Does Tim Tebow face a final curtain?

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Tim Tebow at the plate for Syracuse in 2019; the parent Mets have invited him to 2020 spring training as a non-roster invitee.

If he earns nothing else when his athletic career ends at last, Tim Tebow will earn eternal respect for his stubborn determination to play on until the last sports uniform is torn from his back. Whether that uniform will come off this year remains open, but Tebow can look forward to a spring reprieve at minimum.

The Mets have handed him a non-roster invitation, which probably indicates he’ll start a second season with the Syracuse Mets (AAA). But it isn’t likely to indicate that his chances of playing major league baseball, slim enough as they are already, will improve. At 32 years old, and with a total performance resume described as dubious at best, Tebow’s professional athletic career may head for the final curtain.

Tebow has played in the Mets’ system since 2016, almost a year after his last chance at quarterbacking in the National Football League ended with the Philadelphia Eagles. His previous baseball experience was as a high school junior, when the Angels thought of drafting him had he played the game as a senior first. When not playing baseball the former Heisman Trophy winner works as an ESPN college football analyst and motivational author.

He hasn’t exactly flown like an eagle in the Mets’ system, but he remains popular with fans and even with fellow Mets minor leaguers, who cite him as a good teammate regardless of what he does at the plate or in the field. That jibes with his NFL reputation, in which few put off by Tebow’s sometimes overbearing popularity faulted Tebow himself for it.

Nor was it Tebow’s fault that he wasn’t able to cling as an NFL quarterback or that his actual skills didn’t equal even a modest NFL backup. (What he really had were the skills of a solid running back.) I’ve seen no better assessment of his core dilemna—the one momentarily obscured by his fluke late-season Denver success—than that of How They Play‘s Tony Daniels:

His throwing style was awkward, and his passing was inaccurate as a result. He adopted a run-oriented mindset early in his career that caused him to take off running when his primary receiver wasn’t open or when he felt pressure. The most glaring reason why he failed as a quarterback in the NFL was because of the coaching he received in high school and at Florida.

Tebow was never forced to develop into a conventional quarterback. Because he was big, strong, and could run, his coaches at the lower levels simply went with the flow and allowed him to run without helping him to develop other skills. As a result, he simply improved on what he naturally did well and got weaker at what he didn’t do well; passing the football . . . Why else would NFL quarterback coaches have to work so hard with him on his mechanics? What were his high school and college coaches doing when he was in their practices? Was no one working with him on his footwork, stance, throwing motion, delivery, and following through then?

You stay mindful of the good teammate’s spiritual clubhouse value (“He’s the kind of guy who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing well,” said a Seattle Pilots teammate of pitcher Gary Bell after a Bell trade), you remain mindful at once that baseball teams require ability and results. Whatever the Angels saw in him as a high school junior was atrophied long enough.

By the time the Mets decided Tebow was worth having, maybe more to goose their minor league gates, he wasn’t a bona-fide baseball prospect. His personality and agreeability made you wish in your heart of hearts for some previously-unimaginable emergence of baseball talent. (They still do.) His shameless religious faith, which seemed jarring at first to the jaded, should never have been jarring and remains something to behold and admire in a time when spiritual faith sees more knockdown pitches than any hitter does.

Tebow launched his baseball career with a bang in his first professional plate appearance. But after four minor league seasons, one or two interrupted by injuries, Tebow’s  batting statistics—along traditional and what I call real batting average lines—would be impressive here and there . . . for a decent National League-bound pitcher:

Traditional Stat Line AB H BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 940 210 85 327 .223 .299 .255 .495
Real Batting Avg. Line PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 1048 318 85 0 5 18 .406

Looking in absolute fairness, Tebow’s lifetime RBA is higher than only two 2019 Silver Slugger Award qualifiers with 500+ plate appearances last year, but those two qualifiers have other abilities that make them at minimum just able to play major league baseball.

Tebow’s best minor league season was 2018—at AA level Binghamton—and this was with a traditional slash line of .273/.336/.399 and an RBA showing a deceptive .453. He played in 87 games that season with his more or less standard results: little power with inconsistent bat speed, an apparent allergy to walks, five strikeouts for every walk, little running speed, and not a lot of outfield range.

Somehow, he became a AA All-Star; that may have tied to an unexpected showing for hitting safely with two out and runners on second or better. (He had 53 such plate appearances and hit .346, with thirteen runs driven in but only two of eighteen hits going for extra bases.) Then he lost almost half of July and all the rest of the season with a broken hand, which stopped once-unlikely momentum for him in June and in July’s first half: he hit a combined .317 for June and July, even if it wasn’t exactly that productive a .317. The Mets then moved Tebow up the ladder to AAA Syracuse last year. His slash line: .163/.240/.255. (OPS: .495.) His RBA: .326.

And yet, as Syracuse.com’s Lindsay Kramer wrote toward the end of the Syracuse Mets’s season, “While it could be argued that other players might have been a lot more deserving of the at-bats that appeared wasted on Tebow, at least his roster spot didn’t deny a quality young prospect playing time.”

That was on 13 August, after Tebow’s season ended with a cut to his left pinkie. In what could be called a summation of his baseball career to date, Kramer wrote, “[G]etting a chance is one thing, taking advantage of it another. Tebow . . . showed perseverance in his bid to transition from NFL quarterback to pro baseball player but that dedication is still a long way from producing numbers anywhere near someone deserving of a big-league look.”

Or, at last, generating the positive attendance numbers that once made the Mets’ Tebow experiment an unlikely success at the gate. “Poor play plus poor attendance numbers is a brutal combination,” wrote Sportsnaut‘s Jesse Reed. “Tebow is beloved by many, yet he isn’t compelling his fans to come watch any more.”

Said Tony DeFrancesco, last year Syracuse’s manager and for 2020 the Mets’ first base coach, “It might take a little more time than people expected, third year professional ball, first year Triple-A. Unfortunately, injuries got to him. Those are at-bats that I think Tim really needs to develop, to really understand his swing, his decision-making, seeing pitches. So I think that still has to improve.”

Said Rene Rivera, a catcher at Syracuse last year but with eleven seasons of major league experience, “He tried. He didn’t seem to be so comfortable with the league. This is a tough league. This is a lot of veteran players, a lot of upcoming big-leaguers. We know that he didn’t do well by the numbers. But I think the good thing that he takes with him is the experience that he can come next year and be more comfortable and know what he has to do to be successful.”

The S-Mets’s hitting coach, Joel Chimelis, observed that consistency (“You don’t have room to have a swing one day and not the next day”) is “very difficult” to show in the Show if you can’t show it in the high minors. Tebow can drive balls when he connects properly, but connecting properly is the question for which the answers fade further in the rear view mirror for a now 32-year-old who wasn’t exactly a prime prospect in the first place.

“Not everybody’s body works the same,” Chimelis continued. “Guys are a little bit more flexible than others around the hips, a little bit more bat speed. Me, personally, I’d rather have quickness, bat speed, than power because bat speed is power. If you have bat speed, you’re going to drive the ball. And it’s not necessarily the biggest guy that’s driving the ball and hitting the ball the hardest. He’s kind of big, so he has to be more efficient with his mechanics in order for that to happen.”

Such assessments earned by other minor leaguers at or close enough to Tebow’s age, and often younger, usually send them the message that it might be time to exercise whatever exit strategy they have toward taking up another line of work, if they don’t have one off-season already.

Sports history is overcrowded with athletes who proved better human beings than performers in their chosen sports. Getting the athletes whose talents were as good as their selves was rare enough. Getting the athletes whose selves were as admirable as their talents were trans-dimensional made the former seem routine.

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Tebow with his fiancee, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, after they became engaged during a visit to his Jacksonville home.

That’s why we revere the like of Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken, Albert Pujols (even in his heartbreaking, protracted, injury-seeded decline), and Mike Trout. Talent above and beyond, people better than their sports legends. It’s also why you root for someone like Tim Tebow, who personifies exponentially the guy who’s a better man than he’ll ever be a ballplayer.

If you consider such things to be rewards for such decency, be advised that, a day before I wrote here, Tebow celebrated his year-old engagement to a South African beauty queen, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, 2017’s Miss Universe, who met him during her reign, enjoyed her first American Thanksgiving at his home, and thanked him publicly for his support when her reign ended.

When Tebow and Nel-Peters announced the engagement on Instagram, they charmingly asked followers for help with wedding hashtags. The followers weren’t exactly shy about providing such help. One, referring to Tebow’s oft-remarked habit of kneeling in prayer on NFL sidelines (it became famous as “Tebowing”), suggested “#TookAKneeForDemiLeigh,” perhaps after seeing a shot of Tebow popping the question—on his knee—during one of her visits to his Jacksonville home. Others stretched it a mite: “#TyingTheTebow,” “#ToHaveAndTebow,” that sort of thing.

Mrs. Tebow-to-be isn’t just another ethereal pageant queen, either: a month after she was crowned Miss Universe, carjackers in Johannesburg forced her to hand them her car keys and get into their car, whereupon she administered a prompt, solid punch in the throat to one of the thieves and escaped for help. She also conducts worldwide self defense workshops.

Her husband-to-be doesn’t have to worry about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-always-true observation that there are no second acts in American life. Tebow fashioned one even before his first in football ended. Baseball’s been close enough to a third act for him. His athletic career may approach the final curtain sooner than he’d prefer, but his numerous virtues include that he has his second act with a long, pleasant epilogue yet to go, and impeccable taste in woman.

Now it’s Soxgate, too?

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2017 Astros bench coach turned 2018 Red Sox manager Alex Cora hoists the 2018 World Series trophy. The ’18 Sox are now believed having used their replay room for off-field sign-stealing, amplifying suspicions around Cora himself.

Long before he became a major league coach then manager, Alex Cora endeared himself to me when he was a Dodger hitting a seventh-inning home run on 12 May 2004. It wasn’t the home run itself but what led to it—Cora hit the eighteenth pitch of a plate appearance against Cubs pitcher Matt Clement into the right field bullpen. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Ben-Hur weren’t that epic.

I watched that game live on television from my then-home in Huntington Beach, California. Cora wasn’t exactly a power hitter, of course; Sammy Sosa hit as many home runs in 2004 (35) as Cora hit in his entire fourteen-season playing career. He was a clever utility infielder whose best work was with his glove on either side of second base and his brains otherwise, and he was valuable enough as a utilityman to play on the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series winner.

As Cora checked in at the plate on that May night, the Dodgers’ still-very-much-missed voice Vin Scully noted he’d hit a couple of fly balls earlier in the game, “but if you don’t have power, a couple of fly balls is wasted opportunity.” He batted with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh and a short-career left fielder named Jason Grabowski aboard with a leadoff walk.

Cora looked at ball one up and away to open. He took a strike near the outside corner, then took ball two away, then fouled one off. And then the fun really began without once going to ball three. Cora fouled eleven more off. We’ll let Scully take it from there:

. . . The crowd now is really into the pitches . . . and still two and two. Nobody out. Big foul . . . wow! . . . It’s a sixteen-pitch at-bat, and the crowd loves it, and look at Dave Roberts. They’re all enjoying this battle. Matt Clement and Alex Cora. Coming into the game, Cora was hitting .400 against Clement, he is oh for two tonight. So the game within the game here. So here’s the sixteenth pitch. What an at-bat! . . . [foul ball] . . .  Seventeen pitches . . . it is the rare time that you can be in the ballpark and everyone is counting the pitches, and it’s gonna be a seventeen-pitch at-bat, now, at least. We, I don’t know, you know, they don’t keep records of pitches in at-bats, but it’s kind of special. This will be the seventeenth pitch. Grabowski’s exhausted, and Mike Ireland reminds me how about if Grabowski had been running on every pitch? Time . . . ohhh, the crowd is loving it . . . Ever see so much excitement? And nothing’s happened, that’s what’s really funny about it. All right, here’s the seventeenth pitch—and, it’s foul. Foul ball by a hair! So that means that it will be at least an eighteen-pitch at-bat . . . Clement has made more pitches to Alex Cora right now than he has made in any inning but the third . . . the eighteenth pitch—high fly ball into right field, back goes Sosa, way back to the gate, it’s gonnnne!! Home run, Alex Cora, on the eighteenth pitch, and the Dodgers lead, four to nothing. What a moment! 9:23 on the scoreboard if you want to write it down for history . . . what an at-bat! And Dusty Baker says, “We’re gonna stop the fight.” And Dusty’s going to bring in a fresh horse. That’s one of the finest at-bats I’ve ever seen. And, then, to top it off with a home run, that is really shocking. Yeah, take a bow, Alex, you deserve it and then some. Oh, by the way, that also means the Dodgers have homered in six straight, but it took a whale of a job to do it. Stay where you are, four-nothing Dodgers, and look at the ball club.

Cora would have been remembered for that surrealistic plate appearance if nothing else had his baseball career ended when his playing days did. Even if the Los Angeles Times didn’t remember; their game coverage the following day said not a lick about Cora’s seventh-inning stretcher.

The paper called it the way you see it now in the box scores: Cora, home run. Baseball Reference, bless them, gives you a little more: it notes the pitch count up to and including Cora’s loft just into the right field bullpen. An edited YouTube video clip from the original Dodger broadcast including the Scully call is preserved by MLB, the editing dropping out in favour of the full coverage as Cora was about to face his fifteenth pitch.

Brainy as he was it was no wonder Cora parlayed himself into coaching and, in due course, managing. Except that now it appears more certain than suspected that Cora—whose inaugural season as the Red Sox manager finished with beating his former Dodgers (managed by his May 2004 Dodger teammate Dave Roberts) in the 2018 World Series—knows something more about fouls than just whacking them away to set up an unlikely two-run homer.

Cora was the Astros’ bench coach during their run to the 2017 World Series conquest. Before that postseason ended he’d agreed to become the Red Sox’s next manager. And one of the first things he was quoted as telling his new team, whom the Astros pushed aside in the 2017 division series, was, “You guys were easy to game plan against. Too many bad takes.”

Those were nothing compared to the bad take now surrounding Cora. Because Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, who seem to be for The Athletic with Astrogate what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were considered to be to the Washington Post for Watergate, now say the 2018 Red Sox had a little espionage operation of their own in play during that year’s regular season. And, that unlike the Astros’s engagement of an off-field live-feed camera for sign-stealing, the Red Sox thought of something they could try at home and on the road:

Three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season told The Athletic that during that regular season, at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using. The replay room is just steps from the home dugout at Fenway Park, through the same doors that lead to the batting cage. Every team’s replay staff travels to road games, making the system viable in other parks as well.

Rosenlich (well, the combination worked for Woodstein, right?) are careful to clarify that nobody including whomever the Red Sox three might be thinks the Red Sox tried it during that postseason, if only because they would have been caught as red-handed as the original five Watergate burglars:

Red Sox sources said this system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

This wasn’t exactly as “egregious” (Rosenlich’s word) as the Astro Intelligence Agency’s underground television network, contravening baseball’s rule mandating eight-second camera feed delays to send stolen signs to a monitor near the dugout steps from where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen opposition signs to the batter with bang-the-can-slowly. But it’s no less beyond the ordinary bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship, even if the Red Sox system did involve at least one man on the field.

The Red Sox operation was workable only with a runner on base. They simply took the burden of catch-and-release away from the baserunner who’s usually the one who engages the on-field gamesmanship of sign stealing. Someone, who knows whom, would be in the Red Sox replay room at home or on the road, catch the sign from catcher to pitcher, and send it to the runner to send to the hitter. You’ve got to be a lot more swift to do it that way, and apparently the 2018 Red Sox were during the regular season.

Not that Rosenlich lack for a caution or two. “It’s impossible to say for certain how much this system helped the Red Sox offense,” they write. “But their lineup dominated in 2018, when they led the league in runs scored.” And, like the Astros, the Red Sox—who got caught flatfoot in 2017 when one of their people was caught using an AppleWatch to try stealing Yankee signs—were convinced enough that others were doing likewise that they weren’t above a little creative against-the-rules espionage themselves.

“You got a bunch of people who are really good at cheating and everybody knows that each other’s doing it,” Rosenlich quote “one person with” the ’18 Sox. “It’s really hard for anybody to get away with it at that point . . . If you get a lion and a deer, then the lion can really take advantage of the deer. So there’s a lot of deers out there that weren’t paying attention throughout the season. In the playoffs, now you’re going against a lion.”

Using the replay room for sign-stealing didn’t exactly begin with the 2018 Red Sox. “It was also similar,” Rosenlich write, “to one the Yankees and other teams had employed before MLB started its crackdown. (Hitters can legally visit the replay room during games to study some video.)” The trick was to be swift enough afoot to make it work without using further electronic devices.

Rosenlich also exhume a three-page March 2018 memo to team presidents from MLB’s chief baseball officer, Joe Torre (himself a former major league catcher), in which he emphasised just how much against the rules high-tech off-field sign-stealing is: “To be clear,” the memo said, “the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game violates this Regulation.”

And sometimes the replay room monitors weren’t always immune to being compromised themselves, with Rosenlich observing, “Some would stay in the video replay room the entire game, while others would disappear for periods of time.” The duo go on to cite an unnamed video scout, not with the Red Sox, directly:

Some acted like they were your best friend, root you on. Others would tell on you for the littlest things that weren’t even real,” the scout said. “It was very inconsistent how each person took their job and what they were actually doing . . . You knew this guy was a stickler, and with this guy you could get away with some stuff. How does it stop cheating? The teams that were going to cheat were going to cheat, no matter what.

Whither Alex Cora? Rosenlich are already on record as reporting that Cora and new Mets manager Carlos Beltran (a designated hitter with the ’17 Astros who was often approached by teammates as having the mind of a coach himself) had an as-yet-undetermined hand in at least devising the Astro Intelligence Agency. Nobody knows yet just how Cora and Beltran helped devise it if indeed they did.

But Cora going from the Astros’ world champion as their bench coach to the ’18 Red Sox as their first-year manager taking them all the way to a 108-win regular season preceding a World Series triumph now looks a little too suspect. Did he know about and/or sanction the ’18 Red Sox’s replay room rompering? Did he suggest, based on any direct knowledge of the Astros’ slightly more arduous technique, that the replay room just might be a slightly simpler way to steal signs and get away with it?

No, Astroworld. The Red Sox’s replay room rompering doesn’t get the Astros off the hook. The everybody’s-doing-it defense isn’t going to wash for the Astros, and it won’t for the Red Sox, either. Red Sox Nation, of which I’ve been a member since that thriller of a 1967 pennant race in hand with being a Met fan since the day they were born (ask not my October 1986 pharmaceutical bills), is about to join Astroworld in having to come to terms with at least some of their heroes being cheaters.

“The issue . . . extends beyond individual teams, encompassing the league’s enforcement and upkeep of its own rules,” Rosenlich write. “Many inside the sport believe there is cheating and then there is cheating-cheating. In this view, the Astros undertook the latter, while more indirect video-room efforts—at least before late 2017—counted as the former.”

If and when the actual Astrogaters are revealed in full, Astroworld will be anything but amused, just as I wasn’t amused to discover that a team whose reconstruction into a powerhouse I admired turned out to be riddled with a human factor-challenged front office and field personnel who weren’t above extralegal espionage. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Astros should learn within the next two weeks just who’s going to be taken to the Astrogate woodshed and whether they come out bruised, battered, or broken.

It doesn’t amuse me that Alex Cora, a player whose tenacity I cheered one fine May 2004 evening and whose intelligence I always admired, may well have gone from helping to devise one elaborate cheat to at least fostering a second that was less elaborate if not less egregious. It amuses me even less that the Red Sox had to do it the new old fashioned way, too.

Short of posting armed Pinkerton guards inside the replay rooms, how baseball’s government handles Astrogate, Soxgate, and any other -gates yet to be affirmed should prove at least as intriguing as Cora’s once-upon-a-plate-appearance foul mastery. The kind he’s suspected of now, involving two teams, is more liable to end not with a two-run homer but a called strikeout.

The troublesome case of Curt Schilling

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On the mound a Hall of Famer, in retirement a Hall of Shamer.

Once upon a time, Curt Schilling’s own general manager (it was Ed Wade, during their Phillies years) described him as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.” By assorted readings I knew that the pitcher who evoked guts on the mound and philanthropy off it during his career was also a man in retirement who shot from the hip and the lip and bothered about the messes left afterward.

Which made Schilling no worse than assorted non-sports entertainers who speak of things beyond their professions and embarrass themselves likewise, but somewhat less, than they often embarrass those to whom their crafts are received as part and parcel of their daily bread.

But in 2016 there came the notorious Schilling tweet of a T-shirt proclaiming, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” with the just-as-notorious vote of approval reading, “OK, so much awesome here.” (Schilling deleted the tweet when the fit hit the shan, as Mr. Elder would say, but it still lives in a few thousand screen captures if not more.) His momentum for Hall of Fame election hit the wall the way Wile E. Coyote hit the earth falling from the cliff. The only shock, at least when it came to Hall of Fame-voting writers, is that they didn’t carry through on any undisclosed desires to burn Schilling in effigy. At minimum.

Over three years later, at this writing, Schilling by way of publicly disclosed voting has a shot at being elected to Cooperstown this time. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, out of votes disclosed publicly (the Baseball Writers Association of America has allowed that the last couple of years) Schilling has 108 votes, or 80 percent of the votes known thus far. He needs to prevail on 75 percent of the total vote, and the Tracker says that means he needs 201 more votes to get there.

The Tracker also says Derek Jeter is at a hundred percent of the known votes, Larry Walker is at 84.4 percent of those, and Barry Bonds is at 75.6 percent. (The winners will be announced on 21 January.) And even Bonds sometimes seems less a controversy than Schilling.

It’s a waste of ink to review Bonds above and beyond a simple if discomfiting fact: Whatever he did or didn’t use among actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, it happened during baseball’s so-called Wild West Era when the substances ran rampant (and often enough misconstrued) and neither their teams’ administrations, the players’ union, nor then-commissioner Bud Selig was in that big a hurry to stop them. When the owners, the union, and the commissioner finally wised up and brought in testing, the duo’s long careers were pretty much over and out.

Yet it’s Schilling who makes Hall of Fame watchers even more nervously than anything surrounding Bonds. Bonds’s admission a few years ago that yes, he was a first class jerk most of the time when he played, with or without the actual or alleged PEDs, did much to soften his once-forbidding image. Schilling’s only too renowned for the kind of diarrhea of the mouth that provokes even those who agree with him to wish his saliva glands secreted Kaoepectate.

Now we hear from Peter Gammons, one of baseball’s most long-respected journalists, whose Beyond the Sixth Game is the best available analysis of what became of the Red Sox from after the 1975 World Series and the beginning of free agency through 1985. In a lengthy but imperative read at The Athletic, Gammons examines Schilling’s Hall of Fame case and includes this quick but pungent insertion about the “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” business: “Schilling says he wishes he’d never done so, admitting, ‘it was in poor taste’.”

That may not satisfy two contingencies among those who follow Schilling’s Hall of Fame voting progress. One says Schilling did nothing more than say what a lot of people wish they’d had the guts to say about today’s journalists. The other says Schilling himself should be married to a rope and a tree for even thinking that way about journalists, when he isn’t being flogged for assorted sociopolitical opinions about which “controversial” may resemble a compliment so far as some are concerned. (We should note that most of those Hall voters uncomfortable with Schilling rarely if ever cite his support for today’s not so popular or amiable president as part of their grounds.)

Among purely baseball writers, Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Susan Slusser (the San Francisco Chronicle and a former Baseball Writers Association of America president), and Jose de Jesus Ortiz (another former BBWAA president) were three among many who decided that advocating murder equals the kind of character flaw that enjoins against Hall of Fame enshrinement by way of the character factor among the voting criteria.

When I first saw Schilling’s approval of marrying journalists to ropes and trees, I also thought he went far beyond the line that distinguishes mere criticism from thoughts of homicide. And I wished to God that Schilling remembered he could have drawn the line between objecting to flawed journalism and killing journalists without fearing he was tempering his view.

There’s as much to abhor as to admire about journalism and always has been. There’s scrupulous and unscrupulous journalism alike. Journalists delude themselves if they think otherwise. There’s also the parallel syndrome, likewise undeniable, that bias isn’t a one-way street: Readers see with their biases just as frequently, and not always scrupulously. Enough of what’s considered unscrupulous journalism is considered that not because it is that but because it speaks of things readers simply don’t want to know.

Well, enough of what a politician on any side of the ideological divide denounces as “fake news” isn’t “fake” but, rather, news he or she simply doesn’t like, too. Practising opinion journalism such as I practise now? Of course you get called unscrupulous now and then, not because you are, but because someone reading and disagreeing with your latest offering believes the disagreement by nature indicates scruples missing in action.

Applaud murdering journalists or other writers and speakers with whom you disagree or who brought you news you dispute or didn’t want to hear, and it’s something entirely beyond mere objection. Even American presidents, including the incumbent to whom Curt Schilling’s plighted his political troth, have only harassed with incessant rhetoric if not government apparatus, but they haven’t killed writers whose publications infuriated them—yet. When not using the press for themselves or against each other, that is.

Think of how many people continue to respect Thomas Jefferson as a champion of freedom including and particularly the press—until he wasn’t, then denounced him for saying nothing could be believed in a newspaper until he and his frenemy John Adams needed the newspapers to call each other a hermaphrodite and hypocrite (Jefferson, about Adams) or a half-breed atheistic libertine. (Adams, about Jefferson.) If you thought presidents resorting to schoolboy or locker room-style name-calling began with President Tweety, this Packard Panther car is in my garage and can be had for a measly three large.

Schilling knows only too well that he’s expert at shooting first and regretting later. “Gotta own the times you go off the rails,” he tweeted regarding one such regretted shot. He’s had to own the equivalent of a chain of stores worth of those times since his retirement from baseball, alas. Gammons, who’s known Schilling a long enough time and knows only too well how often his train jumps those rails, thinks the thing that seems to worry Hall of Fame voters most isn’t likely to happen:

My guess is that if Curt Schilling ever walks to the microphone on the stage in Cooperstown, he will be as close to speechless as he’s ever been, and the words that he utters will not be political but instead will honor [Jim] Palmer and [Tom] Seaver, Randy [Johnson] and Pedro [Martinez], [Greg] Maddux, Sandy [Koufax] and [Bob] Gibson.

He may mention the day Tony Gwynn went 5-for-5 against him, or much how he respected [Barry] Bonds, walking him 19 times in 100 plate appearances. I expect he would mention Johnny Podres and Terry Francona and Cal Ripken. And pay homage to Roberto Clemente, because the journey to that podium really began with [his father] Cliff Schilling’s favorite player.

As a pitcher, Schilling is qualified and then some to be a Hall of Famer. “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home,” The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe wrote in that book, “and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.”

If you doubt that assessment, be reminded that seventeen pitchers have struck out 3,000+ batters but only four of them have done it while walking fewer than 1,000. The four are Schilling and incumbent Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. Nice company to keep, particularly if you consider Jenkins may still be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated pitchers who ever stepped on the mound. If you doubt Schilling’s stature as a true big-game pitcher, you didn’t see him in several pennant races and postseasons, especially in 2004.

Schilling’s right to speak is equal only to someone else’s right to reject the thought, and to reject the thought isn’t quite the same as rejecting his right to enunciate it. Neither is concluding that the thought indicates a character as well as an intellectual flaw. He’s had his feuds with assorted journalists (including the aforementioned Heyman, Slusser, and de Jesus Ortiz), but he hasn’t been suspected of graduating from mere disputes to hunting down and trying to kill them himself, either. Yet.

The voting rule that includes the character factor reads, Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. The Hall of Fame was born in 1936; that rule, known as Rule 5, was born in 1944. The parents were Hall of Fame founder Stephen Clark and then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, whose integrity, sportsmanship, and character allowed him to refuse allowing non-white men to play major and minor league baseball.

The Hall of Fame includes no few whose play was as extraterrestrial as their characters were actually or allegedly subterranean, and they weren’t all elected before 1944, either. It also has no few whose administration of parts or all of the game were suspect. (Landis, anyone? Ford Frick? Bud Selig? George Weiss? Tom Yawkey?) doesn’t mean Hall voters are barred from considering character during or post-career. (Ponder how many still wish to remove O.J. Simpson from football’s Hall of Fame over his long-past-football-career crimes.) There’s no further absolute right to Hall of Fame enshrinement no matter your pure performance papers, really, than there is to play or work in professional baseball in the first place.

A lot of baseball players active and retired have had contentious relations and even shoving matches with members of the press. (“When you like us, we’re the press,” the late New York Times columnist/language maven William Safire once said. “When you hate us, we’re the media.”) A lot of journalists have been just as disdainful of a lot of players, for assorted reasons valid and invalid. But I can’t think of any player who ever suggested marrying even his least favourite journalist to a rope and a tree. Not even sarcastically, which was Schilling’s original defense.

If Schilling’s as sincere as Gammons suggests in regretting his wish for the marriage of journalists to ropes and trees, accept his apology, with the qualifier that you shouldn’t expect every journalist on any block to forget the sarcasm defense. “I don’t blame any journalist for eliminating Schilling from consideration,” Jaffe wrote this past November. “I’m done telling anybody to hold his or her nose and vote for such a candidate just because of stats and a highlight reel.”

Remind yourself, too, that whatever your particular political preferences, Curt Schilling’s worst enemy is the one he sees in the mirror when he shaves. If the Hall of Fame really was an institution to which was affixed and enforced, “Horse’s Asses Need Not Apply,” he wouldn’t belong. But that plane took off eons ago.

Objections overruled

2020-01-05 DomingoGerman

Slapping his girl friend at CC Sabathia’s charity gala last fall means Domingo German won’t be pitching in Yankee pinstripes again until early June.

Domingo German’s 81-game suspension under baseball’s domestic violence policy is only the fourth longest such drydocking among players. Former Braves pitcher Hector Olivera beats him by a game in that regard, Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera lost the final 85 games of 2019, and Padres pitcher Jose Torres lost 100 games in 2018.

None of which stopped the word “unprecedented” from circulating around it or some Yankee fans from screaming “We object!” To the suspension, not the act that provoked it. The general gravamen among that subset of Yankee fans is that, since German wasn’t hit with any criminal charges after all, he should therefore face nothing but spring training and the 2020 season. The general problem with that view is that there’s a major league policy in place saying oh no he shouldn’t.

The actual policy allows baseball’s commissioner to put a suspected player on administrative leave for up to seven days while investigating the accusation, and it covers domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse alike. There’s no minimum or maximum punishment involved formally, though the commissioner can suspend, reinstate, or defer judgment until after criminal proceedings are done.

Which means commissioner Rob Manfred was within his rights under the policy to suspend German even though the September 2019 incident in question—German was seen slapping his girl friend, who happens to be the mother one of his children, after a charity gala by retiring pitcher CC Sabathia—ended up not going to criminal charges. The incident itself was bad enough without the witnesses perhaps including someone from the commissioner’s office.

Likewise was Manfred within his rights to think as he seems to have done that further such incidents forward after, say, Addison Russell’s to get him a 40-game suspension (2018-19), or Roberto Osuna (75 games, 2018), or to Giants chief executive officer Larry Baer (almost four months last year), haven’t delivered the message yet that there are some things baseball as a franchise employer simply refuses to suffer gladly.

Formal legal criminal charges or no, neither the Major League Baseball Players Association nor the Yankees objected to German going on administrative leave from the day after his final 2019 mound appearance through the end of the postseason. Yahoo! Sports columnist Hannah Keyser says the team and the union aren’t expected to appeal the final suspension, either.

German’s suspension will take him out of the 2020 season’s first 63 games since it was made retroactive to the administrative leave onto which he was placed 19 September 2019. And while the pitcher’s missing the rest of the regular season and the entire postseason didn’t exactly help the Yankee cause, it tells you something when you fear those Yankee fans hollering against the suspension seem oblivious to its provocation.

One such response, specifically to Keyser’s column, went like this: “I have no objection to a player being suspended for domestic abuse. But I do object to it when a player was never even charged and there is no real proof that they did anything.” As if the point of witnesses having seen German slap his girl friend now equals, “It depends on what your definition of ‘witness’ is.”

It’s something comparable to saying no, you don’t object to a president of the United States being impeached for abuse of power, but yes, you object when he hasn’t been charged according to criminal law construct. Therefore, whether the House impeaching the president or baseball the employer enforcing its behavioural rules, they done you wrong, somehow. I say it that way because sports fans in their most extreme moments take certain things personally and regard them as crimes of another sort.

Let their team lose a key game down the stretch and they just about would treat it not as a hard loss but, rather, a bloody crime for which heads must roll. Let a pitcher surrender a potential game, set, and pennant-losing home run, and it’s not that the hitter was the better player in the moment but that the pitcher committed the heinous act of throwing the pitch that got bombed.

Those are bad enough. But when some Yankee or other fans all but demand baseball lighten up about suspending domestic abusers in such cases as don’t even go to court (German, fellow Yankee pitcher Aroldis Chapman in 2015, Russell) or become resolved without further ado in court (Osuna), they suggest an employer has no business disciplining an employee merely because his misbehaviour didn’t result in a court case at all, never mind a conviction or time behind bars.

The Astros fired assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, after almost a week worth of the team administration trying to cover up and smearing the reporter who revealed he’d thanked God they’d [fornicating] gotten Osuna within earshot of three female reporters one of whom wore a domestic violence awareness bracelet at the time. If a team can fire an executive over seeming to ignore if not applaud domestic violence, why can’t a team or baseball’s administration suspend someone for committing it?

It’s to baseball’s credit that it says domestic violence is intolerable among those who make the game their profession. And it should be thus elsewhere in sports, as said another respondent to Keyser’s column: “As a Dad, and yet a lifelong Yankee fan, I know domestic violence cannot and should not be tolerated. That is a given. Yet in other sports, the punishment seems to be somewhat less. Time for the other pro sports, or even college sports, to step up and take a stand also.”

All that’s accomplished by those Yankee fans saying baseball done them wrong by suspending German is to make their breed look even worse than they already look to a lot of baseball fans. A lifetime’s experience with the breed (I’m Bronx born, Bronx and Long Island bred, but a Met fan since the day they were born) informs that the main reason it’s uncomfortable to think nice things about the Yankees is their fans.

If the truest cliche about the Yankees is that they don’t like to lose, the truest about Yankee fans is that they think their heroes are entitled (underline that) to be in every postseason, if not to win every World Series, and that if they don’t get either it’s either grounds for a complete housecleaning or somebody else’s fault. But even that is bearable compared to the pockets of extremes that make even normal Yankee fans quake.

Last October came three grotesque examples from that small contingent of Yankee fans who travel first crass. Two happened in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. When Edwin Encarnacion was beaten on a slightly off-line throw forcing Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel to a spinning sweep tag on Encarnacion’s shoulder, fans in Yankee Stadium’s right field stands threw debris on the field. When Yankee reliever Luis Cessa unintentionally hit Alex Bregman with an inside pitch, there was only too audible cheering.

The third, as Game Four was about to get underway, made those two resemble accidents. A group of Yankee fans above the visitors’ bullpen in left field taunted the Astros’ Game Four starter, Zack Greinke, over his known enough battle with anxiety and clinical depression, and the medications he’s prescribed to control those very real conditions. Rather diplomatically, Greinke said after the game that he didn’t hear the taunts, which makes them no less inexcusable.

Some of the taunts exposed the miscreants in question as further half-witted and baseball dumb, namely those taunting Donald Zachary Greinke for going by his middle name as many people do. Clearly they’d forgotten if they ever knew such Hall of Famers as Henry Louis Gehrig, James Hoyt Wilhelm, George Thomas Seaver, and Lynn Nolan Ryan, for openers. Not to mention a one-time Yankee prospect who ended up traded and beating them thrice in one World Series, one Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr.

Taunting Greinke concurrently over his mental illness and his preference to go by his middle name was merely grotesque. Objecting to German’s suspension, never mind that slapping his girl friend with witnesses present damaged her and cost the Yankees his arm the rest of the stretch, the postseason, and for two months plus to open 2020, knocks on the door of degeneracy.

The Yankees aren’t baseball’s only team with a contingent of fans about whom degeneracy applies. And more Yankee fans know and shiver over it than you might think. One such fan—he didn’t identify himself as such, but his avatar is a piece of an ancient tile identifying a Lexington Avenue subway station (the el train running behind Yankee Stadium just before ducking into a tunnel is known officially as a Lexington Avenue Express)—responded to Keyser and knocked the degeneracy contingent among his brethren over the center field fence:

MLB is not a court of law. It can discipline its employees and coaches how it sees fit with input from players union, who did not contest the suspension. If a player doesn’t like the ruling, find another place to play baseball.

There are also those who think baseball’s domestic abusers should be suspended longer, like for an entire season and postseason to follow. That’s not exactly unsound thinking.

Don Larsen, RIP: Elevated

2020-01-01 DonLarsen

Don Larsen, captured mid-delivery during his World Series perfect game.

The new year wasn’t a day old, and the million-to-one shot expired. The month of Sundays turned Mondays. The imperfect (unperfect) man who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series lost his battle with esophegeal cancer at 90 on New Year’s Day. And Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got to take a flying leap into Don Larsen’s arms one more time, this time in the Elysian Fields.

From Joe Borden (of the pre-historic National Association) in 1875 through Justin Verlander at the near-last minute of the 2019 season, major league baseball pitchers including 35 Hall of Famers have thrown 303 no-hitters. That’s eleven percent of all no-hitters, including perfect games, thrown by Hall of Famers from John Montgomery Ward through Roy Halladay.

Baseball being a game that enables the modest or the miscast to become the immortal even for one day, Larsen was of a perfect piece on 8 October 1956. As his career shook out he was more and better of a relief pitcher than starting pitcher. He was tall, threw hard enough, but as Joe Posnanski described memorably, “[his] wildness on the mound fairly well represented his wildness off the field.”

“Larsen was the greatest drinker I’ve known,” said Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once upon a time, Mantle being a man who knew great drinkers when he saw them having been one himself for too long. Larsen lived enough in the wild before he married in 1960 that his teammates nicknamed him Gooney Bird.

But the greatest drinker Mantle ever knew went to a no-windup delivery for Game Five and wound up flying into Series history singularly, remaining there to this day. The nearest anyone’s gotten to Larsen for postseason pitching perfection was Halladay, pitching a no-hitter in his first ever postseason assignment to open a division series in 2011—the same year in which Halladay pitched a regular-season perfect game.

Larsen hadn’t previewed his World Series grandeur quite so grandly: he was lifted from Game Two of the ’56 Series in the second inning, despite still being ahead five runs, and his relief Johnny Kucks surrendered all five tying runs—four unearned—on a bases-loaded single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese) and a grand slam. (Hall of Famer Duke Snider.)

He steamed over the early hook regardless. Publicly, he told reporters he had “not a thing” to say after the early hook and the Yankee bullpen surrendering what turned into a 13-8 loss. But he was otherwise recorded as thinking oh, would he never again pitch for Casey Stengel even if the Ol’ Perfesser begged him. He kept that vow right up until the moment he saw the old traditional manner in which a pitcher was informed of his day’s starting assignment, a baseball resting comfortably enough in his shoe.

So the legend went. The reality may have been a little different. For one thing, Larsen himself admitted years later that if he’d been his manager he wouldn’t hand him the ball again any too soon, either. And Stengel told the press the day before Game Five that Larsen would be his man to get the ball rolling. Whether Larsen himself saw it is open to conjecture: he’d gone out on the town and tied on a big one the night before Game Five.

Stengel held no grudge against Larsen for his post-Game Two fuming, obviously, Larsen having two qualities the old man admired: 1) He’d beaten the Yankees twice in a 1954 during which he earned credit for only three pitching wins. 2) Stengel recognised a champion booze hawk when he, too, saw one.

“It was between Larsen and (Bob) Turley,” said the Perfesser. “We decided it would be better to have Turley in the bullpen today and tomorrow.” Turley, of course, ended up having one of the best seats in the house for what was to come. Larsen decided to go back to what he’d abandoned in Game Two, the no-windup delivery Stengel loved to encourage in those among his pitchers who experienced control issues.

As Posnanski puts it, the Dodgers entered Game Five with the same plan they had for Game Two: “Be patient and let Larsen blow himself up the way he had in Game 2. It was a reasonable strategy; indeed, it seemed nearly foolproof. Larsen, over his career, walked about as many batters he struck out. He lost more than he won. He did not let the rigors of baseball interfere much with his thirst for living.”

You know the ancient saying about the best-laid plans, right?

With absolutely no reason to think it was entirely possible, Larsen prior to Game Five had told a friend, who turned out to have been sportswriter Arthur Richman, that he had “one of those crazy feelings that I’m gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.” Richman suggested a four-hitter would be plenty enough. “Nope,” Larsen’s said to have replied. “It’s gonna be a no-hitter, and I’m gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Don’t ask. Larsen never explained it. Any more than anyone could explain how Game Five began in Yankee Stadium, with both Junior Gilliam and Reese looking at called strike threes to open before Snider lined out for the side. Or, how Larsen, always prone to the walk (his walks per nine lifetime: 4.2; his strikeouts per nine lifetime: 4.9; his strikeout-to-walk ratio lifetime: 1.17), surrendered not a one while striking out seven on the day, with only Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson plus outfielders Sandy Amoros and Carl Furillo avoiding the strikeout.

Larsen would have been the first to credit a couple of fielding jewels that kept the perfecto alive. Including but not limited to Robinson slashing a line drive off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove that deflected to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by a fragment at first in the second inning. Or Mantle running Gil Hodges’s long fly down to the rear latitudes of left center field for a catch he later admitted to thinking he had an easier play on it than he turned out to have.

The Hodges fly, on a hanging slider, was “his one bad pitch” of the afternoon, Berra would remember. And Larsen had one more bullet to dodge immediately afterward. More like a rocket. Amoros hit one into the right field seats that sailed foul by anywhere from two to four to six inches, depending upon who told you the story. Otherwise, Larsen was so in command that he ran a three-ball count to only one hitter (Reese) all afternoon.

He was also calmly aware of what he’d done, more sanguine about it as the years went passing by. If you found his home phone number and wanted to talk a little baseball, he’d likely needle you the way he once needled New York Post writer Mike Vaccaro: “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Larsen’s career began with the Orioles, when they were still the St. Louis Browns. He became a Yankee in one of the strangest trades in baseball history—a seventeen-player swap in November 1954, that made Yankees out of Larsen, Turley, and future major league manager Darrell Johnson, among others. And, that made Orioles out of reliable platoon outfielder Gene Woodling and infielder Don Leppert, among others. He became an ex-Yankee in the 1959 trade with the Kansas City Athletics that made a Yankee out of Roger Maris and ex-Yankees out of Larsen, Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and the future Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

New York Daily News baseball writer Joe Trimble, Vaccaro records, was paralysed after Dodger pinch hitter Dale Mitchell struck out to send Yankee Stadium berserk and Berra leaping famously into Larsen’s arms in front of the mound when the perfecto was finished. Trimble couldn’t think of a single line to open his story. His eventual Spink Award-winning colleague Dick Young, himself bristling to finish a pair of stores related to the game, did it for him: “The unperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

“Mortal men get crushed by immortal deeds,” Thomas Boswell wrote about Roger Maris, who suffered unconscionable abuse for daring to break ruthsrecord in 1961, upon Maris’s death in 1985. Larsen was a mortal man who felt elevated by his immortal deed. “Sometimes, a week might go by when I don’t think about that game,” he once said. “But I don’t remember when it happened last.”

After his long enough pitching career ended, Larsen tried major league front office work and then liquor selling, neither of which agreed with him in the end, before going to work for a California paper company successfully. He even carried a little mojo from the game at assorted old-timers’ gatherings one of which turned rather explosive in its own right.

After Yogi Berra ended his longtime rift with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees gave him Yogi Berra Day in 1999—forty years after he’d gotten one as a player. Larsen and Berra remained lifelong friends, and on the second Yogi Day Larsen was invited to throw a ceremonial first pitch to his old battery mate. Then the interleague game against the Montreal Expos began. And David Cone, the former Met, beat the Expos with . . . a perfect game.

Larsen said later it was the only perfect game for which he’d been present from beginning to end since the one he threw in the ’56 World Series.

The wild Yankee settled himself in due course, of course. He and his wife, Corinne, were married six decades when he died; he found a pleasant life in Hayden Lake, Idaho; he never lost his zest for life despite the emptiness he experienced now and then after realising he was the last man standing from both the starting lineups of his perfect game and his last pre-Baltimore team of Browns.

“That carries a little weight by itself, but I’m just not sure how much,” he told an Idaho reporter two years ago. “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015. It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

We may presume that once Yogi took that welcome-home flying leap into his arms on New Year’s Day, Larsen in the Elysian Fields won’t be entirely lonesome at the top anymore. But our island earth may be a little more lonesome for missing the million to one shot, the nice guy who lived fast enough, settled well enough, and for once in his otherwise ordinary baseball life did what couldn’t be done. And hasn’t been done since.