Living History: A Conversation with Ozzie Virgil

History was quietly made on September 23, 1956, when Bill Rigney submitted his lineup card for the New York Giants’ Sunday afternoon home matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Slotted in at third base, in his major league debut, was 24 year old Ozzie Virgil.  And although Virgil wouldn’t record his first major league hit until his second game a week later, he had already made his mark by becoming the first Dominican born player to reach the Major Leagues.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Osvaldo Virgil was born on May 17, 1932 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.  At the age of 13, his family would immigrate to the United States and settle in the Bronx.  Growing up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Virgil attended DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating in 1950.  Following high school, Virgil joined the US Marine Corps Reserves, and was called up in 1950.  In 1952, after getting out, Virgil was signed by the New York Giants following a tryout.

Virgil would work his way up through the Giants’ minor league system, spending time in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Danville, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; before spending the 1956 season with Minneapolis, where he hit .278 with 10 home runs.  This play would earn him that late season September call up, and despite his debut being a historical landmark, Virgil arrived to almost no fanfare.

In a recent conversation at the New York Mets’ Dominican Academy in Boca Chica, Virgil recalled his path to the majors, as well as several other anecdotes about his time playing baseball.  When asked who the best player he faced or played with was, Virgil was torn between Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.  “Both of them had more than just talent, they always wanted to win.  That’s all those guys were focused on back then, winning.”

In nine seasons and 324 games as a professional, Virgil spent time with the Giants (both in New York and San Francisco), Kansas City Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the first non-white player for the Detroit Tigers.  He would slash .231/.263/.331 with 14 home runs, 73 RBIs, 174 hits and 75 runs.  And though Virgil may have produced an otherwise undistinguished -0.5 rWAR, his contribution to the game will never be forgotten.

“I may not have been the most talented, and I may not hold the records or any huge numbers, but I’ll always have a special number: number one!  And I’m glad that I was able to be that person that opened the door for many other Dominicans after me, especially considering there are many others more talented than me.

Since Virgil took the field that fateful Sunday afternoon, 628 other players born in the Dominican have played in the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, and notable All-Stars such as Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, George Bell and many others.  Now one of the top producers of Major League talent outside the United States, Virgil’s trail blazing path was much different from modern day Dominicans.

Despite debuting almost a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Virgil spoke about the struggles of being a non-white player in the 1950s and 60s.  “One of the hardest parts was that we weren’t accepted within the black community, the African-American community.  It was hard being ignored by both the white people and the African-Americans, who didn’t always consider us Latinos as black.  We had to stick together.”

Speaking with Virgil is truly an opportunity to interact with living history, as one of the most influential, and perhaps most forgotten, players in the history of Major League Baseball.  At 83, Virgil still has the spark and energy of a young man, and our afternoon spent with him was truly a powerful moment.  Seeing what Dominican players have today, and hearing from Virgil what players had in the past, gives a true hope that the Dominican game, and the Dominican community, will continue to grow as the years pass.

Analysis of the NFL Disappointments

The NFL is enjoying a year of unparalleled parity, on the heels of the success of teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders and Buccaneers. But at the same time, several teams picked to shape the landscape of the playoffs have faltered. The Cowboys and Vikings, two teams that enjoyed deep playoff runs in 2009, and the 49ers, who finished 8-8 in the weak NFC West, were considered lead pipe locks to make the playoffs. As we hit Week 10, those three teams are a combined 6-18, with popular Super Bowl pick Dallas floundering at 1-7 and coming off their coach being fired. Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong for these three teams, and if they have any chance of turning it around.

The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East in 2009 with an 11-5 record, and went on to win their first playoff game since 1996. Entering the 2010 season, the only major change they made was replacing much maligned free safety Ken Hamlin and adding rookie phenom Dez Bryant. The Cowboys were a popular pick to make the Super Bowl, to be played in their home, Jerry World. However, the team now sits at 1-7, with head coach Wade Phillips fired. The Cowboys will now be led by former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The Cowboys are missing their Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo, but even with him, were only 1-5. The Cowboys’ chances of succeeding this season are now practically zero. Playing in possibly the toughest division in football, their defense, one of the top units in 2009, has been completely incapable of stopping anyone. Since their Week 4 bye, the Cowboys have let up at least 24 points in every game, including a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of the Packers last week. The dismal defense, combined with an offense now missing their leader and best player, make a turnaround unlikely. Garrett was once considered the hottest coaching candidate in the NFL, but has shown in the last few years a very predictable play calling. Look for the Cowboys to struggle to 3 or 4 wins, grab a talent with their high draft pick, and make a splash with a big name coach.
The Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game last year, on the back of Brett Favre. After much deliberation, Favre returned for a 20th season, and immediately made the Vikings contenders. Or so it was thought. Instead, Favre has shown an inconsistency no one could have predicted, even with his advanced age. Without top receiver Sidney Rice, lost for the first 10 weeks to a hip injury, Favre’s gunslinging style has turned reckless. The 50-50 balls Favre has made a living off of have become 75-25 balls for the defense. A midseason acquisition of Randy Moss backfired, as Moss and coach Brad Childress clashed, and Moss was released, against the front office and locker room’s wishes. To compound the passing game’s problems, Childress has criminally under-used all-world running back Adrian Peterson. All this said, the Vikings may have the best chance at turning around their season. The Vikings have a very favorable schedule from here on out, especially with Rice expected to return soon. At 3-5, the Vikings are not completely out of the playoff picture in a surprisingly weak NFC, and may have gained a lot of confidence with a 27-24 comeback victory against the Arizona Cardinals last week. Childress called his best game of the season play-wise. If the Vikes can get back to .500 in the next two weeks, they’ll be squarely in the race to win the NFC North and the wild card chase.
The San Francisco 49ers finished 2009 at 8-8, their first non-losing season since 2002. They had some of the stability the franchise lacked during the losing years, with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye returning, as well as having a set starting quarterback heading into training camp in former number 1 overall pick Alex Smith. On top of that, the two-time defending NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals lost their heart and soul in future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, and defensive standouts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. This led many to believe it was the 49ers’ division to lose. Instead, the 49ers have struggled to a 2-6 record, including being the only victim of the hapless Carolina Panthers. Along the way, the 49ers have let up game winning drives, fumbled away game-sealing interceptions, and cycled through quarterbacks. Raye was fired after the team struggled to get plays off on time, and calling quite possibly the most brutal few games ever witnessed. Alex Smith, who was expected to finally live up to expectations, has instead appeared unable to read defenses and lead an offense. The team is now led by former Heisman winner Troy Smith. Even with all these disasters, the 49ers are not entirely out of the playoff picture. The NFC West is the weakest division possibly in NFL history. It is currently led by the 4-4 St. Louis Rams, who are only a few months off of making the first selection in the NFL Draft. After a confidence building win against Denver in London and a bye, the Niners will face the Rams. If they win, they will immediately be in the race for division, only one game out of the lead. They are a contender to make the playoffs still simply because this division is so bad it could be won with an 8-8, or even 7-9, record.

Is ESPN pushing the boundary with their coverage of the Miami Heat?

A couple weeks ago, launched its’ “Heat Index”, an entire section of their website devoted entirely to the Miami Heat. ESPN has already shown their love of everything LeBron, as they hosted the ridiculously over-the-top “The Decision” special this summer, but this new development may show a more disturbing trend. The network has often pushed the envelope with their coverage of individual players, such as James and Brett Favre, but the Heat Index makes it appear as though they are actively rooting for the Heat to succeed.

As a news organization, ESPN should be adhering to a practice of journalistic neutrality. How are fans of other teams, especially other favorites, supposed to feel now that their team is simply taking the backseat to the Heat? Can we watch sports on this network and know that both sides are receiving fair coverage? ESPN is obviously doing this due to the high interest in the story, but sometimes making money should be secondary to retaining credibility.


Cowboys’ Rookie Hazing Demonstrates Everything Wrong With the NFL

Dallas Cowboys’ rookie WR Dez Bryant has shown promise on the field this year, catching for at least 50 yards in all three of Dallas’ games this year. Bryant, taken 24th overall in the draft this year, was a superstar at Oklahoma State, whose only controversy was a misguided conversation with former NFL star Deion Sanders which unfortunately landed him a season long suspension.

But since entering the NFL, Bryant has made headlines off the field. Not necessarily for his own behavior, but rather for being the target of the man he’ll likely replace on the Cowboys, Roy E. Williams. It started in August, when Bryant refused to carry Williams’ pads after practice. A simple “right of passage” that Bryant probably should have done, but harmless in the fact that he didn’t.
But Williams did not stop there. It came out last week that Williams invited the entire Cowboys offense out to an expensive steak dinner, then left the tab with Bryant. The bill? $55,000. There are reports that players were walking out of the restaurant with bottles of wine.
The dinner showcases everything that is wrong with the NFL today. As we approach a potential labor stoppage in 2011, NFL players’ main issue appears to be compensation and pension. Players complain that owners are not fairly sharing the money from what is by far and away America’s most profitable sports enterprise. Players also point to statistics that overwhelmingly show that players are going broke after leaving the NFL due to little job training and lack of pension.
These are all valid points, but it’s hard to garner sympathy when things like this come out. When you’re teaching 21 year old rookies like Bryant that you can stick teammates with a dinner tab worth more than most people make in one year, you’re highlighting that these problems are more due to players’ financial irresponsibility than owner greed. How are we supposed to be feeling sorry for players going broke when they’re wasting ungodly amounts of money on steak dinners, and raining down hundred dollar bills at strip clubs in Las Vegas?
When players are routinely spending more in one night than the average American yearly income, the problem is clearly not how much they are being paid, or a lack of pension. As we move towards a potential labor stoppage, look for owners to increasingly point towards public displays of players blowing cash. Also look for no one to point towards the real solution: financial planning. If Williams had been taught Bryant to put that $55,000 into something more valuable than dinner and booze for 20 or so multimillionaires, perhaps it could mature into something that could sustain him after his body gives in and he can no longer play football. Of course, that would make entirely too much sense, now wouldn’t it?

Australian Rules Football is Perfect for an American Audience

As the popularity of soccer is soaring in America following the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Americans are increasingly opening up to sports other than the “Big 4”. Although soccer, by far the world’s most popular sport, is finally finding an American audience, several complaints about the game remain. Americans still seem to find soccer somewhat boring due to its low scoring, and apparent lack of toughness. In America, where we have basketball scores in the hundreds, and football hits that end players’ careers, some find soccer too “European” and foreign. It is for these reasons that another import sport, Australian rules football, could potentially overtake soccer in America if marketed correctly.

Australian rules football is an extremely fast paced game that would be best described to American sports fans as a mixture between basketball, soccer and American football. The game has existed in its modern form since the 1850s, longer than soccer or baseball. A match consists of four 20 minute quarters, with stoppage time added to the end of each quarter, and is played on a large oval shaped field with four goal posts on each end of the ground. If the ball is kicked through the center posts, a goal worth six points is scored, and if it passes through the outer two posts, a behind worth one point is scored. Players are allowed to kick or tap the ball with a closed fist or open hand to teammates, but cannot pass the ball. Players are allowed to run with the ball, but must dribble it at least once every 50 feet.

Aussie rules is easy to pick up, as positions are fluid, and players roam the entire field, unlike soccer, where attacks by defenders are rare. The game moves fast, and because there are no goalkeepers, goals are abundant, with scores often approaching and broaching the hundred point threshold. Aussie rules also is extremely physical, with bone jarring hits a common sight welcomed by fans and coaches alike. There is constant movement with little stoppage between plays. The game requires great endurance, athleticism and unique skill sets such as good hands and solid footwork. The skills often transfer over to American football, as players such as Darren Bennett and Sav Rocca have carved out successful NFL punting careers following their AFL retirements.

Although to date, Australian rules football has been largely confined to the island continent where it was conceived, it has begun to spread internationally. ESPN airs several matches live on Saturday nights, and also shows matches on their broadcasting website, There is also a professional American league, the USAFL, and many college clubs.

As Americans open up to new sports, and with the ability to expand coverage thanks to the internet and satellite television, Australian rules football is sure to receive a bump in popularity in America. And when it does, you can say that you heard about it here first.

YouTube clip: Big Bumps of the AFL

Call Me a Pessimist…

But here’s why each team in the NFL WON’T win the Super Bowl this year.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: There are NCAA teams that could beat the Bills. They don’t have a QB and their defense couldn’t stop offenses if they knew what play was coming. At least they have decent running back depth. Too bad their offensive line can’t block for them.

Miami Dolphins: Even with the addition of Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins still don’t have a proven passing game. Chad Henne is the guy who helmed the Michigan Wolverines against Appalachian State.

New England Patriots: Age is beginning to catch up with Patriots.Tom Brady didn’t look quite the same after a knee injury. Laurence Maroney just might be the worst starting running back in the league.They aren’t allowed to film other team’s plays anymore.

New York Jets: The Jets are the trendy preseason pick. That’s never a good sign. They cut their starting running back and replaced him with a way over the hill LaDainian Tomlinson. Mark Sanchez led the conference in interceptions last year. Who knows if Rex Ryan will be the same when he’s hungry.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco no longer has any excuses to not produce at a high level. The Ravens defense qualifies for the AARP.

Cincinnati Bengals: Since when have the Bengals been known to repeat a successful performance? Can Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco’s egos fit in the same room until February? Can Carson Palmer stay healthy?

Cleveland Browns: Why won’t the Browns win the Super Bowl? Is that a serious question?

Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashard Mendenhall is a decent but not great running back. Ben Roethlisberger will spend the toughest part of the Steelers’ schedule on the bench for “indiscretions”. Their defense is no longer good enough to carry them.

AFC South

Houston Texans: They were below average in pass coverage last year and lost their best corner. You have to do better than 8-8 to win the Super Bowl.

Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning is a great player but he’s not known for postseason heroics. Their defense is also pretty terrible.

Jacksonville Jaguars: When people are talking more about the chances your team will move to London than how they will do this year, you’re probably not headed for a very successful season.

Tennessee Titans: Because you have to have something resembling a passing game to win in the playoffs. And a running back coming off a 350 carry season generally sees a drop in production.

AFC West
Denver Broncos: In the past two offseasons, the Broncos have: fired their best coach ever, traded their best quarterback since John Elway, traded a wide receiver coming off a third consecutive 100 catch 1000 yard season, and drafted a quarterback best known for loving Jesus.

Kansas City Chiefs: There’s always a chance the Chiefs could win it this year. There’s always a chance that Shakira will divorce her husband for me, as well.

Oakland Raiders: If you need me to tell you why the Raiders won’t win the Super Bowl, you’re beyond help.

San Diego Chargers: I’ll take teams known for choking in the playoffs for 500, Alex.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: This is the Cowboys year, seriously! (We were just kidding in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009)

New York Giants: The Giants have a decent team. But you don’t win Super Bowls with decent teams, you win it with great ones.

Philadelphia Eagles: Who knows, the Eagles could finally win it this year. Donovan McNabb is bound to win it even- what’s that? They traded him? To a division rival? And they’re going to start a completely unproven player in his place? What the…

Washington Redskins: Because if Donovan McNabb gets hurt (and you know it’s going to happen at some point with that offensive line) their quarterback is Rex Grossman.

NFC North

Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler doesn’t always throw interceptions, but when he does, he prefers to throw them in the red zone.

Detroit Lions: The Lions won’t win the Super Bowl this year because pigs still can’t fly.

Green Bay Packers: Who knows how great of a quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be if his offensive line gave him time to throw the ball.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings may make the Super Bowl, but they won’t win it. It’s karma for Brett Favre.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: If the Falcons’ defense steps up and improves this year they have a chance at making the playoffs. That’s a long way from winning the Super Bowl.

Carolina Panthers: They have a great running game, and… absolutely no passing game to speak of. This team will miss Julius Peppers more than you think.

New Orleans Saints: I’ll believe the days of the Aints are over when I see it.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This team’s offense has more power outages than Enron.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals will have to choose between Derek Anderson and Matt Leinart as their quarterback. Is there a neither option?

St. Louis Rams: lol

San Francisco 49ers: Their quarterback is Alex Smith, and if you think a team from the NFC West will win the Super Bowl, I’ve got some lovely riverside property in Brooklyn to sell you.

Seattle Seahawks: Now that all of his players are getting paid instead of just the best ones, will Pete Carroll be able to have the same success?


5 NBA rookies to keep an eye on in 2010-11

1. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers- that’s right, the #1 overall pick in the 2009 draft is the top rookie in the 2010 season. After missing the 2009-10 season with a knee injury, the 21 year old will make his professional debut this year, and will be considered a rookie. At 6’10” and 250 lbs, the power forward will provide an immediate improvement to Los Angeles’ other team’s frontcourt. Griffin is an elite rebounder who averaged 15.8 per game during his sophomore season at Oklahoma. Griffin also displayed above average passing skills, with the ability to kick the ball out to open shooters on the perimeter. But the most exciting part about Griffin is his ability to run the floor at his size. On a team that features Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, Griffin will certainly fit right in, and give the Clippers one of the most exciting offensive attacks in the league this year. And although he didn’t play at all last year, Griffin got the unique opportunity to adjust and adapt to the grueling NBA schedule. Expect Griffin to get plenty of touches, and look for him to help the Clippers make a turn around and potentially contend for the last playoff spot in the West.
2. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards- generally the top pick in the NBA draft is the top pick for rookie of the year, but due to the situation with Griffin, Wall might not be the favorite. That said, this young man is an electrifying basketball player. Wall is faster with the ball than most players are without. Usually when a young player goes at such high speeds, you worry about turnovers and poor decisions, but Wall has demonstrated an ability to maintain control. Wall will immediately be one of the elite finishers above the rim in the NBA, but the reason why he is below Griffin in these rankings is his shaky jump shot. That said, the only real issue with his shot is how flat it is, which can be easily fixed with repetition and practice, something the coaching staff will certainly give him. With the talent void on this roster, expect the Wizards to put him in position to make plenty of plays, and he should be a player to keep an eye on.
3. Greg Monroe, F/C, Detroit Pistons- last year, the Pistons departed from their defensive mindset that earned them six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the result was a forgettable season that netted them the seventh overall pick. With that pick, they took this extremely talented center from Georgetown. Watching Monroe, at times you might think his unorthodox jump shot and somewhat clumsy style would result in frustrating turnovers and generally poor play, but Monroe has made it work. The 6’11” Monroe has a versatile offensive arsenal, with the ability to play back to the basket, or face up and shoot over less athletic big men. The most impressive thing about Monroe is his advanced passing and ballhandling skills, which at his size draws comparisons to Lamar Odom. The Pistons are deep in the middle of a rebuilding project, and with very little other talent in the frontcourt, Monroe should be a top option on offense.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, F/C, Sacramento Kings- Cousins goes from a young and promising Kentucky Wildcats team to a young and promising team in Sacramento. He will be paired with another one of John Calipari’s one and doners in 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans. At 7 feet, Cousins’ athletic ability is nothing short of amazing. Cousins’ outstanding footwork in the post will mean that his game will translate well to the professional ranks. Cousins will get a chance to learn from veteran defensive standout Samuel Dalembert, although there will be little for him to learn about crashing the boards. Cousins and Evans should form an extremely potent inside-outside combination, and watch out for a dangerous fast break in California’s capitol this year.
5. Xavier Henry, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies- Henry is one of the more intriguing selections of the NBA draft. Memphis already has a young rising star at shooting guard in OJ Mayo, and a franchise player they recently gave a max contract to at small forward in Rudy Gay. So why they would select Henry left many puzzled. Henry’s playing time might not be as consistent as the players listed before him, but his game may be more suited to the NBA than any other rookie guard besides Wall. Henry is a lights out shooter, and when he plays with focus, can be a shutdown defender. In addition, Henry’s likely spot on the bench could be exactly what he needs to develop as an NBA player. Despite his natural talent, Henry struggled for long stretches at Kansas, and with the attention focused elsewhere in Memphis, he has the perfect opportunity to focus on improving his game.