Legit enough not to quit

Luis Gonzalez

Luis Gonzalez—the first Giants position player to pitch in back-to-back games since 1906 wasn’t exactly just thrown to the Mets wolves in the ninth  Monday night. The Mets didn’t exactly abuse a patsy, either.

They’ve been without uber ace Jacob deGrom all season thus far. They’ve lost Max Scherzer for six to eight weeks thanks to an oblique strain forcing him to pull out of a start against the Cardinals last Wednesday. Hands up to everyone who thought the Mets would fold the way they did often enough when the injury bugs swarmed in the recent past.

Guess again. Without deGrom the Mets sit 29-15 and a very healthy eight games in front of the second place Phillies in the National League East. Since Scherzer went down, they’re 5-1, including the game from which Max the Knife removed himself after feeling it a little too hard on the left side.

And, especially after they demolished the stumbling, likewise injury-plagued Giants 13-3 in San Francisco Monday night, a fifth straight loss for the Giants leaving them third in the NL West and with a 3-7 record in their last ten games.

The Mets rode a solid start from David Peterson, freshly recalled from the farm, to a five-run third, a four-run eight, a three-run ninth, and a single run in the sixth. They laid fifteen hits on legitimate Giants pitching and three more against Luis Gonzalez, a right fielder by trade asked to pinch hit in the eighth before taking one for the team in the ninth.

More on that soon enough. Peterson’s shakiest inning was the second, when Brandon Crawford tore a two-run homer out of him on 2-0, but then he got stronger for the next four innings before handing off to the Mets’ pen. Of course, the Mets’ bats made Peterson’s life almost comfortable enough that he could have pitched to the Giants from a lounger and kept them quiet.

That was Francisco Lindor with two out and the bases loaded on Giants starter Alex Cobb in the top of the third, bouncing a ground-rule double into the left field stands, before Pete Alonso sent a first pitch the other way over the left center field fence for a three-run shot.

The game stayed manageable enough for the Giants over the next several innings, before J.D. Davis—whose recent plate struggles had Met fans’ side of the Twitterverse demanding his replacement, if not his execution—sent Jeff McNeil home with a flare double on two outs into left in the top of the sixth.

That ended Cobb’s evening and turned the Mets fast and loose into the Giants’ bullpen, and in the top of the eight they got faster and looser. Alonso opened beating out an infield hit, McNeil hit a two-run homer to the top of Levi’s Landing, and Mark Canha followed almost immediately with a launch over the left center field fence, all on Giants reliever Mauricio Llovera’s dollar. One out and a Davis double later, Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika doubled Davis home with a shot all the way down the right field line.

Giants manager Gabe Kapler elected to waste no further pitching from there. He sent Gonzalez out to the mound for the top of the ninth. Prowl the social media world and you’ll find plenty harrumphing against the Mets’ lack of “sportsmanship” for the way they treated Gonzalez. It might be a fine thing to ask in reply whether it’s sportsmanlike to ask the other team to tank because you don’t want them to waste legitimate pitching.

Closing seven-run deficits or larger in the ninth inning isn’t unheard of, either. The Tigers looked doomed trailing by nine at 13-4 in the ninth on 25 April 1901 . . . and beat the ancient Milwaukee Brewers (about to become the American League edition of the St. Louis Browns) 14-13.

The same year, Cleveland trailed Washington by eight coming to the bottom of the ninth of a May game—and won, also 14-13. The 1934 Indians trailed the Philadelphia Athletics by eight in the top of the ninth in an August game and scored nine before holding on to win, 12-11. And the 1990 Phillies trailed the Dodgers by nine coming into the top of the ninth of another August contest—and won, too, also 12-11.

You get Kapler not wanting to burn a relief pitcher, but you also remember baseball doesn’t have a mercy rule yet. Suppose the Mets had cut Gonzalez and the Giants a break and played dead in the ninth. What was really to stop a) the Giants from mounting a seven-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth; or, b) anyone else from accusing the Mets of—dare we say it?—tanking for a game?

On the other hand, quit your yammering, social media meatheads. Gonzalez wasn’t just thrown to the Met wolves, either, and the Mets didn’t just pile on against a puny position player. He had a pitching record for the season entering Monday night and it wasn’t exactly a record to be ashamed of, either.

He’d had two previous relief outings before Monday night with a zero ERA to show for it. And, a very respectable 3.11 fielding-independent pitching rate to match it. He surrendered no runs and a hit to the Cardinals for an inning while the Giants got blown out 15-6 in St. Louis on 15 May. He surrendered no runs and a hit in two and a third while the Giants got blown out by the Padres 10-1 at home the night before the Mets came to town.

Come Monday night, Kapler and the Giants just might have had a reasonable hope that Gonzalez—whose only known pitch seems to be an eephus that goes up to the plate in a floating parabola—really could keep the Mets from any further damage in the top of the ninth.

The Mets must have scouted him on the mound somehow. Gonzalez may have gotten two quick ground outs to open, but he walked McNeil on 3-1, surrendered a clean base hit to Canha on 1-1, a two-run double to Eduardo Escobar on 1-0, and a first-pitch RBI single to Davis. He threw ten strikes out of nineteen pitches but four built three more Met runs.

Alas, Monday ruined Gonzalez’s chance to inspire waxings about the bullpen’s answer to Shohei Ohtani. He’s got a nifty .372 on-base percentage, an .825 OPS, a respectable 137 OPS+, and a 2022 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .523 so far.

But he only has two home runs on the season thus far, too. (Ohtani has nine, not to mention a 2.82 ERA/.2.14 FIP on the mound.) The Giants may continue using him to mop up on the mound when they’re getting blown out, but that’s probably all. They’re probably hoping Monday night was his exception, rather than his rule to come.

Joe Pignatano, RIP: The vegetable man

Joe Pignatano

As a player, Joe Pignatano was a reserve whose career ended with an unlucky three. As a coach, Pignatano grew bullpen vegetables while keeping the nuts from going completely squirrely.

According to outfielder Art Shamsky, Miracle Mets bullpen coach Joe Pignatano had one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.” According to starting pitcher Jerry Koosman, “Piggy was [manager Gil] Hodges’ spy.”

According to Mets history, Pignatano—who died this morning at 92 following a battle with dementia, the last living member of the Miracle Mets coaching staff—was once a reserve catcher who made an indelible impression in what proved his final major league plate appearance on 30 September 1962.

Piggy took over the catching from Choo-Choo Coleman in the bottom of the sixth in Wrigley Field against the Cubs. After the Cubs scored a pair of unearned runs off Mets reliever Craig Anderson in the bottom of the seventh, Pignatano came up to the plate in the top of the eighth with nobody out and back-to-back base hits from Sammy Drake and Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn setting a lovely table for him.

The man who eventually became fabled for growing a vegetable garden in the Shea Stadium bullpen couldn’t eat the meat that might have left the Mets as close as a single run behind. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either.

Pignatano ripped a bullet to the right side and right at the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year-in-waiting second baseman, Ken Hubbs. Hubbs went to first at once to nail the once-fleet Ashburn before Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, the big bully, whipped one to shortstop Andre Rodgers to bag Drake. The Cubs held on to win.

“It mattered not that the New York Mets won or lost, or even how they played the game today before 3,960 fans at Wrigley Field,” said the New York Times‘s lead. “For the record, though, the season’s final, for which Casey Stengel asked and obtained volunteers, went to the Cubs, 5-1.” Volunteers, indeed.

The Original Mets may have been baseball’s precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but even they couldn’t have made this up. In the final game of that surrealistic 40-120 season, Pignatano became the only major league player ever to end his playing career by hitting into a triple play.

He became one of Hodges’ coaches when Hodges ended his own playing career to become the manager of the Washington Senators’ second edition. He had the pleasure there of giving Hodges one of the best laughs of his early life as a manager, even if it was serious business to the serious skipper.

“In spring training one year,” Hodges remembered to Times writer Joseph Durso (for Amazing: The Miracle of the Mets), “I was standing across the street from the hotel when I saw four of my players leave.”

It was about ten minutes before curfew. I hung around for a half hour, and they didn’t come back. The next day in the clubhouse, I made a little speech. I told the club that I knew some of the players had broken curfew, and I was going to give them an opportunity to save some money. If they wanted to pay fifty dollar fines right now, the case would be closed. If the money wasn’t in by the end of the day, I’d hold another meeting and name names. The only thing was that the fines would then be one hundred dollars apiece.

I told them to leave their checks on the desk in my office. About an hour later, Joe Pignatano, one of my coaches, walked over to where I was hitting fungoes. He had a great big grin on his face and said, “You made a smart move. You offered four guys a chance to admit they broke curfew. Seven guys have paid the fines already.”

As the Mets’ bullpen coach, Pignatano did have to preside over a kind of psych ward. “[Ron] Taylor could be very funny,” he remembered to Maury Allen for After the Miracle: The Amazin’ Mets Twenty Years Later, while back in uniform at a Mets dream camp. “Just a lot of one-liners for the moment, getting on a guy about something.” Which was nothing compared to known flake Tug McGraw:

The day McGraw got that waiter in a white suit to bring trays of ribs and chicken and hamburgers to the bullpen and started heating everything over a sterno can really was something. It wasn’t the food that annoyed me. It was that the guy said I had to pay the bill.

Go ahead, say it. Piggy and the Stooges.

Pignatano enjoyed the Miracle Mets ride as much as anyone. He also suffered more than most when Hodges suffered his fatal heart attack in April 1972, after a round of golf in West Palm Beach. “We finished playing on a real fine day,” Pignatano told Allen.

Then we sat down with Jack Sanford, the old Giants pitcher, who was the club pro, and had a couple of beers at the nineteenth hole. We began walking back to the hotel, maybe fifty yards away. We were talking about the golf as we walked across the grass to the concrete path leading to the hotel rooms. [Third base coach Eddie] Yost and [pitching coach] Rube [Walker] were off to the left, and Gil and I had rooms to the right. Just as we reached the walk where the paths split, I turned slightly to Gil and asked, “What time do you want to meet for dinner?” He never answered. He just fell over backwards on that path and landed on his head. You could hear the crack as his head hit the sidewalk.

“Pignatano got up from his chair in that Florida dream camp clubhouse,” Allen wrote. “He shook his head. There were tears in his eyes. The interview was over.”

Hodges and Pignatano went back to Piggy’s first season as a Brooklyn Dodgers player and remained besties even after the team moved to Los Angeles and Pignatano moved on to the Kansas City Athletics, the Giants, and finally the Original Mets. As a catcher, Pignatano caught the final Dodger game at Ebbets Field, 29 September 1957, including eighth inning relief from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax against the Phillies.

He remained the Mets’ bullpen coach until 1981, then coached for Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre in Atlanta a spell before leaving the game but returning with the Braves’ organisation as a minor league pitching coach in 1988. Much later in life, Pignatano enjoyed associating with the Mets again, particularly relief pitcher John Franco, who rooted for the Miracle Mets as a boy in Brooklyn.

He also remained friendly with other old Dodger teammates such as Koufax, with whom he once roomed on the road. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, the pair attended a Baseball Assitance Team dinner in New York and Pignatano found an empty seat next to Koufax. “Hey,” Leavy recorded a voice asking almost demandingly, “how come he gets to sit there?” Koufax smiled. “Roomie seat,” he replied.

“On the surface,” Leavy wrote, “Pignatano is everything Koufax is not—paunchy and balding, indifferently dressed in the manner of baseball men who never had to decide what to wear when they got up in the morning, his accent Brooklyn thick. In fact, they are not so  different. Piggy is who Koufax aspires to be—just another guy happy to be on this side of the grass.”

“And all the lot is what I got/It’s what I wear, it’s what you see/It must be me, it’s what I am/vegetable man,” went a lyric by Pink Floyd’s ill-fated founding guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett.

That haunted soul self-shorn from the heights couldn’t know his words fit a guy happy to be on his own side of the grass, whether keeping the nuts from cracking in the bullpen, mourning the loss of his best friend after a time check on dinner, growing vegetables in the pen, relaxing with a Hall of Fame teammate.

Pignatano had two great loves in his life, baseball and his wife, Nancy, who died two years ago. His sons and grandchildren’s mourning may be cushioned only by knowing that he and she are reunited serene and happy in the Elysian Fields.

“Making [maternal fornicators] shut the [fornicate] up”

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson can only hope to shush the Yankee Stadium louts rounding third on a late Sunday three-run homer . . .

You think of the damnedest things at times, in the immediacy of controversy. When Tim Anderson checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth Sunday, in the second game of a Yankee Stadium doubleheader, his uniform number suddenly seemed very large and very, very vivid.

Seven. The number retired by the Yankees in honor of their Hall of Fame center fielder Mickey Mantle. A player whose off the charts performances and record were equaled only by his off the charts flaws as a man who finally told the world, as he battled cancer by way of a liver transplant, “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.”

Seven. Now on the back of the White Sox’s shortstop, a black man who declared three years ago that he wanted to be the Jackie Robinson of bringing and keeping fun in the actual playing of professional baseball, in front of a crowd that roots for the team whose third baseman didn’t know when what he called a joke wasn’t funny anymore.

By Josh Donaldson’s own admission he’d first needled Anderson by calling him “Jackie” shortly after that 2019 interview, and that Anderson and himself shared a laugh over it. By Donaldson’s further admission, he’d pulled the joke a few times since, right up to Saturday’s game. He said he intended nothing racial by it. Pardon the expression, he may be a minority of one.

The White Sox took the first game 3-1 Sunday and led 2-0 in the nightcap, on a pair of two-out RBI singles from Andrew Vaughn and Reese McGuire, when Anderson checked in against Yankee reliever Miguel Castro.

Every time Anderson batted Sunday the Yankee Stadium boo birds hammered him with boos and jeers, which you’d just about expect in any ballpark when a particular field or plate antagonist on the visiting team shows up and goes to the serious work of play. But Anderson was also hammered with more than a few noisy chants of “Jac-kie! Jac-kie!” during the twin bill.

Such is the lack of class for which particular fans are known to be particularly shameless. Yankee fans are no strangers to the loutish among them who would do such things as taunt an opposition pitcher during his pre-game warmups over his known battles with anxiety and depression. They may not love such louts among them, but they never seem in too big a hurry to thwart them, either.

That lout contingency would hardly reject a chance to hammer an opponent taunted by one of their own with a particularly nasty racial reference during a game the day before, a reference that led in due course to a sharp exchange of words behind the plate and the benches and bullpens clearing, with Anderson needing to be restrained from potentially tearing Donaldson apart.

Even Donaldson’s own manager demurred from defending his man entirely after Saturday’s incident. “I don’t believe there was any malicious intent in that regard,” began Aaron Boone. “But you know, this is—just in my opinion—somewhere he should not be going.”

Donaldson went 0-for-4 at the plate during the doubleheader’s opener, which the White Sox won after busting a one-all tie in the ninth inning thanks to A.J. Pollock sending one into the left field seats and Adam Engel sending Vaughn home with an RBI double. He sat out the nightcap, during which the Yankees could summon up a measly three hits to no avail against three White Sox pitchers.

Now, in the top of the nightcap eighth, with first and second, on 1-1, Castro threw a slider that hung up just enough for Anderson to drive it the other way into the right field seats for what proved the final 5-0 score.

A Yankee fan wearing the jersey of retired Yankee first baseman Mark Teixiera threw the ball back onto the field on a no-doubt line, perhaps blissfully unaware that Teixiera as a player (and now a broadcaster) had too much class to applaud such depths. Unlike the Toronto fan in Rogers Centre who handed an Aaron Judge home run ball to a young fan wearing a Judge jersey, this fan probably wouldn’t have shown that kind of character if there’d been an Anderson fan adjacent to him.

A young White Sox fan wearing a replica of the team’s mid-1980s game jersey snapped a photo with his cell phone as Anderson continued his travels around the bases. When Anderson stepped on the plate it was as though planting an exclamation point at the end of an emphatic sentence.

As he took a few steps toward the White Sox dugout, Anderson put his index finger to his lips as he looked toward the crowd, just as he had rounding third. He didn’t talk to reporters after the game but a hot microphone courtesy of the game’s broadcast aboard ESPN captured his no-doubt explanation: “Making [maternal fornicators]  shut the [fornicate] up.”

Anderson probably knows in his heart of hearts that it’s easier to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of the proverbial needle than to shut the worst of Yankee or any other fans the fornicate up. Not even the evidence that Donaldson hasn’t exactly been a friendly opponent to Anderson and other White Sox in the recent past would convince them otherwise.

“[I]n this clubhouse,” said White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendricks before Sunday’s doubleheader, “we have TA’s back in everything. It’s like having an inside joke with a guy you are a nemesis with, I guess you could say, but yeah, that’s not how it went down in this clubhouse and I don’t understand how, if [Donaldson] ever thought about [his “Jackie” taunt] like [a joke], it’s straight delusional.”

Anderson sent a message back on enemy territory in the best way possible. If only it could have been as joyous as the one he sent in the bottom of the ninth in last August’s Field of Dreams Game, against most of these same Yankees.

“The game’s never over,” Anderson said after that one. “And once [Yankee reliever Zack] Britton walked [White Sox catcher Seby Zavala], I knew there was a chance to start something real dope.”

That was then, this was Sunday. The hankering to know just what MLB’s reported investigation of the Saturday incidents determines heightens. But now Anderson finished something real dope under unwarranted provocation from a real dope.

On Anderson, Robinson, Donaldson, and jokes

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson has to be restrained by teammates including Jose Abreu, and plate umpire Nick Mahrley, after Josh Donaldson took what he calls a joke too far Saturday.

That’d teach him. Three years ago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson gave Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein an interview in which he likened himself to Jackie Robinson. Not as a race pioneer, but as the kind of pioneer looking to break down another barrier, the barrier against having plain fun and letting it show while you play baseball.

Anderson didn’t kid himself. He as much as said he didn’t and probably wouldn’t face the kind of obstacles Robinson faced. What he did say, in language as plain as the plays he makes at shortstop or the hits he nails at the plate, was that he didn’t care two figs what you thought of him having fun playing, you know, a game.

The impetus for the interview was his then-recent suspension for hollering an insult back at Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller, after Keller hit him on the rump roast with the first pitch, two innings after Anderson demolished a Keller pitch for a two-run homer, looked to his dugout, and nailed a delicious bat-flip as he proceeded up the first base line.

“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” Anderson told Apstein then. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game.” In other words, Anderson planned to have his fun while he played. Oh. The hor-ror.

“Anderson’s point is more nuanced than it might sound,” Apstein wrote.

Robinson remains an American hero, and Anderson will never face the Jim Crow horrors Robinson and the first generation of black major leaguers endured. Also, plenty of players, white and nonwhite alike, have had fun while playing the game.

But, as a rule, baseball does not encourage individualism. As other sports have evolved to showcase their stars’ personalities, the baseball old guard has held tight to its principles. Run out ground balls. Keep your mouth shut. Gently place your bat near home plate—a player should react to a home run just as he would react to the news that an acquaintance filed his taxes on time.

Yankee third baseman Josh Donaldson remembered Anderson’s “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson” only too well. On Saturday, the Yankees and the White Sox had a dustup on the field over it, a few innings after Anderson says Donaldson greeted him with an apparent “What’s up, Jackie?”

A few innings later, as Donaldson approached the plate with the Yankees up 6-3, White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal engaged him in a little chat. It didn’t look like anything drastic at first—from the outside. The next thing anyone knew, plate umpire Nick Mahrley was moving between the pair and the benches and bullpens emptied. With White Sox teammates moving Anderson back to the dugout before any serious damage could be done.

Nobody other than the immediate participants had any clue until White Sox manager Tony La Russa spoke to reporters following the 7-5 Yankee win. “He made a racist comment, Donaldson, and that’s all I’m gonna say,” La Russa said. It took Anderson himself to elaborate.

“He just made a disrespectful comment,” the shortstop said of Donaldson. “Basically was trying to call me Jackie Robinson, like ‘what’s up Jackie?’ I don’t play like that. I don’t really play at all. I wasn’t really gonna bother nobody today. But he made the comment, and it was disrespectful. I don’t think it was called for.”

Donaldson didn’t deny calling Anderson “Jackie,” but he did say the motive had nothing to do with race and everything to do with Anderson telling SI he felt like the Robinson of defunding baseball’s Fun Police.

“All right, so first inning I called him Jackie,” Donaldson told reporters post-game.

He’s gonna bring back fun to the game. [In] 2019 when I played for Atlanta, we actually joked about that on the game.

I don’t know what’s changed — and I’ve said it to him in year’s past. Not in any manner than just joking around for the fact that he called himself Jackie Robinson. If something has changed from that, my meaning of that — has not any term trying to be racist by any fact of the matter. It was just off of an interview of what he called himself.”

Donaldson may have lacked racial intent but his timing Saturday was a terrible look. “The very simple problem with Josh Donaldson calling Tim Anderson ‘Jackie’,” tweeted Business Insider writer Bradford William Davis, “is that he perverted honour into mockery.”

Could there have been those thinking Anderson, who’s normally as unpretentious as the morning sun, did likewise when he suggested himself as the Jackie Robinson of letting the kids play? Robinson broke barriers far more severe and grave than those between ballplayers letting joy in accomplishment show and ballplayers still artery-hardened enough to continue thinking you should play a game as though you’re wearing a three-piece suit in the board room.

And I for one have long tired of the hypocrisy saying one moment that you need to play professional baseball like a business but saying the next—as in, contract talks, free agency markets, or collective bargaining agreement skirmishes—that you need to remember you’re only playing a kids’ game, dammit.

Maybe Anderson was being just a little grandiose in 2019, while his heart was clearly enough in the right place. Maybe Donaldson chose the absolute wrong conversational weapon to send a message that baseball’s Fun Police aren’t about to be defunded without a fight.

Or, giving him the benefit of the doubt about the exchange he cited from 2019, maybe Donaldson doesn’t get that a joke has a finite shelf life. As in, immediately after he and Anderson laughed about it the first time. Cracking it three years past that expiration date doesn’t mean a laugh or a tension dissipator but a nasty cut to the heart and soul.

“This game went through a period in time where a lot of those comments were meant,” said Grandal post-game, after telling reporters they didn’t want him to tell them what he actually said to Donaldson behind the plate. “And I think we’re way past that. And it’s just unacceptable. I just thought it was a low blow and I want to make sure I’ve got my team’s back. There’s no way that you’re allowed to say something like that.”

Baseball government told Anderson with a suspension that there’s no way he’s allowed to call Keller, who’s white, “a weak-assed [N-word]” after he got drilled in 2019. Let’s see if baseball government tells Donaldson the same way that there’s no way he’s allowed to call a black player “Jackie” even as a joke, three years after the joke’s shelf life expired.

Roger Angell, RIP: Hitting for distance

Roger Angell, at his induction as a J.G. Spink Award winner at the Hall of Fame.

The great New Yorker essayist and baseball companion has passed at 101. The Elysian Fields gains an incomparable baseball companion but the works he left for us continue to instruct, delight, resonate, and embrace. I can do no better now than to re-publish the tribute I wrote upon his centenary in September 2020.

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.

At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.

“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”

As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.

This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.

Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.

. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.

The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.

“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”

I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.

The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.

Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .

“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.

Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.

Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)

Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:

He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .

. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”

“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.

Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”

Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.

At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.

Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.