Steve Dalkowski, RIP: Lost and found

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Steve Dalkowski, the minor league pitching legend, during an Orioles spring training. When he finally made the parent club his elbow blew out.

Steve Dalkowski didn’t look like a young man who struck inordinate fear on the mound. The kind of fear that legend says moved a fan behind the plate to say he was about to scoop up his children and get the hell out of there after Dalkowski told him yes, he’d be pitching that night.

He was 5’11” and looked like the prototype for Revenge of the Nerds. If you bumped into him in a supermarket, you might have mistaken Dalkowski for the president of Future Clerks of America. Those who knew him best knew him as a too-pliant young man who listened to everyone, rarely stood his own ground, and was too eager to please.

But if you had to face him on the mound, the legends have had it, you took your life into your hands. Either you were going to swing feebly through a fastball Superman couldn’t out-fly, or draw a walk with the distinct possibility of the ball going through your dome, but you weren’t going to hit him without ten percent timing and ninety percent fortune.

Remember Bull Durham‘s million dollar arm/five cent head phenom Nuke LaLoosh? Writer/director Ron Shelton sculpted LaLoosh entirely from the model of Dalkowski he’d seen in his youth. He walked eighteen. New. league. record. He struck out eighteen. New. league. record. He hit the sportswriters, the public address announcer, and the Bull mascot twice. Also new. league. records. But . . . Joe . . . he’s got some serious sh@t!

What was good for a laugh on screen is what Dalkowski was, essentially, in the Orioles minor league system. When he pitched for Stockton in the old C-level California League, he did set new. league. records. with exactly 262 strikeouts and 262 walks in 170 innings. Well, he tried, anyway. Gary Kroll actually led the league in strikeouts with 316.

“Most of the Dalkowski stories — throwing a ball through a wooden fence, throwing at hecklers in the stands, hitting hot dog vendors behind home plate, shattering an umpire’s facemask, Ted Williams asking to face him in the batting cage but changing his mind after watching Dalkowski throw — are unverifiable,” wrote pitcher-turned-writer Pat Jordan for Sports Illustrated in 1970, “passed and stretched like folk tales from one minor leaguer to another across the decades.”

Those who saw or played with Dalkowski swore he was wild up and down, never in and out. “If he had been wild inside,” said Frank Zupo, a former catcher in the Show who’d caught Dalkowski in the minors, “he’d have been arrested for murder.”

What was good for anything but laughs is what Dalkowski’s life became when he left baseball after 1965, without seeing a single day’s major league action. A too-heavy drinker during his playing days, who once admitted he did it trying to drown the frustrations he felt trying to make it in baseball, alcohol owned him for 28 years after he left the game.

The lefthander with speed to burn and as much control on and off the mound as a runaway subway train died at 80 last Sunday, after a month-long battle with the coronavirus. At the convalescent home to which his sister Patty Cain brought him in their native Connecticut after finding him at last following decades in alcohol’s wilderness. The miracle may really be not that Dalkowski left almost more legends behind through the minors than Babe Ruth left in the Show but that he lived as long as he did.

He came from the same Connecticut city (New Britain) that produced Rob Dibble, Carl Pavano, and George Springer. He quarterbacked and halfbacked for a pair of unbeaten high school teams while hitting prodigious home runs in summer leagues and pitching like a machine gun. When he graduated high school in 1957, all sixteen Show teams at the time wanted him.

He signed with the Orioles for a $4,000 bonus after graduation, the absolute ceiling under the absurd rule of the time that forced teams signing players to higher bonuses to keep them on their major league rosters for two full seasons. Another legend holds that the Orioles scout who signed him, Frank McGowan, handed him another eight large and a new car.

The apparent secret to the benign-looking lefthander’s power rested in a combination of his arm and wrist action. How else could a kid who looked like baseball’s Mr. Peepers throw the proverbial lamb chop past a pack of wolves, never mind one?

“Steve was able to rotate his shoulder for more leverage. And he just had great joint structure,” his boyhood friend Andy Baylock once told a reporter. “I call it `segmental acceleration.’ It’s almost like a chain reaction took place in his body every time he threw the ball. It was a free-flowing, smooth action. It was God-given.”

They didn’t have the radar gun when Dalkowski went from high school to Kingsport in the old Class D Appalachian League. But Cal Ripken, Sr., who caught Dalkowski at one point (when Dalkowski’s pitches weren’t rising above heads and sailing into screens or stands), once swore the kid threw 110 mph. If that was true, Herb Score was a junkballer by comparison.

The Orioles tried everything to harness the obvious talent and the too-obvious speed. When Birdie Tebbetts managed the Reds and his charges faced Dalkowski in a spring exhibition game, he called Dalkowski’s fastball the radio pitch: “You can’t see it, but you can hear it.”

They also tried harnessing Dalkowski’s taste for hijinks and girls. Emphasis on “tried.” Harnessing his taste for drinks was another matter. He’d learned about it only too well at home; in a New Britain full of hard drinking families Dalkowski’s baseball-loving father was a full blown alcoholic.

One of the lefthander’s minor league roommates was Bo Belinsky, a similarly flaky portsider with less than half Dalkowski’s pitching speed and twice as much street smarts when it came to the young ladies. (Belinsky, too, fought a long battle with the bottle until he dried up to stay a decade before his death in 2001.)

Belinsky’s biographer Maury Allen told of a particularly telling incident when, next door to their hotel room, there once roomed a very comely Miss Universe contestant whose mother wouldn’t let the hungering young wolves get to within a nautical mile of her. Allen swore (in Bo: Pitching and Wooing) that Dalkowski hatched the plot by which he, Belinsky, and their teammates could get a good uncensored look regardless.

Dalkowski procured a drill with a particularly thin bit and drilled several holes in the wall, tiny enough not to be detected but not so tiny that the players with their gimlet eyes couldn’t enjoy the show. Then one knucklehead decided the night time didn’t have to be the wrong time for the show to stop. He brought a flashlight for his evening’s viewing. When he hit the switch, enough of the light beam shot through the pinhole to cause the comely would-be Miss Universe to shriek.

In spring 1962, Belinsky and another Oriole minor league pitcher-playboy, Dean Chance, were gone to the Angels who’d plucked them in the minor league draft. But Dalkowski finally caught a break when eventual Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, managing the Orioles’ Elmira (NY) farm, got hold of him.

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Dalkowski with his sister, Patty Cain, not long after she returned him to his New Britain home town.

Weaver wreaked a small miracle. He actually got the kid to pitch like a comer. The secret: Weaver told Dalkowski to get rid of every one of the hundreds of different suggestions thrown his way in the past and listen to just one idea and no more.

Throw it easy. Just play catch with the guy behind the plate. Relax. Throw to the glove. Just as Dodger catcher Norm Sherry translated a scout’s deciphering of the flaw that kept Sandy Koufax from becoming the Hall of Famer he finally became. Sandy, you don’t have to throw so hard. Steve, you don’t have to throw so hard, either. Except when Weaver whistles after you get the second strike—then you throw it like you’re a human howitzer.

Dalkowski posted the lowest earned-run average (3.04) of his minor league career while striking out 192 and walking a measly 114 in 160 innings. In spring training 1963, Dalkowski finally made the Orioles and was going to the Show when the team broke camp for Baltimore.

The legend would finally have the chance to put his money where the Orioles’ mouths were. (“They were always billing him as the ‘fastest pitcher alive’,” McGowan once said, “and I think the publicity hurt him.”) They hoped he’d become out of their bullpen what Dick Radatz was with the Red Sox—the guy you didn’t want to see even warming up when the game got late and close.

“Hearing [Dalkowski] warm up,” said Red Sox utility infielder/pinch hitter Dalton Jones, “was like hearing a gun go off.”

But pitching to Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson in an exhibition game after learning he’d make the Orioles at last, Dalkowski fielded a bunt, threw to first, and felt his elbow go off. “They called it a pinched ulna nerve,” wrote the Hartford Courant‘s Don Amore in a remarkable profile last year. “If it happened today, Tommy John surgery would have fixed it. But it happened in the 1960s and Dalkowski was never the same . . . ”

He went back to the minors for 1963, bounced around two more organisations (the Pirates and the Angels) before one more try in the Orioles’s system, then left baseball for good after the 1965 season. He left baseball but the alcohol didn’t leave him. He wouldn’t let it yet.

He drifted. He worked on a San Joaquin Valley farm. He got into and out of barroom brawls that often got him jailed, though ESPN says Bakersfield police called it “nothing serious.” He tried and failed detox; he escaped from one such center. He married twice. Amore wrote that Dalkowski was once found by a southern California family one Christmas Eve and that the family took him in and traced him back to Connecticut.

Two years later, after his second wife died, his sister brought Dalkowski home to New Britain and placed him in a rehabilitation center where he lived the rest of his life. The locals accepted Dalkowski’s return with uncommon grace and affection, remembering the school legend who became a minor league legend, forgiving the inherited alcoholic self-destruction, loving him all over again.

“This is still Steve Dalkowski’s town, as much now as it was when he first left,” wrote the Courant‘s John Altavilla in 1996, “although his circumstances and surroundings are quite different. The people here are happy to see him, glad to know he’s back where they can finally care for him.”

Diagnosed with alcohol-related dementia after his sister brought him home, Dalkowski—who had practically no memory left of the 28 years between leaving baseball and her finding him again—was given a year further to live at best. He beat that projection by over 25 years, slowly coming to terms with his life and even making a few re-connections to baseball.

He threw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards in 2003 and—after his election to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2009—at Dodger Stadium. He looked grizzled and bloated behind his salt-and-pepper beard as he rose from his wheelchair, but when he thrust his arms out in triumph after throwing the ball, he looked like a man who’d just pitched an immaculate inning.

“He’s fine. He’s comfortable. He’s happy,” Cain told Altavilla in ’96. “Right now, we just want to make sure that he’s able to move on with life. Sometimes, I think we’ve taken him to his limits here, but that’s still great, because there were times when none of us even felt we’d be able to get Steve this far.”

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” May the angels of the Lord whose forgiveness is there for the asking now keep Dalkowski safe at home in the Elysian Fields.

A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

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The Red Sox whoop it up after nailing the final out of their 2018 World Series conquest in Los Angeles. Is that title tainted now?

So the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring was the masterwork of a rogue video room operator. Not then-manager Alex Cora, not the front office, and not any of the players who transmitted stolen opposition signs to Red Sox baserunners who’d send them on to Red Sox hitters.

Sure. And the iceberg obstructed the Titanic with malice aforethought. The Hindenburg was a kid playing with matches. World War II was a backyard argument. Apollo 11 was an episode of Star Trek. The renegades working with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Dunkin’ Donuts. Bill Clinton perjured himself over an Oval Office quickie with his wife.

After an investigation that included interviews with 65 witnesses including 34 incumbent or former Red Sox players, say The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, those plus “scores of e-mails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” led commissioner Rob Manfred in a report issued Wednesday to declare it was all J.T. Watkins’s fault.

Manfred suspended Watkins from baseball without pay for this year and barred from working as a video operator for 2021’s regular season and postseason. The Red Sox got docked a second-round 2020 draft pick. If you even think about trying this kind of espionage again we’re going to be . . . very, very angry at you.

Thanks to the same promises of immunity that Manfred gave the rogue Astros in return for spilling about Astrogate, we may not know for a long time if at all which Red Sox players took Watkins’s stolen signs and ran with them.

The key to the RSRRR was that—unlike the illegally installed or altered real-time center field camera that anchored the Astro Intelligence Agency in Minute Maid Park—the Red Sox’s espionage could be done at home or on the road . . . but it depended entirely on whether the Red Sox had a man on base.

Nobody banged the can slowly to send the pilfered intelligence to the Red Sox hitters availing themselves thereof. Watkins simply let someone, who knows whom, make life a little easier for Rogue Sox baserunners. In Fenway Park and elsewhere.

Usually, if you’re on the bases and of a mind to gamesmanship, you’ve got to decipher and transmit from your own eye and in as quick a blink as possible. Watkins merely allowed the Red Sox to save their baserunners a little extra sight and brain work. How very thoughtful.

The video rooms behind the dugouts were supposed to be helpmates for managers in challenging close or errant umpire calls once replay was introduced in 2014. Hitters also use them for help correcting swing mistakes, pitchers to correct mound mistakes, or both to look again quick at opposing hitters or pitchers to see where they missed unexpected weaknesses or got beaten when they should have known better.

They weren’t installed to enable spy operations on the other guys’ pitch signs or to make life simpler for baserunners who now didn’t have to figure out how to steal signs the old-fashioned way within about a minute’s worth of time. You want to steal signs on base the old-fashioned way? Do your homework. No crib sheets, answers on your wrist, or cameras on the teacher’s answer keys.

Even before Manfred handed down his Soxgate finding and decision, a few 2018 Red Sox were saying, essentially, Who, us? Remember Steve Pearce? 2018 World Series hero, and how. He was practically a one-man demolition derby late in Game Four and through most of Game Five. It landed him the World Series MVP award.

Last week, Pearce decided to call it a career. He also decided to say Who, us? “That’s such a joke to us,” he told WEEI. “When it came out we were all kind of joking about it. We just want this to pass us. We won it fair and square. Whatever they accused us of, we were all kind of like, ‘I can’t believe this is even an issue.’ Once the report comes out we’re all going to be free.”

All but one scapegoat, so far.

“[W]e have this floating over our head when we just had such an unbelievable season,” Pearce continued. “We had the perfect team and great camaraderie with everybody and then this gets thrown out here. We’re just like, ‘What the heck?’ . . . We just want this to pass us. We just want to play some baseball. Another bump in the road, I guess.”

In fairness, one of the key moments that bumped the 108 game-winning Rogue Sox into the 2018 World Series in the first place—left fielder Andrew Benintendi’s man-on-the-flying-trapeze catch of what would have been Astro third baseman Alex Bregman’s game-winning three-run extra-base hit to deny the Astros an American League Championship Series tie at two each—had nothing to do with the RSRRR.

But what about the rest of the set? What about the Series? Not long after Pearce spoke up, Joe Kelly—then a Red Sox relief pitcher, now with the Dodgers in coronavirus limbo with everyone else in baseball—delivered his own who, us? “Whenever the investigation is done, I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation,” he, too, told WEEI last week. “If there is cheating involved with how good our team was, we should have won every single out.

“We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four,” he continued. “We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.”

You can almost hear the 1919 White Sox culprits, who won three games during their scandalous World Series loss, thinking, “We should not have even won a single inning if there was some good profitable tanking going on, either.”

Some Red Sox fans hit social media to denounce Kelly’s pompous arrogance or arrogant pomposity, depending upon whom you read where and in which language. The man who surrendered Howie Kendrick’s tenth-inning grand salami to lose Game Five and a trip to the National League Championship Series for his Dodgers knows enough about public humiliation and humility.

In all fairness, baseball government did monitor the replay rooms more arduously to guard against postseason espionage. Baseball’s chief disciplinarian Joe Torre warned both the Red Sox and the Astros before the 2018 ALCS that if they were up to electronic no good it needed to stop tootie-sweet before (are you ready?) the press picked up leaks about it.

Unlike Astrogate, which had a whistleblowing genie named Mike Fiers come out of the bottle last November, Soxgate may not have had a signature whistleblower. Rosenthal and Drellich, the Woodward and Bernstein of Astrogate, reported shortly before Manfred’s Astrogate finding and ruling that the 2018 Red Sox weren’t just ducking into their replay room to fix mistakes, correct batter’s box or mound mechanics, decide on challenging close calls, or watch Cheers reruns.

Rosenthal and Drellich dropped this curlicue into that report:

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.

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.

So it’s entirely likely that the Rogue Sox played the 2018 postseason straight, no chaser. But there’ll always be suspicion. Would playing the postseason straight let them off the hook for reconnaissance cheating during the regular season when Watkins’s replay room was about as heavily guarded as an angry drunk?

Give Manfred this much: If he thought Cora had anything to with the RSRRR, would it have been shooting fish in the barrel to discipline him? He suspended Cora for this year—-over his Astrogate co-mastermind role. For which the Red Sox either let him quit, fired him outright, or strong-armed him to quit—never mind how well-liked he remains around the team and organisation—before he could be executed when the Astrogate report came forth.

If Manfred thought Cora was part and parcel of Watkins’s roguery, would he have thrown mercy to the wind and banned Cora for half a decade? Full decade? Life? And does anyone really believe the man who cahooted with Carlos Beltran in the AIA was entirely innocent? Or did he remember his Houston boss, A.J. Hinch, smashing a monitor or two but otherwise fiddling while the AIA turned?

Letting the Rogue Sox escape with nothing more than a docked second-round draft pick and a scapegoat video room operator is at least as bad a look as Astrogate’s been for the Astros. It also contravened Manfred’s threat, when the Red Sox’s AppleWatch and the Yankees’ extra dugout phone inspired it, to fine any team caught playing CIA against the other guys.

So whom among the 2018 Soxgaters will be the first to stand up and own up? You may sooner strike oil with safety pins.

The haunted Hideki Irabu

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Hideki Irabu, too haunted to succeed—or live.

It took an unusual young man to forgive one of George Steinbrenner’s ugliest insults by giving The Boss a slightly unusual birthday present a few months later. If only Hideki Irabu’s sense of humour could have saved him from the lifelong haunting that finally ended in his 2011 suicide.

In a spring 1999 exhibition game, the righthanded pitcher failed to cover first base adequately on an infield play, and Steinbrenner denounced him as a “fat, pus-sy toad.” You don’t need me to tell you how that looked in cold print with the hyphen removed.

What you didn’t know, unless you read a jarring 2017 profile by Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Reiter, is that Irabu got a little good natured revenge a few months later. He sent Steinbrenner a birthday present: a large, mechanical toad delivering a rather pronounced ribbit when you punched a button. According to Reiter, The Boss appreciated it enough to keep it in his office for the rest of his life. (Steinbrenner died a year before Irabu’s suicide.)

Twenty years before Reiter’s profile, and 23 years ago today, the Yankees made a deal with the Padres to bring Irabu to the Bronx. The Yankees thought they were getting the anomalous “Japanese Nolan Ryan,” who threw white heat in contrast to most Japanese pitchers living purely on finesse. Neither the Yankees nor anybody else thought they were getting a walking, haunted, overly self-critical and self-analytical complexity who’d end up a suicide at 42.

A pitching star in Japan who chafed at the Japanese game’s continuing reserve system, who wanted only to decide his own future after a decade pitching in the Japan Pacific League, Irabu—whose purchase by the Padres roiled other American major league teams who wanted a shot at bidding for him—stood fast in his wish to play for nobody but the Yankees.

“Hideki and his agent are free to do and say whatever they want,” said then-Padres president Larry Lucchino, “but we will march ahead at our own pace.” Irabu and his agent Don Nomura said, “Company, halt!” Then, the Padres blinked. They sent Irabu, Jackie Boxobolts, and Jerry McJerryrig to the Yankees for Richie Rinkydink, Randy Matchbox, and three million bones.

That led to the creation of the posting system that has since allowed Japanese players without the required nine years for free agency to ask their teams to post them for bidding by MLB teams. Making Irabu a kind-of Nippon Professional Baseball equivalent to Curt Flood in the American major leagues.

But Irabu isn’t remembered that way half as often as he’s remembered for being the Japanese pitching virtuoso who self-dismantled during and after tortuous Show career. Even before he became an NPB fixture, Irabu’s was a life about which “complicated” doesn’t begin to fit.

Irabu didn’t insist on becoming a Yankee solely because he knew and respected the team’s history and larger-than-life image: as Reiter revealed, he believed that if he could succeed in a Yankee uniform his father—an American Air Force meteorologist, Steve Thompson, stationed in Okinawa, who’d met and dated a Japanese waitress and learned of his son when receiving word while in Vietnam—would have to find him.

Irabu’s mother birthed and raised him in Japan and, after marrying an Osakan restauranteur, told her son he’d been sired by an American who’d only seen him once after his birth. Only decades later would Irabu learn Thompson’s letters to his mother never reached them because they’d moved onward while Thompson was still in Vietnam.

Irabu’s mixed heritage, which happened to make him larger than other children as well as giving him brown hair and rounder eyes, didn’t go over well with other Japanese children who bullied him mercilessly. To Irabu, as Reiter revealed, baseball saved him from a life in the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, “which always found a way to use large, lost young men.”

His pitching talent made him the NPB’s top pitcher by 1997 at age 28. When Irabu insisted on having a say in his own American future and out-lasted the Padres into trading him to the Yankees, the Japanese media and his Japanese teammates accused him of disrespect. That was almost nothing compared to what hit the reserved righthander whose bulk hoisted a pair of sad-looking eyes but a smile that looked as though flashing it meant he’d defied someone a little too cheerfully.

When he arrived in New York, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped shove curiosity and intrigue into hyperdrive hype. Giuliani presented Irabu a Tiffany apple and called his arrival symbolic of the American immigrant experience as a whole but that experience which often began in New York itself.

Irabu probably had no clue that American politicians were at least as talented as baseball people in forging unrealistic expectation.  When the pol in question was also the most unapologetically visible Yankee fan this side of George Constanza, Irabu would have had a better shot at getting away with the taking of Pelham 1-2-3—stark raving naked.

“Lay that upon the Japanese Nolan Ryan,” I wrote after Irabu’s 2011 suicide, “and anything short of a perfect game to open would have been considered a let down, if not the second coming of Pearl Harbour.”

The day after Guiliani handed him the Tiffany apple Irabu struck nine Tigers out in six-and-two-thirds. But he finished 1997, during which he had a turn in the minors, with a 7.09 ERA. The following spring he was considered “an out-of-shape bust,” as Reiter recalled it, nowhere more jarringly than in a Seinfeld series finale scene in which uber-fan Constanza bellowed, “How could you give 12 million dollars to Hideki Irabu?”

What nobody really knew was that Irabu’s surliness with the press and contrasting amiability in his clubhouse—upon his death, assorted teammates remembered his pleasantry and humour—disguised a still-young man still searching for a real home.

His battles with the Japanese press may have stemmed in part from being grilled, broiled, and basted by a press representing a home where he never felt accepted; his sense that America would never really accept him, either, was only partially thanks to the language barrier.

As a pitcher, as Reiter gleaned, Irabu was a constant self-questioner. The real source of his American lack of success probably rooted in his habit of constant change, from his exercise routines to his pitches and mechanics, even after his best outings. He also turned out to have a pronounced spiritual side, asking those few closest to him about faith and religion.

Reiter wrote that those few who were close to him knew what he really sought: a father figure and a place to belong. He thought he’d found the former in people like his agent Nomura, his translator George Rose, his fellow Yankee pitchers David Cone and David Wells, and even Steinbrenner; hence, the mechanical toad as the birthday present. The latter was even more tough. “There wasn’t a home for him,” Nomura told Reiter. “It’s almost like he was always at the visitors’ ballpark.

“There were so many different velocities—87, 89, 84, 95, 97,” Cone told Reiter about Irabu’s ability. “He was a big guy, strong, and you’d heard about the power—but it wasn’t all power. He seemed to have finesse as well . . . The day he pitched, we thought, Wow, if he’s on, he’s going to win the game for us. He could dominate an opposing lineup. That’s the way we saw him.”

Irabu was actually named the American League’s Pitcher of the Month twice, for May 1998 (he had a 1.44 ERA that month) and for July 1999. (4-0 with a 2.64 ERA.) The talent was clearly in place. (“When he was into it,” remembered longtime Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, “he threw the nastiest pitches in the league.”) It belonged to a still-young man who fought what proved an unwinnable war with himself.

Then Thompson finally sent his mother a note in spring 1999 and, after she revealed it to him, Irabu agreed to meet him. Though discovering they had much in common—including a pronounced taste for self-medicating through alcohol and a chain-smoking habit (Irabu was known to smoke half a cigarette between innings during his starts), and an equally pronounced stubbornness as children—Irabu couldn’t keep the connection.

Irabu accepted it when Thompson told him of those old, unanswered letters, but father and son couldn’t bond otherwise. A too-thick language wall, too much time past. “Irabu realized,” Reiter wrote, “that just as Thompson didn’t want anything from him, he didn’t want anything from Thompson.”

Thompson died of cancer at 81, five years after the suicide of the son he barely knew. Reiter wrote no one feeling remorse over Irabu’s suicide felt it deeper than Thompson did. His wife revealed to Reiter that he’d made and kept a photo album full of pictures of Irabu on the mound.

Two “uninspiring” seasons following a trade to the Montreal Expos, a brief comeback as a closer with the Rangers, a better comeback in the NPB a year after that, then a surprising two years’ trying in the American independent leagues, Irabu realised that baseball had given him up.

So did he. Whoever he really was.

The lawyer who worked with Nomura, Jean Afterman, told Reiter that Irabu “was fascinated by life. He was a kid philosophy major. He had a lot of questions about life. He had a lot of curiosity. He had a lot of, as we would say in this country, things to work out.”

When his professional baseball life finally ended, Reiter wrote, Irabu became obsessed with one thing despite trying a couple of businesses in southern California: baseball. He also sank further into depression, his former merely binge drinking becoming continuous and leading to a pair of unseemly arrests, as did his use of assorted antidepressants.

After his wife gathered their daughters and left him—they’d “become acculturated to American life,” the New York Times wrote, in ways he couldn’t and didn’t—Irabu seemed to lose whatever taste for life remained to him. “In the last year of his life, Irabu’s few remaining friends suspected that he was heavily medicated,” Reiter wrote.

The light had gone out of his eyes, they say. A rec-league teammate told police that Irabu had been despondent at a practice four days before his death—”I don’t want to live anymore,” he’d said—and he hadn’t been seen since the day after that. But no one thought to check on him until it was far too late.

A post-mortem search of his home turned up half a bottle of Paxil and two Ativan pills, the latter an antidepressant that’s believed tied to suicidal tendencies and even more dangerous when mixed with Irabu’s favourite self-medication, alcohol. His toxicology report showed he had three times the legal driving limit of alcohol in his system and Ativan in his liver when he hanged himself.

NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra wonders what if anything might have been different if Irabu had stayed with the Padres and not forced his trade to the Yankees despite its pioneering stature. Reiter wrote that tragedies aren’t as simple as toxicology reports, unexamined death wishes, or self-compromised talent.

They’re often deeper than even the pitcher who didn’t ask for the hype he was hit with and couldn’t live up to. The pitcher who spent his life seeking what was robbed from him originally. The pitcher who wanted one thing that the country where he grew up and first throve refused him but too much past denied him in the country he adopted.

More than anything or anyone, more than even the people who hyped him and then dismissed him when he couldn’t live up to it, he wanted and needed to know who Hideki Irabu really was.

To Law, baseball’s sacred cows are worth . . . steak

2020-04-21 TheInsideGameHe’s never phrased it quite this way, so far as I know, but Keith Law is one baseball writer who believes that a sacred cow is worth one thing—steak. He rarely fails to provoke, instruct, and entertain all at once. Agreeing with him fortifies. Disagreeing with him still leaves you itching to think. Seeing him affirm what you’d already determined comforts.

If you already knew that hot streaks didn’t conceive sound investments, that winning managers often won despite their efforts, that groupthink doesn’t equal truth, and that Nolan Ryan’s durability makes him an exception and not a rule, Law’s new book The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behaviour Teaches Us About Ourselves will tell you something new only in the breakdowns by which he affirms them.

But if you still believe it’s that smart to ride the hot hand, that Bob Brenly was brilliant winning the 2001 World Series, that the way we’ve always done it is just the way it ought to be, or that if Ryan could throw 200 pitches in a game if need be then any pitcher ought to do it, The Inside Game may hurt more than the coronavirus quarantine ever could.

Based on his reading of the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which “went from unknown to must-read within baseball front offices in a fairly short period of time, a shocking development in a sport that generally moves at the pace of a sloth that is still hung over after a weekend bender,” Law identifies and forges individual chapters around biases he says shape the way baseball people—managers, players, commentators, fans—see the game without truly seeing it.

The method by which he analyses and discusses is simple enough. “I’ll start with a baseball story,” writes Law—former ESPN writer, now a senior writer at The Athletic—in his introduction, “then explain what cognitive bias or illusion I think underlies the error I’m describing, and will return to baseball with another salient example.” The nerve of him.

He opens with an examination of “anchoring bias,” prior information having nothing to do with the next decision but deciding it anyway, in terms of whether to use automated umpiring instead of the sacred “human factor.” “The umpire’s mind is anchored on that last called pitch,” he writes, “and therefore the umpire’s internal calibration is thrown off for the next pitch. That means they’re less likely to get the next call right—and that’s another point in favour of giving the job of calling balls and strikes to machines, not humans.”

Want to know what triggered Law on that one? Refer back to Game Five of last year’s World Series, in which umpire Lance Barksdale blew a pair of calls one of which irked Nationals manager Dave Martinez into demanding Barksdale’s awakening and the other of which—on a pitch nowhere within the strike zone’s ZIP code—speared Victor Robles into jumping like a jack-in-the-box and throwing his batting gloves.

“Availability bias” is what Law believes shapes how commentators, writers, and even fans discuss the game, which he defines thus: “When a specific act or example comes to mind more readily, we tend to overemphasise that fact or example—maybe we ascribe too much importance to it, or perhaps we extrapolate and assume that the example is representative of the whole.”

In other words, and Law hits it, too, Joe DiMaggio was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1941 mostly because of his fabled 56-game hitting streak but Ted Williams, whose whole season’s performance (in a year DiMaggio had a spectacular season streak or no streak) should have earned him the award, didn’t have a prayer against the unavoidable single feat.

“You thought about some question,” he writes, “and your brain went right to the hard drive and pulled out something relevant. Your brain didn’t go to the archives, though, and it probably just gave you one thing when you actually needed the whole set.” Like the writers in 1941 who handed DiMaggio the MVP. Or—because, as a collusion victim, of the blank-check contract he signed with the Cubs in spring 1987—Andre Dawson getting the writers’ MVP vote despite Tony Gwynn and Eric Davis having superior seasons.

A couple of decades later, of course, came an example Law doesn’t discuss but remains relevant: Maury Wills copped the National League’s 1962 MVP on no grounds further than that he smashed Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record and became baseball’s first player to steal in triple figures. Who says crime doesn’t pay, wink wink?

Little else suggested Wills was even the best player on his own team: Tommy Davis was his co-leader in wins above a replacement-level player with 6.0. Willie Mays was worth 10.0 WAR and nobody else in the league was too close. (Frank Robinson was second with 8.7.) The stolen base record-setter wasn’t even in the National League’s 1962 top ten for on-base percentage. (Sixteen players bested him, and none of them stole more than eighteen bases that year.)

DiMaggio’s 56-in-’41 was overwhelmingly available, and so were Wills’s 104 stolen bases. So were Roger Maris’s 61 home runs (smashing Babe Ruth for a single season) in ’61, when Mickey Mantle (10.4 WAR) should have been the league’s MVP but missed the last week of the season with a hip issue and fell out of the infamous home run chase.

That was all each season’s voters seemed to need. Their brains simply didn’t dig into the season’s archive as they might have. “Baseball commentary,” Law writes, “is often a victim of the tropes that have long defined it—and availability bias is behind much of it, if for no other reason than it’s convenient and often obvious.”

From there Law travels through outcome bias, in which you can believe someone a genius for winning even if he blundered his way through it. Brenly blundered his way to a 2001 World Series triumph. Among other things, he sent his team’s worst on-base percentage out to hit leadoff lefthanded against a pitcher who feasted on lefthanded hitters. He often left his best hitter, Luis Gonzalez, with nobody on base ahead of him. He misused his closer Byung-Hyun Kim and left the submariner in to face lefthanded hitters who could kill him. He wasted at-bats with bunts ahead of Gonzalez. He sent Kim out on a second consecutive night after he’d thrown 61 pitches in relief the night before. (Are you still shocked that Scott Brosius tied Game Five with a home run?)

The Diamondbacks won their first (and so far only) World Series despite their manager. “We would all like to believe that good process yields good results and bad process yields bad results,” Law writes, “so that we can tell from the results whether a process was good or bad. That would be true if life were deterministic, but it’s not. Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” Ask any politician, too.

Law takes you through the mythologies behind lineup protection and clutch hitting, drafting high school pitchers in the first round (something I’ve known for decades after the ruination of David Clyde in the 1970s), and why you should knock it off with the kind of “survivorship bias” that uses Nolan Ryan and even prehistoric pitcher Old Hoss Radbourne to counter the pitch count:

Nolan Ryan is the ultimate survivor, the survivor ne plus ultra, the ubersurvivor when it comes to survivorship bias . . . He is, however, an outlier, a great exception—not one that proves the rule, but one that causes many people to discard the rule. Most pitchers can’t handle the workloads that Ryan did; they would break down and suffer a major injury to their elbow or shoulder, or they would simply become less effective as a result of the heavy usage, and thus receive fewer opportunities to pitch going forward. Teams did try to give pitchers more work for decades, well into the 2000s, but you don’t know the names of those pitchers because they didn’t survive: they broke down, or pitched worse, or some combination of the above.

[The] pitching deity known as Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn started 73 games for the Providence Grays in 1884 and threw 678.2 innings, but survived to pitch another seven years beyond that. The game itself has changed dramatically in the last few decades, with pitchers throwing harder than ever, and hitters bigger and stronger than ever, but those outliers were even outliers in their own times—and they should not distract us from what we see from looking at all pitchers, not just the ones we remember.

Radbourne—who threw underhanded with assorted unstressed arm angles—pitched in a game that had no power hitting as we know it and in which pitchers were usually encouraged to throw things batters could hit easily enough. Radbourne’s baseball isn’t post-Depression baseball, never mind today’s baseball. And even he lasted only eleven seasons. He was one of the luckier ones there, in any era.

Law also takes on “recency bias” (the hot hand now isn’t always the most sound lineup choice or long-term investment) and status quo movement. (Grady Little and John McNamara, ill-fated Red Sox posteseason managers, will look even worse in this chapter than they looked in their moments of non-decisions. ) He examines the problem with the “moral hazard” (moves whose messes the next guys will have to clean up, as in the Angels’ ill-fated Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson deals) and the “primary agency” factor. (Pete Rose’s remaining partisans will wish to walk Law to the guillotine over this, regarding his gambling and how Pete Rose, manager, hurt his teams while letting Pete Rose, player, pursue the hits record to which he believed he was all but entitled, mind you, never mind his batting skills surrendering to Father Time.)

Not to mention what he calls the “fallacy” of the sunk cost. Law thinks the Angels were silly to play Pujols despite his injury-abetted decline merely because they were paying him three kings’ ransoms: “If you have already paid for something, your choice of whether to use it should be a function of whether you want or need to use it, not a function of the money that is already gone regardless of what you do.” He thinks likewise regarding the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera post-2107; and, the Orioles and Chris Davis since 2014.

Don’t get Law started about “eating money,” either. He’ll remind you of his indigestion when, two weeks after he joined ESPN as a writer in 2006, the Diamondbacks released Russ Ortiz with $22 million still owed the pitcher who’d “been a dumpster fire on a train wreck since signing.” The Associated Press said the Snakes decided they’d “rather eat the remaining $22 million . . . than keep him on their roster.” Law says the team ate nothing: “That salary was already somewhere in Arizona’s GI tract, likely causing indigestion but there nonetheless. Major League Baseball player contracts are guaranteed; there is no way to un-eat that meal.”

Before such dumpster fires on train wrecks are disposed of, Law goes on, he reminds you that managers and general managers don’t always want to keep them bristling and wrecking—but owners often do:

An owner might say that he’s not paying Twerpy McSlapperson $23 million a year to sit on the bench, or that he won’t release Joey Bagodonuts because he’s paying the guy $19 million this year and he’s determined to get something for his money. It’s entirely irrational, and can be at odds with the owner’s likely goals of winning more games and making more money. However, if you’re a manager, and your boss tells you to put Bagodonuts in the lineup every night, you’re going to do it.

Law gives you fair warning at the outset: he knows a lot of the biases he examines came subconsciously, and the best he can offer over 268 pages is a series of well-educated guesses. “I present them,” he writes, “to explain the cognitive errors, and to tell good baseball stories, some of which you’ll know and, I hope, some you won’t.” Marrying a gimlet eye and charming wit, he hits a line drive off the left field fence.

Teddy Ballgame’s grandchildren

2020-04-18 SwingKingsHall of Famer Ted Williams wrote three books with Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood, and one of them was his memoir My Turn at Bat. I read it when it was first published in 1969 and when it was republished in 1988. I should have read another of their collaborations, 1970’s The Science of Hitting, because the absolute root of today’s power revolution is there on page 47.

Revolutions don’t happen immediately after their theories or mechanics are first pondered and enunciated. (Almost seven decades passed from The Communist Manifesto to the birth of the Soviet Union, but I didn’t say all revolutions are admirable.) In baseball revolutions often require decades to pass.

Williams contravened the entrenched wisdom of swinging “down” and called that swing dead flat wrong. Teddy Ballgame himself didn’t swing that way. If you look at him according to my concept of real batting average (RBA)—total bases, walks, intentional walks, sacrifices, and times hit by a pitch, divided by total plate appearances—he has the evidence of performance to back him up.

Do you think a man with a lifetime .482 on-base percentage (the highest in baseball history) and a lifetime 1.116 OPS (second highest) was talking through his chapeau? How about a man with the absolute highest RBA of any player the bulk of whose career came in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era?

Player PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Ted Williams 9788 4884 2021 243 25 39 .737

“He advocated for what he described as a ‘slight upswing’ of about 10 degrees,” writes Wall Street Journal baseball writer Jared Diamond in Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution. (New York: William Morrow; $28.99.)

His first reason for this was obvious: the only way to drive the ball, to hit a home run, is to hit the ball in the air. The other reason was a bit more subtle and insightful. Willams wrote that because pitchers are standing on a mound, by definition the flight of the ball will always be down. An upswing will put the bat “flush in line with the path of the ball for a longer period,” essentially giving hitters more margin for error. Modern hitting coaches, the leaders of the revolution, would call this “matching the plane of the pitch”—in other words, getting the barrel of the bat behind the ball as quickly as possible and swinging up through it, rather than swinging down to meet the flight of the ball.

Williams’s explanation of the upswing is accompanied by a diagram that shows the difference between the level stroke and the Williams stroke. It’s a simple sketch—just a white box, with the outline of arms, bats, and baseballs showing the value of the upswing. But that little graphic, buried in the middle of Ted Williams’s book, is perhaps the most significant visualisation of the swing ever produced. It inspired a revolution.

The revolution, Diamond writes, was delivered in due course by a cast of one-time players who couldn’t hit with a telephone pole when they did play the game at assorted amateur and lower professional levels. Or, whose skills vanished for various reasons. For assorted reasons, and from assorted starting points, they fell into post-playing lives during which they just had to know what they’d done wrong that younger siblings, friends, acquaintances could avoid doing wrong.

You know only too well the ancient saying about those who can doing and those who can’t teaching. But teachers have to do something first. They have to learn some things. Even if it involves learning what they did wrong before teaching someone else how to do things right. Even if they arrive in part from a few places you’d least expect to have baseball on the brain.

Mike Bryant devoured The Science of Hitting in his youth. He wasn’t talented enough to make it work for himself, but he could teach the Williams way to his son and his son’s friends. Another father he knew, Tony Gallo, former minor leaguer, was more than interested. He asked Bryant to teach his own son. Their sons made the Show, and those boys are rather splendid with the bat. You may have heard of them: Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo.

2020-04-18 TedWilliams

Ted Williams didn’t believe in swinging down, either.

Craig Wallenbrock was a surfer dude turned food broker who once played college baseball and developed his own approach to the Williams philosophy by shooting and studying film over a decade before Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn made a fetish (and a nickname), Captain Video) out of it. The approach included studies of nature’s predators, karate, and samurai, applying their balances to the baseball swing.

When his own baseball coaches told him not to swing like Henry Aaron and others with classic power strokes, he asked why and was told those were freaks. Better to model yourself on someone like, say, Ron Fairly, a solid enough hitter but not exactly a game changer. By Wallenbrock’s coaches’ reasonings, Ted Williams was a freak, and so were Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson, among other such Hall of Famers.

“I’m thinking, let’s see—Ron Fairly, .260, not much power. Henry Aaron, 40 home runs,” he tells Diamond. “And I said, ‘Yeah but the freaks always seem to be the best players. So I want to study the freaks.”

One of Wallenbrock’s eventual disciples was Paul Konerko, the longtime White Sox first baseman. Another was a man he turned from nothing special as an Astro to never better after leaving the Astros—J.D. Martinez. Konerko may yet inspire a Hall of Fame debate; Martinez is one of baseball’s most feared hitters today. Wallenbrock’s analyses and observations took both players’ swings with too many moving parts, simplified them, and re-oriented them.

Richard Schenck taught high school, ran a tavern, raised baseball-loving sons, scoured the Internet for what was missing from his own college career (including sound coaching), shared his knowledge so contentiously he became a Twitter legend as a pariah as much as a prophet—and eventually turned Aaron Judge into a bit of a beast at the plate.

Doug Latta, at whose tiny facility Wallenbrock went to work applying his theories, was a swimming pool builder and former college player whose career was ruined by an ankle fracture. He created the near hole-in-the-wall Ball Yard facility, where major league hitters such as Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd, and Michael Young came to refine their swings. Latta suggested swinging up and staying back when asked. The line drives and periodic big flies started sailing off their bats regularly enough to put them on a timetable.

Wallenbrock, Schenck, Latta, and the other semi-underground hitting remodelers who reached (as hitting coaches) or influenced the game don’t all reference Williams by name, but they and their disciples are Teddy Ballgame’s grandchildren. Diamond not only tells their stories empathetically and in a user-friendly, panoramic prose style, he tells their thinkings and teachings without pedantry or condescension.

He also knows that for all Williams’s genius the man wasn’t a great teacher. It was one thing for Williams to break his own theory into a book but it was something else to teach it in person. Away from the printed page, man to men, Williams was better at conveying the mental approach to hitting than in communicating the mechanics. It took others, Diamond writes, “to take Williams’s ideas and figure out a way to explain them so that people could actually understand—to couple the upswing with the ability to pass it on to others.”

If you’re about to think that Swing Kings is just a long and winding defense of what’s been known as the launch angle since 2015 (when Statcast introduced it), don’t. The very mention of launch angle drives critics either to drink or to attempted murder, but Diamond and the Swing Kings each would remind you that chasing launch angle alone is as hazardous to a hitter’s health as seeing nothing but launch angle in a swing is to coaches.

[S]imply chasing “launch angle” without a full understanding of how to do it is a good way to ruin a swing. After stories about [Justin] Turner’s and Martinez’s surges rocked the baseball landscape, plenty of hitters attempted to mimic their success by changing their swings to improve their launch angle—almost always without the assistance of an outside coach. Most saw their performance decline.

It’s for that reason that most of the renowned “Swing Kings” avoid talking about launch angle at all, creating a lovely bit of irony: the people most often thought of as disciples of launch angle don’t actually use the term . . . to describe what they do . . . Martinez, a hitter who understands a thing or two about the swing, said, “People don’t understand—they just say ‘launch angle swings’ without breaking down and understanding what they are and what they do’.”

The one thing the Swing Kings couldn’t always re-align with their disciples, alas, was the thing that Ted Williams knew was just as important to a genuinely great hitter were as the physics and mechanics of the craft. The Science of Hitting includes a chapter called “Three Rules to Hit By”—1) Get a good ball to hit. 2) Proper thinking. (Have you done your homework? What’s this guy’s best pitch? What did he get you out on last time?) 3) Be quick with the bat.

There are reasons why strikeouts climbed concurrent to home runs the last few years. Even the best of the Swing Kings’ disciples strike out too often, and on pitches they had little business trying to hit in the first place. There’s no disgrace in working out the base on balls if you don’t see a pitch you can nail no questions asked. The Swing Kings’ students’ discipline in refining their swings hasn’t always meant stronger plate discipline. (J.D. Martinez has almost a 3-1 strikeout-to-walk rate per 162 games; Aaron Judge: 2-to-1.)

“A good hitter,” Williams wrote, “can hit a pitch that is over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a questionable ball in a tough spot. Pitchers still make enough mistakes to give you some in your happy zone. But the greatest hitter living can’t hit bad balls good.” (In other words, among other things, Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Joe Medwick—two guys who could send pitches outside their ZIP codes for base hits or over the fence—were outliers.)

Not everything you do hit for a solid line drive or a climbing fly ball is going to land for hits, bound off the fence, or fly into the seats. On the other hand, which would you really prefer: a batter striking out a little too much, or a batter hitting into a few too many double plays?