When it gets late, ditch the clock

Max Scherzer

[I]f everybody’s playing baseball the way it should be, don’t ever let that [pitch] clock determine the outcome of the game. Ever.—Max Scherzer.

Very well, I surrender. I can live with the pitch clock—on one condition. The same condition by which the Mets’ Opening Day starting pitcher, Max Scherzer, can live with it.

“I’m not saying the clock’s not valuable,” Scherzer tells The Athletic’s Spink Award Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark. “It is. But if everybody’s playing baseball the way it should be, don’t ever let that [pitch] clock determine the outcome of the game. Ever.”

Max the Knife was agreeing with Stark’s own assessment, an agreement with which I agree, too, with one codicil I’ll note shortly:

I’d be thinking seriously about turning the clock off in the eighth and ninth innings of games when the score was within three runs either way. That removes the chances of a game ending on a pitch-clock technicality. Plus, when those at-bats freeze in time, as the tension hangs over the big moment, that doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of “dead time.” Does it?

How is it any kind of problem if the game-turning at-bats late in tight games last a few seconds longer? Isn’t that the lesson of Mike Trout versus Shohei Ohtani, as the most dramatic final at-bat any WBC scriptwriter could ever write?

My codicil: Turn the damn pitch clock off for the eight and the ninth, period, I don’t care what the score happens to be. Not even if the game still looks like a blowout with a mushroom cloud. It’s entirely possible for a team to pick up, dust off, and neutralise or overthrow a blowout in the mid or late innings.

You demand the evidence? You got it. Here are the regular season double-digit deficits that started closing up in the fifth or later across Show history:

Twelve-run deficit5 August 2001: The Guardians (known then as the Indians) down that margin coming into the seventh. Manager Charlie Manuel may or may not have thought it was the impossible deficit when he pulled four regulars out of the lineup. Well, now: Three in the seventh, four in the eighth, five in the ninth—and with two outs, yet—forcing extra innings where a no-name named Jolbert Cabrera sent Kenny Lofton home with a broken-bat single in the eleventh. Final score: 15-14.

15 June 1925: Philadelphia Athletics vs. Cleveland. Down by twelve in the seventh as well, Connie Mack’s men scored once in that inning . . . then sent thirteen runs home in the eighth, an uprising only beginning when Jimmy Dykes slashed a three-run triple. It ended with Hall of Famer Al Simmons hitting a three-run homer. In between, nine of ten reached on seven singles and two walks. Talk about serving the ancient Indians a shit sandwich: they couldn’t push a run across in the top of the ninth. Final: 17-15.

Eleven-run deficit17 April 1976: Phillies vs. Cubs. The Phillies were in the hole 13-2 by the fifth. Oops. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit a two-run homer in the fifth. They scored three in the seventh, five in the eighth (two-run single by should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen; three-run bomb by Schmidt), three in the ninth for a 15-13 lead, and—after the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the ninth—a third homer from Schmidt (two runs) and a sacrifice fly, answered by only one Cub run in the bottom of the tenth. 18-6 your final from the Friendly Confines.

Ten-run deficit—As it happens, there are five such games:

2 June 2016, Mariners vs. Padres. The Ms down ten in the top of the sixth; came back to win, 16-13. The biggest inning—the seventh, when the Ms sent nine runs home on seven RBI singles.

8 May 2004, Rangers vs. Tigers. Down 14-4 in the fifth, the Rangers marched back to win, 16-15, in ten innings.

21 August 1990, Phillies vs. Dodgers. Down 11-1 in the eighth, the Phillies overthrew the Dodgers, 12-11. The biggest inning—the Phillies’ nine-run top of the ninth, including John Kruk’s one-out, all-runs-unearned grand slam to tie, followed by a base hit and an RBI double to take the lead the Dodgers couldn’t close in the bottom of the ninth.

4 June 1989, Blue Jays vs. Red Sox. Down 10-0 entering the seventh. The biggest inning—none, really: Two in the seventh on a double play grounder and a ground-rule double. Four in the eighth on a two-run single, an RBI double, and an RBI single. Game-tying RBI single in the ninth. Unanswered two-run homer in the top of the twelfth. 13-11, Jays the final.

25 April 1901, Tigers vs. Orioles. OK, that’s a ringer: in 1901, the Orioles were born as the Milwaukee Brewers, before moving and becoming the infamous St. Louis Browns who moved to Baltimore in 1954. The Tigers trailed 13-3 in the eighth. The game log isn’t available, but the line score is: the Tigers scored one in the eighth and ten in the bottom of the ninth. 14-13 your final, and that was four years before a kid named Ty Cobb arrived in Detroit. By the way, that was also Opening Day, folks.

Berra’s Law: It ain’t over till it’s over. Andujar’s Law: In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know. Stark’s Law: In baseball, anything can happen. Kallman’s Amendment: . . . and usually does. Incumbent or newborn, the rules should not make room for another of Professor Yogi’s fabled observations to come sickeningly true: It gets late early out there.

Emphasis on “classic”

Shohei Ohtani

Baseball’s great unicorn struck baseball’s greatest all-around position player out to end the WBC in Japan’s favour. Who says baseball’s gods don’t know how to script classics anymore?

Well, now. Japan walked it off against Mexico, earning the chance to face the United States in Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic final, and those who hadn’t been driven away by the harrumphing over Edwin Diáz’s season-ending injury after closing out a win by Puerto Rico last week got the most dreamy of dream matches.

Teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani squared off in the WBC final. It was Japan’s third trip to that final dance and first since 2009. It was Trout’s first appearance in any kind of championship or championship-aiming game since his third full major league season.

The game’s greatest all-around position player, still, against its unicorn of a virtuoso two-way player. Anyone who says this was what Trout and Ohtani really signed up for when Ohtani joined the Angels and Trout extended with them is fooling him or herself. But it slammed an exclamation point down upon this WBC in ways that would have been ridiculed as corny in a Hollywood treatment.

There was Trout, with Mets jack-of-most-trades Jeff McNeil aboard on a leadoff walk and two out—thanks to Mookie Betts dialing Area Code 4-6-3—for the United States. There was Ohtani on the mound for Japan. There was Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on deck. And there was Ohtani throwing a slider just away from Trout’s swing. Strike three. 3-2, Japan. Third WBC title for Japan in three trips to the penultimate game.

“I was hoping,” Goldschmidt said postgame, “when Jeff got on base, that if Mike hit a two-run homer to win the game, that everyone was going to go bananas, that the world was going to end.”

“Great pitch,” said Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado. “If Mike Trout’s not hitting it, I don’t think anybody else is.”

“It sucks it didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Trout said postgame. Then, he tipped his fins to his Angels teammate in Japan’s silks. “He won Round One.” Suggesting there might be yet one more showdown between the pair in another WBC a few years hence. Might. Who knows? Both Angel teammates say they’ll be back for the next one.

Teammates and friends in MLB, Trout and Ohtani (and everyone else partaking) knew this one had the potential of immortality. After Ohtani ignited the rally that pushed Japan past Mexico at the eleventh hour, with a leadoff double, he let the world know just how aware of it he really was.

“Obviously, it’s a big accomplishment to get to the championship series,” he told reporters, “but there’s a huge difference between getting first and second. I’m going to do all I can to get to first place.” He made good on it.

Dream makers loved nothing more than to see Ohtani on the mound with Trout at the plate. Ohtani said he’d be available for bullpen duty in the title game. If brought in and Trout was on his inning’s menu, there wouldn’t really be words to describe the moment’s electricity.

That wouldn’t stop assorted observers and pundits from hunting those words. They wouldn’t all be hosannas, either. From the moment Diáz went down with a patellar tendon tear that put paid to his 2023 season for the Mets while celebrating a Puerto Rico win, the volume of screaming bloody murder has equaled that of reminding one and all that freak injuries—which is precisely what Diáz’s was—can happen any old time.

In spring training. En route a spring training camp. In your own home or driveway. At the supermarket or the mall. Even playing with your children at home or on the beach or in a park. Celebrating after MLB wins regular, postseason, or postseason-sending alike. Or, suffering a non-contact anterior cruciate ligament tear just prior to the WBC’s beginning in the first place—as happened to Dodgers middle infielder Gavin Lux to put paid to his 2023 season, too.

My, but the lack of bleating about canceling spring training because of its dangers was enough to leave you with a bad case of tinnitus, wasn’t it? But the Mets’ top relief pitcher incurring an absolute freak injury that can happen—and has happened—any old time during an MLB season or postseason caused what seemed like half the world demanding the WBC’s demise, post haste.

Trout probably spoke for his teammates, the players on all competing WBC teams, and the fans watching those games in the ballparks and on television where possible, when he said, “It was probably the funnest ten days I’ve ever had. I can’t really express what’s different about it. You can just feel it in your veins. It’s a special, special feeling.”

Baseball was fun to play again. The WBC was fun to watch. Three trainloads of MLB players entered the WBC representing their home countries or countries to which their families have powerful enough ties. They had the time of their lives playing games that meant something to them personally. In a tournament that looked more sensibly arrayed than MLB’s competition-diluting postseason array. Jumpstarting renewed interest in baseball in the countries whom they represented.

Maybe Mets pitcher Max Scherzer’s onto something when he says move the WBC out of springtime and into the All-Star break’s time frame.

Maybe with the All-Star Game meaningless, after all, what with the infestation and continuing pestilence of regular-season interleague play, it ought to be dumped once and for all and the WBC should take center stage in mid-July.

Maybe MLB’s lords should think twice before signing off on any more Rob Manfred rule tinkerings, time-of-game twistings, and postseason maneuverings. Then, maybe they should tell him to either think of remaking MLB’s postseason as truly meaningful as the WBC proved or find another line of work. (While they’re at it, they can tell him they’ve had it with broadcast blackouts, just the way fans have had it. It hurts the lords, too.)

Maybe MLB’s lords should just think, period. Or would that be asking them to behave beyond their competence?

Freak vs. foolish injuries

Edwin Diáz

Edwin Diáz helped off the field after a freak season-ending knee injury while celebrating Puerto Rico’s quarterfinal advance in the WBC.

No, it’s not happy news that Mets relief ace Edwin Diáz is going to miss the 2023 season after tearing his patellar tendon celebrating Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic win. (Diáz and teammates whooped it up after beating the Dominican Republic to advance to the WBC quarterfinals.) But no, this does not exactly fall under the heading of Incredibly Stupid Injuries By Guys Who Ought to Know Better.

Further: I’d be all-in on shifting the WBC to a time of year when baseball players are in better shape to compete. Mets pitcher Max Scherzer thinks it might supplant the All-Star Game entirely and enable a full week’s worth of a mid-year break. That might be worth a look, if you can get past teams having similar concerns about their stars adding wear and maybe injuries as the stretch drive approaches. Might.

Meanwhile, the WBC means something to every player who signed up for it, whether representing MLB’s home country or representing their own home countries. They’re putting it on the line for the sort of honour that escapes the like of Keith Olbermann with his insouciantly sexist conclusionThe WBC is a meaningless exhibition series designed to: get YOU to buy another uniform, to hell with the real season, and split up teammates based on where their grandmothers got laid.

Diáz is also not the only one who went in, either, on a fresh or potential delicious multi-year, nine-figure deal. That’s how many millions Shohei Ohtani figures to make when he hits the market this fall, assuming the Angels decide to let him walk all the way into someone else’s arms?

You think Diáz tearing his patellar celebrating a key win is dumb at all, never mind the worst of the dumb? You sure don’t know the real history of incredibly foolish injuries. Diáz’s was a freak injury. It could have happened at a family wedding during some particularly exuberant whooping-it-up. It could have happened walking out to his car from the mall. He wasn’t even a hundredth as foolish as the following roll of baseball players and their incredibly weird injuries:

Bite Me Dept.—1923: Nondescript pitcher Clarence Bethen put his false teeth into his hip pocket, thinking he looked meaner on the mound when they were out. His lifetime 7.32 ERA thinks otherwise. But in one game he actually hit a double, slide hard into second—and took a bite in the butt from the pocketed choppers.

CONCLUSION: That wasn’t what they meant by putting your teeth into your work. (What was Bethen expecting when he pulled up at second—an immediate corned beef on rye with mustard?)

Jim and Jill Went Down the Hill Dept.—1967: Cy Young Award-winning Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg went skiing after the season. That’s where he suffered the torn left knee ligaments that cost him half the 1968 season and left him far less than the pitcher he was in 1967. It’s said Lonborg’s companion on that trip was actress Jill St. John, of whom he may or may not have been in hot pursuit down the slope.

CONCLUSION: Well, nobody could blame anyone for giving a Jill St. John hot pursuit. Except maybe Lonborg’s manager, Dick Williams, who probably took it as a) a devastating loss going into 1968; and, b) a personal affront to himself. Not necessarily in that order.

(Lonborg’s happy ending: he became a respected New England dentist after his pitching career ended, retiring from practise in 2017.)

Chumpionship Ring Dept.—1970: Braves closer Cecil Upshaw thought demonstrating his slam dunk technique by way of an awning on the street was a clever idea . . . until it cost him the entire season, after his ring got caught in it and he damaged ligaments in his hand.

CONCLUSION: Leave the slamming dunks to the ones who get paid to do them. The ones who wear NBA or WNBA underwear.

Take Him Out of the Ball Game Dept.—1983: On an off day for the Royals, Hall of Famer George Brett broke his toe running from . . . his kitchen to his living room, to continue watching a Cubs game, specifically to see his buddy Bill Buckner hit.

CONCLUSION: That was a foolish idea no matter whom Brett couldn’t bear not to see at the plate.

Rolling Blunder Dept.—1985: Vince Coleman, the Cardinals’ road running base thief, got his foot caught in a tarp-rolling machine at Busch Stadium before Game Four of the National League Championship Series. Incurring a bone chip in his knee and a foot bruise, Coleman—who set a rookie record for stolen bases that year—was stopped for the rest of that postseason.

CONCLUSION: It’s a lot safer to put your foot in your mouth. (Coleman did, a few times during his major league career.) But, seriously, this, too, was more of a freak accident than Vincent Van Go deciding to challenge a tarp roller to a footrace.

Cowboy Down Dept.—1986: Hall of Famer Wade Boggs once missed a week with a back strain suffered when . . . pulling on a pair of cowboy boots. This gave pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps a bad name.

CONCLUSION: Easy does it.

Oh, What a Mangled Web Dept.—1990: Then-Blue Jays outfielder Glenallen Hill fell out of bed and right into a glass table—suffering bruises and cuts on elbows, knees, and legs—as he . . . awoke violently from a nightmare about spiders.

CONCLUSION: Calling your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man . . .

Ice, Ice, Baby Dept.—1993: Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson fell asleep with an ice bag on his foot . . . and the Man of Steal suffered a nasty case of frostbite, which froze him out of three August games.

CONCLUSION: There’s more than one reason not to doze off during a game.

Sorry, Wrong Number Dept.—1994: Relief pitcher Steve Sparks once thought that just because a motivational speaker he’d seen could rip a thick phone book in half he could do it—until his dislocated shoulder told him, “No, you can’t.”

CONCLUSION: Don’t believe everything you see.

Bed Sore Dept.—2002: Outfielder Marty Cordova once suffered a bad sunburn across his face . . . on a tanning bed.

CONCLUSION: Tan, don’t burn, get a Coppertone tan.

Oh, Deer! Dept.—2005: Promising Rockies rook Clint Barmes was given some choice deer meat by elder teammate Todd Helton. The venison won the battle when its weight caused Barmes to fall and break his collarbone. He went from leading National League rookies in most offensive categories to journeyman after recovering.

CONCLUSION: Presume that Bambi isn’t exactly one of Barmes’s favourite films.

Pie in the Sky Dept.—2010: Marlins utility man Chris Coghlan tore the meniscus in his left knee when . . . he fell while trying to smoosh a pie in the face of Wes Helms, who’d just won a game for the Fish with a game-ending bases-loaded single.

CONCLUSION: It might have been a good thing Helms didn’t win it with a grand slam—Coghlan might have been tempted to try hitting him with a whole bakery truck.

Honey, I Forgot to Look Dept.—2012: Jonathan Lucroy reached under his bed for a sock and didn’t see his wife fiddling with suitcases on the bed. One of the suitcases fell over the bed and onto Lucroy’s hand. He hit the disabled list after trying but failing to hide that he couldn’t grip his bat properly.

CONCLUSION: Look out above.

Baggage Claim Dept.—Royals catcher Salvador Perez punished his knees enough in thousands of squats behind the plate without blowing the opening of the 2018 season when he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee . . . while carrying a heavy suitcase up some steps.

CONCLUSION: There are reasons Mr. Otis invented the (ahem) safety elevator.

Now you tell me what’s worse or what’s less responsible—a freak accident while celebrating a tournament win? Or, blowing a season showing on the street that you could have busted a backboard any old time you chose?

Joe Pepitone, RIP: The shakiest Yankee

Joe Pepitone, Yogi Berra

Joe Pepitone (left) with Hall of Fame teammate (and 1964 Yankee manager) Yogi Berra. Pepitone once remembered Berra telling him, “I wish I could buy you for what you’re worth and sell you for what you think you’re worth.” (Yogi Berra Museum photo.)

No Yankee position player to emerge in the early post-Casey Stengel era was as talented as Joe Pepitone, who died Monday morning at 82. No Yankee of the same period was equally as self-immolating, either.

As a baseball player, Pepitone was a three-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove first baseman with a World Series grand slam on his resumé. As a man, to describe him as a mess was to be polite.

The slender kid from Brooklyn’s tough Park Slope section with a powerful bat, and sure hands and feet at first base, waged a war inside his heart and soul. He threw his career into a wild morass of long nights, reckless spending, wanton sex, and bouts of indifference. He may have been a fresh air blast through the staid Yankee image, but it sprang from and then dug its own tortuous well.

Pepitone was the oldest son of a violently abusive Brooklyn construction worker whom he worshiped and feared at once. The elder Pepitone didn’t seem to know or care about the distinctions between true misbehaviour and simple human error. The bruises and welts on his son’s body (he once clocked his son a shot that sent the kid’s head through the glass of a washing machine door) would prove nothing compared to those in the boy’s head and heart.

When Pepitone began attracting baseball scouts’ attention as a teenager, his father’s temper hit further verbal extremes; a heart attack forced the old man to stop beating him at last. But when the boy interceded in an argument between his parents, and the father lashed at him with particular malevolence, the boy blurted out to his mother, perhaps out of years of pain, “I really wish he’d die!”

Two days later, that’s just what happened, thanks to a second heart attack, sending Pepitone into a mental prison of guilt even as it spun him into a sense of liberation. In time, he’d sign with the Yankees and spend his entire signing bonus (including on a flashy Thunderbird convertible) en route his first spring training camp in 1958. (Stengel invariably called him “Pepperone.”)

He was lively and fun-loving, but he also used his Yankee affiliation to attract women who took him to their beds—even if it meant eventually trashing his first two marriages and costing himself three children. After a trip through the minors that was as randily adventurous as productive on the field, Pepitone reached the Yankees in spring 1962.

He’d show enough that the Yankees traded veteran incumbent Moose Skowron to the Dodgers for 1963. He would have his moments until the Yankees finally threw their hands up and traded him to the Astros after the 1969 season: a solid 1963; blasting a World Series grand slam (Game Six, 1964); a 31-homer season (1966); three Gold Gloves at first base.

He was fan friendly, and stories abound about his unfailing politeness and sincerity when meeting fans during and after his playing career. “To know Joe Pepitone,” wrote sportswriter Bill Madden in Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “was always to like Joe Pepitone . . . He just never felt secure enough to believe people could really like him for who he was, a genuinely giving person . . . whose only real weakness was the addiction to celebrity.”

His Yankee popularity was also his entree to such heavy spending bills that it wasn’t uncommon to discover process servers greeting him on the road and at home. The shakiest Yankee of his time, he sometimes disappeared without word and returned with remorse that lasted until the next party, the next bedmate, the next suspension, the next battle in his lifelong mental and spiritual war.

Exiled from the Yankees, Pepitone chafed under the more heavily-regimented Astro regime of the time, got himself suspended when he jumped the team to return to New York, and got himself picked up by the Cubs on the waiver wire in August 1970. A year later, he had arguably his best season as a player. While a Cub, he met a Playboy Bunny who’d become his third wife and with whom he had two more children.

Pepitone still couldn’t defeat his inner furies or avoid damaging his personal and familial relationships, alas. (The Yankees once sent him to an analyst, but he said he feared the analyst was far more interested in Yankee favour than in him.) Two businesses he co-formed failed; the second, a Chicago bar, lost clientele following a Chicago police investigation into rampant drug activity in the area, forcing Pepitone, its celebrity co-owner, to sell his share.

He retired, then un-retired in 1972, then was traded to the Braves in early 1973. Despite seeming to rediscover his form at the plate in four games as a Brave, Pepitone retired from the Show for good in May 1973. He went to Japan on a two-year contract with the Yakult Atoms (long since known as the Swallows).

After driving home the game winner against the Yomiuri Giants in his first game, he and his wife struggled enough to acclimate to Japan. His baseball passion waned; he claimed injuries to stay out of games while hitting the nightclubs or traveling to America and back regardless. Finally he asked for and obtained his release. His surname became Japanese vernacular for loafing.

Pepitone returned to New York, where he started an Italian delicatessen restaurant that also failed. He tried a brief baseball comeback in the Pacific Coast League before playing professional softball for a spell. By the end of the 1970s he’d become a Yankee minor league instructor, a role in which he was credited with helping a solid-hitting kid named Don Mattingly sharpen himself into an above-average defensive first baseman.

He coached first base for the Yankees briefly in 1982. He was arrested in 1985 with two other men when the driver ran a red light but drugs were found in the car. He spent time in New York’s notorious Riker’s Island jail in 1988 on misdemeanor drug convictions; he was busted for a 1992 fight in the Catskills after a man denounced him as “a washed-up nobody.” In 1995 he pleaded guilty to DUI after a crash in the Queens Midtown Tunnel. In the new century, his third marriage ended in divorce as well.

“I gave [my family] ample reason to be concerned about me, about my self-destructiveness, and I’m sorry about that. Truly sorry that I brought them down so many times,” he wrote in his 1975 memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. “I know now that you can’t [eff] over yourself without messing up the people you care about most, and with that knowledge comes the greatest pain of all. You do what you have to do, and you pay the price—but you pay it doubly when you see how it has hurt others you love.”

Joe Pepitone

Pepitone talking to reporters before a Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day event.

It only took three more decades from there before Pepitone—who once enticed Mantle and Whitey Ford into smoking marijuana, and who maintained a working relationship with the Yankees after his playing days and through all his future troubles—finally seemed to act on such truths. (He may or may not have been prodded, too, by a book written by two nephews, Soul of a Yankee, mixing biography with fantasy in a likely bid to shake and wake their uncle fully at last.)

“I began seeing a psychiatrist and I learned that I’m bipolar,” he told Society for American Baseball Research biographer David Krell in 2018, adding that he rebuilt relationships with his family, his second and third former wives, and three of his five children. Pepitone eventually moved to Kansas City to live with one of his daughters.

Abused children go forward in numerous ways. Not all dive as deeply into the demimonde and wreak the havoc upon their loved ones and their selves that Pepitone wreaked. He came from a time in which child abuse and bipolarity were little discussed, if at all. He chose the wrong salves without building or sustaining real support around him. If he truly rebuilt those relationships and finally came to full terms with his self-immolation, it speaks well of the man he became at long enough last.

But it could have been so much different, so much earlier, for those Pepitone loved and for himself, and in that order. May the Lord confer continued healing upon those he left behind, justice upon the father who so damaged him, and mercy upon himself.

Albie Pearson, RIP: Little big man

Albie Pearson

Albie Pearson having a little fun with teammates in the Angels’ dugout.

“I never have the satisfaction of looking an umpire in the eye, I’m forever signing autographs for kids taller than I am, and human skyscrapers like Norm Zauchin and Jim Lemon of our club make me feel like a midget when they walk by but, hand me a bat and let me step into the box, and I’m as good as the next guy—some of ’em, at least.” Thus said 5’5″ outfielder Albie Pearson, then with the ancient Washington Senators, in the Chicago Tribune in 1958, the year he was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

He proved a man far bigger than his physical lack of stature.

Pearson died 21 February at 88. He’s remembered far better for his tenure as one of the original Los Angeles/California Angels, picked in the American League’s first expansion draft. In fact, in a couple of ways he evoked the Biblical admonition that the last shall be the first.

The Senators swapped him to the Orioles and Pearson had an up and down life between Baltimore and the Orioles’ farm system. Then he heard the Angels were being created in his native southern California. He wrote to the new team’s general manager, Fred Haney, asking to be drafted. Haney granted his wish—as the thirtieth and final player to be chosen.

When the new Angels played their first official game, against Pearson’s former Orioles mates as things worked out, Pearson drew the new team’s first walk and scored its first run, coming home after Ted Kluszewski, the former Reds muscleman, hit the new team’s first official home run with two out in the top of the first. Kluszewski would hit the second official Angels home run an inning later.

“When my kids say grace,” the devout Pearson told Sports Illustrated for a 1963 profile (“The Littlest Angel”), “they say, ‘Dear Lord, bless this food, bless Mommy and Daddy and please help the Angels win and help Daddy get a hit. Amen.”

I’m a firm believer in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I try to live by them without making myself obnoxious. I live my life as an example and I’m not ashamed of it. I want to be careful I don’t ruin my image as the little guy’s idol. I get letters from mothers telling me how proud they are of me because they haven’t seen my picture in a cigarette ad. I’m no prude and I don’t knock ballplayers who smoke or drink. I, too, live my life to the fullest, but I do it in a different way. There is something inside of me other than the shell going out and playing baseball. I’m kidded and goaded by the guys to get me in spots unbecoming to the way I believe. The person that puts his standards very high has to be careful. Everybody to his own life. I don’t try to push mine, but I’ll talk to anyone who’s interested in what I’m digging. I admit there are very few.

Sometimes, Pearson got goaded into unbecoming spots through no fault of the guys’ own—sort of. Early in 1963, Pearson asked to room with Bo Belinsky, the lefthanded pitcher who became the Angels’ sex symbol the previous season. (“I thought maybe I could get him in bed early,” Pearson cracked.) According to Belinsky biographer Maury Allen, Pearson and Belinsky shared only one thing that might, maybe, be considered a vice. Each man drove a candy-apple red Cadillac convertible. And it led to a hilarious mishap.

At the time, Belinsky’s collection of girlfriends included an Asian lady named Zenida who caught up to him not long after his once-fabled 1962 rookie no-hitter. She decided to wait for Belinsky in the player parking lot, perched atop what she thought was Belinsky’s Cadillac. Oops. “Here comes Albie out of the park with his wife,” Belinsky told Allen.

He’s walking toward the car. He sees Zenida sitting on the car, her (cheongsam) dress up to her ass, her legs twitching all over the place. She’s halfway across the parking lot and can’t really see who it is, so she’s waving because she knows it’s a ballplayer with a broad coming out of the players’ entrance and who could it be but me? When Albie gets a little closer she stops waving, but by that time it’s too late. Albie is white as a ghost and his wife is just pissed.

As roommates, Belinsky and Pearson weren’t exactly soul mates. Pearson ultimately switched to room on the road with another pitcher, Don Lee. “I tried not to disturb him,” Lee told SI. “He’s small and he burns up a lot of energy, so I know how important sleep is to him. Albie was no trouble. If he got noisy I just stuffed him in a drawer.”

Pearson developed a sound sense of humour about his lack of height early. Nicknamed the Littlest Angel, Pearson looked anything but little in 1963, his All-Star season. He had a .402 on-base percentage, a .304 hitting average (I’ll explain shortly), and though the National League won the All-Star Game Pearson started a tying rally in the third inning with a double off Cardinals pitcher Larry Jackson, coming home when Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone singled him in with one out, before Twins catcher Earl Battey singled Malzone home to tie the game at three. (The final: 5-3, NL.)

Pearson’s Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) for 1963 was a respectable .484. He wasn’t a power hitter but he was a tough strikeout: he finished his major league career with 282 fewer strikeouts than walks. Self-aware almost to a fault, Pearson was more than content to exercise his abilities as they were and not as he might have wished them secretly to have been.

“I never was a star and I never will be,” he told SI. “I fit on the field now but it wasn’t always that way. Once–well, I wasn’t taken as a freak, but it was, ‘He’s there, he’s not going to hurt you.’ If I can be an adequate ballplayer there’ll always be a place for me. I’ll do the very best I can but comes the time there’s someone better.”

Albie & Helen Pearson

Albie and Helen Pearson at Father’s Heart Ranch, which they devoted to abused and abandoned pre-teen boys with the same commitment it took to raise five children of their own. (Orange County Register photo.)

He couldn’t stick consistently as a regular as often as not. Then, during spring training 1966, he ruptured two discs in his back on a hard slide. He got into two regular season games after he recovered, that July, but elected to sit the rest of the season out and retire after it. His back plus the Lord told him to do it.

He made his way after baseball as the part owner of Mighty Mite, a company making adhesive grips for sports equipment. In 1972 he became an ordained minister in the Baptist Church. He started a southern California youth foundation aimed at keeping children far away from drugs and another non-profit aimed to train ministers and pastors for setting up churches and orphanages in South America and Africa.

By 1997, Pearson and his wife, Helen—parents of five, eventual grandparents of seventeen and great-grandparents of sixteen—sold their California home to create Father’s Heart Ranch in Desert Hot Springs, a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned boys between ages six and twelve. The facility included both a Little League baseball team and a Pop Warner football team. The companion Father’s Heart International also provided food to four thousand Zambian children left orphaned when their parents died of AIDS.

That’s the man about whom one anonymous pitcher huffed, “He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t fool around. You can’t trust that kind.” Whose smile was so incessant he was once told “to get a couple more coats of shellac on his teeth.” Whose third base coach on the Angels, Rocky Bridges, observed, “I think he’ll be an archaeological find.”

“When you see a life changed,” Pearson told the Orange County Register in 2011, before he was scheduled to throw a ceremonial first pitch in Angel Stadium, “it’s worth everything compared to getting a base hit or winning a game.”

The littlest Angel wasn’t so little, after all.

This essay was published originally by Sports-Central.