First some look for the curse

Eenie, meanie, chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak! (Photo: New York Yankees.)

Just when you think you’ve seen every last exercise in abject stupidity a sports fan can indulge, you get disabused swiftly and sickeningly. Case in point: the Twitter user (I won’t dignify him by mentioning him by handle) who offered up, quote, “if you could curse any MLB player for all of October who would you choose.” The lack of question mark is his.

He even had the temerity to use a once-famous portrait of Casey Stengel, freshly hired to manage the New York Yankees for 1949, gazing agape at a baseball backlit for the viewer, as if gazing into a job-appropriate crystal ball seeking his and the Yankees’ future. The concept of putting a hex on the Yankees’ opponents wasn’t exactly the idea.

At the very least, the Twitter twit in question must have a thing for provoking observers to think about flogging dead horses. I thought I’d written my last words for a very long time about baseball curses and goats, actual or alleged, and how truly un-funny the sports goat business really is. So much for that idea.

When the Dodgers gave Vin Scully a tribute night in his final season at the microphones, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax addressed the Dodger Stadium throng. Koufax remembered Scully slipping into church the day before a World Series and praying—not “for a win, but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody in the future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.”

Whomever Scully affected over his long and impeccable broadcasting career, Twitter Twit couldn’t possibly have been among them. A man or woman who invites you to curse the MLB player of your choice for all October isn’t someone who’d pray that the postseason would have heroes and not goats.

Later the same day as that dubious invitation, the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the National League West. They slapped the American League West champion Oakland Athletics 7-2 Tuesday after entering the game with a magic number of two. Their freeway rivals the Los Angeles Angels, who’ve clinched yet another losing season in Mike Trout’s all-universe prime, lent them a helping hand by beating the San Diego Padres, 4-2.

Thanks largely to home runs from Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, A.J. Pollock, and Corey Seager, that’s eight straight Dodger division titles. They’d like very much not to make it an eighth straight postseason of heartbreak. Heartbreak that includes back-to-back World Series losses to a couple of teams exposed in due course as illegal, off-field-based, sign-stealing cheaters.

Even their storied Brooklyn ancestors never had it that bad. Did they?

Will the Dodgers’ rotten postseason fortune continue? Will the worst among fans continue reveling in it when not abusing them for it? (Los Angeles Daily News photo.)

Things were smaller and somewhat simpler then, but the Boys of Summer’s final decade in Brooklyn shows six pennants and one World Series triumph. Before they were those bold, colour line-breaking teams, the Dodgers spent two decades plus between World Series appearances (1920, 1941) either in or around the old National League lower division.

Those were teams that inspired sports cartoon legend Willard Mullin to represent them as circus legend Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie hobo, after a cabbie taking Mullin to Ebbets Field asked how those bums were doing this time. The Dodgers haven’t been called the Bums since moving to Los Angeles. But no World Series rings since the Reagan Administration leaves them stuck somewhere between the Bums of 1920-1941 and the Boys of Summer who seemed to assemble great teams unable to stop the Yankee wrecking balls.

And you’d be hard pressed to find another franchise winning eight straight division titles with nothing to show for them except two pennants. Even the Atlanta Braves winning eleven straight NL Easts won three pennants and a World Series during that 1995-2005 streak. The Yankees won nine straight American League Easts from 1997-2006 and have five pennants and three World Series rings to show for it.

The Dodgers have done what some people would have thought impossible once upon a time. They’ve become baseball’s most snakebitten 21st Century team.

Sure, it’s easy to look at the ones who don’t get to win even the occasional division title. Sure, it’s easy to look back at the legendary poor boys of the 20th Century. Sure, it’s easy to lament for every St. Louis Brown and Washington Senator ever, or for every Cub from 1945 forward, every Red Sox from 1946 forward, every Phillie from 1950 forward.

Futile, Greek-tragic, or star-crossed, none of them bear the Dodgers’ surrealistic iniquity. They even have a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who’s been the best of his generation and who wrestles inside his own formidable baseball mind with the paradox of the pitcher who once owned the earth in the regular season but shone one moment only to be murdered the next in the postseason.

Sure enough, Clayton Kershaw was one of the suggestions proffered when Twitter Twit extended his nasty invitation. As if Kershaw doesn’t have enough to overcome entering this postseason.

Including his arguable darkest postseason hour last year, when his manager Dave Roberts—not content to give him a pat on the fanny for a well-done job striking Adam Eaton out to escape a seventh-inning division series Game Five jam—sent him out for the eighth instead of his admitted choice Kenta Maeda.

When, instead, Kershaw watched Anthony Rendon send one pitch just over the left field fence and Juan Soto send his very next pitch halfway up the right field bleachers. When Roberts then reached for Maeda—and watched as sickeningly as every Dodger fan in creation when Maeda struck out the side. Too much, too little, too late.

After that division series loss, indignant Dodger fans made a show of running over Kershaw jerseys in the parking lots. On Tuesday, at Twitter Twit’s invitation, there really were those now praying for the continuing postseason takedown of a man who’s been that rarity, an off-the-charts pitcher otherwise who also happens to be a decent, nice man hard pressed to deal with off-field catcalls and snark without entertaining thoughts of manslaughter.

Point out Kershaw’s 2.15 ERA and 2.94 fielding-independent pitching this truncated season—second on the club only to Tony Gonsolin’s 1.77/2.44—and the snarkers break out the October voodoo dolls. Kershaw may be tempted to forget his unostentatious Christian faith and go to the mound with a rabbit’s foot or a good-luck troll in his pocket.

Twitter Twit and his ilk probably don’t have much awareness that baseball’s presumed goats haven’t always been allowed to put the boos and catcalls behind them when leaving the ballpark, either. In some ways, Kershaw jerseys being run over by angry Dodger fans may be one of the more polite such exercises.

How would they like to have been Bill Buckner, playing catch with the young son not yet born when he had his rendezvous with ill destiny in Game Six of the 1986 World Series? When one of the boy’s throws bounced past and, thinking only that he was being polite, said, “That’s okay, Dad, I know you have trouble with grounders.”

That’s how Buckner learned the nastiest among long-suffering Red Sox fans extended their foul play to children. He packed his family up, high-tailed it out of New England, and made for Idaho, where he went into the real estate business. His eventual reconciliation to Red Sox Nation didn’t necessarily mean he’d forget while he forgave. Not until he was stricken with the Lewy Body dementia that took his life last year.

Another ill-fated Red Sox from the same Series, relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, struggled enough with his punishing self-criticism and his Games Six and Seven burdens without having to run into a father and son one day in the future, the son cursing Schiraldi to his face over that Series loss, and Schiraldi horrified that the father did nothing to discipline his son for it.

A year before that Series, Don Denkinger got his after he called Kansas City’s Jorge Orta safe at first when everyone saw clearly that Orta was out by two full steps or so on the play. The St. Louis Cardinals imploded from there, of course. But the outrage over that blown call included a mental case of a radio disc jockey revealing Denkinger’s address and phone number on the air and Denkinger dealing with vandalism and death threats enough to warrant FBI protection for a spell.

Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams blew a 1993 World Series save and spent a sleepless night with his rifle in his arms over death threats (not to mention assorted carpentry nails left under the tires of his and his wife’s cars in their home driveway)—and that was before he entered Game Six and served the pitch Toronto’s Joe Carter clobbered for game, set, and World Series.

Before Buckner and Schiraldi’s ill fates, California Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, already a deeply troubled soul as it was, surrendered a home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to that World Series. The sensitive righthander finally cracked under continuing abuse from fans while his career from there dissipated under injury and his marriage cracked up. In 1989 he shot his estranged wife before shooting himself. His wife survived. He didn’t.

Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was handed the goat horns for the 1939 World Series after the Yankees’ Charlie Keller blasted him at the plate with the score tied in the bottom of the tenth. What they called Lombardi’s Snooze was Keller built like the tank Lombardi was but nailing his groin on the play, unwittingly knocking the hapless catcher out while Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio scored behind Keller.

They also forgot Lombardi couldn’t have cost the Reds that Series—the Yankees were en route a sweep and it was Game Four. Lombardi was a gentle giant with a self-deprecating sense of humour about himself. He was also a lifelong depressive who eventually tried but failed to commit suicide in 1953.

You still think the curse/goat business is all that funny? It might have made for a small library worth of amusing and even semi-classic writing, but I’ve been to funnier muggings. (Including my own, in Washington, in December 1990.) It’s also made for unrealistic views of long-term futility. Curse of the Black Sox? Curse of the Bambino? Curse of the Billy Goat? Curse of Rocky Colavito? How about the curses of myopic or boneheaded management and administration?

Sometimes even the heroes learn the hard way that with certain brain-damaged fans achievement is a crime. Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s two successful home run record pursuers learned the hard way. Roger Maris (single-season) and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron (career) dealt with death threats from miscreants who didn’t want either an “interloper” (Maris, as enough Yankee and other fans saw him) or a black man (Aaron) knocking the Sacred Babe to one side.

Let’s ask Twitter Twit what I often asked Joe and Jane Fan in general. Do you really think you could have done better? Do you really think you could go to your job every day with 55,000 plus at your office or your warehouse or your store or your farm surrounding you—and maybe 550 million watching you live on television?

Do you think you could make a fateful mistake or get beaten at the wrong time in front of crowds like that and just pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, and start all over again? Would you like to go to work knowing that some other tweeter asked whom his followers would like to put a curse on at your place of business?

Don’t try telling me or anyone else you’re just going for a laugh. It isn’t all that funny to the poor soul who comes up short in the biggest of the big moment and knows his name will become synonymous with disaster for the rest of his mortal life.

We need a lot less Twitter Twit. And a lot more Vin Scully. Maybe there can’t be strictly heroes in any postseason, but maybe even today’s too-polarised Americans might think for once about putting their worst to one side and telling the Twitter Twits among us to wise up or clam up.

This bizarro postseason array to come means especially that the division champions still have to navigate—with no days off, yet—the lessers who might heat up suddenly and give them a war, if not a conquest. Once upon a time the dead-last New York Mets got thatclose to knocking the Cardinals out of a pennant on the final weekend. There’s still an outside shot of a team entering this postseason with a losing record . . . and the potential to knock a division winner out if not go all the way to the Promised Land. Funsie.

The Dodgers especially have excessive baggage to carry in without having to steel themselves for that. They’d love to make a postseason winner at last out of themselves and their Hall of Famer to be, but they know too well that one of baseball’s most irrevocable laws is, “Anything can happen—and usually does.”

So maybe the most polarised and least genial among us might yet summon up our better angel, congratulate the eventual winner, and offer the eventual defeated nothing more than, “Hey, you did your best, you came up short, it doesn’t mean we want you to have the next seat in the electric chair.”

Sure. And maybe I’ll be elected to succeed Rob Manfred.

The Athletics have it—and how, potentially

This is not the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros in a handshake line after a game. This is the social distance-defying debate triggered when Astros coach Alex Cintron insulted A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano after Laureano took his third plunk in the same series including two this day in August.

Ladies and gentlemen, your American League West champion Oakland Athletics. The first team in this pandemic-truncated, pandemic-weirded season to clinch their division. Hands up to everybody who thought the National League West-owning Los Angeles Dodgers would be 2020’s first division clincher.

Now, hands up to everyone who thought the A’s division clinch would happen on a day off for them while the Houston Astros spent the same day losing to the Seattle Mariners, 6-1. To those who did, hands up to every A’s fan whispering to themselves or to each other, with the appropriate social distancing, that karma’s indeed a bitch.

The last time the A’s ruled the AL West was 2013. Since then, they’ve had three second-place finishes including last year and three fifth-place finishes. Detractors over those seasons, including the young man/Los Angeles Angels fan in southern California who grants me the honour of him calling me Dad, referred to them gleefully enough as the Chokeland Athletics.

That was then, this is now, and this is also two weekends after their arguable best player, third baseman Matt Chapman, went down for the rest of the season facing hip surgery. Chapman hadn’t been quite the overall hitter this year that he was in 2018-19, but his third base play remained top of the line. Late season free agent pickup Jake Lamb has proven a pleasant surprise in just six games (1.144 OPS over them) prior to this week.

That’s good, because the A’s will need all the pleasant surprises they can get. As if going 19-8 in August and 11-8 this month, following a 3-4 July, aren’t pleasant enough. They may still have a pleasant surprise coming in round one of the intolerably tolerable weirdness of the postseason to come.

This will also be the first time since 2015 that the Astros finish any season without the AL West crown on their heads. The Astros could still claim the final of six American League wild cards. Guess who’d tangle with them in the opening round if they do?

Hint: It’s the team whose pitching staff includes the former Astro who finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November, after he and plenty of others in the know couldn’t find sportswriters who could convince their editors to expose it without someone in the know going on record.

The entire Show gunned for the Astros this season once the Astros’ illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing scandal’s depth plus the organisation’s seeming shortage of remorse became manifest in full. Nothing would have pleased the Show more than seeing the Astros humbled. Nothing would have pleased Astro fans—already coming to heartsick terms with their team’s subterfuges—less.

The A’s certainly did their part, taking the truncated season’s series against them 7-3, including a five-game set earlier this month in which they beat the Astros four out of five with two of the four decided by a single run and a third by two. The most satisfying of the five had to be when A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano singled trade deadline pickup Tommy La Stella home off Ryan Pressly in the bottom of the ninth, the day after the two teams split a doubleheader.

Earlier this season, the Astros spent a weekend drilling Laureano thrice, including twice in the final game of the set, the last of which provoked Laureano into a social distance-defying dugout confrontation when—after Laureano merely pantomimed a slider grip at Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos—Astro coach Alex Cintron threw him an insult that Latino men (Cintron himself is Latino) often answer with justifiable homicide at minimum.

In maybe the only instance in which commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to be whacked with the smart stick all year long, Cintron earned a twenty-game suspension to Laureano’s six. Cintron was offered no right of appeal; Laureano was. Appropriately.

At that point of the season the A’s had been hit by fourteen pitches. That weekend, Laureano wasn’t the only A to take three for the team; left fielder Robbie Grossman also took three drills from Houston pitching. The flip side: as of Monday, the Astros have taken twenty drills, led by utility infielder Abraham Toro’s six.

When the Astros tried mealymouthing their way through that February spring presser, during which the world hoped they’d own their 2017-18 espionage, practically seven eighths of players not wearing Astro uniforms swore their ranks would administer the justice Manfred didn’t.

Toro leading the Astros with six plunks isn’t right. He wasn’t even an Astro until down the stretch last year. Hitting him six times in the interest of Astro justice is rather like suing a new surgical intern for malpractise because of what his or her attending surgeon did two years earlier.

When Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly decided to send his own messages, at least he targeted two Astros (Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa) who’d been there and, unfortunately, done at least some of that. In a way, the Astros merely showing up to play— knowing they were the single most hated team in baseball, knowing they could have targets on their backs at any given time—showed character enough.

There were those, including Kelly, who pondered whether Manfred’s immunity in return for Astro players spilling their Astrogate secrets made them the snitches too many accused Fiers of being. When Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. lamented that nothing would be enough to satisfy Astrogate’s critics, he harrumphed concurrently, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

The pandemic also kept real fans out of the stands on the regular season, handing the Astros a big enough break. They didn’t have to try playing through live catcalls and boos and nasty banners in the stands. Road ballpark DJs were probably under orders not to even think about playing canned booing or nastygrams, never mind trash-can banging noises, whenever the Astros batted.

About the worst the Astros might have dealt with this season was the occasional cutout in the stands referencing their 2017-18 cheating. From what I’ve seen, trash can references were the most popular. When the Astros traveled to Los Angeles for a set with the Dodgers, fans outside Dodger Stadium’s entrance road let the Astros aboard their team bus have it. Trash can bangers abounded there. (One sign: “You’re lucky there’s a pandemic!”)

Even the independent league St. Paul Saints joined in the fun. They prepared an Astro the Grouch souvenir—showing a variation on the Sesame Street character in a trash can, with two baseball antennae on the lid, and a push-botton voice box calling the pitch or banging a can—as a late July giveaway and also for general sale. The demand overwhelmed their supplier.

The Saints issued an e-mail earlier this month saying Astro the Grouch would be on his way to his buyers at last, starting this week. (I’ll let you know when mine arrives.)

The A’s have resisted joining in the Astro trolling fun this year. Mostly. About the only team-delivered troll was a late July game in which the A’s didn’t play the Astros but did put a cutout in the stands of the Astros’ team mascot, Orbit . . .in a trash can. In early August, though, some A’s fans hired an airplane to fly around above the Oakland Coliseum towing a banner saying “Houston Asterisks.”

Of those who haven’t resisted Astrotrolls, maybe none was more relentless than Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. He’s waged troll war against the Astros all year. His latest salvo: wearing cleats festooned with trash can images when he started against the postseason-bound Chicago White Sox this past Saturday. God only knows what Bauer has planned if some now-undetectable alchemy has his Reds meeting the Astros in the World Series. Big “if.”

Fiers proved himself made of tougher stuff than suspected after he spent a winter surviving everything from mere opprobrium to death threats. The A’s have proven themselves made of tougher stuff than suspected when coronaball finally got underway. Purely by dint of his rotational schedule, Fiers hasn’t faced the Astros on the mound this year just yet.

That could change if the Astros hold on to make the postseason and draw the A’s in round one. Add the likelihood of most of baseball world rooting for these much-burdened A’s to (sorry, can’t resist) can the Astros early, and that could make that round-one set must-listen radio or must-see TV.

Hinch may get a second chance—in Detroit

A.J. Hinch (left) with Jeff Luhnow. Their Astrogate suspensions end after the World Series does.

Analysing a few scenarios such as general managers now on the hot seat (Billy Eppler, Los Angeles Angels, check the cushion temperature) and other off-field doings and possible undoings, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal also ponders Ron Gardenhire’s possible successor. The Detroit Tigers manager elected to retire for his health’s sake over the weekend. Prospective successors, Rosenthal says, include A.J. Hinch.

A.J. Hinch?

Wasn’t he the manager who snoozed on Gerrit Cole in favour of Will Harris and got the rudest awakening when Howie Kendrick rung the Houston Astros’ bell in Game Seven of last year’s World Series? And didn’t it turn out he was the skipper who slept while the Astro Intelligence Agency burned his team’s legacy of three straight American League Wests, two pennants, and a city-healing World Series win?

The answers there are no, and yes.

It wasn’t even close to Hinch’s fault that the Astros couldn’t lay more glove on an obviously drained (by a long season and a barely-fixed neck and shoulder issue) Max Scherzer than a solo home run and an RBI single, before his own starter Zack Greinke ran out of fuel and into Anthony Rendon’s homer in the top of the seventh. Or, that their shortstop Carlos Correa would be the only Astro to hit safely with a man on second or better all night.

And while Cole manhandled the Nationals in Washington in Game Five, the Nats slapped him silly in Houston in Game One. Plus, with Cole never having entered a game in the middle of even the slightest jam in his entire professional pitching life, Harris—proud possessor to that point of a 1.50 regular season ERA and a postseason 0.93 entering Game Seven—really was Hinch’s best card to play in the moment. Even with Juan Soto on first.

Harris’s profession as a relief pitcher includes walking into the middle of fires running the scale from small trash can blazes to first-floor-and-climbing infernos. He threw the perfect retardant to Kendrick, a nasty little cutter off the middle of the plate and toward the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole.

“It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare,” Harris said after game, set, and Series ended with the Dancing Nats dancing on the Astros’ Minute Maid Park graves. (They won, without precedent, entirely on the road.) “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

Soon enough, alas, we learned that Hinch was aware of but did nothing much to put the AIA out of business in 2017-18. A couple of cross words here, a couple of busted clubhouse monitors there, but otherwise Hinch couldn’t and didn’t summon up the authority to tell his already over-talented club and make it stick that they needed to cheat about as badly as Superman needed an airplane.

One of the game’s most sensitively intelligent managers got caught with his Astrogate pants down around his ankles.

But wasn’t Hinch thrown out of baseball over the AIA? Didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred—jolted out of his own slumber when Astro-turned-Tiger-turned Athletic pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Astrogate almost a year ago—hand the cheating players immunity in return for spilling and make Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, and some choice draft picks to come, the sacrificial lambs?

Not quite. Hinch and Luhnow both were suspended merely for the 2020 season. Those suspensions end after the World Series does next month. Baseball’s official line will be that they did the crime, they did the time, they don’t get a do-over but they do get a fresh start if anyone’s willing to hand one to either or both.

If you’re going to ask whether they deserve second chances, period, you might say neither one of them considering the stain of the Astros’ level of illegal, off-field-based, electronic cheating. If you’re going to ask whom between them sooner deserves a second chance, you might pick Hinch in a heartbeat. Might.

No matter how far down his pants were, Hinch wasn’t even close to the one who fostered the atmosphere in which the cheaters could and did prosper. Luhnow is another story entirely. His win-at-all-cost atmosphere dehumanised his front office, and he was a lot more aware of his Astrogaters than he’s still willing to admit.

Hinch at least had the conscience and the grace to say in his own statement that “while the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” Even a small handful of accountability goes long toward cleaning up your own mess.

It was more accountability than any Astro was seen to show during that notorious February presserunless they were ex-Astros. Then, Hinch sat down with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.

In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.

Luhnow himself also declined full accountability in the immediate fallout of the Manfred report. In fact, he lied through his proverbial teeth in the formal statement he issued, saying he didn’t “personally” direct, oversee, or engage in any shenanigans and insisting, “I am not a cheater.” The revelation of the Codebreaker algorithim for extralegal sign decoding, about which Luhnow was aware enough, put the lie to it.

His mess is still considered so toxic that it likely forced Alex Rodriguez and his lady Jennifer Lopez out of the running to buy the New York Mets, after it became known A-Rod sought Luhnow’s baseball administration counsel even informally while Luhnow remained under suspension. It was like seeking family counseling from Charles Manson.

All that said and done, how strong are the chances of Hinch taking the Tigers’ bridge? He has a friend in the Tigers’ front office, Rosenthal says, namely vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.

But former Atlanta Braves/Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez—once thought the favourite for the Tiger job before they chose Gardenhire—has friends in high Tiger places, too. They are GM Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd, all of whom go back with Gonzalez to his first managing gig with the Marlins in 2007-2010.

If the Tigers end up hiring Hinch, the public relations hit they’ll take would be a couple of water drops compared to the likely flood coming for any GM seekers hiring Luhnow. Hinch may be viewed as the hapless Astrogate fiddler but Luhnow is probably seen as the one who really allowed the joint to incinerate.

The Mets may be looking to get out from under GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s laughingstock lash. Cohen may want to bring in his own man no matter what. (Former GM Sandy Alderson has “a relationship” with him and might have a hand in a new GM pick.) If they were wary of selling to an Alex Rodriguez thinking nothing of engaging Luhnow even under the table, they’d have to be wary about handing Luhnow the front office.

The Phillies may make GM Matt Klentak pay for their shockingly arsonic bullpen doing the most to keep them with a very tenuous postseason reach. A man with an image as a misogynistic cheater—who once defied his entire front office’s outrage to trade for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while Osuna remained under domestic violence investigation—won’t exactly be at the top of owner John Middleton’s wish list.

Hinch first took the Astros’ bridge as they re-emerged from Luhnow’s controversial introduction of rebuilding by tanking, leading a newly-youthful team with a few veteran pitchers to the 2015 American League wild card game to beat the New York Yankees but lose the division series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.

Two seasons later, Hinch’s Astros stood as now-tainted world champions. Assuming the Tigers have no thoughts of underground intelligence chicanery, and Hinch truly has learned the hard way about fiddling while his dugout empire burns him, he might be just the man to take a Tiger team transitioning to youth back into contention and maybe beyond in a year or two.

Gonzalez wouldn’t exactly be a lame horse. Until they began aging and the front office lost its grip, Gonzalez took his Braves to a couple of postseasons (with early exits, alas) and kept them in contention until a 9-28 opening in 2016 took him to the guillotine. Both Gonzalez and Hinch know a few things about keeping young or young-ish teams in the races.

If the Tigers seek experience on the bridge, there’s another dark horse lurking. Former Astrogate bench coach-turned-Soxgate World Series-winning manager Alex Cora’s suspension ends after the World Series, too. Officially, baseball might say he, too, did the time after doing the crimes.

Notice it’s crimes, plural. Cora was definitely culpable in Astrogate and may or may not have been directly culpable in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. The Red Sox threw their video room operator under the bus to the unemployment line after they got bagged, and after Cora either resigned to keep from being fired or got fired anyway.

One more reminder: The Rogue Sox took the technology MLB provided them (and every other team) in the video rooms and clevered up the old-fashioned gamesmanship. The Astros either altered an existing camera off mandated transmission delay illegally, or installed another camera to operate in real time. Neither was right, but MLB handed the Rogue Sox (and probably others yet uncaught) the weaponry.

To avoid even a couple of days worth of PR fury, the Tigers might reach for Gonzalez. To show they believe in second chances and have enough kidney to survive the brief enough uproar—not to mention an experienced but still very young man with a balance between analytics and in-game eyes—they might reach for Hinch.

Someone once lost the presidency of the United States after not doing more to get to the bottom of the re-election committee crimes that caught him, too, with his pants down at first but joining their cover-up soon enough. However awkwardly, Richard Nixon admitted it in the statement with which he accepted his successor’s pardon.

Since it happened in his second term, Nixon was enjoined legally from seeking a do-over. Hinch doesn’t have that restriction. And he’s a far more sympathetic figure than Nixon was seen to have been.

He obeyed the mandate of his suspension to the letter. He didn’t show up near any team, at any ballpark or facility, either of which could have gotten him banned from baseball for life. If the Tigers reach out to him after the World Series, he would do well to tell them exactly what he told Verducci in February after he owned his Astrogate culpability:

I have to stand out front . . . [with] the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen . . . [I took] seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.

It would be further evidence that he deserves the second chance Luhnow doesn’t yet, if at all.

Does Verlander down mean a coming Astro remodel?

Verlander faces Tommy John surgery. Will it begin the Astros’ reconfiguration, too?

One of the jokes going around the last couple of months is a visual of one of those make-yourself/change-yourself outdoor display signs, reading, “Going to ask Mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still good.” This year’s Houston Astros have more reason than most major league baseball teams to ask Mom for that slap.

Before the coronavirus world tour interrupted spring training, invited the hurry-up summer camps, and delivered the truncated regular season with all its foibles, follies, and folderol, the Astros figured only to wear a scarlet C. All things considered, they might settle for that right now. It might be an improvement.

They were injury-punctured almost from the words “Play ball!” when the truncated season began. If the New York Yankees’ 2020 yearbook could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, the Astros’ could be The Physicians Desk Reference. The latest casualty: Justin Verlander, who’s graduating from the injured list after a single late July start to down until 2022 after he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

We should probably consider as ESPN’s David Schoenfield does, that Verlander’s right elbow ligaments were lucky to have lasted as long as they did. He’s thrown 51,931 pitches in sixteen major league seasons—48,822 in regular season play and 3,109 in postseason play. That averages out to 107 pitches per regular season start and 100 per postseason game, in a career in which he’s averaged seven innings a start.

Verlander’s Astro deal expires after next season. He’ll be 39 when he hits the open market then. Pitchers that age not named Jamie Moyer have tricky enough markets without being 39-year-old post-Tommy John pitchers. Taking every objective factor into consideration, we may have seen the last of Verlander in a major league uniform and now count the days to the beginning of his Hall of Fame watch.

We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the Astros’ tainted legacy while we’re at it.

Verlander himself isn’t part of the taint. It wasn’t the Astros’ pitchers who cooked up that illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency operation that rendered their 2017 World Series title stained forever. But the opportunity is about to arrive for which the Astros’ new regime can apply and spread the Febreeze liberally.

Nine of this year’s team remain from the tainted 2017-18 team. Three—first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and outfielders Josh Reddick and George Springer—can hit the open market this winter. Three—shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Chris Devenski and Lance McCullers, Jr.—are signed through the end of this season and become arbitration-eligible after next year. Two—second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman—are locked in through the end of 2024.

Schoenfield thinks that of the foregoing free agency-to-be group Springer might be the one the Astros would love most to keep. But he also thinks Springer might still hold a grudge against the organisation for their bid to try signing him long-term while he was still in the minors and for their delay in promoting him to the Show.

Astroworld may be watching the last days of Springer in Astros fatigues. From this point until the end of 2021, it’s also possible that the Astros will be remade and remodeled. Maybe a tear-down on behalf of a renewed youth movement, hopefully without compromising the team’s competitiveness, but definitely continuing the cleanup of the Jeff Luhnow fallout.

The sooner, the better. New general manager James Click’s challenge is keeping the best of that era aboard and making sure the worst doesn’t get to within ten nautical miles of the franchise ever again.

The Luhnow administration’s forward-ho analytical approaches forced other teams to re-think and re-model their own player development. That was good for the game as well as for the Astros, and the braying old farts who screamed bloody murder over the thinking person’s sport being invaded by, you know, actual thinking, were invited kindly but firmly to sit down and shut up.

But the braying old farts had one point after all, even in the breach. The price for the Astros was a win-at-all-cost mindset through which Luhnow’s leadership left the Astros as misogynistic cheaters who just might sacrifice virgins while running an extracurricular spy ring, if it meant winning that one extra game to make the difference.

Not one Astro player truly paid the price—unless you count ducking pitches to their heads or elsewhere this year, that is. (On the flip side, alas, is poor Abraham Toro. He wasn’t an Astro until last August. But he leads with having taken six for the team. Not nice, not acceptable. At least Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly targeted two who were 2017-18 Astros.)

The players were offered and took immunity in return for spilling their Astrogate beans. They didn’t pay so much as a quarter’s worth of a fine, and when called upon to stand accountable in the public eye they apologised, kind of, sort of, before spring training was stopped due to the pandemic.

Harrumph if you must about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, likewise exposed as high-tech cheaters. But there were reasons they didn’t feel half the cheat-shaming the Astros have taken. For starters, they executed manager Alex Cora—thought to have been an Astrogate mastermind—before the investigation into their own Soxgate treachery was finished.

Also, the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring depended entirely upon what was handed them in their video rooms (at home and on the road) and upon someone sending stolen signs to their baserunners to send to the batter’s box. MLB handed the Rogue Sox the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to open it and drink underage. It won’t be that shocking if we discover they weren’t the only ones drinking accordingly.

But nobody on high told or allowed the Astro Intelligence Agency to either alter an existing camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a fresh, furtive, real-time camera, sending signs to the clubhouse monitor next to which someone banged the can slowly sending the stolen intelligence to the hitters.

By the way, the Red Sox are so far out of the postseason picture this year you could argue a case of instant karma. You could, that is, if you ignore that last offseason they were, inexplicably, more concerned about staying under the game’s luxury tax than about locking down their franchise player—who’s now locked in as a Dodger for life and helping them to what’s liable to hold up as coronaball’s best record.

Luhnow’s ramifications went beyond just soiling the Astros’ powerhouse and the team’s image.

We know now that the entire sport prayed that the net result of last year’s postseason would be anyone but the Astros winning the World Series. We know now that too much of the Show believed the major reason the Astros abandoned the AIA by 2019 was their possible fear of exposure.

We also know that the Washington Nationals—who sent their postseason pitchers to the mound prepared to change up as many as five sets of signs each, just in case—spoke of it being “amazing, once we were playing the Astros [in the World Series], how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

In other words, the Nats winning the Series at all gave the sport the warmest fuzzy possible. Winning it entirely on the road, in Minute Maid Park, was almost gravy.

(Last year, the Nats turned a 19-31 record into the Promised Land. This morning, the 19-31 Nats battered and bruised themselves out of a postseason trip. Wait till next year.)

Luhnow even had an impact on the sale of another major league franchise. Alex Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez lost out on buying the New York Mets as much because of A-Rod’s informal contacts with the suspended Luhnow as because J-Rod didn’t have quite the billions to tap that hedge fund wheel Steve Cohen does.

The last thing the Mets and the Show alike needed was seeing the Mets sold to someone who’d take counsel from the man who made it possible for a World Series champion and three-times-dominant American League West champion to resemble an unholy union between a high-tech frat house and an underground spy network.

The next-to-last thing the sport needed was to see an Astro fan base whose profound loyalty was second to very few ground under the Astrogate heel. Those Astro fans who refused to be shaken tripped over their own circle-squarings; those Astro fans who couldn’t help but be shaken still try making sense of it.

If the Astros are indeed on the threshold of a tear-down and remodel, it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise and their fans, and one of the best for the sport itself.

An Angellic centenary

Roger Angell, at his induction as a J.G. Spink Award winner at the Hall of Fame.

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.

At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.

“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”

As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.

This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.

Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.

. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.

The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.

“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”

I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.

The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.

Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .

“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.

Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.

Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)

Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:

He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .

. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”

“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.

Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”

Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.

At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.

Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.