Tim McCarver, RIP: On first guess . . .

Tim McCarver

Tim McCarver, gracing a Sports Illustrated cover in 1967, as his Cardinals struck for a pennant and a World Series championship.

It should have surprised no one that the most frequent phrase uttered in the notices was “first guess.” Most baseball broadcast analysts have in common with fans a trigger, if not a mastery, of the second guess. Tim McCarver, who died at 81 of heart failure Thursday, was the longtime master of the first guess.

Two decades as a major league catcher who saw the whole game in front of him and didn’t restrict himself to handling the pitchers who threw to him did that for him. That McCarver leavened it with disarming wit was merely what Duke Ellington would call a cherries-and-cream topping to your sundae afternoon.

And just as “first guess” was the most often deployed phrase in the obituaries, the most frequently deployed evidence for the defense was Game Seven of the 2001 World Series.

That’s when Yankee manager Joe Torre, with his Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on the mound, and the bases loaded for the Diamondbacks with one out in the bottom of the ninth, ordered his infield in with Luis Gonzalez coming to the plate. At long last—Snakes manager Bob Brenly tended to leave him with nobody aboard to advance or drive home that Series—Gonzo had men on base to work with.

Watching the game on Fox Sports, I heard McCarver remind viewers that Rivera’s money pitch, his fabled cut fastball, ran in on lefthanded hitters and, if they made contact at all, it was broken-bat hits shallow in the outfield. “That’s why you don’t bring the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound,” he said.

Bing! After Gonzalez fouled the first pitch away, Rivera threw him a cutter running inside. Gonzo broke his bat sending the ball floating above Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, into shallow center, for game, set, and Series.

The man who sent grand salami into baseball’s lexicon for the grand slam (he’d done it in one of his earliest broadcast jobs, on the Mets’ team of himself, Steve Zabriskie, and Hall of Fame slugger/from-birth booth mainstay Ralph Kiner) was a catcher who never feared learning, whether it was how to handle mercurial pitchers or how to overcome his upbringing as the son of a Memphis police officer in a time of racial growing pains for the Cardinals and the country.

In October 1964, his account of the pennant races that culminated in the World Series conquest of the last old-guard Yankee team by a new breed of Cardinals, David Halberstam recorded Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson giving McCarver a quick lesson in race relations. Quick, and profound, and perhaps a little shocking even to a white kid whose baseball heroes had actually been Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Monte Irvin.

Gibson hailed McCarver and asked, “Hey, Timmy, do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson enlisted center fielder Curt Flood as his co-star, Gibson playing the white guy. He shook hands with Flood—and, after looking at his hand a moment, promptly wiped his hand on his pants. “You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. The shocked McCarver thought a moment and realised Gibson was right.

They became close friends (Any relationship you enter into with Bob is going to be intense, McCarver once said of Gibson), and McCarver had demonstrated his willingness to listen and learn. And, take a gag. His habit of yelling “Gigub” like a frog after losing a ball popping out of his mitt inspired Gibson to mimick it exactly. Those Cardinals used humour next to sobriety to teach their lessons to each other and the league.

But after leading the 1966 National League with thirteen triples, McCarver whacked one in an exhibition game the following, prompting Gibson to buttonhole him after the game, saying, “Hey, you like to hit triples!” According to Halberstam, McCarver took it to mean Gibson telling him he was a good ballplayer and just might be a good man, too. (When he was inducted into Cooperstown as a Frick Award winner in 2012, McCarver lamented and called for arresting the decline in African-American participation in the game.)

The Cardinals out-bid the Yankees and the Giants to sign McCarver with a $75,000 bonus in June 1959. The first things he did, according to Peter Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis, were to buy his parents a new car and to pay off their mortgage, before buying himself some stock in AT&T. By 1963, he’d become the Cardinals’ regular catcher.

He bought into the Cardinals’ ways of teaching the game while flinching at the ways they over-did selling their traditions to incoming young players. “One of the bad things about the Cardinal tradition,” he’d remember in due course,

was the provincialism there in St. Louis that as far as the press was concerned was a lot more unfair than the Eastern press. Everyone says the Eastern press is a lot tougher. I disagree with that. Because provincialism is a lot more difficult to deal with than a press that may be tougher but is more objective, and I’m talking about New York, Philadelphia, Boston. St. Louis is more provincial than any of them. And that provincialism, like the obligations of the family, is much more difficult for the athlete to deal with. Whenever there’s an obligation, there is less desire to do it, because you feel you have to do it.

Nelson Briles, a fine pitcher and a character in his own right, once called McCarver the team’s de facto captain behind the plate.

I have never pitched to a catcher who could call a better game, strategise behind the plate, know what was going on. He was a fiery competitor as well. He was really into the game. He paid attention to game situations, paid attention to the way the hitters were hitting, paid attention to their stance, and if they had changed. And watched what was going on.

And if you shook him off, he was in your face, wanting to know why. “What’s your reason for doing that? I’ll tell you why I called for my sign: Two pitches from now, I want you to do this.” Maybe he was not the best defensive catcher, but he battled for you. He was in the game and would constantly be there to kick you in the pants or to lift your spirits.

Tim McCarver

McCarver accepting his Frick Award to the Hall of Fame, 2012: “I saw Frank Robinson at breakfast and I said, ‘I’ll try to be brief.’ He said, ‘You?‘”

That about the kid who once had the nerve to think about going out to the mound to talk to Gibson, before their relationship solidified, only to get an earful from Gibson before he reached the mound: Get back there behind the plate where you belong! The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it. Rarely at a loss, McCarver eventually zinged Gibson back: “Bob is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

(Let the record show that the pitchers who threw to McCarver behind the plate lifetime posted a 3.23 ERA, 43 points below the league average for the span.)

He caught two World Series winners (and stole home during the 1964 Series) and in due course provided analysis on television for 29 straight Series. He was part of the trade to the Phillies that provoked Flood to his reserve clause challenge and thus began the dismantling of the reserve era finished when Andy Messersmith pitched 1975 without a contract and won in arbitration.

He became the personal catcher for notoriously insular Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, who loved that McCarver would call for as many sliders as Carlton wanted to throw. (“When Steve and I die,” he once said, “we are going to be buried in the same cemetery—sixty feet, six inches apart.”)

He became a broadcaster who learned quickly enough that the game looked far different from above than it did from behind the plate, and he adapted almost as swiftly as a Gibson heater or a Carlton slider hit his mitt. He refused to surrender his objectivity, even when it cost him, as it finally did with the Mets in 1999. Not even when the target of one McCarver barb dumped ice water over him, as Deion Sanders did when he high-tailed it from the postseason-playing Braves to play an NFL game.

McCarver ended his national broadcasting career fortuitously enough; the Cardinals went to the 2013 World Series during his final year in the Fox booth. (They lost to the Red Sox.) A year earlier, he stood at the Hall of Fame podium accepting his Frick Award. “I saw [Hall of Famer] Frank Robinson at breakfast,” he began his acceptance speech, “and I said, ‘I’ll try to be brief.’ He said, ‘You?‘”

It’s to regret only that McCarver—who analysed World Series games for ABC and CBS before joining Fox—was never paired with the late Vin Scully on a World Series broadcast even once.

He returned to St. Louis to become part of a rotating analytical team on local Cardinals broadcasts, until a St. Louis-only broadcast setup for 2021 collided with his doctor’s orders not to travel while he still lived in Florida.

“When do moments in life become memories?” McCarver asked in his Fox farewell, then answered. “I’m not sure, but maybe it starts with a flutter in your heart or a gasp in your throat and ends with just the hint of a tear in your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s the magic of October, because when it comes to baseball, I have never felt more moments to remember than in the World Series.”

That from a man whose professional baseball life began as Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s teammate and whose national baseball life ended with Xander Bogaerts playing in his first World Series, with the Red Sox. A man who caught World Series games in which Hall of Famers Gibson, Carlton, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, and Mike Schmidt played.

McCarver had only one part of life with more moments to remember, his 58-year marriage to his high school sweeheart, Anne, their two daughters (one a broadcast news producer, the other an accomplished triathlete), and their grandchildren.

Their sorrow now can be mitigated only by knowing he’s serene in the Elysian Fields with his longtime batterymate Gibson, teammates such as Musial, Briles, and Brock, opponents such as Kaline, Ford, Mantle, and Robinson, maybe even getting to call a game with Scully at last. But only partially.

The Brewers burn Burnes erroneously

Corbin Burnes

No, it wasn’t Burnes’s fault the Brewers sputtered down the stretch last year.

If you had a dollar for every time you heard a sports bar drunk or saw a social media twit blame a team’s best player for its failure to make the postseason, you’d be rich enough to pay Corbin Burnes’s 2023 salary and still have seven-eighths of the fortune you earned. But what if you’d heard the team itself blamed their best player for such failure?

That’s what the Brewers did in beating Burnes during salary arbitration. And while I’m just a little bit on the skeptical side, considering the Brewers wanted to pay him a mere $10.1 million for 2023 while Burnes sought a measly $10.8 million, a $700,000 difference, Burnes’s comments after losing his case disturb.

It’s not that teams have been immune to trying to tear players down in salary negotiations before. If there was one thing the free agency era didn’t change from the reserve era, it’s that.

Maybe they don’t get as nasty as one-time longtime Yankee boss George Weiss did, threatening to make available to Mickey Mantle’s wife a private detectives’ report on his  less-than-exemplary after-hours life to beat that Hall of Famer out of a raise. But they can and do get nasty enough even today.

Much if not most of the time, the team and the player who’s arbitration-eligible settle it before it goes to a hearing, the better to avoid the kind of nastiness Burnes described to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The kind in which the Brewers elected to blame Burnes for most of their failure to get even to the 2022 wild card game. They elected wrongly. And they may get burned (or should that be Burnesed) for it down the road apiece.

“They’re trying to do what they can to win the hearing,” Burnes said, “but I think there were other ways they could have gone about it and probably been a little more respectful with how they went about it.”

At the end of the day, here we are. They obviously won it. There’s no denying that the relationship is definitely hurt from what transpired over the last couple weeks. There’s really no way getting around that.

Obviously, we’re professionals, and we’re going to go out there and do our job, keep doing what I can every fifth day that I go out there. But with some of the things that are said, for instance, basically putting me in the forefront of why we didn’t make it to the postseason last year, that’s something that probably doesn’t need be said. We can go about a hearing without having to do that.

The Brewers ended July 2022 with a 57-45 record. Burnes himself ended July with a 2.92 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 2.31 earned run average, a .187 batting average against him, a 5-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the Brewers were 13-7 in his starts.

They were also only three games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central race and looked as though they’d have one of the league’s four wild cards in hand at the finish.

But they went 12-15 in August and finished the month six games out of first. They went 15-13 in September and finished that month seven out of first. The Central was out of the question by then, even with Burnes himself ending September by outpitching eventual 2022 Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara as the Brewers shut the Marlins out, 1-0. Come 3 October, they were eliminated from the postseason entirely.

Burnes himself had a rough August, at least by the standard of a defending Cy Young Award pitcher. His FIP for the month was 3.98, his ERA was 4.23, but the batting average against him was still .197 even if his strikeout-to-walk rate shrank to 2.7-to-1. And the Brewers were 3-3 in his six August starts.

They went 4-3 in Burnes’s September/October starts and 15-13 overall for the period. Burnes was better than in August: he had a 2.79 FIP for the final span, a whopping 6-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the batting average against him was a still-stingy .207. Overall, from August until his final season’s start, Burnes posted a 3.49 FIP, a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the span’s batting average against him was a still-stingy .213.

The Brewers went 7-6 in Burnes’s starts from August through 5 October. Except for a 23 August game in which they were blown out by nine runs, with seven runs against Burnes only four of which were earned, the losses were by margins of three or less (and usually two) most of the time. The other exception: a five-run loss to the Mets on 19 September during which Burnes surrendered five earned runs out of the Mets’ seven on the day.

During the same stretch from August’s beginning until their season ended 5 October, the Brewers scored 251 runs but surrendered 254 runs in sixty games. Burnes was charged with 34 earned runs with 37 total scoring against him; by earned runs, he was charged with 13 percent of the runs against the Brewers for the span. The team averaged 4.2 runs scored and 4.2 runs against per game.

I don’t see overwhelming evidence that Burnes’s performance was the key reason the Brewers fell out of the postseason picture. But I do see a pitcher who’s going to go out, pitch the best ball he can pitch with what he has, and then look forward to his first free agency after the 2024 season with a long enough memory that—even if the Brewers can afford to extend him before or pursue him to return after—they won’t even be a topic when he begins to observe his potential suitors.

A team averaging four runs a game down a stretch that cost them a postseason berth should have been smarter than to try putting most of the blame on a single pitcher for a team effort (or lack thereof), just to win a mere $700,000 dollar difference in salary arbitration. To whom will they pay or in what will they invest that seven hundred large to prove it’s worth that kind of mistake?

Due diligence dropped over Clevinger?

Mike Clevinger, Olivia Finestead

White Sox pitcher Mike Clevinger  is accused of attacking  former girlfriend Olivia Finestead and their ten-month-old daughter. Was that why the Padres let him walk into free agency? Were the White Sox completely unaware of the MLB probe when they signed him?

Two major league teams sit on edge over righthanded pitcher Mike Clevinger. One is the White Sox, who signed him as a free agent over the offseason. The other is the Padres, who let him walk into the free agency pool.

The edge is a baseball government investigation into accusations that Clevinger slapped the mother of his ten-month-old daughter around, threw an iPad at her while she was pregnant, tried to strangle her, and threw a load of tobacco juice at the little girl herself.

Olivia Finestead told reporters Clevinger did both last June, while the Padres were in Los Angeles for a set against the Dodgers. She provided photographic evidence to support the accusation. She said she gave Clevinger “leeway” for a considerable period while trying to mediate to retrieve some of her possessions and establish parameters for supervised visitation between Clevinger and their daughter.

Clevinger himself faced the press on day one at the White Sox’s spring training compound in Glendale, Arizona. One moment, he said he wanted to address “the elephant in the room.” The next, he tried steering the presser back to baseball.

“I’m not going to hide away from it,” the righthander said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s really embarrassing. It’s not who I am. Now I’ve got to sit here on my first day and answer questions about it like I am one of those people. It is devastating but I’m here to answer to the bell and I’m excited to see when the facts come out.”

That’s an intriguing way to put it. He’s “excited” to see when the facts come out? You can think of far less cavalier adjectives to apply to the net result of an MLB investigation training on whether you slapped a woman who gave birth to one of your three children and then threw what some might consider toxic waste at the little girl to whom she gave birth.

But no. Clevinger says wait until there’s “actual evidence . . . Just wait for there to be actual evidence before you start making judgments and stuff. This is about my children that I care about even more than this game.” (Clevinger has two older daughters with a different woman.)

Eyes fall upon the Padres, as San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller observed when the accusations were revealed last month, “because “[w]hat might concern fans and others trying to sift and sort what the Padres knew and could do about it sprung up when Finestead relayed that she had been talking to MLB’s Department of Investigations since the summer.”

Translation: What did the Padres really know, and how soon did they really know? Concurrently, what could they have done under MLB’s domestic violence protocol, which bars a club from disciplining an accused player without MLB permission. (Both MLB and the Dodgers put Trevor Bauer on ice in the first place, remember.)

“Were the allegations,” Miller asked, “part of the stew of reasoning for allowing Clevinger to wade into free agency, along with coughing up five runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Dodgers in the NLDS and failing to record an out against the Phillies in the NLCS? Were there character questions behind the scenes?”

Those questions turn into due diligence questions for the White Sox, who made Clevinger their first free agency addition this past offseason. Now, as the Chicago Tribune‘s Paul Sullivan wryly notes, he’s their number one albatross. “How much the Sox vetted Clevinger is another issue they need to examine but probably won’t,” Sullivan writes. “While they might not have known of the allegations when they signed Clevinger, as they said in a statement, the Sox obviously liked his character and believed he would be a good fit in the clubhouse.”

Put domestic violence to one side for one moment. The White Sox might have forgotten when Clevinger, then a Guardian (they were still known as the Indians at the time), violated COVID protocols in 2020. He and fellow pitcher Zack Plesac went out for a restaurant dinner and a card game with friends in Chicago without getting the team’s approval to go.

The team sent Plesac back to Cleveland in a private car but had no idea Clevinger was involved until he flew back to Cleveland with the team—including cancer-fighting pitcher Carlos Carrasco (a Met since 2021), who’d been immuno-compromised from his cancer treatments. Plesac decided it was all the media’s fault for reporting it, not his or Clevinger’s fault for doing it.

Then, Clevinger was merely immature and irresponsible. Now, he may have graduated from those to dangerous.

When White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was asked how the club could avoid walking eyes wide shut again into a situation involving a player under domestic violence investigation, the only thing missing from his word salad was dressing and croutons.

“We had several conversations at that time about what are we getting from a makeup standpoint,” Hahn told reporters. “There certainly were some positives in terms of work ethic and focus and desire to win and compete and understanding of his own mechanics and efforts to improve, which are positives. But there were maturity questions. He’d admit that probably by his own volition. That’s what I was referring to in terms of we’ve had similar guys who have had reputational questions.”

Most recently, it was Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, whom the White Sox brought back to the dugout despite a second DUI. Once a shrewd, forward-thinking skipper, La Russa’s in-game managing now drew him under fire enough despite a division title his first comeback season that, when his pacemaker barked, he retired after his second.

“That wasn’t a case of bad vetting but of Reinsdorf wanting La Russa to manage his team no matter what anyone else thought,” Sullivan writes. “La Russa could’ve bowed out once the news became public but didn’t feel the need . . . [He] never was going to get the benefit of the doubt from a large and vocal segment of Sox fans. Neither will Clevinger if he’s allowed to pitch in 2023. But unlike La Russa, Reinsdorf has no personal relationship with Clevinger, so there’s no need to pretend fans eventually will grow to like Clevinger.”

We should note in fairness that Finestead herself doesn’t look askance at the White Sox. “I was told the @whitesox didn’t have a clue of [Clevinger’s] investigation,” she posted online. “Can’t blame an organisation for something they don’t know.”

But there are still too many fans, baseball and other sports, who are too willing to overlook or forgive such grotesquery as domestic violence so long as those accused and exposed can get it done in the game. He beat/attacked his wife/child/girlfriend/one-night stand? The guy’s going to help pitch us to a World Series or quarterback us to the playoffs, so run along, old man, you bother us.

It should bother the Padres and their fans that they may have had little choice but to bite the bullet and wait until Clevinger left as a free agent.

It should bother the White Sox and their fans that they either got caught with their proverbial pants down signing him or that those in the front office responsible for vetting him fell short of full due diligence.

It should also bother Met fans that—after an offseason of bravery and boldness; wading into the free agency pool and coming up Justin Verlander, while turning away from Jacob deGrom and Carlos Correa over health concerns; re-upping keys Brandon Nimmo (outfield), Jeff McNeil (infield/outfield), and Edwin Diaz (relief pitching)—the Mets invited outfielder Kahlil Lee to spring training despite his own domestic violence issue. His former girlfriend, Keriwyn Hill, charges that he choked her and pulled her hair violently during an argument last May, while Lee played for the Mets’ Syracuse AAA team. (MLB is also investigating the Lee case.)

It should bother any decent human being. Just as it should bother us that there are still too many men who think touching a woman for any reason other than to express love is acceptable.

Ugly flamingo

Once and for all. When they began referring to the free cookie on second base to begin each extra half-inning as Manfred man, I cringed. Not just because of the concept itself, but because I did and still do like only one Manfred Mann. And it’s taking every ounce of psychic strength to keep Manfred man from killing Manfred Mann for me.

For the life of me I can’t imagine Commissioner Rube Goldberg writing, never mind singing, the lyric to Manfred Mann’s greatest single and maybe the single prettiest love song of the 1964-66 British Invasion this side of “And I Love Her”:

Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, pretty Flamingo,
then every guy will envy me, ’cause paradise is where I’ll be.

Because it was anything but some sweet day when Manfred decided it needed to be in the Show. And not every guy envies him for it. His idea of baseball paradise often includes detours into baseball’s Inferno. One of his predecessors began his professional life as a teacher and scholar whose specialty was Dante. We’re lucky if Manfred’s knowledge of Dante goes as far back as Bo Bichette’s one-time slugging father.

Many baseball “traditions” have deserved to go the way of the large stone bases with which the game we know began. Extra inning games without encumbrance or monkey business aren’t one of them.

Seriously. I get the alarm from teams concerned for the issues a long game one day leaves on their rosters for the game the day after. (Such issues are why I favoured the doubleheader of seven-inning games, and still do.) I get relief pitchers concerned for the extra erosion on their arms and shoulders if they’d worked a day or two before and then went into a late, long-lasting marathon.

But I don’t mean to say I don’t care whose arm gets ground down when I say that half the fun of baseball in the first place was the prospect of a tight game going to extra innings. When Astros rookie Jeremy Peña homered to end an eighteen-inning division series marathon and the Mariners’ season at once, it ended an affair that included twelve pitchers used between both sides and grand theater.

They don’t all go as marathon as that, regular or postseason.

They don’t all go 26 innings the way Brooklyn and Boston did in 1920, ending in a one-all tie because of darkness. (This was prehistoric baseball, before the lights went on in Cincinnati and in due course elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 25 the way the White Sox and the Brewers did in 1984 (this was the game that provided Harold Baines his [snort] Hall of Fame credential: he homered to end it), or the way the Cardinals and the Mets did a decade earlier. (This one ended with road running: the Cardinals’ Shake ‘n’ Bake McBride scored all the way from first . . . on a wild pickoff throw. No, they didn’t now dream up the pickoff throw limit the better to keep pitchers from being embarrassed by run-scoring throwing errors in the bottom of the 25th or elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 24 the way the Astros and the Mets did in April 1968, when the game ended on a classic Astroturf hit: a grounder skidding away from Mets shortstop Al Weis, allowing the winning run to score. (Credit to the Astrodome’s scoreboard operators for an inspirational message in the 20th inning: We hope you are enjoying tonight’s third game as much as you enjoyed the first two.)

Or, the way the Giants and the Mets did in a doubleheader nightcap in 1964, the Giants finally winning it and teenage Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool ending his day having played all 33 innings. (The Mets are the only franchise in Show history to play three 23+ inning games in their lifespan. They also lost all three.) In fact, in over a century plus of major league ball as we’ve known it, only eight games have gone 23 or more and only nine have gone exactly 22.

They don’t even all go eighteen, the way the Red Sox and the Dodgers did going eighteen in Game Five of the 2018 World Series, before Nathan Eovaldi’s stout six-inning relief performance was wrecked by Max Muncy with a leadoff launch over the left field fence. And I sure don’t remember anyone kvetching about the length of that one while it was ongoing.

So Manfred man was created first as one way to quicken things up during the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season, then kept year-by-year to quicken things up with or without a pan-damn-ic. Now, Manfred man’s been voted permanent by a joint competition committee until or unless voted otherwise by another joint competition committee. But who’s kidding whom?

Too many from Manfred onward complain incessantly about the length of baseball games. How many of those people kvetch about Super Bowl LVII requiring what proved to be three hours and thirty-one minutes to play? (No kvetch except over the halftime shows. I get that, too. For crying out loud, save the mini-concerts for post-game.) The team sport which yields its own singular blend of comedy and drama might take three plus hours—and even those who think Manfred’s as good for the game as a grease puddle to a pedestrian believe too much is more than enough.

“Certainly, everyone working at the game appreciates avoiding twenty-inning marathons,” writes The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris. “But those attending the game might disagree, and cite the fact that, with this rule in place, extra-inning runs have scored at over two times the rate they score in the first nine innings. That’s fundamentally different baseball! Their retort might ask baseball teams to build their rosters with more pitchers capable of going longer in emergency situations.”

The good news, and it’s the only spot of it in this regard, is that Manfred man still won’t show up in the postseason. Yet. The further bad news is that Manfred man won’t necessarily prevent the occasional extra inning games from turning into the equivalent of two games or even a third. There’s no absolute guarantee that Manfred man will turn into a run as swiftly as its advocates love to believe and its opponents per Sarris fear.

Suppose we re-aligned one of the actual key causes of protracted sports contests: broadcast commercials. (Admit it: at the stadium, you’ve seen players lingering before continuing play, the better to accommodate this call to the bullpen, that insertion of the special teams, the other double switch, the kickoff team’s advent yonder.) Imagine how much shorter a baseball game might be with broadcast commercials only between the full, not the half innings.

(Don’t go there: No, the Lords of Baseball don’t want their broadcast revenues cut; but, yes, they might go for negotiating delicious prices on mere full-inning commercials and getting them.)

Maybe that’s the core of the problem. The thinking person’s sport is somewhat overrun with short, shallow thinking. (It makes you wonder about the real objection to analytics/sabermetrics: it requires thought, and lots of it.) Starting with the man who brought to baseball’s extra half innings the ugly flamingo, also known as the ghost runner. (Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, hopefully.)


2023 bases

Are the new bases (left) really that effronterous?

“A state without the means of some change,” wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “is without the means of its conservation.” As spring training opens, baseball faces more change. Stop snarling, self-identified and self-righteous purists and traditionalists, and start thinking.

It’s too easy to forget that a game without the means of some change is a game without the means of its conservation, too. It’s even easier to forget that baseball has never remained a static game. Would you like to know the game you’d be watching if it had?

You’d see a game end after one or the other team scored 21 runs, no matter which inning the 21st arrived. In theory, the game could have ended after one inning. In fact, the highest-scoring first inning in major league history happened in 1952, when the Boys of Summer Dodgers dropped a mere fifteen-spot on the Reds.*

You wouldn’t see the game mandated to end in the ninth inning until 1857, barring extra innings. You’d see large stones for bases and, a little later, wood posts. You’d see any old thing—marble, metal, glass—as home plate, so long as it was round, until 1899. You wouldn’t see anything resembling the colloquial “bags” for bases until canvas bases were introduced . . . in 1877.

You’d see pitchers barred by the rules from throwing higher than underhand. If it’s before 1887, you’d actually see batters calling for pitches—“high,” “fair,” or “low”—and umpires ordering pitchers to throw precisely those. You’d see foul balls not called strikes, at least before 1894. You’d see strike three on a third foul ball until 1901. You’d see pitchers required by law to throw from standing positions from 1863-1867. (Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, he of the eighteen different windups and about ten different leg kicks, wouldn’t have had a major league career with or without ethnic restrictions.)

You wouldn’t see fly outs until 1864, until which time what you know today as the one-hop base hit was ruled an out if the outfielder caught it on the first hop. You wouldn’t see the batter getting away with running past first after ripping a base hit without being called out until 1870. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t see a batter’s box until 1872. And you wouldn’t see ball four equaling a walk until 1889—before which walks were nine, seven, six, and then five balls.

You might be astonished to hear assorted purists and traditionalists screaming bloody murder at any, most, or even all those changes. You might even think, what fools those mortals were. So think twice before you start screaming again over, say, new bases coming to the ballparks near you that will be . . . a mere three inches larger around than the pads were through the end of last year’s World Series.

Don’t snort at those who understood slightly larger bases might mean slightly fewer injuries. The reason you don’t hear about how many runners broke themselves on the ancient stone bases is because you don’t know who they might have been and whether those injuries were recorded. Now try to imagine whether future Hall of Famer Mike Trout would have missed a full two-thirds of one season with a nasty thumb injury if he’d gone into a base three inches larger around.

Of course, it’s not every purist or traditionalist who thinks of safety first. (Please. Enough such creatures think enough players injured in the line of duty are goldbricking it and exposing themselves as fragiles when they don’t heal and return from those injuries within, oh, a few days.) They’re too busy counting the numbers anticipating a hike in basepath crime.

Last year, there were 3,297 stolen base attempts. Seventy-five percent succeeded. Ten years earlier, there were 4,365 attempts with 74 percent successful. Less proved slightly more last year. But as Keith Law reminded us in Smart Baseball, “speed kills” cuts both ways in baseball. Speed with brains is Hall of Famers such as Lou Brock (75 percent success), Ty Cobb (81 percent), Rickey Henderson (81 percent), and Tim Raines (85 percent); if your runner isn’t successful 75 percent or better, you’d “be better off having the first base coach nail [your] runner’s foot to the bag.”

We get to say goodbye, too, to those notorious infield defensive overshifts, which often placed at least one infielder into the role of a fourth outfielder. Well, now. Those who think they were contemporary aberrations might forget, assuming they knew, that there were managers playing the overshift as far back as in Cy Williams’s day. Williams, of course, was a power hitting dead-ball era center fielder who once hit thirteen homers without leading his league (1915, when Gavvy Cravath led the National League with a then unheard-of 25) but hit twelve the next year and led the entire Show.

“My biggest complaint about the shift,” says David Robertson, relief pitcher, “is, how do you explain it to kids? What’s the point of having a shortstop if he can’t play shortstop.” Well, let’s ask a shortstop. Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor is on record saying the end of the shifts might mean the return of more “exciting” infield plays. He may not be wrong.

But I would rather have seen the shifts busted the way they tended to be in Williams’s day and in that future day of another Williams, Ted, not to mention how some hitters the past few years did thwart them. The problem was that not every hitter could go the other way, not through neglected learning but because hitting itself is as much organic as anything else. And there were those teams who fumed when smart hitters thought about dropping bunts into that delicious free real estate.

(You guessed it. I’m going there, again. Be gone, bunts, except a) if you have the next Brett Butler [383 lifetime bunts, 85 percent for base hits]; or, b) if you have enough free real estate even without the shifts—say, a stone-handed infield playing just at the edge of the outfield grass—to have first base on the house. Unless you’re up with first and second and nobody out, you have less chance scoring after a sacrifice bunt than before it. The most precious commodity you have with your team at the plate is outs to work with. A sac bunt blows a third of that resource. The defense thanks you for your help.)

The pitch clock? I’m still on the fence about it. Last year’s minor league games did shorten up a bit under the rule. Commissioner Rob Manfred hopes putting it into the majors—a pitcher now has fifteen seconds to throw to the plate with the bases empty and twenty seconds with a man on base—will shorten it up in the Show. He still doesn’t get that certain rule tinkerings won’t do half as much to shorten the times of games as certain broadcast tinkerings.

As in, eliminating the commercials not just between half-innings but from every pitching change in a game. I’ll guarantee it: fans watching at home used to love seeing the teams change sides and go through their quick warmups before getting back to play. I’ll guarantee it further: it takes less time to get a relief pitcher into a game from the bullpen than to run those pitching-change commercials.

And while we’re at it, I’m going here, again, too—if you’ve brought a pitcher into the middle of a jam, and it wasn’t because the incumbent was injured, why are you wasting his time, your time, and his arm with the eight warmups on the game mound? What do you think he was doing getting ready in the bullpen, practising his dance moves?

He might have thrown the equivalent of a quality start’s minimum pitches before you brought him in. He’ll be as ready as possible to face that first batter the moment you give him that good-luck pat on the fanny. Let him get to it. Now, you’ve shaved 45 seconds more off the game time in addition to dumping those pitching-change commercials. (Does Manfred consider, as a commissioner who thinks the good of the game equals making money for its owners, that you could charge a bit extra for the between-ends-of-innings spots and thus not lose money without the half-inning and pitching-change spots?)

The pickoff throw limit? The late Vin Scully used to love describing what he called “the game within the game,” including those contests between ornery baserunners and pitchers determined to keep them from getting too ornery, if not putting them under arrest. (Once upon a time, a Phillies pitcher, Art Mahaffey, proud of his effective pickoff move, swore to pick off his first major league baserunner. The spindly righthander picked off the first three Show men to reach base against him.)

It was just as much fun as anything else to watch Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan try to outsmart Henderson on base before the Man of Steal took off with grand theft in his heart and his legs. (I didn’t choose that pair arbitrarily: Ryan blew one through Henderson for his history-making 5,000th lifetime strikeout.) Or, to watch Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, and Tom Seaver engage battles of wits with Brock at first.**

We’ll learn soon enough whether these changes wreak as much damage as the free cookie on second to begin each extra half inning has done so far. Just don’t use the “tradition” argument. That argument began dying before the Civil War ended. But Mr. Manfred might have been (I hate to use a four-letter word) wise to ponder another Scully observation:

Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill . . . It’s all there in front of you. It’s theatre, really. The star is the spotlight on the mound, the supporting cast fanned out around him, the mathematical precision of the game moving with the kind of inevitability of Greek tragedy. With the Greek chorus in the bleachers.

Whichever chorus caught hold of Manfred’s ear and refused to let go without a fight, the changes he’s sought and begun to impose seem a mixed jar of nuts and berries. The question before the house then becomes not whether but which of the nuts will come out on top when you shake the jar. Which nuts, and whether the thinking person and his or her sport will prove to have another allergy to them.


* Legend has it that Reds starter Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell, knocked out after surrendering three runs with one out (a leadoff ground out), returned to the team hotel after his shower . . . and shortly met his relief, Bud Byerly, at the hotel. Byerly opened his turn by his catcher Dixie Howell throwing Andy Pafko out stealing, before surrendering a walk and five straight RBI singles.

The Reds went through four pitchers (Blackwell, Byerly, Herm Wehmeier, and Frank Smith)  before the first-inning carnage ended. The Dodgers with Hall of Famer Duke Snider—batting for the third time in the inning, having opened the bloodshed with a two-run homer—caught looking at a third strike.

Except for Snider’s one-out blast, the Dodgers scored ten of their fifteen runs with singles. The other three scored on two bases-loaded walks (both by Smith) and a bases-loaded hit batsman. (Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, Wehmeier’s first batter, plunked on 1-0, sending Billy Cox home.) Or, if you’re scoring in longhand at home, one nuke followed by eight machine gunnings and three enemy mistakes.

** At least two decades before Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn earned his “Captain Video” nickname for taping his plate appearances to correct mistakes, Lou Brock habitually carried a small, handheld, old-style movie camera, using it to film pitchers the better to pick up any “tell” he could get to help him with his life of basepath crime.

Snapped Drysdale, when spotting Brock with the camera, “I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!” That from a man who was almost as famous for making numerous television guest spots as he was for making pitches on the mound.