Henry Aaron, RIP: Inimitable

As “715” blasted in neon on the scoreboard way behind them, the entire Dodger infield—including shortstop Bill Russell (left) and second baseman Davey Lopes—shook hands with Henry Aaron rounding the bases and past Babe Ruth at last.

“I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth,” the man once said. “I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.” Among many other things, we now get to remember that Henry Aaron won’t be on this island earth to celebrate with us what he deserved to celebrate untroubled.

Aaron died at 86 this morning, almost three and a half months before the golden anniversary of his own Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The idiot brigades robbed him of the pleasure of his original triumph, but Aaron’s dignitas robs them of their ability to keep a quietly proud man in what they only think is his place.

He may have been gracious hoping another would break the record he yanked from Ruth, but only one man can claim to have pushed Ruth out of the all-time Show home run record book. The man whose childhood poverty compelled him to teach himself baseball by hitting bottlecaps with sticks eventually hit 755 baseballs over fences, past foul poles, into bullpens, and into the seats.

That childhood in the deep South compelled among other unwarranted disgraces that Aaron’s mother had to tell him and his seven siblings to hide under beds whenever the Ku Klux Klan was on the march in the neighbourhood. A visit to his native Mobile, Alabama by Jackie Robinson in 1948 compelled him to live by learning first and baseball second.

Oops. Aaron skipped school to see Robinson and ended up expelled for truancy and moved to a private school. “Jackie was speaking at a drugstore, and I said, ‘I’m not going to get this opportunity again, so I better take my chances and listen to Jackie Robinson now.’ Little did I know, I got front row seats, and next to me was my father.” Double oops.

Like his fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who once said the only way he liked school as a boy was “closed,” Aaron was on a baseball or nothing mission from almost the outset.

He signed and lasted only a month with the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Leagues teams hanging in. He lasted only the month because Show scouts were on his trail and Boston Braves owner Lou Perini had to have him, outbidding any other comer to sign him. After a short spell in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron helped integrate the old and hostile Sally League (the South Atlantic League) and won its Most Valuable Player Award.

He became a Brave at twenty after the team moved to Milwaukee. He finished fourth in the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year award. He joined white teammate/future manager Eddie Mathews as the Show’s best pair of power teammates since Ruth and Lou Gehrig, whom they surpassed in due course. (Ruth and Gehrig as Yankees: 1,150 home runs between them. Aaron and Mathews as Braves: 1,226 home runs between them. Note: Gehrig as a Yankee and Mathews as a Brave hit the same number of home runs: 493.)

He played quietly, almost stoically through continuing racial growing pains, and finally swung against Cardinals pitcher Billy Muffett with one on in the bottom of the eleventh on 23 September 1957—and hit it over the center field fence to clinch a Braves pennant.

Those Braves would win the World Series and Aaron would be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. It was the only major league MVP he’d actually win, but from then through almost all his career to follow every season he played looked like an MVP season.

The Braves moving to Atlanta for 1966 didn’t thrill him, and well he might have been un-thrilled at returning to the South of his youth that still fought bitterly enough through its racist ways. Neither did a painful 1970 divorce. He resolved his fears the best ways he knew: he joined the civil rights movement quietly and continued playing baseball likewise.

Such contemporaries as Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays so often loomed more immediately and larger in the public eye and mind. The outwardly composed Aaron didn’t hit outrageous punt-like bombs; his once-fabled quick wrists produced howitzer-like line drives, even after he began to think of home runs more consciously in 1963.

He had his ways of brushing the racists to one side. “I never doubted my ability,” he once said, “but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.”

With Mantle retired and Banks, Killebrew and Mays beginning to show their age, 1970 was also the year Aaron became noticeable as the man most likely to pass Ruth’s career home run record. It was the year after Aaron’s Braves won the National League West in the Show’s first season of divisional play but got flattened in three straight by the Miracle Mets in the first National League Championship Series despite Aaron’s efforts. (He had a 1.500 OPS for the set with three home runs, five hits, and seven runs batted in.)

Aaron’s days of postseason baseball were over. He’d just have to settle for becoming a legend. A legend who played and swung through the vilest racists bent on stopping the black man from knocking the Sacred Babe to one side, to the point where police and the FBI had to stay close to the man whose career to date was less bigness than sustained high excellence.

A portrait of the artist as a young Brave.

He knew excellence when he saw it, too. When the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver introduced himself to Aaron at his first All-Star Game and one of Aaron’s 25, Aaron said it straight: “Kid, I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will know who you are, too.”

(Let the record show Aaron once said Seaver was the toughest pitcher he faced. Lifetime against Seaver, Aaron hit a mere .205 with a .281 on-base percentage, with four home runs and sixteen hits overall in 89 plate appearances. His guarantee was hardly unfounded.)

The man Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax nicknamed Bad Henry also played and swung through the most ignorant of the non-racists who yet believed nobody had any business swinging past the Sacred Babe. And, past the manipulators on his own team who wanted nothing less than the Hammer hammering his way to meet and pass Ruth before the home audience when 1974 opened for business.

The Braves were to open in Cincinnati for a set before opening at home. Aaron entered the season needing one home run to meet Ruth and one more to pass him. If then-Braves owner Bill Bartholomay could have gotten away with it, Aaron wouldn’t have poked his nose out of the Braves dugout until they were finished with the Reds and back in Atlanta.

Word of that plan reached three New York sportswriters, Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Dave Anderson of The New York Times; and, Larry Merchant of the New York Post. They said not so fast, post haste. They denounced the plan without softening their prose or apologizing for their stance, ramping up a drumbeat on behalf of convincing then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to head the Braves off at the pass.

It turned out Kuhn didn’t need much convincing. He told Bartholomay, Braves manager Mathews, and anyone else listening that the Braves better not even think about sending a lineup to the plate in Riverfront Stadium without H. Aaron on the card. A fourth New York writer, Red Smith of the Times, nailed the point emphatically:

He explained to Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher might have been Atlanta’s sportswriting dean in that time and place, but he placed himself squarely on the wrong side of the line. Bisher led an equally passionate counterattack, denouncing the New York writers as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who would do better to demand the cleanup of Times Square before criticizing the sainted Braves one of whom was about to blast the Big Fella out of the books without wearing a uniform from New York.

Aaron had spent his entire career to that point helping to prove further that black men belonged in the Show and were perfectly capable of competing and winning with honour and talent, and Bisher and his like spent their own credibility defending a team determined to cheapen true competition so a black man could break a sacred sports record on home grounds.

Aaron squared off in the top of the first against the Reds’ Jack Billingham, a pitcher against whom he’d already hit four major league home runs. He hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up, 3-0. After he rounded the bases his congratulators included Kuhn himself. Mathews sat Aaron out of the second game in the three-game set, gaining a direct order from Kuhn to put him in the third-game lineup.

He struck out twice and grounded out once, fairly and squarely, but Kuhn’s protection of his and the game’s integrity made him wary of going to Atlanta to see Aaron get the Big One. He looked and sounded clumsy saying he’d had a previous engagement. If he’d only said honestly that he didn’t want to distract from Aaron’s achievement, it would have been better.

Every racist, every shill, every manipulator, everyone who thought a quiet guy who didn’t want to eat, drink, or fornicate the world out of house and home had no business busting the record of the loud lout who set it in the first place got it jammed right back down their throats when Aaron squared off against Dodgers lefthander Al Downing with one aboard and nobody out opening the bottom of the fourth.

Nobody described what happened next better than Dodgers broadcast virtuoso Vin Scully:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, and he’s low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . .

What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.

Henry and Billye Aaron, circa 2002.

Two young fans hit the field to run the bases with the new home run king; Aaron’s bodyguard sat in the stands with a hand on his pistol until he was sure the two young white men were there to love, not kill him. Aaron plunged across the plate into a crowd of teammates through which his parents managed to plow before his mother, Stella, hugged him to plant a big kiss on her son’s face.

“I don’t remember the noise,” Aaron said later. “Or the two kids that ran on the field. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there and she hugging me. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”

He’d retire two years later with 755 home runs and a truckload of further black ink on his resume. He remains baseball’s all time champion for total bases and runs batted in. He was a four-time single-season home run champion, he led his league in slugging four times, OPS three, and total bases eight. His Real Batting Average (RBA)—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—is .624. It’s also the second-best RBA among any Hall of Fame right fielder who played all or most of his career post-integration/post-World War II/night-ball. (Number one: Hall of Famer Stan Musial.)

Aaron wasn’t entirely wrong when he once wondered whether baseball truly appreciated who and what he was. He’d become the Show’s first African-American farm director but bristled quietly over how slow it was to embrace integrating front offices. Yet he was an annual Hall of Fame presence since his own election in 1992, and people of all races in and out of the game sought him out to pick his mind and savour his presence.

They often discovered Aaron belied his public image of composure with a fine, dry wit. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball,” he once said. “I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”

Whether squaring off against the best pitchers in the league yet giving his teammates the bigger credit for team conquests, or taking a COVID-19 vaccination shot, Aaron saw the bigger picture. “I feel wonderful,” he said as he took the needle on 5 January. “It makes you feel like you are doing something not only to help yourself, but to help your community.”

When his former Brewers boss Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner, Selig’s mistakes may have been legion but it was no mistake that Selig went out of his way to celebrate Aaron. He created the Hank Aaron Award handed since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league—its birth was on the silver anniversary of Aaron passing Ruth.

Aaron re-married happily in 1973; he and his wife, Billye, a former television journalist, had the fourth of Aaron’s three children. He enjoyed business success after his playing days, too, building a successful group of BMW dealerships in Georgia. When he played, he kept a book of Christian inspiration in his locker, Thomas a Kepmis’s The Imitation of Christ. Appropriate choice, that. Nobody could imitate either the saviour in whom Aaron believed devoutly or Aaron himself.

Lord, our grief on earth is too profound that a third Hall of Famer who defeated all who’d deflate him is brought home in just this year’s first month. But our comfort is that You have brought him home to be serene, happy, and swinging for the fences in the Elysian Fields, and that Your forgiven servant Ruth received him with a cold beer, a hearty embrace, and a garrulous “That’s the way to do it, kiddo.”

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A very few portions of this essay have been published previously.

Don Sutton, RIP: Craftsman (har, har)

Don Sutton only looked like a surfer dude.

Last year’s sad parade of Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields waited at least until spring to begin. This year’s began with the year a mere seven days old and the nation battered by the Capitol riot a day earlier. Tommy Lasorda died of heart failure on 7 January; one of his pitchers, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, died of cancer Tuesday night.

Sutton got to the Hall of Fame by way of his unique durability. In 23 major league seasons he didn’t miss a starting assignment until his last season, 1988. He earned credit for 324 wins despite having a 20-win season only once (in 1976, winning 21). He led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio and four in walks/hits per inning pitched but never led in strikeouts while leading his league in earned run average only once.

That’s despite spending his career in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. Sutton wasn’t too gapingly different on the road; enemy batters hit .247 against him on their home turf and .226 against him on his home turf, with a .606 OPS on his grounds and a .678 OPS on theirs. His forte was workman-like speed changing, smarts, and guile, heh heh heh.

As of this morning, Baseball-Reference lists Sutton as the number 73 starting pitcher of all time with the most-similar pitcher being fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Most similar doesn’t exactly mean equal value, of course; Perry is slightly above the peak and career value averages for Hall of Fame pitchers and Sutton is somewhat below those averages.

All aboard for fun time? Like Perry, Sutton was suspected very frequently of, shall we say, extracurricular craftsmanship on the mound. Like Perry, Sutton knew how to ride the suspicions well enough, even if he wasn’t half as dedicated to psychological warfare as Perry was.

Both men had mischievous senses of humour about the suspicions versus the actualities. If Perry titled his memoir Me and the Spitter and went through a famous series of motions from head to torso when he wanted hitters just to think he was going to grease them, Sutton didn’t have any particular trademark suspect gestures.

Perry looked like the Carolinas peanut farmer he was in the off-season; Sutton, despite his Alabama sharecropping roots, resembled the classic California surf rat from his rookie season to his Hall of Fame induction speech. Perry preferred to live rent-free in a hitter’s head; Sutton preferred tweaking the powers that were.

Sutton took to leaving tiny notes in the fingers of his glove for umpires to discover when they or a protesting manager thought it wise to have him patted down and frisked on the mound. A classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”

After frequent enough accusations that “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it,” Sutton actually got just that. “The only fun I get now,” he once said to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find them when they search me.”

“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Nobody expected Sutton to sue longtime respected umpire Doug Harvey when the latter ejected him over a “defaced” ball in 1978. While pitching against the Cardinals and leading 2-1 in the seventh on 14 July, Harvey gave Sutton the ho-heave. “I’m not saying Sutton was defacing it,” Harvey told reporters. “I’m saying he was pitching a defaced baseball and the rules state that anyone pitching a defaced ball shall be ejected from the park.”

United Press said the “defacement” may have involved Sutton scratching a mark into the ball with his fingernail. “I have one thing to say and then no questions,” he told reporters. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs the umpiring.”

Said Lasorda, who played the game under protest: “[Harvey] is judge and jury, and depriving Sutton of his right to pitch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that; it’s the first time he’s ever been ejected.”

“It was not the first confrontation over doctored balls between Harvey and Sutton,” UPI noted. “At other times in his twelve‐year career, the pitcher has been accused of scratching the ball with his fingernail to rough the surface for a better grip.”

Sutton’s lawsuit didn’t exactly set new legal precedent. It didn’t exactly get far enough to set one, let us say. Since the only verified implement he used was his fingernail, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of applying a foreign substance. (“I don’t use foreign substances,” one-time Yankee pitcher George Frazier snarked. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”)

But about a decade later, when Sutton was an Angel after some traveling from the Dodgers to the Astros, the Brewers, and the Athletics, he squared off in Anaheim Stadium against Tommy John, a former Dodger teammate then with the Yankees, and a pitcher Boswell described as able “to turn a tiny scratch into a double play grounder.”

Sutton during his years as a popular Braves broadcaster.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, watching from his Tampa home, decided Sutton was being a little too blatant about things, calling the Yankee dugout and manager Lou Piniella. Steinbrenner demanded Piniella have Sutton frisked, arrested, arraigned, bound over, tried, convicted, and executed on the spot. Piniella tried to reason with The Boss.

“George, do you know what the score is?” Piniella asked, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, referring to the early 1-0 Yankee lead. “George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ’s doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

John was lifted after six and a third innings; Sutton pitched seven full. Each man surrendered a pair of earned runs, including Sutton surrendering a bomb to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. After the 3-2 Yankee win, Madden and Klein recorded, a scout in the press box said, “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Sutton may have been puckish about his reputation for baseball carpentry but he often admitted candidly that he took baseball to be serious work perhaps too often. He was described often enough as a kind of blithe spirit but it seems to have been his way of protecting himself against the contradictions of the jock shop.

“[M]ost of us have similar abilities,” he once said, of fellow ballplayers and of people in general. “The differences are mental and emotional and the big thing is mental preparation. That’s where everything starts: the poise, the confidence, the concentration.” It didn’t hurt that Sutton’s rookie 1966 saw him the number four man behind a pair of Hall of Famers named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and a stolid number three in Claude Osteen, either.

Raised a devout Christian, Sutton didn’t buy into Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky routines or the manager’s celebrity style, probably because his first manager Walter Alston was the polar opposite and a man Sutton respected deeply for rejecting celebrity and respecting his players as men. Sutton often called Alston the most secure man he’d ever met in baseball and praised the manager for keeping problems and questions with his players behind closed doors.

Sometimes, Sutton discovered the hard way that a little honesty can get you into a nasty spat. When he was an Astro and admitted he hoped he could finish his career on the West Coast where his wife and children still lived, it provoked Astros general manager Al Rosen—who once ended his playing career early due to injuries and a desire to be more a family man—to spar with him in the press.

When still a Dodger in 1978, Sutton said candidly and somewhat benignly that similarly quiet outfielder Reggie Smith was the actual most valuable Dodger, praising the talented and silent Smith because he wasn’t “a facade or a Madison Avenue image.” Taken as the thinly-veiled poke at popular first baseman Steve Garvey that it was, it triggered a clubhouse argument turned brawl between Sutton and Garvey.

John once said that during the worst of the brawl, an unidentified Dodger hollered to break it up because they might kill each other—to which catcher Joe Ferguson replied, “Good.” The problem was that Sutton was actually right. Garvey’s OPS was .843 and his OPS+ for 1977-78 was 130. For the same two seasons, Smith’s OPS was .974 and his OPS+ was 165. Garvey also hit into 22 more double plays than Smith in that span, too. Garvey was worth 8.5 wins above replacement-level for those two seasons, but Smith was worth 10.6.

“I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this had to happen,” Sutton told reporters subsequently. “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a Christian, to be right.” That from the pitcher who once ruffled feathers, especially Lasorda’s, by saying unapologetically, “I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

“It took a big man to say what Don said,” said Lasorda himself, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutton, “and it took God to inspire him to say it.”

Sutton’s post-pitching life was mostly as a popular Braves broadcaster, where their fans reveled as much in Sutton’s easygoing repartee as in the turnaround of the Braves from the gutter to greatness. (The Braves elected him to their team Hall of Fame in due course.) He was also an enthusiastic Hall of Fame presence following his own election in 1998.

As a rookie during the once-fabled Koufax-Drysdale joint contract holdout of spring 1966, Sutton took the long view in due course. “Baseball players today,” he told Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, “owe a lot to Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But Flood, Messersmith, and McNally owed a lot to Koufax and Drysdale. Because they were the first guys who really took a stand. This was the first challenge to the structure of baseball.”

At the Hall of Fame Sutton let himself be plain human. In the same speech in which he thanked Koufax for teaching him how to act like a baseball professional, he began by saying, “I’ve wanted this for forty years. Why am I now shaking like a leaf?” Then, he answered his own question: “I think part of it is because I’m standing in front of some of the people who were the greatest artists in a wonderful business that I’ve ever seen before.”

The man who often called himself a journeyman hack appreciated the art of the game, and of his own craft, after all. May the Lord in whom his faith was profound enough have welcomed Sutton home with the same appreciation.

Old sexts mean new unemployment

Imagine for one moment an otherwise bright child who’s made mistakes as most children make, bright or otherwise. He comes home from whatever he was doing with his friends, but he discovers an old incident he thought passed without notice or consequence was now unearthed, and his father demands accountability.

Let’s say it was something like giving a push back to that cute but obnoxious little girl who decided the way to make friends and attract the opposite sex was to push, shove, or even punch. He took it long enough because he was taught young gentlemen do not push, shove, or punch young ladies, but he finally got fed up with this particular chick who didn’t know the meaning of the words “knock it off.”

Nobody was truly harmed. It’s not as though she’d shoved him out of third-story windows, it’s not as though he finally dragged her to the nearest open window on the sixth floor. But somebody, who knows whom, let the ancient push back slip within his father’s earshot, and Dad confronts him subsequently giving him minus two seconds to explain himself.

Aware that the conversation is about a comparatively ancient error, he gives the deets straight, no chaser, certain that no father in his right mind would even think about punitive action regarding such a cobwebbed misstep. But he discovers the hard way how wrong he is when Dad pounces, pronounces him grounded for the rest of the forthcoming month, and fans his behind rather mercilessly for an exclamation point.

The boy repairs to his room with more than just a chastened ego and a very sore bottom. He’s between rage and sorrow because it was only a foolish mistake, not exactly the crime of the season. He pushed back after taking it long enough, but it didn’t make him any less a young gentleman or prove he had murder in his heart.

You might want to contemplate that when you wonder whether the Mets went a few bridges too far firing general manager Jared Porter Tuesday morning—almost a fortnight after he and the Mets delivered the trade of the winter bringing Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco aboard—over infractions he committed while he was the Cubs’ director of professional scouting four years ago.

Our hypothetical push-back kid merely responded in kind at long enough last. Porter wasn’t pushed. He sent, shall we say, naughty/nasty sexual images among 62 text  messages to a young woman working as a reporter whose only provocation, if we can call it that, was exchanging business cards on the pretext of coming discussion about international baseball scouting.

The lady discovered the hard way that Porter had amorous designs upon her and didn’t readily take “no” for an answer or ignorance as a subtle hint.She was a foreign correspondent come to the United States for the first time, assigned specifically to cover the Show. She had no idea going in that she’d run into more than a few Porter screwballs on the low inside corner.

“The text relationship started casually before Porter, then the Chicago Cubs director of professional scouting, began complimenting her appearance, inviting her to meet him in various cities and asking why she was ignoring him,” say ESPN writers Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan. “And the texts show she had stopped responding to Porter after he sent a photo of pants featuring a bulge in the groin area.”

Kimes and Passan say ESPN knew of the Porter texts to her in December 2017 and thought about reporting them until she told the network she feared her career would be harmed. She has since left journalism, though Kimes and Passan say she’s kept in touch with ESPN concurrently and went public only under anonymous cover, fearing backlash in her home country.

“My number one motivation is I want to prevent this from happening to someone else,” she’s quoted as saying. “Obviously, [Porter]’s in a much greater position of power. I want to prevent that from happening again. The other thing is, I never really got the notion that he was truly sorry.

“I know in the U.S., there is a women’s empowerment movement. But in [my home country], it’s still far behind,” she continued. “Women get dragged through the mud [in my country] if your name is associated with any type of sexual scandal. Women are the ones who get fingers pointed at them. I don’t want to go through the victimization process again. I don’t want other people to blame me.”

The Mets hired Porter in December, from the Diamondbacks, for whom he worked as an assistant GM since 2017. On Monday night, Porter told ESPN that yes, he’d texted with her, but no, he hadn’t sent any pictures, until he was told their exchanges included selfies and other images, at which point he said, “the more explicit ones are not of me. Those are like, kinda like joke-stock images.”

Mets owner Steve Cohen isn’t exactly laughing, tweeting Tuesday morning, “We have terminated Jared Porter this morning. In my initial press conference I spoke about the importance of integrity and I meant it. There should be zero tolerance for this type of behavior.” Especially since, speaking metaphorically, the lady didn’t exactly push, shove, or punch Porter first all those years ago.

The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal says the lady had an ally in a baseball player from her home country, who helped her create a rather forceful message to Porter back when that Porter didn’t exactly heed at first: “This is extremely inappropriate, very offensive, and getting out of line. Could you please stop sending offensive photos or msg.” He’s said to have apologised to her much later.

“Colleagues of mine who are women use words such as ‘tired’ and ‘exhausted’ to describe their daily struggle to be treated the same as men, to command the same respect when they walk into a clubhouse, to do their jobs without facing sexual provocation,” Rosenthal adds. “They are professionals, not playthings.”

It’s one thing to ask a lady for a date. It’s another thing to try your best to change her mind if she says “no.” But turning from there to hot pursuit sexting is something entirely different and disturbing.

The Mets were unaware of Porter’s sexually explicit hot pursuit until Monday. They cut Porter loose early enough the morning after. A 7:30 a.m. Eastern time firing happens when enough New Yorkers have barely finished coffee at the breakfast table before rumbling out  hoping for just a little more snooze on the subway before work.

Some think the Mets could have been aware of Porter’s old lewd hot pursuit sooner. Some think Cohen and company have surrendered to cancel culture, to which Cohen had a reply when one indignant tweeter demanded to know Porter’s path to redemption “now that his life has been ruined.”

“I have no idea,” Cohen replied, though surely he knows Porter’s redemption is likelier to come away from baseball than within it, as second chances so often do. “I have an organization of 400 employees that matter more than any one individual. No action [taken] would set a poor example to the culture I’m trying to build.”

A subsequent tweeter isolated a parallel point addressed directly to the demand for a path to redemption: “As someone who is 100% opposed to cancel culture, this is a ridiculous thing to say. Jared brought this on himself. His path to redemption is on him. This has nothing to do with cancel culture.”

Others think the Mets in the Cohen era have now become the essence of decisive action when made aware of such wrongdoing. The joke is kinda like on Porter now. But nobody’s laughing.

Tommy Lasorda, RIP: “I made guys believe”

Tommy Lasorda (right) shares a handshake with Sandy Koufax near the Dodger clubhouse. “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me,” Lasorda loved to boast about Koufax’s bonus signing leading to Lasorda’s spring 1955 cut from the major league roster. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo.)

Last year’s losses of seven Hall of Fame players (eight, if Dick Allen is elected by the Modern Era Committee this year) were bad enough. Please, Lord, let Tommy Lasorda not begin a 2021 trend of Hall of Fame managers departing our island earth.

The odds may not be very good there. There are only four living Hall of Fame managers now that Lasorda is gone at 93: Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre. Cox, Herzog, and Torre remain elder statesmen of a sort. La Russa has returned to the game to manage the White Sox, hardly without controversy.

Lasorda took the Dodgers’ bridge from Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston in 1976. Twenty-two years later, he retired as an eight-time division winner, four-time pennant winner and two-time World Series winner. It didn’t exactly come the easy way for a man whose major league life began as the marginal relief pitcher cut for a bonus baby.

Under the 1950s bonus rule mandating players kept on big-league rosters two full seasons if their bonuses were higher than $4,000, the Dodgers had to keep such a green lad after signing him for 1955. The man they cut was Lasorda, who’s said to have taken one look at the kid and said, “He’ll never make it.”

It might have taken six seasons for the kid to come into his own and beyond, but the kid was Sandy Koufax. It wouldn’t be the last time Lasorda gave himself the chance to dine out on an old mistake in judgment.

“I did not have a lot of ability, but I’ll guarantee you one thing,” Lasorda said in 1997 when recalling his own pitching days. “When I stood on that hill of thrills, I didn’t believe that there was any man alive who could hit me. And if they did hit me, which they did, I thought it was an accident.” That from the man who dined out further on Koufax, saying, “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me.”

Lasorda’s three major league seasons—eight games with 1954-55 with the Dodgers, then eighteen with the 1956 Kansas City Athletics—show 53 accidents while facing 253 batters and posting a lifetime 6.48 earned run average.

Maybe it depended upon whom you asked. To Dodger fans Lasorda was the second-closest thing to a franchise face behind Koufax himself. To non-Dodger fans, Lasorda was either loved, tolerated, or waved away. Dodger fans loved Lasorda’s “Big Dodger in the Sky” schpritzing. Non-Dodger fans thought it was either sacrilege or malarkey.

Come to think of it, not all Lasorda’s players bought into it, either. “I believe in God,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, “not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

Lasorda was nothing if not both content to be a Dodger for the rest of his life, after his playing career ended in the minors in 1960, and to be Tommy Lasorda. He wasn’t exactly one of the most modest of men, and he rarely apologised for it.

When Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully asked about the pressure of following Alston—who’d won the only Brooklyn Dodgers World Series and three more to follow in Los Angeles—the reply was almost classic Lasorda: “I’m not worried about the guy I am following. I’m worried about the guy that is going to have to follow me.”

Well, it isn’t bragging if you can kinda sorta do it.

That’s not to say Lasorda couldn’t be humbled when humility was the mandate. Maybe no manager this side of John McNamara was as humilitated in the 1980s as Lasorda was with the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh National League Championship Series game in 1985.

With two Cardinals on and first base open, Lasorda decided it was absolutely safe to let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark instead of putting Clark aboard to pitch to Andy Van Slyke. And Jack the Ripper decided it was perfectly safe to hit Niedenfuer’s first pitch three quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

“Lasorda wept in the clubhouse,” wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post several years later, “went to the players to apologise, then went on with his life. At the moment he manages the [1988] world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.”

The skipper who looked more like he’d be coming out to chat with you in his neighbourly Italian restaurant (“Two World Series Rings. Ate everything he wanted. Drank everything he wanted. 70 Years in the same work uniform. Lived For 93 Years. Absolute Legend,” tweeted sports business analyst Darren Rovell) loved being Tommy Lasorda almost as much as he loved the Dodgers.

He brought Hollywood back to the Dodgers once he realised the celebrities got as much of a kick out of him as he got out of them, and he wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet when it came to being an occasional pitchman. The problem—particularly remembering his once-familiar spots for Slim-Fast diet drink—was that he didn’t always shrink.

Of course, Lasorda’s celebrity provoked a little friendly mischief aimed his way by players who couldn’t resist tweaking him. His late utility outfielder Jay Johnstone often conspired with teammates Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse and Jerry Reuss to swipe Lasorda’s wall of photos with him and various celebrities and substitute photos of themselves in their stead. And those were the more benign pranks at the skipper’s expense.

Which didn’t stop Lasorda from writing the introduction to Johnstone’s first book, Temporary Insanity: “[He] wrote a book? What with, a fire extinguisher? . . . What’s that they say about marching to a different drummer? Johnstone must hear a symphony out there . . . That’s some book title. But I’m not so sure about the temporary part.”

The skipper’s outsize personality sometimes masked that he was as inclusive and unprejudiced as the week was long. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, brown, beige, yellow, or paisley, whether you came from flyover America, urban America, outback Mexico, downtown Tokyo, or the penguins of Antarctica. (Which may be where some people thought the Dodgers found 1970s third base mainstay Ron [The Penguin] Cey.) If you could play to the standard the Dodgers prescribed, Lasorda wanted you in the worst way possible.

He preferred positive reinforcement with his players, which didn’t necessarily keep him from reading the proverbial riot act when necessary. There were times when those players perceived as Lasorda pets enjoyed less than consistently friendly relationships with others in the Dodger clubhouse. Sutton and longtime first baseman Steve Garvey didn’t have a clubhouse brawl once upon a time because Lasorda could make them  bosom buddies.

“I made guys believe; I made them believe they could win,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I did it by motivating them. I was asked all the time, ‘You mean baseball players that make $5 million, $8 million, $10 million a year need to be motivated?’ They do. That’s what I did.”

It’s not unreasonable to suggest Lasorda’s presence at last fall’s World Series had even a little hand in pushing the Dodgers back to the Promised Land they hadn’t seen since Lasorda himself managed Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and company in 1988.

“He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher,” Scully said in a statement upon Lasorda’s death. “He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent, and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

There were if someone went nuclear against his Dodgers with bombs that didn’t sail foul.   Lasorda’s wild postgame rant after then-Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman destroyed the Dodgers with three mammoth home runs starting in the sixth inning of a fifteen-inning marathon in 1979—the Cubs won in the fifteenth after Kingman hit a three-run shot—is considered one of the greatest managerial fly acts in baseball history:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

Lasorda probably survived only because a) he was the defending National League champions’ manager, b) he had his Dodgers in the thick of the National League West race at the time, and c) he was Tommy Lasorda, liable to go from celebrity pennant winning skipper to everybody’s crazy uncle on the terrazza in the proverbial New York minute.

The hapless Los Angeles radio reporter who asked Lasorda the fateful question was Paul Olden. When Lasorda ran into Olden at a subsequent charity dinner, Lasorda apologised to Olden, even as the reporter admitted it wasn’t a brilliant question in the first place. In due course, Lasorda expanded upon it:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

That tells you something right there. Tommy Lasorda may have been one of baseball’s most unforgettable managers, but he had a sense of humour about it, even delayed, if you weren’t always inclined to agree with him.

Which is why he now steps through the gates to the Elysian Fields with the Lord in whom he devoutly believes saying, “For you, I’ll be the Big Dodger in the Sky. Better that than a bum.”

On renaming the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

A Red Smith Award or Wendell Smith Award for Hall of Fame writers?

Did you forget that the Baseball Writers Association of America is thinking of changing the name of another award, too? Much was written and said over taking Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name off the Most Valuable Player award, and the BBWAA also ponders taking J.G. Taylor Spink’s name off the Hall of Fame award given to a distinguished baseball writer every year.

Being a baseball writer myself if not a member of the BBWAA, I have particular interest in the Spink Award, even if I have more chance of winning the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary than the Spink. The BBWAA wants to change the name because Spink himself, the longtime publisher of The Sporting News, opposed “organised baseball’s” integration, and they are not wrong.

“In August 1942 [Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands,” Daryl Russell Grigsby reminded us in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball. ” . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

Claire Smith, an African-American lady and the first of her gender to receive the Spink Award, has nailed it herself. “If this is the time of introspection,’’ she told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last summer, “if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.” If Landis can be removed from the MVP award because of his active enforcement of baseball’s old and disgraceful colour line, then yes, Spink can be removed from the Hall of Fame honourarium still bearing his name.

The BBWAA is voting on that as I write. Remove Spink’s name, though, and for whom would you re-name the award?

With the MVP the choices may be simpler. You can choose Happy Chandler, the commissioner who refused to disallow Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the colour line at last; you can choose Rickey himself. You can choose instead the African-American player who remains the only one to win the MVP in each of the National and the American Leagues, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

The choices to re-name the Spink Award? One can think of quite the handful, Spink winners all, including a Pulitzer Prize winner or three while thinking.

There’s Red Smith, as close to a poet laureate of daily baseball writing as the game has known from his years with the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times. There’s Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times fixture whose wit made you think he was what Fred Allen might have been if Allen had chosen sportswriting instead of radio comedy. There’s Shirley Povich, the grand old man of Washington baseball, who practically raised the Washington Post‘s sports section by himself. Practically.

There’s Damon Runyon, who wrote eloquently, edgily, and wittily about baseball when he wasn’t celebrating Broadway. (You really should hunt down his anthology, Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) There’s Ring Lardner, baseball storyteller and reporter alike, at least before the Black Sox scandal put the first serious dent into his love of the game. (The live ball era finished what the Black Sox started for Lardner.)

There’s Wendell Smith, whose reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier was a phenomenal pressure point toward baseball’s integration, which also begs the question why the best of his baseball writings haven’t been anthologised for today’s generations who need to know the arguable most powerful black press voice toward Jackie Robinson’s advent.

There’s Smith’s African-American colleague Sam Lacy, who did with the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Smith did with the Courier. He became one of the first black members of the BBWAA while he was at it. (Lacy published a memoir, but his baseball and sports journalism, too, has yet to be anthologised so far as I know.)

And, especially, there’s Roger Angell, about whom it’s been said (by me, to a fare-thee-well, but tough tarantulas) that he isn’t baseball’s Homer, Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell. He was also the first non-BBWAA member and first non-daily baseball reporter to be honoured with the Spink Award.

Any one of those writers’ names would absolutely grace the award. But I have another dog in the hunt, by way of a journalism legend named Murray Kempton.

Kempton once attended the Meyer Berger Award luncheon at Columbia University. His Newsday colleague Jim Dwyer heard him say, “You know, I never won the Berger Award.” A New York Times honouree, Sara Rimer, said, “Murray, you just won the Pulitzer!” The courtly Kempton reminded her, “The Pulitzer is named for a publisher. The Meyer Berger is named for a reporter.”

In 1993, Kempton told David Remnick for a New Yorker profile (which included the aforementioned tale), during one of New York’s too-frequent tabloid wars, “In the end, my view of this so-called tabloid war is that I just don’t consider the character of publishers. I’m rooting for my friends—the reporters.”

(Harking back to a 1962 issue of Sport, Kempton wrote then of the Polo Grounds’ re-opening with the birth of the Mets: The return of the Polo Grounds to the National League was like the raising of a sunken cathedral. It is a place sacred in the history and hallowed in the memory. Christy Mathewson used to make his home on the bluff above the Polo Grounds. When he was working, Mrs. Mathewson could look out her window at the scoreboard and, when the seventh inning came, put the roast in the oven secure in the knowledge that her husband would be finished and showered and home from the plough in an hour.)

For re-naming the Spink Award, I’m rooting for my kindred, too—the reporters.