David Clyde still fights for pension fairness

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David Clyde at home in Texas, at peace with his mishandled career, but in the battle to redress pensions for short-career players between 1949 and 1980. (NGSC Sports photo.)

Hyped, mishandled, injured, finally discarded. Former Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde has long been at peace with his aborted career. He’d like to see himself and his fellow short-career players at peace, too, with even a small entry into baseball’s pension plan.

That plan was re-aligned in 1980. It now vested health benefits after one day’s major league time, granted a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time, but excluded players like Clyde whose major leaguer careers were short and occurred between 1949 and 1980.

When not recovering from spinal fusion surgery last winter, or continuing to coach youth baseball, Clyde continues fighting in his way to help get what he considers financial justice for those players. Once upon a time, he joined the battle for its own sake, since before his recent health issues he didn’t need the extra help himself.

“I got involved initially just because it was the right thing to do,” says Clyde, who sounds at 64 more like an amiable Texas rancher than the teenager who struck eight Twins out in his circus-like first major league start right out of high school. “I guess the biggest thing I’m disappointed in is why the [Major League Baseball] Players Association doesn’t feel like it’s . . . bound to do a dad gum thing for us.”

Legally, the players union and MLB alike aren’t bound to lift a finger on their behalf. Clyde and his fellows understand only too well. But for them it’s not a legal matter. “I think it’s beyond morally and ethically,” says Clyde, who missed his full pension vesting under the pre-1980 plan by 37 days.

“I guess what bothers me the most about it is, the Players Association—they loathe being called a union—didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” he says. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Staying engaged is one thing. But it’s a little more difficult for Clyde to press forward formally now. Not too long ago, Clyde, former Braves pitcher Gary Neibauer, and former longtime first baseman-turned-executive Eddie Robinson, three key voices on behalf of the short-career players, were removed from the Pension Services Committee of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

And interesting and engaging fans and major media, sports and otherwise, is an issue by itself. Douglas Gladstone—whose 2010 book A Bitter Cup of Coffee first exposed what the 1980 re-alignment didn’t mean for Clyde and his fellow short-career players—continues battling to get the major media engaged. To precious little avail.

“You tell me why people who are in a position to bring this to the public’s light on a national basis refuse to even acknowledge it exists,” Clyde says.

And he has a point. A fair number of former players have made high enough-profile second careers as baseball broadcasters. They include Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley (with the Red Sox), Joe Morgan (a longtime ESPN fixture), and John Smoltz (Fox Sports), plus former pitchers Ron Darling (with the Mets), Mike Krukow (with the Giants), and Rick Sutcliffe (ESPN); former infielders Keith Hernandez (Mets), Eric Karros (Fox Sports), Jerry Remy (the Red Sox), and Alex Rodriguez (ESPN); and, former outfielder Harold Reynolds (formerly ESPN; now MLB Network).

Clyde says he’s even tried talking to assorted Hall of Famers (he wouldn’t drop names) who agreed players such as himself should be brought back into the pension plan. They even crafted a letter to present at a mid-2000s Hall of Fame ceremony. But “at the last minute,” he continues, “the face of that letter withdrew his support.”

If that sounds jarring or alarming, Clyde won’t argue with you. “I’m still very good friends with [that] person,” he says. “I’ve never approached the subject with him, I wouldn’t want to put him on the spot of possibly harming our friendship. [But] the letter itself could be worth a retirement plan with the signatures on it.”

At that, Clyde laughs heartily. But he becomes serious again.

“I don’t know what baseball is so afraid of,” he says. “When you talk to some of the ownership side, the ownership says, ‘We can’t talk about it, the players have to bring it up.’ And when you talk to the players, ‘Well, we don’t have any legal obligation to represent them’.”

By the time Gladstone wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee, what began as involving about 1,100 short-career players was down to 875. Almost two decades after the book first appeared (Gladstone published an updated edition earlier this year), 248 of those players passed away, leaving 627 short-career former players hoping.

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David Clyde on the mound. He wore number 32 in tribute to his boyhood hero Sandy Koufax.

“By the day, it’s getting cheaper for [baseball] if they ever decide to do it,” Clyde says wryly. “When this thing started, it was going to cost about $15 million a year to fund this thing.” Per affected player, that equals less than a single minimum major league salary per team today, he says.

“You have players today who could single-handedly fund it,” Clyde continues, referring to several of baseball’s nine-figure stars. “And I would think there would be tremendous tax benefits to it.”

But Clyde and his fellows remain left to their own devices and open to suggestions. One, tendered by former Mets pitcher Bill Denehy, might be placing cards outlining the pension struggle along with items people send former players to autograph. (Clyde says he still gets between five and ten such requests a week on average.)

“That’s a great idea,” he says, acknowledging the actual phrasing would have to be worked out. “But who are we sending them to? “Are a majority [of autograph requests] coming from card dealers, eleven-year-old kids?

“If they’re coming from kids, then they don’t have a whole lot of say-so,” he continues. “How do we know that they’d actually be getting to the people who need to know? Why does the national media not want to touch this thing with a twenty-foot pole?”

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a small redress: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

Volumes have been written about Clyde’s baseball saga. Perhaps nobody captured it better in thumbnail than Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Mike Shropshire in 1996, in Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Team in Baseball History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers.

“If there is anything of enduring value from the narrative of (the book),” Shropshire wrote, “it’s the David Clyde saga: the tale of the teen phenom who gets a pile of dough, gets exploited by the ownership, and ends up with a career that is shot.”

Clyde idolised Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax growing up; he wore uniform number 32 in tribute to his hero. His pitching career at Houston’s Westchester High evoked what you might have imagined Koufax in high school if baseball was his sport. A warehouse full of strikeouts. A backpack full of no-hitters. But Clyde also represented something else to then-Rangers owner Bob Short.

Short despaired of credibility for the club after moving it from Washington. He wanted and needed to goose his gate. He saw Clyde’s goose overloaded with golden eggs right out of high school and took him number one in the June 1973 draft. And, he insisted the eighteen-year-old lefthander with the live arm step right onto a major league mound, without a drop of badly needed minor league experience and maturing first.

Clyde won his first start and pitched well overall in his first two starts. He did what Short hoped he’d do—make the Rangers credible and, coincidentally, help rescue the team’s finances. Some called Clyde the franchise saviour, and still do. He denies “saving” the franchise, but he’ll agree he made the team viable in their part of Texas.

But Short reneged on a promise to manager Whitey Herzog and refused to send Clyde to the minors. When you suggest to Clyde that Herzog may have been the only man in the Rangers organisation of the time wanting to do right by him, he replies, “As far as I know, that’s the absolute truth.”

A boy among men, subsequently saddled with Billy Martin as his manager when the White Rat was canned before the end of the 1973 season, Clyde ended up a mess. Martin’s notorious lack of patience with pitching youth was magnified regarding Clyde, who’d now pitch only occasionally. Not until 1975 was he allowed to see the minors—after one start followed by a shoulder injury.

He spent three years in the minors from there, returned to the majors with the Indians in 1978. He had scattered success and less scattered failures; he was traded back to the Rangers after the 1979 season but released as “damaged goods” after more shoulder trouble. A 1981 comeback attempt in the Astros organisation came to nothing, and in spring 1982 he retired.

Clyde made a second career in the lumber business, leaving in 2003 but continuing his youth baseball coaching activities, especially pitching and the pitfalls and pratfalls that too often accompany young players to the professional game. He cautions them that the professional sports world won’t always be as honest or as upright as the values with which he and they are raised at home.

“Look out for yourself, first,” Clyde says he advises his young charges in hand with pitching knowledge. “Once you’ve used up your usefulness to them, they’re done with you. So I’ve always told my guys look out after number one first, make sure you don’t believe everything they’re telling you.

“I was in a very unique situation, a perfect Catch-22 situation, and probably, in my opinion if any other organisation beside the Rangers had drafted me, we might not be having this conversation today.”

Most writings about Clyde in recent years paint a portrait of a man with no bitterness about the way his pitching career turned out, no matter how it was compromised by forces past his control.

“I have been a blessed individual my whole life,” he says. “I’m still blessed to this day, I’m very thankful for everything the good Lord has given me. Why should I be bitter? I had my chance. Granted, a lot of people may say it was under the best of circumstances, and I can argue it was under the worst of circumstances, but I did get the chance.”

He drew an insight toward such perspective one day while working in his garage and listening to a sports radio program. The broadcaster said  “at that time there were about fifteen thousand people who ever played major league baseball, and of that fifteen thousand, roughly half of them were pitchers.

“So you have seventy-five hundred players in over a hundred years who have ever toed the rubber on a major league mound when the umpire says, ‘Play ball’,” Clyde continues. “When you narrow it down to those terms, no matter how much we sucked, we were still pretty good.”

He hopes only that for short-timers such as himself, it’s still pretty good to get them un-frozen from baseball pensions.

Wrigley agonistes

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Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.

Could Ross take the Cubs’ bridge?

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Keeping Anthony Rizzo (left) steadied in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series is probably only one reason David Ross (right) may be seen as managerial material—and closer to a shot at it than he thinks.

When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.

A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.

With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.

September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.

That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.

After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.

The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.

Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.

Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.

This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.

Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.

And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”

The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.

Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”

If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.

Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.

The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.

Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”

After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.

A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.

None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.

Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.

Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.

He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.

When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.

“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.

Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.

Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.

Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.

“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.

“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”

The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.

The survival of the unfittest

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To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no Yankee was injured during the making of this division-clinching celebration.

Future baseball trivia contests should feature this question: “Name the team that won the 2019 American League East despite making a M*A*S*H triage seem like a day camp’s first aid station.” Then, they should add, “P.S. Name the American League’s 2019 Manager of the Year—according to major league baseball and the American Red Cross.”

Aaron Boone must have days when he thinks he’s not a major league manager but the hapless chief administrator of an overworked urgent care clinic. The Broken Bombers  must have days when they think the umpire isn’t going to start a game hollering “Play ball!” but pulling out a bugle to sound sick call.

They locked down the American League East Thursday night with their 100th win, beating the hapless, Mike Trout-less Angels 9-1 at home in St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium. And they still had twelve players—not including the apparently terminally hapless Jacoby Ellsbury—either on the injured list or listed day-to-day with one or another ailment.

“Nothing has got in their way,” said Boone after the game. “Whatever has come adversity-wise, they faced it and powered right through it.” As almost usual, Boone deflected most attention toward his players, rather modestly for the first manager to win 100 games in each of his first two seasons on the job.

Nobody else has done that. Not John McGraw. Not Connie Mack. Not Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, or Casey Stengel. Not Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Davey Johnson, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, or Terry Francona. The man who once broke Boston hearts by nailing the 2003 American League pennant with an eleventh-inning home run in the old Yankee Stadium sits alone with those C-notes.

Boone may not be one of the game’s premier tacticians or strategists, but maybe he doesn’t have to be for now. Just sending a Yankee team to the field every day in spite of the ceaseless call of calamity was probably enough for the 46-year-old skipper. That and a few tranquilisers.

There’s no truth to any speculation that Johns Hopkins is negotiating for the rights to present the Yankees as medical school exhibits yet. But don’t be shocked if the talks begin any time soon.

Only the Astros among the American League’s powerhouses had an injury overload anywhere near the one that accompanied the Yankees this year. They were episodes of Bones, House, Private Practise, Grey’s Anatomy, E.R., Chicago Hope, Medical Center, and Marcus Welby, M.D. on any given day of the week. Their bangs, bruises, and batterings got so profound so often that Yankee fans could have been forgiven if they felt compelled to claim the New England Journal of Medicine as this year’s Yankee yearbook.

There may not be a baseball team alive that figured out ways to win 100 regular season games and counting despite putting every New York area emergency room on double red alert. And it didn’t seem like any single Yankee faction becoming so injury prone. The 2019 injury bug did the equal-opportunity Yankee panky.

About the only Yankees on or near the field who didn’t have dates with the doctors were the bat and ball boys and girls. Boone was probably ready more than once a week to decide whether he needed an internist on call—or Frasier.

And when the Yankees closed out the Angels Thursday night they didn’t dare dogpile, chest bump, forearm bump, fist bump, jersey strip, or anything else to which celebrating baseball players take these days when celebrating arduous wins or even divisional clinches. With their luck, five Yankees might have ended up in traction.

“We’re just trying to avoid injuries,” deadpanned second baseman D.J. LaMahieu, whose three-run homer with two out in the bottom of the third began the Thursday night thrashing. All things considered, it’s a wonder making that comment didn’t instigate a case of lockjaw.

“There’s a couple guys that are irreplaceable here,” said catcher Austin Romine in April, little knowing he’d have to step in bigger for Gary Sanchez who just went down with a tight groin and could be gone until the postseason rounds, “but we’ve got to find a way to do it. We’re still winning games. We’ve got guys stepping up left and right.” Careful. With the Yankees’ luck, one of them is liable to twist an ankle on the landing.

Guys stepping up left and right? The Yankees practically led the league in reaching down and finding help on the farm, lots of it, enough to make you wonder—even allowing their seemingly infinite financial resources—why other teams who aren’t as financially strapped as they let you believe can’t figure out as well as the Yankees how to re-tool on the fly without tanking and within in far less extreme circumstances.

That should be good enough to earn longtime general manager Brian Cashman consideration as baseball’s Executive of the Year. Whether he gets it from the game or from the American Medical Association probably doesn’t matter.

They’ve used 53 different players and sent thirty to the injured list this year, the latter being the most for any team since 2004. And they couldn’t even win Thursday night without more medical emergencies preceding it.

Relief pitcher Dellin Betances was barely back from shoulder and lat muscle issues that kept him drydocked until Sunday—when he faced two Blue Jays in the bottom of the fourth and struck them both out . . . then somehow incurred a partial Achilles tendon tear doing the happy dance after the second punchout.  Surgery he won’t need. But his season ended before it began even partially.

And Aaron Judge is being watched day-to-day after Hizzoner landed hard on his right shoulder Wednesday night trying for a diving catch.

The Yankees already had to live a lot of the season without Judge, Betances, Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andjuar, Didi Gregorius, Giancarlo Stanton, Jake Barrett, and Greg Bird. Among others. They’ll have to live the rest of the season and postseason without David Hale, Jonathan Holder, and Mike Tauchman. Possibly among others. Tauchman went from an obscure spring acquisition from the Rockies to a co-household name with Gio Urshela—until he, too, pulled up injured with a likely season-ending calf strain.

They’ve managed to comport themselves like overly seasoned professionals in spite of the still-preponderant youth of the team. (Their average age: 28.) But it wasn’t easy this year. Even the most stoic professional can get frazzled when reporting to work the next day to discover yet another colleague in need of major repairs.

And you’d have to be either ignorant or a pure Yankee hater not to appreciate an irony in this year’s AL East conquest. The last time the Yankees won the division, Hall of Famer in waiting Derek Jeter wrecked his ankle in the twelfth inning of what turned into a sweep out of their 2012 division series by the Tigers. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have even a tiny similar fear of even a hint of similar calamity awaiting them this time.

It may rankle Yankee fans that their heroes have only one 21st Century World Series ring to the rival Red Sox’s four. But they shouldn’t be too hard on the Yankees if they don’t quite make it back to the Promised Land this time around. If baseball’s cliches include that great or even persevering teams become the forgotten men once they don’t reach the Promised Land, these Yankees have a chance to stand it on its own head.

Just pray, while you toast the Yankees’ season long witness to survival of the unfittest, that doing it doesn’t tear another Yankee muscle, fracture another Yankee bone, tear another Yankee Achilles, strain another Yankee lat. Or, send even their uncannily resilient manager to the E.R. If not the psychiatrist’s couch.

Funeral to frat party and back in a Wrigley blink

2019-09-19 MattCarpenter

Matt Carpenter runs out the bomb that proved the difference maker in the tenth Thursday.

You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.

And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play,  the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.

Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.

With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.

He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.

It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.

Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.

The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.

Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.

He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.

And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.

With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.

It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.

Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.

You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.

And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.

But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.

Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.

The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.

The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.

The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.

Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.

Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.

He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.

Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.

He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.

But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.

Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.

And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.

The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.

Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.