Absent answers, don’t judge Skaggs

2019-08-31 TylerSkaggsAngels

Mike Trout (in blue T-shirt, front) and the Angels paid a final tribute to Tyler Skaggs after blowing out the Mariners in a combined no-hitter in their first game home following Skaggs’s unexpected death. The toxicology report now raises even more questions.

No, I don’t know yet what delivered Tyler Skaggs into the clutch of opioids, whether a one-time or more-than-once deliverance. And neither do you. But that doesn’t stop people from drawing conclusions, and it doesn’t stop some of those conclusions ranging from the dismissive to the ridiculous all the way back to the obscene.

The prospect of the 27-year-old Skaggs merely being reckless in taking even once doses of fetanyl and oxycodone and maybe washing them down at once with a stiff drink is a prospect not to have been wished in the hurricane of grief his death whipped up all around baseball in early July.

“Now, we are faced with our own emotions,” writes USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale, “knowing the death wasn’t an act of God or a suicide, but self-induced by the careless use of pain killers.” Remember that “careless” doesn’t mean reckless, exclusively.

We’re also faced with asking honestly whether Skaggs acted entirely on his own, as the Angels arrived in Texas for a pre-All Star break set against the Rangers, or whether he was prompted persuasively enough by someone who thought he was doing Skaggs a pain management favour.

Skaggs’s family wants to know for dead last certain. They’ve hired Texas attorney Rusty Hardin to help them know. “We are heartbroken to learn that the passing of our beloved Tyler was the result of a combination of dangerous drugs and alcohol,’’ they said in a formal statement. “That is completely out of character for someone who worked so hard to become a Major League Baseball player and had a very promising future in the game he loved so much.”

The Angels want to know, too. Suspicions point as I referred on Friday, toward a so far unidentified Angels employee the family and perhaps the team itself thinks or fears had a hand in Skaggs’s demise, perhaps by supplying him fetanyl and oxycodone through other than lawful or proper medical means.

“Everyone’s searching for facts, and everyone within the organization wants facts,’’ said general manager Billy Eppler at a press session before the Angels played the Red Sox Friday night. “Which is why we are actively cooperating with an investigation. It kind of goes without saying that I cannot comment more on the situation until the police conclude their investigation.”

Asked whether the employee the Skaggs family suspects is still with the team, Eppler wouldn’t answer. “I’m sorry,” the GM replied. “I really understand your asking that question, but again, it’s an active investigation.” Eppler said only that the Angels have told investigators everything they know. Which may or may not yet be anything substantial. Thus the proverbial thickening of the plot.

The least-kept secret in professional sports is that performing athletes are not always the best tended alive by their teams or supervising organisations when it comes to injuries or illnesses. For too many decades sports medicine involved the fastest remedy available to get the player back onto the field, the court, the course, as fast as possible.

And for too many of the same decades athletes took to their own measures of desperation to get back to the field, the court, the course, as soon as they could, within what they considered reason, the better to keep someone else from taking their jobs when they knew in their heart of hearts that there was always someone else behind them just itching for the chance.

It was one thing, for example, to know that there were enough baseball players dabbling in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances because they were led somehow to believe the dabbling might help them inflate their performance papers. But the arguable Joe Valachi of the actual or alleged PEDs, the late third baseman Ken Caminiti, stepped forth after his career ended to say it started for him not out of any statistical interest but out of desperation to escape the deep pain of a 1996 shoulder injury.

Caminiti surely wasn’t alone in turning that way when few to none of his team’s medical personnel seemed able to provide such relief. To name another somewhat notorious example, longtime Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte is on record as saying he took to a brief usage of human growth hormone because his continuing elbow pain finally drove him mad enough to give it a try.

Skaggs had an injury history. After the Diamondbacks traded him back to the Angels for 2014 (he’d previously gone to the Snakes with current Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin in a deal making pitcher Dan Haren an Angel), Skaggs pitched in eighteen games before his elbow sent him to Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entire 2015 season.

He returned to make ten 2016 starts, then missed 98 days in 2017 with a strained oblique. In 2018, Skaggs opened with sixteen starts and a 2.64 ERA before his adductor muscle gave out and cost him three months. And this year, he sprained his left ankle after making three season-opening starts. costing him most of April.

“[A] normally developed, well-nourished and well-hydrated large build adult,” the toxicology report described him. Except that it couldn’t determine whether or to what extend he remained in any pain. Physical or otherwise. That, too, would be something both his family and the Angels should want to know.

Skaggs otherwise was known as a likeable fellow who was freshly married when spring training began this year and had everything else for which to live. He loved his young wife, Carli; he loved his teammates; he loved the game. The hurricane of grief his death provoked around baseball was real.

So were the emotions when, after the Rangers kindly canceled the game the day Skaggs died, they re-convened with Skaggs’s uniform number 45 in the dirt behind the pitching rubber in the Angels’s uniform font style. And, when the Angels beat them, 9-5.

And, especially, when the Angels returned home, the players fashioned a loving pre-game tribute including Skaggs’s mother throwing out a ceremonial first pitch, before the Angels hit the field one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys and beat the Mariners in a combined no-hitter and an 11-0 blowout. Paced by Skaggs’s closest friend and team leader Mike Trout blowing the lid off all emotion with a two-run homer in the first inning.

And, after the game, when Trout and his fellow Angels covered the entire pitching mound except for the number 45 behind the rubber with the Skaggs jerseys they wore all game long.

The toxicology report wasn’t close to completion that night. Now that it is, the questions continue as only too many seem to think they have the answers. Nightengale isolates several of the key questions. Did Skaggs slip somehow into drug addiction? Did anyone know to the extent that they may carry a degree of guilt for lack of previous intervention? Did something appear to indicate such a problem?

But Nightengale doesn’t stop there. Appropriately. “This was a young main in pain. Perhaps more physical than even the doctors and trainers knew. Maybe more mental than even any team therapist knew,” he writes. “It will be a bigger tragedy if we never understand why. Prescription painkillers are a scourge in this country, and professional sports—with catastrophic injuries and the expectation to play through the pain they cause—are ripe for potential abuse.”

This wasn’t Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs, who’d only taken up flying a few months earlier, flying his single-engine Cessna propeller airplane over Utah and crashing to his death in spring 1964, running into an atmospheric disturbance he was probably too inexperienced to navigate successfully. The tragic irony: Hubbs took up flying to conquer his fear of it.

This wasn’t Yankee legend Thurman Munson, who’d bought a sophisticated Cessna Citation jet the better to spend more time with his wife and children during the season when the Yankee schedule allowed, and crashed at an airport near his Ohio home while practising evening landings. Munson was still well short of full qualification to handle the complex jet entirely on his own.

This wasn’t the Indians’ spring training boat crash of 1993. In which relief pitchers Tim Olin and Steve Crews were killed when their off-day boating with Crews at the wheel ended with a crash into a dock, killing Crews at once, with Olin dying the next day and pitching teammate Bob Ojeda suffering a severed scalp. Crews was considered legally drunk at the time of the crash.

This wasn’t Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, as effervescent a young player as you ever saw, around whom the Marlins only thought they’d build for seasons to follow. He and two friends drank somewhat copiously before boarding his 32-foot boat, Kaught Looking, and with Fernandez at the wheel crashed a jetty killing all three. Fernandez’s estate faces litigation from the families of the other two passengers; Fernandez’s attorney argues the pitcher was framed in the crash investigation.

This wasn’t Oscar Taveras, the young Cardinal who electrified the game in his postseason debut, hitting a pinch homer in the 2014 National League division series against the Dodgers. (He’d also hit one out in his first regular-season major league game that year.) He was killed with his girlfriend a month later when his Camaro ran off a wet road in their native Dominican Republic. Driving six times the legal limit for drunk driving, perhaps. Seven years after another Cardinal, pitcher Josh Hancock, died in a DUI crash.

On the other hand, Ojeda needed and received copious therapy to relieve him of suicidal thoughts following that ferocious case of survivor’s guilt. And Rays minor league pitcher Blake Bivens will need about a hundred times that to survive the murder of his wife, baby son, and mother-in-law last week, for which his teenage brother-in-law has been charged.

Hubbs and Munson died from inexperience. Crews, Fernandez, and Taveras could be argued to have died irresponsibly and likewise causing others’ deaths. But we don’t know yet what led Skaggs to the Elysian Fields. Was it irresponsibility? Did he battle heretofore unsuspected and/or undetected drug addiction or even mental illness to even a small degree? Did he have physical pain greater than his known baseball injuries?

One dismisses the kind of reckless thinking that prompts the likes of one particularly witless Tweeter who dismisses Skaggs as a junkie. Ignorant of the point that “junkie” customarily applies to heroin addicts, heroin being nicknamed “junk” for a very long time.

Absent any final answers otherwise, it’s wise not to assume the judges’ robes. As if even wisdom would prevent that from happening, anyway.

One pitcher’s death and another’s murderous bereavement

2019-08-30 SkaggsBivens

The Angels’ Tyler Skaggs’s (left) painkiller-related death raises a suspicion or three; murder robbed Rays minor league reliever Blake Bivens (right) of his wife, infant son, and mother-in-law. Bivens should be just as worthy of our sympathy and perhaps a degree or three more . . .

Fetanyl is a synthetic pain reliever usually though not exclusively administered for relief in cancer patients. Oxycodone, perhaps the most infamous among opioid pain relievers, is prescribed normally for those who need long-term, around-the-clock pain relief.

The Tarrant County (Texas) medical examiner says both plus alcohol were in Tyler Skaggs’s system the night he died unexpectedly on 1 July. “[A]lcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone intoxication with terminal aspiration of gastric contents,” the medical examiner’s report is quoted as saying.

That clinical language translates to the 27-year-old Angels’ lefthander vomiting and choking on it under the influence in his sleep.

Skaggs’s death provoked a hurricane of grief around baseball that seemed exacerbated when the Rangers, whom the Angels were in town to play, not only canceled that night’s game out of respect to the Angels but put Skaggs’s uniform number, 45, in the Angels’ uniform lettering style, behind the pitching rubber the following night, before the Angels beat them 9-4.

And when the Angels returned home from that road trip, they kicked off their first homestand since Skaggs’s death with a staggering 13-0 combined no-hitter against the Mariners that electrified its own sport and others, from Taylor Cole pitching two and Felix Pena pitching the final seven innings to Mike Trout himself accounting for about half the Angels’ destruction, his share only beginning with a two-run homer into the Angel Stadium center field rocks in the bottom of the first.

Assorted players around baseball have scratched their own little tributes to Skaggs since, including many scrawling his number 45 onto their game hats. The sole admirable sight on the otherwise execrable black (for visiting teams) and white (for home teams) Players’ Weekend uniforms—which made the games resemble contests between Mad‘s memorably “Spy vs. Spy” strips—was the circular black patch with 45 in white in the middle on every sleeve.

We’ll know soon enough, I’m very certain, as to just why Skaggs needed to take fetanyl and oxycodone. There’s already an ugly rumour that an Angels employee may have had a hand in Skaggs’s death; Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Shaikin says MLB will investigate the claim. And Skaggs’s family has hired a Texas attorney to investigate for themselves.

Unless there was foul play of the type Tarrant County’s police couldn’t determine, or unless Skaggs suffered a medical condition about which none seems to have been aware, his is only slightly less senseless a death than what was done to the family of Rays minor league relief pitcher Blake Bivens.

Bivens’s wife, Emily; their year-old son, Cullen; and, his mother-in-law, Joan Jefferson Bernard, were shot to death Tuesday morning. Emily and Cullen Bivens were found dead inside Mrs. Bernard’s Keeling, Virginia home; Mrs. Bernard was found dead in the driveway. Bivens’s teenage brother-in-law, Matthew Bernard, is in custody charged with the crimes.

A neighbour told police Bernard came to her door and punched her in the arm before she heard subsequent gunshots at Mrs. Bernard’s home. Investigators found shell casings from a 30-30 rifle near the victims’ bodies; Bernard was arrested naked and trembling up the road after being found in a nearby wooded area. He was jogging in a circle and refused to stop at first even despite being pepper-sprayed by one officer; when he tried to choke another neighbour, police finally subdued the naked Bernard.

“My life as I knew it was destroyed,” said Bivens, a righthanded pitcher with a 4-0 won-lost record and a 3.98 earned run average but a proneness to walks for the Montgomery Biscuits (AA) this season, in an Instagram post Thursday. “The pain my family and I feel is unbearable and cannot be put into words.”

The stricken reliever tried anyway.

He called his wife the one “who made me into the man I am today and you loved me with all of my flaws.” He said of his little son, “I can’t breathe without you here. I finally understood what love was when you were born and I would have done anything for you.” And, he said of his mother-in-law, “You loved your family more than anyone I’ve ever seen. You raised the most wonderful girl in the world. I’m so glad y’all are still together.”

It says nothing against Blake Bivens that an established major league pitcher freshly married and unexpectedly dead at 27 provoked a wider, deeper choke of game-wide grief than a six-year minor league pitcher having not even a single cup of major league coffee whose wife, infant child, and mother-in-law were murdered.

But it’s impossible not to notice that Skaggs left a loving wife behind while Bivens was robbed grotesquely of his. Both are to mourn a little more deeply.

“You can’t have one foot in one camp and one foot in the other.”

2019-08-29 DavidRossAnthonyRizzo

David Ross, aboard Anthony Rizzo’s shoulder after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. Today Ross broadcasts for ESPN . . . and is also paid to advise Cubs president Theo Epstein. Conflict of interest?

The Mets and the Astros (as the Colt .45s) were born in 1962. In the same year, a future Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished commentary offered a wry observation he couldn’t have known would describe even more acutely the American atmosphere of 22 years after his death.

“It is impossible for a man who has enjoyed the taste of our beer and the flavour of our politics to decide which has gone more sour in his lifetime,” wrote Murray Kempton, introducing a section of his anthology of newspaper and other essays, America Comes of Middle Age.

The flavour of our politics has always included partisans on any side or from within any political camp who assume those delivering, observing, or analysing news they simply don’t like are employed, gainfully or otherwise, by one or another opposing campaign or office holder.

And there have been reporters and editorialists every so often caught behaving and performing as though they are employed formally if furtively by political campaigns to which they are personally sympathetic.

I raise the foregoing in part from personal experience and in part from an intriguing excursion in The Athletic this morning that examines a trend not necessarily new but necessarily troublesome.

My adult life has included about 31 years as a professional journalist, from small regional daily newspapers to small regional daily news radio (as an anchor/reporter), from trade journalism to the station from which I’ve practised in the past decade as a free-lance baseball writer for a vast audience, conservatively speaking, of three.

I’ve never been employed, formally, gainfully or otherwise, by any baseball organisation including a baseball team. Nor, in my earlier career, was I ever paid for any particular work by any political party, or by any organisation inclined to promote politics, law enforcement, education, or other matters I covered as a reporter and, yes, occasional columnist.

You’d have to be the title character of the Who’s legendary Tommy (you know: deaf, dumb, and blind—oops! today we say hearing-, speech-, and vision-impaired) to doubt such things exist, of course. But no such people ever approached me that way. (Some were more inclined to approach me for an execution: my own.) If they had, I would have told them politely but firmly where they could plant such a request, usually into a certain part of their ample anatomies.

I’ve also dealt with readers and listeners who presumed I was so paid, not because they questioned the validity or the diligence of my work, but because they simply disagreed with where it went and what it disclosed. I have no issue with disagreement, but I have every issue with the presumption that someone with a particular formal agenda paid me to report or think one way or another.

As a baseball writer here and elsewhere, and at least four other publications have published my work in the past several years, I’m employed strictly by myself or by those who chose to publish me. No major or minor league baseball team has ever paid me to write or think anything. And I’m reasonably confident that no major or minor league baseball team might ever be foolish enough do so.

The Athletic discussed those whom the public knows to be baseball broadcasters or reporters who are not strictly former baseball players but who also happen to be employed, formally, gainfully, or otherwise, by a few baseball teams. The magazine seems uncertain whether to be amused or alarmed. It’s an uncertainty about which I’m certain myself that it should seem alarming enough.

Consider Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza. Rodriguez is a retired player who has since carved a reputation as a candid analyst for ESPN since joining them last year, but who was also employed as a Yankee advisor from the moment he took his uniform off for the final time until, by mutual assent, he stopped receiving Yankee paychecks quietly last winter.

Rodriguez’s relationship with the Yankees is no longer an employee-employer but an informal one, hence his presence when the Yankees flew to London to play the Red Sox there this season, but he still has a relationship with the team. Mendoza is also an ESPN commentator—and a paid advisor to the crosstown Mets. Which presented a ticklish hour or two during the run-up to this year’s new single mid-season trading deadline.

Because, on one Sunday Night Baseball program, Rodriguez and Mendoza addressed that coming deadline, and Rodriguez asked Mendoza frankly whom the Yankees should have on their wish list, to which Mendoza replied without skipping the proverbial beat, “Noah Syndergaard,” the Mets’ righthanded pitcher who was only thought to be the prize nugget on the trading floor.

“So began an impromptu game of Let’s Make a Deal,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig, “one that illustrated an issue that has raised concerns within clubhouses and front offices alike . . . By uttering Syndergaard’s name on the air, [Mendoza] indirectly revealed for millions of viewers that her team had put the pitcher on the block, the type of acknowledgment that is typically not made public.”

Consider. Mendoza has broadcast Mets games against assorted opponents with deep access to both sides’ clubhouses, as well as being “involved in various facets of the front office operation,” as Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen indicted she’d be when he hired her as an advisor this spring.

When most baseball fans last saw David Ross, he basked in the mammoth party around the Cubs’ 2016 World Series triumph, to which he’d contributed especially a one-out home run in Game Seven’s top of the sixth, as well as a very viral on-camera dugout bid to ease the jitters of Cubs third base star Anthony Rizzo.

Like Mendoza, Ross is an ESPN broadcaster today. He’s also on the Cubs’ payroll as an advisor to president Theo Epstein, a role that includes scouting to the extent that Grandpa Rossy (as he was known affectionately by his fellow Cubs and by Cub fans alike) was involved directly when the Cubs signed protracted free-agent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel this summer.

“It wouldn’t be unusual,” Carig noted properly, “for Ross’ duties to take him to games involving division rivals such as the Cardinals and Brewers.” If you’re thinking to yourself that the conflict-of-interest potential is rather vast, be advised, as Carig notes further, that that potential seems to divide teams.

Carig observed Braves manager Brian Snitker unconcerned about Mendoza interviewing him in her ESPN capacity even while knowing she’s a paid Mets advisor; and, Cardinals manager Mike Schildt gives Ross the benefit of the doubt even though he’s an ESPN commentator on the one hand and a Cubs advisor on the other. “Listen,” Schildt told Carig, “if ESPN trusts [Ross] to be able to do his job appropriately, then there’s no reason for me to question that.”

But Carig also noted that Mendoza told an ESPN conference call with reporters “that managers and players were already cautious with members of the media when speaking on the record, and that ‘teams that I’ve been around . . . they would probably have the same concern with whatever information they give me, whether it be me working for the Mets or me working for the media’.”

Adam Jones, the longtime Oriole favourite now a Diamondbacks outfielder, doesn’t shy away from the prospect of a conflict of interest arising, though Carig didn’t exactly phrase it that way. “One hundred percent there’s potential there, because you’re going on air and you’re talking baseball,” he told Carig.

“But [Jones] also believes that both Mendoza and Ross bring the kind of personality and insights that should be featured during broadcasts. ‘I think it’s good for the game,’ Jones said. ‘I see no harm in it’.” Note the order in which Carig mentioned personality and insight. One of the greatest knocks against turning former players into broadcasters and analysts has been that they’re engaged as personalities first and game callers or analysts second.

The legendary broadcaster Red Barber was known to have respected Phil Rizzuto because the former Yankee shortstop, hired as a broadcaster, approached Barber at once to teach him the craft. Barber was also repulsed by another former player, Joe Garagiola, who thought his natural locquacity was qualifier enough. On the flip side, Sandy Koufax proved a deft in-game analyst for NBC until he gave it up after five years, while chafing that his broadcast partners wanted him to talk more and more about his least favourite subject—himself.

Decades ago there were those in the sports press who suspected one or another colleague was one or another team’s employee in everything but name. And even before the larger advent of players turned broadcasters, teams had their tendencies to reject the idea that their broadcasters could be and often enough were more than just team cheerleaders. Barber himself learned the hard way after a little over a decade as a Yankee broadcaster following his legendary term with the Dodgers.

When the Yankees headed toward the first dead-last standings finish in their franchise history, in September 1966, Barber called a Yankee home game in which the paid attendance was announced in the ballpark itself as 413. He ordered a camera pan of the empty park, but the camera crew refused. So Barber told his viewers, “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.”

Oops. One of the 413 was Michael Burke, the CBS executive who’d just been named the Yankee team president. (CBS bought the Yankees controversially in 1964.) It happened to be Burke’s first visit to a live Yankee game. Burke was informed of Barber’s remark and called Barber to a breakfast meeting at which he told Barber, essentially, “You’re fired.”

Around the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early to mid-1950s there were those who believed that the acerbic New York Daily News sportswriting legend Dick Young—who did kind of stop on the proverbial dime, turning from criticising Dodger management in the Branch Rickey era to all but canonising it by comparison as the Walter O’Malley era began—did so because he was being fed if not paid by the Dodger front office.

Young arguably brought what came to be called the New Journalism to baseball writing, observing and writing frankly about player, manager, and front office flaws in ways previously unknown in sportswriting. It’s not that his technique was novelistic, as the actual New Journalism came to be, but his penchant for calling it exactly as he saw and heard it helped seed the New Journalism approach.

Eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, Young also rejected the accusations that he’d become a Dodger front office promoter, though his colleagues in the press box were never entirely certain. Roger Kahn, eventual author of The Boys of Summer but the Dodger beat writer for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1952-54, once spoke for those who were:

[Walter] O’Malley hadn’t planned and schemed all his life so that Dick Young would call him a bastard five days a week in the Daily News, so when he took over he put Emile J. “Buzzie” Bavasi in charge of Dick Young. I once said to Fresco Thompson in the Dodger front office, “I guess one of the first things Walter wanted was to get the Daily News and Young off their neck.” He said, “One of the first things? It was the first thing.

And so Bavasi captured Young, and he was in the Dodger hip pocket all the time, until it became clear that the Dodgers were going to leave [for Los Angeles]. The Daily News was to the Dodgers what the Osservatore Romano was to the Vatican. It gave the Dodger line. Young gave the Dodger line. The guys he liked were the guys management liked. The News became a Bavasi-O’Malley house organ.

“If you put in the time, if you’re there, you’ll get things that other guys don’t get,” Young once said in his defense, as quoted in Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers by Peter Golenbock.

So the guys who weren’t there would always look for the crutch, and they’d say I was getting special treatment. I wasn’t. Buzzie himself said to the other guys, “You come around, and I’ll tell you the same thing.” He wasn’t going to call them up and tell them. And that applies today. You get stories by working. There’s no substitute.

The kind of actual or alleged conflict of interest suspected of Young—who didn’t exactly deny that he was still giving the official Dodger front office line—existed when the print press still generally dominated news and sports, when print journalists weren’t former ballplayers, and not necessarily in New York alone.

Can the prospect of conflicts of interest be dismissed entirely, in today’s long-enough-entrenched community of former ballplayers turned broadcast game callers, analysts, and commentators, while at least some of them are also employed formally by baseball teams?

Longtime Columbia University journalism professor Sandy Padwe, who once consulted for the ESPN documentary series Outside the Lines, said no. “You can’t have one foot in one camp and one foot in the other,” Padwe told Carig. “It’s just not right.” He’ll get no disagreement from State University of New York media professor Brian Moritz. “Speaking strictly journalistically, that’s a pretty strict conflict of interest,” he told Carig. “It’s very cut and dry on the first glance of it. You shouldn’t be paid by one of the teams that you’re covering.”

But that begs the question of the ex-players-turned-broadcasters actually being precisely defined journalists. To which Bob Ley, the now-retired longtime Outside the Lines host, said, plainly, “Just because you’re sitting behind a microphone broadcasting a game does not make you a journalist. It makes you a broadcaster.”

As often as not, though, the best team broadcasters become journalists simply by doing; Barber and his protege Vin Scully were only the most fabled examples. But they were usually not employed as paid team advisors, either. An early-season MLB memo cited by Carig showed Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Jim Thome, former manager Terry Collins, and former players Ryan Dempster, Jim Kaat, David Ortiz, Dan Plesac, Nick Swisher, and Rick Sutcliffe also employed dually as network broadcasters and paid team advisors.

Put to one side that paranoia is as old a baseball presence as simple on-the-field sign stealing by baserunners or coaches, the conflict risk is too large no matter how diligently the broadcasters-while-team-advisors work to separate them. The Mets ended up not trading Noah Syndergaard, after all. But they might have wanted to, and perhaps working it out of the public eye would have gotten them a great return if they did it.

We’ll never know when it comes to this year, of course. But who’s to say when the next broadcaster/journalist who happens also to be paid as any team’s advisor will drop that kind of bomb and impact something like a trade deadline one way or the other?

Proper journalists are subdivided by their particular tasks. Reporters report (we prefer to presume); analysts analyse; editorialists, columnists, and commentators, depending on your point of view, pronounce or pontificate. But if we’re paid by one or another subject to report, analyse, editorialise, or comment on behalf of one or another outcome, the conflict of interest is about as obscure as a hurricane.

If you’re watching a baseball game or observing the doings and undoings of a team away from the playing field, you prefer to believe that everything is straightforward and fair, but you know in your heart that boys will be boys and not everything proves such. Whether it was Leo Durocher’s then-high-tech sign stealing scheme to effect a dramatic 1951 pennant race comeback, or the Cardinals caught dead to right hacking into the Astros’ computer database three years ago.

But that doesn’t mean you should look the other way, either, when there is a real conflict of interest potential when you watch a game and listen to the play-by-play and the in-game analyses. “Broadcasters working for teams are just another reason for caution,” Carig wrote. “As always in baseball, the guard is up.” Within reason, appropriately.

The Gas Bill Gang

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

They called Brooks Robinson at third The Hoover? They ought to call the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong at second the Electrolux.

It’s tempting to say don’t look now, but it’s hard to resist more than a look. While the Cubs took advantage of Yu Darvish’s almost unblemished start and the continuing slumber of most Mets bats Tuesday night, the Cardinals continued their takeover of the National League Central.

Not even a slightly odd seventh-inning rain delay in Miller Park could interrupt them. It took nine minutes and at least one playing of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Who’ll Stop the Rain” before the park’s crew got the roof closed.

It took another two and a third innings for the Cardinals to finish their 6-3 win over the Brewers, the final blow coming when Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler took a likely two-run homer away from Brewers late first base insertion Hernan Perez for the last out.

The Cardinals will take their wins any way they can get them. They’ve been getting a lot of them lately. They’ve overtaken the Mets with a 29-14 second half as far as that goes. They’ve shaken away their own 22-31 two-month spread over June and July.

And if you thought last year’s edition wasn’t exactly crawling with star power, this year’s could make last year’s look like the red carpet at the Oscars. The Retiring Redbirds. The Unknown Soldiers. The Gas Bill Gang. You choose.

On Tuesday night the prime damage was done by aging catching mainstay Yadier Molina, sure, but considering he took six multi-home run games into the game with three of them happening in Miller Park, maybe the least surprising thing was Molina going long twice, a one-out solo in the fifth and a two-run shot off the left field foul pole in the seventh, two hitters before the odd rain delay.

“Everyone knows this is a good hitter’s park,” said the Cardinals’ grand old man after the game. “With the background, you see the ball pretty well here. I feel good hitting here.” He wasn’t the only one Tuesday night.

Maybe the strangest part of the Cardinals’ run is that the star they did import last offseason, Paul Goldschmidt, isn’t even one of their top three players on the season to date. He hasn’t been terrible, by any means, not with 29 home runs and an .801 OPS, but neither has he been the player who averaged 6.1 wins above replacement-level in 2017-2018 and finished sixth in last year’s Most Valuable Player voting.

Who’d have thought they’d awaken Wednesday morning to see second baseman Kolten Wong leading the Cardinals with 4.0 WAR, shortstop Paul DeJong right behind him with 3.7, pitcher Jack Flaherty with 3.4, and left fielder Marcel Ozuna with 2.4, right ahead of Goldschmidt’s 2.3?

Baseball Reference‘s WAR definition puts Wong a little past the middle between a qualified starting lineup player and an All-Star. DeJong was the Cardinals’ only All-Star this year. Goldschmidt missed out after six straight selections. And Matt Carpenter still  hasn’t become the bona-fide star he looked to be in the making when he finished sixth in the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year vote and fourth in the next season’s MVP vote.

These are definitely not the heirs to such star-striking Redbird teams past as those of the Rajah, Dizzy and the Gas Housemen, Stan the Man, Hoot Gibson and El Birdos (import star Orlando Cepeda hung that one on them in 1967-68), the Wizard of Oz and the Runnin’ Redbirds, or El Hombre.

And after the Dodgers humiliated them in an early-August sweep that kept them to two runs in three games, leaving them three and a half out in the Central, you could have been forgiven if even the most stubborn of Cardinal Country nationalists were ready to prepare for the season’s funeral.

But they’ve won fifteen out of eighteen since, including Tuesday night making for a six-game winning streak.

They’re getting the kind of second base defense from Wong that they got in ancient times from the late Red Schoendienst and better, Wong leading every second baseman in the Show through this writing with +14 defensive runs saved and nobody else at the position showing better than +6. They used to call Brooks Robinson the Hoover at third base? They ought to call Wong the Electrolux at second.

They’re finally getting the Cy Young Award-level performance expected of Jack Flaherty, even if his rocky first half won’t put him in the award conversation at season’s end. He’s had an 0.80 earned run average in his last nine starts (five runs in 56 1/3 innings, ladies and gentlemanpersons) and the slash line against him (.144/.221/.222) makes Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle.

And while it seems everyone else’s bullpen has added arson to injuries, the Cardinals’ bullpen snuck in through the service entrance to sport the Show’s second-best bullpen ERA (3.64) behind the Indians’, and the Tribal pen hasn’t been a model of consistency of late. And this was despite Jordan Hicks going down for the count and the season in late June with an elbow demanding Tommy John surgery.

You want to talk about star power or the lack thereof? Once upon a time there were Hornsby, Dean, Harry Brecheen, Gibson, Steve Carlton, and the injury-compromised John Tudor on the mound. Not to mention men like Lindy McDaniel, Bruce Sutter, and Lee Smith out of the bullpen. Flaherty hasn’t established his star power yet. But Giovanny Gallegos makes him look positively charismatic by comparison.

Gallegos is the reason everybody thought the Yankees fleeced the Cardinals in the dead of broad daylight in the Luke Voit deal. But with Hicks gone until some time in 2020, Gallegos is the Cardinals’ stealth bullpen bull. He’s doing what the Cardinals hoped Andrew Miller, a free agency signing over the winter, might revive enough to do once more.

He may have been pried for a run Tuesday night, surrendering a leadoff single to Perez in the eighth before his successor, Miller, let Perez home on a two-run homer (Yasmani Grandal), but he has a 2.07 ERA with 80 punchouts in 61 innings. And his slider does now what Miller’s used to do: enemy batters hit only .133 with a 43 percent strikeout rate when he goes to it.

Gallegos could be called one of the Cardinals’ Little Big Three out of the pen. There’s John Brebia with his 2.94 ERA and 2.91 fielding-independent pitching rate, not to mention 78 punchouts in 64 innings. And there’s John Gant, whose 2.97 ERA is a little deceptive against his 3.60 FIP, but Gant seems to pitch to his defense as much as anything else, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

At least there isn’t anyone out of the Cardinals’ pen who’s liable to make a postseason game resemble a Craig Kimbrel appearance from last fall—yet. They won’t be keeping the crash carts and ambulances on call when these guys come out of the pen. Even Miller, who’s having his ups and downs this year after looking like something resembling his old self in the final third of last year, still has 11.9 strikeout per nine and a respectable if unspectacular 2.5 K/BB rate.

Let’s be fair. The Cardinals came back from three and a half down after that Dodger sweep to three games up in the NL Central with a little help from their fiends—er, friends. Nothing wrong with that, but discredit where due.

The Cubs have three times the star power but they’re only five games over .500 since the All-Star break and fighting for . . . the second National League wild card. They now hold a two-game edge over the Phillies and three over the Mets, and the Phillies and the Mets are showing their vulnerabilities again.

The Phillies’ pitching woes keep betraying their offense; the Mets’ offensive woes, which boil down to nobody else stepping up consistently anymore to support Pete Alonso (who smashed the team’s single-season home run record Tuesday night with number 42) and, lately, a surprising Wilson Ramos (the rockpiling catcher has a 20-game hitting streak as of this morning), hold hands with their continuing bullpen problems to betray their mostly stellar starting pitching.

The Brewers have been done in by pitching that can be called broken, underachieving, spent, or all the above. It’s reasonable now to call the Brewers Christian Yelich and a cast of several. It’s also reasonable to ask how long they can survive with a middle infield (second baseman Keston Hiura, shortstop Orlando Arcia) that could be tried by jury for treason, as good as they are turning double plays: together they’re -9 defensive runs saved this year.

But none of that help would amount to anything if the Cardinals weren’t grateful recipients. Until they hit the 15-3 run they’re on now, their postseason odds at all were a somewhat generous 25 percent. As of this morning, their postseason odds overall are 86 percent, and they have a 57 percent chance of winning the NL Central as compared to 10.5 percent before the current run.

Ladies and gentlemanpersons, catch the paper stars. Meet your Retiring Redbirds. Your Unknown Soldiers. Your St. Louis Swiffers. Your Gas Bill Gang. Take your pick. Baseball’s cliches include the name on the front of the uniform out-ranking the name on the back. But these Cardinals may be taking that to the opposite extreme.

Don’t be shocked if their postseason breakout becomes someone we haven’t even discussed here. These Unknown Redbirds seem capable of the most unheard-of things anyone ever heard of. Come to think of it, and even with Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, that’s practically how they won their last World Series rings eight years ago.

Rickey don’t lose those numbers

2019-08-26 RickeyRoth

Hiring Allan Roth (right) as MLB’s first full-time (and then some) team statistician in 1947 may remain Branch Rickey’s least appreciated baseball innovation.

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players, but in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started in this century? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.

Andrew Luck, meet Sandy Koufax

2019-08-25 LuckKoufax

Andrew Luck does at 29 what Sandy Koufax did at 30—walking away from the sport at which he excelled, and shocking his sport while he was at it.

The football world, and a few other worlds in sports, took a jolt when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided it was time to retire at 29. For the sake of his health and the rest of his life. If F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, Luck seems determined to have one in the first place, and good luck (no pun intended) to him sincerely.

Even if you’re not a football fan, and I’m not, you could read of him, know he was one of his game’s genuine greats, and get that a young man can give up what he loves and does so well because the idea that perhaps the next injury might compromise him having a second life makes him just as sick as any of the injuries that interfered with playing his chosen sport.

If you’re my age you remember a baseball great who was a mere year older than Luck is now who made the same decision, shocked his sport and his country while he was at it, and stuck to his decision because he, too, was determined to make Fitzgerald a liar. And he sat on a far higher plane than Luck ever achieved.

Sandy Koufax didn’t begin the way Luck did. He was discovered a decade before baseball initiated its own college draft; he was a bonus signing forced to be on the major league roster two years under a foolish rule of his time; he was an outsize talent whose fastball speed and curve ball arc was throttled by lack of control.

It took Koufax the first six seasons of his career to discover control. (And, for a particularly observant companion in a Vero Beach pizza joint to discover just what kept him from it, a hitch between his windup and his delivery that obstructed enough of his view of the plate.) He went, as his biographer Jane Leavy phrased it, “from nothing special to never better.”

The second six seasons of Koufax’s career weren’t just off the charts. They obliterated the charts. It only began with smashing Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old National League strikeout record in 1961. It only ended when his final season showed a 1.73 ERA for his fifth consecutive ERA title and his sixth consecutive major league-leading fielding-independent pitching rate. (2.07.)

Koufax so bedazzled the Yankees with his ownership of them as his Dodgers did what no opponent before them had, sweeping them out of the 1963 World Series, that his fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, asked if he wished there were a couple more Jewish holy days on the October calendar, replied, “You mean like Yom Koufax?”

If only Mantle really knew. (“I can understand how he won 25,” another Yankee Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, said after that Series. “What I can’t understand is how he lost five.”) Two years later, Koufax refused to pitch Game One of a World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Among other transdimensional achievements, Koufax would pitch pennant-clinching games in back-to-back seasons on two days’ rest, a World Series shutout on two days rest after a previous Series shutout, show a 2.25 ERA over a lifetime’s 24 games pitched on two days’ rest, and a batting average against him of (wait for it) .201 when he pitched on such short rest.

In the years when the Cy Young Award was a major league award (the late Dodger righthander Don Newcombe won the first, in 1956), Koufax won it three times, 1963, 1965, and 1966, and his dominance probably kept fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal from winning at least one and possibly two. Was it coincidence that, after Koufax retired, the Cy Young Award became awarded for each league?

His record four no-hit, no-run games would be eclipsed by Nolan Ryan, but Ryan didn’t pitch all of his in consecutive seasons. And Ryan doesn’t have one bragging right Koufax has if he wants it: after pitching no-hitters in 1962 (against the hapless Original Mets), 1963 (against the Giants), and 1964 (against the Phillies), Koufax in 1965 (against the Cubs) proved that practise makes perfect.

If you consider that his mound opponent that day, Bob Hendley, surrendered only one hit that didn’t even figure in the scoring (the Dodgers got the game’s only run in another inning, on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the theft), Koufax’s perfect game is an entrant when you ask and talk about the greatest games ever pitched, period.

An injury on a baserunning play in August 1964 dictated his future—when he, of all people, was the baserunner. (Told that those giving him the 1963 World Series MVP left the Corvette parked on the sidewalk, with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford cracked, “Sandy has only two flaws. He can’t park and he can’t hit.”) He scrambled back to second on a pickoff attempt (I know, I know, who on earth would think about trying to pick Sandy Koufax off, but yes, you can look it up) and made a four-point landing, elbows and knees.

The following morning Koufax awoke with his elbow the size of his knee and worse. The verdict: traumatic arthritis. The hope by spring training: he might be a once-a-week pitcher at best. The outcome: His 1965 and 1966 seasons made everything he’d achieved in the previous four seem like the mere overture to the main events. On a medical regimen that could and maybe should have killed him.

“I just told your pitcher to retire,” said Dodgers team physician Robert Kerlan during spring training ’65. Koufax confided in San Diego Union reporter Phil Collier in spring ’66 that this would be his final season no matter what. Collier eventually staggered his colleagues in the press when they learned he kept his promise to Koufax and sat on the story until Koufax’s actual retirement conference that November.

“I don’t know if cortisone is good for you or not,” Koufax said at the conference. (We know now that it isn’t, in ten or more such shots a lifetime.) “But to take a shot every other ball game is more than I wanted to do and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ball game because you’re taking painkillers . . . I don’t want to have to do that . . . I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years, but I might regret the one year that was too many.”

Koufax even helped strike a blow toward beginning the end of the reserve era that kept players bound to their clubs with no say in their own employment and left them largely at the mercy of their owners in terms of their earnings. His joint spring 1966 holdout with fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale landed them baseball’s highest 1966 salaries and showed players what they could do if they really knew each other’s earnings and worked together to redress it.

All the while, he enjoyed a quiet accommodation with his fame. Never rude to reporters after the occasional bad game, Koufax drew a line between the pitcher and the person and navigated each side with a quiet dignity. Bachelor though he was, Koufax didn’t let his off-field life become the kind that earns the randy headlines provoked by the Bo Belinskys and Joe Namaths of sport. “Baseball,” Thomas Boswell eventually wrote, “could fascinate him, but not control him.”

After five years as a colour commentator on NBC’s weekly baseball broadcasts, during which his discomfort wasn’t talking about and analysing games but continuous bids to try getting him to talk about himself, Koufax gave it up. He’s as much a Renaissance man as any man can be.

“People ask all the time,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, whose rookie season with the Dodgers was Koufax’s final season, to Leavy, “‘What’s he done with his life?’ He’s enjoyed it.”

When not working spells since as a Dodgers’ or a roving pitching coach (to this day he loves to teach the art, asking pitchers who come to him to understand the why almost more than the how of pitching), he made himself into a master carpenter and home restorer (he did that in Maine once upon a time), a gourmet cook, a wine expert, a marathon runner, a fisherman, a pilot, whatever he thought would challenge as well as interest him.

The one subject above all others that didn’t interest Koufax, Leavy noted, is himself.

He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished. He is proud of it. He simply refuses to exist in cinders and ashes. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of “Sandy Koufax” as someone else, a persona separate from himself. If he was seeking refuge from anything, it was that.

And nobody can separate him from that separation. Asked not long after he married a third time (his first two marriages ended in divorce, and those who knew him noted their ends hurt deeply) what he dreamed about, Koufax gestured toward his wife (Jane Purucker Clarke, a one-time sorority sister of former First Lady Laura Bush) and said, “Her.”

The man who laughs when not shuddering even today when told he’s renowned for his quiet, private style (“I haven’t disappeared, I’m not lost, and I’m not very mysterious,” he once told reporters, after a magazine cover story described him as “The Incomparable and Mysterious Sandy Koufax”) said the following, in a 1965 memoir a copy of which his mother asked for simply to learn things about her son (“You certainly never told me anything,” Mom was once quoted as having told him):

I do not think the ballplayer is of an extraordinary importance in our national life. We do not heal the sick or bring peace and comfort to a troubled world. All we do is to provide a few hours of diversion to the people who want to come to the park, and a sort of conflict to those who identify their fortunes with ours through the season . . . it is a brief, self-liquidating life. It is a temporary life, really, a period between the time of our youth and the beginning of our lifetime career.

It’s not unreasonable to assume Andrew Luck—who retires from football as Koufax did from baseball, because the idea of crippling himself and perhaps denying himself the simplest pleasures and tasks of life—understands the same thing.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said when announcing his retirement. “It’s taken the joy out of this game. The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”

Luck may not have transcended his sport quite the way Koufax did his, the truly transcendent being the truly few. But Luck may hope to transcend the shock of those Koufax described, those who identify their fortunes with those of athletes and their teams.

It’s a hope Luck deserves to see actualised as Koufax has long actualised his. It’s more important in too many ways than any postseason to which Luck ever led his team, any World Series in which Koufax triumphed, any game-changing touchdown pass Luck ever threw, any bullet fastball or voluptuous curve ball Koufax ever threw.

“He didn’t need baseball to be Sandy Koufax,” a fan named Al Meyers, who once got close enough to ask Koufax to sign a baseball for his father but couldn’t bring himself to ask, told Leavy.” Luck doesn’t need football to be Andrew Luck, either.

Those who identify their fortunes with those of teams and their players forget too readily. We’re ready to canonise a team that blows away the competition and players who execute in the highest leverage; we’re ready to damn a team that crumples under the whitest competitive heat and players who fail when only a single football or baseball rests between themselves and competitive disaster.

Koufax in 1966 and Luck in 2019 should remind us that they’re men first, capable of great achievement and great shortfall, sometimes at once, and always forgotten in what Jim McKay once said famously, week after week, on the old ABC’s Wide World of Sports: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Win, and you’re a genius; lose, and you’re a criminal against the state.

“I have something more important to do,” the late Hugh Hefner once said, when he bought his sumptuous Los Angeles home and spent more time making and living in its environment than working the magazine he created that nearly un-created him by the end of its second decade. “It’s called living.”

Luck today and Koufax then had something more important than football and baseball to do. It’s called living. If Luck needs a guide for how to do it after you walk away from the craft that made you famous in the most public of public eyes, he has no further to look than the now 83-year-old former lefthander spending five decades plus in league with all who’ve made F. Scott Fitzgerald a liar.

 

 

 

 

Fringe benefits

New York Mets

Noah Syndergaard, giving J.D. Davis a high sign after Davis’s staggering fourth-inning catch Thursday night. Syndergaard had two answers for Tribal trolling . . .

It seems like ancient history to talk about it now. But once upon a time there was no social media for baseball people to troll each other. They had to settle for trolling by way of print or broadcast interviews. But they still learned the hard way that the flip side to “don’t feed the trolls” is “don’t poke the bear.”

David Cone ignored it at his peril during the 1988 National League Championship Series. The Indians ignored it to their peril Thursday.

Writing a (presumably ghosted) running NLCS commentary for the New York Daily News, Cone started tripping the Dodgers’ triggers when he said the Dodgers’ Game One starter, Orel Hershiser, “was lucky for eight innings.” Actually, eight and a third: Hershiser surrendered Darryl Strawberry’s one-out RBI single, pulling the Mets back to within a run.

But then Cone teed off on Dodgers’ closer Jay Howell.”We saw Howell throwing curveball after curveball,” Cone went on to write, “and we were thinking: This is the Dodgers’ idea of a stopper? Our idea is Randy [Myers], a guy who can blow you away with his heat. Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher.”

Myers did bring heat and lots of it, never mind that he retired the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth on a line out, a ground out, and a pop fly out, to save the 3-2 win. It was nothing compared to the Dodgers chasing Cone early in Game Two with five runs in two innings, en route a seven-game Dodgers triumph.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit in the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with the team that’s trying to pin your ears back in either a pennant race or in a League Championship Series. It’s to shudder what would have happened if Cone had teed off on Hershiser and Howell while that NLCS was played in the Internet social media era.

Cone learned the hard way in 1988. (It’s a shame Gene Garber wasn’t there to remind him of the uses of breaking ball-heavy relief pitchers, considering Garber’s breaking repertoire put an end to Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak a decade earlier.) So did the Indians Thursday night.

For a team that once had Hershiser on its own pitching staff (1995-1997) and went to a pair of World Series with him, the Indians didn’t exactly have a sense of trolling history when their social media people went off on the Mets Thursday afternoon. And it’s not brilliant to think about trolling a team that just took the first two of a three-game set from you, in their playpen or otherwise.

It’s a long season. We didn’t erase an 11.5-game deficit to roll over,” came the tweet from the Indians Thursday midday. “We split a series with one of the best teams in MLB at their home ballpark. We lost the last 2 to a fringe postseason team. We understand your frustration. Get it out here, but let’s renew the perspective.”

Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ scheduled Thursday night starter, didn’t just feed the Tribal trolls, he cleaned, stuffed, and mounted them.

First, he he pinned the Indians’ ears back with six and a third perfect innings en route a rain-delayed, rain-short-ended Mets win, 2-0. Then, he replied with his own tweet: “We got some FRINGE for you right here, we call it a SWEEP in NYC. #LFGM.”

Leaning away from his customary pure power game and throwing as much of an array of off-speed breakers and changers as heat, Syndergaard was on such a roll, even after he turned aside first and second on a pair of singles in the sixth, that the only thing that could have stopped him was the two-hour plus rain delay that struck in the bottom of the sixth.

Married to whipping winds around the park, the rain which began about an inning earlier finally prompted the umpires to pull the teams off the field, as Mets catcher Wilson Ramos was at the plate with two outs and Michael Conforto aboard with a base hit. The winds were fierce enough that the Citi Field grounds crew needed to pin the tarp to the infield themselves until the weights could be brought out to hold it.

The Indians were pretty brassy to think about trolling a team who’d beaten them on their own fielding lapse Tuesday night and bludgeoned their bullpen to win the night before. But their rookie righthanded starter Aaron Civale was actually close to Syndergaard’s effectiveness—his only blemish hitting Pete Alonso with a pitch in the first—until he ran into trouble in the bottom of the fourth.

That’s when Joe Panik, a late Mets acquisition after his release by the Giants and very effective as a Met since, opened with a line single to right. One out later Conforto high-hopped a ground rule double over the high side fence down near the end of the left field line, before Ramos extended his hitting streak to sixteen games with a clean two-run double down the right field line.

The Indians even got sloppy in the field again Wednesday night, with the lone saving grace being that this time it didn’t cost them a ball game.

After play resumed and Mets reliever Jeurys Familia worked a scoreless seventh, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier grounded weakly up the first base line. Indians reliever Tyler Clippard, himself a former Met, fielded but threw the ball straight over first baseman Carlos Santana’s head.

The ball sailed into foul territory near the seats as Frazier rounded first and neared second, as right fielder Yasiel Puig scampered in to retrieve the ball. As Frazier rounded second Puig—whose arm is powerful but not always calibrated properly—threw across to third and right past the pad as Frazier arrived safely.

Clippard’s mistake might have been snaring the ball with his glove before getting a less than firm grip with his throwing hand. A barehanded grab might have put the ball into a better grip and he might not have sailed it above Santana’s attic.

The Tribe was lucky they had Tyler Naquin—who ended Syndergaard’s brief perfect game bid with a one-out single in the sixth—catching Ramos’s arcing line drive in perfect position to throw Frazier out at the plate by three feet. Consider it a small payback for what Mets left fielder J.D. Davis did to them in the fourth.

With one out, Indians center fielder Greg Allen sent one that looked like it was going for extra bases until Davis, on his thoroughbred running back on an angle to his left, extended his glove and made a Willie Mays-like one-handed, over-the-shoulder, slightly over his head basket catch. The Citi Field ovation was so thunderous Davis had to tip his cap under it.

“Just a crazy catch,” Davis told reporters after the game. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

The Indians thought they knew how to describe the Mets before the game. Except that the Mets are now 12-5 lifetime against the Indians in interleague play. And while the Indians did yank themselves back from the dead, once as far as eleven and a half back of the Twins in the American League Central, the Mets didn’t exactly yank themselves back from a little slump, either.

The lowest point for the Indians this season? Eleven and a half behind the Twins on 2 June. The lowest for the Mets? Fourteen and a half out of first in the National League East on 14 July. Low enough and tattered enough, it seemed, that the trade deadline run-up was almost dominated by speculation as to whether Syndergaard himself, or Zack Wheeler, would change addresses on or before the deadline.

Since the All-Star break? The Indians: 24-16. The Mets: 27-10. And even if interleague play continues making hash of pennant races, the Mets play in a far more tough division. Now the fringe contender is also only a game and a half out for the second National League wild card and nine out in the East.

And they also have a far tougher schedule the rest of the season. Except for another pair of sets with the Twins and one each with the Phillies and (ending the regular season, strangely enough) the Nationals, the Indians get a lot more bottom-dwelling competition the rest of the way than the Mets.

The fringe contenders just swept the Indians in three, helping to put or keep them three and a half behind the still AL Central-leading Twins, and leaving the Indians with a 2-5 record for their now-finished New York trip. The best thing about the trip was the Indians not having to change hotel reservations to meet the Yankees and the Mets.

Let us renew the perspective indeed.