Bo knew, almost too late

Bo Belinsky

Bo Belinsky delivering during the 1962 rookie no-hitter that accelerated his Hollywood lifestyle.

The easiest supposition to make in the wake of still-rookie lefthander Reid Detmers’s no-hitter this past Tuesday is that the Angels hope he doesn’t go the way of the lefthanded rookie who pitched the franchise’s and southern California’s first major league no-hitter at age 25. They’re separated by a mere sixty years and five days.

The Angels pray Detmers is separated from Bo Belinsky by a lot more than time.

So far, Detmers seems the polar opposite of the fellow who preceded him all those decades ago. He seems grounded well and aware of himself, lacking the taste for the demimonde, the thirst for the high life (in more ways than one), the self-destruction that sank the Angels’ first no-hit pitcher.

“In short, within days after his no-hitter, Belinsky, a former pool hustler from Trenton, N.J., would be heralded as sport’s most original and engaging playboy-athlete,” wrote pitcher-turned-writer Pat Jordan, in a 1972 Sports Illustrated profile

His name would become synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling, one that was to be a trademark of those athletes who appeared later in the ’60s—Joe Namath, Ken Harrelson, Derek Sanderson. But, in time, the name Belinsky would mean something else. It would become synonymous with dissipated talent.

Belinsky became an Angel in the first place because the team picked him during the 1961-62 minor league draft; he’d been in the Oriole system for several years, showing on-and-off promise on the mound, before making a splash pitching winter ball in Venezuela, where he developed a nasty screwball to match his riding fastball.

“When Bo was on,” said his Angels catcher Buck Rodgers, “he had that electric kind of stuff.” In more ways than one. A Belinsky biographer, Maury Allen, recorded (in 1973’s Bo: Pitching and Wooing), recorded that the first thing Belinsky said to Rodgers, accepting congratulations for that 5 May 1962 no-hitter, “Hey, look at the blonde with the big tits!”

Belinsky began the game by striking out former longtime Reds second baseman Johnny Temple and future World Series-winning manager Dick Williams in order before getting future Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson to ground out on a ball deflected by Belinsky to Angels second baseman Billy Moran.

He ended it by striking out flaky Orioles outfielder Jackie Brandt, luring catcher Gus Triandos into a ground out to shortstop Joe Koppe, and getting right fielder Dave Nicholson to pop out to third baseman Felix Torres. When the game ended, Belinsky’s ERA stood at a sparkling 1.53 with a respectable 3.47 fielding-independent pitching rate.

Reporter: Bo, when did you start thinking about a no-hitter?

Belinsky: This morning at about five o’clock.

It was nothing compared to the sparkling that became Belinsky’s off-field lifestyle. As girl crazy as the night was long already, Belinsky’s date book now came to include such as Tina Louise, Ann-Margret, Juliet Prowse, Connie Stevens, and Mamie Van Doren, the fifth of whom became his fiancee for a spell. Hollywood embraced the street kid from New Jersey who’d made his way hustling pool before becoming a minor league pitcher.

Belinsky was as quick with a quip as he was with a wink and with bringing his roommate and fellow rookie Angels pitcher Dean Chance, an Ohio farm kid, along for the ride. He even got himself name-checked by then-popular song parodist Allan Sherman, on Sherman’s landmark 1962 album, Allan Sherman’s Mother Presents My Son, the Folk Singer.

The lefthander with the wicked screwball and the personality to match returned the embraces with a curious balance between enthusiasm and alienation. For the rest of 1962, Belinsky cavorted between the bright lights and beds of Hollywood and back-and-forth success on the mound; he finished that season with a 3.56 ERA/4.06 FIP, while the second-year Angels surprised observers by making pennant race noises.

He struggled enough in 1963 to be sent to the Angels’ Triple-A farm in Hawaii, posted a splended 2.53 ERA/3.14 FIP, and returned to finish a dismal major league season. Hawaii, though, proved a Belinsky haven. His engagement to Van Doren ended but he seemed inordinately happy there. His return to the Angels wasn’t successful at first but he seemed to have a new balance.

Dean Chance, Mamie Van Doren, Bo Belinsky

Belinsky (right) and Mamie Van Doren (center) on the town with Belinsky’s Angels teammate and best friend Dean Chance (left). “I’m returning his engagement ring,” Van Doren was quoted as saying after their engagement ended. “I’m afraid if I don’t, he’ll cut my finger off and take it—or worse, make me take over the payments.”

“Belinsky had fashioned a persona as both bon vivant and rapscallion,” Steve Oney would write in Los Angeles in 2005. “He possessed the brio of a Dean Martin, yet he also bore the antiestablishmentarian markings of a Jack Kerouac. In him, the lounge lizard and the free spirit commingled.”

In 1964 he rediscovered his better pitching side, too. He stood with a 2.86 ERA/3.25 FIP after a tough 11 August loss to the Indians . . . and after an interview he had no idea would change his career and his life irrevocably. Frustrated by the loss and the Angels’ faltering, Belinsky at 27 told wire service reporter Charlie Maher he was thinking seriously about leaving the game.

According to most who remembered the story, Maher wrote it up somewhat sympathetically, indicating as best he could that Belinsky’s thoughts were nothing more than out of frustration over a spell of solid pitching gone little-to-no reward. When the Angels landed in Washington after a long cross country flight, Belinsky learned the hard way that he wasn’t the only frustrated one.

Los Angeles Times writer/editor Braven Dyer, who wasn’t exactly a Belinsky admirer as it was, was furious over the Maher story. He demanded Belinsky give him a story about whether he was going to quit. He even went to Belinsky’s room at around 3 a.m., possibly drunk, to pursue it further. The confrontation ended with Dyer on his can after Belinsky flattened him with a punch.

The Angels suspended him at once. Belinsky’s celebrity back in Los Angeles seemed to heighten at first, but then when the offseason came the club traded him to the Phillies for first baseman Costen Shockley and pitcher Rudy May. After Phillies manager Gene Mauch—who actually coveted him—couldn’t convince him to abandon the screwball and lean on his fastball, he exiled Belinsky to the bullpen. Fatal mistake.

Bo Belinsky, Bud Furillo

Belinsky and Los Angeles Times writer Bud Furillo look at the headline announcing his trade to the Phillies after the ill-fated 1964 season.

The ’65 Phillies pen was riddled with the red juice amphetamine variant and Belinsky got hooked. Unadaptable to the regimen of long relief and spot starting as it was, Belinsky was sent back to the minors in early 1966. His career dissipated further (despite some minor league successes, including another no-hitter pitching for Hawaii), but the amphetamine addiction would stay along with his taste for alcohol.

Belinsky’s star dissipated likewise. He married Playboy‘s 1965 Playmate of the Year, Jo Collins but the marriage eventually ended in divorce. His final major league hurrah was a trio of relief appearances for the 1970 Reds after he’d worked hard to make the team out of spring training. Sent back to the minors yet again, Belinsky called it a career.

Two years earlier, turning 30 during a turn with the Astros, Belinsky observed, “It’s no fun knowing that in every home in America your birthday is celebrated as a day of infamy.” Jordan would remember the remark well enough when profiling Belinsky in 1972:

[T]he remark was telling. It was characteristically cute. It seemed to have been delivered more for its effect than its truth by a man more concerned with style than substance. It was tossed off, discarded really, with that ironic smile of disavowal—as if it were nothing but the surplus from a warehouse of such remarks, remarks he must unload whenever he felt the occasion deserved not truth but wit. Yet the annoying suspicion remained that Belinsky felt the remark contained more truth than wit. Whether this feeling was nothing more than the overblown self-pity of a too shallow man or the heightened perception of a too sensitive man was not clear. It was certain only that Belinsky had dissipated a promising career, that people had grown tired of him, and that most of his difficulty could be traced to his personality. He did not have the knack of later athletes—the Namaths, Harrelsons and Sandersons—of cultivating his personality precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which the public becomes bored with it.

He eventually sobered up for keeps, especially after his second marriage (to lumber/paper products heiress Janie Weyerhaeuser) collapsed, and went to work helping other alcoholics and addicts sober up, including his former Angels teammate, pitcher Eli Grba. “Bo and I had never been that close,” Grba told Oney. “He was too Hollywood. But he came and got me and took me to an AA meeting. I was nervous, but Bo said, ‘Don’t worry, Eli, they’re all drunks just like you and me’.”

After a third failed, brief marriage, and continuing estrangement from the three children (one with Collins, two with Weyerhaeuser) his marriages produced, Belinsky finally ended his wandering ways to match his hard-won sobriety. By the 1990s he’d relocated to Las Vegas, where he worked in public relations for a pair of automotive dealership groups and became a born-again Christian involved deeply with Trinity Life Church.

That might have been the last thing his old Hollywood crowd would have predicted. “Can you imagine?” he said, almost typically, “I had to come to Las Vegas to find Jesus Christ.”

Bo Belinsky

Clean, sober, born-again, and looking a little wiser in Las Vegas.

Belinsky even reconciled to the Angels, appearing at Old-Timers Day events at the team’s invitation, his place in their early history secured at last. In due course, he would say of the Dyer incident that ended his Angels days and his days as a toast of Hollywood, “I screwed myself out of a job with the Angels.”

More than that, a son born out of wedlock in 1963 met and got to know him pleasantly after Belinsky settled in Las Vegas. Don Carroll not only resembles a less-dissipated version of his father but he even named his own son Beau, after the man he finally met and liked and understood.

Too much, too little, too late. Belinsky died at 64 in 2001. Almost a full year before the Angels won their only World Series to date.

“Bo was a one-of-a-kind guy and there won’t be another one like him,” said Dean Chance at a Dodger Stadium memorial he arranged for his old friend, fourteen years before his own death of heart failure. “He was full of cancer, his heart was bad and his hip was hurting him terribly at the end. He had slipped and fallen and it was really tough on him. But he made his peace with the Lord and he is probably better off today than he was last week. He’s not suffering terribly any more.”

“Nobody could ever figure me out,” Belinsky said years after his baseball career dissipated.

I wouldn’t show what was really inside me, inside Bo Belinsky I was just a facade I’d carried along all my life . . . I was born apart. My mother was Jewish, my father Polish Catholic. To Jews I was a Polack. To Poles I was a kike. I was removed—removed from people in my family, people in my school. Even in my youth, I didn’t know where to park myself.

By the time he could and did show enough of his real self, heart failure claimed him after he’d already been battling bladder cancer and diabetes, the net result of a baseball youth that brought him to the stratosphere but crashed him even more profoundly long before. In Las Vegas, Belinsky found a home, a purpose, and salvation at last.

Sixty years separate Angel no-hit rookies

Reid Detmers

Reid Detmers pumps a fist after finishing his no-hitter Tuesday night.

Justin Verlander is a 39-year-old Hall of Famer in waiting by general consensus, but he merely flirted with a fourth career no-hitter in his 460th major league start Tuesday night. Reid Detmers is a 22-year-old rookie who landed his first and his Angels’ twelfth no-hitter later in the evening during his eleventh career major league start.

The Illinois lad who’s a product of the University of Louisville isn’t Verlander’s kind of strikeout machine. But on a night when Verlander’s flirtation featured five strikeouts but was ruined by Gio Urshela’s one-out base hit, Detmers struck out a measly two taking it all the way to Yandy Diaz’s game-ending ground out to shortstop.

Verlander got help enough from his Astro friends hanging five runs on the board against the Twins before his evening ended after eight. Detmers got almost as much help from his Angel friends against the Rays as Taylor Cole and Felix Pena got almost three years ago when they combined for a no-hitter against the Mariners.

As if a good luck charm, Angels pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani was presented his hardware from 2021 before the game (including his Most Valuable Player award), and on Shohei Ohtani Bobblehead Night in the bargain. (He pitched in at the plate with a 2-for-5 night while he was at it.)

Then, the Angels blew the Rays out 12-0 Tuesday night while Detmers put his defense to the bulk of the work keeping the Rays hitless. Before the Angels’ first home game following pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s tragic death, they commemorated Skaggs’s memory. Then Cole and Pena enjoyed working in the warm jacuzzi of a 13-0 blowout at the Mariners’ expense.

In that game, Mike Trout merely opened the proceedings with a hefty two-run homer in the bottom of the first before going forth to account for almost half the Angels’ scoring on that night. Come Tuesday night, the future Hall of Famer smashed a pair of homers in the second and the eighth, and yanked himself back into the major league slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases leads.

While the Rays had nothing much to say against Detmers’s array of off-speed services, the Angels scored two in the first (a run-scoring ground out, an RBI single), then three in the second. (RBI double, sacrifice fly, and Trout’s first bomb.) Their abuse of Rays starter Corey Kluber continued in the third when Chad Wallach hit a three-run bomb into the bullpens in left.

And all stayed mostly quiet except for a few defensive gems that saved Detmers along the way, until Trout checked in with one out and Andrew Velasquez aboard off a leadoff single, squared up Rays reliever Brett Phillips’s first service, and drove it well over the center field fence. Ohtani followed immediately with a double down the rear of the right field line, before Anthony Rendon—often injured, but still a force when healthy—sent a 1-0 pitch into the same neighbourhood to where Trout’s smash traveled.

Oops. Did I mention Phillips is normally a Rays outfielder—and the man whose base hit set up the insane game-winning runs on a pair of Dodger errors in Game Four of the 2020 World Series—who was sent to the mound to take one for the team in that inning?

Kluber’s evening ended after three full. Sad. Especially since he threw a no-hitter of his own almost a year ago. The Rays sent four bona-fide relievers out to keep the Angels scoreless over four more innings’ work before manager Kevin Cash decided his bullpen needed a break with only an eight-run deficit. Apparently, Cash didn’t think his hitters could stage a Metsian eight-run comeback at the eleventh hour.

So with Trout due up as the third hitter of the inning, and Ohtani and Rendon right behind him in the Angel order, Cash chose Phillips to be the sacrificial lamb. Maybe Cash figured that, on a night a rookie lefthander kept his batters befuddled enough, the better part of valour might have been to bite the bullets. It turned out to be hard swallows upon two howitzer shells.

Detmers took the third-highest career ERA into a no-hitter since they started keeping earned runs as an official statistic in 2013, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. If the lefthander’s as decent a young man as he’s been portrayed, he’ll make damn sure to let it be known that his teammates did far more to achieve the no-hitter than he actually did.

A no-hitter with only two pitching strikeouts doesn’t look that dazzling in the box scores. And as it turned out Detmers got a lot of help from his friends on both sides—eighteen hits at the plate, then fourteen fly outs and eleven ground outs including the one that some cynics are going to say was a seventh-inning gift handed the rook on a plate.

Before Phillips went to the mound to serve those eighth-inning Angel gifts, he grounded one to the right side of Angels first baseman Jared Walsh who played him back and well enough off the line. Walsh reached for the ball on the move, seemed to have it, then it fell out of his mitt. Walsh overstepped the ball still moving right before he grabbed it and, with Detmers hustling to cover the pad, saw he had no chance to get the swift Phillips.

Everyone in Angel Stadium expected the tough enough play to be ruled an infield hit. Walsh admitted post-game he prayed for the ruling otherwise. “I literally knew. Everybody knew,” he told reporters. “I was just like, ‘Hell yeah, give me that error baby’.” Which is exactly what official scorer Mel Franks did.

Detmers did keep the Rays out of their comfort zone with his repertoire of off-speed breaking balls and expecially his well-regarded changeup, which he threw a career-high 24 times Tuesday night. But he threw 25 things the Rays hit that managed to find Angel gloves. He got eleven ground outs and fourteen fly outs. Giving Detmers exactly seven percent of the direct responsibility for the Rays going hitless Tuesday night. Well.

Bo Belinsky

Bo Belinsky—sixty years and five days earlier, he was an Angel rookie pitching the franchise’s first no-hitter.

Five out of 57 no-hitters prior to Detmers included the pitcher in question striking out five or less. The last one to do it with two strikeouts was Francisco Liriano in 2011. And there’s at least one perfect game on record with the pitcher striking out only two—David Palmer (Montreal Expos) in 1984.

Detmers can say at least that he did a little to help his own no-hit cause Tuesday night. He didn’t make his teammates do all the work getting all the outs the way Earl Hamilton (1912), Sam Jones (1923), and Ken Holtzman (1969) did. And he pitched his no-no sixty years plus six days after the first no-no in Angels history, Bo Belinsky’s notorious no-no against the Orioles in 1962.

That lefthander’s game was a nine-strikeout, four-walk affair that left him with a season-opening 1.53 ERA over his first four starts—and 33 percent direct responsibility for his gem. Except for a 1964 to come in which he had a 2.86 ERA, before an overnight brawl with Los Angeles sportswriter Braven Dyer (who triggered it with a drunken verbal assault at the pitcher’s hotel room in Washington) ended his Angels days, Belinsky would never again pitch that successfully.

He was a street kid from New Jersey who’d bounced around the Oriole system several years (speedball legend Steve Dalkowski was once a teammate) before the Angels lifted him in a minor-leaguers’ draft. He proved to have too much taste for the Hollywood demimonde, too little regard for his own talent, too much vodka, and (especially after a spell in the 1965-66 Phillies’ bullpen) too many amphetamines, before three failed marriages and desperation drove him to hard-fought sobriety and Christianity later in life.

When Belinsky retired Dave Nicholson on a pop out to third to finish his rookie no-hitter, as he eventually admitted in his inimitable way, his first words to catcher Bob Rodgers were, “Hey, look at the blonde with the big tits!” The first question he faced from reporters after the game was, “When did you start thinking about a no-hitter?” Belinsky’s answer: “This morning at about five o’clock.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Detmers seems too grounded to even think about spiraling into the Belinsky style. “There are times that it hasn’t really sunk in that he’s in the major leagues,” his mother, Erin, told a reporter. “Because he’s still our son. He’s only 22. It just seems so surreal. But it’s real.”

He’s known to only look relaxed before a start while pondering his game plan for the day. “It’s just something I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little kid,” said post-game. “I didn’t think it’d ever happen. I don’t even know. I probably won’t even remember this tomorrow.” For this Angels rookie, it won’t be for the sort of reasons his Angels rookie ancestor from 1962 might have forgotten a few details, either.

Once again: Injuries are not character flaws

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols—some idiots call Trout a “puss” and others called Pujols a “thief” . . . for the heinous crimes of being injured on the field.

Sometimes it seems as though when a player is injured in the line of duty, he or she becomes a kind of criminal in Joe and Jane Fan’s eyes. Far as they’re concerned, such players are any one of a number of unflattering things. Especially when an injury keeps them out of action for more than, say, a week or two.

It’s as if injury belongs with defeat among moral shortcomings and aren’t covered by simple, irrefutable laws of sports. In a game, somebody has to lose. On the field, someone’s liable to be injured. They’re plain facts of life. They don’t expose the defeated as degenerates or the injured as gutless.

I’ve been steaming over it ever since I saw one social media snit dismissing Mike Trout, who’s dealt with season-disrupting/ending injuries the past couple of full seasons, as “a puss.” Last year, a torn calf muscle incurred running the bases put paid to his season after 36 games.

You’d think that with everything we’ve long since learned we’d quit condemning the wounded as weenies because they were just so much “tougher” in the Good Old Days. News flash: The good old days weren’t so good when it came to athletes’ health. And the next time you look at the numbers of careers you think should have lasted longer or been better than brief flashes of brilliance, stop to think about those players’ injury histories.

They used to say Roger Maris merely proved himself a lamer because he never again had a career spell such as 1960-62. They said the pressure of that 61-homer 1961 took him down. Those people forget that a series of injuries beginning in ’62 began sapping Maris’s formidable power and reducing him to journeyman level by 1965.

The Yankees falling into a lost decade of 1965-75 needed as much box office power as they could still wring out of ancient (and very often injured) Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Maris. They even forget that that generation of Yankee movers kept the true seriousness of a wrist injury from Maris unconscionably, in order to keep him on the field—at the time the Yankees collapsed due to age on the field and parching in the farm system.

Gene Mauch and Leo Durocher were known to denounce the injured as quitters. Between that and foolish trades, no wonder the post-1964 Phillies wouldn’t be competitive again for almost a decade to come. No wonder the 1969 Cubs were too spent down the stretch to keep up with the surging Mets and take back the National League East that first looked like those Cubs’ for the taking.

They used to call Jim Palmer anything from a prima donna to a hypochondriac when the slightest hint of an injury sent him shuddering over the prospect that his pitching career was over. It came from mishandling an injury he incurred after his rookie splash and out-lasting arthritis-addled, overmedicated Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1966 World Series. Well, now.

Maybe Palmer was onto something after all, no matter how exasperated Earl Weaver and his teammates got with his health concerns—which was plentiful enough, no matter how much they liked him as a person. That’s Palmer reposing in the Hall of Fame as one of the absolute best pitchers of his generation and with three World Series rings to show for it, too.

Forget about the idiot dismissing Trout—who’d be a Hall of Famer and the fifth-best all-around center fielder ever to play the game if his career ended this instant—as a puss. Think of all the idiots who believe to this day that Albert Pujols “stole” that $240 million he earned as an Angel . . . and forget that his lower body, particularly a plantar fasciitis-addled heel and numerous other leg injuries was the real reason he collapsed after a respectable first season in Anaheim.

Ill-fated Jacoby Ellsbury’s reasons for not even thinking about re-signing with the Red Sox when he hit free agency included whispers that he took “too long” to recover from injuries his full-out playing style incurred. He signed big with the Yankees—and the injury parade continued apace, right down to his missing 2018 with a torn labrum and 2019 with foot and shoulder injuries.

It was hell if you do and hell if you don’t for Ellsbury. Return too soon from any injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough for teammates’ or managements’ or fans’ tastes, and you risk exactly what Ellsbury put up with, unfairly and unconsionably, a reputation as a fragile goldbrick.

The late Mark (The Bird) Fidrych tried too many premature returns from injuries and re-injuries after his sensational rookie 1976. Career in the toilet and done swiftly enough. Still think he merely “disappeared?”

Often as not the teams themselves don’t help. Last year, Phillies manager Joe Girardi said it was perfectly acceptable to keep injury information out of the press. He was thinking of keeping the other manager from getting a little advantage, but he forgot that a) opposition managers tend to know when an opponent is hurting; and, b) Joe and Jane Fan are ignorant enough about injured players without being lied to even further while they’re lying to themselves.

Basketball people have spent all this season listening to whispers-to-screams denunciations of Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, missing an entire season because of back trouble. Most of them didn’t want to hear it. He backed out of the fourth game of the Nets’ playoff round against the Boston Celtics with his back still bothering him.

The talking heads went nuclear; some of them called Simmons the same kind of thief that people called Pujols the Angel. Even ex-NBA supermen like Shaquille O’Neal called backing out of the game “a punk move.” That “punk move” turned into back surgery Simmons underwent Thursday.

“The notion that Simmons was faking it, that he was just scared to play in the game because the Nets were down in the series, made no sense,” wrote a furious Deadspin writer named Rob Parker. “And the back is a tricky thing to put a handle on. A back issue could be so bad that a person can’t even tie their shoe, let alone play basketball on the NBA level.”

Reminder: Injuries on the field aren’t the same thing as chasing Jill St. John down a ski slope and turning your knee into bone meal (Jim Lonborg), doing a slam-dunk move and catching your ring in an awning mechanism to shred your hand ligaments apart (Cecil Upshaw), staying too long without the sun screen on a tanning bed (Marty Cordova), or dozing off with an ice bag on your foot to incure frostbite—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.)

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again and again if need be. Big money contracts don’t immunise you from the same injuries to which merely mortal players can be susceptible. Nine figures don’t turn Clark Kent into Superman. They also don’t heal a player in ten minutes or less. Anyone who doesn’t get that should never be taken seriously as a fan, a coach or manager, or a professional analyst.

Unless a player was injured doing something stupid off the field, or you have heretofore undetected deep medical knowledge, you have only one recourse whenever a player—from the most modest bench player to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting—is injured in the actual line of duty.

That recourse is to shut the hell up and stop treating real sports injuries as evidence of fragility or cowardice. Because the only one resembling a fragile coward in my eyes when you dismiss this injured player as a puss or that injured player as a goldbrick is you.

Listen up, Bleacher Creatures

Derek Rodriguez, Mark Lanzillotta

Derek Rodriguez (in his Yankee hat and Aaron Judge T-shirt) hugging Mark Lanzillotta gratefully, after Lanzillotta handed the boy a sixth-inning bomb Judge hit in Rogers Centre.

Recall if you will that I went to Opening Day in Anaheim with my 28-year-old son. From the moment he became a baseball fan in earnest at age six, his dreams included catching or otherwise obtaining one bona-fide major league baseball at the ballpark. On said Opening Day, 22 years later, I managed to make his wish come true.

An Astro lined a foul into our section during batting practise. Thanks to a small but clustered group of fans standing up adjacent to us, neither Bryan nor myself could see which Astro hit the ball. No matter. It bounded around a few times before making its way beneath my seat, where I snatched it and handed it to him.

Neither Bryan nor I cared that it came off an Astro bat, even if he (and I) might have preferred it courtesy of an Angels bat. It was a baseball, major league regulation, a simple but profound little prize of fandom that you can go a lifetime without obtaining, regardless of how often you’re at the ballpark.

My son’s gratitude was boundless, of course, even at age 28. “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living,” Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said, “but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” Savouring and rooting and appreciating this game means the same thing when you’re watching at home or at the ballpark. Even professionally.

So imagine easily how it felt for a nine-year-old boy in Rogers Centre Tuesday, wearing a Yankee T-shirt with Aaron Judge’s surname and number 99 on his back, praying to God and His servants in the Elysian Fields that maybe, just maybe, he might catch a ball hit by his hero. He got the absolute next best thing.

A Blue Jays fan named Mike Lanzillotta sat in the second deck behind young Derek Rodriguez and his father, Cesar, Venezuelan natives living in Toronto the past five years.  Somehow, the boy’s eagerness got to Lanzillotta throughout the game. He didn’t have to imagine when lo! Judge batted a third time in the top of the sixth inning, against Jays pitcher Alek Manoah, who’d struck him out twice earlier in the game.

Not even Mark Harris, W.P. Kinsella, Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, or John Updike could have sketched this one. I’m nowhere in their league so I’m not sure I’m doing it right.

Judge caught hold of a fastball sailing a little inside and drove it . . . right into Lanzilotta’s hands. As Judge rounded the bases, Lanzillotta kept the promise he made to himself and handed Derek the ball. The boy’s gratitude poured into a hug around the older man’s neck and shameless tears of joy. Television cameras caught the moment and it went viral almost at once.

“I almost started crying,” Lanzillotta admitted to reporters. “For real, I almost started crying.” The father soon enough faced a question from his son: “I said, ‘If you were young, and the same thing happened to you, but with a home run off of Derek Jeter, what would you do?’” the boy revealed. “And he said I would cry the same. And fun fact, I was named after Derek Jeter.”

Aaron Judge, Derek Rodriguez

Derek got to meet his Yankee hero before Wednesday’s game.

Funner fact: The tale of Derek Rodriguez, Mike Lanzilotta, and Aaron Judge’s blast reached Judge himself after the Yankees demolished the Jays, 9-1. Reporters told Judge of the Kodak moment. (Oops! Today we’d call it an iPhone moment.) Known for being as fan friendly as the day is long, Judge himself seemed almost overcome by the revelation.

“That’s what’s special about this game, man,” the Yankees’ Leaning Tower of River Avenue told reporters, after grinning and observing you’ll find Yankee fans around the world. “It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear, everybody is fans, everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to check out that video. That’s special.”

He did more than just check out that video. Before today’s game, Derek got to meet his Yankee hero, who signed the home run ball for him. The still boyish-looking Judge looked as though he’d been taken back to his own boyhood for a few shining moments.

The Blue Jays didn’t exactly appreciate being blown away by the Yankees Tuesday, but it didn’t stop the team from giving more than a tip of the beak to Lanzillotta. They dropped a special team gift package on him for his sportsmanship. Cesar Rodriguez called him a friend for life. His cell phone was all but nuked with texts and calls following his gesture.

“I spilled my beer” retrieving the Judge home run ball, Lanzillotta said, “but it was worth it.”

Now listen up, all you Bleacher Creatures around the Show. You, the mental midgets who think it’s funny as hell throwing the opposition’s home runs back onto the field, pouring  abuse upon an opposition pitcher known to struggle with clinical depression, thinking it’s funny as hell throwing garbage and other debris on the field when an opposition fielder is injured on a play.

You should be made to watch that Judge bomb, that Lanzillotta gift to nine-year-old Derek Tuesday, and the boy’s meeting with Judge today. You might learn or re-learn a few things about sportsmanship. About real baseball rooting and caring. About plain human decency.

The Mets eat nada DFA’ing Canó

Robinson Canó

Canó’s days as a Met are over. His Hall of Fame case ended well before that, unfortunately.

We can dispense early with this: In designating Robinson Canó for assignment Monday, the Mets aren’t “eating” the $37 million they still owe him. They dined on it the moment they agreed to take on the bulk of the $96 million the Mariners still owed him for the coming four years, the price paid for bringing relief pitcher Edwin Diáz to the Mets at the end of 2019.

As Keith Law wrote in The Inside Game, recalling the Diamondbacks “eating” $22 million still owed imploding pitcher Russ Ortiz in 2006, “That salary was already somewhere in Arizona’s GI tract, likely causing indigestion but there nonetheless. Major League Baseball player contracts are guaranteed; there is no way to un-eat that meal.”

And there’s no way to un-eat the already-eaten $37 million the Mets will still pay Canó, though now it’s to not show his face at second base or occupy a designated hitter’s slot for the remainder of the deal. It was probably just a pinch of pepper on owner Steve Cohen’s breakfast when he bought the team in the first place.

Today’s the day MLB teams had until noon eastern to trim their active rosters back to 26. The lately torrid Mets (16-7 on the season thus far, tops in the National League East, and 7-3 in their last ten games) had fans fearing other players with remaining minor league options might get the push back.

If Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis especially had gotten the push, Met fans would have thrown things at the nearest available front office heads. If it were Luis Guillorme or Travis Jankowski, they might have settled merely for a noisy protest and maybe some nasty Citi Field chanting.

The least-kept secret prayer among them was let it be Canó, considered the millstone that’s also the last big mistake of the Wilpon generation and their last general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen. Smith’s the only viable first base backup and can also DH; Davis is one of their critical bench rats and can also play third base; Guillorme’s the only true shortstop stand-in whenever Francisco Lindor might need a breather; and, Jankowski is an outfield defense standout in the making who also has speed to burn.

Cutting them would have been a baseball equivalent of solving a simple steering problem by replacing half the drive train. Cutting Canó was a critical portion of the 5,000 mile checkup.

The 39-year-old who made his bones as a Yankee should be looking forward to a pleasant retirement and a Cooperstown berth. Until his age began to catch up to him, he was well enough on the track that the JAWS system of Jay Jaffe, author of The Cooperstown Casebook, has him as the number seven second baseman, ever, with a peak value slightly above the average Hall of Fame second baseman and a career value all but dead even with the average Hall second baseman.

“Cano appears well on his way to a bronze plaque,” Jaffe wrote in that 2017 book, in the “Further Consideration” portion for second basemen. “He’s already above the peak score at second—the seventh-best, with everyone else but him and [Chase] Utley from among the top ten already enshrined. It’s not out of the question he pushes his way higher in that category, either. He’s got a good chance at 3,000 hits, needing to average just 113 per year until his contract runs out in 2023. The bet here is that he winds up around seventh in JAWS here.”

Jaffe had the seventh-in-JAWS part right. But then Canó trainwrecked his own self in May 2018. He got an eighty-game suspension for furosemide, a diuretic that isn’t an actual/alleged performance-enhancing substance but is banned as a likely masking agent under MLB’s PED protocols. He got plunked with that two days after a hand injury when he was hit by a pitch in a May game.

Then, after leaving Seattle for the Mets and having one last hurrah in the pan-damni-ically shortened 2020 season, Canó was handed a suspension for all 2021 after he tested positive for stanozolol, an actual anabolic steroid, in November 2020. A second PED ding means an automatic 162-game suspension.

It’s one thing to argue on behalf of the Cooperstown enshrinement of those players who have no-questions-asked Hall credentials but were either known or suspected of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances during the era before baseball saw the light/felt the heat and began earnest, honest-to-God testings.

But it’s something else to argue on behalf of enshrining a player either ignorant enough, careless enough, or foolish enough to dip into the PED after testing became established and widespread and widely-reported.

Canó could plead ignorance the first time around. It’s entirely possible he had no idea a doctor’s prescribed medication included furosemide, known commonly as Lasix. But he couldn’t quite plead ignorance the second time around. Just as with Manny Ramírez and his two PED-related suspensions well after testings began, Hall voters won’t exactly jump to acquit Canó and pass him in.

He was an excellent defensive second baseman before age and injuries started taking their toll. At this writing he’s number twelve at the position for defensive runs above his league average (+69) on the career list. He also threatened Jeff Kent’s record for lifetime home runs as a second baseman; he has 316 to Kent’s 351. And if you put excess stock in such things, he’s only 368 hits shy of the Magic 3,000.

He lacks black ink but he’s an eight-time All-Star. Without the two dings for actual/alleged PEDs, you could call Canó the sleeper Hall of Famer. But how does he look according to my Real Batting Average metric? (RBA: Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances.) Let’s insert him into the ranks of the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Fame second basemen. You’re going to be shocked:

Second Base PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Jackie Robinson 5804 2310 740 61 30* 72 .550
Robinson Canó 9489 4274 618 112 62 85 .543
Joe Morgan 11329 3962 1865 76 96 40 .533
Ryne Sandberg 9282 3787 761 59 71 34 .507
Roberto Alomar 10400 4018 1032 62 97 50 .506
Craig Biggio 12504 4711 1160 68 81 285 .504
Rod Carew 10550 3998 1018 144 44 25 .496
Red Schoendienst 9224 3284 606 30 38* 21 .431
Nellie Fox 10351 3347 719 30 76* 142 .417
Bill Mazeroski 8379 2848 447 110 70 20 .417
HOF AVG WITH CANÓ .490

You’re not seeing things. Robinson Canó would have been number two in RBA among the Hall’s post-WWII/post-integration/night ball-era’s second baseman if his career ended today (Chase Utley would be right behind him, by three points, by the way) if he hadn’t shot himself in the foot for a second PED suspension. He also would have been 53 points above the average such Hall of Fame second baseman.

It’s impossible to say whether another team may yet pick Canó up once he clears the DFA waivers, or whether one might deal for him first. (He’d have to accept a role on the bench, either way.) But it’s not impossible to say that Canó may be seeing the final sunset of a career that should have sent him to Cooperstown.