Seymour Siwoff, RIP: Look it up

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Seymour Siwoff (right) with the Elias Sports Bureau’s John Labombarda in 2014, after a Mariners blog presented them with a jersey worn by a Mariner unrelated to the statistical family. (Yes, you could look it up, below.)

As James Thurber’s Squawks Magrew once said in naming a charming 1941 short story (and as Casey Stengel loved to say regardless), “You Could Look It Up.” As the longtime owner and president of the Elias Sports Bureau, Seymour Siwoff loved to insist, “Look it up anyway. Don’t trust your memory.”

Siwoff, who died Friday at 99, the same number of years as runs driven in by Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in his third major league season, once resembled a slender and balding Walt Disney wearing Groucho Marx’s mustache. He also earned a Purple Heart in the World War II infantry, which ought to tell you how much actual Mickey Mouse recessed within him.

And he was one of the three men (Branch Rickey and his find Allan Roth were the others, arguably) who seeded the garden of change in the way baseball and other sports’ fans and professionals analyse their games. The National League began something marvelous when naming Elias its official statistician in the 1950s.

“I thought I’d try it for a while,” said Siwoff, who actually once considered joining the Internal Revenue Service, lucky for us that he didn’t, about joining Elias in the first place, “and I wound up trying it for a lifetime.”

Today the bureau does that job for all major league baseball and five other professional sports leagues. As Stengel would also say, they’ve been rather splendid in their line of work, which tells you something about the man who first joined the bureau—while a high school student—two decades after its 1916 founding in New York by brothers  Al Munro Elias and Walter Elias.

And, at a time when meeting its payroll was about as simple as sneaking one past a healthy Lou Gehrig. Siwoff himself once endured a streak without weekly paychecks the way Original Mets pitcher Roger Craig endured a 1963 streak of being charged with eighteen consecutive losses, tying Clifton Curtis’s National League record. “Happily,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Jerry Kirshenbaum in a 1969 profile, “Siwoff has come to know better times.”

Although he still works at the same place that used to have trouble paying its help, he does so as the boss rather than as an employee. And he has become, as it was his heartfelt mission to become, the sports world’s No. 1 professional answer man. Although primarily a statistician, Siwoff traffics not only in the bare bones of figures and fractions but also in that somewhat fleshier matter that is sometimes called, redolent of a quainter day, dope. “My job isn’t just figuring out batting averages,” he says with an uneasy grandiloquence. “I’m in the business of problem solving, you might call it. I suppose you might even say that I’m running a think factory.”

Siwoff’s Elias developed a penchant for finding diamonds while mining for mere rubies. Kirshenbaum mulcted a typical such find: tasked by writers in the Wrigley Field press box for something in particular about Ernie Banks, Siwoff’s bloodhounds unearthed the knowledge that Banks’s fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays actually played a game at . . . shortstop, Banks’s own original position. (Turns out Mays played two games at short lifetime. Yes, you could look it up.)

“It’s unbelievable the things you come across just leafing through these sheets,” Siwoff told Kirshenbaum. Siwoff then had four full-time employees working in a room the entrance to which featured a sign above: “Eternal vigilance is the price of accuracy in statistics.”

Kirshenbaum didn’t provide the date, but on 13 May 1969 the Wrigley pressmen wanted to know any previous time Banks drove seven runs in in a game. (He’d just done it against the infant Padres with an RBI double and a pair of three-run homers.) Siwoff’s hounds exhumed two previous such occasions: 4 August 1955 (against the Pirates) and 1 May 1963 (against the Cardinals).

“This intelligence went out immediately over the ball park’s public-address system to the crowd on hand and, via the press box, to the outside world,” Kirshenbaum wrote. “‘If Seymour says it’s so, then it’s so,’ testified Chuck Shriver, the Cubs’ publicity man. ‘He’s my bible’.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the annual Elias Baseball Analyst was maybe not my full baseball Bible but at least the book of Leviticus. (Bill James’s annual Baseball Abstracts were my Numbers.) From which I discovered such wonderful things to know as which hitter loved or hated to face which pitcher based on the cumulative numbers and vice versa.

“[T]he good news is that our can-do country has gone and done it,” wrote George F. Will about the Analyst in 1985. “It has produced a baseball book that almost contains all the information citizens ought to be required to master before being allowed to vote.”

Do you have a Gibbonesque fascination with declines and falls? The book reveals that the 1984 White Sox were only the eighth team in fifty years to suffer a decline of 150 percentage points in their won-lost record compared with the preceding season. In 1984 Cleveland extended to twenty-four its record for the most consecutive seasons (excluding the 1981 strike season) finishing more than fourteen games behind the league or division leader. Before the 1984 Milwaukee Brewers did it, the last team to go in just two years from the best record in the league to the worst was during the Johnson administration. The time before that, Woodrow Wilson was in his first term.

For the records: the ’84 White Sox suffered that collapse the year after they won the American League West; before the ’84 Brewers that collapse was suffered by the 1966 Yankees; before them, it was the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, after two straight seasons with the American League’s best record. And you could look it up.

Those were the days before the Internet and the resources of Baseball Reference and, who are called fairly the grandchildren of Siwoff, Rickey, and Roth. The days when an ordinary baseball fan’s deepest commercially available statistical abstract was the Reader’s Digest-sized Who’s Who in Baseball.

Elias wasn’t above puckishness, either: its Analyst for the 1987 season noted overly self-critical Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi most hated to face effervescent Hall of Fame Mets catcher Gary Carter with two outs. Though all things considered I might have said “Ray Knight with deuces wild.” (Two strikes, two outs, two on. If you have to ask, you could look it up.)

The days about which Kirshenbaum could write and get away with saying, “In encouraging the proliferation of statistics, Siwoff has had the good sense to realize that they are valuable only insofar as they reflect what happened in yesterday’s game and generate interest in what might happen tomorrow. They thus are tools primarily for the historian and the public-relations man, an insight that eludes the fetishist who indiscriminately collects meaningless statistics for no apparent reason but to talk to them, little caring that they often have nothing to say in reply.”

Except that Siwoff hit that one over the center field fence almost promptly:

Statistics can be cold and trivial. But they can also be alive and full of drama. When a batter hits three home runs in a game and then comes to bat for the fourth time, and if you know that only a few people have ever hit four in history, what could be more dramatic? The excitement in the air is unbelievable. It’s electric. And what about a no-hitter? That’s a statistical thing. But, wow, what a thrill when the pitcher keeps retiring the side and the crowd starts buzzing in the seventh and eighth innings. It’s unbelievable.

But what I enjoy most about statistics is the chance they give you to relive the past. When Ernie Banks gets seven RBIs in a game or when Reggie Jackson gets 10, it brings back memories of when Jim Bottomley drove in 12 or Tony Lazzeri drove in 11. In looking up things like that, I can see those guys in my mind as clearly as if they were playing again. And to think that when Jackson got his 10, he struck out one time at bat with the bases loaded. How do you like that?

That was decades before we began examining the absolute depths of what players we couldn’t and didn’t always get to see did or didn’t accomplish. Decades before the serious fan and serious analyst discovered beyond simplistic baseball cards that statistics, the life blood of baseball, enable you to stand athwart nostalgia yelling “Art!”

Little by little, piece by piece, Siwoff, Rickey, and Roth abetted or inspired their eventual disciples to seek and find the meaning of such feats, such meanings as the run batted in being as team dependent as it was on the hitter who drove it in; such meanings as what the pitcher actually controls as opposed to what his team does behind him; such meanings as whether the spectacular fielder really prevented all that many runs against his teams.

Siwoff’s Elias also pioneered the batting and pitching split analysis now as common as breakfast coffee, not to mention mulcting day game/night game splits, home/road splits, and even isolating how batters actually as opposed to allegedly hit with runners in scoring position.

Siwoff returned to Elias after his World War II service, stayed as it struggled a few years to come including when the last active Elias family member died and when the bureau lost big accounts with newspapers to an Associated Press stat service. Siwoff bought Elias from the co-founders’ widows. “As bad as the business was,” he told Kirshenbaum, “I couldn’t let go. It was like an infection.”

An infection not to be cured, blessedly so. Professional sports swelled or re-swelled in the 1950s and Elias swelled with it, especially after the National Football League made the bureau its official statistician in 1960, thus keeping the bureau gainfully employed during baseball’s non-performing off-season.

“Siwoff has experimented with computers on a limited basis, but he has dim hopes for any system that could possibly program all the statistical information he deals with daily and yet be within his reach financially,” Kirshenbaum wrote. Little did he or Siwoff know.

Elias today provides the deep dope to publications on and offline as well as broadcasters, teams, and organisations. We’ve come a long way, baby, from Allan Roth’s reams of graph paper and Topps baseball cards’ Elias-provided statistical minimalism. Today Siwoff’s grandson, Joseph Gilston, owns Elias. Grandpa continued keeping regular office hours until just a few months ago.

“One of the things I’ve admired is that he really tries to learn something new every day,” Gilston told the Toronto Star about his grandfather last March. “He’s an incredible story of somebody who’s just constantly looking for what’s next.” Who also helped teach baseball fans to look constantly enough not just for what was but for what was deeper and what might yet theoretically be.

Quick: Name the only major league baseball player ever to carry the Elias name. Hints: 1) He’s not even close to being a relative of the statistical Elias family. 2) He’s now a member of the world champion Nationals, though he wasn’t on their postseason roster. Answer: Roenis Elias, Cuban defector and lefthanded relief pitcher. And, yes, you could look it up.

Stolen signs of the times

2019-11-29 HiddenLanguageOfBaseballDepending upon your point of view, the freshly published second edition of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime is either a blessing or an intrusion. Its timing—arriving shortly before Astrogate broke—couldn’t possibly have been scripted better.

Especially considering Chapter 9, “Devious Digital Devices—From the TV Camera to the Digital Watch.” Which begins with Leo Durocher, perhaps appropriately, performing a deed people not named Durocher would have deemed inappropriate enough.

The Lip, of course, was the mastermind behind the off-field sign-stealing—with a hand-held spyglass in the Polo Grounds center field clubhouse, a buzzer to the bullpen, and relayed stolen signs to those men at the plate who wanted them —that enabled the 1951 Giants’ staggering pennant race comeback (from thirteen games down) to force the once-fabled playoff.

Now, Dickson described Durocher in the broadcast booth, which he joined for ABC’s Game of the Week after leaving the Dodgers as a coach in early 1965. “The American Broadcasting Company was banking on Leo to say and do outrageous things to boost ratings on the show,” Dickson wrote. “They were hardly disappointed.”

Durocher premiered on 8 May 1965, for a game between the Yankees and the second edition of the Washington Senators in D.C. Stadium (the future RFK Stadium). When the network spotted Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a Twins fan, as it happened) in the ballpark, they managed to invite him to join Durocher in the booth.

And the Lip simply couldn’t resist giving Humphrey an on-the-air tutorial in the fine art of baseball espionage. “With the aid of cameras placed by ABC in the dugout and outfield,” Dickson writes, “Leo gave the vice president a quick lesson in how to pick up signs and decode them.”

The cameras were live and real time, not on today’s eight-second delays. Humphrey wasn’t exactly thrilled, “clearly nervous about being put in this position as an accomplice and [he] observed flatly that there were no secrets anymore.”

How you accept that depends on your point of view otherwise considering Humphrey’s boss, then-president Lyndon Johnson, a man to whom chicanery wasn’t exactly alien. But then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t exactly amused, either, rebuking both Durocher and ABC publicly “for both the cameras and the live larceny.”

Lest you think the Yankees and the Senators had any cute ideas about the cameras, be advised that they were then managed by two men (Johnny Keane, Gil Hodges) who’d sooner be caught chasing skirts other than those wrapped around their wives than sanction high-tech cheating.

But thanks to Durocher, for the first time real high electronic baseball cheating as opposed to on-the-field gamesmanship or even mere telescopic cheating hit the press past the sports pages. It almost figured that it would be Durocher who was responsible. “[He] had not only willfully gotten himself into a jam,” writes Dickson, himself a Durocher biographer, “but also used the vice president of the United States as his foil.”

Dickson’s book is a remarkably entertaining travelogue through sign-stealing history, which only begins with its development based on flag signaling by soldiers in war and premiered in baseball near the Civil War, through the apparent courtesy of a team known as the Hartford Dark Blues. And, Dickson does an engaging job of discussing those whose on-field gamesmanship was more sophisticated and tougher to decipher than you might expect.

Perhaps his classic example is Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Dickson writes that he was not only the best in his league at keeping his signs secret (his tricks included, especially, adding numbers on the scoreboard to those shown his pitchers with his fingers) but taught himself to pick signs based on the opposing catcher’s hand shadows he saw from the on-deck circle.

Berra once said he “wouldn’t take [a stolen sign] if their own catcher sent it to me Western Union,” but he was also adept at catching pitch tipping—especially his own pitchers, helping them correct accordingly. And fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle swore the Yankees knew, among other things, when Hall of Famer Early Wynn would go to his knuckleball: it was the only pitch on which Wynn wouldn’t rear all the way back behind his head before throwing it.

That sort of thing was gamesmanship. Slipping people into things like the old-fashioned hand-operated scoreboards above or behind the actual playing field? A whole other thing, and more rampant than you may remember or know. “Periodically,” Dickson wrote, “someone would complain that they were being spied upon by men out of uniform hanging out in the scoreboard, and they would be answered by the official equivalent of a shrug and a scowl.”

Not even the New York Times could help. Dickson cited a story in that paper in 1956, when then-Orioles manager Paul Richards filed a formal complaint with the American League over the White Sox stealing signs with a telescope from the scoreboard. Both then-league president Will Harridge and a few more in the sporting press “mocked Richards.” Sports Illustrated even ran a piece including “a pictorial on signs and how one might learn to pick them from one’s seat.”

They missed the larger point, and that was in the aftermath of the 1951 Giants when their pennant-comeback spyglass-to-buzzer plot was still whispered but didn’t lead to arraignments. The larger point: Decoding signs from the on-deck circle based on a catcher’s hand’s shadow isn’t the same thing as decoding them through an off-field telescope. Or from a hot live real-time off-the-field camera feed.

Which is exactly what Sean Doolittle, the likeable and never-at-a-loss relief pitcher for the world champion Nationals, said in a tweet, two days after The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich reported former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers’s revelation about that team’s 2017 center field camera-to-clubhouse television set-to-bang on a can stolen sign transmission:

Sign stealing is part of baseball. It’s gamesmanship. A runner picking up signs from 2nd base or looking for how a pitcher might be tipping his pitches based on how he comes set is fair game. If you can do it using your eye balls it’s ok. If you’re using technology it’s cheating.

The TVs in the clubhouses and bullpens are on AT LEAST an 8 sec delay. MLB posts employees in the video room to prevent messages being relayed to the dugout. It’s impossible to use those feeds to pick up signs and relay them in real time.

Almost a full week has passed without new Astrogate revelations. Such silences don’t seem likely to become the exceptions. But Molly Knight, another writer for The Athletic, has a thought for you: the news may have infuriated pitchers the most.

Comments from players haven’t exactly flooded the joint since Fiers first blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency. But Knight has mulcted comments from pitchers around the circuit. And they’re no more amused than Hubert Humphrey was over Leo Durocher’s live lecture in applied espionage.

“If a team is using cameras and decoding your sequences for live relays,” Knight quoted an unidentified pitcher who faced the Astros in 2017, “you’re losing a war that you weren’t informed of your own participation.”

You know that with a runner on second you have to be careful because they see the signs and decipher them. You know that you can’t have an obvious tip because the other team will find it and pounce. Those are known battlegrounds. But this isn’t a fair fight because you weren’t aware the fight existed.

We’ve come a long way, seemingly, from the days when field glasses, spyglasses, and even telescopes off the field and through the scoreboards actually did have baseball people both alarmed and amused. Enough so that by 1961-1962, Dickson writes, the issue actually threatened to become a full-fledged scandal.

First, an unidentified former player turned manager and coach told Baseball Digest he didn’t think that kind of espionage was present “for a long time.” But he kept his identity secret because it “might give me a bad reputation with the coaches who like people to think they’re always swiping signs.”

Then Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote an article for True called “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win.” In which among other things he had words for Al Worthington, the relief pitcher who quit the White Sox rather than acquiesce in their sign-stealing operation inside Comiskey Park’s fabled exploding scoreboard. “[M]ost of the newspapers said [Worthington’s] was a salary argument,” Hornsby wrote. “In my book, it wasn’t. In my book he was a baseball misfit—Worthington didn’t like cheating.”

That and other Hornsby pronouncements—including what Dickson paraphrased as “a massive Indian head with moving eyes in an ad for Uneeda Water in the Detroit outfield,” the moving eyes used by the Tigers to relay stolen signs—cause a spring training uproar in 1962. Especially when the True article was expanded into a delicious portion of Hornsby’s freshly published memoir, My War with Baseball.

At about that time, Jay Hook—taken off the ’61 pennant-winning Reds by the expansion Mets—told United Press International that those Reds had “scoreboard spies swiping the rival catchers’ signs” from Crosley Field’s walk-in, hand-operated scoreboard. Leonard Shecter—then a New York Post writer, eventually Jim Bouton’s Ball Four editor—called such a spy “the fiend abroad in the ballpark with a pair of field glasses . . . [like] the driver who knocks down an 89-year-old pedestrian. It’s easy but unsporting.”

Then, the Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler wrote maybe the first story for publication charging the 1951 Giants with high tech-for-the-time sign stealing down that stretch. Between several emphatic denials and the anonymity of the accuser, who may or may not have been associated with the Giants later on, the story’s noise life wasn’t very long.

Jimmy Piersall, the acrobatic outfielder who’d suffered a nervous breakdown while with the early 1950s Red Sox, wrote a Baseball Monthly article that spring ’62 in which he said, as Dickson phrased it, every part of the ballpark could be and often was rigged. The article was called, “How the Home Team Cheats.” Bill Veeck’s charming memoir Veeck—As In Wreck, was published at the same time, the maverick owner admitting he wasn’t above a little chicanery himself.

Even authorising the White Sox’s exploding-scoreboard spy network. The one that compelled Al Worthington to take a hike. The hike that compelled Rogers Hornsby to dismiss Worthington as a baseball misfit.

All that hoopla died its death in due course, though not without its ironies. The very name of Dickson’s chapter about it says it all: “1962—the Year of the Revisionist Finger Pointers.” Including Birdie Tebbetts, managing the Braves in June 1962, now telling Times columnist Arthur Daley that all that telescopic cheating just had to stop if “you believe in the integrity of the game the way I do.” The way he did when his 1940 pennant-winning Tigers used pitcher Tommy Bridges’s rifle scope to swipe signs from the stands behind the Briggs Stadium outfield.

Leo Durocher tutoring Hubert Humphrey to one side, high-tech sign-stealing charges tended from 1962 forward to be low-keyed and dispatched swiftly enough. Before such things as Mick Billmeyer’s bullpen binoculars, the Blue Jays’s Man in White, the Padres’ TV well spy, the Red Sox’s Apple Watch, and, of course, the Astro worker near the Red Sox dugout who claimed he was trying to be sure the Red Sox weren’t up to no good during the 2018 American League Championship series, wink wink, nudge nudge, suuuure he was.

“Baseball doesn’t have a sign stealing problem,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Dave Sheinin, as cited by Dickson, when the Brewers hinted that the Dodgers were doing it the electronic way during the ’18 National League Championship Series. “It has a technology problem.”

No longer is it just the runner on second base with a clear view of the catcher’s signs to thwart. Now it’s that guy in the center field seats with the telescoping camera or the strength coach in the dugout with the smart watch or the dude in the camera well with the tablet.

An old gag from the hippie era used to hold, “Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t watching you.” And just because baseball in 1962 or 2018 got paranoid about high-tech cheating, it didn’t mean that people weren’t doing it, either. Mike Fiers exposed the Astros doing it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation is certain to turn up more.

And don’t think fans don’t have the occasional hand in it. Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were exposed by Cub fans who recognised them and warned the Cub bullpen. Days after the Red Sox were caught taking a bite of the Apple Watch, a Yankee fan decided to do Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez a favour at the plate. Dickson tells it better:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

That, Dickson wrote, may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of a game for sign stealing. By the way, Sanchez’s plate appearance ended with a bloop single to send home the fifth Yankee run in a 6-1 win.

Dickson has added a chapter around the Red Sox’s Applegate: “It would appear, at least at this writing near the end of the 2018 season, that the specter of electronic sign-stealing has not raised its head.” I wonder if he wishes now that he’d waited until next year (no pun intended), when Astrogate will be resolved one way or the other, to bring forth The Hidden Language of Baseball‘s second edition. I know I do.

It didn’t start with Astrogate

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Leo Durocher’s taste for baseball espionage didn’t stop with the 1951 Giants’ clubhouse spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen.

The Astrogate watch continues apace. Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds have widened the dragnet. They’re now said to be asking players “associated with the organization what they know about a range of alleged [electronic] sign-stealing techniques” in 2017 and in 2018-2019.”

And, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, still-active players who tell the truth “can expect leniency in exchange.” It ought to be interesting at minimum when we discover at last which players knew what or did what.

The bloodhounds will look into such devices, Passan says, as “‘buzzing,’ via the use of Band-Aid-like wearable stickers; furtive earpieces; pitch-picking algorithms; and other potential methods of sign-stealing.”

In other words, the probe is going above and beyond just a camera beyond center field transmitting real-time signs to a television set posted in the Astro clubhouse where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen sign to the man at the plate with a big bang or two on a large plastic trash can. Cheating’s gone as high tech as real world espionage.

It’s almost enough to make you pine for the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When just about the most high-tech chicanery you could uncover in a baseball game involved buzzers and telescopes, whether hand-held Wollensak spy glasses a la the 1951 Giants or hobby-shop telescopes on tripods. An eventual World Series contestant thought of that one in 1948.

The Indians had a three-game lead in the American League as of 20 August, not to mention a four-game shutout streak, after Hall of Famer Satchel Paige threw the fourth straight shutout at the White Sox in Chicago. The next day, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon extended the shutout innings streak to 47 innings before the White Sox pulled out a 3-2 win at the last minute, and the Indians went on to lose eleven of their next eighteen games.

That dropped the Indians to three behind after Labour Day. And, wrote then-first baseman (and future coach and front office exec) Eddie Robinson, in his memoir Lucky Me, it prompted “one of our hitters” (Robinson didn’t say whom) to suggest that desperate times called for a desperate measure:

We picked a spot in the Municipal Stadium scoreboard in center field, and placed one of our pitchers out there with a telescope sitting on a tripod. Our pitcher would let us know when he had the opposing catcher’s signals. We had one of the grounds crew dressed in a white uniform sit in the bleachers alongside the scoreboard. For the hitters who wanted the signals, he’d hold his legs together for a fastball, spread them for a curve ball, and get up and walk around if he didn’t have the sign.

So if anyone watching a late 1948 game in the old Mistake on the Lake saw a man in white next to the scoreboard opening and closing his legs and walking around, he wasn’t doing one of the dances men do when they need the men’s room desperately but are just as desperate not to miss the action on the field before the sides changed between innings.

“Some of our hitters, including me, didn’t want the [stolen] signs,” Robinson wrote, partially because Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who’d been a spring training instructor for those Indians, told him just to hit what he saw. “Of course, Hornsby was so good he could just react to the pitch,” Robinson continued. “I probably shouldn’t have followed his advice because I wasn’t as good a hitter and needed all the help I could get. I should’ve been looking for pitches.”

Starting with the nightcap of a Labour Day doubleheader, the 1948 Indians won 20 of their final 26 games including the famous pennant tiebreaker against the Red Sox. Robinson swore the Indians never tried their telescopic theft on the road including in Fenway Park (where the scoreboard sat invitingly at the bottom of the Green Monster, then and now) or in the World Series. (The Indians beat the Spahn-and-Sain Boston Braves in six games.)

“I’ve always thought sign stealing from way out there was overrated,” Robinson wrote, “and it rarely if ever has had any impact on the outcome of a game.”

The key may be “rarely.” The Indians fell to four and a half back by Labour Day before the string to win the pennant. The ’51 Giants—with their center field clubhouse Wollensak spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen for sign-stealing—came back from a thirteen-game deficit on 11 August to force the fabled pennant playoff.

And manager Leo Durocher didn’t exactly retire his intelligence operations when he left the Giants a year after managing them to a World Series sweep against a later crew of Indians. The Lip got very creative when he turned up managing the Cubs in the late 1960s-early 1970s, including their lively 1969 National League East race with the Miracle Mets. Enough to make his ’51 Giants resemble the Flintstones.

During the thick of the Watergate scandal, Victor Lasky recorded a very credible history of previous White House and other politically-based crimes and published it under the title It Didn’t Start with Watergate. Baseball historian Paul Dickson’s delivered an updated edition of his 2003 book The Hidden Language of Baseball. He could have subtitled it, plausibly, It Didn’t Start with Astrogate.

Dickson talks about sign stealing in just about all its ways, shapes, and forms. Including that Durocher often had the opposition clubhouse bugged with eavesdropping devices. “[Hall of Famer] Gaylord Perry, pitching for [the Giants], later related that when the Giants detected this, they held team meetings to loudly discuss bogus pitching plans just to confuse the Cubs.”

Durocher probably wasn’t the only Cub skipper or brain truster with a flair for technological espionage, either. Charlie Metro—once one of the Cubs’ infamous early 1960s College of Coaches managerial rotation—revealed those Cubs used a closed-circuit camera whose receiver was in “a little room” behind the dugout that wasn’t unlocked until game time.

Metro himself had the rig dismantled when he became the Cubs’ third and final manager—er, head coach—during 1962. “I didn’t like the device,” he said, “and, besides, our batters were so poor they couldn’t hit the ball even if they knew what was coming.”

As a matter of face, Dickson wrote further, the 1977 Rangers were so convinced that the Yankees were bugging visiting teams a la Durocher that they once had the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse swept by an electronics expert.

The Rangers should have known if anyone did, Dickson revealed: when Yankee manager Billy Martin managed the Rangers earlier in the 1970s, Martin used their closed-circuit television system to steal opposition signs on their behalf. You can’t bug the enemy clubhouse! Only we can bug the enemy clubhouse!

When Hall of Famer Frank Robinson managed the Orioles in 1990, Dickson wrote, he thought the White Sox were up to a little tech espionage—he caught White Sox coach Joe Nossek, a reputed sign-stealing expert, behind the first base dugout with a walkie talkie to send Oriole dugout signs to White Sox skipper Jeff Torborg.

The next year, Robinson caught onto the new Comiskey Park (known today as Guaranteed Rate Field) including a video room right behind the White Sox dugout, “providing manager Torborg and his coaches easy access to the catchers’ signs, as shown by the center field camera as well as the dugout and the third base coach.”

Robinson and the Orioles complained to the American League about the White Sox both times. Both times the league did three things: jack, diddley, and squat. “I’m convinced,” Robinson said, “that they are the one team who cheats.”

Remember: all that technological spookery from off the field is/was against the formal rules of the game and, even if it hadn’t been, was still considered above and beyond the normal gamesmanship pale. Coaches can decipher and steal dugout signs; players can steal them on the bases, and nobody would really call for an investigation. Cameras off the field and bugging devices in the dugout? Unlawful.

And, as The MVP Machine co-author Ben Lindbergh reminds us, whether or not such off-field-based espionage really did you some big favours in the end—the ’51 Giants had that thirteen-game deficit comeback but lost the World Series; the 2017 Astros, not yet shown to be doing it on the road somehow, were better on the road than home until the postseason—doesn’t make it right.

The Astros’ brand of sign-stealing was more brazen than most, and possibly longer-lasting. In its 2017 form, at least, it’s also easier to see, now that we know what we’re looking and listening for. (They didn’t have YouTube, Twitter, and sound-processing software in 1899.) That’s embarrassing for baseball, so the Astros will pay in some way for their crimes. While the baseball world waits to hear Houston’s sentence, it will wrestle anew with some of the sport’s peskiest questions. How widespread is sign-stealing? Can (and should) sign-stealers be stopped? And maybe most unanswerable: How well does sign-stealing work, anyway?

If it’s not old-fashioned on-the-field gamesmanship, it doesn’t matter how well it works for you. Just because you didn’t commit history’s first murder doesn’t acquit you if you tried but failed to commit murder today. Just because your team isn’t the first to commit high-tech sign espionage from off the field doesn’t acquit you if you get caught, either, and it doesn’t matter if it didn’t do you the favours people think it did. Just ask Watergate’s version of Car 54, Where Are You.

Now, something really scary. I pondered it aloud early on during Astrogate, but it’s worth revisiting for now. Trevor Bauer, pitcher, is as well known for his hobby of building and flying camera-wielding drones (he once sliced a finger repairing one during the 2016 World Series, when he pitched for the Indians) as for his unusual training methods.

Bauer once demonstrated his drones to television technicians for potential game coverage techniques, including showing them a panorama flight around Progressive Field and following Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin around the bases when Naquin hit an inside-the-park home run in a game.

Don’t assume someone isn’t pondering Bauer’s drones and their prospects for sign-stealing once they master the building and deployment of those drones. Or, if somebody actually dreams that up, some team or maybe even an umpiring crew preparing strategic defense initiatives. (Wouldn’t that be a sight at the old ball game—time called to shoot down drones?)

If you think that can’t really happen here, I have an Antarctican beach club to sell you cheap. Because whatever comes down upon the Astros and anyone else Manfred and his bloodhounds uncover as guilty of off-field-based sign espionage, and whatever heavy sanctions Manfred drops on the culprits, boys will be boys. Always have, always will.

One vote samba

2019-11-23 DerekJeterFlip

Derek Jeter performing The Flip. A few Hall of Fame-voting writers seem to have flipped, too.

There’s a rather troublesome trend brewing among Hall of Fame voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America. Since the group now allows public Hall vote disclosure, some early voters are disclosing, all right. They’re disclosing one-vote ballots and the votes are going to Derek Jeter.

Jeter’s Cooperstown enshrinement was a given from the moment he doffed his Yankee pinstripes for the last time. There’s a swelling sense that, as Newsday writer/voter Anthony Rieber puts it, Jeter “deserves to stand alone at the podium as the entire Hall of Fame Class of 2020 on July 26 in Cooperstown.”

And, a parallel sense enunciated by another Newsday writer, Steve Marcus, that the Hall of Fame is getting a little too crowded, which he emphasises with his #keeptheHallsmall hashtag. Marcus also declared, a la the headline attached to a 2019 column in question, “Legends are my baseline for baseball Hall of Fame ballot.”

I’ll take the first argument first. It’s a relative to the old discredited argument that, if so-and-sos didn’t get elected on their first tries, then so-and-sos to come shouldn’t be elected first ballot, either.

Try this one on for size: How would you like someone arguing that if Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner didn’t get to stand alone when inducted into Cooperstown, then nobody else should, either? Didn’t think so.

As it happens, only 22 players in the history of the Hall of Fame were the only ones to be elected by the BBWAA in the years they got the call. That’s less than ten percent of all major league players in the Hall, whether elected by the writers or the assorted Veterans Committees:

Rogers Hornsby (1942)
Charlie Gehringer (1949)
Luke Appling (1964)
Ted Williams (1966)
Red Ruffing (1967)
Joe Medwick (1968)
Lou Boudreau (1970)
Ralph Kiner (1975)
Ernie Banks (1977)
Eddie Mathews (1978)
Willie Mays (1979)
Bob Gibson (1981)
Willie McCovey (1986)
Willie Stargell (1988)
Reggie Jackson (1993)
Steve Carlton (1994)
Mike Schmidt (1995)
Phil Niekro (1997)
Ozzie Smith (2002)
Bruce Sutter (2006)
Goose Gossage (2008)
Barry Larkin (2012)

You might have thought a few of those men deserved to stand alone among BBWAA choices, of course. Who’d argue against Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, and Ozzie Smith? Not I, said the fly. Maybe Reggie Jackson, too. The man was one of a kind, even if some of his critics might follow saying so with “Thank God!”

Now, would you like to know whom among those BBWAA winners really stood alone? As in, standing at the induction podium with nobody else—not a Veterans Committee selection, not an executive, not a pioneer, not a Negro Leagues inductee, nobody—on their big day? Four—Hornsby, Stargell, Jackson, and Smith.

Rieber and Marcus and probably a few more writers, not necessarily confined to the BBWAA’s New York contingent, think Jeter belongs to that set and maybe even subset. Set aside for the moment that he was actually an overrated shortstop, overall, and you can still find the plausible argument that Jeter wasn’t quite in league with such position players as Williams, Mays, Schmidt, and Smith.

Come to think of it, there’s a better case that Jeter’s longtime “Core Five” Yankee teammate, Mariano Rivera, deserved the stand-alone BBWAA vote more if the circumstances granted it. Rivera was the absolute best in the business at what he did. Jeter wasn’t, quite.

Don’t go there about the postseasons just yet. Yes, like The Mariano, Jeter and the postseason were a long, happy marriage. His postseason OPS is comparable to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson’s lifetime OPS per 162 games. Think about that for a moment: Jeter as a number two hitter in the postseason was equal to a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter on the regular season, even if the Man of Steal could beat Captain Clutch in a footrace with one leg amputated.

The player who makes the absolute difference between his team getting to or missing the postseason is extremely rare. Jeter’s Yankees getting there in the first place, never mind winning five rings, were total team efforts. (Jeter did win one World Series MVP, in 2000.) Just as Williams’s Red Sox getting to only one World Series, Mays’s Giants getting to only three (winning one), Schmidt’s Phillies getting to only two (and winning one), and Smith’s Cardinals getting to three (winning once) were total team shortfalls.

But Jeter did shine in the postseason. And made it look so simple a child of five could have done it. (Thanks, Groucho.) If you thought he was already built to act as though the New York heat met its match in his charisma and his ability to duck every controversy that swarmed his Yankees, come the postseason Jeter played as if the big moment was just another day on the job, just another chance to play the game he loved.

(Just for the record: Lifetime, Jeter’s best performance was in medium-leverage situations, with a .321/.380/.464 slash line. His high-leverage performance was almost even with it: .311/.391/.418. Medium-leverage OPS: .844; high-leverage OPS: .809. When the stakes were lowest, so was Jeter: .299/.371/.426, with a Boeing OPS: .797. It’s no crime that a man saves his best for when it matters just that much more toward winning.)

Reggie Jackson once talked about “the magnitude of being me,” and for all his once-outsized ego he didn’t necessarily mean it as self-congratulation. Jeter lived the magnitude of being him as though it was as natural as coffee at the breakfast table and worth just as much discussion—none.

Jeter’s Hall of Fame election would make him the tenth Hall of Fame shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. The longer I watched him, especially in all those postseasons, the more I now wanted to see how he stacks against the nine others according to my real batting average concept.

In traditional BA terms, the terms I prefer to call the hitting average, he’s a lifetime .310 hitter. And he does have those 3,465 career hits. But there’s a problem there: the hitting average is an incomplete picture of a man at the plate, and 3,000+ lifetime hits by themselves tell you nothing about what they were actually worth.

Stop snarling, grumpy old giddoff-mah-lawners. Ask yourself how proper it is to declare all hits are created equal and divide them purely by official at-bats. And ask yourself whether 3,465 career hits are really better than 3,184 hits. Yes, that’s a ringer. The 3,184 belong to Cal Ripken, Jr., whose lifetime hitting average (sorry, I’m sticking with the program again) was .276. And as I’m about to show you, Ripken was actually a better man at the plate than Jeter was, without once suggesting that it means Jeter doesn’t belong in Cooperstown.

We should ask why we don’t account for everything a man does at the plate. We should ask why we don’t add his total bases (which do treat all hits the way they should be treated: unequal, unless you really think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run), his walks, his intentional walks (why aren’t we crediting a guy when the other team would rather he take his base than their pitchers’ heads off?), his sacrifices, and the times he got plunked? (They want to put you on the hard way, let it be on their heads.) And, we should ask why we don’t divide that total by his total plate appearances.

And then, we should do just that. TB + BB + IBB + SAC + HBP / PA. That’s your real batting average. And this is how Derek Jeter stacks up with the nine incumbent postwar/post-integration/night ball Hall of Fame shortstops:

Luis Aparicio 11230 3504 736 22 177 27 .398
Ozzie Smith 10778 3084 1072 79 277 33 .422
Phil Rizzuto 6719 2065 651 35 195 49 .446
Pee Wee Reese 9470 3038 1210 67 176 26 .477
Alan Trammell 9376 3442 850 48 200 37 .488
Robin Yount 12249 4730 966 95 227 48 .495
Derek Jeter 12602 4921 1082 39 155 170 .505
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 66 126 55 .520
Cal Ripken 12883 5168 1129 107 137 66 .539
Ernie Banks 10395 4706 763 202 141 70 .565

Jeter’s .505 is the fourth best among the group. It’s nineteen points above the average for the Hall of Fame shortstops, and only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are ahead of him. He’s third in walks behind Ripken and Reese; he’s second only to Ripken for total bases; he’s third to last (ahead of only Rizzuto and Aparicio) for intentional walks; he’s fourth to last in sacrifices (Larkin, Ripken, and Banks are behind him), but boy did he take more for the team getting plunked. (Nobody else among the shortstops has more than 70.)

In other words, Jeter’s a bona fide, above the average, Hall of Fame shortstop, and collecting more hits than any Hall of Fame infielder counts even if the total picture offensive picture lines him up fourth among postwar/post-integration/night-ball shortstops.

It’s his defense that leaves Jeter a little overrated. He was Ozzie Smith-acrobatic at his best. His gymnastics happened often enough, even if the Wizard of Oz makes The Captain resemble an aspirant. Maybe the signature defensive play of Jeter’s career, among several highlight-filmers, was that barehand grab of a throw home from right that missed two cutoff men, Jeter running down the infield from shortstop, hitting the middle of the first base line as he grabbed the ball, and the backward shovel pass home as he stepped into foul ground, to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League division series.

But Jeter did have more limited range at the position than you remember, and he wasn’t as good at saving runs as you expected him to be when you remembered all the dazzlers he performed, despite having a strong throwing arm and steady hands. Lifetime, Jeter at shortstop was 155 defensive runs saved below average, and he was 13 runs saved below average a year.

There’s the difference. Watching Jeter and Smith their entire careers was as entertaining as it got. They were both shortstop acrobats. But that’s where the comparison ends. The Wizard of Oz was a Flying Wallenda  and the greatest defender at the position. Jeter’s no less a Hall of Famer because for all his own flying he wasn’t even close to Ozzie Smith-great at shortstop. Nobody else really was, either.

Which returns me to Steve Marcus and his legend measurement. Jeter is one of eighteen Hall of Fame ballot premieres, with fourteen more making return engagements. Never mind the controversies attached to the following players, for now (including the one his one-time general manager described as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four”), but the ballot includes a few other legends: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa.

Of course, not every legend is a Hall of Famer (hello, Roger Maris, for openers) and not every Hall of Famer is a legend, either. (Nice to meet you, Bobby Wallace.) If Marcus and others of his like think only bona fide legends belong in Cooperstown, then Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa are as overqualified as Jeter. If they think those guys aren’t legends, they’ve been sleeping longer than Rip Van Winkle.

The pangs of the Yankee reaper

2019-11-21 JacobyEllsburyRundown

Jacoby Ellsbury (2), here Houdini-ing a rundown in the 2013 World Series, before the injuries finally started sapping the talent. (SBNation gif.)

Things got this bad for Jacoby Ellsbury: when he announced his daughter’s birth on the Fourth of July, on Instagram, he got hammered by Yankee fans indignant over the big contract to the too-often-injured outfielder. Well, nobody said Joe and Jane Fan were immunised completely against the stupid virus.

Such Yankee fans can breathe now. Ellsbury is still the first of Navajo descent (courtesy of his mother) to play major league baseball, but  he isn’t a Yankee anymore. The Yankees finally decided to cut him loose and eat the remaining $26 million Ellsbury’s owed on his original seven-year, $153 million deal. Contrary to what too-popular belief still says, neither side is to blame for Ellsbury’s none-too-fantastic voyage.

What does it do to a man to know that not only could he not perform his duties at his line of work because his body kept telling him “not so fast, dude,” but that people observing his particular company made him a hate object for no crime worse than the injuries he incurred on the job?

It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary. On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.

And one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about listening to the Red Sox about staying in the family when he reached free agency after the 2013 World Series conquest was because he was alienated in the clubhouse after he heard one too many whisperings that he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get back on the field after previous injuries.

It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete. Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.

The 2019 Yankees were so injury riddled that it was easy to joke that their yearbook was probably The New England Journal of Medicine, but Ellsbury was probably one Yankee who wasn’t laughing. Not even like Figaro that he might not weep. He’d been so often injured for so long that he might be tempted to name his memoir, should he write one, The Pangs of the Yankee Reaper.

Sooner or later, too, you suspected injuries would sap Ellsbury’s baseball talents even before he became a Yankee. Red Sox Nation at least had the pleasures of Ellsbury’s talents helping them noticeably enough to a pair of World Series rings including in his rookie season. Including but not limited to his magnificent Game Six rundown dodge in the 2013 Series.

Maybe that’s why Yankee fans showed as much empathy for his on-the-job slings, arrows, and whatever other medicals he had to bear as the empathy a barracuda shows for its prey. But now, let me count the ways Ellsbury didn’t get injured on the job.

He didn’t get a bite in the ass sliding into second thanks to having left the false teeth he doesn’t have in his back pocket. (An otherwise nondescript pitcher, Clarence Bethen, thought of that in 1923.)

He didn’t turn his knee into bone meal chasing Jill St. John down the ski slopes. (Freshly-crowned Cy Young Award winner and chairman of baseball’s Future Dentists of America, Jim Lonborg, was rumoured to have done just that when he tore his knee apart in a winter skiing accident after the 1967 season.)

He didn’t get the brilliant idea to demonstrate his slam-dunk technique on a storefront awning, catch his ring in the mechanism, and cost himself a season with shredded hand ligaments for his trouble. (Braves relief pitcher Cecil Upshaw slam dunked his way out of the 1970 season that way.)

He didn’t adopt an exercise routine that included running backwards and thus running into a gopher hole causing himself a back injury. (Pitcher Jamie Easterly did, however, in the 1980s.)

He didn’t break a toe running from his kitchen back to his living room because he couldn’t bear to miss watching a buddy at the plate on television. (Hall of Famer George Brett was so desperate not to miss a Bill Buckner at-bat that he ran from his kitchen and busted his toe.)

He didn’t strain or shred his back pulling his cowboy boots up. (Hall of Famer Wade Boggs once did.)

He didn’t fall asleep with a bitter-cold ice bag on his foot and awaken with a case of frostbite causing him to miss a few games—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson stone cold did.)

He didn’t get his face badly sunburned on a tanning bed. (Marty Cordova was the genius who forgot the Coppertone.)

He isn’t known to have attended motivational speeches, necessarily, but if he did he probably had too much sense not to think after hearing one that he could tear the world’s thickest telephone book in half without dislocating his shoulder. (Relief pitcher Steve Sparks had to learn the hard way.)

He never once thought, we think, that he could haul a full heavy side of deer meat up a flight of stairs until the venison-to-be won the weight division by sending him flying downstairs and into a broken collarbone. (Clint Barmes, alas, lost that fight in 2010.)

He was part of no few on-field celebrations, we’re sure, but he never tore his left meniscus by smooshing a pie in a teammate’s face during a postgame interview. (Not the way Marlins utilityman Chris Coghlan did nailing Wes Helms in 2010.)

He’s not the genius who forgot to look all ways while reaching for a fallen sock before the suitcase his wife fiddled with fell over and landed on his hand, causing the injury he tried to hide until even the blind saw he couldn’t grip his bat right. (Jonathan Lucroy was such a genius, in 2012.)

And, he didn’t dislocate his ankle while trampolining with one of his children. (Joba Chamberlain jumped into that while with his then five-year-old son in 2012.)

Ellsbury once broke the Red Sox’s consecutive-game errorless streak record. He also once scored on a wild pitch—from second base. He was once so swift on the bases and in the outfield that he could have challenged the Road Runner to a foot race and won by a neck. He hit four doubles and stole a base in the 2007 World Series; he looked like he’d secure himself as one of the Red Sox’s all-time greats.

At least, he did until he ran into a human earth mover named Adrian Beltre at third base in an April 2010 game. He came back too soon from four hairline rib fractures, felt enough soreness to see a thoracic specialist who recommended more rest and rehab, rejoined the Red Sox early that August, and re-injured the ribs on a play against the Rangers later that month.

Then Ellsbury won the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year for 2011, not to mention both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and a second-place Most Valuable Player finish, while being practically the only Red Sox player who didn’t collapse during that September and thus invite the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012.

Ellsbury smashed his shoulder up trying to break up a double play early in the nightmare. He returned in July, then almost made it injury free through 2013. Oops. Compression fracture in his right foot from fouling a ball off the hoof in late August. Returned in time to shine in that run to and through the World Series.

Fed up enough with the false whispering that he just didn’t like to rehab his injuries fast enough (for whom, folks?) that when the Yankees reached out to him with a yummy contract he couldn’t possibly say no.

In Year One of his Yankee tenure he performed, well, the way Jacoby Ellsbury was supposed to perform, including leading the American League with his 22.7 power/speed number. And it was the last season in which being injury free enabled him to perform that well.

Injuries, unfortunately, sap and catch up to players little by little. The Ellsbury Dough Boy had more than his share before becoming a Yankee. And then . . . and then . . . and then . . . and then along came:

2015—Right knee sprain on 20 May; out two months, rest of the season nothing to brag about, unfortunately.

2016—Uninjured but production falling further, including his lowest total stolen bases to that point during a healthy season.

2017—Smashed his head against the center field wall while making a highlight-reel catch. Concussion. Missed 29 games and lost his center field job to Aaron Hicks, but somehow managed to break Pete Rose’s career record for reaching base on catcher’s interference, doing it for the thirtieth time on 11 September, which also happened to be his 34th birthday.

2018—Strained his right oblique at spring training’s beginning. Turned up in April’s beginning with a torn hip labrum. Missed the entire season (and underwent surgery in August) because of it.

2019—Started the season on the injured list with a foot injury; also turned up with plantar fasciitis in the foot (the same injury plus knee issues that reduced Albert Pujols as an Angel to a barely replacement-level designated hitter) and another shoulder injury. Took until September for the Yankees to admit Ellsbury was lost for the year.

Not one of those injuries was caused by anything other than playing the game or performing other baseball-related activity. Remember that before you continue condemning Ellsbury the man or the Yankees as a team over him. He didn’t come to the Yankees believing his previous injuries began draining the talent that was once so electrifying, and he didn’t put on the pinstripes expecting to become an orthopedic experiment, either.

The 36-year-old is said to be finishing rehab and preparing to play in 2020 if there’s a team willing to have him. Ignore the jerk brigades and wish him well. Maybe even wish that he decides at last that his spirit may still be willing but his body’s already had notarised, “Don’t even think about it.”

It’s not easy for baseball players to get the game out of their systems, but if Ellsburry chooses to retire at last, instead of offering up any further sacrifices to the Elysian Field gods, who can blame him?

“Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball,” Ron Hunt once said after a career in which his most notable accomplishment was teaching himself to be hit by pitches and taking every one of his 243 plunks. (Hunt led the Show in such plunks six straight during his twelve seasons.)

Ellsbury gave a lot more of his body to baseball than even Hunt did. He has three stolen base championships (two of which led the Show), one total bases championship (364 in 2011), one triples championship (ten in 2010), and a few million dollars in the bank for it. It’s the least he could have gotten for his sacrifices.

But if they ever come up with a surefire immunity to the stupid virus, fans who think on-the-job baseball injuries equal character flaws or teams whose brain trusts have suffered aneurysms should be first to get the shots.