Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

The second shot heard ’round the world

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“Curt Flood stood up for us.”—Hall of Famer Ted Simmons.

Irony is almost as common to baseball as are the bat and the ball. Few examples remain more profound than one eight-player trade between the Phillies and the Cardinals in October 1969 that ended up changing the game for the men who played it.

The Phillies’ side of the deal included sending Hall of Fame-worthy third/first baseman Dick Allen to the Cardinals, whose package to the Phillies included seven-straight Gold Glove center fielder Curt Flood.

To Allen, whose Philadelphia experience was unconscionably brutal even by the norms of 1960s’ racial growing pains, the trade equaled the Emancipation Proclamation. To Flood, whose St. Louis experience including planting roots and owning and operating a portraiture studio in the city, the trade equaled what his eventual wife calls “like someone putting a knife in his stomach, or your mom throwing you away. It was that kind of deep hurt.”

Judy Pace was a groundbreaking black television actress (she had a prominent role in the popular television serial Peyton Place in its final season) and Flood’s girl friend for three years by the time Flood decided he wasn’t just a piece of livestock to be sold or dealt at will. They parted when Flood hied to Spain during his reserve clause battle but reconnected and married in 1986, eleven years before Flood’s death of throat cancer.

And Mrs. Pace-Flood thinks a fresh Hall of Fame election makes it more possible for her late husband to earn the honour as a baseball pioneer. “I’m so happy that Marvin [Miller] got in,” she tells William C. Rhoden, longtime New York Times sports columnist now writing for The Undefeated. “I want Curt to follow. There’s unfinished business.”

That business began fifty years ago today, when Flood—writing on the stationery of his portraiture studio—sent commissioner Bowie Kuhn a slightly early Christmas present, refusing to just report to the Phillies like a good little boy and rejecting the idea that he was mere property. “I believe,” he wrote, “that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.”

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The Curt Flood letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

To those who believe to this day that the Flood letter was really Marvin Miller’s handiwork, Mrs. Pace-Flood has a reply: “People ask about the letter, they don’t want to believe that he wrote that letter,” she tells Rhoden. “They want to know if Marvin Miller wrote the letter or if Marvin gave him the ideas. No. Marvin did not write the letter. Curt was brilliant.”

Arguably, Flood was the National League’s best defensive center fielder who wasn’t named Willie Mays in the 1960s. He won those seven Gold Gloves consecutively from 1963-69. As would future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith at shortstop, Flood likewise made himself into a respectably fine hitter as the years of his career went forward. And there was more to him than just a rangy-squared outfielder.

“Flood was a quiet man, a deep thinker, and an independent cuss,” wrote John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, published three years before Flood’s death. “He told friends on the club that he’d refuse to go if the Cardinals ever traded him. He’d quit before he left St. Louis. He had strong ties to the city, after playing for the Cardinals since 1958, and had begun a photographic and art business on the side. Flood was an outstanding portrait painter, whose rendering of [Cardinals owner] Gussie Busch hung in the saloon of the owner’s yacht.”

Let it be said that even in the era when owners tended to be paternalistic when not dismissive of their hired hands on the field Busch was somewhat anomalous in how he treated his players. He treated them like princelings, even if you considered that it was patrician patronage.

Busch put baseball’s first million dollar payroll on the field in 1968. He footed the bills for private rooms in top hotels when the Cardinals made road trips. Their homecomings included each player getting a free case of one of his Anheuser-Busch beers. And when the jet age arrived, Busch—who’d previously attached his luxury Pullman car Adolphus to trains for Cardinals players to travel in—flew them aboard charter jets.

He also helped Hall of Famer Stan Musial get into the restaurant business, when Musial bought into the St. Louis steakhouse where among other things fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (a native St. Louisian) met his future wife. He helped Flood start his portrature business. He rewarded Roger Maris for two fine seasons as a Cardinal to finish his troubled career with a particularly profitable Anheuser-Busch distributorship after Maris retired.  He’d hand Hall of Famers Lou Brock a yacht and Bob Gibson a luxurious motor home upon their retirements.

And after the players threatened a spring 1969 strike over getting a hike in the owners’ contribution to their pension plan, a hike they eventually got when they could still high tail it to the spring camps and get into game shape, Busch responded by walking into his players’ spring training clubhouse in St. Petersburg with a few brewery directors and delivered a lecture that only sounded the essence of calm reason.

It was really an old-fashioned patrician dressing down to the plebeians. “I hope that many millions of fans will retain their loyalty to baseball,” Busch was quoted as telling them. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure they do . . . I don’t react well to ultimatums. I don’t mind negotiations—that’s how we get together—but ultimatums rub me the wrong way, and I think ultimatums rub the fans the wrong way . . . ”

When reporters also present asked for comments, not one Cardinal said a word, probably too stunned to speak. “One of the players,” Helyar wrote, “stood there in a particularly raging silence. His name was Curt Flood.” Flood himself held out on his own for a raise for 1969 and got it, but Busch’s clubhouse speech sounded to him as though he “had been telling us to behave or get out. I no longer felt like a $90,000 ballplayer but like a green recruit.”

Flood became a Cardinal in the first place thanks to a 1957 trade that sent him there from the Reds in a five-player swap, and he’d sworn he’d do what it took never to be traded again. Now, after the 1969 Cardinals finished fourth in the new National League East, as Helyar quoted him, Flood told a friend, “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here. No way at all.”

By November 1969, Flood called Miller to say he wanted to challenge baseball’s abused reserve system, by which the owners used the actual reserve clause’s one-firm/one-option year on player contracts to bind them for life or until the owners saw fit to trade or sell them. The Players Association agreed to foot the bill for Flood’s legal expenses, but first Flood wanted to try his luck with Kuhn. Hence the letter. And, hence, Kuhn’s reply just prior to New Year’s Day, as legendary sportswriter Red Smith put it: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Known officially as Flood vs. Kuhn, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before it was decided, the Cardinals were hit with a 1972 contract holdout, a 21-year-old catcher who’d just established himself as the number one Cardinal behind the plate. Before the kid was finished he’d expose another rupture in the owners’ armours.

Ted Simmons wanted $30,000; the Cardinals wouldn’t go much past $20,000. Simmons played under an automatic renewal, unsigned. As his season grew more torrid, he got a shock at the All-Star break, when he was in Atlanta as the NL’s reserve All-Star catcher: the Cardinals were ready to hand him $70,000: the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973.

With Simmons’s new signing the Cardinals betrayed a secret: the owners would rather open the vaults and hand a kid seventy large than let him even think about a reserve clause test. Then came the bad news for Flood, whose legal team included former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg: the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The good news: Flood kicked a door open just a little bit. The Court itself called the reserve clause “an anomaly” and “an aberration” but decided it should be remedied by Congress. Which was akin to sending a lunch argument between two sharks to be remedied by a barracuda. Someone among the owners who didn’t have oatmeal for brains tried to warn them. “As the champagne corks popped,” Helyar wrote, “[owners’ negotiator] John Gaherin still cautioned: Flood’s defeat hadn’t brought an end to the forces of change; it had only bought them some time.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter would kick the door open further after the 1974 season. When Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hunter, he took it to arbitration—and won, with the arbitrator declaring the contract breached and Hunter a free agent. Kuhn’s failed bid to get it overturned failed when Miller threatened a lawsuit.

Thus Hunter became the target of a bidding war that brought Hunter offers of, essentially, the galaxy, safe passage through the Cardassian Empire, grazing rights on Bejor, and a fleet of luxury starships. Kidding. Sort of. Hunter ended up taking the third most valuable package among the offers, from the Yankees, because of the money distribution he wanted including an annuity for his children’s education.

Hunter taught the world what a top of the line baseball player could get on a fair and open job market in a very profitable industry, in essence. All that was left was for some player, any player, to have the moxie to chase it for reasons having nothing to do with breach of contract and everything to do, more or less, with treating the reserve clause in strict interpretation. Meaning that the contract expired legally after the player had played his mandated first year and his team-optioned second year.

After the owners continued stalling on salary arbitration, which Gaherin himself believed might have forestalled the absolute end of the reserve system, one of the National League’s best pitchers refused to sign his 1975 contract after being enraged when Dodgers general manager Al Campanis “injected a deeply ‘personal issue'” into their talks.

From that moment Andy Messersmith refused to talk to anyone lower than Dodger president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any deal that didn’t include a no-trade clause, refusing to let the Campanises determine his career path. Messersmith pitched without signing a 1975 contract no matter how much money the increasingly edgy Dodgers offered as the season went on. (It may have reached as high as $550,000 over three years.)

This was no ordinary pitcher. Messersmith led the 1975 National League in shutouts, complete games, and innings pitched, with a 2.29 earned run average, a 3.09 fielding-independent pitching rate, and the lowest hits-against-per-nine rate in the league with 6.8. Not until August 1975 did Miller present himself to Messersmith, when the pitcher was the last unsigned player to remain unsigned and finally agreed to file the grievance seeking free agency.

Arbitrator Peter Seitz tried to persuade the owners to take the case away and negotiate, even offering to be the mediator if they did. They didn’t, and Messersmith won. Ted Simmons nailed it in one simple statement: “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association. At the start, it was all personal,” Messersmith said in due course. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t being the no-trade clause to the table . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Messersmith finished what Flood began. Today, with Miller finally elected to the Hall of Fame despite his late-life demurrals (he died in 2012), there’s a small swell hoping that Flood will receive the same honour as a baseball pioneer. Including new Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole, who signed a deal about which Flood himself could only have fantasised, nine years and $324 million, average annual value $36 million.

When Cole was introduced formally as a Yankee, he paid tribute to Flood, Simmons, Hunter, and Messersmith. “[C]hallenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole told the presser. “I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is.”

Flood wasn’t entirely alone during his challenge. Teammates supported him morally. So did Dick Allen, to whom the trade was liberation day. Trial testimony on Flood’s behalf came included from Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (Mrs. Pace-Flood once said his testimony almost brought Flood to tears, coming from his personal baseball idol) and Hank Greenberg. ABC Sports broadcast legend Howard Cosell backed Flood publicly.

But Flood still felt as though on the threshold of a nightmare. “You couldn’t even use the word nervous,” Mrs. Pace-Flood said in a 2017 interview. “It was completely draining for Curt, mentally and physically. It was as if his whole world was going to disappear. All that he had worked for, all that he loved, all that he ever wanted to do—those things were hanging in the balance with the outcome of this case.”

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Curt Flood, in the Senators’ dugout, next to his manager—Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

After sitting 1970 out, Flood actually tried a baseball comeback—with the Washington Senators, whose otherwise capricious owner Bob Short delivered perhaps the finest gesture of his baseball life on Flood’s behalf. Short made a deal with the Phillies to get negotiating rights to Flood. Then he made Flood an offer he couldn’t refuse: He offered Flood $100,000 for 1971, agreed to pay the money no matter what, and agreed further that, if they couldn’t come to terms for 1972, he’d make Flood a free agent.

The kicker, according to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators 1901-1971: Short wouldn’t put that agreement in writing, since it would violate the rules of the time. And, according to Flood himself, Short would deny those extra conditions existed if they were made public.

The worse news was that Flood no longer had it, and he knew it a little too sadly. He left the team on 27 April, leaving Short a note saying he’d tried but the long layoff proved too much, not to mention having run into financial trouble with his portraiture business. That was putting it politely. The business went bankrupt, and Flood also faced issues with the Internal Revenue Service over the home he’d bought his mother.

Flood bought a bar on Majorca to begin sorting out his shattered life, but in time he returned to America, tried broadcasting with the A’s for a spell, and reconnected with Judy Pace. He also became, of all things, the commissioner of two short-lived professional baseball leagues, the Senior Professional Baseball Association (1988-89) and the United Baseball League (mid-1990s).

“Flood seemed a strange choice to be commissioner of a league that desperately would need the assistance of the major leagues,” wrote Peter Golenbock in his book about the SPBA, The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time, published in 1991. “Later I would discover that many of the players considered themselves outcasts from baseball, so perhaps Flood’s choice as commissioner had been fitting after all.”

“Dred Scott in spikes,” George F. Will called Flood in 1993.

There was poetry and portent in the fact that Curt Flood’s career blossomed in St. Louis, the city where Dred Scott had taken his case to court. In 1966, the Cardinals moved into a new stadium that is located just a long fungo from the courthouse where Scott, a slave, argued that he had lived on free soil and therefore should be free . . . [Scott] was not the last time that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property.

That is the question Curt Flood posed when the Cardinals tried to trade him. They said he had to go wherever they decided to send him. It had always been so, and always would be. He said, well, we’ll just see about that. He rose in rebellion against the reserve clause that denied baseball players the fundamental right to negotiate terms of employment with whomever they chose. He lost the 1970 season and lost in the Supreme Court, but he had lit a fuse.

Six years later—too late to benefit him—his cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.

Will observed wryly that what was once said of another player could have been said of Flood the center fielder—two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and the rest was covered by Flood. That was nothing compared to the flood he began when he stood on his hind legs and demanded, quietly but firmly, the rights of any working man or woman from the most obscure labourer to the most elevated chief executive officer.

Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame as the citizen who first told baseball seriously that denying a man the right to sell his services fairly and openly was, shall we say, un-American. So does the California guy who finished what Dred Scott in Spikes began, when Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world one not-so-foggy Christmas Eve.

The mattresses on the floor

2019-12-23 MiLBThings were quite interesting in 1935. Porky Pig (on screen) and Fibber McGee & Molly (on radio) premiered. Amelia Earhart became history’s first human to fly solo from Hawaii to New York. Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Babe Ruth played his last major league game. The Phillies and the Reds played the Show’s first night game. The Tigers won the World Series.

And a bellettrist of the time—a former semi-professional baseball player, turned Episcopalian priest, turned journalist and eloquent sociopolitical critic, the work for which he’s remembered best, if at all, outside a small but devoted transgenerational following—delivered his signature critique against eroding the distinction between proper, unobtrusive government and the improper, to a fare-thee-well intrusiveness of the State.

Early in chapter one of Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock isolated rather lyrically his interpretation of the State’s approach to its subjects (we can hardly call it regarding them as citizens):

The State has said to society, You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself . . . The accumulation of State power in various countries has been so accelerated and diversified within the last twenty years that we now see the State functioning as telegraphist, telephonist, match-peddler, radio operator, cannon founder, railway builder and owner, railway operator, wholesale and retail tobacconist, shipbuilder and owner, chief chemist, harbour maker and dockbuilder, housebuilder, chief educator, newspaper proprietor, food purveyor, dealer in insurance, and so on through a long list . . . [T]he competition of social power with State power is always disadvantaged, since the State can arrange the terms of competition to suit itself, even to the point of outlawing any exercise of social power whatever in the premises; in other words, giving itself a monopoly.

Leave it to a one-time baseball player to point over the fence, hit one right to the spot, and have it unheeded, largely, for eighty-four years hence, to the point where the State of Nock’s suspicions stands potentially to become baseball’s commissionership, at least, if not its operator. And leave it to another former player, who spent shy of a decade in the majors, to pick up the warning and heed it, even if he doesn’t know and probably hasn’t read the Nockian critique.

“The courts are reviewing a case that brought to light the below-poverty-level wages that many minor league players earn,” writes former outfielder Doug Glanville, whose career included time with the Cubs, the Phillies, and the Rangers, in The Athletic. “The salary to qualify for poverty is just over $12,000, and the players bringing the lawsuit are citing the fact that a significant number of players make $7,500 a year or less for a full minor league season.”

Forty-five former minor leaguers signed onto the lawsuit, which seemed thwarted when Congress approved the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018. Among other things, as phrased by the University of Colorado Law Review, the Act

(I)nsulate(s) its minor-league pay practices from legal challenge after they had become the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the league’s teams failed to pay minor-league players in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum-wage and overtime provisions. The SAPA helps shield MLB from these claims by creating a new statutory exemption largely excluding most professional baseball players from the protections of the FLSA.

Glanville says the lawsuit action didn’t “register” with him in the beginning, him having been a bonus signing and believing as he did that the minors were “just a pit stop” en route his complete lack of doubt that he would get to the Show:

It’s not meant to sustain you while you take care of a family, or pay real rent . . . right? It was the money you collect when you crack open that Monopoly box, play money. Go see a movie, go to the club, it’s just a glorified stipend until the real money comes in, which of course is inevitable. Do people actually live on this? Don’t we all just go home to Mom’s house when the season is over?

But Glanville knows he was one of the absolute minority who make it to the majors for however long their careers prove to be. “Former teammates who didn’t make it through are on the other side of the tracks,” he writes. “And if you never switch off the minor-league track, you just glide along the rainbow and right off a cliff. The vast majority of these players never get out of this theme park of poverty. Some may get on a big-league roster, make a decent Triple-A salary, but that is still an elite group. Most end up as filler — and many decision-makers already knew that about certain players well in advance.”

The Show seems now to be in several places regarding the minors. One place is pondering whether to eliminate 42 teams for assorted reasons, economic and otherwise. Another place is pondering how to remedy the Monopoly money otherwise, particularly after the Blue Jays last May raised the salaries of their minor league players by half. Indeed, baseball’s government said this about that when that happened:

While each Club makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries, the Office of the Commissioner is presently in negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball on the terms of a new agreement between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues to replace the agreement that expires in September 2020. The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations.

But Glanville delivers a subtle warning shot to those such as him who made it to the Show and stay for longer terms and bigger dollars:

It appears these court cases, and perhaps some political figures, could be about to change that. MLB players may not notice any significant changes in their pocket books, but minor league players may be able to afford more than a mattress on the floor.

Maybe, one day soon, big leaguers will push for the answer to the question they did not think was worth asking. Only then will minor league players be compensated as true professionals who have a future, regardless of whether they make it to the major leagues.

We’ve romanced the minor league experience often enough, thanks to such films as Long Gone and Bull Durham. We’ve cracked up over their hijinks and not always stopped to ponder the mattresses on the floor. Often as not the current grapple between major league commissioner Rob Manfred and minor league baseball seems like a bid to tell the minors hey, we’ll solve your problem for you—we’ll kill part of you.

Glanville isn’t wrong to suggest today’s major leaguers should consider what was once their own existence as they aimed toward the Show themselves. Theirs could be gilt-edged pressure. They weren’t all big bonus children and they aren’t all nine-figure earners, but they might think about twenty percent of a single year’s minimum major league salary equaling above-poverty-line salaries for ten to twenty sub-AAA minor leaguers apiece.

That’s something for the Major League Baseball Players Association to ponder for themselves: if the Show won’t redress the mattresses on the floor of its own volition, the union certainly could. It would be one of the greatest good-will gestures any labour union ever delivered, but particularly a union representing workers whose products just so happen to be themselves. (Quick: When was the last time you paid your way into the ballpark to see the team’s owners?)

While they are at it, if they choose to be at it, they might also re-consider what no less than the late Marvin Miller himself eventually called one of his biggest mistakes: the Players Association allowing a 1980 pension re-alignment that froze (at the time) over eight hundred players with extremely short Show careers between 1947-1979 out of pensions while shortening the qualifying time for Show players incumbent and to come.

Now, refer back to Glanville writing, “these court cases, and perhaps some political figures” opening the eyes of Show players and administrators. Refer to your own experiences following baseball teams that aren’t always operated with smarts to match their vault contents. Then, remind yourself what Mr. Nock knew when the State’s camel pokes its nose into the tent. You have only so long before the nose is in too far to drive back out without a battle leaving things worse, and further beyond the game’s control, than they might have been.

We almost don’t have to ask what the State’s operation if not ownership of assorted enterprises doesn’t deliver. Describing it as ten-thumbed is polite. The last thing anyone in or who loves baseball should desire, in terms of operatorship if not ownership, is the State making literal the National Pastime. “Some political figures” poking their noses into the tents threaten just that.

Three-batter blues

2019-12-21 RonGardenhire

“At times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame.”—Ron Gardenhire. “At times,” he says . . .

Regardless of their teams’ seasons from beginning to end and all stations in between, today’s managers don’t seem as witty as their historic predecessors. You couldn’t possibly imagine the Pirates’ new manager or the Tigers’ incumbent going to the mound with Casey Stengel’s kind of insouciant wit.

Managing the hapless Original Mets in 1962, Stengel visited Roger Craig at the mound with Hall of Famer Willie McCovey checking in at the plate. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked his stout righthander. “Upper deck or lower deck?” Getting his first look at brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964, Casey didn’t miss a beat: “Lovely. Just lovely. The park is lovelier than my team.”

Derek Shelton is the Pirates’ new manager; Ron Gardenhire is the Tigers’ incumbent. They seem like steady, agreeable men, the kind of bosses for whom you wouldn’t reject the chance to play. But they’re not likely to make you forget the former Pirates manager who mused, “You can have money piled to the ceiling, but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.”

Or, the former Tigers skipper who said about facing a team the day after blowout loss to them, “The only reason I’m coming out here tomorrow is because the schedule says I have to.”

But if you ask them about things like the forthcoming three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, Shelton and Gardenhire aren’t exactly stuck for answers, either. Neither were a few other skippers approached by ESPN during this month’s winter meetings. “The three-batter thing will be interesting,” says Shelton, “and it’s going to be interesting for a couple of reasons for me. Never having managed in the National League, it will be interesting to see how that works out with the pitcher.”

He’s never managed in the American League, either, but Shelton has managed in the Yankees’ system in the recent past. Gardenhire’s managed in the American League. (He managed the Twins to six American League Central titles.) “Can we talk about that after a few cocktails?” he quipped. Then he got as serious as a man who’s had a few belts and is liable to trip over his tongue at least once.

“We’ve got a lot of managers still trying to figure out how it’s going to work out,” Gardenhire said. It’s not one of those favorite things for a manager because it starts taking away a little bit of strategy. I know the game is tough when you walk out there and change a pitcher for every hitter; but at times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame, and I think that’s what we’re all here for. Those are the arguments. But we’re trying to improve the game, so we’ve got to give it a look before day one.”

“At times” it’s about trying to win a ballgame, he says. Good one, Skip. Then you remember Gardenhire’s Tigers won only to break up the monotony in 2019: they lost 114. Maybe he has a little Stengelese potential after all. (Codicil: Gardenhire’s own playing career began in a very different organisation of Mets, in 1979.)

When the idea first seeped forth, the three-batter minimum seemed a salve to those who think that either the games are taking too long or the pitchers are getting too fragile. Now it seems a solvent rather than a solution to . . . who knows?

“I think it can affect how you put a lineup together,” said former Yankees/now Phillies manager Joe Girardi. “Depending how many lefthanders they have, maybe you spread your lefthanders out. So if they have a guy that is efficient in getting left-handed hitters out, you surround him with two beasts that are right-handed hitters. So I think it does change.”

“My take on the whole thing is–I’m all for messing with the pace of the game. I think the pace of the game can be messed with; I’m good,” said Joe Maddon, the new Angels manager. “The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me, that interferes with strategy, and that’s the part I don’t like. Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred, I think.”

Argue that the games are “too long” and then suggest you might want to scale back on the broadcast commercials, between innings, during pitching changes, during double switches. (If you consider commercial slots between innings amount to two minutes each, that’s over half an hour you spend watching commercials and not baseball for nine innings.) Watch how fast the owners run from the very idea that something should mean a few million dollars fewer in their kitties, even if it’s for the good of the game and those who love and watch it.

Argue that if you’re going to impose the three-batter minimum you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry when a clever manager decides the game situation demands he reach for his best pitcher even if a) it’s a relief pitcher, and b) it’s, say, the fourth inning. Watch the get-off-my-lawn contingent jump up and down in tantrums, screaming blue murder, that you’re destroying the Sacred Tradition.

Never mind that you’re destroying nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t be destroying the Sacred Tradition, either, if you do something I’ve suggested before: eliminate the eight warmup pitches from the game mound when you bring a relief pitcher into the game in the middle of an inning. He’s just thrown what might be at extreme the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches while warming up in the pen. He needs eight more warmups? He needs them about as badly as the guy who’s hit two home runs already in that game needs batting practise.

One manager who wasn’t terribly concerned about a three-batter minimum was Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us that much,” he said. “We don’t mix and match that much. Our lefties, they’re pretty solid. Darwinson [Hernandez] and [Josh] Taylor, they get lefties and righties and do a good job against both of them. So I don’t think to us it’s going to affect us that much.”

Not so fast, Cora. The lefthanded Hernandez did look terrific in his rookie 2019 overall. But the righthanded batters hit for a .934 OPS against him against the lefthanders’ .388. Their batting averages against him? Righthanded: .319; lefthanded: .089. Likewise a 2019 rook, Taylor, another lefthander, didn’t get crunched quite that drastically by righthanded batters (.692 OPS) and the lefthanders didn’t exactly have a simple time with him, either (.559 OPS). But the righthanded hit .243 off him and the lefthanded, .209.  Better not say just yet that a three-batter minimum won’t affect you that much, after all.

Remember: Real pitching talent is rare enough. So is pitching talent that can keep hitters from both sides of the plate in equal check. Most teams would be fortunate enough to have one starter and one reliever who can work to men from both sides of the plate and leave them looking equally futile. Getting the men who can do both is a challenge the sharpest scout or the most intricate of analysts would consider equal to driving the Golden Spike home with a rock hammer.

But not impossible. Casey Stengel won his third straight World Series when he reached for just such a man, an otherwise non-descript lefthanded pitcher named Bob Kuzava, who’d only pitched fifteen times on the regular 1951 season, to face righthanded Hall of Famer Monte Irvin—in the top of the ninth, with the Yankees up 4-1, but with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Kuzava wasn’t even close to responsible for the men on base. And he got three straight fly outs, from Irvin, Bobby Thomson, and pinch-hitter Sal Yvars, which did push two Giants runs home that weren’t quite enough, to save it for Johnny Sain, who’d come in to relieve Vic Raschi in the seventh.

Do-able if you have the guys who can do it. But those guys aren’t as prevalent as the commissioner’s office or its supporters regarding the three-batter minimum think, and they’re not likely to be for a long enough time if ever. Human nature and pitching just don’t work according to a preconceived mechanical formula. Even the analytics people who develop formulae and applications to help players improve know that goes only so far. This is baseball, not engineering.

And don’t even go there about the Good Old Days when pitchers went the distance and relief pitchers were just guys who couldn’t cut it as starters. A little real history: they really went the distance in times when the ball might as well have been twine, hard throwing was as common as the telephone, the number one expectation of pitchers was throwing what batters could hit and hopefully putting fielders to work, and pitchers weren’t expected to throw like illusionists, trick-shot artists, or human howitzers. You could even pitch your way to the Hall of Fame despite surrendering almost nine hits per nine innings and striking out less than four per nine. (Cy Young—I think there’s a pitching award named after him— accomplished that.)

“If we’re gonna win,” husky first baseman George (Boomer) Scott once told then-Brewers chairman Ed Fitzgerald, “the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” The owners also gotta own the concept that the good of the game isn’t necessarily the same thing as making money for it, or themselves.

And the commissioner gotta commission better. He gotta remember that the better, more viable pace-of-game solutions than a three-batter pitcher’s minimum may mean making a little less money but would mean leaving game tactics and strategies to the men they pay handsomely (and often not enough) to develop and execute them.

But there’s one little problem, still. Too many managers still think there’s no problem with warming pitchers up multiple times before actually bringing them into the games. Too many managers think they’re not really pitching unless they’re out there in the game. As if they’re just playing catch in the bullpen and not heating up with, you know, real pitches.

Too many managers think it’s the reliever’s fault that he came in gassed after he’d been warmed, sat, warmed again, and maybe thrown the aforesaid quality start equivalent’s pitches overall, and that’s before he tosses the customary eight warmups before facing his first batter of the game.

The three-batter minimum won’t solve that issue, either. If anything, such gassed-before-they-come-in pitchers, handled by managers whose brains are gassed, are more liable to get driven into the middle of next month before they even face their third batters. And often as not, the only solution for managers like that isn’t a dubious rule change but, rather, unemployment.

 

 

Money isn’t everything

2019-12-18 ToreyLovulloMadisonBumgarner

The electric horseman: Manager Torey Lovullo (left) welcomes Madison Bumgarner home.

Arizona the region and not necessarily the baseball team said something to Madison Bumgarner for long before he became a Diamondback at last. Enough to compel him to sign a new contract paying him less than he probably could have earned, even though he’s in the re-invention stage of his career. Sometimes there’s no place like a second home, too.

And more often than you think, money isn’t everything.

Time was when you couldn’t have pictured Bumgarner in anything other than the black-and-orange Giants hat and cream fatigues. When you saw the tenacity on the mound that turned him into a postseason myth in those fatigues and assumed, no matter what else came into play around him, that a Giant he was and a Giant he’d stay.

Madison Bumgarner and the Giants? Married even in the free agency era like Hall of Famers George Brett and the Royals, Tony Gwynn and the Padres, Chipper Jones and the Braves, Mariano Rivera and the Yankees, and Mike Schmidt and the Phillies. Not to mention future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers (so far) and Mike Trout and the Angels, plus Yadier Molina and the Cardinals, and David Wright—whom injuries obstructed from consummating a Hall of Fame career—and the Mets. Right?

But maybe you didn’t catch onto Bumgarner and his wife falling in love with something aside when the Giants hit spring training every year in Scottsdale, Arizona. Something like Arizona itself. The place means almost as much to Bumgarner as the heat of baseball competition and the chance for winning that, right now, the Diamondbacks present better than the Giants do.

“First and foremost, winning,” he said when the Diamondbacks introduced him as their newest Snake Tuesday. “That’s what the whole decision is based on, and being with a team that’s my brand of baseball. They play the way I like to play. They just play hard. They’ve got a bunch of grinders on this team, guys that don’t take any pitch off. They’re just a hard-nosed group of guys.”

That’s a terrific reason for a pitcher who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit” to think about a new team, of course. But the lure of Phoenix and the surrounding ambience of Arizona itself was just as powerful, maybe the only presence that could hit Bumgarner for distance and get away with it.

The long-enough-time Giants horse becomes the Diamondbacks’ own Electric Horseman. The Bumgarners imported a few of their horses from Bumgarner’s native North Carolina to Arizona every spring. The Giants training there was so seductive to him that, once he knew the Diamondbacks were more than interested when he finally became a free agent, he was even willing to trade a fan base he came to love as deeply as he loves to compete to surrender.

“It’s tough,” he admitted about leaving them behind. “The fans in that city mean so much to me. I mean, shoot, it’s been ten years there and we won three world championships and have been through a lot together. They’ve always been as good as they could possibly be to me, and I’ll never forget that. I’ll always be thankful for it. That part of it was tough, but coming here, so far, this place has exceeded all my expectations, and like I said, I’m really excited about it.”

The fact that he still gets to have a few skirmishes a year with the Dodgers now that he’s staying in the National League West couldn’t possibly have eluded MadBum, either.

Stephen Strasburg re-signing with the Nationals, like Trout extending for life with the Angels last spring, said essentially that there’s no place like home, even an adopted home. (Strasburg is a native southern Californian; Trout is native to a region near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.) Bumgarner signing with the Snakes says there can be no place like the home you long for.

The Giants could have offered him everything including ownership of McCovey Cove, his own private cable car, free feed for the rest of his life at the Fisherman’s Wharf eatery of his choice, and an on-the-house lease to any piece he chose at Hearst Castle down Highway 1 in San Simeon. Once the Diamondbacks indicated they wanted him, you couldn’t pay him enough not to swap the Bay for the desert.

If you think that’s even just a slight exaggeration, be advised that assorted published reports say the lefthander with the Dreamliner wing span in the split second before he throws to the plate had nine-figure offers to ponder from elsewhere, but he instructed his agent, VC Sports’ Ed Cerulo, that Arizona was “the number one place for me.” And money wasn’t everything.

“We definitely left some money on the table,” the newest Diamondback said when the team introduced him formally Tuesday. “You can say that.” If the published speculation is true and Bumgarner looked at $100 million or better for five years in other offers, he’s left at least $15 million behind overall while agreeing to pitch—according to The Athletic‘s Zach Buchanan—for $6 million in 2020 before hitting $14 million for 2021, $18 million a year in 2022-23, and back to $14 million in 2024.

Essentially, Bumgarner gave the Diamondbacks a new-home discount. No, make it actually: Buchanan reported that $5 million a year is deferred from the 2021-23 annual salaries until the deal is finished. And general manager Mike Hazen—who traded a somewhat more expensive desert lover named Zack Grienke to the Astros in 2019’s marquee trade deadline swap—“plans to use that [2020 payroll] flexibility” to shore up the Diamondbacks for contention.

Buchanan thinks Bumgarner all but willed the new Diamondbacks deal into existence, sort of, but don’t dismiss Hazen—who once said that on the one hand he wasn’t exactly starving for starting pitching but, on the other hand, he wasn’t exactly going to say no to the chance for more—being just a little bit shrewd in his own right, either:

Hazen admitted that adding to his rotation wasn’t his top priority, or really any sort of priority, entering the offseason, but that Bumgarner made it plain early on that he preferred to end up in Arizona. Though Hazen stopped short of saying that affinity for Phoenix prodded him into engaging on the longtime Giants starter, the structure and overall value of Bumgarner’s deal—and Arizona’s lack of rotation holes before offering it—suggest the Diamondbacks were able to capitalize on a specific advantage they had over the 29 other major-league teams.

It also looked like the early speculation that made the Bumgarner deal a possible to-come trade scenario for incumbent starting pitcher Robbie Ray isn’t necessarily so. Bumgarner’s deal flexibility lets the Snakes shore up without having to invent payroll room. They’d rather save the invention for the field if they can help it.

And, more important, Hazen’s willing to gamble that Bumgarner continues re-inventing himself on the mound to the point where he’ll deliver better goods than he could with the Giants since 2017. “We just watched a guy leave here in the middle of last season who reinvented himself every year he was here,” Hazen told the Tuesday presser, referring to Greinke. “We feel like [Bumgarner] has that ability.”

The entertainment possibilities can’t be resisted, either. Assuming the Diamondbacks have a better sense of humour now than they had when the late Kevin Towers was their general manager, don’t be shocked to discover a hitching post outside the players’ entrance at Chase Field. Or, to see Bumgarner galloping up to the park aboard one of his horses, maybe hollering, “Hi yo, Tumbleweed! Away!”

Or (sorry, it’s impossible to resist), to see a staredown and bawl-out with an enemy batter (preferably a Dodger?) who’s just hit one over the right field fence in Chase Field turn into a cheerfully snarky “Go get it out of the pool!” T-shirt.

Life and baseball with Bumgarner could be mad fun for the Diamondbacks, even if Bumgarner isn’t yet ready to resign his Fun Police commission. Almost as much fun and soul embracing as life in Arizona for Lieutenant and Mrs. MadBum themselves.

MadBum hitches his horses to the Snakes

2019-12-16 MadisonBumgarner

Postseason legend Madison Bumgarner takes flight and gallops in Arizona now.

Picture the next time Madison Bumgarner surrenders a hefty home run in his home park and snarks over the bomber having fun with the blast. The bomber’s mates will be inspired to produce T-shirts saying not, “Get it out of the ocean” but, rather, “Get it out of the pool.”

Bumgarner has signed for five years and $85 million with the Diamondbacks, and the nearest body of water into which the opposition can hit is the pool behind Chase Field’s right field fence. Until Bumgarner gets to face the team for whom he served so well, mostly, for the first eleven years of his career, in his former playpen, that is.

A few years ago, Bumgarner’s asking price wouldn’t have been as low as $85 million for five years or more. A few injuries and, more important, a heavy workload have taken their toll, though at 30 years old Bumgarner isn’t exactly ready for Retirement Row. But yes, it does feel a little strange that you’ll see him for the next five in something other than Giants’ fatigues.

And, yes, Bumgarner really did prefer going to Arizona if the Giants weren’t going to be that interested in keeping the greatest postseason pitcher in their history. The Diamondbacks, admirably, have continued remaking/remodeling themselves without even thinking about tanking, and Bumgarner is nothing if not a competitor no matter how much his left arm doesn’t always obey his orders lately.

But The Athletic‘s Bay Area scribe, Andrew Baggarly, says it was personal as well: “Bumgarner told me in July that he and his wife, Ali, loved Arizona and he’d be interested in playing for the Diamondbacks. He gets his preferred destination from a life perspective, he’ll play for a team with way more near-term upside than the Giants, he still gets to hit (in a lively ballpark where he loves to take BP) and he still gets to stare down the Dodgers five or six times a year. What’s not to love?”

Thus does it make a little more sense that, yes, the Giants “were interested and engaged in retaining” the lefthander whose arm span as he’s about to deliver a pitch makes him resemble a Boeing Dreamliner with a bearded cockpit on takeoff; but, no, they weren’t exactly rolling the old red carpet for his landing, either.

Baggarly caught the drift at last week’s winter meetings. When he asked the Giants’ new manager, Gabe Kapler, how he was selling both himself and re-selling the Giants to their franchise World Series hero. When Kapler said he hadn’t talked to Bumgarner and (Baggarly’s words) “wanted to give him his space,” but would still reach out “if others thought it was a good idea.”

“And that was it,” Baggarly continued. “That was all I needed to know. There was no way that Bumgarner would continue his career with the Giants.” Because, of course, if the Giants wanted him to stay and thought they had a shot even at $85 million for five more years (they’re said to have offered four and $70 million), “you can bet that calls and meetings would’ve been set up. Kapler would have begun the back-channeling before he even got the job. The Giants would have tried to assuage Bumgarner’s every concern and dispel every bit of unease.”

Bumgarner isn’t the only one now shouldering into a Diamondbacks jersey who’s a bounceback candidate. The incumbent Snakes ace, Robbie Ray, is looking to make a comparable comeback from a somewhat dismal 2019, and much analysis has suggested the team hoped for enough of a comeback to make him attractive at next summer’s trade deadline. Bumgarner’s signing may have made Ray look positively glittering as a trade topic and positively assured of bringing back a haul of delicious enough prospects sooner.

MadBum is almost as renowned for the pleasures he takes in hitting as he is for that lifetime 2.11 postseason ERA, including a transdimensional 0.25 lifetime World Series ERA. He’ll fume at or bawl out enemy hitter taking a little too much pleasure in a monster mash on his dollar, but he enjoys hitting one for distance as much as the next man. Even if he admits he just can’t bring himself to let the kids play, or play with the kids, when he’s the bomb victim.

A shame, too. Two Opening Days ago I had a little mad fun with MadBum’s hitting a pair out, against the Diamondbacks of all people, one a leadoff blast against Zack Greinke in the top of the fifth, the other a one-out shot against reliever Andrew Chafin in the top of the seventh.(In between, then-Diamondback/now-Dodger A.J. Pollock hit one out off Bumgarner in the bottom of the sixth.)

I wrote a puckish column pondering the dialogue between the then Cy Ruth Award candidate and the Giants’ then-manager Bruce Bochy, leaning a little heavily off the day Bumgarner and then-Dodger Yasiel Puig tangled verbally after a ground out, with Bumgarner—who loves Puig about as much as a small child loves liver (after Puig joined the Reds and took Bumgarner deep, Bumgarner cracked, “He’s a quick study. It only took him seven years to learn how to hit that pitch”)—hollering, “Don’t look at me!”

Forgive me, MadBum, but I couldn’t resist looking at you on that Opening Day:

Bochy: Bum, it’s not that we don’t need the runs, but would you kindly remember that your job with this team is not to do your impersonation of Henry Aaron every other time up?

Bumgarner: Skip, don’t look at me!

Bochy: Bum, I know you were p.o.ed about losing the perfect game in the sixth. But you’re not getting paid the gigabucks to beat baseballs into earth orbit. You’re getting paid the gigabucks to throw them, preferably down the throats of enemy batters. Think you can remember that while you’re bucking for the Cy Ruth Award?

Bumgarner: Skip, just don’t look at me!

Bochy: Bum, you’re embarrassing our hitters. Hitting one 410 feet over the left center field fence on 1-2. You realize how many guys around here can’t hit on 1-2? You bucking to get our hitting coach fired?

Bumgarner: Skip, just don’t look at me!

Bochy: Okay, I’ll give you this one, Bum. That shot you hit in the seventh with one out. 2-0. Now, that’s a more reasonable count to swing on. And you did bust a three-all tie while you were at it. But c’mon, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Even if you’re the one who let them tie it up at three-all in the first place. Well, okay, it was A.J. Pollack, and even you can’t keep him from hitting one out now and then, you’re only human, after all.

Bumgarner: I’m only what?!?

Bochy: I knew that’d get your attention, Bum! Now, about those eleven strikeouts … that’s why you’re getting paid the gigabucks. Wait a minute — hey, Denard! Not a great way to open, getting yourself arrested for attempted grand theft second!

Bumgarner: Don’t look at him, Skip!

Bochy: Anyway, you’re getting paid to strike those emereffers out, not hit them into the Cove, buddy. There’s no Sandy Mays Award in baseball. I need you to start and when necessary close your own games, so far, depending on how much of an improvement this bullpen’s gonna be over last year’s bullpen. Christ, last year we couldn’t get save a thing if we’d had the Red Cross coming out of the pen.

Bumgarner: Rowrowrowrowwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Bochy: What’s eating you, Bum?

Bumgarner: What’s with this Hoover? Who does he think he’s fooling with that slop? Why doesn’t he go back and make his vacuum cleaners where he belongs?

Bochy: He just struck Pence out after Hunter fought him back to 2-2.

Bumgarner: That ain’t exactly beating as you sweep as you clean, Skip.

Bochy: Where’d you learn your history?

Bumgarner: I play Trivial Pursuit just like any normal guy.

Bochy: Normal! Normal! Any normal guy who gets paid the gigabucks to pitch and strike out the other guys but who gets up to the plate and thinks he’s Mike Schmidt. You call that normal?

Bumgarner: Do I look like Mike Schmidt, Skip?

Bochy: Only when you hit.

Bumgarner: When did he ever strike out eleven guys in a game? Hey! We got first and second. Buster walked and Craw singled him to second. Who says I’m the one who has to do it all?

Bochy: Nunez just lined out to right, in case you weren’t looking.

Bumgarner: Looks like Hoover needs to change his beater bar brushes.

Bochy: Come on, Bum, give the guy a break, you had to squirm a couple of times too, you know.

Bumgarner: I twist and shout, I do not squirm.

Bochy: Have it your way, buddy. Look at him. Throws two balls to Hernandez, then strikes his ass out on three straight pitches. Looked like he took a couple of lessons from you.

Bumgarner: OK, give you that one. Poor Gork, forget the breeze, I could feel the hurricane.

Bochy: C’mon, Bum, you did more than your share today. Take the rest of the day off. Law can handle these guys.

Bumgarner: Okay, Skip, but remember who would have hit second in the ninth. For all you know I had another home run in me.

Bochy: Bum, let’s not get into that again, shall we? Can’t you settle for being the only pitcher in baseball history ever to hit two bombs on Opening Day and let it go at that?

Bumgarner: Well, look at poor Law, Skip. Two hitters, two singles, and Goldschmidt coming up. Whoa! Two straight strikes he throws on Goldschmidt. Now balls one and two.

Bochy: Gimme a break, Bum, I didn’t want Pollock to pounce on you again.

Bumgarner: You’re all heart, Skip.

Bochy: Damn! The bastard tied it up with a single.

Bumgarner: He fought the Law and won.

Bochy: Forget it. Jerry Seinfeld you ain’t. Hold on, I gotta get Law out of there.

Bumgarner: Good call, Skip. Blach got the double play. And Strickland got the strikeout. Now I know you’re gonna miss me hitting in the ninth!

Bochy: You gonna start that again?

Bumgarner: Who’s the genius who decided I could take the rest of the day off when I might have had another home run in me?

Bochy: I dunno.

Bumgarner: Well, don’t look at me, Skip!

Bochy: Hey, look who’s pitching the ninth.

Bumgarner: It’s old man Rodney! And Panik triples off him to open! C’mon, Skip, I could have gotten him home without hitting one out.

Bochy: See? Gillaspie got him home! Sacrifice fly. So it’s not like you hitting your third homer of the game, just shoot me.

Bumgarner: Don’t start with me, Skip!

Bochy: Now I got to get Melancon in there. The season isn’t even three hours old for us and already we’ve got a blown save. Thirty last year wasn’t enough, we gotta buck for forty already? Damn, how could we load up the pads on old man Rodney and not cash those guys in? How could we get Span thrown out at the plate to end that inning? Coulda had a two or more run lead.

Bumgarner: Well, Melancon isn’t getting paid the big gigabucks to go up to the plate and hit grand slams, Skip. Damn, Skip! Two outs, he gives up a double to Mathis and an RBI single to Daniel Freaking Descalso!! And Owings sends home the winning run! Why are we paying Melancon the big gigabucks? I told you you should have had me available to hit in the ninth! You ever heard of an insurance run?

Bochy: Don’t look at me, Bum!

The word is that the man who’s been a horse for the Giants even when he wasn’t pitching at his peak performance level owns horses in the Phoenix area and, with his wife, loves the horses as much as the area and as much as baseball. The man who doesn’t want you looking at him when you recover from a knockdown pitch or take him out of your shared baseball real estate isn’t averse to a little horsing around.

But wouldn’t it be something if baseball could give him dispensation for Opening Day, lets him keep a horse adjacent to the batter’s box, then—if he hits one out—lets him mount and gallop around the bases?

All the Diamondbacks have to do otherwise now remind Bumgarner the only body of water into which the other guys can hit is small, behind the fence, and features a hot tub off to one corner. And, keep him away from dirt bikes.

Yeah, we did, because they did, too

2019-12-15 DerekFisherAstrogate

This is the purported monitor setup the Astros used to steal signs electronically, from off the field, in 2017 at least and possibly 2018 and 2019. The larger monitor isn’t engaged but you see two small video tablets on the table. Shown in front of the table is Derek Fisher, an Astros reserve outfielder from 2017 until he was traded to the Blue Jays in July 2019. The image has appeared on numerous Websites.

So the Astros asked for a Minute Maid Park camera out past center field to be taken off baseball’s officially mandated eight second transmission delay, trained live toward enemy catchers, and transmitting live to a dugout television monitor. Because, you know, they were convinced other teams, who knew just how many, were guilty of comparable espionage television networks from off the field and wanted to, you know, level the field a little bit if they could.

Thus reported Andy Martino of SNY Saturday, based upon sources who apparently asked not to be identified in print but had direct knowledge of what was said to the commmissioner’s Astrogate investigators. “They did not install a new camera for sign-stealing purposes, and the players and coaches involved did not even know which camera the feed was coming from,” Martino writes. “They wanted a monitor closer to the dugout, because their video room was too far away. They considered their actions to be in line with industry standards.”

Who were they? The original bombshell by The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich came from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and “four people who were with the Astros in 2017,” all of whom presumably asked not to be identified just yet, if at all. Martino says commissioner Rob Manfred’s bloodhounds have spoken to “nearly sixty people” thus far. An existing video capture shows a former Astros reserve outfielder, Derek Fisher, traded to the Blue Jays in July 2019, standing in front of a table between the clubhouse and the dugout on which were mounted a television monitor showing nothing but two small video tablets showing anything but. And one of the sixty witnesses, according to the aforementioned sources, and presumably unprepared to put his name to it just yet, is quoted thus: “We did ask for a game center field feed to decode signs, as many teams do. All we asked for was a live feed.”

So they broke the rules but they didn’t quite have their own Alexander Butterfield to install a new device dedicated specifically to sign-stealing. Or did they? As Martino observes, it still leaves “questions about whether the camera was installed specifically for that purpose.” And, he asked one: did someone in the Astros front office approve buying a new camera, which would create a paper trail showing the team was preparing to cheat? His answer: “Sources say the camera in question was league-approved and already in place. One source suggested it could have been a scouting camera, which would have been its league-approved purpose. That is more likely than a camera from the TV feed, which would have required the broadcast crew to participate in the scheme.”

It doesn’t acquit the Astros if the hounds turn up the evidence that, yes, there were a few other teams with high-tech espionage operations. Neither will it acquit them to say sure, we broke the rules, but, you know, we’re just the ones who got caught or exposed, and everybody or at least a few others did it, too, so we needed to get in on the fun, too, presumably to nullify the disadvantages. But the everybody-does-it/everybody’s-done-it argument simply disintegrates. Graduate the argument to, say, American political life, then ponder what the everybody-does-it/everybody’s-done-it argument implies, regardless of the partisan or ideological divide, with too many examples that candor requires the intellectually scrupulous to confront.

As far as MLB is concerned, any use of electronics to facilitate sign stealing is illegal,” Martino wrote. “Even Astros witnesses are conceding to investigators that such actions took place, because the feed was aired on a monitor behind the dugout. At this point, the question appears to be not if the Astros broke the rule, but how and to what degree they did it.” Bang-bang! You’re dead. Or, facing consquences at least as considerable, potentially, as those by which former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa got himself and his organisation slapped after he was caught red-winged hacking into the Astros’ computer scouting database.

They may only begin with punishments administered to general manager Jeff Luhnow, who isn’t necessarily the most popular or respected administrator in the game, and manager A.J. Hinch, who looked to all the world like a schoolboy who knew his trouble only began after he came out of the principal’s office, when buttonholed by the press at the now-concluded winter meetings. It strains credulity now to believe Hinch, heretofore respected for the successful marriage between intelligence and sensitivity somewhat uncommon among major league managers in any era, was the cat caught unaware that the mice raided the refrigerator.

Astro fans aren’t the only fans bracing for revelations as to whom among their players and their coaches were really in on the fun and why, not with the credibility of three American League Wests, two pennants, and one World Series championship under suspicion. But any other team found to have built and operated their own electronic off-field intelligence television networks shouldn’t exactly be clearing space for their Emmy awards, either.