Brian Snitker hates to bunt. He’s right

This gentleman despises bunting. So should you.

Brian Snitker will not have to worry about putting food on the table for an extra two years. The Braves have extended their manager two more seasons, through the end of 2023, and with an option for 2024. He’s worth it not just because he’s returned the Braves to National League East excellence, but because he hates the bunt.

In 605 opportunities during the pan-damn-ic truncated 2020 season, the Braves tried exactly one sacrifice bunt. Partly because last year the universal designated hitter rendered the bunt superfluous, mostly because a bunt to Snitker is about as useful as a diving board aboard a Boeing 787.

Two seasons ago, Charlie Culberson attempted a bunt against Washington reliever Fernando Rodney. Culberson squared to bunt with his bat up high enough that the foul bunted ball caught him right in the kisser. That may have convinced Snitker even more that bunting should go the way of the streetcar. Though it’d be more fun to see streetcars come back than bunts to metastasise again.

An injury such as happened to Culberson is rather rare. But bunts would be entirely rare if Snitker has anything to say about it. Speaking for myself, I can think of only three times I’d really want a man at the plate dropping a bunt anymore, and I’ll get there in due course.

Essentially, baseball’s bunt is somewhat like football’s punt. Hands up to football fans who think it’s ridiculous for teams to punt on fourth down without at least a cursory stab at going for it when they’re a) inside enemy territory with seven or less to go; b) inside the enemy 33 with ten or less; or, c) fourth and four or less anywhere. (University of California-Berkeley economist David Romer thought of those scenarios, answering “yes.”)

In football—punt ball, surrender ball. In baseball—bunt ball, surrender out. “With even a successful bunt,” wrote Brian Kenny in Ahead of the Curve, his remarkable study of baseball foolishness, “you are giving up an out. It feels good—you can actually see your baserunner move closer to scoring. What you don’t see is that one-third of your resources have been spent.”

Between 1993 and 2010, Kenny observed, you could actually expect less than a run bunting with a man on first and no outs or a man on second with one out. (Man on first, no outs, and a bunt: 0.94 runs expected; man on second, one out, and a bunt: 0.72 runs expected.) In the same time frame, bunting with a man on first and nobody out and bunting with a man on second and one out accounted for less than half of the scoring.

“Even when the bunt moves the runner over,” Kenny wrote, “it lessens your chance of scoring a run. You are working against your own goals.” Managers bunted witlessly for decades, Kenny wrote, because of three benefits: ducking blame for failure, getting credit for success, and looking like geniuses doing it. Even if the next men up couldn’t cash in the run. Even though the manager handed the other team a gift.

That’s bad enough early in the game. In the late innings, if you haven’t emptied your bench yet, and you’ve got a comparative spaghetti bat due up to hit, you’d better pinch hit for that spaghetti bat with someone who isn’t on the payroll to bunt. (Keith Law, in Smart Baseball: “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wants to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)

If you don’t have a spaghetti bat on deck but you’ve got a solid hitter who can do some clutch hitting, you’re not sending him up there to bunt . . . unless you’d like to try the impossible and get yourself beaten senseless by someone with two brain cells for which to arrange a dinner date. Why impossible? Because nobody can be beaten into a pre-existing condition.

If you’re foolish enough to send that solid hitter up with orders to bunt, and you have another solid bat behind him, that solid bat behind your bunter is liable to be put aboard on the house to set up a double play prospect. Unless you have a lineup of nine Mike Trouts, it forces you to hope that the lesser hitter to follow all that gets you the unlikely clutch hit. It’s not unheard of, of course, but it’s usually as likely as Alcoholics Anonymous opening a wet bar after a group meeting.

There are only three times to want anyone up there even thinking about bunting:

1) Against one of those defensive overshifts. Leaving your guy at the plate acres of virgin frontier, why not let him bunt? Hell—why not order him to bunt? Tell him you’ll shoot him doornail if he doesn’t bunt when presented with that.

Show me a bunt onto that delicious wilderness, I’ll show you a man on first at minimum, on the house. If they’re fool enough to open those plains with a man on, it’s first and second or better on the house. Show me enough bunts like those, I’ll show you the pending end of the overshifts.

Don’t be afraid of such a bunt even if the other guys have a no-hitter going in the late innings. They want to give you presents even with a no-hitter, take them. Let it be on their heads. If they want to arrest you for breaking one of the Sacred Unwritten Rules, tell them you’re not above a little Fun Police brutality.

2) Against infielders with weak throwing arms or concrete for hands. If the other guys have such infielders, you should really wonder whether their GM was kidnapped and replaced by Mr. Magoo.

Bunting against them may not be the kindest or gentlest play, and reaching on an error won’t do a thing for a batter’s final seasonal resume, but he’ll reach base of it. If there’s a man on, you’ll get someone closer to home if not coming home without wasting an out.

3) Against the other guys smelling bunt and putting the old wheel play on. Baseline fielders shoot down the lines, middle infielders run away from second base to cover the baseline pillows. If they put it on, show bunt, watch them shoot down and toward the lines—then pull back the minute the pitcher comes to the plate and just put the bat on the ball.

It was just such a fake bunt that Mets relief pitcher Jesse Orosco made into a six or seven hop single up the abandoned pipe to drive a second insurance run home in the bottom of the eighth in Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Don’t start jumping up and down hollering “let the pitchers hit!”—Orosco was a lifetime .161 hitter who was probably lucky to average 22 plate appearances per 162 games in the first place.)

Now, if only Snitker would start or continue agitating for the universal designated hitter. Once and for all, let’s be done with all those pitchers at the plate making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. Let’s have Snitker and his peers relieved of the burden of watching their rallies getting murdered because their number eight bats got pitched around so the other guys’ pitchers can strike their peers out for side retired.

The Man of Steal flew like Superman on the bases—mostly without bunting his way aboard, either.

Myth busted, by the way: You can have speed on the bases without bunts. You usually try to bat the swiftest you’ve got leadoff, right? You can also have smarts on the bases without bunts. Put the swiftest and smartest man you have in the leadoff spot. Let him swat or walk his way aboard, then turn his tail loose. You don’t have to waste outs to do that.

Consider: Rickey Henderson. The arguable greatest leadoff hitter of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. The greatest speed merchant and larcenist the game may ever have seen. Not exactly one of the world’s most passionate bunters. (I calculated his batting average on bunts—BuBA—by dividing the bunts he beat out for hits by his total bunt attempts.)

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
Rickey Henderson 49 30 26 4 .082

You’d think a Hall of Famer who could fly like Superman up the line and around the bases might try more, right? Wrong. The Man of Steal wasn’t going to get all that much to bunt with in the first place. A man with 3,055 lifetime hits didn’t earn his bread and butter because he let anyone convince him, “Let’s work on those bunts, brah.”

Let’s not go there about “productive outs,” either. The only true situation where an out’s as good as a hit is a sacrifice fly. No batter’s going up to the plate with a man on third thinking to himself boy, those fools who said I couldn’t hit, I’ll show them—with a nice neat sacrifice fly. No fans pay their way into the ballpark to chant Sac fly! Sac fly! either.

The ground out pushing a runner or two closer to home? Sure, it’s nice. If and when it happens. That, too, gives you one less out to work with, and that wasn’t in your plans. Now tell me you wouldn’t rather have a base hit or a walk. If your answer’s yes, tell me you’d rather have two than three outs to work with in the ninth.

If your answer’s yes to that, you might be one of those thinking baseball was never better than when the ball was dead. Well, now. Let me show you the Show’s all-time bunt leader.  (512 lifetime in 25 MLB seasons.) Let me show you what he did in a verifiable fifteen-year span. And, let me show you what it was really worth with that available record.

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
Eddie Collins (1916-30) 222 184 168 16 .072

Yep, I threw you a ringer. But bunt lovers deserve it. (Stathead Baseball, my source for Collins and Henderson, goes back only as far as 1916.)

Collins played almost two-thirds of his career in the dead ball era. Maybe from force of habit he kept up his bunt happiness as the live ball era kicked into overdrive, never mind that bunting just might have been more viable and effective in that dead ball time when among other things fielders’ gloves had about as much pocket as a pillow mattress and most pitchers threw about as hard as as bowlers.

Think about it. Collins remains baseball’s all-time volume bunter. With a .914 out percentage on his bunts, bunting with men in scoring position almost half the time he bunted, and an .072 bunt hit average. Want to know how many runs were added to his teams with those 184 bunts?  How does -20 strike you?

This is no spaghetti bat, either. This is a Hall of Fame infielder who was a road runner on the bases, had six top-ten MVP finishes in seven shots (and won an MVP once), was a .333 hitter with a .400+ on-base percentage lifetime, and played on six pennant winners and five World Series winners. It wouldn’t be out of line for you to ask how much better his team’s scoring and chances to win might have been if he’d hit away instead of wasting those outs.

One more time: Outs to work with in baseball are commodities equal in value to jadeite on the mineral exchanges. (Yes, you can look it up: Jadite’s worth $3 million per carat now.) Bunting is waste enough by itself. Bunting in the late innings is worse. Bunting in the ninth inning when the value of outs to work with makes jadeite’s value resemble Reynolds Wrap’s should be cause for psychiatric evaluation.

Casey Stengel used to manage his Yankees according to the philosophy if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you’re given the opening, as in the still-to-be free cookie on second base, you shouldn’t be thinking of nudging the runner along with a dinky,  out-wasting bunt—you should be shoving with your entire body.

Swing away right out of the chute. Get that run home fast as you can. Make the other guys work to re-tie and win if they can. It’s easier to bust a tie than to overthrow even a one-run deficit, kiddies.

If teams do that often enough, maybe the free cookie on second to open the extra half-innings will go where the bunt should be except for the other three instances enunciated above. Into the same place where the Edsel reposes.

Sixty springs later

Roger Maris, driving Babe Ruth to one side, 1 October 1961.

Met fans since the day they were born, among whom you’ll find me, may forget they had Roger Maris to thank for one-third of the Mets’ original broadcast team. When Maris teed off against future Met pitcher Jack Fisher to hit his 60th home run in 1961, nineteen thousand fans in Yankee Stadium were joined by one grandmotherly society matron listening at home over her radio.

Bob Murphy was behind the Orioles microphone to call the blast. Hearing Murphy call Maris tying ruthsrecord (yes, that’s really how they said it in 1961), Joan Payson invited him to join Lindsey Nelson and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner as the broadcast team for her embryonic Mets. Bless his soul, Maris may or may not have had a clue. It was probably the least important thought on his mind as that season wound to its finish.

Exactly sixty years ago, there was Maris in spring training, his first as the defending American League Most Valuable Player and his second as a Yankee. It may have been the simplest time of the season to come for the plainspoken right fielder who suffered few fools gladly and broke a revered sports record to earn the violent lash of the superstardom he never sought.

It took Maris eleven games and 42 plate appearances before he faced Tigers reliever Paul Foytack in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees holding a three-run lead, and hit one into Tiger Stadium’s right field seats.

If you want to get technical about it, let’s re-set Maris’s 1961 home run clock to begin with that 26 April game, and he broke ruthsrecord in two games less than a commissioner with a conflict of interest—and a New York sportswriter who ignored the conflict while offering as disgraceful an idea as baseball ever broached—proclaimed must be done for the new record to be “legitimate.” (Maris also needed five fewer plate appearances than Ruth did to hit number 60. Yes, you can look that one up, too.)

I grew up hearing the controversies and arguments around Maris even though I wasn’t a Yankee fan. Then and now, the Yankee fan’s sense of entitlement put me off. I respected what the team accomplished. I admired particular Yankees. (Not just Maris and Mickey Mantle but Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and pre-ruthsrecord manager Casey Stengel, whose final baseball act was managing the early, calamitous Mets.)

But we Met fans knew straight from the crib what too many non-Yankee fans knew for otherwise full lives. You’re entitled to nothing, no matter how deep in resources, no matter how broad in reach. Even the Almighty Yankees proved only human (every American League season from 1903-1920; 1923-25; 1929-31; 1940; 1944-46; 1948; 1954; 1959) in at least 31 seasons prior to Maris’s season in the broiling sun.

You’re certainly not “entitled” to break a revered sports record, either, though with different intentions that’s just about what then-commissioner Ford Frick and enough Yankee fans believed in 1961.

Frick would rather have been caught en flagrante indicto with Medusa than see the man for whom he once ghostwrote knocked out of the record book in any way, shape, or form. Dick Young—the longtime New York Daily News sports emperor, who would do his level best to help run Tom Seaver out of New York a decade and a half later—would rather have been caught likewise than fail to suggest the infamous asterisk that Frick had no power to impose* except in the public imagination, when he spoke of it on 17 July.

Yankee fans believed that, if Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record must fall in due course (and they couldn’t bear to utter those final three words), it was nothing less than Mickey Mantle’s birthright.

Because, you see, among other things, Mantle was the face of the Yankees and had been since just about the beginning of the Korean War, even if he wasn’t always beloved. Mantle’s pre-1961 was one of grand achievement and the concurrent sense—inadvertently provoked by Stengel, who always thought and said aloud that Mantle’s raw talent should have made him Superman (Can you imagine what John McGraw would have said if he could have seen this kid? Stengel once mused)—that he wasn’t quite great enough, and the fans let him know it.

But in 1961, Mantle could and did tell reporters at last, “It’s a new feeling and it’s nice. Those fans, they’ve changed.” By mid-summer, abetted by Frick, Young, and others, they’d had a new Yankee to despise. To them, Mantle earned his stripes. He was a “true Yankee,” born and bred.

Who was this interloper from the Kansas City Athletics (from whom Maris was traded near the end of 1959) and where did he get off horning in on Mantle’s entitlement? Maris had the inadvertent effect of making Mantle as beloved at last as he’d always been impossible to miss.

Even Maris’s particular hitting style became part of the outrage. He didn’t hit the Ruthian or Mantlesque parabola. He had in common with Ruth being a powerful lefthanded pull hitter but the similarity ended there. Maris’s specialty was the booming line drive, not the outrageous ICBM, made to order for reaching the Yankee Stadium short right field porch that was built on behalf of Ruth in the first place.

(The porch didn’t quite do Maris so many favours in 1961. Yes, you can look it up: Maris hit one more bomb on the road than at home.)

You almost didn’t want to know what those people would have thought if any one of such concurrent baseball bombardiers not in Yankee pinstripes—Henry Aaron, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews, Jim Gentile, Frank Howard, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson—had smashed ruthsrecord. Which was set in the first place by the “true Yankee” who became a Yankee in the first place following a controversial purchase from the Red Sox.

I don’t know if Maris actually said, commiserating with Mantle in a hotel conversation on the road, “Why can’t they have room for two heroes?” as portrayed in Billy Crystal’s film about the 1961 ruthsrecord chase, 61*. It would have been a very valid question if he had.

But we do know that another long-time myth has long been debunked: Mantle and Maris weren’t exactly mortal enemies, either. “Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate,” wrote Mickey and Willie author Allen Barra in The Atlantic, “and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed.”

After ten seasons of making his bones and coming to terms with New York’s somewhat capricious sports press, Mantle learned how to be glib and let his own wit (mulcted by his odd-couple, Astoria Queens-bred running mate Whitey Ford) join his matinee-idol looks to make him a media star. “Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient,” Thomas Boswell wrote, upon Maris’s death. (First in the Washington Post; it was republished in his 1989 anthology The Heart of the Order.)

With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At twenty-six, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reclusive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he’s painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

The idea of cultivating and managing fame existed long before Maris began taking his swings at ruthsrecord and cringing at the idea that he’d become any kind of star.

Ruth himself mastered the earliest art of public relations, even if it was as much self-preservation as anything else. (The Babe wasn’t exactly a model citizen, something today’s fans fuming over athlete malfeasance forget or ignore.) Mantle learned how to accommodate it. Until his early off-field San Francisco experiences seared him, Willie Mays all but basked in it.

When another Daily News writer, Joe Trimble, broke the ice and asked Maris in June 1961 (when he had 27 home runs already) whether he could break ruthsrecord, Maris answered, “How should I know?” It was a blunt, honest answer. Exactly the answer even those who’d rather have had a castor oil cocktail than see ruthsrecord fall didn’t want to hear.

Maris had at least one fan who didn’t mind him breaking ruthsrecord—in the White House.

Aaron would experience far different, far more grotesque furies when he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list. Maris in all fairness didn’t require the FBI’s attention over the kind of hate mail he received in 1961. The racists came out in force to try driving Aaron off the course. The merely brain-damaged tried with Maris.

The product of a difficult childhood himself (his parents’ marriage was described most politely as “turbulent”; they divorced a year before the ruthsrecord chase), Maris found one way to relieve some of the pressure: he started refusing to answer non-family mail unless it came from children.

With his own children, Maris did his best to be the father his own parents’ incendiary marriage often denied him. His trade to the Yankees from Kansas City meant longer separation from his young family because he didn’t want to uproot them. (The family eventually moved to Florida.)

Saying so honestly didn’t exactly endear him to Yankee fans, either. To his teammates, and numerous sources back it up, Maris was straight, no chaser, more articulate and accommodating with those he considered friends. “He had been burned too often,” Peter Golenbock wrote in Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, “to trust any strangers.”

“I was extremely proud of my father, in every way,” his oldest child, Susan, told a reporter fifty years after the chase heard ’round the world. She remembered the man who was away a little too often for comfort but who did his best to make life special for his children when he was home. “He was a good ballplayer, a great man, a great father . . . The ’61 season meant more to me in later life.”

It was a stricken child who inadvertently provoked one of Maris’s uglier mishaps that season, one that was interpreted vividly but with too much missing in 61*. The film showed New York Post reporter Milt Gross (named Milt Kahn in the film) bawling out Yankee PR leader Bob Fishel over Maris standing him up for a promised interview and, for once, showing Maris little of the empathy he’d been one of the only reporters to show that season.

Mantle’s best biographer, Jane Leavy, uncovered the actuality: Maris spent the morning of Game 154 visiting the son of a former teammate, a boy dying of cancer. Doing so meant standing up Gross. The furious Gross ripped Maris a few new ones in the next day’s editions; the boy died two days after the rip job.

Mantle dropped out of the home run chase after a “vitamin” shot from a doctor named Max Jacobson left him with a hip abscess that ended his regular season days before Maris broke ruthsrecord. (Jacobson would be run out of the medical profession in 1972, after The New York Times exposed his dubious at best drug-making practises.)

After Maris hit the big one at last, he and his wife, Pat, went to a Roman Catholic mass—and walked out within minutes, when the priest told the congregation Maris was there. From there, they visited Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital and then went to dinner with Maris’s friend Julius Isaacson. And, with Gross, burying the hatchet over the Baltimore snub.

“A little girl approached their table [Leavy wrote] to ask Maris for an autograph.”

“Would you put the date on it too, please?” she asked.

“The date?” Maris asked. “What is today’s date?”

“The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did,” Big Julie replied.

From 1960-1962, Maris played like a Hall of Famer, even if the numbers raw and deep even suggest Mantle and not Maris should have been named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. In 1963 began the injuries that would sap Maris’s line drive power and reduce him to a journeyman-level player who’d finally find some baseball peace (plus two more pennants and another World Series ring) when he was traded to the Cardinals for 1967.

After two seasons in St. Louis, where he was long past his prime power seasons but still a study in right field (he’d retire with 39 defensive runs saved above his league average and had only two seasons that showed him a run or two below the average), Maris retired to Florida and a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship until his death of lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

The injuries ruined his chances of making a full Hall of Fame case. The insanity battering him regularly in 1961 kept him from consistent pleasure in breaking baseball’s most revered single-season record. Nobody really stopped to ponder the raw guts it took for Maris to survive long enough—and he had moments enough where he wanted to surrender—to hit Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard’s fastball into the right field seats.

When Golenbock actually got Maris to talk for Dynasty, outside a club where he was enjoying drinks with his old teammate and longtime friend Clete Boyer, a woman asked Boyer to pose for a photo. Boyer assented gladly and invited Maris to join them. “Do you know who Roger is?” Boyer asked the lady. When she said she never heard of Maris, Maris replied with a smile, “That’s just the way I like it.”

“Heaven protect us,” Boswell wrote, “from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve . . . Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn’t that the moral of Roger Maris’s career?”

His career, not his life.

—————————————

* (pun intended) From Allen Barra:

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick’s denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us in his book that “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” Since practically no one read Frick’s book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.

When Billy Crystal made 61*, the final scene shows an overhead shot of Maris (portrayed by Barry Pepper, whose physical resemblance to Maris remains astonishing) hitting the Big One out, then fading with Red Sox catcher Russ Nixon and home plate umpire Bill Kinnamon (actors uncredited) into slow invisibility.

Over it, near-eternal Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard—immortalised by Reggie Jackson as “the voice of God”—referenced Vincent’s statement before finishing: “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged to him.”

“The sooner one side blinks, the better”

Chris Davis and the Orioles remain locked in an expensive dance.

Two seasons ago, Chris Davis finally cried out from the wilderness of his ionosphere-salaried decline. A few months after the eyes of the nation fell upon the grace with which he handled and finally ended an unconscionable hitless-game streak, Davis finally boiled over following a low throw across the infield that he couldn’t handle at first base.

He had words with his Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, after Hyde apparently made a remark about the errant scoop attempt. Hyde may have been as painfully unaware of Davis’s own internal estimation of his own self-deflation as Davis was in the moment that the skipper had enough trying to stir accountability within a mediocre team.

The Orioles had the next day off. Davis spent it the best way he knew, regrouping with his wife and children. “That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband,” he said. “I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.”

When he returned to work the first thing Davis did was report to Hyde to apologise and talk frankly. He told reporters he thought both himself and his skipper “had an off day. I think it was probably best that we did, just to kind of give us a little bit of time. I didn’t think about it a whole lot. I tried not to. I think he was kind of in the same boat.” Hyde for his part said nothing suggesting he’d hold the meltdown against Davis.

Davis spoke of “a couple of weeks” worth of frustration, but the suspicion was that he really meant more than a couple of seasons. His collapse after signing a lucrative seven-year deal has been nothing short of surrealistic.

Bravery when you lead your league in home runs two out of three seasons running is simple. Leading the league in striking out two consecutive seasons makes bravery a lot less simple. Then, when your OPS (.539, 2018)  is lower than the lowest team OPS in the league (the 2018 Tigers: .697), bravery isn’t even a topic. Not when you might be tempted to say, as a button given Frank Robinson while he managed a murderous Oriole losing steak decades earlier, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Barring either Davis or the Orioles or both deciding at long enough last that the proverbial jig is up, they’re stuck with each other until the end of the 2022 season. “Davis and the Orioles,” Baltimore Sun writer Jon Meoli wrote last month, “are in a staring contest over the remainder of his career that neither seems to be willing to blink in.”

On pure baseball terms, things look simpler. Trey Mancini is recovered from cancer and looking to be the regular Oriole first baseman; they have a little juggling to think about in the designated hitter slot with Renato Nunez absent for the time being, but bank on it. That won’t be Davis’s full-time job, either.

What does it do to a man who has tasted greatness at one point in his professional career only to taste harder-sustained failure elsewhere during the same career? From 2013-2016 Davis was a no questions asked great hitter who looked like a classic late bloomer. (He was 27 in 2013.) His past four seasons have made that spell resemble a protracted flash in the proverbial pan.

Enough players have had such long enough terms of greatness followed by far longer terms of invisibility. Baseball is more crowded than the busiest airport or railroad station by those players whose careers were nondescript but who had blinks when they resembled men who stepped forth from the lands of the giants.

For every Dick Radatz (three years: the nastiest reliever in baseball; five injury-pushed years of low-fi pitching later: career over) there’s a Moe Drabowsky. (Game One, 1966 World Series; nothing much otherwise but beloved pranksterism—and surrendering Stan Musial’s 3,000th career hit.) For every Roger Maris (busting ruthsrecord in the middle of three Hall of Fame-like seasons; injury-abetted fall over six years to follow), there’s a Pablo Sandoval. (Game One, 2012 World Series; nothing much otherwise beyond his roly-poly Kung Fu Panda image.)

Former Orioles infielder Mike Bordick, once a Davis teammate and now an Orioles broadcaster, thinks Davis has people rooting for him to re-emerge from his protracted collapse even if such re-emergence may never happen. He’d had a good spring training before baseball shut down over the coronavirus pan-damn-ic last year, but he had less than a stellar “summer camp” before an injury curtailed a mediocre enough irregular season for him.

A Davis comeback is “never going to happen because of his work habits,” Bordick told NBC Sports Washington in December.

He proved that after he left spring training [last year] because when he came back he wasn’t the same. He didn’t have the same explosive bat speed. He didn’t even have the same mental attitude. He thought he could repeat that without the repetition of the work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in baseball. Period. I don’t care what age you are, but as you age in this game, you actually have to work harder, not less.

One of the most human of impulses is the belief that, because you did it and sustained it once before, you can do it again, at will. Davis isn’t the only ballplayer to learn the hard way how that can veer between difficult and impossible. Even for those who work harder as elders than they did as live youth.

Just ask Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols, who may yet retire after this season after a decade worth of his feet and legs betraying him to the point where he looked a sad impersonation of his once off-the-charts-formidable self. And Pujols, one of the proudest of men ever to play the game, never stopped working hard.

“The sooner one side blinks,” Meoli concluded of Davis and the Orioles, “the better for all involved.” Whichever side does blink at last, it’ll take a glandular swallow of pride.

On living rent-free in one’s head

From Sandy Koufax, Game Seven, 1965 World Series . . .

Moments, acts, and people living rent-free in one’s head don’t always have to be the ones that broke your heart. When an online baseball group member asked fellow members for such moments, I found it impossible not to think of a truckload of such moments. Of course, many will betray my age. I’ve been betrayed by worse.

Fair disclosure: I don’t lack for non-baseball moments living rent-free in my head. Things such as the first time I wrote with a fountain pen, my first unaccompanied-by-elder jaunt around the New York subways, my first airplane flight, my first experience with a Gibson guitar, my first crack-of-dawn in Air Force basic training, my first paid published newspaper by-line, my first turn on radio.

But ask me about baseball and I probably have enough tenants living rent-free in my head to fill an apartment house. Half way, at least:

* Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. On two days’ rest. A second shutout with nothing but a fastball left after 359 innings that year. Game Seven, 1965 World Series.

* Willie Davis. Three errors. Top of the fifth, Game Two, 1966 World Series—costing Koufax a win in what proved his final major league game.

* Donn Clendenon ripping a home run over the left field auxiliary scoreboard in Shea Stadium, right after Cleon Jones was awarded first base for the shoe-polish plunk, Game Five, 1969 World Series.

* One not-so-foggy Christmas Eve, 1969: Curt Flood writing to commissioner Bowie Kuhn that he didn’t believe he was just a piece of property to be bought and sold at will.

* Oakland owner Charlie Finley’s capricious attempt to fire infielder Mike Andrews over a couple of errors not entirely of his own making, Game Two, 1973 World Series—and Shea Stadium sign man Karl Ehrhardt, the next day, greeting the first A’s fielding miscue with a sign: YOU’RE FIRED! 1973 World Series.

* Carlton Fisk’s “body English” home run to win Game Six, 1975 World Series.

* ‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house, baseball went ballistic when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favour of Andy Messersmith. 1975.

* Reggie Jackson. Three pitchers. Three pitches. Three swings. Three bombs. Game Six, 1977 World Series.

Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe for Tom Neidenfuer to pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 NLCS game—and Jack the Ripper deciding how unsafe it was with what proved a pennant-winning three-run homer three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

* Don Denkinger. If you have to ask . . . (Even if it wasn’t his fault the Cardinals imploded in Game Seven.)

* Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner. If you still have to ask . . .

* Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres forgetting to tell Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams to abandon the slide step (which Podres put on in the first place to keep Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson from grand theft) and pitch straight, no chaser to Joe Carter, Game Six, 1993 World Series.

* Derek Jeter and The Flip.

* Mike Piazza’s mammoth blast in the bottom of the eighth, in the first Mets home game following baseball’s break after the 9/11 atrocity.

* Dusty Baker handing Russ Ortiz the game ball somewhat ostentatiously, when lifting him in Game Six, 2002 World Series, and Scott Spiezio making Felix Rodriguez pay for it to start the Angel comeback that forced the Game Seven they won.

* Alex Gonzalez and the double play hopper bounding off his glove, eighth inning, Game Six, 2003 NLCS—with the Cubs five outs from going to the World Series they wouldn’t reach yet.

* Alex Cora. Dodger Stadium. Eighteen-pitch plate appearance ending in a two-run homer. May 2004.

* Dave Roberts. David Ortiz. Game Four, 2004 ALCS.

* Curt Schilling and the bloody sock game, Game Six, 2004 ALCS.

* “Back to Foulke—Red Sox fans have longed to hear it! The Boston Red Sox are world champions!”

* Albert Pujols vs. Brad Lidge, Game Five, 2005 NLCS. (The only thing keeping Pujols’s blast in the building was the retractable roof bracing of Minute Maid Park.)

* Pujols, three bombs after the sixth inning, in a kind of reverse cycle (three-run homer, two-run homer, solo homer), Game Three, 2011 World Series.

* David Freese. Game Six, 2011 Series.

* Kung Fu Panda. Three bombs. Game One, 2012 Series.<

. . . to Mookie Betts, Game Six, 2020 World Series.

* Madison Bumgarner. Game Seven, 2014 Series. In relief.

* “Now, that’s announcing yourself . . . Game on!” crowed Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated prose poet working as a Fox Sports commentator, when Noah Syndergaard dropped Alcides Escobar on the first pitch, leading off Game Three, 2015 Series.

* Lucas Duda unable to make a simple throw home to finish what should have been a Game Five-winning double play to send the 2015 Series back to Kansas City.

* The Cubs. Finishing their 108-year rebuilding effort. 2016 World Series.

The first Angels home game following the tragic death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Every Angel wearing Skaggs’s uniform number 45. Mike Trout opening the 13-0 proceedings with a two-run homer. Pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combine on a no-hitter. July 2019.

* Unaware that a standoff between a narcotics suspect and Philadelphia police left six officers wounded during the game . . . Bryce Harper. Bottom of the ninth. The Phillies down two runs with the bases loaded. The mammoth ultimate grand slam flying past the foul pole into the second deck. Harper running it out as though he had a process server on his tail. August 2019.

* Howie Kendrick. Salami. 2019 NLDS.

* Kendrick, ringing the foul pole and the Astros’ bell, Game Seven, 2019 World Series.

* “The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips.” Game Four, bottom of the ninth, last year’s World Series.

* The Mookie Monster. Last year’s World Series.

And I have many more apartments to fill before my eventual date in the Elysian Fields.

Lew Krausse, RIP: Accidental co-pioneer

Lew Krausse, warming up on the sideline at Yankee Stadium when he was young and an Athletic.

Being suspended and fined by Charlie Finley over a nebulous accusation put righthanded pitcher Lew Krausse into a very unlikely position. Inadvertently, he helped baseball players still bound by abuse of the old reserve clause see what could be had if they were allowed to negotiate on a fair, open market for their services.

The first six-figure bonus signing in Athletics history, Krausse died at 77 two days after Valentine’s Day. Finley’s foolishness involving a notorious 18 August 1967 team flight provoked outfielder Ken (Hawk) Harrelson’s release, a public remark from Harrelson that made him persona further non grata with the A’s, and into unexpected and profitable free agency.

Aboard a 3 August flight from Boston to Kansas City, Harrelson and pitcher Jack Aker sat near the rear of the aircraft, knocking back drinks while Harrelson tried getting Aker to relax over the reliever’s frustration over a spell of bad pitching. How that translated to trouble was anybody’s guess, because when the A’s flew from Kansas City to Washington on 18 August, Finley ordered the flight crew not to serve drinks to his players.

That flight landed with the players learning Krausse was singled out, suspended, and fined $500 for . . . who the hell knew exactly what? “Conduct unbecoming a major league player,” Finley’s public statement said. A’s manager Alvin Dark apparently talked to several players and concluded that Krausse did nothing more than play soft in-flight pranks on broadcaster Monte Moore. If there’s one behaviour that’s never been unbecoming of major leaguers, it’s been practical joking.

The problem was that Moore, reportedly, decided to lose his sense of humour about it and to lie about it. He told Finley a very different story, one involving Krausse addressing a pregnant woman aboard the same flight in “deplorable language.” That accusation had the same credibility as a seven-dollar bill.

Dark refused to deliver Finley’s suspension order to Krausse. Finley promptly demanded a meeting with Dark at the team hotel, after the A’s landed in Washington for a set with the Senators. The meeting lasted as long as some doubleheaders did. During the meeting, Finley fired Dark, un-fired him, then fired him again—after the manager was handed a players’ statement having his back and zinging Finley both for the Krausse incident and, among other things, for sending spies out to follow them off the field.

Harrelson was one of the more vocal A’s having Krausse’s back. He even called Finley a menace to baseball while he was at it. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball Players Association director Marvin Miller filed a formal complaint with the National Labour Relations Board after Finley, apparently, tried coercing his players into dropping their support for Krausse. The capricious owner also withdrew Krausse’s suspension but refused to budge on the $500 fine.

That in turn prompted Krausse and fellow A’s pitchers Aker and Jim Nash to demand trades. In due course, Aker would be left open to the expansion draft that made him an original Seattle Pilot, and Nash would get his wish after that 1969 season when he was traded to the Braves for veteran outfielder Felipe Alou. And Krausse would be traded to the Pilots in January 1970 . . . before their eleventh-hour move to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

After his 25 August 1967 release, Harrelson found himself the unlikely subject of a bidding war on his unexpected open market. If Hall of Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale showed players what could be done when they bargained together in spring 1966, the fun-loving Hawk was about to show them something Koufax and Drysdale couldn’t quite show.

According to Peter Golenbock’s Fenway, Harrelson refused to retract his public remarks, rejected Finley’s initial attempt to send him to the minors, challenged Finley to suspend him, yet said he didn’t want to be released for fear of being blackballed out of the game. Finley released Harrelson on 25 August, anyway. Baseball’s jaw dropped.

Finley had just dumped the hottest hitter on his team; in 61 games with Kansas City following a trade back to the team from Washington, Harrelson’s slash line was .305/.361/.471. “Now,” Golenbock wrote, “Harrelson was scared. He blinked back tears. Was he through?”

Not even close. His telephone rang just a short while after Finley released him. The White Sox’s general manager Eddie Short called to say that, four days later, after he cleared the irrevocable waivers list, the Hawk would be a free agent. He could sign any old place he pleased. How much would it take to bring him to Chicago? Harrelson, whose 1967 salary was $12,000, replied: $100,000.

Short didn’t faint. He said only that he’d get back to Harrelson. Then came calls from the Tigers and the Red Sox, and the Braves. The Tigers and the Red Sox didn’t make offers at first, despite Red Sox executive Heywood Sullivan once being a Harrelson teammate, but the Braves—whose then general manager Paul Richards just so happened to be one of Harrelson’s golf friends—offered him $112,000.

Lew Krausse, after throwing a ceremonial first pitch to mark the A’s fiftieth anniversary in Oakland.

“Harrelson called Sullivan,” Golenbock wrote, “and told him he had an offer from another club worth over a hundred thousand and was taking it. Once Sullivan learned the club was in the National League, he wished Harrelson luck. Both Detroit and Baltimore said they would give him more than the Braves, but Harrelson decided he’d have more fun with Richards. Money was important, but not that important.”

Enter Red Sox GM Dick O’Connell. The pennant-challenging Red Sox were desperate for outfield help after Tony Conigliaro’s tragic beaning the day after Finley tried suspending Krausse. Harrelson told O’Connell he’d committed to “another club” without naming the Braves, but O’Connell wouldn’t surrender without a fight. “You don’t understand, Kenny,” the GM said. “We’ve got to have you here. How much money would it take for you to play in Boston?”

Money may not have been that important, but Harrelson was no fool, either. His reply was $150,000. O’Connell simply said it’s a done deal. In an unexpected bidding war, the Hawk bagged himself a $138,000 pay hike.

He went to the Red Sox, where he didn’t hit often but made it count when he did hit with thirteen runs batted in down the stretch, and mostly let his outsize personality take the press pressures away from other players as the Red Sox nailed the 1967 pennant at the eleventh hour themselves. (The Hawk would have an outstanding 1968 in Boston and make himself a fan and player favourite alike.)

Seven years later, when Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what former Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood started, Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.” Simmons forgot about what Harrelson reaped in the immediate aftermath of the bungled Krausse incident. Hunter may have shown the millions, but Harrelson showed six figures on an unexpected open market.

Krausse probably had no idea of the chain reaction he’d provoke on that fateful August 1967 flight.

You’d love to say that Krausse went on to great triumph himself, but it wasn’t to be. He had the talent–he won his first major league start with a three-hit shutout against the expansion Angels in 1961, days after receiving his $125,000 bonus; he eventually pitched the first shutout from any Brewers pitcher in July 1970. But he also had arm and elbow issues that may or may not have been ignored by the A’s.

In 1966, The Sporting News quoted then-A’s director of player development George Selkirk as quoting in turn a doctor who, in 1961, “said the boy had the arm of a man of 25 because Krausse had pitched so much as a boy. The doctor said he doubted Krausse could pitch over a period of years.”

The namesake son of a short-lived 1930s Philadelphia Athletics pitcher–who ended up signing his own son as an A’s scout–managed to eke out parts of twelve major league seasons between starting and the bullpen. When he was good, he often pitched through terrible run support. After doing assorted jobs during his off-seasons, he had a successful post-baseball career running a metals business.

He had just as successful a marriage to Susan Wickersham, whom he met when she was a flight attendant in 1969. In fact, Mrs. Krausse told the Kansas City Star something telling about the man: her husband not only went unforgotten by Kansas City fans, he received daily letters including baseball cards a day in the mail to autograph–and, when those requests included a few dollars, “Lew always returned the money.”

May the Lord have welcomed the inadvertent pioneer home to the Elysian Fields gently but warmly.