Summary Judgement: 62 in ’22

Aaron Judge

“I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.—Aaron Judge became the AL’s new single-season home run king at last Tuesday night in Texas.

Maybe Aaron Judge should be playing things like the stock market. Without making as grand a show of things as observers paid to be so grand (and perhaps foolish), he gambled early that he could turn his first walk year into something big when he achieves his first free agency.

He probably didn’t think he’d smash a longstanding American League home run record along the way. Certainly not in a season in which hitting across the major league board was at one of its lowest levels in the professional game’s history and he could never be certain he’d get a miniature medicine ball or a turbocharged orb to launch.

But smash it Judge did Tuesday night. In the second game of a doubleheader in Texas. If you’re going to slam the season’s biggest exclamation point down but you can’t do it in front of the home audience, there are few places bigger than there to do it.

Batting leadoff for the 106th time at all this year, and batting first in the lineup for the 34th time, Judge squared up Rangers righthander Jesus Tinoco’s slightly hanging slider on 1-1 and drove it parabolically several rows up the lower left field seats. Even the Globe Life Field audience couldn’t contain their pleasure in seeing the Leaning Tower of 161st Street make American League history.

Almost a full week after he met Roger Maris, with the Yankees having banked the AL East title in the same week, the tall swinger from California passed the comparatively compact swatter from the Dakotas. And unlike Maris’s abusively unfair experience in 1961, Judge got there with almost universal approval from the moment it looked as though he had a serious shot at getting there.

There was nothing unfair about Judge’s achievement, unless you count that this is a young man to whom you can throw a ball of Play-Doh and he can still hit it across the county line. Tinoco had never faced Judge before and had only surrendered one home run in 19.2 innings work on the season before Judge rang his and history’s bells.

“We knew it was going to happen and nobody wants to give it up,” said Tinoco—a reliever but pitching as the Rangers’ second-game opener Tuesday night, “but it’s part of the game. I challenged him and he hit it. That’s my job. All I can say is ‘congratulations’ to him.”

“I know he has a nasty sinker and a nasty slider,” said Judge postgame. “We were kind of waiting to hear who the starter of Game Two was gonna be. When I heard it was him, I saw what he did the night before and I said, ‘This isn’t a good matchup to start the game off with a guy with high velocity like that and a good off-speed pitch.’ So going into it, I think that helped me relax: ‘Hey, this is a good pitcher. Let me go up there and let’s see what happens’.”

Maybe he pressed a little too much between home runs 61 and 62. Maybe the opposition pressed a little hard trying to pitch around him until Tinoco’s slider didn’t slide enough. Maybe, too, Judge clung just hard enough to his insistence that, sure, it’d be great to do it, but he had more important things such as postseason prep to think about.

But maybe even this still-boyish looking galoot who softens the most when interacting with the children who like and admire him while maintaining his privacy otherwise without an ostentatious harrumph wanted the record so badly he could taste it even up with whatever he’d had for a meal before and after his long day’s work of play Tuesday.

The Yankees won the first of the twin bill without Judge going long. They ended up losing 3-2 in the nightcap Judge opened so historically, before he was given the rest of the night off by manager Aaron Boone, following a second-inning strikeout and a double switch of second baseman Oswaldo Cabrera to Judge’s position in right field, shortstop Oswald Peraza to second, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa out to play short.

A few hours after the second game ended and he’d run the gamut of reporters and well-wishers, Judge reportedly found some quiet in the clubhouse until a small voice reached his ears. Asking who was there, Judge then found himself spending a little time with Yankee catcher Jose Trevino’s little son, Josiah.

The gentle giant who helped make a Toronto kid’s week after seeing the kid in tears of joy when an adult Blue Jays fan handed him a ball Judge sent into the Rogers Centre upper deck in May spends as much time entertaining his teammates’ kids as he does entertaining fans in the stands with blasts past the ionosphere.

It may not yet have hit him completely that he’d claimed one of the most sacred pages in the AL record book for his own. And it may take the length of the postseason, however long the Yankees prove to stay there, before it does.

“In my book,” the Leaning Tower of 161st Street said after the second doubleheader game, “it’s just another day. I wish we would have gotten the win, that would have made it a little sweeter I think. But I’m going to try to soak it in, soak in the moment with my family, and get ready for the game tomorrow. I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.”

That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Even through his very visible effort to suppress his patented big snaggle-tooth grin as he rounded first heading for second. Even with his teammates swarming from the dugout starting about two seconds after he dropped his bat to run the bomb out. Even with his wife, Samantha Bracksieck, and his parents, Wayne and Patty Judge, leading the loud ovation.

“We just wanted it to happen so bad,” said Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole postgame. “I don’t know if that’s pressing, or just hoping hard. We were all just hoping really hard, I think.”

Maris’s 1961 teammates pressed just as hard for him to make it once Mickey Mantle fell out of that unwarrantedly-controversial chase with a hip abscess. But they were almost alone there. Thanks to a capricious conflicted-of-interest commissioner and a particularly nasty contingency in the baseball press of the time, Maris was denied his due for driving a baseball idol (some think sacred cow) to one side.

Judge has tried to sustain his sense of proportion throughout the entire run. Maybe come the postseason he and his wife will kick their shoes off and romp and play in wild celebration. First, he has his sixth postseason in as many seasons of being a Yankee to play.

Maris, a refugee from the then-Indians and the Kansas City Athletics, and the AL’s defending Most Valuable Player while he was at it, was en route his second consecutive World Series in a Yankee uniform. They lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the Pirates in 1960 but won a five-game laugher against the upstart Reds in 1961.

For daring to challenge and pass the Sacred Babe, Maris was battered unconscionably in ways that would be called child abuse if done by a parent to a child.

“At the plate, he heard obscene abuse from the creeps who think that a ticket to the game entitles them to horsewhip the entertainers,” wrote sportswriting legend Red Smith, then still with the New York Herald-Tribune.

Off the field he was badgered ceaselessly by fans, the press, radio-TV, press agents, promoters. Only on rare occasions did this quiet, candid young man let his temper slip, and then it was due to some especially outrageous question or repeated references to “pressure,” with the implication that he was choking up.

Some social media idiots thought and said the same about Judge as he laboured almost that full week to get from 61 to 62. For those who care about incompetent irrelevancy, let it be recorded that it took Judge two fewer plate appearances to hit 62 than it took Maris to hit 61.

Milton Gross of the New York Post, perhaps the only other writer in New York unwilling to even think about trying to beat Maris into submission or worse, had dinner with Maris and his wife plus their closest New York friends, Julie and Selma Isaacson, the evening that followed Maris’s money blast. When Isaacson toasted Maris, Gross wrote, Maris thanked him but added: “This was the greatest experience of my life. It has to be, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again for anything.”

Soon afterward, a teenage girl approached Maris politely for an autograph and asked him likewise to include the date. “What is today’s date?” Maris asked. Isaacson chimed in at once: “The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did.”

On 4 October 2022—65 years to the day after Sputnik launched the space race—the Leaning Tower of 161st Street did what nobody else in the American League ever did. You could hear Ruth and Maris together in the Elysian Fields, clinking glasses and quaffing a cold one in praise.

“I’d trade my past for his future,” the Babe must have said, knowing that Judge blasted himself toward a payday that might come close to equaling the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual budget.

“I’d trade your past for his future, too,” Maris must have cracked. “His future, and two stock splits to be named later.”

The Sixty Special

Aaron Judge

“Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” So hollered announcer John Sterling as Aaron Judge hit number 60 Tuesday night.

If nothing else, it might have been the only time a solo home run that started a ninth-inning comeback win could possibly upstage the grand slam that finished it. That’s what happens when your teammate’s chase of baseball history precedes you.

On any other night, Yankee designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton’s ultimate grand slam, off Pirates reliever Wil Crowe, would have put a vise grip on the headlines. Even on a night the crosstown Mets came from behind against the Brewers in Milwaukee to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish on a Francisco Lindor grand slam in the seventh.

Stanton’s launch suffers a fate almost worse than that suffered by Crowe leading the inning off, when he fed Aaron Judge a 3-1 sinker that didn’t quite sink and was enough to send three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers. “Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” Yankee announcer John Sterling hollered as Judge rounded second.

Cadillac once called a variant of its top-of-the-top-of-the-line Fleetwood model the Sixty Special. The marque’s Fleetwood line is long gone, of course. But what Judge did Tuesday night made it resemble a Trabant.

Not just because the Yankees went from there to win without the Pirates recording a single out. Not just because Anthony Rizzo followed Judge by reaching for a down and away changeup and doubling to center. Not just because Gleyber Torres walked on five pitches to follow. Not just because Josh Donaldson singled to right to load the pads. And, not just because Stanton turned on a 2-2 changeup and drilled it to roughly the same real estate as Judge’s milestone, if not quite as far back.

From the moment it appeared Judge really would chase the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris for the American League’s single-season home run championship at minimum, the old 154-vs.-162 game shibboleth instigated by then-commissioner Ford Frick’s capricious conflict of interest (he was, of course, a Ruth ghostwriter once upon a time) was revived a little too often by the idiot brigades of today’s social media swamp.

With Maris’s sons Roger, Jr. and Kevin among the Yankee Stadium crowd, Judge connected to finish a night on which it looked as though he might go hitless. He’d grounded out twice, struck out once, and walked once, before he launched the milestone that began the overthrow of an unlikely four-run Pirate lead. He did it in the Yankees’ 147th game, seven sooner than Ruth in 1927 and twelve sooner than Maris in 1961.

His chances of going past Ruth and Maris in the Yankees’ Sixty Special Club are overwhelming. He may or may not get to the Seventy Society populated by two men, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. But would you really bet heavily against a man who’s hit more into the ether since the All-Star break than any individual on four known teams (the Athletics, the Pirates, the Giants, the Nationals) has hit all season?

Now that Judge has met and stands on the threshold of passing Ruth, and is likely to meet and pass Maris posthaste from there, Judge may also have wrapped up the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. May.

Shohei Ohtani remains in the conversation, and the Angels’ two-way unicorn won’t go gently into the proverbial good gray night no matter how far out of contention the badly misadministered Angels are. It might not be out of bounds to ponder whether it ends up with Judge and Ohtani sharing the award. May.

It isn’t always the rule that a league MVP should play on a postseason contender. It isn’t always the rule that he shouldn’t, either. But pursuing history has its call upon MVP voters, too. Ohtani’s already made his history, with his Rookie of the Year 2018 and his MVP 2021; anything else he does merely augments it, unless he becomes crazy enough to bust a single-season home run record while winning a Cy Young Award.

Judge is doing his level best not to think about things such as that, or about things such as the ginormous free agency payday into which he’s swinging himself when the Yankee season finally ends, whenever that may be. It’s about as simple as having to face far more and far different pitching with near-guaranteed freshness every day than Ruth and Maris had to face in the conditions of their time.

“I don’t think about the numbers,” Judge told reporters postgame. “We talk about Ruth and Maris and Mantle and all these Yankee greats, you never imagine as a kid getting mentioned with them. It’s an incredible honor and something I don’t take lightly at all. But we’re not done. We’ve still got a couple of games left in this season, and hopefully more wins come with it.”

His Yankee teammates are another proposition. “Having a front seat from the on-deck circle for most of this,” says Rizzo, “has been amazing.

“He hit 60 tonight and it’s like nothing happened,” Stanton said. “He’s got more work to do, and that’s the mindset. This is just fun to be a part of.”

“The craziest thing,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole, “is that he’s gonna hit so many more. If we play baseball another six weeks, through the postseason, he’s gonna hit like 12, 13 more home runs. He’s just getting started.”

“I want him to hit a home run in every at-bat,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka, “and I think that’s the same sentiment amongst everybody else in this clubhouse, too. As good as he’s playing on the field, he’s the best teammate you could ever imagine. So there’s nobody in here who doesn’t wish for the absolute best for him.”

Judge had to be all but forced out of the dugout for a quick curtain call that amounted to nothing much more than a small wave. He tried to wave it off as nothing much and somewhat out of proportion. “I really didn’t want to do it,” he said. “Especially, we’re losing. It’s a solo shot.”

He had to know he wasn’t going to get away with that. With or without the overthrow he ignited. “I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in,” he said, “but I know I still have a job to do out on the field every single day and I just have to keep my head down, keep preparing and stay mentally focused.”

Maybe forget 60. Or 61. Maybe start thinking about a Seventy Special. Even lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee haters are enjoying this. Lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee fans, of course, may petition to have the stadium’s Judge’s Chambers renamed the Supreme Court.

If cheaters don’t belong in Cooperstown . . .

Babe Ruth

“That’s a plug! This bat’s corked!”—Dave Henderson, handling one of Babe Ruth’s bats in a traveling exhibit. Soooooo . . . in the interest of keeping “cheaters” out of the Hall of Fame, do we purge the Sultan of Swat, hmmmm?

The evidence means nothing. There’s still a crowd fuming that that “cheater” David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame on Tursday. Enough of that crowd fumes concurrently that “cheaters” have no place in the Hall of Fame.

Enough of them probably don’t remember, if they ever knew, sportswriting legend Heywood Broun pronouncing in 1923, in the New York World, “The tradition of professional baseball always has been agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, ‘Do anything you can get away with’.”

Let’s take them up on the idea. Let’s start removing cheaters and their actual or alleged abetters from the Hall of Fame. Since I don’t want to be accused of even the thinnest strain of bias, I’m going to run down the list of defendants in alphabetical order.

Is everybody ready? Let’s play ball.

Richie Ashburn—The Shibe Park grounds crew did Ashburn a favour in the 1950s: sculpting the third base foul line into a kind of ridge to prevent Ashburn’s deft rolling bunts up that line from rolling over it into foul territory. Now, we don’t know if this was Ashburn’s idea or theirs, but . . .

Mr. Putt Putt’s out of the Hall of Fame on cheating grounds. If he didn’t suggest it, we’ll call this the Ashburn Rule: guilt by association, whether allowing it or enabling it in fact or by attempt. Just the way so many PED puffers snort often enough that those who played in the PED era are automatically guilty just for playing in it, regardless of whether they actually indulged.

Leo Durocher—Masterminded the from-the-center-field-clubhouse, hand-held telescopic sign-stealing scheme that helped his New York Giants come from thirteen games down to forcing a pennant playoff they won at home. (Fair disclosure: When Durocher asked his players who wanted the pilfered intelligence, Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays demurred.)

The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Therefore, loose the Lip from the Hall of Fame.

Bob Feller—The pitching great brought a little souvenir home from World War II: a hand-held spyglass. His 1948 Indians took it into the scoreboard to steal signs down the stretch and may have been stealing signs that way during the World Series they won against the Boston Braves. (First baseman Eddie Robinson blew the whistle in his memoir, Lucky Me.)

So wouldn’t you now agree? Rapid Robert should be rousted out of the Hall rapidly for providing the inappropriate apparatus.

Whitey Ford—In the later years of his career, and by his own subsequent admissions, the brainy Yankee lefthander became a sort-of Rube Goldberg of pitching subterfuge: mud balls (“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Jim Bouton wrote of it in Ball Four), ring balls (“It was like I had my own tool bench out there,” Ford once said of the wedding ring he used to scrape balls), buckle balls. (When the ring was caught, Ford had catcher Elston Howard scrape balls on his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Bouton wrote, “sang two arias from Aida‘.”)

The Chairman of the Board is hereby deposed. From Cooperstown, at least.

Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg—Their 1940 Tigers cheated their way to a pennant, using the scope from pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle to steal signs from the outfield seats and relay them to hitters. Greenberg eventually admitted the scheme in his memoir. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what was coming,” he once said.

Hammer down upon your heads, Mechanical Man and Hammerin’ Hank.

Rogers Hornsby—In 1962, when there seemed a move from baseball government to crack down on sign stealing, Hornsby published an article in True defending sign-stealing through scoreboards . . . which opened by denouncing then-White Sox relief pitcher Al Worthington after Worthington quit the team rather than abide by its scoreboard sign-stealing scheme.

“In my book,” wrote Hornsby, “he was a baseball misfit—he didn’t like cheating . . . I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated or watched someone on my team cheat. You’ve got to cheat.” Hit the road, Rajah.

Connie Mack—Mack was on the 1910-1914 Philadelphia Athletics bridge while they had a novel for the times sign-stealing plot: someone standing atop a tall building beyond the ballpark fences wielding a telescope to steal signs and turning a flag one way or the other depending on the pitch to be signaled to the batter.

Nobody knows for dead last certain whether the Tall Tactician sanctioned the signs. Nor can it be proven (I think) that that had as much of a hand as pure economics in Mack’s first notorious fire sale. But . . . the Ashburn Rule is hereby invoked, and Mr. McGillicuddy shall henceforth be disappeared.

Gaylord Perry

“I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around.”—Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord (It’s a Hard Slider) Perry—Even now you don’t even have to run down his record. Even if he was frisked like a street hustler but only once or twice arraigned. Just say the old gunkballer’s  name. Visions of sugar-plum K-Y jelly dance in and out of your head. Not to mention that little routine of brushing the bill of his cap, the sides of (what remained of) his hair, maybe a couple of taps on the front of his jersey, just to make batters think he was lubing up.

That ain’t peanuts, Mr. Peanut Farmer. Even if all you ever did was want them to think you had something naughty on the ball (and I can be convinced Perry’s real secret was psychological warfare), that’s a sub-clause Ashburn Rule purge for you. That’s the way the witch hunt hunts.

Frank Robinson—A member of the 1961 pennant-winning Reds whose erstwhile pitcher Jay Hook helped blow the whistle, sort of, on their ’61 scoreboard-based sign stealings during the same spring Hornsby flapped his flippers in defense of cheating. We don’t know if Robinson took stolen signs, but under the Ashburn Rule, the Judge is hereby judged unworthy of  Cooperstown. (Since Robinson is thought to be one of the creators of baseball’s clubhouse kangaroo courts, this seems even more appropriate, no?)

Babe Ruth—During 1983, the Louisville Slugger people sent a traveling exhibit of historic bats around major league clubhouses. Dave Henderson, then with the Mariners, spotted one of Ruth’s bats and saw something odd but familiar at the end of the barrel: the round end didn’t quite match the barrel’s wood. “That’s a plug!” Henderson hollered.  “This bat’s corked!” (The Babe was also once caught using a trick bat—four different wood pieces glued together—prompting American League president Ban Johnson to ban “trick bats” from game usage.)

As I see it, nothing could be more typical of Ruth than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did.

Bill James, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Sorry, Bambino. You might have been a corker in real life, but in baseball that pulls the cork on your Hall of Fame departure.

Casey Stengel—Watching his Yankee lefthander Eddie Lopat dueling Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander Preacher Roe in a World Series game, Stengel marveled: “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

A little of this and a little of that? Swindle? Code for illicit pitches, which both pitchers were suspected of throwing. Suspicion isn’t evidence? We don’t know about Lopat, but when Roe retired he promptly owned up in a magazine article. Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer called Roe the “master of the discreet spitball.”

We’re going after the big fish on this fishing expedition. If we can bar mere suspects using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances from the Hall of Fame, who says we can’t strip a manager admiring a contest between a couple of spitball suspects, either? Oops. The Ol’ Perfesser is stripped of his tenure.

Don Sutton—“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller once told Thomas 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.” We’ll use the file, chisel, and screwdriver to unglue Sutton’s Hall of Fame plaque, instead.

Earl Weaver—Once, with his pitcher Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley in a jam, Weaver counseled Grimsley: “If you know how to cheat, now’s the time.” That should be enough to have Weaver—oft ejected by indignant umpires (“That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places, and that was on days I didn’t throw him out,” Steve Palermo once said of him)—ejected from Cooperstown under the Ashburn Rule.

See what I mean? And those are just some of the ones we know.

But what to do with the freshly-purged actual or alleged cheaters, or with those who merely abetted or encouraged? We can’t just pretend their careers didn’t exist. We can’t just pretend they had as much to do with baseball history as I have to do with quantum physics. We’ve hunted down the witches, now which are the stakes on which we burn them?

Let’s re-mount their plaques in another otherwise isolated hamlet somewhere. We’ll nickname it Blooperstown. Ashburn’s plaque will be re-written in baseline chalk. Durocher’s, Feller’s, Gehringer’s, Greenberg’s, Mack’s, and Robinson’s will have little telescopes attached. Ford’s name will be re-written in mud. Hornsby’s will be re-written in Morse code. Perry’s will have a tube of K-Y jelly attached. We’ll re-mount Ruth on a cork board. Sutton’s can include a Black and Decker drill, since he once bragged he was accused so often he should get a Black and Decker commercial out of it. (He got one, too.) We still have to decide on Weaver, though.

We’ll re-inscribe their plaques in gold. Fool’s gold. In honour of the fools who think it’s that simple to consecrate a Hall of Fame filled with nothing but altar boys, boy scouts, choir boys, and monks.

And, we’ll re-mount them in George Frazier Hall, named for the one-time Yankee pitcher who responded to accusations of using foreign substances, with righteous indignation, “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”

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.