No tank you very much

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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.

Don Mossi, RIP: Ugly is as ugly does

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Don Mossi, who proved ugly was only in the eye of the beholder on and off the mound.

“He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power,” wrote Bill James about pitcher Don Mossi in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. “He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.”

Wrote the late Jim Bouton in Ball Four, while musing how players loved to choose up all-ugly lineups to pass time, “he looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.”

Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the all-ugly receiver, once said, “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket. All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.” Mossi, a brainy lefthander who made Berra resemble Cary Grant by comparison, could have said the same thing, with the codicil that he’d never seen anybody pitch one with his face.

Mossi, who died Friday morning at 90 in an Idaho hospital, had nothing on the mound but his brains, an unusual three-finger grip on his fastball, which didn’t travel like a speeding bullet but came to enough forks on the way to the plate and took them to keep hitters off balance, and a deadly enough curve ball. And it gave Indians manager Al Lopez a smart idea when Mossi made the team in 1954.

Lopez used Mossi’s wits and righthander Ray Narleski’s power as an effective bullpen counterweight whenever one of the Indians’ effective starters—Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, Mike (The Big Bear) Garcia, and aging but still capable Hall of Famer Bob Feller—needed to be spelled, with elder veteran Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser the long man out of that pen.

Used so judiciously, that bullpen helped the 111 game-winning Indians whistle past the 103 game-winning Yankees and into the World Series, with Mossi rolling a 1.94 ERA and a staggering 194 ERA+, then pitching four innings in the World Series without surrendering an earned run or a walk.

If only the Series equaled Mossi’s performance: the Giants swept the Indians in four straight, and it only began with Willie Mays’s stupefying catch in Game One to rob Vic Wertz of a likely extra base hit at the Polo Grounds’s cavernous rear end. In due course, Mossi would admit he was scared to death as a rook until veterans such as Feller and Lemon put him more at ease.

A year later, Mossi was deadlier. He struck out 69 against only eighteen walks, posted a 2.42 ERA and a 2.01 fielding-independent pitching rate, and even drew a few Most Valuable Player votes while he was at it. Who knew that Narleski would begin experiencing elbow trouble and put an end to that skin-tight rear end of the Indians’ bullpen?

Perhaps inexplicably, the Indians moved Mossi and Narleski into the starting rotation for most of 1957. Perhaps also inexplicably, Mossi earned his only All-Star berth. Perhaps even more inexplicably, the Tribe traded both Mossi and Narleski to the Tigers after the 1958 season—for Billy Martin, well along the way to his second career of wearing out his welcome swiftly enough, wherever he landed, after Yankee general manager George Weiss got fed up with him in 1957.

As a Tiger, Mossi became a starter, mostly, and a reasonable back-of-the rotation option. In 1961, Mossi became a curious trivia element when he surrendered only one home run to Roger Maris but none to Mickey Mantle while that pair of Yankees chased ruthsrecord all season long. Mossi also started a 1 September game against the Yankees in which a near-flawless performance was ruined when, with two out, Elston Howard and Berra singled back to back before Moose Skowron drove home Howard with the winning run.

The loss kicked off an eight-game losing streak that knocked the Tigers out of the 1961 pennant race. And that was the last season Mossi pitched before incurring arm trouble that began slowly decreasing his starting assignments and increasing his bullpen options until the Tigers sold him to the White Sox during spring training 1964.

The White Sox put him back into the bullpen permanently, and Mossi responded with a 2.94 ERA over forty innings before the Sox released him after the season. The Kansas City Athletics took a flyer on him in May 1965, but he called it a career after the season.

His comparatively late major league start may have shortened his career a bit; he was 25 when the Indians brought him up in 1954 and one year removed from discovering that odd three-finger fastball grip. He was a good if unspectacular pitcher who married his mind to his arm and did the best he could with both.

Teammates appeared to have loved and respected Mossi. Once upon a time, according to a fan posting on Mossi’s obituary page, Rocky Colavito—dealt to the Tigers controversially in 1960 (Indians fans were ready to arrange the execution of general manager Frank Lane over that and other trades that essentially broke up the Indians’ perennial contenders)—drove a white Cadillac convertible and picked Mossi up in it on the way to Tiger Stadium as long as they were teammates.

But his distinctive (shall we say) appearance stuck in the minds of opponents and fans more than his ways and means on the mound. Beneath eyes similar to those of Edward R. Murrow, Mossi also wore a proboscis that made Danny Thomas’s look like a bob and ears that rivaled the batwing flaps of legendary Hollywood censor Will Hays, earning him the nicknames “The Sphinx” and “Ears.”

Well, now. The Sphinx with Ears ended up having a last laugh. He returned to his native California with his wife, Eunice, and their three children; he’d married his lady on the field at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark while pitching for the Indians’ farm in 1950. Mossi’s baseball afterlife included running several motels in California successfully, not to mention becoming a twelve-time grandfather and a 25-time great-grandfather.

A few years after Mrs. Mossi passed away, her husband retired to Idaho, where much of their family had relocated, and took up an active life indulging his passions for gardening, hunting, and camping. The Mossis were animal lovers to the point that the pitcher’s family declined a funeral service and asked instead that contributions be made to a pet hospital in nearby Oregon.

Clearly enough, ugliness was in the eye of the beholder, and Mossi’s was only skin deep. (Admittedly, you wonder, if Mossi had gone to medical school, he’d have put up with tons of needling about becoming an ear, nose, and throat specialist.) Beneath the ears and the schnozz there rested a competitor on the mound and a gentleman off it.

So laugh, clowns, laugh. This Donald had the last laugh known as a life lived very, very well. Call it winning ugly if you must. But emphasise winning.


Dr. Pujols and Mr. Hydes

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Albert Pujols flips his bat heartily after hitting the solo home run that meant RBI number 2,000 Thursday . . .

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to catch history in your hands. Even when you’re not trying to get paid for it.

Albert Pujols cranked a hefty solo home run in Comerica Park Thursday to land his 2,000th career run batted in. The blast put the future Hall of Famer into some very distinguished company as it was.

Cap Anson drove in his 2,000th run at the end of the 1896 season, but unless the Hall of Fame has an online-accessible library I couldn’t discover just how he drove it in. And the run batted in wasn’t counted as an official statistic until 1920.

But Henry Aaron drove his 2000th in in July 1972 with a three-run homer and Alex Rodriguez drove his 2000th in in June 2015 with a two-run homer. Babe Ruth is in the 2,000 RBI club, too. Yes, you might think the Big Fella did it with a big blast but, yes, you’d be wrong: he worked out a walk with the bases loaded against the St. Louis Browns in May 1932 to do it.

A 33-year-old Tigers fan named Ely Hydes just so happened to catch Pujols’s bomb in the top of the third, after Pujols turned on a Ryan Carpenter fastball right down the pipe and drove it into the left field seats, right into Hydes’s waiting hands.

Along came baseball government to prove that no good deed goes unpunished. When its representatives at the game refused to authenticate the ball, it crowned Hyde’s indignation not over the milestone sphere but things in general at Comerica Park involving the Tigers, as he sees it.

“I am not rich. I am a broke-ass law student,” Hydes wrote in a Facebook post. “I did not do this out of any sort of  ‘entitlement’ . . .  I had the best of intentions. This ball will most likely end up in the Hall of Fame. I’m sorry if no one can ‘authenticate’ it, but the only reason I ended up with it is because Tigers management treated me so terribly.”

Detroit Free Press reporter Aleanna Siacon writes that the Tigers and the Angels each made “generous efforts” to retrieve the milestone ball but Hydes didn’t much like being treated like an opportunist. You know, the sort of fan who can’t wait to cash in a history-making baseball for prolific pelf. Giants fans brawled in the stands over who’d get to leave the park with the ball Barry Bonds smashed for his 600th career home run in 2002.

And sometimes such opportunists try stealing souvenirs with less history attached to them. In 2014, a Minute Maid Park fan wearing a Derek Jeter shirt in the field boxes on Opening Day—Jeter’s last as a player—was spotted by Jeter himself. But when the longtime Yankee captain tried to hand the girl a ball, a woman in an Astros jersey sitting in front of her in the seats tried to steal the ball. Jeter wouldn’t have it. He leaned up against the rail and put the ball in the girl’s hands despite the woman’s upstretching.

Hydes wasn’t exactly in the frame of mind to brawl over the Pujols bomb, nor did he steal it from any adjacent fans.

“I considered it an honor to catch Pujols’s ball,” Hydes wrote in his Facebook post, “and tried to act all day with the honor I thought it obligated me to.” Indignant about current Comerica Park policies such as refusing to allow ballpark ushers to be tipped, which he said compelled him to put tips right into their pockets physically, Hydes tore into the younger generation of Illitches and how callously he thinks they’ve behaved since the death of Tigers owner Mike Illitch.

But his indignation with MLB is just about equal. “Honestly, if they were just cool about it I would’ve just given them the ball,” he told WXYT interviewer Kyle Bogenschutz. “I don’t want money off of this, I was offered five and ten thousand dollars as I walked out of the stadium, I swear to God . . . I just couldn’t take being treated like a garbage bag for catching a baseball.”

Pujols himself took a sanguine attitude about the ball and Hydes.

“I think he was given a little hard time and I told the guys, just you know, just leave it,” Pujols told reporters. “Just let him have it, I think he can have a great piece of history with him, you know. When he look at the ball he can remember . . . this game, and I don’t fight about it. You know, I think we play this game for the fans too and if they want to keep it, I think they have a right to. I just hope, you know, that he can enjoy it . . . He can have it . . . He can have that piece of history. It’s for the fans, you know, that we play for.”

Hydes was aware of Pujols’s comment. “You’re a class act,” he wrote, addressing Pujols. “You wouldn’t pay me a penny for the ball and I wouldn’t take a penny.”

When Roger Maris finally hit his 61st home run on 1961’s final day, busting Ruth’s single-season record, a 19-year-old Yankee Stadium fan, Brooklyn truck driver Sal Durante, caught the ball with one bare hand in the right field seats. Stadium ushers came to Durante for the ball. Durante asked only one thing—to hand it to Maris personally.

The ushers agreed. They brought him to the Yankee clubhouse and Durante—who later admitted he’d had to borrow the money from his future wife, Rosemarie, to get his ticket for that game in the first place—handed it to Maris saying, “Here’s the ball, Roger.”

With his family and some team officials around him, Maris surprised Durante by signing and dating the ball and handing it back to him. “Keep it, kid,” Maris said genially. “Put it up for auction. Somebody will pay you a lot of money for the ball. He’ll keep it for a couple of days and then give it to me.”

Somebody did. California restauranteur Sam Gordon paid Durante $5,000 for the ball and then turned it over to Maris. Gordon also paid for the honeymoon when Durante married Rosemarie, with whom he raised three children as a Coney Island bus driver.

Durante was subsequently offered another $1,000 to catch the ball on the street after being dropped from the top of a giant Seattle World’s Fair ferris wheel (the Space Needle was ruled out for safety reasons)—by Tracy Stallard, the Red Sox pitcher who’d thrown the ball Maris hit out for the record. Durante wore a catcher’s mitt for the stunt and the ball hit the mitt and bounded right to the pavement. He got the $1,000 anyway.

Maris died in 1985. Rosemarie Durante died in 2014. Sal Durante is still alive at 77. He once admitted that he, like a lot of Yankee fans and other baseball people at the time, hoped originally that Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle and not Maris would break Ruth’s record. He once said meeting Maris and his family made him glad it turned out to be Maris.

Sometimes giving a player a milestone ball hurts in the aftermath. When New York cell phone salesman Christian Lopez caught the ball Jeter clobbered for a home run that was also his 3,000th major league hit, in 2011, Lopez happily gave Jeter the ball, and Jeter and the Yankees happily gave him season tickets for the rest of that season and a pile of signed memorabilia. The guesstimated value was $80,000.

The bad news was that Lopez would be hit with a hefty tax bill for his effort. A number of companies ponied up to pay it for the generous fan.

Alex Rodriguez remembered. When A-Rod homered off Justin Verlander for his 3,000th major league hit, a fan named Zack Hample—notorious as an all-but-professional souvenir hunter (his trophies are said to include Mike Trout’s first major league home run)—refused to turn the ball over.

“The thing I was thinking about is, where’s (Jeter’s) guy?” Rodriguez said after Hample refused to hand over ball—which was authenticated almost on the spot, by the way. “The guy that caught (Jeter’s) ball? That’s the guy that I needed here. Where is that guy? I wasn’t so lucky.”

“A-Rod will not be in possession of this ball tonight,” Hample harrumphed, “unless he personally mugs me outside on 161st St.”

Hydes says the Pujols ball now reposes on his coffee table. But not for long, perhaps. “I don’t know it’s been a rat race so far, but I’ve got a brother who’s a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan,” he says, referring to the club where Pujols shone for so long, “so I might give him the best gift ever.”

Pujols’s milestone mash made 4-0 a game that ended with the otherwise struggling Angels blowing the Tigers out, 13-0. He would have been overtaken after awhile by Angels second baseman Tommy La Stella hitting two out, one in the second and one in the seventh, if baseball government hadn’t been so cavalier about the milestone mash.

In a career that’s seen a glandular share of headlines and bombs, married to an equal reputation for being one of the game’s most humane players, Pujols probably never figured to achieve a milestone with controversy attached to it, even as his career has had a sad decline phase provoked mostly by injuries since becoming an Angel.

But, typical of the man, he’s handled this one with the class baseball government lacked.

UPDATE: Several hours after I published the foregoing essay, Ely Hydes changed his mind, agreeing to give the ball to either Albert Pujols or the Hall of Fame.

“All I ever wanted was to sleep on it,” he told the Detroit News. “I slept on it and I woke up and I think [Pujols] is a class act. He’s not my player, he’s not my guy, I don’t deserve the ball. I reconsidered. One-hundred percent, I’m either going to give it to Pujols or to the Hall of Fame.”

Hydes still refuses to accept money for the ball, too.

Traded for Gil Hodges, then to hell and back for Bill Denehy

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“Met fans who remember me ask, ‘Oh, Bill Denehy. You’re the guy who was traded for Gil Hodges, aren’t you?’ ‘I am,’ I tell them with great pride.”—Bill Denehy.

With eleven games left in the 1967 season, Mets manager Wes Westrum, who’d succeeded Casey Stengel, resigned. Third base coach Salty Parker took the bridge to finish the season, but the Mets had a permanent candidate in mind.

They wanted Gil Hodges, the much-loved Brooklyn Dodgers icon, who finished his playing career as a knee-injured Original Met before becoming the manager of the expansion Washington Senators. But it would cost the Mets to get Hodges, since he’d signed a contract extension that would take him through the end of 1968.

So the Mets traded righthanded pitcher Bill Denehy—who shared a 1967 Topps rookie baseball card with future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—to the Senators. If you ask Denehy today whether any Met fans who remember him ever suggested he could be called the man who really made the 1969 Miracle Mets possible, he says no . . . while laughing heartily.

Then, he tells the backstory, which begins with his having left an impression on the parent Senators when he pitched well against their minor league teams while rising through the Mets’ system. To get the Hodges deal done required a little Yankee panky—specifically, former 1930s teammates Johnny Murphy (relief pitcher) and George Selkirk (outfielder), now major league general managers.

“The Senators were trying to extract as much as they could for giving up Hodges,” Denehy says by telephone from his Florida home.

They got $100,000 in cash and they wanted a player. Johnny Murphy was then the general manager of the Mets, and George Selkirk was the general manager of the Senators, but they didn’t really like each other. Selkirk was pushing for the additional player. Mr. Murphy told me they offered three additional players to choose instead of me, but Selkirk insisted it be me. What the Mets didn’t tell them was that I hurt my arm in May and was sent to the minor leagues and got a couple of cortisone shots.

The injury in question occurred when Denehy threw a hard slider to Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his fourth major league start. “It felt like someone stuck a knife in my shoulder,” he once said. Back in the minors in Florida during ’67, he underwent a procedure to have a dye shot into his arm and shoulder and it showed the torn muscle. The Mets’ then-team physician, Dr. Peter LaMotte, didn’t affirm that diagnosis; the Mets also failed to pass the information to the Senators.

Going to the Senators for Hodges may have been the least among strange, sad deals Denehy has seen, handed himself, and been handed in the decades since.

Bill Denehy today is legally blind. It began when he awoke one morning in January 2005 unable to see through his right eye, thanks to what proved a torn retina. Caught frozen without medical insurance, since he was two weeks from beginning a new job after leaving his incumbent job, Denehy needed help from a church group to undergo the surgery at a University of Florida eye facility.

Surgery performed by the same doctor who operated on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard’s torn retina proved unsuccessful. “He said my retina tear was worse than Sugar Ray’s was,” Denehy says, adding that he’s since incurred two more retina holes, a macular hole, and required a stent for his left eye.

Friendly and sounding far younger than his 73 years, Denehy believes up to 57 cortisone shots in 26 months that he was given as a young pitcher caused his eventual visual loss. As he wrote (with Peter Golenbock) in his memoir, Rage: The Legend of Baseball Bill Denehy (Central Recovery Press; 280p, $16.95), “I didn’t know any better.”

This was before the dangers of cortisone were made public. I knew Sandy Koufax was taking them for his arm, and Sandy was my hero, so I figured what was good for Sandy was good for me. I found out years later that nobody should take more than ten cortisone shots in a lifetime. I was later told that if you take more than ten shots in a lifetime, your corneas will go weak and you risk going blind. I wish someone had said something back then.

“I have my hand out in front of me a foot, and I can’t see my fingers,” Denehy says on the phone. “If I bring them in, if I stuck my thumb on my nose, and then just turn my hand where my palm is facing me, I can see my fingers there.

“But I can’t read or write,” he continues. “I’ve got the television on mute right now, and all I see is whiteness and black things moving. I don’t know whether it’s a person or it’s a game or whatever on there. I can’t go to the computer. I can’t read any type of thing. Telephone numbers are difficult for me. I used to have five by seven cards with big numbers written down for telephone numbers, but that’s gone by the wayside now. I’m in the final stages now of what we call in blindness—darkness.”

Administered to excess, cortisone is also linked to glaucoma, the disease that put paid to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s playing career in 1996, ten years before his premature death from a stroke. Puckett isn’t known to have taken cortisone often if at all during his twelve-season career, but it was revealed that glaucoma ran in his family.

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Short-lived Senator Denehy, following The Trade.

Does Denehy think baseball’s medical personnel during his career simply didn’t know the full extent of cortisone’s potential dangers? Or does he think they saw players then as mere commodities to hustle back to the field posthaste, regardless of actual or long-term health? “Great question,” he replies. “I think it was a little of both.”

He once joined a 2004 legal action involving the cortisone issue, filed by former White Sox catcher Mike Colbern, who died in March. “Baseball gave us illegal drugs and too many cortisone shots,” Colbern told Douglas J. Gladstone for A Bitter Cup of Coffee, “but never kept medical records in order to keep us playing.”

Denehy is one of 634 still-living, short-career former major leaguers who were frozen out when a 1980 agreement between baseball government and the Major League Players Association re-aligned the game’s pension plan to vest health benefits after one day’s major league service time and a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time. The deal didn’t include players whose careers occurred between 1949 and 1980.

Colbern, one-time Met shortstop Al Moran, and former Houston second baseman Ernie Fazio (who died in 2017), the first signing by the Astros’ franchise (born as the Colt .45s), led a 2003 class action suit against baseball, after a 1997 agreement to provide $10,000 pensions to select former Negro Leagues players who saw some Show time but still didn’t qualify for the 1980 pension re-alignment.

The suit accused baseball of discrimination (Colbern stressed the players didn’t want to deny the Negro Leaguers) and also charged battery and negligence against baseball for allowing team doctors and trainers to administer multiple cortisone shots without informing players of cortisone’s risks. Several hundred players including Denehy joined the suit.

It lost on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. Baseball government, ESPN said at the time, “argued that the former players were essentially looking for a handout they didn’t deserve.”

Denehy still hopes to help change that for players such as himself. Players such as David Clyde, the mishandled Rangers pitching phenom of the 1970s. And, Jim Qualls, the Cub center fielder remembered if at all for busting Seaver’s bid for a perfect game in the ninth inning in 1969. And, Carmen Fanzone, a third baseman frozen behind Hall of Famer Ron Santo with the Cubs but who made a second career as an in-demand jazz trumpeter.

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a re-alignment of the 1980 pension re-alignment: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

“My feeling is that we should get a pension that is indicative of the service time in the big leagues,” says Denehy of the pension re-alignment, for himself and for those among his 634 fellow former players frozen out of the deal. “We earned the time, okay? When they dropped it down to 43 days active service time, every one of us prior to 1980 that had more than 43 days should have gotten a pension.”

One possible reason for the pre-1980 players’ freeze-out? Stressing that it was strictly hearsay, Denehy spoke of a sense that many if not most of the players in question were merely September call-ups, with baseball and the players’ union believing they “didn’t really earn their way onto a major league roster.”

That might have been true for a few of the players but certainly not all of them. Denehy pitched in three major league seasons, for the Mets, the Senators, and the Tigers, and he made each of those teams directly out of spring training.

When he reported to the 1967 Mets’ spring camp, Denehy didn’t figure in their pitching plans until the day Jack Fisher, the one-time Orioles “Baby Birds” rotation member, had to miss a spring start when his little daughter was injured in a fall. Denehy got the start instead, zipping through three innings and posting a strong enough spring to go north with the Mets to open the season.

He got his first major league start on 16 April 1967, against the Phillies, striking out eight including the first Show batter he faced, Johnny Briggs. The eight punchouts matched Seaver for a Mets rookie record that stood until Matt Harvey broke it in 2012. Other than six walks against those eight strikeouts, Denehy’s only other blemish in the game came when Dick Allen blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth.

“That wasn’t a home run,” Denehy chuckles. “That was a moon drive.” The rising liner sailed until hitting a Coca-Cola sign atop Connie Mack Stadium’s second deck. Without the sign, Denehy says, “that ball would have landed in Delaware.”

Three starts later, facing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the Giants, Denehy threw the fateful slider to Mays. The knife in the shoulder the pain resembled would prove nothing compared to the one the quick-tempered, admittedly self-destructive, injury-plagued Denehy would stick into himself a few hundred times over.

The physical pain from his baseball injuries prodded him to more serious drinking plus marijuana and cocaine. Out of baseball, he tried real estate, insurance, and radio broadcasting, before becoming a pitching coach in the Red Sox system. (His charges included the young Roger Clemens.) By 1987, Denehy’s marriage collapsed, unable to bear the weight of his addictions and his furies any longer.

He was the University of Hartford’s baseball coach from 1984-1987. (One of his players was future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.) He rebuilt the team into a potential powerhouse before a bench-clearing brawl with the University of Connecticut brought out the worst of the inner clash between Denehy’s passion to win and his fear of failure, the clash that helped ruin him.

By his own admission a runaway train, Denehy remarked out of frustration after the brawl that he hoped a particular UConn assistant coach got car bombed—he swears he was trying to say he hoped the coach’s car would be blown up “like a balloon,” but he was cut off before he say that second part. After his firing, Denehy tried to pitch once more, in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in Florida in 1989.

But he failed a physical exam, and settled for becoming a colour commentator on league broadcasts, with Lou Palmer—the first on-air ESPN broadcaster—handling play-by-play. His eventual memoir collaborator, Peter Golenbock, in The Forever Boys, said Denehy’s in-game interview of former Mets Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack—pitching for the St. Petersburg Pelicans—drew a threat from former Tiger pitcher Milt Wilcox to slap Matlack with a kangaroo court fine.

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The rookie card, appraised by some collectors’ sites as worth up to $7,000 in mint condition.

Two subsequent road accidents caused Denehy injuries from a dislocated jaw and broken ankle to neck and back issues. He lapsed back into marijuana and cocaine until it throttled his plan to launch a national radio talk show discussing addiction and sports. He sobered up for good and  reconciled with his children and his parents.

“I haven’t really reconciled that well with my ex-wife,” he chuckles, “but my daughters and I, we talk all the time, and it’s really good.” More than good. When Denehy was bilked out of a reported $17,000 (he thinks it may have been as much as $30,000) by his now-former caretaker, Donna Sue Santella, one of his daughters worked with his bank to get the charges Santella’s accused of running up off his accounts.

It was easier facing Dick Allen and Willie Mays than facing the losses Santella admitted in an affidavit to inflicting on him. “Very simply, first of all I feel extremely violated that she worked for me for 25 months and we found out she was stealing for fifteen months,” Denehy says. He now has a new caretaker, thanks to Florida’s department of children and families who steered him toward an agency that bonds and vets its caretakers fully.

“I want to make sure that anyone who has a handicapped person or a senior citizen that’s in their family, or just a good friend, if they need assistance, they go through an agency that is bonded and vetted to make sure that person who’s going to assist them doesn’t have any kind of record or has done this before,” he says.

Denehy admits he’s had “a bad tendency” to trust the wrong people, from his pitching days to the Santella case. “And, again, my message is that you be very, very careful,” he says. “You can’t go on in life without being able to trust people. But, make sure that it’s done over time, and make sure that you can talk to other people, so that you don’t feel people are taking advantage of you.”

He still loves baseball deeply and pays close enough attention to the games and the issues around them. He’s interested especially in proposals to move the pitcher’s mound, an idea now under experiment in the independent Atlantic League. He thinks the mound should be moved back—but not quite in the way the ordinary fan or even the commissioner’s office think it should.

But he prefaces his theory with a challenge, saying that “if you ask a hundred people what’s the distance between the rubber and the plate,” they actually answer incorrectly.

The distance is 60 feet, six inches, right? Wrong, Denehy says. “It’s actually 59 feet and one inch from the pitching rubber to home plate. It’s sixty feet, six inches, to the back apex of home plate, where they’ve got a seventeen-inch square that’s cut off the corners to make the lines that go down to first and third base.”

And he would move the rubber back the length of the plate, to make the distance a true sixty feet, six inches. The reason? Not on behalf of more balls in play or artificial pace-of-game concerns—but safety.

If you’re someone like [Aroldis] Chapman for the New York Yankees, he throws over a hundred miles an hour. But—he has a seven-foot stride. So in fact when he’s releasing the ball, he’s not even fifty-nine feet, one inch from home plate, he’s fifty-two feet, one inch from home plate . . . Just look at the number of players over the last couple of years who’ve been hit in the wrist and everything, broke their wrists or broke their arms. Because they don’t have enough time to get out of the way of a pitched ball. 

And if a batter hits a 121 mph liner off a pitch thrown at 100 mph, Denehy says, “anyone who’s ever pitched and tries to throw as hard as you can, when you follow through your glove is at your side and your throwing arm is crossing your opposite hip. At 121 miles an hour, at fifty-two feet, one inch, you don’t have enough time to react to be able to get your glove up to [stop] a ball that’s hit at your face.”

The night before our conversation, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo lined a base hit off the head of Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Tallion. “I’m fine,” Tallion said after the game. “I’m unlucky I got hit and lucky I seem to be OK coming out of it.” It wasn’t the first time Tallion was ever hit by a line drive on the mound.

“Either a batter or a pitcher is going to get killed,” Denehy says. “And that’s going to be too damn late for baseball to come in and make a reactionary change in something that doesn’t have anything to do with batting average or pitching statistics, it has to do completely with safety.”

Like many, Denehy casts an interested eye upon the current trend of teams opening their checkbooks for lucrative, somewhat long-term contract extensions for their best young players, forestalling their first free agency seasons by several years. He thinks the owners have their own pocketbooks in mind, of course, but the players signing such extensions—even if they could have bagged more on the open market—aren’t exactly “heading for the breadlines,” either.

Referring to Bryce Harper’s mammoth new contract with the Phillies, which wasn’t an extension but a free agency signing, Denehy is emphatic. “He wanted to play baseball,” Denehy says. “And not be involved in any more negotiations, no more opt-outs, no more bonuses, he wanted to sign a deal where for the rest of his career he could do the one thing he loved more than anything else, which wasn’t making money, he wants to play baseball, and I say good for him.”

Denehy also cautions against assuming that the highest-salaried player on a team will become the automatic team leader. Often as not, the lower salaried players prove to be the team’s true leaders, though Denehy likes to point to one well-paid Hall of Fame teammate who became a leader quietly but authoritatively—Al Kaline, who once turned a salary raise down because he believed he didn’t earn it.

Kaline was once the highest-paid Tiger and the first to sign a six-figure season’s contract. “Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” Denehy says. “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. But just because you get the most amount of money, doesn’t mean that you’re going to become the team leader in the clubhouse.”

But he hopes most to see baseball finally resolve the 1949-1980 players’ pension issue once and for all. “I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned.

“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continues. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”

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Denehy (left) with Seaver, spring 1967: “We were Prospect A and Prospect A-1. I’m not sure who was which.”

Regretting only that he didn’t think to get a second opinion about his original shoulder injury, Denehy refuses to allow his blindness to interfere with living.

“I’m Irish,” he says, laughing. “I have faith in a higher power. I’ve got some really good friends. I went back to my fiftieth high school reunion in 2014, I was absolutely amazed at the number of classmates who came up to me that weekend and said how proud they were of me, you know, being from our class and getting to the big leagues. And I still stay in touch with a good dozen of them, a couple of them almost every day a phone call to see what’s going on.”

The only other thing to sadden Denehy is the fate of Seaver, who’s retired from public activities following a diagnosis of dementia and isn’t likely to be part of this year’s fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1969 Mets. The two pitchers first met when pitching for the Mets’ then-AAA farm in Jacksonville, Florida, before both made the Mets in spring 1967.

“We went north, we were like Prospect A and Prospect A-1, I’m not sure who was which,” he continues. “Our lockers were next to each other in the clubhouse. I knew [Seaver’s wife] Nancy. Every time I was around Tom, he always treated me, while we were teammates, and even after I was out of the game, he treated me as a friend and a former teammate.”

When Denehy worked as a baseball reporter for Enterprise Radio in 1980, the network assigned him to cover Opening Day in Cincinnati, when Seaver was with the Reds. Knowing Seaver didn’t really like to talk on Opening Day, Denehy arrived a day early with an idea.

“They were having their practise,” Denehy says, “and I went up to him. We all called him Soup back then. I said, ‘Hey Soup, I need a favour from you.’ And he says, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘I’m covering the game tomorrow for Opening Day, you know, for this network, it’s my first job, and I’d like to get an interview from you, but I realise you don’t do it tomorrow on your Opening Day, so maybe we could do it today.’

“And he put an arm around me and said, ‘Hey, listen. You’re a friend and a former teammate. Show up tomorrow at 10:30 in the clubhouse, here, and you and I will go underneath the stands and I’ll give you my comments on Opening Day.’ And he did that, and I was able to broadcast it.”

Denehy pauses a quick moment before finishing his thought. “That’s how much I think of that man,” he says. “I’m very sorry to hear about his illness.”