The overrunning of the bulls

2019-05-31 EdwinDiaz

Alex Verdugo’s (27) game-winning sacrifice fly Wednesday night further exposed Mickey Callaway’s injudicious handling of his closer Edwin Diaz (39).

Even if you’re not handed the best of bullpen bulls to work with, there’s a judicious and an injudicious way to manage those bulls. Mets manager Mickey Callaway seems more and more to be the injudicious type. For any manager that’s a yellow flag. For a former pitching coach, that’s red alert.

Callaway didn’t build this bullpen. That was freshman general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s work. But given that, Callaway’s management of this less-than-solid pen this year could yet prove fateful, if not fatal, for a manager who was all but wired into the electric chair almost two weeks ago.

The talk of the tomb—er, town—Friday morning was apparent disconnect between Callaway and his closing ace Edwin Diaz. Diaz apparently told Callaway he wouldn’t be an available option Thursday in Los Angeles, but Callaway apparently made public that Diaz would be available—despite pitching eight times in twelve days including Thursday night.

Diaz may be known as a swift warmup when he gets the call but even a swift warmup is liable to have thrown a full inning’s worth of pitches before he’s brought into the game. Doing that math should suggest that he pitched sixteen innings or better worth of pitches in those eight gigs. And one notices soon enough that Mets relief pitchers are throwing a lot more bullpen warmups than might be healthy for them.

Early in the season Callaway vetoed any thought of handing the ball to Diaz before the ninth inning even if he needed a stopper like five minutes ago. In due course he and the Mets changed that position. Smartly enough, assuming his work load’s been handled smartly otherwise.

“It’s impossible to climb inside Callaway’s mind, but it’s reasonable to believe that this added pressure could influence the in-game decision-making process,” writes Elite Sports NY‘s Danny Small. “Whether that means leaving his starter in for longer than anticipated or going to a reliever who probably needs a day off, a manager in win-at-all-costs-mode before June hits is a bad look.”

One dumb part: Diaz had a travel day off . . . from New York to Los Angeles, not exactly the most restful of journeys, before Callaway went to him Tuesday night, when the Mets had a fat 7-3 lead against the Dodgers going to the bottom of the ninth.  He threw sixteen pitches, shaking off a leadoff double by Alex Verdugo to get a strikeout and two line outs to end the game.

On Wednesday, though, Diaz may have had a temporarily empty tank when Callaway brought him in with the Mets leading 8-5. A save situation by the rule, but disaster when Joc Pederson and Max Muncy homered back-to-back, Pederson on a full count. You could call it Dodger vengeance for the Mets’ seventh, when Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith opened by taking reliever Julio Urias over the center field fence back-to-back.

Then Diaz suffered back-to-back doubles and another Dodger run, followed by putting Corey Seager on to work to Matt Beatty, who singled to load the pads for Verdugo. The good news was Diaz got Verdugo out. The bad news is that is was the sacrifice fly that won the game for the Dodgers, 9-8.

Diaz didn’t poke his nose out of his hole Thursday as the Mets lost comparatively quietly, 2-0. And the trip from Los Angeles to Arizona, where the Mets open a weekend set with the Diamondbacks Friday night, isn’t even an eighth as draining as a coast-to-coast jaunt.

The Mets’ lack of bullpen depth behind Diaz hurts. Their arguable best setup man, Seth Lugo, was reported returning to the team from the disabled list Friday after a spell of shoulder tendinitis. Right now it’s even money how long it takes Lugo to return to his groove.

Jeurys Familia, their returning former closer, is described best as shaky. Robert Gsellman can be an effective pitcher but his inconsistency is an issue. Drew Gagnon is pitching better than his 4.96 ERA (his fielding-independent pitching is a healthy 2.96) but he’s still walk prone and doesn’t miss bats that effectively.

You understand to an extent why Callaway wants to lean on Diaz as heavily as he does, but you have to wonder about moments such as going to him when the lead is big enough not to really need him as acutely as you wondered about not going to him earlier than the ninth when the Mets needed an immediate stopper.

Callaway’s hardly the first manager to mishandle any bullpen, however well built. You could assemble a remarkable banquet populated by skippers who think relief pitchers are impervious to drainage.

When Pete Rose managed the Reds in the 1980s, he wasn’t especially judicious about his bullpens but in particular he warmed up one lefthanded late-innings reliever, Rob Murphy, more than 200 times one season. Murphy averaged 71 innings a season per 162 games and topped out at 105 innings for 1989, the year Rose was banished for violating Rule 21(d).

Two hundred warmup sessions in a 105-inning season would be bad enough, especially when you figure Murphy had to have been warmed up more than once in a game without coming in. If Rose warmed him up that often for his 84.2 inning 1988, it was to wonder that Murphy’s ERA wasn’t higher than the 3.08 he did post. And, that his arm didn’t amputate itself.

Come to think of it, except for his first season with the Red Sox in 1989, Murphy would never again be half as effective as he’d once been despite of misuse in Cincinnati. “Some managers think, if a guy’s not actually in a game, he’s not pitching,” wrote Whitey Herzog in You’re Missin’ a Great Game. “But if he’s tossing on the sidelines, man, he’s getting hot.”

If the Mets’ relievers are indeed warming up more often or with more pitches than might be healthy before they’re brought into games, that’s an overdue red alert, too. (It’s also a good reason to dispense with the traditional eight warmups on the game mound the moment the reliever’s brought in.)

A former pitching coach should know better. A team hoping to stay the course to the postseason can’t afford to burn their best relief pitcher out before the stretch. Which is very much what’s in danger of happening to Diaz, and maybe one or two others.

And, it could help turn the Mets’ season from all-in to all-gone, and maybe all-rebuild, before the non-waiver trade deadline passes.

 

Albert Almora, meet Richie Ashburn

Chicago Cubs v Houston Astros

A Minute Maid Park security officer tries to console Almora . . .

Once upon a time, Albert Almora, Jr. ran his way into baseball history when his sharp baserunning in Game Seven helped the Cubs win their first World Series since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore.) But Wednesday night Almora was inconsolable after ripping a line foul just past the Minute Maid Park protective netting.

The ball hit a pretty little girl in the field level seats.

Almora became a father for the second time only recently. This one hit too close to home for him. He stepped away from the batter’s box and collapsed into an anguished crouch. His teammate Jason Heyward and his manager Joe Maddon tried to console him. Players on both sides and even the umpires were horrified.

After asking security personnel about the girl’s condition, Almora broke to tears.

Maddon offered Almora the chance to come out of the game but the outfielder declined the offer, saying later that he might have had a harder mental struggle if he came out. After the game, which the Cubs managed to win 2-1, Almora was no less shaken.

“I’m at loss of words,” he told reporters. “Being a father, two boys . . . but God willing, I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life. But just prayers right now, and that’s all I really can control.”

Houston radio reported Thursday morning that the little girl awoke alert and hospitalised as a precaution, and was expected to recover. Almora won’t be comforted until she recovers completely. But note his precise wording about hoping to have a relationship with the little girl. It wouldn’t exactly be unheard of, and it would speak extremely well of him to do so.

Albert Almora, Jr., meet a fellow center fielder, Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn.

Ashburn was swift in the field and a pest at the plate and on the bases who hustled his way to the Hall of Fame to which he was elected in 1995, two years before his death. He was a beloved Phillies broadcaster from his retirement as a player before 1963 until he died in what he’d announced would be his final season’s broadcasting before retiring.

But that’s not why Albert Almora, Jr. should wish he could meet Richie Ashburn. The reason is Alice Roth.

Here’s hoping a) that baseball government extends the protective netting a little further down the lines of the field level seats, as Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant among others have renewed calls to do. And, b) that the little girl and her family prove as strong and stout as Ms. Roth.

When the Phillies played the Giants on 17 August 1957, Roth, the wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth, attended the game with her two grandsons. Ashburn lined a foul that broke her nose and knocked her unconscious. The game paused while medics tended the lady.

When play resumed, Ashburn returned to the batter’s box . . . and hit another foul that caught Ms. Roth in the knee, fracturing a bone, as the medics carried her to an ambulance.

The good news: Ms. Roth recovered fully. The better news: Under Ashburn’s instigation, the Phillies treated the lady and her family so well the kids were brought to the clubhouse and handed free tickets and autographed balls.

The best news: Ashburn didn’t let it stop at that. He struck up a genuine friendship with the Roth family for the rest of his life. And Alice Roth continued rooting for the Phillies—from the left field bleachers. She wasn’t taking any chances.

But the it-figures news: One of her grandsons visited her in the hospital after she got drilled twice, and he couldn’t resist asking: “Grandma, do you think you could go to an Eagles game and get hit in the face with a football?”

 

 

 

 

 

A changeup is gonna come . . .

2019-05-30 TimAnderson

Tim Anderson takes a spin after having his helmet knocked off his head Wednesday.

“Revenge,” Don Vito Corleone advised his in-training son Michael, “is a dish that tastes best when served cold.” Tim Anderson isn’t in training to take over an organised crime family, but he did provide evidence to support the concept Wednesday.

Knock Anderson’s helmet off his head in the bottom of the second? Might not clear both dugouts and bullpens, but he’ll knock what proves the game winning run home for your trouble anyway. And leave you looking like fools without so much as a hint of a bat flip.

For the moment, forget what the pitch actually was that Royals starter Glenn Sparkman threw up and in that hit the bill of Anderson’s batting helmet and blew it clean off the White Sox shortstop’s head. Even a changeup traveling at 86 miles per hour looks frightening when its trajectory takes dead aim at a human face.

Home plate umpire Mark Carlson took all of about two seconds to pounce out in front of the plate as Anderson spun after the helmet took its flying leap and ejected Sparkman no questions asked. If that outraged the Royals’ broadcast crew (Whaaaaaat? one of them asked) and anyone else watching, keep in mind that last month Anderson took one in the rump roast from a Royal arm the next time up after hitting one out and performing one of his signature bat flips.

Royals catcher Martin Maldonado pounced out likewise to protest the ejection, prompting his manager Ned Yost to hustle out there to keep him from an early night off. “As far as we’re concerned,” Yost pleaded to reporters after the game, “coming into this series we had no animosity toward that young man. None. To think that we’re going to hit him is ludicrous . . . We’re not like that.”

Apparently, Yost forgot that his pitcher Brad Keller drilled Anderson to clear the benches 17 April. He may or may not have been aware that Carlson and his fellow umps came into the game well aware of that incident. Hence Carlson taking no chances. And, perhaps, hence why the White Sox, though obviously alarmed over what just happened to their man, didn’t even think about pouring out of their dugout, after Anderson righted himself from his unexpected spinout.

“[T]o think that we’re gonna hit him on purpose is ludicrous, one,” Yost continued. “Two, it was a changeup. It was forgotten. He’d done his part, we’d done our part. It was done. It was over. It was nothing. There was no ill feeling, no ill will, no nothing. It would be totally ignorant on our part to hit him again, for what? We don’t play that game. We’re not like that. It was done, it was forgotten. He got under a changeup and hit him in the helmet. You saw what happened from there.”

It may also be totally ignorant to deny the optics of a pitch sailing up into a batter’s face the first time he hits in the next set during which you face him after he took one in the tail the last time around.

“It could have went either way,” said Anderson himself of the pitch that knocked the helmet off his block. “A ton of things could have happened. Good thing it didn’t do any damage. I was able to stay in the game and keep my composure.”

It ended up damaging the Royals more than anyone else in the yard, and not just because their starting pitcher got himself an early night off for his trouble. After Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez tied the game at seven with a two-run single in the top of the eighth, Anderson stepped in against Royals reliever Ian Kennedy—who’d surrendered Anderson’s first major league double back in the days when Kennedy was still a starting pitcher.

With White Sox catcher James McCann aboard on a one-out double, Anderson looked at a cutter for a strike, then pulled a Kennedy knuckle curve down the third base line, right under a diving Hunter Dozier, for the RBI double that ultimately meant the game when the Royals mustered nothing more than a one-out single against Alex Colome in the top of the ninth.

The two teams hook up again come July. Don’t think for one moment that eyes won’t be upon every trip to the plate Anderson makes against Royals pitching. And this may not quite be the most ridiculous feud in baseball this year. That honour may yet end up going to Pirates broadcaster John Wehner, who thinks about as highly of Reds bombardier Derek Dietrich as a cobra thinks of a mongoose.

Dietrich has come from the Marlins’ scrap heap to become a prize Cincinnati find and a particular Pittsburgh headache, hitting seven home runs in nine games between the two teams, including three on Tuesday night alone. Wehner is not amused, not just because Dietrich has made the Pirates a particularly favourite victim but because Dietrich, like Anderson is not shy about savouring every blast he delivers.

Wehner obviously doesn’t want the kid to have fun. Especially not after Tuesday, especially not after Dietrich hit three two-run bombs in Great American Ballpark, helping his Reds to an 11-6 win. And Wehner takes it even more personally than Pirate pitchers who surrender the launches do.

Wehner can’t start a bench clearing brawl as did Chris Archer on 7 April, after Dietrich hit the first of a pair that sailed into the Allegheny River, Archer greeted the outfielder his next time up with a ball behind his bottom, and five players were ejected before order was restored. But Wehner can and does lament that Dietrich’s grandfather, one-time Pirates coach Steve Demeter, is “rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.

“It’s just being arrogant,” Wehner continued, on a radio program. “I don’t get it. I don’t get why you do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me.” He didn’t get the memo, either, that throwing at a batter for no reason better than that your ego was turned into a splash hit makes even less sense than a batter feeling it when he can and does hit one for that kind of distance.

“I think everyone should play the way they play,” Dietrich says. “I’ve got no problems with it . . . I’m just coming to play ball and hit the ball hard. We’re having fun and trying to win. This is baseball.” Having fun and trying to win. The horror.

Do you remember what Dietrich did in that 7 April game the next time he batted after his can felt the breeze from Archer? He hit another home run. Into the Allegheny River. Again. The only thing more foolish than awakening any sleeping giant is thinking you have to awaken him when he’s already wide awake.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2019-05-28 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of unwarranted baseball goats.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including [Donnie] Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Moore, the former Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the Red Sox when the Angels were a strike away from nailing the 1986 American League pennant. Three seasons later, he shocked baseball and the world by shooting his wife before turning the gun on himself and killing himself.

A haunted man as it was before the pitch, Moore apparently couldn’t bear the weight of that pitch. It wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. He threw Henderson a forkball that snapped down and away and was as shocked as anyone else in old Anaheim Stadium when Henderson sent it over the left field fence. The game went to extra innings and the Angels lost the game and, two games later, the pennant.

To the Red Sox. Who suffered even worse miseries when they were a strike away from winning that World Series. Their bullpen melted down in the bottom of the tenth against those tenacious Mets, right down to allowing the tying run home on a wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball.

Then Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson shot a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ailing Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the winning run home to Buckner’s and his team’s horror. A Red Sox Nation that already suffered from too many decades of surrealistic calamity on the threshold of triumph could bear no more.

Buckner, who died on Memorial Day, turned out to be made of stronger stuff than Donnie Moore, and Buckner endured far worse than Moore did. And just as Moore’s Angels had two more chances to win that American League Championship Series but failed, Buckner’s Red Sox had a Game Seven yet to play in that World Series—and were defeated.

Boswell was hardly the only one to say after Moore’s suicide that the goat business wasn’t funny anymore. And it didn’t stop those inclined to look for goats wherever they could be found, and try making their lives a nightmare forever after.

A well-syndicated Washington Post sports columnist for eons now, author of several best-selling anthologies of his work especially about baseball, Boswell was probably roundly ignored when he pleaded to put the goat business out of business by addressing the “goats” with forgiveness they shouldn’t have had to beg in the first place:

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not. 

Boswell opened the essay with a small roll of “goats,” but—perhaps unwittingly—he omitted their equally unwitting progenitor. Baseball’s goats have long since been Fred Merkle’s children.

That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team a pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead from the moment the game ended didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged fans and outraged writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Never tell people like that that two laws are inviolable: No game can be won by both sides, and Berra’s Law (It ain’t over until it’s over) has yet to be ruled inoperative or unconstitutional.

Merkle’s children were made to suffer under the ridiculous belief Boswell outlined, that losing a game or making a mistake in a game isn’t just a question of a mistake or a defeat but, rather, a question of sin. “The unspoken assumption,” Boswell wrote, “is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.”

Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly the epitome of morality off the field, but in Game Seven of the 1926 World Series—with Bob Meusel at the plate, Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck, and two out in the ninth—Ruth bolted for second. Everyone on earth knew a one-armed man could throw him out stealing. Amoral? Not a chance. Self-involved? Surely. But . . . he was The Babe.

Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi didn’t have Ruth’s kind of cred in Game Four of the 1939 World Series. The gentle giant was clearly morally flawed when Yankee outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller blasted into him at the plate, knocking him out cold, as Keller and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio behind him scored the game and Series-winning runs in the tenth.

It couldn’t possibly have been Keller being built like a tank and nailing the otherwise likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—to finish a World Series sweep.  “Lombardi,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace.”

So should have had Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox shortstop who held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky had to take a too-high throw in from late-game center field insertion Leon Culberson before turning to try throwing home proved entirely beside the point, to those who insisted that Pesky was obviously the devil’s spawn.

Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough.

The priest told Branca God chose him because He knew he’d be strong enough to bear the burden. Branca proved stronger than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square.

Was it moral lacking that caught 1964 Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey by as much surprise as it caught anyone else in late September, in Connie Mack Stadium, when Red rookie Chico Ruiz stole home for the game’s only run—starting the infamous Phillie Phlop?

Was Willie Davis prosecutable for terpitude when he lost a pair of fly balls in a too bright sun, and committed a third error off one of them, in Game Two of the 1966 World Series? (Which just so happened to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game as things turned out.) Did sunblindness mean its victim required an exorcism?

When B.F. Dent hit the three-run homer over the Green Monster to overthrow a Red Sox lead for what turned out keeps in the 1978 American League East playoff game, did it expose Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez as a moral idiot? (Come to think of it, was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski morally suspect when, with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he popped out to end the game?)

I guess Tom Niedenfeuer was morally suspect when his manager Tommy Lasorda, that devilish apostate, decided it was safe for him to pitch to Jack Clark with two on, first base open and the Dodgers one little out from going to the 1985 World Series. Guess that made Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he hit a home run that may have traveled to Pasadena, and those Dodgers couldn’t score a lick in the bottom of the ninth.

Maybe Don Denkinger was really degenerate when—in the bottom of the ninth, with Clark’s Cardinals themselves three outs from a World Series championship—he mistakenly called Jorge Orta leading off safe at first when every camera angle showed him out by a step and a half.

Never mind that the Cardinals still had the chance to keep the Royals from overthrowing their lead. And, that nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to implode entirely in Game Seven, with or without Denkinger himself rotated behind the plate. In St. Louis and elsewhere, Denkinger became Beelzebub incarnate.

Time healed a few of Merkle’s children, of course. Sometimes it was a short volume of time; other times, it took a generation or two. Sometimes one or two of Merkle’s children shook it off almost immediately.

Maybe it was easy for Babe Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, the Big Fella, and could get away with blunders that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Tommy Lasorda to shake off one mistake because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to work after he saw his first pitch to Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series sail into the left field seats with the pennant attached.

From whence the perennially star-crossed, snake-bitten Red Sox picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again in 2004, and delivered four straight wins against their eternal tormentors from the south Bronx after being down to the final three outs of what would have been a sweep . . . and swept the Cardinals—Enos Slaughter’s descendants—in the World Series.

Every so often those who get ruined as spectacularly as the ’03 Red Sox get a chance at immediate redemption and pounce on it. But maybe we don’t really know what goes through the minds of human men playing human games who come up short in the worst possible moments of such games.

Sometimes they heal in unexpected ways. Branca and Bobby Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the revelation and final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback the (then) high-tech cheating way. Buckner and Wilson forged a comparable friendship in the years following their rendezvous with baseball’s often cruel destiny.

So have Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and Joe Carter. Already having a blown save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series, Williams pitched into infamy in the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, when Carter hit a Series-ending three-run homer that turned what was still called the SkyDome into bedlam.

Known now to have taken the ball after a sleepless night following death threats, Williams never flinched post-game, answering even the most ridiculous questions without once trying to pass responsibility on. In the worst defeat in the Phillies’ own tortured history to that point, Williams proved a better man than his critics including a teammate or two who wanted him run out of town. He also accepted a near-immediate reaching-out from Carter himself.

“Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter once told the Toronto Star, when he and Williams hooked up for an event to help Canadian at-risk children. “Over the years I’ve seen him at MLB Network, but I’ve always known what type of guy Mitch is. He’s a great guy and the great thing about baseball is not just the sport itself, but the people you meet. Lives are going to be crossed, paths are going to be crossed a lot. It just so happens we’re kind of intertwined now and I thought it would be a great gesture to bring him back here because he is a fun guy to have around . . . he really is.”

What pounds the minds of fans who can’t resist smoking out goats when their heroes lose, or doing their level best to make life miserable for those poor souls? Ask cautiously. You might be afraid of the answers.

“The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket,” Boswell wrote, “and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment. Still, before we boo or use words like ‘choke’ and ‘goat,’ perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.” Don’t be afraid to say it’s well past time to stop letting single failures define entire careers. Game failure isn’t crime.

Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. And they’d be lying through their teeth if they say they’d have done no questions asked what Merkle’s children couldn’t do in those moments.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.

 

Bill Buckner, RIP: The injustice of it all

2019-05-27 BillBucknerMookieWilson

Bill Buckner with Mookie Wilson: bound by the Grounder Heard ‘Round the World, the two struck up a genuine friendship in the years that followed.

Bill Buckner tried to continue living in Massachussetts after his playing career ended. Then, playing catch with the youngest of his three children one fine day, the boy threw one back to his father and the old man missed it.

“That’s ok, Dad,” the boy is said to have told him. “I know you have trouble with grounders.”

Buckner couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Especially since the boy was born two years after Buckner’s hour of infamy in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The kid had heard only too much about his father’s unintended mishap, and Buckner finally had enough.

An outdoorsman at heart, Buckner packed up his family and moved to Idaho, where the former first baseman dabbled in real estate, ranching, and auto dealership. He died today at 69 after a fight with Lewy body dementia, one of the most grotesque dementia variants, and long after he finally made peace with Red Sox Nation.

It was a peace he shouldn’t have had to make in the first place.

Forget that Buckner shouldn’t even have been kept in Game Six when it went to the bottom of the tenth with the Red Sox leading. Forget that the Red Sox at one point came down to one strike away from winning that Series. Forget everything except the one thing one man above all others on the field or in Shea Stadium that night remembered.

“Hey,” Buckner consoled himself as he walked off the field after Mets third baseman Ray Knight shot home with the winning run. “We get to play the seventh game of the World Series.”

And, forget for now the absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox if the ball didn’t skip past but hop into Buckner’s downward-extended mitt. Wilson had the play beaten at first. Buckner played back far enough that even on healthy ankles he couldn’t have outraced Wilson to the pad. Pitcher Bob Stanley running over to cover on the play was behind Wilson at least a full stride.

It would have been first and third and Howard Johnson—a switch hitter on the threshold of becoming one of the National League’s home run kings—coming up to bat. And the Mets might still have forced a seventh game.

Forget all that for now. As Thomas Boswell wrote indignantly enough after the eventual suicide of another 1986 postseason goat, Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, who’d unintentionally helped the Red Sox reach that Series in the first place, “what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this ‘goat’ business isn’t funny anymore.”

Moore threw Dave Henderson a nasty forkball with the Angels a strike away from going to the ’86 Series. Henderson somehow sent it over the left field fence to tie a game the star-crossed Angels lost in extra innings. Buckner’s misfortune happened to be failing while doing his best with what he had in the uniform of a team even more so star-crossed, then and for years yet to remain, that Peter Gammons waxed thus in a Sports Illustrated essay, “Living and Dying with the Woe Sox,” published 3 November 1986:

[W]hen the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, 41 years of Red Sox baseball flashed in front of my eyes. In that one moment, Johnny Pesky held the ball, Joe McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder in Yankee Stadium, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third, Bill Lee delivered his Leephus pitch to Tony Perez, Darrell Johnson hit for Jim Willoughby, Don Zimmer chose Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, and Bucky (Bleeping) Dent hit the home run.

Boswell conferred eventual absolution upon Buckner, his manager John McNamara, plus Tom Niedenfeuer, Don Denkinger, Pesky, Gene Mauch, the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, “and every Cub since World War II” as well as Moore:

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.

Whomever were the unknown Red Sox fans who told Bill Buckner’s kid his old man had a little trouble with grounders probably didn’t know and couldn’t have cared less about the toll such a public failure takes on a man who’d been a solid major league player for sixteen seasons through that World Series, with 2,464 major league hits to that point, not to mention a reputation as a student of the game.

Buckner may have been crazy to even think about playing with his ankles turned to cardboard as they were that fall (commentators waxed almost daily about the special high-top shoes he wore all postseason long), but others admired his courage for even thinking about it, never mind trying. Until he ambled over trying to field Wilson’s roller up toward first, bent down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped through his feet.

Never mind that after rain delayed Game Seven by a day, Red Sox lefthander Bruce Hurst continued his mastery of the Mets until the middle of the game, when—after Sid Fernandez worked two and a third relief innings and shut the Red Sox down cold in those innings—Keith Hernandez shot a pair of runs home and Gary Carter sent the tying run home to end the night for Hurst who finally ran out of fuel.

Never mind Ray Knight leading off the bottom of the seventh with a line homer and two more coming in. Never mind the Red Sox clawing back to within a run before Darryl Strawberry provided a much-needed insurance run with a leadoff skyrocket in the bottom of the eighth, or Jesse Orosco’s faked bunt sending a six-hop single up the middle to send home the eighth and final Met run. Or Orosco striking out Marty Barrett to end the Series.

For years to come it was all Buckner’s fault. Well, maybe it was manager McNamara’s fault, for letting sentiment overrule baseball and letting Buckner go back out to the field to have his warrior there when the Red Sox won it, instead of making his usual move and sending Dave Stapleton out for defense.

Almost three decades later a Mets manager, Terry Collins, let sentiment overrule baseball and let a gassed Matt Harvey go out to try to finish the Game Five shutout he’d started in the 2015 World Series. It cost the Mets a chance to send a World Series to a sixth game. But Collins owned the mistake, and still does. McNamara didn’t own it in 1986, and he still may not own it now.

Buckner once watched history made on his dime, sort of, being in left field for the Dodgers and running futilely to the track when Henry Aaron sent Al Downing’s service into the left field bullpen to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. In the 1986 World Series Buckner made the kind of history nobody wants to make and nobody tries to make.

If it happened in another uniform (except maybe the Cubs’, and possibly the Phillies’), he probably wouldn’t have suffered a sliver of the slings and arrows fired his way afterward. “When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, “hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally.”

Buckner couldn’t bring himself to be part of the festivities when the Red Sox chose to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1986 pennant winner. But on Opening Day 2008, after the Red Sox won the second of their (so far) four 21st Century World Series, there was Buckner, walking out from under a huge American flag hanging over the Green Monster.

He had tears in his eyes when he walked to the mound and threw out a ceremonial first pitch to his old Red Sox teammate Dwight Evans. “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner told reporters later. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Not long before that, Buckner paid a visit to Shea Stadium. He spotted Mookie Wilson, then a Mets coach, on the field and hailed him. “Mookie,” Buckner called out puckishly, “what do you say you hit me some grounders?” Wilson, the human antidepressant, laughed heartily. Buckner’s face split into a mischievous grin. That must have been the same grin Buckner must been tempted to flash when he hit his final major league home run against the Angels, in Fenway Park as a returning Red Sox, on 25 April 1990.

It was an inside-the-park homer.

When Ralph Branca threw the pitch Bobby Thomson hit into the lower deck to win a pennant for the tainted (we now know) 1951 Giants at the end of a contentious three-game playoff, his family priest told the inconsolable Branca that God chose him to carry the burden because He knew Branca was made of stronger stuff. And he was.

“I lost a ballgame but I gained a friend,” Branca once said of Thomson and the friendship that would be soiled only when it was finally revealed, and proven, that Giants manager Leo Durocher did indeed implement a technological sign-stealing scheme to help the Giants deliver their staggering 1951 pennant race comeback.

Buckner and Wilson forged such a friendship, too, even as the pair frequently signed copies of photographs showing the ill-fated play, signings that are said to have been as therapeutic to Buckner as was moving to Idaho. They proved better men than the fools who wanted to make Buckner baseball’s Cain.

“Bill and I have become very, very close,” Wilson told a Philadelphia radio station a few years ago. “We’re really the best of friends. As good a friend as you can have . . . I think I’ve learned more about Bill since both of us have gotten out of the game . . . He is a great, great person. We enjoy each other’s company and we have a lot in common, a lot more than you would think. And it’s just been great.”

Someone should have told Buckner what Branca’s priest once told him. It might have given Buckner a little extra armour against the worst elements of Red Sox Nation and other baseball fans, and even writers. May the Lord accept Buckner into His embrace and grant him in the Elysian Fields the peace he wasn’t always allowed after the grounder heard ’round the world.

Votes of confidence turning to revivals?

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Howie Kendrick opened Sunday’s scoring with a blast over the scoreboard in right center . . . and, what a surprise, the Nats’ bullpen almost blew even a 9-0 lead before hanging in to win somehow . . .

Maybe there are times when a manager getting the dread “vote of confidence” from the front office is good for a club? Maybe. The Mets and the Nationals are arguing the affirmative in baseball’s court.

But the Nats damn near blew the case on cross examination Sunday afternoon. And they were lucky to escape with a 9-6 win.

Last Monday, the Mets went home from a disaster in Miami with Mickey Callaway facing execution. You could have fit in a closet every observer who didn’t think Callaway was going to get it, good and hard.

Then the Mets went forward to win six out of seven, including a four-sweep of the Nationals—whose own manager Dave Martinez has been on watch for a date with the guillotine—and back-to-back against the usually hapless Tigers after losing one the hard way Friday night but winning almost the hard way Saturday and Sunday.

Before the Nats opened against the likewise ordinarily hapless Marlins Friday night, the Nats’ brass, specifically ops president Mike Rizzo, gave Martinez the dread vote of confidence. With practically every Nats observer wondering when, not if Martinez was really going to be strapped into the guerney or the electric chair, depending on the mood of the brass.

So what did the Nats do? They took the first three from the Marlins with Max Scherzer due to go Fishing on Memorial Day.

But almost as if according to the script every Nats fan in creation has memorised this season, the bullpen couldn’t even let a 9-0 lead the Nats built before the seventh inning Sunday go unmolested. Scherzer could be forgiven if even he entertains a moment’s thought that Monday could become his memorial.

Maybe Patrick Corbin understood more than he’d come right out and say Saturday, when he talked Martinez into letting go out for the ninth and finish what he started, a four-hit shutout in which his mates rewarded him with a five-run fourth. Nothing to it, folks?

“I felt good,” the Nats lefthander said after the game. “I thought I could get three more. So I said I’ll get the next three.” Because, Skip, you and me both know saying we have a bullpen is like saying Ma Barker’s running the day care center.

On Friday night, after a lot of back and forth and yet another infamous bullpen implosion, Juan Soto smashed a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to yank a lead back, Matt Adams followed him with a bomb, and closer Sean Doolittle—abused in New York—shook off a ninth inning leadoff launch (from Jorge Alfaro) to close out the 12-10 win.

The Nats felt good enough after Corbin’s shutout that Victor Robles, who was nearly decapitated by a pitch Saturday night, hit the pregame batting practice cage Sunday wearing a full fire helmet to laugh it off. With these Nats, this season so far, there’s nothing like a rare pair of back-to-back wins to let a man shake off disaster with a pre-game gag.

Then Erick Fedde—whose splendid start in New York got ruined by (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) the bullpen and some late but frisky Mets hitting—cranked up and went to work. He worked so fast his first two innings Sunday you’d have missed them if you blinked even once.

Howie Kendrick slowed the lad down the right way when he led off the bottom of the second and wrestled Marlins lefthander Caleb Smith—bringing a .173 batting average against him into the game—to a ninth pitch that he sent four rows into the right center field seats above the Nationals Park scoreboard.

When the Fish decided to snap at Fedde in the top of the third, the Nats said not so fast, kiddo. Nats catcher Yan Gomes whipped Migeul Rojas—aboard second after a leadoff single and a Smith sacrifice—out, right on the snoot, trying to steal third. Adam Eaton ran down and pounced on Harold Ramirez’s double down the right field line to keep Curtis Granderson from even thinking about scoring. And Fedde struck Neil Walker out on a delicious curve ball with the bases loaded to finish that threat.

Then Kendrick shot one past shortstop into left center to send two home in the bottom of the third, just moments after Adeiny Hechavarria in New York launched a three-run homer to pull the Mets back and ahead of the suddenly tenacious Tigers, 4-3 in the sixth for a score that held up despite a dicey ninth. And Brian Dozier promptly banged one off the top of the scoreboard to send home another pair of Nats. All that with two outs, yet.

With Smith out and Wei-Yin Chen opening the bottom of the sixth on the mound for the Marlins, Gomes opened with a double and pinch hitter Michael A. Taylor (for reliever Tanner Rainey) doubled him home. Eaton reached on an infield hit to set up first and third for Anthony Rendon, and the third baseman banged a two-run triple off the center field fence before Juan Soto sent him home with a sacrifice fly just deep enough to count.

This kind of Nats largess just couldn’t go unpunished, could it?

Javy Guerra shook a leadoff hit off in the seventh but, with one out and one on in the eighth, he fed Walker something so meaty Walker would have been cited for neglect if he didn’t drive it over the center field fence.

Martinez felt safe enough with a now-seven run lead to hand rookie James Borque his first major league assignment. Borque is a righthander who sports a thick mustache with hints of Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers’s famous handlebars on either end. He sported anything but Fingers’s equally famous command in his maiden voyage.

He turned a leadoff walk into Miguel Rojas dialing a sharp Area Code 4-6-3 and a huge heave of relief. Unfortunately, he served a followup double by Rosell Herrera and a five-pitch walk to Garrett Cooper. Then Ramirez’s grounder to the back of second tied Dozier’s hands against throwing him out and the Fish had ducks on the pond that sat there just long enough for Anderson to send a three-run double to the back of the yard.

Martinez reached for Wander Suero post haste to spare the rook any further humiliation. Walker shot an almost immediate RBI single up the pipe before Suero somehow managed to strike Starlin Castro out to finish at last.

With a 9-0 lead you’re in a position where you can just about dare the other guys to swing away. Doesn’t mean it’s smart to make the offer in the first place. When, oh when, Nats fans must have asked, will this bullpen quit making things between difficult and impossible even when they’re so simple a child of five could navigate them?

The Nats out-scoring the Fish 26-10 on the weekend so far is just a little more comfortable than the Mets in New York out-scoring the Tigers 17-16 while all three games were decided by a single run. So why does it feel that the Mets had an easier time of things?

Votes of confidence have gotten a little mojo working for the Mets and the Nats so far. Memorial Day may not be so simple. Scherzer may have a simple enough time of it, even if he might have to think about becoming his own setup man at minimum. But the Nats may have one moment of pity for the Mets, who have to deal with the Dodgers in Los Angeles starting on Memorial Day.

And unlike the Nats last week or the Tigers in the end this weekend, the Dodgers don’t know the meaning of rolling over and playing dead. Forget their manager, the Mets themselves need a vote and a shot of confidence, even with Jacob deGrom opening against Clayton Kershaw. Maybe a three-finger shot. Or, a howitzer.

Lay off Cespedes

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Yoenis Cespedes on his Florida ranch.

Among all the Mets who aren’t there because of injuries, Yoenis Cespedes seems to draw the most witless derision by fans about whom you can no longer say they should know better. Because Joe and Jane Fan too often regard injuries on and off the field as the product of some moral flaw almost regardless of how the injuries were incurred.

That is why there are analysts who believe Joe and Jane Fan are bigger boneheads than a lot of the ones who earn six or higher-figure salaries to write cracks or columns condemning  players like Cespedes. Or, who blog about them.

Cespedes’s Mets tenure hasn’t exactly been unhazardous to his health as it is. He was already on the injured list since last year, rehabilitating after surgery to remove calcification on both his heels. And while rehabbing at his Florida ranch, Cespedes suffered multiple ankle fractures last weekend when he hit a hole on the grounds, requiring surgery to end a season that hadn’t even begun for him.

To look at some of the comments on assorted forums as well as some of the headlines in the press you’d have thought Cespedes was some sort of mental case.

“MORON!” went a small passel of fan comments from forum to forum. “Folly Rancher” hollered the headline on the New York Post‘s back page. “Like a soldier who shoots himself in the foot to avoid combat,” went another fan comment. On Twitter, Slam Central Station, which describes itself as “the official banter account for the 27 times World Series champion New York Yankees,” wrote “Yoenis Cespedes after signing a 4-year, $110M contract with the Mets” to describe . . . a video of a young woman falling over while walking in a pair of highly elevated shoes.

Maybe I’m out of line but I can think of a lot more bizarre ways in which professional athletes have spent their disabled time rehabilitating. And if you think Cespedes owning, living on, and rehabilitating on a Florida ranch makes him a candidate for the rubber room, I’m afraid of what you think about Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. Who’s divided his baseball retirement between baseball administrative activities or on his Texas ranch.

If Ryan hasn’t incurred any strange injuries during his ranching life, perhaps he’s fortunate. Another former pitcher, Ross Ohlendorf, lives the rancher’s life. “Ohlendorf is sympathetic to Céspedes’ plight,” writes The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark, “because he has been there and done almost every ranch thing imaginable, right up to his current case of nasty poison ivy.”

It may be a better thing that Cespedes suffered multiple ankle fractures. If Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Headline Writer, and Joe and Jane Blogger/Tweeter can mock, rip, and ream him for hitting a hole on his grounds the wrong way, don’t ask what they’d do if Cespedes came up with poison ivy instead. Would you rather he broke his ankles on the dance floor of a New York hot spot trying too hard to impress a few females?

They’re already less than empathetic with the likes of Albert Pujols, whose career decline phase has been accelerated all too much by the series of leg and heel injuries he’s incurred since the first season he played for the Angels on a mammoth contract.

You hear them talk about his inability to do just about anything other than continue to hit home runs as if he was nothing more than a useless bum. You don’t hear them talk about the injuries that reduced the Hall of Famer-in-waiting to the performance level of a reserve player in the first place.

And they’ve been long less than empathetic with hapless Yankee outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s been the poster boy for almost epidemic injuries almost from the moment he became a Yankee in the first place. Remind them that Ellsbury’s injuries came entirely from, you know, playing the game, and you might be reminded not to let those pesky facts get in the way of their comforting biases.

They see the money and forget these men are only human, too. And the minute you suggest to Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Headline Writer, and Joe and Jane Blogger/Tweeter the plain truth that professional baseball isn’t just a matter of suiting up and playing a game, that it requires work and lots of it and comes with risks and lots of them, they’d sooner sign your deportation papers than ponder the depth of what you’ve just told them.

You’d have thought by some of the comments, brickbats, and slanders that Cespedes’s entire career has been one marked by recklessness. Stepping wrongly into a hole on his ranch grounds may actually be the only injury he’s incurred when not playing the game. He’s had more than his share of baseball injuries already, and a few times he exacerbated them while actually—what a concept, albeit a foolish one—trying to play through them.

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Yoenis Cespedes, when he’s a healthy Met.

(Don’t even go there about the time the Mets asked Cespedes not to play golf while he was rehabbing an injury a couple of years ago. You could probably win the pennant with the players who’ve enjoyed golf off the baseball field even when they were on a baseball disabled list. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine to fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, when they went into Cooperstown together: “You made me better by watching you pitch, and you made me wealthier with all the money we took from Smoltzie on the golf course”)

Earning eight figures a season doesn’t make baseball players any less prone to the slings and arrows of the game on the field and life off it, unless you really are dumb enough to think $29 million a year immunises you against illness or injury.

And Cespedes’s ankle isn’t even close to the most bizarre injury any baseball player has suffered. Listen up, Joe and Jane Jackass.

Cespedes didn’t put his false teeth into his hip pocket and then get a bite in the butt while sliding into second base. (Nondescript pitcher Clarence Bethen thought of that in 1923.)

He didn’t break his ankle chasing (it was alleged) Jill St. John down a ski slope. (Cy Young Award-winning Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg managed that after the 1967 season.)

He didn’t take up an exercise routine involving running backward and step subsequently into a gopher hole causing a back injury. (That was 1980s pitcher Jamie Easterly’s idea.)

He didn’t try demonstrating a slam dunk technique on a storefront awning and catch his ring in the awning to shred ligaments in the hand and lose a season. (Braves closer Cecil Upshaw did that in 1970.)

He didn’t spend a day off running too fast from his kitchen back to his television set and busting a toe out of desperation to see a buddy batting on a baseball telecast. (Hall of Famer George Brett did that because he couldn’t bear to miss a Bill Buckner at-bat.)

He didn’t strain or injure his back pulling on his cowboy boots. (Hall of Famer Wade Boggs did.)

He didn’t fall asleep with a bitter-cold ice bag on his foot to give himself a case of frostbite in August and cost himself a few games. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson did.)

He didn’t get a sunburned face on a tanning bed. (Marty Cordova did.)

He didn’t decide that if a motivational speaker could tear the thickest phone book in half then he could, until his dislocated shoulder told him, “No, you can’t!” (Relief pitcher Steve Sparks learned that the hard way.)

He didn’t think he could get away with hauling a full heavy side of deer meat up a flight of stairs until the venison-to-be won the weight division and sent him flying down into a broken collarbone. (Clint Barmes did, also in 2010.)

He didn’t tear his left meniscus trying to smoosh a pie in a teammate’s face during said teammate’s postgame television interview. (Marlins utility player Chris Coghlan did, trying to nail Wes Helms in 2010. An accident, you say? What do you think happened to Cespedes, then, a premeditated plot?)

He wasn’t the genius who forgot to look in all directions while reaching for a sock under his bed, until the suitcase his wife fiddled with on the bed fell over and injured his hand, an injury he tried to hide until even the blind saw he couldn’t grip his bat properly. (Earth to Jonathan Lucroy, 2012.)

And he didn’t injure his ankle while jumping a trampoline, with or without a son. (Joba Chamberlain jumped into a dislocated ankle while trampolining with his then five year old son, also in 2012.)

If you still think Cespedes suffering ankle fractures on his ranch during a surgery rehabilitation makes him a moron, I have some land to sell you cheap. On Bizarro World.