Hinch may get a second chance—in Detroit

A.J. Hinch (left) with Jeff Luhnow. Their Astrogate suspensions end after the World Series does.

Analysing a few scenarios such as general managers now on the hot seat (Billy Eppler, Los Angeles Angels, check the cushion temperature) and other off-field doings and possible undoings, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal also ponders Ron Gardenhire’s possible successor. The Detroit Tigers manager elected to retire for his health’s sake over the weekend. Prospective successors, Rosenthal says, include A.J. Hinch.

A.J. Hinch?

Wasn’t he the manager who snoozed on Gerrit Cole in favour of Will Harris and got the rudest awakening when Howie Kendrick rung the Houston Astros’ bell in Game Seven of last year’s World Series? And didn’t it turn out he was the skipper who slept while the Astro Intelligence Agency burned his team’s legacy of three straight American League Wests, two pennants, and a city-healing World Series win?

The answers there are no, and yes.

It wasn’t even close to Hinch’s fault that the Astros couldn’t lay more glove on an obviously drained (by a long season and a barely-fixed neck and shoulder issue) Max Scherzer than a solo home run and an RBI single, before his own starter Zack Greinke ran out of fuel and into Anthony Rendon’s homer in the top of the seventh. Or, that their shortstop Carlos Correa would be the only Astro to hit safely with a man on second or better all night.

And while Cole manhandled the Nationals in Washington in Game Five, the Nats slapped him silly in Houston in Game One. Plus, with Cole never having entered a game in the middle of even the slightest jam in his entire professional pitching life, Harris—proud possessor to that point of a 1.50 regular season ERA and a postseason 0.93 entering Game Seven—really was Hinch’s best card to play in the moment. Even with Juan Soto on first.

Harris’s profession as a relief pitcher includes walking into the middle of fires running the scale from small trash can blazes to first-floor-and-climbing infernos. He threw the perfect retardant to Kendrick, a nasty little cutter off the middle of the plate and toward the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole.

“It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare,” Harris said after game, set, and Series ended with the Dancing Nats dancing on the Astros’ Minute Maid Park graves. (They won, without precedent, entirely on the road.) “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

Soon enough, alas, we learned that Hinch was aware of but did nothing much to put the AIA out of business in 2017-18. A couple of cross words here, a couple of busted clubhouse monitors there, but otherwise Hinch couldn’t and didn’t summon up the authority to tell his already over-talented club and make it stick that they needed to cheat about as badly as Superman needed an airplane.

One of the game’s most sensitively intelligent managers got caught with his Astrogate pants down around his ankles.

But wasn’t Hinch thrown out of baseball over the AIA? Didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred—jolted out of his own slumber when Astro-turned-Tiger-turned Athletic pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Astrogate almost a year ago—hand the cheating players immunity in return for spilling and make Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, and some choice draft picks to come, the sacrificial lambs?

Not quite. Hinch and Luhnow both were suspended merely for the 2020 season. Those suspensions end after the World Series does next month. Baseball’s official line will be that they did the crime, they did the time, they don’t get a do-over but they do get a fresh start if anyone’s willing to hand one to either or both.

If you’re going to ask whether they deserve second chances, period, you might say neither one of them considering the stain of the Astros’ level of illegal, off-field-based, electronic cheating. If you’re going to ask whom between them sooner deserves a second chance, you might pick Hinch in a heartbeat. Might.

No matter how far down his pants were, Hinch wasn’t even close to the one who fostered the atmosphere in which the cheaters could and did prosper. Luhnow is another story entirely. His win-at-all-cost atmosphere dehumanised his front office, and he was a lot more aware of his Astrogaters than he’s still willing to admit.

Hinch at least had the conscience and the grace to say in his own statement that “while the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” Even a small handful of accountability goes long toward cleaning up your own mess.

It was more accountability than any Astro was seen to show during that notorious February presserunless they were ex-Astros. Then, Hinch sat down with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.

In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.

Luhnow himself also declined full accountability in the immediate fallout of the Manfred report. In fact, he lied through his proverbial teeth in the formal statement he issued, saying he didn’t “personally” direct, oversee, or engage in any shenanigans and insisting, “I am not a cheater.” The revelation of the Codebreaker algorithim for extralegal sign decoding, about which Luhnow was aware enough, put the lie to it.

His mess is still considered so toxic that it likely forced Alex Rodriguez and his lady Jennifer Lopez out of the running to buy the New York Mets, after it became known A-Rod sought Luhnow’s baseball administration counsel even informally while Luhnow remained under suspension. It was like seeking family counseling from Charles Manson.

All that said and done, how strong are the chances of Hinch taking the Tigers’ bridge? He has a friend in the Tigers’ front office, Rosenthal says, namely vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.

But former Atlanta Braves/Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez—once thought the favourite for the Tiger job before they chose Gardenhire—has friends in high Tiger places, too. They are GM Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd, all of whom go back with Gonzalez to his first managing gig with the Marlins in 2007-2010.

If the Tigers end up hiring Hinch, the public relations hit they’ll take would be a couple of water drops compared to the likely flood coming for any GM seekers hiring Luhnow. Hinch may be viewed as the hapless Astrogate fiddler but Luhnow is probably seen as the one who really allowed the joint to incinerate.

The Mets may be looking to get out from under GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s laughingstock lash. Cohen may want to bring in his own man no matter what. (Former GM Sandy Alderson has “a relationship” with him and might have a hand in a new GM pick.) If they were wary of selling to an Alex Rodriguez thinking nothing of engaging Luhnow even under the table, they’d have to be wary about handing Luhnow the front office.

The Phillies may make GM Matt Klentak pay for their shockingly arsonic bullpen doing the most to keep them with a very tenuous postseason reach. A man with an image as a misogynistic cheater—who once defied his entire front office’s outrage to trade for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while Osuna remained under domestic violence investigation—won’t exactly be at the top of owner John Middleton’s wish list.

Hinch first took the Astros’ bridge as they re-emerged from Luhnow’s controversial introduction of rebuilding by tanking, leading a newly-youthful team with a few veteran pitchers to the 2015 American League wild card game to beat the New York Yankees but lose the division series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.

Two seasons later, Hinch’s Astros stood as now-tainted world champions. Assuming the Tigers have no thoughts of underground intelligence chicanery, and Hinch truly has learned the hard way about fiddling while his dugout empire burns him, he might be just the man to take a Tiger team transitioning to youth back into contention and maybe beyond in a year or two.

Gonzalez wouldn’t exactly be a lame horse. Until they began aging and the front office lost its grip, Gonzalez took his Braves to a couple of postseasons (with early exits, alas) and kept them in contention until a 9-28 opening in 2016 took him to the guillotine. Both Gonzalez and Hinch know a few things about keeping young or young-ish teams in the races.

If the Tigers seek experience on the bridge, there’s another dark horse lurking. Former Astrogate bench coach-turned-Soxgate World Series-winning manager Alex Cora’s suspension ends after the World Series, too. Officially, baseball might say he, too, did the time after doing the crimes.

Notice it’s crimes, plural. Cora was definitely culpable in Astrogate and may or may not have been directly culpable in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. The Red Sox threw their video room operator under the bus to the unemployment line after they got bagged, and after Cora either resigned to keep from being fired or got fired anyway.

One more reminder: The Rogue Sox took the technology MLB provided them (and every other team) in the video rooms and clevered up the old-fashioned gamesmanship. The Astros either altered an existing camera off mandated transmission delay illegally, or installed another camera to operate in real time. Neither was right, but MLB handed the Rogue Sox (and probably others yet uncaught) the weaponry.

To avoid even a couple of days worth of PR fury, the Tigers might reach for Gonzalez. To show they believe in second chances and have enough kidney to survive the brief enough uproar—not to mention an experienced but still very young man with a balance between analytics and in-game eyes—they might reach for Hinch.

Someone once lost the presidency of the United States after not doing more to get to the bottom of the re-election committee crimes that caught him, too, with his pants down at first but joining their cover-up soon enough. However awkwardly, Richard Nixon admitted it in the statement with which he accepted his successor’s pardon.

Since it happened in his second term, Nixon was enjoined legally from seeking a do-over. Hinch doesn’t have that restriction. And he’s a far more sympathetic figure than Nixon was seen to have been.

He obeyed the mandate of his suspension to the letter. He didn’t show up near any team, at any ballpark or facility, either of which could have gotten him banned from baseball for life. If the Tigers reach out to him after the World Series, he would do well to tell them exactly what he told Verducci in February after he owned his Astrogate culpability:

I have to stand out front . . . [with] the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen . . . [I took] seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.

It would be further evidence that he deserves the second chance Luhnow doesn’t yet, if at all.

First degree burglary

Jedd Gyorko’s two homers Wednesday were just part of the Brewers battering the Tigers.

The Miami Marlins aren’t the only one of Wednesday’s teams deserving of your sympathy. How would you like to be the guys who raided the other guys’ house, left nothing behind including hostages dead or alive, and the rest of the world says big deal! thanks to the holocaust in Atlanta?

OK, so the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t start their destruction of the Detroit Tigers with an early-and-often eleven-run break-in. They more or less slipped in barely noticed and performed a rather methodical room-by-room, occupant-by-occupant roust, joust, and ravage.

So give the Brewers their due. They came. They saw. They took neither prisoners nor hostages.

Once upon a time, the J. Geils Band wrote, sang, and played a party song called “Detroit Breakdown.” It showed up on a live album called Blow Your Face Out. On Wednesday night, the Brewers plundered the Tigers’ house and blew their faces out, 19-0. Setting a franchise record with their thirteen extra-base hits, eight doubles and five home runs.

The least insulting part for the Tigers had to be Brewers starter Corbin Burnes striking out eleven and allowing one hit in seven innings while his partners in crime picked off the Comerica Park hosts and their silver, jewelry, fine crystal, and negotiable securities.

If the Braves dropped the equivalent of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on the Marlins, the Brewers had to settle for being the gendarmes who sent the Appalachin Conference wiseguys scattering to the woods and anyplace else they could escape. Rest assured, the Brewers won’t object.

“Not much good happened for us,” lamented Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, “other than no one got hurt.” That’s a matter of opinion, of course. “When you’re scoring runs like that,” Burnes told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “it makes it real easy on the pitcher. You just go out and pound the zone and play loose.”

Pound the zone? The Brewers hitters assaulted and battered it. Play loose? The way they were going, the Brewers could have loosened the fasteners on their arms and legs and still picked the Tigers’ house cleaner than the proverbial hound’s tooth.

They bit Tigers starter Matthew Boyd first, for seven runs and eight hits in three official innings before he was reprieved in the fourth without getting a single out from the three hitters he faced to open that inning. And one of the seven was surrendered by his successor.

He dodged the furies after giving up two walks in the first, but Orlando Arcia and Luis Urias doubled back-to-back to open the second, Arcia’s a ground-ruler. The good news: Urias got cuffed and stuffed trying to steal third. The bad news: Tyrone Taylor promptly doubled, Jacob Nottingham walked on four pitches, and Avisail Garcia promptly hit a hanging slider for a two-run double.

Two ground outs later Boyd escaped. The escape lasted just long enough for Jedd Gyorko (pronounced “jerko,” which is just what he would do to a full-count fastball) to open the third sending one over the right field fence. And even that was only the fourth Brewers run, since Boyd turned Ryan Braun’s base hit up the pipe into Arcia dialing into a step-and-throw double play at second base and Urias grounding out to third.

Still, a 4-0 deficit is manageable, right? Wrong. After Taylor opened the fourth beating out an infield hit, the Sheriff of Nottingham hit a hanging changeup over the left field fence and Garcia walked on 3-1. Gardenhire must have decided he wasn’t about to let any of his pitchers suffer excess abuse and lifted Boyd for John Schreiber.

Oops. Schreiber started his evening’s work by plunking Keston Hiura. Then, he got rid of slumping Brewers superman Christian Yelich on a fly to left and caught Gyorko looking at strike three without a single pitch leaving the strike zone or kissing Gyorko’s bat. So far, so good, right? Wrong. Braun hung the seventh run on Boyd’s jacket when Schreiber served him an unsinkable sinker to sink into left field to send Garcia home, before Schreiber struck Arcia out, again on three pitches.

Better: Schreiber zipped through the Brewers in order in the fifth. Worse: He opened the sixth feeding Garcia something to bounce over the wall for a ground rule double and, after Hiura flied out to right, Yelich remembered who he was supposed to be, after all, and doubled far down the right field line to cash Garcia in with the eighth Brewers run.

Now, Gardenhire ended Schreiber’s misery and brought in Rony Garcia. Gyorko popped out to shortstop but Braun worked out a walk, Arcia loaded the pillows with a base hit, and Urias on 2-2 hit a three-run double to left, followed almost immediately by Taylor on 2-1 doubling Urias home to just about the same real estate plot. Then Garcia busted the Sheriff of Nottingham with a punchout for the side.

Gardenhire’s next attempt to put the cuffs on the Brewers would be Kyle Funkhauser to open the seventh. Motown legend James Jamerson never cleaned his Fender bass because he swore the dirt made the funk. The Brewers decided the dirt would unmake the Funkhauser. It only began when Garcia wrestled his way to a full-count leadoff walk and, while working to pinch hitter Eric Sogard, Funkhauser wild-pitched Garcia to second.

Sogard singled him to third to climax another wrestle of a plate appearance, Yelich walked, and Gyorko dialing Area Code 6-4-3 didn’t exactly give the Tigers a recess from the burglary since Garcia came home on the play while Sogard claimed third. Braun announced recess over when he sent a first-pitch meatball over the left field fence.

Fifteen unanswered Brewers runs. These Tigers were being de-toothed, de-fanged, and de-clawed with not even a cursory roar in response.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Braun said post-game about the Brewers’ Wednesday night battery. “Obviously, things haven’t gone very well for us offensively [this season], so whenever you do have a rare, good day like that, you have to really enjoy it.”

Is it me, or are Gardenhire and other Show managers forgetting that this season’s three-batter minimum for relief pitchers doesn’t obligate them to leave the poor saps in past three batters on obviously modest nights? Funkhauser from there survived Arcia’s single to lure Urias into forcing him out at second for the side, but still . . .

Joe Jimenez opened the Milwaukee eighth hitting Taylor with a pitch before getting three prompt enough outs, and that was practically the cleanest Detroit pitching turn of the night. Then Travis Demeritte—a right fielder by profession—opened the ninth by getting Yelich to ground out. You knew it would be too good to last by now.

You were right. Gyorko promptly dropped his second bomb of the night, this time over the left field fence. Braun popped out to follow, but Arcia poked a base hit to very shallow left and helped himself to second on a throwing error by Tigers shortstop Willi Castro. Urias sent him home with a single up the pipe, and Taylor drove a 1-0 dead fish a little farther than Gyorko’s one-out drive landed.

“We weren’t going to use another pitcher,” Gardenhire told the Detroit Free Press, “so it was going to be somebody. And Demeritte was in the game as the DH for (Miguel) Cabrera, and, obviously, he was going to be the guy to pitch. We were not going to use any more pitchers out there, so it was a pretty simple thing. I told Demeritte, ‘Just don’t get killed’.”

Demeritte merely spent his professional pitching debut getting bounced off the walls. Nottingham flying out to left for the side was a show of Brewers mercy.

Josh Lindblom, usually a Brewers starter, retired the Tigers in order in the bottom of the ninth to end the raid. It would have been easier to mine plutonium with a swizzle stick than for the Tigers—who’d had eleven comebacks on the truncated season to date—to mount a nineteen-run comeback in the ninth as it was.

Schreiber and Funkhauser were optioned to the Tigers’ alternate site after the game. For the first time all night long, they must have felt as though somebody wanted to do something other than use, misuse, and abuse them.

This was the single worst shutout loss in Tiger history. The previous subterranean low was a 16-0 massacre at the hands of the St. Louis Browns in 1922, almost a century ago, and that was with Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in the lineup and going hitless in three trips to the plate. That day, they had five hits, three more than they could summon up Wednesday night.

“I think we all had a bad day,” Gardenhire said. “You guys had to have a bad day, you had to watch that, too. So, you know what? That wasn’t fun. We tried to survive.” After such a home invasion as Wednesday night, the Tigers might want to think about upgrading their alarm systems.

It wasn’t as simple as Kaline made it look

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Hall of Famer Al Kaline, observing a spring training 2014 Tigers workout. “I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league,” he once said of playing the game he made look simple.

The late Al Kaline was twenty years old when he won his only American League batting championship, in 1955. In wins-above-replacement-level-player terms, it’s the third best season by any twenty-year-old, with only Alex Rodriguez (9.4 WAR, 1996) and Mike Trout (10.5, 2012) passing Kaline’s 8.3.

In earthier terms, that season planted such extreme expectations upon him that Mr. Tiger eventually said it was the worst thing that could have happened to the man who finally became a Detroit icon for his play and his accommodating personality. Neither of which came simply to him, no matter what you think of the flood of tributes pouring forth upon and since his death at 85 Monday.

“Detroit’s Al Kaline looks like a man who plays with consummate ease as well as rare skill,” said Sports Illustrated in a 1964 profile, “but he is finding it hard to follow baseball’s toughest act: himself.” Kaline was the cover story in that issue, and the headline attached to a photograph of Kaline following through on a swing said, simply, “Enigma of the Tigers.”

By then the Hall of Famer struggled with injuries that kept him from posting many more than 140 games a season. Even in one of his eighteen All-Star seasons, this one during the period when fans were still bereft of the vote following the Cincinnati ballot box-stuffing scandal of 1957, this was a time when some sportswriters and enough Tiger fans called for the team to trade the right fielder who’d retire as a franchise demigod.

“This put the pressure on me,” Kaline told SI writer Jack Olsen of the beginning that culminated in that batting title. “Everybody said this guy’s another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio. How much pressure can you take? What they didn’t know is I’m not that good a hitter. They kept saying I do everything with ease.

“But it isn’t that way,” Kaline continued. “I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league . . . I don’t have the kind of strength that [Mickey] Mantle or [Willie] Mays have, where they can be fooled on a pitch and still get a good piece of the ball. I’ve got to have my timing down perfect or I’m finished . . . I’ll tell you something else: I’m not in the same class with players like Mays or Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their records over the last five seasons are much better than mine.”

There have always been those players who make baseball look so simple that Joe and Jane Fan become deluded enough to think they can play it even half as well as Kaline did. Kaline himself was the first to admit that making baseball look simple required work, and lots of it. Marry that to the expectations a talent showing itself early inspires, and you might find a player despairing of ever being what he thinks people want him to be.

“In the first few years after he won the batting championship,” Olsen wrote, “Kaline went into frequent depressions over his inability to give the fans what he knew they expected. He would come into the clubhouse after a game and slump in front of his locker, speaking to no one.”

That actually earned Kaline a reputation for difficulty for awhile. But Kaline himself—who once earned Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s respect and a tip to use hand weights to strengthen his wrists for hitting—told Olsen he wasn’t exactly being a sulk during those first few post-title seasons.

“I was just quiet, and when a newspaperman came up to me and said, ‘Nice game,’ or something like that, I’d just say, ‘Thank you’,” he said. “I would never prolong the conversation, and the guys who didn’t know me would say, ‘Look at this stuck-up kid.’ But it was just my way. I don’t talk much. I don’t like to make people mad at me, and if you talk too much you’re gonna put your foot in your mouth sooner or later.”

When Kaline had a terrific 1956 followup to his batting title season and pressed for a salary raise that might bring him at least next to then-Tiger Harvey Kuenn’s income neighbourhood, then-Tigers president Spike Briggs put his foot into his own mouth.

Briggs told a Detroit advertising club meeting, “Kaline thinks he’s as good as Mickey Mantle, and wants as much money as Mantle.” Except that Kaline thought and said nothing of either sort. It took the intercession of player development director John McHale to get Briggs to back off and hand Kaline $30,000 for 1957.

Under misinterpretation Tiger fans began booing Kaline and the sharp right fielder was, understandably, none too thrilled. He merely clammed up for a good while. Especially when the Tiger front office tried to impress upon him the idea that a little flash out on the field might go a long way. Asking Al Kaline to become a showman would have been something like asking Casey Stengel to become an undertaker.

“They told me to be more colorful, that I could bring more people into the ballpark if I was more colorful,” Kaline told Olsen. “But how could I do that? I could jump up and down on the field and make an ass out of myself arguing with umpires, but I’m not made up that way. I could make easy catches look hard, but I’m not made that way, either.”

He merely made himself a ten-time Gold Glove winner, and it wasn’t by reputation alone. Only two right fielders—Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente and sometimes-forgotten Jesse Barfield—finished with more fielding runs above average. He made near-impossible catches look simple, if not painless. He made throwing runners out look routine. He made hitting tough pitches look as natural as eggs on a breakfast plate.

His early 1964 slump didn’t worry his then-manager, one-time Brooklyn icon Charlie Dressen, one lick. “He’s not hitting now, but what does that mean? Nothing,” Dressen said then. “When a man is an established hitter like Kaline, you know what he’s gonna do. The pitchers are getting him out now, but later on in the season somebody’s gonna suffer.”

Kaline’s injury issues only began with an osteomyelitis-plagued left foot that led to small bone removal surgery which compelled him to develop a way to run on the side of the foot. “On top of that,” Olsen wrote, “he has suffered more than the average number of injuries, among them depressed fractures of both cheekbones, two beanings and a broken collarbone. Baseball has not been a frolic through sylvan glades for Al Kaline.”

The Tigers’ 1964 general manager knew it. “Al Kaline has had more reason to jake it than almost any ballplayer I know, but I have never seen him give less than everything he had,” Jim Campbell told Olsen. “That’s the way he learned to play baseball, and that’s the only way he knows how.” Campbell also said oh, sure, he’d think about trading Kaline—for Hall of Famers Mays, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda of the Giants in the same deal, that is.

Olsen’s piece was titled inside the magazine, “The Torments of Excellence.” “Talking to Kaline,” he observed then, “is like making funeral arrangements.” The longer he played, the farther behind he left the old expectations and front-office animosities, the easier it became for him to be himself, around fans and players in his and opposing uniforms.

The only funeral arrangements Mr. Tiger ever made were in the 1968 World Series. His seventh-inning, bases-loaded shuttlecock of a single turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 Tiger lead, jerking them to a win, and they never looked back. Especially after Kaline flattened a service from Hall of Famer Steve Carlton into a two-run homer on a 3-for-4 day during a 13-1 Game Six rout, before Mickey Lolich out-pitched Bob Gibson to win Game Seven.

He’d also smash an eleventh-inning bomb off Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers in the 1972 American League Championship Series to break a one-all tie in a game the Athletics won in the bottom of the inning; then, in Game Four, his tenth-inning single set him up to score the tying run in what became a 4-3 Tigers win. It wasn’t enough to stop the A’s from winning Game Five.

Two years later, in his native Baltimore, Kaline swatted a leadoff double the other way, into the right field corner, against Dave McNally in the fourth inning for his 3,000th hit. His next time up, he smacked a game-tying RBI single off McNally.  (The Tigers eventually lost the game.) Then he made good on a promise he’d made to retire after he got the hit. If he didn’t get it in 1974, he’d get it in 1975.

“I’ll retire now,” he said simply after the game.

Meaning after the season. Kaline took a year to get the game out of his system, then re-joined the Tigers as a broadcaster, which he’d remain for a quarter century to follow before moving into the front office as an advisor. In the interim, the ancient and short-lived battles dissipated completely. Kaline made fans feel warm and Tigers who followed him feel well enough endowed.

When the Tigers played their final game in Tiger Stadium (“Character, charm, and history,” Kaline once said was the Old Girl’s strength), on 27 September 1999, Kaline gave a rookie Tiger named Robert Fick the pre-game word: Fick would hit one out that night. In the bottom of the eighth, facing Kansas City reliever Jeff Montgomery with the bases loaded and one out, Fick ripped one off the right field roof.

A year earlier, while traveling around the country and spending some time outside Detroit with a friend, I got to take in a game at Tiger Stadium, copping a field-level seat down the left field line next to the foul pole, on a night the Tigers and the Reds wore throwback tribute Negro Leagues uniforms. I looked across to the right field roof on the facade of which were four retired uniform numbers: 2 (Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer), 5 (Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg), 6 (Kaline), and 16 (Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser).

Kaline’s 6 stood out especially because I’d seen him play often enough growing up, as a Met fan who’d watch the occasional Yankee game just to see the other teams and their big men, remembering how easy Kaline made baseball look—whether running a ball down and throwing a runner out from right field, whether stroking a hit or three with men on base (he has a lifetime .322 batting average in high-leverage situations and .311 with men in scoring position)—but not knowing how much work he did to make it that way.

I thought of that night in Tiger Stadium again when learning of Kaline’s death. Somehow, having the chance to see just one live game in the Old Girl, it felt like Kaline’s house, we were his guests, that Tiger fans were comforted knowing that he was there (still in the broadcast booth at the time), and that he might make even a traveling fan in his first and only Detroit visit feel at home.

“This fellow is amazing,” Stengel said of Kaline during the 1950s. “You ask yourself four questions. Can he throw? And the answer is yes. Can he field the ball? And you answer yes. Is he active on the bases? Yes, you’d have to say yes. And then, can he drive in the runs? The real test. And again you say yes. So he is an amazing fellow.”

Tell Kaline to his face that he was amazing and he’d have denied it under oath. And he’d have gone on trial for perjury.

Al Kaline, RIP: Mr. Tiger was a pussycat

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Hall of Famer Al Kaline (left) with Fred Hutchinson, his first major league manager. Hutch introduced the lad to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who introduced him to wrist strengthening that enhanced his formidable enough hitting–but Kaline’s glove and arm were equal.

Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, whose career ended before Andy Messersmith shattered the reserve era once and for all, once turned down a salary raise because he believed he didn’t earn it. He still became the first Tiger to sign a six-figure single-season contract in due course.

A year ago, a teammate of Kaline’s on the 1973 Tigers told me during a telephone interview about how Kaline—who died today at 85—became a team leader without big talk or big noise.

“Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” said Bill Denehy, the former Mets pitcher whose third of three major league seasons was in Detroit. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player.”

Kaline signed with the Tigers right out of high school for a $35,000 bonus. Under the once-infamous Bonus Baby rule of that era, such players had to be kept on major league rosters for two seasons before they could be farmed out for real seasoning. Of all the players impacted by that bonus rule, Kaline was one of only three to become Hall of Famers. (The others: Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew, though Killebrew was the only one of the three to see minor league time after his bonus period expired.)

The son of a Baltimore broom maker and a scrubwoman, Kaline used his bonus to pay off his parents’ mortgage and for his mother to undergo eye surgery. “They’d always helped me,” he once told a reporter. “They knew I wanted to be a major-leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me time for baseball. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.”

Kaline was in a Tiger uniform the week after his high school graduation. By the time he became eligible to be sent to the minors, in 1955, it was the last thing on the Tigers’ mind: he was about to become the American League’s batting champion. He developed a near-picture swing, partially on Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s advice, Williams having suggested he try squeezing rubber balls and moderate small weight lifting to build his wrists.

What Denehy considered the ultimate team player on the Tigers proved it on the final day of his major league career, against the Orioles. Coming in having hit in thirteen of his previous eighteen games, including the one that gave him 3,000 lifetime, Kaline also hadn’t hit one out since that September 18. His next home run would be the 400th of his career.

It never came.

Kaline batted twice against the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar, striking out and flying out, while also playing through a badly ailing shoulder. When his next turn to hit arrived in the fifth, Kaline put baseball ahead of a notch on his resume. He told manager Ralph Houk to take him out, which Houk did, sending Ben Oglivie up to pinch-hit against Baltimore reliever Wayne Garland.

The tiny Tiger Stadium crowd booed lustily. “I was sitting there in the clubhouse,” Kaline remembered, “and I could hear them booing. I really felt sorry for Ben. It wasn’t his fault.” Houk, for his part, empathised with Kaline. “With a hitter as great as he is,” he told reporters, “you don’t send him back out there when he says he’s had enough. I think I owed Al that much.”

When Kaline became the (still) youngest batting champion (at 20), he tied for second with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. That wasn’t the only thing he had in common with the Yankee legend. Kaline dealt with osteomyelitis, too, but in his left foot, requiring removal of some bone and forcing him to learn to run on the side of the foot, something that plagued him along with numerous other injuries in his career.

Writing The Cooperstown Casebook, Jay Jaffe ranked Kaline the number seven right fielder who ever played the game, including that his 155 defensive runs saved lifetime are second only to fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente among right fielders. Yet when Kaline became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980, fans and the Detroit press hammered the Tigers yet again over Kaline’s early exit in that final game.

Kaline also faced questions over it even then. “That was one of my most embarrassing moments,” he said long afterward. “But you have to understand that I didn’t realize at the time the fans came out to see me in my last time at-bat.”

He had nothing for which to apologise. A man who puts baseball ahead of his own potential milestone and knows when it’s time to sit down is entitled to dispensation.

“When you talk about all-around ballplayers, I’d say Kaline is the best I ever played against. And he’s a super nice guy, too,” said the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, during Kaline’s final season, Robinson just so happening to be a super nice guy himself. (“Around here,” Brooks Robinson Day MC Gordon Beard said, “people don’t name candy bars after Brooks Robinson—they name their children after him.”)

“There aren’t too many guys who are good ballplayers and nice guys, too,” Robinson continued. “Your attitude determines how good you’re going to be — in life as well as in baseball. He’s got a great attitude.”

So much so that Kaline began getting applause in opposing ballparks around 1969-70, something that didn’t go unnoticed by him. “This makes a guy feel good,” he told The Sporting News in 1970. “Most of it is for being around so long. I’ve stood the test of time. And I haven’t done anything to embarrass the game or myself.”

Kaline’s humility was as legendary in Detroit as his playing consistency. He missed five weeks in 1968 with a fractured forearm, then saw limited time when he returned. He even questioned whether he belonged in the World Series when Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, who’d gotten most of Kaline’s plate appearances in the interim, had run the distance.

That’s when then-manager Mayo Smith devised his gambit of moving Stanley from center field to shortstop, displacing good glove/spaghetti bat Ray Oyler, and shifting Northrup to center field, enabling Kaline to take his usual post. Kaline’s two-run single in Game Five yanked the Tigers from the brink of elimination and he finished the Series with a 1.055 OPS.

That was the man who said after the Tigers clinched the pennant in the first place, “I don’t deserve to play in the World Series.”

Kaline became a respected commentator on Tigers’ game telecasts, working with play-by-play man George Kell and then, after Kell retired from the booth, Ernie Harwell. He did that for two decades to follow before he was moved to the Tigers’ front office in an advisory role. More than that, making friends among just about everyone who met Mr. Tiger seemed to come second nature to him.

He had numerous admirers even among his opponents. “I like to watch him hit,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once. “I like to watch him hit even against us. He’s got good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is that he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches, too.”

Yet the Tigers honoured him with one of only six statues around Comerica Park by having him seen with a glove, rather than a bat in his hand. It depicts Kaline making a leaping, one-handed catch, very much like the catch he made scaling above the old Yankee Stadium right field, field-level scoreboard, to take a homer from Mantle in 1956.

Kaline was as elegant an assassin shooting down runners from right field as he was at the plate. “He was the only fielder,” tweeted actor/baseball fan Jeff Daniels, “who could make the ball come to him.” Not long ago, though, Kaline lamented contemporary outfielders doing less work on their throwing than he and his contemporaries did.

“The outfielders really need to be practicing making long throws because sometimes you can go several games before you have to make a long or hard throw,” he told a writer.

They don’t do it at all. Today the outfielders play long catch before the game, and they work on the outfield walls when they go to another ballpark but they don’t regularly practice throwing home like we did when I played. They just don’t do it. Throwing in game conditions is a lot different then just playing long catch in the outfield. In a game you have to move your feet a lot faster and you don’t have time to set up and throw . . . I don’t know why they don’t practice throwing home at least once every series just to get used to game situations as you possibly can.

Two years before that robbery against Mantle, Kaline threw White Sox baserunners out in three straight innings. The bad news was the White Sox still slapping the Tigers silly in that game, a 9-0 win with sixteen White Sox hits. Typically, Kaline refused to call for fireworks on his own behalf. “That was a pretty fair day,” he said of his three kills in three innings. “I liked it.”

Kaline had only one more enduring marriage than with the Tigers—with his wife, Louise, his high school girl whom he married after the 1954 season and whom he loved for her beauty, her brains, and for her ability to talk baseball. One of their two sons played in the Tigers organisation briefly.

When baseball changed the name of its annual sportsmanship/community involvement award to the Roberto Clemente Award, Kaline was the first to win the award under that name. Fittingly. Both men had 3,000 hits or more and howitzers for throwing arms. But Kaline has just one up on Clemente: his was the first uniform number (6) retired by his franchise.

Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” tweeted longtime Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”

Always felt that to be a slam-dunk HOFer you had to have an ego and be selfish, always knowing how many W’s or HRs you were away from Cooperstown,” tweeted Claire Smith, a Hall of Fame baseball writer herself. Then I met #AlKaline Billy Williams, Sandy Koufax, Phil Niekro — gentlemen & gentle men. “R.I.P. Mr. Tiger.”

In numerology, 6 means, basically, family, home, harmony, nurturing, and idealism. It sounds like a thumbnail sketch of Kaline himself. If we have to say farewell on the day this gentleman and gentle man went to the Elysian Fields, the date is only too appropriate, too. The sixth.

No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.