Missing Mr. Yogi


Yogi Berra, hitting the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, 1947.

“Talking baseball with Yogi Berra,” A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “is like talking to Homer about the gods.” See and raise: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and free market champion, was once arranged to have breakfast with Berra. They hit it off, apparently. Berra biographer Allen Barra related him admitting Friedman “is not a baseball fan, and I am not as much a money fan as most people think I am.”

According to Barra, Berra said Friedman told him he’d have gotten a good grade if he’d been in Friedman’s class. “It’s probably true,” Friedman said before his 2006 death. “I think he had a good grasp of basic economic principles, apparently better than some of the better educated people in the Yankee front office that he used to negotiate salaries with. One thing he said that I have always remembered is, ‘A nickel isn’t worth a dime anymore.’ He was right.”

Berra even caught Friedman in the kind of malaprop for which the Hall of Fame catcher was intergalactically famous: they talked a little literature at their breakfast, and Berra—who never minded when the joke was on him—mentioned having met Ernest Hemingway during his playing days and asking what paper he worked for. Friedman stopped laughing long enough to say one of his two favourite Hemingway novels was, quote, The Fisherman and the Sea.

“He meant The Old Man and the Sea,” Berra would say. “Do you suppose anyone called him on it? No. Suppose I had said the same thing.” Small wonder that nobody really believed him when he said he hadn’t said half of ninety percent of what he said. Or, however he said it.

It’s been three years since he went to his reward eighteen months after his beloved wife did. But it still feels as though something is missing from America because Yogi Berra doesn’t walk among us anymore. You might call it something on the silly side to mourn a man who lived 90 years, but it always seemed as though among baseball’s actual or alleged immortals Berra really was immortal, in more ways than one. Even people to whom baseball was about as relevant as life on Atlantis felt a quiet comfort that someone like him happened to be around.

Maybe it was because as accomplished as he really was in the game—he’s the arguable greatest all-around catcher who ever played major league baseball (Johnny Bench is his very close second); he was genuinely respected for his game knowledge and loved as a teammate, coach, and manager; he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer against whom everyone to play his position to follow would be judged; he played on more pennant winners and World Series champions than any player, ever—Berra was one of America’s most famous men while remaining as often as not “blissful(ly) unaware of his own celebrity,” as Barra phrased it.

After friends and family built and opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in his longtime Montclair, New Jersey neighbourhood (“Every museum I ever went to as a kid was named after somebody who was dead,” he cracked), a woman from his native St. Louis visited and was surprised to see him there. “Mr. Berra, could you make up a Yogiism for me?” she asked, referring to the malaprops that were more famous than Berra’s staggering ability to hit out-of-the-zone pitches. “Ma’am,” he replied, “if I could do that, I’d be famous.”

He may be the baseball figure most frequently found in the pages of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but if you asked him about it he was liable to reply something like, “I wish I could say them when I wanted to because I would have made a fortune by now.”

Berra was a tough customer talking contract with the Yankees every winter and prudent with his money as it was. Savvy enough to spot opportunity’s earliest knock, he and his wife, Carmen, earned a fortune through their association with the old Yoo-Hoo chocolate soft drink, first by his endorsements, then earning a vice presidency when he lured other investors to the company, and finally by holding considerable stock the couple unloaded only when the company changed hands and flavour too often for their taste.


Yogi in the Navy.

This son of an immigrant Italian brickyardsman who once admitted that in his boyhood the only way he liked school was “closed!” survived D-Day; he was a Navy seaman and gunner who was one of six aboard a 36-foot rocket boat on the waters of Normandy as the invasion began and stayed two weeks. (“You ever try shooting a machine gun on a 36-footer? You could shoot yourself.”) Before his Navy service was over, Berra actually qualified for a Purple Heart—but refused to accept it because he didn’t want to give his mother a heart attack.

(Decades later, when the Mets first hired Berra as a full-time coach and part-time catcher/pinch-hitter, they also had as a pitcher-coach Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart himself for service that included the Battle of the Bulge. Asked whether they’d make baseball’s oldest battery, the prankish Spahn shrugged. “We’d be the ugliest by far,” he cracked.)

His unawareness of his own celebrity was real nevertheless. “It’s not that hard to get inside his inner circle,” his oldest son, Larry, once said. “Basically, he loves everybody as long as you’re trustworthy and loyal.” If they’re not, look out. When George Steinbrenner fired him through an intermediary as the Yankees’ manager in 1985, after having promised he’d have the job for the full season, Berra famously refused to return to Yankee Stadium or to any Yankee function as long as Steinbrenner owned the team.

It took a Thanksgiving-sized helping of crow, not to mention the insistence of Mrs. Berra and their youngest son, Dale, for Steinbrenner to patch it up. It happened in time for Berra to bring his grandchildren to the Stadium on Yogi Berra Day. Before the game, Berra took a ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series Berra caught. Then, after catcher Joe Girardi asked Berra to bless his glove, Yankee pitcher David Cone pitched his own perfect game against the Montreal Expos in an interleague game.

Girardi was far from the only one who believed good fortune came to those within Berra’s reach. “He could fall in a sewer,” his longtime Yankee manager Casey Stengel once said, “and come up with a gold watch.”

It must have shocked those who remembered the squat, plain, awkward-looking kid in his first spring training to discover he’d become the subject of a serious 1997 monograph, The Jurisprudence of Yogi Berra, published by Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald F. Uelmen. No Berraism went unanalysed for its legal significance, including and especially what I usually call Berra’s Law: it ain’t over until it’s over:

Much of the stability and certainty of our legal system rely upon the essence of this Berraism and are in fact contained in the Constitution of the United States. Where would our entire system of jurisprudence be without the concept of appellate review? Indeed, if “it was over when it was over” at the trial or legislative level, much of the work of the Supreme Court would cease to exist, and then so much for our system of checks and balances.


The Berras, 1950s. Asked his greatest achievement, Yogi didn’t miss: “Getting her to marry me. Who’d have thought?”

That about the man who once signed an anniversary card with, “Love, Yogi Berra.” Mrs. Berra never let him live that one down, either: “I was actually glad he thought to sign it that way,” she loved to say. “I wouldn’t have wanted to confuse him with all the other Yogis I know.”

As a manager he won two pennants the hard way, with the 1964 Yankees (who needed a stretch drive surge to take the pennant, after being bedeviled earlier in the season by a lack of bullpen consistency until late-season acquisition Pedro Ramos delivered several key saves) and the 1973 Mets (dead last in the National League East to start September; division and pennant winners to finish the season before losing a seven-game World Series to the Athletics). The latter may have been his managerial masterpiece.

Between and after, until he retired as the Astros’ bench coach in 1989, Berra enhanced a reputation he began earning in his latter Yankee playing seasons, for helping younger players without thinking twice. His personal popularity didn’t hurt at the turnstiles, but team administrators also savoured the prospect of their players and even their managers picking his brain while enjoying his company.

“Yogi was always with the catchers, going through the drills, blocking balls, watching us, laughing with us,” remembered longtime Yankee catcher Jorge Posada. “It was amazing. You could tell how much he was enjoying it. I mean, we’re thinking, this is Yogi Berra. We should be honoured to be in his presence. But the way he acted, it almost was like it was the other way around.”

It’s rare to find people who achieve greatness in the public eye and remain decent people in and out of it. Decent, if imperfect. But even people with renowned senses of humour sometimes find those senses compromised.

Berra took some of baseball’s most merciless ribbing over his looks, the plain face atop a body that looked six parts wrestler and half a dozen parts simian. (Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout, learning of his marriage to the stunning-looking Carmen in 1949, cracked, “Hey, Yogi, I hear ya got married. How does your wife like living in a tree?”) Having the guts to smile through the insults won him as much admiration as his baseball ability and knowledge. (“All you have to do is hit the ball, and I never saw anybody hit one with his face,” he once said.)

He was not amused, though, when animators Hanna-Barbera created Yogi Bear in the 1950s, after a neighbourhood kid hailed him by calling him Yogi Bear. The name nagged him enough to make him wonder whether H-B chose it mockingly. He pondered litigation for defamation of character until he was advised that it wouldn’t hold. Especially since Yogi the bear sounded more like The Honeymooners‘ halfwit sewer worker Ed Norton and behaved more like scheming Sgt. Bilko, two characters for whom Yogi the Berra would never be mistaken.

That was nothing compared to the Yogasm flap five decades later. That’s when TBS ran billboards promoting their syndication of the execrable Sex in the City, the billboards asking the definition of “Yogasm,” with one of the multiple choice answers being “Sex with Yogi Berra.” Berra sued for $10 million because he feared the ads compromised his clean living reputation. (He also hadn’t given the network permission to use his name.)


Berra with Sandy Koufax, at the announcement of their election to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Some may have thought the very thought of Yogi as a sex symbol even in the breach was, shall we say, the most unheard-of thing they never heard of. The network ended up settling with Berra for an undisclosed amount. Even the most approachable guy in the neighbourhood had his limits. Unless his ever-loving, ever-needling wife couldn’t resist during their pillow talk, and we’ll never know (appropriately), thou shalt not take the name of the Berra thy Yogi in vain.

Harvey Araton, writing of the sweet friendship between Berra and former Yankee pitching star Ron Guidry as spring training coaches in Driving Mr. Yogi, remembered an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, during which the scoreboard listed those in the Yankee orbit who’d passed on that year. Guidry and the Yankees’ Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford were made melancholy by the roll, but Berra standing next to Ford turned to him and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there.”

Mrs. Berra once asked her husband, “Yogi, you were born in St. Louis, we live in New Jersey, and you played ball in New York. If you go before I go, where do you want me to have you buried?” Her husband replied, “Surprise me.” It seemed to surprise as well as sadden America when it saw his name up there, even knowing that when one half of a great love story passes the other isn’t long for this island earth. He finally came to that fork in the road and took it. On his wife’s birthday. Said his granddaughter, Lindsay, herself a sportswriter, “Grandpa wanted spend her birthday with her.”

A lot of us wish Mr. Yogi didn’t have to just yet. But we were sure that Mrs Berra was ready to show him around, advising one and all that they wouldn’t want to confuse him with all the other Yogis they knew. No worries there, this Yogi was one of a kind.

The first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Baseball Trolling


My phutile attempt to imagine how the 1930s Phillies’ Lifebuoy endorsement was, shall we say, augmented editorially by a disgruntled fan . . .

Once upon a time, the Phillies played in a ballpark shaped more or less like a sardine can, with the field looking as though shoehorned into a gymnasium. The place was called Baker Bowl, and the high aluminum right field wall once bore a team endorsement for a deodorant soap. With the Phillies not exactly being National League oppressors at the time, a particularly disgruntled fan managed to add to the ad’s slogan, making it read, “The Phillies Use Lifebuoy . . . and they STILL stink!

In the same decade (the 1930s), the Dodgers earned their legendary nickname the Bums, thanks to a cabbie asking a passenger, “How did our bums do today?” The passenger was  legendary New York World Telegram cartoonist Willard Mullin; the exchange inspired Mullin’s fabled remake of Emmett Kelly, Sr.’s “Weary Willie” hobo into the eternal representation of the Dodgers. The Bums were bums enough that one angry fan took his paint to Ebbets Field’s occupancy law sign, making it read, “Occupancy by more than 35,000 unlawful. And unlikely.”

You thought fan trolling began when Yankee fans trolled Curt Schilling during the 2001 World Series, after he alluded somewhat sarcastically to the Stadium’s “mystique and aura” to be greeted with, “Mystique and Aura. Appearing Nightly?” When George Steinbrenner’s worst of the 1980s inspired a Yankee Banner Day parade winner wearing a monk’s hooded cassock and hanging a sign saying FORGIVE HIM, FATHER, FOR HE KNOWS NOT WHAT HE DOES from the Grim Reaper’s scythe? When Red Sox fans began chanting “Darr-yllll! Darr-yllll!” at a certain Mets outfielder who wasn’t exactly breaking the neighbourhood on the Boston leg of the 1986 World Series? When assorted Cub fans at Wrigley Field whipped up placards saying WAIT ‘TILL NEXT YEAR—on Opening Day when the season’s first pitch was thrown? When seven Original Met fans greeted the Dodgers’ first return visit to New York by unfurling, in perfect sequence, from an upper deck rail, seven window shades spelling out:

2018-12-30 OMalleyGoHome

Yes, it’s another futile artist’s conception.

When done properly, with genuine wit, and without truly frothing malice, fan trolling is as much fun as a game-ending home run—or, if your team faces the bases loaded, a full count on the enemy hitter, the winning run at first base, and nobody out, your heroes turn a game-ending triple play. (Yes, it’s happened, though not with the bases loaded. The first victims, what a surprise, were the Mets, who ran themselves into one in August 2009, and unassisted yet, when Jeff Francoeur—batting with first and second—lined to Phillies second baseman Eric Bruntlett, who stepped on second and tagged the runner advancing from first in a near flash. Obviously the Mets needed Lifebuoy.)

Even Dodger fans enjoyed a sad chuckle when, with the Cardinals about to push the Dodgers out of a postseason and now-traded Yasiel Puig at the plate, a Busch Stadium fan held up a placard hailing, “Dodgers win? When Puigs fly!” The late Karl Ehrhardt would have been proud. So would the ancient Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, whose atonal racket charmed Ebbets Field fans and the Dodgers alike. Especially when they’d play “Three Blind Mice” after close calls went against the Dodgers. (The humourless umps actually tried getting injunctions against that and also against Ebbets Field organist Gladys Gooding for similar musical crimes against their dignity.) Or, trailing an enemy pitcher knocked out of the box, the Sym-Phony bass drummer would beat his drum to the pitcher’s steps back to the dugout, where taking his seat in the dugout (if he didn’t go to the clubhouse first) received a loud SPLAT! of bass drum and cymbal in unison.


Troll over, Beethoven!

Karl Ehrhardt was the fabled Sign Man at Shea Stadium for a very long time (1964-1981), assembling handsome, colourfully-lettered, sometimes made-on-the-spot signs to address plays or situations. His parents moved their family from Germany to Brooklyn when he was six; he grew up a Dodger fan and became a commercial graphic artist by profession. He was known to bring as many as sixty of his reputed 1,200 signs to a given game, picking them according to whom the Mets would play and what he thought was likeliest to happen in a game, and he rarely misstepped.


Karl Ehrhardt.

A favourite was one of his greetings to an enemy pitcher who’d just been knocked out of the box: LEAVING SO SOON? (An alternate: Y’ALL COME BACK NOW, HEAR?) To an enemy pitcher walking a Met hitter intentionally: CHICKEN. To the Orioles with the Mets three outs from their miracle 1969 World Series conquest: BYE, BYE, BIRDIES! To any Cub foolish enough to argue with the umps over a close call going to the Mets: BACK TO YOUR CAVE, BEAR! (When the Orioles argued a close infield play during the Series, it was BACK TO YOUR NEST, BIRD!) After a win over the Cardinals, it was likely to be 5 AND 20 REDBIRDS BAKED IN A PIE!

When Athletics owner Charlie Finley tried to remove hapless second baseman Mike Andrews from the 1973 World Series roster, after two Game Two misplays in Oakland helped the Mets win in extra innings, Ehrhardt was more than prepared. Sure enough, there was an Oakland field miscue in the bottom of the first in Game Three. Up went the Ehrhardt sign: YOU’RE FIRED! (No, we don’t know whether Donald Trump was among the stadium crowd that afternoon.)

But he also knew how to let his own heroes have it when they were playing less than heroically. HE’S HOT TONIGHT! worked either for a Met on a streak or a Met in a slump. IT’S ALIVE! usually greeted a Met breaking out of a slump or a customarily weak hitter reaching base. JOSE, CAN YOU SEE? usually greeted any player named Jose, Met or opponent, who’d struck out. (It started with Jose Cardenal.) Clearly the man who had those plus KONG! and THE KING OF SWING! ready for one of Dave Kingman’s orbital home runs, ORANGE CRUSH! for big hits by Rusty (Le Grande Orange) Staub, and THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE! for the Miracle Mets’ first parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes, deserves enduring recognition.

Ehrhardt’s days in the Shea third base field boxes ended after he became fed up with the team’s seemingly willful dissipation in the mid-to-late 1970s, with then-boss M. Donald Grant a particular target for having screwed the Tom Seaver pooch. WELCOME TO GRANT’S TOMB was probably the mildest of Ehrhardt’s trolls to the front office. Once a concurrent fixture at Mets team functions, Ehrhardt’s zaps made him persona non grata there, and, as he eventually said, “They turned their back on me so I turned my back on them.” But a later Met administration convinced him to return for the team’s 40th anniversary, a one-off appearance for which he shocked Met fans by hoisting THE SIGNMAN LIVES! before returning to his private life until his death in 2008.

Fans so often turn trolling into an art worthy of Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Gracie Allen, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Carlin, P.J. O’Rourke, and Jokey Smurf. But so do those involved with baseball professionally—as anyone can tell you who saw Roger McDowell bomb Mets first base coach Bill Robinson with a time-delayed hotfoot, or Joey Votto trolling road fans by chasing down foul grounders as if they were potential double play balls before they could become fan souvenirs. If the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in this year’s American League division series, Aaron Judge would be the most powerful contender for the troll awards, thanks to his zapping the Red Sox as he left Fenway Park for the series move to the Bronx by playing “New York, New York” on his boom box.

Except that the Red Sox dumped the Yankees quickly and without a loss in the Stadium. No less than former Yankee star Mark Teixiera reminded Judge what happens when you awaken a sleeping giant. Even MLB itself, whose social media staffers know a thing or two about symbolism, couldn’t resist hitting the Yankees where it hurt on Twitter:


Having been unable to exhume the actual identity of the staffer whose genius it was to create that impossible to top fashion statement, we’ll just have to settle for giving  Throneberry Fields Forever’s first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Trolling thus:


Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled Yankee fans yearning to breathe, period; the wretched refuseniks of the steaming Stadium. Send these, those homeless, Series-ringless-this-time-round to me. And lift your braying ears before the House That Ruthless Built!



Pham dunks the Rays’ lack of fan base

2018-12-29 TommyPham

Tommy Pham, who laments the lack of a large Rays fan base, not unreasonably.

During 2018, outfielder Tommy Pham went from a Cardinals team with a traffic-jam outfield picture to a Rays team that had room for him among the regulars. And he responded. Thus far as a Ray, he played 39 games with an impressive .343/.448/.622 slash line. Over a full season Pham might well have done for the Rays what he did for the 2017 Cardinals.

But Pham noticed something about his new environs. He noticed that Rays fans were reasonably passionate about their team—if they showed up at all. The Rays put on a surprising 2018 show and finished with a 90-win season while having the American League’s worst home attendance. Their 1,154,973 2018 attendance shakes out to an average home crowd of 14,259 per game. Traffic accidents are known to draw larger crowds per capita.

Speaking from the Domincan Republic where he’s playing winter ball, in an interview with MLB Network, Pham admitted he missed the typically powerful support Cardinal fans have shown their team for what seems centuries.

It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all. St. Louis, they’re one of the few teams where, day in and day out, they have 40,000 fans at every game. That’s something that I miss. Because even out here in the Dominican they have a strong fan base with the team I’m playing for, their fans are very supportive, they’re loud, and the Rays, they just don’t have that.

Do I think something has to happen, whether it be a new ballpark or maybe a new city? I think so. If you have a team that’s going to be winning 90-plus games, competing in that division, and you don’t have any fan support, then that’s a huge problem.

When Pham’s remarks hit Twitter, it wasn’t exactly a flood in one or another direction. For every Rays fan who all but ordered the outfielder to keep his big mouth shut until he’d been there more than a few months, there were those who admitted, however grudgingly, that Pham had a point.

“While it’s perhaps unwise to criticize fans in a public manner, it’s hard to argue against what Pham is saying,” wrote Dayn Perry of CBS Sports. “There are, as Pham indicates, reasons for the paltry attendance, but that doesn’t undermine his general point. As for those reasons, the Rays of course play in what’s on the short-list of worst ballparks in baseball.” That’s like saying the government is on the short list of the worst public nuisances in the country.

Born as the Suncoast Dome and once called the Thunder Dome, Tropicana Field was built in the first place because St. Petersburg wanted a piece of the Tampa Bay sports action following the birth of the NFL’s Buccaneers. They also thought they were going to get the White Sox before the birth of the current U.S. Cellular Field (nee Comiskey Park). The 1990s expansion brought them the Rays (born the Devil Rays).

The Rays and their fans profess need for a new and more reasonable ballpark. The Trop resembles a warped saucepan with a ceiling lights’ plate covering it on the angle on the outside, and a pool table contorted out to a reputed baseball field on the inside. The team is stuck there through 2027, thanks to a lease that bars them from talking to adjacent communities about building a new park, which helped put the kibosh on the Rays’ ideas about moving to and building in nearby Ybor City.

And baseball government has made the standard declarations about finding “equitable solutions” to the question, which usually means owners with means still taking it out of the public treasury. Never mind that the Rays’ principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, is a Wall Street wheel with ties to financial pipelines even the deeply connected Walter O’Malley once only dreamed of having. (Sternberg also spends most of his time in New York, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for a Rays fan’s morale. Say what you will about other owners but a lot of them at least live among and know the pulse of their suffering hordes, however they choose to misread it.)

Not that a new ballpark would necessarily solve the Rays’ fan base question. The Marlins down south have a smashing (sort of) new ballpark and baseball’s worst attendance. The Marlins, of course, have been as mis-managed/mal-managed as the Rays haven’t, and they’ve also been guilty of the once bitten/twice shy syndrome: they won two World Series in their first two decades, and almost overnight their owners broke up the winners dramatically enough. And the current Marlins overseers, led by former Yankee mainstay Derek Jeter, seem to be baseball’s version of the Barnum & Bailey Circus—with the clowns holding the keys, the ones they acquired in exchange for a sense of humour.

One passionate Rays fan slapped Pham for comparing a franchise as old as the National League itself to one barely 20 years old. Comparing them to other expension franchise might not work, either. It’s easy to point to the Mets stirring passions from their own birth, but the Rays weren’t created in the wake of two storied franchises moving out of their metropolitan area, either. They also didn’t have the chance the Mets had of playing in what was left of a legendary ballpark, while awaiting the finish of the playpen New York’s tyrannical building/planning czar Robert Moses once tried to jam down the Dodgers’ throats rather than let them build their own new home. The Polo Grounds had a history; the Trop has a miss-tory.

(Here’s one for you. The Trop is in St. Pete, not Tampa. Once upon a time, when Moses tried strong-arming O’Malley into what would become Shea Stadium, he said, “If we play in Queens, we’re not the Brooklyn Dodgers anymore.” How ticklish has it been for the Rays to be based officially with a harbour, not a city or borough?)

Even when the Rays experienced their best period including a World Series appearance, they were never among the American League’s best-attended home attractions overall, unless certain teams stopped by on tour to roust the Florida transplants up and out to the dome. One look at the ugly Trop doesn’t necessarily erase Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, or Camden Yards from their baseball consciousness.

And neither they nor the natives are watching on television all that much; overall Rays television viewership isn’t exactly a local, never mind a statewide chartbreaker. The good news is that the Rays weren’t exactly dead last in regional television ratings in 2018; that dishonour fell to the Angels, but the Angels were sixth in baseball in total attendance (3.02 million) and average attendance (37, 297) per game. The bad news is that the Rays were number 20 around baseball. Disallowing for teams affected more heavily by baseball’s ridiculous broadcast blackout rules, the Rays aren’t exactly baseball’s version of The Voice on the tube. Oops—the flatscreen.

The arguable face of the Rays’ first period of greatness would say Pham has too much of a point. Last May, Evan Longoria—dealt to the Giants last winter—said aloud that he thought a new ballpark wouldn’t be the real answer and that the Rays might even have to think of moving. “There are a lot of dedicated Rays fans,” he told the Tampa Bay Times, “and obviously it’d be a shame for those people to lose the team. But you just hope there’s consistent fan support, and it historically hasn’t been there. I don’t know that it’s the easiest case to lobby to build a new stadium in the area. It’s not a slam dunk.”

One thing that might be a slam dunk is a Pham dunk, the numbering of Pham’s days as a Ray. Speaking the plain truth when a particular party line runs the other way is known to change your employment as soon as your employer can arrange it.

MLB and the Castro protection racket

2018-12-28 YoenisCespedesA's

Yoenis Cespedes, one of numerous Cuban-origin players who made it to the Show the hardest ways. Now MLB wants to play ball with the Cuban tyranny for Cuban talent—in a kind of protection racket.

Contrary to the supposition of Joe and Jane Fan and the aphorism of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell (“The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball!’)” playing baseball professionally requires work, and lots of it, to play competently. Unfortunately, for some players, the work includes things not customarily required at the ballpark or in the gymnasium. Players hailing from Cuba, for example. The work they must do just to play baseball in the United States has been a literal matter of life and death.

Before he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds in a blockbuster deal last weekend, Yasiel Puig gave Los Angeles Dodgers fans a big if too-short-lived blast of hope with a mammoth three-run homer in Game Four of the World Series. Long before that, Puig was a subject of the Castro regime who escaped his $17-a-month existence in the FBC, the Cuban Baseball Federation, with a lot of risky assistance from smugglers whose only concern about him was the profit they could earn by hustling him on his way to the United States.

Los Angeles Magazine cited baseball’s “Byzantine rules” and the federal Treasury Department’s “outdated restrictions” in revealing Puig’s journey, under both of which “the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing.” One false move, as they used to say in the movies, and it’s likely to be the proverbial dirt nap.

In the end Puig had to buy his freedom from the traffickers before the Dodgers could buy him. And he’s not the only Cuban player who paid prices like that for his freedom. As FanGraphs writer Sheryl Ring exhumes, Yoenis Cespedes (now with the New York Mets, albeit recovering from yet another injury) and his family were abandoned on something close to a sand bar “600 miles southeast of Florida”; Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox) was forced to leave his son behind; and, Aroldis Chapman (now with the New York Yankees), Yuli Gurriel (Houston Astros), Jose Iglesias (now with the Detroit Tigers), and Alexei Ramirez (now with the Tampa Bay Rays) “all faced unspeakable hardships escaping from Cuba, often using smugglers or human traffickers, and risking kidnapping or worse.”

Now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation in which the Dodgers (who signed Puig) are said to chart shady Latin American scouting personnel abetting the traffickers, the hustle involving Cuban players seeking freedom and those turning those quests into something of a big business at their exploitation may get the federal government’s far closer attention.

Baseball government has a deal with the FCB which the former says will make it possible for Cuban players to join American baseball organisations without defecting. They want the federal government to grant an exemption to the still-operating Cuban economic embargo, rather than having tried an option former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams suggests plausibly could have been tried: “The fake ‘residency in a third country’ rule could easily have been eliminated—and the leagues also could have lobbied the U.S. government to force Cuba to free up its players.”

Baseball’s deal with the FCB includes paying the FCB to release players 24 and younger with five years or fewer playing in the FCB, and that payment would be 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus. If it sounds similar to the posting system involving Japanese and South Korean players, stop right there. That posting system involves direct negotiating with teams, not a government-run overseer. Sports Illustrated adds a curious curlicue: “It will be up to the FCB to decide whether to release such a player.” The FCB, arm of the Castro regime, not individual teams.

For players older than 24, it would be 20 percent, even though those older players won’t need the FCB’s “consent” to join major league organisations. For one and all it comes to paying financial tribute to the Castro regime similar to the Mob’s classic protection racket. And for once in its life the Trump Administration may stand on the side of the angels (not the ones playing near Disneyland) regarding that issue, as the Washington Post—not exactly Donald Trump’s favourite newspaper—observes:

The Trump administration has signaled it has problems with a business relationship in which the Cuban government profits from a U.S. company. The agreement “would institutionalise a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society,” a senior administration official said Wednesday night, several hours after MLB’s announcement (of the proposed Cuban deal).

The former Obama Administration decided the FCB was an independent non-government entity, but they were wrong. Lest you think otherwise bear in mind that the FCB’s vice president is Fidel Castro’s son. And two sons of Cuban immigrants now serving on Capitol Hill have nothing but contempt for the deal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), whose parents moved to the United States before the Castro conquest, and who once challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, says he’s asking the State Department as well as the White House to review the deal. “Shameful that MLB would consider joining with the Cuban regime to exploit Cuban baseball players,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami), a son of defecting Cuban parents and a nephew of Fidel Castro’s first wife. “It would be unconscionable for an American organization to participate in human trafficking which enriches the very regime that oppresses the Cuban people.”

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is believed preparing to stop the deal by revoking the license it granted MLB to investigate a deal with Cuba. The idea of baseball paying tribute to a tyranny with money that would otherwise belong to the Cuban players it professes to want to help is only slightly less grotesque than the crimes committed against Cuban players who ask nothing more than a free opportunity to sell themselves as baseball players on a free baseball market. The deal might force most of the notorious baseball smugglers out of business but legitimise the Castro regime as human baseball traffickers.

Abrams describes those crimes thus: “[That] story of human trafficking, of exploitation by a Communist state, and of dangerous escapes from Cuba was overlooked by Major League Baseball. The basic attitude was willful blindness: We will deal with you if you show up, and there is no interest in how you got here.” But nobody ever said baseball government was any wiser than government government, not without incurring a loud round of derisive laughter, anyway.

Maxwell’s star-spangled hammer

2018-12-26 BruceMaxwell

Bruce Maxwell, taking a National Anthem knee in September 2017.

How much it was noticed outside Oakland seems an open question, but now-former Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell was designated for assignment in early September, released in due course, and, lacking a new job since, he fired his agent around this month’s winter meetings. That’s how ended a year that began with the A’s planning on him being the everyday catcher and ended with Maxwell under-performing in the minors after his demotion following eighteen games.

In between, the plan for Maxwell as the everyday catcher turned into signing Jonathan Lucroy as a free agent after Maxwell came to spring training overweight. Lucroy entering 2018 went from thought-elite once upon a time to lucky-to-have-a-job in spring 2018, even seeming to lose his once-formidable pitch framing skill as well as his batting stroke. The A’s made it to the wild card game but Lucroy wasn’t really an improvement.

Maxwell has two other issues thought to be weighing against him. One is that he’s the only major league baseball player yet to take a knee during any playing of the National Anthem, which he did in September 2017. But Maxwell, a German-born son of an Army officer, actually saluted the flag while he was on his knees, hand over heart. (A few of the notorious National Football League anthem kneelers have done likewise.) He said soon enough that that was because he believed protesting real or suspected racial injustice didn’t have to equal disrespecting the flag or the military.

A month after he took that knee came issue number two, when he was busted in Arizona for pulling a gun on a fast food delivery worker, a case in which he ultimately took a plea deal that reduced the charge to disorderly conduct. Amplifying it, according to San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser—the same writer whose nomination led to enshrining New Yorker legend Roger Angell in the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame—was a police video of his arrest in which he spoke “antipolice sentiment.”

Also as the winter meetings ended, an unnamed baseball executive told Slusser the anthem knee may mitigate more against Maxwell than the Scottsdale arrest. But another unnamed baseball figure told her it was “as if Colin Kaepernick had knelt for the anthem and also been arrested for a gun crime.” And a third, a National League scout who also apparently asked not to be identified by name, suggested Maxwell’s only route back to the majors may be playing in the independent minors. “[T]here is too much baggage,” the scout said.

If Maxwell’s now-former agent Matt Sosnick is right, the anthem knee weighs more heavily against Maxwell than the Scottsdale arrest case and a subsequent incident in Alabama, where Maxwell was refused restaurant service by a waiter angered over the anthem knee. The waiter said Maxwell portrayed the incident wrongly, and the restaurant stood by their man, but a local politician in Maxwell’s party backed his version.

By his actual playing record alone, Maxwell wouldn’t exactly have teams crowding the streets to reach him, especially now that he’s 28 years old. This isn’t exactly a Hall of Famer in the making we’re talking about. But any team passing on taking another flyer on him won’t really know, unless they make it straight, no chaser, whether people believe it’s because he’s not a great or even a decent player or because he took a stand that’s anything but massively accepted.

As a player, Maxwell was a second-round draft by the A’s in 2012, but he’s played only three partial seasons with the A’s. (His 127 games over the three is still shy of a full single season worth of play.) His slash line at the plate is modest enough (.240/.314/.347); his minor league record suggested he wasn’t terrible against the running game but he’s never really been tested that way in the Show. And the A’s pitchers who’ve thrown to him have a 4.58 ERA to show for it as a group when he was their catcher.

Is it those red flags or is it The Flag?

I’ve argued in the recent past that it’s probably time to reconfigure when the national anthem is played before baseball games or other sporting events. Even remembering a Casey Stengel biographer, Robert Creamer, recording something “I hope is true” (Creamer’s words): On his 1975 death bed, stricken with inoperable lymphatic cancer, Stengel watched a baseball telecast begin with the pre-game playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” As the anthem was announced, the story went, Stengel slid out of bed, held over his heart the Mets cap he kept by his bedside, and said to himself, “I might as well do this one more time.”

“If patriotism and respect can’t and shouldn’t be compelled officially,” I wrote last May, “is it time to modify the national anthem tradition regarding sports?”

Is it terrible to suggest American (and Canadian, for that matter) professional sports leagues can it with national anthems before every last game, but save it for games played on significant national holidays? Would it be terribly un-American if “The Star Spangled Banner” were to be played only before baseball games played on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labour Day? Before football, basketball, and hockey games played on Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Presidents’ Day? Before NASCAR races run on most of those? (Would it be terrible likewise if Canadian sports teams limited “O Canada” to their home games on Canada’s national or provincial holidays, one of which they share with the U.S., though they call it Remembrance Day and not Veterans Day?)

Saluting during “The Star Spangled Banner” began organically at a baseball game in the first place—in 1918, when the song wasn’t yet ordained as the national anthem of the United States. (During Game One of that World Series, Red Sox second baseman Fred Thomas, on furlough from the Navy to play, saluted the flag in Fenway Park while the U.S. Navy band played the song . . . during the seventh inning stretch.) By the way, there’s no formal Major League Baseball rule, still, about playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the ballpark. So far, so good.

There’d be absolutely no harm done, except to over-politicised sensitivities, if playing the national anthem was restricted to games played on significant national holidays and before the opening games of assorted championships. (The World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup final, the NBA final, the Masters, the Triple Crown thoroughbred races, whatever’s the NASCAR championship, you get the idea.) Even allowing that there are fans of the combatants who often consider them matters of life and death, if not heaven and hell.

But that won’t help Maxwell right now. If he isn’t employed as a catcher by a major league baseball organisation any time soon, it should be because of his lack of performance. (It wouldn’t be terribly unfair if the Scottsdale incident were factored in, depending on Maxwell’s thinking about it now. Objecting to particular real police misconduct by itself shouldn’t be held against a man, but doing it when you’re being cuffed for waving a gun at someone makes you the fool.) And the organisations to whom Maxwell’s new agent petitions should say so clearly, without apology, without a single mention of the anthem issue.