First some look for the curse

Eenie, meanie, chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak! (Photo: New York Yankees.)

Just when you think you’ve seen every last exercise in abject stupidity a sports fan can indulge, you get disabused swiftly and sickeningly. Case in point: the Twitter user (I won’t dignify him by mentioning him by handle) who offered up, quote, “if you could curse any MLB player for all of October who would you choose.” The lack of question mark is his.

He even had the temerity to use a once-famous portrait of Casey Stengel, freshly hired to manage the New York Yankees for 1949, gazing agape at a baseball backlit for the viewer, as if gazing into a job-appropriate crystal ball seeking his and the Yankees’ future. The concept of putting a hex on the Yankees’ opponents wasn’t exactly the idea.

At the very least, the Twitter twit in question must have a thing for provoking observers to think about flogging dead horses. I thought I’d written my last words for a very long time about baseball curses and goats, actual or alleged, and how truly un-funny the sports goat business really is. So much for that idea.

When the Dodgers gave Vin Scully a tribute night in his final season at the microphones, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax addressed the Dodger Stadium throng. Koufax remembered Scully slipping into church the day before a World Series and praying—not “for a win, but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody in the future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.”

Whomever Scully affected over his long and impeccable broadcasting career, Twitter Twit couldn’t possibly have been among them. A man or woman who invites you to curse the MLB player of your choice for all October isn’t someone who’d pray that the postseason would have heroes and not goats.

Later the same day as that dubious invitation, the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the National League West. They slapped the American League West champion Oakland Athletics 7-2 Tuesday after entering the game with a magic number of two. Their freeway rivals the Los Angeles Angels, who’ve clinched yet another losing season in Mike Trout’s all-universe prime, lent them a helping hand by beating the San Diego Padres, 4-2.

Thanks largely to home runs from Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, A.J. Pollock, and Corey Seager, that’s eight straight Dodger division titles. They’d like very much not to make it an eighth straight postseason of heartbreak. Heartbreak that includes back-to-back World Series losses to a couple of teams exposed in due course as illegal, off-field-based, sign-stealing cheaters.

Even their storied Brooklyn ancestors never had it that bad. Did they?

Will the Dodgers’ rotten postseason fortune continue? Will the worst among fans continue reveling in it when not abusing them for it? (Los Angeles Daily News photo.)

Things were smaller and somewhat simpler then, but the Boys of Summer’s final decade in Brooklyn shows six pennants and one World Series triumph. Before they were those bold, colour line-breaking teams, the Dodgers spent two decades plus between World Series appearances (1920, 1941) either in or around the old National League lower division.

Those were teams that inspired sports cartoon legend Willard Mullin to represent them as circus legend Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie hobo, after a cabbie taking Mullin to Ebbets Field asked how those bums were doing this time. The Dodgers haven’t been called the Bums since moving to Los Angeles. But no World Series rings since the Reagan Administration leaves them stuck somewhere between the Bums of 1920-1941 and the Boys of Summer who seemed to assemble great teams unable to stop the Yankee wrecking balls.

And you’d be hard pressed to find another franchise winning eight straight division titles with nothing to show for them except two pennants. Even the Atlanta Braves winning eleven straight NL Easts won three pennants and a World Series during that 1995-2005 streak. The Yankees won nine straight American League Easts from 1997-2006 and have five pennants and three World Series rings to show for it.

The Dodgers have done what some people would have thought impossible once upon a time. They’ve become baseball’s most snakebitten 21st Century team.

Sure, it’s easy to look at the ones who don’t get to win even the occasional division title. Sure, it’s easy to look back at the legendary poor boys of the 20th Century. Sure, it’s easy to lament for every St. Louis Brown and Washington Senator ever, or for every Cub from 1945 forward, every Red Sox from 1946 forward, every Phillie from 1950 forward.

Futile, Greek-tragic, or star-crossed, none of them bear the Dodgers’ surrealistic iniquity. They even have a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who’s been the best of his generation and who wrestles inside his own formidable baseball mind with the paradox of the pitcher who once owned the earth in the regular season but shone one moment only to be murdered the next in the postseason.

Sure enough, Clayton Kershaw was one of the suggestions proffered when Twitter Twit extended his nasty invitation. As if Kershaw doesn’t have enough to overcome entering this postseason.

Including his arguable darkest postseason hour last year, when his manager Dave Roberts—not content to give him a pat on the fanny for a well-done job striking Adam Eaton out to escape a seventh-inning division series Game Five jam—sent him out for the eighth instead of his admitted choice Kenta Maeda.

When, instead, Kershaw watched Anthony Rendon send one pitch just over the left field fence and Juan Soto send his very next pitch halfway up the right field bleachers. When Roberts then reached for Maeda—and watched as sickeningly as every Dodger fan in creation when Maeda struck out the side. Too much, too little, too late.

After that division series loss, indignant Dodger fans made a show of running over Kershaw jerseys in the parking lots. On Tuesday, at Twitter Twit’s invitation, there really were those now praying for the continuing postseason takedown of a man who’s been that rarity, an off-the-charts pitcher otherwise who also happens to be a decent, nice man hard pressed to deal with off-field catcalls and snark without entertaining thoughts of manslaughter.

Point out Kershaw’s 2.15 ERA and 2.94 fielding-independent pitching this truncated season—second on the club only to Tony Gonsolin’s 1.77/2.44—and the snarkers break out the October voodoo dolls. Kershaw may be tempted to forget his unostentatious Christian faith and go to the mound with a rabbit’s foot or a good-luck troll in his pocket.

Twitter Twit and his ilk probably don’t have much awareness that baseball’s presumed goats haven’t always been allowed to put the boos and catcalls behind them when leaving the ballpark, either. In some ways, Kershaw jerseys being run over by angry Dodger fans may be one of the more polite such exercises.

How would they like to have been Bill Buckner, playing catch with the young son not yet born when he had his rendezvous with ill destiny in Game Six of the 1986 World Series? When one of the boy’s throws bounced past and, thinking only that he was being polite, said, “That’s okay, Dad, I know you have trouble with grounders.”

That’s how Buckner learned the nastiest among long-suffering Red Sox fans extended their foul play to children. He packed his family up, high-tailed it out of New England, and made for Idaho, where he went into the real estate business. His eventual reconciliation to Red Sox Nation didn’t necessarily mean he’d forget while he forgave. Not until he was stricken with the Lewy Body dementia that took his life last year.

Another ill-fated Red Sox from the same Series, relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, struggled enough with his punishing self-criticism and his Games Six and Seven burdens without having to run into a father and son one day in the future, the son cursing Schiraldi to his face over that Series loss, and Schiraldi horrified that the father did nothing to discipline his son for it.

A year before that Series, Don Denkinger got his after he called Kansas City’s Jorge Orta safe at first when everyone saw clearly that Orta was out by two full steps or so on the play. The St. Louis Cardinals imploded from there, of course. But the outrage over that blown call included a mental case of a radio disc jockey revealing Denkinger’s address and phone number on the air and Denkinger dealing with vandalism and death threats enough to warrant FBI protection for a spell.

Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams blew a 1993 World Series save and spent a sleepless night with his rifle in his arms over death threats (not to mention assorted carpentry nails left under the tires of his and his wife’s cars in their home driveway)—and that was before he entered Game Six and served the pitch Toronto’s Joe Carter clobbered for game, set, and World Series.

Before Buckner and Schiraldi’s ill fates, California Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, already a deeply troubled soul as it was, surrendered a home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to that World Series. The sensitive righthander finally cracked under continuing abuse from fans while his career from there dissipated under injury and his marriage cracked up. In 1989 he shot his estranged wife before shooting himself. His wife survived. He didn’t.

Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was handed the goat horns for the 1939 World Series after the Yankees’ Charlie Keller blasted him at the plate with the score tied in the bottom of the tenth. What they called Lombardi’s Snooze was Keller built like the tank Lombardi was but nailing his groin on the play, unwittingly knocking the hapless catcher out while Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio scored behind Keller.

They also forgot Lombardi couldn’t have cost the Reds that Series—the Yankees were en route a sweep and it was Game Four. Lombardi was a gentle giant with a self-deprecating sense of humour about himself. He was also a lifelong depressive who eventually tried but failed to commit suicide in 1953.

You still think the curse/goat business is all that funny? It might have made for a small library worth of amusing and even semi-classic writing, but I’ve been to funnier muggings. (Including my own, in Washington, in December 1990.) It’s also made for unrealistic views of long-term futility. Curse of the Black Sox? Curse of the Bambino? Curse of the Billy Goat? Curse of Rocky Colavito? How about the curses of myopic or boneheaded management and administration?

Sometimes even the heroes learn the hard way that with certain brain-damaged fans achievement is a crime. Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s two successful home run record pursuers learned the hard way. Roger Maris (single-season) and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron (career) dealt with death threats from miscreants who didn’t want either an “interloper” (Maris, as enough Yankee and other fans saw him) or a black man (Aaron) knocking the Sacred Babe to one side.

Let’s ask Twitter Twit what I often asked Joe and Jane Fan in general. Do you really think you could have done better? Do you really think you could go to your job every day with 55,000 plus at your office or your warehouse or your store or your farm surrounding you—and maybe 550 million watching you live on television?

Do you think you could make a fateful mistake or get beaten at the wrong time in front of crowds like that and just pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, and start all over again? Would you like to go to work knowing that some other tweeter asked whom his followers would like to put a curse on at your place of business?

Don’t try telling me or anyone else you’re just going for a laugh. It isn’t all that funny to the poor soul who comes up short in the biggest of the big moment and knows his name will become synonymous with disaster for the rest of his mortal life.

We need a lot less Twitter Twit. And a lot more Vin Scully. Maybe there can’t be strictly heroes in any postseason, but maybe even today’s too-polarised Americans might think for once about putting their worst to one side and telling the Twitter Twits among us to wise up or clam up.

This bizarro postseason array to come means especially that the division champions still have to navigate—with no days off, yet—the lessers who might heat up suddenly and give them a war, if not a conquest. Once upon a time the dead-last New York Mets got thatclose to knocking the Cardinals out of a pennant on the final weekend. There’s still an outside shot of a team entering this postseason with a losing record . . . and the potential to knock a division winner out if not go all the way to the Promised Land. Funsie.

The Dodgers especially have excessive baggage to carry in without having to steel themselves for that. They’d love to make a postseason winner at last out of themselves and their Hall of Famer to be, but they know too well that one of baseball’s most irrevocable laws is, “Anything can happen—and usually does.”

So maybe the most polarised and least genial among us might yet summon up our better angel, congratulate the eventual winner, and offer the eventual defeated nothing more than, “Hey, you did your best, you came up short, it doesn’t mean we want you to have the next seat in the electric chair.”

Sure. And maybe I’ll be elected to succeed Rob Manfred.

A Law against expanded postseasons future

Would the fun-fun-fun Chicago White Sox have that much fun-fun-fun playing for diluted championships in the future?

So the first two teams to clinch postseason places were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were seen as a powerhouse going into this season regardless, and the Chicago White Sox, third-place American League Central finishers last year and perhaps the most pleasant and entertaining surprise this side of the Slam Diego Padres this year. The Tampa Bay Rays—tied with the White Sox for baseball’s most wins this morning—followed quickly enough.

We know they’re going to have to navigate this pandemic-truncated season’s expanded playoffs. Will they have the same competitive incentive playing a normal 2021 season? Or, will commissioner Rob Manfred and those owners who back him on it get his way and keep regular-season and championship dilution next year and, bite your tongues, eternity to follow? Baseball’s inquiring minds demand to know, because what Manfred and company think they’ll gain isn’t good for the game.

Keith Law—author of two imperative books on re-marrying the thinking person’s sport to thinking, period (Smart Baseball, The Inside Game), and now an analyst at The Athletic—objects like me to that prospect. Let’s presume concurrence, too, from Law’s two analytical superstars, Joey Bagodonuts and Twerpy McSlapperson.

“Going forward . . . expanded playoffs would be primarily a money grab,” he writes, “and they risk diluting the regular season as a unique product while simultaneously reducing the value of individual games as broadcast properties in the playoffs. It also prioritizes short-term gain over the long-term financial health of the sport.” He knows that the regular season is supposed to mean something, and long enough did, and that baseball’s former disinclination to go the way of the NHL and the NBA (more than half its teams entering their postseasons) robs championship of more than half its meaning.

Law also thinks that making this year’s expanded baseball postseason eternity’s as well threatens the game’s integrity and the integrity of a fair and open market for those we spend our hard-earned money to see—and it isn’t Manfred or the owners he admits are his first priority in office.

It also feels like a possible shadow move to discourage the best teams from spending at or above the luxury-tax threshold, because the reward for being the best team in the regular season is so much less than it was previously. Winning 100-plus games in the regular season meant a guaranteed playoff berth when those were somewhat scarce — no team has won 100 games and missed the playoffs in the wild-card era — but with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs, 90 wins would almost certainly guarantee you a ticket into the postseason.

If 100 wins doesn’t do much for you but improve your seeding, what is the financial incentive to spend more to get to 100 when we know that the results of playoff series aren’t that far from 50/50, and making your team that much better on paper barely increases your odds of advancing? The answer is probably “very little,” and that would impact the free-agent market at all levels — even at the very top, as teams that typically run huge payrolls would no longer see the return on a $30 million investment in one player as they did under a system where fewer teams made the playoffs, and you could easily win 95 games and go home on Oct. 1.

This year, the expanded playoffs carry a concurrent threat—to player health, particularly pitchers’ health, particularly the health of relief pitchers, some of whom have already had their struggles this season thanks to the pandemic-imposed truncation’s side effects.

Don’t think for one moment that spring training’s abortion and the eventual speedy enough “summer camp” didn’t knock several players including relief pitchers off their fulcrums going in as it was. The postseason tournament will be compressed, with no off days. Uh, oh. “The more we ask guys to pitch on short rest, the more they tend to get hurt,” Law reminds us. “These innings are already high-leverage; asking premier relievers to throw more such innings on little to no rest seems like a recipe to blow guys out.”

When I began thinking hard about postseason expansion and Manfred’s wish to make it eternal, I feared with reason that it was liable to do little to arrest baseball’s recent tanking trends and, if anything, give tankers even less incentive to break the habit. When Law addresses the tankers now, he takes a different stance, one that isn’t exactly dismissable too readily. He thinks the tankers will be “disincentivised” with the postseason bar no longer even a .500 record, necessarily:

[These teams] projected to win 75 to 80 games is on the edge of playoff contention, and they’d have a much harder time selling their fans (or players, for that matter) on tanking. These teams probably won’t be in the market for the elite free agents, but they’re less likely to sell off talent, and that could in turn prop up salaries for some lower tiers of free agents because buyers would have fewer options available in trades.

The problems include what Law notices and I fear: the tankers’ fan bases may be re-engaged deeper into the regular season, but the fan bases of the superior teams may be disengaged because their playoff berths could be secure (this is my guesstimate, not his) as early as late enough August. Law also notices what I have otherwise: this year’s model made eternity’s “also puts worse teams in the playoffs, a time when you expect to see the best of the best on the field, and increases the risk that we’ll see more blowouts against depleted or just inferior pitching staffs.”

For the longest time I’ve heard those lost for ways to re-engage long-incumbent baseball fans and court prospective new baseball fans suggest that expanded postseasons were just about the likeliest saviours. Even if they agreed that most such schemes ultimately equate the game’s common good with making money for the owners. Such people could be convinced only on rare occasions that perhaps the biggest factor separating baseball from the rest was that its ultimate championships were the least diluted of any major professional American sports.

Like me, Law thinks some of baseball’s changes have been or will be better for the game. Like me, he loves the universal designated hitter: “[It] is almost certainly here to stay, which absolutely will help the sport, removing the worst hitters in baseball from National League lineups.” Like me, he applauds the automated strike zone and rejects any lingering Luddism that rejects technology when it stands to improve the game: “[T]he idea of eschewing available technology in favor of noticeable errors is confusing to anyone who didn’t grow up a fan of the sport (and to many of us who did).”

In other words, Law—like me—is very willing to trade the intellectual delights of revisiting and re-debating the most notorious blown calls in the game’s history on behalf of getting things right and, concurrently, removing excuses when many blown calls lead to blown outcomes. Don Denkinger, call your office. We’ve had too many decades worth of fun deconstructing and reconstructing Jorge Orta and the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, 1985 World Series. Let’s say it now, Don: You blew the first out but that’s not really why the St. Louis Cardinals lost that Series. But you became in due course an outspoken advocate of replay, which has done the game a huge favour, really, bless your heart.

Sam Holbrook, call yours likewise. We know you blew the interference call on Trea Turner when you didn’t acknowledge a terrible throw pulled Yuli Gurriel off first base and his glove right into Turner after Turner was safe at first. But we also know the Washington Nationals were made of tougher stuff than the ’85 Cardinals. You saw it yourself, Sam, when one out later, with Yan Gomes returned to first, Anthony Rendon hit one into the middle of the Crawford Boxes and saved you from becoming the 21st Century Denkinger.

But diluting the meaning of a championship even further than the wild card era’s done it just to make money for the owners? (And, the players, more of whom would get to divvy up at least some of the postseason spoils even if they and their teams had no legitimate business playing toward a championship in the first place.) Remember the meaning of an emergency measure: the key word is emergency. When the emergency passes and things return to something resembling normal, emergency measures made permanent lead to new and prospectively more grave disasters.

Hasn’t baseball had enough disaster over its long and mostly storied history? Weren’t the self-destruction of the 1877 Louisville Grays (forced out of business in a gambling scandal), the Black Sox scandal, the Ray Chapman tragedy, the colour line, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal (it cost fans the All-Star vote for over a decade to follow), the 1981 strike, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the mid-to-late 1980s owner collusion, the Pete Rose scandal, the 1994-95 strike, the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and Astrogate/Soxgate more than too much of enough?

Since it’s so much on behalf of the owners making money, Law reminds us, too, that a few too many postseason games erode their value as broadcast properties from which the owners make millions enough. They’ll also help suppress the ratings already being suppressed in the wild card era, or doesn’t anyone think about viewer/listener over-saturation as much as they might? Should?

The safest bet on the planet right now may be that Manfred didn’t think all that hard about that part. The bet safer than that is that Manfred didn’t and doesn’t think.