Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa has announced his retirement. His pacemaker put paid to his second term on the White Sox bridge. Will that term tarnish his legacy?

With Tony La Russa’s second retirement now a done deal, retrospectives of both the career that put him in the Hall of Fame and the second act that tarnished his reputation only somewhat abound. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to atone for firing La Russa the first time around, in 1986, but it’s fair to say what began with intrigue devolved to sorrow despite a successful 2021 but enhanced by a 2022 disaster.

I wrote of La Russa’s earliest mishaps in his second act last year. I republish much of that essay here, with a few adjustments befitting the present occasion, and wish him well as he steps away for the second and final time. 

No baseball manager is a perfect specimen, whether he lucks into the job, performs it long enough and well enough, or gets himself elected to the Hall of Fame because of his actual or reputed job performance. Many have been the managers whose reputations for genius are out of proportion to their actual performances.

Even the certified geniuses made their mistakes. Maybe none was more truly egregious than Casey Stengel’s failure to set up his rotation so his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford could start three 1960 World Series games instead of two. Unless it was Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark, with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game.

Maybe it was Dick Williams, placing public perception ahead of baseball to start gassed ace Jim Lonborg instead of a better-rested arm in Game Seven, 1967 World Series. Unless it was Gene Mauch, the Little General panicking down the 1964 stretch (with the Phillies, using his two best pitchers on too-short rest and blowing a pennant he had in the bank), or in Game Five (with the Angels) when he was an out away from winning the 1986 American League Championship Series.

Regardless of his foibles since what proved his first retirement, Tony La Russa still has an outsize reputation as one of the most deft ever to hold the manager’s job. He’s been called a genius. He’s been called one of the smartest baseball men of the last half-century. They point to his Hall of Fame plaque, the 33 years he managed prior to returning to the White Sox last season, eleven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series rings.

Those plus his longtime reputation for volumnious pre- and post-game thinking and analysis (observed perhaps most deeply in a chapter of George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball) still allow La Russa absolution from his most egregious errors.

He threw his early 2021 White Sox star Yermin Mercedes under the proverbial bus, and maybe even invited the Twins to retaliate the following day, after Mercedes swung on 3-0 (violating La Russa’s fealty to the Sacred Unwritten Rules) in the eighth inning of a White Sox blowout, and hit a home run . . . off a middle infielder sent to the mound.

La Russa is still considered one of the smartest of the Smart Guys whatever they think of Mercedes’s homer or La Russa’s definition of “sportsmanship.” They don’t always stop to ponder what La Russa thought of the Twins’s “sportsmanship” in giving up the ghost with two innings left to close even a fat deficit and sending a position player to the mound with real pitching still available to them.

Perhaps they haven’t read Keith Law, writing in The Inside Game in 2020: “Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” There’s a case to be made that La Russa’s reputation, and maybe even his Hall of Fame case, is a little more than half a product of such outcome bias.

It’s hard to argue against a manager with three decades plus on his resume plus those division titles, pennants, and three Series rings. But maybe it’s easy to forget or dismiss how often La Russa either outsmarted or short-sighted himself when the games meant the absolute most.

“Tony, stop thinking,” Thomas Boswell wrote, after La Russa’s Athletics were swept out of a 1990 Series they could have tied in four and gone on to win, instead of being swept by a band of Reds upstarts who didn’t know the meaning of the words “shrink under pressure.”

If the A’s had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they’d have been better. The usher would have brought in [Hall of Fame reliever Dennis] Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Two with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Four with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why did he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn’t and twice the A’s lost. This time, the goat’s horns stop at the top.

Outcome bias didn’t help La Russa then, a year after he’d won his first Series. But it sure helped him after a 2011 Series he won despite himself. Because smart baseball men don’t do even half of what La Russa did to make life that much tougher for his Cardinals than it should have been.

Smart baseball men don’t take the bats out of the hands of future Hall of Famers with Game One tied at zero. La Russa took it out of Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols’s hands by ordering Jon Jay to sacrifice Rafael Furcal, guaranteeing the Rangers wouldn’t let Pujols swing even with a swimming pool noodle, walking him on the house. (The next batter got lured into dialing Area Code 5-4-3.)

Smart baseball men don’t lift better clutch hitters (especially those shaking out as Series MVPs) with late single-run leads for defensive replacements who might have to try a lot harder to do the later clutch hitting with insurance runs to be cashed in—and fail. La Russa did that lifting David Freese (after he scored a single tiebreaking run) for Daniel Descalso (grounded out with two in the eighth) in Game Two.

Smart baseball men don’t balk when their closers surrender two soft hits in the Game Two ninth with a groin-hobbled bopper due up and a double play possibility very distinct. La Russa balked. He lifted Jason Motte for Arthur Rhodes with Josh Hamilton coming up. Rhodes gave the lead away and Lance Lynn gave the game away—on back-to-back sacrifice flies.

Smart baseball men don’t look past three powerfully viable and available bullpen options with their teams down a mere 1-0 and reach for . . . a known mop-up man, with the opposition’s hottest Series bat due up. La Russa learned or re-learned the hard way in Game Four. Mike Napoli thanked him for offering Mitchell Boggs as the sacrificial lamb—Napoli hit the first pitch for a three-run homer. (Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0.)

Smart baseball men don’t snooze for even a moment and forget to flash the red light when their batter (Pujols, in this case) signals their baserunner Allen Craig to try for a steal in the Game Five seventh. Craig got arrested by half a mile, inviting another free pass to the bopper and—following a base hit setting up second and third when the batter advances on the throw to third—another free pass and an inning-ending fly out.

Smart baseball men also don’t let a little (ok, a lot of) crowd noise interfere with getting the pen men up that he wants to get up in the bottom of the Game Five eighth—after ordering one relief pitcher tough on righthanded hitters to put a righthanded hitter aboard on the house, instead of getting the second out—then try sneaking a lefthanded pen man past a righthanded danger who sneaks what proves a game-winning two-run double.

They don’t try to make the Case of the Tangled Telephone out of it, either, after they end up bringing in the wrong man when nobody claimed to hear them ordering the guy they really wanted to get ready. (La Russa wanted Motte but got Lynn. Oops.)

Neither do smart baseball men drain their benches in the eighth of even a do-or-die Game Six. La Russa did. It compelled his Cardinals to perform their still-mythologised ninth and tenth inning feats of down-to-their-final-strike derring-do without a safety net beneath them. Freese took one and all off the hook with his eleventh-inning, full-count, game-winning, Richter scale-busting leadoff bomb.

The Cardinals won that Series despite their skipper. (And, because they pinned the Rangers in Game Seven, after allowing a 2-0 first-inning lead on back-to-back RBI doubles. They made it impossible for La Russa to overthink/mis-think/mal-think again after they tied in the bottom of the first and scored four more from there.) La Russa was thatclose to blowing a Series his Rangers counterpart sometimes seemed to do everything within reach to hand him.

Fairness: La Russa did plenty right and smart winning those division titles. He did plenty right and smart winning the 2006 Series in five. (It didn’t hurt that he knew what he had turning his resident pest/Series MVP David Eckstein loose.) That was two years after nobody could have stopped the Red Sox steamroller from plowing the Cardinals in four, following their self-yank back from the dead to take the last four ALCS games from the Empire Emeritus.

But the 2011 Series got La Russa compared in the long term to . . . Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager who won the 2001 World Series in spite of his own mistakes, too. Batting his worst on-base percentage man leadoff; ordering bunts ahead of and thus neutralising his best power threat; overworking and misusing his tough but sensitive closer, even throwing him out a second straight night after the lad threw 61 relief pitches the night before. (You’re still surprised Scott Brosius faced a gassed Byung-Hyun Kim and tied Game Five with a home run?)

Lucky for Brenly that he had one Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy Johnson) and another should-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher (Curt Schilling, his own worst enemy) to bail him out. Brenly hasn’t managed again since the Diamondbacks fired him during a 2004 skid to the bottom of the National League West.

When La Russa retired three days after that 2011 Series ended, he didn’t announce it until after the Cardinals’ championship parade and after he called a meeting with his players. “Some grown men cried,” he said of the meeting, adding, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.”

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings kept him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. New York City mayoral legend Fiorello H. La Guardia liked to say, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.” La Russa could say the same thing, plausibly, about a fair number of his own mistakes.

That outcome bias probably kept La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for the time being, despite his early tactical mistakes. And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident left that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.)

What made La Russa a Hall of Famer—his long-time, widely-analysed, widely-discussed ability to think ahead, to know each man on his roster and handle them as individuals without losing the team, his ability to sense and out-think his managerial opponent—was almost eroded by what ESPN’s Buster Olney calls his “own surprising decisions—including, on multiple occasions, to order intentional walks to hitters despite the fact that White Sox pitchers were ahead in the count—fuel[ing] the narrative that La Russa was the wrong manager for the team. La Russa strongly defended his choices, sometimes sounding defensive, but even some of his peers found the two-strike intentional walks indefensible.”

Last year’s White Sox scored a division title under La Russa’s hand. This year’s White Sox were done in by a slow start and rash of injuries neither of which were their skipper’s fault, but two-strike free passes were only a portion of the in-game La Russa decisions that fell under fire.

This was far, far from the years during which La Russa’s handle on matchups, on the thinkings of opposing managers, on handling a bullpen reasonably, made him a Hall of Fame skipper even with the aforesaid head-scratchers. The years that made him the third-winningest-ever major league manager and a four-time Manager of the Year winner.

Issues with his pacemaker finally took La Russa out of the game again at August’s end. But La Russa seems to know his day is done at last. (Formerly, he’d hoped to manage through the end of his contract at next season’s end.) His statement announcing his retirement isolates it:

Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses. In the major leagues, you either do or you don’t. Explanations come across as excuses. Respect and trust demand accountability, and during my managerial career, I understood that the ultimate responsibility for each minus belongs to the manager. I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.

As daring as it was for La Russa to come out of retirement for a final try, never mind that nobody in baseball but Reinsdorf clamoured for it, it’s admirable that he leaves holding himself to the very accountability he describes. We can think of times and places when it wasn’t so, of course. But maybe La Russa, too, isn’t quite too old to learn.

“Making [maternal fornicators] shut the [fornicate] up”

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson can only hope to shush the Yankee Stadium louts rounding third on a late Sunday three-run homer . . .

You think of the damnedest things at times, in the immediacy of controversy. When Tim Anderson checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth Sunday, in the second game of a Yankee Stadium doubleheader, his uniform number suddenly seemed very large and very, very vivid.

Seven. The number retired by the Yankees in honor of their Hall of Fame center fielder Mickey Mantle. A player whose off the charts performances and record were equaled only by his off the charts flaws as a man who finally told the world, as he battled cancer by way of a liver transplant, “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.”

Seven. Now on the back of the White Sox’s shortstop, a black man who declared three years ago that he wanted to be the Jackie Robinson of bringing and keeping fun in the actual playing of professional baseball, in front of a crowd that roots for the team whose third baseman didn’t know when what he called a joke wasn’t funny anymore.

By Josh Donaldson’s own admission he’d first needled Anderson by calling him “Jackie” shortly after that 2019 interview, and that Anderson and himself shared a laugh over it. By Donaldson’s further admission, he’d pulled the joke a few times since, right up to Saturday’s game. He said he intended nothing racial by it. Pardon the expression, he may be a minority of one.

The White Sox took the first game 3-1 Sunday and led 2-0 in the nightcap, on a pair of two-out RBI singles from Andrew Vaughn and Reese McGuire, when Anderson checked in against Yankee reliever Miguel Castro.

Every time Anderson batted Sunday the Yankee Stadium boo birds hammered him with boos and jeers, which you’d just about expect in any ballpark when a particular field or plate antagonist on the visiting team shows up and goes to the serious work of play. But Anderson was also hammered with more than a few noisy chants of “Jac-kie! Jac-kie!” during the twin bill.

Such is the lack of class for which particular fans are known to be particularly shameless. Yankee fans are no strangers to the loutish among them who would do such things as taunt an opposition pitcher during his pre-game warmups over his known battles with anxiety and depression. They may not love such louts among them, but they never seem in too big a hurry to thwart them, either.

That lout contingency would hardly reject a chance to hammer an opponent taunted by one of their own with a particularly nasty racial reference during a game the day before, a reference that led in due course to a sharp exchange of words behind the plate and the benches and bullpens clearing, with Anderson needing to be restrained from potentially tearing Donaldson apart.

Even Donaldson’s own manager demurred from defending his man entirely after Saturday’s incident. “I don’t believe there was any malicious intent in that regard,” began Aaron Boone. “But you know, this is—just in my opinion—somewhere he should not be going.”

Donaldson went 0-for-4 at the plate during the doubleheader’s opener, which the White Sox won after busting a one-all tie in the ninth inning thanks to A.J. Pollock sending one into the left field seats and Adam Engel sending Vaughn home with an RBI double. He sat out the nightcap, during which the Yankees could summon up a measly three hits to no avail against three White Sox pitchers.

Now, in the top of the nightcap eighth, with first and second, on 1-1, Castro threw a slider that hung up just enough for Anderson to drive it the other way into the right field seats for what proved the final 5-0 score.

A Yankee fan wearing the jersey of retired Yankee first baseman Mark Teixiera threw the ball back onto the field on a no-doubt line, perhaps blissfully unaware that Teixiera as a player (and now a broadcaster) had too much class to applaud such depths. Unlike the Toronto fan in Rogers Centre who handed an Aaron Judge home run ball to a young fan wearing a Judge jersey, this fan probably wouldn’t have shown that kind of character if there’d been an Anderson fan adjacent to him.

A young White Sox fan wearing a replica of the team’s mid-1980s game jersey snapped a photo with his cell phone as Anderson continued his travels around the bases. When Anderson stepped on the plate it was as though planting an exclamation point at the end of an emphatic sentence.

As he took a few steps toward the White Sox dugout, Anderson put his index finger to his lips as he looked toward the crowd, just as he had rounding third. He didn’t talk to reporters after the game but a hot microphone courtesy of the game’s broadcast aboard ESPN captured his no-doubt explanation: “Making [maternal fornicators]  shut the [fornicate] up.”

Anderson probably knows in his heart of hearts that it’s easier to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of the proverbial needle than to shut the worst of Yankee or any other fans the fornicate up. Not even the evidence that Donaldson hasn’t exactly been a friendly opponent to Anderson and other White Sox in the recent past would convince them otherwise.

“[I]n this clubhouse,” said White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendricks before Sunday’s doubleheader, “we have TA’s back in everything. It’s like having an inside joke with a guy you are a nemesis with, I guess you could say, but yeah, that’s not how it went down in this clubhouse and I don’t understand how, if [Donaldson] ever thought about [his “Jackie” taunt] like [a joke], it’s straight delusional.”

Anderson sent a message back on enemy territory in the best way possible. If only it could have been as joyous as the one he sent in the bottom of the ninth in last August’s Field of Dreams Game, against most of these same Yankees.

“The game’s never over,” Anderson said after that one. “And once [Yankee reliever Zack] Britton walked [White Sox catcher Seby Zavala], I knew there was a chance to start something real dope.”

That was then, this was Sunday. The hankering to know just what MLB’s reported investigation of the Saturday incidents determines heightens. But now Anderson finished something real dope under unwarranted provocation from a real dope.

On Anderson, Robinson, Donaldson, and jokes

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson has to be restrained by teammates including Jose Abreu, and plate umpire Nick Mahrley, after Josh Donaldson took what he calls a joke too far Saturday.

That’d teach him. Three years ago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson gave Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein an interview in which he likened himself to Jackie Robinson. Not as a race pioneer, but as the kind of pioneer looking to break down another barrier, the barrier against having plain fun and letting it show while you play baseball.

Anderson didn’t kid himself. He as much as said he didn’t and probably wouldn’t face the kind of obstacles Robinson faced. What he did say, in language as plain as the plays he makes at shortstop or the hits he nails at the plate, was that he didn’t care two figs what you thought of him having fun playing, you know, a game.

The impetus for the interview was his then-recent suspension for hollering an insult back at Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller, after Keller hit him on the rump roast with the first pitch, two innings after Anderson demolished a Keller pitch for a two-run homer, looked to his dugout, and nailed a delicious bat-flip as he proceeded up the first base line.

“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” Anderson told Apstein then. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game.” In other words, Anderson planned to have his fun while he played. Oh. The hor-ror.

“Anderson’s point is more nuanced than it might sound,” Apstein wrote.

Robinson remains an American hero, and Anderson will never face the Jim Crow horrors Robinson and the first generation of black major leaguers endured. Also, plenty of players, white and nonwhite alike, have had fun while playing the game.

But, as a rule, baseball does not encourage individualism. As other sports have evolved to showcase their stars’ personalities, the baseball old guard has held tight to its principles. Run out ground balls. Keep your mouth shut. Gently place your bat near home plate—a player should react to a home run just as he would react to the news that an acquaintance filed his taxes on time.

Yankee third baseman Josh Donaldson remembered Anderson’s “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson” only too well. On Saturday, the Yankees and the White Sox had a dustup on the field over it, a few innings after Anderson says Donaldson greeted him with an apparent “What’s up, Jackie?”

A few innings later, as Donaldson approached the plate with the Yankees up 6-3, White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal engaged him in a little chat. It didn’t look like anything drastic at first—from the outside. The next thing anyone knew, plate umpire Nick Mahrley was moving between the pair and the benches and bullpens emptied. With White Sox teammates moving Anderson back to the dugout before any serious damage could be done.

Nobody other than the immediate participants had any clue until White Sox manager Tony La Russa spoke to reporters following the 7-5 Yankee win. “He made a racist comment, Donaldson, and that’s all I’m gonna say,” La Russa said. It took Anderson himself to elaborate.

“He just made a disrespectful comment,” the shortstop said of Donaldson. “Basically was trying to call me Jackie Robinson, like ‘what’s up Jackie?’ I don’t play like that. I don’t really play at all. I wasn’t really gonna bother nobody today. But he made the comment, and it was disrespectful. I don’t think it was called for.”

Donaldson didn’t deny calling Anderson “Jackie,” but he did say the motive had nothing to do with race and everything to do with Anderson telling SI he felt like the Robinson of defunding baseball’s Fun Police.

“All right, so first inning I called him Jackie,” Donaldson told reporters post-game.

He’s gonna bring back fun to the game. [In] 2019 when I played for Atlanta, we actually joked about that on the game.

I don’t know what’s changed — and I’ve said it to him in year’s past. Not in any manner than just joking around for the fact that he called himself Jackie Robinson. If something has changed from that, my meaning of that — has not any term trying to be racist by any fact of the matter. It was just off of an interview of what he called himself.”

Donaldson may have lacked racial intent but his timing Saturday was a terrible look. “The very simple problem with Josh Donaldson calling Tim Anderson ‘Jackie’,” tweeted Business Insider writer Bradford William Davis, “is that he perverted honour into mockery.”

Could there have been those thinking Anderson, who’s normally as unpretentious as the morning sun, did likewise when he suggested himself as the Jackie Robinson of letting the kids play? Robinson broke barriers far more severe and grave than those between ballplayers letting joy in accomplishment show and ballplayers still artery-hardened enough to continue thinking you should play a game as though you’re wearing a three-piece suit in the board room.

And I for one have long tired of the hypocrisy saying one moment that you need to play professional baseball like a business but saying the next—as in, contract talks, free agency markets, or collective bargaining agreement skirmishes—that you need to remember you’re only playing a kids’ game, dammit.

Maybe Anderson was being just a little grandiose in 2019, while his heart was clearly enough in the right place. Maybe Donaldson chose the absolute wrong conversational weapon to send a message that baseball’s Fun Police aren’t about to be defunded without a fight.

Or, giving him the benefit of the doubt about the exchange he cited from 2019, maybe Donaldson doesn’t get that a joke has a finite shelf life. As in, immediately after he and Anderson laughed about it the first time. Cracking it three years past that expiration date doesn’t mean a laugh or a tension dissipator but a nasty cut to the heart and soul.

“This game went through a period in time where a lot of those comments were meant,” said Grandal post-game, after telling reporters they didn’t want him to tell them what he actually said to Donaldson behind the plate. “And I think we’re way past that. And it’s just unacceptable. I just thought it was a low blow and I want to make sure I’ve got my team’s back. There’s no way that you’re allowed to say something like that.”

Baseball government told Anderson with a suspension that there’s no way he’s allowed to call Keller, who’s white, “a weak-assed [N-word]” after he got drilled in 2019. Let’s see if baseball government tells Donaldson the same way that there’s no way he’s allowed to call a black player “Jackie” even as a joke, three years after the joke’s shelf life expired.

Smarts in Houston, suicide in Cleveland

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani took perfection into the sixth, where a bunt couldn’t do what a subsequent base hit did . . .

Shohei Ohtani didn’t just flirt with perfection Wednesday, he almost seduced it. A twelve-punchout performance on the mound; a two-run double to finish the first-inning carnage against Astros starter Jake Odorizzi; a perfect game broken with one out in the seventh. And his Angels in sole possession of the American League West’s penthouse. For now.

But right before Astros catcher Jason Castro fisted a base hit over second base into short center with one out in the Houston sixth, their own second baseman Niko Goodrum tried to break the would-be perfecto in a manner that usually brings the wrath of the Sacred Unwritten Rules chauvinists down upon the miscreant. On 0-1 leading the inning off, Goodrum tried to bunt an Ohtani slider up the third base line.

This time, the chauvinists didn’t rain acid down upon Goodrum. For one thing, the Angels put an overshift on against the lefthanded-hitting Goodrum. Just why the Angels thought a .133/.133/.200 slash line on the season to date required an overshift escapes for the moment.

But Goodrum did exactly the right thing receiving so much free, delicious real estate upon which to hit. His team down six, and knowing he wouldn’t be wasting an out with a bunt, Goodrum did absolutely nothing wrong sizing the scenario up and dropping a bunt toward that free territory—except the ball bounding over the chalk into foul territory halfway up the third base line.

Which was the spot to where Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon ran from his positioning adjacent to second base and grabbed the ball just in case, with Ohtani also bounding over from the mound. Back on the mound, Ohtani and Goodrum wrestled to a 2-2 count before Goodrum swung and missed at a nasty curve ball hitting the outer edge of the zone.

Maybe if Goodrum had pushed a successful bunt up the line and landed on first base practically on the house, the SUR chauvinists would have gone nuclear. Maybe. It’s become a little more acceptable according to the SURs to drop a bunt if the other guys are silly enough to think an overshift is a good way to keep a batter below the proverbial Mendoza Line from breaking it up the old fashioned way.

Come to think of it, Ohtani himself put on a demonstration of one of the only other times it’s wise to bunt—if you think you can get a base hit out of it without a full shift against you. With one out and nobody on in the Angels’ sixth, against Astros reliever Cristian Javier, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani faced a slight overshift, slight enough to move Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to a more standard shortstop positioning but still leaving him room to move if he wanted to drop one.

On 1-2 Ohtani chopped a beauty toward the third base side of the mound and blasted out of the box. Javier pounced as best he could but he threw a rising sailer over and past the upstretched mitt of leaping Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an exercise in futility, considering Ohtani would have beaten a cleaner throw by about a step on the play, and considering the Angels stranded him on first for the inning.

Goodrum and Javier have a teammate who understands, ahem, perfectly about perfecto-breaking bunts. Justin Verlander had it happen to him, while still pitching for the Tigers on 21 June 2017. He took a perfect game bid against the Mariners into the sixth, with the Tigers up 4-0 to that point.

With one out, Seattle’s swift center fielder Jarrod Dyson squared, bunted one between the mound and first base, and ran himself into a base hit. Unlike Goodrum’s attempt Wednesday, Dyson’s successful bunt that day kicked off a three-run Mariners inning that pushed Verlander out of the game. It also preceded a four-run Mariners seventh at the expenses of Tigers relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson.

That was the part that roiled Verlander far more than any perfecto-breaking bunt ever could. “It was a perfect bunt,” Verlander said of Dyson. “That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”

Goodrum played smart baseball, even if his bunt bid bounded foul before he finally struck out swinging. Even if the Angels finished what they started, a 6-0 shutout to take two of three from the Astros in Houston after losing three of four at Angel Stadium to open the season. At least neither manager, Dusty Baker (Astros) nor Joe Maddon (Angels), fell asleep at the proverbial switch Wednesday.

Dallas Keuchel

. . . but Keuchel looks to be praying for mercy amidst an unconscionable nine-run second/ten-run total beating before he was lifted too little/too late.

That dishonour belonged to White Sox manager Tony La Russa in Cleveland earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader. Despite a well-enough rested bullpen thanks to a week-opening pair of rainouts, a pen that hadn’t exactly been overworked in a preceding set against the Rays, either, La Russa inexplicably left his veteran starter Dallas Keuchel in to take an early ten-run beating on a day Keuchel’s stuff didn’t exist from the outset.

Keuchel had enough trouble trying to shake off a first inning during which a pair of White Sox defensive miscues helped cost him a run before he surrendered a hit. He never got out of the second alive: a leadoff throwing error; four straight singles two of which pushed runs home with the bases loaded; a grand slam; three straight singles more, a wild pitch advancing the first of those Guardians to second and the third sending another run home; a run-scoring ground ball turned into another White Sox error; and yet another RBI single.

Finally, La Russa got Keuchel out of there and brought in Tanner Banks. He got a prompt step-and-throw double play at first and a ground out right back to the box for the side.

Joe and Jane Fan can bleat all they want, as one or two I saw aboard social media did, that sometimes you just have to take one for the team, sometimes you just have to try to  “save” your bullpen even if it means getting murdered, and it’s just one April loss against a long season to come, and the goal is to win two of three, innit?

“I’m 100% certain LaRussa knew Keuchel didn’t have it,” said one such fan, in fact. “Sometimes the decision to leave guys in or take them out is more about 162 games than 1 game. As is the case here. He was hoping Keuchel could survive that inning and make it thru an inning or two more.”

A Hall of Fame manager, even coming out of retirement for one more turn, knows he should be thinking of every game until or unless his team is eliminated mathematically from a pennant race. He should know well enough when his starter doesn’t have it. Knowing that, and knowing he had a reasonably rested bullpen, just how does a conscientious manager not get that poor starter the hell out of there before the game goes from a small leak to a flood?

Keuchel came into the game throwing little more than meatballs and matzo balls as it was, before Jose Ramirez—the Guardians third baseman flush with a yummy new contract extension—stood in in that second inning with the bases loaded, three Guard runs in, nobody out yet, and sent a hanging 1-1 cutter over the left field fence.

If La Russa “knew” Keuchel didn’t have it before that, it shouldn’t have been allowed to go there in the first place. Especially if he was going to go to Banks to clean up the mess. Banks hadn’t pitched since the previous Sunday. He also hadn’t surrendered an earned run in his three previous relief gigs. And what did he do when La Russa brought him in?

After getting that step-and-throw double play to end the second inning before the Guards could have made the case against their human rights violations any worse, Banks threw three more hitless, shutout innings, before Matt Foster and Anderson Severino finished with only one further Guards run to come—when Steven Kwan singled Myles Straw home off Severino in the ninth.

There was a time when La Russa would never have let a game get that far out of hand that soon if his starter didn’t have it going in. That’s part of how La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings in the first place. “The manager didn’t get them ready to play,” La Russa said of his team after that blowout loss, and before the White Sox lost the nightcap, 2-1. “I take the heat for that.”

Lucky for him and them that there is still a long season to play yet.

Pete Ward, RIP: The un-cover boy

Pete Ward

Pete Ward hoists the Sports Illustrated cover on which he would have appeared if not for some guy named Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Trivia time: Name the only major league third baseman who ever got knocked out by Muhammad Ali. The answer: Pete Ward. With a real phantom punch.

No, Ward wasn’t foolish enough to step into the ring against Ali. Ward was supposed to be a 1965 cover star when Sports Illustrated planned a cover story on the White Sox’s pennant hopes. Until he wasn’t.

“They just got the pictures there in time to do it,” said Ward—who died at 84 on 16 March—to interviewer Mark Liptak in 2003. “Sports Illustrated did send me some of the covers that were supposed to have me on it though.”

Ali-Liston II put paid to that idea. Ward eventually kept one of the covers’ prints in his office at his post-baseball travel agency, signing another and giving it to the magazine’s vice president for communications, Art Berke.

When a story about Ward’s death was posted to a Facebook baseball group, one commenter made a remark about “nobodies” being hoisted. Well, now. A guy who finishes a tight second to a White Sox teammate in the 1963 American League Rookie of the Year voting is many things. A nobody isn’t one of them.

Ward was a slick third baseman who was actually worth more wins above replacement level than the infielder who bagged the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year award—a kid named Pete Rose. (Ward: 4.1; Rose: 2.4.) If only his teammate Gary Peters hadn’t led the American League with his 2.33 ERA that season.

If it hadn’t been for an April 1965 auto accident that left him with neck and back trouble, Ward might have put up better than a nine-season playing career otherwise. Over his first two full seasons, Ward averaged 33 doubles, five triples, 24 home runs, and a .478 slugging percentage; over his final six: eighteen, two, thirteen, and .364.

The accident that changed the trajectory of Ward’s career happened after the White Sox returned to Chicago following a rainout in Washington. As Ward told Liptak, he managed to score tickets for a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game for himself and pitching teammate Tommy John. It was after the game that the accident occurred:

[A]s we were leaving, I was in the front seat on the right side and Tommy was in the back seat on the left when a car rear-ended us. At the time I didn’t think that much about it, it wasn’t really that hard of a hit but the next day I woke up with a stiff neck and was sore all over. I went to see a doctor and he told me I had a case of whiplash and it bothered me the rest of the year. It just caused a lot of problems for me. Tommy also had neck problems.

As Ward told SI in due course, “I was never comfortable from that point on.” More than his batting numbers bear him out. He’d been worth eighteen defensive runs above his league average in 1964; he remained a plus defender at third in 1965 but he was worth eight such runs above league average for that season. He divided defensive time between the outfield, third base, and first base the rest of his career.

“I preferred third base,” Ward told Liptak, laughing, “because I was a bad outfielder!”

Pete Ward

As a boy, your chronicler usually opened packs to find several Pete Ward baseball cards a year during Ward’s White Sox years; this was Ward’s 1968 card.

Chicagolander though I wasn’t, I’d had a particular affinity for Ward when I was growing up in the 1960s. It seemed that his baseball cards were almost ubiquitous; I could guarantee that out of my first three packs of Topps cards on the year, there’d be at least one and maybe three Ward cards among the bunch.

Ward was an Orioles discovery with a 1962 cup of coffee for Baltimore, before he was traded to the White Sox prior to spring training 1963. Quite a trade. The White Sox sent the Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio and veteran outfielder Al Smith; the Orioles sent Ward, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen (the American League’s 1960 Rookie of the Year), and spare outfielder Dave Nicholson.

In his memoir Safe By a Mile, then-White Sox scout/coach Charlie Metro remembered pushing then-White Sox manager Al Lopez that Ward be included or there’d be no deal:

I insisted on Pete Ward coming over to the White Sox in a deal with Baltimore because I had worked with Pete out in Vancouver. He was a pretty good hitter. He was very aggressive. He loved to play, quite a cocky kid. When the White Sox had a chance to make the trade, I said, ‘Make them throw Pete Ward in the deal. He can play, he can hit.’ Al Lopez said, ‘Well, what kind of fielder is he?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not too good a fielder, but if you hit him a thousand ground balls at third base, he’ll do pretty fair. But he can hit, and he can drive in runs and has some power. Don’t make the deal unless you get Pete Ward.

Ward’s White Sox life ended when he was dealt to the Yankees in December 1969. Then in the middle of their Lost Decade (1965-75), the Yankees got only a shell of Ward’s former ability and released him in March 1971. But they respected Ward’s baseball mind enough to make him the manager of their Fort Lauderdale (A) farm team; he managed them to the league championship in 1974.

Ward managed two other Yankee farm teams, plus a White Sox farm team, before he left baseball to work for Miller Brewing before he opened his own successful travel agency in the Pacific Northwest, to which his family had originally moved during his childhood. The Montreal native—and son of 1935 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Maroons right wing Jimmy Ward—was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Known as much for a good sense of humour as anything else, Ward proved sanguine about his missed SI cover. “You know,” he said to SI writer Richard Deitsch at the turn of the century, “Ali was on something like forty covers. It would have been nice if he could have let me be on just one.”

God willing, Ward met Ali in the Elysian Fields and said, “You knocked Liston out with your fist, but you knocked me out with a phantom punch!” Ward’s otherwise bereft wife, children, and grandchildren surely settle proudly for knowing Ward was always their cover guy.