Minor subterfuge

2019-09-27 MikeMinor
Mike Minor nailed his 200th strikeout with a little sneaky help from his friends Thursday night.

Let me put it right on the table for you. What the Rangers did Thursday in a bid to fatten Mike Minor’s shot at 200 strikeouts on the season isn’t exactly the first time someone’s resorted to a little subterfuge in order to enable a particular milestone. And if you still believe that boys will be boys, it won’t be the last, either.

So the Red Sox are a little p.o.ed over Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman charging Chris Owings’s one-out popup then pulling his mitt back to let the ball hit the foul grass in the ninth? The Rangers weren’t exactly thrilled at the Red Sox swinging on first pitches in the eighth, either.

“Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout should have a big asterisk. That was bush. Chasing a milestone that way is unprofessional,” fumed Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham in a tweet. “Ask me if I care, Pete,” Minor fumed back.

“I didn’t love the idea that we dropped the popup at the end,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward to reporters after Minor nailed number 200 and, while they were at it, won the game 7-5. “But on the other side of that, they swung at three pitches in a row in the eighth inning down by two. If they have any beef with that — obviously I’m pretty sure [Red Sox manager Alex] Cora did — they chose to not try and win the game as well. They were trying to keep him from striking a guy out.”

The very nerve of the Red Sox. Trying to keep a pitcher from striking them out. What’ll they think of next? Their pitchers trying to keep hitters from hitting?

Good thing Minor wasn’t going for a no-hitter and the Rangers didn’t put the shifts onto the final Red Sox batters. The Red Sox might have been ornery enough to look at all that yummy open expanse gifted them, decided, “You’re stupid enough to give us that much room to hit, we’re not going to look a gift horse’s ass in the mouth,” and whacked a grounder or two into that gifted meadow.

But then Cora had something to say about the Guzman play. “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters himself. “We’re playing hard until the end. It’s been two weeks we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way. That’s all I ask. I don’t manage the Rangers.”

I don’t want to be the wise guy, here, but stuff such as Guzman did to help his mate keep a shot at a milestone alive goes on more often than you think. Actual or alleged.

One of baseball’s oldest legends is the 1910 race to the American League batting title between Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The legend included Cobb sitting out the last two games to protect his average and the St. Louis Browns willing to give Lajoie, then with the Indians, his hits by hook, crook, and anything else they could get away with.

The Browns and the Tribe played a season-ending doubleheader while Cobb sat idle. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on or at the edge of the outfield grass. Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the twin bill to win the title technically. American League president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting title winner after the shenanigans were taken to him.

The Chalmers Automobile Company, which awarded a car to the batting champion in those years, gave Cobb and Lajoie a new car each, pretty much deciding they were tied. Then, they changed the award the following season, giving the car to the league’s most valuable player, not the batting champion.

And O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell were banned from baseball for life over the scandal. (Lajoie’s ninth plate appearance of the day resulted in him reaching on an error; Howell tried to bribe the official scorer into changing the ruling to a base hit, but the scorer declined.)

Decades later, Denny McLain had his 31st win of 1968 in the bag when he decided he’d help Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle secure the last milestone he wanted in his career, retiring past Jimmie Foxx on baseball’s all-time home run list. Mantle was already at 534, tied with Foxx and in third place on the list.

When Tiger catcher Bill Freehan greeted Mantle checking in at the plate, with one out in the top of the eighth, Freehan told Mantle he’d be told what was coming because McLain really wanted him to do it. Sure enough, Mantle got one where he wanted it and sent it into the upper deck, making the score 6-2, Tigers. Thanks, Denny. Mantle sweetened his own retirement pot the next day when he took Red Sox righthander Jim Lonborg deep for number 536.

Almost a decade earlier, Mantle’s far less controversial teammate was offered a season-ending gift. Bobby Richardson was a sharp defensive second baseman who was often made the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. How did a guy with a .299 lifetime on-base percentage become a leadoff hitter? For one reason only: Richardson was almost impossible to strike out. (His lifetime average strikeouts per 162 games: 28.)

Richardson was also a devout Christian then and now. His usual Yankee running mates were fellow clean-livers, shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Bobby Shantz, and the trio was nicknamed the Milk Shake Kids. The only skirts they ever chased were the ones wrapped around their own wives; the strongest drink they probably ever took was fresh lemonade.

In fact, they inadvertently helped expose the Great Yankee Private Detective Agency in the late 1950s. When GM George Weiss hired a firm in hopes of throttling some of the randier Yankees’ off-field pursuits, the joy boys shook the dicks but the dicks still latched onto a group of Yankees anyway, tailing them around town until discovering it was the Milk Shake Kids . . . and the vice to which they were in such hot pursuit was (wait for it!) ping pong.

On the final day of the 1959 season, Richardson stood with an excellent chance of becoming the only Yankee to hit .300 or better on the year. As Richardson remembered to New York Daily News writer Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, he was supposed to get two gifts that day. Manager Casey Stengel would lift him from the game if he got a hit his first time up, and the Orioles were willing to do anything to let him have his hit.

The Orioles’ scheduled starting pitcher Billy O’Dell, a friend of Richardson who shared quail hunting trips with him, told him before the game he’d be “throwing one right in there for you.” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said he’d play deep at third in case Richardson felt like a bunt. Even the day’s plate umpire, Ed Hurley, was in on the little fix: “If you hit it on the ground, just make it look close at first.”

Richardson and Madden would make you believe that, first time up, Richardson smacked a line drive to right—and Orioles right fielder Albie Pearson made a diving catch on it. Richardson laughed to Madden recalling it. “Pearson was one of my closest friends in the game—we’d spoken together at church! He must have been the only person in the ballpark who didn’t know I was supposed to get my hit!”

Richardson is as honest as the day is long; if he ever told a lie in his life his jaw would probably dislodge from his skull. But precise memory fails even the most honest of men. Because the record actually shows that Richardson got his hit leading off the bottom of the first . . . and Pearson was nowhere near the ball: it was a line double to left center field.

And Stengel didn’t lift Richardson from the game. In the third inning Richardson hit the liner on which Pearson dove for the catch, and he also smacked a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Richardson didn’t leave the game until the Yankees were in a 3-1 hole with one out in the bottom of the eighth (the score would hold for a season-ending Orioles win), and Stengel elected to pinch hit for him.

The pinch hitter: the future superstar of Original Mets calamity, Marv Throneberry, who wasn’t yet nicknamed Marvelous. And O’Dell struck him out. Which was less embarrassing than what happened to the next Yankee hitter after Mantle hit McLain’s gift out.

Joe Pepitone watched the Mantle-McLain comedy from the on-deck circle and concluded McLain wouldn’t quit feeling generous when he checked in at the plate. So, just as Mantle did during his at-bat, Pepitone waggled the barrel of the bat over the plate to say where he’d like some service. And McLain knocked Pepitone on his ass with the first pitch.

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