America’s called shot, fifty years later

2019-07-19 BuzzAldrinTugMcGraw

“When those astronauts landed on the moon, I knew we had a chance.”—Tug McGraw (right), Mets relief pitcher. (Left, of course, Buzz Aldrin on the moon, in the famous photograph taken by Neil Armstrong.

Writing once to commemorate Apollo 11, George F. Will couldn’t resist comparing John F. Kennedy’s kept promise to a baseball legend: It was like Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ in the 1932 World Series. America audaciously pointed its bat to the right field bleachers and then hit the ball to the spot.

Whether Ruth actually called the home run he blasted off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root is still open for debate. And it did take Ruth a lit-tle less time to hit the bomb than it took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to hit Kennedy’s ball to the spot.  But let’s not get technical.

The bad news is that 20 July was the birth date of only one Hall of Famer (Heinie Manush) among 48 players to have been born on the date. The good news is at least two World Series champions (Mickey Stanley, 1968 Tigers; Bengie Molina, 2002 Angels) were. And when Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, it inspired the World Series champions to be the same year.

“When those astronauts landed on the moon,” said Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Alan B. Shepard, Jr. took America’s first suborbital space flight a year before the Mets played their maiden season. As portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Shepard walked the line between inveterate joker and unflappable Navy commander. He was much like Original Mets manager Casey Stengel that way. Except that, by the time he launched, he didn’t have to ask NASA’s diligent calculators, physicists, aeronauticians, and biochemists any longer, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Wolfe portrayed with staggering accuracy and insouciant wit an American space program that began much like the Mets, the significant distinction being that the Mets might have been better off with monkeys doing men’s work even though they didn’t flub one rocket launch by blowing the top off like a champagne cork.

America’s space program required graduation from then-Senator Lyndon Johnson seriously considering professional acrobats and daredevil stunt people to pilot spacecraft to one Navy pilot (Armstrong) and one Air Force pilot (Aldrin) descending gently but firmly onto the moon, with a second Air Force pilot (Collins) piloting the command module around the moon.

Collins once admitted that in the event Armstrong and Aldrin died on the moon he’d return to earth as “a marked man for life.” He needn’t have worried. Baseball fans unfortunately treat actual or alleged game goats worse. Armstrong and Aldrin came through admirably and spared Collins any chance of becoming space travel’s Fred Merkle. He settled merely for being its Dick Stuart.

Stuart was a Pirate in 1960, a man blessed with preternatural long ball power and an equivalent talent for playing first base like a future 1962 Met, a talent that earned him the nickname Dr. Strangeglove. (Sidebar: Stuart did play for the Mets briefly during his career—in 1966, the year the Gemini space program concluded.)

Collins was preternaturally disposed against mistakes as he orbited the moon. Stuart—who’d promised to hit one out in the Series—went out on deck in the bottom of the ninth in Forbes Field in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, with Ralph Terry on the mound for the Yankees and Bill Mazeroski leading off for the Pirates.

“I was gonna hit one,” Stuart said afterward. “Can I help it if Mazeroski got cute?”

A Met fan got cute in August 1969, when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins rode down New York’s Canyon of Heroes for a celebratory ticker-tape parade, hoisting the sign Collins claimed his favourite among the sea of signs: WE LOVE THE METS. BUT WE LOVE YOU MORE. SORRY, METS.

Until Apollo 11, 20 July was a kind of lukewarm date for significant history in terms of volume, anyway. St. Hormisdas was elected Pope to succeed Sympowerus (514); Henry I succeeded his father Robert II as king of the Franks (1031); Sitting Bull surrendered to federal troops (1881); Alice Mary Robertson became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives’ floor (1921); and, the Indo-China Armistice created North and South Vietnam (1954).

Birthdays on 20 July are something else. Heinie Manush, Mickey Stanley, and Bengie Molina share a birthday with Alexander the Great, Pope Innocent IX, New York City mayor Robert Van Wyck (one of the city’s most notoriously suffocating expressways is named for him), the namesake father (and jurist during the last years of the old Russian Empire) of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, future Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, publisher and one-time Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, screen legend Natalie Wood, and rock star John Lodge (the Moody Blues).

On 20 July 1969, too, the late Jim Bouton was still a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots and still composing the diaries that would become Ball Four. His entry for 20 July, when the Pilots continued an extra-innings game suspended from the night before: Poor John Gelnar. The game was picked up today in the seventeenth inning and he promptly lost it. Then he lost the regular game, which is two in one day and not, under most circumstances, easy to do.

The Mets spent 20 July 1969 sweeping a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos. Their National League East rivals, the Cubs, swept one from the Phillies. The Astros, to whom Bouton would be traded in time to be part of their outlying spot in the NL West race, didn’t play. And it was baseball’s last round before that year’s All-Star break.

Unfortunately, the Mets were delayed at the Montreal airport for their flight back to New York. It enabled the players to watch Armstrong and Aldrin hit the moon on a television set in the airport bar. “[T]he irony wasn’t lost,” remembered outfielder Ron Swoboda. “I thought, We can’t get back from Montreal to New York, and here’s a guy stepping on the moon!

A day later, Bouton and his first wife asked the Korean orphan they adopted a year earlier if he’d like an American name, a subject they didn’t broach earlier for fear of adding to the boy’s burden adjusting to American parents in America. Knowing the boy’s friends had trouble pronouncing “Kyong Jo,” Bouton asked what about “David.”

The boy said, “Yeah.” “Okay,” said Pop, “we’ll call you David. You’ll be David Kyong Jo Bouton.” Right on cue, the lad ran out to holler to his neighbourhood buddies, “Hey, everybody, I’m David. I’m David!” Today David Bouton helps run Citigroup’s real estate financial group covering North America.

When the Beatles played their first concert at Shea Stadium, the longtime home of the Mets, before a mammoth, packed house, John Lennon is said to have commented after the evening ended, “We’ve been to the mountaintop. Where do we go from here?” Already having achieved a kind of immortality, the Beatles merely went from there to what an eventual fictitious toy astronaut described, to infinity and beyond.

When the 1969 Mets won their unlikely division, pennant, and World Series championships, they could ask, plausibly, “We’ve reached the Promised Land. Where do we go from here?” They went from there to a couple of pennant races, the death of a beloved manager, a few spells of futility and the occasional World Series appearance (including another claim on the Promised Land), and, alas, to today’s traveling circus.

When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, they, especially, could ask plausibly, “We’ve been to the moon. Where do we go from here?” Armstrong became a teacher, co-investigator of the Challenger tragedy, and a businessman; Aldrin, sadly, battled clinical depression and alcoholism before he sobered and, in due course, founded a company to develop re-usable rocket launchers. He also once settled the hash of a conspiracy theorist claiming the moon landings were faked and (with a Bible) poking him repeatedly by administering a right cross.

America sent a few more men (including Shepard himself, romping like a boy all over again with a makeshift lunar golf club) to the moon, ran eventual space shuttle missions to build the international space station among other projects, and has its eye on Mars and beyond at this writing. CBS turned out to be only half kidding when it scored a mid-1960s hit with My Favourite Martian.

Sometimes you can ponder that nothing we’ve done in space since equals Apollo 11 for the singular, permanent joy of having done what we promised to do, that was once unthinkable, and that hadn’t been done. Ever. But then nothing in baseball quite equals the singular, permanent joy of, say, the Mets conquering the game in 1969, the Phillies reaching the Promised Land for the first time ever in three long-distance tries, the Red Sox’s first return to the Promised Land since the end of World War I, the Cubs’ first return to the Promised Land since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), the Angels’ and the Astros’ first trips to the Promised Land ever.

Seven major league teams still have yet to win a World Series at all; another (the Indians) hasn’t won one since the Berlin Airlift. And two have been traded, the Astros going to the American League in exchange for the Brewers. So far, the American League has the better end of that deal.

The Dodgers haven’t won a Series since the day after the British tried to ban broadcast interviews with members of the Irish Republican Army. But right now their chances of returning to the Promised Land this year are the best they’ve been in a likely seventh consecutive season of winning the NL West.

Among the teams having yet to reach the Promised Land, one (the Nationals) plays in the nation’s capital, which once had a couple of baseball teams (both known as the Senators) that gave it a not always accurate image: “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Today, Nats fans can chant plausibly enough, “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and not yet beyond the NL East.”

Take heart, Nationals, Brewers, Indians, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, and Rockies fans. When those astronauts landed on the moon, and the 1969 Mets reached the Promised Land, they did indeed prove that anything was possible. For baseball teams, for America, and for mankind.

And it’s possible that Washington, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Seattle, Arlington, Tampa Bay, and Denver will deliver themselves to the Promised Land before America points her bat to the Martian right field bleachers. And hits the ball to the spot.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2019-05-28 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of unwarranted baseball goats.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including [Donnie] Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Moore, the former Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the Red Sox when the Angels were a strike away from nailing the 1986 American League pennant. Three seasons later, he shocked baseball and the world by shooting his wife before turning the gun on himself and killing himself.

A haunted man as it was before the pitch, Moore apparently couldn’t bear the weight of that pitch. It wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. He threw Henderson a forkball that snapped down and away and was as shocked as anyone else in old Anaheim Stadium when Henderson sent it over the left field fence. The game went to extra innings and the Angels lost the game and, two games later, the pennant.

To the Red Sox. Who suffered even worse miseries when they were a strike away from winning that World Series. Their bullpen melted down in the bottom of the tenth against those tenacious Mets, right down to allowing the tying run home on a wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball.

Then Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson shot a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ailing Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the winning run home to Buckner’s and his team’s horror. A Red Sox Nation that already suffered from too many decades of surrealistic calamity on the threshold of triumph could bear no more.

Buckner, who died on Memorial Day, turned out to be made of stronger stuff than Donnie Moore, and Buckner endured far worse than Moore did. And just as Moore’s Angels had two more chances to win that American League Championship Series but failed, Buckner’s Red Sox had a Game Seven yet to play in that World Series—and were defeated.

Boswell was hardly the only one to say after Moore’s suicide that the goat business wasn’t funny anymore. And it didn’t stop those inclined to look for goats wherever they could be found, and try making their lives a nightmare forever after.

A well-syndicated Washington Post sports columnist for eons now, author of several best-selling anthologies of his work especially about baseball, Boswell was probably roundly ignored when he pleaded to put the goat business out of business by addressing the “goats” with forgiveness they shouldn’t have had to beg in the first place:

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not. 

Boswell opened the essay with a small roll of “goats,” but—perhaps unwittingly—he omitted their equally unwitting progenitor. Baseball’s goats have long since been Fred Merkle’s children.

That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team a pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead from the moment the game ended didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged fans and outraged writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Never tell people like that that two laws are inviolable: No game can be won by both sides, and Berra’s Law (It ain’t over until it’s over) has yet to be ruled inoperative or unconstitutional.

Merkle’s children were made to suffer under the ridiculous belief Boswell outlined, that losing a game or making a mistake in a game isn’t just a question of a mistake or a defeat but, rather, a question of sin. “The unspoken assumption,” Boswell wrote, “is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.”

Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly the epitome of morality off the field, but in Game Seven of the 1926 World Series—with Bob Meusel at the plate, Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck, and two out in the ninth—Ruth bolted for second. Everyone on earth knew a one-armed man could throw him out stealing. Amoral? Not a chance. Self-involved? Surely. But . . . he was The Babe.

Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi didn’t have Ruth’s kind of cred in Game Four of the 1939 World Series. The gentle giant was clearly morally flawed when Yankee outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller blasted into him at the plate, knocking him out cold, as Keller and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio behind him scored the game and Series-winning runs in the tenth.

It couldn’t possibly have been Keller being built like a tank and nailing the otherwise likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—to finish a World Series sweep.  “Lombardi,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace.”

So should have had Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox shortstop who held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky had to take a too-high throw in from late-game center field insertion Leon Culberson before turning to try throwing home proved entirely beside the point, to those who insisted that Pesky was obviously the devil’s spawn.

Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough.

The priest told Branca God chose him because He knew he’d be strong enough to bear the burden. Branca proved stronger than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square.

Was it moral lacking that caught 1964 Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey by as much surprise as it caught anyone else in late September, in Connie Mack Stadium, when Red rookie Chico Ruiz stole home for the game’s only run—starting the infamous Phillie Phlop?

Was Willie Davis prosecutable for terpitude when he lost a pair of fly balls in a too bright sun, and committed a third error off one of them, in Game Two of the 1966 World Series? (Which just so happened to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game as things turned out.) Did sunblindness mean its victim required an exorcism?

When B.F. Dent hit the three-run homer over the Green Monster to overthrow a Red Sox lead for what turned out keeps in the 1978 American League East playoff game, did it expose Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez as a moral idiot? (Come to think of it, was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski morally suspect when, with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he popped out to end the game?)

I guess Tom Niedenfeuer was morally suspect when his manager Tommy Lasorda, that devilish apostate, decided it was safe for him to pitch to Jack Clark with two on, first base open and the Dodgers one little out from going to the 1985 World Series. Guess that made Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he hit a home run that may have traveled to Pasadena, and those Dodgers couldn’t score a lick in the bottom of the ninth.

Maybe Don Denkinger was really degenerate when—in the bottom of the ninth, with Clark’s Cardinals themselves three outs from a World Series championship—he mistakenly called Jorge Orta leading off safe at first when every camera angle showed him out by a step and a half.

Never mind that the Cardinals still had the chance to keep the Royals from overthrowing their lead. And, that nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to implode entirely in Game Seven, with or without Denkinger himself rotated behind the plate. In St. Louis and elsewhere, Denkinger became Beelzebub incarnate.

Time healed a few of Merkle’s children, of course. Sometimes it was a short volume of time; other times, it took a generation or two. Sometimes one or two of Merkle’s children shook it off almost immediately.

Maybe it was easy for Babe Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, the Big Fella, and could get away with blunders that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Tommy Lasorda to shake off one mistake because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to work after he saw his first pitch to Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series sail into the left field seats with the pennant attached.

From whence the perennially star-crossed, snake-bitten Red Sox picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again in 2004, and delivered four straight wins against their eternal tormentors from the south Bronx after being down to the final three outs of what would have been a sweep . . . and swept the Cardinals—Enos Slaughter’s descendants—in the World Series.

Every so often those who get ruined as spectacularly as the ’03 Red Sox get a chance at immediate redemption and pounce on it. But maybe we don’t really know what goes through the minds of human men playing human games who come up short in the worst possible moments of such games.

Sometimes they heal in unexpected ways. Branca and Bobby Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the revelation and final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback the (then) high-tech cheating way. Buckner and Wilson forged a comparable friendship in the years following their rendezvous with baseball’s often cruel destiny.

So have Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and Joe Carter. Already having a blown save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series, Williams pitched into infamy in the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, when Carter hit a Series-ending three-run homer that turned what was still called the SkyDome into bedlam.

Known now to have taken the ball after a sleepless night following death threats, Williams never flinched post-game, answering even the most ridiculous questions without once trying to pass responsibility on. In the worst defeat in the Phillies’ own tortured history to that point, Williams proved a better man than his critics including a teammate or two who wanted him run out of town. He also accepted a near-immediate reaching-out from Carter himself.

“Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter once told the Toronto Star, when he and Williams hooked up for an event to help Canadian at-risk children. “Over the years I’ve seen him at MLB Network, but I’ve always known what type of guy Mitch is. He’s a great guy and the great thing about baseball is not just the sport itself, but the people you meet. Lives are going to be crossed, paths are going to be crossed a lot. It just so happens we’re kind of intertwined now and I thought it would be a great gesture to bring him back here because he is a fun guy to have around . . . he really is.”

What pounds the minds of fans who can’t resist smoking out goats when their heroes lose, or doing their level best to make life miserable for those poor souls? Ask cautiously. You might be afraid of the answers.

“The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket,” Boswell wrote, “and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment. Still, before we boo or use words like ‘choke’ and ‘goat,’ perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.” Don’t be afraid to say it’s well past time to stop letting single failures define entire careers. Game failure isn’t crime.

Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. And they’d be lying through their teeth if they say they’d have done no questions asked what Merkle’s children couldn’t do in those moments.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.