The former Dark Knight, retiring with grace

Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey, young, a Met, and a Dark Knight.

Few baseball surges of the 2010s were as electrifying as Matt Harvey’s. Few baseball shrinkages were almost that electrifying. And, after a few years of trying and getting not even close to back to where he once belonged, Harvey elected to call it a career Friday.

The former Dark Knight, who’d provoked Mets fans to declare “Happy Harvey Day!” on the days he started, announced his retirement on Instagram. “With all the amazing memories came a lot of injuries and tough times,” the 34-year-old righthander wrote.

The realization that those amazingly powerful moments that make me thrive as a pitcher and help my teammates and city win are no longer possible. Believe me I wish I could have done more and brought more of those amazing moments back to life. I have to say this is my time to say thank you, and goodbye.

Asking Harvey to retire with no regrets would be asking him to be superhuman. That’s an ask he can’t possibly satisfy. He’d tried that earlier and too often in his career, on the mound and off it, and he nearly fried himself alive trying.

In the Show, Harvey was last seen trying a comeback with the Orioles two years ago. He started with three shutout innings followed by a dicey fourth in his first Oriole start. He went on to post for the season a modest 4.60 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate, a ghastly 6.27 earned run average, a 2.57 strikeout-to-walk rate, a 1.54 walks/hits-per-inning pitched rate (WHIP), and was hittable for 11.3 hits per nine innings.

That was double the transcontinental distance from his staggering second Mets season, 2013, when he led the Show with a 2.01 FIP, posting an 0.97 WHIP and a 6.16 K/BB rate, good enough to finish fourth in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Those were the days when Harvey embraced New York and its white-hot heat as ardently as the city embraced him. “To the fans, most importantly the NY Mets fans: you made a dream come true for me,” he wrote in his retirement post. “A dream I never could have thought to be true. Who would have thought a kid from Mystic, [Connecticut] would be able to play in the greatest city in the world, his hometown. You are forever embedded in my heart.”

He’s had worse than that embedded in his heart. Harvey’s early ability to pitch like an executioner on the mound was equaled only by his ability to find and dwell among the demimonde as though it had his name on it.

He electrified the country when he started the 2013 All-Star Game and—having to shake off a leadoff double from future Hall of Famer Mike Trout followed by hitting Robinson Canó with a pitch—struck three out in two innings’ work and surrendering not a single run. (The American League went on to win, 3-0.)

He missed 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he electrified the country further when he all but ordered his manager Terry Collins to leave him in to pitch the ninth in Game Five of the 2015 World Series.

Uh-oh. Collins went with Harvey’s heart while misreading his fuel tank. He walked Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain to open, then surrendered Eric Hosmer’s RBI double. Then Collins lifted him for Jeurys Familia. Two ground outs, one of which provoked Hosmer’s daring dash home while Mets first baseman Lucas Duda threw what should have been an easy double play ball offline to the plate (Hosmer would have been dead on arrival if the throw was accurate), tied a game the Royals won with a five-run twelfth as the rest of the Mets bullpen lost its wheels.

The Royals had bypassed Harvey in the 2010 draft. The guy they took instead, infielder Christian Colón, sent what proved the Series-winning run home. “I still have nightmares over that,” Harvey would tell the New York Post about the game. “One thing I’m most angry about is not getting it done.”

He’d have better reason to be angry the following season: he was hit with thoracic outlet syndrome in July 2016 and gone for the season. And, never again the same pitcher. TOS occurs when blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and your first rib compress. That causes shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness.

“I had TOS,” Harvey’s former fellow Mets pitcher Dillon Gee once said. “I know how much that sucks. It definitely changes you. You start trying to tinker with things. It’s not natural anymore. You start being robot-ish. You start not trying to hurt one area and totally hurt another area. Your whole body is out of whack.”

Harvey’s body wasn’t the only thing going out of whack. Between TOS and a 2017 season interrupted nastily by another shoulder injury, Harvey melted down almost completely. The mound no longer elevated him; the city’s bright lights and demimonde no longer seemed to comfort him entirely.

Very publicly, he found himself dropped by a Brazilian supermodel with whom he thought a real romance was seeded—until she elected to return to her former beau, an NFL wide receiver, leaving a glittering party with the man. That was the night before he showed up late for a game against the Marlins claiming a migraine that was translated to mean a hangover.

Harvry had had such a big-timing attitude prior that now, when he needed empathy, aid, and comfort most, he had none. A year later, after refusing to try it out of the bullpen, perhaps out of stubborn lingering pride, Harvey’s days as a Met ended in a trade to the Reds. “Besides life on his fastball and bite on his slider, you know what was missing with Matt Harvey?” asked Joel Sherman of the New York Post after the deal. The answer:

Compassion. There was no empathy from a teammate or member of management for Harvey’s plight. They wanted him to rebound and do well, but that was about the team and their own selfish desire for success.

Matt Harvey

Humbled, Harvey pitched respectably for the Reds following his trade from the Mets. But he couldn’t reimagine his form successfully in stops at Anaheim, the Oakland system, Kansas City and Baltimore (above). 

Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated writer who first handed Harvey the Dark Knight nickname (picking up on Harvey’s boyhood love of Batman), advised one and all that Harvey’s taste for New York’s night life wasn’t the reason he’d collapsed on the mound. “The truth is, for all the times he wound up in the tabloids other than the sports section, Harvey failed because his arm failed him,” Verducci began.

. . . His arm likely failed him because of how he threw a baseball. And when his arm failed him, he knew no other way. He couldn’t pitch without an A-plus fastball, he couldn’t embrace using a bullpen role as a way back, and he couldn’t believe in himself again.

. . . The Mets cut Harvey because his once-fearsome fastball became the almost exact definition of a mediocre fastball (MLB averages: 92.7 mph, 2,261 rpm). Because he couldn’t find another way to get hitters out, because he could not change his mechanics and because he could not buy into the bullpen, the Mets could not keep sending [him] out to the mound as a starter.

The decline in his stuff was obvious. And there was no way his fastball was coming back with the way he throws.

As a Red, Harvey finished his walk year into free agency with a respectable if unspectacular enough performance that the Angels were willing to take an $11 million flyer on him for 2019. He lasted long enough to be designated for assignment that July. The Athletics signed him but he never saw Show action. The Royals took a chance on him for pan-damn-ically shortened 2020.

A free agent again, the Orioles took a chance on Harvey for 2021. He re-signed with the organisation for 2022 but he spent the season at three minor league levels around a sixty-day suspension after testifying in the Eric Kay trial that he’d used painkillers provided by Kay while with the Angels.

Kay was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison, having been the man who provided the drugs that killed popular Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. On the stand, Harvey admitted he’d given Skaggs (who was likely addicted to painkillers following early-career Tommy John surgery and subsequent other injuries), a few Percocets, perhaps unaware of the depth of Skaggs’s addiction. He didn’t shrink from it, he didn’t try to excuse it.

Harvey pitched in this year’s World Baseball Classic—for Italy, posting a 1.29 ERA in two starts before Team Italy lost to Japan and eventual WBC most valuable player Shohei Ohtani in the quarterfinals. It tempted him to try one more major league comeback. But it was just a temptation. Maybe the most important temptation Harvey resisted. He got to leave the mound permanently on a very high plane, at any level.

(For the record, his Team Italy manager, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, saluted Harvey upon his retirement announcement: “Look forward to teeing it up with you man..I want to Thank You for your awesome effort in the @WBCBaseball, You’re a warrior on the bump.”)

Back in 2020, he offered the Post something few who knew him as a Met might have accused him of having: introspection. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently,” he began, “but I don’t like to live with regret.”

There were just things I didn’t know at the time. Now, obviously, I’ve struggled the last few years. And what I know now is how much time and effort it takes to stay at the top of your game. I wouldn’t say my work ethic was bad whatsoever, but when you’re young, it’s not like you feel invincible, but when everything is going so well, you don’t know what it takes to stay on the field. It’s definitely more time consuming and takes more concentration.

Too many sports party boys don’t learn until their sports say goodbye to them first. Harvey learned soon enough, if sadly enough, that the party doesn’t always end on your terms. The Dark Knight who crashed and burned off the mound while his body betrayed him on it became something far more important before he retired: a man.

Rolen rolls into Cooperstown at last

Scott Rolen

A big enough bat at the plate . . .

When Scott Rolen was in his absolute prime, Sports Illustrated said of him, among other things, that he “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” When he was with the Cardinals following his somewhat unfairly contentious departure from Philadelphia, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked where Rolen ranked among his era’s third basemen, then answered: the best at the moment.

Rolen’s overdue election to the Hall of Fame Tuesday still inspired carping enough among the philistines who think it was just another case of defining the Hall down. Maybe he wasn’t charismatic. He certainly wasn’t the cheerleading or the self-promoting type. But he was just as SI‘s Tom Verducci described him in 2004, “a no-nonsense star who does it all.”

That’s practically what they said about legendary Tigers second baseman and Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, too. He was so no-nonsense he was nicknamed the Mechanical Man. Rolen was many things at the plate and in the field. Merely mechanical wasn’t among them.

“Rolen played with an all-out intensity,” wrote The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield . . . and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25–30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.”

This son of Indiana schoolteachers did little more than let his preparation and his play do most of his talking. It’s worth repeating further that he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed, a play faltered, or a game was lost. He played to win, but he lived what most confer lip service upon: let’s get ’em tomorrow. I say it again: if Rolen was a fighter pilot, he’d have earned a reputation as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff.

He has the numbers to support it, too, at the plate and in the field, where he knew what he was doing with a bat in his hand and didn’t sacrifice his body at third base or on the bases for naught. Once, he dropped into a slide into second base that wasn’t aggressive or out of line but so forceful that he flipped Royals second baseman Tony Graffanino and knocked shortstop Gerónimo Berroa down. Observed Verducci, “[It was] like a bowling ball picking up a 2-5 combination for the spare.”

“Berroa had this look on his face,” said Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris to Verducci, “like, I didn’t even hear the train whistle!”

First, let’s review Rolen one more time according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. This table shows where he stands among all Hall of Fame third basemen who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

Mike Schmidt 10062 4404 1507 201 108 79 .626
Chipper Jones 10614 4755 1512 177 97 18 .618
Eddie Mathews 10100 4349 1444 142 58 26 .596
Scott Rolen 8518 3628 899 57 93 127 .564
George Brett 11625 5044 1096 229 120 33 .561
Ron Santo 9397 3779 1108 94 94 38 .544
Wade Boggs 10740 4064 1412 180 96 23 .538
Paul Molitor 12167 4854 1094 100 109 47 .510
Brooks Robinson 11782 4270 860 120 114 53 .458
HOF AVG .557

You see it right. RBA has Rolen as the number-four offensive third baseman of the group and seven points ahead of the average RBA for such Hall third basemen. You can do an awful lot worse than to say you weren’t quite as great a batter as Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, and Eddie Mathews. But you can’t exactly carp when you shook out slightly better at the plate than George Brett, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Brooks Robinson.

Scott Rolen

. . . and an Electrolux at third base.

Now, let’s put Rolen at third base. Only one of those Hall of Famers has more defensive runs above his league average than Rolen does (+140) above his—Robinson (+293). And, only two of them join him among the top 24—Schmidt (+129) and Boggs (+95). The eye test told you that Rolen was willing to throw himself under a train to make a play at third. It also told you what the meds confirmed in due course, that injuries were going to grind him into a harsh decline phase, as happened after his last solid St. Louis season.

“[He’s] the perfect baseball player,” then-Brewers manager Ned Yost said of him not long after he reached the Cardinals in the first place. “It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

Maybe the Phillies should have had Yost to lean upon instead of Larry Bowa (manager) and Dallas Green (advisor) during Rolen’s first six-and-a-half major league seasons. Green especially dismissed him in 2001 as “satisfied with being a so-so player. He’s not a great player. In his mind, he probably thinks he’s doing OK, but the fans in Philadelphia know otherwise. I think he can be greater, but his personality won’t let him.”

That was at a point when Rolen struggled at the plate though he was making plenty of plays at third base. Rolen finished that season with a splendid enough .876 OPS and the second of his eight Gold Gloves. His personality won’t let him. Again, the misinterpretation of Rolen’s even strain as indifference.

Call it a classic case of not knowing what you had until he and you were both gone, but Bowa offered a far different assessment upon Rolen’s Cooperstown election. “To be honest with you,” Bowa told MLB-TV, “I thought he should have gotten in a few years ago. I was very happy for him.”

This guy is the ultimate professional, played the game the right way. As a manager, as a coach, you looked at guys like that, very few mental mistakes, always on top of his game. Played the game as hard as you could play for nine innings. There was really nothing Scott couldn’t do on the baseball field. He was a hitting machine, he drove in runs, hit lots of doubles, unbelievable third baseman. He had a tremendous pair of hands, a great arm. If he didn’t play a game, it was because he had an injury or something like that. This guy posted every day. His work ethic, off the charts. This guy was a tremendous baseball player.

That’s the manager who ripped Rolen a few new ones and demanded then-Phillies GM Ed Wade trade him, after Rolen called out the Phillies’ penny-pinching anticipating the arrival of Citizens Bank Park. “Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them,” Rolen told then-ESPN writer Jayson Stark. “I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium, for the sun to shine.”

In St. Louis, Rolen found a home and three postseason trips including a World Series ring, yet he ran afoul of manager Tony La Russa, who soured on him for—the horror!—injuries he incurred during honest competition on the field. Then-GM John Mozeliak eventually traded him to the Blue Jays, a deal Mozeliak came to regret by his own admission.

When former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty landed in Cincinnati and discovered Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he didn’t hesitate to wrest him from the Jays onto the Reds. He helped those Reds to a couple of postseasons while he was at it—even after a brain-scrambling concussion and lower back issues.

If you should happen to be traveling through Smithville, Indiana, you may come upon a facility known as Camp Emma Lou. It’s a retreat built by the Enis Furley Foundation, created by Rolen and his wife Niki in 1999, aimed at children and their families struggling with illness, hardship, and other issues and giving them expenses-paid weekend retreats. The foundation and the camp are named for two of Rolen’s dogs.

That’s also the current Indiana University director of baseball player development, who got the call from the Hall and granted a request from his son immediately following a call to his parents with the news. “[I]t’s about thirty degrees here, supposed to snow twelve inches,” he told a reporter, “but there we were, about fifteen minutes after the call, in the driveway having a catch. I’ll remember that forever.”

It’s not every son who gets to have a catch with a freshly-minted Hall of Fame father.

Enough, already

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, shown before a Reds game in Great American Ballpark in 2018. His letter to commissioner Rob Manfred should receive a single-word answer.

Last Friday, TMZ revealed Pete Rose sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred four days earlier. Just how TMZ obtained the letter is open to speculation. Some might suspect someone in Manfred’s office leaked it; some might suspect Rose himself. Neither suspicion is implausible.

If you’re inclined toward charitable thought, Rose’s letter is a letter of apology, an acknowledgement of accountability, a plea for forgiveness from a man who’s been punished enough via the opprobrium he still receives as baseball’s most prominent exile.

But if you temper charity with realism, it’s yet another example of what The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal describes as words ringing hollow from a man who can’t get out of his own way. A man who still doesn’t get it. A man whose most stubborn remaining partisans still don’t get it, either.

“[F]or Rose,” Rosenthal writes, “untrustworthy behaviour is nothing new.

He spent the first fourteen years of his ban denying that he bet on baseball, including in his 1989 autobiography, Pete Rose: My Story. He served five months in prison in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. A secret meeting in Milwaukee with former commissioner Bud Selig in 2002, during which he admitted betting on baseball as a manager for the first time, also apparently went awry. News of the meeting leaked, and Rose promptly followed it with an appearance at a sports book in Las Vegas.

Two years later, Rose released a second autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, as the Hall of Fame prepared to induct two new members, Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Rose said the timing wasn’t his fault. Nothing is ever his fault . . .

For all Manfred knows, he could reinstate Rose and then be subjected to some other bombshell. Rose has admitted to betting on baseball only after his playing career ended. But in June 2015, ESPN obtained copies of betting records from 1986 that provided the first written corroboration Rose had gambled on games as the Reds’ player-manager. It’s always something.

In August, the proof that it’s always something reared grotesquely enough after Manfred agreed to allow Rose to take part in the Phillies’ commemoration of their 1980 World Series title. Rose made it far less about that 1980 team and far more about himself.

It took nothing more than Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey doing nothing worse than her job, asking Rose whether his presence—considering that only the statute of limitations kept him from facing consequences over an early-1970s extramarital affair with a teenage girl—thus sent a negative message to women. Saying he wasn’t at Citizens Bank Park to talk about that, Rose added, “It was 55 years ago, babe.”

“Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey,” I wrote then. “Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.”

That’s the Rose effect. He makes it all about him. In the same moment, he can and often does make it impossible to look for what he insisted to Manfred should be sought and kept under full focus.

That’s the man who hired on as a baseball predictions analyst for online sports betting site UpickTrade last year and told a presser, “For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989. That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.” (Suspended?)

Until he is, that is. “Despite my many mistakes,” Rose wrote to Manfred now, “I am so proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player—I am the Hit King and it is my dream to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Like all of us, I believe in accountability. I am 81 years old and know that I have been held accountable and that I hold myself accountable. I write now to ask for another chance.”

A man who hung around as a player above and beyond his actual shelf life on behalf of the self-elevating pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record is only slightly more hubristic than the teams enabling him to do it regardless of his actual on-field value. The publicity factor overrode the honest competition factor often enough then and still does, often enough.

Hubris often leads to tunnel vision. It did for Rose. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that he could have retired right after that 1980 Phillies world championship with a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame case even if it meant falling short of Cobb by about 632 hits. There were people (including Rose himself, sometimes) who believed he had some preternatural entitlement to pass Cobb despite his actual playing value.

Rose’s wins above replacement-level [WAR] from his rookie 1963 in Cincinnati to his 1983 World Series ring with Philadelphia: 80.4. Rose’s WAR from 1981-86, when he finally surrendered to Father Time and took himself out of the Reds lineup to stay: -0.8.*

Rose being a Hit King shouldn’t make a single bit of difference to Manfred. Not now, not ever. Rose’s pride in his playing accomplishments shouldn’t make a single bit of difference. Nor, for that matter, should any of MLB’s promotional deals with this or that online legal gambling operation. (Don’t go there, Roseophiles: Gambling isn’t the only legal activity for which your employers can discipline or fire you for indulging on the job. Just ask anyone who ever lost a job for showing up high as a kite, wired up the kazoo, or bombed out of his or her trees.)

There’s only one thing Manfred should consider. It’s called Rule 21(d). The rule against betting on baseball. The rule that makes no distinction between whether you bet on or against your team. The rule that calls for permanent, not “lifetime” banishment. The rule that prompted the Hall of Fame itself—faced with the prospect of Rose’s election despite its mandated punishment—to enact its own rule barring those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list from standing for election on any Hall ballot.

Rose “can continue pleading to Manfred, appealing to public sympathy. But Rose, to borrow a term from horse racing, one of his favorite sports, is getting left at the gate,” Rosenthal writes. “His race for Cooperstown remains permanently stalled, and it’s no one’s fault but his own.”

Accordingly, the commissioner’s sole answer to Rose now and forever should be, “No.” As for any and everyone else, the answer now and forever should be, but probably won’t be, Enough, already.


* By contrast, Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. pulled up on the positive side of the WAR ledger when they broke revered career records. Aaron, the year he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record: 2.1. Ryan, the year he broke Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record: 2.6. Ripken, the year he broke Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak: 3.9.

Come to think of it, when Ryan threw a bullet past Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to record lifetime strikeout number 5,000—with then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in the ballpark itching to pump his fist celebrating the milestone—he was having an All-Star caliber 5.1 WAR season in the bargain.

Ryan, of course, was an outlier even among outliers, a point forgotten often enough and conveniently enough by the ill-informed who insist on comparing pitchers since to him and wondering why simply no one has his one-of-a-kind endurance. 

Some dream

Ken Griffey, Jr.; Ken Griffey, Sr.

The Griffeys—Hall of Fame outfielder Ken, Jr., respected outfielder Ken, Sr. (right)–after entering through the corn, slip their gloves on for a father-son catch.

Maybe the best part of this year’s Field of Dreams Game was what happened before the game was played. Two generations of outfield-playing Griffeys, Ken Sr. and Hall of Famer Ken Jr., both Reds once upon a time, entered the field through the corn when Junior looked at Senior and said, only partly puckishly, “Hey, Dad, you want to have a catch?”

Dad did. Father and son tossed a ball back and forth in the outfield, joined soon enough by other such parents and children playing catch from center to right field. And, by Reds manager David Bell, himself a third-generation Show player, with Athletic writer C. Trent Rosecrans, a longtime Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Rosecrans’s father once longed for a certain nine-dollar baseball glove growing up and finally got it by saving for it. The glove was a model for Bell’s grandfather, 1950s Reds All-Star outfielder Gus Bell. It went in due course to someone else, Rosecrans writes in a lyrical ballad about his own relationship with his late father, but it found its way back to his parents in due course.

In Dyersville, Iowa before Thursday’s game, Rosecrans writes, “Gus’ grandson looked at me and told me he was thinking of me and my dad. I told him I brought my glove. He asked me, ‘Want to have a catch?'”

That was far better to ponder than such doings as commissioner Rob Manfred present, accounted for, and even signing autographs at the fabled field. Or enough of the Twittersphere demanding to know why Pete Rose wasn’t invited for the pregame hoop-de-do. You’d have had a hard time pondering which would have been more absurd.

It could have been Rose’s presence in the immediate wake of his disgraceful dismissal of a Philadelphia reporter’s question about his ancient dalliance as a thirtysomething with a short-of-legal-age girl. Not to mention his well-deserved banishment from the game and from Hall of Fame candidacy for violating the rule written and imposed in the wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal tainting that year’s Reds’ Series triumph.

It could have been Manfred, whose love of the game is questioned often enough and with justification enough. Bleacher Nation on Twitter asked respondents, “Fox shows Rob Manfred signing baseball at the Field of Dreams Game. What is he writing as his personalised message? Wrong answers only.” One wag, mindful that Rose’s autographed baseballs often include small gag apologies such as “I’m sorry I shot J.F.K.,” replied, “I’m sorry I shot R.F.K.”

Manfred seems to have done everything except think about the one thing tied to the game that would have made him seem a baseball statesman. Apparently, it never crossed his mind to declare, once and for all, that the 1919 Reds were (are) legitimate World Series champions who could have and just might have beaten the Black Sox if the latter had played the entire set straight, no chaser.

Assorted Reds and Cubs past and present took in the locale, its history, and the penultimate message of the film lending the event its name. (The Cubs’ Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins threw a ceremonial first pitch to the Reds’ Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.) Particularly Reds star Joey Votto, remembering to Rosecrans how the film bonded him to his father even further.

“I wish he was here,” Votto said. “I wish I could bring him to tonight’s game, we go out on the field and do something that we did from when I was eight or nine years old. It’s really eerie how much the movie allowed me to look back on that experience.”

If you build it, he will come, whispered the Voice of the late Ray Liotta’s disgraced-turned-romanticised Shoeless Joe Jackson to Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella in the 1989 film. They built it. (Actually, Chris Krug, once a Cubs catcher, built the original, with his Athletic Turf outfit.) But it cost a minimum $501 to be there Thursday. Fans in Iowa and some surrounding areas who couldn’t come couldn’t see the game at all, either, thanks to baseball’s arcane and insane broadcast blackout rules. Some dreams.

Putting the Reds into replicas of their 1919 uniforms should have been cathartic considering the 1919 Reds’ Series triumph was tainted too long by the disgrace of the Black Sox bent on throwing the Series for gamblers’ payoffs. Unfortunately, the catharsis wasn’t to be thanks to what the Reds couldn’t do Thursday evening.

Putting the Cubs into replicas of their 1914 hats and late-1920s uniforms, a mismatch not unlike many a Cub loss from 1909 through 2015, said little more than “That’s just so Cubs” before the game began. So, naturally, they went out and beat the Reds, 4-2. Only the Cubs could display a fashion fail and win regardless.

That was a century plus three years ago: Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte hit Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with Game One’s second pitch to let the gamblers know the Series fix was on. This was Thursday, opening the Field of Dreamers Game: Reds starter Nick Lodolo got two quick enough outs before hitting Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom with the fourth pitch on a 1-2 count.

That’d teach him. Neither this year’s Reds nor this year’s Cubs are going to finish the season anyplace near the postseason. But after Wisdom took his base, the Cubs behaved like contenders for a change. Seiya Suzuki whacked an 0-1 pitch to the rear of left field to send Wisdom home, Nico Hoerner singled to more shallow left and took second as the Reds tried futilely to keep Suzuki from scoring, Ian Happ doubled to center to send Hoerner home, and just like that the Cubs had a 3-0 lead that proved just enough to count.

Cubs starter Drew Smyly could have seen and raised when he plunked Reds second baseman Jonathan India on a 2-1 pitch. Instead, he like India shook it off, survived a one-out base hit, then consummated five innings of four-hit, nine-strikeout ball before handing off to his bullpen

“The first couple of innings,” Smyly told reporters after the game, “it took me a little bit to kind of get into, like catch my sights. Just a whole different feel than pitching in your usual major league baseball stadium. But I caught a little groove there at the end and that’s just a lot of fun. It just was so unique and different than what we’re used to.”

These days winning is unique and different for a Cubs team stripped of almost all the last remnants of their 2016 World Series conquest. They may be in third place in the National League Central but they have a 46-65 record after Thursday’s win. The Reds are in the division’s rock bottom at 44-67 with the fans they have left still smarting over last winter’s before-and-after-the-lockout final tear-down.

This game didn’t have a fragment of the pennant race significance last year’s Field of Dreams Game—with the White Sox’s Tim Anderson winning an 8-7 triumph over the Yankees with a bottom of the ninth home run into the corn.

But it couldn’t hurt to watch. Not really. Not even when the Reds got just frisky enough against the Cubs bullpen to open the bottom of the seventh with a double (Jose Barrero), a walk (pinch hitter Jake Fraley), and a two-run double (Mark Reynolds), before Cubs reliever Michael Rucker got the next three Red batters out in order.

Not when the Cubs threatened to actually blow the game wide open in the top of the fourth, with back-to-back inning-opening singles setting first and third up for Nick Madrigal to send Nelson Velazquez home with the fourth Cub run.

Then Willson Contreras—the veteran catcher who may not be a Cub after this off-season, and who had a scare an inning earlier when he dinged his left leg running around second on Wisdom’s base hit, tumbling to the ground as he was thrown out at third—flied into a double play when Reds right fielder Aristides Aquino caught his opposite-field drive and gunned Cubs first baseman P.J. Higgins down as Higgins dove futilely into third.

Meanwhile, somebody had the bright idea to plant a hologram of longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray in the booth for the seventh-inning stretch, from which emanated Caray’s once-familiar bellowing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The crowd in the stands sang along but they all but ignored Harry the Hologram. Except perhaps to shudder.

“Creepy,” tweeted another Athletic writer, Eno Sarris, uttering perhaps the most polite way to put it. “Please don’t make a hologram out of me when I’m dead.” Sarris probably has no worries on that score. But if anyone gets the bright idea to do a Vin Scully hologram for a future Field of Dreams Game (it won’t be played next year thanks to adjacent youth sports complex construction), there’s liable to be a war broken out.

Party like it’s 1919?

1919 Cincinnati Reds

The 1919 Reds’ threads . . .

Remarkable. Today’s Field of Dreams Game will feature the Reds vs. the Cubs, each wearing throwback replica uniforms. The Cubs will mix it up a bit: their jerseys will be replicas of their later 1920s jerseys while their hats will reproduce their 1914 hats. The Reds will wear reproductions, hats and jerseys alike, of the uniforms they wore in 1919.

On the Iowa field across which the fictitious Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by the late Ray Liotta) trod in the film after which the game is named, the true victims of that tainted World Series will wear the uniforms in which they became the game’s most tainted Series winners through absolutely no fault of their own. Cincinnati baseball doesn’t have it tough enough this year?

“Party like it’s 1919!” the Reds tweeted when the threads were revealed. Some party. And they’re going to play the game against a team so legendary as putzes between World Series championships that, whomever chose their threads, they couldn’t even get the eras coordinated. Their 1914 hats above their late-1920s jerseys? Is that so Cubs, or what?

For now let’s forget that both teams elected to, shall we say, rebuild last year. The Cubs pushed the plunger on their 2021 at the trade deadline; the Reds re-pushed one during the off-season before and after the notorious owners’ lockout. Let’s ponder instead whether the geniuses behind today’s Field of Dreams throwback uniforms really comprehend how the 1919 Reds were robbed.

Yes, it does sound strange to think of a World Series winner as a victim. Especially since it managed to go to fifteen postseasons, win ten pennants and five World Series, over the decades to follow without scandal attached. (The 1990 Reds had one in their rear view mirror, namely Pete Rose the previous year, but there was nothing like sweeping an American League behemoth to ease that pain.)

But for a century plus three years, and despite the best efforts of people to whom history has its proper truthful claims, the Reds have lived with the notion that their 1919 edition would have been squashed like house pests if the White Sox had played it straight, no chaser. I wrote of it approaching the centenary season and on the anniversary of Game Eight of that Series: those Reds weren’t the poor souls portrayed too often.

Contradictorily, the Reds approached the 1919 Series as 8-5 favourites to win the set overall but 2-1 underdogs in the first two games at Cincinnati’s Redland Field. While White Sox manager Kid Gleason trumpted loud and long his squad full of battering rams, Reds manager Pat Moran made a prediction that proved only too chilling: the Reds had a shot at winning the set if they could beat White Sox starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte in Game One.

Going into the Series the Reds actually had the better pitching picture: five healthy and solid pitchers who hadn’t been overworked: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Reuther, and Slim Sallee. The White Sox had two great starters (Cicotte and Lefty Williams) but a rookie named Dickey Kerr who was considered promising but a bit of a wild card. Injuries left their Hall of Famer Red Faber out of the Series picture entirely.

There was also the little matter of the Reds actually out-pitching the White Sox on the regular season. The Reds entered the Series with a team 2.23 ERA and 2.81 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate; the White Sox, a team 3.04 ERA and 2.88 FIP. The opposition averaged 2.8 runs against the Reds but 3.8 runs against the White Sox. I still have a tough time with arguments that the White Sox were that much of a 1919 powerhouse.

The 1919 Reds finished the regular season with a .686 winning percentage, the best single-season win percentage in the Show that decade except for the 1912 Red Sox’s .691. The 1919 White Sox finished with a .629 win percentage. Those Reds also went 47-19 in the second half of the season compared to those White Sox going 41-26. On the full season, the Reds went 38-22 against other National League pennant contenders while the White Sox went 35-25 against other American League contenders.

Down the stretch? The Reds faced other NL contenders ten times and won eight; the White Sox faced other AL contenders twelve times and went 6-6. Now you should have a tougher time hearing arguments that those White Sox, who did out-hit the Reds but weren’t that much better at scoring (4.8 runs per game to the Reds’ 4.1), were so formidable as to have the Reds reaching for the tranquilisers.

1919 Cincinnati Reds

. . . and the actual 1919 Reds, whose World Series title remains unfairly tainted.

Cicotte, of course, hit Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with the second pitch of Game One, the tipoff to the gamblers that the fix was on. He would have been suspect even if he hadn’t thrown in with Chick Gandil to seek financial backing for the Series fix from bookie Sport Sullivan and pitcher-turned-gambler Sleepy Bill Burns before bringing in more teammates: Cicotte entered the Series with a barking shoulder and arm thanks to a 306.6 inning regular season.

Two years ago, I wrote elsewhere having as close a look as possible at Jackson’s 1919 Series performance. There remain those who say his .375/.394/.563 Series slash line is evidence that he didn’t take a dive with assorted mates in the Series. It is if you don’t look deeper. If you do look deeper, you’re going to find more question marks than exclamation points.

I looked. And, as I wrote then, Jackson batted six times in that Series with men on base. He had one base hit and reached on an error in those six situations, for a .167 batting average with men on base. By the end of Game Five, the Sox were in a 4-1 Series hole and Jackson factored in the win by scoring the first of three Sox runs after he led off with a base hit.

I continued: “Then the White Sox played three straight elimination games and won the first two. Jackson batted ten times with men on base in those three games, got five hits, and reached on an error once. But in [Game Eight]—the absolute last chance for the White Sox to stay alive—he went 1-for-4 with men on base and drove in two runs with that hit when the game was still far enough beyond reach.”

Nine years ago, former New Jersey prosecutor Bill Lamb published Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation. “That Joe Jackson was a likable fellow and persistent in his claims of innocence does not change the historical record,” he wrote therein.

On the evidence, the call is not a close one . . . As he admitted under oath after first being confronted, Jackson was a knowing, if perhaps unenthusiastic, participant in the plot to fix the 1919 World Series. And damningly, Jackson was just as persistent in his demands to be paid his promised fix money as the Series progressed as he would later be in his disavowals of fix involvement. In the final analysis, Shoeless Joe Jackson, banished from playing the game that he loved while still in the prime of his career, is a sad figure. But hardly an innocent one.

If you seek those for whom the gamblers’ promises and shenanigans meant little to nothing, be reminded if you will that the Reds shook one off near the end of the Series. According to his granddaughter Susan Dellinger, Ph.D., in Red Legs and Black Sox, the Reds’ Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush told Moran he’d heard whisperings that gamblers tried getting to one or more Reds prior to Game Eight. Oops.

No oops, Dellinger exhumed. Moran called a team meeting before the game and the scheduled Reds starting pitcher, Eller, spoke up. A gambler tried to buy him off, but he’d told the gentleman firmly enough to go jump in the lake, or the Ohio River, whichever one was closest. Then, Eller went the distance for the Reds while his mates trashed Williams in the opening rumble of their 10-5 blowout.

“A nation whose citizens empathise with victims real or imagined should hark heartily to the real victims of baseball’s two most notorious gambling scandals,” I wrote in 2018. “The first compromised the integrity of the Reds’ first World Series winners through no fault of their own. The second cost the Reds a franchise icon and manager through all fault of his own.”

Surely I asked too much when I suggested the commissioner’s office might issue at least a proclamation that the 1919 Reds were (and should remain) legitimate World Series champions on the centenary of that event. I’d probably ask too much, too, if I ask for one today, before today’s Reds tangle with today’s Cubs in the Field of Dreams game. (It’s probably asking even more to ask how on earth the game can sell—so help me God—“tickets as low as $501.”)

As the teams walk onto the field across which the fictitious Black Sox were romanticised without warrant in an otherwise charming film, it would be nothing less than their due, for a Reds franchise that’s suffered enough self-inflicted indignity as well as several equally grand triumphs. It won’t help the team’s prospects for the rest of this season, but it might give Cincinnati itself a hard-earned gift.