No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.

Don Mossi, RIP: Ugly is as ugly does

2019-07-26 DonMossi

Don Mossi, who proved ugly was only in the eye of the beholder on and off the mound.

“He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power,” wrote Bill James about pitcher Don Mossi in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. “He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.”

Wrote the late Jim Bouton in Ball Four, while musing how players loved to choose up all-ugly lineups to pass time, “he looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.”

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the all-ugly receiver, once said, “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket. All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.” Mossi, a brainy lefthander who made Berra resemble Cary Grant by comparison, could have said the same thing, with the codicil that he’d never seen anybody pitch one with his face.

Mossi, who died Friday morning at 90 in an Idaho hospital, had nothing on the mound but his brains, an unusual three-finger grip on his fastball, which didn’t travel like a speeding bullet but came to enough forks on the way to the plate and took them to keep hitters off balance, and a deadly enough curve ball. And it gave Indians manager Al Lopez a smart idea when Mossi made the team in 1954.

Lopez used Mossi’s wits and righthander Ray Narleski’s power as an effective bullpen counterweight whenever one of the Indians’ effective starters—Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and aging but still capable Hall of Famer Bob Feller—needed to be spelled, with elder veteran Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser the long man out of that pen.

Used so judiciously, that bullpen helped the 111 game-winning Indians whistle past the 103 game-winning Yankees and into the World Series, with Mossi rolling a 1.94 ERA and a staggering 194 ERA+, then pitching four innings in the World Series without surrendering an earned run or a walk.

If only the Series equaled Mossi’s performance: the Giants swept the Indians in four straight, and it only began with Willie Mays’s stupefying catch in Game One to rob Vic Wertz of a likely extra base hit at the Polo Grounds’s cavernous rear end. In due course, Mossi would admit he was scared to death as a rook until veterans such as Feller and Lemon put him more at ease.

A year later, Mossi was deadlier. He struck out 69 against only eighteen walks, posted a 2.42 ERA and a 2.01 fielding-independent pitching rate, and even drew a few Most Valuable Player votes while he was at it. Who knew that Narleski would begin experiencing elbow trouble and put an end to that skin-tight rear end of the Indians’ bullpen?

Perhaps inexplicably, the Indians moved Mossi and Narleski into the starting rotation for most of 1957. Perhaps also inexplicably, Mossi earned his only All-Star berth. Perhaps even more inexplicably, the Tribe traded both Mossi and Narleski to the Tigers after the 1958 season—for Billy Martin, well along the way to his second career of wearing out his welcome swiftly enough, wherever he landed, after Yankee general manager George Weiss got fed up with him in 1957.

As a Tiger, Mossi became a starter, mostly, and a reasonable back-of-the rotation option. In 1961, Mossi became a curious trivia element when he surrendered only one home run to Roger Maris but none to Mickey Mantle while that pair of Yankees chased ruthsrecord all season long. Mossi also started a 1 September game against the Yankees in which a near-flawless performance was ruined when, with two out, Elston Howard and Berra singled back to back before Moose Skowron drove home Howard with the winning run.

The loss kicked off an eight-game losing streak that knocked the Tigers out of the 1961 pennant race. And that was the last season Mossi pitched before incurring arm trouble that began slowly decreasing his starting assignments and increasing his bullpen options until the Tigers sold him to the White Sox during spring training 1964.

The White Sox put him back into the bullpen permanently, and Mossi responded with a 2.94 ERA over forty innings before the Sox released him after the season. The Kansas City Athletics took a flyer on him in May 1965, but he called it a career after the season.

His comparatively late major league start may have shortened his career a bit; he was 25 when the Indians brought him up in 1954 and one year removed from discovering that odd three-finger fastball grip. He was a good if unspectacular pitcher who married his mind to his arm and did the best he could with both.

Teammates appeared to have loved and respected Mossi. Once upon a time, according to a fan posting on Mossi’s Legacy.com obituary page, Rocky Colavito—dealt to the Tigers controversially in 1960 (Indians fans were ready to arrange the execution of general manager Frank Lane over that and other trades that essentially broke up the Indians’ perennial contenders)—drove a white Cadillac convertible and picked Mossi up in it on the way to Tiger Stadium as long as they were teammates.

But his distinctive (shall we say) appearance stuck in the minds of opponents and fans more than his ways and means on the mound. Beneath eyes similar to those of Edward R. Murrow, Mossi also wore a proboscis that made Danny Thomas’s look like a bob and ears that rivaled the batwing flaps of legendary Hollywood censor Will Hays, earning him the nicknames “The Sphinx” and “Ears.”

Well, now. The Sphinx with Ears ended up having a last laugh. He returned to his native California with his wife, Eunice, and their three children; he’d married his lady on the field at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark while pitching for the Indians’ farm in 1950. Mossi’s baseball afterlife included running several motels in California successfully, not to mention becoming a twelve-time grandfather and a 25-time great-grandfather.

A few years after Mrs. Mossi passed away, her husband retired to Idaho, where much of their family had relocated, and took up an active life indulging his passions for gardening, hunting, and camping. The Mossis were animal lovers to the point that the pitcher’s family declined a funeral service and asked instead that contributions be made to a pet hospital in nearby Oregon.

Clearly enough, ugliness was in the eye of the beholder, and Mossi’s was only skin deep. (Admittedly, you wonder, if Mossi had gone to medical school, he’d have put up with tons of needling about becoming an ear, nose, and throat specialist.) Beneath the ears and the schnozz there rested a competitor on the mound and a gentleman off it.

So laugh, clowns, laugh. This Donald had the last laugh known as a life lived very, very well. Call it winning ugly if you must. But emphasise winning.

 

How to bury savages in 19 easy lessons

Red Sox vs Yankees

Xander Bogaerts hitting the first of a pair of home runs to kick off the Thursday night massacre; the second bomb he wanted to hit when he spotted Mom in the seats.

The carnage began in the bottom of the first and finished by the bottom of the eighth. And when Nathan Eovaldi, the Red Sox’s resurrected pitching toy moved to the bullpen upon his return, shook off a one-out single to turn the Yankees aside in the top of the ninth, even the Fenway Park faithful who thought they’d seen everything in this century-plus old rivalry were too exhausted to cheer.

They may even have been too exhausted to wonder what maybe everyone else in baseball wondered, namely why Yankee manager Aaron Boone had no apparent way to keep his All-Star starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka from taking maybe the worst beating of his major league life. Or, why the Yankees had no apparent way to stop the Red Sox from burying them 19-3, the worst the Red Sox ever laid on the Yankees in the entire history of their to-the-death rivalry.

A twelve-run beating all earned in three and a third innings’ work. A beating that only began when Tanaka couldn’t get a single Red Sox out in the bottom of the first, before Xander Bogaerts with first and second jumped on a down-and-in fastball and drove it over the Green Monster seats onto the street. A beating that ended when Tanaka surrendered a two-run ground rule double down the right field line to Mitch Moreland in the fourth.

Tanaka had his relief Stephen Tarpley to thank for surrendering number twelve on his dollar. Leaving him the most badly-abused pitcher in Fenway since then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, also inexplicably, left his starter Jon Lester in to take an eleven-run battering in 2012. If these were marriages, Tanaka and Lester could have demanded domestic violence charges.

Taking one for the team? Ancient imperial Japan’s legendarily notorious World War II kamikaze pilots launched with better survival odds.

Maybe Boone didn’t want to incinerate his own bullpen too early, and maybe you get that to an extent, but the extent ends when a Tanaka who’d just been torn for five earned in five innings against the Rockies in his previous start barely escapes the first with seven runs and then gets sent forth for further use, misuse, and abuse.

It actually looked as though Tanaka might survive after Bogaerts’ blast, the longest of the Red Sox shortstop’s career, when he got J.D. Martinez to fly out to center immediately following. And even when the Red Sox loaded the bases on him just as immediately, his odds increased when he got Christian Vasquez on a measly pop out to Gleyber Torres, the Yankee shortstop whose RBI single in the second accounted for a third of the Yankee runs on the night.

But then Jackie Bradley, Jr. tore a two-run double to right and Mookie Betts, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, tore an immediate two-run double to the back of the park. Just like that, Tanaka’s hope of coming out of the first with his Yankees staying within reach disappeared almost as fast as Bogaerts’ bomb.

About the only thing that could possibly disappoint Bogaerts was that his mother, his uncle, and a couple of his Little League coaches hadn’t arrived in Fenway in time to see the first-inning blast. The Aruba native wanted nothing more than to hit one out with Mom in the ballpark. He got his wish—in the bottom of the eighth.

By which time the Yankees decided their pitching staff was abused enough for the night and Boone sent catcher Austin Romine to the mound to take one for the team. Did he ever. Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon pounded a two-run homer into the right center field bullpen with nobody out. Then, after third baseman Rafael Devers flied out, up stepped Bogaerts.

“The last at-bat,” Bogaerts said after the massacre, “I saw my mom there and I was like, ‘I’m going to try’.” Romine threw something up to the plate that hung so high it might get a real pitcher convicted by his team’s kangaroo court if it has one. And the only thing keeping Bogaerts’s launch from leaving the ballpark entirely this time, with the nineteenth Red Sox run, was the National Car Rental sign atop the back of the Monster seats.

Just a week after Boone made headlines with a vulgar rant at an umpire in which he called his players “savages” in the batter’s box to raise his esteem among Yankee fans, and Yankee first baseman Luis Voit turned the rant into T-shirt fodder for his mates,  it was the Red Sox looking like savages enough with 23 hits on the night to make the Yankees—with all of seven hits and three almost excuse-us runs on the board—think twice about savagery as motivation.

Some record books took almost as much of a beating as the Yankees did Thursday night. Eight Red Sox had at least two runs batted in on the night to tie a major league record. For the first time in the rivalry’s history the Red Sox beat the Yankees with a sixteen-run differential. For the first time ever, a Yankee starting pitcher surrendered twelve runs or more while getting ten outs or less.

And if you thought the Yankees got sunk by the Red Sox, the forty runs Yankee starters have allowed over their past five games is the most in any five-game stretch of Yankee starting pitching since the year the Titanic sunk. Thursday night the Red Sox were the iceberg. Not even a Yankee ship that’s pretty sharp at coming in from behind this year could avoid that.

And it almost doesn’t matter that before this five-game struggle Yankee starters had a fourteen-game run in which they posted a collective 2.88 ERA. All season long the Yankee rotation’s been in enough need of an upgrade. All month long the eyes of trade deadline watchers have been on whomever the Yankees might have eyes for.

This five-game stretch is probably going to drive the price for any trade deadline upgrades upward. Sellers must have looked at Thursday night’s climax to the five-game leaking and said, “Thank you, Boston Red Sox!” Not that they’re going to get super rich in the return hauls, necessarily. But they might maybe be able to hold the Yankees up for a little bit more out of the prospect bank than the Yankees might have thought they’d have to surrender.

Meanwhile, Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello has been living something of a charmed life of late. Thursday night’s were the lowest amount of earned runs he’s surrendered in his four July starts—all of which got him credited with wins. He gave up six each against the Tigers and the Orioles, teams not necessarily known for striking fear into the hearts of opponents this season, and he surrendered four to the Blue Jays in a mid-month assignment.

“It seems like the last three or four games I pitched we put up damn near 20 runs,” Porcello said in something of a daze after Thursday night’s thrashing. “Run support is huge. And when we’re scoring like this, you do the best you can not to screw it up.”

And the Red Sox must be thinking it was one hell of a way to get motivated for what could well be their last stand. They go from hosting the Yankees this weekend to hosting the Rays—from whom they took two of three in Tampa Bay before they sank the Yankees Thursday night—for three at Fenway before going to the south Bronx to meet the Yankees for four more.

They’re still ten games back in the American League East and a game and a half back of the league’s second wild card. If the Red Sox are going to make their season once and for all, this may be the stretch in which to do it once and for all. Because by the time they meet the Yankees for a final set of the season in September in Fenway, the weekends and week to come may have sealed their fate. May.

“We were coming from a horrible series and bounced back [against the Rays],” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “Now it’s New York, the best team in baseball. Win this series and see where it takes us. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. We know what we have to do. There’s no hiding.”

They surely reminded the Savages about no place to hide Thursday night. But was it the Red Sox’s continuing re-ignition or just what a certain lady once said on the radio might be just a fancy passing?

What a difference one series makes

Chicago Cubs versus San Francisco Giants

Pablo Sandoval ends Tuesday night’s game with an opposite-field bomb to win the Giants’ sixteenth of nineteen in July so far.

One month ago every smart dollar was ready to go down on Madison Bumgarner spending the stretch drive in a different uniform. And, every dumb dollar, including numerous held by the Mets themselves, was going down on the Mets clinging to Berra’s Law. (It ain’t over until it’s over.)

That was before the Giants—almost twenty games out of first in the National League West and not even a blip on the wild card radar, both as of the end of May—found ways to spend all July thus far winning sixteen of nineteen, and Bumgarner, with a 2.00 ERA from 25 June through this morning, became Bumgarner again. Somehow.

And, before they took three out of four from the Mets in AT&T Park last weekend, with all three wins coming in the bottom of the extra innings. Including the sixteen-inning series opener in which Mets uber-rookie Pete Alonso hit one through the hovering seagulls into the left field seats in the top of the sixteenth, but Mets reliever Chris Mazza couldn’t buy an out if he’d paid triple its worth in the bottom.

Almost nobody but the Mets themselves thought a good showing in San Francisco would keep them within reach of even a National League wild card. But then almost nobody but the Giants themselves saw them entering July with anything more than an extremely outside prayer of living long enough to even think about such a reach.

The problem with Berra’s Law is that sometimes it’s over before you want, wish, or expect it to be. And if the Mets rudely interrupted the Giants with an 11-4 shellacking in the third game of the set, it proved to be more rude than disruptive and just a mere disruption of the nails being hammered into their 2019 coffin.

Before July it looked like the Giants weren’t going to give final-year manager Bruce Bochy his and their fondest wish of one more postseason visit. Helluva way to send into retirement the guy who piloted them to three World Series rings in a five-season string. Then came July, and before they took care of the Mets:

* They swept the Padres in three to open the month.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and from the Brewers in succession.

* They swept the Rockies in Colorado, including a series-opening, doubleheader-opening 19-2 nuking highlighted by Brandon Crawford’s 5-for-6 including eight runs batted in, including a mammoth three-run homer down the left field line in the middle of a five-run first.

* For good measure, they hosted the Cubs to win a series opener Tuesday night with their fourth walk-off win in six games—and, once again, in extra innings, when Pablo Sandoval checked in at the plate with one out in the bottom of the thirteenth, and Kung Fu Panda sliced one the other way just over the left field fence. The bad news: no seagulls were anywhere near in danger of a conk on the head en route.

“This is the best stretch I’ve ever been part of,” Bumgarner crowed after the 5-4 win. He has no idea. The last time the Giants won four walkoffs in six games? Their first year in San Francisco, 1958, and also during July while they were at it.

And as Jon Heyman—longtime CBS Sports writer turned proprietor of FanCred Sports, which grants me the honour of publishing my writings now and then—said in a Tuesday tweet, “Few see MadBum going anywhere now. Things can change in a hurry but this is typical from rival exec: ‘No way Giants can sell, they’re on fire’.”

The Giants would have to experience a Mets-like collapse for their incumbent streak to turn that swiftly into a pleasant but outlying 2019 memory. And the Mets were into that collapse long before the Giants hosted them so bitterly last weekend. Bitterly for the Mets, that is.

The Giants haven’t got even a small degree of the Mets’ issues. Not even if Bumgarner still can’t resist giving the other guys T-shirt troll material now and again. It’s actually beginning to look like Bochy will get one more postseason visit before he puts paid to his distinguished managing career. He’s the only skipper of the new century to have three World Series rings for his fingers.

For a team whose neophyte general manager entered spring training challenging the league, “Come and get us,” the Mets don’t have egg on their faces, they have omelettes. Brodie Van Wagenen thought he’d put together a team to strike fear into the hearts of his division and his league, and the only hearts into which the Mets struck any fear were the hearts filling Citi Field.

He watched and once in awhile tried meddling as one after another week there came one after another Mets crisis of dubious play, dubious tactics, dubious strategy, and dubious behaviour. He watched his inherited manager offer one after another mealymouthed explanation of all going wrong and still gave the man more votes of confidence in one season than most on-the-rocks managers get in five.

He watched a mostly solid group of starting pitchers left to the mercy of a mal-handled bullpen including and especially the live closer he’d brought aboard—accepting an aging second baseman whose Hall of Fame-looking years were too far in the rear view mirror to be visible without a telescope—in his most notable off-season deal. Now that deal looks like gravy for the Mariners and castor oil for the Mets.

Never mind that Robinson Cano, the aging second baseman in question, played almost entirely like an aging second baseman until Tuesday night. The terminal optimist says his three hefty bombs against the Padres means Cano finding some kind of revival. The terminal realist says it’s closer to the three Babe Ruth blasted in his sixth-to-last game as a weary Boston Brave. Ruth was 40 at that time. Cano is four years younger and looks almost as weary otherwise.

And because Van Wagenen fell for it when the Mariners insisted he take Cano and his albatross contract off their hands if they wanted Edwin Diaz that badly, it forced manager Mickey Callaway to install Cano at second base while sending a promising young second baseman, Jeff McNeil, to a couple of outfield stations and elsewhere around the infield when needed.

Van Wagenen should count his blessings that the shuffle didn’t affect McNeil at the plate. Every other Met watcher with even a single functioning brain cell still can’t fathom why Van Wagenen was that accepting of having Cano jammed down his throat when the Mets’ second baseman of the future was right there ready to make his bones.

With the bullpen dubiously built and more dubiously maintained, what a surprise Diaz went from shutdown to shattered, and what a surprise their apparent most reliable earlier-in-the-game reliever, Robert Gsellman, devolved into an inconsistent mess. (Or should that be Mess?)

When Van Wagenen reacted with nothing to the unconscionable attacks Callaway and his pitcher Jason Vargas unleashed postgame on a reporter doing nothing worse than his job, after yet another extremely questionable bullpen non-decision, you didn’t have to remind yourself that on other teams in other clubhouses that manager would have been executed and that pitcher would have been run out of town without the benefit of the proverbial rail.

Last year Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo may have jumped the gun a little too heavily when he ran relief pitcher Shawn Kelley out of town post haste, after a misunderstood mound incident during a blowout in which Kelley, not normally a mop-up man, was sent out to pitch late and surrendered a home run.

Rizzo thought Kelley tried showing up manager Dave Martinez with a gesture that most people including Kelley himself thought was Kelley looking for help with a pair of contradictory umpire instructions. Not to mention slamming his glove to the ground after the home run, as a lot of pitchers do in such situations. Rizzo didn’t even want to hear Kelley’s side of it when confronting the pitcher after the game. The next minute: Kelley was gone.

However wrong Rizzo was in not seeking Kelley’s side of the story, the general message was sent loud and clear: if you’re not with us, you’re out of here. Van Wagenen had far more reason to send that message to Callaway and Vargas and, by extension, to his team, than Rizzo did.

Van Vagenen is no Mike Rizzo. He’s almost equal to the indulgently ignorant parent whose idea of disciplining the child who just put his foot through the neighbour’s glass shower door is to remind the child that the door had no business being in the way of his foot. When Callaway and Vargas put their feet through the shower door glass, Van Wagenen basically told them the door was in the wrong place.

The real trouble is that the Mets’ lack of accountability goes all the way to the owner’s suite. Patriarch Fred Wilpon and his chief operating officer son Jeff keep hitting the snooze button. Van Wagenen’s fiddling while the Mets self-immolate makes Nero resemble Itzhak Perlman and the burning Roman Empire resemble the New York Philharmonic. And the cacophony is deafening.

This year’s Nats have had their hiccups, and second-year manager Martinez hasn’t yet rid himself entirely of the thoughts that he’s in over his head. But just like the Giants, sort of, the Nats two months ago were thought preparing to push the plunger on the season, maybe even putting Max Scherzer, their perennial Cy Young Award candidate, onto the 31 July deadline trading floor.

Just like the Mets, the Nats two months ago had a bullpen with so remarkable tendency to play with matches that there came legitimate fears over whether Sean Doolittle would need Rust-eze rubdowns every other day or night. They also looked rather like the Yankees in that a few too many key parts began spending time on the injured list, too. The M*A*S*Hington Nationals.

When they hit 19-31 at one point this year, even the redoubtable Thomas Boswell couldn’t stop believing Martinez was due for a necktie party. “But just as the Nats have saved their season, so their manager’s prospects have been revived, too,” Boswell wrote a week ago. “I may get my wish: a ‘sincere desire to be proved wrong.’ The Nats players sure think so.”

And lo! The Nats awoke this morning winners of 16 of their last 22. And they’ve danced their way right back to second place in the NL East, a mere five and a half behind the leaders out of Atlanta. It seemed only whipped cream and a cherry on top when Trea Turner hit for his second career cycle Tuesday night against the same Rockies the Giants bastinadoed before finishing off the Mets.

What the proving-to-be-rickety Phillies merely seemed to say they’d do this year, the Nats are doing at last. They’re winning, they’re playing firmly, they’re unapologetic about having a ball doing it, and they even survived the worst of their injuries and loss strings. “This guy understands the grind,” says veteran Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki of Martinez. “He kept us having fun.”

The Mets went to San Francisco riding an unlikely 5-1 string following the All-Star break. After San Francisco, they’re 2-3. Now it might be the Mets looking to sell (particularly pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, both of whom seem to have possible suitors for their remaining upsides despite their seasonal struggles) and the Giants looking to hold, or even look for a bargain on the sales floor.

And nobody seemed to know a thing about how the Mets could have kept having fun. The only fun seems to be when Alonso, McNeil, and Dom Smith are at the plate, or when Jacob deGrom is on the mound. And even they’re only human. Not even Hall of Famers can mash every time they swing the bat or strike out every hitter they face.

But the Mets’ issues run too far deeper. Their youthful core in the making, plus their stalwart deGrom, deserve better. Whether they get it is another question. They may only wish they were just the Giants now. Wishing they were the Nats is almost like a school crossing guard wishing he or she were a cop. Except they have better chances of making the wish come true.

 

 

 

Emotional dignity at the Hall of Fame

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Brandy Halladay represented her Hall of Fame husband Roy with emotion and dignity Sunday afternoon. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Brandy Halladay wasn’t the first widow to speak for her husband at his Hall of Fame induction, as she did Sunday. Vicki Santo did likewise for her husband, third baseman Ron, seven years earlier. Dona Vera Clemente did it for her husband, right fielder Roberto, in 1973. One and all would surely have preferred their husbands accept their honours for themselves.

I don’t know if Mrs. Santo or Mrs. Clemente were present Sunday, and Ron Santo died after a lifetime battle with diabetes (even during his playing career) and before the honour overdue him was finally bestowed. But Mrs. Clemente might have empathised with Mrs. Halladay even if only for a brief spell. Both their husbands perished in airplane crashes. But the similarities ended there.

Roberto Clemente was killed in 1972, on a humanitarian flight he arranged in an ancient Douglas DC-4 to deliver supplies to earthquake-smashed Nicaragua. He’d been through his own buffetings as a young Puerto Rican proving himself a major league baseball master, and he’d achieved his own kind of comfort in his own skin.

Roy Halladay was killed in 2017, four years after his retirement, while enjoying his favourite relief. He’d proven himself as a major league pitcher but he turned out to be fighting a war within himself that no success on the mound, no amount of love from his wife, children, and family, could negotiate successfully. Comfort in his own skin proved too elusive a quarry.

On Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, newly-inducted Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez remembered getting hooked on baseball watching Clemente and assorted World Series highlights on television. “All I wanted to do was play the game and like most kids in Puerto Rico, I wanted to be like Roberto Clemente,” said Martinez, the designated hitter who was a study in scholarship at the plate. “What a great example Roberto Clemente was to all of us in Puerto Rico. What an honor to have my plaque in the Hall alongside with his.”

His fellow newly inducted Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera, once remembered of Martinez, “I couldn’t get him out. My God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But Rivera, the arguable greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen, also has a direct connection to Halladay that now reposes in the Hall’s museum, after Mrs. Halladay donated a talisman her husband carried with him the rest of his life once he acquired it.

The talisman is a baseball on which Rivera allowed Halladay to trace the grip of his fabled cut fastball, the pitch that broke more bats than classic movie stars broke hearts, and handed to Halladay during the 2008 All-Star break, after Halladay approached Rivera at that break asking to learn the pitch.

The Mariano, who loved to teach as well as to pitch, and who’s remembered from his clubhouses and elsewhere around the game for a Sandy Koufax-like interest in pulling everybody no matter whom up with him, marked the ball with lines showing the grip and gave it to Halladay. Mrs. Halladay gave the ball to the Hall of Fame before the induction ceremony. It reposes with a small plaque describing its significance in a display between two of Halladay’s uniform jerseys, one Blue Jays and one Phillies.

Also before the induction ceremony, Sports Illustrated profiled her husband, revealing he’d learned two things from his father: how to pitch, and how to fly. As the magazine so soberly phrased it, “One gave his son life. The other killed him.” Both were delivered by a father perhaps too determined to shape a son whose talents included nullifying parental displeasure with wit.

It may have done something else. “I feel like my brother lost out on a lot of his childhood,” his sister, Heather, told SI writer Stephanie Apstein. “I don’t fault [our father] for it anymore, but I think that my brother could’ve been just as good without being pushed so much and having all that responsibility.”

To Harry Leroy Halladay, Jr., Apstein writes, the process was the reward. To his Hall of Fame son, the process only led there. Major difference.

Maybe that’s how Harry Leroy Halladay III excelled as a mound workhorse who eventually pitched a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter in the same season, win Cy Young Awards in each league, but also admit while querying the University of South Florida about auditing psychology classes, “I would, however, like to take some general psychology courses, because I feel the root of many athletes’ struggles is a warped or underdeveloped self worth and identity.”

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Left to right: Harold Baines, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, and  Brandy Halladay for her late husband Roy. (Hall of Fame photo.)

He may have referred especially to himself. He was the son of a commercial pilot who’d once been an Air Force Thunderbird flier and who all but drilled him in the pitching and the flying arts. He refused to raise or coach his own two sons the way he’d been raised and coached. There’s a line between persistence and perpetual pushing, and the pitcher who once asked The Mariano for a cutter tutorial wouldn’t cross it.

When Halladay’s body was recovered from the crash of his Icon A5 airplane, the toxicology report showed that among the substances in his system (for some of which he could have been prosecuted had he lived) were a few associated with depression, including Prozac. Once, according to Apstein, he asked his sister whether he was lost or depressed. The sister replied, “I think it’s probably a little of both.”

And Halladay kept something else quiet for long enough: he was addicted to an anti-anxiety drug known commercially as Ativan. He finally advised his sister not to even think about accepting a prescription for it. “I think he felt like he needed to hide his mistakes because he didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t as good as they thought he was,” she told Apstein. “He thought they wouldn’t understand that he was human. Just because you’re a good baseball player doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes.”

Nobody in the stands at a game really knows what goes through the minds of the men who play the game, and everybody in the stands thinks they are or should be all alike, all mechanical, and all impervious to the flaws and buffeting that bring those who can’t play baseball professionally to the assorted racks of their regrets.

We watched Mariano Rivera, the elegant game-ending assassin; we watched Mike Mussina, the stoic-looking craftsman; we watched Edgar Martinez, the professor putting on a daily lecture in the batter’s box and practising what he preached; we watched Lee Smith, as bullish a bull as ever strode in from a bullpen; we watched Harold Baines, never spectacular but a quiet guy who was simply there with and for you. And we watched Roy Halladay, who dismantled hitters with deadly aplomb.

But we had no clue what animated or haunted these men. The Mariano—nicknamed “Mo” and “Sandman” in the game and on his plaque—kept an active faith in God and family; the Moose kept one foot planted firmly in his small-town root refusing to forget its value; Gar likewise kept one foot planted firmly in the Puerto Rican soil and mind that forged and supported him.

Lee Smith didn’t carry a nickname but, instead, a gratitude to a sibling who nurtured him and an awareness of what it meant to black children to see one of their own as a shutdown relief pitcher that was as calm as his presence on the mound wasn’t to many a hitter. Harold Baines also lacked a nickname, and he played the game the way he remembered his brickmason father supporting a family: “You work at it, you put your head down, you keep your mouth shut and work at your craft day in and day out.”

Roy Halladay pitched the way Baines played. He worked at it. He put his head down (or kept it up). He kept his mouth shut, most of the time. He worked at his craft day in and day out, from boyhood under the guidance of a perhaps too-overbearing father, too bent on turning his son into a pitcher and a pilot, until his shoulder finally told him it went to the enemy side.

He proved the most inwardly compromised of all six new Hall of Famers when baseball ended but the sky still seduced him. He’d been a solid husband, father, and friend seeking improvement as a man, peace in his inner being, desperate relief from his depression and the addiction it delivered. The one place above all where he found them if only for brief spells killed him.

When Brandy Halladay took the Cooperstown podium to speak on her husband’s behalf, in a speech that left few if any dry eyes including her own, she spoke for something more than a pitcher and his game, even as she thanked the living Hall of Famers present for being “such a good example” to her husband.

She spoke for a still-young man who lost his life looking for his freedom from an insidious inner condition that rudely and persistently interrupted the otherwise embracing husband, father, friend, student, man.

“I think that Roy would want everyone to know that people are not perfect,” said his widow, a woman whose pretty face is also as friendly looking as the day is long. “We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another. We all struggle. But with hard work, humility, and dedication, imperfect people can still have perfect moments. Roy was blessed in his life and his career to have some perfect moments.”

The one man who couldn’t see the blessings for the curses was Roy Halladay himself.