Steve Dalkowski, RIP: Lost and found

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Steve Dalkowski, the minor league pitching legend, during an Orioles spring training. When he finally made the parent club his elbow blew out.

Steve Dalkowski didn’t look like a young man who struck inordinate fear on the mound. The kind of fear that legend says moved a fan behind the plate to say he was about to scoop up his children and get the hell out of there after Dalkowski told him yes, he’d be pitching that night.

He was 5’11” and looked like the prototype for Revenge of the Nerds. If you bumped into him in a supermarket, you might have mistaken Dalkowski for the president of Future Clerks of America. Those who knew him best knew him as a too-pliant young man who listened to everyone, rarely stood his own ground, and was too eager to please.

But if you had to face him on the mound, the legends have had it, you took your life into your hands. Either you were going to swing feebly through a fastball Superman couldn’t out-fly, or draw a walk with the distinct possibility of the ball going through your dome, but you weren’t going to hit him without ten percent timing and ninety percent fortune.

Remember Bull Durham‘s million dollar arm/five cent head phenom Nuke LaLoosh? Writer/director Ron Shelton sculpted LaLoosh entirely from the model of Dalkowski he’d seen in his youth. He walked eighteen. New. league. record. He struck out eighteen. New. league. record. He hit the sportswriters, the public address announcer, and the Bull mascot twice. Also new. league. records. But . . . Joe . . . he’s got some serious sh@t!

What was good for a laugh on screen is what Dalkowski was, essentially, in the Orioles minor league system. When he pitched for Stockton in the old C-level California League, he did set new. league. records. with exactly 262 strikeouts and 262 walks in 170 innings. Well, he tried, anyway. Gary Kroll actually led the league in strikeouts with 316.

“Most of the Dalkowski stories — throwing a ball through a wooden fence, throwing at hecklers in the stands, hitting hot dog vendors behind home plate, shattering an umpire’s facemask, Ted Williams asking to face him in the batting cage but changing his mind after watching Dalkowski throw — are unverifiable,” wrote pitcher-turned-writer Pat Jordan for Sports Illustrated in 1970, “passed and stretched like folk tales from one minor leaguer to another across the decades.”

Those who saw or played with Dalkowski swore he was wild up and down, never in and out. “If he had been wild inside,” said Frank Zupo, a former catcher in the Show who’d caught Dalkowski in the minors, “he’d have been arrested for murder.”

What was good for anything but laughs is what Dalkowski’s life became when he left baseball after 1965, without seeing a single day’s major league action. A too-heavy drinker during his playing days, who once admitted he did it trying to drown the frustrations he felt trying to make it in baseball, alcohol owned him for 28 years after he left the game.

The lefthander with speed to burn and as much control on and off the mound as a runaway subway train died at 80 last Sunday, after a month-long battle with the coronavirus. At the convalescent home to which his sister Patty Cain brought him in their native Connecticut after finding him at last following decades in alcohol’s wilderness. The miracle may really be not that Dalkowski left almost more legends behind through the minors than Babe Ruth left in the Show but that he lived as long as he did.

He came from the same Connecticut city (New Britain) that produced Rob Dibble, Carl Pavano, and George Springer. He quarterbacked and halfbacked for a pair of unbeaten high school teams while hitting prodigious home runs in summer leagues and pitching like a machine gun. When he graduated high school in 1957, all sixteen Show teams at the time wanted him.

He signed with the Orioles for a $4,000 bonus after graduation, the absolute ceiling under the absurd rule of the time that forced teams signing players to higher bonuses to keep them on their major league rosters for two full seasons. Another legend holds that the Orioles scout who signed him, Frank McGowan, handed him another eight large and a new car.

The apparent secret to the benign-looking lefthander’s power rested in a combination of his arm and wrist action. How else could a kid who looked like baseball’s Mr. Peepers throw the proverbial lamb chop past a pack of wolves, never mind one?

“Steve was able to rotate his shoulder for more leverage. And he just had great joint structure,” his boyhood friend Andy Baylock once told a reporter. “I call it `segmental acceleration.’ It’s almost like a chain reaction took place in his body every time he threw the ball. It was a free-flowing, smooth action. It was God-given.”

They didn’t have the radar gun when Dalkowski went from high school to Kingsport in the old Class D Appalachian League. But Cal Ripken, Sr., who caught Dalkowski at one point (when Dalkowski’s pitches weren’t rising above heads and sailing into screens or stands), once swore the kid threw 110 mph. If that was true, Herb Score was a junkballer by comparison.

The Orioles tried everything to harness the obvious talent and the too-obvious speed. When Birdie Tebbetts managed the Reds and his charges faced Dalkowski in a spring exhibition game, he called Dalkowski’s fastball the radio pitch: “You can’t see it, but you can hear it.”

They also tried harnessing Dalkowski’s taste for hijinks and girls. Emphasis on “tried.” Harnessing his taste for drinks was another matter. He’d learned about it only too well at home; in a New Britain full of hard drinking families Dalkowski’s baseball-loving father was a full blown alcoholic.

One of the lefthander’s minor league roommates was Bo Belinsky, a similarly flaky portsider with less than half Dalkowski’s pitching speed and twice as much street smarts when it came to the young ladies. (Belinsky, too, fought a long battle with the bottle until he dried up to stay a decade before his death in 2001.)

Belinsky’s biographer Maury Allen told of a particularly telling incident when, next door to their hotel room, there once roomed a very comely Miss Universe contestant whose mother wouldn’t let the hungering young wolves get to within a nautical mile of her. Allen swore (in Bo: Pitching and Wooing) that Dalkowski hatched the plot by which he, Belinsky, and their teammates could get a good uncensored look regardless.

Dalkowski procured a drill with a particularly thin bit and drilled several holes in the wall, tiny enough not to be detected but not so tiny that the players with their gimlet eyes couldn’t enjoy the show. Then one knucklehead decided the night time didn’t have to be the wrong time for the show to stop. He brought a flashlight for his evening’s viewing. When he hit the switch, enough of the light beam shot through the pinhole to cause the comely would-be Miss Universe to shriek.

In spring 1962, Belinsky and another Oriole minor league pitcher-playboy, Dean Chance, were gone to the Angels who’d plucked them in the minor league draft. But Dalkowski finally caught a break when eventual Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, managing the Orioles’ Elmira (NY) farm, got hold of him.

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Dalkowski with his sister, Patty Cain, not long after she returned him to his New Britain home town.

Weaver wreaked a small miracle. He actually got the kid to pitch like a comer. The secret: Weaver told Dalkowski to get rid of every one of the hundreds of different suggestions thrown his way in the past and listen to just one idea and no more.

Throw it easy. Just play catch with the guy behind the plate. Relax. Throw to the glove. Just as Dodger catcher Norm Sherry translated a scout’s deciphering of the flaw that kept Sandy Koufax from becoming the Hall of Famer he finally became. Sandy, you don’t have to throw so hard. Steve, you don’t have to throw so hard, either. Except when Weaver whistles after you get the second strike—then you throw it like you’re a human howitzer.

Dalkowski posted the lowest earned-run average (3.04) of his minor league career while striking out 192 and walking a measly 114 in 160 innings. In spring training 1963, Dalkowski finally made the Orioles and was going to the Show when the team broke camp for Baltimore.

The legend would finally have the chance to put his money where the Orioles’ mouths were. (“They were always billing him as the ‘fastest pitcher alive’,” McGowan once said, “and I think the publicity hurt him.”) They hoped he’d become out of their bullpen what Dick Radatz was with the Red Sox—the guy you didn’t want to see even warming up when the game got late and close.

“Hearing [Dalkowski] warm up,” said Red Sox utility infielder/pinch hitter Dalton Jones, “was like hearing a gun go off.”

But pitching to Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson in an exhibition game after learning he’d make the Orioles at last, Dalkowski fielded a bunt, threw to first, and felt his elbow go off. “They called it a pinched ulna nerve,” wrote the Hartford Courant‘s Don Amore in a remarkable profile last year. “If it happened today, Tommy John surgery would have fixed it. But it happened in the 1960s and Dalkowski was never the same . . . ”

He went back to the minors for 1963, bounced around two more organisations (the Pirates and the Angels) before one more try in the Orioles’s system, then left baseball for good after the 1965 season. He left baseball but the alcohol didn’t leave him. He wouldn’t let it yet.

He drifted. He worked on a San Joaquin Valley farm. He got into and out of barroom brawls that often got him jailed, though ESPN says Bakersfield police called it “nothing serious.” He tried and failed detox; he escaped from one such center. He married twice. Amore wrote that Dalkowski was once found by a southern California family one Christmas Eve and that the family took him in and traced him back to Connecticut.

Two years later, after his second wife died, his sister brought Dalkowski home to New Britain and placed him in a rehabilitation center where he lived the rest of his life. The locals accepted Dalkowski’s return with uncommon grace and affection, remembering the school legend who became a minor league legend, forgiving the inherited alcoholic self-destruction, loving him all over again.

“This is still Steve Dalkowski’s town, as much now as it was when he first left,” wrote the Courant‘s John Altavilla in 1996, “although his circumstances and surroundings are quite different. The people here are happy to see him, glad to know he’s back where they can finally care for him.”

Diagnosed with alcohol-related dementia after his sister brought him home, Dalkowski—who had practically no memory left of the 28 years between leaving baseball and her finding him again—was given a year further to live at best. He beat that projection by over 25 years, slowly coming to terms with his life and even making a few re-connections to baseball.

He threw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards in 2003 and—after his election to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2009—at Dodger Stadium. He looked grizzled and bloated behind his salt-and-pepper beard as he rose from his wheelchair, but when he thrust his arms out in triumph after throwing the ball, he looked like a man who’d just pitched an immaculate inning.

“He’s fine. He’s comfortable. He’s happy,” Cain told Altavilla in ’96. “Right now, we just want to make sure that he’s able to move on with life. Sometimes, I think we’ve taken him to his limits here, but that’s still great, because there were times when none of us even felt we’d be able to get Steve this far.”

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” May the angels of the Lord whose forgiveness is there for the asking now keep Dalkowski safe at home in the Elysian Fields.

A cry from Chris Davis’s wilderness

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Chris Davis (top right, hatless) had a meltdown with skipper Brandon Hyde (bearded, behind Davis’s shoulder) Wednesday.

Even a single taste of greatness produces a natural high equaled only by any subsequent, equivalent taste of failure producing a natural low that can sting far deeper than the high could elevate. Prolonged greatness shoved aside by prolonged failure lacerates deeper.

And as often as not the ache to reclaim former greatness becomes a burden, if not an addiction, whose lack of consummation harries men and women of all manner of character to the rack of their regrets in a manner as cruel as it can be enduring.

Today’s unexpected champion becomes thrown back tomorrow to the pool of the ordinary, just as readily as today’s unexpected failure or journeyman may be thrown unexpectedly into the pool of the giants. And it’s still rare enough that a man who’s tumbled from particular heights to particular nightmarish depths allows himself the stripping of his professional guard enough to cry out from his unique wilderness.

Chris Davis, the Orioles’ first baseman/designated hitter, became such a man late this week. Davis has fallen from being one of the American League’s marquee sluggers to a man about whom the term “journeyman” can’t begin to describe without injury the depth to which he has fallen so publicly.

He is the Orioles’ highest paid player, based on his former glories and with three years left on his mammoth deal. You would have to presume him inhuman if he didn’t believe to his soul that he wasn’t earning what he’s paid. Yet until this week Davis was also elevated in the minds of fans who appreciate the war within such a man and the courage required to refuse its consumption of his soul.

Earlier this season he ended an unconscionable hitless game streak with the eyes of a nation upon him for the grace he’d exhibited under such futility’s lash, whacking a two-run single that brought loud cheering even in the enemy ballpark in which he drilled the hit. And it was merely the first of three hits he’d collect, and the first two of four runs he’d drive in on the evening.

But Davis since that night has had yet another season in hell parallel to that of his team’s, apparently lost for resolving himself as a player. He’s long past being an everyday player; his season’s salary is a quarter of the Orioles’ season’s payroll; his pride is compromised even deeper than his play.

At long enough last his personal dam yielded to a flood Wednesday night, after he couldn’t perform a somewhat routine scoop of a low infield throw in the fifth inning, in the middle of the Orioles being blown out by the Yankees, 14-2.

When the teams changed sides, there was Davis in a furious verbal showdown with his manager Brandon Hyde, who may have ignited the flood with a remark to Davis and answered his battered first baseman in kind for one and all to see. It was caught on camera and only too widely discussed and disseminated.

Orioles fans knew Hyde in his first season of major league managing had all he could think about trying to foster accountability and navigate the roiled waters of a mediocre team. But if he intended to call Davis out over the error alone, or the full year’s shortfall, Hyde may have underestimated just how painfully self aware Davis must be of his own deflation.

And the day after, Davis was extensively apologetic for having let his season long frustration, interrupted only rarely, and perhaps an extension of two previous years’ unexpected and barely explainable futility, explode as on Wednesday.

I think it’s pretty obvious the offensive struggles I’ve had for quite some time. I feel like night in and night out, I’ve done a real good job of still being there on defense and trying to pick guys up, and at that spot in the game, at that point in the series, that was kind of where it all . . . like I said, I hit a breaking point.

. . . [W]hen you have that much frustration, when you’re constantly having to deal with failure, you’re gonna have episodes where you just have to let it out. Unfortunately, it was in the dugout. I wish it hadn’t been. I wish it had been underneath [in the clubhouse tunnel], but it happened, and I can’t go back and change that.

His temporary fortune was the Orioles having an off-day Thursday, enabling Davis to take succor from his wife and young children, the most immediate and mandatory place for a husband and father to regain comfort after a too-long-protracted bad year on the job.

That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband. I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.

And when he returned to his place of business Friday, rejoining the Orioles to open a weekend series against the American League West-owning Astros, against whom he won’t play Friday night, Davis approached the boss post haste.

We sat down today and talked, I don’t know, over an hour. That’s just kind of when it all went down, I guess. We both knew that we 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. When we’re not here and we’re not in uniform, we’re not working, we’re just regular human beings. I think he took a little time away from everything just to relax.

Hyde’s own short public remarks immediately after the Wednesday night dam burst offered no indication that he would hold it against Davis, which makes Davis fortunate enough when you allow that in non-public professions such explosions after such protracted internal anguish gain as much unemployment as empathy for the frustrated.

Davis specifies that Wednesday culminated “the last couple of weeks” worth of shortfall and its accompanying discomfort, but you could not blame him if it proved to culminate the last couple of seasons worth. You may consider him fortunate to have tasted greatness at all and remind yourself of those who’ve tasted far more brief such greatness without the prior and subsequent ordinariness or failure breaking them in half.

Stronger men than Davis get crushed beneath the wheel of failure that rolls upon them unexpectedly after they know even a fast flicker of greatness. Weaker men than him triumph on the job yet claim that their only and transient success in a mortal life that does not live by profession alone.

The Baltimore Sun‘s venerable baseball columnist Peter Schmuck suggests Davis’s frustration may prompt him to think of negotiating a buyout of the rest of his contract. It may not be an option to which either Davis or the Orioles are immune.

No tank you very much

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So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.

Some people can never be satisfied, still

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Left to right: Emily, Bryan, and the author, Bryan’s father, relax in Angel Stadium before a game between the Angels and the Athletics Thursday night. Guess which of the game’s seventeen total hits got the loudest ovations . . .

What’s that old saying about some people can never be satisfied? Unfortunately it also remains a true saying. That’s whether baseball’s get-off-my-lawn contingency complains about not enough hitting (in 2014) or too many home runs (this year), or whether Orioles fans look the proverbial gift horses in the mouth because of a choice of . . . uniform.

This year’s epidemic of home runs includes such side effects as strikeouts rising, singles falling, stolen bases on various endangered species lists, and howitzer-armed bullpens turned to arson squads.

It’s not unreasonable to lament the large percentage of game action that involves home runs. The absolute flip side of the proverbial coin would be a game full of nothing but singles and a crashing bore unless the pitchers are virtuoso charismatics and the fielders resemble the Flying Wallendas. (Only nine percent of this season’s fielding assists so far involve turning double plays. Ground ball pitchers, where are thy stings?)

I happened to be in Angel Stadium Thursday night, treating my son, Bryan, and his girlfriend, Emily, to a game, the first of a weekend set between the Angels and the rival Athletics, to finish their final home stand before the All-Star break. (They hit the road to meet the Rangers and the Astros to finish the season’s first half.)

The occasion was a gift for Bryan’s graduation from southern California’s North Orange Continuing Education program in which disabled students make their transitions gradually but affirmatively to whatever full collegiate work they can perform toward the level of independent life they can attain.

Bryan is speech-language impaired, and the only one in the house more proud of the courage he shows living, laughing, and persevering through his disability is his father, to whom Bryan is a hero every day, not just those during which he graduates or helps his Special Olympics team nail a silver medal in softball, as he did at last year’s national games in Seattle.

(P.S. In his first ever plate appearance in a national Special Olympics, Bryan socked a home run. In baseball, 118 players have homered in their first major league at-bats. The most recent: Lane Thomas, Cardinals, 19 April.)

And lo! Come Thursday night, the Angels defeated the Athletics, 8-3, to open a weekend set. From our nesting at field level down the right field line, we saw the runs score on:

* A second-inning home run. (A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano, leading off.)

* Another second-inning home run. (Kole Calhoun, a two-run shot that ricocheted off the rocks behind the left center field fence in the bottom of the inning.)

* A third-inning home run. (Shohei Ohtani, the defending American League Rookie of the Year, resuming designated-hitter duties if not pitching as he continues recovering from Tommy John surgery, hitting one clean over the center field fence.)

* A pair of third-inning RBI singles. (Hall of Famer in waiting Albert Pujols, driving home Justin Upton; and, Luis Rengifo, driving home Calhoun.)

* A fourth-inning home run. (Matt Olson of the A’s, leading off the top.)

* A sixth-inning single. (Mike Trout, the Angels’ all-everything center fielder, sending home Andrelton Simmons, the flying shortstop freshly restored from the injured list.)

* An eighth-inning single. (Oakland’s Marcus Semien, sending home Robbie Grossman.)

Of the game’s seventeen hits (the Angels had twelve), 24 percent of them sailed over the fences. Through this morning’s writing, major league games this season have featured 3,390 home runs out of 21,265 hits. That, folks, is 16 percent of this season’s hits. Last year, 14 percent of baseball’s hits were home runs. Oh, the horror.

Fume all you like about the home run epidemic, if epidemic it is, but doesn’t it seem peculiar that such an epidemic accounts for that small a percentage of baseball’s hits? Thirty-six percent of this year’s hits are doubles; two percent are triples. But we don’t hear either loud complaints about the epidemic of doubles or the near-extinction of triples as much as we hear about the bombs bursting in air at record levels.

On Thursday night, except for Trout’s RBI knock in the sixth, knowing that this guy gets standing ovations just taking his position in the field to open a game (a cursory look around the park tells you Trout remains the single most popular Angel based on jerseys and jersey-reproducing T-shirts with Ohtani a close enough second), guess which hits got the loudest ovations, even among the A’s fans who scattered around the stands?

Hint: it wasn’t the four RBI singles.

(A note on the Angel Stadium video display when Laureano batted midway through the game: he’s the first Athletic in their entire franchise history—going all the way back to the birth of the Philadelphia Athletics—to have made his first major league hit a game-winning RBI hit. Ever. Not even the franchise’s celebrated Hall of Famers—not Home Run Baker, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, or Reggie Jackson—did that. Laureano did it in 2018.)

Once upon a time, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith bragged (if that’s the correct word), “The fans love home runs, and we have assembled a pitching staff that is certain to please them.” This year, commissioner Rob Manfred all but brags that since the fans like home runs, baseball has introduced a ball that was certain to please them. Apparently, the “pill” at the ball’s center is being centered more accurately. Makes some people want to reach for the nearest bottle of pills.

Pitchers may not be pleased as greatly as the fans seem to be. Rangers pitcher Drew Smyly picked the wrong year to return from Tommy John surgery: he surrendered nineteen bombs in 51 and a third innings before the Rangers released him last week. And until Phillies pitcher Jared Eickhoff landed on the injured list, he’d pitched 58 and a third 2019 innings and eighteen services landed on the far side of the fence.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield says Smyly’s home run rate per nine innings this year (3.3) was baseball’s worst and Eickhoff’s (2.8) the seventh worst, but don’t get him started on those who’ve been nuked worse in fewer innings. Poor souls such as Alex Cobb (nine bombs in twelve and a third), Edwin Jackson (twelve in 25.1), or Dan Straily (22 in 47.1).

And, yet, Schoenfield continues, overall scoring per game remains “within historical norms” at 4.78 runs a game, which he says is the highest since 2007’s 4.80. Apparently it’s how you score that matters yet again. If the game levels itself out in due course (as it always seems to do, never mind the periodic equipment tinkerings) and the runs begin coming in singles-, doubles-, and triples-hitting droves, brace yourself. The death of the home run will be pronounced loud and long, too.

I mentioned the Orioles earlier. Back to them. How does this strike you—the Orioles, who are on a pace Schoenfield says will see them surrender 324 home runs for the full season (or, if you’re scoring at home, an average of 36 homers per lineup spot against them), spent Friday and Saturday doing what no team before them has done: back-to-back shutouts in which they themselves scored thirteen runs or more.

The Indians were the victims. On Friday night, John Means and three Orioles relievers kept the Indians to six hits against Mike Clevinger and three Indians relievers surrendering sixteen hits—only (count them) two of which were home runs. On Saturday night, Andrew Cashner and one reliever kept the Tribe to five hits against Zach Plesac and four Indians relievers surrendering thirteen hits—only four of which were home runs. That’s back-to-back home run percentages of 13 and 31 percent per game, and 21 percent for the two games.

But Oriole fans couldn’t even enjoy that rare a two-night spread without finding something to complain about. In this case, the Orioles’ uniforms Saturday. Commemorating Maryland Day, a state holiday, the Orioles’ jersey sleeves and cap visors displayed the image of Maryland’s state flag. “Hideous” was probably the least indignant adjective applied.

Well, as I was saying, some people can never be satisfied. Thank God and His servant Jackie Robinson that my son and his lady aren’t among the perpetually dissatisfied.