Be careful what you wish for, Las Vegas

Once the white elephant was deployed in defiant pride by th Athletics’s Philadelphia ancestors. Today’s Athletics have been reduced to white elephants by more than just a spring training cap logo. Their indifferently clumsy ownership may want to do to Las Vegas taxpayers what Oakland finally wouldn’t let them do. 

Would I like to see a major league baseball team in Las Vegas, where I’ve lived since 2007? You might as well ask me if I’d like to play my guitar at the Village Vanguard. But something smells not. quite. right. about the Athletics saying they really weren’t kidding about getting the hell out of Oakland. Apparently, they’re buying 49 acres of Las Vegas Strip-adjacent land to prove it.

Talk to any A’s fan who hasn’t been alienated completely by their team in the past decade. Two themes seem to emerge above others: 1) The Oakland Coliseum—oops, RingCentral Coliseum—is a toxic waste dump disguised as a ballpark. 2) The A’s are owned and operated by a Gap heir and board member who’d move heaven, earth, and two adjacent planets to see issues solved at those stores but barely a pebble to see issues solved with his baseball team.

Sewage backups, feral cats, and now possums and their poopings in a Gap store? The sanitation, hazmat, animal control, and exterminator teams would arrive faster than a Nolan Ryan heater. Sewage backups, feral cats, and possums and their poopings in the Coliseum? Nine months might be a conservative time estimate. And that’s just the stadium.

The A’s themselves need work above and beyond containing waste and pests. You think you know the teams that have turned tanking into a refined dark art? You haven’t had as good a look at the A’s as you should have. John Fisher’s ownership group bought the A’s in 2005. The price: $180 million. Today, the A’s are worth a reported $1.18 billion. That value, writes Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein, is six parts Fisher’s refusal to spend on and half a dozen parts his refusal to spend on his team or its brains.

Once upon a time the A’s under the command of Billy Beane were masters of living frugally without living in the dumps. Beane and his discovered players of low expense but high performance prospects and built a once-consistent American League West threat. That was then, this is now. From Moneyball to Funnyball. Except the A’s are as funny as a pickpocket in a nudist colony.

Apstein reminds us the entire A’s roster will earn $56.8 million. It’s MLB’s lowest 2023 player payroll. They also have only two players locked down for 2024. To most baseball fans, the off-season can be just as vigorous as the playing season. To A’s fans, the off-season can be, and usually is, the winter of their malcontent. A day without yet another Athletic swapping his green and gold for less toxic colours is considered a holiday.

Be careful what you wish for, Las Vegas.

Ancient history tells us that ancient Philadelphia Athletics owner Ben Shibe—observed by New York Giants legend John McGraw as being so in debt he had a white elephant on his hands—decided the A’s symbol would be a white elephant on its hind legs, as if climbing a ladder, defiant and determined. There would be periods when the A’s were a herd of elephants plowing the American League when the Yankees didn’t.

Three cities and eleven decades later, the A’s—who trampled the league in the early to mid 1970s, the late 1980s, and the West for much of the Aughts—are a white elephant once more. No matter what the pachyderm’s greenery shows on their uniform sleeves. A few years ago, the A’s put a strolling white elephant on the crown of their spring training caps. Their ownership now makes it a symbol not of defiant pride but defiant deviation down.

How far down? Can you think of another fan base willing to boycott a baseball game at which fewer people are expected to show than at a retro car show in a fast-food parking lot featuring Pontiak Azteks? A’s fans plan to turn up for a 13 June game with the Rays—they who opened the season 13-0, a winning streak that included three whacks and two consecutive bushwhacks (11-0 scores, back to back) on the Elephant—to show there remain A’s fans aplenty in the Bay Area.

They just don’t feel like being fleeced by an ownership unwilling to build them even an AAAA level team and unable to find ways to build a ballpark without further fleecing or, at least, having the incumbent dump upgraded to merely passable.

“We created this reverse boycott,” says the organising group, Rooted in Oakland, “to put a halt to the narrative that the A’s must leave Oakland and move to Las Vegas because there are no fans left in Oakland. This is simply untrue, given the A’s have the lowest payroll in MLB, the organization raised ticket prices after a losing season, and the ownership group has abandoned the current fans while focusing all attention on Las Vegas.”

Those with carrot juice for brains ask, “Where are all those mourning and outraged A’s fans now?” Those with brains for brains answer, “In which alternate universe do you expect fans to turn up at a sewage treatment plant to see a team that’s been unbuilt long enough to the point where they might challenge the 1899 Cleveland Spiders for the worst single-season winning percentage in major league history?”

(That would be .130, if you’re scoring at home. As of this morning’s standings, the A’s have a .157 winning percentage. They’re 3-16. Look to your non-laurels, 1962 Mets.)

The Fisher group wanted to soak Alameda County taxpayers for a brand new ballpark at Howard Terminal. County and city officials who don’t have carrot juice for brains said not so fast. Hence the A’s—who once employed the Yankees’ Hall of Fame legend Joe DiMaggio as a coach—turned their lonely eyes to Las Vegas, with the full faith and blessing of baseball’s attention-deficit commissioner to whom the good of the game is either making money for it or making somebody else pay for it.

Beware when you see the stories reading that the A’s plan to build a $1.5 billion retractable-roof, 35,000-seating capacity ballpark on the Vegas land they’re buying from Red Rocks Resorts. If the A’s and Commissioner ADD have their way, they’ll probably build none of it. The new ballpark—oh, for funsie sake, let’s call it the future Henderson Field (for Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, not for Las Vegas’s growing suburb)—is likely to be financed by a hybrid of tax dollars, between Las Vegas’s hotel room taxes and such other local sources as fund the Las Vegas Stadium Authority.*

How many A’s dollars will go into it is unknown for certain at this writing. What’s known for certain: Just on paper, the ballpark land and plan is probably more valuable than the team. Fisher himself is said to be worth $2.5 billion. But indifference proves to be its own malignancy upon a baseball team. The A’s are in dire need of radical chemotherapy.

It’s not as though they have a consistently sterling Oakland legacy. For every season of triumph (the 1972-74 World Series winning streak; the late-1980s AL West ogreship, etc.) there’ve been seasons in hell. They only began with Charlie Finley treating his team like a father who delights in humiliating rather than guiding his children. They only continued with  Billyball’s blowing a young pitching staff out before their time.

But then their Philadelphia ancestors experienced repeated highs followed by repeated nadirs, too. En route Oakland, they stopped in Kansas City, first to become a virtual Yankee farm team (under Arnold Johnson’s ownership); then, to become a plaything to be kicked, beaten, shredded, and embarrassed, and also rebuilt to be a winner in due course—after Finley could get them out of Kansas City as soon as feasible.

Las Vegas may plunge eyes wide shut into building something state-of-the-art for a team about whom the state of its art is as artful (with apologies to a long-deceased political scientist named Willmoore Kendall) as the assassination plot in which everyone in the room is killed except the intended victim.

Perhaps if Commissioner ADD is as hell bent on getting the A’s the hell out of Oakland as its blithely clumsy ownership and administration has been for nigh on a decade, he might think to impose a single but profound condition upon them: “Sell this team to someone who actually knows baseball and believes a major league team requires major league talent on and off the field.” Well, Las Vegas is a city of dreams, isn’t it?

*  Update: Several hours after I wrote the foregoing, I learned the A’s may be asking Las Vegas, through whatever means, to kick at least $500 million toward a new ballpark. I won’t be shocked if or else! is implied there.

All stats were “made up,” once upon a time

Well, I asked for it. I spotted a social media thread asking people to pick the greatest baseball player of all time if Babe Ruth wasn’t available. (I didn’t respond to that opening, but I’ll repeat here: Ruth was only the greatest of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball players.)

The thread drew a decent volume of responses. The lady who opened it noted Barry Bonds and Pete Rose were the two most often mentioned, and asked if anyone agreed. That’s where I waded in, fool that I can be, to reply that Bonds is in that conversation but Rose isn’t quite there. “I’m curious,” replied one, “why you think Rose isn’t in the conversation.”

I linked the gentleman to a deep analysis I wrote shortly after Rose’s eightieth birthday two years ago. (Long story short: Without his other stuff, Rose would be a Hall of Famer, but not quite the greatest of all time with or without anyone else’s availability.) The good news is that he actually took the time to read it. The bad news is what he posted to me after reading it and, apparently, deciding my Real Batting Average metric was an apparent laugh and a half.

“So wait,” he began, “you made up your own stat to prove Pete isn’t the greatest hitter of all time and expect anyone to take it seriously?” Now it was my turn to enjoy a laugh and a half. “All statistics,” I began my reply, “were ‘made up’ once upon a time, over long periods.” That was over two hours before I sat down to write here and now.

Regarding RBA, I wanted something simpler than weighted runs created (wRC) to give me the best, deepest possible view of a player at the plate. My most recent dip into the deep RBA waters was a look at last year’s RBA leaders. (Hint: the top dog in Show broke Roger Maris’s single-season American League home run record.) It also includes a brief explanation of RBA and its component parts.

My astonished correspondent hasn’t yet responded to my last response. But if he were to ask me to prove that all stats were made up once upon a time, I’d refer him to Mr. Peter Morris’s two-volume baseball bible, A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball.

The original volumes appeared in 2006; a single-volume edition which happens to be in my baseball library appeared in 2010. An entire chapter on statistics appeared in the original volume two, The Game Behind the Scenes. Read the chapter very carefully, and the fan with the widest of open minds should need very little to tell him that somebody invented just about every known baseball statistic once upon a time.

Let’s take the box score. The first one known showed up in an 1845 newspaper. The only things shown were the names of each team’s players, the total runs each scored, and the total outs each made. Fourteen years later, Henry Chadwick delivered the first box score expanded from there, adding total team runs plus hits, putouts, assists, and errors. That wasn’t quite the end of it.

Four months after the Republican Party named Abrahan Lincoln its 1960 presidential candidate, the Detroit Free Press delivered some new box score stats after the Detroit Base Ball Club’s loss on 7 August, by way of tables. One showed outs and runs. A second showed the outs made by each batter according to categories. A third showed the number and type of outs each fielder recorded.

In the interim between the 1845 box and Mr. Chadwick’s expansion, the line score began its passage through its birth canal. The birth took two years until the nine-inning game became the standard in 1957.

You may have noticed that in none of those did base hits turn up. Well, Mr. Morris filled in the gap: “Their absence [from the earliest box scores] seems shocking at first, but on reflection it becomes understandable. Much of baseball’s scoring system was borrowed from cricket, where a hit almost always meant at least one run. As a result, cricket scorekeepers understandably kept track only of runs. The early developers of baseball scorekeeping saw no reason to keep track of base hits in a sport where runs determined the victor.”

Chadwick didn’t begin including base hits until during the 1867 season. He “then began to campaign for the new statistic,” Mr. Morris wrote. “He repeatedly pointed out that run scoring depended on teammates while there could ‘be no mistake as to the feat of a batsman making his first base by a good hit or by an error of a fielder. This therefore becomes the only criterion of batting, and therefore in judging a batsman’s skill we should first look to his score of the number of times he makes his first base on a good hit or by an error of a fielder’.”

You made up your own stat and expect anyone to take it seriously?

In the same year Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major premiered in Leipzig (1879), the run batted in was born. (Born, but not baptized by the Show until 1920.) Seven years later, the stolen base was born—as a stat, not an act. Two years after that, along camethe sacrifice hit as its own stat, if not an “official” at-bat—but it took six more years for that kind of sacrifice to be limited to the bunt.

Those babies had fathers, too. They probably also had to withstand those harrumphing that they had no business inventing stats out of whole cloth, thin air, or based on men appearing to them aboard flaming pies, and expecting anyone to take them seriously. Would you like to shoot them now, or wait until you get them home?

The deep stats which annoy the philistine as well as animate the thinking person required another half century or more to emerge. Somebody fathered the defensive putout and assist. Somebody fathered on-base percentage; arguably, it was Branch Rickey’s most important non-playing hire, the statistician Allan Roth. (Branch Rickey’s boy made up his own stat and expected anyone to take it seriously?) For further openers.

It took longer than that for such thinkers as Bill James, his protegé Rob Neyer, Jayson Stark, the minds and hearts at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe, Keith Law, and more, to deliver unto us the win share, the win above replacement-level player, the fielding-independent pitching rate, the win probability, and far more goodies than I have time or space to unfurl here.

All the better to give serious fans a way to see what they were unable to see. And, yes, to quadruple their fun.

You need more than anecdotal evidence to discover what the great players and teams before your own birth truly accomplished, even if the best written among it continues to instruct to a certain extent and delight to a greater one. Unless you’re blessed with compartmentalised viewing abilities and attention mechanisms, too, you can’t see every last baseball game played on given days, in given weeks or month, during given seasons. (But wouldn’t that be a wonderful idea?)

“Baseball emerged as a prominent part of the American experience in the mid-nineteenth century,” Mr. Morris reminded us, “at about the same time that statistics were also becoming a staple of American life.” He cited science historian Thomas Kuhn calling that period “the scene of a second scientific revolution that revolved around quantification” before continuing, “As baseball sought to appeal to adults instead of children, it made use of this emphasis on measurement and quantification.”

So I created my own stat to provide me a simpler but still multi-dimensional look at a player on his own and compared to his peers and predecessors. Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get me home?

Hobie Landrith, RIP: Of Polo Grounds and oranges

Hobie Landrith

Landrith, the very first Met.

The plot was simple enough. Visiting my favourite aunt and uncle in their still somewhat new Poughkeepsie (NY) digs, a splendid colonial home that was actually the model for the development, my three cousins would awaken me promptly at seven the next morning. They wanted to see me and my twelve-year-old baseball brain win a local radio station’s “Sports Call” contest and whatever prize would come.

So there was Tommy drumming out the fabled climax of the William Tell Overture (or, the theme from The Lone Ranger, if you prefer) against the nightstand next to my bed. (And, specifically, my ear.) There was Bobby, ready to dial the “Sports Call” number with the phone to my ear. Not to mention Linda, the eldest of the trio, standing by with a grin I’d swear was caught between amusement and amazement.

And there I was, maybe a quarter awake, Bobby starting to dial the split second the host began asking the question: Who was the first player chosen in the National League’s expansion draft? (The draft creating the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres was yet to arrive.)

Great hitters can hit rice pudding thrown right into their wheelhouses for distance, even if they happen to be hung over. At age twelve I wasn’t exactly hung over, but I wouldn’t have said no to about two more hours sleep except for the “Sports Call” idea. (A 7 A.M. awakening when it wasn’t a school day was not my idea of paradise.) Sure enough, the other end of the line answered, the host’s voice asking the question again to me directly. Right into my wheelhouse.

I managed to croak, “Hobie Landrith, catcher, by the New York Mets.” Pay dirt. Minutes later, the station’s music finished and the host came aboard to say he’d just received the fastest correct “Sports Call” answer since he’d begun doing the feature on his morning show. A few hours later, there were Bobby, Tommy, Aunt Marge, and yours truly, in the station wagon, pulling up to . . . a pleasant stand-alone produce market, where my knowledge of Landrith’s expansion draft status landed me two large crates of freshly imported Florida oranges.

I left one of the two crates with Aunt Marge and Uncle Herb, now of blessed memory. (Their long, happy marriage ended only with their departures to the Elysian Fields a year apart in 2015-16.) Somehow, I managed to haul the other aboard the train to Marble Hill in the Bronx, where my mother met me for a night at my maternal grandparents before returning home to Long Beach. She almost collapsed when she saw me hauling the oranges with my small suitcase atop the crate.

In later years, Landrith loved to sign autographs adding that he was indeed the first Met ever. 

“The first thing you have to have is a catcher,” said Original Mets manager Casey Stengel, explaining why the new team handed the first expansion draft pick chose the non-renowned veteran catcher from the Giants. “Because if you don’t have a catcher, you’re going to have a lot of passed balls and you’re going to be chasing the ball back to the screen all day.”

Stengel was probably too occupied managing and winning pennants with the 1949-60 Yankees to notice that, as a 1956 Cub, Landrith was charged with ten passed balls. But in the same season, he threw 23 would-be base larcenists out for a respectable 38 percent caught-stealing percentage. In three seasons as a Giant part-timer, before the Mets picked him, Landrith’s caught-stealing percentage was 41 percent.

“Thirty-one year old catcher who looked twenty-eight and played like forty,” wrote Leonard Shecter, in Once Upon the Polo Grounds, of Landrith, who died at 93 in California last Thursday. “Hobie always said he was 5’8″. He probably was 5’6″. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t big enough to play this game.” (Baseball Reference actually lists Landrith as 5’10”, if you’re scoring at home.)

The Decatur, Illinois native was a perfect Original Met, until he wasn’t. On Opening Day 1962, he threw past second trying to arrest a base thief. He was charged with three passed balls in 21 games. But he spoiled the fun when the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Braves that May. He won the first game by pinch hitting a two-run homer off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Into the upper deck of the ancient Polo Grounds, the Original Mets’ home while awaiting Shea Stadium’s completion.

Remember: The Original Mets had Abbott pitching to Costello, with Who the Hell’s on frst, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want to Think About It’s at shortstop. Clearly enough, Landrith didn’t really have what it took to animate the Original Met faithful. So the Mets made him do the only thing, really, that he could have done to help the anti-cause.

The next month, they sent him to the Orioles to complete a deal they made in May, a deal in which they sent cash plus a player to be named later for first baseman Marv Throneberry. Marvelous Marv himself. It may have been Landrith’s greatest contribution to the Original Mets’s unlikely grip upon New York’s heart. “The Mets were different, they were counterculture, they were fun,” Stengel biographer Robert W. Creamer would remember. “The worse they were, the more fun they were.”

The Orioles didn’t yet resemble contenders when Landrith was sent there. The Washington Senators, to whom the Orioles sold him later in 1963, weren’t exactly American League ogres, either. At least Landrith got to have a sort-of reunion before the Second Nats cut him loose after that season. His former Met teammate, Hall of Famer Gil Hodges, became their manager, after Mickey Vernon’s 14-26 ’63 start led to his execution and Eddie (The Walking Man) Yost’s running the team for one loss before Hodges came aboard.

“I was in the major leagues more because I was a good defensive catcher, and the fact that I was good at handling pitchers,” said Landrith, once upon a time, to This Great Game. The pitchers who threw to him lifetime had a respectable 3.92 ERA. His not-so-formidable bat was probably the thing that kept him from becoming a regular catcher over his early seasons with the Reds, the Cubs, and the Cardinals—even if he walked 253 times while striking out 188. (His lifetime Real Batting Average—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances: .424.)

“I always thought I was a fairly decent hitter, but I realized that I wasn’t in the big leagues for my bat,” he continued in the same interview.  “I had what they called ‘warning track power.’ You know, I’d hit the ball pretty good, the fans would get up on their feet, and then they’d groan, because the ball would die at the warning track.”

Willie McCovey, Hobie Landrith, Tom Haller

The San Francisco Chronicle captured Landrith (center), flanked by former Giants teammates Willie McCovey (left) and Tom Haller, watching a game in 2003.

As a Giant, Hall of Famer Willie Mays called Landrith “Honest John.” Landrith had no idea why. “He gave some of us strange nicknames. Folks would criticize Willie for being hard to talk to, but it wasn’t always that way. Willie got burned by the [San Francisco] press one time too many, and he got a little harder every time it happened. He was never that way with his teammates, though. I loved Willie and I had a great relationship with the man. I still do.”

Likewise Hall of Famer Willie McCovey: “People ask me all the time, what kind of a guy is Willie McCovey? And I tell them, if Willie walks into a room and smiles, everyone in that room smiles too. I was in the lineup for his first major league game when he went 4-for-4 against [Hall of Famer] Robin Roberts. I just feel fortunate that I was able to play with the man during my career. He’s just a wonderful person.”

That game, on 30 July 1959, featured three Original Mets to be (Landrith, Hall of Fame center fielder Richie Ashburn, and Phillies first baseman Ed Bouchee), plus two more eventual Mets: Mays, and Giants shortstop Ed Bressoud—who ended up becoming an Original Colt .45 (Astro) first, in the same expansion draft in which the Mets selected Landrith to kick things off.

After working as a Senators’ coach for 1964, Landrith left baseball and became a longtime public relations executive for Volkswagen. He and his wife, Peggy, had six children (three sons, three daughters), eleven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. If he just wasn’t made to be a true Original Met, he certainly was made for family and business success.

His roost in the Elysian Fields should only be that kind of serene. And I still can’t drink a glass of orange juice without remembering a certain phone call that landed me two crates of its source. Or, without remembering the catcher who helped make those crates plus Marvelous Marv possible.

For safety’s sake on the mound and at the plate . . .

Josh Smith

Josh Smith took one for the team Monday—a slider in his face . . .

Maybe it depends upon your definition of “good news.” Rangers outfielder Josh Smith took one on the jaw in the third inning Monday, on an 89 mph slider from Orioles relief pitcher Danny Coloumbe. A Rangers trainer looked him over before he walked off the field under his own power, but Smith was sent to the hospital regardless.

“We did take him to the ER,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, the former three-time World Series-winning Giants manager now in his first season out of retirement. “He had some CT tests. They came out clean. So, we got good news there. He’s feeling better as I’m speaking right now. Tomorrow, we’ll just reevaluate him.”

Coloumbe himself was in the game that early because Orioles starter Kyle Bradish was knocked out of the game an inning earlier. Not by a Rangers uprising—the Orioles held on to win, 2-0—but by a line drive off his right foot, courtesy of Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. Initial X-rays showed no fracture but Bradish is out for now with a bruise.

If you want to call it that, Bradish was a little more fortunate than Smith. Not just because Heim’s liner nailed his foot and not his face, but because the liner was measured as traveling 104 mph.

Go ahead and say baseball ain’t beanbag if you must. But at least acknowledge that batters injuring pitchers on bullet-train line drives back to the box aren’t trying to be cute or sending messages. Neither are pitchers injuring batters even on 89 mph sliders they’re not throwing as purpose pitches and may not be able to control.

There was also Boston’s Justin Turner and San Diego’s Austin Nola taking pitches in the face during spring training. There were Bryce Harper (Phillies) and Kevin Pillar (then a Met) each taking one in the face two seasons ago. There’ve been others. Too many others. On both sides of the ball.

Unless Commissioner ADD and his rules-changing fetishists take a hard look at another rule change or two, someone’s going to get killed, either by a pitch or a line drive in the head. Maybe the first change should be moving the pitching rubber back at least the equal distance to the length of home plate.

Kyle Bradish

. . . an inning after Orioles starter Kyle Bradish was hit in the right foot by a comeback line drive. Bradish was lucky—it could have been his face.

Right now, you think the rubber is 60’6″ from the plate. You’re wrong. As my cherished Mets/Senators/Tigers friend, former pitcher Bill Denehy, pointed out to me when we first talked four years ago, the actual distance is 59’1″ from the front of the plate. The 60’6″ is the distance from the rubber to the back point of the plate. Throw in a pitcher who can break three digits on the speedometer with a long stride, and the distance shortens. Dangerously.

Denehy was the player sent to the Senators to finish the agreement by which Hall of Famer Gil Hodges became the Mets’ manager. Today he’s almost as passionate about moving the rubber back for safety’s sake as he is about the struggle to get full major league pensions for himself and 500+ other pre-1980, short-career players frozen out when the owners and the players’ union re-aligned the pension plan in 1980.

“What baseball hasn’t seemed to take into account is, if you go back forty years ago, the average fastball back then was probably about 85 miles an hour,” the former righthander  said by phone from his Florida home Monday.

You had your exceptional pitchers who could throw at 95, or Nolan Ryan who was over 100. As the fastball has increased . . . they’re also not taking into account the size of the ballplayer. You now have several pitchers 6’8″ or 6’10”. When you look at a pitcher that tall, he’s going to take a stride as long as seven feet. If you take that closer to home plate, you’re throwing 100 mph not at 59’2″ but less than that because of the stride that person takes.

That’s looking from the mound side of the equation. Now, look at it from the batter’s box. Denehy is just as emphatic about it. As well you might expect of a pitcher who experienced two batted balls hitting him in the head, a hit just off his eye in college and once off the side of his face in the minors.

“Because of the strength and the velocity of the balls coming off the bat nowadays,” he said, “a pitcher, if he throws his all out fastball like the majority of the relief pitchers do today, he’s not going to be in that perfect fielding position. If a ball is hit around the head area, he’s not going to have the time to be able to get the glove up to deflect or move his head in one direction or the other to get out of the way of a line drive.”

The day before we spoke of it, the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run that traveled 485 feet at 118 mph. Some drives, line and otherwise, have been measured traveling as fast as 122 mph. When you watch a game on television and note what the exit velocity of a batted ball is shown to be, picture that ball traveling not into the outfield or over the fence but up into the pitcher’s face.

Bill Denehy

Because of the strength and velocity of the balls coming off the bat nowadays, [a pitcher’s] not going to be in that perfect fielding position. If a ball is hit around the head area, he’s not going to have time to be able to get the glove up to deflect or move his head in one direction of the other to get out of the way of a line drive.—Bill Denehy, former major league pitcher.

Now do you get it? These aren’t all “glazing” or “glancing” blows as too many people want to think. These can be howitzer shells against which either a pitcher whose stride shortens an already deceptively-short distance from the plate, or a batter set to hit, has maybe minus a second to react and survive. You can’t just shake off a 118 mph bullet hit right back into your grille or a 101 mph bullet thrown up into it.

The control issue has two sides to it. Those tasked with finding fresh talent still seem to prize velocity uber alles. It’s no longer just a pleasant joke that an absolute control pitcher such as Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who couldn’t throw a ball through a sheet of paper but knew what he was doing on the mound and knew where to put his pitches, wouldn’t get even half a second look as a prospect today.

Those who note the inconsistency of manufactured baseballs the past few years struggle to convince baseball’s government that too many of the inconsistently-made balls are difficult if not almost impossible for pitchers to control even if they’re not trying to throw bullet-train fastballs alone.

The independent Atlantic League tried moving the rubber back in 2021. Wrote Bleacher Report‘s Brett Taylor, “Unlike other changes that were met with skeptical acceptance, that one was never particularly popular, nor did the data bear out that it was getting the intended results (more balls in play, as batters should have a little more time to make contact).”

The cited link is a Ringer piece by The MVP Machine co-author Ben Lindbergh with Rob Arthur. The piece said the rule was designed to “increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce player injuries.” Notice which one was the last of four considerations noted.

Ray Chapman was killed by a fastball to his head in 1920; Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane was nearly killed by one in 1937. It took several experiments, too many of which were laughed out of town, before batting helmets became mandatory between 1953 (when Branch Rickey’s Pirates began using them) and 1971 (when the last grandfathered such player retired).

But Herb Score may have been lucky to be alive after Gil McDougald’s line drive crashed into his face in 1957. His pitching career was compromised soon enough, after his elbow blew out while making an impressive early 1958 return. It left him never the same pitcher again, but he lived a full life after the mound as a beloved Cleveland baseball broadcaster from 1964-1997.

Hall of Famer Mike Mussina took one on the mound in 1998. Three years later, he called his injury “almost entirely mental,” as if saying that overcoming any fear that any ball he threw would be hit right back to him was harder than getting hit in the face. He was lucky a broken nose was all he got from it.

It’s no funnier when a pitcher gets drilled in the face than when a batter gets it. Spare us the mental toughness bit, please. Mental toughness is admirable but it should not be tested by injuries that can be made a little more preventable—and a lot less potentially fatal.

Do you want to see pitchers going to the mound and batters going to the plate with football helmets and facemasks on their heads? Didn’t think so. The absolute least you can do for their protection—screw basepath action, more balls in play, and paces of play—is move the damn rubber back another seventeen inches. (And, dammit, start making consistent baseballs fair to both pitchers and batters that even the speed-uber-alles pitchers can control.)

Baseball’s supposed to be the thinking person’s sport. It’s too long past time for the game’s thinking people to do some hard thinking and doing about this.

26 minutes and other Opening Day salvos

Rafael Devers

Rafael Devers (Red Sox), the Show’s first ever to strike out without a pitch thrown, taken, or swung on and missed—on a pitch clock violation.

So. After encyclopædic volumes worth were said and done, the average shortening of games on Opening Day was a whopping . . . 26 minutes. The new rules, don’t you know?

I may be on board with the pitch clock, but I’m not on board with cheers about the shortening when a fourth grade math student can tell you they’d have been shortened more by eliminating half the broadcast commercials. That’s accounting for the spots before each half inning and during any inning jam in which a pitching change was made.

But it didn’t stop the Blue Jays and the Cardinals needing three hours and 38 minutes to finish with a 10-9 Blue Jays win, paced by George Springer’s five hits for the Jays and opened with Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright warbling “The Star Spangled Banner” to just about everyone’s surprise in Busch Stadium.

Two players made history under the new rules. Rafael Devers (third baseman, Red Sox) became the first in Show to strike out on a pitch clock violation. Marcus Stroman (pitcher, Cubs) became the first in Show to be assessed a ball on a clock violation.

Leading off the eighth, Devers was rung up on 2-2 with Bryan Baker on the mound for the Orioles and the Red Sox in a 10-4 hole. “This doesn’t make sense to me,” said an announcer, “because he’d already looked at the pitcher. The pitcher’s not even ready to throw.”

Devers had checked back into the box with a few seconds remaining after stepping out to knock dirt out of his cleats. Even as Baker wasn’t quite ready to throw, plate umpire Lance Barksdale bagged him. It didn’t stop the Red Sox from posting a three-spot in the inning. “There’s no excuse,” said manager Alex Cora. “They know the rules.”

Knowing them and being able to maneuver within them for the first time in regular-season play are not exactly common. But it’s entirely possible that Devers not being dinged might have made a small difference. Led by Adley Rutschmann becoming the first catcher in Show history to have a five-hit Opening Day, the Orioles out-lasted the Red Sox, 10-9, after almost handing the game all the way back to the Olde Towne Team in the bottom of the ninth.

Remember: I’m also on board with turning the damn clock off in the eighth and later. Devers may yet prove evidence on behalf of that.

Stroman got his while checking Brewers runner Brice Turang at second with Christian Yelich at the plate in the third. The pitch clock expired about a hair before Stroman turned to pitch from the stretch. “It’s tough, this pitch clock,” Stroman told reporters postgame. “It’s a big adjustment. I don’t think people really realize it. It just adds a whole other layer of thinking.”

Yelich finally worked a walk out. The Brewers didn’t score then or the rest of the game. The Cubs won it, 4-0.

Jeff McNeil became the first Met to be hung with a pitch clock violation strike—for waiting for Pete Alonso to get back to first on a foul ball. Oops. Manager Buck Showalter was unamused that the clock began to tick before Alonso returned to the pad. McNeil remained mad just long enough to nail a base hit.

That was in an Opening Day game the Mets won, 5-3, beating the Marlins, but they might have had one more, at least, if not for someone whacking Brandon Nimmo with the stupid stick in the third. With first and third, Nimmo dropped a bunt—and hit into an inning-ending double play despite the run scoring. Thus the risk the wasted out, which is exactly what the sac bunt is, carries against defenders alert enough.

The good news there was Max Scherzer holding on despite all three Miami runs charged to his account and the Mets making simple enough work against a still not quite ready Sandy Alcantara. The bad was Justin Verlander having to miss a week while dealing with a muscle strain in his upper back near his throwing shoulder.

Perhaps it was miraculous that Aaron Judge picked up right where he left off from last season and hit one out in his first plate appearance against the Giants. That launched a 5-0 Yankee win that saw both starting pitchers, Gerrit Cole and Logan Webb, nail eleven and twelve strikeouts, respectively—the first opposing Opening Day starters to do that since Max the Knife (then a National, with twelve) and Jacob deGrom (then a Met, with ten) in 2019.

Speaking of deGrom, alas, the good news was, the Rangers got him a small truckload of runs. The bad news was that deGrom, still not all the way ready after a spring training disrupted by a side strain, also surrendered five before the Rangers unloaded for a nine-run fourth and held on to win, 11-7. They became the first Opening Day team to have a nine run-or-better inning since the Padres dropped 11 in the sixth against the Mets in the 1997 opener.

And Shohei still gonna Shohei. The Angels’ two-way unicorn struck ten Athletics out before his day’s work was finished. He even ripped a 110 mph base hit and threw a 101 mph pitch before he was done. And what did it prove worth in the end? Squatski. The Angels lost, 2-1. It put Ohtani onto a dubious record book page: the only pitcher to punch ten out and surrender no runs in his team’s Opening Day loss.

Meanwhile, the Rockies are still gonna Rockie, alas, even when they win. With a pair of home runs by first baseman C.J. Cron leading the way, the Rockies battered the Padres for seventeen hits—despite striking out at the plate seventeen times against four Padres pitchers. Making them the first team since 1900 to deliver that dubious 1-2 punch in a nine-inning game. Ever.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it once more. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does. With or without rule changes running the bases from the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the absurd. And wish though Commissioner ADD and his minions might, 26 minutes isn’t exactly that big a difference from even last year’s average.