Some people can never be satisfied, still

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Left to right: Emily, Bryan, and the author, Bryan’s father, relax in Angel Stadium before a game between the Angels and the Athletics Thursday night. Guess which of the game’s seventeen total hits got the loudest ovations . . .

What’s that old saying about some people can never be satisfied? Unfortunately it also remains a true saying. That’s whether baseball’s get-off-my-lawn contingency complains about not enough hitting (in 2014) or too many home runs (this year), or whether Orioles fans look the proverbial gift horses in the mouth because of a choice of . . . uniform.

This year’s epidemic of home runs includes such side effects as strikeouts rising, singles falling, stolen bases on various endangered species lists, and howitzer-armed bullpens turned to arson squads.

It’s not unreasonable to lament the large percentage of game action that involves home runs. The absolute flip side of the proverbial coin would be a game full of nothing but singles and a crashing bore unless the pitchers are virtuoso charismatics and the fielders resemble the Flying Wallendas. (Only nine percent of this season’s fielding assists so far involve turning double plays. Ground ball pitchers, where are thy stings?)

I happened to be in Angel Stadium Thursday night, treating my son, Bryan, and his girlfriend, Emily, to a game, the first of a weekend set between the Angels and the rival Athletics, to finish their final home stand before the All-Star break. (They hit the road to meet the Rangers and the Astros to finish the season’s first half.)

The occasion was a gift for Bryan’s graduation from southern California’s North Orange Continuing Education program in which disabled students make their transitions gradually but affirmatively to whatever full collegiate work they can perform toward the level of independent life they can attain.

Bryan is speech-language impaired, and the only one in the house more proud of the courage he shows living, laughing, and persevering through his disability is his father, to whom Bryan is a hero every day, not just those during which he graduates or helps his Special Olympics team nail a silver medal in softball, as he did at last year’s national games in Seattle.

(P.S. In his first ever plate appearance in a national Special Olympics, Bryan socked a home run. In baseball, 118 players have homered in their first major league at-bats. The most recent: Lane Thomas, Cardinals, 19 April.)

And lo! Come Thursday night, the Angels defeated the Athletics, 8-3, to open a weekend set. From our nesting at field level down the right field line, we saw the runs score on:

* A second-inning home run. (A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano, leading off.)

* Another second-inning home run. (Kole Calhoun, a two-run shot that ricocheted off the rocks behind the left center field fence in the bottom of the inning.)

* A third-inning home run. (Shohei Ohtani, the defending American League Rookie of the Year, resuming designated-hitter duties if not pitching as he continues recovering from Tommy John surgery, hitting one clean over the center field fence.)

* A pair of third-inning RBI singles. (Hall of Famer in waiting Albert Pujols, driving home Justin Upton; and, Luis Rengifo, driving home Calhoun.)

* A fourth-inning home run. (Matt Olson of the A’s, leading off the top.)

* A sixth-inning single. (Mike Trout, the Angels’ all-everything center fielder, sending home Andrelton Simmons, the flying shortstop freshly restored from the injured list.)

* An eighth-inning single. (Oakland’s Marcus Semien, sending home Robbie Grossman.)

Of the game’s seventeen hits (the Angels had twelve), 24 percent of them sailed over the fences. Through this morning’s writing, major league games this season have featured 3,390 home runs out of 21,265 hits. That, folks, is 16 percent of this season’s hits. Last year, 14 percent of baseball’s hits were home runs. Oh, the horror.

Fume all you like about the home run epidemic, if epidemic it is, but doesn’t it seem peculiar that such an epidemic accounts for that small a percentage of baseball’s hits? Thirty-six percent of this year’s hits are doubles; two percent are triples. But we don’t hear either loud complaints about the epidemic of doubles or the near-extinction of triples as much as we hear about the bombs bursting in air at record levels.

On Thursday night, except for Trout’s RBI knock in the sixth, knowing that this guy gets standing ovations just taking his position in the field to open a game (a cursory look around the park tells you Trout remains the single most popular Angel based on jerseys and jersey-reproducing T-shirts with Ohtani a close enough second), guess which hits got the loudest ovations, even among the A’s fans who scattered around the stands?

Hint: it wasn’t the four RBI singles.

(A note on the Angel Stadium video display when Laureano batted midway through the game: he’s the first Athletic in their entire franchise history—going all the way back to the birth of the Philadelphia Athletics—to have made his first major league hit a game-winning RBI hit. Ever. Not even the franchise’s celebrated Hall of Famers—not Home Run Baker, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, or Reggie Jackson—did that. Laureano did it in 2018.)

Once upon a time, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith bragged (if that’s the correct word), “The fans love home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff that is certain to please them.” This year, commissioner Rob Manfred all but brags that since the fans like home runs, baseball has introduced a ball that was certain to please them. Apparently, the “pill” at the ball’s center is being centered more accurately. Makes some people want to reach for the nearest bottle of pills.

Pitchers may not be pleased as greatly as the fans seem to be. Rangers pitcher Drew Smyly picked the wrong year to return from Tommy John surgery: he surrendered nineteen bombs in 51 and a third innings before the Rangers released him last week. And until Phillies pitcher Jared Eickhoff landed on the injured list, he’d pitched 58 and a third 2019 innings and eighteen services landed on the far side of the fence.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield says Smyly’s home run rate per nine innings this year (3.3) was baseball’s worst and Eickhoff’s (2.8) the seventh worst, but don’t get him started on those who’ve been nuked worse in fewer innings. Poor souls such as Alex Cobb (nine bombs in twelve and a third), Edwin Jackson (twelve in 25.1), or Dan Straily (22 in 47.1).

And, yet, Schoenfield continues, overall scoring per game remains “within historical norms” at 4.78 runs a game, which he says is the highest since 2007’s 4.80. Apparently it’s how you score that matters yet again. If the game levels itself out in due course (as it always seems to do, never mind the periodic equipment tinkerings) and the runs begin coming in singles-, doubles-, and triples-hitting droves, brace yourself. The death of the home run will be pronounced loud and long, too.

I mentioned the Orioles earlier. Back to them. How does this strike you—the Orioles, who are on a pace Schoenfield says will see them surrender 324 home runs for the full season (or, if you’re scoring at home, an average of 36 homers per lineup spot against them), spent Friday and Saturday doing what no team before them has done: back-to-back shutouts in which they themselves scored thirteen runs or more.

The Indians were the victims. On Friday night, John Means and three Orioles relievers kept the Indians to six hits against Mike Clevinger and three Indians relievers surrendering sixteen hits—only (count them) two of which were home runs. On Saturday night, Andrew Cashner and one reliever kept the Tribe to five hits against Zach Plesac and four Indians relievers surrendering thirteen hits—only four of which were home runs. That’s back-to-back home run percentages of 13 and 31 percent per game, and 21 percent for the two games.

But Oriole fans couldn’t even enjoy that rare a two-night spread without finding something to complain about. In this case, the Orioles’ uniforms Saturday. Commemorating Maryland Day, a state holiday, the Orioles’ jersey sleeves and cap visors displayed the image of Maryland’s state flag. “Hideous” was probably the least indignant adjective applied.

Well, as I was saying, some people can never be satisfied. Thank God and His servant Jackie Robinson that my son and his lady aren’t among the perpetually dissatisfied.

 

Bird of prey or prey itself?

One of America’s most famous airport architectures was the TWA international terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Designed by architectural legend Eero Saarinen, the terminal—eventually occupied by JetBlue as part of its terminal complex, but converted since May 2018 into the TWA Hotel—depicted the cleverly stylized image of an eagle’s majestic landing.

When you see Craig Kimbrel on the mound in a baseball game, he assumes a set position taking his catcher’s signs that causes him to perform the single most near-perfect depiction of Saarinen’s masterpiece any human being can perform. Arms bent and elbows up, chest down, the pitcher as bird of prey about to land in or atop the target’s head.

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Craig Kimbrel–will the Cubs have the bird of prey he depicts a la Saarinen or the prey itself?

From all appearances, it looks as though Kimbrel will come up to the Cubs either Thursday or Friday, after pitching at their Iowa (AAA) affiliate since 16 June to finish rounding himself into game shape. The question before the house is which version of the 31-year-old righthander the Cubs will get.

Will they get the no-questions-asked shutdown reliever of 2010-2015 and 2017? Will they get the one whose 2016 looked like a single comparatively down season against that body of work? Will they get the 2018 version whose ERA as of that 23 July was 1.90 but swelled to a 2.74 by season’s end?

Or will they get the Kimbrel whose postseason helped inspire Worcester Telegram-Gazette writer Bill Ballou to resist submitting his Hall of Fame ballot—rather than send one without a vote for Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera (ultimately, he sent it anyway with a vote for The Mariano)—because Kimbrel exposed the worthlessness of the save as now defined, since when he pitched “Boston’s victories felt like defeats”?

Beneath the surface of six saves, Kimbrel allowed nineteen baserunners, posted a ghastly 6.18 ERA, and put the Red Sox on so high a tension wire that they didn’t dare think of him when they had the chance to put the World Series away once and for all.

Kimbrel’s misfortune was to enter free agency after the World Series rings the Red Sox reached almost in spite of him. With the memory of his meltdowns still too fresh despite the Red Sox getting to the Promised Land for the fourth time since the turn of this century. With the Red Sox either in Fenway Park or on the road that postseason needing to keep mobile crash cart units standing by.

Against the Yankees in Game One of the division series, Kimbrel suffered only what you might expect to suffer when the Yankees need a big blast, Aaron Judge leading off the top of the ninth with a launch into the right field bullpens, before striking out the side post haste.

He didn’t appear in the Yankees’ Game Two win or, back in Fenway Park, in the Red Sox’s 16-1 Game Three bludgeoning of the Empire Emeritus, but in Game Four the crash carts went from yellow to red alert. Kimbrel went out for the top of the ninth with a 4-1 lead to protect. That’s the last simple thing you can say about it.

He walked Judge to open and surrendered a single to Didi Gregorius almost immediately to follow. He struck out Giancarlo Stanton but walked Luke Voit to load the bases. He plunked pinch hitter Neil Walker on the first pitch to send Judge strolling home and keep the ducks on the pond. He may have been fortunate that Gary Sanchez hit nothing worse than a sacrifice fly, pulling the Yankees to within a run, and that Gleyber Torres grounded out to end it before the paddles had to be charged.

Against the Astros in the American League Championship Series, Kimbrel wasn’t a Game One thought when the Astros took a one-run lead to the top of the ninth and it fell to Brandon Workman to let the Astros put the game out of reach, thanks to a leadoff homer by Josh Reddick and a three-run bomb by Yuli Gurriel.

But Cardiac Craig came out to play in Game Two. He was asked to nail down a 7-4 Red Sox lead, and he ran Red Sox Nation’s temperatures into the life-threatening zone yet again.

He got two swift outs to open, getting Evan Gattis to pop out behind second base and striking out Reddick swinging. Then 2017 World Series MVP George Springer shot one through the hole at shortstop that ended up a double. With Jose Altuve at the plate Kimbrel wild-pitched Springer to third, before Altuve lofted what turned out a high single down the line and toward the Monster to score Springer. Alex Bregman flied out to end it.

The collective sigh of relief had enough thrust to qualify as a potential hurricane.

The Red Sox didn’t need Kimbrel to nail down an 8-2 Game Three win in Houston, but Kimbrel should buy Andrew Benintendi’s steak dinners for five years at least after Game Four. This time, Red Sox skipper Alex Cora asked Kimbrel for two innings. That was almost like asking a suicide bomber to get away with two attacks.

Cardiac Craig opened the eighth with: a single to right that turned into an out when Tony Kemp tried and failed to stretch it into a double; another plunk (Bregman); a double to right (Springer); and, a run-scoring ground out to the hole adjacent to third. (Altuve.) Then he shook off a steal of third to strike Marwin Gonzalez out swinging.

And that was just the overture to the ninth. When Gurriel popped out over the line behind first. When Reddick and Carlos Correa walked back-to-back. When Reddick took third on Brian McCann’s fly to right. When Kemp walked to set up the ducks on the pond. When Bregman sent a line drive to the deeper reach of the left field corner that might have tied the ALCS at two each if Benintendi hadn’t scampered in like a puppy spotting a toy in the short distance and taken the dive that resulted in the catch of the season, if not the decade, saving both Kimbrel’s and the Red Sox’s hides.

Game Five, in which Red Sox starter David Price re-discovered his changeup and pitched himself six scoreless, masterful innings while his mates found Justin Verlander’s vulnerabilities just often enough, saw Kimbrel on the mound yet again in the ninth. Call it defiance of the Red Sox gods if you must. But Cardiac Craig let them off easy this time, with only a one-out walk, two strikeouts, and the ALCS-winning fly out, almost appropriately, to Benintendi in left.

Those may not have been your grandfather’s Red Sox of outrageous misfortune. But the box scores alone say Kimbrel saved four in those first two sets while leaving you entirely on your own to remember or revisit the gory details behind the saves. Be still, your hearts and stomachs.

In the first two World Series Games against the Dodgers, he was the classic, not the cardiac Kimbrel, striking out two of three hitters in the former and, in the latter, retiring the side in order on a fly out and back-to-back ground outs. Then came Game Three—which ended up going to the bottom of the eighteenth before his Game One strikeout victim Max Muncy ended the marathon with a blast into the left center field bleachers.

Kimbrel shook off a walk to end the bottom of the eighth with a foul pop out behind the plate before getting two outs on a pop and a grounder to open the ninth, then shaking off a ground-rule double before ending the ninth with an infield pop. It may not have been enough to ring an alarm, but it wasn’t exactly calm and peaceful, either.

And in Game Four, brought in for the ninth despite a five-run Red Sox lead, Cardiac Craig came home to roost yet again. He opened with a walk to Brian Dozier before Enrique Hernandez hit a 1-1 service not far from where Muncy’s Game Three finisher landed. He got Muncy to ground out before Justin Turner singled on a dying liner to short left field, but Manny Machado grounded out and Cody Bellinger flied out to end the game before the Red Sox needed to call in the crash carts.

If the Red Sox let Kimbrel get anywhere near Game Five with the chance to slip on the rings, they would have been tried by jury for attempted mass murder. They turned instead to Chris Sale, normally a starting pitcher, to finish the Dodgers off. And Sale gave the Red Sox what they once thought Kimbrel was guaranteed to deliver, striking out the side for game, set, and their fourth return to the Promised Land in the new century.

Kimbrel still thought he had a decent chance at making himself baseball’s first $100 million reliever regardless. Baseball apparently thought through its none-too-discreet laughter that someone spiked his Series-celebratory champagne with one or another controlled substance.

It took him seven months and the June draft, after which any new employer wouldn’t have to surrender anything but his salary to sign him, before the Cubs did just that, for three years and a measly $45 million. He won’t exactly be heading for the welfare office any time soon.

It’s not that the Cubs don’t need a late-game reliever with Kimbrel’s overall flight jacket. Since losing Brandon Morrow after he looked to be posting a magnificent 2018, the Cubs’ bullpen this season has been an inconsistent presence. Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, and Kyle Ryan have overall numbers that won’t make you reach for the rye bottle, but Cishek and Pedro Strop have received most of the game-finishing assignments, and Strop hasn’t been the same pitcher he’d been in the recent past, and they’re both suited better for setup duties.

The good news is that the Cubs right now are at the top of the National League Central heap. The bad news is that they’re there by a thread, a game ahead of the Brewers who still don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” The worse news is that they’re 5-7 in twelve games including splitting a pair with the Braves in a four-game set.

When Kimbrel joins the Cubs, either for the set final with the Braves at Wrigley Field Thursday or against the Reds in Great American Ballpark to start a weekend series Friday, the Cubs can be forgiven if they ask which Kimbrel comes out to play.

Will it be the Kimbrel who resembles a stylized eagle landing after a majestic flight and pitched like one for a long enough time? Or will it be the bird of prey who becomes the prey itself? The Cubs’ season may turn considerably on the answer.

They call it stormy Monday . . .

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If only this was Steven Matz getting back one of the three home runs he surrendered during Monday night’s massacre . . .

It must be nice to work for a team in which a vile, vulgar outburst on behalf of avoiding accountability doesn’t get you canned on the spot or within twenty-four hours. By that measure, Mets manager Mickey Callaway and enough of his team live charmed lives. At least until they squared off against the Phillies Monday evening.

For their profanities at reporters who sought nothing more than accountability for a bullpen decision that cost them a series-ending game against the Cubs Sunday afternoon, the Mets didn’t fire Callaway or trade or release pitcher Jason Vargas. They didn’t suspend either man. They merely fined the pair of them.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen issued Callaway yet another vote of confidence. Cynics think Callaway was thus rewarded for being Van Wagenen’s human shield because no major league manager could be anything close to Callaway’s kind unless he was little more than a general manager’s satrap.

Come Monday Callaway and Vargas issued apologetic non-apologies unless they were non-apologetic apologies. Or vice versa. Then Callaway backtracked just so and, seemingly on his own, he apologised to the writers traveling with the Mets and specifically to Newsday‘s Tim Healey, who’d been Callaway’s and Vargas’s specific Sunday post-game target.

At least Vargas didn’t try in his too-short apologetic non-apology to justify himself by invoking Billy Martin’s ancient decking of a reporter, which actually happened not after a baseball game but in a bar during halftime of a Western Basketball Association game. As Deadspin‘s Samer Kalaf observed wryly, “invoking a successful Yankees manager, who was also a kook, isn’t the best play here.”

It’s also not the best play there to invoke a manager who was infamous for handling pitching staffs as though this year was next year. “Managers, like anyone else, tend to be shaped by their experiences,” Bill James wrote in 1981. “Billy Martin probably manages as if there were no future because he has never had a future with any organisation, only a string of todays here and there.”

Callaway’s experience before becoming the Mets’ manager was as a pitcher and a pitching coach who could be presumed reasonably to operate with the organic knowledge that this year isn’t next year and that pitching arms must be kept oriented six parts this year and half a dozen parts next if they’re to deliver the most of their ability with the least imposition and injury.

Presumably, Callaway could have been assumed to know better than to send a clearly less-than-at-his-best relief pitcher out to work a second inning, instead of a) opening that second inning with a fresh arm; or, if he insisted on staying with his man to open, b) bringing in his well-enough-experienced closer for a prospective five-out save.

But in just the latest in a two-season series of pitching maneuvers described most politely as dubious, Callaway sent his less-than-at-his-best man Seth Lugo out for the eighth after Lugo worked a scoreless but too-difficult seventh Sunday afternoon. Instead of opening the frame with freshly-prepared Robert Gsellman, or asking closer Edwin Diaz for a five-out save of a 3-2 Met lead, he left Lugo in.

Javier Baez promptly smashed a three-run homer, overthrowing the Met lead for keeps, and only a soul afflicted with sleeping sickness couldn’t have told you the number one question on every writer’s postgame mind was going to be why on earth Callaway stayed with Lugo—who’d pitched two innings last Friday—when Lugo’s arm was clearly enough spent after one inning of work.

Callaway’s and Vargas’s behaviours would likely have led to their prompt unemployment with the Mets, if not necessarily in baseball elsewhere, if the Mets weren’t so befuddled looking a club that the very idea of sending any message stronger than a wrist slap on behalf of demanding accountability seems to be one that sends them praying to the porcelain god regardless of the best play here. Or there. Or anywhere.

Vargas finally dismissed Sunday’s clubhouse rumble as “an unfortunate distraction.” From what? The Mets’ inconsistent play? Their second-year manager’s strategic mischief, mistakes, and malpractise? Callaway from all appearances is a genuinely decent and likeable man otherwise, but he’s in so far over his head he needs a periscope just to see twenty feet below the surface.

Their rookie general manager’s clumsy team construction that’s left them with a bullpen of compromised stock and fielders playing mal-positioned and into the sort of miscues you’d expect from the Mets’ 1962 ancestors but without the mirth and merriment? Their metastasising inability to stand accountable? Their unexpected faith that it’s all the media’s fault?

The same rookie general manager supposedly managing at least some of the Mets’ games from New York, regardless of whether he knows anything beyond the numbers when it comes to managing his players, their fuel tanks, and the immediate game situations that require a manager’s insight and foresight? Which means the hapless Callaway has an unwanted partner in crime leaving him to take the worst plays’ fall?

These are the Mets who opened against the teetering Phillies Monday night. The Phillies entered the set in a spell of plate somnambulism. By the time the game was in the bank, the Mets and the Phillies swapped bombs, defensive slickness, defensive inconsistencies, pitching mismanagement, timely hitting, and wasted contact.

And that was just in the first five innings.

The Phillies’ bullpen is an injured mess. The Mets’ is a misassembled and mismanaged  mess. Presumably those are what forced Callaway and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler to leave their starting pitchers, Steven Matz and Zach Eflin, in to take seven- and six-run beatings, respectively, before either pitcher got past a fifth inning’s work.

Callaway relieved Matz with Brooks Pounders as the Phillies took a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs. Jean Segura doubled home the eighth Phillies run before the side retired. Callaway left Pounders in for the sixth. A one-out triple, an RBI single, a steal, a two-out infield RBI single, and a two-run homer. Pounders was probably lucky to escape without the Phillies pounding additional bullets into his evening’s corpse.

Kapler relieved Eflin with Juan Nicasio, JD Hammer, and Fernando Salas. Only a single Met was allowed to get to within binoculars distance of second base under their command. Until Dom Smith sent an excuse-me homer the other way over the left field wall in the top of the ninth. The Mets otherwise allowed the teetering Phillies to resemble the 1927 Yankees while ending a seven-game losing streak during which the Phillies scored only two more runs than they scored all Monday night.

Nineteen hits versus the Mets’ fifteen in a 13-7 Phillies win does that for you. For the Mets, that wasn’t even close to the best play here, either.

He can’t rant with the masters, either

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As postgame ranters go, Mickey Callaway won’t make anyone forget Tommy Lasorda or Lee Elia.

If the Mets do what seemingly three quarters of the Internet thinks has to be done and fire embattled manager Mickey Callaway after Sunday’s postgame profanities, so be it. But they may want to know that Callaway’s isn’t even close to the absolute worst outburst major league baseball people have been known to release after harsh losses.

After the Mets lost to the Cubs 5-3, Callaway—himself a former pitcher and pitching coach presumed to understand such things—should have expected the number one postgame question would be why he left not-so-strong reliever Seth Lugo in for a second inning after over-labouring a first one, long enough for the Cubs’ Javier Baez to drill a three-run homer that overthrew a Met lead and held up for a Cub win.

Just about everyone watching the game, including Mets broadcasters Gary Cohen and Ron Darling (himself a Mets pitcher on their 1986 World Series winner), knew Lugo barely got through his scoreless first inning’s work. Callaway warmed up Robert Gsellman but didn’t bring him in until after Baez’s blast.

And closer Edwin Diaz, who might have been asked for a five-out or even a two-inning save, since he’d only pitched a single inning Friday night (for a save) after five days without a game appearance, wasn’t even a topic. Until Callaway was asked about it postgame and insisted, a little snappishly, that five-out save opportunities weren’t a topic, either.

No matter how much pressure Callaway’s been under, reporters shouldn’t have had to expect him to throw down a couple of [maternal fornicators], or order his people to get another [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse. Or, when Mets pitcher Jason Vargas was asked in all innocence by reporter Tim Healey if he had something to say, as Healey swore Vargas appeared, Healey shouldn’t have had to have Vargas threaten to knock him the [fornicate] out, bro.

With Mets first-season general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said to be en route Philadelphia, where the Mets open a set with the teetering Phillies Monday, it might not be a shock if he greets Callaway by putting the manager’s head on a plate. As of this writing, nothing from inside the Mets yet appears to indicate its likelihood.

But if so, Sunday’s postgame behaviour was only the wick that ignited the powder keg. All season long it’s been a question of when, not whether Callaway would meet the guillotine. And wags could suggest plausibly that one reason to execute Callaway could be that, when it comes to postgame tirades, he can’t cut the mustard in Lee Elia’s or Tommy Lasorda’s parlours.

About the only thing Callaway has in common with those two is that their still-legendary, still-heard expletives-undeleted rants had something to do with the Cubs, too.

Elia was the Cubs’ manager on 29 April 1983, when the Cubs lost a one-run game to the Dodgers in Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith threw an eighth-inning wild pitch to Pedro Guerrero with Ken Landreaux on third, allowing Landreaux to score what proved the winning run.

Aside from the season’s early losing—the game dropped the Cubs to 5-14 and dead last in the National League East—the sparse Wrigley audience, and a fan dropping a beer on Cubs outfielder Keith Moreland, left Elia in no mood to play nice, never mind accommodating, after the game. And never mind most of the press corps going to the Dodgers’ clubhouse because first baseman Mike Marshall played in Wrigley for the first time and homered in the fifth.

The unwitting provocateur was radio reporter Les Grobstein, who asked Elia about the Cubs’ fan support. Elia delivered a tirade in which he tried defending his players but ripped the boo birds, unloading 41 profanities before unloading the money quote: They oughta go out and get a [fornicating] job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a [fornicating] living. Eighty-five percent of the [fornicating] world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here. (The Cubs still played strictly day games then.)

Elia by all accounts was lucky his [fornicating derriere] wasn’t fired almost on the spot; he happened to return to his Wrigley Field office to retrieve a set of keys when then-general manager Dallas Green, who’d just heard the recording of Elia’s rant, called the skipper’s office.

The mortified Elia apologised to the GM. He probably survived because, near the end of his bellowing, he did urge people to rip him and not his players if they were unhappy with the Cubs’ play. Unfortunately, Elia would be fired later in the season as the Cubs fell fifteen games under .500.

In due course he’d sell for a cancer charity autographed baseballs displayed in specially-made cases that included specially-made players that delivered a cleaned-up version of the infamous schpritz. He’d also manage the Phillies for a short period and eventually work in the Braves’ front office.

Five years earlier, the Cubs inadvertently seeded a postgame jewel by Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, after a fifteen-inning win in Dodger Stadium on 14 May 1978. The inadvertent provocateurs were Cubs slugger Dave Kingman—whose home runs were typically conversation pieces that approached earth orbit no matter the venue in which he swung at the plate—and Los Angeles radio station KLAC reporter Paul Olden.

Kingman was 1-for-2 when he batted in the sixth against Doug Rau and smashed a two-run homer to pull the Cubs back to within a run. An inning later, Kingman grounded into a run-scoring force out, but in the ninth he hit Dodger reliever Mike Garman for another two-run homer to tie the game at seven. In the fifteenth, though, Kingman squared off against Rick Rhoden and hit a three-run homer that proved the game winner.

Like just about everyone else in the stadium and among the press corps following that 10-7 Dodger loss, the number one subject on Olden’s mind when he met Lasorda was Kingman’s particular destruction that day. Olden might have had a simpler time asking Emperor Hirohito what he thought of the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima.

Some thought Lasorda still seethed over Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson’s three-bomb demolition of the Dodgers in Game Six of the previous fall’s World Series. Whether that was true or false only Lasorda knows for certain. Lasorda knew only that the last thing he wanted to talk about was Kingman’s mayhem:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

It’s entirely possible that Lasorda survived that rant because he’d just taken his Dodgers to a World Series and had his team in the thick of the National League West hunt they’d win in due course en route a second consecutive Series. (And, a second straight Series loss to the Bronx Zoo edition of the Yankees.)

Lasorda cooled down little by little, especially after Olden admitted he hadn’t necessarily asked a brilliant question. But the outburst was on tape, and in short order a copy fell into the hands of a rival radio station whose owner just so happened to be Angels owner Gene Autry.

Lasorda shook off his mood enough to attend a charity dinner for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Either at the dinner or before it, Lasorda apologised to Olden. And in due course Lasorda was asked once to look back upon what was known as the Kingman Rant:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

Both the Elia and the Lasorda explosions have survived to get major play around the Internet. And Paul Olden ended up having a surrealistic last laugh: since 2009, Olden has been the once-removed successor to the legendary Bob Sheppard as Yankee Stadium’s public address announcer.

Jackson tagged Sheppard as “The Voice of God.” Lasorda can say the day he went Dodger blue on Olden sent Olden on his way to God’s perch. I’m pretty certain Callaway won’t be able to make the same claim. Whether he’s fired Monday or in time enough.

Don’t blame or curse the writers, bros

2019-06-23 SethLugo

Seth Lugo, who shouldn’t have been left in to start the eighth Sunday, after surrendering Javier Baez’s difference-making three-run homer.

Maybe the most frequent refrain around last year’s Mets was Jacob deGrom pitching like a virtuoso but his team losing for him regardless. It didn’t stop him from winning a deserved Cy Young Award then. But it stopped him and the Mets from banking a badly-needed win in Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon.

And it threatened to turn into a rumble in the clubhouse jungle after the game, after manager Mickey Callaway heard one too many questions around the likely theme, “What on earth were you thinking or not thinking when you let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning when he didn’t exactly have even his C+ game to work with?”

Not to mention Mets pitcher Jason Vargas challenging Newsday writer Timothy Healey to a fight as the postgame interviews ended. “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro,” Vargas snapped, when Healey first stood his ground after Callaway demanded team public relations people escort him away.

A man who surrenders four earned runs in four and two thirds innings, as Vargas did Friday in a game the Mets hung in to win 5-4, should spend more time thinking about knocking hitters out at the plate than knocking reporters out for doing nothing more than, you know, their jobs.

Because there was deGrom Sunday afternoon, with a nine-strikeout, two-run, six-hit start, shaving another point or two off his ERA, his breaking balls coming out to play very nicely with others starting in the second, playing a little too nice for the Cubs’ comfort, mostly, and coming out after six innings with a 3-2 Mets lead.

And there was Lugo—arguably the Mets’ most reliable bullpen bull this year so far, after shaking away some early-season struggling—unexpectedly laboring through the seventh, though the box score by itself won’t show it. He needed ten pitches to surrender a leadoff single to Victor Caratini and six to coax pinch hitter Daniel Descalso into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 before getting Albert Almora, Jr. to ground out for the side.

Listen up. It wasn’t the writers who decided it was better to send a less-than-fully-armed Lugo out to pitch the eighth instead of opening with a fresher Robert Gsellman, who’d been loosening up during the seventh.

It wasn’t Healey who fed Kyle Schwarber a sixth-pitch hanger on which Lugo was lucky The Schwarbinator didn’t hit across the street but rather up the middle for a none-too-deep base hit. Or, who walked Anthony Rizzo on 3-1 after Kris Bryant flied out to center. Or, who had Javier Baez in the hole 0-2 before serving him a slider that slid insufficiently enough to be sent into the right field bleachers.

Goodbye, 3-2 Mets lead. Hello, 5-3 Cubs lead to stay, after Pedro Strop took care of Robinson Cano and Carlos Gomez on back-to-back swinging strikeouts before pinch hitter Dom Smith lined out to right for game and series split.

And, goodbye for the time being to the good feelings of Rookie of the Year candidate Peter Alonso busting the National League’s record for home runs before the All-Star break Saturday and becoming the Mets’ all-time rookie home run leader Sunday when he sent Cole Hamels’s changeup seven or eight rows into the left field bleachers in the top of the fourth, leading off and tying the game at one.

Not to mention Tomas Nido—the backup catcher who isn’t much at the plate but is valued because he works so well with deGrom in spite of Callaway’s insistence that not even a Cy Young Award winner should have a personal catcher—surprising one and all in the top of the fourth with a 1-0 rip into the center field bleachers to give the Mets the lead they’d expand when deGrom himself snuck an RBI single through the middle later in the inning.

What did Callaway, Vargas, and any other earthly or otherwise being in Mets silks think the writers were going to ask about after a loss like that? Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance leading the Wrigley faithful in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch?

Actually, the first subject was Edwin Diaz, the Mets’ closer. Why wasn’t Diaz considered for a five-out save at the earliest sign of eight-inning trouble? “Just because you think so?” Callaway retored to Yahoo! reporter Matt Ehalt, who asked the question. “Absolutely not. We have a very good plan, we know what we are doing and we’re going to stick to it.”

If that’s the case, why not send Gsellman out to work the eighth from the outset, since it wasn’t exactly hidden from plain sight that Lugo laboured through the seventh?

Then came the questions about Lugo starting the eighth, including from Healey, apparently, and then came the testiness from Callaway and, in time, Vargas, who needed Gomez and Noah Syndergaard to restrain him before Healey finally departed.

A manager who’s been considered on the hot seat over dubious in-game strategies and his bullpen management since just about the second week of the season is in no position to bark “Get this [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse” at anyone, never mind a reporter seeking clarification on the non-move that turned the game away from the Mets in the first place.

Callaway said he thought Healey was being sarcastic when saying “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” after the questionings ended. First the skipper told Healey not to be a smartass. Then came the expletives undeleted.

Healey tried to assure Callaway he wasn’t being sarcastic but Callaway wouldn’t quit. He said much later Sunday the testiness began with “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” a harmless pleasantry rendered unpleasant when Callaway snapped back with Vargas in earshot and, apparently staring at Healey for a considerable period. “(I) recalled asking him if everything was OK,” Healey said.

Apparently not. That was when Vargas threatened to knock Healey the [fornicate] out, bro. “[T]hen Vargas took a couple of steps toward me,” Healey said. “Some people said charged—charged is super-strong.”

Whether Healey was right or wrong, so long as he and the other writers in the postgame interviews weren’t insulting Callaway and Vargas and merely asking tough but reasonable questions about the critical moment in the Mets’ loss, Callaway and Vargas stepped over a line. Office holders holler “fake news” as much over reporting they simply don’t like as over false reporting. But even they’re not known customarily to throw obscenities in reporters’ faces under or after tough questioning. (We think.)

“No matter what the reporter did,” veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said, “this can’t happen . . . The problem is Mickey Callaway probably should’ve been fired a month ago . . . ever since, this has been lingering over this team . . . everybody is simply waiting.”

“While Callaway has never had an outburst like this before with a reporter, the second-year manager has pushed back when asked critical questions,” Ehalt himself wrote later Sunday. “Vargas had not had an incident like this with a Mets reporter since he joined the team last year.”

Diaz himself also urged someone, anyone, to get Healey out of the area, but apparently Diaz and other Mets feared the altercation getting even more serious. They had to be unnerved already by their manager and one of their pitchers jumping all over Healey as it was. Especially if it was as much out of character for Vargas as seems to be the case.

After Healey finally disappeared, some reporters lingered to talk to Diaz. Without incident, apparently. But these Mets are a tense outfit right now and may have been long before Sunday afternoon’s follies.

The bullpen new general manager Brodie Van Vagenen built for this season is mostly mis-built. Some of his acquisitions have misfired. Former closer Jeurys Familia, re-acquired for this season, has proven an arsonist as as a setup man. And veteran second baseman Robinson Cano looks too vividly like an aging imitation of the one-time star who parlayed his Yankee success into glandular dollars in Seattle from whom the Mets took him in the deal that made Diaz himself a Met.

Under criticism this year for periodic loafing, Cano looked even more so Sunday, on a second-inning grounder that turned into a too-easy step-and-throw double play. And he showed his age in the fourth, unable to throw on to first while in mid-leap over a slide at second, to finish a likely double play.

And, there are still the Wilpons in the executive command post still unable or (Met fans and some writers accuse) unwilling to overhaul the organisation and allow a sound balance between analytics and game sense to take hold.

The Mets are good at jumping to apologise for their manager’s and pitcher’s out-of-line behaviour toward the reporters doing nothing worse than being reporters. If Callaway, Vargas, and any other Mets really thought no one would ask about why Lugo was left in to work the eighth after he was—by his own admission—less than at full power in the seventh, the question becomes whom among these Mets still have their heads in the game.

The team didn’t need to apologise. It should have been the manager and the pitcher doing it. No matter how beleaguered they are in fact or in supposition, no matter how out of character it might have been, they behaved out of bounds.

Callaway looked at first like he’d survive the vote of confidence he got publicly after the Mets suffered a weekend bushwhacking by the Marlins last month. Now the Mets may yet end up having to apologise for having engaged a manager as far in over his head as Callaway seems increasingly to be.

 

 

All-Star voting: enough is enough already

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Philadelphia Phillies

Pat Neshek—the Phillies’ reliever isn’t anywhere near the only one who thinks baseball’s All-Star Game system is broken.

Major league baseball’s All-Star Game began as an exhibition tied to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair during that city’s centennial. Chicago’s fathers thought it was one way to help cheer up a nation rent by the Great Depression. Now the All-Star Game and its selection process are depressing.

“It’s kind of a broken system,” says Phillies reliever Pat Neshek about the All-Star Game vote, with a reported laugh, “but it’s always going to be a mess to get everybody involved.” Unfortunately, it isn’t very funny anymore, and it hasn’t been for long enough.

I’m going to admit it: I didn’t vote in this year’s All-Star primary round. I refused to be part of the farce. When you’re allowed to vote five times in a 24-hour period over several weeks, it’s only slightly less of a joke than the political open primary in which you can vote for anyone regardless of your actual party preference and possibly be responsible for a party fielding candidates they didn’t exactly want to field.

Rays outfielder Tommy Pham thinks the vote is allowed to be skewed too heavily to the larger market players regardless of how they’re actually playing. Orioles reliever Richard Bleier thinks players hitting the injured list, out of the top ten in “some” category (he didn’t say which), or having been designated for assignment shouldn’t be kept on All-Star ballots. (The DFA who stayed on the primary ballot? The Orioles’ Joey Rickard.)

Prowl around and you might discover the only non-controversial All-Star votes may be Mike Trout, the Angels’ best all-around player in the game since practically the day he came to the Show to stay; and, Cody Bellinger, the Dodger who’s having not a breakout but a blow-it-up season, leading the fan vote after round one of this year’s vote.

But the primary round didn’t make allowance for Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ third baseman, unfortunately. The National League’s leading third baseman in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and wins above a replacement-level player, ended up on the outside and off the final starters’ election that begins this coming Wednesday for a 28-hour period.

“They changed the broken system to another system that’s broken,” says Red Sox pitcher David Price. “(The) All-Star Game is about how big of a name you got and not how deserving you are.” Yes, the popularity contest angle has been discussed, protested, and denounced for a long enough time. But never, apparently, as it’s been this season. And never by so many of those who actually play baseball.

Call it baseball’s version of a political primary election, but round one determined the top three finishers at all positions. And if you think as Pham does that it was skewed almost exclusively toward the larger market players, ponder if you will that Pete Alonso, the Mets’ first baseman who’s making a powerful Rookie of the Year case, didn’t make the final cut but Josh Bell, the impressive enough Pirate who isn’t in the league’s top ten WAR (Alonso is), did.

Or, skewed toward the popular players no matter what and even where. Tommy Pham to one side, there are players with big enough name recognition outside New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.

But how on earth did Aaron Judge end up among the outfield finalists when he’s only just returned from the injured list where he’d been since 21 April? Sure, he opened the season at All-Star level, and it wasn’t his fault he strained an oblique, but it can’t be only big market bias that has him making the coming Starters’ Election round while, for example, Tim Anderson, the White Sox shortstop, didn’t quite make it.

When you’re allowed to vote “only” five times per 24-hour period, it’s the kind of thing politicians looking for election edges only drool about in even the least corrupt precincts. Now, marry that to previous suspicions of ballot box stuffing. (The Royals a few years ago? The Giants a couple of years before that? The Cincinnati ballot box stuffing scandal of 1957—if Reds fans had their way that year, the starting lineup would have included only one non-Red non-pitcher, Hall of Famer Stan Musial—that cost the fans the All-Star vote for a decade in the first place?) The Price is right. From one broken system to another.

The bad news for all you actual or aspiring ballot box stuffers: You won’t get to have as much fun for the Starters’ Election as you could have had during the primary. You can only vote once during the Starters’ Election’s 28-hour time frame. But I’m willing to bet that if the geniuses who devised this year’s vote system thought about one vote, one time during the primary period, too, the aforesaid and other ridiculous results (how did Kyle Schwarber and his .794 OPS make the National League’s outfield cut?) would have been very different.

Once a mid-season showcase that allowed fans of one league to get a good gander at the other half, it’s been a plaything for too long, possibly except for players who, as Pham noted, have incentives for making All-Star teams in their contracts. The only good news around the All-Star Game in recent years was the day it finally stopped being the means by which World Series postseason advantage was awarded, as it was for a few too many years.

Baseball’s government never seems able to fix what really might be broken while it scrambles to bring things that aren’t in disrepair to the repair shop. It’s coming to the point where baseball’s governors may have only a couple of choices, repair the All-Star vote once and for all, or do away with either in-season interleague play or the All-Star Game itself.

Doing away with in-season interleague play would probably be the better option, anyway—especially since, as Dayn Perry of CBS Sports notes, the National League dominates it now in large part because of enough American League teams honestly in the tank. Bad enough: The American League ruled the interleague roost from 2004-2017. Just as bad: The National League out-did the American League in interleague play last year, 158-142 and has this year’s edge, 71-56.

Regular season interleague play was never a great idea to begin with. Married to the postseason’s expanded wild-card rounds and it cheapened the impact of the World Series even if we’ve had a bunch of Series that went to extraterrestrial levels since both began before the turn of the century. And we’ve heard of how often fans might be suffering postseason saturation with the wild card games and seven postseason rounds?

With the All-Star Game reduced now to a sad gag, maybe baseball’s governors would be willing at last to ponder a few fixes that really should be made:

1) Why not let the statisticians from the Elias Sports Bureau, STATS, Inc., FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference determine a five candidate per position All-Star ballot? There’s something wrong when an extremely deserving Anthony Rendon, and a few too many others in the top ten at their positions, don’t make the final Starters’ Election slate. The All-Star Game should be about excellence, not bias. The starting lineup and the rosters should be chosen from the best.

2) Revamp the All-Star vote entirely. Keep it online only. Make it one vote, one time for fans and don’t make the vote available at the local library or anyplace else Joe and Jane Fan can access computers not their own. (I can’t think of any way to enforce one vote, one time at the ballparks.) And combine that fan vote with votes from the people who, you know, actually know and play the game: the players, the coaches, the managers. Make the All-Star Game as close to a full showcase for the best in the game as possible without making it a lifetime achievement award.

(That was how many All-Star Games to which Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was voted by the fans whether or not he actually deserved the honour in given seasons? The answer: seventeen. Ripken actually deserved All-Star honours eight times while going to nineteen games. Keith Hernandez, arguably the greatest defensive first baseman who ever played the game, went to five All-Star Games, was voted a starter once, and probably deserved to start seven Games.)

3) Get rid of the Home Run Derby. As I wrote earlier this year, the Derby has a 50-50 chance of leaving its participants weaker after the Derby than they were going into it. Judge himself is right about the Derby: it’s a lot more important that your team wins on the season and has a shot at the postseason than whether you or any teammates join or win a Derby. Even when (as with this year’s model) you stand to win $1 million if you win it.

Joe and Jane Fan get a big bang out of watching the Derby. So does the television camera. And, so do enough writers. But guess who’s going to be the first to kvetch when the Derby winner or the other Derby swingers come up lesser in the second half of, you know, the actual season, especially if and when their teams are in a pennant race and they might be the ones who need to deliver the big game-or-race-changing hit or play?

3) Start planning to do away with in-season interleague play. There are times enough when a bad interleague matchup can and even does make a difference in one or the other team’s pennant race standings. The proper place for interleague play is, was, and will always be the World Series. The gimmick has outlived its actual usefulness, assuming it had any beyond then-commissioner Bud Selig’s imagination or lack thereof.

And let’s face it. Any Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, or Yankee-Met rivalry may be fun for the moment but nothing like the Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, Yankees-Red Sox, or other budding in-league/in-division rivalries.

If baseball has to expand to do it, making sixteen-team leagues instead of the current fifteen, well, would it be so terrible to invite Montreal back to the National League party, assuming owners can be found who are willing to build a decent ballpark without trying to soak Montreal’s taxpayers?  (It would beat the living daylights out of the ridiculous idea of having the Rays play half their season in Tampa Bay and half in Montreal, for one thing.) And would it be so terrible to award Portland, Oregon an American League team? Think about that. The National League has three West Coast teams; the American League has two. An AL team in Portland would even that out.

And, once the leagues are back to an even number of teams . . .

4) Get thee behind me, wild card system. Sixteen-team leagues can be divided into even-numbered conferences of eight teams each. Call them the Casey Stengel and Connie Mack conferences in the American League; call them the Happy Chandler and Branch Rickey conferences in the National League. (Time’s way overdue to re-honour the men who decided once and for all that baseball’s segregation was a crime that needed to end post haste.)

5) Now, make the whole postseason mean something again. The conference champions would play a best-of-five League Championship Series, just the way it was played from 1969-85, and the World Series will remain its best-of-seven self. Voila! Goodbye, postseason saturation. Goodbye to all the thrills and chills attached to seeing who’s going to come out of an arduous stretch drive . . . in second place. Let the NBA and the NHL keep their joke playoff systems to themselves. Let baseball show the way to real championship one more time, for all time.

Somehow I had a feeling I couldn’t go an entire season without addressing most of those ideas again. And, somehow, those who know me won’t necessarily be surprised.

The dying Mets turn to a Vulture

2019-06-20 PhilReganMets

Former relief ace Phil (The Vulture) Regan, who’s worked in the Mets organisation since 2009, is now their pitching coach.

To a lot of people, the Mets are the walking dead awaiting the vultures to feed. So when they canned pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez Thursday, it must have delivered a truck load of laughs when they named a vulture as their new pitching coach.

As in, Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Former bird of prey out of the bullpen himself. Who’s alive and well, apparently, at 82. Who’s probably going to have a few people wondering just how he’s going to fix the Mets’ talented but struggling rotation and a bullpen that’s mostly full of bull.

And, who can’t do a thing to fix the Mets’ pitching’s top weakness—the unsound defense behind them, and the unsound baserunning that runs them out of scoring chances.

This Vulture isn’t worried about either dealing with today’s breed of player or his own age.

“I think kids today, they want you to be honest,” Regan told Syracuse.com. “I don’t ever lie to them. I try to come in and not change their whole delivery. I’m not a big believer in doing that, or taking pitches away from them. But there’s a lot of little fundamental things that you have to do as a pitcher. And sometimes a person can see that, maybe just one little thing. Try it, and if you like it stick with it.”

Where was he when the Mets really needed him?

Ask him about his octogenarian status, and Regan—who once pitched for the Syracuse minor league team during his years with the Tigers—doesn’t exactly sound like a man ready for assisted living.

“I’ve always kind of stayed in the game and done different things,” The Vulture continued. “I still go to the Dominican in the winter and coach down there. I spent twenty years in Venezuela managing and coaching there. So I’ve kept busy all year-round. And I think it’s kind of helped me keep going. I’m 82 years old now, but I don’t feel it.”

That means Regan feeling younger than a lot of Mets must feel more often than not this season. This may be the first time the dying were known to invite a vulture to try saving their lives instead of dining on their corpses.

But are the Mets going to start throwing sweat balls?

After life as a sort of swingman for the Tigers in 1960-65, the Dodgers traded Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s buddy and road roommate Dick Tracewski to get Regan away from the Tigers after the 1965 season. His too-obvious itch to get into games, not to mention an early 1966 spell of coming into tie games from which Koufax was lifted late, prompted Koufax himself to crack, “Regan, you’re a real vulture, getting my wins like that.”

“From there, the press picked it up,” The Vulture says. “I got hundreds of these rubber vultures from all over the country. People would send them in. The zoo wanted to put a vulture down in the bullpen, but they wouldn’t let them do it. We had a lot of fun with it.”

Regan thinks he kept Koufax from one final achievement in 1966, Koufax’s last season. “He could have been a 30-game winner his last year,” Regan told the New York Post, “but I vultured a few wins.”

And while having his own career year in 1966—a 1.62 ERA and a 2.33 fielding-independent pitching rate, with a 0.93 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention a 14-1 won-lost record—Regan began getting away with a pitch nobody could catch for a very good reason.

“I don’t use foreign substances,” George Frazier would crack much later when he was caught throwing funny pitches. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.” Regan could see and raise that: he used part of his body to do it. Specifically, his sweat glands.

2019-06-20 PhilReganDodgers

They knew why the caged Vulture sang: Phil Regan (facing camera) in the 1966 Dodgers’ bullpen.

“He had an awkward diving delivery,” wrote David Claerbaut in Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn’t Win, “and his out pitch was a moist one that went with a tough slider. Because Regan threw what might be called a clean spitter, allowing the perspiration to run down his arms onto the ball, umpires were never able to bust him, despite their certainties that the ball coming in was less than arid.”

The Vulture got away with it long enough. “I can’t come right out and tell you that I now throw the spitter,” he once told a reporter, “but I’d say: I don’t use it nearly as much as everybody thinks.” Relief ace-to-be Al (The Mad Hungarian) Hrabosky later said Regan’s money pitch was “the slippery elm.”

Whatever it was, when the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs with outfielder Jim Hickman for outfielder Ted Savage and minor league pitcher Jim Ellis, Regan was almost damaged goods: he’d opened the ’68 season with swollen hands, knees, and legs, including one frightening morning when he couldn’t even lift his cup of coffee.

He got a just-as-frightening diganosis of rheumatoid arthritis but it turned out to be an odd temporary form of the affliction that lasted only a month. The arthritis might have cleared but nobody was clear about what Regan was throwing and just when he might throw it. As with the 1966 Dodgers, Regan became the Cubs’ bullpen anchor, and in too short order it proved to pull him to the bottom.

He was 32 years old by then. He gave the ’68 Cubs the second-best season of his career and it came with a price: Leo Durocher depended on him so voluminously that he burned the Vulture out almost as profoundly as he’d burned out the rest of the ’69 Cubs by the time the Miracle Mets re-heated for keeps down the stretch.

“We just flat wore Phil Regan out,” said catcher Randy Hundley to Rick Talley for The Cubs of ’69. Leo started going to him all the time. What did he pitch, 112 innings in 71 games? That’s a bunch for a short relief man. Now, if he pitches 80 or 90 innings in 71 games, he might survive. But Leo didn’t feel he could count on the other guys out there, so he kept calling on Regan.”

Durocher had a well-established pattern of not trusting his youth and over-trusting his veterans, when he wasn’t refusing to rest his regulars judiciously or making them feel like quitters if they spoke up about being injured.

Somehow, Regan remained Durocher’s favourite bullpen bull despite the toll, until the Cubs finally sold him to the White Sox in June 1972. After ten more games in which he continued to look anything but the bullpen terror he’d formerly been, the White Sox released Regan and the Vulture retired.

A 1966 All-Star, Regan knows only too well the differences between conditioning today and conditioning in his time. Those who think today’s pitchers are “babied” and lacking toughness should wonder how it was pitchers in Regan’s day survived at all.

“I think that the pitchers today are bigger and stronger and throw harder and are in better shape than we ever thought of being,” he says. “When I see the way that they train . . . when I was with the Dodgers they said the two things you don’t do, you don’t lift weights and you don’t swim. Well, those are two of the better things for you now. It’s an evolution a little bit of where we’ve come from where we were. But today the pitchers train year-round. Guys, in my era, used to go get a job during the winter because the money wasn’t there.

“It’s a different era in that in today’s society, in baseball, these are major investments,” the Vulture continued. “I could tell you I pitched . . . in Detroit and never made $20,000 a year. And that’s fine. But that was my era and that was a lot of money in those days. But today, when you have a guy that you’re making $10 million, you need to protect that investment. And that means take care of him, give him the best medical help, give him the best conditioning that we can give him. You protect him better because when you lose $10 million, that’s a major loss as opposed to $7,000.”

Pitch for Leo Durocher and you learn only too well about how not to handle pitchers. No two pitchers are quite alike physically; no two pitchers will have the same endurance or the same physical composition. Neglect that and you face disaster, whether you’re on the mound or shepherding men to the mound.

A near-inveterate storyteller, the one Regan likes most to remember involves the Dodgers’ 1966 pennant clinch, on the final day of the season, when Hall of Famer Don Drysdale’s faltering in game one of a doubleheader forced manager Walter Alston to send Koufax out to pitch and win the nightcap on two days’ rest, which also altered Alston’s pitching plan for the coming and ill-fated World Series.

As Regan and his fellow bulls ran out of the pen toward the clubhouse, a fan snatched Regan’s Dodgers cap right off his head. Twenty-nine years later, Regan received a package in the clubhouse while managing the Orioles. It was the same year Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. broke fellow Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak.

The package contained the cap lifted from Regan’s head that day in 1966. The fan who snatched it decided Regan should have it after all those years. Regan invited the fan to an Oriole game personally. “I still have the hat today,” he told the Post.

It isn’t every Vulture who gets his hat handed back to him.

Now the question becomes whether this Vulture can raise the Mets’ pitching staff from the dead before the real vultures make carrion of them. With or without breaking a sweat.