For openers, MadBum may be lucky

2019-02-10 MadisonBumgarner

The idea of an opener makes him a very MadBum . . .

Of everything you can say about Madison Bumgarner, dumb isn’t one of them. (Even accounting for the dirt bike accident that took him out for long enough in 2017.) He’s not dumb on the mound, he’s not dumb otherwise.

But then, after new Giants general manager Farhan Zaidi pondered the possibility of some pitchers as openers, at the Giants’ FanFest Saturday, Bumgarner texted manager Bruce Bochy to say, “If you use an opener in my game I’m walking right out of the ballpark,” a text Bochy disclosed to NBC Sports’s Alex Pavlvic.

Time was when a show of defiance such as Bumgarner’s would have gotten him dispatched post haste, on the first rail the Giants could find for him, and never mind that Bochy would probably sooner be tempted to insert himself into the game as a pinch hitter than even think about either using Bumgarner as an opener or bringing him in after an opener’s first and only inning. And if you think I’m writing through my chapeau, you don’t remember Ted Simmons.

Simmons was the Cardinals’ number one catcher in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the Cardinals became winners again and during a long strange drought of their own, a drought Simmons had little enough to do with when it came to the front office’s doings or undoings but enough to do with on the field.

He was a terrific hitter in St. Louis and went to six All-Star teams as a Cardinal. He also came close to being what Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith did become, the man who might have forced the end of the reserve era. Simmons refused to sign for 1972 unless he got $30,000 for the season, slightly over twice his 1971 salary. Then-Cardinals GM Bing Devine refused to go past $20,000, thinking Simmons was asking too much, too soon. And he started playing the season without signing, the first time that had ever happened in the majors.

He went on a tear, too; by mid-season, his batting average was .340. And it had the unlikely effect of shifting sympathy away from the Cardinals, especially when Simmons was named to his first All-Star team. The morning of the All-Star Game, Devine called him at his hotel inviting him to the GM’s room to talk. This time, Devine offered him the $30,000 he sought for that season and $75,000 for 1973.

Simmons’s jaw dropped. He called his wife and told her about the two-year deal, with more money than even he imagined coming so swiftly, and elected to sign. And he’d inadvertently showed a rupture in the armour of the Lords of Baseball; they’d rather give a second-year catcher $105,000 over two years than risk any reserve clause test, which they feared Simmons might think about, kid though he was, the longer he played unsigned.

So Simmons wouldn’t be the man to break the reserve clause. But as the seasons went on, his hitting kept him in the number one Cardinals catching job and his personal popularity in St. Louis became such that nobody except opposing teams saw his wounding flaw as a catcher: he had one of the weaker throwing arms in the game. The 3.65 ERA for the pitchers who threw to him speaks well enough of Simmons handling a pitching staff, but Simmons finished his career with enemy baserunners averaging thirty stolen bases a season against him; he had 130 lifetime errors and 62 percent of them were throwing errors.

Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, unfortunately for Simmons, saw the whole picture when he took over as the Cardinals’ manager in 1980. In You’re Missin’ a Great Game, the White Rat wrote:

Ted hit the ball like a sonofagun but when I watched him play, I didn’t see a motor that drove the Cardinals’ boat. He was more like a leak in their hull. Ted Simmons, God bless him, was a fine person who played hard and cared about winning . . . Unfortunately for the Cardinals organisation, that [poor arm strength] was a bigger disaster than anybody around me seemed to realise . . . [I]t’s just as important to stop the other guy from scoring a run as it is to get one home yourself. And your catcher is your most important guy in shutting chances down . . .

Because Ted threw so poorly to second, every team in the world knew they could swipe that base in the late innings. They knew that if they were behind they’d eventually get their . . . shots to score . . . I doubt five fans could have told you about this factor. Announcers never brought it up. It wouldn’t even show up in the [newspaper] box scores. But every manager worth his spikes was clued in. You’d be amazed—amazed—how many games that cost the Cardinals . . . By the standards everybody still uses today, [Simmons] was a star. But again: Everybody doesn’t know baseball. Too many fans, media, and even baseball people get sidetracked by factors that just don’t bear on the big picture. In the Simmons era, the Cards had never finished first.

Herzog first thought about moving Simmons to a position where his weak throwing arm wouldn’t hurt the Cardinals, and Simmons had actually been a better defensive fielder/thrower whenever he played first base, which was often enough to that point. (He’d played 195 games at first as a Cardinal.) The problem was when Herzog or someone made the suggestion. First, Simmons liked the idea—until he didn’t, thinking that first base incumbent Keith Hernandez might be hurt if converted to a left fielder, and asked for a trade.

Wearing both the manager’s and the general manager’s hats, and having also signed free agent catcher Darrell Porter to a five year deal, Herzog had to lose one or the other. Simmons’s arm issues and change in attitude, measured against Porter’s defensive superiority (Darrell’s strong throwing arm, good positioning, and quickness behind the plate shut down the leakage overnight, Herzog would write in due course), made the decision simple.

Herzog was at the beginning of a remake/remodel that would ultimately send 31 Cardinals out and bring in enough to make them World Series winners in 1982 and National League pennant winners in 1985 and 1987. Dealing Simmons, Pete Vukovich, and future Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers (Herzog had just bagged the reliever he really wanted, future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter) to the Brewers, and the deal helped set the Cardinals and the Brewers up as 1982 World Series opponents.

But he was roasted over trading the still-popular Simmons. “I didn’t want to make it,” the White Rat told The Sporting News. “I was forced to trade him . . . I couldn’t have both him and Porter as catchers. I didn’t have to trade him, but it would have led to a bad situation if he wasn’t happy . . . We’ve improved our defense. We’ve improved our team speed.”  And, in due course, also in You’re Missin’ a Great Game, he’d write of Simmons, “If the National League had had the designated hitter, the man would have gone to his coffin as a Cardinal.”

Herzog might well have kept Simmons if Simmons had accepted the idea of moving to first base, perhaps knowing Hernandez would have found adjusting to an outfield position simple enough. (Hernandez’s feud with Herzog wouldn’t happen until 1983, when Herzog shipped him to the Mets—jump starting their remodeling into a mid-1980s powerhouse.) But when Simmons took a stance that indicated himself instead of team first, Herzog didn’t flinch.

And the Giants shouldn’t.

I get Bumgarner’s alarm over the opener concept. My own take on it is that the opener concept can work—if you need a stopgap when a member of your starting rotation is down with an injury (as Bumgarner has been for parts of the past two seasons) and you don’t have another option to bring you through six or seven innings without throwing your rotation more than slightly out of whack. In that situation why not try a bullpen game?*

At best you win a game, depending on whether your hitters are better than the other guys’ pitchers on the day. At worst, you may lose a game but you don’t have to reshuffle your rotation just yet. And while I certainly get that any manager wants nothing more than to get the best of his pitchers without exhausting them into uselessness when you really need them the most (like down the stretch, or in the postseason), I don’t know that I want the opener to become more than the periodic stopgap I enunciated above.

Bumgarner could and should have found a better or at least less defiant way to express his distaste for the opener concept. He might have said, simply, that it isn’t as healthy for the game, not to mention such established or future starting pitchers as himself, as its supporters think, and those who think he’s too alarmist might have said so and initiated a vigorous but healthy debate. And since when is baseball allergic to vigorous and healthy debate?

But if the Giants decide not to find the nearest available rail on which to run Bumgarner out of town for the text he did send his manager, MadBum should thank God in whichever form the lefthander prays to Him that he’s built enough good will to get away with it.

And, for the fact that this isn’t 1980, and . . . well, try to imagine how Whitey Herzog—who’d have run through a hailstorm of artillery for his players otherwise**—would have answered a text like that.  “Bumgarner to the Mets for three live bodies and a box of balls . . . ” would not have been an unrealistic if slightly surprising headline.

* The bullpenning concept isn’t as recent or radical as you think. The St. Louis Browns actually tried it, first and at its possible greatest extreme, for the final game of a dismal 1949 season. (And weren’t most Browns seasons dismal, anyway?)

For the final game, against the White Sox in St. Louis, Browns starting pitcher Ned Garver pitched the first. Then a different Browns pitcher—including their entire starting rotation otherwise—pitched an inning each: following Garver, it was Joe Ostrowski, Cliff Fannin, Tom Ferrick, Karl Drews, Bill Kennedy, Al Papai, Red Embree, and Dick Starr. The Browns’ pitching that day surrendered four runs only one of which was earned. Kennedy was tagged with the loss after surrendering three in the sixth. The White Sox won, 4-3.

And Garver eventually revealed it was the brainchild of the Browns’ players; considering they’d already lost 100 games, they probably felt they had nothing to lose by trying something out of the left field bullpen.

Not to worry, Garver didn’t have to wait long before making his own kind of baseball history: after the 1951 season, during which he was a 20-game winner for the last-place Browns, Garver would be part of the most unheard-of Most Valuable Player Award vote in the game’s history to that point: he, Hall of Fame Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, and Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds tied three ways for first-place MVP votes. (Berra won the award by way of earning more votes down the ballot than Garver and Reynolds, the first of Yogi’s three MVPs.)

** Anyone who says a team just can’t remake/remodel itself without downright tanking ought to take a very close look at how Whitey Herzog remade/remodeled the Cardinals into a World Series champion in just one sixteen-month period between 1980 and 1982.

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