Beltway bombshells—Soto, Mancini go west

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto is a young man going west to San Diego . . .

The Big One dropped, in both directions on opposite coasts. The Nationals, who’ve gone from surrealistic World Series champion and National League East powerhouse to hell in a little over two and a half years, traded what should have stayed a franchise foundation to the Padres, the National League West contenders who often enough mistake splash for sustenance.

Juan Soto goes West the day after it turned out he’d end his Nats tenure with a bang, throwing Tomas Nido out at the plate to keep the Mets to a mere three-run top of the second, and crunching his former teammate Max Scherzer’s 1-1 fastball for a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fourth en route a 7-3 loss to the Mets. It won’t make it easier for Nats fans to swallow this.

Soto became expendable when he turned down a $440 million extension that looked stupid-fat on paper while packaged to deny him the thing he wanted most. He wanted ten years and got them. He wanted the total dollars and got them. He didn’t get the highest annual average value the way the packaged was packed.

Maybe Soto was foolish taking the all-or-nothing stance. But maybe the Nats were just as foolish, with or without a pending potential ownership change, to decline making even that small enough adjustment. Standing just as all-or-nothing, with Soto not due to hit free agency for the first time until 2025, the Nats decided even the next Ted Williams was expendable.

Stop laughing at the Ted Williams comparisons. Only five hitters through age 23 have higher OPSes than Soto does: Williams, fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Stan Musial, and Hall of Famers to be Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. The order from the top is Williams, Cobb, Trout, Musial, and Pujols. His June slump leaves his season so far not quite as good as his priors, but rehorsing himself last month restored Soto on the way back where he belongs.

But if he had a fat enough hand in the Nats’ 2019 in-season resurrection from the outhouse to the Promised Land, will it be fat enough to push the Padres to the Promised Land at last? Baseball’s worst kept secret is that Padres general manager A.J. Preller has a genius for trades equal to Soto’s big swings and nothing much to show for them.

Oh, he’s managed to land some of the bigger fish on the trade market in exchange for high-rated prospects who haven’t yet returned to take a big bite out of his hind quarters for the most part—if you don’t count Trea Turner. (Nat turned Dodger.) But there’s always a real first time. Isn’t there?

He’s run the Padres eight seasons, delivered such blockbuster trade acquisitions, at the in-season deadline or the offseason, as Mike Clevinger, Jake Cronenworth, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, and Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres haven’t yet gone to any full-season postseason. (They reached the National League division series during pan-damn-ic short 2020.)

And he may be lucky that his incumbent first baseman Eric Hosmer declining to waive his no-trade clause to move to Washington didn’t kill the Soto deal. Hosmer has declined so precipitously since becoming a Padre as a free agent that, if Preller wants to get the rest of his due salary off the San Diego books, he’ll have to move yet another good prospect to do it if he finds a team willing to take Hosmer on.

Then, again, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale notes, Soto locked in through 2025 has another upside: in the unlikely event the Padres still can’t cross the threshold, Preller can still find a way to flip him on behalf of bringing other delicious-looking prospects back for a team and organisational renewal.

If there’s good news for the Nats, it’s getting five prospects in return for Soto and Josh Bell, with all five rated somewhat higher than the haul they took back from the Dodgers in exchange for Max the Knife and Trea Twinkletoes. But if there’s worse news for the Nats, it’s the number one problem with prospects: No matter how highly rated, they’re just prospects who might or might not cut it fully as Show players.

If they do cut it, it’ll take the sting out of losing a bona fide franchise player only if their cutting it turns into another world championship or two. If they don’t, this one’s liable to sting for Nats fans as long and as deep as such historically notorious purgings as Brock for Broglio, Ryan for Fregosi, Seaver for a quartet that sounds more like a law firm—Flynn, Henderson, Norman, and Zachry—than team reinforcements.

This wasn’t even the top deal of the day when it comes to breaking fan hearts. It’s not that Nat fans weren’t wringing hands and drying tears once they first knew Soto became expendable, but Oriole fans in the throes of seeing an unlikely revival enough to put the team right into the wild card hunt from almost out of nowhere hurt even more losing Trey Mancini.

Hours before Soto moved west, Mancini’s ticket to the Astros was punched in a three-way deal sending promising but inconsistent outfielder Jose Siri from the Astros to the Rays, pitcher Chayce McDermott from the Astros to the Orioles, and pitchers Jayden Murray and Seth Johnson from the Rays to the Orioles.

Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini tipping his cap to Oriole fans after what proved his final home game in Baltimore—he goes somewhat west now, to the Astros.

For Mancini it’s a terribly mixed blessing. One moment he goes from a home ballpark whose left field fence was moved back far enough to cut his power production at home to a ballpark with a short enough porch that he’d have hit over twice the ten bombs he has on the season so far. But he also says goodbye to a mutual love affair between himself and a city starving for the days when the Orioles were consistently great, year-after-year.

His agreeable personality and his courageous fight to beat colon cancer two years ago endeared him even further to Oriole fans than his live bat. As Baseball Prospectus observes, “Mancini . . . was the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

The depletion may include Orioles general manager Mike Elias, who offered one of the most cacophonous explanations ever heard after a team struggling to return to greatness unloads a highly popular and franchise-valuable player:

The winning last couple of months that we have, the momentum we have, has made this a much more difficult decision and a much more complicated trade deadline than it would have been or that any of the past ones have been.But ultimately, I have to tether my decisions to the outlook and the probabilities of this year. We have a shot at a wild card right now but it is not a probability that we’re going to win a wild card.

Translation: In one deal and one bowl of word salad whose flavour no dressing on earth could improve, Elias as much as told Oriole fans he’s pushing the proverbial plunger on both this season whole and his team’s gallant, almost-from-nowhere re-entry into the postseason picture, however much distance the Orioles might still have to travel to get there.

Maybe Elias is still building for the nearest future after all. But maybe something could have been done without making the Orioles’ heart and soul the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Could, and should. “He’s the nicest human I’ve ever met,” says Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, a sentiment that seems to be common in the Oriole clubhouse and Baltimore itself.

Until today, people were even willing to bet on the Orioles having a phenomenal enough shot of reaching in. Now they’re uttering a couple of four letter words, one of which is the vulgar synonym for fornicate and the other a word meaning either a large receptacle for holding gas, an armoured attack vehicle, or taking a dive. Three guesses which meaning Orioles (and Nats) fans think applies.

“Teams liked to claim that captains were no longer necessary because one player shouldn’t be elevated above his teammates,” BP says, “but also, that same force made one player essentially untradable. If someone is designated the heart of a team, you can’t cut him out. Their value might go to waste.”

The region of the nation’s capital has taken enough blows that have knocked the wind out of its belly in the last few years. The Nationals and the Orioles, both of whom enjoy substantial capital followings, have told them, basically, “What’s two more sucker punches among friends?”

And now, the end is near for Trout?

Mike Trout

His back may have other ideas soon enough, but Mike Trout insists his career isn’t over until it’s over.

Time was when thinking of the Angels without thinking of Mike Trout was the proverbial non-starter. You knew you were seeing a Hall of Famer in the making the further his career progressed. You also knew concurrently that the Angels’ administrative inability to build a team their and the game’s best all-around player could be proud of made them Hall of Shamers.

Now the shame may be multiplied exponentially. Bedeviled by injuries as it was the last three years, Trout may have been hit at last by the one that puts paid to his career. May.

The official diagnosis has been “a costovertebral dysfunction” in his number five vertebra. He’ll have to alter his entire preparation and perhaps even the way he plays to continue. It’s not unrealistic to picture him becoming a full-time designated hitter soon enough. It’s also not unrealistic to wonder whether he’s been playing through any kind of back issue for long enough, and whether his team knew or dismissed it.

But a potential actual diagnosis may yet prove to be spinal stenosis. The very condition that knocked former Mets third base star David Wright and former Yankees first base bellwether Don Mattingly out of their careers and their Hall of Fame cases. Either way, Trout’s back may yet put paid to his career before its time—and his Hall of Fame case is overwhelming as it is right now.

His optimism is laudable. “I appreciate all the prayer requests,” he cracked when the official diagnosis became public, “but my career isn’t over.” But how soon will he have to walk that back?

The Angels already incurred the indignity of coming out of spring training determined to make real American League West noise, then opening their season 27-17, then collapsing into a fourteen-game losing streak and going 14-27 since they ended that streak. They’ve executed a manager and gone from postseason hopes to the dogs as the proverbial dog days of August knock on the door.

The issue that’s bedeviled them for the whole of Trout’s career to date continues bedeviling them, their inability to develop or build a serviceable pitching staff and their administration’s inability to stop just retooling under the Mud Plan: throw a few tons of it at the wall and hope some of it sticks.

Optimists such as Deadspin‘s Sam Fels would say that just shows at least the Angels, as opposed to the notorious tankers, really were trying. Pessmists would say that just shows there isn’t a truly verifiable brain among the Angels’ administrative brain trust.

But now the fallen Angels, 23.5 games out of first in the AL West and unlikely to make a 2019 Nationals-like turnaround to the postseason at all, never mind the Promised Land, are even willing to listen to 2 August trade-deadline queries involving Shohei Ohtani, their two-way pitching/hitting star. Angel fans cry “Help!” uncertain what the word even means for their team now.

Ohtani isn’t exactly unprepared for life beyond Anaheim, not just because he’s eligible for free agency after the 2023 season. Theoretically, life beyond Anaheim may happen within the next few days. It might even be only slightly beyond Orange County, if the prospects-rich Dodgers as rumoured are “engaging” the Angels in trade talk.

“Regardless of where I’m playing,” he said after yet another Angels loss Thursday, I’m going to give it my all and try to win that ballgame in front of me. I’m with the Angels right now, and I’m very thankful for what they’ve done. I love my team and my teammates. Right now I’m an Angel, and that’s all I can focus on.”

The Angels themselves aren’t yet talking about shutting Trout down for the rest of the season, reportedly. But that may not hold very long. Especially if it’s shown plausibly that he’s been playing with a bothersome back all season long, which may explain a lot about his periodic slumps that lasted a little longer, it seemed, than a typical Trout slump (yes, even Hall of Famers have them) ever did before.

The possibility also exists that Trout may never again be the player he’s been through this season, even if he knows he’s going to have to perform additional self-maintenance for the rest of what career he does have left. That’s just about the last thing long-enough-suffering Angel fans need to know.

They’ve had to grin and bear it while such a larger-than-life baseball talent with the results to back it up was never really supported with a team that could compete at all, never mind at his level. They’re not always comforted by having had the pleasure of seeing a once-in-a-billion player play above and beyond anyone else who ever wore the Angels uniform and treat them like friends at the ballpark while he was at it.

Mike Trout

Your author took this photograph of Mike Trout batting in the first inning of a 2014 game—right before he hit one over the fence.

They swallowed hard when no less than commissioner Rob Manfred accused Trout himself of being the reason he didn’t quite become The Face of the game, saying the Show couldn’t “market” him because he wouldn’t market himself. Trout isn’t big on self-promotion and, when he isn’t at the ballpark, prefers to let what he’s done at the park speak for itself. The very idea. Being a man over a brand.

Not to mention being a Hall of Famer in waiting. Trout could retire this minute and he’d go into the Hall of Fame in a walk in a few years. (The Hall’s minimum career longevity requirement is ten seasons; Trout has twelve including this year. And the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity. It’s not supposed to be a platinum watch.)

Baseball-Reference, using The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe’s JAWS calculators for Hall worthiness, ranks Trout the number five center fielder in baseball history. He has 8.3 more career wins above replacement-level (WAR) than the average Hall of Fame center fielder already. His seven-year-peak 65.1 WAR is 20.4 above the seven-year peak of the average Hall center fielder.

And, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—Mike Trout is the number one rank among those Hall of Fame center fielders who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era by far and 92 points ahead of the average for those center fielders . . .

Center Field PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Trout 5986 2884 904 115 52 91 .680
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 102 81 .620
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 54* 21 .615
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 39* 38 .576
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 118 111 .534
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 58 56 .524
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 30* 43 .463
HOF AVG .588

About the most forward Trout has ever let himself become was that fine afternoon six years ago when he hired a skywriting team to propose to the woman who became his wife. Unless it was the days when he put the entire Angel organisation on his back, after pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s tragic death in Texas, including the team’s first home game after, when he launched a 13-0, combined-no-hitter blowout with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first and–as the Angels batted around and then some—finished that seven-run frame’s scoring with a still-one-out, two-run double.

You’d love to think Trout is right when he says his career isn’t over yet. You’d also love to think he didn’t waste and won’t continue wasting such a glittering career on behalf of an organisation that couldn’t build a top-to-bottom competitive team around and alongside him.

But if his career does end too soon, he won’t lack for a certain breed of distinguished company. Luke (Ol’ Aches and Pains) Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rick Ferrell, Harry Heilmann, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Ted Lyons, Minnie Miñoso, Ron Santo, and George Sisler are those who can tell you how it feels to reach Cooperstown without reaching the postseason. Dick Allen may join their ranks if the newly-configured Classic Baseball Era Committee (covering pre-1980 players) finally elects him, albeit posthumously a la Miñoso.

It wasn’t their fault that their teams couldn’t and didn’t build competitive groups they could be proud of, either. Mike Trout’s issue has never been his ability or the performance papers to back it. His issue has been that his Angels teams couldn’t put eight more Trouts into the lineup and didn’t find even the minimally competitive ways to augment him while he stood baseball on its head.

————————————————————————————————-

* From writing more extensively about Real Batting Average (RBA) last year: The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Famers played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. How could I overcome that hole?

I tinkered with a few ideas until I tripped over a best-case scenario. I took those players’ numbers of recorded sacrifice flies and divided them by the number of seasons they played under the rule. Then, I took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played. The formula is sacrifice flies (SF) divided by sacrifice fly-rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by MLB seasons. Or, if you insist on seeing it in mathematese:

SF / SRS x YRS

Thus I had as best as I could get to the total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected those players to hit all career long. I marked their sacrifice fly numbers with (*).

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Victor Robles

That was a clown dismissal, MadBum . . .

Grumpy Old Men Dept.—It’s tough to determine which stung Madison Bumgarner more, Victor Robles hitting one over the fence and savouring it visibly on his dollar or Robles responding with a classic troll when Bumgarner dismissed him as a clown: Perhaps if MadBum wishes not to be clowned, he might ponder the thought that surrendering 24 homers a year on average goes a long way toward denying such wishes. Earth to MadBum: that was a clown dismissal, bro.

Busted Dept.—I’d like to go on record yet again as saying and believing that a player who’s sent from promise to unfulfilled promise because of injuries incurred while he actually plays the game isn’t a bust. I’d also like to go on record in that regard as saying anyone who claims otherwise and matches such players to those who either can’t cut it after all or squander their talent (drugs, too much high life, too little conditioning and work ethic, etc.) should be dismissed as a damn fool.

Glove Story Dept.—Amidst most of the high-fiving among Yankee fans over the team acquiring left fielder Andrew Benintendi from the Royals in exchange for a pitching prospect trio, maybe 99 percent of the chatter pointed to Benintendi’s on-base machinery this year and maybe one percent pointed to his equivalent gift for preventing runs.

I get Yankee fans trying to swallow that this guy was once a rival on the Red Sox, but they should be very mindful of Benintendi’s ability to break the other guys’ backs with his legs and glove in left field. Their Yankees may yet need him to save a pennant the way he helped do for the 2018 Red Sox:

Giant Steps Dept.—That was then: the Giants not looking to deal away veterans. This may be now: the Giants may order about face! to the rear, march! on that. Various reports indicate the recent Giants fade has “other teams” keeping one eye on that possibility—including prospective free-agent veteran pitcher Carlos Rondon and outfielder Joc Pederson. But will the eyes have it?

Relief Dept.—It’s enough that Juan Soto is on the trade market, apparently. But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, also apparently, insists that he’s also not going to use moving Soto as a tack to unload a bad or at least compromised contract—such as pitcher Patrick Corbin’s remaining $50 million. You’d love to think that even the forthright Rizzo wouldn’t really play that game. Memo to teams interested in Soto: Trust your mother but keep the spare tire inflated properly.

You’ll Be Happier with a Hoover Dept.—The Astros got beaten, swept, and cleaned this week. By the Athletics. The dead-in-the-(AL)-West Athletics. In Oakland, where the A’s were 17-30 before the first-in-the-West Astros came to town. They even beat Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia and Cristian Javier while they were at it. And, won each game by exactly two runs. Break up the A’s?

You Can Be Sure Dept.—From self-described king of the Mets’ Twitter underground, handling himself METSMENACE, after the Mets swept the Yankees in a two-game set with Max Scherzer punching out six including Aaron Judge thrice: “It’s a good thing [Jacob] deGrom wasn’t in the dugout when Scherzer was giving high fives from hell or he’d be out for another 9 months.” As if Max the Knife would be that blind.

Bronx Savings Bank Dept.—In one way, Andrew Benintendi didn’t lose a thing being traded to the Yankees: the Royals were scheduled to fly to New York for a weekend set with the Empire Emeritus, so he was going to the Bronx one way or the other. The only thing he has to change is his field wardrobe. This is what’s known at times as the perfect storm. But what if the Yankees use the Royals for target practise and Benintendi proves one of the best marksmen this weekend?

Portside Dept.—The Red Sox insist they have no intention of trading either of their left-side infield mainstays, Xander Bogaerts (shortstop) and Rafael Devers (third base). They insist despite recent struggling that they’d prefer to buy and sell at once for the coming trade deadline, maybe selling other veterans and buying a few long-term pieces. Says Red Sox Nation: Heavy sigh of relief. Says experience, and not just regarding Boston: Is that just the same old song? Don’t touch that dial.

A little wit, a lot of reflection at the Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame Induction

Sunday at Cooperstown. Back, left to right: Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch holding pitcher/catcher Bud Fowler’s plaque; pitcher Jim Kaat; outfielder Tony Oliva; designated hitter/first baseman David Ortiz. Front, left to right: Irene Hodges for her father, first baseman/manager Gil; Dr. Angela Terry for her uncle, first baseman/manager/coach/scout Buck O’Neil; Sharon Miñoso for her late husband, outfielder Minnie.

They had as many people turn up at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies Sunday as fill Fenway Park for a sellout Red Sox home game. And the man who brought enough of those Fenway crowds to their feet in the years the Red Sox finally buried the accursed Curse and hammered the coffin shut twice more gave them more.

And he didn’t even think about hollering, at whatever the choice point might have been, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame! either.

The only thing wrong with David Ortiz’s induction speech is that his fellow inductees Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil weren’t still alive on earth to see and maybe raise. But those two men who loved the game as deeply as Ortiz does surely looked upon the stage from their Elysian Fields roosts and hollered camino a seguir—way to go.

With the “Papi! Papi!” chants pouring forth well before he took the podium, it would have been tempting for the first Hall of Fame designated hitter to get there on the first ballot to fall all the way into his public persona as a big, laugh-hunting, laugh-indulging eternal kid. He let some of it come forth. But for the most part he stayed on the side not always accounted for when his name comes up.

The side of soul.

Ortiz felt as reflective and as emotional as anything else after his daughter Alexandra, a college music student, opened the proceedings with a stirring singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He also had a country to thank, the United States, for “welcoming me with open arms since I was practically a child, and giving me the opportunity to develop and fulfill all my dreams and then some more.”

Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been Hall of Fame boilerplate. Out of Ortiz’s usually garrulous mouth, it was as heartfelt and honest as when he thanked his family for standing by their man during the career that brought him to this point—even his wife, Tiffany, despite the couple’s separation last December.

If Big Papi indulged any of his wit he used it simply to segue into the next thanks, the next acknowledgements, whether to the coaches and evaluators who encouraged and mentored him, the teammates who engaged him, the managers who didn’t let him let any slump swallow him alive, the family who braced him, the country that embraced him.

There were times you thought Ortiz’s voice might crack from emotion, but—just as he didn’t flinch when swinging big with postseason advances or World Series rings on the line; just as he didn’t flinch achieving a .947 OPS in 85 postseason games that would have been half a career season for lesser men (his World Series OPS of 1.372 is a jaw-dropper, too)—he didn’t let himself flinch now.

“I’m always joking around, I’m always being me,” he told a news conference after the induction. But you had the whole planet, the whole nation watching you and you have to deliver a message, especially the way life is going these days. You want to deliver a positive message, the words, that people can understand that we need to stay together, we need to be more humble, we need to be sharing love, that’s what we need. Because a lot of bad things are happening nowadays.”

A lot of bad things happened to keep Miñoso from entering the Show before his cup of coffee with the Indians at 25 and his full rookie season at 27. (Eight games with the Indians before being traded to the White Sox in a three-team, seven-player deal.) He did for black Latinos what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans and he let his effervescent personality diffuse bigots and engage teammates as well as he played.

But a lot of good things might have come forth Sunday afternoon if Miñoso could have lived to accept his plaque. The man who once said his last dream in the game he loved was to make it to Cooperstown (he died in 2015) would have made the crowd his own just the way Ortiz did. “As Minnie would say,” his widow, Sharon, told the gathering, “‘Thank you, my friend, from the bottom of my heart’.”

So would O’Neil, maybe the only one among Sunday’s Hall inductees—including Miñoso’s successor Cuban-born star Tony Oliva—who could have made Miñoso resemble a clinical depressive.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball (and it holds about life, too, if you’ve ever read the book he wrote [I Was Right on Time] or the best written about him [The Soul of Baseball]) was like taking the alto sax out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. (“People feel sorry for me? Man! I heard Charlie Parker!” he once said.) The only problem anyone would have had with him Sunday would have been holding him back.

After he was spurned for the Hall by a single vote in 2006, O’Neil graciously accepted the invitation to introduce seventeen Negro Leagues inductees, a few months before his death. He even got all the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawn to sing with him, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

His niece, Dr. Angela Terry, may have joked that she got to accept her uncle’s plaque because she holds the longest membership in the AARP, but she nailed home gently and firmly that Uncle John (as she called him throughout) belonged above and beyond his splendid Negro Leagues playing and managing stats, above and beyond his scouting, coaching, and mentoring after.

Which he does. What Pete Rose only thinks he is, O’Neil was: the best ambassador baseball had before he was taken home to the Elysian Fields. You could imagine O’Neil ending his induction speech the way he ended his memoir: “I think it’s about time to close the book on this book before I start boring you. Besides, I’ve got a game to go to. I just might see for the first time the next Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige.”

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield inducted Bud Fowler, considered the first black man to play professional baseball prior to the imposition of the disgraceful colour line. It seemed fitting since Fowler himself was a Cooperstown-area native. “There was something magical about this game that caught his eye and imagination,” Winfield said, “so much so that he’d spend the rest of his life playing and managing this game.”

He pitched, caught, ducked and eluded the game’s racists, and created the black barnstorm teams that led to the formal creation of the Negro Leagues in the first place. A rib injury led in due course to his premature death, but Fowler’s impact on the game was literally nationwide. The time’s conditions and the advent of the colour line compelled Fowler to play and oversee the game in the minors in almost all states—while he worked as a barber on the side, something he learned from his father, to supplement what he earned in the game.

Tony Oliva remembered his own pre-Castro Cuban youth as he looked out around the Hall of Fame lawn and crowd. “I’m looking to the left, I’m looking to the right, and it is bringing memories,” the longtime Twins bat virtuoso and righ fielder told them. “This place right here looks like my home in Cuba, where my father built a field where the young kids were able to play baseball. Exactly like.”

His Twins teammate, lefthanded pitcher Jim Kaat, remembered taking his father’s advice and spurning a $25,000 bonus from the White Sox—it would have kept him on the parent club bench two years under the bonus rule of the time—to take a lesser $4000 bonus from the ancient Washington Senators (on the threshold of moving to Minnesota) so he could be seasoned right.

Haans Kaat wanted his son to learn the professional game properly. (In case you wonder about such things, Kaat’s induction makes for two Dutch-stock former Twins in Cooperstown, joining Bert Blyleven.)

“My dad made $72 a week in 1957,” Kaat told the crowd after accepting his plaque. “You can do the math, figure out what he sacrificed so his son could start his career at the right level.” And, highlight it by pitching his best baseball when someone else was having a career year while outlasting Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1965 World Series—the only time Koufax would come up short in that seven-game set.

Remembering another father was a little different for Irene Hodges. When her father, Gil, died of a second heart attack in 1972, Jackie Robinson said through his grief, “Gil was always a calming presence. I always thought I’d be the first [of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers] to go.”

“Nothing was more important to my dad than giving Jackie all of his support,” she said Sunday afternoon, accepting her father’s plaque. “We were like family with the Robinsons. Jackie’s kids played in our house, and we played in theirs. My dad was not only teammates with Jackie, but they were family. My father made everyone comfortable and accepting of Jackie when he came to the big leagues.”

He did it for Japanese children, too, even in Okinawa where he earned a Bronze Star. “During his time in Okinawa,” his daughter said, “he would befriend the Japanese children who were so frightened by the American soldiers. My father would gather the children from the village, along with his fellow Marines, and teach them baseball. He gave them some joy back in their life that the war had robbed them of.”

That was the same elemental decency that provoked Brooklyn not to boo but to warm up even more to the quiet first baseman, the National League’s best of the 1950s, when he fell into a ferocious batting slump starting in the 1952 World Series—so much so that even a priest who wasn’t of Hodges’s own church ended a Sunday mass saying, “It’s too hot for a sermon, so everyone just say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”

Hodges’ experience with Robinson surely played into how well prepared he kept his 1969 Mets as their manager, after learning on the job with the expansion Senators from 1963-67. Injuries and growing pains kept those Mets from repeating their miracle feat while Hodges managed them. But he remained a firm but engaged boss who loved to teach or re-teach, gave players room to vent privately when need be.

He kept everyone from the merest spare part to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting ready to go when needed. He never denounced the injured as quitters and, whenever the tough love was needed, he did it behind closed doors and not in the press.

On Sunday afternoon, Hodges’s daughter re-introduced her father to baseball in a near-perfect bookend to the outsized bombardier who kept himself in check enough to make it about the game to which he’d contributed an outsize share of grandeur when he swung, swayed, and put a city sickened by atrocity on his back.

“If my story can remind you of anything,” Ortiz said, “let it remind you that when you believe in someone, you can change their world; you can change their future.” A man who believes that is a man Hodges, Miñoso, and O’Neil would have loved playing with or coaching in another time, another place, even as Kaat and Oliva had chances to mentor him in his earliest seasons.

This was their [fornicating] Hall of Fame.

The All-Star Game was Clayton’s place

Clayton Kershaw, Blake Grice

National League All-Star starter Clayton Kershaw with fan Blake Grice, who touched Kershaw by telling the future Hall of Famer he was meeting him for Grandpa’s sake.

By right, this year’s All-Star Game start for the National League should have belonged to the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara (he leads the Show’s pitchers with 5.3 wins above replacement level and his 1.76 ERA). And if the game were played someplace other than Dodger Stadium, it might have been Alcantara’s to start.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, managing the NL All-Stars as the previous season’s World Series skipper does, had his own idea. Especially since this was the first All-Star Game in Dodger Stadium since Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, and a Dodger icon was having an All-Star worthy season himself.

So Snitker elected to hand the opening ball to Clayton Kershaw. A Hall of Fame lock, approaching the sunset of an off-the-charts career, starting the All-Star Game in his home ballpark. You could imagine Snitker thinking to himself that you couldn’t pay to pre-arrange more serendipitous circumstances. Even with his own All-Star Max Fried among his pitching options.

It was a class gesture by the defending World Series-winning manager. Only one thing could have seen and raised, and that one thing was Kershaw himself. By most reports, one of the first things the 33-year-old lefthander did when Snitker called him to say the opening ball was his was to call Alcantara himself.

“He was awesome about it. I was really thankful about that,” Kershaw said, after the American League hung in for a 3-2 win through no fault of Kershaw’s own.

He let himself take the entire atmopshere in, even foregoing his usual pre-start intensity that compels teammates, coaches, and even his manager Dave Roberts to say nothing much more than “hello” to him. (He even let Roberts share lunch with him on Tuesday.) About the only thing Kershaw did remotely work-related was study some American League scouting reports.

One he didn’t have to study was Shohei Ohtani (Angels), whom Kershaw retired thrice when pitching last Friday. Wary of opening the All-Star Game with one of his signature breaking balls, Kershaw pumped a fastball that doesn’t have its former speed and Ohtani—interviewed before the game, promising to swing on the first pitch—smacked a broken-bat floater up the pipe into short left center for a leadoff single.

Then, having Aaron Judge (Yankees) 1-2, Kershaw suddenly couldn’t think of what to throw next. Some described him as buying time when he lobbed a throw to first. He bought more than he bargained for. He’d caught Ohtani having a snooze. Ohtani had drifted away from the pad and Kershaw’s lob turned into the first All-Star pickoff in fourteen years.

The two-way Angel could only laugh. Kershaw could only grin after first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) tagged Ohtani out. Dodger Stadium went nuclear. Kershaw finished striking Judge out, walked Rafael Devers (Red Sox), and lured Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. (Blue Jays) into an inning-ending ground out. The man who wanted to take it all in from start to finish then ducked out of sight and to a press podium under the ballpark.

Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw

All they could do was grin and laugh after Kershaw (right) picked Othani off first while working to Yankee bombardier Aaron Judge.

While the National League took an early 2-0 lead with Mookie Betts (Dodgers) singling home Ronald Acuña, Jr. (Braves; leadoff double off AL starter Shane McLanahan [Rays]) and—after a double play grounder by Manny Machado (Padres)—Goldschmidt hammering one into the left center field bleachers, Kershaw finished his press conference with a ten year old boy raising a hand.

“What’s up, dude?” Kershaw asked pleasantly.

The boy introduced himself as Blake Grice and told Kershaw how much his late grandfather loved both him and the Dodgers’ long-enough-retired broadcast deity Vin Scully and had wanted to meet them both. (His family had passes courtesy of MLB itself.) “So this moment is important to me,” the boy continued, “because I’m meeting you for him.”

The father of four children himself, Kershaw couldn’t resist when he heard that and saw the boy’s tears of likely gratitude for getting to do something for his grandpa in the presence of a Dodger icon who’s been the closest the Dodgers have had to longtime eminence Sandy Koufax.

“Come here, dude,” Kershaw beckoned. He hugged the boy, gave him a clap on the back, and said, “Great to meet you. Thanks for telling me. That took a lot of courage to tell me that. Your grandad sounded like an awesome guy.” When Kershaw asked Blake if he had a parent with him, the boy’s father held up his cell phone. Kershaw beckoned him forward and he snapped a photo of the pitcher and the boy speaking for Grandpa.

It was more than enough to atone for the prayers thousands of fans in the ballpark and perhaps the millions watching on television must have had that, despite going down to its ninth straight All-Star loss and 21st such loss in 25 such games, the National League didn’t tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s because the latest to emerge from baseball’s apparent laboratory of mad science would have had the game decided in favour of the Home Run Derby winner’s league if nine full innings ended in a dead heat. (On Tuesday it would have been the National League, thanks to Juan Soto [Nationals] winning the Derby.) Thank God and His servants Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that that didn’t come to pass.

The AL overthrew the NL lead with one out in the fourth when Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) batted with Jose Ramírez [Guardians] aboard (leadoff single) and took Tony Gonsolin (Dodgers) far into the left center field bleachers. Byron Buxton (Twins) following at once found himself ahead in the count 2-1 when he caught hold of a Gonsolin fastball up and drilled it into the left field bleachers. Just like that, Gonsolin had surrendered 882 feet worth of home run travel.

Buxton admired game MVP Stanton’s blast from the on-deck circle and thought to himself, “I ain’t matching that.” Until he damn near did. “I don’t even know if you can put it in words how hard [Stanton] hit the baseball,” Buxton said after the game.

It made all the difference when the game otherwise became a pitching duel of sorts between eleven American League pitchers (including Framber Valdez [Astros] getting credit for the “win” despite striking nobody out in his inning’s work) and nine National League pitchers including the hapless Gonsolin tagged for the loss and, officially, a blown save.

For just the sixth time in four decades an All-Star pitcher got to start the game in his home ballpark. And for a few shining moments on the mound, Kershaw gave his home park’s audience a thrill topped only by the one he gave a ten-year-old boy looking to do his grandpa in the Elysian Fields a favour that couldn’t be done while the older man still lived on earth.

None of the highest highs or the comparatively few lows he’s endured in fifteen major league seasons have let Kershaw forget that baseball at core is about rooting, caring, loving. He had the parallel chance to remind a Dodger Stadium audience about it and to affirm it for a ten-year-old boy. He didn’t flinch at either opportunity.