River deep, mountain high, and often still denied

Jean Ramirez

Jean Ramirez, here pitching batting practise—suffering too silently.

My former Call to the Pen colleague/editor Manuel Gómez was emphatic enough about it last Friday, writing of the suicide of Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez. He thinks appropriately that Ramirez should never have had to let his inner despair drive him to death by his own hand.

“In this world, it’s seemingly not acceptable to feel depressed or anxious,” Gómez wrote for Our Esquina. “To feel this way is interpreted as a sign of weakness, a lack of intestinal fortitude. We need to forcefully change that cultural mindset.”

He wrote of both our world as a whole and Latino worlds in particular, worlds he said compelled Ramirez to suffer silently, “smiling on the outside while terribly sad on the inside.”

Unfortunately, this is how we have conditioned ourselves in the Latino community. Pair that with the machismo often found within sports organizations, and it’s a recipe for disaster at times.

Ramirez died about a month before former major league outfielder Jeremy Giambi shot himself to death. Those who knew him in the game remembered Giambi much the way those around the Rays spoke of Ramirez, a fun-loving fellow who gave you the best of his ability and his personality alike.

Giambi “was an incredibly loving human being with a very soft heart and it was evident to us as his teammates that he had some deeper battles going on,” texted former Athletics  pitcher Barry Zito to San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser. “I hope this can be a wake up call for people out there to not go at it alone and for families and friends to trust their intuition [w]hen they feel somebody close to them needs help. God bless Jeremy and his family in this difficult time.”

Not to go it alone. Easier said than done.

“The loss of our son has been the most excruciating experience we have lived,” Ramirez’s family said in a statement upon their son’s death. “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t see the signs. Struggling in silence is not OK . . . We are very grateful to the Tampa Bay Rays organization, whom we consider our family, for their love and support. Our son felt loved by all of you.”

You can feel loved by everyone except your own self under the incessant lash of mental illness. But in professional sports you can also feel as though what lashes you is seen by those who profess to love you as evidence that you’re gutless, that you can’t handle yourself playing “a kid’s game,” that you’re even stealing the large money you’re paid to play it.

You can turn it on in the batter’s box, in the field, on the mound, in front of thousands in the ballpark and millions in front of their television sets or computers or tablets. But when you step back into the dugout or the clubhouse, or head for home, you can’t just snap your fingers and turn off whatever lashes you inside your heart, soul, and mind.

The slightest act, the slightest incident, can spin someone into the morass of mental illness without any prior hint, though much of that depends on things such as age, overall maturity, time and place, and the acts of those with powerful influence in a sufferer’s life.

Some such victims can make themselves professionally productive but internally paralysed. Some can’t compartmentalise themselves that way. Even today, knowing and acknowledging more about mental illness that we could and did fifty years ago, knowing or facing it in a loved one, a friend, an admired professional is no simpler than turning on a fastball out-racing a sports car and driving it to the back of the park.

Phil Spector (in sunglasses) with former Beatle George Harrison at a 1972 recording session. Discovering the lie about his father’s death may have triggered Spector’s destructive mental morass.

Fabled music songwriter/producer Phil Spector faced his father’s death during his boyhood, learning only later that what his abusive mother and his family told him of his father’s “accidental” death turned out to have been suicide. His mother often blamed him to his face violently for his father’s death as well; in due course he titled his first hit record (as a late teenager, yet) with the epitaph on his father’s tombstone.

“The most vile word in the language,” Spector once said, having suffered his father’s plus a few friends’ and one child’s deaths, “is dead.”

Who’s to say that grotesque original familial lie didn’t spin the ambitious but too-sensitive Spector into the mental morass that enabled both his monumental music achievements (especially his “Wall of Sound” production style) and his monumental deficiencies as a man, a husband, a father, a collaborator, whose recklessness finally got him convicted of killing a young woman named Lana Clarkson at his home? (Too late in life, Spector may actually have undergone treatment for mental illness.)

While Spector grew up both haunted and driven in the Bronx, its baseball team discovered a prospect with outsize talent and an inability to harness it or himself. John Malangone was found by the same scout (Paul Krichell) who’d previously discovered Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford, and the Yankees engaged two Hall of Fame catchers (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey) to groom him as Yogi Berra’s heir apparent. Even Yogi himself pitched in.

Malangone clowned and crashed his way out of a Yankee spring training game without seeing a single major league plate appearance. Only later did anyone learn he’d haunted himself into mental paralysis after the childhood death of his best friend/biological uncle, killed by an infection after being hit inadvertently by Malangone’s own homemade javelin—a tragic accident for which his family demanded silence but he insisted inwardly that there could be no punishment sufficient enough.

It took a friend’s urging decades later for Malangone to see the coroner’s report at last and understand the death was purely an accident for which he held no malicious responsibility. (Gary Smith once wrote deeply, eloquently, and compassionately about Malangone’s dilemna and eventual self-redemption in Sports Illustrated, “Damned Yankee,” republished in his splendid anthology Beyond the Game.)

John Malangone

John Malangone (center) with Hall of Fame catchers Mickey Cochrane (left) and Bill DIckey—a live prospect who punished himself mentally for decades over a childhood death for which he had no true guilt.

He’d worked for both New York City and Sears for decades before finally finding a cautious peace, even pitching well in local baseball leagues populated by older players, and was the subject of 2006’s Long Road Home, before he died last year at 89. What would he have been if he’d been reached decades earlier? We’ll never know.

This week, the Dodgers surprised just about everyone in baseball when they re-signed outfielder Andrew Toles—a diagnosed schizophrenic, who hasn’t played since 2018, whose tortured life includes being in and out of mental facilities, being found asleep behind an airport terminal, and numerous police confrontations. They don’t expect him to play, USA Today says, but “the renewal of his contract will allow him to have access to mental health services and health insurance.”

The Dodgers both surprised and pleased a public often jaded by the shadier sides of baseball as a business. It was both a compassionate and decent thing for the team to do.

Toles—who posted a 1.082 OPS in the 2016 National League Championship Series—is the son of a former New Orleans Saints linebacker who has said he wants nothing more than his son back to live as “normal” a life as possible. “I just want him to have a chance in life,’’ Alvin Toles told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last year. “That’s all. Just to be healthy, live a normal life. I’d do anything for my son and my kids, and I know their mother cares a great deal, too.”

Andrew Toles

Andrew Toles—the Dodgers re-signed him compassionately so the outfielder diagnosed a schizophrenic could have access to health care.

“Mental illness is just now getting the attention of people now when it should have been a long time ago,” said his goddaughter Gwendolyn Boyd-Willis. “I can’t imagine what Alvin is going through as a parent. He’s been a phenomenal father.”

Alvin Toles is one parent who sees his son’s despair and tackles it as head on as possible. Black communities and families often fostered their own machismo and struggled to terms when discovering such illness in their children. So did Italian cultures such as those from which Malangone sprang, and Jewish ones such as that from which Spector did.

Yet the elder Toles comes from playing one of the most machismo-drenched of sports and faces, not fudges his son’s disease. For generations prior, such families as those of Malangone and Spector either rejected or denied mental destruction. Ramirez’s and Giambi’s families neither rejected nor denied, they merely couldn’t see their sons’ sufferings, and their sons seemingly couldn’t express them beyond their haunted selves.

“It’s a travesty many Latino families suffer through being unable to properly identify and treat issues of mental health,” wrote my friend Gómez. “Issues with mental health are viewed as signs of weakness. Many folks are shamed into silence, labeled as crazy and forgotten.”

Shamed, or self-driven into an isolation that can and often does end in living death if not premature, self-inflicted death. Don’t waste your time telling such victims to look on the bright side. Those who suffer so would trade any temporal success for a real path to the bright side. And don’t tell them how many people have things worse. It only tells a mental illness victim that he or she doesn’t really matter.

You can insert too many other ethnicities in place of “Latino” and find Gómez’s words applying just as acutely. You can also find—whether speaking of a mental illness victim or of a victim of a mentally ill person—too many other such lives compromised, wasted, and ended needlessly because of it.

“It’s all in your head,” say too many still when a loved one suffers such a paralysing condition.

Little do they truly know. Mental illness for anyone who suffers but, perhaps, athletes and other performers in particular, could be described by the title of the swollen production that drove Spector out of the music business for a spell, once upon a time. River deep, mountain high.

The Edgy Angels?

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it . . . There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.—Mike Trout.

Ask manager Joe Maddon, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, how long he wants to keep managing, and he’ll smile when he says it even if he’s not kidding. “As long as Mick Jagger performs,” the skipper replies. Well, now.

Maddon’s Angels aren’t exactly the Rolling Stones of baseball, even if the team was created three years before the original Stones lineup cut their first record in England. The Angels have had disasters in their midsts, too, but nobody to the best of anyone’s knowledge has been killed during an Angels game. Yet.

There were times over the years when you might have thought the Angels might have wanted to kill a manager or two, if not each other, but no edition of the Angels was ever as willing to fight each other as the 1972-74 Athletics.

For several years, now, two themes have attached to the Angels: 1) They find everything they need except quality pitching. 2) It might be easier to pass the proverbial camel through the proverbial eye of the proverbial needle than to get the Angels back to the postseason before Mike Trout earns the last dollar on his contract. (In 2030, if you’re scoring at home.)

This is a team that’s had the single greatest player of his and many generations (Baseball Reference lists him as the number five center fielder of all time), a guy who plays a solid center field and whose five top comps as a batter through age 29 are, in descending order, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.), Barry Bonds, and Frank Robinson.

And he hasn’t seen even a sliver of a postseason since his Rookie of the Year 2012, through no fault of his own. Trout exercised maybe baseball’s greatest sense of loyalty when he decided to forego his first entry into the free agency market to sign that $330.1 million contract extension just a sliver over two years ago. Questioning the Angels’ loyalty to him—as in, a team their and baseball’s best all-around player could be proud of—was wholly appropriate.

But Rosenthal now gives the Angels two cheers. Not just because the Angels in this abbreviated spring training look healthy and even happy, but because second-year general manager Perry Minasian has impressed the living daylights out of just about everybody in an Angel uniform, from the manager to Trout to all the way down the roster.

“It starts from the front office, the desire to win, the desire to be better every day,” says one of Minasian’s signature signings, former Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a guy who’s been to the World Series and to two postseasons total. “I see a lot of what I saw in 2015, just the overall grit and badass persona, playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s been a while since the Angels made the playoffs. This is my first year here. The overall tone is they’re kind of all sick of this s—.”

If anyone has credentials to discuss badass personae, it’s the guy who thought nothing of opening Game Three of the 2015 World Series by dropping Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar—who’d gotten a little too comfortable at the plate in the first two games—right onto his seat with the first pitch, before striking him out emphatically. Perhaps coincidentally, it was the only Series game those Mets won in a set during which their then-porous defense blew three other games they could have won.

That was then, this is now. Syndergaard isn’t the only Angels pitcher saying they’re sick of all that you-know-what. “I see a bunch of guys that are hungry, that know the pressure is on us,” says young starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval. “Everyone says the Angels’ rotation is a question mark every single year. The guys like me, Shohei [Ohtani] and [Jaime] Barría, we’ve heard it for three years now. We’re kind of sick of it.”

Minasian also did what was once thought unthinkable, never mind undoable in the recent Angels past. He overhauled the bullpen, $92.75 worth of overhaul, keeping closer Raisel Iglesias (2.83 fielding-independent pitching rate last year) on a four-year deal, and guaranteeing former Met/Ray/Padre/Phillie/Blue Jay Aaron Loup (2.45 FIP last year) plus former White Sox/Cub/Jay Ryan Tepera (2.56 FIP) two years each.

The Angels also think that a healthy Trout and Anthony Rendon married to Ohtani’s bat in the lineup makes them a little more formidable at the plate. They may not be wrong. Especially playing under the new rule that allows Ohtani, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, to stay in a game as the designated hitter when his starting pitching assignment ends for the day. Just as he did in last year’s All-Star Game.

Trout is even doing something a little more overtly now that he did only by example his first ten seasons: leading. What he began when he made himself the team’s public face in the shock of Tyler Skaggs’s death in 2019 he’s continuing more verbally than he ever has in the past.

He spoke often of what Skaggs meant as a person as well as a pitcher. (This was well enough before we learned sadly enough that Skaggs was badly hooked on painkillers, a hooking that may have gone back to his Tommy John surgery and may have been abetted by his own agent urging him to pitch through pain regardless.)

Maybe the most staggering and surreal recent memory for Angel fans was their first home game after Skaggs’s unexpected death. When Trout opened the evening’s proceedings against the Mariners with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first, launching a combined no-hitter (by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena) and a 13-0 blowout.

“When I first came up, I kind of just went out there and played my game, let my game speak for itself,” Trout admitted to Rosenthal.

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it. I’ve had a lot of talks with the front office and players. There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.

Trout’s coming-out party as a conscious leader came before this lockout-abbreviated spring training began. When commissioner Rob Manfred announced that first set of canceled games, Trout was distinctly unamused. The guy who did his talking with his bat, his glove, and his personal fan-friendliness fired back.

“I want to play, I love our game, but I know we need to get this [collective bargaining agreement] right,” he tweeted on 2 March. “Instead of bargaining in good faith-MLB locked us out. Instead of negotiating a fair deal-Rob canceled games. Players stand together. For our game, for our fans, and for every player who comes after us.”

Maybe it’s the Angels about to play their first full season since Albert Pujols’s departure last year, but Maddon thinks it’s just a question of Trout having the chance to lead. “He wants to lead,” the manager says. “To me, that means, on a daily basis, when you walk in the building to put everybody else before you. He’s definitely got that in him. He’s very empathetic. He wants to win. He’s willing to share his knowledge. He’s got all the ingredients. He just needed the opportunity.”

And he doesn’t mind pulling others up with him. When Ohtani hogged the headlines last year, after the calf tear put paid to Trout’s season prematurely, Trout enjoyed Shohtime as much as anybody else.

“Shohei’s season was nothing short of electric,” he said when Ohtani won the MVP. “At times, I felt like I was back in Little League. To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible. What impresses me the most about him, though, is the way he carries himself both on and off the field. With so much on his plate daily, he still manages to do it with a smile.”

Imagine that. The Smiling Angels. Whom FanGraphs projects to a seventh-best 82 wins among American League teams. Not so fast, Rosenthal warns:

Projections are largely pointless except as a discussion point, especially in a season when injuries might be more prevalent after a shortened spring training. But the Angels face so many “ifs,” it’s difficult to imagine them being better than the six teams ahead of them — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, White Sox, and Rays. They also might not be better than the Twins and Mariners, the two teams immediately behind them.

I have more than the usual skin in this game. Somehow, I managed to score tickets for what was first the Angels’ mere home opener but, thanks to the owners’ lockout and Commissioner Nero’s first cancellations, is Opening Day, period, at Angel Stadium. Ohtani is already announced as their starting pitcher. My 28-year-old son and myself will be seated in our standard perch down the right field line.

We’ll look for two things at minimum: 1) Whether there will remain Angel fans willing to hammer the visiting Astros with inflatable trash can bangings and other signs, shouts, and sneers over Astrogate. 2) Whether these Smiling Angels, these Edgy Angels, these Fed Up With All That You-Know-What Angels, show just how fed up they are at the plate and in the field through those edgy new smiles.

Being an Angel fan has been many things in the decades since they were born in the American League’s first expansion. Dull hasn’t been one of them, though being dulled–if not sent to their nineteenth nervous breakdowns—has been something else entirely. And living on that 2002 World Series triumph got tiresome well before they wrapped their silks around a big fish named Trout.

It’s Miller time . . . for retirement

Andrew Miller

The Cubs won the 2016 World Series but, until they did, Cleveland relief pitcher Andrew Miller may have been that postseason’s biggest star.

Andrew Miller’s mother once hoped he’d parlay his high 1500s SAT results into a college degree from Masschussetts Institute of Technology. Mrs. Miller would just have to settle for her brainy son becoming a lefthanded pitcher who helped revolutionise relief work, and who helped articulate the folly of the owners’ lockout from December through almost mid-March.

Miller had long proven that the best, most valuable relief pitcher in the bullpen isn’t necessarily your “closer” earning “saves, particularly with the team then known as the Indians (now the Guardians) in the 2016 postseason plus the second half of 2016’s and most of 2017’s regular seasons.

But during the foolish lockout, the 36-year-old Miller also helped clarify that the players refused to suffer tanking any more gladly than tanking teams’ fans do.

“All during these negotiations,” Peter Gammons wrote in The Athletic as the lockout finally came to its end, “Miller drove home the players’ insistence that tanking and ideas that diminished competition were contrary to their beliefs. He consistently called ‘increased competition a core goal’ of the negotiations. ‘Anything that points towards mediocrity is the antithesis of the game and what we’re about as players,’ he said.”

Miller announced his retirement Thursday, after a considerably distinguished sixteen-season pitching career, in which he shifted himself from a nothing-special starting pitcher who couldn’t harness his repertoire into a game-changing relief pitcher who used his stamina and his wipeout slider to show both the uselessness of the save-centric mindset and resurrect an ancient–and then-controversial, too—idea about relief work.

Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel thought nothing of bringing prime relief (Joe Page, Allie Reynolds, Bob Turley, to name three) in earlier than the latest innings when he managed the Yankees. He hammered the point that the time to reach for a stopper happens any time, even in the earliest innings. Miller’s Indians manager Terry Francona, whose new toy came from the Yankees in a non-waiver trade deadline deal, used Miller in just that way the rest of 2016 and all the way through the postseason.

It finished what Miller’s four-year/$36 million deal with the Yankees in December 2014 started: making a mostly non-closing relief pitcher into a star. He stayed with the Yankees until that trade deadline. For the second half of 2016, right up to the moment he ran out of petrol in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series (an RBI single, plus David Ross’s last major league hit–a leadoff home run), Miller was the Indians’ best relief pitcher.

According to fielding-independent pitching, which accounts for the things within a pitcher’s control as traditional earned-run average doesn’t, it wasn’t even close: his 1.53 FIP was 80 points below the next-lowest in the pen, Dan Otero’s 2.33 . . . and 1.78 below designated closer Cody Allen.

The ancient beer commercial proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time.” The skipper for team known then as the Indians proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time,” whenever he needed a stopper in that postseason. Quick: Name the only two relief pitchers ever to win a postseason Most Valuable Player award without being their teams’ primary closers. Answer: Miller, in the 2016 American League Championship Series; and, Rob Dibble, in the 1990 Natoinal League Championship Series.

Miller was just as deadly in 2017 (1.99 FIP) until he developed patellar tendinitis in his right knee, his landing knee, in early August, returning that September. He ran out of fuel again in the postseason, this time against his former team, the Yankees, in the Indians’ division series exit.

In due course he signed with the Cardinals, but he fought injuries and the inconsistencies they provoked. He never really looked like the force of nature he was in 2016-17 again, except during three brief postseason trips with the Cardinals. In fact, his entire posteason relief FIP—seven postseasons, 29 games, and one trip to the World Series—is more sparkling than his regular-season career marks as a reliever and as the starter he first was before he discovered life in the bullpen with the 2011-12 Red Sox:

Andrew Miller—Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), Career
As a starting pitcher 4.78
As a relief pitcher 3.02
As a postseason reliever 2.43

He’d shortened his delivery into a partial slide step to help him put more bite on that slider. He also paid close attention to just how he and his fellow relief corpsmen were handled, fuming over an early-season set in Chicago during which Valentine seemed almost indifferent to how the April chill affected their pen preparation.

“The Red Sox returned home . . . and when Miller got to the park, he was upset about the usage of Rich Hill—who had already worked through a couple of operations in his career,” Gammons wrote.

Miller talked about how Hill had gotten up “close to eight times” and finally got in to face one lone batter in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Miller said, “there ought to be some kind of punishment for doing that to a pitcher, particularly someone with a medical history.” Miller turned a corner in his career that season under [2012 Red Sox manager Bobby] Valentine and there were no public issues. But he felt a teammate had been jeopardized and for 24 hours remained in that window.

“The problem still seems to be,” I wrote in the 19 March edition of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, “that enough managers pay too little attention to the pitch volume relievers throw in the pen before they come into games . . . if they come into games. Some of those managers still think a relief pitcher hasn’t “pitched” unless he’s been in a game. Those men may well throw more innings’ worth of pitches in the pen than they’ll ever throw on the game mound.”

Apparently, there was at least one relief pitching thinking along the same lines in 2012. Rest assured, Miller’s probably not the only such reliever with the only such thoughts. The need to monitor relief pitchers’ warmup work carefully and manage it prudently remains profound if rarely appreciated.

Miller’s Cardinals teammate Adam Wainwright, himself now approaching the end of a splendid pitching career, appreciates Miller as both a relief pitcher and an advocate for the greater good of the game as one of the players’ union’s main negotiators.

He changed the game and he kind of took that relief role back to when it first started, guys who could do two, three innings–and he was the guy who did it in the postseason. I have an appreciation for what he did for the entire game of baseball. As many hours as that guy put in for the union over these past few years is kind of staggering. He may retire and that means this whole offseason he still spent sixteen hours on the phone a day, for us, for who’s next–that means a lot.

Miller is also the kind of young man who appreciates such things in life as fine wines and (this endears him to my guitar playing heart even more) the woods used to make guitars. The relief force who has worn the uniforms of the Tigers, the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Indians, and the Cardinals also has a calm appreciation for baseball’s history and signatures.

“I’m usually pretty quick to be able to step back though and see how lucky I have been,” Miller told the Post-Dispatch. “The hard times were necessary for me to grow and to be able to appreciate the highs along the way. Ultimately, I was able to play for many great franchises, wear historic uniforms, and play in some amazing ballparks.”

Pondering such appreciation causes me to ponder that I’d love to find a way to suggest Miller in retirement could bring his considerable weight to bear, as a baseball thinker as well as pitcher, on behalf of a forgotten player class: the now 504 pre-1980, short-career major leaguers who were frozen out of a 1980 pension realignment that made pension vesting possible after 43 days’ major league service time

All those players have received since is an annual stipend negotiated by former Players Association director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig. The original stipend was $625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. Somewhere during the lockout, the stipend—whose February payment was delayed pending the lockout settlement—was hiked fifteen percent. Now, it’s $718.75 per 43 days’ major league service time.

It’s hardly close to what those pre-1980 short-career men deserve, but it’s something. The further bad news is that those monies still can’t be passed to those men’s families upon their deaths.

Many of those men were active union members supporting the battles for players’ rights and respect, which compounds the original injustice. Several of those players have said they believe a perception that most were mere September callups factored in their original freeze-out. Well. I’ve been looking it up. So far, the majority of such players either made even one of their teams’ rosters out of spring training or appeared on rosters as early as later in April, or May, or June, or July, or August.

Articulate, intelligent, sensitive Andrew Miller, entering a richly-earned retirement, would be an invaluable voice of influence on behalf of those men, if he could be made further aware of such an injustice.

Pete Ward, RIP: The un-cover boy

Pete Ward

Pete Ward hoists the Sports Illustrated cover on which he would have appeared if not for some guy named Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Trivia time: Name the only major league third baseman who ever got knocked out by Muhammad Ali. The answer: Pete Ward. With a real phantom punch.

No, Ward wasn’t foolish enough to step into the ring against Ali. Ward was supposed to be a 1965 cover star when Sports Illustrated planned a cover story on the White Sox’s pennant hopes. Until he wasn’t.

“They just got the pictures there in time to do it,” said Ward—who died at 84 on 16 March—to interviewer Mark Liptak in 2003. “Sports Illustrated did send me some of the covers that were supposed to have me on it though.”

Ali-Liston II put paid to that idea. Ward eventually kept one of the covers’ prints in his office at his post-baseball travel agency, signing another and giving it to the magazine’s vice president for communications, Art Berke.

When a story about Ward’s death was posted to a Facebook baseball group, one commenter made a remark about “nobodies” being hoisted. Well, now. A guy who finishes a tight second to a White Sox teammate in the 1963 American League Rookie of the Year voting is many things. A nobody isn’t one of them.

Ward was a slick third baseman who was actually worth more wins above replacement level than the infielder who bagged the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year award—a kid named Pete Rose. (Ward: 4.1; Rose: 2.4.) If only his teammate Gary Peters hadn’t led the American League with his 2.33 ERA that season.

If it hadn’t been for an April 1965 auto accident that left him with neck and back trouble, Ward might have put up better than a nine-season playing career otherwise. Over his first two full seasons, Ward averaged 33 doubles, five triples, 24 home runs, and a .478 slugging percentage; over his final six: eighteen, two, thirteen, and .364.

The accident that changed the trajectory of Ward’s career happened after the White Sox returned to Chicago following a rainout in Washington. As Ward told Liptak, he managed to score tickets for a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game for himself and pitching teammate Tommy John. It was after the game that the accident occurred:

[A]s we were leaving, I was in the front seat on the right side and Tommy was in the back seat on the left when a car rear-ended us. At the time I didn’t think that much about it, it wasn’t really that hard of a hit but the next day I woke up with a stiff neck and was sore all over. I went to see a doctor and he told me I had a case of whiplash and it bothered me the rest of the year. It just caused a lot of problems for me. Tommy also had neck problems.

As Ward told SI in due course, “I was never comfortable from that point on.” More than his batting numbers bear him out. He’d been worth eighteen defensive runs above his league average in 1964; he remained a plus defender at third in 1965 but he was worth eight such runs above league average for that season. He divided defensive time between the outfield, third base, and first base the rest of his career.

“I preferred third base,” Ward told Liptak, laughing, “because I was a bad outfielder!”

Pete Ward

As a boy, your chronicler usually opened packs to find several Pete Ward baseball cards a year during Ward’s White Sox years; this was Ward’s 1968 card.

Chicagolander though I wasn’t, I’d had a particular affinity for Ward when I was growing up in the 1960s. It seemed that his baseball cards were almost ubiquitous; I could guarantee that out of my first three packs of Topps cards on the year, there’d be at least one and maybe three Ward cards among the bunch.

Ward was an Orioles discovery with a 1962 cup of coffee for Baltimore, before he was traded to the White Sox prior to spring training 1963. Quite a trade. The White Sox sent the Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio and veteran outfielder Al Smith; the Orioles sent Ward, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen (the American League’s 1960 Rookie of the Year), and spare outfielder Dave Nicholson.

In his memoir Safe By a Mile, then-White Sox scout/coach Charlie Metro remembered pushing then-White Sox manager Al Lopez that Ward be included or there’d be no deal:

I insisted on Pete Ward coming over to the White Sox in a deal with Baltimore because I had worked with Pete out in Vancouver. He was a pretty good hitter. He was very aggressive. He loved to play, quite a cocky kid. When the White Sox had a chance to make the trade, I said, ‘Make them throw Pete Ward in the deal. He can play, he can hit.’ Al Lopez said, ‘Well, what kind of fielder is he?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not too good a fielder, but if you hit him a thousand ground balls at third base, he’ll do pretty fair. But he can hit, and he can drive in runs and has some power. Don’t make the deal unless you get Pete Ward.

Ward’s White Sox life ended when he was dealt to the Yankees in December 1969. Then in the middle of their Lost Decade (1965-75), the Yankees got only a shell of Ward’s former ability and released him in March 1971. But they respected Ward’s baseball mind enough to make him the manager of their Fort Lauderdale (A) farm team; he managed them to the league championship in 1974.

Ward managed two other Yankee farm teams, plus a White Sox farm team, before he left baseball to work for Miller Brewing before he opened his own successful travel agency in the Pacific Northwest, to which his family had originally moved during his childhood. The Montreal native—and son of 1935 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Maroons right wing Jimmy Ward—was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Known as much for a good sense of humour as anything else, Ward proved sanguine about his missed SI cover. “You know,” he said to SI writer Richard Deitsch at the turn of the century, “Ali was on something like forty covers. It would have been nice if he could have let me be on just one.”

God willing, Ward met Ali in the Elysian Fields and said, “You knocked Liston out with your fist, but you knocked me out with a phantom punch!” Ward’s otherwise bereft wife, children, and grandchildren surely settle proudly for knowing Ward was always their cover guy.

What the Yankeegate letter won’t do

Affirming the 2017 Yankees as cheaters won’t exonerate or excuse that year’s Astros or the next year’s Red Sox.

Remember the somewhat infamous admonitory letter from commissioner Rob Manfred to Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, regarding proof that the Yankees were up to some 2017 electronic sign-stealing of their own? The letter the Yankees have fought to suppress with the same ardor as they exercise trying to break a decade-plus World Series ring drought?

The Yankeegate letter’s going to come forth in a fortnight, ESPN says. We’re going to learn at last whether Manfred told the whole story of any such Yankee panky or, if he did, just what it actually involved, other than the once-infamous dugout phone/Apple watch slap on the wrist. It only took two years from the day federal judge Jed S. Rakoff ordered the letter unsealed and disclosed to the public with minimal redaction.

Maybe it was only the dugout phone and/or the Apple watch. Maybe it included the Yankees trying to get cute using a television broadcast camera/monitor for a little extracurricular intelligence gathering. Maybe it included the Yankees operating a replay-room reconnaissance ring similar to that known to have been run by Red Sox players in 2018. Maybe.

The bad news, at least for the DraftKings fantasy baseball group, is that releasing the Yankeegate letter won’t reinstate their $5 million lawsuit over Astrogate and Soxgate and aimed at both those clubs plus MLB itself. The worse news is that, whatever is or isn’t in the Yankeegate letter, it won’t take the 2017-18 Astros especially, or the 2018 Red Sox as well, off the hook.

Memory summons back that some around the Astros—and no few of their fans—believed to their souls that high-tech sign-stealing was prevalent enough that they would have been left in the dust if they didn’t think about a little such subterfuge themselves. Mostly, it involved replay-room reconnaissance. The Red Sox got bagged for it over 2018, but few pretended they were the only team with that kind of spymanship.

The Rogue Sox and their fellow replay-room spies, whomever they were, still required a little of the old-fashioned gamesmanship technique: their pilfered intelligence was useless unless there was a man on base to receive it and thus signal it to the man at the plate. That doesn’t justify, either. Sign-stealing from the basepaths or the coaching lines is one thing. Picking it off replay monitors is something else entirely.

But those rooms were provided by MLB itself, to the home and visiting teams in each ballpark. Expecting them to be there without one or another team giving in to the sign-stealing temptation was (I repeat, yet again) something like Mom and Dad making off for a weekend getaway without the kids and leaving the liquor cabinet keys behind.

The 2017-18 Astros took it quite a few bridges farther. For one thing, a front office intern created a sign-stealing algorithm (Codebreaker) that he warned was legal to use before and after games but not during games, a warning then-general manager Jeff Luhnow pooh-poohed while fostering a since-exposed organisational culture in which, to be polite, human decency, never mind honest competition, was seen as an encumbrance.

For another thing, there was that little matter of either an existing camera altered illegally from its mandatory eight-second transmission delay; or, a second, illegally deployed real-time camera. Either or both of which sent signs to be deciphered from an extracurricular clubhouse monitor and then transmitted to Astro hitters with the infamous trash can bangs.

Nobody with credibility says the replay-room reconnaissance rings were right. And nobody with credibility should ever say those rings made the 2017-18 Astros less guilty. As things turned out, the Astros had such a broad reputation inside baseball for their kind of cheating that their 2019 World Series opponents took themselves to extraordinary lengths to thwart it.

No, the 2019 world champion Nationals didn’t build their own extralegal closed-circuit television spy network. They merely provided every one of their World Series pitchers with five individual sets of signs each to switch up in a split second’s notice, with their catchers provided wrist-band cards featuring every one of those sign sets just in case.

Whataboutism is no defense whether you’re a rogue police officer, a corrupt politician, or an illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheater. The Astros couldn’t just whatabout their Astro Intelligence Agency and get away with it in the public mind. Nor could the Rogue Sox whatabout it when their 2018 edition was exposed for replay-room reconaissance cheaters.

The Yankees won’t be able to whatabout it if the infamous letter shows their 2017 edition to have been replay-room or broadcasting-camera cheaters, either. But we’ll have to wait at least a fortnight before we know at least some the rest of the Yankeegate story.