No-hit Joe from El Cajon

Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove, about to end the Padres’ 8,205-game no-hitter drought.

Right off, what does Joe Musgrove have in common with Cy Young? You can look it up: they both threw their first no-hitters for their hometown teams. More or less.

Musgrove grew up in El Cajon, California, a twenty-minute drive to San Diego if traffic behaves, rooting for the Padres. As a Padre he wears the uniform number of his favourite Padre growing up, Jake Peavy. Young’s first of three no-hitters was for the Cleveland Spiders; he’d grown up in Canton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive from Cleveland.

Breaking out to start 2021 with a distinct resemblance to a Cy Young Award winner in his first Padres start is nothing compared to what Musgrove did Friday night in Arlington.

He not only broke the Padres’ record-setting stretch of 8,205 regular season games without a single no-hitter on the ledger, but if he hadn’t plunked Joey Gallo in the fourth inning he’d have had a perfect game. If Musgrove has any regret from a night allowing none, he might be thinking he’d like to have that one pitch back.

Because, otherwise, he didn’t walk a batter and nobody reached on an error. He threw 112 pitches (average 12 pitches per inning), he’d retired the first eleven Rangers in order before catching Gallo with his first pitch and two outs, then retired the next sixteen he faced in order.

He struck out ten and benefited from ten ground outs and seven outs in the air including three line outs. Making him responsible directly for 59 percent of the game’s outs and thus more responsible for the outcome than his teammates. This no-no was more the real deal than many prove to be.

It also means that the end of the Padres’ no-hit drought means every Show franchise has had at least one no-hitter on its resume. Who better to nail it than the kid from Grossmont High in El Cajon?

Musgrove had only four full counts all night, each the only such heavy count of its inning, and only the third inning was truly work for him, going 2-2 on each batter before getting them out with a called strikeout (Jose Trevino), a fly out to the back of right center field (Eli White), and a ground out (Leody Taveras) to shortstop playing in short right in a shift.

I’ll resist the temptation to ask why Rangers manager Chris Woodward didn’t entertain a thought about ordering Taveras to think about bunting into that delicious open real estate left prone by the defensive shift. Uh, no, I won’t.

It’s not as though the third inning is a definite sign of something like a no-hitter brewing. And if it was, so what? They give you a gift like that, you say thank you, accept it, and unwrap it. If it was the later innings, so what again? Unwritten rules be damned, you need baserunners, you get them by hook, crook, and anything else you can think of. Especially if the other guys are foolish enough to lead you into overwhelming temptation.

As it happens, the Padres were already the proud possessors of a 3-0 lead in the third inning. They hung two up in the second, courtesy of Wil Myers’s RBI double and Tommy Pham’s sacrifice fly; they posted the third in the third when Manny Machado sent an RBI double to the rear of left center field.

That proved all Musgrove needed to work with. And when the ninth inning came around, Musgrove would have had an immaculate inning if he’d struck out all three Rangers he faced. Sort of. He had to settle for getting pinch-hitter David Dahl to line out to second on 1-1, for getting Taveras to ground out right back to the box on 0-2 with a foul off before the grounder, and for getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to ground out to shortstop on 0-1.

The Globe Life Hangar audience roared approval. And Chris Young, the former pitcher turned commissioner’s office executive turned Rangers general manager, and coincidentally the last Padre to take a no-no as far as the ninth (in 2006, when Joe Randa hit a one-out bomb over the center field fence), couldn’t help himself, either.

“It was obviously a special night for Padres baseball and San Diego fans . . . just unfortunately at the expense of the Texas Rangers,” said Young answering a telephoned question. “But that’s OK.”

If there’s one thing which remains universally true in baseball, it’s that the home crowd and sometimes even the home brass finds itself appreciative when the other guys’ pitcher threatens to finish a no-hitter, never mind up and doing it.

I’m old enough to remember the Shea Stadium crowd suddenly shifting their loyalty when Hall of Famer Jim Bunning took his perfect game into the seventh on Father’s Day 1964. The Mets suddenly became the enemy in their own brand-new playpen and Bunning became the hero they wanted to see finish what he started. To the point where he got a standing ovation from a packed park when he batted late in the game.

Bunning’s fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had that experience only once: he pitched his 4 June 1964 no-no against the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium. He pitched his three other no-nos—against the Original Mets (1962, which some wags said was doing it the too-easy way), the Giants (1963), and the Cubs (practise makes perfect, 1965)—in front of the home audience.

So did Hall of Famer Bob Feller. His first two no-nos: on the road in Chicago and New York. The third: At home. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was also a no-hit road rat: of his seven, he pitched four on the road: two as an Angel (against the Royals and the Tigers), and two as a Ranger. (Against the A’s and the Blue Jays.) Cue up the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Travelin’ Band.”

Musgrove would have to pitch a second no-hitter against the Rangers on the road to equal one unusual feat: Justin Verlander’s three no-hitters include two against the Jays, both of which were pitched in Toronto. Verlander isn’t the only pitcher to no-hit the same team twice (hello, Addie Joss and Tim Lincecum), but he’s the only one to do it in their sandbox.

“For him to do it growing up in San Diego and this being his team,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler after Musgrove’s jewel, “it’s about the perfect story written.” Well, it might have been even more so if it happened in the home yard, but the Padres will take what they can get.

They had an inkling Musgrove would prove just the number three man they’d need while they spent much of the off-season overhauling their starting rotation. They dealt for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish so swiftly you almost missed the Darvish deal. A few weeks later, they had Musgrove coming aboard. He rewarded their faith by throwing six shutout innings at the Diamondbacks en route a 7-1 Padres win.

Who knew it was just a warmup for the Big One so far? Musgrove, too, will take it where he can get it. Especially since he’s gone from a World Series champion (with the 2017 Astros, a Series now considered tainted, though the pitchers aren’t exactly to blame for the Astro Intelligence Agency sign-stealing shenanigans) to a Pirate (the Astros traded him in the January 2018 deal that brought them Gerrit Cole) and, now, back home to San Diego.

“I think a no-hitter, regardless of where you’re playing, is really special,” he said after the game. “But it almost seems like this was meant to be . . . The city of San Diego has shown me so much love, even before I came to the Padres, just a San Diego kid who made it to the big leagues. So it feels even better to be able to do it in a Padres uniform and selfishly be able to do it for my city and have everyone know that the kid from Grossmont High threw the first no-hitter.”

The Padres won’t be home again until 16 April, when they host the Dodgers and the Pirates in succession. Bet on it. When Musgrove takes the mound during that homestand, the racket of love will be one of the noisiest rackets in San Diego baseball history. The man from nearby El Cajon will drink every drop appreciatively.

The more things change . . .

2019-09-05 JimmieFoxxFrankieFrisch

Generational debates on player “toughness” and baseball conditions didn’t end with Jimmie Foxx (left), Frankie Frisch, and a group of fellow Hall of Famers in 1954. They won’t end ever, really.

“Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

If I gave you that quote without attribution, you’d think it came from one of today’s old-school fans or analysts who think, erroneously, that baseball today lacks “toughness.” But it doesn’t come from one of today’s grumps. It comes from Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. And he said it to Sports Illustrated in 1954.

A present-day SI writer, Jon Tayler, exhumes it for a kind of state-of-the-game address. And it might be fun to look at what the other Hall of Famers still alive in 1954 said about the state of the game then. The title of that piece: “Are Today’s Baseball Players Sissies Compared to The Old Timers?” You may or may not be surprised at who said what.

“Baseball is a more aggressive game today,” said outfielder Paul (Big Poison) Waner, answering clearly in the negative. “The players can’t let up a bit. In my day we could. Today the pitcher has to throw hard to every man in the line-up. That’s the reason for so many substitutions. There are many more home-run hitters playing today. And there are cracker-jack fielders.”

Waner should only have been able to see the kind of hard throwing that was yet to come. In 1954, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were playing basketball on college scholarships (Koufax at the University of Cincinnati, Gibson at Creighton University), Sudden Sam McDowell was in middle or junior high school, minor league legend Steve Dalkowski was still in high school, and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were still in grade school.

Rogers Hornsby (second baseman), who wasn’t exactly baseball’s Mr. Congeniality (when he was canned as the St. Louis Browns’s manager in 1952, Browns players led by pitcher Ned Garver presented owner Bill Veeck with an engraved trophy), answered the headline in the affirmative. Feel like a little wager that without knowing it was Hornsby this could have been said by Goose Gossage?

“[I]t’s the fault of the managers, not the players,” Hornsby said. “They change men too often. A pitcher will be removed for one bad pitch. A left-handed batter will be removed for a right-hander, for the percentage. Would they ever have taken out Cobb, Speaker, Wagner or Frisch?”

You wonder if Hornsby wasn’t taking a jab at Casey Stengel, a product of the John McGraw school when all was said and done, but who made a dark and successful art out of changing men, playing percentages, manipulating relief pitching—and kicking the American League’s ass for most of a decade plus while he was at it—during the era Hornsby lamented.

Al Simmons (outfielder) demurred from Hornsby’s assessment. “It was soft for us,” said Bucketfoot Al. “We had no Sunday games. Besides double-headers, today’s players have to play day, night and Sunday baseball.” The doubleheader today is the exception, not the rule, but players in 2019 also have to play night, Sunday, and day baseball. Often while traveling from one coast to the other or north to south.

I bet you think the following remark could be said by any reporter, columnist, or analyst today: “Many of the players today are fully as good as most of the old-timers. But comparisons are difficult to make. One of Ty Cobb’s great assets was base-stealing; in the 1915 season he stole 96 bases . . . With the rabbit ball today, why risk an out? It’s better to wait for the long hit.”

And I bet you’re wrong. That was actually Carl Hubbell, he who wore the silks of the New York Giants while striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bucketfoot Al, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game. And Hubbell had a point if you consider it to be that there were (and still are) those who considered 1950s baseball, which some of today’s old schoolers still think was the game’s Golden Age, to be too little more than a big power game. (In 1954, Little Looie Aparicio was just about to start the real return of the stolen base.)

To the question in the 1954 headline Cy Young (there’s a pitching award named in his honour, I think, wink wink) said, “Yes. They can’t take it. I’ve seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It’s the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month.”

I don’t suppose it crossed Young’s mind that in the dead ball era pitchers such as himself weren’t oriented or taught all that much to try throwing the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves, or that dead-ball pitching’s number one orientation was inducing contact, the more the better, and that the lack of power pitchers in the dead ball era normally meant that getting hit by a pitch wasn’t liable to leave a welt or a splitting headache.

Would it be fair to have asked Young if he would have flinched pitching against, say, Bob Feller, and had to face retaliation from Feller if Young had knocked down or drilled one of Feller’s Indians? Would it have been fair to question Walter Johnson’s “toughness” because the legend has it that whenever the gentlemanly Big Train did hit a batter he’d be almost apologetic about it and genuinely hopeful that he didn’t injure the poor guy?

“Players today like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and [sic] Pee Wee Reese are as rugged as any of the old-timers,” said third baseman Pie Traynor. “The trouble is that they are handicapped by having to play day and night baseball. This shortens their careers.”

Brushing aside that Rizzuto proved to have the shortest career of the players Traynor named, and that with the exception of Mantle and Mathews all those players had playing careers interrupted by World War II service, Traynor was probably right about their toughness but not quite right about the day/night conundrum. Night ball shortened a lot of Hall of Famers’ and others’ statistics more than their careers; injuries tended to shorten their careers more.

Williams (nineteen seasons) and Musial (22 seasons) would finish very long careers the majority of which seasons were played in the night ball era. So would Feller (eighteen), Mathews (seventeen), Mantle (eighteen), Snider (eighteen), and Reese (sixteen).

In due course you would see such protracted, predominantly night ball careers, from such Hall of Famers as Mantle (eighteen years) Henry Aaron (23 years), Ernie Banks (nineteen), Johnny Bench (seventeen), George Brett (21), Lou Brock (nineteen), Chipper Jones (nineteen), Willie Mays (22), Willie McCovey (22), Joe Morgan (22), Mike Schmidt (eighteen), and Jim Thome (22) among others among the position players.

Among the mostly- or exclusively night ball-era Hall of Fame pitchers? Hello, Warren Spahn (21; “He’ll never get into the Hall of Fame, he won’t stop pitching,” Stan Musial once cracked about him), Robin Roberts (nineteen), Whitey Ford (sixteen), Bob Gibson (seventeen), Juan Marichal (sixteen), Tom Seaver (twenty), Steve Carlton (24), Ferguson Jenkins (nineteen), Dennis Eckersley (24), Greg Maddux (23), Tom Glavine (22), Randy Johnson (22), Mike Mussina (eighteen), and Mariano Rivera (nineteen), among others.

But baseball’s rolls also include too many players whose careers were compromised or shortened by injuries, especially by being foolish enough to try playing through them regardless. That kind of “toughness” gets you some immediate admiration but costs your team a useful-or-better asset and you a career.

They still talk about Mickey Mantle’s what-ifs (forgetting that what was was impossibly great regardless) despite almost his entire career being an orthopedic experiment. And, to this day, baseball fans of long standing lament the what-ifs regarding a lot of players whom injuries compromised or finished: Pistol Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (who came back too soon from one injury too many), Butch Hobson, and Kirby Puckett (who made it to the Hall of Fame anyway), among others. They’re liable to do it regarding David Wright, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey, too.

Funny that Hornsby should have mentioned his fellow second baseman Frankie Frisch. Frisch had something to say about whether players in 1954 were sissies comparied to players in his day or earlier. Which might surprise those today who remember how Frisch (and his running mate/successor Bill Terry) were so convinced nobody was as good as the good old days’ players that they corrupted the Hall of Fame by ramming as many of their Cardinals’ and Giants’ cronies into the Hall of Fame as they could get away with.

“It’s tough to say who are the tougher,” said the Fordham Flash. “Night games and the rabbit ball have changed everything. The managers seldom play for one run. And the players swing from the end of the bat. But baseball is a nicer game today. They meet you at the train and drive you to the park. TV has them hamming”

If only Frisch hadn’t concluded by adding, “But we got more fun out of the game.” Fun is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But Frisch and company in 1954 should remind us that a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson would prove right when, continuing his mastery of the double (or more) negative, he’d say in due course, “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

And the more things in baseball change, the more most of them stay the same.