero. In four years of service during World War II, he rose from private to major. He stormed the beach at Normandy and fought the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart.  If he died in 1946, we’d still all have cause to remember the man, even if, sadly, we wouldn’t have.

But obviously we all know him from baseball.  A backup catcher of limited success, Houk was later groomed by the Yankees to become a manager. And that he did, succeeding Casey Stengel following the 1960 season when Casey was controversially let go.  Houk proved he deserved the job, however, leading the Yankees to 109 wins and a World Series title in 1961 and repeating in 1962.  Following a third straight pennant in 1963 Houk moved upstairs to become Yankees’ general manager while the man who he once backed up — Yogi Berra — took the Yankees’ managerial job.

After Berra in 1964 and a season and a half of Johnny Keane, Houk returned to the dugout in 1966. And there he stayed through what we all now recognize as some of darker days of Yankees history. At least competitively speaking. Despite the aging and crumbling of the Yankees’ dynasty during Houk’s second stint as manager between 1966 and 1973, Houk always maintained the respect of his players and his dignity in the dugout. Houk resigned in 1973 as the George Steinbrenner era took over.

Houk moved on to Detroit the following year and, as bad luck would have it, was tasked with once again presiding over the decline years of an aging team.  The Tigers hit bottom in 1975, but under his watch a radical rebuild took place, and by the time he left in 1978 the Al Kaline/Bill Freehan/Willie Horton Tigers had begun the transition into the Alan Trammell/Jack Morris/Lou Whitaker Tigers and even had a winning season that year.

Houk finished his managerial career with four seasons in Boston, again, as something of a transitional figure, but a successful one as well. Indeed, despite the fact that, those first three years aside, Houk generally managed teams either on the way down or early in the process of coming back up, he ended his career with 1,619-1,531 record.

Houk was not a Hall of Fame player or manager. But Houk was a hero and a highly respected pro who bridged the gap between baseball’s alleged “Golden Age” and its modern age.  And — unlike most of his contemporaries — fit in nicely in both eras.

What to watch for in the second half

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The season is far more than halfway over. The two and a half months after the All-Star Game, however, is traditionally called the “second half,” and given how much more drama we’ll see during that time, it’s worth the bump-up in significance. The second half will determine who wins divisions and wild cards, who wins awards, which teams go for it, which teams cut bait and will give us a glimpse into what might transpire during hot stove season come November.

As we sit here today, in mid-July, here are the things to watch in the second half:

 

Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?

The biggest name on the trading block — Manny Machadoalready seems to have a new team (all we’re waiting for is the official announcement). Machado is not the only big name who could be moved, however. His Orioles teammates, closer Zach Britton and outfielder Adam Jones, have been mentioned prominently in trade rumors. Britton, specifically, will be highly sought-after. Other big names who could be dealt: Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Rangers starter Cole Hamels, Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ and Padres reliever Brad Hand.

 

How about the Mets’ aces?

In a different category altogether are Mets starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. While the Mets don’t have a compelling reason to trade either — they should, actually, be working to build a winning team around these two — the team’s lack of success and the front office’s seeming inability to build a winner has made many speculate that either of them or both of them could be traded. Just last week deGrom’s agent said his client would be OK with that, implying that the talks for a long term deal have not been going well. So far the Mets have leaned heavily on the side of saying neither deGrom nor Syndergaard will be available, but if that changes, they instantly shoot to the top of the list as we approach the trade deadline.

Oh, and as we saw last year with Justin Verlander going to Houston, the “deadline” does not just mean the non-waiver deadline at the end of July. Big trades may still very well happen through the month of August.

 

The surprisingly competitive American League West

Everyone knew the defending World Series champion Houston Astros would rule the division, but most folks assumed they’d be ruling it a bit more authoritatively than they have thus far. Don’t get me wrong: the Astros have been just fine. It’s just that the competition has gotten much tougher.

The Seattle Mariners have the longest playoff drought in baseball and they lost Robinson Cano to a PED suspension early in the season. Despite that, however, they are 58-39, only five games back of the Astros and three and a half games up in the race for the second Wild Card slot. Even more surprising is the team most directly challenging them for the second Wild Card slot: the Oakland A’s, who are  55-42. Both the M’s and the A’s are playing a bit better than their Pythagorean record suggests they should be — the M’s far more so than the A’s — but those wins are in the bank and, at the moment, the next closest competitor for that second Wild Card — the Rays — is five and a half back. I suspect Houston will slowly increase their division lead, but we could have a really fun race between Seattle and Oakland down the stretch, with the loser going home and the winner taking the second Wild Card.

 

The Red Sox and Yankees trying to avoid the best Wild Card team of all time

While the A’s and M’s are hoping for a Wild Card, both the Yankees and the Red Sox are dreading the possibility of winning one. Each team is aiming way higher than that, with Boston currently on a 112-win pace and the Yankees on a pace to win 106 games. Only one other Wild Card winner has won 100 games (Oakland, 102, in 2001) but one of these two teams is destined to do so barring an historic collapse. While that may not have been as big a deal in the past, the Wild Card format these days is one-and-done so, even with playoff spots all but assured, both the Yankees and the Sox have every incentive to step on the gas to avoid a single-game matchup against James Paxton, Sean Manaea or Blake Snell.

 

The rest of the pennant races

Before the season began it seemed like all but the AL East were going to be cakewalks for the favorites in each division. While most of those favorites — the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Cubs and Dodgers — are either in first place or are winning like crazy — there have been some surprises so far. Most notably in the National League East where the Braves have held first place for most of the first half, the Phillies hold it now and the favored Washington Nationals are scuffling along, five and a half games back. The Dodgers struggled early but have come on of late. Still, those early struggles have kept the Dbacks, Rockies and Giants within striking range. The Milwaukee Brewers, while trailing the Cubs, have looked like a strong playoff contender all season long. While there is less overall parity than we saw just a few seasons ago, more races look to remain competitive longer in the second half than the experts envisioned as the season began.

 

The push for postseason awards

We have had a great number of outstanding individual performances in the first half, particularly in the American League, so picking an MVP is going to be both fun and difficult. At the moment the top contenders for that award are, in no particular order, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout. What’s more, a couple of those guys have teammates who are just as worthy of being included in the conversation in J.D. Martinez and Francisco Lindor. The Astros have a potential candidates too in reigning MVP Jose Altuve and All-Star Game MVP Alex Bregman. If the season ended today I think it’d come down to either Betts or Trout, but it’s really wide open.

The National League is not quite as explosive, but it could be just as competitive, with Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, Jesus Aquilar, Max Muncy and even a pitcher, Aaron Nola, vying for votes. You could also throw in whichever Chicago Cub has the hottest second half and perennial MVP-contender Paul Goldschmidt, who shook off a slow start and has been mashing lately.

The Cy Young Award fields are less wide open but the winner is still up in the air. Max Schezer remains a strong contender in the National League but, unlike in the past two seasons, his top competition is not Clayton Kersahw. In fact, it comes from his own division in the form of Jacob deGrom and Aaron Nola. Jon Lester, Miles Mikolas and Mike Foltynewicz lurk. In the AL any number of pitchers have been called the favorite at some point this season. At the moment that title belongs to Chris Sale, but Luis Severino, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have pitched like Cy Young contenders at various points on the year.

 

Managers on the hot seat

The most high-profile firing we’re likely to see in-season just went down when Mike Matheny got the axe in St. Louis. Earlier Bryan Price was made redundant in Cincinnati. A the moment there is no one really on the hot seat. That place is usually reserved for would-be contenders who are underachieving, and the clubs fitting that description — primarily the Nationals and, depending on your definition of “contenders,” the Mets — have new managers this year who will be given more leeway. A couple of old hands may either be shown the door or could find their way to an exit by season’s end due to a lot of losing baseball either now or predicted in the immediate future. Here I’m thinking Buck Showalter in Baltimore and, possibly, Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh, Don Mattingly in Miami and, perhaps, Ned Yost in Kansas City. All could probably keep their jobs if they want them but any might decide that a long-term rebuild or, in Hurdle’s case, organizational uncertainty is nothing they want to be a part of going forward.

 

So that’s where we are a day after the All-Star Game. Everyone gets a couple more days off and then it’s back into the breach come Thursday night for the Cardinals and Cubs, Friday for everyone else.