The first five days

Stop me if you’ve heard it before: Jacob deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer, but the new Mets bullpen puked the bed like the old one did.

The fans are back in the stands, however limited by ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, but the Nationals have yet to play a regular-season game thanks to a few players and a staffer or two testing positive. There went that Opening Day must-see match between Max Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom.

With their opening set with the Nats thus wiped out, deGrom had to wait until the Mets went to Philadelphia Monday. Oops. That and everything else seemed to play a support role to the horrid news out of San Diego.

The news that Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres’s new bazillion dollar shortstop, suffered a partial left shoulder dislocation on a hard third inning swing at the plate during a Monday loss to the Giants.

Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters he thinks team trainers and medical people were able to pop the shoulder back together, but the team isn’t taking chances. At this writing, MRI results aren’t available and nobody knows yet whether Tatis will spend significant time on the injured list.

If it’s more than a small shoulder dislocation, it may not be significant time. If it’s something like a labral tear, Tatis could miss six months—essentially, the rest of the season—according to one doctor who knows such shoulder troubles and spoke to the Los Angeles Times. Don’t fault the Padres if they’re saying to themselves, “Thank God for insurance.”

DeGrom could use a little extra insurance himself, alas. The good news for the Mets: deGrom was his usual self Monday night. Six shutout innings, seven punchouts, three hits, three-figure speed on his fastballs. The bad news, alas: the Mets are gonna Met, so far. At least out of the bullpen.

Their on-paper impressive offense found nothing more than two runs to support their ace. They got an inning of shutout relief from Miguel Castro relieving deGrom for the seventh, but the bullpen puked the bed in the eighth—including hitting Bryce Harper with the bases loaded. Not exactly a Rhodes Scholarship move there.

The Old Fart Contingency thundered aboard social media that Mets manager Luis Rojas blew it lifting deGrom after six strong—until they were reminded the added layoff after the Washington postponement put both deGrom and the Mets into caution mode.

“If that was [last] Thursday and I’m on normal rest,” the smooth righthander said postgame of the early hook, “I don’t think there is any chance I’m coming out of that game. We discussed it before what was the right thing to do. Long season and talking to them coming in, it felt like was the right decision.”

It was neither deGrom’s nor Rojas’s fault that, after Garcia took care of the Phillies in the seventh with just one infield hit within a fly out and two ground outs, the Phillies loaded the bases on the Mets’ new relief toy, Tyler May, in the eighth with one out, before Rojas went to another new Met bull, Aaron Loup. And Loup promptly hit Harper to push Miller home, before J.T. Realmuto singled home pinch runner Quinn, Mets late third base replacement Luis Guillorme threw home off line allowing Harper and Rhys Hoskins to score, and Didi Gregorius pushed Realmuto home with a first-pitch sacrifice fly.

The Mets had nothing to answer except a two-out ninth-inning stand that came up two dollars short against Phillies closer Alvarado. Kevin Pillar singled up the pipe, Francisco Lindor—the Mets’ own new bazillion-dollar lifetime shortstop—dumped a quail into shallow right that landed just in front of and then off the glove on oncoming, diving Harper, and Michael Conforto singled Pillar home while setting up first and third.

Pete Alonso, their 2019 Rookie of the Year bomber, hit one to the back of right field that looked as though it had a chance to ricochet off the top of the fence if not clear it. It wasn’t quite enough to stop Harper from running it down, taking a flying leap with his back against the fence, and snapping it into his glove to stop a game-tying extra-base hit and end the game with the Phillies on the plus side, 5-3.

Marry the foregoing to deGrom going 2-for-3 at the plate including an RBI single, and no wonder May himself said post-game, “Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself. That’s not what teams are, and frankly Jake did almost everything today.”

Just don’t marry that to things such as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani hitting 100+ mph on the mound and hitting a mammoth home run that flew out 100+ mph in the same inning last Friday night. Ohtani the two way player is an outlier among outliers; deGrom’s merely an outlier.

As of Tuesday morning— with the National League’s pitchers having to bat because Commissioner Nero simply couldn’t bring himself to keep the universal designated hitter this year at least, and Ohtani batting second in the Angel lineup the night he started on the mound, among other things—the pitchers have a .131/.157/.192 slash line and a .349 OPS.

The pitchers at the plate from Opening Day through the end of Monday night collected thirteen hits in 149 plate appearances: nine singles, three doubles, and Ohtani’s Friday night flog a third of the way up Angel Stadium’s high right field bleachers. They also walked three times and struck out 56 times. And the OFC still insists the National League just say no to its own invention.

All around the Show, too, there was one home run hit every 35 plate appearances and fourteen percent of all 928 hits the season’s first five days cleared the fences. It took five outs to create a single run, with 5.3 average runs created per game and 631 runs created while 559 scored.

It was fun to hear the fan noises even in limited capacities, too, though the limits in Angel Stadium made Ohtani’s blast sound even more explosive at the split second he hit it. If only things had been more fun for the home crowds: the many themes for the Show’s first five days could include, plausibly, the blues classic “On the Road Again.”

The home teams’ slash lines: .225/.313/.374/.687 OPS. The road teams: .245/.328/.403/.731 OPS. The road teams drove in fifteen more runs, hit thirteen more home runs, seven more doubles, and had seventy more hits overall. They also took eleven more walks, though they struck out fifty more times and grounded into fifteen more double plays. The road rats also had a +29 batting average on balls in play over the home boys and 108 more total bases while they were at it.

Maybe the shocker among the opening road rats were the Orioles. The Woe-rioles. Taking three straight from the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Out-scoring the Olde Towne Team 18-5, including and especially an 11-3 battering on Sunday afternoon. Even those paranoid about ID cards might want to insist the Orioles show theirs, even after the Orioles got a brief return to earth from the Yankees beating them 7-0 Monday in New York.

Unless it was the Reds, taking two out of three from the Cardinals to open, including and especially a 12-1 battering Sunday afternoon that proved the best revenge against abject stupidity is to slap, slash, scamper, and smash your way to a six-run seventh when you’re already up three runs—thanks to Nick Castellanos ripping Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez for a two-out, three-run homer an inning earlier.

Castellanos got drilled by Cardinals reliever Jack Woodford Saturday . . . two days after he bat-flipped a home run. Then, when he dove home to score on a wild pitch, Castellanos got bumped by Woodford sliding in to bring down the tag Castellanos beat. Castellanos sprung up, barked at Woodford, and began walking away before trouble could arrive. Oops. Trouble arrived—when Yadier Molina shoved him from behind to spark a bench-clearing brawl.

Baseball government myopically suspended Castellanos two games for “provoking” the brawl. Who’s baseball’s official optician? Who couldn’t see what everyone else with eyes saw? And how long has Molina—handed only an “undisclosed fine” along with a few others in the scrum—been so privileged a character that he can get away with the actual kickoff of a brawl that was seeded in the first place because the Cardinals are one of the game’s self-appointed Fun Police precincts?

“I was pleased,” Cardinal manager Mike Schildt told the press after that game. “Our guys came out there. We’re not going to take it. I know Yadi went immediately right at him, got sidetracked by [Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas]. Woody, to his credit, got up and was like, ‘I’m not going to sit here and be taunted.’ Good for him.”

Taunted? All Castellanos said when he sprang up, by his own admission, was “Let’s [fornicating] go!” Anyone who thinks Woodford lacked intent didn’t see that ball sailing on a sure line up into Castellanos’s shoulder and rib region. Nor did they see Molina very clearly shoving Castellanos without Castellanos having the benefit of a rear-view mirror.

Castellanos appealed the two-game suspension. The final result wasn’t known at this writing. But the Cardinals should be getting a message of their own: Defund the Fun Police. Pronto.

How about the Astros, who went into Oakland and swept four from the Athletics before ambling on to Anaheim and losing 7-6 to the Angels Monday night? That was despite dropping a three-run first on Angel starter Jose Quintana and yanking a fourth run out of him in the top of the fourth, before the Angels finally opened their side of the scoreboard with Mike Trout (of course) hitting Luis Garcia’s 2-2 meatball about twelve or thirteen rows into the left field seats.

The Angels pushed a little further back, the Astros pushed a little further ahead, until the Angels ironed up and tore four runs out of the Astros in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single (Dexter Fowler), a run-scoring force play (David Fletcher), a throwing error (on Jared Walsh’s grounder to first), an intentional walk (to Trout, of all people), and a sacrifice fly (Anthony Rendon).

Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning solo bomb turned out more a kind of excuse-us shot than a last stand. The game left both the Astros and the Angels at 4-1 to open the season and what could be very interesting proceedings in the American League West. Now, if only the Astros could finally get past Astrogate.

They’ve been playing and winning through numerous catcalls, howls, and even a few inflatable and actual trash can sightings in Oakland and Anaheim. Jose Altuve—who’s looked more like his old self at the plate so far—seemed mildly amused when an inflatable trash can fell to the warning from those high Angel Stadium right field bleachers.

Astrogate was and remains anything but amusing. The Astros could keep up their torrid opening and overwhelm the AL West this season, but the scandal won’t go away entirely (nor should it) until the absolute last Astrogater standing no longer wears their fatigues. Yes, you’ve heard that before. That doesn’t make it any less painful for Astro fans or less true for everyone else. The Astros, nobody else, wrote the script that made them pariahs. Bang the cans slowly, fans.

Will off-field-based illegal electronic sign stealing disappear at all? Players got same-game video access back this year. There are three security people in every team’s video room at home and on the road. League cameras have been installed in those video rooms. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to add guard dogs?

The players union agreed last year: there’ll be no more players getting away with murder even in return for spilling the deets—the commissioner can drop a lot more than a marshmallow hammer on the cheaters from now on. All by himself. He can demand answers without plea bargaining. And he doesn’t need a permission slip.

“But one of the prevailing lessons from the electronic sign-stealing era is that even if a scheme sounds far-fetched, someone might give it a whirl if they believe they can get away with it,” writes The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich, one of the two reporters (Ken Rosenthal was his partner) who helped break and burrow deep into Astrogate. “This holds true no matter what MLB does. Even a total ban on electronics, which the players would never agree to, would not be enough. In that case, a player or staffer could simply go rogue.”

In other words, boys will be still be boys, if they can-can.

Short, sweet, and encouraging enough

From Dark Knight to dark horse. So far.

Going from the Dark Knight to a dark horse isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to Matt Harvey. The Orioles have had worse happen to them the last few years than a dark horse pitching up well enough to send them on the way to a second straight season-opening win, too.

Looking resplendent enough in the Orioles’ orange and black, mustachioed but no longer bearded, Harvey started and pitched three shutout innings before running into a little trouble in the fourth and tiring after 86 pitches with two out, two aboard, and a one-run Oriole lead in the fifth.

For other pitchers it might be cause for caution tape. For Harvey, it might be a giant step forward in the second act that’s been harder to find than Harvey once found the bright New York lights that finally helped sear him when his shoulder didn’t.

The righthander threw 56 strikes, including eleven first-strikes and fifteen called strikes, and looked generally like he was anything but the increasingly lost cause who left the Mets for a brief resurrection in Cincinnati but a collapse in Anaheim.

To the Orioles, this is the next best thing to hitting a jackpot on a slot machine. To Harvey, it’s one step at a time even now. Don’t doubt for a moment that he won’t take it.

He certainly won’t spurn the help he got from his new friends. Not when two runs score for him in the top of the fourth on an infield hit, not when another run scores for him on another infield hit in the top of the fifth, not when a seventh-inning sacrifice fly re-claims a two-run Oriole lead, and not when the first of those two fourth-inning runs was set up by an unlikely throwing error by Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.

Maybe the only real mistake involving Harvey was Oriole manager Brandon Hyde electing to let him pitch to J.D. Martinez in the fifth after back-to-back one-out walks to Kevin Plawecki and Enrique Hernandez. Martinez didn’t exactly murder Harvey, but his wicked-hopping comebacker bounced off Harvey’s body enough to let Plawecki score.

The so-far-surprising Oriole bullpen took it from there shutout style, not letting even the extremely few hiccups along the way stop them from stopping the Red Sox.

Harvey isn’t unappreciative. “Overall I think it was a solid first start and I’ll try to build off that next time,” he told reporters after the game. “Anytime you win the first series of the year, it’s big, so we’ve got some good momentum now. To come in here against a good ball club, you’ve got to play well and our guys came in and pitched great after me.”

That’s a far different tone than the one for which Harvey was once notorious. He’s no longer the howitzer-armed Dark Knight whom Met teammates sometimes accused of big-timing them while chasing the demimonde. He’s not the guy who thought the world was his to conquer until thoracic outlet surgery, diminished speed, and especially a crash and burn out of the demimonde and off the Mets brought him down to earth with a resounding crash.

When Harvey missed last year without a major league job, pondering and even making a video for consideration by the Korean Baseball Organisation, he spoke with an introspection many who knew him as a Met might have thought unlikely.

“There are a lot of things I’d do differently, but I don’t like to live with regret,” he told the New York Post.

There were just things I didn’t know at the time. Now, obviously, I’ve struggled the last few years. And what I know now is how much time and effort it takes to stay at the top of your game. I wouldn’t say my work ethic was bad whatsoever, but when you’re young, it’s not like you feel invincible, but when everything is going so well, you don’t know what it takes to stay on the field. It’s definitely more time consuming and takes more concentration.

The beginning of wisdom too often arrives after great pain and self-demolition. Harvey began acquiring it before he stepped on the mound for the Orioles. He pitched like it Saturday afternoon. All he has to do now is continue acquiring more hard-arrived wisdom and pitching every few days like he’s not kidding.

“The sooner one side blinks, the better”

Chris Davis and the Orioles remain locked in an expensive dance.

Two seasons ago, Chris Davis finally cried out from the wilderness of his ionosphere-salaried decline. A few months after the eyes of the nation fell upon the grace with which he handled and finally ended an unconscionable hitless-game streak, Davis finally boiled over following a low throw across the infield that he couldn’t handle at first base.

He had words with his Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, after Hyde apparently made a remark about the errant scoop attempt. Hyde may have been as painfully unaware of Davis’s own internal estimation of his own self-deflation as Davis was in the moment that the skipper had enough trying to stir accountability within a mediocre team.

The Orioles had the next day off. Davis spent it the best way he knew, regrouping with his wife and children. “That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband,” he said. “I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.”

When he returned to work the first thing Davis did was report to Hyde to apologise and talk frankly. He told reporters he thought both himself and his skipper “had an off day. I think it was probably best that we did, just to kind of give us a little bit of time. I didn’t think about it a whole lot. I tried not to. I think he was kind of in the same boat.” Hyde for his part said nothing suggesting he’d hold the meltdown against Davis.

Davis spoke of “a couple of weeks” worth of frustration, but the suspicion was that he really meant more than a couple of seasons. His collapse after signing a lucrative seven-year deal has been nothing short of surrealistic.

Bravery when you lead your league in home runs two out of three seasons running is simple. Leading the league in striking out two consecutive seasons makes bravery a lot less simple. Then, when your OPS (.539, 2018)  is lower than the lowest team OPS in the league (the 2018 Tigers: .697), bravery isn’t even a topic. Not when you might be tempted to say, as a button given Frank Robinson while he managed a murderous Oriole losing steak decades earlier, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Barring either Davis or the Orioles or both deciding at long enough last that the proverbial jig is up, they’re stuck with each other until the end of the 2022 season. “Davis and the Orioles,” Baltimore Sun writer Jon Meoli wrote last month, “are in a staring contest over the remainder of his career that neither seems to be willing to blink in.”

On pure baseball terms, things look simpler. Trey Mancini is recovered from cancer and looking to be the regular Oriole first baseman; they have a little juggling to think about in the designated hitter slot with Renato Nunez absent for the time being, but bank on it. That won’t be Davis’s full-time job, either.

What does it do to a man who has tasted greatness at one point in his professional career only to taste harder-sustained failure elsewhere during the same career? From 2013-2016 Davis was a no questions asked great hitter who looked like a classic late bloomer. (He was 27 in 2013.) His past four seasons have made that spell resemble a protracted flash in the proverbial pan.

Enough players have had such long enough terms of greatness followed by far longer terms of invisibility. Baseball is more crowded than the busiest airport or railroad station by those players whose careers were nondescript but who had blinks when they resembled men who stepped forth from the lands of the giants.

For every Dick Radatz (three years: the nastiest reliever in baseball; five injury-pushed years of low-fi pitching later: career over) there’s a Moe Drabowsky. (Game One, 1966 World Series; nothing much otherwise but beloved pranksterism—and surrendering Stan Musial’s 3,000th career hit.) For every Roger Maris (busting ruthsrecord in the middle of three Hall of Fame-like seasons; injury-abetted fall over six years to follow), there’s a Pablo Sandoval. (Game One, 2012 World Series; nothing much otherwise beyond his roly-poly Kung Fu Panda image.)

Former Orioles infielder Mike Bordick, once a Davis teammate and now an Orioles broadcaster, thinks Davis has people rooting for him to re-emerge from his protracted collapse even if such re-emergence may never happen. He’d had a good spring training before baseball shut down over the coronavirus pan-damn-ic last year, but he had less than a stellar “summer camp” before an injury curtailed a mediocre enough irregular season for him.

A Davis comeback is “never going to happen because of his work habits,” Bordick told NBC Sports Washington in December.

He proved that after he left spring training [last year] because when he came back he wasn’t the same. He didn’t have the same explosive bat speed. He didn’t even have the same mental attitude. He thought he could repeat that without the repetition of the work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in baseball. Period. I don’t care what age you are, but as you age in this game, you actually have to work harder, not less.

One of the most human of impulses is the belief that, because you did it and sustained it once before, you can do it again, at will. Davis isn’t the only ballplayer to learn the hard way how that can veer between difficult and impossible. Even for those who work harder as elders than they did as live youth.

Just ask Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols, who may yet retire after this season after a decade worth of his feet and legs betraying him to the point where he looked a sad impersonation of his once off-the-charts-formidable self. And Pujols, one of the proudest of men ever to play the game, never stopped working hard.

“The sooner one side blinks,” Meoli concluded of Davis and the Orioles, “the better for all involved.” Whichever side does blink at last, it’ll take a glandular swallow of pride.

“You just have to wear some things”

Buck Showalter facing the press after the 2016 AL wild card game.

Former major league manager Buck Showalter had the perfect chance to explain himself once and for all. He sat for an otherwise splendid interview with the New York Post‘s Steve Serby, published Friday. He offered several splendid recollections, revelations, and insights.

Then, just after he explained today’s Yankees sticking with Gary Sanchez behind the plate despite his problems at it, Serby asked the money question: “Your Orioles controversy in the 2016 AL wild-card game when you didn’t call on Zack Britton and lost in the bottom of the 11th in Toronto.”

Showalter, one of the most intelligent managers of his time, a man who once resigned as the Yankees’ manager rather than stand for one of his most trusted coaches being removed, defaulted: “You just have to wear some things, and I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it. I’m at peace with that.”

Serby didn’t seem to push just a little for the ten things Showalter thinks we may not have known about that situation, and Showalter’s probably dead wrong that nobody would have wanted to hear even one of them. If Rob Neyer ever gets the chance to update 2006’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, bet big on Showalter’s wild card game mistake, ten years after that book, showing up prominently.

Bottom of the eleventh, Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles tied with the Toronto Blue Jays at two. One out, and Ubaldo Jimenez, usually a starting pitcher, relieving Brian Dueseng after Dueseng opened by striking Ezequiel Careera swinging. Back-to-back singles setting the Blue Jays up for first and third, and Zach Britton, the Orioles closer and arguably the best relief pitcher in 2016 baseball, nowhere to be seen—even though Showalter used six relief pitchers already.

Just like Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals not even thinking of Trevor Rosenthal in the 2014 National League Championship Series in the bottom of the ninth in San Francisco, Showalter reasoned, too, that Britton’s job as his closer was to come in strictly with a lead.

As Matheny stuck with rusty Michael Wacha in San Francisco, Showalter bargained on Jimenez, who’d pitched well down the Oriole stretch, holding fort in Toronto and the Orioles breaking the tie in the twelfth with Manny Machado due to lead off. (The real shock of that game: two of the league’s most bludgeoning lineups got themselves into a pitching duel most of the night.)

Like Matheny, Showalter forgot—if it was ever programmed into their software in the first place—that the time to bring in your best relief pitcher was when you needed a stopper right then and there, not when his “role” mandated.

“It wasn’t just that he hadn’t used Britton,” wrote Jeff Passan, then a baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. “It was that any number of game states presented themselves with Britton’s use optimal, and Showalter ignored them all the way to his team’s demise.”

Travis Ishikawa delivered Matheny’s reminder a lot more brutally when his three-run homer sailed to the top of Levi’s Landing with a Giants pennant attached. Showalter got off easier by comparison. Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run homer into the second deck merely sent the Blue Jays to a division series.

What were the ten things about that situation Showalter could have told us but he thinks we don’t want to know?

Surely he knows he’s not the first and won’t be the last manager having to wear, own, and live with such things. Some of them owned and explained them with no attempt to evade responsibility. Some of them owned but excused them. Some of them could barely bring themselves to own them. Some of them thought it was God’s will or somebody else’s fault.

Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy took the blame squarely for picking Denny Galehouse to start over Mel Parnell at the last minute (Parnell reported to Fenway Park that day expecting to go) against the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 pennant playoff game. A McCarthy biographer quoted the old man as telling Parnell himself, “I made a mistake. I’ll just have to live with it.”

Charley Dressen, as Neyer pointed out, “never made a mistake he couldn’t blame on somebody else.” Citing Brooklyn Dodgers exec Buzzie Bavasi, Neyer revealed Dressen blundered when the Dodgers won the coin flip for the famous-turned-infamous 1951 pennant playoff—and elected to play Game One in Ebbets Field, where the Giants didn’t usually play well, but Games Two and Three in the Polo Grounds, where the Dodgers usually didn’t.

Ill-fated Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca would remember Dodgers ticket manager Jack Collins calling the coin flip back in Brooklyn since the Dodgers were in Philadelphia at the moment. Not quite. “Dressen . . . probably told anybody who’d listen,” Neyer wrote, “that the pointy-headed ticket sales manager was the one who screwed up.” The pointy-headed ticket sales manager got canned after the season, too. The Giants stole the pennant, but the Dodgers blew their cleanest shot at it when Dressen blew that coin flip.

Casey Stengel had to answer for failing to align his 1960 World Series rotation well enough to give his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford three instead of two Series starts. The Pittsburgh Pirates still like to thank him for that. The Ol’ Perfesser didn’t discuss it in his memoir Casey at the Bat. A month after Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was killed in his humanitarian-mission plane crash, the Hall of Fame skipper gave Boston radio reporter Ken Meyer an interview:

I blame myself on the whole Series. I mean for the Yankees losing. Now here’s the reason why I make that statement was because I thought Ford was so good . . . if I’da pitched him in the first game he’da been in better shape to go in the last game when I blow the Series.

Stengel’s biographer Robert W. Creamer translated the Stengelese to mean pitching Ford in Game One instead of holding him back until Game Three might have let Ford pitch Game Five and then be available in relief, maybe even to start, for Game Seven.

Showalter has more company in that special club whose membership requirements are that you’re a manager who blew one of the biggest decisions of your major league life, if not the big one. He has Matheny, Dressen, Stengel, and Gene Mauch to join him.

He has Leo Durocher, who burned the 1969 Cubs out as the Miracle Mets heated up fresh to stay. He has Tony La Russa, who blew a 1990 World Series he might have won, or at least kept from losing in a sweep, if he’d thrown his personal Book out and let his Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley pitch at least twice before ninth innings.

He has Dusty Baker. (Reference Mark Prior staying in but no activity in the bullpen, Game Six, 2003 National League Championship Series, with the Cubs six outs from the World Series.) He has Grady Little. (Pedro Martinez, gassed but left in two hitters too long, Game Seven, 2003 American League Championship Series.)

Most of the time such men wear, own, and explain their mistakes plausibly, even if their teams’ fans would still prefer to see them strapped in the electric chair. Most of the time. When Mauch’s 1964 Phillies returned home after finishing the pennant race they’d blown, Mauch refused to let his players leave the plane before he did: “You didn’t blow the pennant. I did.”

But when John McNamara elected to keep Bill Buckner at first base for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 Series, rather than send his uninjured regular late defensive replacement Dave Stapleton out, McNamara refused to change his original tune. He wanted his wounded warrior Buckner out there as he “deserved” to be when the Red Sox finally won it all and that was it, that was all, and that was goodbye.

To the day he died McNamara never backed off. His widow was very right saying upon his death that his entire career shouldn’t be judged by one game. McNamara clinging that stubbornly to his original rationale is its own kind of admirable, but it didn’t make him any less dead wrong.

What’s the worst that Showalter could face now if he’d just given Serby what was asked for and explained himself once and for all about why Zach Britton was nowhere to be seen when Edwin Encarnacion destroyed the 2016 Orioles’ season in one fell swing? Twenty-second guessing?

Oriole fan would still love to hear it. So, really, would baseball fan without a particular Baltimore rooting interest. Showalter has to wear that, too.

Ripken does not live by 2,131 alone

With his parents Vi and Cal, Sr. behind them, Cal Ripken, Jr. accepts congratulations from Joe DiMaggio, whose teammate’s streak Ripken had just broken 25 years ago.

After the game in which Cal Ripken, Jr. passed Lou Gehrig for consecutive major league games played, Joe DiMaggio—Gehrig’s teammate from 1936-39—spoke to the jammed Camden Yards crowd. He opened his on-field tribute by quoting Gehrig’s Yankee Stadium monument.

“A man, a gentleman, and a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time,” the monument still reads, beneath a bronze impression of Gehrig’s face beneath his Yankee cap. DiMaggio finished quoting the sentence, then tilted his head a bit to his right.

The Clipper arched his right eyebrow, as if in slightly bemused disbelief. He pursed his lips into a half-mischievious, half-astonished look on the face age softened into a kind of regal handsomeness. As the crowd began to cheer again, he continued.

“Well, that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken,” said the man whose own record 56-game hitting streak was once thought more likely to fall before Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. “And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Ripken’s father, Cal, Sr., an Oriole legend in his own right as a longtime minor league manager and teacher, stood behind DiMaggio beaming as DiMaggio turned to the son who’d just “reached the unreachable star,” as ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman said the moment 2,131 became an official game.

Ripken himself smiled in both relief and a little bit of awe as DiMaggio continued, “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record, and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

DiMaggio was 6’2″ in his playing days. Ripken was 6’4″ as he remains today, so far. Thanks to age, DiMaggio now stood a full head shorter as he shook hands with Ripken’s parents. He hadn’t just come forth to give a formal scripted tribute. The Clipper had watched the entire game (so had fellow Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson, the latter in the Orioles broadcast booth), including Ripken’s hefty drive halfway up the left field seats in the bottom of the fourth.

In game terms the Orioles’ 4-2 win meant almost nothing in their American League East standings, headed as they were for a third-place finish fifteen games behind the eventual East champion Boston Red Sox. The California Angels, in first place in the AL West that night, ended up finishing a game behind the champion Seattle Mariners after they couldn’t force a playoff game against Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

But in baseball terms, of course, Ripken’s achievement meant more than the outcome of any pennant race or World Series. In the aftermath of a players’ strike that disillusioned the country, abetted no end by a sporting press two thirds of which at least bought into the owners’ insistence that the players stop them before they overspent yet again, Ripken told his country and the world it was more than okay to love the game all over again.

“My favorite piece of memorabilia of my years playing is the lithograph of him hitting that home run off me that he had signed for me the next year,” says Shawn Boskie, the Angels pitcher who surrendered that fourth-inning bomb, as part of The Athletic‘s remarkable oral history of the record night. “The biggest thing that can be said is that the electricity and the anticipation for that game, building up to that moment, is something that I would expect I’ll never see again.”

Ripken wasn’t always understood so well until he finally did pass Gehrig. For months he’d had to put up with notions from intelligentsia and fans alike that he was putting himself ahead of his team. The consummate team player, who’d been raised to believe that being an everyday player meant just that so long as you could play, must have bristled under that unwarranted lash.

He turned 35 shortly before he consummated the streak. He wasn’t having a classic Ripken year in a season shortened to 144 games by the hangover of the strike. To this day, he doesn’t buy the selfishness argument.

“I always thought my job was (as) a player. My job was to come to the ballpark ready to play, and the streak was not created because I dictated I was going to play,” he said for The Athletic‘s oral history.

It was created because I brought value to each and every day. The manager chose me . . . It was more about being there for the team and you could even make the case that it was a little bit more unselfish than selfish. But I endured the criticism. People enjoyed taking that position when it happened. And I always thought your best protection against that was to get out of your slump. As soon as you got out of your slump, all of that stuff went away.

Ken Rosenthal, today an Athletic writer and Fox Sports broadcaster but then covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun, understands well. “Whether it was a worthwhile endeavor or not, whether he could have had an even better career,” he said for the oral history, “we can debate that until we’re blue in the face.”

His point always was, ‘Hey, if my manager feels that I’m the best guy to be out there, well, that’s it.’ It wasn’t always that simple, of course, because managers felt afraid, I think, to (not start him). But I remember (former Orioles manager) Johnny Oates always saying, ‘Hey man, two outs in the ninth, that’s where I want the ball hit.’ And even when he wasn’t hitting, that was always the case. It was just a remarkable accomplishment. … It was a testament to his toughness, his mental strength, all of the physical attributes, everything. Just to do it was unreal.

Ripken would finish his career with 431 home runs, hitting 353 of them as a regular shortstop—ahead of Alex Rodriguez (345 as a regular shortstop) and fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (298 as a regular shortstop). Remember: he was the prototype of the big man who could play a field position formerly governed by not-so-big men with spaghetti bats. Eight men have finished careers with 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs; Ripken’s the only mostly middle infielder in the pack.

Baseball Reference defines fielding runs as the number of runs saved above the league average based on how many plays you make. Ripken’s 181 lifetime are behind only two shortstops, ever: his Oriole predecessor Mark Belanger* (238) and his fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (239). Belanger’s Oriole predecessor, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio (who did most of his best work for the White Sox previously), is 27 behind Ripken.

For those willing to set aside Alex Rodriguez’s baggage, know that A-Rod isn’t even among the top 24 shortstops for fielding runs. He’s barely among the top one hundred. (His career total: +18.) We now know that those Seattle seasons during which he was hyped as possibly the greatest all-around shortstop of all time in the making was just that, hype.

Without the complete defensive numbers for Hall of Famer Honus Wagner (fielding runs weren’t even considered in his time, and Wagner’s only eleventh all-time in range factor, 23rd in career assists, and 79th in double plays turned, if that helps), we may or may not be able to say Ripken is the greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game in any era. But it’s very safe to say he’s the absolute best all-around shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. No questions asked.

Would Ripken have done even better, after his throwing arm finally began resigning after all those years and games, had he been moved to second base instead of third for his final five and a half seasons? Would he have been healthy enough to hit 500+ if he had taken time off when injured? We’ll never know. We don’t have to know, either.

Once upon a time, reviewing DiMaggio’s war-interrupted career, Bill James suggested that times come when we shouldn’t measure a player “by what he could have done, by what he should have done, by what he would have done, but what he did done.” Ripken did done an awful lot more than just put on a two-decade show of physical and mental endurance.

He earned the right to be measured by far more than just what proved to be 2,632 consecutive games played before he finally took himself out of the lineup. He shakes out on the evidence as the number three shortstop ever to play the game. (A-Rod and the Flying Dutchman are ahead of him only because of their bats; Ripken has more defensive wins above replacement-level than a) the pair of them and b) any shortstop other than Belanger and Smith.) He didn’t get there only by showing up to work every day.

Twenty-five years later, Ripken doesn’t have to apologise to anyone or justify himself for hanging in tough and proud enough to break Lou Gehrig’s streak. He did it in honest competition; he came out of far fewer games than Gehrig actually did. It wasn’t Gehrig’s fault that an insidious disease ended his streak and career at once; it wasn’t a black mark against Ripken that his health allowed the Iron Bird to pass the Iron Horse.

Joe DiMaggio was right—Gehrig probably did tip his cap from the Elysian Fields to Ripken that night. Today, from those same Elysian Fields, Gehrig and DiMaggio will both tip their caps. So will every Oriole in uniform at Camden Yards this afternoon—when the Orioles play the Yankees.

The only shame in either the streak itself or its silver anniversary is that the coronavirus world tour continues keeps fans out of the ballparks. The idea of canned noise of a standing ovation celebrating Ripken this afternoon somehow seems as fraudulent as Ripken’s achievement wasn’t.


* So why isn’t Mark Belanger—clearly Ozzie Smith’s near-equal as a defensive shortstop—in the Hall of Fame, despite the Hall more recently taking defense, preventing runs, far more seriously than it had during his era?

I suspect three reasons:

1) He couldn’t hit even compared to Ozzie Smith, who laboured to improve as a hitter as his career went on.

2) His career ended before the advent of the ESPN/SportsCenter/cable era that so boosted Smith as Smith’s career really began taking off, leaving Belanger’s own acrobatic defense away from reaching the audiences outside Baltimore that it should have reached. He won eight Gold Gloves at shortstop but never made an All-Star team, so he never got even that chance before national television audiences.

3) He only appeared in two World Series almost a decade apart, the second toward the end of his career. He didn’t really have the chances Brooks Robinson, his Hall of Fame partner at third base, had to show the country beyond Baltimore [in the 1966, 1969, and 1970 World Series] what he was made of in the field in the pre-cable era.