Tommy Lasorda, RIP: “I made guys believe”

Tommy Lasorda (right) shares a handshake with Sandy Koufax near the Dodger clubhouse. “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me,” Lasorda loved to boast about Koufax’s bonus signing leading to Lasorda’s spring 1955 cut from the major league roster. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo.)

Last year’s losses of seven Hall of Fame players (eight, if Dick Allen is elected by the Modern Era Committee this year) were bad enough. Please, Lord, let Tommy Lasorda not begin a 2021 trend of Hall of Fame managers departing our island earth.

The odds may not be very good there. There are only four living Hall of Fame managers now that Lasorda is gone at 93: Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre. Cox, Herzog, and Torre remain elder statesmen of a sort. La Russa has returned to the game to manage the White Sox, hardly without controversy.

Lasorda took the Dodgers’ bridge from Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston in 1976. Twenty-two years later, he retired as an eight-time division winner, four-time pennant winner and two-time World Series winner. It didn’t exactly come the easy way for a man whose major league life began as the marginal relief pitcher cut for a bonus baby.

Under the 1950s bonus rule mandating players kept on big-league rosters two full seasons if their bonuses were higher than $4,000, the Dodgers had to keep such a green lad after signing him for 1955. The man they cut was Lasorda, who’s said to have taken one look at the kid and said, “He’ll never make it.”

It might have taken six seasons for the kid to come into his own and beyond, but the kid was Sandy Koufax. It wouldn’t be the last time Lasorda gave himself the chance to dine out on an old mistake in judgment.

“I did not have a lot of ability, but I’ll guarantee you one thing,” Lasorda said in 1997 when recalling his own pitching days. “When I stood on that hill of thrills, I didn’t believe that there was any man alive who could hit me. And if they did hit me, which they did, I thought it was an accident.” That from the man who dined out further on Koufax, saying, “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me.”

Lasorda’s three major league seasons—eight games with 1954-55 with the Dodgers, then eighteen with the 1956 Kansas City Athletics—show 53 accidents while facing 253 batters and posting a lifetime 6.48 earned run average.

Maybe it depended upon whom you asked. To Dodger fans Lasorda was the second-closest thing to a franchise face behind Koufax himself. To non-Dodger fans, Lasorda was either loved, tolerated, or waved away. Dodger fans loved Lasorda’s “Big Dodger in the Sky” schpritzing. Non-Dodger fans thought it was either sacrilege or malarkey.

Come to think of it, not all Lasorda’s players bought into it, either. “I believe in God,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, “not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

Lasorda was nothing if not both content to be a Dodger for the rest of his life, after his playing career ended in the minors in 1960, and to be Tommy Lasorda. He wasn’t exactly one of the most modest of men, and he rarely apologised for it.

When Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully asked about the pressure of following Alston—who’d won the only Brooklyn Dodgers World Series and three more to follow in Los Angeles—the reply was almost classic Lasorda: “I’m not worried about the guy I am following. I’m worried about the guy that is going to have to follow me.”

Well, it isn’t bragging if you can kinda sorta do it.

That’s not to say Lasorda couldn’t be humbled when humility was the mandate. Maybe no manager this side of John McNamara was as humilitated in the 1980s as Lasorda was with the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh National League Championship Series game in 1985.

With two Cardinals on and first base open, Lasorda decided it was absolutely safe to let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark instead of putting Clark aboard to pitch to Andy Van Slyke. And Jack the Ripper decided it was perfectly safe to hit Niedenfuer’s first pitch three quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

“Lasorda wept in the clubhouse,” wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post several years later, “went to the players to apologise, then went on with his life. At the moment he manages the [1988] world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.”

The skipper who looked more like he’d be coming out to chat with you in his neighbourly Italian restaurant (“Two World Series Rings. Ate everything he wanted. Drank everything he wanted. 70 Years in the same work uniform. Lived For 93 Years. Absolute Legend,” tweeted sports business analyst Darren Rovell) loved being Tommy Lasorda almost as much as he loved the Dodgers.

He brought Hollywood back to the Dodgers once he realised the celebrities got as much of a kick out of him as he got out of them, and he wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet when it came to being an occasional pitchman. The problem—particularly remembering his once-familiar spots for Slim-Fast diet drink—was that he didn’t always shrink.

Of course, Lasorda’s celebrity provoked a little friendly mischief aimed his way by players who couldn’t resist tweaking him. His late utility outfielder Jay Johnstone often conspired with teammates Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse and Jerry Reuss to swipe Lasorda’s wall of photos with him and various celebrities and substitute photos of themselves in their stead. And those were the more benign pranks at the skipper’s expense.

Which didn’t stop Lasorda from writing the introduction to Johnstone’s first book, Temporary Insanity: “[He] wrote a book? What with, a fire extinguisher? . . . What’s that they say about marching to a different drummer? Johnstone must hear a symphony out there . . . That’s some book title. But I’m not so sure about the temporary part.”

The skipper’s outsize personality sometimes masked that he was as inclusive and unprejudiced as the week was long. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, brown, beige, yellow, or paisley, whether you came from flyover America, urban America, outback Mexico, downtown Tokyo, or the penguins of Antarctica. (Which may be where some people thought the Dodgers found 1970s third base mainstay Ron [The Penguin] Cey.) If you could play to the standard the Dodgers prescribed, Lasorda wanted you in the worst way possible.

He preferred positive reinforcement with his players, which didn’t necessarily keep him from reading the proverbial riot act when necessary. There were times when those players perceived as Lasorda pets enjoyed less than consistently friendly relationships with others in the Dodger clubhouse. Sutton and longtime first baseman Steve Garvey didn’t have a clubhouse brawl once upon a time because Lasorda could make them  bosom buddies.

“I made guys believe; I made them believe they could win,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I did it by motivating them. I was asked all the time, ‘You mean baseball players that make $5 million, $8 million, $10 million a year need to be motivated?’ They do. That’s what I did.”

It’s not unreasonable to suggest Lasorda’s presence at last fall’s World Series had even a little hand in pushing the Dodgers back to the Promised Land they hadn’t seen since Lasorda himself managed Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and company in 1988.

“He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher,” Scully said in a statement upon Lasorda’s death. “He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent, and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

There were if someone went nuclear against his Dodgers with bombs that didn’t sail foul.   Lasorda’s wild postgame rant after then-Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman destroyed the Dodgers with three mammoth home runs starting in the sixth inning of a fifteen-inning marathon in 1979—the Cubs won in the fifteenth after Kingman hit a three-run shot—is considered one of the greatest managerial fly acts in baseball history:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

Lasorda probably survived only because a) he was the defending National League champions’ manager, b) he had his Dodgers in the thick of the National League West race at the time, and c) he was Tommy Lasorda, liable to go from celebrity pennant winning skipper to everybody’s crazy uncle on the terrazza in the proverbial New York minute.

The hapless Los Angeles radio reporter who asked Lasorda the fateful question was Paul Olden. When Lasorda ran into Olden at a subsequent charity dinner, Lasorda apologised to Olden, even as the reporter admitted it wasn’t a brilliant question in the first place. In due course, Lasorda expanded upon it:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

That tells you something right there. Tommy Lasorda may have been one of baseball’s most unforgettable managers, but he had a sense of humour about it, even delayed, if you weren’t always inclined to agree with him.

Which is why he now steps through the gates to the Elysian Fields with the Lord in whom he devoutly believes saying, “For you, I’ll be the Big Dodger in the Sky. Better that than a bum.”

On renaming the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

A Red Smith Award or Wendell Smith Award for Hall of Fame writers?

Did you forget that the Baseball Writers Association of America is thinking of changing the name of another award, too? Much was written and said over taking Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name off the Most Valuable Player award, and the BBWAA also ponders taking J.G. Taylor Spink’s name off the Hall of Fame award given to a distinguished baseball writer every year.

Being a baseball writer myself if not a member of the BBWAA, I have particular interest in the Spink Award, even if I have more chance of winning the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary than the Spink. The BBWAA wants to change the name because Spink himself, the longtime publisher of The Sporting News, opposed “organised baseball’s” integration, and they are not wrong.

“In August 1942 [Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands,” Daryl Russell Grigsby reminded us in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball. ” . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

Claire Smith, an African-American lady and the first of her gender to receive the Spink Award, has nailed it herself. “If this is the time of introspection,’’ she told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last summer, “if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.” If Landis can be removed from the MVP award because of his active enforcement of baseball’s old and disgraceful colour line, then yes, Spink can be removed from the Hall of Fame honourarium still bearing his name.

The BBWAA is voting on that as I write. Remove Spink’s name, though, and for whom would you re-name the award?

With the MVP the choices may be simpler. You can choose Happy Chandler, the commissioner who refused to disallow Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the colour line at last; you can choose Rickey himself. You can choose instead the African-American player who remains the only one to win the MVP in each of the National and the American Leagues, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

The choices to re-name the Spink Award? One can think of quite the handful, Spink winners all, including a Pulitzer Prize winner or three while thinking.

There’s Red Smith, as close to a poet laureate of daily baseball writing as the game has known from his years with the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times. There’s Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times fixture whose wit made you think he was what Fred Allen might have been if Allen had chosen sportswriting instead of radio comedy. There’s Shirley Povich, the grand old man of Washington baseball, who practically raised the Washington Post‘s sports section by himself. Practically.

There’s Damon Runyon, who wrote eloquently, edgily, and wittily about baseball when he wasn’t celebrating Broadway. (You really should hunt down his anthology, Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) There’s Ring Lardner, baseball storyteller and reporter alike, at least before the Black Sox scandal put the first serious dent into his love of the game. (The live ball era finished what the Black Sox started for Lardner.)

There’s Wendell Smith, whose reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier was a phenomenal pressure point toward baseball’s integration, which also begs the question why the best of his baseball writings haven’t been anthologised for today’s generations who need to know the arguable most powerful black press voice toward Jackie Robinson’s advent.

There’s Smith’s African-American colleague Sam Lacy, who did with the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Smith did with the Courier. He became one of the first black members of the BBWAA while he was at it. (Lacy published a memoir, but his baseball and sports journalism, too, has yet to be anthologised so far as I know.)

And, especially, there’s Roger Angell, about whom it’s been said (by me, to a fare-thee-well, but tough tarantulas) that he isn’t baseball’s Homer, Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell. He was also the first non-BBWAA member and first non-daily baseball reporter to be honoured with the Spink Award.

Any one of those writers’ names would absolutely grace the award. But I have another dog in the hunt, by way of a journalism legend named Murray Kempton.

Kempton once attended the Meyer Berger Award luncheon at Columbia University. His Newsday colleague Jim Dwyer heard him say, “You know, I never won the Berger Award.” A New York Times honouree, Sara Rimer, said, “Murray, you just won the Pulitzer!” The courtly Kempton reminded her, “The Pulitzer is named for a publisher. The Meyer Berger is named for a reporter.”

In 1993, Kempton told David Remnick for a New Yorker profile (which included the aforementioned tale), during one of New York’s too-frequent tabloid wars, “In the end, my view of this so-called tabloid war is that I just don’t consider the character of publishers. I’m rooting for my friends—the reporters.”

(Harking back to a 1962 issue of Sport, Kempton wrote then of the Polo Grounds’ re-opening with the birth of the Mets: The return of the Polo Grounds to the National League was like the raising of a sunken cathedral. It is a place sacred in the history and hallowed in the memory. Christy Mathewson used to make his home on the bluff above the Polo Grounds. When he was working, Mrs. Mathewson could look out her window at the scoreboard and, when the seventh inning came, put the roast in the oven secure in the knowledge that her husband would be finished and showered and home from the plough in an hour.)

For re-naming the Spink Award, I’m rooting for my kindred, too—the reporters.

Met fan Cohen, athwart Met fans’ impatience

Steve Cohen, an owner who believes a jump into the pool requires water in it first.

“I don’t need to be popular,” tweeted Steve Cohen, the so-far very popular new owner of the Mets, on Monday. “I just need to make good decisions.” Apparently, there were enough Met fans thinking Cohen needed to make decisions, period, in the wake of the Padres’ wheeling and dealing and the Mets deciding not to join the hunt for Japanese pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano.

Cohen’s apparent watchword is, “If Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Mets won’t be reinforced in a week.” Met fans drained from years of Wilpon family follies say the American prayer: “Lord, grant me patience—and I want it yesterday.” For Cohen, that’s about as funny as passengers booked for seafaring passage aboard torpedoes.

When the Padres blew up the hot stove with deals making Padres of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, Met fans felt the old familiar itch to do. something. anything. like yesterday. They forgot for the moment that, before the Padres wheeled and dealt, the Mets were the most active on this winter’s odd market.

I guess on to another pitcher. @StevenACohen2 well I guess McCann and May is it for us. Time to hibernate until Spring Training,” tweeted one such fan. To which Cohen had a polite but snappy retort at once: “That’s the spirit, just give up and go to sleep.”

From the moment his purchase of the Mets was affirmed, Cohen has been singular among baseball owners for putting himself out to engage his team’s fans. He has solicited their input and suggestions. It doesn’t mean he’s inclined to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, even if they forget that he has been a Met fan himself—like me, since they day they were born.

He knows he has a team to reinforce. He knows his amiability has made him something customarily alien to baseball owners: beloved, so far. He doesn’t want to go from there to public enemy number one, but neither does he want to step imprudently into any one of several abysses.

The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman has also caught onto Met fans’ indignation: he’s been receiving no few tweets and e-mails “wondering whether Steve Cohen is the Wilpons, just hoarding a larger stash of money.

“After all,” he continues, “why was George Springer not under the Christmas tree? Why wasn’t Trevor Bauer provided to joyously greet 2021? Why James McCann and not J.T. Realmuto [behind the plate]?”

Sherman notes what such fans forget. This winter’s free agency market, for various reasons, has been about as swift as a number 7 train with a wheel chip on each car. The Mets handing James McCann $40 million for four years is both the most free agency money invested this winter and the longest contract done yet for non-foreign free agents, Sherman reminds you.

“Cohen’s promise was that the Mets would spend like a big-market team, and he should be held to that promise,” Sherman writes. “But that promise has not been broken this offseason. At least not yet.” And Cohen did not become wealthy because he reads markets the way old television jokes read Romeo and Juliet: “Two crazy kids ran off together and died.”

He’s willing to spend but not like the proverbial drunken sailor. For one thing, Cohen knows the Mets’ farm system, what will remain of it after the Show finishes its more than slightly mad stripping of the minor leagues, needs replenishment if not a mild overhaul. For another, he knows a healthy farm often leads to healthy reinforcements either by promotion to the Mets or in deals that bring healthy reinforcements if not fresh prime.

“Hey, Give the Padres credit,” Cohen tweeted after one of the Friars’ two splashy trades. “They had a top 5 farm system that gave them flexibility to trade for Snell. Newsflash, the Mets farm system needs to be replenished.”

News flash, further: Met fans may have the patience of piranha at meal time, but Cohen has no patience for falling into the position of bidding against himself. “The Blue Jays are the only other club known to want to spend lavishly in free agency,” Sherman observes, “but historically it has been difficult to lure top free agents to Canada. Cohen will have to believe that a Springer or a DJ LeMahieu is really going before he considers that game of chicken. There certainly are quieter suitors. But, again, none of the remaining big free agents will be signing without hearing Cohen’s last and best. He will not do a deal he calculates as bad just to stop the noise of even impatient Mets fans.”

Cohen’s memory, like mine, surely harks back to the 1980s when another New York team, owned by a man to whom patience was a vice, jumped into the market pools as often as not before checking to see the water level. For every Catfish Hunter, Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield, there were a few too many Dave Collinses, Joe Cowleys, Don Gulletts, Steve Kemps, Dave LaPoints, Bob Shirleys, and Ed Whitsons.

Cohen also knows that, with one or two outlying exceptions, the Yankees’ greatest successes in the free agency era have come by way of a homegrown core blended with a little smart horse trading. Yap all you want about them trying to buy pennants, but when the Yankees spent the biggest in the open market they didn’t reach the Promised Land to which Yankee fans believe they’re entitled every year.

When another fan tweeted to Cohen, “What exactly are we doing? Is James McCann really going to be our biggest pickup this offseason? Please say no,” Cohen replied, “Let me put it differently. Don’t you think someone will take our money? It just has to make sense.”

The last time any Met administrator spoke about “making sense” was when?

The Mets know their starting pitching can’t stop at Jacob deGrom, re-signed Marcus Stroman, David Peterson, due-to-return Noah Syndergaard, and just another body. Seth Lugo is far better suited at the rear end of the bullpen, which also needs all the reinforcement/replenishment it can get.

They also have a very solid core around the field and at the plate, and McCann is a big upgrade behind it. But if they really want to go in for George Springer, they need to decide who’s the expendable one to slot Springer into their outfield. They need to decide how to make things work otherwise so Jeff McNeil can be restored to his natural infield habitat.

They need to decide whether Cohen’s determination to replenish the farm is worth casting eyes upon Springer, Trevor Bauer (pitcher), and D.J. LeMahieu (middle infielder). That trio, Sherman reminds us, got qualifying offers from their 2020 teams, meaning the Mets lose draft picks if they sign any or all of them. For farm replenishment, that’s not an option. If they can only afford one big ticket, Springer may yet be their prime target. May.

Cohen and the Mets also need to find a way to help commissioner Rob Manfred off the proverbial schneid and into the right decision about last year’s experimental rules. So does, well, every other Show team. You’d like to think that even ownerships as determined to tank as Cohen isn’t don’t want to embarrass themselves entirely.

In with the universal designated hitter, once and for bloody all, and out with the other nonsense. Among other salutary things—such as an end to the lineup slot wasted by spaghetti-bat pitchers, and rallies murdered when enemy pitchers work around that potent number eight bat to strike out their counterparts—it’ll keep Dominic Smith’s bat in the lineup without having to sacrifice Pete Alonso’s bat (yes, children, Alonso’s 2020 was an aberration of a down irregular season) at first base.

Cohen seems determined to avoid the comedies of errors committed by prior team ownerships and administrations. He resists the temptations to which too many Met fans would be prone if placed into his position for even one week. A man who speaks about making sense is a man who earns a very wide benefit of the doubt.

Speaking for myself alone, now, I have a wish of my own for Cohen. It has nothing to do with wanting him to slip into a sailor’s uniform, get himself bombed out of his trees, and throw dollars around the free agency market like they were just blasted out of a pinata.

My wish is that Cohen might consider a gesture on behalf of more than a few of the Met players he, like me, grew up watching and rooting for in the 1960s and 1970s. Players whose major league careers were kept too short for assorted reasons. Players who were frozen out unconscionably when, in 1980, owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned baseball’s pension plan.

The re-alignment awarded pensions to players after 43 days’ major league service (previously, a player needed four years) and health benefits after a single day’s major league service. But it didn’t apply to short-career major leaguers who played between 1949 and 1980.

For those short-career players, their sole redress was a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-players union director Michael Weiner, a deal giving them $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league time they had, up to four years’ worth. The kicker, right in the pants, is that they can’t pass that money to their loved ones if they pass before they stop collecting the money.

Several former Mets are among what are now 618 such short-career players without full pensions other than what they receive under the Selig-Weiner deal. They include pitchers Bill Wakefield, Bill Denehy (traded to Washington in exchange for manager Gil Hodges) and Jack DiLauro (a 1969 Met, though not in the postseason), infielder Bobby Pfeil (another Miracle Met), outfielders Rod Gaspar (still another Miracle Met) and George (The Stork) Theodore, and others.

Denehy, Pfiel, and Gaspar have each told me in interviews they believe that, if Weiner had lived (he died of brain cancer in 2013), he would have worked to go further with such pension redress. The players union since has taken little to no interest in such redress; neither, apparently, does the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

But Marvin Miller, the late pioneer of the players union, is known to have said that not re-visiting the 1980 pension changes on behalf of the short-termers was his biggest regret. And if the Show has now conferred proper formal, official major league status on the seven known Negro Leagues we believed to our souls contained major leaguers all along, it should be known that there are African-American and other minority players among the frozen-out 618.

I’m not a man who believes I have the right to tell anyone else how to spend his or her money or where to channel their resources. Nor do I believe I have the right to choose another person or group’s obligations, moral or otherwise. But Gaspar had a point when he told me, last month, “They have so much money, the owners, the players’ union, they have so much money, how much money would it cost them to give the [pre-1980 short-career] guys who are still alive the pension?”

It would be a phenomenal gesture on Steve Cohen’s part if he should think well, by himself, of doing something solely for the short-career, pre-1980, former Mets affected negatively by that pension change. If nothing else, the image augmentation would be invaluable—an owner doing what the players union and alumni association either can’t or won’t.

Should Cohen consider it, however he might choose to do it, it might even kick off a wave among his fellow owners to do likewise for their teams’ frozen-out, pre-1980 short-career former players. Might. Quick: Name one owner who wouldn’t mind making the players’ union look a little foolish.

2020: Once more for the others safe at home

Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame election by this year’s Modern Era Committee would make eight Hall of Famers dying in 2020.

Last year—doesn’t that sound like sweet relief already—the passages of seven Hall of Famers added particular extra grief to an already pandemically miserable year. The further bad news is that the Magnificent Seven (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro) were not the only ones Grantland Rice’s Great Umpire called safe at home, unfortunately.

Assuming Dick Allen will be elected to the Hall by the Modern Era Committee later this year, that election will turn the Magnificent Seven into another kind of Eight Men Out. Allen played surrealistically through battling unconscionable racism in Philadelphia before he was dealt out of town at long enough last—for Curt Flood, who refused to report and elected to make his groundbreaking reserve clause challenge.

How sadly ironic. To Flood, the trade meant he was still a piece of property, even earning $90,000 in a year. (What he began, Andy Messersmith eventually finished.) To Allen, the trade was surely his Emancipation Proclamation. He posted a few more seasons of surrealistic hitting (and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award) before injuries finally ground him away, and overcame a few more personal tragedies (especially the murder of his daughter) to become a respected and loved Phillies elder statesman and community outreacher. Life and baseball couldn’t beat him but cancer finally did at 78.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” is what sportswriting legend Dick Young offered when his New York Daily News colleague Joe Trimble was stuck for an opening to write up Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. “The million to one shot came in,” wrote Washington Post legend Shirley Povich of Larsen’s perfecto. When 2020 was the new year, it wasn’t a day old before Larsen expired of esophegeal cancer at 90.

Lucky him. Larsen lived a life that went from randy to responsible and his reward, above and beyond the pleasure (and excuse for friendly needling) he took when fans and writers asked him to revisit his million-to-one game (“You want to talk about my year with the Browns,” he loved to tease), was to miss the pandemic ruination the year to come would yet wreak.

Tony Fernandez was a smart shortstop in the field and at the plate for the 1980s/1990s Blue Jays and a few others. Complications of kidney disease claimed him at 57 with far less style than he played the left half of the keystone. Yet he held a strange distinction during his brief spell in New York: in 1995, he was the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Bobby Murcer . . . two and a half decades previous.

Before Johnny Antonelli became a 1954 World Series hero pitching for the New York Giants, he inadvertently provoked Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain into a contract demand. Antonelli’s $65,000 signing bonus in 1948 was more than the combined salaries of the Braves’ two best pitchers, Johnny Sain and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Sain leveraged Antonelli’s bonus into a $30,000 salary of his own.

Antonelli proved himself as a pitcher after leaving the Braves and the Army and being dealt to the Giants, but when the Giants moved out of New York Antonelli found San Francisco less to his liking. A couple of trades and an expansion draft later, Antonelli retired to his tire business and his family. With his second wife, he also took up extensive travel, reveling in what he couldn’t see while he traveled as a pitcher, until his death at 89.

Jimmy Wynn—compact man, cannon bat.

Jimmy Wynn (78) was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for the compact body that hit screaming, prodigious home runs, even in the indoor death chamber known as the Astrodome. A few too many Astro coaches and managers monkeying around with his hitting style probably did him few favours. Same thing elsewhere, at least until he became a Dodger. Ultimately, Wynn proved you could live and learn tenfold; he became a valuable Astro asset after his playing years especially among impressionable youth who thrived at his Astro-created youth training center.

Glenn Beckert (79) shared the keystone with Don Kessinger for several Cubs teams that looked pennant competitive until their insouciantly ancient manager burned them down the stretch. “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s,” Bill James once wrote, “a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.” Matt Keough (64) was one of the Five Aces burned almost as swiftly as he rose when Billy Martin got hold of the early 1980s Athletics. Mike McCormick (81) pitched himself into the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in 1967, but he was also Mr. 500—for hitting the 500th home run to be hit by any major league pitcher.

Claudell Washington (65) was a likeable, long-serving journeyman whose 1980 free agency deal (five years, $3.5 million) jolted the game enough to provoke Phillies owner Bob Carpenter—who’d extended Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt big rather than lose him to free agency and chased down Pete Rose to sign big—selling out, because he feared fellow owners’ brains had gone to bed. John McNamara (88) barely lived down Game Six of the 1986 World Series (he left ankle-dissipated Bill Buckner in to play first for the bottom of the tenth), but his wife remembered a good, kind, loving man whose life shouldn’t be judged by one egregious mistake. Appropriately.

The Yankees’ 1965-75 term in purgatory was once nicknamed the Horace Clarke Era, but it wasn’t the fault of the smooth-fielding second baseman from the Virgin Islands who wasn’t much of a hitter but handled the right side of the keystone with sure hands and feet. Clarke (81) was proud to be a Yankee to the end of his life. He was also the poor soul who didn’t get to hit against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda with two out in the top of the ninth—when heartsick Senators fans rioted on the field and forced a forfeit in the Senators’ last game before leaving for Texas.

Bob Watson (74) was a sharp hitting first baseman and, in due course, the first black man in baseball to be the general manager of a World Series winner. Lindy McDaniel (84) was a long-serving relief pitcher of above-average excellence for lots of below-average teams and a devout Christian who became a minister after throwing his final pitch. (He’s also the last American League pitcher to homer before the league introduced the designated hitter.) Fellow reliever Ron Perranoski (84) held down the back end of the Dodger fort in the early-to-mid 60s and for two World Series championships before becoming a long-serving pitching coach.

Jay Johnstone (74) was a solid outfielder with a flair for periodic big hits (especially Game Four of the 1981 World Series) and a bigger flair for mayhem—one of the greatest flakes in the game. Over three engaging books, the fun-loving Johnstone wrote his own eulogy:

Tommy Lasorda once fixed up Ernie Broglio on a date with a female impersonator.

Mark Fidrych talked to baseballs.

Don Stanhouse shared his post-game beer with monkeys and frogs.

Mickey Hatcher left a pig in Lasorda’s office.

Bert Blyleven gave his Little League team chewing tobacco.

John Lowenstein likes to attack cakes with a baseball bat.

Richie Zisk filled Rene Lachemann’s hotel bed with Jell-O.

Ross Grimsley once snapped a losing streak by consulting a witch.

Billy Loes once refused to pitch unless Buzzie Bavasi bought him a new dog.

Joaquin Andujar was known to shower wearing his uniform.

Rick Reichardt stole razor blades, forgot he had them, and sliced his own hand when he reached into his pocket.

Dizzy Dean placed a cake of ice over home plate to “cool off my fastball.”

And I’m over the edge?

Steve Dalkowski—what might have been, if he could have controlled his thunderbolt fastball and his off-field life.

Steve Dalkowski (80) once joined Bo Belinsky in the minors in a plot to help their teammates get good looks at a comely South American Miss World contestant when he mother proved bent on keeping her away from those rapacious ballplayers: drilling holes in the wall separating his and Belinsky’s room from hers. The plot succeeded until one bozo brought a flashlight so his viewing wouldn’t stop after dark. Oops.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski fought demons from his own surrealistic but uncontrollable fastball (Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off, Red Sox infielder Dalton Jones once said of him) to alcohol and all the way to COVID-19 when he died last April. After decades in the post-baseball wilderness, his sister brought him home to Connecticut where he lived with some dignity and a lot of his memory from the almost three decades between baseball and his homecoming wiped out.

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” That’s all his loving sister wanted for him, and it proved enough for himself, as well. When invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards, Dalkowski tossed the ball, then threw his arms up in triumph from his wheelchair. Only his body and face showed the net result of a lost life. The arms up showed the spirit resurrected.

Now Dalko and all who played the game and passed last year—including such other once-familiar souls as Frank Bolling, Ted Cox, Ray Daviault, Ed Farmer, Damaso Garcia, Lou Johnson, Eddie Kasko, Phil Linz (baseball’s unquestioned master of the harmonica), Denis Menke (he was once Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s slick double play partner with the Astros), Bob Oliver, Les Rohr, Tony Taylor—truly are safe at home, in the Elysian Fields, suffering no more, and may they bask in the light, love, and game of the eternal sunshine.

2020: Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone

How sweet and surreal it was when Clayton Kershaw and his Dodgers finally won the World Series.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation and the world out in earnest in March, it looked as though the worst 2020 baseball would face was its worst cheating scandals since 1919-1920. As the year the world couldn’t wait to finish wound down, the worst baseball faced was a testily silent free agency market, the continuing attempted murder of the minor leagues, and questions as to when the 2021 season would or wouldn’t begin.

That was once upon a time: Sparky Anderson, Hall of Fame manager and doyen of the double negative: We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it. This is now: Commissioner Rob Manfred, who can’t do one right thing without doing ten wrong, inclining to keep some of the more ridiculous experiments of the pandemic-truncated season while dickering on the one he should keep: the universal designated hitter.

Otherwise, if 2020 baseball were to be a television series, it might be called Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone.

That was once upon a time: Nobody even thought of a postseason that included teams fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place. This was this year: The thrills and chills watching teams fight to the last breath to reach the postseason finishing . . . in as far down as fourth place. (The Milwaukee Brewers, in the National League Central.)

That was once upon a time, too: It would have been easier to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle than to even think about teams with losing records reaching the postseason at all, never mind the prospect of reaching the World Series. This was this year: The aforesaid Brewers (29-31) and the Houston Astros (29-31) made a losers’ Series possible, if only briefly. The good news: The Brewers got waxed two straight in a best-of-three wild card set by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The bad news: The Astros, perhaps the most hated team in baseball this year, managed to get all the way to the American League Championship Series, but no further.

That was once upon a time, further: The Dodgers winning the World Series during the final year of the Reagan Administration. This was this year: The Dodgers winning the World Series during the final year of the Trump reign of error. It only took the Dodgers the same number of years to return to the Promised Land as the retired uniform number of the greatest pitcher in franchise history—32. They beat a plucky, fun-looking collection of bargain-basement Tampa Bay Rays whose wounding flaw, exploited deftly by a deft pitching staff and acrobatic defense equal to the Rays’ own, finally came to terrible light except for that surrealistic comedy of errors that ended Game Four: their weakness at hitting with men on base.

To think that 2020 began with the worst thing on baseball’s plate being the worst cheating scandal since 1919-1920. That was way back then: members of the Chicago White Sox cheating to lose a World Series for gamblers’ payoffs promised but not completely consummated. This was now: the Astros disciplined rather mildly for having operated an illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing system in all 2017 and part of 2018. And, the Boston Red Sox having treated their MLB-installed video replay room (all teams have them) the way teenagers treat the liquor cabinet when Mom and Dad are foolish enough to go away for the weekend and leave them the keys.

Back-to-back World Series championships tainted. The Astros losing a couple of high draft picks while firing a manager plus the general manager whose fostering of an unapologetic, human relations be cheap, winning uber alles organisational culture included seeking ways to cheat technologically that fostered the Astrogate operation. The Red Sox firing the video room operator who abetted the kids in the liquor cabinet and their manager—though they re-hired the same manager after the irregular season ended. Their 21st century success must have the Red Sox thinking they can tempt more gods than the law allows.

That was spring training before the pandemic suspended baseball: the Astros were either apologetically unapologetic or unapologetically apologetic for their Astro Intelligence Agency, outraging most around the game and inspiring threats of retribution on the field. This was the delayed, irregular season: abetted by their inability (or unwillingness) to re-sign its franchise player and shore up a pitching staff, the Red Sox learned the hard way what a bitch karma can be: they finished with baseball’s second-worst irregular season record. (They were saved from complete ignominy by the Pittsburgh Pirates.)

The Dodgers said thank you very much to the Red Sox. What the Red Sox declined, the Dodgers gained in the off-season’s most significant trade. The Mookie Monster turned out to be a smash hit regular and postseason. When he wasn’t blasting timely hits, he performed like a one-man version of the 1969 Mets in right field. Maybe not enough to keep his new teammate Corey Seager from winning the National League Championship Series and the World Series most valuable player awards. But we’re sure he’ll settle happily for being Sports Illustrated’s Player of the Year.

That was baseball in suspended animation: The owners attempting to renege on an agreement to pay players full pro-rated salaries for the season whenever it might begin. This was baseball 2020 at last: a three-week “summer camp” and a sixty-game irregular season—which opened with enough COVID-19 scares to cause schedule shifts comparable to sidewalk games in which you weren’t even sure there was a pea under one of the three shells. A couple of them even had Commissioner Nero pondering whether to shut down a season that maybe shouldn’t have begun in the first place.

That was summer camp: Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman fearing for his life when he was hit with COVID-19. This was the off-season: Freeman was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. There wasn’t a jury in the world who’d have convicted him for celebrating and everyone else in baseball for agreeing the award couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

A long broadcasting career thrust into limbo. That was then, early in the season: Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman intoning that 1980s long-ball legend Jack (The Ripper) Clark was dead. (False.) This was later in the season: Brennaman was caught by an unexpectedly live microphone, before resuming his call of the game, referring to an otherwise-unnamed “f@g capital.” He apologised on the air while calling a home run. Oops. Season over for Brennaman. Career still in limbo.

That was early in the irregular season: Numerous players and teams protested silently but emphatically on single knees—and, in the case of Dominic Smith, New York Mets first baseman/designated hitter, tearfully and poignantly—over police killings of unarmed or un-resisting black suspects. This was mid-December: The Show’s government emphatically declared, postseason, dammit the Negro Leagues were major leagues after all. Nice of it to notice what we all knew damn well in our hearts, minds, and hips, for decades preceding.

Will the Show and other professional baseball leagues—those left standing when baseball government finally finishes stripping the minors—reach out to make more black players, coaches, and executives feel welcome?

And will someone, anyone, whether among the players’ union or maybe an enterprising and conscience-blessed owner, finally move to redress that little matter of 618 pre-1980, short-career major leaguers still frozen unconscionably out of the 1980 pension re-alignment?

Truly inquiring minds will always want to know.

This was also the irregular season:

Aaron Judge (Yankees) nailed the season’s first official hit, Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) nailed its first official home run, and Juan Soto (Nationals) was missing in action thanks to a positive COVID-19 test. The good news: Soto recovered and went on win what you might call the Quadruple Crown: he led the National League in hitting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.

The Miami Marlins survived a COVID outbreak and scare and 167 roster moves in two months to finish second in the National League East.

Texas Rangers pitcher James Jones was quarantined for COVID in April, tripped over his young son’s toy at home, and tore his knee’s patellar tendon to cost himself whatever the 2020 season would be.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher (and erstwhile Met) Zack Wheeler tore a fingernail trying to don a pair of jeans, costing him nine days between starts in September. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure you should expect him to endorse Levi’s any time soon.

Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger hit what proved the game-winning home run in Game Seven, National League Championship Series . . . and suffered a dislocated shoulder when teammate Enrique Hernandez celebrated with him a little too hard.

Chicago Cubs Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Jason Heyward combined to hit six home runs in Wrigley Field . . . all season long. Chicago White Sox Jose Abreu hit six home runs in Wrigley Field . . . in a single series.

Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager picked up a late July hit with the bases loaded—and got no runs batted in. The ball hit his teammate Chris Taylor on the basepath, meaning an out and inning over.

Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes needed a mere 804 days to hit three home runs in three straight days—then left the team over further health concerns.

Nick Castellano’s first series in Comerica Park as a former Detroit Tiger included hitting two homers in a single game against them. You never did that for us, you bum you!

Tigers pitcher Tyler Alexander accomplished something never done by Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan, but done once by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—striking nine straight batters out, in an early August game.

Home runs and/or foul balls hit numerous cutout figures in the stands, including but not limited to Mets outfielder/infielder Jeff McNeil’s dog and a teddy bear perched in a seat beyond the left field foul pole in the Oakland Coliseum. Right in the snoot.

The first ten 2020 starts for Braves pitcher Max Fried: no home runs surrendered. Start number eleven: back-to-back home runs surrendered. He’s not liable to be invited to shoot at the craps table any time soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Derek Holland on 8 August: four home runs surrendered before he recorded a single out. Everyone else: Oy! Pirates fans: It figures.

Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ defending Cy Young Award winner, went fishing in August: he pitched against no one but the Marlins in August thanks to bizarre pandemic-inspired scheduling. The Marlins won’t complain if they don’t see him again for a full year: they got four earned runs over the four deGrom starts. DeGrom’s four straight against the same team hadn’t been seen in 91 years, since Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons.

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso set the rookie home run record in 2019 without hitting a single game-ending blast. Bottom of the tenth vs. the Yankees in Citi Field on 3 September: Alonso bats with the free cookie on second to open . . . and hits one out to win it.

In the top of that tenth: The free cookie on second didn’t do the Yankees any good—a line drive double play and a strikeout, to set up Alonso’s finisher.

Will Smith (Dodgers) homered off Will Smith (Braves), Game Five, National League Championship Series.

The pandemically-inspired ballpark shiftings for safety’s sake meant that the Dodgers hit more home runs in the new Globe Life Field (34 in nineteen games) than the regular-tenant Texas Rangers (27 in thirty games) did. Don’t ask.

Braves reliever Mark Melancon surrendered one less home run all year than he caught in the bullpen in the NLCS.

Brett Phillips, Rays last man on the bench: No hits in a month, no game-ending hits ever, no plate appearances in two and a half weeks. Two outs, two strikes, bottom of the ninth, Game Four of the World Series: Base hit, two Dodger errors, tying run home, then Randy Arozarena—the Rays’ postseason bombardier par excellence—diving home and slapping the plate nine times for emphasis with the winning run.

Country Joe West—it’s said that he’s one of the greatest umpires since the invention of the job but nobody’s inclined to agree with him—ejected Nationals GM Mike Rizzo for arguing balls and strikes . . . from the second deck of the ballpark. At the rate he’s going, West just might eject an owner from his team’s executive offices.

Seven Hall of Famers—Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro—were called home to the Elysian Fields. If the Modern Era Committee elects Dick Allen to the Hall of Fame at last, that’ll make eight. (Allen died in December.) No wonder even the most devoted baseball fans ended the year saying too much was enough already.

Always remember Andujar’s Law: In baseball, there’s just one word: you never know. Too often, as in pandemic 2020, that’s the scary part.