Don’t blame replay for Bohm staying safe

Travis d'Arnaud, Alec Bohm

Repeat after me: Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . (Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo.)

The arguments against using replay to determine close plays included that it would take a big, big, big piece of the human factor out of a game. Well, what the hell was that we saw in Atlanta Sunday night?

It was the human factor getting it wrong despite having what Braves pitcher Drew Smyly called five different angles on a nationally televised game.

It was home plate umpire Lance Barrett missing a call on a bang-bang play at the plate in the top of the ninth but the replay review crew out of New York essentially doubling down on the wrong call, despite how right Smyly was and having five or even more angles to review.

It was Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm colliding with Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud as he arrived sliding as d’Arnaud with the ball lunged to block the plate, forcing Bohm to slide just offline enough to miss touching the plate even with his lead foot.

It was the Phillies winning 7-6 when the Braves went three-and-three in the bottom of the ninth and Bohm saying almost nothing but, “I was called safe. That’s all that matters.” Note that “I was called safe” isn’t exactly the same thing as saying, “I was safe.”

Even the Mets weren’t that coyly disingenuous about Michael Conforto elbowing his way to a blown call in his favour and a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch walkoff against the Marlins last Thursday.

With one out in the top of the ninth Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius lofted a fly the other way to left. Marcell Ozuna strode in toward the line to catch it. As Bohm tagged at third, Ozuna fired a two-hop strike down the line that hopped into the crouching d’Arnaud’s mitt. In the same split second d’Arnaud turned right, his folded leg across the plate with the tag on the sliding Bohm’s back leg.

D’Arnaud did bump Bohm in front of the plate for a moment. Bohm’s left foot, his lead foot, never touched the plate, flying just over it, and neither did the rest of his body parts, before he sprang up in a bent-knee pirouette and turned another one upright, waving his arms, including one wave that looked as though he were making a safe call.

If you want to give Barrett a benefit of the doubt you could say plausibly that d’Arnaud sprawling across the plate after the bumping tag on Bohm might (underline that) have obstructed his full view of Bohm’s slide.

“We saw it,” insisted Phillies manager Joe Girardi standing by his man and the review crew at once. “It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate is what we saw when we saw a lot of the angles.”

I saw it, too, from a lot of the angles. For Girardi to say that, Bohm’s big toe must have been on his heel. On the angle his foot flew over the plate, his heel was actually a hair or two closer to hitting the plate than his big toe was.

Smyly didn’t pitch all that well Sunday night—he surrendered five runs on five hits in five innings’ work, including a two-run homer to Ozzie Albies in a three-run first and a leadoff solo to Freddie Freeman in the bottom of the fifth. But his perspective on that play at the plate was anything but impaired.

“[I]t’s clear that his foot didn’t touch the plate, that it was on the chalk,” Smyly told reporters post-game. “Everyone saw it and sees it, everyone knows it. And for MLB not to overturn that, it’s embarrassing. Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that? That’s the way I feel about it. I think everybody feels that way. There’s five different angles. It’s clear, he didn’t touch the plate.”

#HeDidntTouchThePlate became a Twitter hashtag almost as fast as the original play went down in the first place. Better that than the Truist Park audience throwing debris down onto the field. They had every right to be outraged, but better chanting (as they did) Bull-[sh@t]! Bull-[sh@t!] than throwing junk and at least one bottle kept from doing damage by, ironically, the netting hoisted to protect fans from bullet-fast foul balls.

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, himself native to Atlanta, may have felt his team got jobbed, but he wasn’t too thrilled about the fans’ display, either. “It’s an embarrassing representation of our city because I know from being from here, that’s not how we act,” he said after the game.

And then probably the worst part of it all, I don’t think people realize we have families here. There are kids that are here, kids that are sitting in the front row, and you’ve got bottles whizzing by their heads. Just endangering kids that may not be able to protect themselves is downright embarrassing, and it should never happen again. It just can’t happen, and it never needs to happen again.

It spoiled a night on which both teams brought their bats to town and swung them with authority. From Albies in the first and Freeman in the fifth to Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly and mammoth seventh-inning home run. From Rhys Hoskins’s leadoff bomb in the fourth and Gregorius’s three-run homer two outs and back-to-back singles later, to Bryce Harper’s opposite-field leadoff launch seven or eight rows into the left field seats in the sixth.

When The Athletic queried the New York replay crew about the Bohm safe call, the journal received an e-mail reply: “After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag. The call STANDS, the runner is safe.” How many angles was “all relevant angles?”

“It makes me not even want [replay review] anymore,” d’Arnaud said. “Honestly, it just slows the game down. It took like five minutes for them to decide that and, to me, they got it wrong. So I’d rather just not have it and get the game going.”

Some plays take a little longer than five minutes to decide, some take a little less. D’Arnaud’s frustration is the most understandable among any Brave. When Conforto was ruled a hit batsman as plate ump Ron Kulpa changed his strike call in the bottom of the ninth last Thursday, Mets broadcaster Ron Darling asked why have replay if the review umpires can’t get it right.

Kulpa admitted his mistake the following day. (He got a lovely ovation from the Citi Field audience Saturday for his admission.) Barrett hasn’t weighed back in at this writing. But the issue isn’t replay itself. The issue is that there’s still a human factor in baseball games, major league or otherwise, and that factor can still get it wrong even with every potential angle showing otherwise.

Even a major league player or two ripped the call. Padres third baseman Will Middlebrooks tweeted, “How do you watch that replay and say he’s safe. Hahaha this is a joke.” Of all people, Angels all-everything center fielder Mike Trout tweeted, “So bad…” followed by an emoji showing a smiley face in tears laughing. D’Arnaud’s brother Chase, himself a former major league utility infielder, tweeted back to Middlebrooks and Trout, “the guy makes that call in New York should be interviewed just like players who get interviewed after games.”

Not just by reporters but by baseball’s government, too.

It’s far too early in the major league season for a game and a call like that to wreak real havoc on a pennant race, of course. If the safe call was overturned as it should have been, it would have meant the Braves and the Phillies each at 5-4 and tied for first in the National League East this morning.

But if a replay review crew can still blow what angle after angle showed them wasn’t a runner safe across the plate in mid-April, how egregiously will they blow a similar call down the stretch in a game that weighs like a bank vault on the races?

Georgia on our minds

Commissioner Rob Manfred congratulating 2019 All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber. Did he think deep or hard before moving this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta?

Most of us, generations be damned, grew up hearing the two most certain of life’s certainties are death and taxes. Everyone has candidates for the third certainty, including that which reminds us of one thing that crosses partisan lines even if the partisans forget the other side does it, too.

Translated to baseball terminology, that thing seems to be demanding a replay review when ball four is called in election races on what they think they threw for strike three. When such a review turns into something such as a new state election law, as in Georgia, there comes a fourth guarantee: somebody isn’t going to like it.

A lot of somebodies don’t like the law. Such somebodies as former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and President Joseph Biden. A lot of not-so-much-somebodies don’t like the law, either, and their agitation as much as any other factors have prompted among other things major league baseball’s government moving this year’s All-Star Game and college draft out of Atlanta’s Truist Park.

Abrams had skin in the game going in. She lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, who signed the omnibus bill into law earlier this month, by 50,000 votes, claiming then-Georgia secretary of state Kemp erased thousands from state voter rolls.

Kemp had skin in the current game going in, too. For the heinous offense of certifying that now-former president Donald Trump didn’t push the winning run across the state plate in the bottom of the twelfth, regardless that Kemp wasn’t exactly known to favour anyone other than Trump, Kemp faced Trump’s none-too-silent wish to see him thrown out of the league.

The most understandable result of Trump’s post-campaign campaign to overthrow his loss to Biden might have been Georgia and other states reviewing and tightening up their election laws. The only place where fury and back-and-forth charges of foul get more furious might be a baseball game decided (in truth or in allegation) by a close call for or against one or the other side at the final out.

Election shenanigans have been as common in American politics as yard signs, and they didn’t begin or end with such ancient players as New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley Machine, Kansas City’s Prendergast Machine, or Nassau County’s (Long Island) Margiotta/D’Amato Machine. Wherever you landed observing Trump vs. Biden, your least shocking revelation would have been one or another state addressing their election laws in the aftermath.

When Kemp signed the new Georgia election law, Abrams charged that it “suppresses voters, criminalizes compassion & seizes election authority from local + state officials.” That statement wasn’t half as incendiary as Biden’s prompt denunciation of the law as both un-American and as “Jim Crow on steroids.”

Georgia’s real history with Jim Crow is grotesque enough, from state poll taxes (1877) and literacy tests from which descendants from Confederate and Union soldiers were exempt (1907) to the “white primary” rule (1908) that prohibited non-white voting explicitly. Jim Crow in any southern states was (and remains) a portion of American history for which the nation can never be proud.

Now, about the new Georgia election law. Examine deeper than what you see excerpted in the press and aboard social media. Comparing it to Jim Crow is nebulous. It only begins with the fact that mandating seventeen days pre-election (two Saturdays included) for early voting—with mandatory eight-hour-minimum open times and allowance for twelve-hour (7 a.m.-7 p.m.) times—doesn’t exactly “suppress” voters.

A good number of states lack that allowance, including Biden’s home state Delaware which isn’t going to put it in place before the next Congressional election year 2022. Biden himself—with different priorities and a far less grotesque personality, he’s like Trump in showing you wisdom by standing athwart it—also said the Georgia law imposes limits on absentee voting that “effectively” (his word) deny voting to “countless” people. That’s not exactly what the law says or does.

For one thing, no-excuse absentee voting stays in place with just a couple of adjustments. I’d be hard pressed to think a voter is being “suppressed” because the absentee ballot application window is a “mere” 67 days, or because such applications you can now do online, because the state secretary of state is now required by law to offer them online. Or, because the absentee ballot must be received by election officials at least eleven days before Election Day.

Some of the new law’s critics harp about the voter identification portion, which has now shifted it from matching signatures to identification numbers from a voter’s driver’s license or free voter identification card. Lacking either, a Georgia voter can present a photocopy of a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck, a government check, or an official document that includes his or her name and address. All they have to do is include the last four digits of their Social Security numbers if they don’t have driver’s licenses or previous voter ID numbers.

If that’s “voter suppression,” I’m Willie Mays. And if that’s something designed to keep non-white voters from voting, I’m hard pressed to comprehend the 2016 Gallup survey that found 77 percent of non-white voters supporting photographic voter identification. You’d think (properly) that non-white voters have just as much stake in preventing real (not alleged) voter fraud as white voters have. And you’d be right.

The new Georgia election law also puts the famous drop boxes into law. They showed up in Georgia for the first time last year thanks to the pan-damn-ic, and now they’re legally mandatory with or without the coronavirus. The new law requires one drop box for every one hundred thousand registered voters or one for every advance vote location in any Georgia county, whichever number is smaller.

Abrams was right about one thing: the new law does “criminalise compassion,” sort of. Giving, offering, or helping give food and/or drinks to people within 150 feet of polling places or within 25 feet of voters in line to vote becomes a legal misdemeanor. Even, seemingly, when the benefactor isn’t discussing the election or particular favoured candidates.

The law also bars ordinary Georgians from photographing or recording their own votes. Guess who gets an exemption from that: the state secretary of state, whom the law requires to create “a pilot program for the posting of digital images of the scanned paper ballots created by the voting system,” with the images becoming “public records subject to disclosure.”

I’ve read about enough early proposals for inclusion in the law that were foolish at minimum, dangerous at most, and thrown out of the bill before it became a final product. But how the hell did that one slip in? How close do you think that one gets to the kind of thing you thought was reserved for the Third Reich, the Soviet Empire, and other authoritarian/totalitarian states who’ve used ballots when allowed at all against their citizens?

Kemp and any Georgia governor has a line-item veto power—but it affects only statewide and state executive budget items. Even he can’t be comfortable with the idea that his or any Georgia secretary of state can come that close to crossing the line from scanning paper ballots to making Georgians’ votes public.

You can bank it. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and his minions probably didn’t read the new Georgia law in almost any way, shape, or form. You can understand why, since the law’s volume is 68 percent (92 pages if you’re scoring at home) the length of Philip Roth’s legendary novella Goodbye, Columbus. But the mis- or mal-excerpting of the law did them no favours and puts baseball into a precarious position.

For one thing, the Atlanta Braves themselves aren’t thrilled with baseball pulling the All-Star Game out of their home playpen. Indeed, even Abrams herself has said Georgia companies shouldn’t jump all the way into boycotts but first “use the chance to publicly condemn the law, invest in voting rights expansion and support wide-ranging federal election legislation before they’re targeted with a boycott movement,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it.

For another thing, former UN ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young demurs from any such boycott, especially involving Atlanta, whatever he thinks of the new law, telling The Athletic, “Everything doesn’t depend on sports. But if you hurt the sports, you hurt the hotels, you hurt the airport, you hurt every business in town . . . [Atlanta’s] the 44th largest economy in the world — and, you can quote me, I don’t know why anybody wants to [fornicate] with that.”

Manfred and his look more like knee-jerkers than thoughtful protesters who considered the whole thing reasonably. (They look, in other words, much the way Trump looked when thundering against Maximum Security’s 2019 Kentucky Derby qualification or on behalf of Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame entry without troubling himself with the deets on both rejections.) Lacking an immediate suggestion for an alternate All-Star Game site this year is the least of Commissioner Nero’s largely self-imposed problems.

On Wednesday night, some Republican lawmakers in Georgia’s state House of Representatives voted to cancel a tax break for Georgia-based Delta Air Lines, on the grounds that Delta objected to the new election law. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” said Georgia’s House speaker David Ralston. “You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Imagine the furies if Democratic officials behaved likewise. Oops . . . Lois Lerner, for openers, call your office.

Wherever you sit about the law itself, the thought of governing officials deciding a private entity needs to be punished for taking any position regarding any legislation or policy should scare the hell out of you. If they can do it to an airline, they can do it to anything, including the business of a game.

Brian Snitker hates to bunt. He’s right

This gentleman despises bunting. So should you.

Brian Snitker will not have to worry about putting food on the table for an extra two years. The Braves have extended their manager two more seasons, through the end of 2023, and with an option for 2024. He’s worth it not just because he’s returned the Braves to National League East excellence, but because he hates the bunt.

In 605 opportunities during the pan-damn-ic truncated 2020 season, the Braves tried exactly one sacrifice bunt. Partly because last year the universal designated hitter rendered the bunt superfluous, mostly because a bunt to Snitker is about as useful as a diving board aboard a Boeing 787.

Two seasons ago, Charlie Culberson attempted a bunt against Washington reliever Fernando Rodney. Culberson squared to bunt with his bat up high enough that the foul bunted ball caught him right in the kisser. That may have convinced Snitker even more that bunting should go the way of the streetcar. Though it’d be more fun to see streetcars come back than bunts to metastasise again.

An injury such as happened to Culberson is rather rare. But bunts would be entirely rare if Snitker has anything to say about it. Speaking for myself, I can think of only three times I’d really want a man at the plate dropping a bunt anymore, and I’ll get there in due course.

Essentially, baseball’s bunt is somewhat like football’s punt. Hands up to football fans who think it’s ridiculous for teams to punt on fourth down without at least a cursory stab at going for it when they’re a) inside enemy territory with seven or less to go; b) inside the enemy 33 with ten or less; or, c) fourth and four or less anywhere. (University of California-Berkeley economist David Romer thought of those scenarios, answering “yes.”)

In football—punt ball, surrender ball. In baseball—bunt ball, surrender out. “With even a successful bunt,” wrote Brian Kenny in Ahead of the Curve, his remarkable study of baseball foolishness, “you are giving up an out. It feels good—you can actually see your baserunner move closer to scoring. What you don’t see is that one-third of your resources have been spent.”

Between 1993 and 2010, Kenny observed, you could actually expect less than a run bunting with a man on first and no outs or a man on second with one out. (Man on first, no outs, and a bunt: 0.94 runs expected; man on second, one out, and a bunt: 0.72 runs expected.) In the same time frame, bunting with a man on first and nobody out and bunting with a man on second and one out accounted for less than half of the scoring.

“Even when the bunt moves the runner over,” Kenny wrote, “it lessens your chance of scoring a run. You are working against your own goals.” Managers bunted witlessly for decades, Kenny wrote, because of three benefits: ducking blame for failure, getting credit for success, and looking like geniuses doing it. Even if the next men up couldn’t cash in the run. Even though the manager handed the other team a gift.

That’s bad enough early in the game. In the late innings, if you haven’t emptied your bench yet, and you’ve got a comparative spaghetti bat due up to hit, you’d better pinch hit for that spaghetti bat with someone who isn’t on the payroll to bunt. (Keith Law, in Smart Baseball: “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wants to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)

If you don’t have a spaghetti bat on deck but you’ve got a solid hitter who can do some clutch hitting, you’re not sending him up there to bunt . . . unless you’d like to try the impossible and get yourself beaten senseless by someone with two brain cells for which to arrange a dinner date. Why impossible? Because nobody can be beaten into a pre-existing condition.

If you’re foolish enough to send that solid hitter up with orders to bunt, and you have another solid bat behind him, that solid bat behind your bunter is liable to be put aboard on the house to set up a double play prospect. Unless you have a lineup of nine Mike Trouts, it forces you to hope that the lesser hitter to follow all that gets you the unlikely clutch hit. It’s not unheard of, of course, but it’s usually as likely as Alcoholics Anonymous opening a wet bar after a group meeting.

There are only three times to want anyone up there even thinking about bunting:

1) Against one of those defensive overshifts. Leaving your guy at the plate acres of virgin frontier, why not let him bunt? Hell—why not order him to bunt? Tell him you’ll shoot him doornail if he doesn’t bunt when presented with that.

Show me a bunt onto that delicious wilderness, I’ll show you a man on first at minimum, on the house. If they’re fool enough to open those plains with a man on, it’s first and second or better on the house. Show me enough bunts like those, I’ll show you the pending end of the overshifts.

Don’t be afraid of such a bunt even if the other guys have a no-hitter going in the late innings. They want to give you presents even with a no-hitter, take them. Let it be on their heads. If they want to arrest you for breaking one of the Sacred Unwritten Rules, tell them you’re not above a little Fun Police brutality.

2) Against infielders with weak throwing arms or concrete for hands. If the other guys have such infielders, you should really wonder whether their GM was kidnapped and replaced by Mr. Magoo.

Bunting against them may not be the kindest or gentlest play, and reaching on an error won’t do a thing for a batter’s final seasonal resume, but he’ll reach base of it. If there’s a man on, you’ll get someone closer to home if not coming home without wasting an out.

3) Against the other guys smelling bunt and putting the old wheel play on. Baseline fielders shoot down the lines, middle infielders run away from second base to cover the baseline pillows. If they put it on, show bunt, watch them shoot down and toward the lines—then pull back the minute the pitcher comes to the plate and just put the bat on the ball.

It was just such a fake bunt that Mets relief pitcher Jesse Orosco made into a six or seven hop single up the abandoned pipe to drive a second insurance run home in the bottom of the eighth in Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Don’t start jumping up and down hollering “let the pitchers hit!”—Orosco was a lifetime .161 hitter who was probably lucky to average 22 plate appearances per 162 games in the first place.)

Now, if only Snitker would start or continue agitating for the universal designated hitter. Once and for all, let’s be done with all those pitchers at the plate making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. Let’s have Snitker and his peers relieved of the burden of watching their rallies getting murdered because their number eight bats got pitched around so the other guys’ pitchers can strike their peers out for side retired.

The Man of Steal flew like Superman on the bases—mostly without bunting his way aboard, either.

Myth busted, by the way: You can have speed on the bases without bunts. You usually try to bat the swiftest you’ve got leadoff, right? You can also have smarts on the bases without bunts. Put the swiftest and smartest man you have in the leadoff spot. Let him swat or walk his way aboard, then turn his tail loose. You don’t have to waste outs to do that.

Consider: Rickey Henderson. The arguable greatest leadoff hitter of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. The greatest speed merchant and larcenist the game may ever have seen. Not exactly one of the world’s most passionate bunters. (I calculated his batting average on bunts—BuBA—by dividing the bunts he beat out for hits by his total bunt attempts.)

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
Rickey Henderson 49 30 26 4 .082

You’d think a Hall of Famer who could fly like Superman up the line and around the bases might try more, right? Wrong. The Man of Steal wasn’t going to get all that much to bunt with in the first place. A man with 3,055 lifetime hits didn’t earn his bread and butter because he let anyone convince him, “Let’s work on those bunts, brah.”

Let’s not go there about “productive outs,” either. The only true situation where an out’s as good as a hit is a sacrifice fly. No batter’s going up to the plate with a man on third thinking to himself boy, those fools who said I couldn’t hit, I’ll show them—with a nice neat sacrifice fly. No fans pay their way into the ballpark to chant Sac fly! Sac fly! either.

The ground out pushing a runner or two closer to home? Sure, it’s nice. If and when it happens. That, too, gives you one less out to work with, and that wasn’t in your plans. Now tell me you wouldn’t rather have a base hit or a walk. If your answer’s yes, tell me you’d rather have two than three outs to work with in the ninth.

If your answer’s yes to that, you might be one of those thinking baseball was never better than when the ball was dead. Well, now. Let me show you the Show’s all-time bunt leader.  (512 lifetime in 25 MLB seasons.) Let me show you what he did in a verifiable fifteen-year span. And, let me show you what it was really worth with that available record.

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
Eddie Collins (1916-30) 222 184 168 16 .072

Yep, I threw you a ringer. But bunt lovers deserve it. (Stathead Baseball, my source for Collins and Henderson, goes back only as far as 1916.)

Collins played almost two-thirds of his career in the dead ball era. Maybe from force of habit he kept up his bunt happiness as the live ball era kicked into overdrive, never mind that bunting just might have been more viable and effective in that dead ball time when among other things fielders’ gloves had about as much pocket as a pillow mattress and most pitchers threw about as hard as as bowlers.

Think about it. Collins remains baseball’s all-time volume bunter. With a .914 out percentage on his bunts, bunting with men in scoring position almost half the time he bunted, and an .072 bunt hit average. Want to know how many runs were added to his teams with those 184 bunts?  How does -20 strike you?

This is no spaghetti bat, either. This is a Hall of Fame infielder who was a road runner on the bases, had six top-ten MVP finishes in seven shots (and won an MVP once), was a .333 hitter with a .400+ on-base percentage lifetime, and played on six pennant winners and five World Series winners. It wouldn’t be out of line for you to ask how much better his team’s scoring and chances to win might have been if he’d hit away instead of wasting those outs.

One more time: Outs to work with in baseball are commodities equal in value to jadeite on the mineral exchanges. (Yes, you can look it up: Jadite’s worth $3 million per carat now.) Bunting is waste enough by itself. Bunting in the late innings is worse. Bunting in the ninth inning when the value of outs to work with makes jadeite’s value resemble Reynolds Wrap’s should be cause for psychiatric evaluation.

Casey Stengel used to manage his Yankees according to the philosophy if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you’re given the opening, as in the still-to-be free cookie on second base, you shouldn’t be thinking of nudging the runner along with a dinky,  out-wasting bunt—you should be shoving with your entire body.

Swing away right out of the chute. Get that run home fast as you can. Make the other guys work to re-tie and win if they can. It’s easier to bust a tie than to overthrow even a one-run deficit, kiddies.

If teams do that often enough, maybe the free cookie on second to open the extra half-innings will go where the bunt should be except for the other three instances enunciated above. Into the same place where the Edsel reposes.

Henry Aaron, RIP: Inimitable

As “715” blasted in neon on the scoreboard way behind them, the entire Dodger infield—including shortstop Bill Russell (left) and second baseman Davey Lopes—shook hands with Henry Aaron rounding the bases and past Babe Ruth at last.

“I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth,” the man once said. “I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.” Among many other things, we now get to remember that Henry Aaron won’t be on this island earth to celebrate with us what he deserved to celebrate untroubled.

Aaron died at 86 this morning, almost three and a half months before the anniversary of his own Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The idiot brigades robbed him of the pleasure of his original triumph, but Aaron’s dignitas robs them of their ability to keep a quietly proud man in what they only think is his place.

He may have been gracious hoping another would break the record he yanked from Ruth, but only one man can claim to have pushed Ruth out of the all-time Show home run record book. The man whose childhood poverty compelled him to teach himself baseball by hitting bottlecaps with sticks eventually hit 755 baseballs over fences, past foul poles, into bullpens, and into the seats.

That childhood in the deep South compelled among other unwarranted disgraces that Aaron’s mother had to tell him and his seven siblings to hide under beds whenever the Ku Klux Klan was on the march in the neighbourhood. A visit to his native Mobile, Alabama by Jackie Robinson in 1948 compelled him to live by learning first and baseball second.

Oops. Aaron skipped school to see Robinson and ended up expelled for truancy and moved to a private school. “Jackie was speaking at a drugstore, and I said, ‘I’m not going to get this opportunity again, so I better take my chances and listen to Jackie Robinson now.’ Little did I know, I got front row seats, and next to me was my father.” Double oops.

Like his fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who once said the only way he liked school as a boy was “closed,” Aaron was on a baseball or nothing mission from almost the outset.

He signed and lasted only a month with the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Leagues teams hanging in. He lasted only the month because Show scouts were on his trail and Boston Braves owner Lou Perini had to have him, outbidding any other comer to sign him. After a short spell in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron helped integrate the old and hostile Sally League (the South Atlantic League) and won its Most Valuable Player Award.

He became a Brave at twenty after the team moved to Milwaukee. He finished fourth in the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year award. He joined white teammate/future manager Eddie Mathews as the Show’s best pair of power teammates since Ruth and Lou Gehrig, whom they surpassed in due course. (Ruth and Gehrig as Yankees: 1,150 home runs between them. Aaron and Mathews as Braves: 1,226 home runs between them. Note: Gehrig as a Yankee and Mathews as a Brave hit the same number of home runs: 493.)

He played quietly, almost stoically through continuing racial growing pains, and finally swung against Cardinals pitcher Billy Muffett with one on in the bottom of the eleventh on 23 September 1957—and hit it over the center field fence to clinch a Braves pennant.

Those Braves would win the World Series and Aaron would be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. It was the only major league MVP he’d actually win, but from then through almost all his career to follow every season he played looked like an MVP season.

The Braves moving to Atlanta for 1966 didn’t thrill him, and well he might have been un-thrilled at returning to the South of his youth that still fought bitterly enough through its racist ways. Neither did a painful 1970 divorce. He resolved his fears the best ways he knew: he joined the civil rights movement quietly and continued playing baseball likewise.

Such contemporaries as Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays so often loomed more immediately and larger in the public eye and mind. The outwardly composed Aaron didn’t hit outrageous punt-like bombs; his once-fabled quick wrists produced howitzer-like line drives, even after he began to think of home runs more consciously in 1963.

He had his ways of brushing the racists to one side. “I never doubted my ability,” he once said, “but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.”

With Mantle retired and Banks, Killebrew and Mays beginning to show their age, 1970 was also the year Aaron became noticeable as the man most likely to pass Ruth’s career home run record. It was the year after Aaron’s Braves won the National League West in the Show’s first season of divisional play but got flattened in three straight by the Miracle Mets in the first National League Championship Series despite Aaron’s efforts. (He had a 1.500 OPS for the set with three home runs, five hits, and seven runs batted in.)

Aaron’s days of postseason baseball were over. He’d just have to settle for becoming a legend. A legend who played and swung through the vilest racists bent on stopping the black man from knocking the Sacred Babe to one side, to the point where police and the FBI had to stay close to the man whose career to date was less bigness than sustained high excellence.

A portrait of the artist as a young Brave.

He knew excellence when he saw it, too. When the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver introduced himself to Aaron at his first All-Star Game and one of Aaron’s 25, Aaron said it straight: “Kid, I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will know who you are, too.”

(Let the record show Aaron once said Seaver was the toughest pitcher he faced. Lifetime against Seaver, Aaron hit a mere .205 with a .281 on-base percentage, with four home runs and sixteen hits overall in 89 plate appearances. His guarantee was hardly unfounded.)

The man Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax nicknamed Bad Henry also played and swung through the most ignorant of the non-racists who yet believed nobody had any business swinging past the Sacred Babe. And, past the manipulators on his own team who wanted nothing less than the Hammer hammering his way to meet and pass Ruth before the home audience when 1974 opened for business.

The Braves were to open in Cincinnati for a set before opening at home. Aaron entered the season needing one home run to meet Ruth and one more to pass him. If then-Braves owner Bill Bartholomay could have gotten away with it, Aaron wouldn’t have poked his nose out of the Braves dugout until they were finished with the Reds and back in Atlanta.

Word of that plan reached three New York sportswriters, Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Dave Anderson of The New York Times; and, Larry Merchant of the New York Post. They said not so fast, post haste. They denounced the plan without softening their prose or apologizing for their stance, ramping up a drumbeat on behalf of convincing then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to head the Braves off at the pass.

It turned out Kuhn didn’t need much convincing. He told Bartholomay, Braves manager Mathews, and anyone else listening that the Braves better not even think about sending a lineup to the plate in Riverfront Stadium without H. Aaron on the card. A fourth New York writer, Red Smith of the Times, nailed the point emphatically:

He explained to Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher might have been Atlanta’s sportswriting dean in that time and place, but he placed himself squarely on the wrong side of the line. Bisher led an equally passionate counterattack, denouncing the New York writers as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who would do better to demand the cleanup of Times Square before criticizing the sainted Braves one of whom was about to blast the Big Fella out of the books without wearing a uniform from New York.

Aaron had spent his entire career to that point helping to prove further that black men belonged in the Show and were perfectly capable of competing and winning with honour and talent, and Bisher and his like spent their own credibility defending a team determined to cheapen true competition so a black man could break a sacred sports record on home grounds.

Aaron squared off in the top of the first against the Reds’ Jack Billingham, a pitcher against whom he’d already hit four major league home runs. He hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up, 3-0. After he rounded the bases his congratulators included Kuhn himself. Mathews sat Aaron out of the second game in the three-game set, gaining a direct order from Kuhn to put him in the third-game lineup.

He struck out twice and grounded out once, fairly and squarely, but Kuhn’s protection of his and the game’s integrity made him wary of going to Atlanta to see Aaron get the Big One. He looked and sounded clumsy saying he’d had a previous engagement. If he’d only said honestly that he didn’t want to distract from Aaron’s achievement, it would have been better.

Every racist, every shill, every manipulator, everyone who thought a quiet guy who didn’t want to eat, drink, or fornicate the world out of house and home had no business busting the record of the loud lout who set it in the first place got it jammed right back down their throats when Aaron squared off against Dodgers lefthander Al Downing with one aboard and nobody out opening the bottom of the fourth.

Nobody described what happened next better than Dodgers broadcast virtuoso Vin Scully:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, and he’s low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . .

What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.

Henry and Billye Aaron, circa 2002.

Two young fans hit the field to run the bases with the new home run king; Aaron’s bodyguard sat in the stands with a hand on his pistol until he was sure the two young white men were there to love, not kill him. Aaron plunged across the plate into a crowd of teammates through which his parents managed to plow before his mother, Stella, hugged him to plant a big kiss on her son’s face.

“I don’t remember the noise,” Aaron said later. “Or the two kids that ran on the field. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there and she hugging me. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”

He’d retire two years later with 755 home runs and a truckload of further black ink on his resume. He remains baseball’s all time champion for total bases and runs batted in. He was a four-time single-season home run champion, he led his league in slugging four times, OPS three, and total bases eight. His Real Batting Average (RBA)—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—is .624. It’s also the second-best RBA among any Hall of Fame right fielder who played all or most of his career post-integration/post-World War II/night-ball. (Number one: Hall of Famer Stan Musial.)

Aaron wasn’t entirely wrong when he once wondered whether baseball truly appreciated who and what he was. He’d become the Show’s first African-American farm director but bristled quietly over how slow it was to embrace integrating front offices. Yet he was an annual Hall of Fame presence since his own election in 1992, and people of all races in and out of the game sought him out to pick his mind and savour his presence.

They often discovered Aaron belied his public image of composure with a fine, dry wit. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball,” he once said. “I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”

Whether squaring off against the best pitchers in the league yet giving his teammates the bigger credit for team conquests, or taking a COVID-19 vaccination shot, Aaron saw the bigger picture. “I feel wonderful,” he said as he took the needle on 5 January. “It makes you feel like you are doing something not only to help yourself, but to help your community.”

When his former Brewers boss Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner, Selig’s mistakes may have been legion but it was no mistake that Selig went out of his way to celebrate Aaron. He created the Hank Aaron Award handed since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league—its birth was on the silver anniversary of Aaron passing Ruth.

Aaron re-married happily in 1973; he and his wife, Billye, a former television journalist, had the fourth of Aaron’s three children. He enjoyed business success after his playing days, too, building a successful group of BMW dealerships in Georgia. When he played, he kept a book of Christian inspiration in his locker, Thomas a Kepmis’s The Imitation of Christ. Appropriate choice, that. Nobody could imitate either the saviour in whom Aaron believed devoutly or Aaron himself.

Lord, our grief on earth is too profound that a third Hall of Famer who defeated all who’d deflate him is brought home in just this year’s first month. But our comfort is that You have brought him home to be serene, happy, and swinging for the fences in the Elysian Fields, and that Your forgiven servant Ruth received him with a cold beer, a hearty embrace, and a garrulous “That’s the way to do it, kiddo.”

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A very few portions of this essay have been published previously.

Don Sutton, RIP: Craftsman (har, har)

Don Sutton only looked like a surfer dude.

Last year’s sad parade of Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields waited at least until spring to begin. This year’s began with the year a mere seven days old and the nation battered by the Capitol riot a day earlier. Tommy Lasorda died of heart failure on 7 January; one of his pitchers, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, died of cancer Tuesday night.

Sutton got to the Hall of Fame by way of his unique durability. In 23 major league seasons he didn’t miss a starting assignment until his last season, 1988. He earned credit for 324 wins despite having a 20-win season only once (in 1976, winning 21). He led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio and four in walks/hits per inning pitched but never led in strikeouts while leading his league in earned run average only once.

That’s despite spending his career in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. Sutton wasn’t too gapingly different on the road; enemy batters hit .247 against him on their home turf and .226 against him on his home turf, with a .606 OPS on his grounds and a .678 OPS on theirs. His forte was workman-like speed changing, smarts, and guile, heh heh heh.

As of this morning, Baseball-Reference lists Sutton as the number 73 starting pitcher of all time with the most-similar pitcher being fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Most similar doesn’t exactly mean equal value, of course; Perry is slightly above the peak and career value averages for Hall of Fame pitchers and Sutton is somewhat below those averages.

All aboard for fun time? Like Perry, Sutton was suspected very frequently of, shall we say, extracurricular craftsmanship on the mound. Like Perry, Sutton knew how to ride the suspicions well enough, even if he wasn’t half as dedicated to psychological warfare as Perry was.

Both men had mischievous senses of humour about the suspicions versus the actualities. If Perry titled his memoir Me and the Spitter and went through a famous series of motions from head to torso when he wanted hitters just to think he was going to grease them, Sutton didn’t have any particular trademark suspect gestures.

Perry looked like the Carolinas peanut farmer he was in the off-season; Sutton, despite his Alabama sharecropping roots, resembled the classic California surf rat from his rookie season to his Hall of Fame induction speech. Perry preferred to live rent-free in a hitter’s head; Sutton preferred tweaking the powers that were.

Sutton took to leaving tiny notes in the fingers of his glove for umpires to discover when they or a protesting manager thought it wise to have him patted down and frisked on the mound. A classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”

After frequent enough accusations that “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it,” Sutton actually got just that. “The only fun I get now,” he once said to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find them when they search me.”

“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Nobody expected Sutton to sue longtime respected umpire Doug Harvey when the latter ejected him over a “defaced” ball in 1978. While pitching against the Cardinals and leading 2-1 in the seventh on 14 July, Harvey gave Sutton the ho-heave. “I’m not saying Sutton was defacing it,” Harvey told reporters. “I’m saying he was pitching a defaced baseball and the rules state that anyone pitching a defaced ball shall be ejected from the park.”

United Press said the “defacement” may have involved Sutton scratching a mark into the ball with his fingernail. “I have one thing to say and then no questions,” he told reporters. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs the umpiring.”

Said Lasorda, who played the game under protest: “[Harvey] is judge and jury, and depriving Sutton of his right to pitch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that; it’s the first time he’s ever been ejected.”

“It was not the first confrontation over doctored balls between Harvey and Sutton,” UPI noted. “At other times in his twelve‐year career, the pitcher has been accused of scratching the ball with his fingernail to rough the surface for a better grip.”

Sutton’s lawsuit didn’t exactly set new legal precedent. It didn’t exactly get far enough to set one, let us say. Since the only verified implement he used was his fingernail, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of applying a foreign substance. (“I don’t use foreign substances,” one-time Yankee pitcher George Frazier snarked. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”)

But about a decade later, when Sutton was an Angel after some traveling from the Dodgers to the Astros, the Brewers, and the Athletics, he squared off in Anaheim Stadium against Tommy John, a former Dodger teammate then with the Yankees, and a pitcher Boswell described as able “to turn a tiny scratch into a double play grounder.”

Sutton during his years as a popular Braves broadcaster.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, watching from his Tampa home, decided Sutton was being a little too blatant about things, calling the Yankee dugout and manager Lou Piniella. Steinbrenner demanded Piniella have Sutton frisked, arrested, arraigned, bound over, tried, convicted, and executed on the spot. Piniella tried to reason with The Boss.

“George, do you know what the score is?” Piniella asked, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, referring to the early 1-0 Yankee lead. “George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ’s doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

John was lifted after six and a third innings; Sutton pitched seven full. Each man surrendered a pair of earned runs, including Sutton surrendering a bomb to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. After the 3-2 Yankee win, Madden and Klein recorded, a scout in the press box said, “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Sutton may have been puckish about his reputation for baseball carpentry but he often admitted candidly that he took baseball to be serious work perhaps too often. He was described often enough as a kind of blithe spirit but it seems to have been his way of protecting himself against the contradictions of the jock shop.

“[M]ost of us have similar abilities,” he once said, of fellow ballplayers and of people in general. “The differences are mental and emotional and the big thing is mental preparation. That’s where everything starts: the poise, the confidence, the concentration.” It didn’t hurt that Sutton’s rookie 1966 saw him the number four man behind a pair of Hall of Famers named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and a stolid number three in Claude Osteen, either.

Raised a devout Christian, Sutton didn’t buy into Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky routines or the manager’s celebrity style, probably because his first manager Walter Alston was the polar opposite and a man Sutton respected deeply for rejecting celebrity and respecting his players as men. Sutton often called Alston the most secure man he’d ever met in baseball and praised the manager for keeping problems and questions with his players behind closed doors.

Sometimes, Sutton discovered the hard way that a little honesty can get you into a nasty spat. When he was an Astro and admitted he hoped he could finish his career on the West Coast where his wife and children still lived, it provoked Astros general manager Al Rosen—who once ended his playing career early due to injuries and a desire to be more a family man—to spar with him in the press.

When still a Dodger in 1978, Sutton said candidly and somewhat benignly that similarly quiet outfielder Reggie Smith was the actual most valuable Dodger, praising the talented and silent Smith because he wasn’t “a facade or a Madison Avenue image.” Taken as the thinly-veiled poke at popular first baseman Steve Garvey that it was, it triggered a clubhouse argument turned brawl between Sutton and Garvey.

John once said that during the worst of the brawl, an unidentified Dodger hollered to break it up because they might kill each other—to which catcher Joe Ferguson replied, “Good.” The problem was that Sutton was actually right. Garvey’s OPS was .843 and his OPS+ for 1977-78 was 130. For the same two seasons, Smith’s OPS was .974 and his OPS+ was 165. Garvey also hit into 22 more double plays than Smith in that span, too. Garvey was worth 8.5 wins above replacement-level for those two seasons, but Smith was worth 10.6.

“I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this had to happen,” Sutton told reporters subsequently. “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a Christian, to be right.” That from the pitcher who once ruffled feathers, especially Lasorda’s, by saying unapologetically, “I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

“It took a big man to say what Don said,” said Lasorda himself, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutton, “and it took God to inspire him to say it.”

Sutton’s post-pitching life was mostly as a popular Braves broadcaster, where their fans reveled as much in Sutton’s easygoing repartee as in the turnaround of the Braves from the gutter to greatness. (The Braves elected him to their team Hall of Fame in due course.) He was also an enthusiastic Hall of Fame presence following his own election in 1998.

As a rookie during the once-fabled Koufax-Drysdale joint contract holdout of spring 1966, Sutton took the long view in due course. “Baseball players today,” he told Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, “owe a lot to Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But Flood, Messersmith, and McNally owed a lot to Koufax and Drysdale. Because they were the first guys who really took a stand. This was the first challenge to the structure of baseball.”

At the Hall of Fame Sutton let himself be plain human. In the same speech in which he thanked Koufax for teaching him how to act like a baseball professional, he began by saying, “I’ve wanted this for forty years. Why am I now shaking like a leaf?” Then, he answered his own question: “I think part of it is because I’m standing in front of some of the people who were the greatest artists in a wonderful business that I’ve ever seen before.”

The man who often called himself a journeyman hack appreciated the art of the game, and of his own craft, after all. May the Lord in whom his faith was profound enough have welcomed Sutton home with the same appreciation.