Gone, Cubs, gone

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant

That was then: Anthony Rizzo clutching and hoisting the off-balance throw Kris Bryant (17) made to end the 2016 World Series as world champions. This is now: They’re not Cubs anymore.

I called it the Code Blue Series when the contestants were confirmed. One team that hadn’t won the World Series since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford. The other, a team that hadn’t won the Series since the threshold of the Berlin Airlift.

“I’m sleeping with this thing tonight,” crowed Anthony Rizzo, speaking post-game, about the double play ball he caught on the relay to start Chicago’s post-National League Championship Series parties. “Are you kidding me?”

The same Rizzo who clung to the dugout rail in Game Seven of that surreal 2016 World Series, admitting to teammate and eventual manager David Ross that he was on the brink of his nineteenth nervous breakdown.

“I can’t control myself right now. I’m trying my best,” Rizzo said.

“It’s understandably so, buddy,” Ross replied, with a very knowing smile. He’d been there, done that, with the 2013 Red Sox.

“I’m emotional,” Rizzo admitted.

“I hear ya,” Grandpa Rossy replied.

“I’m an emotional wreck.”

“Well, it’s only going to get worse,” Ross advised. “Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.”

Once upon a time, possibly thanks to Chicago newspaper legend Mike Royko, the maxim was that the teams with the most ex-Cubs lost. That was then, this was the 2016 Series: The Cubs—the team with the fewest ex-Cubs and the most ex-Red Sox—won. After a couple of that-almost-figures hair-raisers, none raising more hair than Game Seven.

Now, third baseman Kris Bryant—subject to the most trade rumours the past two years—is traded to the National League West-surprising Giants. Shortstop Javy Baez is traded to the National League East-leading-almost-by-default Mets, where he’ll gladly play second base for the chance to hold the keystone with his buddy Francisco Lindor at short. And first baseman Rizzo has become a Yankee.

The 2016 core is gone, Cubs, gone. Four men from that team now remain.

Ross retired as a player after that Series triumph and has managed them since last season, having days enough now when he must think Lucifer’s practical jokers have made him a too-frequent target. Right fielder Jason Heyward’s stellar defense once atoned for his feeble bat, but he isn’t quite the defender he used to be even if he’s still a shade above the league average for run prevention. Catcher Willson Contreras remains a mainstay and leads the team with his 3.2 wins above replacement-level.

And Kyle Hendricks, who pitched magnficently enough in the 2016 Series, leads this year’s Cub rotation with an ERA two ticks from four despite his twelve credited wins.

The Cubs approached Friday’s trade deadline all-in on selling while the selling was good, because their National League Central chances were anything but and the last of the true core was due to hit the open market. And the team administration has a lot to atone for, for having failed to fortify the team viably in the seasons to follow the 2016 heights.

It’s still too telling that the single most fun moment in Cubs baseball this season came from Rizzo, the first baseman taking the mound on the wrong end of a blowout, striking out his Braves buddy Freddie Freeman to laughs all around the park—especially between those two.

If the Dodgers hadn’t swept in and swept the Padres to one side in the Max Scherzer lottery, the Great Cub Fire Sale might have dominated the proceedings entirely.

But it’s hard not to think about that World Series now that Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are gone at last. Especially after Rizzo made an almost immediate impression with his new team Friday night. (Yankee announcer Michael Kay called Rizzo “the linch pin” of the 2016 Cubs.) He broke a scoreless tie between the Yankees and the Marlins by sending a 1-0 hanging cutter into the second deck behind right field in the top of the sixth. (The Yankees went on to win, 3-1.)

It’s hard not to remember Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning home run off then-Indians relief ace Andrew Miller in Game Four. Making Fowler the first Cub to hit a World Series homer in Wrigley since Chuck Klein—in 1935. And, making him the first African-American Cub to hit a World Series homer ever.

It’s hard not to remember Bryant—with the Indians six innings from the Promised Land— parking a 1-1 pitch into the left center field bleachers off then-Indian Trevor Bauer to start turning the mostly quiet Confines crowd on the Chicago leg of the Series into a nuclear meltdown of joy in Game Five.

It’s hard not to remember Rizzo and eventual Series MVP Ben Zobrist scoring in the first in Game Six, after Indians outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall misread and misplayed Addison Russell’s shuttlecock fly to right center. Or, after the Cubs loaded the bases to push Indians starter Josh Tomlin out, Indians reliever Dan Otero feeding Russell grand salami with mustard.

It’s hard not to remember Jake Arrieta pitching to Naquin with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the fourth, same game, and striking Naquin out on one of the nastiest divers Arrieta ever threw in his life.

It’s hard not to remember Game Seven, especially. When Ross had to atone for a horrible throwing error past Rizzo one inning by smashing a one-out homer the next. When the late rain delay prompted Heyward’s clubhouse pep speech.

When Rizzo took the free pass in the top of the tenth, took third on an RBI double, and scored after another intentional walk and a base hit to left—the base hit being Miguel Montero’s second-most important bases-loaded hit for the Cubs that postseason.

When Bryant picked off Michael Martinez’s short grounder on the dead run, with two out and a run in to close the Cub lead to a single run, then threw a little off balance and herky-jerky at that to first—and Rizzo snapped the ball in his mitt as dearly as he might have clung to the Hope Diamond after a daring heist.

Russell forced himself off the Cubs and out of the Show entirely in due course, after the sick case of his abuse of his wife exploded into headlines and forced his suspension. He played in the Korean Baseball Organisation last year and plays in the Mexican League this year.

Montero talked his way out of Chicago. First, he complained about his loss of 2016 postseason playing time to Ross and Willson Contreras behind the plate. Then, in 2017, he was gone for good after blaming Arrieta publicly for the Nats running wild on his arm on the bases in a June game. Two subsequent hiccups of comeback bids with the Blue Jays and the Nationals—retired.

Zobrist, who came to the 2016 Cubs after winning the 2015 Series with the Royals—a down 2017, a comeback 2018, retired after 2019. Now, he’s undergoing a painfully public divorce in which his wife’s accused of having an affair with the minister they engaged for marital counseling in the first place.

Arrieta—allowed to walk as a free agent after a 2017 that began his still-ongoing decline phase. Jon Lester, who somehow got past his throwing issues to first base and stood tall enough when it counted—now a National-turned-Cardinal. John Lackey, pitching for his third different Series winner—retired after fifteen seasons and a down 2017. Aroldis Chapman, the howitzer relief pitcher but a domestic abuser himself—a Yankee since 2017.

This week? The Cubs’ place in the race was probably sealed for the season when they lost eleven straight from 25 June through 6 July, but seven of the eight players they moved by Friday’s deadline also stand to hit the open market after the season. Resurgent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel—dealt to the crosstown White Sox and right back into the races—has a 2022 option.

Maybe the real end of this generation of Cub contenders came in 2018, during the second half of which they lost 22 games in which they scored one or none. Including the humiliations of scoring a measly two runs in back-to-back losses that cost them the NL Central title and the NL wild card in one thirtysomething-hour period.

Maybe it was sealed once and for all by 2019, when they lost a pair of humiliating series in the last two regular season weekends and, as ESPN writer Jesse Rogers observed, the Joe Maddon era ended when the skipper “wasn’t able to out-manage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

“The Ricketts family had cut back on payroll spending while continuing to use Wrigleyville as a private cash machine,” writes the redoubtable veteran scribe Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The franchise didn’t keep up with other contenders in terms of on-field talent. It settled for being very good instead of great. The idea—always—is to win. Cubs fans got that, which is why they were irritated when the club didn’t get a whiff of the World Series again.”

Maybe that was what irritated the remake/remodel/re-conquer mastermind Theo Epstein enough at last to swap the Cubs’ front office for a gig in the commissioner’s office, where he now works helping to get baseball back to where it once belonged, a balance between pitching and hitting. He won’t have his hands tied by ownership caprice anymore. We think.

It stung when Ross kept Bryzzo out of the Thursday lineup at home, denying them a final appearance before the Wrigley faithful. He said Rizzo already had the day off pre-planned and was concerned about giving Bryant’s legs a rest. Cub Country didn’t need anyone to say maybe the front office handed Grandpa Rossy an order the better to keep the deals to come from being wrecked.

We saw Bryant in tears on his cell phone in the Cubs dugout at Nationals Park Friday, receiving the news he was going west. We saw Rizzo taking his young family to walk the Wrigley Field grounds one more time the day before, before he went east. Those sights will linger for Cub Country almost as vividly as Bryan’s off balance pick and throw of Martinez’s grounder to Rizzo to finish 2016 will. (This is gonna be a tough play, Bryant—the Cubs! Win the World Series! hollered announcer Joe Buck.)

President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer says the deals helped the Cubs duck a complete rebuild thanks to the youth the deals bring back. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes,” he said to Rogers. “Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

Nature of the beast. Hoyer was only too well aware of other teams going all the way to the end of their team control only to require years of rebuilding. Teams like the Phillies, the Tigers, and the Giants, the last of whom have begun making noise that’ll be amplified a bit with Bryant on board.

“They ran to the end of the cliff and fell off and they had to rebuild,” he continued. “We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year, but we weren’t, so with that we were able to speed that process up dramatically.”

But going from “Go, Cubs, Go!” to gone, Cubs, gone, still stings. Even if we’ll always have 2016.

Two champion Series finishers move on

Max Scherzer

Max the Knife celebrates the World Series triumph he helped author with his on-fumes Game Seven start. Can he help the Dodgers go back to the Series?

The author of maybe the single most uplifting game in Nationals history is a Nat no more. The fellow with one blue and one brown eye who forced his way past a neck issue to keep the Nationals in line to win their first World Series has gone west.

That was hours after the Cubs finally said goodbye to the man who snapped into his mitt the final out of their first World Series win since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford.

Trade deadlines don’t often feature two or more signatures of two off-the-charts World Series champions changing addresses and wardrobes. When they’re men identified that tightly with their teams, even those with no rooting skin in their games can’t help thinking that the world just got knocked more out of order than it seemed going in.

This year’s Nats don’t have a staggering rise from the dead in them just yet, if at all. This year’s Cubs were bent on selling while the selling was good, with their National League Central chances this year anything but. “Go Cubs Go,” that rollicking anthem of the 2016 conquerors, now has another meaning.

Max Scherzer goes west for a better chance at a postseason return with the Dodgers. That was just moments, seemingly, after the entire world thought the splash-happy Padres had him all but loaded on the plane west. Ouch.

Anthony Rizzo goes east in a Yankee hope that a couple of heretofore missing lefthanded bats—they’d landed all-or-nothing portside slugger Joey Gallo from the Rangers just prior—might turn their season from somewhat lost to yet another shot at the Promised Land.

The Nats hope the package of prospects Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner brought back from Los Angeles mean this season proves a hiccup on their way back to the races to come. The Cubs hope the pair Rizzo brought back from the Bronx means likewise, especially depending on what they can bring back in any deal for Rizzo’s partner in 2016 World Series crime, third baseman Kris Bryant.

But ending eras is never pleasant. And these two deals ended a pair of eras that’ll live as long as Washington and Chicago live. The Rizz speared Bryant’s herky-jerky on-the-move throw over to secure the Cubs’ World Series winner. Max the Knife’s empty-tank performance of sheer will kept the Nats alive enough to pull just enough lingering rabbits out of their hats to nail Game Seven in 2019.

Chicago and Washington won’t forget as long as those cities and those men live. The feeling is very mutual with the players involved.

“This city,” Rizzo said when the deal to the Yankees was done, “will be ingrained in my heart for the rest of my life.” Told he was as transformational a figure in Wrigley Field as anyone who ever wore a Cub uniform, Rizzo accepted the idea with no small pride. “That’s what matters most—leaving this place better than when I found it. I can say the mission was accomplished.”

Scherzer still wasn’t sure whether he’d still be a Nat after he pitched Thursday and threw three-hit, one-run ball at the Phillies, in a start that was as much a showcase for his renewed health (he’d missed a start with a triceps strain a few days earlier) as for the trading floor. But he wanted to think about what Washington meant to him from the moment he’d signed that mammoth seven-year deal due to expire after this season.

Anthony Rizzo

Nobody beats The Rizz: Clutching the final out of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series conquest.

First, there were the purely baseball considerations. “I signed a seven-year deal here and we won a World Series. That’s the first thing I said when I signed, that I was here to win. And we won. We won a World Series,” he said. “That’s a lifelong dream come true and something I’ll always be proud of with these guys here, to be part of a championship team, looking forward to reunions and stuff like that.”

Then, there came the familial and community considerations. Scherzer arrived childless in Washington with his college-sweetheart wife, Erica. They’re going to Los Angeles with two of Scherzer’s three Cy Young Awards and three daughters.

“I’ve watched my girls grow up here,” Max the Knife said. “Living in Virginia in the DMV area, I’ve really gotten used to it, all the politics that are going around. Being in the nation’s capital has been kind of fun as well, driving by the monuments every day . . . What can you say about the fans? That championship will always mean something to all of us and we’ll always have that flag.”

Parting with uber prospects Keibert Ruiz (catcher), Josiah gray (righthanded pitcher), Gerardo Carillo (righthanded pitcher), and Donovan Casey (outfielder) made sense only if the Dodgers were going to bring in something well above average. They brought in the best pitcher and the best position player—a still-young shortstop with a live bat—on the trading floor.

If the Dodgers want to close the brief distance between themselves and the uber-surprising Giants in this year’s National League West, they couldn’t have done better if they’d gone to the lab and mixed the right ingredients in the test tubes and beakers.

The Nats aren’t exactly leaving themselves helpless. They have have pushed the plunger on this year, but with Juan Soto around whom to remodel they’re looking at 2022 and beyond. Particularly with a returning Stephen Strasburg and who knows what off-season deals or signings to come.

Mostly, Scherzer relieves the pressures on the Dodger starting rotation, what with Dustin May lost for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery and Trevor Bauer persona non grata when all is said and done, in the wake of a police investigation into a couple of turns of rough sex crossing the line from consensual to downright unwanted sexual assault.

Whether he proves a rental or whether the Dodgers want to keep him for the rest of his baseball life remains to be seen. Don’t bet against the Dodgers deciding to make the latter happen.

The Yankees should be so lucky with Rizzo and Gallo. Yes, they sent out a lineup full of raw power until those deals, but that lineup lacked consistency and lefthanded hitting, the long-traditional fuel of that long-vaunted, long-legendary Yankee power.

Rizzo is the far more balanced hitter between the two newcomers as well as a multiple Gold Glover at third base. Gallo is so all-or-nothing despite his ability to work walks that he actually lets you imagine Mario Mendoza as a power hitter, but he is a solid defensive outfielder with range and arm enough to maybe make the Yankees forget about Brett Gardner at long enough last. Maybe.

So where was the pitching help the Yankees really needed? Why weren’t they all-in yet on someone like Scherzer? Despite his expressed preference for going west, the Yankees have been nothing if not able to persuade such determined men otherwise in the past.

Why not all-in on resurgent and available Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel? Especially with other teams trailing him including now the Rays, rumoured to be pondering a package of Kimbrel and Bryant coming aboard? Or resurgent and available reliever Daniel Hudson, the 2019 World Series finisher whom the Nats dealt to Seattle before the trading floor really began bristling with prize packages?

Or Jose Berrios, the formidable Twins starter whom the Blue Jays have snapped up for a pair of prospects and who’ll have him through the end of 2022 at minimum pending their ability to sign him longer-term from there?

The Yankees are still in the race, technically. The problem is, they’re three games plus behind the Athletics in the American League wild card picture and eight and a half games behind the Red Sox in the American League East.

And while Dodgers mastermind Andrew Friedman may be taking bows enough for Max the Knife and Trea Chic, Yankee general manager Brian Cashman—whose questionable at minimum construction of the current Yankee roster should take the heat Yankee fans heap upon hapless manager Aaron Boone—may yet have some very serious splainin’ to do.

The Guardians are coming

Jose Ramirez

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer imagines Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez as a Cleveland Guardian.

Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge is named for stonemason William Henry Hope. He helped to build the Guardians of Traffic sculptures into the pylon columns at either end of the bridge that marries Lorain Avenue (west side) and Carnegie Avenue (east side). He helped build all eight such statues around the city.

He was also the father of comedy legend Bob Hope, once a partial owner of the Indians.

The bridge born as the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge was renamed for the elder Hope—and listed in the National Register of Historic Places—after local engineer Albert Porter threatened but failed to get the pylons and guardian statues removed as “monstrosities . . . we’re not running a May Show here.”

Naturally, the social media swarms who think they know an awful lot more than what actually do know were unamused to learn that the Indians—wrestling with the name change several years, from almost the moment they decided Chief Wahoo needed to go—decided to rename themselves the Guardians starting in the 2022 season.

They’re keeping the team colours. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer published a rendering of Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez as a Guardian. The new look is not unattractive. Neither is the new logo of a baseball with the stylised G on the meat of the ball and a wing flapping from the rear.

With exceptions you could fit in your living room, or maybe even in the Indians dugout, the swarms couldn’t figure out exactly what “guardians” had to do with Cleveland. It’s to wonder what they thought when they finally accepted that “guardians” have a singular meaning that isn’t confined to just the two on either end of the bridge leading traffic past Progressive Field.

Some of the swarms agonised that the team hadn’t renamed themselves the Spiders, as a different, ancient Cleveland franchise once did. Well, now. The Spiders existed in the National League from 1887 through 1899. Their franchise record: 827 wins, 938 losses. The Indians have been star-crossed quite enough without being renamed for a team that never won a single pennant. (And, for a team whose record in its final NL season was—wait for it!—20-134.)

Others thought the renaming should be after the Cleveland Buckeyes, who played in the Negro American League from 1942-1950. That might have been more plausible, not just to honour Cleveland’s entry into the game that is now recognised (long overdue, and by everyone except either recalcitrant racists or witless purists) as part of major league baseball. The Buckeyes played two Negro Leagues World Series and won one. (They beat the legendary Homestead Grays in the 1945 set.) If you must rename your team for another old, defunct team, best to rename it for a winner.

Still others thought the new name should be the Cleveland Rockers, tipping the beak toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which is in Cleveland. (A song by rock and roll legend Ian Hunter, “Cleveland Rocks,” was the theme song of television’s The Drew Carey Show.) There were also those who thought the Colorado Rockies might have had an issue or three with that. But never mind.

Enough of the swarm thought the team’s introductory video for the new name had little enough business being narrated by Tom Hanks. Never mind that Hanks once featured in the baseball film hit A League of Their Own. Never mind, too, that Hanks started his acting career in Cleveland in the first place and has a particular affinity for the city.

“Cleveland natives are very defensive of their city,” writes Jim Swift of The Bulwark. “While I may have preferred the Indians, I will gladly be a Guardian against posers like [Senator] Ted Cruz, [National Review editor] Rich Lowry, [and former president] Donald Trump (who tried and failed to buy the Indians). Sad!”

It’s not as though the team just pulled a Guardian rabbit out of its hat. “We heard things like loyalty, pride and resiliency in being from Cleveland,” Indians president Brian Barren said to Plain-Dealer writer (and author of The Curse of Rocky Colavito) Terry Pluto. “They’re protective of our city. They’re protective of the land and everything about it. Those all became part of what Guardians really started to evoke from an emotional standpoint.”

Do we have a candidate for the single most asinine alternative name suggestion? Unfortunately, I do. Unless I see one even more ridiculous, the dubious winner goes to Don Wardlow. Renowned as the first successful blind broadcaster in professional baseball history, Wardlow is an active social media denizen, a still-irrepressible baseball fan and commentator, and a personally engaging man who’s prone now and then to demonstrating wisdom by walking the other way from it.

After acknowledging that “Guardians” make sense to people who live in Cleveland (“I guess”), Wardlow wrote this: “Everybody_ of a certain age, even people who don’t live in Cleveland has heard of Dime Beer night which is why I thought the name Dime Beers would be great. I don’t know if the phenomenon of the burning river is as memorable as Dime Beer night is.”

My first reply was, “Something tells me people have been trying to FORGET Ten-Cent Beer Night for decades. But I suspect you knew that.” To which Wardlow rejoined a) not everybody; b) “many” minor league teams continue “Thirsty Thursday” dollar-or-two beer promotions; and, c) that the irrepressible humourist P.J. O’Rourke “coined a name for the kind of people who want to forget and destroy fun pursuits like dime beer night. He calls them ‘The FunSuckers’.”

Wardlow wrote like a man who didn’t remember what fun pursuits really made the original Ten-Cent Beer Night on 4 June 1974 so “memorable.” (It just so happened to be my late younger brother’s birthday in the bargain.)  It was a not-so-regular riot, Alice. The Indians might have done better to postpone the event for a different game.

The Indians hosted the Rangers in the old but hardly forgotten Municipal Stadium. (Known colloquially as the Mistake on the Lake.) A week earlier, the two teams played in Arlington and included a bench-clearing brawl among the festivities. Rangers infielder Lenny Randle plowed Indians pitcher Milt Wilcox coming to tag him on the first base line while running out a bunt to trigger the scrum; Randle steamed over nearly being hit by a pitch prior to the bunt.

Lingering bad blood between the two teams was probably not the best condition to proceed with a promotion bound to get around 25,000 people (the night’s attendance) bombed out of their trees before the second inning.

The Rangers led the game 5-1 in the middle of the sixth. When Indians left fielder Leron Lee hit a liner up the middle that nailed Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins in the breadbasket and laid him out on the ground, the already-bombed fans began chanting, “Hit him again! Hit him again!” That may have been the most benign behaviour of the night.

A woman hit the field and flashed in the on-deck circle. A naked man ran out to second base right after Rangers designated hitter Tom Grieve hit his second of two home runs on the night in the fourth. Fans ran onto the field continuously during the game, at one point firing hot dogs at mid-game Rangers first base insertion Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove. The plague of the locusts didn’t drive the ancient Egyptians half as crazy.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Indians tied the game at five, with two out and the potential winning run on second, and Indians second baseman Jack Brohamer due to hit. And all hell broke irrevocably loose.

A fan ran out to Rangers left fielder Jeff Burroughs bent on stealing Burroughs’s hat, and the hapless Burroughs tripped and fell trying to prevent the theft. Rangers manager Billy Martin thought Burroughs had been attacked and hustled his team out to help him. A larger mob of fans swarmed out to the Rangers, prompting Indians manager Ken Aspromonte to order his team out to help the under-siege Rangers.

Some of the rioters began throwing steel chairs and seats somehow ripped away from the stands. One of the chairs hit Indians relief pitcher Tom Hilgendorf in the coconut. Another rioter picked a fist fight with Hargrove. Other rioters were determined to be carrying knives and other weapons.

Finally, both teams helped each other off the field before they could have ended up like massacre victims. The drunks continued their mayhem, tearing up the bases, tearing up the field, and throwing cups, rocks, bottles, radio batteries, hot dogs, food containers, and folding chairs around. Even umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak was a victim: he was hit in the head when a rioter threw a stadium seat at him.

That game-long mistake on the lake resulted in the game forfeited to the Rangers. Indians outfielder Rusty Torres, who’d pinch hit safely in the ninth and stood as that potential winning run, had just survived his second of three fan riots during his playing career. He’d been a Yankee when heartsick Senators fans broke RFK Stadium in the top of the ninth, causing a forfeit to his team near the end of the final Senators game ever; he’d be with the White Sox for their equally infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979.

Some fun. Wardlow’s thought that the Indians changing their name to the Dime Beers would have been “great” was written to a group devoted to baseball nostalgia. Forgive me if I simply can’t be nostalgic about the arguable most chaotically decadent and destructive night in major league history. If there’s a proper word for that kind of nostalgia, I probably can’t say it in civil company.

Can’t we teach the thugs a real lesson?

Alex Verdugo, Alex Cora

Alex Verdugo’s (left) generosity turned into a particularly nasty piece of Yankee fan foolishness.

If you want to know why baseball players come to see baseball fans with contempt, as some always have and always will, you can point to the Yankee Stadium doings Saturday night. Even knowing the eternal rivalry between the Empire Emeritus and the Olde Towne Team, this was above and beyond the call of insanity.

All Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo did before the bottom of the sixth started was see fit to toss a practise ball to a young Red Sox fan in the bleachers. The ball didn’t quite reach that young fan’s hands, but it did reach a Yankee fan to whom Red Sox generosity might just as well have been a home invasion leaving none alive.

That Yankee fan threw Verdugo’s should-have-been gift ball back to the field and hit Verdugo squarely in the back. Verdugo was anything but amused. He turned toward the bleachers hollering to the fans. Highly-touted Red Sox prospect Jarren Duran hustled over to pull Verdugo away. Umpires, stadium security, and Red Sox coaches sought only to find the miscreant.

Miscreant found. And ejected from the ballpark posthaste. Eliciting a few cheers and a few more boos among the fans in that section. Red Sox manager Alex Cora wasted no time pulling his team off the field after coach Tom Goodwin urged still-steaming Verdugo out of the outfield and toward the Red Sox dugout.

Cora even had to debate with the umpires over letting Verdugo have a few minutes to compose himself in the dugout. It shouldn’t even have been a debate point. This time, it was only Verdugo’s back. It could have been his head.

“I know my left fielder, I know Alex,” Cora said post-game. “He needed time to breathe and to get his thoughts.” Tell that to the umpires, as Cora ultimately did.

It seemed like nobody was listening to me. Like, imagine getting thrown at with an object in a sport and you’ve got to be out there right away because we have to continue to play the game — that part I didn’t agree. But Alex was OK with it. But you never know. What if he jumps the fence? What if he goes out there and attacks somebody? Whatever. That’s what I was telling them, just give us a chance to collect our thoughts, breathe a little bit and we’ll go out and play the game. That was the whole thing.

Verdugo knows the score only too well. Talk all the trash you want. Hammer all the family members you can think of. Chant your little heads off. Even holler “[Fornicate!] Verdugo” until your throat resembles a pair of sand blocks rubbing together. Throw a ball or other debris? Not so fast.

[T]he moment somebody throws — as players, we’re throwing balls in the stands to try to give people souvenirs, try to make little kids’ days and things like that. Just to hear people saying, ‘Throw it back’ and then someone actually throws it back and it felt like it was targeted towards me, it doesn’t sit right with me.

Throwing enemy home run balls back is a tradition almost as old as the live ball in some ballparks. Wrigley Field’s storied Bleacher Creatures have made it so much so that if you happen to watch a Cubs home game without a Creature throwing back an enemy home run ball (unless, of course, it’s a particular milestone mash with dollar value attached) it’s one step short of breaking-news bulletin time.

But no such Creature has ever been known to try separating an enemy outfielder from his assorted anatomy or his brains throwing a ball back. And not even the worst, most bombed out of his or her trees fan was ever been known (unless it just hasn’t been reported, until Saturday) to throw back a ball an opposing player tried to give a visiting fan as a souvenir.

Things weren’t hard enough between the Red Sox and the Yankees with the scheduled series opener last Thursday postponed after several Yankees—including right field star Aaron Judge—turned up COVID-positive? Things weren’t testy enough already Saturday, with a near-hour rain delay before the game and continuing rain during it?

Red Sox Nation should know that they now have an ally in Yankee manager Aaron Boone, who made no secret of his hope that the bleacher idiot ended up behind bars. Cora should also know that Boone would have acted the same as he did if the game had been in Fenway Park and a particularly brain-damaged Red Sox fan did likewise to one of his players.

It’s awful, embarrassing, unacceptable. My understanding is they did catch the guy. Hopefully he’s in jail right now. That’s just a bad situation. If I was Alex Cora, I would have done the same thing as far as going out and getting his guys off the field. There’s zero place for that in this great game, and in this great rivalry. Players should never feel like they have to worry about anything like that. I already reached out to Alex Cora, just to apologize, and to Alex Verdugo that, you know, that’s just a terrible, bad, sad situation. And sorry about that.

This during a season in which Reds first baseman Joey Votto—after getting ejected early in a game over an argument with an umpire, then learning a little girl named Abigail was heartbroken that she wouldn’t get to see her favourite Red play for just about all game long—reached out and sent Abigail a ball he signed, “I’m sorry I didn’t play the entire game. Joey Votto.”

Saturday’s game was supposed to be about Duran’s major league debut. (He went 1-for-2 with a base hit and a run scored, both in the top of the second.) And, about a pitching duel between Nathan Eovaldi (five innings, one earned run) and Gerrit Cole (six innings, one earned run, eleven punchouts).

The nasty weather ended the game after six in a 3-1 Yankee win. (Back-to-back solo bombs from Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres in the bottom of the sixth took care of that, on Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura’s dollar.) The nasty weather in the left field bleachers became the story of the game, unfortunately.

The Yankees travel to Boston for a set in Fenway Park starting this coming Thursday. Red Sox Nation, beware: don’t even think about trying any similar stupidity if any Yankee decides to toss a practise ball to a visiting Yankee fan before an inning begins.

Maybe the thing for baseball government and the players union to consider together is mandating a forfeit to the opposing team, when a team’s own fans get as thuggish as the thug who thought Verdugo’s reward for generosity to a visiting young fan should have been a ball attack upon the left fielder’s back.

Once upon a sad October 1971 time, umpires awarded the Yankees a forfeit after heartsick Washington Senators fans—with Second Nats reliever Joe Grzenda one out from saving what should have been a win, and the Senators playing their final game before moving to Texas—stormed the RFK Stadium field. Grzenda never got to throw a single pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke.

Those fans didn’t blame the Yankees or try to mangle, bangle, or dismember anything in a Yankee uniform. They’d have preferred decapitating duplicitous Senators owner Bob Short. (Banners with his initials proliferated in the stands.) Absent that, they took it out on RFK Stadium.

If you can forfeit to the visitors over breaking an entire ballpark, you ought to be able to forfeit to the visitors when a home fan decides a baseball offered a visiting fan should be the instrument for spontaneous back surgery upon the visiting player who offered it. Maybe (big maybe) that’ll teach the jackasses a few lessons.

Roots and Blues

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. takes Corbin Burnes across the Colorado state line in the All-Star Game. Manfred wants baseball back to its roots? How about also knocking off these hideous All-Star uniforms and letting the All-Stars represent their teams in their own uniforms again? It was good enough for the Home Run Derby, it should stay good enough for the All-Star Game.

Who are the faces of baseball today? Put the current injured lists to one side. Barring unforeseen complications or corollary issues, one and all on those lists now will be back either this season or next. Barring, too, one player of extraterrestrial achievement—you should spot the one most likely to produce it the rest of the year, too—it shouldn’t really be a singular face.

They should be players like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Pete Alonso, Mookie Betts, Shane Bieber, Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Jacob deGrom, Rafael Devers, Freddie Freeman, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, Trey Mancini, Shohei Ohtani, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Mike Trout, Brandon Woodruff.

Instead, the face of the game, singular, seems to be its ten-thumbed, two-left-feet, too-lawyerly-for-his-own good commissioner, a man who seems almost never to let pass a chance to let the stars shine in baseball’s sky without sending up a homemade cloud.

On Home Run Derby Night, the Coors Field audience and baseball nation transfixed upon Ohtani (the prohibitive favourite), Soto, Mancini (the sentimental favourite), Guerrero, and Alonso (the eventual winner), among others. During the All-Star Game—which the American League won, 5-2—Ohtani and company were at least as watchable and discussable as those missing in action due to health concerns might have been.

So, perhaps naturally, Rob Manfred stepped all over himself yet again. Asked whom he thought the face of baseball is today, Castellanos named Manfred. Informed of that designation, Manfred said no. Then, he dropped a few matters to indicate his lips said no-no but there was yes-yes in his eyes.

He told a Baseball Writers Association of America meeting the day of the All-Star Game, “I think anything that distracts from the attention being on what goes on in the field is a bad thing.” Unfortunately, Commissioner Nero—who’s spent too much of his commissionership fiddling while baseball seems to burn—went on to do just that.

Manfred could well enough have waited until after the All-Star Game, confined his remarks to the BBWAA to just his thought on “distraction” from the All-Star field, then said he’d talk a little more the day after if they were willing to listen. (And who wouldn’t have been?)

I’ve already discussed his thought that the doubleheader of seven-inning games might disappear after this season. (And, why I think keeping the idea is sound as a nut.) Manfred also spoke of disappearing the free cookie on second base (known to wags as “Manfred Man”) to open each extra half-inning, a disappearance devoutly to be wished. As would be the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. (Unless they enter during a jam and get rid of the side before batters two, three, or both appear.)

Unfortunately, Manfred didn’t address that third part, so far as I know. He must have been asleep at the switch the night Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius got hit back-to-back by a fresh Cardinal reliever whose control took the night off but whose manager couldn’t relieve him legally until he faced his third batter.

The law of unintended consequences too often escapes Manfred’s lawyerly ways.

He also suggested he’d like to ban defensive overshifting, formally, as part of what he says is part and parcel of returning baseball “to its roots.” He suggests the owners are all in on that return, though long experience tells you that with most owners changes or restorations have less to do with the game itself and more to do with whether something means making money for it, which usually means for themselves.

Never mind that the shifts could and would be neutralised if teams start instructing their batters to take advantage of all that free real estate. Screw the unwritten rules. Just hit the ball onto it. Take first base on the house before the shifters can scramble for the ball. Even if the other guys have a no-hitter going to the final outs. I’ll say it again: you hand me that free territory with a no-hitter going, let your pitcher hold you to account when I show up on first on the house.

I’ll say it again: that, or an infield you know to be full of butchers enabling such base hits, should be the only time you want to see a widespread return of bunting. In all other situations, a bunt is a wasted out. Outs to work with are precious. Why waste a third of your inning’s resources and do the other guys such a favour?

You guessed it: I’m all in if Manfred really does bring the universal designated hitter back to stay in 2022. Guess which defensive position sports the Show’s worst slash line this year? (.109/.149/.142.) The worst OPS? (.291.) The most wasted outs? (No other positions show more than the catchers’ 40; these guys show 221.) A real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances) of .167?

Hint: Since the final decade of the dead ball era, they’ve hit a collective .166. Tell me how long a catcher, an infielder, or an outfielder would survive in the Show—if he was lucky enough to get to it at all—with that kind of hitting. Even if he was the defensive second coming (based on runs saved above their leagues’ averages at their positions) of Ivan Rodriguez, Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente.

Manfred should consider the Pirates owner of 1891 who first proposed what we know now as the DH. About whose proposal a journal of the time, The Sporting Life, said in concurrence:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

It wasn’t an invention of that nefarious American League. And if it hadn’t been for Chris (I am der boss pressident of der Prowns!) von der Ahe, reneging on a previous commitment to support William Chase Temple, when the idea came up at the next National League rules meeting, the NL would have had the honour of introducing what Pirates catcher-turned-Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack tried but failed to introduce to the AL fifteen years later.

If you want to see a little more leveling out between pitching and hitting, be advised that when the DH is used this year (by AL teams, and by NL teams playing interleague in the AL Park) the DHs have the best OPS (.767) in Show at this writing. If you want more “strategy”—and you won’t throw things at me when I remind you that 95 percent of all “strategy” is plotted before the game begins—you should prefer that number-nine batting order slot go to either a second cleanup type or an extra leadoff type.

“Returning baseball to its roots” can be tricky. Even if it suggests Manfred might finally be willing to quit trying to prove that the birth child of that backstreet affair between Rube Golberg and the Mad Hatter should be a baseball executive.

It depends on the roots to which you want to return. How about eliminating regular-season interleague play? How about eliminating the wild card system that’s produced the thrills and chills of teams fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place?

How about a best-of-three division series with each league’s best first-place finisher having a bye while the other two winners slug it out? How about returning the League Championship Series to the best-of-five of its birth and childhood? How about thus eliminating October saturation and restoring the World Series to its proper primacy?

Unfortunately, those beg one further question right now: Since Manfred can’t seem to find the right way to make serviceable, field-leveling baseballs (easier to look into an acceptable stickum for pitcher grips, as he’s also doing), how far above his pay grade would those and other reasonable moves really prove?

Back to baseball’s roots? Be gone, hideous 2021 All-Star uniform! The threads (especially the American League’s “road” blue) made the horrific 1970s single-colour pajamas of some teams resemble something from Pierre Cardin. If players wearing their own uniforms, representing their teams, is good enough for the Home Run Derby, it’s still good enough for the All-Star Game.

Where have you gone, Bart Giamattio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.