The pastor and the pension problem

Tom Johnson, in Twins jersey and a 1977 Twins cap, at GoodSports Slovakia, a program teaching and ministering Slovakian youth in baseball and in spirit. (GoodSports photo.)

In 1980, righthanded relief pitcher Tom Johnson—former Minnesota Twin, credited with sixteen relief wins in 1977; struggling with shoulder trouble in 1978; missing 1979 rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery—had reason to believe his career would still have a second act. He was signed by the Chicago White Sox during Bill Veeck’s second ownership of the team.

After five seasons as a Twin, Johnson pitched in the White Sox organisation in 1980. The same year, major league owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the player pension program. Johnson had every reason to applaud—at first.

The new plan vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day. Johnson believed he would come back strongly enough to pitch for the White Sox.

“When I initially heard they had made the decision to make the change, I was very excited,” Johnson said during a telephone interview a few days ago. “I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it because I was in the midst of trying to come back from surgery. So I had my eyes focused on getting back to the major leagues, and I had every reason to believe I was going to do that.”

But in January 1981, saying he couldn’t afford to operate in the full free agency era any longer, Veeck sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and his minority partner Eddie Einhorn.

The new owner didn’t offer Johnson a new pitching deal, but they did offer him a gig as a roving minor league pitching coach. His pitching career was over—and he was now going to be without a baseball pension to look forward to. The 1980 re-alignment omitted short-career players who played between 1949 and 1980.

“When I heard that the [pension] change had taken place,” he told me, “I was excited, because in the past all improvements to the pension plan had been retroactive. So I had every reason to believe, until I found out otherwise, that that would include me.

“I was looking forward to the new system and having a pension, only to find out this was one of the few times in which it was not retroactive,” Johnson continued. “That came later. The disappointment compounded itself when I realised I wasn’t going to make it back, my shoulder wasn’t responding the way I hoped.”

Johnson today is one of 618 still-living, pension-less, pre-1980 short-career players. Their only redress since has been the plan devised in 2011 by then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner—giving them $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. It was a start, but should they pass away before collecting the entire dollars due, those dollars can’t be passed to their families.

“That’s kind of a hard one to take,” Johnson said. “It’s like, that would be such a small thing but a good thing for us and give us some comfort in knowing that this small payment we get once a year is going to pass on [to our families].” Johnson told me that, after taxes, he gets $5,800 per year under the Selig-Weiner adjustment.

Weiner died of brain cancer two years after he and Selig struck that deal. Neither the players union nor the owners have sought to revisit the pension issue for the pre-1980 short-timers since. Asked why not, Johnson says he doesn’t know. “I have no idea, other than that people just don’t want to be bothered,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He thinks that if the issue ever has arisen in negotiations between the owners and the union since, it’s taken off the table very early if it got there at all. “Probably the reason that it hasn’t gone forward is that there hasn’t been a strong advocate in the system that believes changes are needed,” he said.

Tom Johnson, on the mound for the Twins during his career year 1977. (Twins Daily photo.)

The pre-1890 short-timers have had varying lives since leaving baseball. Johnson became a full-time minister later in the 1980s. Active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his playing days, he’s also worked for GoodSports Slovakia, a program that ministers and teaches baseball to Slovakian youth, since 1995. He’s been its president since 2006; he and his wife, Deb, lived in Slovakia full-time promoting baseball from 2005-2017.

When not supervising and making sure GoodSports staffers are paid on time—a task made arduous thanks to the coronavirus pandemic—Johnson wants to see the pension plan redressed on behalf of his fellow 1949-1980 short-career players.

Like several other affected short-career players, Johnson believes Marvin Miller—the longtime players union leader who was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously for his groundbreaking work—took one major regret to his grave: not revisiting the pension issue and redressing the freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers.

“Nobody has picked it up,” Johnson said, referring to people within the professional baseball system. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

And, like several such players to whom I’ve spoken since first interviewing former pitcher Bill Denehy in spring 2019, Johnson believes that if Weiner had lived he might well have worked toward going beyond the 2011 deal with Selig on behalf of those players. “Absolutely,” he said.

Why doesn’t Clark—the first former player to head the MLBPA—address the issue or even give it a single listen, on behalf of these former players who also partook of all players union actions pre- and post-free agency?

Clark’s playing career began two decades after the Messersmith decision ushered free agency in. Johnson isn’t alone among his fellow pre-1980 short-timers in believing the former first baseman wasn’t close enough to the key battles for which players like Johnson fought just as arduously as did baseball’s major stars.

“I would just go back to something I believe strongly about,” Johnson said. “Any issue of what you might call injustice, it’s easy not to address it if you’re not close to it, if you’re not proximate to it. And I would say, for Tony Clark, he’s just never taken the time to sit down with people like myself and hear us and get close enough to us and hear what we have to say.”

If Johnson could tell Clark one thing, it’s to take that time. “Take some time to get to know us,” he continued. “Take some time to hear from us. We played. We did walk the picket lines. We did participate in lockouts. We did work on behalf of players who are now making six and seven figures, to make it possible to make it happen.”

He might tell likewise to dozens of former ballplayers who’ve made second careers in the sports media and who could wield major influence but don’t for now. “I think it’s the same reason, it doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t know anybody that’s personally affected by it, so it’s just easy to dismiss it. I would guess some of them aren’t even aware of it, some don’t bother to be, and the ones who are made aware of it, it’s just too easy for them to go on to other things.”

If the union and commissioner Rob Manfred today can’t be made to look twice at the 1980 pension re-alignment freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers, what about individual owners—say, Steve Cohen, the new owner of the Mets; or, John Middleton, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies—each taking up just on behalf of those short-timers who played for the teams they now own?

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Johnson said. “I would love to think there would be people who would lead the way and call on other owners to step up. They don’t have to; after the difficult situation they’ve faced financially with the pandemic, I’m not hopeful.”

Not for now. But perhaps down the road that option might be considered. Perhaps by a Cohen, or a Middleton; perhaps by another. It would be a strange irony if the union that made such a terrible mistake found itself upstaged over four decades later, by even a single owner persuaded that it’s long past time to do the right thing.

Dick Allen, RIP: Big stick, bigger man

Dick Allen’s big stick hit home runs that should have had astronauts aboard.

Around noontime Monday (PST), his family announced it on his own Twitter account. I came home from a morning errand to see the news, and I could only open his Twitter and write, without clicking on the heart symbol for a like, “How can you like the passing of a great ballplayer and a good man?”

Dick Allen is dead at 78 after a battle with cancer. There’d been a swell of support for his election to the Hall of Fame in recent years. He might have made it via the Golden Era Committee this year. Except the committee decided that, well, if they couldn’t meet in person to discuss and vote, by God they weren’t going to meet until next year.

When they made that announcement in late August, I zapped the Hall of Fame and the Committee for suddenly discovering their inner Luddism: “Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections.”

They never heard of setting up a Zoom remote conference? Trust me, since I just took part in my own first one. They can be set up simply, such a conference is restricted to invited guests via meeting codes and passwords, and none would have compromised the integrity of the discussions and votes.

The Committee pushed the meeting back to winter 2021. They just might elect Allen this time around. (He missed by one vote the last time around, in 2014.) Only he’ll be well serene and happy in the company of the angels and not on earth to accept the plaque I’m sure his family will accept proudly when it’s awarded.

It’s not that my opinion means two figs, but I’ve championed Allen’s Hall of Fame election for long enough now, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind about it. I was on the fence about it for a good long while before that, alas, but once and for all I took as deep a look into the record as it was as I could and became convinced. Allen has a no-questions-should-be-asked case as a peak value Hall of Famer.

If you consider his peak to be 1964-1972, Allen’s .936 OPS and 164 OPS+ should say most of it, especially considering most of that peak came in one of the toughest hitting eras ever. If you consider the absolutely unfair and out-of-line racism he was forced to face and fight, especially as a Phillie, it’s to wonder and marvel that he could even check in at the plate, never mind play as he did when he was healthy.

Let’s look at Allen and his big stick by way of my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. When I first examined Allen that way two years ago, I discovered a flaw: I shouldn’t have included sacrifice bunts or excluded times he was hit by pitches. The former’s flaw: you shouldn’t be credited when you’re surrendering outs willingly; outs are precious. The latter’s flaw: if the pitcher’s fool enough to drill you, let it be on his head and to your credit.

The RBA metric otherwise is a bid to atone for the incompleteness of the traditional batting average, one of the single most flawed statistics ever devised. Hits divided by official at-bats treats all hits equally and misses too much of what batters do to create and produce runs on the scoreboard. (You still think all hits are equal? Tell me why a single’s as good as a double, triple, or home run and vice versa. Didn’t think so.)

My RBA adds total bases (which treats hits the unequal way they deserve), walks, intentional walks (one more time: you should damn well get credit when the other guys prefer you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you didn’t intend to fly out but it scored a run so credit to you!), and times you were hit by pitches, and divides the sum by your total plate appearances.

And, this is Dick Allen’s peak according to RBA:

Years PA TB BB IBB HBP SF RBA
1964-72 5,457 2,592 685 120 11 33 .631
Career 7,315 3,379 894 138 16 53 .612

Rest assured that these numbers helped rank Allen among the top twenty third basemen who ever played major league baseball. They would also show him with the third-highest RBA of all post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Fame third basemen except two: in ascending order, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

This is before revisiting his breathtaking power or mentioning that Allen was one of the smartest and most effective baserunners of his time. (Did you know Allen took extra bases on followup hits 53 percent of the time he reached base?) And, before lamenting that early enough injuries impacted his defense either at third base or the position to which his injury-weakened throwing arm finally sent him full time, first base.

Allen didn’t just hit home runs. Phrased politely, they didn’t need the proverbial meals and stewardesses aboard. What he hit typically should have had astronauts. When first analysing his performance two years ago, I concluded based on the evidence that, if he’d been far more healthy and uninjured, Allen might have finished his career with 525 home runs or thereabout.

Dick Allen sharing a big laugh with his old Phillies teammate Jim Bunning at an old-timers’ event in Citizens Bank Park.

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once tried to take the sting out of the Philadelphia boo birds’ booing Allen by suggesting the reason they booed him was that his home runs didn’t always stay in the park to become souvenirs.

That’s putting things too politely. Allen once told a Phillies historian (and an Allen biographer), William C. Kashatus, “I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.”

A man who grew up in a racially tolerant and accommodating Pennsylvania hamlet, but whom the Phillies sent to 1963 Little Rock with no support system, who once remembered, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, and said, “Dick, this is what we have in mind. It’s going to be very difficult but we’re with you”—at least I would have been prepared,” has no reason to apologise.

Whether you believe he was a jerk or just immature, some people persist in believing Allen’s career was shortened by it. Not so, argued Rob Neyer when writing The Big Book of Baseball Lineups: “I don’t think his immaturity had much to do with the length of his career. He just got hurt, and so he didn’t enjoy the sort of late career that most great hitters do. It’s that, as much as all the other stuff, that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, the sad irony. When the Phillies finally traded Allen out of town, to the St. Louis Cardinals, they thought they were getting Curt Flood in return in the package. To Flood, the trade smacked of treating even a $90,000 a year center fielder as a piece of property like a slave. To Allen, who’d been to hell and back almost daily in Philadelphia and rooted for Flood’s reserve clause lawsuit, the trade was his Emancipation Proclamation.

Allen incurred assorted nagging injuries and severe leg injuries after leaving Philadelphia and especially during his otherwise shining time with the Chicago White Sox. (He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first White Sox season.) “[W]hat he did for us in Chicago was amazing,” said Allen’s White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner.

Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth . . . He played hurt for us so many times that they thought he was Superman.  But he wasn’t; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon.

The best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years—by Little Rock, by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—belongs to Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook:

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

His death before the Hall election he deserves inflicts a final injustice upon a man accompanied by too many injustices too long. It elevates him and reduces his critics further that he eventually found equilibrium in his life and peace with baseball.

Allen knew and survived heartbreak enough outside of the racial buffetings: a painful divorce, the unexpected murder of his daughter, Terri, the electrical-fire destruction of the farm on which he hoped to raise thoroughbred horses. (“If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it,” he once cracked about artificial turf.)

He overcame those to re-marry happily, keep friends and family close, become one of the most popular members of the Phillies’ speakers’ bureau under a very different organisation than the one for which he played, and a friendly social media presence who beamed justifiably when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame inducted him in 2018.

When the Phillies finally retired Allen’s uniform number 15 in September, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested the timing might have been intended partially to push for Allen’s at-last enshrinement in Cooperstown. Allen himself once told Kashatus, “What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with it. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, an Allen teammate when the latter returned to Philadelphia in 1975, remembered then a teammate’s teammate who preferred to lead by quiet example and humanness. Allen often invited Christenson to lunch on road trips and once signed a bat for him as a memento: “To L.C., two homers with my bat. How about that? Dick Allen.”

Christenson once borrowed Allen’s once-fabled 40-ounce bat in a game. “Son,” Allen told the pitcher, “if you can swing it, you can use it.” Christenson used it to hit a home run in that day’s game.

Bereft on earth now are Allen’s loving wife, Willa, his family, his friends, and all of those who saw through the cluttering, clattering nonsense and saw the player and the real young man who didn’t deserve his seasons in hell and deserved election to the Hall of Fame. Now that election will have to be posthumous on earth, damn it.

But surely the Lord’s angels escorted Allen kindly and gently to the Elysian Fields, and that was the only other thing we could ask through our own loss.

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Some portions of this essay have been published by the author previously.

Kim Ng, inside the box

Kim Ng (right) with Don Mattingly, when Mattingly managed the Dodgers and Ng was their assistant GM. Ng is now, among other things, Mattingly’s new boss in Miami.

Whatever you do otherwise, please don’t call Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins’ new general manager “outside the box” thinking. It’s an insult to hers and the Marlins’ intelligence, and it should be to anyone else’s, too.

Yes, Ng is the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold such a job. But yes, she also has three decades worth of experience in baseball operations which only began when she joined the White Sox as a front office intern and worked her way to becoming the team’s assistant director for baseball operations.

The Marlins hired her away from baseball government itself, where Ng just finished her ninth year as the Show’s senior vice president for baseball operations, focused specifically on tightening up and administering MLB’s international baseball reach and operations, working with MLB front offices and international organisations alike, and enforcing international signing rules.

In between her term with the White Sox and in the Show’s government, Ng became the youngest assistant GM (at 29) ever when she took that job with the Yankees, then joined the Dodgers as an assistant GM, her performances of which jobs plus her performance in MLB’s organisation itself put her on several team radars as a GM to be.

Outside the box? Ng is about as inside the baseball box as you can get with her experience and reputation. The only thing outside the box about her is that, well, she’s a lady, and she’s the daughter of a Chinese American father who worked as a financial analyst and a Chinese Thai mother who worked as a banker.

She’s Indianapolis born but New York raised, and she grew up among other things playing stickball on the Queens streets before going to the University of Chicago, earning a degree in public policy, and, oh yes, winning a Most Valuable Player award as an infielder on the university’s softball team.

“[I]t is the honor of my career to lead the Miami Marlins as their next General Manager,” Ng says in a formal statement. “We are building for the long term in South Florida, developing a forward-thinking, collaborative, creative baseball operation made up of incredibly talented and dedicated staff who have, over the last few years, laid a great foundation for success.”

When was the last time you heard terms like “forward-thinking” or “collaborative” or “creative baseball operation” applied to the Marlins? OK, so that might be outside-the-box—the Marlins’ box, that is.

“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly,” she continues. “When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a Major League team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals. My goal is now to bring championship baseball to Miami. I am both humbled and eager to continue building the winning culture our fans expect and deserve.”

It’s a recent enough expectation, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself to gags now that manager Don Mattingly was named the National League’s Manager of the Year for shepherding the Fish to a second-place irregular season finish in the National League East and as far as a division series in the postseason.

Ng has knocked on history’s door more than a few times in her career. With the White Sox, she was the first woman and youngest human to present and win a salary arbitration case, for pitcher Alex Fernandez. When the Yankees hired her as an assistant GM, Ng became one of only four women ever to hold the position, joining Elaine Weddington Steward and Raquel Ferreira of the Red Sox and fellow Yankee Jean Afterman.

She started showing up on team radars as GM material in 2005, when the Dodgers interviewed her. They handed the GM job to Ned Colletti, but Colletti almost immediately kept her as an assistant GM. She’s since been interviewed for such jobs by the Angels, the Giants, the Mariners, and the Padres.

When she left the Dodgers to take her MLB job, there were those pondering aloud whether Ng had a chance to become the first woman ever named as baseball commissioner. So much for that idea, so far. She’s content to have gotten where she is now. But would you really object to the idea down the road apiece?

Ng won’t exactly be wading into virgin territory with the Marlins. Chief executive officer Derek Jeter was en route his Hall of Fame career as a Yankee shortstop while Ng worked in their front office. Mattingly’s playing career ended a few years before the Yankees made her an assistant GM, but he was a coach for them while she was there. And, he managed the Dodgers while Ng was still their assistant GM.

Jeter’s own formal statement cites Ng’s “wealth of knowledge and championship-level experience.” The Yankees won three straight World Series while she worked there; the Dodgers challenged for or won a few NL Wests while she worked in their front-office brain pool. As a front-office executive Ng has gone to eight postseasons total.

“Her leadership of our baseball operations team will play a major role on our path toward sustained success,” Jeter continues. “Additionally, her extensive work in expanding youth baseball and softball initiatives will enhance our efforts to grow the game among our local youth as we continue to make a positive impact on the South Florida community.”

The lady is a champ who just might deliver when it comes to making the Marlins champs. Just don’t accuse the Fish of going that far outside the box by hiring her in the first place.

A cruel, unfair rep for Rick Renteria

Rick Renteria, fired by a second rebuilding Chicago team in six years.

It takes tough men to survive being executed as baseball managers by both teams in two-team major league cities. Rick Renteria’s in Hall of Fame company in that regard. Ladies and gentlemen, re-introduce yourselves to Rogers Hornsby, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, and Joe Torre.

The bad news is that Renteria doesn’t yet have the distinction that quintet enjoys. Hornsby, Durocher, Stengel, Berra, and Torre at least got to go to a World Series with one or both their same-city teams. (The Lip took a few Dodgers and a couple of Giants teams to the World Series; Yogi took the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 Mets to the World Series.)

Renteria is now the manager two Chicago teams trusted to shepherd rebuildings but not to take either the Cubs or the White Sox to the Series at all. Joe Maddon was handed the privilege of taking the Cubs to the Promised Land in 2016; the White Sox now aren’t far from reaching the Series at all.

If it happened to you, you might feel as though you were the right man to build the building only to run into a snooty, harrumphing doorman who decided you weren’t high class enough to step into the lobby, never mind get anywhere close to the penthouse. And don’t even think about trying the service entrance.

Renteria took his White Sox on a delightful romping dance to second place in the American League Central with not even a 3-8 irregular season finish spoiling. Unless it did in the eyes of the White Sox administration who might have thought only a deep postseason run would be enough to save Renteria’s grizzled hide.

The good news: the White Sox opened their wild card series with Lucas Giolito taking a perfect game to the seventh and with a home run-governed 4-1 Game One win. The bad news: The A’s outlasted the White Sox in Games Two and Three and the White Sox went home for the winter. Bloodied slightly, unbowed definitely.

Renteria took flak during his tenure for bullpen management, but it seems most likely the game that sealed his fate was Game Three. When he pulled his opener Dave Dunning with two on but two out, escaped with his life, but played musical bulls the rest of the way with the bulls unable to keep a 3-0 White Sox lead from imploding into a four-run Oakland fourth and two-run Oakland fifth, with nothing but an RBI single in the fifth in reply.

“[D]espite a still-thin pitching staff, the White Sox won 35 of 60 games in pandemic ball and reached the postseason for the first time since 2008,” wrote USA Today‘s Gabe Laques upon Renteria’s purge. “And that meant it was time for Renteria to go.”

You could say it was less Renteria’s fault than Maddon’s unexpected availability that prompted the Cubs to send him packing in 2014. You could have said it regarding the White Sox with more authority if Renteria’s bullpen management hadn’t become suspect enough even before the White Sox got bumped to one side by the A’s.

With an established core of young and somewhat-veteran position players and a nice harvest of nice young pitching coming, the White Sox bridge may now be one of the three or four top available commands.

But it doesn’t disinfect the stain laid somewhat cruelly upon Renteria: he’s like the Navy captain considered good enough to command the leading air group carrier—until it’s time to plot the battle of Midway.

Mully & Haugh radio co-host David Haugh is unamused. “White Sox reveal themselves a bottom-line, cutthroat organization by firing Rick Renteria after first playoff season since 2008,” Haugh fumed in a Monday midday tweet. “That is fine and Sox prerogative if they think that’s necessary to get to next level. Just don’t pretend culture or integrity matter—only winning does.”

There were those on the White Sox themselves who questioned the team’s clubhouse leadership. If you took veteran pitcher Dallas Keuchel at his word in mid-August, the question became whether Renteria kept his end of the leadership bargain or whether some White Sox players, no matter their success, might have backed away somewhat.

“We’ve got some guys coming out and taking professional at-bats, being professional on the mound and doing what it takes to win,” said Keuchel after a tough 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers.

We’ve got some guys kind of going through the motions. So we’ve got to clean a lot of things up, and if we want to be in this thing at the end of the season, we’re going to have to start that now . . . We have to show up every day, and even if there are no fans, we have to make sure that we are ready to go. And if we’re not ready to go, we have to fake it until we make it. [The loss to the Tigers] was one of the first games that I’ve seen very subpar play from everybody.

If Renteria didn’t swing the hammer when absolutely necessary or trusted his players to police themselves, it’s on the players who pulled back on the rudder just enough to slow the course just enough.

When George Steinbrenner dumped Yogi Berra infamously, sixteen games into 1985, The Boss purred, “I didn’t fire Yogi, the players did.” Crass in light of him having promised Yogi a full season’s work, but unfortunately true as often as not.

Maybe the White Sox just weren’t quite as ready for prime time this year as they may be next. Renteria still deserved the chance to see if he could graduate them all the way up from My Mother, the Car to Saturday Night Live.

Renteria isn’t likely to stay unemployed for very long. There are still some rebuilding teams (with or without having tanked their way into it) who might find him the perfect bridge commander. Maybe one of them will ignore the precedent, hire him to lead the rebuild finish, then give him a little finishing school on bullpen management himself and let him take the ship to the battle to take the Promised Land back.

Until then, he can amuse himself by the company he now keeps. There is far worse company he can keep than Hornsby, Durocher, Stengel, Berra, and Torre. Even if Torre’s the only one of the quintet still alive to let him commiserate if he chooses.

They were a little hard on the Bieber last night

Aaron Judge runs out the bomb he detonated off Shane Bieber on the fourth pitch of the game Tuesday night.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone is fond of saying his team can turn on a dime. He’d much rather they keep turning on the Cleveland Indians the way they did to open their American League wild card set. As a matter of fact, Boone’s wards were a little hard on the Bieber Tuesday night.

The Yankees and the Indians opened in Cleveland the same night the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden went down. Depending upon where you peeked, the country had a hard time determining which wildfire was worse—the allegedly presidential debate, or the Yankees’ 12-3 demolition. The jury may be out until Election Day.

The Yankees could be seen as having had less time to prepare for Indians starter Shane Bieber than Trump and Biden had to face each other. They hadn’t faced the presumptive American League Cy Young Award winner all irregular season long, anywhere. They also went in having lost six of their last seven irregular season games and compiled an 11-18 road record.

Bieber had twelve season starts and faced four postseason teams—three of whom had winning records—seven times. Nobody took him long in any of his starts. Only once all year did he surrender a single run in the first or fifth innings. Nobody scored on his dollar at home all year.

Then the Yankees caught hold of him Tuesday night.

They needed only four straight fastballs to rip two runs out of him in the top of the first. American League batting champion D.J. LeMahieu saw a third straight fastball and lined a single to right field. Aaron Judge started his first plate appearance to follow seeing a fourth straight Bieber fastball. He finished it with that fastball, too, sending it over the right center field wall.

“We had a big, long hitter’s meeting,” Judge said after the game, “about all sticking to the same plan and just trying to work counts, get pitches to drive and I think, as a whole, we did that. That’s when this team is dangerous, when we go out there and we can just grind out at-bats. Any mistakes that are thrown up there, we hammer them.”

Bieber’s fastball sat so easily up or under in the zone to open that LeMahieu wouldn’t exactly call a three-pitch plate appearance a hard grind when pitch three sat right in the middle. Then the slender righthander who hadn’t surrendered a home run at home all irregular season long made the same mistake to Judge over the middle of the plate.

“The first inning didn’t go as planned,” said Bieber, showing a gift for understatement lacking too vividly in the presidential debate hall. “I wish I would have been with my off-speed stuff in the zone, and challenged those guys a little more. I forced myself into some bad situations and some bad counts on top of not having my best stuff and making mistakes. No excuses. It was not good.”

Neither was the rest of Bieber’s outing on a night Gerrit Cole struck out thirteen Indians in seven innings while walking nobody, had only one truly shaky inning (the third) and escaped with only an RBI double by Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez, then surrendered his only other run an inning after that, when left fielder Josh Naylor hit one over the right center field wall.

Cole otherwise looked even better than the guy who didn’t let five walks stop him from beating the Yankees in Game Four of last year’s American League Championship Series. The guy the Houston Astros let walk into free agency and right into the Yankees’ $324 million arms last winter.

In case you were wondering, only one pitcher before Cole ever struck out thirteen without walking a man in a postseason assignment—the late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, in Game One of the 1973 National League Championship Series, and that was a game Seaver lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1.

When he blew away the Indians’ middle infield, Francisco Lindor and Cesar Hernandez, on swinging strikeouts, before convincing Ramirez his only recourse was to pop one out to Torres behind shortstop, Cole let the Indians know early enough and often enough that they weren’t going to have a simple evening’s baseball to play.

Only nobody paid as much attention to Cole’s work or his marriage with postseason history as they might have paid if the Yankees hadn’t turned Bieber and a couple of Indians relievers into their personal batting practise pitchers.

They slapped Bieber for a single run in the third, two each in the fourth and the fifth. In order, it was AL home run champion Luke Voit doubling Aaron Hicks home with two out in the third, Brett Gardner doubling home Gleyber Torres and LeMahieu catching the Indian infield asleep with an infield RBI single pushing Gardner home in the fourth, and Torres with Gio Urshela aboard hitting one out in the fifth.

That was the 105th pitch of Bieber’s evening, corroborating Judge’s observation of the Yankee game plan at last. By that point, Bieber was probably itching to tell the Yankees what Biden told Trump during one of the president’s more insistent of his nightlong harangues, “Will you shut up, man?”

Interim manager Sandy Alomar, filling in for ailing Terry Francona, was kind enough to lift Bieber after that 105th pitch of the outing traveled from Torres’s bat to the bleachers. He didn’t tell the Yankees to shut up, man, on a night nobody could. But Alomar—whose guidance of the Indians into the postseason in the first place may actually get him Manager of the Year votes despite his interim status—did speak kindly of his still-young pitcher.

“Seems to be he was too excited,” Alomar said after the demolition ended at last. “He was the best pitcher in the American League this year. He had a bad game tonight.” That was like saying the Japanese navy had a bad set at Midway.

Even injury-hobbled Giancarlo Stanton joined in the fun. After striking out twice in four previous plate appearances on the night, the Yankee designated hitter squared off against reliever Cam Hill with one out in the top of the of the ninth and tore a 1-0 fastball—also arriving in the meatiest part of the zone—over the left center field fence.

The Yankee assault and battery almost wiped Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito out of the day’s memory bank, thirty-four days after Giolito pitched a no-hitter the too-easy way against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He went into the top of the seventh threatening to become the only pitcher other than Hall of Famer Roy Halladay to pitch a regular-season no-hitter (that was Halladay’s perfect game) and a postseason no-no the same year.

Former Cardinal/Angel Tommy La Stella said not so fast leading off the bottom of the seventh in the Oakland Athletics’ ramshackle ballpark. With the White Sox up 3-0 already, La Stella took what he could get on a 2-2 service and snuck a base hit right through the middle.

Even playing without their best all-around player, Matt Chapman, the A’s made things a little too easy for Giolito and the White Sox. It only began when they were foolish enough to send lefthander Jesus Luzardo, young, gifted, but inconsistent, against a lineup so full of righthanded bats it’s a wonder the Oakland Coliseum didn’t list when they batted.

“Nothing against him,” said White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson when learning they’d face Luzardo, “but we have been doing good against lefties. I guess they haven’t done their homework so hopefully we can go out and continue to do what we’ve been doing against lefties.”

They did. They got six of their nine Game One hits off Luzardo and chased him in the fourth inning. In the third, they had Anderson on second with two out, Jose Abreu at the plate with a 2-0 count, first base open, and previous called strikeout victim James McCann on deck, and A’s manager Bob Melvin elected to let Luzardo keep pitching to Abreu.

Abreu elected to hit the next pitch, a fastball Luzardo intended to sail toward the outer edge of the plate but disobeyed orders and arrived smack dab in the middle. The ball disappeared smack dab over the left field fence. “Obviously,” Luzardo said post-game, “the guy’s an MVP-caliber type hitter, so you’ve got to be careful. I made a mistake. That’s not where I intended to put it.”

An inning before that, Luzardo intended to throw Adam Engel an 0-2 fastball up and in, and the ball disobeyed orders then, too. That disobedient ball went up, out, and into the bleachers.

It’s been that way for the Billy Beane-era A’s every time they reach the postseason. His A’s have been a second-guesser’s delight. This time, the second-guessers get to guess why Melvin insisted on starting Luzardo instead of rested righthander Mike Fiers against the starboard-hitting White Sox. Saying as the manager did that the White Sox hadn’t seen a lefty with Luzardo’s kind of stuff all year won’t fly half as far as Engel’s and Abreu’s home runs did.

This year’s bizarro-world postseason is barely a game old and the A’s and the Indians face elimination games Wednesday. So do the American League Central-winning Minnesota Twins after the 29-31 Houston Astros beat them 4-1 in Target Field Tuesday. So do the Buffalonto Blue Jays (third) after the AL East-winning Tampa Bay Rays edged them 3-1 in Tropicana Field.

The only solace for the A’s, the Twins, and the Jays is that none of them suffered anything close to the assault with deadly weapons the Indians suffered. Those three aren’t presumed to be half as cursed as the Indians—the last time the Indians won the World Series was during the Berlin Airlift.

With the same pairs playing Wednesday, plus the National League’s wild card sets beginning the same day, it’s to wonder only what further strange brews are liable to boil and which boils get lanced. At least there won’t be a presidential schoolyard argument to detract from the main events.