The annual dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, always a star-studded event, welcomed baseball royalty Saturday night: Willie Mays stole the show -- and from a seat in the audience. Even with luminaries such as Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox on the dais, it was the presence of Mays that provided the highlight of the evening.
Mays sat at a table with Giants executives on a weekend in which the team brought its 2010 world championship trophy to New York, the franchise's birthplace. Mays was introduced to the crowd as "the greatest living player,'' and a long standing ovation ensued.
Mays will turn 80 years old this May, the month that also will mark the 60th anniversary of his first major league game. It was a special moment to see Mays saluted in the city where his big league career began, and Mays, outfitted in a San Francisco Giants cap, seemed to enjoy everything about the evening, smiling and often signing autographs for young fans.
Outside of the All-Star Game, the annual dinner of the New York chapter of the BBWAA is the greatest assemblage of baseball stars in one place. All of the eight major award winners (winners in each league for the Cy Young Award, MVP, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year) attended, although Tim Lincecum, who won the BBWAA's Babe Ruth Award as World Series MVP, was absent because of a scheduling conflict. Here are some other names of interest and assorted notes from a night of celebration for baseball:
Felix Hernandez: He was clearly touched to have won his first Cy Young Award. But he also was funny in thanking his many managers ("There have been a lot," he said) and many pitching coaches ("A lot, too," he said.)
Indeed, for a young pitcher Hernandez has endured a rare amount of instability with his coaching in Seattle. At 24 years old, Hernandez is on his sixth manager (Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Don Wakamatsu, Daren Brown and Eric Wedge) and his fourth pitching coach (Rafael Chaves, Mel Stottlemyre, Rick Adair and Carl Willis).
It reminds me of when Mike Mussina signed with the Yankees after the 2000 season. He had been through five managers and many pitching coaches in the previous seven seasons, and he said the instability essentially made him his own pitching coach.
Joey Votto: He provided a touching moment at the end of his acceptance of the NL MVP Award. He acknowledged his late father, Joe, who died from a heart attack at age 52 in 2008. "I wish he could be here," said the Reds first baseman.
Buster Posey and Neftali Feliz: MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred provided a gem about Posey and Feliz becoming the third pair of Rookies of the Year to face off in the World Series. The others? Dave Righetti of the Yankees and Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers in 1981 and the Yankees' Gil McDougald and Mays in 1951.
Feliz, by the way, will get "stretched out" in spring training -- that is, work as if preparing to be a starting pitcher. The Rangers could put Feliz in the rotation -- he was developed as a starter -- and Frank Francisco into the closer's role. The move might make even more sense if Brandon Webb isn't ready to start the season in the rotation. But odds are that Feliz will return to the closing role before spring training ends, especially because his manager, Ron Washington, favors keeping Feliz in that role.
But Feliz is due to return to starting at some point. He has the pitches and the body type that could make him a solid No. 2 starter, if not a No. 1. And if the Rangers leave him as a closer, and once he becomes arbitration eligible, they are going to wind up paying huge sums of money for a guy who throws 70 innings instead of 200. The Red Sox, for instance, paid Jonathan Papelbon $27.6 million for his first three arbitration years for 204 1/3 innings.
Charlie Manuel: The Phillies manager, who was there to see Halladay pick up his Cy Young Award, said he is going to play rookie rightfielder Domonic Brown "a lot" in spring training -- which sounds like the plan Braves manager Bobby Cox used with his rookie rightfielder last year, Jason Heyward. "You have to remember that he really hasn't played that much baseball," said Manuel of Brown, who turned down a college football scholarship to sign out of the 20th round with Philadelphia.
Manuel also wants to work with Brown on keeping his hands lower as he loads to hit. "I think when he got around the big leagues, he wanted to put on a show and impress people," Manuel said. "That's natural with a young player. But from what I know, he didn't have his hands quite that high in the minor leagues. He's going to play a lot this spring."
Bill Smith: The Twins general manager was there to see Ron Gardenhire pick up his manager of the year award. When I asked him about Justin Morneau's comments about bringing in the fences at Target Field, Smith said he checked with his pitchers and checked the team's home record last year -- 53-28 -- and found there wasn't a problem that needed attention. Smith pointed out that more data is needed, anyway, before drawing any conclusions, referring to how new Yankee Stadium played so small in its opening year but didn't generate so much fuss about dimensions last season.
Smith did acknowledge that Target Field does need to address issues about the hitting background in daylight, when sunlight shimmers off the walls. The Twins are looking into different kinds of light-absorbing paints and materials, similar to how Seattle addressed background issues when Safeco Field opened.
For what it's worth, Target Field may not be a great home run park, but it looks like a good hitter's park -- for the amount of area outfielders must defend. The Twins actually had a tick higher slugging percentage at home last season than on the road, despite hitting 38 fewer home runs:
Sandy Alderson: The Mets general manager is optimistic about a good return on recently-acquired pitcher Chris Young, who came back at the end of the last season from shoulder trouble and threw well for San Diego. "He changed his rehab program to get back and it worked out well for him," Alderson said.
Young, a flyball pitcher with deception, is a perfect fit for Citi Field, not to mention the Mets clubhouse. Just imagine the Mets pitchers' meetings: Young, a politics major at Princeton, Chris Capuano, a Phi Beta Kappa at Duke, and R.A. Dickey, an English Literature major at Tennessee. Don't expect to find any blank New York Times crossword puzzles sitting around that clubhouse.