Crazy Joey Votto, Cooperstown bound

Joey Votto, looking like a man infected with a combination of St. Vitus Dance and laughing gas. If it helps get him to Cooperstown, he won’t complain.

This is the kind of person Joey Votto can be. One minute, he’s his own kind of crazy. Especially with a bat in his hands. The next, he’s . . . well, the word is onorevole in Italian. In Yiddish, the word is mensch.

On 19 July, in San Diego, Votto fumed over a call at the plate in the first inning, resulting in himself and Reds manager David Bell being tossed. Votto thought he’d checked his swing on a 1-2 pitch missing up and away. The plate umpire sought help; the third base umpire said Votto went. Replays showed it was hair-thin close. It could have gone either way.

Votto and the arbiters kept it civil until the third base ump, apparently, said something to trip Votto’s trigger. Votto could be seen (and heard?) saying, “what the (fornicate)?!?” The plate ump interjected, as if to suggest Votto had no business talking to the third base ump. Bell hurried out to protect his player to no avail. Both got sent to bed without their supper.

In the Petco Park stands (the Reds were playing the Padres), a six-year-old Los Angeles girl named Abigail—wearing a Votto T-shirt, attending her first live major league game—cried because she wouldn’t get to see her hero play all game long. Another fan tweeted a photograph of Abigail in tears.

Somehow, someone on the Reds caught the tweet and made Votto aware of her. So he sent Abigail a ball he signed, “I am sorry I didn’t play the entire game. Joey Votto.”

The next afternoon, there were Abigail and her family in the Petco field boxes, courtesy of Votto and the Reds. Votto went out of his way to meet her, in her Reds T-shirt and a large bow with baseball stitching in her hair. He signed anything she handed him and left her with a grin about equal to the distance of a textbook Votto line drive hit.

Now, this is the kind of baseball player Abigail picked as a hero: As the irrepressible Jayson Stark has exhumed, Votto’s one of only six players in Show history to lead his league in on-base percentage seven times or better. He’s done it seven times. The other five: Ted Williams (twelve), Babe Ruth (ten), Barry Bonds (ten), Rogers Hornsby (nine), and Ty Cobb (nine). You may have noticed all but one of them are Hall of Famers.

A Canadian who grew up with a poster of Williams tacked on his bedroom wall, Votto will be a Hall of Famer in due course.

Spare me the lack of three thousand hits (he isn’t likely to reach that number) or five hundred home runs (he isn’t likely to get there, either). The Hall of Fame was supposed to be about greatness, not raw totals. With two more years on his current Cincinnati contract and at age 37, Votto isn’t going to join the 500 bomb club or the 3,000 hit club unless he swings a telephone pole for a bat before he’s Jack Benny’s (alleged) age.

But he’s going to be remembered for all-around greatness. The sole legitimate question around Votto’s Hall of Fame case is whether he’ll make it on the first try or have to wait a few.

As of Wednesday morning Votto’s was A Space Odyssey hit total: 2,001. Guess what. According to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches), if Votto’s career ended the instant I wrote the words he’d become the number three Hall of Fame first baseman whose career came entirely or mostly in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

Jim Thome 10313 4667 1747 173 74 69 .653
Jeff Bagwell 9431 4213 1401 155 102 128 .636
Joey Votto 7978 3433 1265 143 46 63 .620
Willie McCovey 9692 4219 1345 260 70 69 .615
Harmon Killebrew 9833 4143 1559 160 77 48 .609
Orlando Cepeda 8698 3959 588 154 74 102 .561
Eddie Murray 12817 5397 1333 222 128 18 .554
Tony Perez 10861 4532 925 150 106 43 .526
HOF AVG .597

Stark narrows his seven-or-more OBP titlist list to those who won seven in any ten-year period. The list shrinks to Hornsby (eight), Williams (seven), Ruth (seven), Cobb (seven), and Votto (seven). “How’s that,” Stark asks, knowing the answer good and well, “for a Mount Rushmore of OBP?”

How’s this, too, for a winning player? Baseball-Reference says the Reds would win 75 percent of their games if they could run a lineup of nine Joey Vottos to the plate. Since they’re playing a 162-game season this year, that would equal 122 wins. A Reds lineup of nine Vottos wouldn’t be eight and a half games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers. But they might be about 28.5 games ahead.

You might care to know, too, that among active players the guy Reds fans call Vottomatic is number two for career OPS+ with 148. That’s 27 points behind the active leader. A fellow (albeit still on this year’s injured list) named Mike Trout. You can do an awful lot worse than pull up second behind Trout.

Allow me to tell you what RBA says about Votto by leverage. We’re talking about the most game-on-the-line moments in which Votto’s checked in at the plate over his entire career through this morning. No one can premeditate the situation in which a batter will step up to the plate at any time–unless he’s being sent out to pinch hit. But RBA says Votto’s one beast you wish you could save for premeditated high-leverage plate appearances:

High leverage 1510 687 274 77 19 13 .709
Medium leverage 2769 1140 442 30 22 21 .598
Low Leverage 3699 1606 549 36 5 29 .601

Essentially, he’s the same batter overall in low as in medium leverage, adjusting for a few particulars. (His combined RBA in those two situations: .600.) But he’s 109 points more monstrous in the highest leverage moments, the moments when the game’s likely outcome is most squarely on the line or close to it.

As a defensive first baseman? A guy who’s 55 defensive runs saved above his league average, lifetime, isn’t exactly lame with the leather out there. He’s not the rangiest first baseman ever to patrol the pad—but neither was Lou Gehrig. He’s gotten the job done and then some. He’s probably also used the position to keep fans at home and on the road entertained with more than a few amusing quirks and tricks.

Small wonder fans in road ballparks forgive Votto his periodic needles and horseplay at their expense. (He once needled a friendly road van with, “I remember you when you used to be thin.”) Small wonder young fans like little Abigail in San Diego weep when he gets tossed too early for arguing with umpires who still think (erroneously) that they’re Gods, Jr.

Small wonder, too, that fans such as another young girl in Atlanta last week think they can will Votto to prolific evenings.

A week ago, the Braves beat the Reds in eleven in Truist Park, 8-6. Votto did everything he could think of, short of spiking the Braves’ Gatorade with a liquid sedative, to enable a Reds win. He had a little help from his new young friend, to whom he gave his game jersey as he walked off the field following Ozzie Albies’s game-ending three-run homer.

What a surprise he’d do that: She coaxed him all game long. Votto swore the young girl called every one of his four hits on the night: a line single to somewhat deep center in the top of the first, a two-run homer in the top of the sixth, a line single to right setting up first and third in the top of the seventh, another two-run homer in the top of the ninth to tie the game at five. (Apparently, she didn’t call the full-count, bases-loading walk he coaxed out of Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint in the top of the third.)

The fact that both homers made Votto the first Red since Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to hit fourteen bombs in a twenty-game stretch—after becoming the eighth in Show to hit one out in seven straight games—was almost irrelevant. Almost.

“We made an agreement before every at-bat,” Votto told the press after the game. (When you like us, we’re the press. When you hate us, we’re the media.—William Safire.) “I talked to her a little bit mid-at-bat and she was screaming at me and supporting me. I’m not sure if it’ll end up on social media, but she was incredibly supportive despite lots of people that were not on her side. We almost did it together.”

Just another night at the park for Crazy Joey Votto, also known as future Hall of Famer Onorevole Mensch.

The first five days

Stop me if you’ve heard it before: Jacob deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer, but the new Mets bullpen puked the bed like the old one did.

The fans are back in the stands, however limited by ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, but the Nationals have yet to play a regular-season game thanks to a few players and a staffer or two testing positive. There went that Opening Day must-see match between Max Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom.

With their opening set with the Nats thus wiped out, deGrom had to wait until the Mets went to Philadelphia Monday. Oops. That and everything else seemed to play a support role to the horrid news out of San Diego.

The news that Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres’s new bazillion dollar shortstop, suffered a partial left shoulder dislocation on a hard third inning swing at the plate during a Monday loss to the Giants.

Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters he thinks team trainers and medical people were able to pop the shoulder back together, but the team isn’t taking chances. At this writing, MRI results aren’t available and nobody knows yet whether Tatis will spend significant time on the injured list.

If it’s more than a small shoulder dislocation, it may not be significant time. If it’s something like a labral tear, Tatis could miss six months—essentially, the rest of the season—according to one doctor who knows such shoulder troubles and spoke to the Los Angeles Times. Don’t fault the Padres if they’re saying to themselves, “Thank God for insurance.”

DeGrom could use a little extra insurance himself, alas. The good news for the Mets: deGrom was his usual self Monday night. Six shutout innings, seven punchouts, three hits, three-figure speed on his fastballs. The bad news, alas: the Mets are gonna Met, so far. At least out of the bullpen.

Their on-paper impressive offense found nothing more than two runs to support their ace. They got an inning of shutout relief from Miguel Castro relieving deGrom for the seventh, but the bullpen puked the bed in the eighth—including hitting Bryce Harper with the bases loaded. Not exactly a Rhodes Scholarship move there.

The Old Fart Contingency thundered aboard social media that Mets manager Luis Rojas blew it lifting deGrom after six strong—until they were reminded the added layoff after the Washington postponement put both deGrom and the Mets into caution mode.

“If that was [last] Thursday and I’m on normal rest,” the smooth righthander said postgame of the early hook, “I don’t think there is any chance I’m coming out of that game. We discussed it before what was the right thing to do. Long season and talking to them coming in, it felt like was the right decision.”

It was neither deGrom’s nor Rojas’s fault that, after Garcia took care of the Phillies in the seventh with just one infield hit within a fly out and two ground outs, the Phillies loaded the bases on the Mets’ new relief toy, Tyler May, in the eighth with one out, before Rojas went to another new Met bull, Aaron Loup. And Loup promptly hit Harper to push Miller home, before J.T. Realmuto singled home pinch runner Quinn, Mets late third base replacement Luis Guillorme threw home off line allowing Harper and Rhys Hoskins to score, and Didi Gregorius pushed Realmuto home with a first-pitch sacrifice fly.

The Mets had nothing to answer except a two-out ninth-inning stand that came up two dollars short against Phillies closer Alvarado. Kevin Pillar singled up the pipe, Francisco Lindor—the Mets’ own new bazillion-dollar lifetime shortstop—dumped a quail into shallow right that landed just in front of and then off the glove on oncoming, diving Harper, and Michael Conforto singled Pillar home while setting up first and third.

Pete Alonso, their 2019 Rookie of the Year bomber, hit one to the back of right field that looked as though it had a chance to ricochet off the top of the fence if not clear it. It wasn’t quite enough to stop Harper from running it down, taking a flying leap with his back against the fence, and snapping it into his glove to stop a game-tying extra-base hit and end the game with the Phillies on the plus side, 5-3.

Marry the foregoing to deGrom going 2-for-3 at the plate including an RBI single, and no wonder May himself said post-game, “Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself. That’s not what teams are, and frankly Jake did almost everything today.”

Just don’t marry that to things such as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani hitting 100+ mph on the mound and hitting a mammoth home run that flew out 100+ mph in the same inning last Friday night. Ohtani the two way player is an outlier among outliers; deGrom’s merely an outlier.

As of Tuesday morning— with the National League’s pitchers having to bat because Commissioner Nero simply couldn’t bring himself to keep the universal designated hitter this year at least, and Ohtani batting second in the Angel lineup the night he started on the mound, among other things—the pitchers have a .131/.157/.192 slash line and a .349 OPS.

The pitchers at the plate from Opening Day through the end of Monday night collected thirteen hits in 149 plate appearances: nine singles, three doubles, and Ohtani’s Friday night flog a third of the way up Angel Stadium’s high right field bleachers. They also walked three times and struck out 56 times. And the OFC still insists the National League just say no to its own invention.

All around the Show, too, there was one home run hit every 35 plate appearances and fourteen percent of all 928 hits the season’s first five days cleared the fences. It took five outs to create a single run, with 5.3 average runs created per game and 631 runs created while 559 scored.

It was fun to hear the fan noises even in limited capacities, too, though the limits in Angel Stadium made Ohtani’s blast sound even more explosive at the split second he hit it. If only things had been more fun for the home crowds: the many themes for the Show’s first five days could include, plausibly, the blues classic “On the Road Again.”

The home teams’ slash lines: .225/.313/.374/.687 OPS. The road teams: .245/.328/.403/.731 OPS. The road teams drove in fifteen more runs, hit thirteen more home runs, seven more doubles, and had seventy more hits overall. They also took eleven more walks, though they struck out fifty more times and grounded into fifteen more double plays. The road rats also had a +29 batting average on balls in play over the home boys and 108 more total bases while they were at it.

Maybe the shocker among the opening road rats were the Orioles. The Woe-rioles. Taking three straight from the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Out-scoring the Olde Towne Team 18-5, including and especially an 11-3 battering on Sunday afternoon. Even those paranoid about ID cards might want to insist the Orioles show theirs, even after the Orioles got a brief return to earth from the Yankees beating them 7-0 Monday in New York.

Unless it was the Reds, taking two out of three from the Cardinals to open, including and especially a 12-1 battering Sunday afternoon that proved the best revenge against abject stupidity is to slap, slash, scamper, and smash your way to a six-run seventh when you’re already up three runs—thanks to Nick Castellanos ripping Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez for a two-out, three-run homer an inning earlier.

Castellanos got drilled by Cardinals reliever Jack Woodford Saturday . . . two days after he bat-flipped a home run. Then, when he dove home to score on a wild pitch, Castellanos got bumped by Woodford sliding in to bring down the tag Castellanos beat. Castellanos sprung up, barked at Woodford, and began walking away before trouble could arrive. Oops. Trouble arrived—when Yadier Molina shoved him from behind to spark a bench-clearing brawl.

Baseball government myopically suspended Castellanos two games for “provoking” the brawl. Who’s baseball’s official optician? Who couldn’t see what everyone else with eyes saw? And how long has Molina—handed only an “undisclosed fine” along with a few others in the scrum—been so privileged a character that he can get away with the actual kickoff of a brawl that was seeded in the first place because the Cardinals are one of the game’s self-appointed Fun Police precincts?

“I was pleased,” Cardinal manager Mike Schildt told the press after that game. “Our guys came out there. We’re not going to take it. I know Yadi went immediately right at him, got sidetracked by [Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas]. Woody, to his credit, got up and was like, ‘I’m not going to sit here and be taunted.’ Good for him.”

Taunted? All Castellanos said when he sprang up, by his own admission, was “Let’s [fornicating] go!” Anyone who thinks Woodford lacked intent didn’t see that ball sailing on a sure line up into Castellanos’s shoulder and rib region. Nor did they see Molina very clearly shoving Castellanos without Castellanos having the benefit of a rear-view mirror.

Castellanos appealed the two-game suspension. The final result wasn’t known at this writing. But the Cardinals should be getting a message of their own: Defund the Fun Police. Pronto.

How about the Astros, who went into Oakland and swept four from the Athletics before ambling on to Anaheim and losing 7-6 to the Angels Monday night? That was despite dropping a three-run first on Angel starter Jose Quintana and yanking a fourth run out of him in the top of the fourth, before the Angels finally opened their side of the scoreboard with Mike Trout (of course) hitting Luis Garcia’s 2-2 meatball about twelve or thirteen rows into the left field seats.

The Angels pushed a little further back, the Astros pushed a little further ahead, until the Angels ironed up and tore four runs out of the Astros in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single (Dexter Fowler), a run-scoring force play (David Fletcher), a throwing error (on Jared Walsh’s grounder to first), an intentional walk (to Trout, of all people), and a sacrifice fly (Anthony Rendon).

Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning solo bomb turned out more a kind of excuse-us shot than a last stand. The game left both the Astros and the Angels at 4-1 to open the season and what could be very interesting proceedings in the American League West. Now, if only the Astros could finally get past Astrogate.

They’ve been playing and winning through numerous catcalls, howls, and even a few inflatable and actual trash can sightings in Oakland and Anaheim. Jose Altuve—who’s looked more like his old self at the plate so far—seemed mildly amused when an inflatable trash can fell to the warning from those high Angel Stadium right field bleachers.

Astrogate was and remains anything but amusing. The Astros could keep up their torrid opening and overwhelm the AL West this season, but the scandal won’t go away entirely (nor should it) until the absolute last Astrogater standing no longer wears their fatigues. Yes, you’ve heard that before. That doesn’t make it any less painful for Astro fans or less true for everyone else. The Astros, nobody else, wrote the script that made them pariahs. Bang the cans slowly, fans.

Will off-field-based illegal electronic sign stealing disappear at all? Players got same-game video access back this year. There are three security people in every team’s video room at home and on the road. League cameras have been installed in those video rooms. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to add guard dogs?

The players union agreed last year: there’ll be no more players getting away with murder even in return for spilling the deets—the commissioner can drop a lot more than a marshmallow hammer on the cheaters from now on. All by himself. He can demand answers without plea bargaining. And he doesn’t need a permission slip.

“But one of the prevailing lessons from the electronic sign-stealing era is that even if a scheme sounds far-fetched, someone might give it a whirl if they believe they can get away with it,” writes The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich, one of the two reporters (Ken Rosenthal was his partner) who helped break and burrow deep into Astrogate. “This holds true no matter what MLB does. Even a total ban on electronics, which the players would never agree to, would not be enough. In that case, a player or staffer could simply go rogue.”

In other words, boys will be still be boys, if they can-can.

Fun Police lives matter?

Even after Yadier Molina (left) shoved him from behind after he objected to Jack Woodward’s (left) driller, Nick Castellanos (second from right) would still ask Molina for a signed jersey. A little cray-cray?

I guess the Cardinals showed him. Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos sure knows who the men around here are now. Right? Wrong.

For the crime of flipping his bat after hitting an Opening Day home run with his team trailing the Cardinals two days earlier, Castellanos got himself first-pitch drilled, wild-pitched home, and ejected in the fourth inning Saturday afternoon.

He also got shoved from behind by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for his trouble, but—rather inappropriately—nobody sent Molina to his room for that.

Apparently, it’s not nice to call out the Fun Police’s St. Louis division.

All that began after Castellanos seemed to let Reds pitcher Jack Woodford covering at the plate how little he thought of taking one in the ribs two days after he hit a two-run homer off Jack Flaherty in the third inning—two outs after Flaherty opened the inning by hitting Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart with a 1-1 pitch.

With Castellanos on third after the drill, Mike Moustakas at the plate watched Woodford’s wild pitch sail up, up, and away, off Molina’s mitt. Castellanos shot home and dove across the plate. Woodford hustled to the plate to cover as Molina scrambled for the ball and tossed high to him.

The pitcher slid on one knee trying for a tag as Castellanos beat the play and began to pick himself up, barking at Woodford about . . . who knew precisely what? Was it umbrage over getting drilled? Was it saying he just had to score by hook, crook, or anything else the Reds could come up with (it was a base hit by Joey Votto to send him to third before the wild pitch to Moustakas) after taking an unwarranted plunk like that?

No. It turned out almost precisely the way the Reds’ broadcast team suggested: “I said ‘let’s [fornicating] go! and then I walked off,” Castellanos told the press post-game.

That’s when Molina hustled over as the benches began to empty and gave Castellanos an apparent shove while Castellanos still had his back turned to him. The Reds separated Castellanos from Molina while Moustakas tried to keep Molina from charging Castellanos further.

The lone ejection was Castellanos, though it wasn’t known until the Reds sent Aristedes Aquino out to play right field in the top of the fifth. Woodford got only a warning, apparently, after throwing the driller in the first place. Molina, whom some fans with troths not plighted to the Cardinals believe receives special dispensation even when he behaves like an ass, got nothing.

Cardinal teammates kept holding Woodford back from further attempts to settle Castellanos’s hash. Then the bullpens emptied, providing room for Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks to enjoy a brief shove upon Reds infielder Eugenio Suarez before the bulls returned through a little more shoving all the way to the pens.

Then, the Reds—who’d dropped a third-inning six-spot on Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, including Castellanos himself singling and then scoring on another base hit—got to finish the 9-6 win they’d started. Putting the only damper that really counts on the day Nolen Arenado, the Cardinals’ new third base toy, parked Reds reliever Sean Romano’s full-count, one-on pitch in the left field seats.

After the big dance around the plate area, Woodford walked Moustakas to load the bases and hit Jonathan India with a 1-2 pitch to nudge Votto home with the eighth Reds run before striking Tyler Naquin out for the side at last.

Aquino at least had something else to say about his unlikely mid-game insertion under such troublesome circumstances. He led off the sixth against Andrew Miller, the former Indian who still hasn’t really regrouped too well following his heralded, almost entirely effective, but still unconscionable overuse in the 2016 postseason. Aquino looked at a strike down the pipe before timing a second such pitch and sending it over the left field fence.

The good news is, Castellanos didn’t take Molina’s shove from behind personally. As C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic tweeted after the game, Castellanos said of Molina, “That guy could punch me in the face and I’d still ask him for a signed jersey.”

Maybe Castellanos does know who the men around here are, including the one who smiles back to him from the mirror while he trims his beard. How would Molina sign that jersey, then—“Fun Police Lives Matter?”

Halt right there, Mr. Mayor

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan with Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.

Spare us, please, the political (lack of) class and its hyperbolic weigh-ins when sporting events transcend the particular sport itself, for better or worse. Or, when a sport legend passes on to the Elysian Fields. Mourning the death of a Reds legend, Cincinnati’s mayor proclaims concurrently a standing for the Reds’ arguable greatest team that the evidence rejects.

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan’s death Sunday provoked an outpouring of loss and grief to be expected of a player whose performance equaled his gifts and who was at least as good a man as he was a baseball player. It also provoked Cincinnati mayor John Cranley to amplifying knowledge and wisdom by standing athwart both.

“We all know the Big Red Machine was the greatest baseball team of all time,” Cranley tweeted upon the news of Morgan’s death, accompanied by a photograph of himself and Morgan at an outdoor event. “Joe Morgan was the MVP of both back-to-back ‘75 and ‘76 Reds World Series wins, making him the greatest second baseman of all time. This is a devastating loss to the MLB and Cincinnati. RIP to a legend.”

What do you mean we, white man?

Let’s get the second hyperbolic out of the way first. Back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards are staggering achievements in their own right. If those alone illustrate a player’s cumulative greatness, Roger Maris (1960-61)—whose greatness was short-enough lived, thanks to six parts injuries and half a dozen parts the searing the 1961 Babe Ruth home run chase left upon him—would have reached Cooperstown in a walk. So would Dale Murphy (MVP, 1982-83), if injuries hadn’t hastened and turned his decline phase into a cliff dive.

Back-to-back MVPs alone didn’t leave Morgan as the arguable greatest second baseman in Show history. His all-around play at the plate, on the bases, and at second base, to say nothing of the most wins above replacement-level player for any second baseman playing a truly integrated game, accomplished that. You could remove Morgan’s MVPs and he would still shake out as being that great.

Now to the first. The Big Red Machine was the greatest team in the National League in its time. No questions asked. If you measure by consecutive World Series wins, the 1970s Reds were the only NL team to do it. Two American League teams did it, too: the Bronx Zoo Yankees (1977-78) and the Oakland Athletics earlier in the decade.

Oops. The Swingin’ A’s won three straight Series (1972-74) in the middle of winning five straight American League Wests. Including their beating the Machine in seven in 1972.

If you’re going by Hall of Famers on those teams, be careful. The Machine had three Hall of Famers (Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez) and might have had a fourth (Pete Rose) if he hadn’t had a problem with, you know, all that other stuff. Oh, all right, let’s give the Machine the four Hall of Famers just for argument’s sake.

For much of the 1960s the San Francisco Giants had five Hall of Famers in their ranks: Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Willie Mays. One of them (if you have to ask) is considered the arguably greatest all-around player who ever walked the face of the earth when fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle isn’t. Here’s how many World Series those great Giants teams won: none.

They only reached one World Series and lost in six games to the last of the vintage Yankee teams. Those Giants had a little problem on their hands known as the Los Angeles Koufaxes to thwart them at their peaks. They weren’t the only Hall of Fame-packing team of that time to fall short, either.

Quick: Name the team with four Hall of Famers and not even a single shot at the Promised Land. Hint: Their manager burned them out down the stretch in the one season they almost won the National League East. Since you had to ask: the four Hall of Famers in question are Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams.

Let’s remove the Machine’s should-have-been Hall of Famer now and leave it with three. Well. The 1967-68 St. Louis Cardinals had a trio of Hall of Famers. (Cepeda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson.) They went to back-to-back Series and won one of them. The 1969-74 Baltimore Orioles packed a trio Hall of Famers. (Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson in 69-71.) They won five of six American League Easts and one World Series in three straight trips. The Seattle Mariners of the mid-1990s had a Hall of Fame trio, too. (Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez.) They’re still looking forward to their first World Series appearance, never mind conquest.

A few days before Morgan’s passage, Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford passed away while watching his Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays in an American League division series. Ford could have told Cranley plausibly that several generations of Yankee teams, including the ones for which he pitched, make the Big Red Machine resemble the Little Red Caboose.

Ford became a Yankee smack dab in the middle of their five-year World Series-winning streak. That provokes me to compare the first seven seasons of those Casey Stengel Yankees to the first seven seasons of the Machine. Allowing for the lack of divisional play in those Yankees’ time and the shorter seasons (by eight games), this is the result:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1949-55) 686 389 6 5
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead-even in the wins column but 54 ahead in the loss column. If you were to add eight games a season to the 1949-55 Yankees, it’s not implausible that they’d have totaled 700 wins or better and 400 losses or better.

Those Yankees do have a claim the Machine wouldn’t have wanted: a 103-win season in which they finished second—by eight games, yet, to an Indians team that picked 1954 to have their career year, so to say. (The Machine had three 100+ win seasons and won the NL West in all three.)

Did I forget to mention that those Yankees had four Hall of Famers aboard at a time a few times? The 1950 Yankees (Ford’s rookie season) included Ford, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto. When Ford returned from military service in 1953, they had Ford, Berra, Rizzuto, and Mickey Mantle. Don’t go there, Mr. Mayor. They’ll match their questionable Hall of Famer Rizzuto to your questionable Hall of Famer Perez.

(Their primary National League rivals, the Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers, had to settle for three, too: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. Sandy Koufax was a beyond-marginal 1955 rookie.)

Fair enough. It’s not entirely fair to compare the Machine to the Berra-DiMaggio-Ford-Mantle Yankees. It’s a lot more fair to compare the Machine to a more contemporary aggregation:

Team Won Lost Pennants World Series Titles
New York Yankees (1996-2002) 685 445 5 4
Cincinnati Reds (1970-76) 683 443 4 2

The Machine is almost dead even to the Derek Jeter-Mariano Rivera Yankees. (They, too,  might have packed three Hall of Famers, if Roger Clemens hadn’t been considered persona non grata from Cooperstown because of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance suspicions that have yet to be proven once and finis.) Almost.

Those Yankees, however, won five pennants and four World Series—including three straight—playing in slightly more difficult postseason conditions. I don’t need a lot of convincing that the Machine would likely have done just as well if they’d played in a three-division league having to plow through two postseason sets to reach the World Series. But the Yankees did have to play in such conditions to win one more pennant and two more leases on the Promised Land.

There are lots of teams who would kill for a piece of the Machine’s five division titles, four pennants, and two World Series conquests in seven years. There are also teams who would kill for a .686 single-season winning percentage. The Machine teams never posted a winning percentage quite that large. (Its best: 1975’s .667.) But one of their ancestral teams did.

Wait for it—the 1919 Reds. The ones who could damn well have beaten the infamous Black Sox in a straight-no-chaser World Series. There’s a cause for you if you’re interested, Mr. Mayor. How about a little agitation on behalf of removing the Black Sox taint from the 1919 Reds’ claim on the Promised Land? Your forebears wuz robbed.

Joe Morgan, RIP: The Machine’s main man

A portrait of the artist as a young Astro.

In terms of watching and following and loving baseball, I went back a very long way with Joe Morgan. In the early years of the Houston franchise, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, Morgan was one of the three Astros I knew immediately, the others being his middle infield partner Denis Menke and pitcher/eventual manager Larry Dierker.

At the plate Morgan was already something of an on-base machine whose smarts with a bat, not to mention unusual power for middle infielders in the 1960s, got challenged only too often by the cavernous-enough Astrodome. Around second base Morgan and Menke were as sleek and coordinated a double play team as you ever saw.

The Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the greatest all-around second baseman ever to play the game died Sunday at 77 in his Danville, California home after a long battle with leukemia developed from myelodysplastic syndrome and with a form of polyneuropathy.

We don’t know yet whether Morgan died watching his one-time, long-time Astros opening the American League Championship Series with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, as Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford died at home watching his Yankees tangle with the Rays last Thursday.

But one thing we do know is that the Astros handed the Cincinnati Reds the keys to the kingdom, not to mention two leases in the Promised Land, when they included Morgan—the final but most important gear in the Big Red Machine—in an eight-player swap with the Reds after the 1971 season.

The question is, why. The answer is, most likely, Harry Walker, the last Astros manager for whom Morgan played.

Aside from Walker tending to treat his non-white players like children with the brains of turnips, Harry the Hat had a habit from hell. He fancied himself a great hitting guru (he wasn’t) who’d had one unlikely success that he couldn’t live without trying to lather, rinse, repeat, repeatedly, in the years to come of his managing career.

The unlikely success was Matty Alou. He let Walker—newly installed to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1966—convince him to marry a heavier bat to choking up and slap-and-tickling his way on base. Just the way Walker himself did in his own playing career. Then Alou made a huge mistake. He won the 1966 National League batting title with one of the emptiest .342 hitting averages you ever saw. He’d finish his career as one of the emptiest .300 hitters you ever saw.

Alou also finished his career with practically the same average run production per 162 games lifetime as Walker did: 120 for Harry the Hat, 117 for Alou.

When Walker took the Astro bridge, he went to work at once. He saw a pack of smart, solid hitters with decent power and able to reach base reasonably enough and failed to see them. Because what he really wanted to see was a lineup full of Matty Alous. He wanted to repeat his striking success with Alou (his batting average in ’66 was 82 points higher than his lifetime average going into that season) in the worst way possible.

And the worst way possible is exactly what Harry the Hat got for his trouble.

He tried to convince Morgan to channel the inner Matty Alou he didn’t have. He tried turning Bob Watson into the all-fields hitter he wasn’t and, while he was at it, turning Watson from a first baseman (which he was, more than capably) into a catcher (which he wasn’t, less than capably). He also tried to convince Jimmy Wynn to barrel up less and worry about his batting average more, never mind Wynn being one of the National League’s most consistent power hitters.

The fact that Wynn was an on-base machine himself by way of his smarts working out walks when need be didn’t turn up on Walker’s limited radar. Walker seemed to believe being smart enough to take the base on balls when the pitches didn’t look too hittable equaled laziness, lack of hustle.

Morgan was self-assured enough to stand athwart Walker regardless. Wynn couldn’t convince Harry the Hat that his strikeouts were an awful lot better than hitting into double plays. And neither Little Joe nor the Toy Cannon were exactly shy about letting the skipper know just that.

They tangled with Walker. (Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four covered his short stint with the 1969 Astros, remembered Wynn holding an empty rifle to Walker’s hotel room door just to blow off steam.) They lost.”The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros,” snarked The Sporting News in 1971, “particularly so since Walker has been manager.”

More important, when Reds general manager Bob Howsam offered Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo, Astros GM Spec Richardson pounced. Richardson couldn’t yet admit that his malcontents had good reason for their malcontent and that his manager’s inveterate search for a lineup of Matty Alous did the Astros exactly one favour: none.

It did the Reds the biggest favour in their history. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s life as a Machinist, the Reds won four National League Wests, back-to-back pennants, and back-to-back World Series. The back-to-back Promised Land leases were accompanied by Morgan’s back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s all-around, elbow-flapping, nail-driving tenure as a Machinist, he was the absolute best player on the team.

He was worth 47.8 wins above a replacement level player in just those five years. No other Red was close. Not Johnny Bench (32.4), not Pete Rose (31.4), not Tony Perez (18.3). The pain in the neck opponents saw at the plate or playing second base wasn’t just in their eyes. The objective and deeper measurements say the Big Red Machine would not have been at peak efficiency and would not have won without him.

Morgan even got to make a return engagement with the Astros after the Reds began dismantling the Machine rather than accommodate to the new free agency era. The Astros brought Morgan home on a free agency signing and he got to be part of the Astros’ surprise but engaging run to the 1980 National League Championship Series.

He even got to help the 1983 Philadelphia Wheeze Kids into the postseason. Not to mention joining the Giants and hitting the season-killing blow for the Dodgers, a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh putting the game out of reach and assuring the Dodgers of a second-place NL West finish.

In later life Morgan became a popular and respected baseball announcer, providing insight astride Jon Miller’s play-by-play for years of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He also became a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. He was friendly and open, talking to anyone with a brain and discouraging people from calling him anything more formal than Joe, especially fellow former players.

His aplomb could be disarming, such as when he and Miller were at the mikes when the Loma Prieta earthquake rudely interrupted the 1989 World Series. “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” he said dryly, “so I’ve been in earthquakes before.” He wasn’t exactly bragging about it.

He was engagingly candid and realistic about his on-air presence and style. “I don’t see myself as a Larry King or somebody,” he once said. “When you do interviews, sometimes it turns to interrogations. I’m more of a conversationalist, not throwing hardball questions.”

Yet even he could never entirely avoid the mistreatment to which black people remain subject. He was once detained roughly in 1988, at Los Angeles International Airport, by undercover police assuming him a drug courier.

“Over the next hours, the nightmare deepened, and it was all because I was just another black man,” he wrote in his memoir. “No longer a celebrity, as anonymous as any other black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” He proved his identity at police headquarters and was also exposed to a $796,000 settlement in his favour by the Los Angeles City Council.

Morgan’s most wounding flaw as an analyst was his war against sabermetric analysis. This engaging man, with one of the finest minds his sport has ever known, dismissed the very idea of deep analysis of his sport, of which statistics are the very life blood, in the kind of shrillery and incoherence you’d sooner expect of an office seeker rejecting what was plain to see in front of him as an illusion, if not fake news.

Even when sabermetrics rated Morgan the greatest second baseman ever to play the game, ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. To Morgan, Hornsby’s .358 lifetime batting average reigned supreme. Hornsby’s lackings as an all-around second baseman, and his compiling outrageous batting stats in a heavily hitter-friendly, all-daytime, non-integrated game, didn’t even register.

This was the same man whose gracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech included, “I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 home runs. I was one of the guys that did all they could to win. I’m proud of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got on for [those].”

So let us remember Morgan the strong-willed little big man, flapping his left arm in the batter’s box before ripping a screaming line drive or a high-lining home run, turning basepaths into guerrilla warfare turf like his hero Jackie Robinson, making second base a place for the death of an enemy rally, the field lieutenant absolutely sure he’ll clear out the thickets for himself and his troops to neutralise all opposing weapons.

Let’s also remember Morgan the family man, raising two daughters who became college athletes, divorced when he and his first wife drifted apart but remarrying happily and having twin daughters with his second wife. Morgan makes the sixth Hall of Famer we’ve lost to the Elysian Fields this surrealistic season, but their loss can only be deeper.