The postseason as “tolerable weirdness”

“We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through it together,” said the Yankee Stadium scoreboard earlier this year. How easy will it be to comfort yourselves that way during the coming weird postseason?

Stephanie Apstein, one of Sports Illustrated‘s most acute baseball reporters, has one sound reason to root for as many losing teams making this truncated season’s postseason experiment as possible. She gets why the postseasons’s expanded for 2020, but that’s as far as her approval goes: “[I]t’s going to be hard to kick the new postseason format if MLB likes what it sees here,” she writes. “And the new postseason format is a disgrace.”

Apstein promptly addresses the New York Yankees, sitting bloodied but unbowed in third place in the American League East and one game atop the league’s wild card heap. Bloodied but unbowed? Last year’s Yankee yearbook could have been The New England Journal of Medicine. This year, it could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal. Half the team staging from St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium is on the injured list this year, Apstein reminds us.

In a normal season, panic would be reigning in the Bronx. Instead, the team trudges through listless game after listless game, secure in the knowledge that it will make the playoffs no matter what. The Dodgers, the best team in baseball, did not make any major moves at the trade deadline, because what’s the point of spending prospect capital to bolster a team that has to win the barely-better-than-a-coin-flip three-game first-round series?

This setup dissuades teams from trying to be good. The clearer that is this year, the more likely it is that we can go back to normal next year.

There, I’ll say it. Apstein wants the losing teams in the postseason in the hope that even the recalcitrant commissioner Rob Manfred sees what a patently ridiculous sight it’ll be. Not to mention a deflating one. We baseball fans were so proud, so long, that our sport didn’t invite practically half of all teams to play for championships. This year, we really will be no better off than basketball or hockey fans.

Eight teams in each league will go to the postseason this year: three division winners and five wild card teams. There’s a reasonable chance that the fifth wild cards at least might go to losing teams: as of Friday morning, the overall standings show the Yankees in the American League and three National League teams (the Marlins, the Cardinals, the Giants) holding final wild card claims . . . each with records a single game above .500.

One potential American League wild card team (the Houston Astros) sits a game behind the Yankees . . . with a record this morning one game below .500. Two potential National League wild cards (the Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers) sit two games behind in that standing . . . three and four games under .500.

It could happen, more than theoretically. And more’s the pity.

Ever since its wild card era began, in 1995, baseball has had more than a few penultimate champions who got to the postseason dance on the wild card in the first place, not having been exactly the best or the winningest in their league in such seasons. I’m talking about you, 1997 Florida Marlins (second best league record), 2000 Yankees (fifth-best league record), 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (third-best), 2002 Anaheim Angels (third-best), 2003 Marlins (third-best), 2004 Boston Red Sox (second-best), 2006 and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (fourth-best, each time), 2014 San Francisco Giants (fourth-best), and 2019 Washington Nationals (fourth-best).

Even those teams’ fans must have thought to themselves how ludicrous it was to experience the thrills, spills, and chills of watching their teams fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . in second place. Never mind this year’s setup, those setups, especially with the advent of the second wild cards, dissuaded teams from trying to be a little bit better than just above average.

Last year’s Nats, of course, went from being 19-31 after 23 May’s play to dancing the lights out (74-38 on the regular season; 12-5 in the postseason) on the way to Washington’s first MLB World Series conquest since the Coolidge Administration. (The Homestead Grays, based in Washington, won the final Negro League World Series in 1948.) They beat the Astros fair and square (and entirely on the road) in the Series, no questions asked, but it’s not as though they’d been the kings of the National League all season long.

Maybe, as Apstein’s colleague Emma Baccalieri says, the price we pay for baseball at all this pandemic year is that things were bound to be a little weird. “Especially,” Baccalieri says parenthetically, “given the varying team-by-team impacts of the coronavirus—that’s made it much harder than usual to gauge a club’s actual talent level from its record.”

But Baccalieri says a one-time-only “tolerable weirdness” of a sub-.500 team in the postseason is one thing. Making it any kind of reality past this tolerably weird season is something else. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she writes, “‘tolerable weirdness’  shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred’s regime to date has seemed too often to be the regime of tolerable weirdness. We’ve had the barely tolerable weirdness thus far of things like the free cookie on second base to open each half extra inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, managers forgetting that minimum and leaving relievers in past three batters even (especially?) when they’re being murdered on the mound, and canned crowd noise in the ballparks.

About the only thing that hasn’t joined the barely tolerable weirdness yet is that hapless stadium DJ who hits the crowd noise surge by accident when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch. But don’t hold your breath.

This postseason stands an excellent chance of stretching tolerable wierdness to the point of intolerance. Even fans of the division winners, a couple of whom may have to face a sub-.500 team to open and possibly be closed out by a heretofore-undetectable surge, may think to themselves, hell must be very much like this.

Commemorating 9/11—Defiance yields dividends, revisited

Note: New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso now seems to have broken out of his slump. The 2019 National League Rookie of the Year has hit five home runs in his past seven games, including a game-ender against the Yankees last week and a game-winner against the Orioles Wednesday night. The Mets’ batting coach, Chili Davis, says Alonso—hardly the only star struggling this strange season—sought a fast start and tried to force too much and thus his slumps.

On today’s anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity, against both my country and my native city, I’d like to revisit Alonso’s most shining among many 2019 moments en route his setting a new seasonal home run record for rookies—the day he defied commissioner Rob Manfred on behalf of inviting his teammates to join in delivering a 9/11 commemoration, springing entirely from his heart as well as his own checkbook. I also include the dedication to which I offered the original essay.

The 9/11-commemorative shoes with which Pete Alonso defied a witless commissioner last year.

 

Defiance yields dividends
(Original publication: 13 September 2019)

Baseball’s unwritten rules are ridiculous enough. Some of the written or at least known-to-be rules are even more ridiculous. Which is why Mets rookie star Pete Alonso’s 9/11 defiance ennobles and should elevate him and shame baseball’s government.

When the Mets played their first home game following the original 9/11 atrocity, they wore hats brandishing NYPD, NYFD, and other first responders with their uniforms. They defied baseball government then, too. Ever since, baseball government has shot down subsequent similar bids to honour the rescuers and the fallen. And others.

As the Mets pondered violating the edict on 9/11’s tenth anniversary (they ended up obeying baseball government orders for nothing more than an American flag on their caps), the Nationals had ideas about wearing Navy SEALs caps during a game around the same time, honouring those SEALs killed in Afghanistan that August. Baseball government said sure—pre-game only. During the game, don’t even think about it.

Alonso—a first grade Florida kid when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11—wasn’t having any of that nonsense.

If baseball was going to shoot down his original idea for custom hats featuring New York police, fire, and assorted first responders* and others, Alonso was going to shoot his own weapon—he got his teammates’ shoe sizes and footed the bill himself for Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers to make special 9/11 commemorative game cleats.

“I’ve just been thankful and gracious for this opportunity,” Alonso said to Yahoo! Sports‘s Mike Mazzeo, referring apparently to both his surrealistic rookie season and his chance to do honour to 9/11’s victims and responders.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help. I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

Baseball government at least had the Mets, the Diamondbacks, and other teams wear patches on their caps showing MLB’s official logo converted to an American flag backdrop, a red-white-blue ribbon behind the logo, and “We shall not forget” embroidered into one side of the surrounding blue circle. Royalties from replica sales will go to three national 9/11 memorial groups.

That’s something commendable, but the idea that Alonso—who gave ten percent of his Home Run Derby prize money to two 9/11-related charities, the Wounded Warriors Project and the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation (Stiller was a New York firefighter killed during 9/11 rescue efforts)—should have had to defy his game’s governors to honour those killed in America’s arguably worst single-attack atrocity, is grotesque.

Maybe the Mets being one and all on board with Alonso’s footwear helped keep the Manfred regime from slapping the team with a fine or other disciplinary measures. Or maybe the sense that fining or otherwise disciplining Alonso and the Mets for it would bring the regime more negative publicity kept it on its better behaviour.

And maybe the Mets’ defiance delivered them a little favour from the Elysian Fields.

First, they flattened the visiting Diamondbacks Wednesday, 9-0—nine runs on eleven hits including a five-run first. Then, as if to prove that some good deeds go unpunished, the Mets finished a four-sweep of the Snakes Thursday with an 11-1 battering.

Again, the Mets used eleven hits, including a single-game team record six clearing the fences, including center fielder Juan Lagares doing it twice, while Marcus Stroman nailed his first genuinely quality start on the mound since becoming a Met shortly before this year’s new single trade deadline.

Lagares’s first blast was only the biggest blow. Todd Frazier’s second-inning leadoff blast against Diamondbacks starter Alex Young and J.D. Davis’s two-out RBI single in the third off Young opened the game 2-0 Mets. A base hit and a walk loaded the pads for Lagares in the third when he wrestled Young to a full count.

Then Young threw a fastball arriving under the floor of the strike zone, and Lagares picked the perfect moment for his first career salami, hitting the equivalent of a five-iron shot into the left field seats.

The center fielder joined the long ball party in the bottom of the fifth, too. Aging second baseman Robinson Cano opened the inning with a line drive into the right field bullpen at Snakes reliever Robby Scott’s expense. Michael Conforto drew a one-out walk and, a strikeout later, exit Scott, enter Jimmie Sherfy, and exit another Lagares launch, this one landing in the seats near the right field foul pole.

Mets catcher Tomas Nido—the backup to Wilson Ramos, and the receiver half the Mets’ starting rotation seems to prefer throwing to (the Mets’ team ERA with Nido behind the plate: 3.68; with Ramos: 4.46), but who doesn’t hit enough to enable them to cement that preference—batted next. He didn’t give Sherfy a chance to breathe after Lagares’s second blast, lining one off the back left field wall above the thick orange line marker that denotes a home run.

Two innings later, and after pinch-hitter Ildemaro Vargas doubled home the only Arizona run in the top of the frame, Conforto punished reliever Kevin Ginkel for a third straight four-seam fastball, driving the down-and-in service into the upper deck in right.

Nothing, however, made even half the impression Alonso’s defiance in tribute to 9/11’s fallen and heroes made. The rook plotted the subterfuge for weeks and, by all known accounts, got the Mets’ team leaders including defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on board with the plot.

Threats of fines or other disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets have proven unfulfilled, so far.

The fact that such a threat was made or implied and even had to be taken seriously tells you plenty of what you need to know about why baseball’s government has such a rotten public image while the game itself and most of those who play it have one of simple beauty.

Thus does baseball remain very much like its country—our government has a rotten image that’s very well deserved, but our country and most of those who call it our own have one of simple beauty.


* In my college years, briefly, I dated a Long Island nursing student named Kathy Mazza. It never became serious between us, but we had a few pleasant dates including a couple that ended with an all-night hunt for bialys—they differ from bagels in being smaller and based in flour, not malt—which I remember were a particular favourite snack of hers at the time.

Kathy eventually became an operating room nurse turned Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police officer who, her eventual police officer husband once swore, became a cop to show him how policing was really done. In due course, she became the second woman to earn captain’s bars on the PAPD and the first to command its police academy.

Her achievements there included convincing the Port Authority to install portable heart defibrillators in the airports it oversaw and training the 600 PAPD officers posted to those airports on how to use them. She also taught emergency medical procedures at the PAPD academy.

And, she died in the 9/11 atrocity.

Joining PAPD responders at the North Tower, she shot out the glass walls of the North Tower’s mezzanine enabling hundreds to escape; the tower ultimately collapsed while she and fellow PAPD officers tried leading more out of the tower. Her body was found a month later, I believe.

Kathy Mazza was one of 37 PAPD officers including its then-chief killed on 9/11. She’s still the only woman ever killed in the line of duty on the PAPD, which suffered the largest single-event loss of life of any single law enforcement agency in history on 9/11.

This column is dedicated to her and their memory.

First degree burglary

Jedd Gyorko’s two homers Wednesday were just part of the Brewers battering the Tigers.

The Miami Marlins aren’t the only one of Wednesday’s teams deserving of your sympathy. How would you like to be the guys who raided the other guys’ house, left nothing behind including hostages dead or alive, and the rest of the world says big deal! thanks to the holocaust in Atlanta?

OK, so the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t start their destruction of the Detroit Tigers with an early-and-often eleven-run break-in. They more or less slipped in barely noticed and performed a rather methodical room-by-room, occupant-by-occupant roust, joust, and ravage.

So give the Brewers their due. They came. They saw. They took neither prisoners nor hostages.

Once upon a time, the J. Geils Band wrote, sang, and played a party song called “Detroit Breakdown.” It showed up on a live album called Blow Your Face Out. On Wednesday night, the Brewers plundered the Tigers’ house and blew their faces out, 19-0. Setting a franchise record with their thirteen extra-base hits, eight doubles and five home runs.

The least insulting part for the Tigers had to be Brewers starter Corbin Burnes striking out eleven and allowing one hit in seven innings while his partners in crime picked off the Comerica Park hosts and their silver, jewelry, fine crystal, and negotiable securities.

If the Braves dropped the equivalent of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on the Marlins, the Brewers had to settle for being the gendarmes who sent the Appalachin Conference wiseguys scattering to the woods and anyplace else they could escape. Rest assured, the Brewers won’t object.

“Not much good happened for us,” lamented Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, “other than no one got hurt.” That’s a matter of opinion, of course. “When you’re scoring runs like that,” Burnes told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “it makes it real easy on the pitcher. You just go out and pound the zone and play loose.”

Pound the zone? The Brewers hitters assaulted and battered it. Play loose? The way they were going, the Brewers could have loosened the fasteners on their arms and legs and still picked the Tigers’ house cleaner than the proverbial hound’s tooth.

They bit Tigers starter Matthew Boyd first, for seven runs and eight hits in three official innings before he was reprieved in the fourth without getting a single out from the three hitters he faced to open that inning. And one of the seven was surrendered by his successor.

He dodged the furies after giving up two walks in the first, but Orlando Arcia and Luis Urias doubled back-to-back to open the second, Arcia’s a ground-ruler. The good news: Urias got cuffed and stuffed trying to steal third. The bad news: Tyrone Taylor promptly doubled, Jacob Nottingham walked on four pitches, and Avisail Garcia promptly hit a hanging slider for a two-run double.

Two ground outs later Boyd escaped. The escape lasted just long enough for Jedd Gyorko (pronounced “jerko,” which is just what he would do to a full-count fastball) to open the third sending one over the right field fence. And even that was only the fourth Brewers run, since Boyd turned Ryan Braun’s base hit up the pipe into Arcia dialing into a step-and-throw double play at second base and Urias grounding out to third.

Still, a 4-0 deficit is manageable, right? Wrong. After Taylor opened the fourth beating out an infield hit, the Sheriff of Nottingham hit a hanging changeup over the left field fence and Garcia walked on 3-1. Gardenhire must have decided he wasn’t about to let any of his pitchers suffer excess abuse and lifted Boyd for John Schreiber.

Oops. Schreiber started his evening’s work by plunking Keston Hiura. Then, he got rid of slumping Brewers superman Christian Yelich on a fly to left and caught Gyorko looking at strike three without a single pitch leaving the strike zone or kissing Gyorko’s bat. So far, so good, right? Wrong. Braun hung the seventh run on Boyd’s jacket when Schreiber served him an unsinkable sinker to sink into left field to send Garcia home, before Schreiber struck Arcia out, again on three pitches.

Better: Schreiber zipped through the Brewers in order in the fifth. Worse: He opened the sixth feeding Garcia something to bounce over the wall for a ground rule double and, after Hiura flied out to right, Yelich remembered who he was supposed to be, after all, and doubled far down the right field line to cash Garcia in with the eighth Brewers run.

Now, Gardenhire ended Schreiber’s misery and brought in Rony Garcia. Gyorko popped out to shortstop but Braun worked out a walk, Arcia loaded the pillows with a base hit, and Urias on 2-2 hit a three-run double to left, followed almost immediately by Taylor on 2-1 doubling Urias home to just about the same real estate plot. Then Garcia busted the Sheriff of Nottingham with a punchout for the side.

Gardenhire’s next attempt to put the cuffs on the Brewers would be Kyle Funkhauser to open the seventh. Motown legend James Jamerson never cleaned his Fender bass because he swore the dirt made the funk. The Brewers decided the dirt would unmake the Funkhauser. It only began when Garcia wrestled his way to a full-count leadoff walk and, while working to pinch hitter Eric Sogard, Funkhauser wild-pitched Garcia to second.

Sogard singled him to third to climax another wrestle of a plate appearance, Yelich walked, and Gyorko dialing Area Code 6-4-3 didn’t exactly give the Tigers a recess from the burglary since Garcia came home on the play while Sogard claimed third. Braun announced recess over when he sent a first-pitch meatball over the left field fence.

Fifteen unanswered Brewers runs. These Tigers were being de-toothed, de-fanged, and de-clawed with not even a cursory roar in response.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Braun said post-game about the Brewers’ Wednesday night battery. “Obviously, things haven’t gone very well for us offensively [this season], so whenever you do have a rare, good day like that, you have to really enjoy it.”

Is it me, or are Gardenhire and other Show managers forgetting that this season’s three-batter minimum for relief pitchers doesn’t obligate them to leave the poor saps in past three batters on obviously modest nights? Funkhauser from there survived Arcia’s single to lure Urias into forcing him out at second for the side, but still . . .

Joe Jimenez opened the Milwaukee eighth hitting Taylor with a pitch before getting three prompt enough outs, and that was practically the cleanest Detroit pitching turn of the night. Then Travis Demeritte—a right fielder by profession—opened the ninth by getting Yelich to ground out. You knew it would be too good to last by now.

You were right. Gyorko promptly dropped his second bomb of the night, this time over the left field fence. Braun popped out to follow, but Arcia poked a base hit to very shallow left and helped himself to second on a throwing error by Tigers shortstop Willi Castro. Urias sent him home with a single up the pipe, and Taylor drove a 1-0 dead fish a little farther than Gyorko’s one-out drive landed.

“We weren’t going to use another pitcher,” Gardenhire told the Detroit Free Press, “so it was going to be somebody. And Demeritte was in the game as the DH for (Miguel) Cabrera, and, obviously, he was going to be the guy to pitch. We were not going to use any more pitchers out there, so it was a pretty simple thing. I told Demeritte, ‘Just don’t get killed’.”

Demeritte merely spent his professional pitching debut getting bounced off the walls. Nottingham flying out to left for the side was a show of Brewers mercy.

Josh Lindblom, usually a Brewers starter, retired the Tigers in order in the bottom of the ninth to end the raid. It would have been easier to mine plutonium with a swizzle stick than for the Tigers—who’d had eleven comebacks on the truncated season to date—to mount a nineteen-run comeback in the ninth as it was.

Schreiber and Funkhauser were optioned to the Tigers’ alternate site after the game. For the first time all night long, they must have felt as though somebody wanted to do something other than use, misuse, and abuse them.

This was the single worst shutout loss in Tiger history. The previous subterranean low was a 16-0 massacre at the hands of the St. Louis Browns in 1922, almost a century ago, and that was with Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in the lineup and going hitless in three trips to the plate. That day, they had five hits, three more than they could summon up Wednesday night.

“I think we all had a bad day,” Gardenhire said. “You guys had to have a bad day, you had to watch that, too. So, you know what? That wasn’t fun. We tried to survive.” After such a home invasion as Wednesday night, the Tigers might want to think about upgrading their alarm systems.

Fish fouled

Adam Duvall has just low-fives third base coach Ron Washington after helping the Braves to an eleven-run second and a 29-9 slaughter.

Not even Joe West’s umpiring crew working the game could prevent it. For all anybody knows, maybe even Country Joe himself took pity on the Miami Marlins and called the Hague–or, at least, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources—himself, to file on their behalf against the abuses they suffered in Atlanta Wednesday night.

Or, at least Marlins manager Don Mattingly might have slipped a note to Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker, asking only partially puckishly, “Brian, could we have the bottom of the second back? Pretty please? With tartar sauce on it?”

Call it the Fish Fricasee. But call the Braves’s 29-9 cleaning, scaling, and fileting the arguable nastiest combined attack of ground troops, close-cover strafing, aerial assault, and strategic bombing ever committed by them, their 29 runs setting a new franchise record.

Sure, the Milwaukee Brewers de-clawed the Detroit Tigers 19-0 in Comerica Park earlier in the day. Only they did it in gradual clips and snaps, a couple of runs here, a few there, a few more yonder. Who the hell needed that nonsense from rude guests when you had the hosts in Truist Park treating their oceanic guests like a shipment of cat food?

What started as a 2-0 Marlins lead got vaporised by fourteen Braves batters including four repeaters before Ender Inciarte showed the Fish mercy and cast his line for an inning-ending ground out to first base. The carnage only began with Dansby Swanson singling his way aboard against Marlins starter Pablo Lopez.

Lopez’s next two mistakes were back-to-back walks to Austin Riley and Adam Duvall. And then it began:

* Ozzie Albies returning from a month on the injured list pushed Swanson home with a ground out to first.

* Inciarte sent a sacrifice fly to the deeper region of left center field, tying the game at two.

* Duvall took third on the play and the Marlins called for a review to see whether third baseman Brian Anderson got the tag on the sliding Duvall’s leg before or after a) Duvall’s foot hit the pillow and b) Riley crossed the plate. The review said no, sir, umpire Hunter Wendelstedt making the emphatic safe sign.

* After Lopez walked Ronald Acuna, Jr., Freddie Freeman hit a line drive to right that diving Marlins right fielder Monte Harrison couldn’t grab, the ball bouncing under his blue glove, scoring Duvall and sending Acuna to third.

* Marcell Ozuna floated a pop to shallow left near the line that hit the grass before Miami left fielder Lewis Brinson could reach it, sending Acuna home. “And the Braves are first-and-thirding the Marlins to death,” crowed Braves broadcaster Chip Caray after the fourth run rang in.

* Travis d’Arnaud, the former Met, checked in with first and third yet again. He hit the first-pitch hanging changeup into the first empty row of the left field seats. The blast ended Lopez’s evening and it’s not impossible that the only thing the Marlins righthander could say when Mattingly came forth to end his misery was, “What took so long, Skip?”

Exit Lopez, enter Jordan Yamamoto for the Fish. Swanson greeted him with a base hit to left, then Riley shot one right between shortstop and third basemen trying to converge to send Swanson home. Then Duvall hit yet another first pitch into the right center field bullpen.

Yamamoto finally said too much was enough about the Braves’ first-pitch hitting and wrestled Albies to an eighth pitch. Unfortunately, it was finally ball three and a full count, forcing Yamamoto to throw a ninth pitch. And Albies drove it four rows up the empty center field seats.

A smooth-looking righthander otherwise, Yamamoto shares a surname with World War II’s Japanese Combined Fleet commander. What the U.S. Navy did to Admiral Yamamoto’s forces at Midway and beyond, the Braves did to the Marlins in the bottom of the second. They one-upped the ten-spot second under which they might have buried the Philadelphia Phillies two Sundays ago—but for the Phillies crawling back to make the Braves sweat out a 12-10 final.

Yamamoto the pitcher’s misery didn’t end when he and the Marlins finally escaped the second inning with what was left of their lives, unfortunately. He’d pitch two and two-thirds innings total and leave with twelve earned runs on his evening’s jacket. Making him only the second relief pitcher in seventy years to take twelve or more for the team, joining the sad company of Vin Mazzaro—who took fourteen from the Cleveland Indians for the Kansas City Royals in two and one third on 16 May 2011. He’d have had better survival odds if he was a World War II naval commander.

About the only thing the Braves didn’t do to the Marlins Wednesday night was drop the atomic bomb. Oops. Take that back. After a one-out single, a hit batsman, and a shallow base hit against another Marlins reliever, Josh A. Smith, Duvall—who also hit a three-run homer in the fifth—dropped the big one, slicing salami on an 0-1 meatball in the bottom of the seventh, for what proved the final four Atlanta runs.

Whoever files the report with the Hague, or with the Georgia department’s fisheries management, they’re going to have to include that. It might be the only time in history that a late atomic bomb did less damage and was less lethal than what happened earlier in the war.

Practise makes perfect

Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax poses after the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight. Said Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley, who almost no-hit the Dodgers on the backside of the game, “It’s no disgrace to get beat by class.”

Now and then the best story of a particular baseball game doesn’t happen during the game itself. I can think of one that happened four decades after the fact, a story Sandy Koufax’s biographer Jane Leavy exhumed when writing her remarkable book, which wrapped  around the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight.

Leavy had just written that Koufax remains proud of his accomplishments while refusing “to exist in cinders and ashes” when she described him as a good friend who remembers birthdays and has an open heart. She also observed, almost insistently, that Koufax would love nothing more than to be another regular guy if only people would let the man come before the legend—as he strives to do even now.

“He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished,” she wrote. “He is proud of it . . . He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of ‘Sandy Koufax’ as someone else, a persona separate from himself.”

Her immediate example of the open heart from there was Bob Hendley, the righthanded Chicago Cubs pitcher he defeated in the perfecto. Earlier in the same chapter, Leavy noted that Hendley’s youngest son, Bart, clipped a local article about Hendley and the game and sent it to Koufax. Koufax returned the clip autographed and included a note saying, “Say hello to your father.”

Then, around the actual anniversary, Hendley received an unexpected package. Inside was a clean baseball hand-inscribed, “What a game.” Included was a handwritten note: “We had a moment, a night, and a career. I hope life has been good to you—Sandy.”

Koufax’s path to the Hall of Fame includes that he threw no-hitters against the embryonic New York Mets in June 1962, the San Francisco Giants in May 1963, and the pennant-contending/ultimately collapsing Philadelphia Phillies in June 1964. It looked then as though among the other achievements that placed him somewhere in his own quadrant, a Koufax no-hitter was likely to become an annual ritual.

Then he squared off against Hendley in Dodger Stadium that Thursday night 55 years ago. Except for Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson in the bottom of the seventh, Hendley himself would have pitched a no-hitter on the backside of Koufax’s jewel. Surrealistic as it still sounds, Johnson accounted for the game’s only hit and the game’s only run but never the twain did meet.

With two out, Johnson blooped one behind second, eluding both Cub second baseman Glenn Beckert and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks running over from first. By the time Banks reached the ball, Johnson had second, credited with a bloop double. Dodgers right fielder Ron Fairly grounded out to shortstop Don Kessinger for the side.

The irony was Johnson scoring the game’s only run two innings earlier. He led off with a walk, took second on Fairly’s bunt, then stole third with eventual 1965 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Lefebvre at the plate and scored when Cubs catcher Chris Krug’s throw sailed past Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo.

Of all the cliches about the mid-1960s Dodgers, the most enduring one is that they were so weak at the plate the leadoff batter working out a walk, taking first base clean after a strikeout pitch was lost by the opposing catcher, or getting hit by a pitch was equivalent to starting a rally with the bases loaded and nobody out.

The pitching win has become devalued in the decades since Koufax’s time, mostly because you can count on half your hand how many pitchers really do the bulk of the work needed to win. Koufax was one of those pitchers when all was said and done.

In 1965 he was probably lucky to average three runs to work during the games he pitched. Marry that to the league hitting .179 against him while he led the entire Show with a 2.09 earned run average and a 1.93 fielding-independent pitching and Sandy Koufax earned every one of his Show-leading 26 wins and the second of his three major league Cy Young Awards.

Perfect games aren’t usually the sole work of the pitcher who performs them, either, but Koufax again is an outlier.

When he no-hit the Mets in June 1962, he struck out thirteen but walked five while facing thirty batters, accounting for 43 percent of the game outs himself. Against the Giants in May 1963, he struck out only four and walked two while facing 28 batters, accounting for 14 percent of the outs himself. Against the Phillies in June 1964, he struck out twelve and walked one while facing the minimum 27. (He walked should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen with two out in the fourth, but Allen was thrown out stealing while Koufax pitched to Danny Cater.) That meant he accounted for 44 percent of the outs himself.

But when he pinned the Cubs 55 years ago today, Koufax struck out fourteen including nine straight in the final two innings. He was responsible for 52 percent of the outs directly. Breaking Bob Feller’s record of three career no-hitters, Koufax did what Feller couldn’t—he proved that practise makes perfect.

Only one other pitcher has struck out as many as fourteen batters in a perfect game, and that was Giants pitcher Matt Cain striking fourteen out in 2012. Unlike Koufax, Cain didn’t strike anyone out in the ninth. It also took half a century before another no-hit pitcher struck out the side in the ninth, when two pitchers—the Giants’ Chris Heston and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta—did it in 2015.

Koufax is also the only pitcher to consummate two no-hitters against two separate teams by retiring the same batter. He did it to grizzled veteran Harvey Kuenn to finish his 1963 no-no, with John Roseboro behind the plate for him, getting Kuenn to ground out right back to the box. Then, finishing the 1965 perfecto, with Jeff Torborg behind the plate for him, he got Kuenn—traded by the Giants to the Cubs with Hendley himself in May 1965—on a swinging strikeout.

The 1965 strikeout climaxes Vin Scully’s much-anthologised call of the ninth inning, often under the title, “29,000 People and a Million Butterflies.”

He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up. So Harvey Kuenn is batting for Bob Hendley. The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date September the ninth, 1965. And Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn.

Sandy into his windup, and the pitch—fastball for a strike. He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and that’s gone unnoticed.

Sandy ready, and the strike-one pitch—very high, and he lost his hat. He really forced that one. That was only the second time tonight where I have had the feeling that Sandy threw instead of pitched, trying to get that little extra, and that time he tried so hard his hat fell off. He took an extremely long stride toward the plate and Torborg had to go up to get it. One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready—fastball, high, ball two.

You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while, Kuenn just waiting.

Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup, and the two-one pitch to Kuenn—swung on and missed, strike two. It is 9:46 p.m. Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away.

Sandy into his windup. Here’s the pitch—swung on and missed, a perfect game!

When the game ended, Koufax faced reporters, one of whom asked, “Who gave you the most trouble?” Still spent from his evening’s work, Koufax quipped, “Torborg.” The rookie catcher lingered to get a Koufax autograph on something as a memento. The joke went past the scribes faster than Koufax’s final fastball shot through Kuenn’s swing.

The same home plate umpire who called Koufax’s 1964 no-hitter against the Phillies worked behind the plate for the perfecto. “He had a perfect game, too,” Hendley said of Ed Vargo. “Except for getting hit by a foul ball,” Koufax said. So call Vargo the only umpire in major league history to be hit by a foul calling two no-hitters by the same pitcher when he was behind the plate.

Koufax didn’t let Vargo’s work go unheeded, Leavy recorded. When the tumult and shouting dissipated in the Dodger Stadium clubhouses, Koufax handed Vargo a ball signed, “Thanks for a second great game, Eddie.” To which Vargo could reply, appreciatively, “The game called itself.”

Bart Hendley, the same son who sent Koufax the commemorative newspaper clip, looked at the ball and accompanying note Koufax sent around the 35th anniversary of the game. “Dad,” he said, “this ball is from that era.” It was, indeed—a 1965 Rawlings ball, showing the official signature of then-National League president Warren Giles.

Koufax and Hendley squared off again later that September. That time, Hendley beat Koufax, 2-1. The two pitchers posed for pictures at Wrigley Field before the game. An Internet search shows a copy of one showing Hendley to Koufax’s right, Hendley in his home Cubs uniform and Koufax wearing a Dodgers jacket over his road uniform. Koufax autographed the picture—on Hendley’s side.

Hendley became a physical education teacher and high school baseball coach near his home in Macon, Georgia, after his pitching career ended. He told Leavy he would have liked doing better in his own pitching career, but that he wouldn’t have wanted to be Koufax. Not even if the roles could have been reversed and he’d thrown the perfect game while Koufax settled for just missing a no-hitter on its backside.

“I am who I am,” Hendley said. “I’m from where I’m from. I understand he has a problem wherever he goes, he’s swarmed. I don’t want to switch places.” He admitted to Leavy he’d have liked to have something like a signed ball to pass to his grandchildren, but he didn’t expect something like that.

Then came the autographed newspaper clip to his youngest son, and that 1965 National League ball with the accompanying, handwritten note. “I’d often been asked what it was like to be the other guy,” Hendley told Leavy. “I wrote Sandy a note and I said I always responded, ‘It’s no disgrace to get beat by class’.”

What a game.