“They want to get to the bottom of it.”

Los Angeles Angels

For their first home game after Tyler Skaggs’s death, the Angels wore his uniform and beat the Mariners in a combined blowout no-hitter, before laying the uniforms around the mound. Skaggs’s widow and parents have now sued the Angels for negligence over the pitcher’s death.

Two days before the second anniversary of his death, Tyler Skaggs’s family struck in court. His widow, Carli, filed suit in the Texas county where Skaggs was found dead of an opioid overdose; his parents filed in Los Angeles. Texas law allows only a spouse to claim damages for wrongful death or negligence.

ESPN writer T.J. Quinn says both Carli Skaggs and her in-laws are suing the Angels’ former communications director Eric Kay, who admitted to buying the drugs for Skaggs, and Kay’s former boss Tim Mead. Skaggs died at 27 1 July 2019 of asphyxiation provoked by fentanyl in his system, on the night the Angels arrived in Texas for a road set with the Rangers.

“The crux of the lawsuit is that the Angels were negligent in allowing Kay, a longtime opioid abuser, to have access to players, and that Mead failed to properly supervise him,” Quinn writes.

Kay told U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents that he also had provided oxycodone for five other players at Skaggs’ request. No other players have been publicly identified. The lawsuit claims that the Angels had a culture that pushed players to play through injury and that the club knew or should have known about Skaggs’ use of opioids.

The Angels didn’t respond to Quinn directly when he contacted them, he added. But the team issue a statement saying the suits’ accusations “are entirely without merit . . . baseless and irresponsible,” promising a “vigorous” court defense.

In 2019, Angels Baseball hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation to comprehensively understand the circumstances that led to Tyler’s tragic death. The investigation confirmed that the Organization did not know that Tyler was using opioids, nor was anyone in management aware or informed of any employee providing opioids to any player.

The Angels alone? One of the worst-kept secrets of professional sports for decades, including baseball, has been teams pushing players to play through their injuries before those injuries are healed completely. Who knows how many teams either looked the other way or feigned ignorance when injured players turned or were turned to addictive substances to get back out there faster?

One of the worst-kept companion secrets, of course, is that players smart enough to know when they’re not quite healed up, insisting they’re not going to be fool enough to get back out there before they’re fully healed, often get dismissed as fragile hypochodriacs most politely—and as feline euphemisms for a woman’s vagina most impolitely.

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014. “[O]pioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient,” wrote Halos Heaven‘s Jessica DeLine three months after Skaggs died. “Per the Mayo Clinic, opioids are highly addictive and your risk of addiction is increased after taking the drug for just a few days. Skaggs had TJ Surgery in 2014 and didn’t pitch at all in the 2015 season.”

DeLine cited an Outside the Lines report suggesting Skaggs and Kay had a shared opioid history of over four years: “Did Skaggs manage to keep this a secret from all his teammates over the years? Was his TJ surgery in 2014 an inciting event for his opiate abuse? That would seem to fit with the timeline Kay provided.”

“As the federal grand jury indictment made plainly and painfully clear, were it not for the fentanyl in the counterfeit pill provided by Angels employee Eric Kay, Tyler would be alive today,” said Skaggs family attorney Rusty Hardin in a statement following the lawsuit filings. “And if the Angels had done a better job of supervising Eric Kay, Tyler would be alive today.”

Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know for dead last certain.

What we should know is that this business of dismissing players injured in the line of play as mal-constructed vaginas should have ceased and desisted a very long time ago.

“Leaving it all out on the field” works both ways. Would you like a litany of players from most eras who left it all out on the field and had to leave it before their times thanks to injuries in the line of duty?

Dizzy Dean, Pistol Pete Reiser, Rex Barney, Monte Irvin, Herb Score, Ralph Kiner, Roger Maris, Wally Bunker, Jim Bouton, Sandy Koufax, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Tanana, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, Pete Vuckovich, Joe Charboneau, the entire Oakland starting rotation of 1981-83, Bo Jackson, Eric Davis, Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett, Darin Erstad, Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, Jason Kendall, Justin Morneau, Grady Sizemore, Ryan Howard, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Mark Mulder, David Wright, Prince Fielder, and Jacoby Ellsbury are just a few who should ring a few bells for having gotten their bells rung in various ways.

They didn’t get hurt showing off slam-dunk techniques on the street, hauling a heavy side of deer meat up the stairs, trying to rip Manhattan-thick phone books apart with their bare hands, or staying too long on tanning beds, to name a few examples. (Those really happened. In order, to Cecil Upshaw, Clint Barmes, Steve Sparks, and Marty Cordova.)

Few players in any era took the abuse Ellsbury took for the multiple injuries he incurred playing baseball. As if a nine-figure Yankee payday could turn Clark Kent into Superman. Even before he became so ill-fated a Yankee, Ellsbury finally couldn’t wait to high-tail it out of Boston in free agency, where he’d been an often-injured Red Sox star with two World Series rings on his finger. Too many whisperings that he took too much of his sweet time recovering from injuries.

Thank God they also don’t all get hooked on opioids or other drugs out of surgery or because of doctors administering or prescribing them.

Uh-oh. Remember Denny McLain? Now, forget everything else you know about his post-baseball history, and maybe some of his career history, and think about this. McLain felt something pop in his shoulder during a 1965 start. By 1967-68, he’d hooked himself on cortisone. He used it practically the way most of us drink coffee at the breakfast table. Used to excess—and sound medical opinion has long since determined you should have no more than ten cortisone shots in your entire lifetime—cortisone can weaken the areas where it’s administered.

Now are you surprised that McLain’s shoulder was shot to hell by the time he ended up a very disgruntled Washington Senator in 1971? When, somewhat insanely, he was allowed to start 32 games anyway, and was charged with two more losses in one season (22) than he’d been charged with in his previous three? Or that he only got to pitch in twenty more games the following year before he called it a career?

Or that he eventually said, emphatically, “The name of the game back then was you gotta win one for the Gipper. [Fornicate] the Gipper!”

“The myth that baseball players were tougher and more resilient back in the day, that they were willing to endure anything for the sheer love of the game, is just that—a myth,” wrote Sridhar Pappu in The Year of the Pitcher four years ago. “In truth, they were victims of terrible medical advice, merciless management, and unforgiving fans who believed that a worn-out, hurting arm signaled a kind of moral weakness.”

The grief over Skaggs’s unexpected death was very real. So was the staggering joy when the Angels returned home following his death, memorialised him movingly (including the team all wearing his uniform number 45), and beat the Mariners with a combined no-hitter and a 13-0 final launched when his buddy Mike Trout smashed a two-run homer in the first inning.

But his widow and his parents may be out to prove that he and too many other players are still victims of terrible medical advice or practise, and merciless or at least ignorant management. In more ways than one.

On Hector Santiago’s bust

Hector Santiago

So much for working up a good sweat on the mound. Hector Santiago, Sunday afternoon, sent to the cooler for ten days (with pay, mind you) for sweating into his rosin.

Jacob deGrom had the dubious pleasure of being first-come, first-frisked last Monday, when baseball government’s crackup of a crackdown on naughty sauce began officially. One night later, Sergio Romo became the first to drop trou—under his almost knee-length jersey, so nobody could bark at the moons—under the new stop-and-frisk policy.

Come Sunday, Hector Santiago, Mariners relief pitcher, had the likewise dubious pleasure of being stopped, frisked, and purged. For naughty sauce? Not exactly. The coppers saw something suspicious in what Santiago pleaded, and his team affirmed, was nothing but rosin and sweat.

Foreign substance? Only if you consider Santiago’s sweat to be of foreign origin. He was born in New Jersey. He’s of Puerto Rican descent. That makes him a natural born American.

“Says who?” Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker once asked a Puerto Rican-born janitor with whom he was stuck in an elevator, in season one of All in the Family. Said the janitor, Carlos Mendoza, played by a very young Hector Elizondo, “In 1917, the Congress of the United States, says who. We are very good citizens.”

President Woodrow Wilson made that happen when he signed the Jones-Safroth Act. Therefore, Hector Santiago’s sweat is one hundred percent, bona fide, guaranteed not to rust American sweat.

“Therefore,” said Pistolero Pringole, sub-minors relief pitcher turned police criminologist, “they cannot just bust him for foreign substances. And the last I saw of that memo, rosin’s still allowed. Sunscreen, no. SpiderTack, no. All that medicated goo in a can, no. You cannot roust a man for sweating in the summertime.”

From deGrom last Monday through Santiago come Sunday, there were 668 pitching appearances (you don’t think there are 668 pitchers in the Show this season, do you?) and not one of those pitchers got cuffed and stuffed after being served the search warrant until Santiago was carted off to the holding cell.

Well, maybe commissioner Rob Manfred was right. Maybe things were going smooth and steady most of the time from Monday through Sunday. If you don’t count Romo and Max Scherzer getting tempted to go Chippendales on a couple of stop-and-frisks.

And maybe they’ll solve the pillow case.

The way this crackup of a crackdown is going, so far, don’t be surprised if the next newlywed couple to remove the tag under penalty of law after they bring the new bed home finds itself the subject of a no-knock police raid.

“Never gonna happen,” Pistolero said. “The men and women in my department aren’t that crazy.”

“They’re not, but the people running baseball and enough of the people umpiring it are,” I said.

“Now, what’s so suspicious about Hector’s pitching this year,” Pistolero asked.

I mentioned that Santiago’s ERA in nine gigs since the Mariners exhumed him from the minors in late May is 2.65. And, that his fielding-independent pitching since then is 2.44. The former is 1.47 below his career mark; the latter, 2.43 below.

“And he’s had ERAs and FIPs within that range early in other seasons, too, sometimes even lower,” I said. “Not in the last couple, but it’s in his history.”

“I keep reading about the experiments with the baseball the last few years, “Pistolero said. “They’ve changed it more often than my wife changes her mind.”

“How often does your wife change her mind?”

“Woman’s prerogative to change her mind, right? If my wife goes a day without changing it three times we take her to the urgent care clinic. Lucky for her one of our children’s a doctor there.”

“Listen, Pistol,” I said to get back on message, “I don’t really get this all-of-a-sudden crackup of a crackdown any more than you do. I get people are afraid of cheating. I get that a lot of pitchers got wise to the spinning of their pitches a lot more acutely the last few years. And I get that baseball’s governors can’t figure out either how to make serviceable baseballs or how to come up with a syrup acceptable to both themselves and the pitchers who have to throw the damn balls.”

“What about the hitters who have to hit the ball?” Pistolero asked. He wasn’t trying to be a sabelotodo. I think.

“Well,” I said, “with less fast spin cycles on the pitches, maybe the hitters get a more even shot. Maybe the hitters were going to figure it out anyway by the time this Second Year of the Pitcher ended. If there’s one thing I know for dead last certain, it’s that pitchers and hitters usually figure each other out. Even if it takes awhile.”

“Already you sound like you’re commissioner material,” Pistolero said.

“Remember the last Year of the Pitcher?”

“Before my time.”

“Well, I remember it. By the time the World Series came around, the hitters weren’t looking all that futile even with Bob Gibson pitching three games. So sure they figured it out then. They were liable to figure it out again this time around.”

“Even with all this launch angle mierda?”

“Even with all this launch angle mierda.

“I thought your Spanish was worse than that.”

“It is.”

“Well, how come you can figure out the common sense of it all and this Senor Manfred can’t?” Pistolero asked.

“It’s not exactly forensics,” I said.

Suddenly I remembered “Santiago” in English means St. James. The patron saint of Spain, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and fishermen. Something was certainly fishy enough about umpires cuffing and stuffing a pitcher over a blend made in the U.S. of A.

Santiago’s pitching repertoire includes a decent fastball, breaking balls, changeups, and the occasional screwball. Don’t say it.

“I’m only afraid of one thing, Pistolero,” I said. “The way Manfred’s going, he’s going to try to find a way to make sweating in summer against the rules.”

Picture it. We may go from Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean putting an ice block on home plate “to cool off my fastball” to Rob Manfred ordering pitching on ice blocks to stop the sweat.

“Well, I have one thing to say to this Senor Manfred,” Pistolero said. “Que tenga un hotel con mil habitaciones y la venganza de Moctezuma en cada habitacion.

“What the hell does that mean,” I asked. “Remember, I still know about as much Spanish as you know how to solve the pillow case.”

Pistolero couldn’t help laughing while he translated: “May he have a hotel with a thousand rooms and Montezuma’s revenge in every room.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I thought you were a good American citizen and cop. Don’t you know there’s still such a thing as the Eighth Amendment?”

“Give us better balls”

J.T. Realmuto, Aaron Nola

J.T. Realmuto with Aaron Nola. The catcher says building a better baseball would be the logical thing. Logical? In the Age of Manfred?

If there’s anyone in baseball who should know pitchers and pitching better than the pitchers and their pitching coaches, it’s the catchers. Fellows like the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto.

The number one job a catcher has is handling his pitching staff. The pitchers who’ve thrown to Realmuto in eight years major league time have a 4.50 ERA with him behind the plate. That’s 4.16 above the league average over those seasons.

But that was also Realmuto behind the dish Friday night, when Aaron Nola struck ten straight Mets out from the first through the fourth, beginning and ending with Mets outfielder Michael Conforto . . . and tying the record set by the Mets’ late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

(How Phillies was this—their man breaks a record like that and they still lose the game? That Philadelphia wedding changed from “You may now boo the bride” to the couple reciting their wedding vows—and the minister handing them their divorce decree.)

So presume that Realmuto might be a little better and smarter than his pitchers’ overall ERA indicates. Could also depend on the pitchers, too. Nola’s an established ace, even if he’s not in the deGrom/Scherzer/Kershaw society.

Thus you might listen when Realmuto—who was rather outspoken before baseball’s government decided to enforce a foreign substances law it hadn’t enforced in a couple of generations—admits he can’t figure out what commissioner Rob Manfred was or wasn’t thinking when he decided it was time to stop, frisk, and dock almost midway through the working season.

“The biggest deal was to get guys to stop using the stuff that increased their spin rate the most,” Realmuto told The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb. “Guys have been using sunscreen and rosin forever. Now they’re not letting you do anything. So I really think the best thing they could possibly do, which obviously can’t happen during the season, is to get a better ball. Find a better ball. That’s the logical thing. It would make everybody happy.”

“He’s kidding, right?” said Sticky Fingers McSpidertack when he rang me too early this morning. I hadn’t even finished my first big mug of coffee, and Sticky was already trying to pick my reawakening brain. Remind me to get even some way.

“I don’t think he was kidding, Stick,” I replied. “Bear in mind that I’m still a little groggy. Dogs awakening you prematurely can do that to you.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stick said. “But when he says the best thing to do is to find a better ball, that scares me a little bit.”

“Why?” I asked. “It makes perfect sense, even to my still half-cloudy brain. I’ve said it myself before. Commissioner Nero needs to quit fiddling with the balls the way it’s been done the last few years and get a ball the pitchers can work with and the hitters can still hit.”

“You really need me to tell you?” Stick said. “Look at the past few American generations overall, never mind in baseball. Once upon a time, you built a better mouse trap and got rid of a better class of mice. That was then, this is now. Now, you build a better mouse trap and the cats gang up on you.”

“This is Commissioner Nero we’re talking about,” I said. “When he played the Mouse Trap Game as a kid, the mouse usually escaped.”

“I hear that. Even if you still sound like you’re talking underwater.”

“I still need my second mug of coffee, Stick.”

After I retrieved mug number two, I turned back to Realmuto’s commentary. He knows there were a few guys on the mound using their naughty sauce not to get a grip but to relieve the hitters of their grip—with a spin cycle that could get clothes completely dry as opposed to just damp dry if their pitches were the tumblers inside a front-loading washing machine.

But he also knows that most pitchers, plying their trade like the honest artisans they strive to be, weren’t using that new-fashioned medicated goo just to divide and conquer, either. “[T]hey can’t just not work with pitchers. You can’t throw them out there with these slick balls,” he insisted to Gelb.

It has to be somewhere in between where they can make a ball that has enough grip where guys don’t have to do that to be able to control it, but also a ball that’s not so sticky that it’s increasing spin rate. Which they should be able to do. It’s been different every season for the last four or five years. So it’s like, they can change the ball if they want. They just need to find the ball that works for everyone.

“Sounds so simple a child of five could do it. Now, somebody send the Phillies a child of five,” Stick said, channeling his inner Groucho Marx.

Gelb said, practically, that asking the Phillies themselves about the balls proved to be something like asking Jacques Cousteau about space exploration.

“Hey, I’m sure they’re trying, right? I guess for whatever reason they haven’t been able to find a ball that’s acceptable to everybody, but I know they’re working on it,” said Phillies president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski. “I’ve been in GM meetings years ago where they passed around the ball with more tack on it, like they use in Japan, and say they were trying to develop something like that. But for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to find it. I hope they do. It would solve a lot.”

The dear boy.

News flash: MLB owns Rawlings, the sporting goods giant charged with making the Show’s balls. And, as Gelb writes, “it has pleaded ignorance to the constant changes in how the ball feels and behaves.”

“That’s the problem,” Stick said. “Commissioner Nero and his minions don’t have to plead ignorance. Their ignorance is the worst kept secret in baseball.”

“It is the single most important element to everything about the sport right now,” Gelb went on. “A consistent baseball. The lower seams and tighter-wound balls, combined with a lax attitude toward how doctoring the ball was policed, compelled pitchers to use sunscreen and stickier substances to better grip it.”

“That’s the other problem,” Stick said. “You don’t need me to tell you that, if you show me twenty pitchers finding solutions to working with these baby-ass-smooth balls, I’ll show you one or two pitchers figuring out they can squat inside hitters’ heads without even signing a lease.”

“I thought your own best pitch was what you called the Irish Spring Slider.”

“It was, until I switched to Ivory. Then every side was the dry side getting clobbered on me.”

Realmuto admitted he’s glad the Nero Regime did “something,” but he also admits he doesn’t know that they did the right thing. “But something had to change.” Something still has to change. If only Realmuto knew something about the art and science of making a baseball. He’d be better running Rawlings than the Nero Regime seems to be.

Since the Nero Regime are that ignorant about how to make baseballs, and that insouciant in their ignorance, how about coming up with a ball gripper both the Show’s government and, you know, the ones who actually go out there and play the game, can live with, without operating the Ball Police or the Stickum Security Service?

“I lost my Internet,” Stick said. “What does Gelb say about that?”

I read the quote back to him: “A mud machine and a rosin swab would be great. Science is amazing, and so is modern technology. Anything is possible — except a more consistent baseball with a transparent process about how it is manufactured.”

Stick pondered that a moment. Then, he said, “How come the country that came up with baseball in the first place can’t build a better baseball?”

“Because,” I said, “the moment someone comes up with that better mouse trap, the cats are liable to gang up on him.”

The Mets add the unwritten rule-breaking Sisco Kid

Chance Sisco, Jose Berrios

Leave a man open turf, don’t whine when he accepts the gift.

“This is what I call taking a chance,” said Old Grumpy Elder. He called to tell me the Mets picked Orioles catcher Chance Sisco off the waiver wire, and he took no chances on missing the opportunity for a dubious pun.

I happened to spot the news courtesy of New York Daily News writer Deesha Thosar on Twitter just before Old Grumpy rang. I couldn’t resist asking whether she was tempted to cue up Johnny Mathis’s ancient hit, “Chances Are.” She hasn’t answered at this writing.

From the look of it, the Mets decided they needed either a spare part or someone to pick up some minor league depth slack. Sisco didn’t exactly make Baltimore people forget Elrod Hendricks or Rick Dempsey behind the plate. He’s not ugly, so he wouldn’t make them forget Andy Etchebarren, either.

Sisco is still considered a catcher with talent despite not having turned his minor league advancements into comparable Show deliverance. The Mets optioned him to Syracuse (Triple-A) for now. His wounding flaw in the Show: proneness to striking out, though it beats hitting into double plays. (He’s averaged 1.3 hits into double plays a year so far.)

“He was actually having a decent turn behind the plate when he got there this year,” I said. “He got into 21 games and started nineteen of them. He was actually three runs saved above the league’s average at his position.”

“Never mind the esoteric crap,” Grumpy snorted. “What’s his fielding average this year?”

“Seven points above his league average for catchers.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m serious. He’s fielding a thousand percent behind the plate this year and the league average for catchers is .993.”

“OK, yeah,” Grumpy said. Then I heard him snap his fingers. “Hey! Now I remember him. From three years ago. That game against the Twins. This guy’s gonna get the Mets into hot water if he pulls a stunt like that again.”

That was a reference to the April Fool’s Day 2018 game in which the Orioles were down 7-0 in the ninth and Sisco beat out a bunt for a base hit. Not because he’s any kind of road runner, but because the Twins were foolish enough to put an overshift on him to the right side of the infield.

The small details: Twins pitcher Jose Berrios was trying to finish a one-hitter and had one out in the ninth. Sisco’s a lefthanded batter. He’d also had the only Oriole hit of the game to that point. The Twins thought a guy who hit .181 and batted (according to Real Batting Average) a mere .364 was liable to go Yogi Berra on them.

So they left him enough third base-side real estate for a homesteader to build himself a five-bedroom mini-mansion. Sure enough, Sisco dropped the bunt there and was safer at first than a nursing baby.

Berrios and the Twins were steaming mad over it. Even after they finished the Orioles despite a followup unintentional walk and a line single up the pipe to load the pillows. It took a pop out foul behind the plate and a strikeout to do it.

“You blame them for being p.o.ed at him?” Grumpy asked, deadly serious.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” Berrios told reporters after the game. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation, that’s it.”

I quoted that back to Grumpy. “The only thing worse,” he said, “would have been if Berrios was trying to finish a no-hitter.”

“Well, then,” I began, “who was the genius who told the Twins infield to leave the third base side unprotected?”

“Irrelevant,” Grumpy answered. “You ever heard of respect for the game? You ever heard of sportsmanship? You ever heard of fair’s fair?”

“You ever heard of all’s fair in love, war, and baseball?” I came back. “You don’t want your guy to blow a no-hitter or a one-hitter, you don’t leave the other guy territory that wide open. Then you’re begging for trouble.”

“C’mon,” Grumpy pleaded, “you know better than that crap. The Orioles were down 7-0. It’s not like they had a prayer left.”

“Did you forget that after Sisco helped himself to what the Twins offered on the house they loaded the bases with still only one out? Seems to me they had five prayers left at least—three on the bases and two more minimum coming to the plate.”

I heard Grumpy make a noise on the other end. I couldn’t tell if it was a snort, a grunt, a cough, or flatulence.

“Yes, his team was down 7-0,” I said. “But whatever happened to playing until the absolute last out? Since when do you just hand the other guys the finish to a one-hitter without making the best stand possible to push back and, you know, win?”

“Not the point,” Grumpy harrumphed.

“Horseshit,” I harrumphed back. “You really think Sisco was supposed to take that overshift as an April Fool’s joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into that packed right side like a good little boy?”

“No fair,” Grumpy whined. “You’re quoting yourself.”

“So what?” I said with a short laugh. “You think I’m the first writer who ever quoted himself?”

Then I remembered Twins second baseman Brian Dozier’s postgame comments. I read them back to Grumpy: “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.”

“Good for him,” Grumpy said.

“Well,” I said, “I still think it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ own tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre team’s sub-mediocre batter was less criminal than that kid seeing a big fat hole onto which to hit and doing just that. Who says even a bad team’s supposed to just roll over and play dead down seven in the ninth no matter what?”

“Winning isn’t everything.”

“What about not trying to win?” I countered. “Especially when the other guys are dumb enough to give you everything short of a gilt-edged, engraved invitation to make mischief?”

I can’t transcribe Grumpy’s answer in polite company. In impolite company, it would get him served a fist on rye with mustard.

Knuckleballer meets knuckleheads

Mickey Jannis

TV broadcast screen capture shows 33-year-old rookie knuckleballer Mickey Jannis’s MLB debut interrupted by a naughty-sauce frisk. Seriously?

“In putting the [naughty sauce crackdown] plan together,” said commissioner Rob Manfred to The Athletic‘s Brittany Ghiroli on Wednesday, “we tried to come up with a plan that was as unobtrusive as possible given the practicalities of the game and the need to move the game along. We thought the checks between innings was a good way to de-escalate them, maybe is the right word (to use).”

The knucklehead didn’t bank on a knuckleballer being stopped and frisked in a cop stop so ridiculous the most corrupt police department alive wouldn’t find any graft opportunity in it.

“When do you figure we can say for sure that this mid-season crackdown on foreign substances has gone from the ridiculous to the knuckleheaded?” asked Tortilla Fats, with appropriate indignation.

He called me this morning after watching the Astros—whom he doesn’t care about, emphatically—demolish the Orioles 13-0 Wednesday. And, after reading Commissioner Nero’s Athletic comments.

“What are you talking about?” I answered. “Isn’t provoking a couple of pitchers into near-stripteases on or around the mound enough evidence, if you’ll pardon the expression?”

“Go look up what happened after Mickey Jannis pitched the top of the sixth for the Orioles,” Fats said. “You won’t believe it.”

These days, when it comes to baseball in the Age of Manfred, I’d believe just about anything. Fats knows it, too. So when he tells me now that I won’t believe what I’m about to see, I take him at his word.

I knew Jannis was one of those guys who scuffled (not scuffed), shuffled, and shouldered along in the minors as best he could for a long enough time. He’d only been doing it since he was 22 in 2010. Finally, at 33 in 2021, he got the break he’d only been praying for since he went from somewhat low-level Rays prospect to independent leaguer to Mets minor league asset to out of the game, seemingly, until the Orioles took a minor league flyer on him this spring.

I also knew Jannis’s aspiring money pitch was the knuckleball. The pitch that floats like a butterfly and stings just about the same if you happen to get hit by one at the plate. Thrown right, it relies almost entirely on the elements to make its way to the plate doing anything from a line dance to the cha-cha-cha and back to a break dance, before it arrives snickering into or around or within a parking space of the strike zone.

Thrown wrong, it tends to hover like a rescue helicopter. That’s the only thing it has in common with the whirlybirds. Rescue helicopters don’t get hit into the next area codes.

Thrown at all these days, it’s as much of a genuine novelty as baseball people only thought it was back in the so-called Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game.

“You got it yet?” Fats asked impatiently.

“I got it,” I said. I watched Jannis in the fifth strike Yordan Alvarez out, get Carlos Correa to fly out to right, walk Kyle Tucker, and then escape in advance when Oriole catcher Austin Wynns threw Tucker out trying to commit grand theft second. The Orioles might still be down 6-0 at that point but the Camden Yards crowd sure did show the old rookie some new appreciation.

Then I watch Jannis in the sixth. He got Abraham Toro—who was at the plate when Tucker was cuffed and read his rights to end the fifth—to ground out to second. He got Myles Straw to fly out to center. He threw a knuckler with about as much rhythm as a garden slug to Martin Maldonado, and Maldonado swatted the little slimer into left for a base hit. He walked Jose Altuve on five pitches, two of which were four-seam fastballs that couldn’t out-race a horse-drawn produce wagon. But he threw Michael Brantley a nasty little butterfly that Brantley might have been lucky to send to left for an RBI single before Yuli Gurriel flied out for the side.

Then I got what agitated Fats.

The umps decided side retired after one run on two hits and a walk was the perfect moment to stop and frisk Jannis for naughty sauce. It was almost as Twilight Zone as the umps who stopped to frisk Yankee relief pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga—who isn’t a knuckleballer—after he was spanked for four runs on five hits in an inning.

“Knuckleballer searched by knuckleheads,” Fats fumed. “You ought to make that your column headline.”

“I don’t believe it either, Fats,” I said. “That pitch has about as much spin as a windmill. Matter of fact, I’ve seen windmills with more spin rate. What were those umps thinking?”

“You assume they were thinking.”

“My mistake.”

“Anyone with a third grade education can tell you there’s no reason on earth a knuckleball pitcher wants anything on his hands except flesh and fingernails.”

“Have you seen Jannis’s grip?” I said. “He doesn’t use the seams. He’s got his first two fingertips on the meat between the seams. He has his other two fingers inside the turn on one seam and the ball of his thumb under the ball just up against that seam. So why the hell do the umps want to have him checked for naughty sauce?”

“You tell me,” Fats replied. “You’re the expert. I’m just a guy who doesn’t care about the Astros.”

“Jannis isn’t an Astro, remember? That run made the game 7-0, Astros.”

“It’s the Astros, so I don’t care.”

Astros starter Jose Urquidy shook off a leadoff single to rid himself of the Orioles on back-to-back popups and a ground out in the bottom of the sixth. Jannis went out for the seventh. It didn’t exactly go well for him. It only began with Alvarez fouling off two knuckleballs before he got one that didn’t even side step and drove it over the left center field fence.

From there, it was double to the back of center field (Correa), walk (Tucker, again), and Toro catching hold of another knuckler with cement shoes for dancing shoes and hitting a three-run homer. Poor Jannis also had to work the seventh and surrender a one-out solo bomb (to Alverez’s late left field replacement Chas McCormick); then, single, double, RBI single, before he escaped on a ground out and a called strikeout sandwiching another walk.

And, before his evening ended mercifully enough. Something just doesn’t seem right when a guy who waited 33 years to throw major league innings gets left in one inning past his evening’s shelf life.

Did the very absurdity of umpires checking the knuckleballer for naughty sauce squat inside Jannis’s head rent free? Even very well seasoned veterans up from the long days’ journey into the major league night can be leveled by a knuckle sandwich from just about any source.

Did the umps themselves think of how absurd the very idea of it is? Even if most umpires haven’t seen too many knuckleballs since the middle of the Obama Administration, the crew stopping and frisking Jannis had to think the commissioner’s orders now put them smack dab in the middle of a routine that ended up in Sam Kinison’s discard pile.

“The one kind of pitcher you could say doesn’t have problems going in with all these experimental baseballs the last few years should be knuckleballers,” Fats said. “They’re rare enough as it is. Unless this new dead fish ball is so dead that even their fingertips lose a grip.”

“I couldn’t tell you for dead last certain,” I replied. “But it still doesn’t make any sense on earth. Unless there’s some law of physics that doesn’t show up in the usual books, I’d think the only thing the real naughty sauce would do with a knuckleballer is keep the ball stuck in his fingertips.”

“Balk one,” Fats said.

“Only if men are on base,” I said.

“Well, let’s not get technical.”

Technical I can live with. A knuckleballer getting his knuckles rapped on shakier ground than that above an earthquake isn’t all that livable.