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.

Old sexts mean new unemployment

Imagine for one moment an otherwise bright child who’s made mistakes as most children make, bright or otherwise. He comes home from whatever he was doing with his friends, but he discovers an old incident he thought passed without notice or consequence was now unearthed, and his father demands accountability.

Let’s say it was something like giving a push back to that cute but obnoxious little girl who decided the way to make friends and attract the opposite sex was to push, shove, or even punch. He took it long enough because he was taught young gentlemen do not push, shove, or punch young ladies, but he finally got fed up with this particular chick who didn’t know the meaning of the words “knock it off.”

Nobody was truly harmed. It’s not as though she’d shoved him out of third-story windows, it’s not as though he finally dragged her to the nearest open window on the sixth floor. But somebody, who knows whom, let the ancient push back slip within his father’s earshot, and Dad confronts him subsequently giving him minus two seconds to explain himself.

Aware that the conversation is about a comparatively ancient error, he gives the deets straight, no chaser, certain that no father in his right mind would even think about punitive action regarding such a cobwebbed misstep. But he discovers the hard way how wrong he is when Dad pounces, pronounces him grounded for the rest of the forthcoming month, and fans his behind rather mercilessly for an exclamation point.

The boy repairs to his room with more than just a chastened ego and a very sore bottom. He’s between rage and sorrow because it was only a foolish mistake, not exactly the crime of the season. He pushed back after taking it long enough, but it didn’t make him any less a young gentleman or prove he had murder in his heart.

You might want to contemplate that when you wonder whether the Mets went a few bridges too far firing general manager Jared Porter Tuesday morning—almost a fortnight after he and the Mets delivered the trade of the winter bringing Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco aboard—over infractions he committed while he was the Cubs’ director of professional scouting four years ago.

Our hypothetical push-back kid merely responded in kind at long enough last. Porter wasn’t pushed. He sent, shall we say, naughty/nasty sexual images among 62 text  messages to a young woman working as a reporter whose only provocation, if we can call it that, was exchanging business cards on the pretext of coming discussion about international baseball scouting.

The lady discovered the hard way that Porter had amorous designs upon her and didn’t readily take “no” for an answer or ignorance as a subtle hint.She was a foreign correspondent come to the United States for the first time, assigned specifically to cover the Show. She had no idea going in that she’d run into more than a few Porter screwballs on the low inside corner.

“The text relationship started casually before Porter, then the Chicago Cubs director of professional scouting, began complimenting her appearance, inviting her to meet him in various cities and asking why she was ignoring him,” say ESPN writers Mina Kimes and Jeff Passan. “And the texts show she had stopped responding to Porter after he sent a photo of pants featuring a bulge in the groin area.”

Kimes and Passan say ESPN knew of the Porter texts to her in December 2017 and thought about reporting them until she told the network she feared her career would be harmed. She has since left journalism, though Kimes and Passan say she’s kept in touch with ESPN concurrently and went public only under anonymous cover, fearing backlash in her home country.

“My number one motivation is I want to prevent this from happening to someone else,” she’s quoted as saying. “Obviously, [Porter]’s in a much greater position of power. I want to prevent that from happening again. The other thing is, I never really got the notion that he was truly sorry.

“I know in the U.S., there is a women’s empowerment movement. But in [my home country], it’s still far behind,” she continued. “Women get dragged through the mud [in my country] if your name is associated with any type of sexual scandal. Women are the ones who get fingers pointed at them. I don’t want to go through the victimization process again. I don’t want other people to blame me.”

The Mets hired Porter in December, from the Diamondbacks, for whom he worked as an assistant GM since 2017. On Monday night, Porter told ESPN that yes, he’d texted with her, but no, he hadn’t sent any pictures, until he was told their exchanges included selfies and other images, at which point he said, “the more explicit ones are not of me. Those are like, kinda like joke-stock images.”

Mets owner Steve Cohen isn’t exactly laughing, tweeting Tuesday morning, “We have terminated Jared Porter this morning. In my initial press conference I spoke about the importance of integrity and I meant it. There should be zero tolerance for this type of behavior.” Especially since, speaking metaphorically, the lady didn’t exactly push, shove, or punch Porter first all those years ago.

The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal says the lady had an ally in a baseball player from her home country, who helped her create a rather forceful message to Porter back when that Porter didn’t exactly heed at first: “This is extremely inappropriate, very offensive, and getting out of line. Could you please stop sending offensive photos or msg.” He’s said to have apologised to her much later.

“Colleagues of mine who are women use words such as ‘tired’ and ‘exhausted’ to describe their daily struggle to be treated the same as men, to command the same respect when they walk into a clubhouse, to do their jobs without facing sexual provocation,” Rosenthal adds. “They are professionals, not playthings.”

It’s one thing to ask a lady for a date. It’s another thing to try your best to change her mind if she says “no.” But turning from there to hot pursuit sexting is something entirely different and disturbing.

The Mets were unaware of Porter’s sexually explicit hot pursuit until Monday. They cut Porter loose early enough the morning after. A 7:30 a.m. Eastern time firing happens when enough New Yorkers have barely finished coffee at the breakfast table before rumbling out  hoping for just a little more snooze on the subway before work.

Some think the Mets could have been aware of Porter’s old lewd hot pursuit sooner. Some think Cohen and company have surrendered to cancel culture, to which Cohen had a reply when one indignant tweeter demanded to know Porter’s path to redemption “now that his life has been ruined.”

“I have no idea,” Cohen replied, though surely he knows Porter’s redemption is likelier to come away from baseball than within it, as second chances so often do. “I have an organization of 400 employees that matter more than any one individual. No action [taken] would set a poor example to the culture I’m trying to build.”

A subsequent tweeter isolated a parallel point addressed directly to the demand for a path to redemption: “As someone who is 100% opposed to cancel culture, this is a ridiculous thing to say. Jared brought this on himself. His path to redemption is on him. This has nothing to do with cancel culture.”

Others think the Mets in the Cohen era have now become the essence of decisive action when made aware of such wrongdoing. The joke is kinda like on Porter now. But nobody’s laughing.