Strasburg Agonistes

Stephen Strasburg

The proud and happy MVP of the 2019 World Series may face career-over now.

Stephen Strasburg’s father moved to northern Virginia to be closer to his son. Three weeks after Strasburg got a stress-reaction diagnosis, his father died. The son, an only child, cleaned the father’s apartment out last fall and discovered the old man kept a library of newspapers and magazines chroncling his baseball career.

There it was. From Strasburg’s days as San Diego State’s most-hyped major league draft prospect to his early Nationals splash, all the way to his triumph winning the 2019 World Series’ Most Valuable Player award. And all the injury-addled points around and in between following his early-career Tommy John surgery.

“Time has gone so, so fast,” he told Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty. “A lot of guys that you played with have moved on and they’re in the next chapter of their lives. It’s crazy to think about how short baseball careers can be.” Crazy and, in Strasburg’s case, sobering and saddening.

A month after that Series triumph, Strasburg got his fondest wish. In essence, and I said as much at the time, he clicked his spiked heels three times and pleaded, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” He got his wish, a seven-year, $245 million contract extension making him a Nat for life. It’s what he didn’t wish for that has Strasburg at a sad crossroads now.

He didn’t wish not to pitch on. But since undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Strasburg has pitched only once, last June, before hitting the injured list again, Dougherty observed, with a stress reaction in two ribs. That was well enough after Strasburg underwent carpal tunnel syndrome surgery—and learned the hard way that that was a mere pilot fish for TOS.

If you look at Strasburg now, even at age 34, he still looks as though he could go out and give you seven innings. But he only looks that way. Underneath, his arm and shoulder remain a mess. There’s the very real chance that all the surgery on earth won’t let Strasburg return to the mound again. Ever.

And it’s not for lack of trying. Dougherty has recorded Strasburg’s efforts to rehabilitate, all the way down to limiting his workouts to his lower body only to discover those, too, strain his upper body because of nerve damage. Last fall, Strasburg still hoped to get well enough to pitch again. By now he may be hoping just to accept it if his body finally tells him pitching again isn’t an option.

The Nats have had little beyond trouble since that stupefying World Series triumph. Now they’ve got a bigger pile of it above and beyond their 25-33 record this year and their sitting at the bottom of the National League East heap. Strasburg’s been shut down entirely since late April with severe nerve damage. This may be the prelude to shutting down his pitching career entirely.

The Nats are on the hook for the rest of Strasburg’s contract after they couldn’t insure it.  Dougherty reports that sources close to the Nats say they might not have spent atop Strasburg’s extension to insure the deal if they could have found an insurer willing to work with Strasburg’s injury history. Naturally, the jerk brigades can be expected to say Strasburg went from World Series hero to common thief.

You can’t convince them, try though you might, that even a young man whose pitching career has been marked as much by injuries as by triumphs on the mound doesn’t sign a nine-figure deal expecting to make only eight major league appearances in the time since he signed. Injuries may come with the territory of professional sports, but you can’t name one professional athlete who goes to the park thinking he’d really love to turn his arm and shoulder into a science experiment.

Strasburg’s had enough trouble in his career, whether his injuries or whether misperceptions about him as a man. For the longest time his stoic public demeanor caused people to mistake him for being a jackass. Behind it, he had to learn how to pitch with his mind when his body eroded his fastball somewhat. He took the misperceptions head on in 2019, letting his teammates loosen him up, loosening himself up more with the writers who covered the team.

Stephen Strasburg

It took Strasburg a long time to let joy in his work show before the public, but show it he did as he triumphed in the 2019 Series.

TOS happens when blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and your first rib compress, causing shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness. The surgery for it cuts somewhat invasively into the shoulder and the back. The surgeon removes a cervical rib and a pair of small scalene muscles.

Can pitchers return from it successfully? The known results are a mixed bag. When now-retired former Mets pitching star Matt Harvey underwent the procedure in 2016, FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards took a deep dive. For every Bill Singer or Kenny Rogers or Aaron Cook who can pitch a long enough time after the surgery, there’s a Harvey, a Josh Beckett, a Chris Carpenter, a Phil Hughes, a Noah Lowry who can’t.

“Counting on a pitcher who has been through this injury is a terrifying proposition . . . until we have a better track record of pitchers returning from thoracic outlet syndrome, it will keep its reputation as one of the worst arm injuries that a pitcher could suffer,” wrote Beyond the Box Score‘s Nick Lampe a year before Harvey’s surgery. Post-TOS pitchers might or might not lose velocity on their pitches but they’re very likely to lose pitch command.

If they signed delicious contract extensions before turning up with the condition, they’re going to be targeted as thieves by witless fans and careless writers who prefer gorging on the red meat of a fat contract going upside down to digging deep and seeing whether something physical might be the real cause. As if injuries somehow equal moral turpitude or mortal sin.

Don’t let the injuries or the jerks obscure that, when he could pitch, Strasburg was often remarkable, often enough great, and deadly in the postseason: he has a lifetime 1.06 postseason ERA and a 2.07 postseason fielding-independent pitching rate. His bold pitching in Game Six of the ’19 World Series made possible the Nats’ survival to the seventh game they won surrealistically.

When he stood tallest as the 2019 Series MVP, Strasburg spoke soberly in the midst of the Nats’ celebrations, even as he’d finally learned to loosen up enough to let his teammates hug him and make him show his joy. “When you have the ups and downs, I think you can learn just as much from the downs as you can the up,” he began.

I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist. I’ve learned that I’m a control freak. And in this game it’s very hard to be perfect. It’s very hard to control things. But the one thing that you can control is your approach and how you handle your business off the field. And when you go out there and compete, it’s just about execution. And you put in all the work in the offseason, in between starts, to go out there and try and be the best version of yourself. And that’s something you can control every time.

Until or unless your body says not so fast, Buster. Yet again. This time, his body may be telling Strasburg it’s time to think about the rest of his life, as a husband, a father, a man. There shouldn’t be a juror on earth—in Washington or elsewhere—who’d vote against him if he does.

No free lunch for the Sinkin’ A’s

This was once the Athletics’ uniform insignia. Now the A’s themselves are a white elephant—whose owner wants to jam down Las Vegas’s throat after he couldn’t strong-arm Oakland for new digs while deflating the team.

Look, again, to your non-laurels, 1962 Mets. The Oakland Athletics, proud owners of a nine-game losing streak and possibly counting, are off to the worst start of any major league team since the turn of the century. The turn of the 20th century, that is.

After losing 5-2 to the Astros Friday, the A’s sit as the none too proud owners of a 10-43 record after 53 games. The 1962 Mets sat with a 15-38 record through their first 53, after splitting a doubleheader with the Cubs. This year’s A’s stand a chance at knocking the 120-loss ’62 Mets out of the books for baseball’s most beaten team.

The Original Mets, of course, were formed of the National League’s flotsam and jetsam in its first expansion draft and became baseball’s last unintentional comedy troupe. These A’s, in all earnestness, are born of an owner’s ten-thumbed-and-toeless touch. They’re as entertaining and funny as the “Daddy, Daddy” joke about the missing Cabbage Patch Kid and an order to eat the cole slaw.

It’s anything but funny that the A’s may be on the threshold of a free lunch in Las Vegas. Commissioner Rob Manfred says the rest of MLB’s owners could vote some time in June on whether to allow the A’s to move to Vegas—if Nevada’s state legislature is blind or fool enough to approve soaking Nevada’s taxpayers to hand the A’s a new ballpark whose early indications show disaster a distinct possibility.

The preliminary design shows a partially retractable-roof, 30,000-seat park to stand where the soon-to-be-gone Tropicana Hotel & Casino stands, with a long walkway to the home plate entrance and nothing substantial in the way of parking. It’s not unattractive. Even if you’re reminded of early Mets manager Casey Stengel’s reaction to seeing Shea Stadium for the first time: “The park is lovelier than my team.”

All indications seem to be Manfred and his minions thinking the A’s will draw their support purely from walking tourists. Oops. Las Vegas has a population above and beyond the travelers making their pilgrimages to the city’s famous casinos, resort shows, and other entertainment along the fabled Strip and the almost-as-fabled Fremont Street Experience. The city’s real population (653,843) is a little less than half the population of the Bronx. Those who don’t live behind the Strip like coming to the Strip, anyway.

They also like baseball, seemingly. The AAA-level affiliate of the A’s, the Aviators, have led the Pacific Coast League in attendance ever since they became an A’s affiliate, playing in a charming, newly-built Las Vegas Ballpark since 2019. They averaged about 532,000 fans a year in the ten-thousand seat park. Those who think there’s little market for baseball in Vegas, think again.

Double oops. Maybe they did think about it. The artist rendering of the ballpark-to-be lacks parking. Let’s hazard a guess. They think the locals who won’t be walking to the park from the Strip will have to park in adjacent hotel-casino parking garages and then walk to the park. Too many of those garages charge hefty for parking now. Wait until they think about jacking the charges on game days. (Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame manager: This ain’t football. We do this every day.)

An artist rendering of what the A’s propose to soak Las Vegas to build. Where to park? Nearby hotel casino garages? Oops.

It would be nicer if Las Vegas was to get a major league team that behaves and thinks like a major league team. Under John Fisher’s ownership the A’s have behaved and thought like . . . a Triple-A team lacking affiliation. Fisher’s too-well-recorded shenanigans in Oakland have made rubble of a storied-enough franchise and fools of baseball’s Lords, who usually do splendid work making fools of themselves.

Las Vegas isn’t a huge television market. Baseball’s self-immolating television rights and restrictions don’t make things simpler. But the National Hockey League’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, now playing the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals, left cable television for free TV. They’re also tapping national as well as regional advertisers. Assuming Fisher isn’t prepared to sell the A’s any time soon, it’s not a given that he’d push toward the same things. More’s the pity.

I’ve lived in Las Vegas since 2007. Would I like major league baseball in town? You might as well ask whether I love playing a Gibson guitar. But here’s another jolt of reality for you: Las Vegas is a lovely place to live, climate-wise . . . from about the second week in September through about the second week in June. Around that are summers that mean a classic Beach Boys ode to having fun all summer long is greeted by a Las Vegas listener with two words. And they ain’t “surf’s up.”

The Aviators in their open ballpark play predominantly at night, when the heat is only slightly less oppressive than Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime. The A’s in Vegas, if they get the park toward which they aim, would probably not even think of opening the dome from about 10 June through about 8 September. Not unless they want to hand out buttons along the lines of those the Giants handed hardy fans in their ancient, oppressively chilled Candlestick Park: Veni, vidi, vixi—we came, we saw, we survived.

That, of course, presumes that there are a) Nevada legislators with something more than oatmeal for brains; and, b) baseball owners with likewise. It’s frightening to think you stand a slightly better chance finding brains among lawmakers.

(You’re laughing at the idea of the A’s being “storied?” They had a dynasty or three during their Philadelphia tenure. They had a couple of well-chronicled and well-remembered powerhouses in Oakland: the Swingin’ A’s who won three straight World Series from 1972-74; the Bashing A’s who owned the American League West from 1988-90 [and won a World Series around an earthquake in 1989]; the Moneyballers who made frugality and on-base percentage virtuous and owned the AL West from 2000-2003.)

That was then. This is now. The Sinkin’ A’s have a tentative agreement with Nevada governor Joseph Lombardo and other local muckety-mucks to seek a mere $380 million in tax dollars toward a ballpark estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Said muckety-mucks, writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “evidently consider it a win that public financing might account for less than 25 percent of the 30,000-seat ballpark’s construction cost. To which I ask: Have they seen the A’s play?”

Or, have they seen how the A’s in their non-glory might distort the championship picture? The American League East is a division in which the weakest team is two games above .500 at this writing. They could have three wild card contestants under the dubious new system. But only one might earn a card, as Rosenthal points out, because, in the AL West in which the A’s now play, the Rangers could win that division but the Mariners and the Astros could claim the other two cards by going 13-0 each against the A’s, which is doing things the easy way.

Don’t laugh. It could happen. As of this morning, the Mariners are 7-0 against the A’s and the Astros, 4-0. “[T]he A’s are so horrifyingly bad,” Rosenthal writes, “the possibility of them having an outsized impact on the postseason should tick off the owners of the AL East clubs, and frankly all of the other owners, too.”

It should also tick Lombardo, local Vegas leaders, and Nevada lawmakers off, too, that a man whose team opened the 2023 season with a team payroll only $17 million higher than Aaron Judge’s 2023 salary, and can’t be trusted to put a genuinely competitive team on the major league field, can even think about such a sad sack drawing in Vegas.

The tourists are liable to think soon enough that, if they’re going to get fleeced, they may as well get there the old fashioned way—at the tables. The locals, of whom there are far more than Fisher, Manfred, and even Lombardo think, know that, if we must see a white elephant, we prefer it on the A’s chests during throwback uniform days.

Some of us, too, have smarts enough to know this: The days of municipalities being soaked for sports stadiums must end. Team ownerships aren’t exactly impoverished. The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders (they, too, came here from Oakland) got themselves a new playpen called Allegiant Stadium. Tourists will be paying for it for three decades to come by way of Vegas’s notorious room taxes; locals will pay for it by way of “bonds that are a general obligation of Clark County, putting taxpayers on the hook once the reserves run dry.”

In other words, Las Vegas gave the store away to get the Raiders. To get the A’s, it’s not unrealistic to think Las Vegas might give the shopping mall away.

A franchise relocation requires 75 percent of baseball’s owners to approve. The AL East’s owners could make note of the wild card kink described earlier, decide the A’s and their addlepated gnat of an owner are more trouble than they’re worth, and vote no. (They might also ponder that they’re being soaked, too—for revenue shares to a team whose owner won’t return the favour with legitimate competition.) But that would be only 16 percent. If they’re smart, they’re going have to do some smooth maneuvering to get another nine percent to do the right thing.

Brains now require telling Fisher and his minions, not to mention Manfred and his:

You reduced the A’s to the kind of rubble that attracts protestors to the near-empty park and boycotts otherwise. You failed to strong-arm Oakland or Alameda County or California whole into building you a new real estate paradise with a ballpark thrown in for good measure. You want to bring your POS (Planned Obsolescence Show) to Las Vegas? Pay for it yourselves, or stay the hell out.

“He was my North Star, and I was his”

Jim Bouton, Paula Kurman.

“It brought him back in living colour and at the same time highlighted the excrutiating loss,” writes Jim Bouton’s widow, Paula Kurman, Ph.D. ,about writing her coming memoir of their love story. This photo, from Kurman’s collection, shows the couple not long before their 1982 marriage.

The late Jim Bouton’s love for baseball didn’t extend to surrounding himself with memorabilia. His home only featured two photographs from his pitching career because his wife stumbled upon them seeking something else in their basement. One showed a group hug of Bouton and his Hall of Fame Yankee teammates Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. The other showed a crowd of Yankees shampooing Bouton with champagne.

“Jim spent no time wishing for the old glory days,” writes Bouton’s widow, Paula Kurman, Ph.D., in the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Reasearch Journal, Spring 2023 issue. “But oh, he loved the game itself.”

Not to watch on TV, or to sit in the stands. We almost never went to professional games. He wanted to play, to run in the sunshine, to throw a ball—to take his trusty old glove, suit up, and join a group of guys similarly obsessed. He wanted to work on his motion, get guys out with strategy and a dancing knuckleball. He had no interest in senior leagues, however, or what he called the “beer-belly league” of the Over 40s.

Somehow, some way, Bouton joined local teams of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, and played. Some, Kurman writes, had seen time in the Show; others still dreamed of it. Her husband was asked often what it was like for a former major league pitcher to play amateur ball. His reply, she records, was, “I wouldn’t know. I don’t think of myself as a former anything.”

All that and quite a bit more comes in an excerpt from Kurman’s forthcoming memoir, The Cool of the Evening: A Love Story, a title she borrowed from Bouton’s favourite pitching coach, Johnny Sain. The book is due in “the first quarter of 2024,” Kurman says, adding that writing it helped her through her grief while the pan-damn-ic gave her all the solitude she’d need to write.

“I loved Jim Bouton and was well and truly loved by him for more than four decades,” she writes. “It doesn’t get any better than that. I was his lover, his wife, his best friend, his playmate, his business partner, his confidante. We were each other’s editors, occasional critics, and most appreciative audiences. He was my North Star, and I was his.”

For everything Bouton wrote in Ball Four—not just the randy boys-will-be-boys hijinks and deeper revelations about the reserve era’s abuses, both of which helped make him a major league pariah—the line for which he may remain best remembered is Ball Four‘s closing: You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.

When adding a postscript for Ball Four‘s tenth-anniversary republication (Ball Four Plus Ball Five), Bouton finished by saying his life changed when he first picked up a baseball but changed even more after he put it away. We should have known he’d never really put it away. Not until he absolutely had to.

When the couple moved from New Jersey to the Berkshires, Bouton managed to rig a practise area in their unfinished basement: a makeshift mound outline, and a strike zone outlined in black electrical tape. “Jim was working on his pitching skills to be competitive for the historic Saugerties Dutchmen in the Hudson Valley,” Kurman writes, “and for a team called Mama’s Pizza in the Albany Twilight League—named for the time of day the games were played, not the age of the players.”

Bouton remained in sound enough physical shape for such doings. He’d tiptoe downstairs to his makeshift rehearsal space early in the morning and throw from that circle of the mound for twenty minutes. When the ball hit the strike zone outlined on drywall, and the resonance reached the master bedroom upstairs, Kurman could only laugh through the pillow burying her head.

“All that care to leave the room quietly,” she writes, very much in the cheerfully cheeky voice of her husband’s most famous work, “and now Mr. Thunderfootdownthestairs was pounding the hell out of the wall under the bed with his best shots, completely unaware of the sound transmission.”

(Now, I wonder: Remembering his Seattle Pilots roommate Gary Bell’s annual Christmas card salutation, did Mrs. Bouton ever address her husband as “Ass Eyes?”)

This was also a couple who became motivational speakers and semi-professional competitive ballroom dancers together. They administered a recreational baseball league playing under 19th century rules and helped preserve an old ballpark or three. “Would I have been a better wife if I had said to him, get real, you’re not a young man anymore, stop wasting your time?” she asks.

The answer was no, of course. “I loved his focused intensity,” she continues. “No one was more appealing than Jim when he was having a good time. It didn’t matter if he didn’t reach it, whatever the goal was. We both understood that all the benefits were in the journey.” When she watched him go out to the mound yet again, the elder playing for love of the game against those young enough to be his children, “I fell in love with him all over again.”

Once, they traveled to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David. Kurman said to her husband, “to the amusement of some nearby tourists,” Look, Babe, it’s you! By which she meant the pose as much as anything else. “Replace the stone with a ball,” she writes, “and the slingshot with a glove, and there it is. Perfect.”

Until it wasn’t. Kurman remembers the day Bouton discovered he could no longer play even among his amateur compatriots. A week later, he went to his basement to put “some things” away and spotted his glove and a baseball, waiting for him to play. He sat next to her, put his arms around her, and cried. After awhile, Bouton spoke.

“I only feel safe enough to cry when you’re with me,” he said. “I’m always with you, Babe,” she replied.

Jim Bouton, Paula Kurman

Kurman and Bouton, still crazy (about each other) after all those years. (SABR, also from Paula Kurman’s collection.)

Bouton contented himself with the stone walls he took to building around their Berkshires property and occasional public appearances, though he and his wife agreed mutually that they’d say nothing of his health issues other than his August 2012 stroke. For as long as they could. In 2017, they couldn’t any longer. They revealed to New York Times writer Tyler Kepner that, a year earlier, Bouton’s decline turned into a diagnosis of cerebral amyloid angiopathy, “a rare form of vascular dementia. It’s progressive and there is no cure.”

The Boutons managed to appear at a 2017 SABR convention and, thanks to the Times article, Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium in 2018, two decades after the death of Bouton’s daughter, Laurie, helped prompt the burial of any hatchet between Bouton and the Yankees. Though they enjoyed the ceremonies and the tributes, they didn’t stay for the game.

“I feel like I finally belong,” she records Bouton telling her when they arrived home. “I’m part of it, part of them—where I always wanted to be. And you were accepted, too, by the other wives, and by the players. It was different this time. They all wanted to talk to you. The players wanted to know what you thought of things . . . I was so proud to be with you.”

“He was clearly moved and gratified by the acceptance he felt that weekend,” writes Kurman, who was only too well aware that her husband tried as best he could to make light of his former baseball ostracism.

Whatever the motivation of the Yankees in their gracious hospitality and accommodation to our needs, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they were gracious. The deed itself is what counts. That it brought peace to my beloved at the end of his life is something for which I will always be grateful.

She prefaces her excerpt by revealing her husband had three requests of her in the event she out-lived him on earth: 1) Place his archives safely. (They repose in the Library of Congress.) 2) Send his 1962 World Series ring to the Hall of Fame. (That was hard. I’d worn the ring for decades. Jim didn’t wear rings, “in case a game breaks out and I’m called in to pitch.”) 3) Write a book about Bouton “based on notes he urged me to keep during the forty-two years we were together.”

“Nobody knows me the way you do,” he’d say. And, “Write that down,” he’d say when something funny or meaningful or extraordinary happened to us. “Memory fades. Contemporaneous notes are better.”

Suddenly, through the implicit sweetness of the request, I recalled Bouton recording an Astros teammate, pitcher Larry Dierker, approaching him out of the blue (My note-taking is making the natives restless, he’d said elsewhere in Ball Four) to share a thing or two, urging Bouton, “Write this down.”

Bouton met Kurman—a Ph.D. in interpersonal communications and a speech therapist by profession—at a late 1970s fundraiser as his first marriage crumpled. In Ball Four Plus Ball Five, he referred to Kurman invariably as the Magic Lady. The couple married and blended their families (Bouton had three children, Kurman two) in 1982.

His mates on the minor league Portland Mavericks—while he made his pro baseball comeback also in the late 1970s—invariably pointed out assorted elderly women saying, “There’s one for you, Jim.” Finally, Kurman attended a game. “That,” Bouton wrote, “was the day my teammates stopped kidding me about blue-haired old ladies.”

If this excerpt is any indication, you’ll want to read the whole of The Cool of the Evening and believe that maybe Bouton was only half right. Maybe Kurman and Bouton were really a Magic Couple.

The Yankees aren’t “eating” Hicks’s remaining money

Aaron Hicks

The Yankees finally put the lime in the coconut over Aaron Hicks.

Extremely few things cause me indigestion. Talk about a team “eating” money to be rid of an unproductive or faded player is one of them. Such talk erupted again when the Yankees, come Saturday, designated outfielder Aaron Hicks for assignment. It isn’t just fans who don’t know better talking that way. It’s also professional analysts who should.

“You don’t have to understand or agree with the replacement-level concept to agree on this much: there are scores of minor-league outfielders who, given the opportunity, could provide the Yankees with more than Hicks has to date. Just eat the money already,” writes CBS Sports’s R.J. Anderson.

“It’ll be a costly move for the Yankees, with Hicks still owed $19.57MM by way of $9.8MM salaries in 2024-25, and a $1MM buyout on a $12.5MM club option for 2026. He’ll also be owed the remainder of his $10.8MM salary in 2023,” wrote MLB Trade Rumors‘s Simon Hampton. “Hicks will now be exposed to waivers, but his struggles this year and the remaining money owed make it a near certainty he goes unclaimed. Instead, the Yankees could offer to eat the remainder of his contract and try and trade him to another team, or he could be released once he clears waivers.”

Pass the Pepto-Bismol, please. For me. It’s too late for the Yankees regarding Hicks.

Remember when the Diamondbacks bit the bullet and released thoroughly collapsed pitcher Russ Ortiz? The Associated Press said flatly enough that the Snakes decided they’d rather “eat” the $22 million they still owed Ortiz than keep him taking up roster space. Remembering that, Keith Law (in The Inside Game) tried to remind us: they ate nothing.

“That salary was already somewhere in Arizona’s GI tract, likely causing indigestion but there nonetheless,” Law wrote. “Major League Baseball player contracts are guaranteed; there is no way to un-eat that meal.”

Notice that almost no one was talking about somebody eating Eric Hosmer’s contract after the Cubs designated the veteran but fading first baseman earlier the same week? Cynically, you could say it’s because $700,000+ (his MLB-minimum Cub salary) is a mere appetiser compared to the $144 million banquet to which the Padres signed Hosmer during spring training 2018.

That was an eight-year deal which has through the end of the 2016 to run. Some said the Padres elected to eat the rest when they traded Hosmer to the Red Sox last August and sent the Red Sox the last $44 million owed on the deal. Those with something more than mashed potatoes for brains could remind you: the Padres planted that meal down their tract the day they signed him in the first place.

The Yankees thought Hicks would be a good fit after landing him for the 2016 season because he looked like a solid hitter who didn’t strike out a lot compared to a lot of others at the time, and because he had a live-looking throwing arm in the outfield. They didn’t bargain on injury-disrupted seasons that came to bring forth the worst in Yankee fans still struggling with the presence of even more injury-battered Jacoby Ellsbury.

It didn’t help that Hicks wasn’t quite as good as his notices when he could play, though he did have his moments—and a 2018 season solid enough to encourage the Yankees to sign him to a seven-year, $70 million contract extension plus the aforementioned option years during spring training 2019. The fact that he had some pop, wasn’t shy about taking walks, and didn’t strike out in big volume didn’t hurt, either.

In the first three years of the deal, Hicks missed significant time with injuries (wrist, back, elbow) each of the three and, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t play particularly well when he could play. In center field he was about league average for run prevention and for getting to balls in the first place; at the plate, he might have prayed to improve all the way up to league average.

At 33 it might seem that history of injury and inconsistency might put paid to Hicks’s major league career soon enough. Unless he’s willing to accept a purely platoon role on a team needing inexpensive help against portside pitching. (Hicks is a switch hitter but he’s been a little stronger batting righthanded.)

The Yankees finally surrendered after swinging a trade with their most hated rivals (in Boston) to bring aboard outfielder Greg Allen and needing room for him on the roster. Allen isn’t much of a hitter but he’s considered a plus outfield defender and swift on the bases—if he gets there in the first place. (Lifetime on-base percentage: .299.)

The meal has been somewhere between the Yankee belly and the intestines since 2019. They finally, simply, put the lime in the coconut to relieve the bellyache.

The tip of the week

Aaron Judge

Judge shot this glance toward the Yankee dugout Monday night. On the next pitch—thrown by a Blue Jays reliever who admitted he’d handed the Yankees invaluable intelligence—the Leaning Tower of River Aenue hit the most powerful glancing blow of all time.

Say what you will about the Aaron Judge sideways glance Monday night in Toronto. You’re going to say it anyway, of course. But catcher-turned-Blue Jays broadcast analyst Caleb Joseph is way out of line suggesting that, if Judge was looking for a sign based on Blue Jays relief pitcher Jay Jackson tipping his pitches, the Yankee bombardier needs one thrown at his head post haste.

Because, you know, sign stealing the old-fashioned way—picking up on tipped pitches or signs from the field or the dugout, as opposed to an Astro Intelligence Agency off-field based espionage operation—is still a crime against nature. Never mind that that kind of sign stealing is almost as old as professional baseball itself. It may be a little unethical, but it doesn’t rise to the level of felonious grand theft.

Judge’s original response to questions after that game was that he’d heard more than a little chirping from the Yankee dugout, based on manager Aaron Boone being tossed over objections to plate umpire Clint Vondrak’s strike call on a low Jackson service. That bad call ran the count to 1-2.

That’s when Judge shot his now-infamous sideways glance toward the Yankee dugout. Before hitting a subsequent pitch 462 feet into the second deck behind the center field fence.

“I feel like after the manager does his thing, it’s like, ‘Fellas, our pitcher has still got to go out there and make some pitches’,” Judge said postgame. “We’ve got the lead, let’s just go to work here.’ I said a couple of things to some guys in the dugout and especially after the game. Hopefully it won’t happen again.”

The issue became compounded after Jackson admitted in due course that, yes, he just might have been tipping his pitches, a very common occupational hazard in his line of work. Players have sought little “tells” from pitchers from time immemorial. Even the greatest of pitch-shielding pitchers can be prone to giving one up from time to time without even realising it.

So what was with Judge speaking about Yankee dugout chirping? Easy enough. You don’t think he’s really going to give away how his mates picked up on Jackson’s tips, do you? Neither Judge nor the Yankees are going to commit treason if they can help it.

“From what I was told, I was kind of tipping the pitch,” Jackson told The Athletic. “It was  . . . the time it was taking me from my set position, from my glove coming from my head to my hip. On fastballs, I was kind of doing it quicker than on sliders. They were kind of picking up on it.”

Jackson didn’t sound even a fragment as outraged that the Yankees picked up on that tell as Joseph did during a pre-game show advancing Tuesday’s Yankees-Blue Jays contest.

“Everybody’s doing this, folks. Every team in the big leagues, they’re taking what’s handed to them,” Joseph began, giving what amounts to a confession that, yes, boys will still be boys and, so long as they’re not committing 2017-18 Astros-like black bag jobbing, it’s not exactly a call for outrage or vengeance.

Until it is, apparently.

“And it’s only bad until you get your hand caught in the cookie jar,” Joseph continued. “If I’m a mom or dad when I see my kid with their hand in that cookie jar, I’m slapping that hand. So I’m trying to send a message. And there was a time earlier in my career when, yes, messages were sent to me too. Right at my head when it wasn’t good. I would like to see Kevin Gausman come out and send a message.”

Gausman didn’t send any message Tuesday because none was called for. What he did do was get Judge to ground out and strike him out twice. The bad news for the Jays was Gausman’s relief Erik Swanson hanging a 1-0 slider that hung enough for Judge to send it almost as high past the center field fence as his glancing blast traveled Monday night.

Joseph was far less admirable demanding retribution than Jackson (optioned back to Triple-A afterward) was gracious when learning he’d handed the enemy a big break. “If they knew it was coming and he clipped me,” the righthander said, “he clipped me. I’m glad he hit it as far as he did.” The Yankees certainly were.

Jays manager John Schneider didn’t seem to think the Yankees committed Astrogate-style embezzlement, either. Even if he’d prefer his pitchers save their tipping generosity for the restaurant.

“If you’re doing things in plain sight,” Schneider said, “I think that you have to be able to correct them and you have to be willing to have the consequences be what they are. If it’s done fairly, yeah, that’s part of the game, everyone’s looking to help their teammates, everyone’s looking to pick up on tendencies, so anything that’s happening on the field in the right way, totally fair game.”

“In a very real sense,” wrote Paul Dickson in The Hidden Language of Baseball, “responsibility for tipping pitches or plays rests with the team, especially its coaching staff, so it amounts to a team error.” An unforced error at that. Something Mr. Joseph might want to ponder, before the next time he decides a tipped pitch caught, mugged, numbered, and murdered, deserves decapitation.

So what did Yankee pitcher Domingo German do on Tuesday night? He flunked a pre-inning sticky stuff test administered by umpire James Hoye and got himself tossed post haste and suspended ten games. This was after he’d already been warned, earlier in the season, about overdoing that good new fashioned medicated goo, and after he’d promised to use the rosin on the mound more.

“We all had the same opinion,” Hoye said of his umpiring crew about German’s suspect paw. “Shiny, extremely sticky, and it’s the worst hand we’ve ever felt during a game.” Worse than a busted flush.

Not brilliant, when the Yankees had to press Ian Hamilton into quick duty . . . and Hamilton ended up on the fifteen-day injured list after having to warm up too hastily. And when the Yankees just finished convincing those not disposed to believe them the root of all evil that there was nothing sneaky about catching and clobbering a tipped pitch.