Clean, legal, case closed

Manny Machado, Tommy Edman

Machado (left) checks on Edman after the Sunday drop slide that blew enough social media up Monday.

Manny Machado isn’t now and never has been a controversy-free baseball player. He’s one of those players who can trigger an uproar  without doing or saying a thing. Sometimes all he has to do is smile.

But it isn’t every day that a man to whom controversy seems as natural as playing third base kicks up a little storm for doing the right thing. Especially when it’s something fundamental he was taught very early in his career.

On Sunday, the Padres’s third baseman reached base in the fourth inning, when the Cardinals’ own third baseman Nolan Arenado committed a very rare (for him) throwing error. Then, Machado ran toward second on a Jake Cronenworth ground ball to Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman.

Edman fielded the ball cleanly while still a few steps behind the proper basepath. Then he stepped into Machado’s path with thoughts about starting a double play. He got the force tag on Machado. At that moment, Machado dropped into an almost excuse-me, soft slide that still upended Edman to keep him from throwing the none-too-fast Cronenworth out at first.

You couldn’t blame Edman for looking about as thrilled as a dental patient after he recovered from the upending. But the first thing Machado did immediately after the slide was move to see whether Edman was injured on the play. (He wasn’t.)

Whether Machado went rogue yet again ran over social media and enough of the sports press well into Monday. That was after Cardinals starting pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim told reporters he thought Machado should have been called for interference, which would have made Cronenworth out at first. Kim also seemed surprised Cardinals manager Mike Schildt didn’t argue for a review to get the call.

It wouldn’t have done Schildt any good if he’d tried, and he probably knew it. The written rules give the baserunner the right of way on the proper basepath, and you can watch the play fifty times from fifty angles and see nothing indicating Machado interfered with Edman fielding the ball in the first place.

Machado was well prepared to execute such a play. His long-enough-time Orioles manager Buck Showalter taught him the play. “I’m still trying to figure out what the story is,” Showalter told The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin.

Showalter told Lin the play was routine business in the Yankee system from his years managing in that system and finally the Yankees themselves. If the runner executes the drop-slide, it breaks up double plays no matter how far you get caught before second base and with little damage otherwise. Showalter indicated to Lin that not only were players taught how to do it running the bases but infielders were taught to be prepared for such drop-slides.

“The first thing I did,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler told Lin, “was I gave him a high-five. I thought it was a play, honestly, that won the game.”

The Padres entered the bottom of the fourth in the hole 2-0. Machado’s reach on the Arenado error led the inning off. After the force out during which Machado kept Edman from turning the double play, Kim walked Tommy Pham and surrendered a bases-loading line single up the middle to Austin Nola—before walking two runs home back-to-back enabling the Padres to tie the game.

Genesis Cabrera relieved Kim and surrendered a sacrifice fly (Patrick Kivlehan) and an RBI single (Ivan Castillo) back to back before catching Trent Grisham looking at strike three for the side. The Cardinals got a run back when Paul Goldschmidt scored as Yadier Molina dialed Area Code 4-6-3 in the top of the sixth, but Grisham made the game 5-3 with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the inning. The Padres bullpen made sure the game finished with that score.

Tingler may well have been right. Machado’s slide as Edman crossed right into his proper basepath just might have won the game for the Padres, or at least set up their best chance to win.

Kim had more or less cruised through the first three innings, shaking off only a two-out base hit in the third while otherwise striking out the side. If he was staggered by the Machado slide enough that he couldn’t believe his manager didn’t demand a review and an interference call, on a play for which no interference and no foul play was involved at all, maybe the Padres pounced from there on a pitcher who just might have taken himself out of of his own concentration zone.

Showalter asked aloud whether Machado gave the Padres the best chance to win, and whether it was a clean play? Then, he answered his own question. “Of course it did,” he told Lin. “Outs are precious, and the game, as much as home runs seem to be there, it’s still about ninety-foot increments—who can keep the other team from getting ninety feet and who can gain ninety feet by something offensively. It should be embraced. It’s a great, thinking man’s baseball play.”

According to Lin, Machado’s former Oriole teammate Adam Jones called the play a legal and intelligent play. Also according to Lin, Jones’s comment got a resounding agreement from an old shortstop-turned-coach-and-manager—a fellow named Larry Bowa, who wasn’t exactly renowned for subtlety or gentility as a player or a leader.

The old Bowa might even have thought Machado’s comparatively dainty slide showed Edman a little too much mercy. Compared to Bowa in his time, the typical hard-nosed player often resembled a marshmallow stick figure.

Machado has faced accusations of dirty play in the past. Even if Tingler himself says it’s become a tired narrative. But Sunday’s play reminded too many fans of the play they think destroyed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s career back in 2017, the takeout slide at second that injured Pedroia at the back of his left knee. What they don’t remember is that that by itself didn’t put paid to Pedroia’s career.

The tenacious second baseman actually—and perhaps foolishly—managed to gut 105 games out in all 2017 and finished with a .369 on-base percentage plus six defensive runs saved above his league average at second base. But he could play only three games in 2018 and six in 2019, before sitting 2020’s pan-damn-ically mandate irregular season out and retiring three months ago.

“It’s funny,” Pedroia told NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase after his retirement conference. “I remember when I got the first MRI after the play, a doctor said, ‘Hey, man, you could not only ruin the rest of your career but the rest of your life with this injury. You tore all the cartilage off on your medial compartment on your femur and your tibia. Your cleat just got stuck, and it’s a bad deal.’

“And I said, ‘Well, can I play’,” Pedroia continued. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you could try to. It’s going to go. When it goes, you’ll know.’ So I just remember everyone there saying, ‘Hey, we need you.’ So it was a no-brainer. If I had to do it all over again, it wouldn’t even be a question. Of course I would.”

In other words, Pedroia knew the risk of trying to continue playing despite the severity of the injury. We’ll never know for dead last certain whether some sort of knee surgery at the time instead of trying to continue despite that injury might have saved and enabled continuing his career.

About the play itself? In the immediate moment after the actual play, Pedroia himself told anyone who’d listen that he never once believed Machado intended that slide to be either dirty or injurious. Indeed—just as he’d do with Edman on Sunday—the first thing Machado did after coming to his feet was try to aid Pedroia. Machado also sent Pedroia a post-game text apology to Pedroia, who replied that he knew Machado wasn’t trying to injure him.

Without now mentioning Machado by name, Pedroia told Tomase, “Unfortunately, I just got caught in the wrong position and that was it. But I think I’m at peace with everything knowing that I did my best and the training staff and the doctors did everything we possibly could’ve to try to continue to play baseball.”

That effort earned Pedroia serious points in the guts-and-glory department. It also forced him in the end into the partial knee replacement last December that guaranteed he can never run again.

Machado was no more responsible for ending Pedroia’s career than Yankee infielder Gil McDougald was for ending onrushing Indians pitcher Herb Score’s in 1957. Score recovered from McDougald’s liner into his face, returned in due course, looked like his old self opening 1958, then blew his elbow out on a cold, wet night. He sat ten days, then tried foolishly to pitch through it, and by his own admission changed his motion to overcompensate for it “and ended up with some bad habits.”

Score hung on with the Indians until they traded him to the White Sox following the infamous Colavito-for-Kuenn deal in 1960. He didn’t regroup any better with the White Sox or in their minor league system, finally retiring to the Indians broadcast booth in 1964. It didn’t stop Cleveland from believing McDougald drilled a hole into Score’s career any more than the actualities stop Boston and elsewhere from believing Machado plowed a hole into Pedroia’s career.

But that was then, this was Sunday, and Lin would remind you that Nationals shortstop Trea Turner executed an almost exact match slide against the Mets, earlier this season,  though Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor actually stopped short of Turner and didn’t tumble over Turner onto the ground.

Nobody went boo or ballistic over that play, by the way.

“If [Machado] would’ve stopped and they threw to first and threw back to second and tagged him, nobody would’ve said a word,” Showalter told Lin. “If he had let him tag him softly up top, like most people do, nobody would’ve said a word. But because he tried to figure out a way to keep that from happening, I mean, it should be extolled.”

For all we know, too, there may be those willing to rag and bag Machado because the actual slide made him resemble a large sack of dog food falling nonchalantly and accidentally off a low warehouse shelf.

If Machado just stopped short like a good little boy and let that nice Edman consummate the double play he was “entitled” to consummate (some of the social media flappers can make you think that’s what they’re thinking), his critics would probably rag and bag him for not trying to bust up that double play by any means necessary. Hell if you do, hell if you don’t.

“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.