Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.

It’s never too late

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Is it ever too late to read and recommend a genuine lyrical ballad such as this soulful book?

When you argue as I have on behalf of putting an end to baseball’s (and all sports’) goat business, part of the argument is that to err is human, though not all err before audiences of millions on television and 55,000+ at the ballpark. The trouble is that most of us forget the part about forgiveness being divine.

Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues legend and the first African-American coach in Show history, had enough to say about forgiveness to make a book in its own right. (He’d written one himself, his memoir I Was Right on Time.) But there’s one story above all that’s going to stick with me for the rest of a life in which I’ve had to re-learn forgiveness repeatedly.

Watching a game with O’Neil in Houston, a writer saw a man and a boy, strangers to each other, stretch for a ball tossed into the stands by an Astros outfielder named Jason Lane. The man being taller, he caught the ball, then celebrated the catch. The boy looked absolutely crestfallen.

The writer quietly denounced the man as a jerk. O’Neil counseled him gently, “Don’t be so hard on him. He might have a kid of his own at home.” The writer, admitting he’d learned to try seeing things through O’Neil’s eyes, thought about it. Then, he asked, “Wait a minute. If this jerk has a kid, why didn’t he bring the kid to the ball game?” Smiling, O’Neil replied, “Maybe his child is sick.”

The writer was Joe Posnanski, now a senior writer for The Athletic but then a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Their travels together delivered The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, published the year following O’Neil’s death at 94.

If you haven’t read it yet—as I hadn’t, until this week—put baseball’s Hitchcockian  coronavirus season to one side and buy it. Read it. What began when O’Neil asked Posnanski how he fell in love with baseball became maybe the single most lyrical epic ballad ever written about one man’s love affair with a game that didn’t always treat O’Neil and his fellow Negro Leaguers, legends and scrubs alike, with the same love.

What Pete Rose merely thinks he’s been, O’Neil really was: baseball’s possible greatest ambassador, from the moment Ken Burns reached him to speak of the Negro Leagues generations for Burns’s mid-1990s documentary series, Baseball.  From there, O’Neil spread the words, the stories, the achievements of the Negro Leagues as if anointed by the God in whom he believed deeply to be that messenger.

Other baseball legends taking their stories on the road win fans. O’Neil made friends. But God wouldn’t have had to do anything more than just nudge the line drive-hitting, longtime Kansas City Monarchs first baseman turned manager. (Among others, he played with and managed Hall of Famer and colour line breaker Jackie Robinson.) Getting Buck O’Neil to shut up about baseball, Negro Leagues and otherwise, would have been like taking the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker‘s mouth.

If you think that’s a stretch, be advised or reminded that the only thing that ever animated O’Neil more than baseball was jazz. This sunny man who meant every word when he said nothing in his experience could ever force him to hate any human being of any colour once said, in Posnanski’s earshot, answering whether he had fun playing baseball when black men such as him were barred from the Show, “People feel sorry for me. Man, I heard Charlie Parker!”

O’Neil’s passion for music equaled that for baseball, and he linked them unapologetically.

Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what. 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?

“For five seasons,” Posnanski wrote, meaning nature’s and not baseball’s, “I would watch Buck look at the bright side. He had every reason to feel cheated by life and time—he had been denied so many things, in and out of baseball, because of what he called ‘my beautiful tan.’ Yet his optimism never failed him. Hope never left him. He always found good in people.”

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Buck O’Neil running the bases for the Monarchs: “I wasn’t no power hitter. I hit those line drives.”

Part of O’Neil’s reason for going on the road with Posnanski was knowing he wouldn’t write just another clinical analysis of Negro Leagues baseball. “The books . . . mostly read like encyclopedias,” Posnanski wrote, “and that was no way to get people interested.” O’Neil put it more directly: “Somebody needs to write that book—the one that tells what it was really like. You’ll do it.”

Poring through the morgues of the old black American newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender wasn’t enough. Interviewing O’Neil’s fellow living former Negro Leaguers wasn’t enough. Then O’Neil mentioned an appearance in Nicodemus, Kansas, one of O’Neil’s inumerable stops to promote Negro Leagues baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Posnanski asked to join him. “Be on time,” O’Neil replied.

O’Neil asked Posnanski inumerable questions instead of the writer doing the questioning. From there was birthed a portrait of an elder gentleman who wanted the world to know and remember just how good, exciting, and even transcendent Negro Leagues baseball, and those who played it before the disgraceful colour line broke, could be and usually were. And, its role helping America try to grow up in due course.

He was a player/manager for the Monarchs in the final decade of their existence and the Negro Leagues’s existence. As the Monarchs’ manager and then a Cubs coach, O’Neil could (and did) claim to have turned Hall of Famer Ernie Banks from a shy kid to the effervescent icon for whom every day was beautiful enough to play two.

“I learned how to play the game from Buck O’Neil,” Banks would say. Buck said no, Ernie Banks knew how to play, but what he did learn was how to play the game with love.

If he missed becoming one of the infamous Cubs’ experiment of rotating leaders known as the College of Coaches because of his race, since black men weren’t thought  managerial material still in the 1960s, O’Neil also missed being remembered as a cog in a laughing-stock experiment that didn’t change the Cubs’ losing ways. As a major league scout before and after his coaching days, O’Neil’s finds included Hall of Famer Lou Brock and, in due course, 1993 World Series winner Joe Carter.

When seventeen Negro Leagues figures were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on African-American Baseball in 2006—including Effa Manley, the longtime co-owner of the Newark Eagles—O’Neil was on the same ballot but missed election by two votes. He would have been the only living person in the group if he’d made it. We can only marvel at what his induction speech might have been.

The country that once enabled his and dozens of his peers’ exclusion from the Show now wept that this soulful, effervescent, accessible man would see Cooperstown only as a visitor or guest. I’m not ashamed to say I was one of them. From the moment I saw O’Neil on Burns’s Baseball, my lone regret about the man is that I never had the honour of meeting him.

If O’Neil’s actual playing record isn’t as glittering as those of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, or Double Duty Radcliffe (Radcliffe died over a year before O’Neil), marry it to his self-appointed ambassadorship and his work on behalf the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and you should have had a Hall of Famer.

Speculation ran rampant that O’Neil’s exclusion rooted in a feud between the impossible-to-dislike O’Neil and Larry Lester, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, who’d battled with O’Neil—who’d been the museum’s chairman and face—over policy issues.

The winners included Eagles legend Biz Mackey, who managed them to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship (future Show Hall of Famer Roy Campanella was his catcher) and Cum Posey, the longtime owner of the Homestead Grays. And, Willard Brown, an O’Neil teammate on the Monarchs who owned a pocketful of Negro National League home run titles and became the first black player to homer (off Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser) in the American League. (It was Brown’s only major league homer.)

Characteristically, O’Neil could only bear to look on the bright side. This son of a Florida whose segregation included denying him high school in his youth saw his mere presence on the ballot at all as a sign America was growing up and getting better all the time, even if the growing pains remain profound. “I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!”

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.

Graciously, O’Neil accepted the Hall of Fame’s invitation to introduce those seventeen new Hall of Famers. His speech was as memorable for its affection as for its evocation of living history, not to mention his getting everyone present, from the Hall of Famers on the podium to the crowd of all colours holding hands and singing a line from his favourite gospel song: The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

O’Neil had humane ways of putting in their place people who only think they know the “way it was” in his generation. “I wondered,” Posnanski wrote. “What did they know about his day?”

They knew nothing about riding from one dot on the map to the next—one town named for a former president to one named for an old explorer—and playing baseball on dusty infields against furious dreamers on town teams. They were not there when Buck worked for the post office during the winters, and when he stepped outside for his five-minute break, he would smoke a cigarette, close his eyes against the chill, and think of sun and grass and spring training. And yet Buck never stopped them. He gently corrected them . . .

“I remember catching batting-practise home runs,” [a television reporter] said. “That was when baseball was still baseball.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Buck O’Neil said, “but baseball is still baseball.”

Posnanski cited a verse fashioned out of one of O’Neil’s recollections about those Negro Leagues years, when the men who played the Negro Leagues game could only fantasise about being allowed to play with and against white men to whom they felt at least equal in talent if not yet in station.

People used to tell me
How they thought it was
Way back then.
Used to tell me
How they imagined it.
And I tried to say
It wasn’t like that.
We were men
Flesh and blood
And we played baseball in the sunshine.
We hit doubles off the wall,
Slid hard into second base.
We had fights, and we made love.
We sang songs and prayed on Sundays.
Before games.
We were real. Yeah. We laughed and cried.
There was a lot wrong with the world.
But we weren’t sad, man.
We had the times of our lives.
I told them that for fifty years.
They heard. But they didn’t listen.
They listened. But they didn’t hear.

When Posnanski asked O’Neil to identify his greatest day, ever (“I’d heard him tell it a hundred times. I wanted to know if he was awake”), the old first baseman/manager/coach/scout didn’t flinch. Easter Sunday, 1943, in Memphis. The Monarchs played the Memphis Red Sox. O’Neil hit for the cycle. In his hotel later that evening, a friend introduced him to some local schoolteachers.

“I walked downstairs and walked right up to one of those teachers. I said, ‘My name’s Buck O’Neil, what’s yours?’ That was Ora. And we were married for fifty-one years. Easter Sunday, 1943. I hit for the cycle and met my Ora.”

O’Neil’s only regret was that his baseball life kept him from his Ora far too often. She died eight years before her husband did. After you read The Soul of America, you’ll believe more powerfully that they were reunited serenely and happily in the Elysian Fields, where she grins as he reminds those who preceded him how to see the good through the bad, the beauty on the other side of the dark side.

You’ll also believe that Ora O’Neil—as should we who remain on earth, where he made America make him its friend—just keeps on loving Old Buck, as he keeps loving her and the game to which he gave more than it deserved.

If it’s never too late to read and recommend such a lyrical ballad to a man who was a gift to a country that didn’t always appreciate him and his generation, then Posnanski made one of my baseball wishes come true. I’ve finally met and gotten to know Buck O’Neil.

Glenn Beckert, RIP: “The closeness is real”

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Glenn Beckert (right) and Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo display their 1968 Gold Gloves. Rawlings presented the award, but Beckert preferred the Wilsons that Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins broke in for him every spring.

When the 1969 Cubs sputtered down the stretch as the Miracle Mets heated up for keeps, Glenn Beckert wasn’t quite as exhausted as several teammates. That’s what missing a month on the disabled list—with a badly jammed thumb after a collision tagging Reds pitcher Tony Cloninger to start a double play—can do for a fellow who was as reliable at second base as the season was long.

Beckert died at 79 Sunday morning. Decades after the 1969 collapse and before his death, he wasn’t unaware of the toll manager Leo Durocher’s whiplash style took on several Cub regulars and especially their bullpen. But he thought those Cubs—enjoying celebrity to levels previously unknown to them, in and out of Wrigley Field—were drained more in the brain than the body.

“Tired? I don’t know, we came up short,” Beckert told Peter Golenbock for the oral history Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs. “More than anything, I think we were emotionally drained. None of us were accustomed to the crowds and the intensity. An awful lot of what happened was mental. The whole thing was a sobering experience, but we were young.”

Not that Beckert ignored the physical side. Durocher’s unwillingness to use his decent enough bench or to trust his bullpen deeper than Phil (The Vulture) Regan flattened the Cubs—a team with four Hall of Famers (Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins)—into burnout that September.

“Leo had stuck with his horses, and maybe that hurt us the last month of that season,” Beckert told Golenbock. “Who knows? That’s second-guessing now. But there was no platooning with Leo. I knew I was somewhat tired, and I had an injury before that. [Shortstop Don Kessinger] was getting a little weary, not only physically, but mentally. Ron and Randy [Hundley, stubborn everyday catcher] were hurting.

“We were playing banged up, and maybe that was the time when we could have used a couple of days’ rest,” Beckert continued. “We had a good bench. Papa [Paul Popovich] was the best utility infielder in baseball, the greatest hands, and he could have come in for a week. But that’s looking back. It’s history.”

Mets manager Gil Hodges went the other way completely. “As well as any manager in the game,” Wayne Coffey wrote in last year’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, “Hodges understood the importance of making every player feel involved, keeping every player fresh, giving everyone on his club a slice of ownership in what the collective team was doing.”

Durocher “brought us closer to a pennant than anyone else had in a generation,” said Santo in due course, even though he’d been the Cub above all who could be counted on to give Durocher the benefit of the doubt. “But he also brought disruption and chaos.”

“For Durocher’s part,” wrote David Claerbaut in Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn’t Win, “his feuds, his attempts at intimidating young players, particularly pitchers, and the general tension he generated must have worn on the players.”

And the wear was more severe because of his unwillingness to rest his players and to use his entire roster more wisely. Despite the occasional protestations to the contrary, the team was tired. One need only look at the statistical crumbling, evident in the records of individual players, to draw that conclusion. Only [pitcher] Bill Hands and Billy Williams averted a season-closing freefall . . .

. . . Durocher compounded the fatigue factor by daring his players to admit they were tired . . . in August, when asked by a writer whether he planned to rest some of his regulars, Leo exploded. Cursing at the writer, Durocher called an impromptu team meeting to embarrass him. “Are any of you tired?” he hollered. “Anybody want to sit down for awhile? This man wants to know. Go ahead—anybody who’s tired just speak up.” Not wanting a quitter label and knowing the answer Leo wanted, the players were mum.

Beckert and Kessinger are remembered as a formidable double play combination; Beckert turned 71 double plays in 1969 (he’d turned 107 the year before, arguably his best individual season) but he also committed 24 errors and had a fielding percentage nine points below the league average while being worth five defensive runs above the league average at second base.

He earned his only Gold Glove in 1968, and for his career he did have range factors slightly above the league average. Also in 1969, Beckert found himself on the first of four straight National League All-Star teams.

Yet Durocher’s rejection of the fatigue factor hurt Beckert and Kessinger down that crucial 1969 stretch. Which might be seen through strange eyes, considering Durocher once smiled admiringly when told Beckert was native to a portion of Pittsburgh “where they hit first and ask questions later.” No matter.

“The fact is that when it counted most,” William Barry Furlong wrote in Look during the offseason (in “How Durocher Blew the Pennant”), “both Don Kessinger at short and Glenn Beckert at second were letting ground balls by them that they’d have gobbled up earlier. And what Santo says about it now is, ‘Next season I’m sure Leo will rest the regulars from time to time’.”

As a hitter Beckert was a tough strikeout (he walked seventeen more times lifetime and, after 1966, never struck out more than he walked in any season), which may explain the number one reason why he was made a number two hitter. That was a time when middle infielders were often thought to “belong” at or near the top of the batting order, almost regardless of their actual batting skills.

Like former Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, another tough strikeout whose career wound down as Beckert’s began, Beckert’s on-base percentages (1969: .325; lifetime: .318) weren’t really the kind you needed from your top two lineup slots. (Kessinger’s—1969: .332; lifetime: .314) But once he did reach base Beckert was as intelligent as it got; he’d score 90+ runs in a season three times in his eleven-year career and led the National League with 98 in the Year of the Pitcher 1968.

In his rookie season 1965, alas, Beckert had the honour of looking at a Sandy Koufax curve ball for strike three and flying out to right field twice during the Hall of Famer’s perfect game that September 9. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, Beckert’s roommate Santo called back to him after the strikeout. “Hey, Rooms,” Santo asked, “what kind of fastball does he have.”

“So-so,” Beckert answered—right before Williams looked at a similar curve ball for strike three to end the Cub first.

In 1971 Beckert heated up at the plate enough to threaten for the National League batting title—until he ruptured a thumb tendon trying to make a play on a bouncing infield grounder. A few more injuries to follow turned into a trade to the Padres after the 1973 season. Beckert played two more seasons and retired when he realised an arthritic ankle had sapped what remained of his play, though he ended up collecting back pay from the Padres for their releasing him while he was on the disabled list.

It’s not that Beckert was all that sorry to go. “The Padres had the world’s ugliest uniforms, puke yellow and brown,” he’d say later, “and it was a bad experience, going from . . . Scottsdale in spring training to Yuma, Arizona . . . It was like where they filmed Lawrence of Arabia. The sand and the wind. It was like Stalag 17.

He was originally a Red Sox draft who was left exposed to the minor league draft from which the Cubs plucked him. When National League Rookie of the Year (1962) second baseman Ken Hubbs was killed in the crash of his Cessna plane in spring 1964, the Cubs finally settled on Beckert as Hubbs’s successor, bringing him up in ’65.

“A hardscrabble player who sometimes seemed eager to join in collisions at second base,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s, a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.”

Beckert made a successful second career as a grain futures trader. His Cub teammates remember a fellow with a fine, dry wit and a friendliness that was priceless. Twenty-seven years after they first met behind a minor league batting cage, Beckert stood as best man at Jenkins’s second wedding.

“Just knowing Glenn was a player who wanted to play every day and knowing he was behind me defensively, that always gave me a good feeling when I pitched,” the righthander told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jenkins also gladly broke Beckert’s new gloves in for him every spring, something the Sun-Times said wasn’t one of Beckert’s more pronounced abilities. “He’d just hand me his Wilson A2000s, and I’d take care of it,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘I’d pound a fungo bat into the pocket, put hot water into it, put a ball into it and wrap it nicely overnight. I broke in at least a few gloves for Beck.”

Hitting in front of Williams did Beckert more than a few favours, though whenever Williams fell into a rare slump Beckert would needle him by telling him to start hitting again so the second baseman might reunite with some badly-needed fastballs.

“I was happy to have him up there in the lineup and happy just to have him as a teammate,” Williams told the Sun-Times. “He was a great teammate and a fun guy to be around. He was quick-witted. He and Santo and myself, we used to go out and really enjoy life.”

As often as Beckert dealt with injuries during his playing career, they were nothing compared to the fall he took down fifteen concrete steps in 2001. He was hospitalised long and rehabilitated hard. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. It cut down on the frequency with which Beckert usually attended Cubs conventions and games at Wrigley Field.

“I’m thinking about the good times,’’ said Williams, himself now caring for his wife who battles late-stage dementia. ‘‘That’s what you do when something like this happens, when a person you spent a lot of good times with passes away. We had a really good group of guys on the Cubs back then. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of us left.”

The departed among the 1969 Cubs now include Beckert, Santo, reserve catcher Gene Oliver, right fielder Jim Hickman, starting pitchers Hands (who had a career year as a ’69 Cub) and Dick Selma, relief pitchers Hank Aguirre and Ted Abernathy, and especially the irrepressible Banks.

Those Cubs experienced two more pennant races with the same results, before Durocher was finally fired in favour of the sometimes-indifferent Whitey Lockman. Most of the team bonded personally as well as professionally, showing up in annual droves after Hundley first established fantasy camps that enabled frequent reunions.

“What you see with us in [the fantasy camp] is just the way it was in the clubhouse when we really played,” Beckert told Claerbaut. “Some guys are outgoing, some more inward. But the closeness is real, maybe because we played together so long.”

He’d had the habit of calling and meeting his old teammates and friends frequently before his accident and illness. Missing those calls will be nothing compared to how much they will miss Beckert himself. But that will be nothing compared to how much his daughters, grandchildren, and longtime companion Marybruce Standley will miss him.

Grandpa Skipper

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David Ross gets a World Series-winning lift from the Cubs in 2016. Now he gets to manage them.

If you take the word of Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan, the only successor to Joe Maddon who was ever on Cubs president Theo Epstein’s radar was David Ross. And if you read Epstein’s foreword to Ross’s 2017 memoir, Teammate, in which Epstein described Ross in terms that sounded like a job description for a manager, you probably figured the same thing:

The watchful eye from the dugout to make sure we respected the game and played the Cub Way. Unselfish, team-first, winning baseball. The glare when someone did something that wasn’t Cub. The rare harsh word when it happened again. The high-fives and pats on the rear when it got fixed. The instinct when to know when to create levity and when to get guys locked in. Reminding the young players how good they are. Reminding them they can get better. Words to keep the team grounded when winning seemed easy. Words to lift up the team when losing just one more would end the season.

Sounds a lot like the way Grandpa Rossy was during the Cubs’ run to the 2016 World Series conquest. (Which so wasn’t Cub, right?) Especially when he had to handle his buddy Anthony Rizzo’s Game Seven jitters.

Especially when Ross himself needed a big lift after a horror of a Game Seven throwing error one inning, providing it himself the next when this spaghetti bat whose baseball knowledge was ten times as valuable hit a gassed Andrew Miller’s 2-2 service into the left center field bleachers, for his final major league hit en route the Cubs’ stupefying win.

Found reposing alone with his wife and children in the Progressive Field visitors clubhouse, Ross was asked whether he’d now rethink his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” he replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

Ross picked up his World Series ring the following Opening Day in Wrigley Field. Now, despite the Cubs having to go through the hiring process even as a matter of formality under the rules, Ross will get to yell at Rizzo and any other Cub who might need it now and then from the dugout again. This time, as their skipper.

“[I]f you’re looking for a leader to take the Cubs back to the level they believed they’d be at for years after that ’16 title,” Sullivan writes, “those are exactly the qualities you’re seeking—a motivating, demanding, reassuring and fun-loving guy.”

It could be fun loving for Cub Country, too, especially considering the biggest weakness among several that they had in 2019. This year’s Cubs didn’t intimidate pitchers quite as much as they found pitchers absolutely unconcerned about giving up hits because those pitchers got to see them run into outs as if there were free tickets to the nearest clown show at the end of each out.

He might have earned the nickname Grandpa Rossy for his sanguine style as a team leader, but it doesn’t mean Ross is going to be that indulgent a grandpa now that he has the bridge. He won’t stop the Cubs from having fun again, he’ll probably encourage it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll forget to break out the bull whip when need be.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be a lack of laughter over Ross’s hiring. He’s never managed. And the continuing trend of skippers without the backup experience still draws mixed reviews. For every Aaron Boone there’s a Gabe Kapler.

Stop snarling, Yankee fans. It wasn’t even close to Boone’s fault the Yankees got shoved to one side and away from this World Series, and—contrary to popular belief (namely, yours)—Boone did better in his first two Yankee regular seasons (203 wins) than any manager in Yankee history except Ralph Houk (205 wins). Even Joe McCarthy (201), Casey Stengel (195), Joe Torre (188), and Joe Girardi (192).

So Boone was silly enough to let a faltering Aroldis Chapman finish what he started and refuse to put Jose Altuve aboard with a man on and two out to pitch to a glove-first/ spaghetti-bat on deck? There have been equal or worse mistakes in Yankee history, postseason and otherwise, and by skippers with more time in service than Boone.

In his twelfth Yankee season Stengel forgot to align his World Series rotation to give Hall of Famer Whitey Ford three starts—and cost himself the 1960 World Series. Houk in his third had no answer other than expecting the Dodgers to drop dead at the sight of Yankee uniforms—and got swept in the 1963 Series.

Girardi in his final year failed to demand a review of a hit batsman who actually got hit on the bat knob . . . and watched the next Indian hit a grand slam in a division series to push the Yankees to the brink of a sweep they avoided and beat only to lose that pennant when the Astros out-scored them 11-1 in Games Six and Seven.

Ross should have few problems if the front office gives him even a marginally better bullpen than 2019’s, his hitters actually meet balls with their bats, his defenders tighten up, and his baserunners quit auditioning for the next Three Stooges revival. Not to mention the Cubs overcoming a few years of dubious drafts since Epstein yanked the front office inside out.

And remember: Ex-catchers do rather well as major league managers in any era or game culture. It only began with Connie Mack and two Philadelphia Athletics dynasties.

Al Lopez won pennants managing the Indians and the White Sox. Long the third-string backup to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and his backup Charlie Silvera, Houk won three pennants and two World Series in his first three seasons on the Yankee bridge. The Yogi himself won a pair of pennants managing the Yankees and the Mets. Gil Hodges converted from catching to first base—and managed the 1969 Miracle Mets.

Johnny Oates won three AL Wests managing the Rangers. Joe Torre won an NL West with the Braves a decade plus before his pocket full of pennants and World Series rings with the Yankees. Mike Scioscia won a World Series behind the plate for the Dodgers and on the bridge for the Angels. Before Mike Matheny married his Book and lost his clubhouse, he took the Cardinals to some postseasons and the 2013 World Series, though he lost to the Red Sox. Girardi won three AL Easts plus a pennant and a World Series with the Yankees.

And that’s a former catcher who managed the first Astros World Series winner two years ago and is trying to win their second in a) franchise history and b) three years right now.

Of course, not all catchers become postseason managers, either. Bob Boone, Del Crandall, Doc Edwards, Herman Franks, Rene Lachemann, Jerry Narron, Tony Pena, Paul Richards, Muddy Ruel, Joe (Ol’ Sh@tf@ck) Schultz, Birdie Tebbetts, Jeff Torborg, and Wes Westrum, among others, call your offices.

Grandpa Rossy has reasonable odds of joining either one or the other group. The bad news is that a lot depends on how reasonable or unreasonable the Cubs are from here. The good news is that you won’t see Ross tearing his hair out over Cub mistakes. He hasn’t got any left to tear out. Almost. A bark under the park should suffice.

He even gets his own unique entry in the land of trivia contests: Name the only manager ever hired for the job two years after he finishes as a runner-up on Dancing with the Stars. Look out, you Dancing Nats, here come the Cha-Cha-Cubs!

Maddon era ends with a Cubs whimper

2019-09-29 JoeMaddon

Joe Maddon watches from the Busch Stadium visitors’ dugout on his final day as the Cubs’ skipper.

What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.

The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.

And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just  last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.

Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.

But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.

The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.

The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.

Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.

“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”

Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”

It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.

“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”

You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.

Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.

A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.

That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.

Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.

The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.

But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)

Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.

Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.

More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.

Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.

Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.

So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.

No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.

But it might have shown a little pride.

Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.

And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.

It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)

It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.