A calm, objective look at the Mookie Monster

Mookie Betts about to take a low-five from third base coach Dino Ebel after his sixth-inning Game One bomb.

The Mookie Monster is catching more than a few waves of adulation and hype lately. Making three National League Championship Series-altering or sustaining catches in the final three games, then doing something even Babe Ruth never achieved in a single World Series game, does that for you.

“He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” says Game One winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, “and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

On Tuesday  night, Betts let a couple of other Dodgers take the defensive spotlight gladly in return for drawing one walk, stealing two bases, and hitting a home run. Ruth drew three walks, off one of which he stole second and third, in Game Two of the 1921 World Series.

This Series is only one game old, and Betts hit as many home runs Tuesday night as Ruth hit in the entire ’21 Series—one. No, we’re not comparing Mookie Betts to Babe Ruth just yet, other than to say he has something else in common with the Bambino.

Betts, too, is a former Boston Red Sox star. Betts was traded away while Red Sox Nation was still seeing him in prime time; Ruth was sold before Red Sox fans got to see his complete transition to full-time position playing and his two prime periods—in a very different game—of 1920-24 and 1926-31. And Red Sox Nation isn’t the only baseball outpost still wondering just what the Red Sox were thinking when dealing Betts.

The Ruthian mythology held for too long that then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dumped Ruth purely to finance his musical hit No, No, Nanette. (How a 1919 sale finances a 1925 stage production should have escaped thinking people.) Frazee did need money, but not for one of his theatrical productions. He also didn’t need the headaches that came with Ruth, behaving even then like a law unto himself.

Fast forward a century. A very different Red Sox ownership is about as financially challenged as the Saudi royal family. They’re facing Betts hitting free agency after the 2020 season and making little apparent effort to sign him. Betts himself spoke often enough about pondering his market value in that 2020 free agency class. The Red Sox didn’t want to lose him for nothing in return.

Fair enough. But why the Red Sox made no effort to keep their arguable franchise face will be debated at least as long as the old and discredited Curse of the Bambino endured. No matter what the Red Sox didn’t do otherwise last winter to keep the team from collapsing to the basement even in a pandemic-altered year, the Olde Towne Team isn’t likely to go even half as long before its next World Series triumph as they did between selling Ruth and 2004.

“The Red Sox’s payroll issues were not inconsequential,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, never mind that allowing that the Red Sox doing nothing to re-tool their pitching staff probably did as much to sink them as trading Betts. “The team needed to infuse young talent. But every rational argument club officials make pales in comparison to the importance of keeping a homegrown star, a franchise player, a role model for your organization and a potential Hall of Famer.”

Their loss is the Dodgers’ gain, even if the Red Sox did get some decent young talent in return and rid themselves, while they were at it, of the rest of David Price’s contract before Price’s decline added further miseries. Betts already had a taste of World Series conquest in 2018, even though he didn’t hit well at all while playing solid defense that postseason.

“He does all the little things right,” said Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger to Rosenthal, Bellinger having delivered a couple of key postseason hits and defensive gems himself. “You can really learn from that when a guy’s that good and wants to win and continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people. It’s really special.”

The guy Betts is being compared to most now hasn’t even gotten more than one quick postseason taste in his rookie season. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly in the poorhouse financially. They’re in the poorhouse in baseball terms, though, since they seem almost terminally unable to build a team their franchise player and the game’s best all around, still, can be proud of.

Once the Mookie Monster cranked his act into overdrive starting in NLCS Game Five, the concurrent subject became Mike Trout, his lack of postseason credentials, and even why Trout is therefore an overrated hype. The foolishness there only begins with the roll of Hall of Famers who either never got to strut in the postseason, came up too short when they got several chances, but still shook out as their generations’ best.

It only continues with ignoring that Trout wasn’t responsible for such ultimately backfiring moves as the Albert Pujols contract—which became an albatross mostly because of Pujols’s injury issues impacting his once-unshakable plate discipline—and the utter failure to develop credible pitching on both ends of the game. That may or may not have only begun with doing little to nothing to keep Zack Greinke beyond his second-half 2012 rental.

Trout’s loyalty to the organisation that brought him forward is nothing but admirable in a business for which loyalty is and has always been a disposable commodity. The only difference between pre- and post-free agency “loyalty” is that pre-free agency teams were under no such obligation and liberal to the point of libertine when it came to “loyalty” to most of their players.

A guy doesn’t sign an extension equivalent to the economy of a small country if he thinks he’s been done dirty off the field. Even nice-guy Trout has his limits, though. He said not too subtly this year that he’s tired of the Angels losing. But when the game’s all-universe player says he’s fed up with falling short and shorter, will the Angels listen at last?

The show Betts is putting on this postseason is as staggering as the 99 Cent Store-budget Tampa Bay Rays bumping, grinding, flying, and diving their way to the American League’s best irregular season record and into the World Series in the first place. But if Betts’s partisans really want to go there with the Trout comparisons, well, you asked for it.

Betts has seven seasons in the Show. Here they are next to Trout’s first seven. First, looking conventionally:

First Seven Seasons BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Mookie Betts .301 .373 .522 .895 135
Mike Trout .310 .420 .579 1.000 178

Well, I tried to warn you. And, in absolute fairness, Betts’s line is astonishing for a leadoff hitter, which I’ll take a different crack at shortly.

Now—sorry, can’t resist—look at the pair using my Real Batting Average metric, which I think gives you the complete look at a player at the plate. (It also does what the traditional batting average fails to do: treats hits as they should be treated, not treating all hits as having equal value—which they don’t.) Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Mike Trout 2012-2018 4538 2171 684 86 43 63 .671

Again, Betts has a remarkable profile for a leadoff hitter. But granted that distinction versus a guy who bats second much of the time and third almost as much of the time, the Mookie Monster isn’t quite the Millville Meteor just yet. (Since you went there: Betts does have a Most Valuable Player award—to Trout’s three that should have been four.)

On the other hand, it might be a lot more prudent and accurate to compare Betts to the first seven seasons of another leadoff man of certain renown.

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Renowned Leadoff Man 4445 1639 674 24 20 23 .535

The leadoff man of certain renown is Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. Did you figure for even one milli-second that there but for the grace of his life of crime on the bases would Henderson come up short of Betts? That the Mookie Monster in his first seven seasons is actually better at the plate than the Man of Steal?

Maybe you didn’t before, but you ought to now. Especially since Betts has a slightly better knowledge than Henderson of what to do when his bat takes unexpected time off and becomes a one-man version of the Rays’ collection of aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and tumblers.

It’s enough to make the Dodgers’ spanking new $396 million man the biggest bargain of the year. Just don’t ask Betts. All he’s ready to do is tell you the most important thing he did in Game One, and it wasn’t the jolt he hit the other way that landed in the right field seats in the bottom of the sixth. For him, it was the double steal that led to him scoring on an offline throw from first base an inning earlier.

“I think it just kept the line moving,” he told reporters. “It was a good play there, and I’ve gotta give credit to the hitters that came up after for driving in runs and keeping constant pressure. It just showed that we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

Not even when it’s the aggregation that led the National League in bombs this irregular season and last full season. It ought to make for one hell of a World Series show going forward.

The wheeling, dealing, maybe stealing Padres

Mike Clevinger, from Cleveland outcast to the star of the San Diego Shuffle.

Entering the pandemic-truncated regular season, some thought the Show was going to be somewhere between dull and duller, not just by way of the rules experiments alone. They didn’t reckon with the San Diego Padres, of all people.

When not producing a youthful shortstop (Fernando Tatis, Jr.) who takes “let the kids play” to heart (and runs the boring old farts’ temperatures up the scale in the bargain), or hitting grand slams as if they’re going out of style, the Padres took what some presumed would be a sleepy trade deadline period and turned it into a bit of a thriller approaching Monday’s 1 p.m. Pacific time cutoff.

Landing Cleveland Indians pitcher/protocol violator Mike Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen for a package including pitcher Cal Quantrill, infielder Gabriel Arias, outfielder Josh Naylor, and catcher Austin Hedges on Monday merely seems like what Duke Ellington once called “the cherries-and-cream topping to our sundae morning.”

Especially after the Friars already made four trades in a 24-hour period prior. The fourth of those trades looked like something of a nothingburger: on Sunday, the Padres sent a fringe relief pitcher from their 60-man roster (28 in Show; 32 at alternate camp), Gerardo Reyes, to the Los Angeles Angels for veteran catcher Jason Castro, who’s set to hit free agency after this season. And, who’s not much of a hitter but is respected for his abilities at pitch framing and new-rules plate blocking.

Now, look at what that deal followed doing the Slam Diego Shuffle:

* On Saturday, the Padres cast for and reeled in resurgent relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal, sending the Kansas City Royals an outfield prospect (Edward Oliveres) and the proverbial player to be named later.

* On Sunday morning, the Padres more or less confirmed that the beleaguered Boston Red Sox were about to push the plunger on their season if not much of their roster, landing designated hitter/first baseman Mitch Moreland, a 2018 World Series hero, for a pair of prospects. (Hudson Potts, Jession Rosario.)

* And, a little later on Sunday, the Friars dealt big to the Seattle Mariners, sending two of their highest-rated prospects (pitcher Andres Munoz, outfielder Taylor Trammell) plus a pair of young sprouts with Show experience (catcher Luis Torrens, infielder Ty France) to land the Mariners’ best catcher, Austin Nola, plus relief pitchers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla.

The Mariners were thin enough in the backstop ranks that nothing could have pried Nola out of their hands unless it was enough to think they might finally, maybe, possibly begin building a real future, as a good number of published reports suggest. When the Padres landed Clevinger Monday morning, what started as jaw-dropping hope turned into jaw-dropping actuality: They’re going all-in to win now as well as later.

How surreal is this season already? The Indians put Clevinger on ice when it turned out he’d made a team flight after violating coronavirus safety protocols with fellow pitcher Zach Plesac but said nothing about it—even after Plesac got bagged—until after that team flight. The Tribe sent both to their Eastlake, Ohio alternate site.

And all of a sudden Clevinger—who had a sterling 2019 season but had a struggle or two in four starts this season before his night out of dinner and cards with Plesac and other friends—became the most coveted starting pitcher on a weird trade market that figured to feature such arms as Lance Lynn (Texas Rangers), Trevor Bauer (Cincinnati Reds), and maybe Josh Hader (Milwaukee Brewers relief act) moving to fresh territory.

This must be heady stuff for Clevinger, who’s just gone from a Cleveland outcast to the star of the Slam Diego Shuffle.

One minute, Clevinger and Plesac were still recovering in Eastlake over the denunciations of their selfishness for sneaking out after dark no matter what Mom and Dad ordered. The next, he, at least, has moved from one pennant contender on the banks of Lake Erie to another down by that glistening San Diego waterfront. Where he gets to reap the pleasures and benefits of having one of the left coast’s two true marquee talents having his back at shortstop and lightening his loads at the plate.

It was enough for the Padres to swing and fling their way into the postseason picture, sitting five games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the West but tied with the Chicago Cubs at three and a half games up in the wild card picture. They’re not just making noise, they’re making memories of the kind San Diego hasn’t seen in a very long time.

These are fun days to be a Padre. And, a Padre fan. So much so that a Twitter wag couldn’t resist wondering if their trade deadline wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing didn’t set at least one weird record: most players sharing the name Austin (including Moreland: it’s his middle name) moving to one team or another in a series of trades made by one team in the same deadline period.

Well, what’s baseball, too, if not the still-singular repository for silly records? Now the Padres hope their wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing produce the kind of record that’s not so silly, if you don’t count the semi-Mad Hatter style postseason to come. The kind of record that gets them to the postseason in the first place.

All they have to do is make sure Clevinger can’t be too seduced by that delicious waterfront to break the safety protocols again.

“It’s never going to be good enough”

“They’re continuously advocating for this head-hunting season of the Astros.”–Lance McCullers, Jr.

At this writing, this season’s Houston Astros have been hit by pitches twelve times for fourth among American League teams. The on-field administration of that Astrogate justice denied by the commissioner produces a disturbing sidebar. Quick: Name the Astro who’s been hit by the most pitches since the pandemic-truncated season began.

The answer is Abraham Toro, reserve third baseman/designated hitter. He’s the only Astro to be hit by pitches three times thus far, and he wasn’t even a member of the 2017-18 Astrogate teams. His reasonable responses to such embryonic team plunk leadership might include thoughts of first-degree manslaughter.

Toro’s position is much like that of a bright young financial whiz, freshly graduated from a prestigious university, freshly hired by a brokerage firm that faced sanctions, fines, imprisonments, and in-the-toilet public relations a year before bringing him into their tattered ranks, and who now feels the stings and fastballs of guilt by association.

This year’s Astros include nine from the 2017-18 teams: their entire starting infield—Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel; two outfielders—Josh Reddick, George Springer; and, three pitchers—Chris Devenski, Lance McCullers, Jr., Justin Verlander. Gurriel and Springer have been hit by pitches twice this year; Altuve, Bregman, and Correa, once each. Reddick as of this writing has escaped thus far.

Toro is one of two non-2017-18 Astros to take one for the team with which they had nothing to do in the first place. Last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, possibly out for the season with a knee injury, got it once before his injury.

Exactly why Toro and Alverez should be taking balls to their ribs or other assorted anatomy is anyone’s guess aside from opponents believing that, if you wear an Astro uniform, the deets don’t matter, you’re fair game. That’s as patently unfair as would be a prosecutor taking one look at the aforementioned, hypothetical new brokerage recruit and filing an arrest warrant because, well, “That’s for even thinking about joining that cesspool house.”

You got why it seemed about seven-eighths if not more of the rest of the Show’s players wanted to administer the justice commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t in handing 2017-18 Astro players immunity in return for their spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency. And you get why pitcher McCullers, one of the more thoughtful Astros, is just a little bit fed up with that desire.

McCullers thinks “they” continue advocating for the Astros to suffer the brushbacks, knockdowns, and beanballs over Astrogate’s perfidy. “They,” of course, are that majority of non-Astros players and enough press and fans who think the Astros’ players got away with murder over their 2017-18 illegal electronic sign-stealing operation. And “they,” of course, are wrong, as McCullers sees it.

“[S]peaking to players was probably the least part of [MLB’s] whole investigation,” McCullers told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville (himself a former major league player) on the Starkville podcast.

I can’t go into it because I don’t know how much I am or am not allowed to say. But I’ll say that … the notion that, oh, players negotiated immunity, players then were interviewed and rolled on everyone just to save themself, isn’t the case. And that’s as much as I can say. That’s not what happened. That’s not how this went down. So if that’s what people are upset about, then I guess we can all move on because that’s not how it happened.

Manfred also suspended now-former general manager Jeff Luhnow, now-former manager A.J. Hinch, and now-former bench coach Alex Cora for the whole of 2020. Cora–who went on to manage the 2018 Boston Red Sox to a World Series title a year after the Astros’ now-tainted title—subsequently lost that job for his Astrogate involvement, too.

Manfred didn’t suspend the Astros’ 2017 designated hitter, Carlos Beltran, considered a key Astrogate operative himself, but his role cost him his freshly-minted job managing the New York Mets—before he had the chance to manage even a spring training exhibition game.

“And it’s never going to be good enough,” McCullers told Stark and Glanville. “The whole franchise could be dismantled, and it wouldn’t be good enough.”

Toro taking three plunks and Alvarez taking one gives a shard of credence to McCullers’s remark. There were observers and analysts, yours truly among them, who said early during the unfurling of the Astrogate revelations that it might indeed require a complete turnover of even the current roster before the stain dissipates from the franchise.

The 2020 Red Sox have enough trouble of their own on the field as it is. They’re collapsing like a rickety folding chair after losing their franchise face Mookie Betts in a lopsided, money-nourished trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But they’ve been scored by Manfred over their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring of sign-stealing. And this year’s Red Sox have had nine players hit by pitches and ten such hits total, seventh in the American League.

At least four of the replay reconnaissance ring team members have been drilled thus far: Mitch Moreland, Rafael Devers, Kevin Pillar, and J.D. Martinez. But nobody huffed, puffed, or threatened to blow the house down over the Red Sox. If that bewilders McCullers, the Astros as a whole, and the Astros’ and Red Sox’s fan bases that continue coming to terms with their world champion cheaters, it’s both understandable and unfathomable.

The reasons may be simple. Cora was cashiered when Manfred’s Astrogate report came forth, well before the commissioner finished and released his Red Sox reconnaissance findings. Accurately or incompletely, the Red Sox looked far more decisive doing so, and there remained the prospect that Cora got his not just because of Astrogate but because the Red Sox brass suspected he had at least a fingertip on the reconnaissance ring.

More to the point, the Rogue Sox simply used what was handed to them and every major league team at home and on the road. They didn’t have to alter an incumbent camera’s mandatory eight-second delay or install a separate real-time camera. All they had to do, and did, was read the replay room monitors and signal their baserunners who’d send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters.

Neither the AIA nor the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Team had anything to do with their pitchers, whether McCullers in Houston or Joe Kelly, now with the Dodgers, who dropped Bregman and Correa on 28 July but was a Red Sox pitcher in 2017-18.

The whatabout argument doesn’t pass muster, either. Just because others did it, and we don’t really know yet whom and when in recent seasons (other than the New York Yankees, perhaps), it doesn’t mean the Asterisks or the Rogue Sox do or should get off the hook.

Just when you thought McCullers earned your stubborn admiration for trying to defend his team, however edgily, he had to spoil it. Alluding to Kelly’s recent podcast dismissing the Astro players accepting immunity to spill as “snitches,” McCullers huffed, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

So Astrogate is still all Mike Fiers’s fault. Never mind that he and others (including the Oakland Athletics administration) couldn’t persuade the Show’s government or reporters to convince their editors to investigate or publish, until Fiers finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November. Never the cheaters’ fault, always the whistleblower’s

Well, to this day there may well remain people who think New York’s police corruption scandal of the early 1970s was all the fault of the two clean cops, Frank Serpico and David Durk, who took it to The New York Times after they couldn’t persuade their own department to clean up and wise up, too. Never the crooked cops’ fault, always the whistleblowers’.

What was a terrible look for New York’s Finest then is still a terrible look for the Astros now. McCullers may want to ponder that further and deeper while he laments with some justification how little seems good enough to sate Astrogate critics.

But Kelly at least sent his messages to a pair of actual Astrogaters. Holding Toro, Alvarez, and any other Astro answerable for baseball crimes they didn’t commit and weren’t there to commit is a terrible look, too.

Clueless Crane

2020-08-01 JimCrane

Astros owner Jim Crane—Playing what-about-ism, implying everyone else’s fault, possibly sorry only that his boys got caught, talking to USA Today’s a still-bad look for him.

In a 1964 novel about Navy fliers in World War II, Richard Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, a fresh group of pilots assigned to a carrier performs a target hop. One of the young men overshoots the tow plane target and hits the plane, instead, flown by their squadron lieutenant. Forcing the lieutenant to a fatal water landing.

The tow pilot happened to be the squadron skipper’s best friend. When the skipper and their air group commander face questioning by the task force commander flying his flag aboard their carrier, the latter asks the skipper why they were called in. “We’re here,” the skipper replies, “because we are responsible for what happened.”

“I don’t see it that way,” the CAG practically snaps. “No matter who did what,” the skipper rejoins, “[CAG] and I are in positions of command. When you command you accept the responsibility for what is done by your subordinates.”

Maybe Houston Astros owner Jim Crane should have read The Last Tallyho. He might have learned something about command responsibility and avoiding mealymouthed avoidance of it, the latter of which he availed himself in an interview with USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale.

Astrogate returned to the otherwise coronavirus-dominant baseball news last week after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw fastballs twice behind Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and breaking balls twice making their shortstop Carlos Correa skip rope. They got Kelly an eight-game suspension and the Astros on the receiving end of fresh rounds of fury.

Remember: Commissioner Rob Manfred handed Astro players on the 2017-18 teams immunity to spill about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s off-field-based electronic sign stealing those seasons, instead of bringing the powers of his office to bear and ordering one and all to spill or be spilled. Even if the players’ union filed countering grievances, Manfred would have sent a far stronger message than a few brushback pitches.

The outrage over Kelly’s suspension was, basically, “He gets eight games for doing in essence what Manfred wouldn’t, but those guys still get off scot free?” Nobody’s justifying throwing at Bregman’s head, but the outraged are right. As a matter of fact, Nightengale asked Crane the same question, phrased a little differently. The answer may or may not surprise you.

“People are aggravated the players didn’t get suspended,’’ said the owner, “but I didn’t have anything to do with that. That was Rob’s call. Listen, it’s always going to be whatever you want to call it. A black mark. An asterisk. It happened. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the game. We broke the rules. We got penalized. We were punished. There’s no doubt it weighs on all of us every single day.”

Crane seemed to say it as though he hoped that would be the end of the story. Except that it wasn’t, quite. After apologising for sounding like a fool at the infamous February spring training press conference, the subject detoured briefly toward the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, both of whom have been reprimanded for a little espionage of their own, though not quite performed the way the Astros developed it.

“I think (MLB) had a bigger problem than everybody realized,’’ Crane told Nightengale, playing the what-about-ism card. “[The Yankees and the Red Sox] were doing things and got caught, but we’re the ones who took the bullet. That’s the way it works. I’m not trying to blame anyone else. It was our problem. We dealt with it.”

Except that, after a little talk about things such as revelations about the Astros’ less than honourable front office “culture,” Crane tried to blame, well, something close enough to everyone else as well as the Yankees and the Red Sox.

“I just think everybody was paranoid that everybody was doing it,” he said. “The technology was right in front of you. We already know two others teams were doing it and got caught. But the way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it.”

“Crane’s take . . . seems to be that he and the Astros are the real victims here, and everyone else should leave them alone already,” writes NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra. “Really. That’s the vibe he gives off on all of this. Crane seems to believe that the Astros sign-stealing fallout is overblown and that the public’s anger mostly has to do with how Crane himself bungled the P.R.”

Crane seems indeed clueless that, except for the Red Sox’s AppleWatch incident late in the 2017 season and an extra Yankee dugout phone the same time, the AIA didn’t stop at just the technology just being “right in front of you.” Not even close.

The Red Sox’s Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring didn’t involve anyone altering a real-time monitor feed to decipher opposing pitch signs to signal to their baserunners who’d then send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters. Needless to say by now, it also didn’t depend upon having a man on base to receive the stolen signs in the first place.

It would have shocked nobody to learn that the Rogue Sox weren’t the only team to operate a similar reconnaissance ring out of the replay room. And, yes, MLB handed them the keys to the hooch hutch with the replay rooms at home and on the road. Boys will be boys, alas, and asking them to resist such temptation would have been like asking Donald Trump to give up Twitter.

But the replay room reconnaissance ringers didn’t alter ballpark cameras off their  mandatory eight-second delays or install second cameras not on the delay to send signs to a clubhouse monitor in front of which someone, several someones perhaps, decoded the signs and then banged the can slowly for the benefit of Astro hitters.

Using what’s there for a little chicanery is one thing. Altering it or supplementing it illegally is something else entirely. When a team as genuinely great as the 2017-18 Astros were takes up such subterfuge—and if you need proof they were great without the AIA (which operated in Minute Paid Park and wasn’t portable), remember that those Astros had better road than home winning percentages in both seasons—it’s well past boys being boys.

Some accuse Kelly of hypocrisy because of his membership on the 2017 AppleWatch Red Sox. Well, now. Their replay room reconnaissance ring apparently began in 2018—after they hired, what do you know, the Astros’ 2017 bench coach and (we’ve known since the Manfred Report on Astrogate) AIA co-mastermind Alex Cora to manage them. All the way to a World Series ring.

Before Manfred released his Rogue Sox findings, Kelly wondered aloud, “Whenever the investigation is done I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation.”

If there is cheating involved with how good our team was we should have won every single out. We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four. We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.

Known to be an erratic pitcher who isn’t shy about a little headhunting when he thinks it’s called for, Kelly inverted the old observation, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and became a Dodger last year.

The Astros’ mealymouthed responses to Astrogate questioning as spring training opened outraged the Dodgers more than most, and enough players around the Show were outraged, because they’d been the team the Astros beat in seven to win the ’17 Series. It’s not impossible that Kelly had in mind both Astrogate and what was subsequently revealed about his former Rogue Sox when he decked Bregman and Correa.

If the Dodgers weren’t playing this year’s pandemic-inspired regional season schedule, they might have faced the Red Sox. And, inspired perhaps by a few revelations in Manfred’s Rogue Sox report and his Dodger teammates, Kelly might have sent a few messages to those 2018 Sox still on the team for tainting those ’18 Series rings.

Astroworld’s been buffeted harshly by Astrogate. It’s still tussling between those of its citizens who think the AIA was a reasonable defense against whomever else was doing illegal sign stealing and those who think their faith in their team’s greatness was misplaced or abused.

Crane hasn’t said much if anything about that yet.

Meanwhile, note once again Crane’s choice of phrasing to Nightengale: [T]he way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it. Is he saying the AIA itself was stupid? Is he saying he’s sorry only that the Astros got caught committing high crime?

“We’re sorry. We apologized. But no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to be enough,” Crane told Nightengale. “People wanted me out of baseball. They wanted players to be suspended. They wanted everything.” Setting aside that those February apologies were as non-apologetic as apologies can get, what did he expect people to want? A whitewash?

 

 

John McNamara, RIP: Forgiven

Boston Red Sox

John McNamara, who wouldn’t let himself live Game Six of the ’86 World Series down.

John McNamara died at 88 Tuesday. He lived a lot more quietly as a retiree in Nashville with his second wife, Ellen, than he once lived as an ill-fated Boston Red Sox manager. And, to the day he died, Johnny Mac lived with an extraterrestrial baseball burden.

“I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game,” Mrs. McNamara told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy when texting him of her husband’s death. “He was so much more than that. A good, kind, loving man.”

Good, kind, loving men make mistakes. Not all of them do it as publicly as McNamara once did. Not all of those doing it publicly  do it managing a World Series team with a history even half as snake-bitten as McNamara’s 1986 Boston Red Sox carried into Game Six that October.

McNamara was the good, kind, loving man whose loyalty to one, contradiction of another, and inability to read a third, abetted the next-to-last greatest heartbreak in the history of a team whose surrealistically harsh legacy needed a new century to end.

Those Red Sox defied their history when, with the California Angels one strike away from going to the ’86 World Series, late-season Red Sox acquisition Dave Henderson rifled a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, then won the game two innings later with a sacrifice fly.

The Red Sox won the rest of the set and went to the Series instead. Where they had the New York Mets—that band of mostly wild and crazy guys who made the Gas House Gang resemble monks—down to their final strike of the Series and the year. Maybe beating a franchise with their own star-crossed reputation to get to the Series in the first place was a little too presumptuous for those Red Sox?

Even before that tenth inning disaster, the Red Sox flirted with death. McNamara lifted his young, stout starting pitcher Roger Clemens with a 3-2 lead but a blister on his pitching hand. Clemens swore later the blister was no big deal. McNamara pinch hit Mike Greenwell for Clemens with one on and one out in the top of the eighth.

“My pitcher told me he couldn’t go any further,” McNamara said post-game. When that remark was repeated to Clemens, it was reported widely, the Cy Young Award winner-to-be had to be restrained from charging the manager in his office.

It tore John up that the press believed Clemens,” Mrs. McNamara texted Shaughnessy. “John would not make something like that up. When Roger told him he wanted to come out, John said, ‘You’ve got to be [expletive] me!’ That’s what happened. When the chips were down, Roger spit the bit.”*

“The decision was definitely all Mac’s,” Clemens told reporters in due course. “Yeah, my finger was bleeding and it was up to him.” That was then, this was Clemens to Shaughnessy upon McNamara’s death and Mrs. McNamara’s remarks: “Interesting. I think after Fish corrected him on the non-truthful things, they didn’t talk much after that. Need to focus on the positives . . . Sorry to hear of the passing of John. We had great success with him as our manager.”

In that same eighth, with the bases loaded against Mets relief pitcher Roger McDowell, Mets manager Davey Johnson lifted McDowell for the lefthanded half of his great closing tandem, Jesse Orosco—with lefthanded hitting, ankle-challenged first baseman Bill Buckner coming up to hit. No pinch hitter in sight.

As Shaughnessy would write in The Curse of the Bambino, there was “only one logical” reason McNamara refused to pinch hit for Buckner in the top of the eighth.

McNamara wanted his veteran war horse in the victory celebration photographs. The manager and Buckner have always bristled when this subject is raised, but leaving Buckner in the game simply didn’t make sense and was a departure from the way McNamara had managed in every other postseason victory. Boston won seven playoff and Series games in 1986, and in the final inning of every victory, Dave Stapleton was playing first base.

Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth. The game went to the tenth inning. Henderson led off against Rick Aguilera with a home run shot right off the Shea Stadium auxiliary scoreboard in left field. Marty Barrett subsequently drove Hall of Fame Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs (double) home with a base hit.

In that moment McNamara looked like a genius with a two-run tenth-inning lead. He also left his young closer Calvin Schiraldi, a former starter now working his third inning on the night, in for the bottom of the tenth. On the Mets bench, Aguilera spent most of his time in apparent deep prayer.

Back-to-back fly outs to center from Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. Carter dumping a single into right center field. Aguilera’s pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell lining Schiraldi’s 0-1 slider into short center. Ray Knight—down to the Mets’ final strike—dumping a quail into center to send Carter home. 5-4, Red Sox.

Then McNamara lifted Schiraldi for veteran righthander Bob Stanley. Finally, it seemed, McNamara paid attention to Schiraldi’s self-admitted wounding flaw as a pitcher, a tendency to indict and convict himself when things got a little dicey. The Mets, who’d developed Schiraldi before trading him for stout lefthander Bob Ojeda, thought this game was too big for Schiraldi, who’d only been closing since August after not quite making it as a starter.

Stanley had Mookie Wilson to a full count and the Mets down to their final strike once more. Then, the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and Knight to take second. Then, the slow roller up the first base side. Then Buckner playing Wilson deep on the infield creaking over to field it with Stanley going to cover first base.

Then the ball skipping through Buckner’s feet and into right field. Knight barreling home with the winning run. The Mets living to play another day and eventually winning Game Seven after being down 3-2 again, but after would-have-been Series MVP Bruce Hurst finally ran out of fuel on the mound. Buckner—who died last year—wrongfully and often cruelly derided as the Series goat, though he alone seemed to know it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world.

“Hey,” he’d remember thinking, “we get to play in Game Seven of the World Series.”

Stapleton’s major league career ended after that season for one reason: a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980, Stapleton gradually lost what bat he had and couldn’t hit now if you handed him a door. He’d lost his regular first base job to Buckner in 1984. But he was healthy and could play the position without caution tape wrapped around his hide.

“He would have fielded that ground ball,” wrote Mike Sowell in One Pitch Away. “He would have gotten the out. Stapleton knew it. The other ballplayers knew it. Maybe deep down even the manager knew it.”

Maybe he would have. But Wilson had the play beaten by about two steps at first, with Howard Johnson—to come into his own as one of the National League’s premier power hitters in 1987—on deck. The best case for the Red Sox was Wilson beating out the grounder, first and third, tie game, two out, and hoping Stanley could get Johnson out.

Another Red Sox relief pitcher, fellow former Met Joe Sambito, told Thomas Boswell the following spring training that Schiraldi was so down on himself it worried Sambito. Possibly every other Red Sox, too.

“So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in Game Six?” Boswell wrote. “He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck.”

Eventual Series MVP Knight wrecked Schiraldi at once with a leadoff liner into the left field bleachers. Schiraldi now looked like the guy who came home with anniversary roses for his wife and found his best friend in bed with her. Tie broken. Heart broken. Game, set, and Series eventually lost.

Schiraldi told Sowell that, so far as he was concerned, the League Championship Series was way more significant than the World Series: “If you lose the championship series, basically nobody remembers you. The World Series, at least you’re there. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been there.”

McNamara would long insist in the years to follow, “We lost Game Six but [the Mets] won Game Seven.” Strictly speaking, he was right. But he may not really have taken the complete measure of his players, may not have known them as fully as he might have. He also overestimated his righthander-heavy Series relief corps (Sambito was its only lefthander), as Backman hinted to Sports Illustrated after the set: “I wouldn’t have said this before the Series, but we knew that if we could get into their bullpen it would be no contest.”

McNamara lost his team gradually in 1987 and just about permanently in 1988, before he was fired in favour of Joe Morgan (not the Hall of Fame second baseman), who yanked the Red Sox up and back into the race and to a division title.

Before that dissipated ’86 Series, McNamara had a reputation as a firm but fair man managing several teams, including having been the man to take the Cincinnati Reds’ bridge when—with the Big Red Machine’s late-1970s dismantling in full swing—Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson was fired. Not a pleasant way to take a job.

McNamara managed to get the Reds to the 1979 National League West title before they were flattened in the League Championship Series in three straight by the “Fam-I-Lee” Pirates. He’d previously managed in Oakland (where a crack by Dave Duncan provoked owner Charlie Finley to fire Johnny Mac with those A’s on the threshold of dominance) and San Diego. (Where equally over-his-head owner Ray Kroc didn’t get that the Padres’ poor pitching was killing the team.)

After the Red Sox, McNamara would get final managing chances with the Cleveland Indians (where he shepherded the coming-together of the young team that would restore the Tribe to greatness in the early 1990s, though he’d be fired in 1991) and the Angels. (When Marcell Lachemann, who’d succeeded Buck Rodgers, resigned in August 1996, McNamara finishing the season before handing off to ill-fated Terry Collins.)

Remembering McNamara’s ill-fated 1987 spring counsel that his players not even think about getting to that previous World Series, Hurst thinks like Mrs. McNamara that Johnny Mac never got over the ’86 Series loss. “Everything seemed to be negative after that,” Hurst told Shaughnessy while saying McNamara’s death saddened him.

The haunted Angels relief pitcher who surrendered Henderson’s ALCS-changing home run, Donnie Moore, would find his own inner demons married to the fury of Angel fans and writers who never forgave him for throwing a nasty, down-and-away fork ball that Henderson somehow sent over the left field fence.

They culminated in Moore’s 1989 suicide. Upon which tragedy Boswell, in a Washington Post column re-published in his anthology Game Day, laid down the new law: the sports goat business was too far out of hand.

This is for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Neidenfuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky and Gene Mauch. It’s for the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’87 Blue Jays and every Cub since World War II. In particular, it’s for Donnie Moore, who shot his wife, then committed suicide this week.

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

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.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson would agree with Ellen McNamara that her husband was a good, kind, loving man who doesn’t deserve to be remembered for one larger-than-life game loss. In one of his memoirs, Jackson remembered McNamara managing him in the minors and being a man who’d stand up to bigots on the road in the minor-league South still under segregation’s yoke.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson wrote. “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant, we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good, kind, loving man does. The best of men have made the worst of mistakes, and the worst of men have often done even one thing transcending them. So why do enough of us still forgive, justify, and spin politicians’, police’s, and even soldiers’ transgressions—but still want to guillotine baseball players and managers for theirs?

A man who managed to manage 2,395 major league baseball games and win 1,160 of them, despite skippering a not-so-great team here and there, doesn’t deserve eternal condemnation for one terrible night in New York.

I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game.

Mrs. McNamara, as far as I’m concerned, it no longer is. May the angels of the Lord escort your Johnny Mac to the gentler world of the Elysian Fields, where surely Bill Buckner awaited him with an embrace, a drink, and a hearty thank you for the loyalty laid waste by one skipping ground ball.


* An interesting turn of phrase, that. I wonder if Mrs. McNamara is aware that the Yankees’ King-of-Hearts owner George Steinbrenner once used it to humiliate a prospect whose rough patch provoked Steinbrenner to banish him to the minors.

The prospect was Ken Clay, whose moment in the Yankee sun was when he combined with Jim Beattie to beat the Kansas City Royals on a two-hitter in Game One of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

Clay would ultimately be used erratically, inconsistently deployed between starting and relieving, until a particularly rough outing in September 1979. “He’s a morning glory,” The Boss said of Clay after accusing him of lacking heart. “That’s a term we use for a horse who is great in the morning workouts, who looks beautiful, but who can’t do it in the race. The horse spits the bit, and Ken Clay has spit the bit.”

The Yankees traded Clay to the Texas Rangers for Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in August 1980. After eight games with the Rangers, then 22 in 1981 following a trade to the Seattle Mariners, Clay was released in spring training. Career over, except for a bid in the 1980 Senior Professional Baseball League—where he joined, but never pitched for, the Gold Coast Suns.