Once again: Injuries are not character flaws

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bases full of Mets? You’re off the hook.

J.D. Davis

J.D. Davis would love to have back that Max Scherzer meatball with the bases loaded in the fifth.

You hate to add to whatever inner misery comes into play for him. But J.D. Davis has spent this weekend making himself a prayer for the opposition. Bases full of Mets? Pray that Davis is the next man up. You can breathe again.

Missing about two months from May through past the All-Star break with a wrist injury has hurt like hell. It’s done Davis no favours, and it’s hurting the Mets in places where they need help, not hurt.

Friday night: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler left first and third for his relief Alex Vesia, after Pete Alonso caught a huge break when a ball he hit off his foot was ruled no foul and enabled him to beat out a run-scoring grounder. Vesia promptly walked Michael Conforto to load the pillows.

Up came Davis with the Mets down now by a single run. Ahead in the count, 2-1. Fastball rising—swing a shade too soon, swish. Fastball falling—Davis kept the bat on his shoulder and the ball barely hit the strike zone floor. Side retired, 3-2 Dodger win held up.

Saturday afternoon: The Mets down 3-0 to open the top of the fifth against Max Scherzer. Make that 3-1, after Brandon Nimmo hit one out. Jeff McNeil doubles to right. Alonso himself gets hit on the arm by a pitch. Conforto goes from 1-2 to three straight balls.

Pads padded. The Mets have Max the Knife going rope-a-dope. Up steps Davis. Another 2-1 count. Looks at a pitch just off the middle—called strike. Gets an unlikely meatball down the pipe—fouls it off. Gets damn near the same pitch next—swings right through it for strikeout, side, and the Dodgers clinging with their lives to that 3-1 lead.

That lead became 4-1 after Mets reliever Miguel Castro, relieving starter Rich Hill to open the Los Angeles sixth, surrendered a leadoff base hit to Dodger pinch hitter Matt Beaty, then walked the bases loaded and a run home. Leaving Jeurys Familia to enter the burning building and get the Mets out alive with a pop out behind second base, a fly out to somewhat deep right, and a force out at second.

Leaving Nimmo himself wondering perhaps what he might have to do, short of bribery, to arrange men on base when he’s at the plate later in the game. He ended his day a triple short of the cycle, the Dodgers unable to get rid of him until reliever Blake Treinen caught him looking at a third strike barely on the floor of the zone in the seventh. His first-inning double opened the game; his third inning single came with one out and nobody on in the third.

And, of course, no Met managed to reach base in the fifth until after Nimmo fouled off a fastball to open with two out in the first before pulling an inside Scherzer service into the right field bleachers.

There’s no point in singling one long-haul culprit out. These Mets overall have been a mess since Jacob deGrom went down for the count yet again, and maybe for good this season, in early July.

One big reason is their inability to hit with the bases loaded: holding a .208 average in that situation, the fifth lowest in the Show, isn’t the way to win games. Especially when the other guys are hitting .292 against them with the bases loaded.

Castro walking the bases loaded and then walking Beaty home ended up being the difference Saturday—Alonso’s two-out, seventh-inning blast into the left field bleachers with McNeil aboard gave them their second and third runs. The Mets put a man aboard in each of the eighth and the ninth and stranded both.

Things weren’t exactly helped when Hill opened by surrendering a leadoff bomb off the top of the left field fence to Trea Turner opening the bottom of the first and, one fly out to deep center later, a first-pitch yank over the center field fence to ancient Albert Pujols, to put the Mets into an almost-immediate 2-0 hole.

At 41 years old each, Hill vs. Pujols weren’t quite the oldest pitcher-batter matchup to end in a home run in Show history. That belongs to Julio Franco and Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Thanks to my sabermetric friend Jessica Brand, I learned The Big Unit was a young turk at 43 when Franco, then a measly 49 and a Met, no less, turned on an 0-2 service in the top of the second and drove it over the left field fence. It was the 173rd and final home run of Franco’s career.

With 92 years of age between that pair, there’s something to be said for respecting your elders.

Davis himself is 0-for-6 with six strikeouts when he hits with the bases loaded this season. If you take Mets manager Luis Rojas at his word, Davis is pressing it too hard when he checks in at the plate with chances to do major damage. “Sometimes, guys tend to get anxious,” the skipper told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo after Saturday’s loss.

I use J.D. as an example with the bases loaded in that situation; he was trying to do too much. He was trying to gather a little bit too much. It caused him to be late on a fastball. That’s probably from a mental standpoint what happens, you just get a little anxious because you have the bases loaded. It’s a key situation. There’s an adrenaline rush, and sometimes you drift away from your approach of being aggressive in the zone, which is what we preach here.

Davis wasn’t even trying to murder the ball. As peculiar as this might sound to those dismissing this year’s game as just a bomb-or-bust offensive game, neither the Mets nor the Dodgers tried hitting six-run homers in every plate appearance. Even with six of the game’s seven runs scoring on home runs, there was about as much hard ground contact as air lifting between the sides Saturday afternoon.

It’s not that the National League East is a division full of invincibles. But the Mets held the division’s ownership papers despite their glandular injury issues until very recently. They’ve now lost seventeen of twenty-three; they’ve fallen two games below .500; they’re seven back of the now division-leading Braves almost a month after they led the division by four.

It got bad enough for the Mets at the plate that new owner Steve Cohen—who’d shown the patience of Job up to that point—zapped them for their inconsistent hitting aboard Twitter during the week just finished. In cold print, it looked like a mini-tirade. In actuality, we’re not exactly talking about a certain late Yankee owner.

Cohen didn’t throw out the first manager of the year. He didn’t even really single any particular Met out for embarrassment. He didn’t demand an apology to the city of New York or build a guillotine outside Citi Field. He didn’t compare any pitcher to a horse who spit the bit; he didn’t dismiss his best power hitter as Mr. May.

He didn’t do anything, really, except get Rojas and injured shortstop Francisco Lindor—the off-season splash signing whose bat’s been inconsistent but whose defense has been off the chart (he was worth thirteen defensive runs before his injury)—to say he was right about the bats.

The fact that the Mets didn’t exactly hog the headlines at the trade deadline lingered in the back of some minds, too.

The Mets’ immediate response to Cohen’s comparatively benign bop was to beat the Giants in twelve with a three-run homer (Kevin Pillar) and an RBI double (freshly called-up Chance Sisco, pinch hitting). From there, it’s three straight lost to the Dodgers with one more to play Sunday before a cross country trip home to host the Giants.

It may also be one of the only periods in which you might hear Met fans saying to themselves, “We have the bases loaded? We’re doomed.”

Call him anything, but don’t call him a thief

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

This wasn’t just a celebratory hug after Pujols walked a win off with a sacrifice fly; Albert Pujols made Mike Trout a friend as well as a protege.

When the Angels decided it was time at last to let Albert Pujols go as gently as possible into that good gray baseball night, I wasn’t the only baseball observer to say it was heartbreaking. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, either, to say his decline following his first Anaheim season was just as heartbreaking.

But I’m still astonished, if not sickened to my stomach, from seeing assorted social media denizens speaking as one such baseball group member did after the Dodgers dropped more than a few jaws by signing Pujols as a bench and very occasional role player for the rest of the season.

“Where are they going to put him? There’s [sic] no [designated hitter] in the NL, and hopefully there never will be one,” said one in particular. “He can afford a rocking chair with all the money he stole from the Angels.”

Stole?

Bad enough the gentleman writing those words clings to one of baseball’s most nebulous and negative traditions. (Pitchers overall have hit .158/.207/.199 from the end of the 1910s until the end of 2020, for a big fat .406 OPS. As of this morning, they’re hitting .102/.136/.137 in 2021, for a whopping .273 OPS.)

But “all that money he stole from the Angels?” Rest assured, this gentleman probably isn’t even close to the only fan who feels that way. He just so happened to put it into cold print,  and I just so happened to catch it in cold print.

What he and anyone else thinking like that is really saying is that a player ground down as Pujols was because of injuries is nothing but a common thief. Well, I heard and saw Yankee fans and observers say similar things about now-retired Jacoby Ellsbury, too. As if they held their teams at gunpoint for x number of seasons.

If you thought Joe and Jane Fan believe losing is practically mortal sin, there are times that seems nothing compared to what they seem to think about being injured on the job.

When the Yankees gave up the ghost and elected to pay Ellsbury the $26 million left on his contract not to play for them any longer, I wondered aloud what it might have done to a man knowing he couldn’t do his job because his body kept him from doing it no matter what his heart and mind desired—and, because it made him a hate object among the witless.

“It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary,” I wrote then. “On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.”

Ellsbury was talented and tenacious (and a two-time World Series champion) when he could play. He wasn’t a Pujols-level talent, but he could and often did break a game open with his own skill set, too. Yet one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about returning to the Red Sox when he hit free agency was because, appropriately, he was fed up over incessant clubhouse whispers that he took too much of his own sweet time recovering from injuries.

“It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete,” I wrote then, too. “Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose sound medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.”

For Joe and Jane Fan, the paradox which is borderline hypocrisy is that they put on pedestals ballplayers who play through injuries regardless of whether that might lead to further injury, as it usually does—but then Joe and Jane Fan become the first to denounce the big jerks for playing through the earlier injuries only to incur bigger and more costly ones.

Pujols’s problems in Anaheim began when he developed plantar fasciitis in one of his heels during spring training 2013. He’d had a first season with the Angels in 2012 that resembled a down season on his terms but a career year for mere mortals.

Then, in late July 2013, he suffered a tear to that bothersome area during a game against the Athletics, while running out a ninth-inning base hit off Grant Balfour. He rehabbed the foot and heel as best he could until the Angels, out of contention by then, shut him down for the rest of that season.

It never got better for him. What nobody outside the Angels clubhouse really knew was that if his feet and legs could drain him, nothing and no one could drain Pujols’s iron will.

“He could easily have shut down a couple of these years. But just the toughness is off the charts,” said Mike Trout to The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya in 2019. “A lot of guys would have shut it down for good. He plays banged-up, doesn’t complain. I think that’s what people don’t see.”

“I’ll remember,” said ESPN writer Alden Gonzalez, after the Angels finally designated Pujols for assignment, “that even though his lower half was shot and he wasn’t quick enough to get around on the devastating stuff pitchers throw these days, he still showed up early, still spent hours in the training room to get ready for games, still took batting practice with intent, still crouched really low on defense and still looked for any opportunity to take an extra base. He might not have been productive, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.”

Trout was right. Showing up at the ballpark early and spending hours in the training room despite the physical sappings is what Joe and Jane Fan didn’t see. Maybe they didn’t want to see. Maybe they couldn’t believe the guy who’d played as off the charts as Pujols did as a Cardinal was forced into a far steeper decline phase to his career than he should have been.

Maybe they still clung to the illusion that a nine-figure payday in and of itself could keep a man Superman despite his body turning him into Clark Kent.

In only one way did Pujols have himself to blame for the outside perception that he was just going downhill at warp speed no matter how much money he was paid. He wasn’t the type to lament continuously over his lower body’s continuing betrayals. So much so that, when he finally did speak up about it, in the same 2019 Athletic piece, Joe and Jane Fan didn’t and wouldn’t listen.

“It’s made my move here so tough,” Pujols said to Ardaya then. “I don’t wish that anyone would have had those lower-half injuries, because I know that when I’m healthy, I know what I can do. To come over here and just be pounded by injury after injury, year after year . . . This game is tough when you’re at 100 percent with no injuries. Then imagine dealing with knee, heel, elbow, everything. It’s just tough, man.”

Pujols isn’t the only baseball player who ever kept believing to his soul that all he had to do was return to reasonable health to be what he once was. He isn’t the only player who’s learning the hardest way possible that there comes a time when the badly compromised body married to your age just wouldn’t let you be that anymore.

But not all such players get paid $255 million over ten years, whether they’re future Hall of Famers or future Hall of Shamers.

Nobody held the Angels at gunpoint, either, to offer Pujols that deal in the first place when nobody else was considering it, including the Cardinals (who didn’t until Pujols was practically taking measurements for his Angels uniform), or to keep him on the field when his body was clearly and cruelly draining him faster than a proper decline phase should have done.

Writing in The Inside Game last year, Keith Law came right out and said the Angels were foolish to keep suiting Pujols up even as a designated hitter, despite that iron will, because his body compromised him too deeply.

“If you have already paid for something,” Law wrote, nodding toward the guaranteed deal, “your choice of whether to use it should be a function of whether you want or need to use it, not a function of the money that is already gone regardless of what you do.” Don’t even go there about “eating money” if that’s what the Angels had elected to do. “Major league baseball player contracts are guaranteed,” Law wrote. “[T]here is no way to un-eat that meal.”

It’s one thing to argue against guaranteed long-term baseball contracts in all but the most unique circumstances. It’s something else entirely to argue against one retroactively because the player who signed one got hit unexpectedly with one of the worst injury bugs in baseball history a year after he finished his first season under such a deal.

The clumsiness with which the Angels parted with Pujols speaks only further ill of a team whose administrative culture makes a pratfalling putz resemble Joe DiMaggio roaming center field. The Dodgers’ willingness to bring him aboard even as a part-time bench player, perhaps an occasional first base fill-in, would look a lot better if there wasn’t even the momentary sense that it was a concurrent chance to stick it to their down-freeway rival.

It won’t cost the Dodgers a dollar beyond the pro-rated minimum major league salary to give Pujols one more chance at possible postseason triumph and a possible third World Series ring that the Angels couldn’t. (The Angels’ chronic inability to build a viable pitching staff has harmed them several years; if the Pujols deal tied their hands financially, the Angels haven’t been brilliant at drafting pitching or even acquiring low-cost/high-enough-performance arms, either.)

Personally, I’d hoped Pujols would surrender to his body’s betrayals and call it a career sooner, if only because he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore and hadn’t really been for too long through no fault of his own. I wanted him to be as close to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as possible, Schmidt having retired in May 1989 because, essentially, he didn’t believe he was Mike Schmidt anymore.

Such Hall of Famers as Willie Mays and Steve Carlton couldn’t do it, either; we saw their baseball ghosts a little too long. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax did do it when he was still ten dimensions beyond the top of his game: “I don’t regret one minute of the past twelve seasons, but I might regret the season that was one too many.” Even more so than Schmidt, Koufax left the world wanting more, not less.

Whether mere mortal or Hall of Fame immortal, not every player is as self-aware as Koufax and Schmidt. But there’s another kind of self-awareness that imposes a cruelty of its own. It’s the kind Pujols has, the kind that kept him grinding his way back in search of the trans-dimensional greatness he once evoked. The kind that guaranteed him a berth in the Hall of Fame before his body left him nothing but his will.

Knowing what we should know now of that stubborn will no matter what Mother Health and Father Time declared otherwise, we should accept that Pujols earned the chance to leave the field with whatever remains of his professional dignity intact. Maybe he has one more game- or set-changing swing left in him. Maybe he doesn’t.

But calling him the thief who stole all that money from the Angels, however, is way out of line, Joe and Jane Fan. It exposes you as the couple too witless to comprehend just what Pujols put himself through to live up to that contract no matter how often his body told his heart and mind where to shove it.

La Maquina, al finale?

Albert Pujols

That was last fall: Pujols tying Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. This is Mays’s 90th birthday, today: the Angels announced they designated the sadly-declined Pujols for assignment.

Late in February, Albert Pujols’s wife posted a social media message suggesting that, when his mammoth contract with the Angels expired after this season, so would her husband’s playing career. That option may not belong to him anymore.

The Angels jolted baseball when they announced Thursday that they designated the Hall of Famer in waiting for assignment. Once upon a time, timing was Pujols’s ally at the plate and beyond. Announcing the designation on Willie Mays’s 90th birthday, of all days, just made it sting that much more.

It had to. No less than Mays himself sent Pujols a text message last year saying, “It’s your time now. Go get it.” Meaning, go meet and pass Mays’s 660th lifetime home run. Pujols met 660 last September and passed it with 661 five days later. The Machine had six more bombs in him before the Angels finally gave up his ghost.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Pujols didn’t ask to have maybe the most heartsickening, prolonged decline in the game’s history.

It wasn’t his idea to have a down season his first time out as an Angel. (Codicil: a down season for Pujols in 2012 was still a career year for more players than you can fit aboard two Dreamliners.) He didn’t ask for plantar faascitis in his heel the following year to begin a punishing series of lower half injuries that drained everything he had left.

ESPN writer Alden Gonzalez, who’s covered Pujols for most of his Angels life, saw up close and personal what Pujols put himself through in what we now know was a futile attempt to find the St. Louis smash buried somewhere inside what was left of him now.

“I’ll remember,” Alden says, “that even though his lower half was shot and he wasn’t quick enough to get around on the devastating stuff pitchers throw these days, he still showed up early, still spent hours in the training room to get ready for games, still took batting practice with intent, still crouched really low on defense and still looked for any opportunity to take an extra base. He might not have been productive, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.”

The stubborn, proud spirit was too willing, but the body was likewise too ready to tell him where to shove it at long enough last. No recent play was more emblematic than the ground ball he hit to the hole at shortstop but didn’t run out—because he couldn’t. He’d have been better off taking a skateboard out of the box up the line; he was thrown out on a lob across the infield before he was even halfway up the line.

The only tool Pujols’s body left alone was his still-devastating long ball power. Gonzalez’s ESPN colleague David Schoenfield is right to observe that’s not enough to stay aboard a major league roster. Not even though Pujols remained mostly as difficult to strike out as he always was. (His average per 162 games: 74; or, a single punchout every other game.)

But he’s all but quit taking walks; he rarely hits for extra bases beyond home runs; and, no matter how ironed up his will is, he hasn’t been the first base defender he once was for what seems eons. His Cardinals era was off the charts enough to keep his lifetime statistics showing him a plus first baseman by 95 runs saved above his league average. Fortunately.

Aside from what it did to him as a man, Pujols’s injury-instigated and perpetuated decline robs him of sitting atop the rest of the Hall of Fame’s post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era first basemen according to my Real Batting Average. (Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances.)

First Base PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Jim Thome 10313 4667 1747 173 74 69 .653
Jeff Bagwell 9431 4213 1401 155 102 128 .636
Albert Pujols 12486 5955 1334 313 115 111 .627
Willie McCovey 9692 4219 1345 260 70 69 .615
Harmon Killebrew 9833 4143 1559 160 77 48 .609
Orlando Cepeda 8698 3959 588 154 74 102 .561
Eddie Murray 12817 5397 1333 222 128 18 .554
Tony Perez 10861 4532 925 150 106 43 .526
HOF AVG .597

Had his career ended when his years with the Cardinals did, Pujols would have retired with a .708 RBA. Had he not been betrayed by his heels, feet, and most of the rest of his lower body as an Angel, he might still have finished with a higher RBA than Jim Thome did. And none of those Hall of Fame first basemen are as far above their league average for runs saved at the position as Pujols. (Eddie Murray’s +61 are 34 below Pujols.)

Pujols’s berth in Cooperstown is solely a question of when he retires as a player officially. No matter how sad his injury-instigated, protracted decline, he secured that in St. Louis to devastating effect. If the Angels don’t work a trade out now, and there’s no assurance they’d find a trading partner willing to part with viable talent in exchange for a ghost, there’s no guarantee another team would sign him for a pro-rated minimum salary as a free agent, either.

His longtime Cardinals manager Tony La Russa came out of his Hall of Fame retirement to take on the White Sox—but La Russa has already shown trouble handling today’s experimental rules as it is. No matter how much he still respects and loves Pujols, La Russa isn’t going to convince his bosses to take the ghost over young and establishing designated hitter Yermin Mercedes.

The DHs in Tiger uniforms are hitting this year at levels low enough to make Pujols continue resembling his Hall of Famer-to-be old self—but the Tigers have an aging incumbent themselves, named Miguel Cabrera. Hands up to anyone and everyone who thinks that even the current Tiger regime would hold with manager A.J. Hinch sending Cabrera to the pine in favour of Pujols now.

Purely in baseball terms, designating Pujols for assignment makes too much sense. Especially with Jared Walsh standing in for injured right fielder Dexter Fowler but far better suited to play first base. Especially with Shohei Ohtani more than capable of holding a DH slot on the days he doesn’t pitch. Pujols’s designation means the Angels don’t have to let Ohtani bat on his pitching days; they can save him for the final role Pujols can’t handle anymore.

But in human terms, this is a heartbreak. Especially for a man so community and charity oriented that you could believe the Angels well enough, even committing boilerplate, when owner Arte Moreno’s formal statement praised Pujols in character terms, as a man whose “historical accomplishments, both on and off the field, serve as an inspiration to athletes everywhere, and his actions define what it means to be a true superstar.”

If only the announcement didn’t have to happen on the 90th birthday of Mays, a man Pujols respects and maybe even loves almost as much as he loved and respected St. Louis icon Stan Musial. This may have been the worst case of bad timing in baseball since . . .

Maybe since Brad Lidge’s bad timing hanging Pujols a breaking ball to demolish for a National League Championship Series Game Five-tying three-run homer in 2005. Or, the bad timing of Rangers relievers Alexi Ogando, Mike Gonzalez, and Darren Oliver gifting Pujols three meatballs to destroy beginning in the top of the sixth in Game Three, 2011 World Series.

When Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver was traded to the Reds from the Mets, following contract extension talks that went from difficult to scurrilous thanks to Mets management and certain sports columnists smearing him, A. Bartlett Giamatti—then president of Yale University, as opposed to his eventual higher calling as a baseball commissioner—wrote in Harper’s, “[A]mong all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.”

If Giamatti had lived to see Pujols, he might have thought likewise, ending with “such a man is to be cherished, period.” Pujols wasn’t sold, but half his body sold him out. Whether you called him El Hombre (the nickname he hated, insisting there was only one Man and his name was Musial) or The Machine (La Maquina in his language), he didn’t deserve having his gears stripped into a long, painful, sad decline.

Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.