How long can the Shotime really go on?

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani hitting his 32nd home run of the season. How long before his two-way life compromises him one or both ways?

Baseball’s flavour of the month, if not the season, is a 27-year-old fellow from Japan about whom The Sporting News once cited unnamed major league scouts saying he’d never be able to hit American big-league pitching. Some say that now compares to the British Decca Records executive who dismissed the Beatles’ manager with, “Groups of guitars are on the way out.”

That fellow is now half way on the way to hitting more home runs in a single season than Babe Ruth and Roger Maris ever hit. (Number 32.) He even has an outside but not unrealistic shot at hitting more home runs than the tainted Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds ever hit in a single season. (McGwire: 70, in 1998; Bonds: 73, in 2001.)

Shohei Ohtani awoke this morning leading the Show with his 32 home runs and his .700 slugging percentage, not to mention leading the American League with four triples. He also performs reasonably at his baseball hobby, pitching: he has a 3.49 earned run average and a 3.58 fielding-independent pitching rate.

That makes him the ace of an Angels pitching staff that hasn’t seen a genuine ace since the first Obama Administration, when Jered Weaver laid claim to the title. That was a decade ago; this is now: The Angels’ starting rotation has a 5.41 ERA; the entire pitching staff, 4.97. With Ohtani in the equation. Without him, the rotation would be 5.90.

So many baseball people, employees, fans, writers alike, rush to anoint Ohtani the 21st Century’s Babe Ruth. But Ruth’s career began on the mound and went from merely impressive to out of this galaxy when he exchanged the mound for right field full-time.

In five more or less full-time seasons as a pitcher, Ruth showed a 2.16 ERA and a 2.74 fielding-independent pitching rate—a period in which the American League’s ERA was 2.88 and its FIP, 2.91. Ruth’s ERA was .72 below the league average and his FIP was .20 below the league. Except for 1916, when his ERA was better than 1.00 below league average (and his only ERA title), Ruth wasn’t exactly the best pitcher in the league—or even the best pitcher on his team. (In 1916, Dutch Leonard had a lower FIP and a better K/BB ratio.)

Really, it’s Ruth’s 1919 that stirs the blood toward comparing Ohtani to him. Well, now. On the mound Ruth posted a 2.97 ERA/3.58 FIP—while leading the American League at the plate in on-base percentage (.456), slugging percentage (.657), and OPS (1.114) in his first season playing 130 games as an outfielder.

Ohtani’s 3.49 ERA thus far is .84 below the American League through this morning; his 3.58 FIP, .66 below. Like Ruth, Ohtani is a good pitcher who can be great now and then. Unlike Ruth, Ohtani can be a strikeout machine on the mound; his 11.7 K/9 is far, far, far beyond Ruth’s 3.7 from 1915-1919. But also like Ruth, Ohtani negates both that and the league hitting a measly .195 against him this year with a 4.9 walks-per-nine rate. (The Babe in 1919: 3.9 walks per nine.)

Ruth pitched in a time when pitchers were still, generally, trained to pitch to bat contact instead of trying to miss bats. (Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson were outliers in that regard.) Of course, Ruth’s entire career took place in an arbitrarily limited game in terms of the available talent pool. A young Japanese man such as Ohtani would have been persona non grata in Ruth’s Show.

But he didn’t become The Babe until he changed jobs. He was a good pitcher with very occasional moments of greatness, but if he’d remained strictly on the mound he wouldn’t have become a Hall of Famer. He was a great (in 1919), then glandular hitter (just about the rest of his career), the absolute best of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball era position players.

It begs a serious Ohtani question. Co-hosting MLB Now for the MLB Network a few days ago, Brian Kenny—author of Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolutionsuggested it was time to think about restricting Ohtani to one or another role. Either make him a full-time pitcher, or make him a full-time designated hitter/periodic outfielder.

That suggestion sent apoplectic the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman, co-hosting the program with Kenny. “Why,” Sherman demanded, “would you stop him from doing one or the other?” Because, Kenny replied, “one could damage the other.”

Kenny was willing to acknowledge that it’s “great” if you can get an ERA under four and a slugging percentage beyond the tenth dimension, but he reminded Sherman audaciously enough that Ruth only really became Ruth when allowed to flourish (Kenny’s word) full-time with a bat in his hands.

“So,” Sherman shot back, “you would like one of the fifteen to twenty best starting pitchers in baseball to stop starting because you’re worried about something that could happen?” You can look it up: By his ERA and his FIP, Ohtani isn’t even one of the twenty-five best starting pitchers in this year’s Show. (ERA: 34th; FIP: tied for 30th.) What could happen, of course, is an injury determining Ohtani’s future employment one or the other way.

Stop snarling, Joe and Jane Fan. It happens. It has happened. Jacob deGrom, the best pitcher in baseball for several seasons, missed time enough this season due to a couple of injuries to his side incurred . . . swinging the bat. A few years ago, deGrom suffered a hyperextended pitching shoulder . . . from a hard swing-and-miss at the plate.

Adam Wainwright’s pitching life was compromised irrevocably by a torn Achilles tendon . . . running the bases. Before Steven Wright ran into trouble over domestic violence, his 2016 was ruined when he injured his pitching shoulder . . . diving back to second base. Chien-Ming Wang’s career was compromised irrevocably when he injured his right foot, the one with which he pushed from the pitching rubber . . . while running the bases.

Who’s to say a particularly hard swing or baserunning move won’t compromise an Ohtani body part whose health is required for even one of the top thirty starting pitchers in the game this season? Who’s to say a particularly hard or off-line throw from the mound won’t compromise the parts he needs to swing and hit balls into earth orbit?

Ohtani dodged such a bullet against the Red Sox two nights ago. He got hit on his surgically-repaired left knee (that’s on his landing leg for pitching, folks) when he fouled an Edwin Rodriguez pitch off his foot. One opposite foul later, Ohtani hit one halfway up the right field bleachers to pass Yankee legend Hideki Matsui for most single-season home runs by a Japanese-born Show player.

Lucky for him that he only had to jog around the bases. You still think the risk is just speculation? That time, it was just a foul off his foot and his knee. The next time, he could get blasted upside his head or his right shoulder (his pitching shoulder) with a pitch. Or, his brains blown out by a line drive on which he can’t get his glove.

I pondered the entire Ohtani phenomenon this morning in an essay for the International Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch subscription newsletter. “I get the hungering and hankering for someone like Ohtani the so-called two-way player,” I wrote therein.

I get that baseball has done such a terrible job finding and promoting its stars that Ohtani presents a brilliant opportunity entirely on his own. That’s great for the gate and the press. “Shut up and let us enjoy the ride,” Joe and Jane Fan holler at the Brian Kennys.

But it isn’t smart baseball.

Smart baseball requires the maximum placement of a player into the maximum position to do the best he has to help his team win with the least risk possible. It requires Shohei Ohtani to spend his complete days at the serious work of play at the plate. Do you really want a roll call of outsize talents ruined because the gate and the hype were allowed to override if not steamroll the game?

A man walking four batters per nine innings on the mound is a phenomenal risk that really reduces his value from eleven to seven strikeouts per nine. The same man with a .745 real batting average in 2021 so far (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) is a man who can out-hit your pitching staff’s liabilities.

Go right ahead and keep up the two-way hype if it makes you happy.

With the incomparable Mike Trout still out with a calf injury, Ohtani is indeed just about the only reason Angel fans have to celebrate what shapes up to be yet another season lost.

The Angels can hit tons. They’re third in the American League for team hitting average and OPS; they’re fifth for OBP and second for slugging. Trout before his injury and Ohtani still have a lot to do with that. But they have a team administration that still seems to think building a viable pitching staff is beyond its pay grade.

So the bad news is that Ohtani, their best among (shall we say) modest starting pitchers  and their best damned hitter period, must continue going both ways, regardless of the prospective detriment to his career. He may well end up the new single-season home run champion and the league’s OPS leader. He may even get to both pitch and hit in the All-Star Game.

Wowie zowie, as Frank Zappa once sang.

Ohtani is the Rosetta Stone at the plate. He’d be the number four or five starter on another staff. There’s danger in that thar two-way business. There usually is danger when you put the gate and the hype ahead of the game. There’s better gate when you field winning baseball than a single outlying Shoman. (Just ask the 2002 Angels—the only World Series winner in the franchise’s history so far.)

Enjoy Shotime while you can, ladies and gentlemen. But if danger becomes actuality, and it costs the Angels either the most viable starter on a pitching staff hitters pray to face, or their most dangerous hitter (or maybe both at once), don’t say nobody warned you.

Sacred cows are worth one thing—steak

Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain

“Spahn (left) and Sain (right) and we don’t need the rain . . . really . . . “

In the too-often-factually challenged film Quiz Show, about the late-1950s scandal centered on the infamously fixed television game Twenty-One, John Turturro’s Herb Stempel is unamused when his wife, Toby, proclaims he should worship the ground upon which she walks. “You want to be worshipped,” Turturro’s Stempel snaps back, “go to Bombay, stand in the middle of the street, and moo.”

Of course, the reference is to the manner in which Hindus regard the common cow. By dictionary definition, specifically the Oxford Languages edition, the sacred cow is “an idea, custom, or institution held, especially unreasonably, to be above criticism.” And if there’s one sport whose fans continue worshipping sacred cows, it’s baseball.

Letting facts get in the way of juicy stories is as old as the game itself. You’d have almost as hard a time isolating the first such sacred cow in baseball as you’d have discovering the precise human being who invented the wheel. You can know the when and where (approximately 3,500 B.C., Mesopotamia) but as for the who only God knows, and He isn’t available for an interview as I write.

It works with juicy doggerel, too. Baseball’s loaded with it. A social media baseball group yielded one this morning when he proclaimed the Boston Braves once had a motto: “Spahn and Sain and a day of rain.” That wasn’t their motto, but it was a pleasant little doggerel dreamed up by Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern in 1948:

First, we’ll use Spahn,
Then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day,
Followed by rain.

Back will come Spahn
Followed by Sain
And followed,
We hope,
By two days of rain.

Hern dreamed it up during a 7-10 September stretch during which the Braves didn’t play because of bad weather, presumably. As Frank Jackson observed four years ago in The Hardball Times, sportswriters get awful creative when there are no games on their beats. Often as not, they’re more awful than creative.

“One suspects the Braves’ other starters were less than enthusiastic about Hern’s little ditty,” Jackson wrote. “Certainly, none came close to having the season that Johnny Sain had in 1948, and none had the career that Warren Spahn had. But that doesn’t mean they were a bunch of humpty-dumpties.”

Sain didn’t exactly do terribly for himself. After his pitching career ended he became one of the game’s most respected pitching coaches—by the pitchers he coached, if not always by the managers to whom he reported. Spahn, of course, became a Hall of Famer against whom future lefthanded pitchers would be measured, if it hadn’t been for a few to follow him named Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, and Randy Johnson.

But Jackson was right. The rest of the pennant-winning Braves’ 1948 starting rotation wasn’t exactly two pounds of baloney in a half-pound sack. Sain led the starters with his 2.60 earned run average and 3.41 fielding-independent pitching rate . . . but Spahn was actually last among them with his 3.71 ERA and second to Sain with his 3.64 FIP. Vern Bickford’s 3.27/3.99 and Bill Voiselle’s 3.63/4.21 would, as Jackson noted, get them both sweet contracts as free agents in today’s game.

As a matter of fact, Spahn and Sain may have inspired Hern to channel his inner Ogden Nash but Bickford started six games down that September stretch—and got credit for four wins, no losses, and one no-decision game in which he pitched well enough to beat the Phillies in the nightcap of a doubleheader—nine innings, eight scattered hits, one run surrendered, and five strikeouts (scattering four walks). But he came out after nine, the game went thirteen innings, and the Braves scored what proved the winning run on a fly out. (The sacrifice fly rule wasn’t in effect then.)

Bickford was a rookie in 1948, his arrival at 27 delayed by World War II service, yet he wasn’t exactly the kind of pitcher who’d really make you pray for rain between Spahn and Sain in 1948-50. Two years later, he’d pitch the seventh no-hitter in Braves history. He was through after 1954 (injuries provoked inconsistency after 1950, it seems); he died of cancer at 39 in 1960.

How about baseball’s most famous previous piece of doggerel? It was written by Franklin P. Adams of The New York Evening Mail in 1910. If not for that, Adams might be remembered best as one of the regular panelists on radio’s long-running brain-food quiz Information, Please. (The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn was the son of a teacher who may actually have originated the idea behind the show.) Here was Adams in the 12 July 1910 Mail, writing doggerel he called “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”:

These are the saddest of possible words
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble
Making a Giant hit into a double
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance

Those ruthless prickers of gonfalon bubbles . . .

“As the story goes,” wrote Tim Wiles in The New York Times in 1996, “Adams was told that he needed eight lines of filler for an empty spot on the sports page. Thus, the ‘Sad Lexicon.’ Never mind that some baseball historians have observed that Tinker, Evers and Chance did not dazzle as a double-play combination. After being forever linked by Adams’s poem, the three men were elected to the Hall of Fame together in 1946.”

Assessed objectively, Joe Tinker was the best defender of the trio by far, Frank Chance was the best hitter among them, and it’s entirely possible that there but for the grace of “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” would the trio have been forgotten as a double play combination that didn’t really dazzle that often. The Old-Timers Committee elected the three to Cooperstown despite at least one double play combination—Joe Cronin (SS), Buddy Myers (2B), Joe Judge (1B)—proving far better between 1929-34.

Cronin-to-Myers-to-Judge doesn’t quite have the same rhythmic grace as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. They also have something else in common with TEC: they’re not even among the top 25 double play combinations of all time. They were prime in their times, of course, but they’ve been eclipsed thoroughly by several combos that followed. Even if reciting “Tram to Whit to Evans” ain’t got that swing.

Adams’s doggerel eclipsed the previous most famous verse, about a particularly colourful and daring 1880s player who caught, played third base, and played right field, though he wasn’t more than fair-to-mediocre in the field:

Slide, Kelly, Slide!
Your running’s a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, Slide!
Stay there, hold your base!
If some one doesn’t steal you,
And your batting doesn’t fail you,
They’ll take you to Australia!
Slide, Kelly, Slide!

Mike (King) Kelly was a terrific hitter who led his league in doubles three times, in on-base percentage twice, and in OPS+ once, while playing on eight championship teams. Kelly  was also considered baseball’s first matinee idol and known to be the first player to write an autobiography.

He was also the game’s highest-paid player at his peak and most popular off-season vaudeville performer, never mind that he died penniless of pneumonia a year after he played his final game, so profligate was he when it came to spending money.

Kelly has another distinction: he may also have been a rather profligate cheater. “He had a large effect on the game,” wrote the Society for American Baseball Research’s Peter M. Gordon in The Glorious Beaneaters of the 1890s.

It was said that half the rules in the baseball rule book were rewritten to keep Kelly from taking advantage of loopholes. He played the game with gusto and looked for every edge he could get to win, and his teams won eight championships in 16 years. We are not likely to see a player like King Kelly again.

The arguable inventor of the hook slide, Kelly also took advantage of the single-umpire presence in 19th century baseball and became infamous for cutting bases—from first to third without going near second; from second home without going near third—when the ump wasn’t looking. “This made him popular amongst fans and teammates,” wrote Sports Stories‘ Eric Nusbaum in November 2019. “It didn’t go over great among opposing players, or the embarrassed umpires.”

Kelly may also have been credited with inventing the thing that eventually became the focus of baseball’s worst cheating scandal of the 21st Century. He may (underline that) have been the first man behind the plate to use finger signals to tell a pitcher what to throw up to the plate.

Players and teams have been stealing signs since, usually on the field, though some have gotten illegally creative about it. See Philadelphia Athletics, 1910s (said to have posted a telescope viewer atop a building beyond Shibe Park’s center field); Detroit Tigers, 1940 (a player or two in the stands using pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle scope); Cleveland Indians, 1948 (hand-held telescopers posted inside the scoreboard); New York Giants, 1951 (Leo Durocher’s infamous telescope-to-bullpen-buzzer posted in the clubhouse/ office building behind the Polo Grounds’ center field); Houston Astros, especially, 2017-18 (the infamous center field camera-to-clubhouse monitor-to-bang the can slowly).

Who would have thought that the multi-position player who showed the world how a baseball player could become a popular idol before Babe Ruth even gestated might also have been the unintended creator—thought he might well have just winked and nodded if he’d known—of that which eventually inspired Astrogate? Slide, Kelly, slide!

Babe Ruth

The Big Fella went out not with a bang but a whisper.

Of course, baseball’s most sacred cow may well remain Ruth, who made Kelly resemble a one-hit wonder as a public sports property. Speak any degree less than reverentially about the Big Fella, and you may lure about a hundred times more people than yourself out to march you on the perp walk toward the stake against which they’ll burn you.

There isn’t enough room to review in full the deets behind the point that Ruth shouldn’t be considered the greatest player who ever was. Suffice to say it’s absolutely fair to call him the greatest player of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night games era—but nothing more. (It’s not the Babe’s fault he played a segregated game, of course, but that doesn’t change the conditions in which he played.)

I’d be hard pressed to think of how many myths surrounding the Big Fella prove to be just that. But there’s one that still stands out particularly, despite its debunking: the myth of Ruth going out absolutely in a blaze of home run glory with the 1935 Boston Braves, who signed him purely as a gate attraction despite his aging, and who may well have reeled him in with a phony promise to make him their manager.

The longtime myth was that—40 years old, showing every year of it, a shell of his old self (as a player; he still looked as though he’d eaten a cow or two, sacred or otherwise)—the Mighty Bambino rose up in one final burst of pride, blasted three home runs in a game against the Pirates, then walked away forever as a player. I saw it referenced that way on a social media group about a week or so ago. If only.

Ruth’s image remains so outsized that it makes perfect sense to think he’d end his playing career with that kind of eruption. In the game in question, he hit a trio of two-run homers in the top of the first, the top of the third, and the top of the fifth. The first pair put the Braves up 4-0. The bad news: the Pirates went on to win the game, 11-7.

The worse news, for the Ruthian myth: those three bombs were the last hits of Ruth’s Hall of Fame career . . . but he played five more games with the Braves and went hitless in all five. He scored two more runs on someone else’s dimes; he got credit for one run batted in . . . on 29 May 1935, when he drew a bases-loaded walk against Phillies pitcher Euel Moore, who’d just relieved Tommy Thomas. The next Braves batter, Wally Berger, smashed a grand slam, giving the Braves a 7-0 lead. (They went on to win—8-6.)

Ruth’s slash line for those final five games: .000/.308/.000. That’s not the way you want to think of an all-time baseball idol going out, of course. They can’t all be Ted Williams on 28 September 1960, inspiring one of the most memorable essays by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The Big Fella wasn’t the first or last of baseball’s giants (or ex-Giants, if you remember Willie Mays’s sad final seasons) to go out not with a bang but a whisper.

But it doesn’t diminish the game, its inspirations, its pleasures, or its true legends, to acknowledge that a sacred cow is still worth what the Big Fella probably put away in over-abundance—steak.

Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.

Sixty springs later

Roger Maris, driving Babe Ruth to one side, 1 October 1961.

Met fans since the day they were born, among whom you’ll find me, may forget they had Roger Maris to thank for one-third of the Mets’ original broadcast team. When Maris teed off against future Met pitcher Jack Fisher to hit his 60th home run in 1961, nineteen thousand fans in Yankee Stadium were joined by one grandmotherly society matron listening at home over her radio.

Bob Murphy was behind the Orioles microphone to call the blast. Hearing Murphy call Maris tying ruthsrecord (yes, that’s really how they said it in 1961), Joan Payson invited him to join Lindsey Nelson and Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner as the broadcast team for her embryonic Mets. Bless his soul, Maris may or may not have had a clue. It was probably the least important thought on his mind as that season wound to its finish.

Exactly sixty years ago, there was Maris in spring training, his first as the defending American League Most Valuable Player and his second as a Yankee. It may have been the simplest time of the season to come for the plainspoken right fielder who suffered few fools gladly and broke a revered sports record to earn the violent lash of the superstardom he never sought.

It took Maris eleven games and 42 plate appearances before he faced Tigers reliever Paul Foytack in the top of the fifth, with the Yankees holding a three-run lead, and hit one into Tiger Stadium’s right field seats.

If you want to get technical about it, let’s re-set Maris’s 1961 home run clock to begin with that 26 April game, and he broke ruthsrecord in two games less than a commissioner with a conflict of interest—and a New York sportswriter who ignored the conflict while offering as disgraceful an idea as baseball ever broached—proclaimed must be done for the new record to be “legitimate.” (Maris also needed five fewer plate appearances than Ruth did to hit number 60. Yes, you can look that one up, too.)

I grew up hearing the controversies and arguments around Maris even though I wasn’t a Yankee fan. Then and now, the Yankee fan’s sense of entitlement put me off. I respected what the team accomplished. I admired particular Yankees. (Not just Maris and Mickey Mantle but Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and pre-ruthsrecord manager Casey Stengel, whose final baseball act was managing the early, calamitous Mets.)

But we Met fans knew straight from the crib what too many non-Yankee fans knew for otherwise full lives. You’re entitled to nothing, no matter how deep in resources, no matter how broad in reach. Even the Almighty Yankees proved only human (every American League season from 1903-1920; 1923-25; 1929-31; 1940; 1944-46; 1948; 1954; 1959) in at least 31 seasons prior to Maris’s season in the broiling sun.

You’re certainly not “entitled” to break a revered sports record, either, though with different intentions that’s just about what then-commissioner Ford Frick and enough Yankee fans believed in 1961.

Frick would rather have been caught en flagrante indicto with Medusa than see the man for whom he once ghostwrote knocked out of the record book in any way, shape, or form. Dick Young—the longtime New York Daily News sports emperor, who would do his level best to help run Tom Seaver out of New York a decade and a half later—would rather have been caught likewise than fail to suggest the infamous asterisk that Frick had no power to impose* except in the public imagination, when he spoke of it on 17 July.

Yankee fans believed that, if Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record must fall in due course (and they couldn’t bear to utter those final three words), it was nothing less than Mickey Mantle’s birthright.

Because, you see, among other things, Mantle was the face of the Yankees and had been since just about the beginning of the Korean War, even if he wasn’t always beloved. Mantle’s pre-1961 was one of grand achievement and the concurrent sense—inadvertently provoked by Stengel, who always thought and said aloud that Mantle’s raw talent should have made him Superman (Can you imagine what John McGraw would have said if he could have seen this kid? Stengel once mused)—that he wasn’t quite great enough, and the fans let him know it.

But in 1961, Mantle could and did tell reporters at last, “It’s a new feeling and it’s nice. Those fans, they’ve changed.” By mid-summer, abetted by Frick, Young, and others, they’d had a new Yankee to despise. To them, Mantle earned his stripes. He was a “true Yankee,” born and bred.

Who was this interloper from the Kansas City Athletics (from whom Maris was traded near the end of 1959) and where did he get off horning in on Mantle’s entitlement? Maris had the inadvertent effect of making Mantle as beloved at last as he’d always been impossible to miss.

Even Maris’s particular hitting style became part of the outrage. He didn’t hit the Ruthian or Mantlesque parabola. He had in common with Ruth being a powerful lefthanded pull hitter but the similarity ended there. Maris’s specialty was the booming line drive, not the outrageous ICBM, made to order for reaching the Yankee Stadium short right field porch that was built on behalf of Ruth in the first place.

(The porch didn’t quite do Maris so many favours in 1961. Yes, you can look it up: Maris hit one more bomb on the road than at home.)

You almost didn’t want to know what those people would have thought if any one of such concurrent baseball bombardiers not in Yankee pinstripes—Henry Aaron, Rocky Colavito, Eddie Mathews, Jim Gentile, Frank Howard, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson—had smashed ruthsrecord. Which was set in the first place by the “true Yankee” who became a Yankee in the first place following a controversial purchase from the Red Sox.

I don’t know if Maris actually said, commiserating with Mantle in a hotel conversation on the road, “Why can’t they have room for two heroes?” as portrayed in Billy Crystal’s film about the 1961 ruthsrecord chase, 61*. It would have been a very valid question if he had.

But we do know that another long-time myth has long been debunked: Mantle and Maris weren’t exactly mortal enemies, either. “Mickey liked and admired his shy, reserved teammate,” wrote Mickey and Willie author Allen Barra in The Atlantic, “and the two actually shared an apartment in Queens with reserve outfielder Bob Cerv. Late in the season, Mantle, suffering from an abscess in his hip joint, pulled hard for Maris to beat Ruth from his hospital bed.”

After ten seasons of making his bones and coming to terms with New York’s somewhat capricious sports press, Mantle learned how to be glib and let his own wit (mulcted by his odd-couple, Astoria Queens-bred running mate Whitey Ford) join his matinee-idol looks to make him a media star. “Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient,” Thomas Boswell wrote, upon Maris’s death. (First in the Washington Post; it was republished in his 1989 anthology The Heart of the Order.)

With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At twenty-six, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reclusive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he’s painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

The idea of cultivating and managing fame existed long before Maris began taking his swings at ruthsrecord and cringing at the idea that he’d become any kind of star.

Ruth himself mastered the earliest art of public relations, even if it was as much self-preservation as anything else. (The Babe wasn’t exactly a model citizen, something today’s fans fuming over athlete malfeasance forget or ignore.) Mantle learned how to accommodate it. Until his early off-field San Francisco experiences seared him, Willie Mays all but basked in it.

When another Daily News writer, Joe Trimble, broke the ice and asked Maris in June 1961 (when he had 27 home runs already) whether he could break ruthsrecord, Maris answered, “How should I know?” It was a blunt, honest answer. Exactly the answer even those who’d rather have had a castor oil cocktail than see ruthsrecord fall didn’t want to hear.

Maris had at least one fan who didn’t mind him breaking ruthsrecord—in the White House.

Aaron would experience far different, far more grotesque furies when he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list. Maris in all fairness didn’t require the FBI’s attention over the kind of hate mail he received in 1961. The racists came out in force to try driving Aaron off the course. The merely brain-damaged tried with Maris.

The product of a difficult childhood himself (his parents’ marriage was described most politely as “turbulent”; they divorced a year before the ruthsrecord chase), Maris found one way to relieve some of the pressure: he started refusing to answer non-family mail unless it came from children.

With his own children, Maris did his best to be the father his own parents’ incendiary marriage often denied him. His trade to the Yankees from Kansas City meant longer separation from his young family because he didn’t want to uproot them. (The family eventually moved to Florida.)

Saying so honestly didn’t exactly endear him to Yankee fans, either. To his teammates, and numerous sources back it up, Maris was straight, no chaser, more articulate and accommodating with those he considered friends. “He had been burned too often,” Peter Golenbock wrote in Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, “to trust any strangers.”

“I was extremely proud of my father, in every way,” his oldest child, Susan, told a reporter fifty years after the chase heard ’round the world. She remembered the man who was away a little too often for comfort but who did his best to make life special for his children when he was home. “He was a good ballplayer, a great man, a great father . . . The ’61 season meant more to me in later life.”

It was a stricken child who inadvertently provoked one of Maris’s uglier mishaps that season, one that was interpreted vividly but with too much missing in 61*. The film showed New York Post reporter Milt Gross (named Milt Kahn in the film) bawling out Yankee PR leader Bob Fishel over Maris standing him up for a promised interview and, for once, showing Maris little of the empathy he’d been one of the only reporters to show that season.

Mantle’s best biographer, Jane Leavy, uncovered the actuality: Maris spent the morning of Game 154 visiting the son of a former teammate, a boy dying of cancer. Doing so meant standing up Gross. The furious Gross ripped Maris a few new ones in the next day’s editions; the boy died two days after the rip job.

Mantle dropped out of the home run chase after a “vitamin” shot from a doctor named Max Jacobson left him with a hip abscess that ended his regular season days before Maris broke ruthsrecord. (Jacobson would be run out of the medical profession in 1972, after The New York Times exposed his dubious at best drug-making practises.)

After Maris hit the big one at last, he and his wife, Pat, went to a Roman Catholic mass—and walked out within minutes, when the priest told the congregation Maris was there. From there, they visited Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital and then went to dinner with Maris’s friend Julius Isaacson. And, with Gross, burying the hatchet over the Baltimore snub.

“A little girl approached their table [Leavy wrote] to ask Maris for an autograph.”

“Would you put the date on it too, please?” she asked.

“The date?” Maris asked. “What is today’s date?”

“The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did,” Big Julie replied.

From 1960-1962, Maris played like a Hall of Famer, even if the numbers raw and deep even suggest Mantle and not Maris should have been named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. In 1963 began the injuries that would sap Maris’s line drive power and reduce him to a journeyman-level player who’d finally find some baseball peace (plus two more pennants and another World Series ring) when he was traded to the Cardinals for 1967.

After two seasons in St. Louis, where he was long past his prime power seasons but still a study in right field (he’d retire with 39 defensive runs saved above his league average and had only two seasons that showed him a run or two below the average), Maris retired to Florida and a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship until his death of lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

The injuries ruined his chances of making a full Hall of Fame case. The insanity battering him regularly in 1961 kept him from consistent pleasure in breaking baseball’s most revered single-season record. Nobody really stopped to ponder the raw guts it took for Maris to survive long enough—and he had moments enough where he wanted to surrender—to hit Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard’s fastball into the right field seats.

When Golenbock actually got Maris to talk for Dynasty, outside a club where he was enjoying drinks with his old teammate and longtime friend Clete Boyer, a woman asked Boyer to pose for a photo. Boyer assented gladly and invited Maris to join them. “Do you know who Roger is?” Boyer asked the lady. When she said she never heard of Maris, Maris replied with a smile, “That’s just the way I like it.”

“Heaven protect us,” Boswell wrote, “from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve . . . Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn’t that the moral of Roger Maris’s career?”

His career, not his life.

—————————————

* (pun intended) From Allen Barra:

Amazingly, the mythical asterisk has survived even Ford Frick’s denial. Practically no one remembers that Frick wrote an autobiography published by Crown in 1973, Games, Asterisks and People. “No asterisk,” he wrote, “has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment.” Frick, though, couldn’t resist reminding us in his book that “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” Since practically no one read Frick’s book, his denial of the asterisk did nothing to erase it from the collective memory of American baseball fans.

In a bizarre postscript to the asterisk story, in 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement indicating that he supported “The single record thesis,” meaning that Maris held the record for most home runs in a season, period. The Committee on Statistical Accuracy, appointed by Vincent, then voted to remove the asterisk from Maris’s record. Thus, a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied ever having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s “removal” of it.

When Billy Crystal made 61*, the final scene shows an overhead shot of Maris (portrayed by Barry Pepper, whose physical resemblance to Maris remains astonishing) hitting the Big One out, then fading with Red Sox catcher Russ Nixon and home plate umpire Bill Kinnamon (actors uncredited) into slow invisibility.

Over it, near-eternal Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard—immortalised by Reggie Jackson as “the voice of God”—referenced Vincent’s statement before finishing: “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged to him.”

The power of positive Padre-ing

It didn’t need a meal and a stewardess a la Willson Contreras, but Fernando Tatis, Jr.’s Thursday bat flip was second only to hitting two bombs in two innings helping the Padres steal the Thursday Show.

Clayton Kershaw channeling his future Hall of Famer self to pitch eight innings, strike thirteen out, walk one, scatter three hits, and refuse to let a single Milwaukee Brewer even think about coming home? Fun, and who cares?

The Oakland Athletics having a ball on the Chicago White Sox bullpen’s dollars and walking as much as swatting their way to a division series for the first time in fourteen years? More fun, and who cares again?

Marcell Ozuna joyously pantomiming a selfie up the first base line after he launched a mammoth two-run homer against Atlanta reliever Raisel Iglesias, driving the Fun Police and the boring old farts out of their skulls while helping the Braves to their first postseason series win since the immediate wake of 9/11? Marvelous. And who cares yet again?

The Slam Diego Padres thinking they were twelve outs from winter vacation one moment and deciding that being swept out of a wild card series by the St. Louis Cardinals was not a viable option? Now you’re talking.

Yes, it’s possible that the Padres and the Cardinals fighting baseball’s equivalent of the Battle of the Bulge right down to the final out, with Fernando Tatis, Jr. playing George Patton, just to force a third wild card game, was the most must-see baseball on a Thursday that was overloaded with must-see.

If we weren’t going to get a continuing opportunity for the 29-31 Brewers to push onward and possibly (underline that, gang) meet the 29-31 Houston Astros in the World Series, and thus make a first class chump out of Commissioner Nero and his hopes that this sixteen-team-opening postseason becomes a permanent blight on the concept of championship, the least we could get was some plain fun ball.

The Padres made sure it was the very least and absolute most when they out-wrestled, out-bopped, out-slapped, and out-lasted the Cardinals, 11-9, in Petco Park, the lair where the big bats normally went to die at the mercy of the infamous Dreaded Marine Layer. The one that floated into San Diego and turned booming home runs into bloated, crashing fly outs. Or, once in awhile, turned those bombs into measly dropping base hits at best.

These Padres couldn’t care less about that marine layer. They’ll just drive their long balls right through it and part it the way God parted the Red Sea. And they won’t even let it bother them that they can finish five innings, sit in the hole 4-2 against the Cardinals, and sit concurrently twelve outs from being swept into early winter vacation.

The Cardinals tack up two more in the top of the sixth? Tatis will just have to hit a three-run homer followed by Manny Machado hitting a solo bomb in the bottom to tie it. Then the Padres will keep the Cardinals from scoring in the top of the seventh, Wil Myers will hit one over the left field fence to open the bottom of the seventh, and—two outs after a walk to Austin Nola—Tatis will send one over the right field fence for a 9-6 lead.

“I feel like we needed that big swing for the entire team to get us going,” said Tatis—who hit four homers only three other extra-base hits from 2-27 September—about that first bomb. “We were missing a lot with runners in scoring position. I feel like whoever did it first, we were going to feed off that. Thank God I did it first, but I’m just happy the team clicked and we won the game.”

Padres reliever Drew Pomeranz has to plunk Matt Carpenter to open the St. Louis eighth and Tatis himself has to throw offline on the next play to set up second and third for Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong to hit back-to-back sacrifice flies and close the Cardinal deficit back to a single run? No problemo. Jurickson Profar will be more than happy to bop a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth and Myers will be even more than that to hit one over the center field fence.

Then Paul Goldschmidt leading off the top of the ninth hit an 0-1 bomb against an old Cardinals buddy, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, once a lights-out closer, but addled since by injuries and picked up by the Padres from the New York Mets’ scrapyard. For several brief, none-too-shining moments, it looked as though walking Carlson and letting Yadier Molina single Carlson to second meant Rosenthal was going to let the Cardinals re-tie at least and make the bottom of the ninth either a Padres last stand or a Padres plotz.

No chance. Pop out to second, swinging strikeout, and ground out to first. And pandemonium wherever Padres fans were watching since the pandemic-mandared empty ballparks came into force. Even the broadcasters working remotely from ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters let their enthusiasm for a game like that spill into the next work stations where another team was still covering and calling Kershaw and company.

“We’re in the playoffs. The game was not done, the job was not done until we get those 27 outs, we cannot back down, we cannot settle,” Tatis went on to say about his second homer. “There was a lot of game left. I was wanting to keep motivating my teammates, just to let them know, to keep on. They are a team that they’re going to answer back, so we’ve got to keep doing the work.”

How could the Dodgers and the Brewers possibly top the Friars roast? These Padres just did in one three-inning stretch what they’d never done in any postseason series—hit five over the fences. They never came back from four or more runs behind in any previous postseason—but they came back from 4-0 Thursday.

Tatis and Myers also became the first teammates to swing for the Delta Quadrant twice in a single postseason game since—wait for it!—Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Game Three of the 1932 World Series. The one in which Ruth is still alleged to have called his shot. Neither Tatis nor Myers thought of calling theirs, but don’t bother us now, brothers and sisters.

For that matter, the last time the Cardinals blew a four-run lead in a postseason game was Game Four of the 1982 World Series, a series they won. Not to mention that in the past eight years the Cardinals won 139 times straight in games where they scored nine or more runs. Until Thursday.

“We played a great lineup, a great team,” said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who lasted three and two thirds and two runs worth Thursday, “and they came at us over and over and over again and we never backed down. We answered back almost every time. Every time we put them in a hole they came right back.”

The Friars’ work is never done yet. They still have to push, shove, and rumble past Jack Flaherty Friday. Flaherty started the irregular season brilliantly enough, then faltered mostly due to one horrific nine-run battering inflicted by the Brewers in mid-September. But he’s still Jack Flaherty. And he’s no pushover. Yet.

But that won’t diminish what the Padres did Thursday and all season long. Lots of teams made baseball fun again this year. These Padres made those guys resemble funeral home staffs. Even when you beat them, which happened 23 times against 37 times they beat the other guys, they wouldn’t let you go without feeling like the whole game was a party.

Oh, yes. Before I forget. When Tatis launched his second bomb, he delivered a lovely bat flip two steps out of the batter’s box. It wasn’t even close to requiring a meal and a stewardess on board, as Willson Contreras’s flip a week ago, but it spun like a Lockheed Constellation engine’s propeller warming up nonetheless.

The joyous leaping forearm bumps among Tatis and Myers and their mates after they crossed the plate were just as rich and just as much fun. Take that, Bambino, wherever you are!