Miñoso, O’Neil reach Cooperstown, but Allen’s still excluded

Minnie Miñoso, Hall of Famer at long enough last—but posthumously.

There’s a bit of poetic justice in the first black player for the White Sox and the first black coach in the entire Show with the Cubs becoming Hall of Famers together. But only a bit. Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil should have been voted the honour while they were still alive, not posthumously by the Early Baseball Committee.

So should Dick Allen have been voted the honour while he was still alive. But Allen missed out by a single vote with the Golden Days Era Committee on Sunday. The committee elected Allen’s great contemporary Tony Oliva, but Oliva is still alive to accept the honour.

Miñoso died at 89 in 2015; O’Neil, at 94 in 2006; Allen, at 78, almost a year ago. Nobody ever said things were entirely fair even disallowing the races of these three men, but it’s not so simple to say better late than never for Miñoso and O’Neil; or, for Allen, who’ll surely be voted the honour in due course without having lived to accept it.

Cuban-born Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Miñoso didn’t get his chance in the Show until he was 25, thanks to baseball’s segregation until Jackie Robinson emerged. When the seven-time All-Star finally arrived in 1951—eight games with the Indians before his trade to the White Sox—Miñoso posted a season that should have earned him both the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honours.

Award voters in those years had already come to terms with non-white players, but they were still distant enough from the idea that a league’s most valuable player didn’t necessarily have to be on a pennant winner. Miñoso’s season eclipsed the two Yankees who won those respective awards, Gil McDougald (Rookie of the Year) and Yogi Berra (Most Valuable Player), at least at the plate.

Berra’s award probably came as much for his handling of the Yankee pitching staff as for his team-leading runs scored and runs batted in. McDougald had a solid season, but Miñoso out-hit him, out-scored him, and out-stole him. (Miñoso led the league with 31 stolen bases and could be argued as the real father of the Show’s stolen-base renaissance his eventual Hall of Fame teammate Luis Aparicio kicked off in earnest later in the decade.) He also walked more often, struck out less often, and played more field positions competently than the multi-positional McDougald did.

Miñoso put up a lot of MVP-level seasons without winning the award, even though he might plausibly have won three such awards if voters then looked beyond assuming pennant winners automatically carried the league’s most valuable players. He was also (read very carefully) the first black Latino to crack the Show.

In the years that followed after his career ended, there came a few who looked deeper and concluded that Miñoso might have been the most deserving player not to reach Cooperstown for a very long time. When Allen Barra wrote Clearing the Bases in 2002, he devoted an entire chapter to Miñoso and drew that very conclusion, even if he had Miñoso’s age as a Show rookie wrong. (Barra said 29; Miñoso was 25. But still.)

“His 1951 season,” Barra wrote, “taught a lesson to Latin players for the next forty-odd years: you will have to do better than the non-Latin player just to be noticed, and far better to win an award . . . Minnie Miñoso was a better ballplayer than several white players of his time who are in the Hall of Fame. He was also better than [several] black players from his era that are in the Hall of Fame.”

He was also an effervescent personality who used it to win White Sox World over emphatically, while he played and for decades to follow. Chided once because his English was rather halting, Miñoso is said to have replied, “Ball, bat, glove, she no speak English.” At least as classic as the day black Puerto Rican first baseman Vic Power, told by a Southern server that the restaurant didn’t serve black people, was said to have replied, “That’s ok, I don’t eat black people.”

John Jordan O’Neil won one Negro Leagues batting title, made three Negro Leagues All-Star teams, and was known to be swift and slick at first base, but his stronger metier was as a leader and a manager. In fact, O’Neil managed the legendary Kansas City Monarchs to three pennants before baseball’s integration began to mean the death knell for the Negro Leagues themselves.

Buck O’Neil—pennant-winning Negro Leagues manager, groundbreaking Cubs coach, nonpareil baseball ambassador—and Hall of Famer at long enough last, albeit posthumously, too.

As a Cubs coach and scout O’Neil was immeaurable in his mentorship of Hall of Famers such as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. In due course, he discovered Hall of Famer Lou Brock and World Series hero Joe Carter. As a baseball ambassador, both concurrent to his work with the Cubs and beyond it, O’Neil was even more immeasurable for helping to keep the Negro Leagues legacy alive.

This friendly, soulful man who was a people person first and foremost told all who’d listen that, regardless of the disgrace that kept himself and his fellows from their warranted tastes of what was then considered the only major league baseball life, those who played Negro Leagues baseball managed to have fun, live reasonably, and savour the good in life.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball would have been like trying to take the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. “People feel sorry for me,” O’Neil once said. “Man, I heard Charlie Parker!” Referencing, of course, the virtuoso alto saxophonist who helped change jazz irrevocably with his running mates Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Thelonious Monk (piano, composer), and Kenny Clarke (drums, the first to shift timekeeping to a ride cymbal away from the bass drum) by inventing the smaller-lineup, freer-wheeling style known as bebop.

O’Neil was a jazz nut who linked the musical art to baseball unapologetically and seamlessly. “Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what,” he told Joe Posnanski for the invaluable The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.

It’s like baseball. Baseball is not racist. Were there racist ballplayers? Of course. The mediocre ones . . . They were worried about their jobs. They knew that when black players started getting into the major leagues, they would go, and they were scared. But we never had any trouble with the real baseball players. The great players. No, to them it was all about one thing. Can he play? That was it. Can he play?

O’Neil made his way into his country’s complete consciousness once and for all time when he factored large in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, Baseball. Others of his generation who endured with him made fans, but O’Neil made friends. He became what Pete Rose only claimed himself to be, the single best and most effective ambassador for the game ever seen—and that’s saying a lot.

He missed being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, by the Committee on African-American Baseball. There was much speculation that his exclusion then had to do with a dispute between O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, Larry Lester, over policy issues. But I’ve never forgotten the sweet grace with which O’Neil accepted the result.

“I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!” he exclaimed, while saying it showed America itself was growing up and getting better even if the growing pains continued to be  too profound.

God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.

O’Neil accepted when invited to induct the seventeen in Cooperstown. His speech evoked living history, deep love, and concluded when he got the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawns to hold hands and sing a line from his favourite gospel song, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

Three months later, that irrepressibly active and life-affirming man died under the double blow of bone marrow cancer and heart failure.

Dick Allen, who should have been elected to the Hall while alive, and fell one vote short posthumously by the Golden Days Era Committee Sunday.

I have long argued that Tony Oliva deserved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and I’ve found no evidence to change that conclusion—but Dick Allen, whose career dovetailed completely to his, was over twice the player Oliva was, especially at the plate.

I saw both of them play while growing up and beyond. Oliva was a smart batsmith and run-preventive right fielder. Allen was a wrecking machine at the plate and a brain on the bases in all regards; his Rookie of the Year season compared favourably to Joe DiMaggio’s and he didn’t just hit home runs, what he hit should have had not meals and stewardesses but astronauts on board.

I once did an analysis that concluded a fully-healthy Allen might have finished his career with about 525 home runs, while a fully-healthy Oliva might have finished his with about 315. Neither man reached the Sacred 3,000 Hit Club; hell, neither of them reached 2,000 lifetime hits. But the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity or compilation. Allen and Oliva were Hall of Fame-great, but only one is now a Hall of Famer.

Allen’s unwanted war with 1960s Philadelphia’s racial growing pains, the city’s carnivorous sports press, and isolated bigots on his own teams too often eroded the memory of just how great he really was. So did the injuries that kept him (and Oliva, in all fairness) from having a more natural decline phase than he (and Oliva) should have had.

But I’m going there again. Line them up by my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—and Tony Oliva’s going to be holding Dick Allen’s coat, in peak and career value.

First, their peak values:

Player, peak PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-72 5457 2592 685 120 33 11 .631
Tony Oliva, 1964-70 4552 2090 303 82 38 36 .560

Now, their career values:

Player, career PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1963-77 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva, 1962-76 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537

I wrote more extensively about Allen when he lost his battle with cancer last year. And it’s also fair to mention that, in his later years, Allen not only made peace with the Phillies organisation but became one of the most popular members of the team’s speakers’ bureau.

But one more time, here, I’ll hand Jay Jaffe the last word—the best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, and by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—from The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

The next Golden Days Era Committee meeting will be five years from now. Allen waited long enough while he was alive. He damn well deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, even if his family alone can now accept on his behalf.

It’s an absolute wonderful thing to see Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil get their due even posthumously. It’s a wonderful thing to see elected Bud Fowler (arguably the first black professional baseball player); Gil Hodges (the great Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman/Miracle Mets pennant-winning manager); and, Oliva plus his great Twins teammate Jim Kaat, pitcher, whose Hall case is really a) borderline at beat and b) could be seen by re-arranging his best seasons. (Kaat tended to pitch his best baseball too often when someone else was having an off-chart career year.)

But Dick Allen’s continuing exclusion remains a disgrace.

Gone, Cubs, gone

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant

That was then: Anthony Rizzo clutching and hoisting the off-balance throw Kris Bryant (17) made to end the 2016 World Series as world champions. This is now: They’re not Cubs anymore.

I called it the Code Blue Series when the contestants were confirmed. One team that hadn’t won the World Series since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford. The other, a team that hadn’t won the Series since the threshold of the Berlin Airlift.

“I’m sleeping with this thing tonight,” crowed Anthony Rizzo, speaking post-game, about the double play ball he caught on the relay to start Chicago’s post-National League Championship Series parties. “Are you kidding me?”

The same Rizzo who clung to the dugout rail in Game Seven of that surreal 2016 World Series, admitting to teammate and eventual manager David Ross that he was on the brink of his nineteenth nervous breakdown.

“I can’t control myself right now. I’m trying my best,” Rizzo said.

“It’s understandably so, buddy,” Ross replied, with a very knowing smile. He’d been there, done that, with the 2013 Red Sox.

“I’m emotional,” Rizzo admitted.

“I hear ya,” Grandpa Rossy replied.

“I’m an emotional wreck.”

“Well, it’s only going to get worse,” Ross advised. “Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.”

Once upon a time, possibly thanks to Chicago newspaper legend Mike Royko, the maxim was that the teams with the most ex-Cubs lost. That was then, this was the 2016 Series: The Cubs—the team with the fewest ex-Cubs and the most ex-Red Sox—won. After a couple of that-almost-figures hair-raisers, none raising more hair than Game Seven.

Now, third baseman Kris Bryant—subject to the most trade rumours the past two years—is traded to the National League West-surprising Giants. Shortstop Javy Baez is traded to the National League East-leading-almost-by-default Mets, where he’ll gladly play second base for the chance to hold the keystone with his buddy Francisco Lindor at short. And first baseman Rizzo has become a Yankee.

The 2016 core is gone, Cubs, gone. Four men from that team now remain.

Ross retired as a player after that Series triumph and has managed them since last season, having days enough now when he must think Lucifer’s practical jokers have made him a too-frequent target. Right fielder Jason Heyward’s stellar defense once atoned for his feeble bat, but he isn’t quite the defender he used to be even if he’s still a shade above the league average for run prevention. Catcher Willson Contreras remains a mainstay and leads the team with his 3.2 wins above replacement-level.

And Kyle Hendricks, who pitched magnficently enough in the 2016 Series, leads this year’s Cub rotation with an ERA two ticks from four despite his twelve credited wins.

The Cubs approached Friday’s trade deadline all-in on selling while the selling was good, because their National League Central chances were anything but and the last of the true core was due to hit the open market. And the team administration has a lot to atone for, for having failed to fortify the team viably in the seasons to follow the 2016 heights.

It’s still too telling that the single most fun moment in Cubs baseball this season came from Rizzo, the first baseman taking the mound on the wrong end of a blowout, striking out his Braves buddy Freddie Freeman to laughs all around the park—especially between those two.

If the Dodgers hadn’t swept in and swept the Padres to one side in the Max Scherzer lottery, the Great Cub Fire Sale might have dominated the proceedings entirely.

But it’s hard not to think about that World Series now that Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are gone at last. Especially after Rizzo made an almost immediate impression with his new team Friday night. (Yankee announcer Michael Kay called Rizzo “the linch pin” of the 2016 Cubs.) He broke a scoreless tie between the Yankees and the Marlins by sending a 1-0 hanging cutter into the second deck behind right field in the top of the sixth. (The Yankees went on to win, 3-1.)

It’s hard not to remember Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning home run off then-Indians relief ace Andrew Miller in Game Four. Making Fowler the first Cub to hit a World Series homer in Wrigley since Chuck Klein—in 1935. And, making him the first African-American Cub to hit a World Series homer ever.

It’s hard not to remember Bryant—with the Indians six innings from the Promised Land— parking a 1-1 pitch into the left center field bleachers off then-Indian Trevor Bauer to start turning the mostly quiet Confines crowd on the Chicago leg of the Series into a nuclear meltdown of joy in Game Five.

It’s hard not to remember Rizzo and eventual Series MVP Ben Zobrist scoring in the first in Game Six, after Indians outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall misread and misplayed Addison Russell’s shuttlecock fly to right center. Or, after the Cubs loaded the bases to push Indians starter Josh Tomlin out, Indians reliever Dan Otero feeding Russell grand salami with mustard.

It’s hard not to remember Jake Arrieta pitching to Naquin with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the fourth, same game, and striking Naquin out on one of the nastiest divers Arrieta ever threw in his life.

It’s hard not to remember Game Seven, especially. When Ross had to atone for a horrible throwing error past Rizzo one inning by smashing a one-out homer the next. When the late rain delay prompted Heyward’s clubhouse pep speech.

When Rizzo took the free pass in the top of the tenth, took third on an RBI double, and scored after another intentional walk and a base hit to left—the base hit being Miguel Montero’s second-most important bases-loaded hit for the Cubs that postseason.

When Bryant picked off Michael Martinez’s short grounder on the dead run, with two out and a run in to close the Cub lead to a single run, then threw a little off balance and herky-jerky at that to first—and Rizzo snapped the ball in his mitt as dearly as he might have clung to the Hope Diamond after a daring heist.

Russell forced himself off the Cubs and out of the Show entirely in due course, after the sick case of his abuse of his wife exploded into headlines and forced his suspension. He played in the Korean Baseball Organisation last year and plays in the Mexican League this year.

Montero talked his way out of Chicago. First, he complained about his loss of 2016 postseason playing time to Ross and Willson Contreras behind the plate. Then, in 2017, he was gone for good after blaming Arrieta publicly for the Nats running wild on his arm on the bases in a June game. Two subsequent hiccups of comeback bids with the Blue Jays and the Nationals—retired.

Zobrist, who came to the 2016 Cubs after winning the 2015 Series with the Royals—a down 2017, a comeback 2018, retired after 2019. Now, he’s undergoing a painfully public divorce in which his wife’s accused of having an affair with the minister they engaged for marital counseling in the first place.

Arrieta—allowed to walk as a free agent after a 2017 that began his still-ongoing decline phase. Jon Lester, who somehow got past his throwing issues to first base and stood tall enough when it counted—now a National-turned-Cardinal. John Lackey, pitching for his third different Series winner—retired after fifteen seasons and a down 2017. Aroldis Chapman, the howitzer relief pitcher but a domestic abuser himself—a Yankee since 2017.

This week? The Cubs’ place in the race was probably sealed for the season when they lost eleven straight from 25 June through 6 July, but seven of the eight players they moved by Friday’s deadline also stand to hit the open market after the season. Resurgent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel—dealt to the crosstown White Sox and right back into the races—has a 2022 option.

Maybe the real end of this generation of Cub contenders came in 2018, during the second half of which they lost 22 games in which they scored one or none. Including the humiliations of scoring a measly two runs in back-to-back losses that cost them the NL Central title and the NL wild card in one thirtysomething-hour period.

Maybe it was sealed once and for all by 2019, when they lost a pair of humiliating series in the last two regular season weekends and, as ESPN writer Jesse Rogers observed, the Joe Maddon era ended when the skipper “wasn’t able to out-manage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

“The Ricketts family had cut back on payroll spending while continuing to use Wrigleyville as a private cash machine,” writes the redoubtable veteran scribe Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The franchise didn’t keep up with other contenders in terms of on-field talent. It settled for being very good instead of great. The idea—always—is to win. Cubs fans got that, which is why they were irritated when the club didn’t get a whiff of the World Series again.”

Maybe that was what irritated the remake/remodel/re-conquer mastermind Theo Epstein enough at last to swap the Cubs’ front office for a gig in the commissioner’s office, where he now works helping to get baseball back to where it once belonged, a balance between pitching and hitting. He won’t have his hands tied by ownership caprice anymore. We think.

It stung when Ross kept Bryzzo out of the Thursday lineup at home, denying them a final appearance before the Wrigley faithful. He said Rizzo already had the day off pre-planned and was concerned about giving Bryant’s legs a rest. Cub Country didn’t need anyone to say maybe the front office handed Grandpa Rossy an order the better to keep the deals to come from being wrecked.

We saw Bryant in tears on his cell phone in the Cubs dugout at Nationals Park Friday, receiving the news he was going west. We saw Rizzo taking his young family to walk the Wrigley Field grounds one more time the day before, before he went east. Those sights will linger for Cub Country almost as vividly as Bryan’s off balance pick and throw of Martinez’s grounder to Rizzo to finish 2016 will. (This is gonna be a tough play, Bryant—the Cubs! Win the World Series! hollered announcer Joe Buck.)

President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer says the deals helped the Cubs duck a complete rebuild thanks to the youth the deals bring back. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes,” he said to Rogers. “Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

Nature of the beast. Hoyer was only too well aware of other teams going all the way to the end of their team control only to require years of rebuilding. Teams like the Phillies, the Tigers, and the Giants, the last of whom have begun making noise that’ll be amplified a bit with Bryant on board.

“They ran to the end of the cliff and fell off and they had to rebuild,” he continued. “We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year, but we weren’t, so with that we were able to speed that process up dramatically.”

But going from “Go, Cubs, Go!” to gone, Cubs, gone, still stings. Even if we’ll always have 2016.

Two champion Series finishers move on

Max Scherzer

Max the Knife celebrates the World Series triumph he helped author with his on-fumes Game Seven start. Can he help the Dodgers go back to the Series?

The author of maybe the single most uplifting game in Nationals history is a Nat no more. The fellow with one blue and one brown eye who forced his way past a neck issue to keep the Nationals in line to win their first World Series has gone west.

That was hours after the Cubs finally said goodbye to the man who snapped into his mitt the final out of their first World Series win since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford.

Trade deadlines don’t often feature two or more signatures of two off-the-charts World Series champions changing addresses and wardrobes. When they’re men identified that tightly with their teams, even those with no rooting skin in their games can’t help thinking that the world just got knocked more out of order than it seemed going in.

This year’s Nats don’t have a staggering rise from the dead in them just yet, if at all. This year’s Cubs were bent on selling while the selling was good, with their National League Central chances this year anything but. “Go Cubs Go,” that rollicking anthem of the 2016 conquerors, now has another meaning.

Max Scherzer goes west for a better chance at a postseason return with the Dodgers. That was just moments, seemingly, after the entire world thought the splash-happy Padres had him all but loaded on the plane west. Ouch.

Anthony Rizzo goes east in a Yankee hope that a couple of heretofore missing lefthanded bats—they’d landed all-or-nothing portside slugger Joey Gallo from the Rangers just prior—might turn their season from somewhat lost to yet another shot at the Promised Land.

The Nats hope the package of prospects Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner brought back from Los Angeles mean this season proves a hiccup on their way back to the races to come. The Cubs hope the pair Rizzo brought back from the Bronx means likewise, especially depending on what they can bring back in any deal for Rizzo’s partner in 2016 World Series crime, third baseman Kris Bryant.

But ending eras is never pleasant. And these two deals ended a pair of eras that’ll live as long as Washington and Chicago live. The Rizz speared Bryant’s herky-jerky on-the-move throw over to secure the Cubs’ World Series winner. Max the Knife’s empty-tank performance of sheer will kept the Nats alive enough to pull just enough lingering rabbits out of their hats to nail Game Seven in 2019.

Chicago and Washington won’t forget as long as those cities and those men live. The feeling is very mutual with the players involved.

“This city,” Rizzo said when the deal to the Yankees was done, “will be ingrained in my heart for the rest of my life.” Told he was as transformational a figure in Wrigley Field as anyone who ever wore a Cub uniform, Rizzo accepted the idea with no small pride. “That’s what matters most—leaving this place better than when I found it. I can say the mission was accomplished.”

Scherzer still wasn’t sure whether he’d still be a Nat after he pitched Thursday and threw three-hit, one-run ball at the Phillies, in a start that was as much a showcase for his renewed health (he’d missed a start with a triceps strain a few days earlier) as for the trading floor. But he wanted to think about what Washington meant to him from the moment he’d signed that mammoth seven-year deal due to expire after this season.

Anthony Rizzo

Nobody beats The Rizz: Clutching the final out of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series conquest.

First, there were the purely baseball considerations. “I signed a seven-year deal here and we won a World Series. That’s the first thing I said when I signed, that I was here to win. And we won. We won a World Series,” he said. “That’s a lifelong dream come true and something I’ll always be proud of with these guys here, to be part of a championship team, looking forward to reunions and stuff like that.”

Then, there came the familial and community considerations. Scherzer arrived childless in Washington with his college-sweetheart wife, Erica. They’re going to Los Angeles with two of Scherzer’s three Cy Young Awards and three daughters.

“I’ve watched my girls grow up here,” Max the Knife said. “Living in Virginia in the DMV area, I’ve really gotten used to it, all the politics that are going around. Being in the nation’s capital has been kind of fun as well, driving by the monuments every day . . . What can you say about the fans? That championship will always mean something to all of us and we’ll always have that flag.”

Parting with uber prospects Keibert Ruiz (catcher), Josiah gray (righthanded pitcher), Gerardo Carillo (righthanded pitcher), and Donovan Casey (outfielder) made sense only if the Dodgers were going to bring in something well above average. They brought in the best pitcher and the best position player—a still-young shortstop with a live bat—on the trading floor.

If the Dodgers want to close the brief distance between themselves and the uber-surprising Giants in this year’s National League West, they couldn’t have done better if they’d gone to the lab and mixed the right ingredients in the test tubes and beakers.

The Nats aren’t exactly leaving themselves helpless. They have have pushed the plunger on this year, but with Juan Soto around whom to remodel they’re looking at 2022 and beyond. Particularly with a returning Stephen Strasburg and who knows what off-season deals or signings to come.

Mostly, Scherzer relieves the pressures on the Dodger starting rotation, what with Dustin May lost for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery and Trevor Bauer persona non grata when all is said and done, in the wake of a police investigation into a couple of turns of rough sex crossing the line from consensual to downright unwanted sexual assault.

Whether he proves a rental or whether the Dodgers want to keep him for the rest of his baseball life remains to be seen. Don’t bet against the Dodgers deciding to make the latter happen.

The Yankees should be so lucky with Rizzo and Gallo. Yes, they sent out a lineup full of raw power until those deals, but that lineup lacked consistency and lefthanded hitting, the long-traditional fuel of that long-vaunted, long-legendary Yankee power.

Rizzo is the far more balanced hitter between the two newcomers as well as a multiple Gold Glover at third base. Gallo is so all-or-nothing despite his ability to work walks that he actually lets you imagine Mario Mendoza as a power hitter, but he is a solid defensive outfielder with range and arm enough to maybe make the Yankees forget about Brett Gardner at long enough last. Maybe.

So where was the pitching help the Yankees really needed? Why weren’t they all-in yet on someone like Scherzer? Despite his expressed preference for going west, the Yankees have been nothing if not able to persuade such determined men otherwise in the past.

Why not all-in on resurgent and available Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel? Especially with other teams trailing him including now the Rays, rumoured to be pondering a package of Kimbrel and Bryant coming aboard? Or resurgent and available reliever Daniel Hudson, the 2019 World Series finisher whom the Nats dealt to Seattle before the trading floor really began bristling with prize packages?

Or Jose Berrios, the formidable Twins starter whom the Blue Jays have snapped up for a pair of prospects and who’ll have him through the end of 2022 at minimum pending their ability to sign him longer-term from there?

The Yankees are still in the race, technically. The problem is, they’re three games plus behind the Athletics in the American League wild card picture and eight and a half games behind the Red Sox in the American League East.

And while Dodgers mastermind Andrew Friedman may be taking bows enough for Max the Knife and Trea Chic, Yankee general manager Brian Cashman—whose questionable at minimum construction of the current Yankee roster should take the heat Yankee fans heap upon hapless manager Aaron Boone—may yet have some very serious splainin’ to do.

Mistakes don’t equal murder

Will Craig, Javier Baez

Will Craig, after taking the errant throw pulling him down the first base line and into unexpected infamy . . .

“I guess I’m going to be on the blooper reels for the rest of my life,” said Pirates first baseman Will Craig last Friday, before the team’s game with the Rockies was postponed by rain. And, the day after Cubs shortstop Javier Baez deked him and his into a third-inning rundown that looked like the year’s funniest television moment in the moment.

It wasn’t all that funny in retrospect when Joe and Jane Fan plus Joke and Jerk Sportswriter/Talk Show Commentator started painting Craig as though he flunked the casting calls for Howard the Duck.

“It all boils down to me losing my brain for a second,” the 26-year-old Craig continued. “I take full responsibility for it and now will just try to keep moving forward. I know I’m a good defensive player and I can do a lot of good things on that side of the ball.”

The snarky side might suggest Craig and the Pirates who collaborated with him on the season’s most surrealistically slapstick play thus far handled things like men who’d learned their infield basics from the 1962 Mets.

Observing his coming place on eternity’s blooper reels indicates Craig—who won a Triple-A Gold Glove during his minor league life—has at least the sense of humour those ancient Mets needed just to get through that first calamitous season without losing their marble. Singular.

Maybe, too, the fact that neither the Pirates nor the Rockies look destined to reach this year’s postseason works in Craig’s favour. If he’d suffered last Thursday’s mishap in a postseason game, especially a World Series game, Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk alike would do everything in their power to make the rest of his baseball life—and maybe his life life—a living death.

Baez batted with two out and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras aboard in the top of the third, with the Cubs ahead 1-0. Baez whacked a sharp ground ball to Pirates third baseman Erik Gonzalez. He picked the ball cleanly. Then, he threw to first well enough off line to pull Craig forward, several feet down the line and in front of the pillow.

Craig had only to tag Baez or touch first for inning over. Then Baez got cute. Enough to break Craig’s concentration and prior knowledge for just long enough.

With about three feet between himself and Craig, he hit the brakes and went about-face back toward the plate, with Craig chasing him down the line instead of thinking about just tagging first. This is the kind of thinking lapse to which major league rookies are prone—even those with outstanding defensive reps in the minors, as Craig had—and into which even grizzled veterans can and do get caught sinking.

Contreras kept gunning it all the way home. Craig flipped to catcher Michael Perez. Contreras slid under the tag and Baez took off back to first. Perez threw past second baseman Adam Frazier looking to cover the base and Baez hit the afterburners for second.

I’m still trying to fathom how Craig ended up the sole goat on the play. Why does he wear the horns alone, when Gonzalez’s off-line throw started the whole megillah in the first place? Why does he wear the horns alone, when Perez threw well past first instead of bagging Baez there?

Baez basically had second on the house and the Cubs had a 2-0 lead. It became 3-0 when Cubs center fielder Ian Happ dumped a quail into short right center on which Baez with a good jump scored.

The official scoring on the play, according to Baseball-Reference, reads thus: Javier Baez—Reached on E3 (catch) (Ground Ball to Weak 3B to 3B); Contreras Scores/No RBI/unER; Baez out at 2B/Adv on E2 (throw).

Where were the Pirates to cover their rookie mate’s head and hide? Committing a pair of chargeable errors, that’s where. Where were the Pirates in the dugout to remind Craig in the immediate moment, step on first? Maybe they were as dumbstruck as everybody else in PNC Park when the thing began to unfurl. Maybe.

At least Craig’s manager had his post-game back. “He made a mistake and that’s it,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “You don’t option a guy [to the minors] because of the fact he made a mistake. We make mistakes in all realms of life. It just happened to be something nobody’s ever seen before.”

I didn’t mention the 1962 Mets just to be cute. Writing Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? about that embryonic troupe, Jimmy Breslin swore the Mets infield lapsed almost likewise in the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the Cardinals.

Yes, I saw those Mets. They had Who the Hell was on First, What the Hell was on Second, You Didn’t Want To Know Who was on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop. If it could have happened to anybody in the past, those Mets were them.

Breslin swore first baseman Marv Throneberry—the Original Mets’ original super-anti-hero—got so caught up trying to catch Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer in a rundown (they had Boyer cold, according to Breslin) that he and fellow Met infielders Rod Kanehl and Charley Neal forgot about Hall of Famer Stan Musial on third—to Musial’s slack-jawed amazement, before The Man shot home with what proved the winning run.

That was Breslin’s story. I had to be a spoilsport and look it up. I looked at every game log involving the first games in every doubleheader between the Mets and the Cardinals in 1962. They played three doubleheaders against each other that year. That play never happened.

There ain’t much good you can write about us, but I don’t see where that gives people the right to make stuff up, lamented Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their notoriety in the mid-to-late 1960s. All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?

The ’62 Mets may not have pulled a mental mistake quite as grave as Craig’s, not against the Cardinals, anyway, but that didn’t give Breslin any more right to misremember than it gives Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk the right to make Craig resemble the most blundering bonehead on the block this side of . . .

No, we’re not going to exhume Bill Buckner’s corpse. Or John McNamara’s. Or those of Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Charlie Dressen, Ralph Branca, Casey Stengel, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Dick Williams, Curt Flood, Tommy Lasorda, or Donnie Moore.

We’re not going to haul the still-living among Tom Niedenfuer, Don Denkinger, Mitch Williams, Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Buck Showalter, Matt Weiters, the ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs (and every Cub from the [Theodore] Roosevelt Administration through the Obama Administration), the ’78 Red Sox, the ’07 Mets, the ’17 Nationals, and maybe every St. Louis Brown who ever walked the face of the earth, before the court, either—kangaroo or otherwise.

They failed despite their efforts, often as not in baseball’s most broiling hours. They suffered momentary lapses of eyes, ears, and minds, too, and with a lot more at stake than what’ll yet prove a meaningless game between two National League bottom feeders.

Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk still don’t get what Thomas Boswell (whose pending retirement will still be a loss to baseball wisdom) wrote upon Moore’s 1989 suicide:

Nobody will ever be able to prove that the haunting memory of giving up Dave Henderson’s home run in the 1986 American League playoffs led Moore to commit suicide. Maybe, someday, we’ll learn about some other possible cause. [Alas, we did.–JK.] But right now, what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this “goat” business isn’t funny anymore . . .

The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.

Rookies make mistakes. Well-seasoned veterans make mistakes, even if they’ll be misremembered by even the funniest and sharpest reporters. Even managers who win ten pennants and seven World Series (including five straight to open) in twelve years make mistakes—the way Hall of Famer Casey Stengel did, when he failed to plot his pitching to allow his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford three instead of two 1960 World Series starts.

Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski and his Pirates still say thank you. Ford steamed quietly about it for years, until Stengel finally apologised to his old lefthander and earned Ford’s forgiveness. (Remember that when you think of a certain fan base’s unspoken motto, To err is human, to forgive must never be Yankee policy.)

Rookies and veterans alike also have things unexpected happen to them that turn routine plays into disasters you’d think made Hurricane Katrina seem like just a bathroom pipe break, the way Joe, Jane, Jerk, and Joke paint the poor souls.

Lucky for Craig that he does have that sense of humour about it. He’s already proven he’s made of better stuff than his critics and howlers, which doesn’t take all that much.

Kimbrel keeps the crash carts at bay—so far

Kimbrel still resembles the old TWA terminal at JFK Airport when he leans to take his signs—but so far he doesn’t resemble the guy who used to force the crash carts on immediate standby.

Ordinarily, a week-old season wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have you either pushing panic buttons or awarding pennants before they’re actually won. Enough fans and social media crawlers hoist up the earliest numbers as though they’re final revelation or final condemnation.

But there’s a spectre haunting no more, for three games worth of the new season, anyway. Craig Kimbrel—the closer whose “saves” too often involved tempting, not being tempted by the devil—is not a spectre any more.

So far. Any temptation the Cubs have had to keep the crash carts on double-secret red alert whenever they’ve had to reach for him is quelled.

For now.

Three assignments. Three innings pitched. Nine batters faced. No hits surrendered. Six strikeouts; a two-per-inning average. He actually punched out the side in his first assignment (against the Pirates), landed two punchouts in his second (also against the Pirates), and landed one in his third (against the Brewers).

The Cubs won Kimbrel’s first two gigs and lost the third through no fault of his own: he worked a spotless ninth, but Brandon Workman came on to pitch the tenth and surrendered a three-run homer for which the Cubs had only an RBI single to answer in the bottom for the loss.

Kimbrel has only one save to his credit for his early effort, simply because in his first gig against the Pirates the Cubs handed him a four-run lead to protect. Kimbrel not only treated his assignment as though the entire fate of the Cubs rested on it, he struck out the side with every batter facing him looking at strike three.

For a moment or two you could have sworn you’d heard assorted Pirates muttering to themselves that they couldn’t reconcile this to the guy who’d become infamous a couple of postseasons ago for running up cardiac surgeons’ bills.

In the second Pirate gig, well, yes, these are still the Pirates, but the Cubs handed him a mere one-run lead to protect. The kind of narrow lead with which Kimbrel once raised temperatures if not blood pressures the moment he arrived on the mound.

He struck Michael Perez out swinging on 2-2. He caught Anthony Alford looking at a full-count third strike. He got Wilmer Difo to line out to shortstop on 0-2 for the side and the game.

“It’s too early to definitively say that Kimbrel is back to his old self after struggling in 2019 and 2020,” says RotoWire, “but it’s certainly encouraging to see him get off to a good start.” They only left out 2018’s postseason. The one which “struggling” didn’t even begin to describe.

When Worcester Telegram writer Bill Ballou first threatened not to vote for Mariano Rivera for the Hall of Fame (under protest ferocious enough he changed his mind), his initial defense included Kimbrel’s incendiary 2018 postseason performances: “When he pitched,” Ballou wrote, “Boston’s victories felt like defeats. In 10-2/3 innings he had an ERA of 5.90, and permitted nineteen baserunners. He was also six for six converting saves — a perfect record.”

That was then, when the Red Sox managed to win the World Series decisively enough, if now controversially enough. This is now: So far this season, Kimbrel resembles the kid howitzer who had a 1.43 ERA, a 1.52 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and a 266 ERA+ in his first four seasons, with the Braves.

“His presence on the mound, throwing strikes, being really aggressive with the heater — that’s Craig Kimbrel,” says Cub center fielder Ian Happ. The knuckle curve he works in isn’t exactly flat or hesitant so far, either.

“My first two appearances have been good,” Kimbrel said after his second dispatch of the Pirates. “I’ve successfully hit my spots and executed pitches how I wanted to. The life and movement on my pitches have definitely been there and with that, I’ve had some success.”

He also said having a normal spring training—as opposed to last year’s pan-damn-ically enforced quick “summer camp” and, more markedly, his midseason 2019 signing that compelled him to try rushing into form, doing him and the Cubs few favours—mattered this time around. It enabled him to iron out the knots without putting himself on the rack.

“I had an opportunity to get into games and work on things without the runs mattering,” he said, “and being more concerned on getting out there and executing what I was trying to do gameplan-wise each and every time instead of worrying about how many runs are getting across the plate. That was definitely helpful. As we saw at the start of spring training, [I] gave up some runs, gave up hits and as we went, I was able to throw more strikes and miss more bats. It was a good six weeks and we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start so far.”

That’s far, far, far away from the look he left after Game Four of the Red Sox’s 2018 division series triumph over the Yankees in four games. When he walked Aaron Judge on four pitches to open that ninth, surrendered a base hit (Didi Gregorius), struck Giancarlo Stanton out, but walked the bases loaded (Luke Voit) and hit Neil Walker with the first pitch before surrendering a sacrifice fly (Gary Sanchez) that shrunk the Red Sox lead to one run.

When Kimbrel got Gleyber Torres to ground out for game and set, Red Sox Nation didn’t know whether to thank him for the escape or kill him for dangling a few too many lamb chops in front of the Yankee wolves.

He “saved” Games Two and Four of that American League Championship Series by tempting the Astro wolves a little too much—well, since-departed (to the Royals) left fielder Andrew Benintendi really saved Game Four with that electrifying diving catch, on Alex Bregman’s sinking liner that would have crawled to the back of the yard for possibly three runs and an Astro win otherwise. And that was after Kimbrel walked the bases loaded again.

That was then; this is now. For now. Whether it proves too good to last no crystal ball can show with certainty. But for the bearded righthander who still resembles the old TWA terminal at Kennedy when he leans in to take his signs, it’s a season start he hasn’t experienced in too long. The Cubs won’t complain. Yet. It’s tricky and pricey keeping the crash carts on double-secret red alert.