The troublesome case of Curt Schilling

2020-01-05 CurtSchillling

On the mound a Hall of Famer, in retirement a Hall of Shamer.

Once upon a time, Curt Schilling’s own general manager (it was Ed Wade, during their Phillies years) described him as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.” By assorted readings I knew that the pitcher who evoked guts on the mound and philanthropy off it during his career was also a man in retirement who shot from the hip and the lip and bothered about the messes left afterward.

Which made Schilling no worse than assorted non-sports entertainers who speak of things beyond their professions and embarrass themselves likewise, but somewhat less, than they often embarrass those to whom their crafts are received as part and parcel of their daily bread.

But in 2016 there came the notorious Schilling tweet of a T-shirt proclaiming, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” with the just-as-notorious vote of approval reading, “OK, so much awesome here.” (Schilling deleted the tweet when the fit hit the shan, as Mr. Elder would say, but it still lives in a few thousand screen captures if not more.) His momentum for Hall of Fame election hit the wall the way Wile E. Coyote hit the earth falling from the cliff. The only shock, at least when it came to Hall of Fame-voting writers, is that they didn’t carry through on any undisclosed desires to burn Schilling in effigy. At minimum.

Over three years later, at this writing, Schilling by way of publicly disclosed voting has a shot at being elected to Cooperstown this time. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, out of votes disclosed publicly (the Baseball Writers Association of America has allowed that the last couple of years) Schilling has 108 votes, or 80 percent of the votes known thus far. He needs to prevail on 75 percent of the total vote, and the Tracker says that means he needs 201 more votes to get there.

The Tracker also says Derek Jeter is at a hundred percent of the known votes, Larry Walker is at 84.4 percent of those, and Barry Bonds is at 75.6 percent. (The winners will be announced on 21 January.) And even Bonds sometimes seems less a controversy than Schilling.

It’s a waste of ink to review Bonds above and beyond a simple if discomfiting fact: Whatever he did or didn’t use among actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, it happened during baseball’s so-called Wild West Era when the substances ran rampant (and often enough misconstrued) and neither their teams’ administrations, the players’ union, nor then-commissioner Bud Selig was in that big a hurry to stop them. When the owners, the union, and the commissioner finally wised up and brought in testing, the duo’s long careers were pretty much over and out.

Yet it’s Schilling who makes Hall of Fame watchers even more nervously than anything surrounding Bonds. Bonds’s admission a few years ago that yes, he was a first class jerk most of the time when he played, with or without the actual or alleged PEDs, did much to soften his once-forbidding image. Schilling’s only too renowned for the kind of diarrhea of the mouth that provokes even those who agree with him to wish his saliva glands secreted Kaoepectate.

Now we hear from Peter Gammons, one of baseball’s most long-respected journalists, whose Beyond the Sixth Game is the best available analysis of what became of the Red Sox from after the 1975 World Series and the beginning of free agency through 1985. In a lengthy but imperative read at The Athletic, Gammons examines Schilling’s Hall of Fame case and includes this quick but pungent insertion about the “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” business: “Schilling says he wishes he’d never done so, admitting, ‘it was in poor taste’.”

That may not satisfy two contingencies among those who follow Schilling’s Hall of Fame voting progress. One says Schilling did nothing more than say what a lot of people wish they’d had the guts to say about today’s journalists. The other says Schilling himself should be married to a rope and a tree for even thinking that way about journalists, when he isn’t being flogged for assorted sociopolitical opinions about which “controversial” may resemble a compliment so far as some are concerned. (We should note that most of those Hall voters uncomfortable with Schilling rarely if ever cite his support for today’s not so popular or amiable president as part of their grounds.)

Among purely baseball writers, Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Susan Slusser (the San Francisco Chronicle and a former Baseball Writers Association of America president), and Jose de Jesus Ortiz (another former BBWAA president) were three among many who decided that advocating murder equals the kind of character flaw that enjoins against Hall of Fame enshrinement by way of the character factor among the voting criteria.

When I first saw Schilling’s approval of marrying journalists to ropes and trees, I also thought he went far beyond the line that distinguishes mere criticism from thoughts of homicide. And I wished to God that Schilling remembered he could have drawn the line between objecting to flawed journalism and killing journalists without fearing he was tempering his view.

There’s as much to abhor as to admire about journalism and always has been. There’s scrupulous and unscrupulous journalism alike. Journalists delude themselves if they think otherwise. There’s also the parallel syndrome, likewise undeniable, that bias isn’t a one-way street: Readers see with their biases just as frequently, and not always scrupulously. Enough of what’s considered unscrupulous journalism is considered that not because it is that but because it speaks of things readers simply don’t want to know.

Well, enough of what a politician on any side of the ideological divide denounces as “fake news” isn’t “fake” but, rather, news he or she simply doesn’t like, too. Practising opinion journalism such as I practise now? Of course you get called unscrupulous now and then, not because you are, but because someone reading and disagreeing with your latest offering believes the disagreement by nature indicates scruples missing in action.

Applaud murdering journalists or other writers and speakers with whom you disagree or who brought you news you dispute or didn’t want to hear, and it’s something entirely beyond mere objection. Even American presidents, including the incumbent to whom Curt Schilling’s plighted his political troth, have only harassed with incessant rhetoric if not government apparatus, but they haven’t killed writers whose publications infuriated them—yet. When not using the press for themselves or against each other, that is.

Think of how many people continue to respect Thomas Jefferson as a champion of freedom including and particularly the press—until he wasn’t, then denounced him for saying nothing could be believed in a newspaper until he and his frenemy John Adams needed the newspapers to call each other a hermaphrodite and hypocrite (Jefferson, about Adams) or a half-breed atheistic libertine. (Adams, about Jefferson.) If you thought presidents resorting to schoolboy or locker room-style name-calling began with President Tweety, this Packard Panther car is in my garage and can be had for a measly three large.

Schilling knows only too well that he’s expert at shooting first and regretting later. “Gotta own the times you go off the rails,” he tweeted regarding one such regretted shot. He’s had to own the equivalent of a chain of stores worth of those times since his retirement from baseball, alas. Gammons, who’s known Schilling a long enough time and knows only too well how often his train jumps those rails, thinks the thing that seems to worry Hall of Fame voters most isn’t likely to happen:

My guess is that if Curt Schilling ever walks to the microphone on the stage in Cooperstown, he will be as close to speechless as he’s ever been, and the words that he utters will not be political but instead will honor [Jim] Palmer and [Tom] Seaver, Randy [Johnson] and Pedro [Martinez], [Greg] Maddux, Sandy [Koufax] and [Bob] Gibson.

He may mention the day Tony Gwynn went 5-for-5 against him, or much how he respected [Barry] Bonds, walking him 19 times in 100 plate appearances. I expect he would mention Johnny Podres and Terry Francona and Cal Ripken. And pay homage to Roberto Clemente, because the journey to that podium really began with [his father] Cliff Schilling’s favorite player.

As a pitcher, Schilling is qualified and then some to be a Hall of Famer. “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home,” The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe wrote in that book, “and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.”

If you doubt that assessment, be reminded that seventeen pitchers have struck out 3,000+ batters but only four of them have done it while walking fewer than 1,000. The four are Schilling and incumbent Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. Nice company to keep, particularly if you consider Jenkins may still be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated pitchers who ever stepped on the mound. If you doubt Schilling’s stature as a true big-game pitcher, you didn’t see him in several pennant races and postseasons, especially in 2004.

Schilling’s right to speak is equal only to someone else’s right to reject the thought, and to reject the thought isn’t quite the same as rejecting his right to enunciate it. Neither is concluding that the thought indicates a character as well as an intellectual flaw. He’s had his feuds with assorted journalists (including the aforementioned Heyman, Slusser, and de Jesus Ortiz), but he hasn’t been suspected of graduating from mere disputes to hunting down and trying to kill them himself, either. Yet.

The voting rule that includes the character factor reads, Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. The Hall of Fame was born in 1936; that rule, known as Rule 5, was born in 1944. The parents were Hall of Fame founder Stephen Clark and then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, whose integrity, sportsmanship, and character allowed him to refuse allowing non-white men to play major and minor league baseball.

The Hall of Fame includes no few whose play was as extraterrestrial as their characters were actually or allegedly subterranean, and they weren’t all elected before 1944, either. It also has no few whose administration of parts or all of the game were suspect. (Landis, anyone? Ford Frick? Bud Selig? George Weiss? Tom Yawkey?) doesn’t mean Hall voters are barred from considering character during or post-career. (Ponder how many still wish to remove O.J. Simpson from football’s Hall of Fame over his long-past-football-career crimes.) There’s no further absolute right to Hall of Fame enshrinement no matter your pure performance papers, really, than there is to play or work in professional baseball in the first place.

A lot of baseball players active and retired have had contentious relations and even shoving matches with members of the press. (“When you like us, we’re the press,” the late New York Times columnist/language maven William Safire once said. “When you hate us, we’re the media.”) A lot of journalists have been just as disdainful of a lot of players, for assorted reasons valid and invalid. But I can’t think of any player who ever suggested marrying even his least favourite journalist to a rope and a tree. Not even sarcastically, which was Schilling’s original defense.

If Schilling’s as sincere as Gammons suggests in regretting his wish for the marriage of journalists to ropes and trees, accept his apology, with the qualifier that you shouldn’t expect every journalist on any block to forget the sarcasm defense. “I don’t blame any journalist for eliminating Schilling from consideration,” Jaffe wrote this past November. “I’m done telling anybody to hold his or her nose and vote for such a candidate just because of stats and a highlight reel.”

Remind yourself, too, that whatever your particular political preferences, Curt Schilling’s worst enemy is the one he sees in the mirror when he shaves. If the Hall of Fame really was an institution to which was affixed and enforced, “Horse’s Asses Need Not Apply,” he wouldn’t belong. But that plane took off eons ago.

Objections overruled

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Slapping his girl friend at CC Sabathia’s charity gala last fall means Domingo German won’t be pitching in Yankee pinstripes again until early June.

Domingo German’s 81-game suspension under baseball’s domestic violence policy is only the fourth longest such drydocking among players. Former Braves pitcher Hector Olivera beats him by a game in that regard, Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera lost the final 85 games of 2019, and Padres pitcher Jose Torres lost 100 games in 2018.

None of which stopped the word “unprecedented” from circulating around it or some Yankee fans from screaming “We object!” To the suspension, not the act that provoked it. The general gravamen among that subset of Yankee fans is that, since German wasn’t hit with any criminal charges after all, he should therefore face nothing but spring training and the 2020 season. The general problem with that view is that there’s a major league policy in place saying oh no he shouldn’t.

The actual policy allows baseball’s commissioner to put a suspected player on administrative leave for up to seven days while investigating the accusation, and it covers domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse alike. There’s no minimum or maximum punishment involved formally, though the commissioner can suspend, reinstate, or defer judgment until after criminal proceedings are done.

Which means commissioner Rob Manfred was within his rights under the policy to suspend German even though the September 2019 incident in question—German was seen slapping his girl friend, who happens to be the mother one of his children, after a charity gala by retiring pitcher CC Sabathia—ended up not going to criminal charges. The incident itself was bad enough without the witnesses perhaps including someone from the commissioner’s office.

Likewise was Manfred within his rights to think as he seems to have done that further such incidents forward after, say, Addison Russell’s to get him a 40-game suspension (2018-19), or Roberto Osuna (75 games, 2018), or to Giants chief executive officer Larry Baer (almost four months last year), haven’t delivered the message yet that there are some things baseball as a franchise employer simply refuses to suffer gladly.

Formal legal criminal charges or no, neither the Major League Baseball Players Association nor the Yankees objected to German going on administrative leave from the day after his final 2019 mound appearance through the end of the postseason. Yahoo! Sports columnist Hannah Keyser says the team and the union aren’t expected to appeal the final suspension, either.

German’s suspension will take him out of the 2020 season’s first 63 games since it was made retroactive to the administrative leave onto which he was placed 19 September 2019. And while the pitcher’s missing the rest of the regular season and the entire postseason didn’t exactly help the Yankee cause, it tells you something when you fear those Yankee fans hollering against the suspension seem oblivious to its provocation.

One such response, specifically to Keyser’s column, went like this: “I have no objection to a player being suspended for domestic abuse. But I do object to it when a player was never even charged and there is no real proof that they did anything.” As if the point of witnesses having seen German slap his girl friend now equals, “It depends on what your definition of ‘witness’ is.”

It’s something comparable to saying no, you don’t object to a president of the United States being impeached for abuse of power, but yes, you object when he hasn’t been charged according to criminal law construct. Therefore, whether the House impeaching the president or baseball the employer enforcing its behavioural rules, they done you wrong, somehow. I say it that way because sports fans in their most extreme moments take certain things personally and regard them as crimes of another sort.

Let their team lose a key game down the stretch and they just about would treat it not as a hard loss but, rather, a bloody crime for which heads must roll. Let a pitcher surrender a potential game, set, and pennant-losing home run, and it’s not that the hitter was the better player in the moment but that the pitcher committed the heinous act of throwing the pitch that got bombed.

Those are bad enough. But when some Yankee or other fans all but demand baseball lighten up about suspending domestic abusers in such cases as don’t even go to court (German, fellow Yankee pitcher Aroldis Chapman in 2015, Russell) or become resolved without further ado in court (Osuna), they suggest an employer has no business disciplining an employee merely because his misbehaviour didn’t result in a court case at all, never mind a conviction or time behind bars.

The Astros fired assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, after almost a week worth of the team administration trying to cover up and smearing the reporter who revealed he’d thanked God they’d [fornicating] gotten Osuna within earshot of three female reporters one of whom wore a domestic violence awareness bracelet at the time. If a team can fire an executive over seeming to ignore if not applaud domestic violence, why can’t a team or baseball’s administration suspend someone for committing it?

It’s to baseball’s credit that it says domestic violence is intolerable among those who make the game their profession. And it should be thus elsewhere in sports, as said another respondent to Keyser’s column: “As a Dad, and yet a lifelong Yankee fan, I know domestic violence cannot and should not be tolerated. That is a given. Yet in other sports, the punishment seems to be somewhat less. Time for the other pro sports, or even college sports, to step up and take a stand also.”

All that’s accomplished by those Yankee fans saying baseball done them wrong by suspending German is to make their breed look even worse than they already look to a lot of baseball fans. A lifetime’s experience with the breed (I’m Bronx born, Bronx and Long Island bred, but a Met fan since the day they were born) informs that the main reason it’s uncomfortable to think nice things about the Yankees is their fans.

If the truest cliche about the Yankees is that they don’t like to lose, the truest about Yankee fans is that they think their heroes are entitled (underline that) to be in every postseason, if not to win every World Series, and that if they don’t get either it’s either grounds for a complete housecleaning or somebody else’s fault. But even that is bearable compared to the pockets of extremes that make even normal Yankee fans quake.

Last October came three grotesque examples from that small contingent of Yankee fans who travel first crass. Two happened in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. When Edwin Encarnacion was beaten on a slightly off-line throw forcing Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel to a spinning sweep tag on Encarnacion’s shoulder, fans in Yankee Stadium’s right field stands threw debris on the field. When Yankee reliever Luis Cessa unintentionally hit Alex Bregman with an inside pitch, there was only too audible cheering.

The third, as Game Four was about to get underway, made those two resemble accidents. A group of Yankee fans above the visitors’ bullpen in left field taunted the Astros’ Game Four starter, Zack Greinke, over his known enough battle with anxiety and clinical depression, and the medications he’s prescribed to control those very real conditions. Rather diplomatically, Greinke said after the game that he didn’t hear the taunts, which makes them no less inexcusable.

Some of the taunts exposed the miscreants in question as further half-witted and baseball dumb, namely those taunting Donald Zachary Greinke for going by his middle name as many people do. Clearly they’d forgotten if they ever knew such Hall of Famers as Henry Louis Gehrig, James Hoyt Wilhelm, George Thomas Seaver, and Lynn Nolan Ryan, for openers. Not to mention a one-time Yankee prospect who ended up traded and beating them thrice in one World Series, one Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr.

Taunting Greinke concurrently over his mental illness and his preference to go by his middle name was merely grotesque. Objecting to German’s suspension, never mind that slapping his girl friend with witnesses present damaged her and cost the Yankees his arm the rest of the stretch, the postseason, and for two months plus to open 2020, knocks on the door of degeneracy.

The Yankees aren’t baseball’s only team with a contingent of fans about whom degeneracy applies. And more Yankee fans know and shiver over it than you might think. One such fan—he didn’t identify himself as such, but his avatar is a piece of an ancient tile identifying a Lexington Avenue subway station (the el train running behind Yankee Stadium just before ducking into a tunnel is known officially as a Lexington Avenue Express)—responded to Keyser and knocked the degeneracy contingent among his brethren over the center field fence:

MLB is not a court of law. It can discipline its employees and coaches how it sees fit with input from players union, who did not contest the suspension. If a player doesn’t like the ruling, find another place to play baseball.

There are also those who think baseball’s domestic abusers should be suspended longer, like for an entire season and postseason to follow. That’s not exactly unsound thinking.

Don Larsen, RIP: Elevated

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Don Larsen, captured mid-delivery during his World Series perfect game.

The new year wasn’t a day old, and the million-to-one shot expired. The month of Sundays turned Mondays. The imperfect (unperfect) man who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series lost his battle with esophegeal cancer at 90 on New Year’s Day. And Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got to take a flying leap into Don Larsen’s arms one more time, this time in the Elysian Fields.

From Joe Borden (of the pre-historic National Association) in 1875 through Justin Verlander at the near-last minute of the 2019 season, major league baseball pitchers including 35 Hall of Famers have thrown 303 no-hitters. That’s eleven percent of all no-hitters, including perfect games, thrown by Hall of Famers from John Montgomery Ward through Roy Halladay.

Baseball being a game that enables the modest or the miscast to become the immortal even for one day, Larsen was of a perfect piece on 8 October 1956. As his career shook out he was more and better of a relief pitcher than starting pitcher. He was tall, threw hard enough, but as Joe Posnanski described memorably, “[his] wildness on the mound fairly well represented his wildness off the field.”

“Larsen was the greatest drinker I’ve known,” said Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once upon a time, Mantle being a man who knew great drinkers when he saw them having been one himself for too long. Larsen lived enough in the wild before he married in 1960 that his teammates nicknamed him Gooney Bird.

But the greatest drinker Mantle ever knew went to a no-windup delivery for Game Five and wound up flying into Series history singularly, remaining there to this day. The nearest anyone’s gotten to Larsen for postseason pitching perfection was Halladay, pitching a no-hitter in his first ever postseason assignment to open a division series in 2011—the same year in which Halladay pitched a regular-season perfect game.

Larsen hadn’t previewed his World Series grandeur quite so grandly: he was lifted from Game Two of the ’56 Series in the second inning, despite still being ahead five runs, and his relief Johnny Kucks surrendered all five tying runs—four unearned—on a bases-loaded single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese) and a grand slam. (Hall of Famer Duke Snider.)

He steamed over the early hook regardless. Publicly, he told reporters he had “not a thing” to say after the early hook and the Yankee bullpen surrendering what turned into a 13-8 loss. But he was otherwise recorded as thinking oh, would he never again pitch for Casey Stengel even if the Ol’ Perfesser begged him. He kept that vow right up until the moment he saw the old traditional manner in which a pitcher was informed of his day’s starting assignment, a baseball resting comfortably enough in his shoe.

So the legend went. The reality may have been a little different. For one thing, Larsen himself admitted years later that if he’d been his manager he wouldn’t hand him the ball again any too soon, either. And Stengel told the press the day before Game Five that Larsen would be his man to get the ball rolling. Whether Larsen himself saw it is open to conjecture: he’d gone out on the town and tied on a big one the night before Game Five.

Stengel held no grudge against Larsen for his post-Game Two fuming, obviously, Larsen having two qualities the old man admired: 1) He’d beaten the Yankees twice in a 1954 during which he earned credit for only three pitching wins. 2) Stengel recognised a champion booze hawk when he, too, saw one.

“It was between Larsen and (Bob) Turley,” said the Perfesser. “We decided it would be better to have Turley in the bullpen today and tomorrow.” Turley, of course, ended up having one of the best seats in the house for what was to come. Larsen decided to go back to what he’d abandoned in Game Two, the no-windup delivery Stengel loved to encourage in those among his pitchers who experienced control issues.

As Posnanski puts it, the Dodgers entered Game Five with the same plan they had for Game Two: “Be patient and let Larsen blow himself up the way he had in Game 2. It was a reasonable strategy; indeed, it seemed nearly foolproof. Larsen, over his career, walked about as many batters he struck out. He lost more than he won. He did not let the rigors of baseball interfere much with his thirst for living.”

You know the ancient saying about the best-laid plans, right?

With absolutely no reason to think it was entirely possible, Larsen prior to Game Five had told a friend, who turned out to have been sportswriter Arthur Richman, that he had “one of those crazy feelings that I’m gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.” Richman suggested a four-hitter would be plenty enough. “Nope,” Larsen’s said to have replied. “It’s gonna be a no-hitter, and I’m gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Don’t ask. Larsen never explained it. Any more than anyone could explain how Game Five began in Yankee Stadium, with both Junior Gilliam and Reese looking at called strike threes to open before Snider lined out for the side. Or, how Larsen, always prone to the walk (his walks per nine lifetime: 4.2; his strikeouts per nine lifetime: 4.9; his strikeout-to-walk ratio lifetime: 1.17), surrendered not a one while striking out seven on the day, with only Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson plus outfielders Sandy Amoros and Carl Furillo avoiding the strikeout.

Larsen would have been the first to credit a couple of fielding jewels that kept the perfecto alive. Including but not limited to Robinson slashing a line drive off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove that deflected to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by a fragment at first in the second inning. Or Mantle running Gil Hodges’s long fly down to the rear latitudes of left center field for a catch he later admitted to thinking he had an easier play on it than he turned out to have.

The Hodges fly, on a hanging slider, was “his one bad pitch” of the afternoon, Berra would remember. And Larsen had one more bullet to dodge immediately afterward. More like a rocket. Amoros hit one into the right field seats that sailed foul by anywhere from two to four to six inches, depending upon who told you the story. Otherwise, Larsen was so in command that he ran a three-ball count to only one hitter (Reese) all afternoon.

He was also calmly aware of what he’d done, more sanguine about it as the years went passing by. If you found his home phone number and wanted to talk a little baseball, he’d likely needle you the way he once needled New York Post writer Mike Vaccaro: “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Larsen’s career began with the Orioles, when they were still the St. Louis Browns. He became a Yankee in one of the strangest trades in baseball history—a seventeen-player swap in November 1954, that made Yankees out of Larsen, Turley, and future major league manager Darrell Johnson, among others. And, that made Orioles out of reliable platoon outfielder Gene Woodling and infielder Don Leppert, among others. He became an ex-Yankee in the 1959 trade with the Kansas City Athletics that made a Yankee out of Roger Maris and ex-Yankees out of Larsen, Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and the future Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

New York Daily News baseball writer Joe Trimble, Vaccaro records, was paralysed after Dodger pinch hitter Dale Mitchell struck out to send Yankee Stadium berserk and Berra leaping famously into Larsen’s arms in front of the mound when the perfecto was finished. Trimble couldn’t think of a single line to open his story. His eventual Spink Award-winning colleague Dick Young, himself bristling to finish a pair of stores related to the game, did it for him: “The unperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

“Mortal men get crushed by immortal deeds,” Thomas Boswell wrote about Roger Maris, who suffered unconscionable abuse for daring to break ruthsrecord in 1961, upon Maris’s death in 1985. Larsen was a mortal man who felt elevated by his immortal deed. “Sometimes, a week might go by when I don’t think about that game,” he once said. “But I don’t remember when it happened last.”

After his long enough pitching career ended, Larsen tried major league front office work and then liquor selling, neither of which agreed with him in the end, before going to work for a California paper company successfully. He even carried a little mojo from the game at assorted old-timers’ gatherings one of which turned rather explosive in its own right.

After Yogi Berra ended his longtime rift with George Steinbrenner, the Yankees gave him Yogi Berra Day in 1999—forty years after he’d gotten one as a player. Larsen and Berra remained lifelong friends, and on the second Yogi Day Larsen was invited to throw a ceremonial first pitch to his old battery mate. Then the interleague game against the Montreal Expos began. And David Cone, the former Met, beat the Expos with . . . a perfect game.

Larsen said later it was the only perfect game for which he’d been present from beginning to end since the one he threw in the ’56 World Series.

The wild Yankee settled himself in due course, of course. He and his wife, Corinne, were married six decades when he died; he found a pleasant life in Hayden Lake, Idaho; he never lost his zest for life despite the emptiness he experienced now and then after realising he was the last man standing from both the starting lineups of his perfect game and his last pre-Baltimore team of Browns.

“That carries a little weight by itself, but I’m just not sure how much,” he told an Idaho reporter two years ago. “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015. It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

We may presume that once Yogi took that welcome-home flying leap into his arms on New Year’s Day, Larsen in the Elysian Fields won’t be entirely lonesome at the top anymore. But our island earth may be a little more lonesome for missing the million to one shot, the nice guy who lived fast enough, settled well enough, and for once in his otherwise ordinary baseball life did what couldn’t be done. And hasn’t been done since.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

The second shot heard ’round the world

2019-12-24 CurtFlood

“Curt Flood stood up for us.”—Hall of Famer Ted Simmons.

Irony is almost as common to baseball as are the bat and the ball. Few examples remain more profound than one eight-player trade between the Phillies and the Cardinals in October 1969 that ended up changing the game for the men who played it.

The Phillies’ side of the deal included sending Hall of Fame-worthy third/first baseman Dick Allen to the Cardinals, whose package to the Phillies included seven-straight Gold Glove center fielder Curt Flood.

To Allen, whose Philadelphia experience was unconscionably brutal even by the norms of 1960s’ racial growing pains, the trade equaled the Emancipation Proclamation. To Flood, whose St. Louis experience including planting roots and owning and operating a portraiture studio in the city, the trade equaled what his eventual wife calls “like someone putting a knife in his stomach, or your mom throwing you away. It was that kind of deep hurt.”

Judy Pace was a groundbreaking black television actress (she had a prominent role in the popular television serial Peyton Place in its final season) and Flood’s girl friend for three years by the time Flood decided he wasn’t just a piece of livestock to be sold or dealt at will. They parted when Flood hied to Spain during his reserve clause battle but reconnected and married in 1986, eleven years before Flood’s death of throat cancer.

And Mrs. Pace-Flood thinks a fresh Hall of Fame election makes it more possible for her late husband to earn the honour as a baseball pioneer. “I’m so happy that Marvin [Miller] got in,” she tells William C. Rhoden, longtime New York Times sports columnist now writing for The Undefeated. “I want Curt to follow. There’s unfinished business.”

That business began fifty years ago today, when Flood—writing on the stationery of his portraiture studio—sent commissioner Bowie Kuhn a slightly early Christmas present, refusing to just report to the Phillies like a good little boy and rejecting the idea that he was mere property. “I believe,” he wrote, “that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodLetter

The Curt Flood letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

To those who believe to this day that the Flood letter was really Marvin Miller’s handiwork, Mrs. Pace-Flood has a reply: “People ask about the letter, they don’t want to believe that he wrote that letter,” she tells Rhoden. “They want to know if Marvin Miller wrote the letter or if Marvin gave him the ideas. No. Marvin did not write the letter. Curt was brilliant.”

Arguably, Flood was the National League’s best defensive center fielder who wasn’t named Willie Mays in the 1960s. He won those seven Gold Gloves consecutively from 1963-69. As would future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith at shortstop, Flood likewise made himself into a respectably fine hitter as the years of his career went forward. And there was more to him than just a rangy-squared outfielder.

“Flood was a quiet man, a deep thinker, and an independent cuss,” wrote John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, published three years before Flood’s death. “He told friends on the club that he’d refuse to go if the Cardinals ever traded him. He’d quit before he left St. Louis. He had strong ties to the city, after playing for the Cardinals since 1958, and had begun a photographic and art business on the side. Flood was an outstanding portrait painter, whose rendering of [Cardinals owner] Gussie Busch hung in the saloon of the owner’s yacht.”

Let it be said that even in the era when owners tended to be paternalistic when not dismissive of their hired hands on the field Busch was somewhat anomalous in how he treated his players. He treated them like princelings, even if you considered that it was patrician patronage.

Busch put baseball’s first million dollar payroll on the field in 1968. He footed the bills for private rooms in top hotels when the Cardinals made road trips. Their homecomings included each player getting a free case of one of his Anheuser-Busch beers. And when the jet age arrived, Busch—who’d previously attached his luxury Pullman car Adolphus to trains for Cardinals players to travel in—flew them aboard charter jets.

He also helped Hall of Famer Stan Musial get into the restaurant business, when Musial bought into the St. Louis steakhouse where among other things fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (a native St. Louisian) met his future wife. He helped Flood start his portrature business. He rewarded Roger Maris for two fine seasons as a Cardinal to finish his troubled career with a particularly profitable Anheuser-Busch distributorship after Maris retired.  He’d hand Hall of Famers Lou Brock a yacht and Bob Gibson a luxurious motor home upon their retirements.

And after the players threatened a spring 1969 strike over getting a hike in the owners’ contribution to their pension plan, a hike they eventually got when they could still high tail it to the spring camps and get into game shape, Busch responded by walking into his players’ spring training clubhouse in St. Petersburg with a few brewery directors and delivered a lecture that only sounded the essence of calm reason.

It was really an old-fashioned patrician dressing down to the plebeians. “I hope that many millions of fans will retain their loyalty to baseball,” Busch was quoted as telling them. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure they do . . . I don’t react well to ultimatums. I don’t mind negotiations—that’s how we get together—but ultimatums rub me the wrong way, and I think ultimatums rub the fans the wrong way . . . ”

When reporters also present asked for comments, not one Cardinal said a word, probably too stunned to speak. “One of the players,” Helyar wrote, “stood there in a particularly raging silence. His name was Curt Flood.” Flood himself held out on his own for a raise for 1969 and got it, but Busch’s clubhouse speech sounded to him as though he “had been telling us to behave or get out. I no longer felt like a $90,000 ballplayer but like a green recruit.”

Flood became a Cardinal in the first place thanks to a 1957 trade that sent him there from the Reds in a five-player swap, and he’d sworn he’d do what it took never to be traded again. Now, after the 1969 Cardinals finished fourth in the new National League East, as Helyar quoted him, Flood told a friend, “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here. No way at all.”

By November 1969, Flood called Miller to say he wanted to challenge baseball’s abused reserve system, by which the owners used the actual reserve clause’s one-firm/one-option year on player contracts to bind them for life or until the owners saw fit to trade or sell them. The Players Association agreed to foot the bill for Flood’s legal expenses, but first Flood wanted to try his luck with Kuhn. Hence the letter. And, hence, Kuhn’s reply just prior to New Year’s Day, as legendary sportswriter Red Smith put it: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Known officially as Flood vs. Kuhn, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before it was decided, the Cardinals were hit with a 1972 contract holdout, a 21-year-old catcher who’d just established himself as the number one Cardinal behind the plate. Before the kid was finished he’d expose another rupture in the owners’ armours.

Ted Simmons wanted $30,000; the Cardinals wouldn’t go much past $20,000. Simmons played under an automatic renewal, unsigned. As his season grew more torrid, he got a shock at the All-Star break, when he was in Atlanta as the NL’s reserve All-Star catcher: the Cardinals were ready to hand him $70,000: the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973.

With Simmons’s new signing the Cardinals betrayed a secret: the owners would rather open the vaults and hand a kid seventy large than let him even think about a reserve clause test. Then came the bad news for Flood, whose legal team included former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg: the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The good news: Flood kicked a door open just a little bit. The Court itself called the reserve clause “an anomaly” and “an aberration” but decided it should be remedied by Congress. Which was akin to sending a lunch argument between two sharks to be remedied by a barracuda. Someone among the owners who didn’t have oatmeal for brains tried to warn them. “As the champagne corks popped,” Helyar wrote, “[owners’ negotiator] John Gaherin still cautioned: Flood’s defeat hadn’t brought an end to the forces of change; it had only bought them some time.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter would kick the door open further after the 1974 season. When Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hunter, he took it to arbitration—and won, with the arbitrator declaring the contract breached and Hunter a free agent. Kuhn’s failed bid to get it overturned failed when Miller threatened a lawsuit.

Thus Hunter became the target of a bidding war that brought Hunter offers of, essentially, the galaxy, safe passage through the Cardassian Empire, grazing rights on Bejor, and a fleet of luxury starships. Kidding. Sort of. Hunter ended up taking the third most valuable package among the offers, from the Yankees, because of the money distribution he wanted including an annuity for his children’s education.

Hunter taught the world what a top of the line baseball player could get on a fair and open job market in a very profitable industry, in essence. All that was left was for some player, any player, to have the moxie to chase it for reasons having nothing to do with breach of contract and everything to do, more or less, with treating the reserve clause in strict interpretation. Meaning that the contract expired legally after the player had played his mandated first year and his team-optioned second year.

After the owners continued stalling on salary arbitration, which Gaherin himself believed might have forestalled the absolute end of the reserve system, one of the National League’s best pitchers refused to sign his 1975 contract after being enraged when Dodgers general manager Al Campanis “injected a deeply ‘personal issue'” into their talks.

From that moment Andy Messersmith refused to talk to anyone lower than Dodger president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any deal that didn’t include a no-trade clause, refusing to let the Campanises determine his career path. Messersmith pitched without signing a 1975 contract no matter how much money the increasingly edgy Dodgers offered as the season went on. (It may have reached as high as $550,000 over three years.)

This was no ordinary pitcher. Messersmith led the 1975 National League in shutouts, complete games, and innings pitched, with a 2.29 earned run average, a 3.09 fielding-independent pitching rate, and the lowest hits-against-per-nine rate in the league with 6.8. Not until August 1975 did Miller present himself to Messersmith, when the pitcher was the last unsigned player to remain unsigned and finally agreed to file the grievance seeking free agency.

Arbitrator Peter Seitz tried to persuade the owners to take the case away and negotiate, even offering to be the mediator if they did. They didn’t, and Messersmith won. Ted Simmons nailed it in one simple statement: “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association. At the start, it was all personal,” Messersmith said in due course. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t being the no-trade clause to the table . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Messersmith finished what Flood began. Today, with Miller finally elected to the Hall of Fame despite his late-life demurrals (he died in 2012), there’s a small swell hoping that Flood will receive the same honour as a baseball pioneer. Including new Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole, who signed a deal about which Flood himself could only have fantasised, nine years and $324 million, average annual value $36 million.

When Cole was introduced formally as a Yankee, he paid tribute to Flood, Simmons, Hunter, and Messersmith. “[C]hallenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole told the presser. “I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is.”

Flood wasn’t entirely alone during his challenge. Teammates supported him morally. So did Dick Allen, to whom the trade was liberation day. Trial testimony on Flood’s behalf came included from Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (Mrs. Pace-Flood once said his testimony almost brought Flood to tears, coming from his personal baseball idol) and Hank Greenberg. ABC Sports broadcast legend Howard Cosell backed Flood publicly.

But Flood still felt as though on the threshold of a nightmare. “You couldn’t even use the word nervous,” Mrs. Pace-Flood said in a 2017 interview. “It was completely draining for Curt, mentally and physically. It was as if his whole world was going to disappear. All that he had worked for, all that he loved, all that he ever wanted to do—those things were hanging in the balance with the outcome of this case.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodTedWilliams

Curt Flood, in the Senators’ dugout, next to his manager—Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

After sitting 1970 out, Flood actually tried a baseball comeback—with the Washington Senators, whose otherwise capricious owner Bob Short delivered perhaps the finest gesture of his baseball life on Flood’s behalf. Short made a deal with the Phillies to get negotiating rights to Flood. Then he made Flood an offer he couldn’t refuse: He offered Flood $100,000 for 1971, agreed to pay the money no matter what, and agreed further that, if they couldn’t come to terms for 1972, he’d make Flood a free agent.

The kicker, according to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators 1901-1971: Short wouldn’t put that agreement in writing, since it would violate the rules of the time. And, according to Flood himself, Short would deny those extra conditions existed if they were made public.

The worse news was that Flood no longer had it, and he knew it a little too sadly. He left the team on 27 April, leaving Short a note saying he’d tried but the long layoff proved too much, not to mention having run into financial trouble with his portraiture business. That was putting it politely. The business went bankrupt, and Flood also faced issues with the Internal Revenue Service over the home he’d bought his mother.

Flood bought a bar on Majorca to begin sorting out his shattered life, but in time he returned to America, tried broadcasting with the A’s for a spell, and reconnected with Judy Pace. He also became, of all things, the commissioner of two short-lived professional baseball leagues, the Senior Professional Baseball Association (1988-89) and the United Baseball League (mid-1990s).

“Flood seemed a strange choice to be commissioner of a league that desperately would need the assistance of the major leagues,” wrote Peter Golenbock in his book about the SPBA, The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time, published in 1991. “Later I would discover that many of the players considered themselves outcasts from baseball, so perhaps Flood’s choice as commissioner had been fitting after all.”

“Dred Scott in spikes,” George F. Will called Flood in 1993.

There was poetry and portent in the fact that Curt Flood’s career blossomed in St. Louis, the city where Dred Scott had taken his case to court. In 1966, the Cardinals moved into a new stadium that is located just a long fungo from the courthouse where Scott, a slave, argued that he had lived on free soil and therefore should be free . . . [Scott] was not the last time that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property.

That is the question Curt Flood posed when the Cardinals tried to trade him. They said he had to go wherever they decided to send him. It had always been so, and always would be. He said, well, we’ll just see about that. He rose in rebellion against the reserve clause that denied baseball players the fundamental right to negotiate terms of employment with whomever they chose. He lost the 1970 season and lost in the Supreme Court, but he had lit a fuse.

Six years later—too late to benefit him—his cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.

Will observed wryly that what was once said of another player could have been said of Flood the center fielder—two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and the rest was covered by Flood. That was nothing compared to the flood he began when he stood on his hind legs and demanded, quietly but firmly, the rights of any working man or woman from the most obscure labourer to the most elevated chief executive officer.

Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame as the citizen who first told baseball seriously that denying a man the right to sell his services fairly and openly was, shall we say, un-American. So does the California guy who finished what Dred Scott in Spikes began, when Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world one not-so-foggy Christmas Eve.

The mattresses on the floor

2019-12-23 MiLBThings were quite interesting in 1935. Porky Pig (on screen) and Fibber McGee & Molly (on radio) premiered. Amelia Earhart became history’s first human to fly solo from Hawaii to New York. Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Babe Ruth played his last major league game. The Phillies and the Reds played the Show’s first night game. The Tigers won the World Series.

And a bellettrist of the time—a former semi-professional baseball player, turned Episcopalian priest, turned journalist and eloquent sociopolitical critic, the work for which he’s remembered best, if at all, outside a small but devoted transgenerational following—delivered his signature critique against eroding the distinction between proper, unobtrusive government and the improper, to a fare-thee-well intrusiveness of the State.

Early in chapter one of Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock isolated rather lyrically his interpretation of the State’s approach to its subjects (we can hardly call it regarding them as citizens):

The State has said to society, You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself . . . The accumulation of State power in various countries has been so accelerated and diversified within the last twenty years that we now see the State functioning as telegraphist, telephonist, match-peddler, radio operator, cannon founder, railway builder and owner, railway operator, wholesale and retail tobacconist, shipbuilder and owner, chief chemist, harbour maker and dockbuilder, housebuilder, chief educator, newspaper proprietor, food purveyor, dealer in insurance, and so on through a long list . . . [T]he competition of social power with State power is always disadvantaged, since the State can arrange the terms of competition to suit itself, even to the point of outlawing any exercise of social power whatever in the premises; in other words, giving itself a monopoly.

Leave it to a one-time baseball player to point over the fence, hit one right to the spot, and have it unheeded, largely, for eighty-four years hence, to the point where the State of Nock’s suspicions stands potentially to become baseball’s commissionership, at least, if not its operator. And leave it to another former player, who spent shy of a decade in the majors, to pick up the warning and heed it, even if he doesn’t know and probably hasn’t read the Nockian critique.

“The courts are reviewing a case that brought to light the below-poverty-level wages that many minor league players earn,” writes former outfielder Doug Glanville, whose career included time with the Cubs, the Phillies, and the Rangers, in The Athletic. “The salary to qualify for poverty is just over $12,000, and the players bringing the lawsuit are citing the fact that a significant number of players make $7,500 a year or less for a full minor league season.”

Forty-five former minor leaguers signed onto the lawsuit, which seemed thwarted when Congress approved the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018. Among other things, as phrased by the University of Colorado Law Review, the Act

(I)nsulate(s) its minor-league pay practices from legal challenge after they had become the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the league’s teams failed to pay minor-league players in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum-wage and overtime provisions. The SAPA helps shield MLB from these claims by creating a new statutory exemption largely excluding most professional baseball players from the protections of the FLSA.

Glanville says the lawsuit action didn’t “register” with him in the beginning, him having been a bonus signing and believing as he did that the minors were “just a pit stop” en route his complete lack of doubt that he would get to the Show:

It’s not meant to sustain you while you take care of a family, or pay real rent . . . right? It was the money you collect when you crack open that Monopoly box, play money. Go see a movie, go to the club, it’s just a glorified stipend until the real money comes in, which of course is inevitable. Do people actually live on this? Don’t we all just go home to Mom’s house when the season is over?

But Glanville knows he was one of the absolute minority who make it to the majors for however long their careers prove to be. “Former teammates who didn’t make it through are on the other side of the tracks,” he writes. “And if you never switch off the minor-league track, you just glide along the rainbow and right off a cliff. The vast majority of these players never get out of this theme park of poverty. Some may get on a big-league roster, make a decent Triple-A salary, but that is still an elite group. Most end up as filler — and many decision-makers already knew that about certain players well in advance.”

The Show seems now to be in several places regarding the minors. One place is pondering whether to eliminate 42 teams for assorted reasons, economic and otherwise. Another place is pondering how to remedy the Monopoly money otherwise, particularly after the Blue Jays last May raised the salaries of their minor league players by half. Indeed, baseball’s government said this about that when that happened:

While each Club makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries, the Office of the Commissioner is presently in negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball on the terms of a new agreement between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues to replace the agreement that expires in September 2020. The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations.

But Glanville delivers a subtle warning shot to those such as him who made it to the Show and stay for longer terms and bigger dollars:

It appears these court cases, and perhaps some political figures, could be about to change that. MLB players may not notice any significant changes in their pocket books, but minor league players may be able to afford more than a mattress on the floor.

Maybe, one day soon, big leaguers will push for the answer to the question they did not think was worth asking. Only then will minor league players be compensated as true professionals who have a future, regardless of whether they make it to the major leagues.

We’ve romanced the minor league experience often enough, thanks to such films as Long Gone and Bull Durham. We’ve cracked up over their hijinks and not always stopped to ponder the mattresses on the floor. Often as not the current grapple between major league commissioner Rob Manfred and minor league baseball seems like a bid to tell the minors hey, we’ll solve your problem for you—we’ll kill part of you.

Glanville isn’t wrong to suggest today’s major leaguers should consider what was once their own existence as they aimed toward the Show themselves. Theirs could be gilt-edged pressure. They weren’t all big bonus children and they aren’t all nine-figure earners, but they might think about twenty percent of a single year’s minimum major league salary equaling above-poverty-line salaries for ten to twenty sub-AAA minor leaguers apiece.

That’s something for the Major League Baseball Players Association to ponder for themselves: if the Show won’t redress the mattresses on the floor of its own volition, the union certainly could. It would be one of the greatest good-will gestures any labour union ever delivered, but particularly a union representing workers whose products just so happen to be themselves. (Quick: When was the last time you paid your way into the ballpark to see the team’s owners?)

While they are at it, if they choose to be at it, they might also re-consider what no less than the late Marvin Miller himself eventually called one of his biggest mistakes: the Players Association allowing a 1980 pension re-alignment that froze (at the time) over eight hundred players with extremely short Show careers between 1947-1979 out of pensions while shortening the qualifying time for Show players incumbent and to come.

Now, refer back to Glanville writing, “these court cases, and perhaps some political figures” opening the eyes of Show players and administrators. Refer to your own experiences following baseball teams that aren’t always operated with smarts to match their vault contents. Then, remind yourself what Mr. Nock knew when the State’s camel pokes its nose into the tent. You have only so long before the nose is in too far to drive back out without a battle leaving things worse, and further beyond the game’s control, than they might have been.

We almost don’t have to ask what the State’s operation if not ownership of assorted enterprises doesn’t deliver. Describing it as ten-thumbed is polite. The last thing anyone in or who loves baseball should desire, in terms of operatorship if not ownership, is the State making literal the National Pastime. “Some political figures” poking their noses into the tents threaten just that.

Three-batter blues

2019-12-21 RonGardenhire

“At times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame.”—Ron Gardenhire. “At times,” he says . . .

Regardless of their teams’ seasons from beginning to end and all stations in between, today’s managers don’t seem as witty as their historic predecessors. You couldn’t possibly imagine the Pirates’ new manager or the Tigers’ incumbent going to the mound with Casey Stengel’s kind of insouciant wit.

Managing the hapless Original Mets in 1962, Stengel visited Roger Craig at the mound with Hall of Famer Willie McCovey checking in at the plate. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked his stout righthander. “Upper deck or lower deck?” Getting his first look at brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964, Casey didn’t miss a beat: “Lovely. Just lovely. The park is lovelier than my team.”

Derek Shelton is the Pirates’ new manager; Ron Gardenhire is the Tigers’ incumbent. They seem like steady, agreeable men, the kind of bosses for whom you wouldn’t reject the chance to play. But they’re not likely to make you forget the former Pirates manager who mused, “You can have money piled to the ceiling, but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.”

Or, the former Tigers skipper who said about facing a team the day after blowout loss to them, “The only reason I’m coming out here tomorrow is because the schedule says I have to.”

But if you ask them about things like the forthcoming three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, Shelton and Gardenhire aren’t exactly stuck for answers, either. Neither were a few other skippers approached by ESPN during this month’s winter meetings. “The three-batter thing will be interesting,” says Shelton, “and it’s going to be interesting for a couple of reasons for me. Never having managed in the National League, it will be interesting to see how that works out with the pitcher.”

He’s never managed in the American League, either, but Shelton has managed in the Yankees’ system in the recent past. Gardenhire’s managed in the American League. (He managed the Twins to six American League Central titles.) “Can we talk about that after a few cocktails?” he quipped. Then he got as serious as a man who’s had a few belts and is liable to trip over his tongue at least once.

“We’ve got a lot of managers still trying to figure out how it’s going to work out,” Gardenhire said. It’s not one of those favorite things for a manager because it starts taking away a little bit of strategy. I know the game is tough when you walk out there and change a pitcher for every hitter; but at times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame, and I think that’s what we’re all here for. Those are the arguments. But we’re trying to improve the game, so we’ve got to give it a look before day one.”

“At times” it’s about trying to win a ballgame, he says. Good one, Skip. Then you remember Gardenhire’s Tigers won only to break up the monotony in 2019: they lost 114. Maybe he has a little Stengelese potential after all. (Codicil: Gardenhire’s own playing career began in a very different organisation of Mets, in 1979.)

When the idea first seeped forth, the three-batter minimum seemed a salve to those who think that either the games are taking too long or the pitchers are getting too fragile. Now it seems a solvent rather than a solution to . . . who knows?

“I think it can affect how you put a lineup together,” said former Yankees/now Phillies manager Joe Girardi. “Depending how many lefthanders they have, maybe you spread your lefthanders out. So if they have a guy that is efficient in getting left-handed hitters out, you surround him with two beasts that are right-handed hitters. So I think it does change.”

“My take on the whole thing is–I’m all for messing with the pace of the game. I think the pace of the game can be messed with; I’m good,” said Joe Maddon, the new Angels manager. “The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me, that interferes with strategy, and that’s the part I don’t like. Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred, I think.”

Argue that the games are “too long” and then suggest you might want to scale back on the broadcast commercials, between innings, during pitching changes, during double switches. (If you consider commercial slots between innings amount to two minutes each, that’s over half an hour you spend watching commercials and not baseball for nine innings.) Watch how fast the owners run from the very idea that something should mean a few million dollars fewer in their kitties, even if it’s for the good of the game and those who love and watch it.

Argue that if you’re going to impose the three-batter minimum you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry when a clever manager decides the game situation demands he reach for his best pitcher even if a) it’s a relief pitcher, and b) it’s, say, the fourth inning. Watch the get-off-my-lawn contingent jump up and down in tantrums, screaming blue murder, that you’re destroying the Sacred Tradition.

Never mind that you’re destroying nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t be destroying the Sacred Tradition, either, if you do something I’ve suggested before: eliminate the eight warmup pitches from the game mound when you bring a relief pitcher into the game in the middle of an inning. He’s just thrown what might be at extreme the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches while warming up in the pen. He needs eight more warmups? He needs them about as badly as the guy who’s hit two home runs already in that game needs batting practise.

One manager who wasn’t terribly concerned about a three-batter minimum was Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us that much,” he said. “We don’t mix and match that much. Our lefties, they’re pretty solid. Darwinson [Hernandez] and [Josh] Taylor, they get lefties and righties and do a good job against both of them. So I don’t think to us it’s going to affect us that much.”

Not so fast, Cora. The lefthanded Hernandez did look terrific in his rookie 2019 overall. But the righthanded batters hit for a .934 OPS against him against the lefthanders’ .388. Their batting averages against him? Righthanded: .319; lefthanded: .089. Likewise a 2019 rook, Taylor, another lefthander, didn’t get crunched quite that drastically by righthanded batters (.692 OPS) and the lefthanders didn’t exactly have a simple time with him, either (.559 OPS). But the righthanded hit .243 off him and the lefthanded, .209.  Better not say just yet that a three-batter minimum won’t affect you that much, after all.

Remember: Real pitching talent is rare enough. So is pitching talent that can keep hitters from both sides of the plate in equal check. Most teams would be fortunate enough to have one starter and one reliever who can work to men from both sides of the plate and leave them looking equally futile. Getting the men who can do both is a challenge the sharpest scout or the most intricate of analysts would consider equal to driving the Golden Spike home with a rock hammer.

But not impossible. Casey Stengel won his third straight World Series when he reached for just such a man, an otherwise non-descript lefthanded pitcher named Bob Kuzava, who’d only pitched fifteen times on the regular 1951 season, to face righthanded Hall of Famer Monte Irvin—in the top of the ninth, with the Yankees up 4-1, but with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Kuzava wasn’t even close to responsible for the men on base. And he got three straight fly outs, from Irvin, Bobby Thomson, and pinch-hitter Sal Yvars, which did push two Giants runs home that weren’t quite enough, to save it for Johnny Sain, who’d come in to relieve Vic Raschi in the seventh.

Do-able if you have the guys who can do it. But those guys aren’t as prevalent as the commissioner’s office or its supporters regarding the three-batter minimum think, and they’re not likely to be for a long enough time if ever. Human nature and pitching just don’t work according to a preconceived mechanical formula. Even the analytics people who develop formulae and applications to help players improve know that goes only so far. This is baseball, not engineering.

And don’t even go there about the Good Old Days when pitchers went the distance and relief pitchers were just guys who couldn’t cut it as starters. A little real history: they really went the distance in times when the ball might as well have been twine, hard throwing was as common as the telephone, the number one expectation of pitchers was throwing what batters could hit and hopefully putting fielders to work, and pitchers weren’t expected to throw like illusionists, trick-shot artists, or human howitzers. You could even pitch your way to the Hall of Fame despite surrendering almost nine hits per nine innings and striking out less than four per nine. (Cy Young—I think there’s a pitching award named after him— accomplished that.)

“If we’re gonna win,” husky first baseman George (Boomer) Scott once told then-Brewers chairman Ed Fitzgerald, “the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” The owners also gotta own the concept that the good of the game isn’t necessarily the same thing as making money for it, or themselves.

And the commissioner gotta commission better. He gotta remember that the better, more viable pace-of-game solutions than a three-batter pitcher’s minimum may mean making a little less money but would mean leaving game tactics and strategies to the men they pay handsomely (and often not enough) to develop and execute them.

But there’s one little problem, still. Too many managers still think there’s no problem with warming pitchers up multiple times before actually bringing them into the games. Too many managers think they’re not really pitching unless they’re out there in the game. As if they’re just playing catch in the bullpen and not heating up with, you know, real pitches.

Too many managers think it’s the reliever’s fault that he came in gassed after he’d been warmed, sat, warmed again, and maybe thrown the aforesaid quality start equivalent’s pitches overall, and that’s before he tosses the customary eight warmups before facing his first batter of the game.

The three-batter minimum won’t solve that issue, either. If anything, such gassed-before-they-come-in pitchers, handled by managers whose brains are gassed, are more liable to get driven into the middle of next month before they even face their third batters. And often as not, the only solution for managers like that isn’t a dubious rule change but, rather, unemployment.