And now, the end is near for Trout?

Mike Trout

His back may have other ideas soon enough, but Mike Trout insists his career isn’t over until it’s over.

Time was when thinking of the Angels without thinking of Mike Trout was the proverbial non-starter. You knew you were seeing a Hall of Famer in the making the further his career progressed. You also knew concurrently that the Angels’ administrative inability to build a team their and the game’s best all-around player could be proud of made them Hall of Shamers.

Now the shame may be multiplied exponentially. Bedeviled by injuries as it was the last three years, Trout may have been hit at last by the one that puts paid to his career. May.

The official diagnosis has been “a costovertebral dysfunction” in his number five vertebra. He’ll have to alter his entire preparation and perhaps even the way he plays to continue. It’s not unrealistic to picture him becoming a full-time designated hitter soon enough. It’s also not unrealistic to wonder whether he’s been playing through any kind of back issue for long enough, and whether his team knew or dismissed it.

But a potential actual diagnosis may yet prove to be spinal stenosis. The very condition that knocked former Mets third base star David Wright and former Yankees first base bellwether Don Mattingly out of their careers and their Hall of Fame cases. Either way, Trout’s back may yet put paid to his career before its time—and his Hall of Fame case is overwhelming as it is right now.

His optimism is laudable. “I appreciate all the prayer requests,” he cracked when the official diagnosis became public, “but my career isn’t over.” But how soon will he have to walk that back?

The Angels already incurred the indignity of coming out of spring training determined to make real American League West noise, then opening their season 27-17, then collapsing into a fourteen-game losing streak and going 14-27 since they ended that streak. They’ve executed a manager and gone from postseason hopes to the dogs as the proverbial dog days of August knock on the door.

The issue that’s bedeviled them for the whole of Trout’s career to date continues bedeviling them, their inability to develop or build a serviceable pitching staff and their administration’s inability to stop just retooling under the Mud Plan: throw a few tons of it at the wall and hope some of it sticks.

Optimists such as Deadspin‘s Sam Fels would say that just shows at least the Angels, as opposed to the notorious tankers, really were trying. Pessmists would say that just shows there isn’t a truly verifiable brain among the Angels’ administrative brain trust.

But now the fallen Angels, 23.5 games out of first in the AL West and unlikely to make a 2019 Nationals-like turnaround to the postseason at all, never mind the Promised Land, are even willing to listen to 2 August trade-deadline queries involving Shohei Ohtani, their two-way pitching/hitting star. Angel fans cry “Help!” uncertain what the word even means for their team now.

Ohtani isn’t exactly unprepared for life beyond Anaheim, not just because he’s eligible for free agency after the 2023 season. Theoretically, life beyond Anaheim may happen within the next few days. It might even be only slightly beyond Orange County, if the prospects-rich Dodgers as rumoured are “engaging” the Angels in trade talk.

“Regardless of where I’m playing,” he said after yet another Angels loss Thursday, I’m going to give it my all and try to win that ballgame in front of me. I’m with the Angels right now, and I’m very thankful for what they’ve done. I love my team and my teammates. Right now I’m an Angel, and that’s all I can focus on.”

The Angels themselves aren’t yet talking about shutting Trout down for the rest of the season, reportedly. But that may not hold very long. Especially if it’s shown plausibly that he’s been playing with a bothersome back all season long, which may explain a lot about his periodic slumps that lasted a little longer, it seemed, than a typical Trout slump (yes, even Hall of Famers have them) ever did before.

The possibility also exists that Trout may never again be the player he’s been through this season, even if he knows he’s going to have to perform additional self-maintenance for the rest of what career he does have left. That’s just about the last thing long-enough-suffering Angel fans need to know.

They’ve had to grin and bear it while such a larger-than-life baseball talent with the results to back it up was never really supported with a team that could compete at all, never mind at his level. They’re not always comforted by having had the pleasure of seeing a once-in-a-billion player play above and beyond anyone else who ever wore the Angels uniform and treat them like friends at the ballpark while he was at it.

Mike Trout

Your author took this photograph of Mike Trout batting in the first inning of a 2014 game—right before he hit one over the fence.

They swallowed hard when no less than commissioner Rob Manfred accused Trout himself of being the reason he didn’t quite become The Face of the game, saying the Show couldn’t “market” him because he wouldn’t market himself. Trout isn’t big on self-promotion and, when he isn’t at the ballpark, prefers to let what he’s done at the park speak for itself. The very idea. Being a man over a brand.

Not to mention being a Hall of Famer in waiting. Trout could retire this minute and he’d go into the Hall of Fame in a walk in a few years. (The Hall’s minimum career longevity requirement is ten seasons; Trout has twelve including this year. And the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity. It’s not supposed to be a platinum watch.)

Baseball-Reference, using The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe’s JAWS calculators for Hall worthiness, ranks Trout the number five center fielder in baseball history. He has 8.3 more career wins above replacement-level (WAR) than the average Hall of Fame center fielder already. His seven-year-peak 65.1 WAR is 20.4 above the seven-year peak of the average Hall center fielder.

And, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—Mike Trout is the number one rank among those Hall of Fame center fielders who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era by far and 92 points ahead of the average for those center fielders . . .

Center Field PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Trout 5986 2884 904 115 52 91 .680
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 102 81 .620
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 54* 21 .615
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 39* 38 .576
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 118 111 .534
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 58 56 .524
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 30* 43 .463
HOF AVG .588

About the most forward Trout has ever let himself become was that fine afternoon six years ago when he hired a skywriting team to propose to the woman who became his wife. Unless it was the days when he put the entire Angel organisation on his back, after pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s tragic death in Texas, including the team’s first home game after, when he launched a 13-0, combined-no-hitter blowout with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first and–as the Angels batted around and then some—finished that seven-run frame’s scoring with a still-one-out, two-run double.

You’d love to think Trout is right when he says his career isn’t over yet. You’d also love to think he didn’t waste and won’t continue wasting such a glittering career on behalf of an organisation that couldn’t build a top-to-bottom competitive team around and alongside him.

But if his career does end too soon, he won’t lack for a certain breed of distinguished company. Luke (Ol’ Aches and Pains) Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rick Ferrell, Harry Heilmann, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Ted Lyons, Minnie Miñoso, Ron Santo, and George Sisler are those who can tell you how it feels to reach Cooperstown without reaching the postseason. Dick Allen may join their ranks if the newly-configured Classic Baseball Era Committee (covering pre-1980 players) finally elects him, albeit posthumously a la Miñoso.

It wasn’t their fault that their teams couldn’t and didn’t build competitive groups they could be proud of, either. Mike Trout’s issue has never been his ability or the performance papers to back it. His issue has been that his Angels teams couldn’t put eight more Trouts into the lineup and didn’t find even the minimally competitive ways to augment him while he stood baseball on its head.

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* From writing more extensively about Real Batting Average (RBA) last year: The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Famers played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. How could I overcome that hole?

I tinkered with a few ideas until I tripped over a best-case scenario. I took those players’ numbers of recorded sacrifice flies and divided them by the number of seasons they played under the rule. Then, I took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played. The formula is sacrifice flies (SF) divided by sacrifice fly-rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by MLB seasons. Or, if you insist on seeing it in mathematese:

SF / SRS x YRS

Thus I had as best as I could get to the total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected those players to hit all career long. I marked their sacrifice fly numbers with (*).

Flood and Messersmith for Cooperstown

Curt Flood

“Few have ever matched the grace and craftsmanship Curt Flood brought to [baseball], However, none has matched what he did for the game as a citizen.”—George F. Will.

Fifty years ago Sunday, Curt Flood’s challenge to baseball’s ancient and abused-by-the-owners reserve clause lost in the Supreme Court. Since Sunday was also Juneteenth, Flood’s widow seized upon the occasion to call for a fresh push to enshrine her pioneering husband in Cooperstown.

Judy Pace-Flood knows something about trailblazing in her own right. Long before she renewed her acquaintance with and married Flood, she was one of the only African American actresses to appear in prime time, portraying the patient wife of a black surgeon in the final season of the legendary 1960s serial Peyton Place.

“It cost him everything, he had no money, completely losing everything,’’ she told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale.

But it was breaking his heart to walk away. He was going to do this no matter what happened. I can understand the process for nobody doing anything, or saying anything, just so happy to be playing the game. He was just ahead of his time. But he just kept pushing, and pushing. The Civil Rights movement gave him more strength. And, finally, it happened.

The splendid new documentary After Jackie chronicles both Jackie Robinson’s baseball career and post-playing civil rights activism, and the efforts of Flood and fellow Cardinals Bob Gibson and Bill White to bond their team against the still-persistent Jim Crow South and comparable attitudes elsewhere. It presents Flood as just what he was, a sensitive and intelligent man who could change hearts and minds in his clubhouse but found doing so beyond it a greater challenge than he found running fly balls down in center field.

After Jackie addresses Flood’s request for a raise to a six-figure salary for 1969 and then-Cardinals owner Gussie Busch’s initial demurral. That same spring, the players pushed for and got a serious remake of baseball’s player pension plan, including reduction of the vesting time to four years’ major league service and a larger contribution from the owners into the pension fund.

But Busch—who was known for treating his players a lot better than other owners did at the time—was not amused. Enough that he gave his players a dressing-down one fine spring training day that Flood wrote later was code for “behave or get out. I no longer felt like a ninety-thousand-dollar ballplayer but like a green recruit . . . I was sick with shame and so was everyone else on the Cardinals except Busch and his claque.”

After a down 1969 season, Flood got a call from general manager Bing Devine’s aide Jim Toomey: he’d been traded to the Phillies with veteran catcher Tim McCarver, relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, and outfielder Byrone Browne, in exchange for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas, and relief pitcher Jerry Johnson. When the shock wore off, Flood told a friend there was “no way” he’d just “pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here.”

(I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: oh, the sad irony. To Flood, the trade amounted to being reduced to a piece of chattel. To Allen, who’d endured brutal racism in Philadelphia and actually applauded Flood’s quest, the trade amounted to his own Emancipation Proclamation.)

That November, Flood reached out to Major League Baseball Players Association director Marvin Miller to say he wanted to sue baseball challenging the reserve clause. Then, that not-so-foggy Christmas Eve, Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world: his letter pleading his case first to commissioner Bowie Kuhn. As New York Times sportswriting legend Red Smith described it, incomparably, Kuhn spent an entire letter answering: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Sonny didn’t exactly run along. He meant it when he said hell, no, he won’t go. Flood sat 1970 out on behalf of his new cause despite severe financial pressures some of which may have been provoked by his earlier civil rights activism stirring the usual racists and some of which may have been provoked by his stance against baseball’s reserve system.

His off-season business in tatters, Flood was receptive when Washington Senators owner Bob Short arranged to obtain his negotiating rights from the Phillies and made him a six-figure offer to join the team—promising to pay him no matter what regarding his lawsuit, and promising further that, if they couldn’t come to terms after the 1971 season, Short would release Flood and make him a free agent.

Flood gave it a try. But the toll taken on him by his reserve challenge and his business collapse was too heavy. He left the Senators in late April 1971, repairing to Majorca to buy a bar and begin sorting out his shattered life. He struggled with alcoholism, found work with his native Oakland’s parks department, and in 1986 re-acquainted with Judy Pace, whom he dated for a time after his first marriage collapsed but finally married in 1986. She helped get him to sobriety at last.

In public, he applauded when the reserve system was finally ended in 1975. In private, he feared he paid too steep a price. It took two more events to make Flood’s struggle pay off.

Event One: Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneging on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter took it to arbitration and won his free agency. After a bidding war he signed the third-most profitable offer, from the Yankees, because they agreed to parcel his $3 million to come the way he wanted it, including a set-aside to guarantee his children’s education.

Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

Event Two: Dodgers general manager Al Campanis made contract talks for 1975 a little too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s liking. Messersmith refused from there to talk to anyone lower than team president Peter O’Malley, and he added a demand for a no-trade clause in the bargain. “We’ve never given one,” O’Malley said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

Messersmith answered, in essence, “That’s what you think.” The Dodgers renewed his contract automatically after Messersmith wouldn’t sign a new deal. Then he went forth and led the National League with seven shutouts, nineteen complete games, 322 innings pitched, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA. He also earned a second straight Gold Glove and finished fifth in the league’s Cy Young Award voting.

By that August, though, it went from the personal to the bigger picture. With the Dodgers offering him more money to change his mind (at one point the offer reached three years and $540,000 total), Messersmith wouldn’t move an inch—especially after Miller opened his eyes about the reserve clause as it was written versus as it was abused for so long.

“There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere,” Messersmith said in due course, while seeing and raising a bit Flood’s once-fabled remark about a $90,000 a year slave still being a well-paid slave.

I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse . . . this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

Messersmith delivered the baby Flood sired.* He paid a price of his own for cutting the cord and slapping the infant on its hopeful butt. It took him until two days into the 1976 regular season to find a serious suitor, signing with the Braves for $1 million over three years. But between straining to prove himself worth the money and a series of injuries small and serious, Messersmith was finished as a top of the line pitcher and retired after 1979.

Those who opposed both men by parroting the ancient owners’ insistence that the end of the reserve era would mean the end of “competitive balance” (As if there was competitive balance when the Yankees were winning all those pennants all those years—Jim Bouton) discovered soon enough how wrong they were.

Once free agency settled in in earnest, after a few hiccups, there came the first decade of major league baseball’s life in which ten different teams won the ten World Series played: 1978-87. Since 1978, 23 different teams have won the World Series. That beats how many different teams have won the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NBA’s Naismith Trophy, and the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

Only one of those four major North American team sports lacks the salary cap for which pine a few too many witless old school baseball fans and chroniclers and a few too many of baseball’s owners. Hint: Its legends aren’t named Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Wayne Gretzky. And baseball’s owners today continue trying to find ways to cut players back down to size.

The push for baseball players’ free agency wasn’t made by a pair of scrubs, either.

In the long sunset of Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s career, Flood—whom George F. Will once called “Dred Scott in spikes”—was his league’s best defensive center fielder, and he had eight straight Gold Gloves for evidence before he launched a crusade for freedom in the same city where Dred Scott first brought his case for freedom. He’s also ninth all time for defensive runs above his league average for center fielders, +99.

Flood has something else in common with Scott aside from his race: Over a century apart, Scott and Flood proved the Supreme Court would never be allergic to ruling erroneously.

Messersmith was one of the game’s premier pitchers when he launched his own crusade for freedom, including the freedom to stay where he was. It’s easy to remember he won free agency. It’s not always easy to remember the issue that ignited him was the no-trade clause that’s long since been a standard in contracts signed by players achieving their free agency.

Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons phrased it short, sweet, and to the point after Messersmith prevailed before arbitrator Peter Seitz: “Curt Flood stood up for us. Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for everybody.”

Right there you have the simplest argument on behalf of electing Flood and Messersmith to the Hall of Fame as the pioneers they were.

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* Dave McNally, you say? Well, yes—but for a small detail or two. Technically, the former Oriole pitching standout was an unsigned player for 1975, too, after he was traded to the Montreal Expos but the Expos reneged on the promise of a two-year deal. He tried to pitch in ’75, but his arm and shoulder refused to cooperate, and in early June he went home to Montana to run his Ford dealership.

It was only that August—when Miller began to fear Messersmith wouldn’t go the distance and take it all the way to the arbitration challenge, since the Dodgers kept sweetening the pot to get the stubborn pitcher to sign—when McNally entered the reserve challenge picture. According to John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, Miller called McNally to ask: “I’d like to add your name to the grievance as insurance if Andy decides to sign a new Dodger contract.”

McNally said he’d be “willing to help” if needed. The Expos panicked. They sent team president John McHale to Montana to convince McNally to sign. McHale offered $125,000 for 1976 and, when McNally said he was finished anyway, offered a signing bonus of $25,000—even if all McNally did was show up to spring training.

The now-former pitcher talked to Miller the following day and told him, according to Helyar, “McHale wasn’t honest with me last year, and I’m not going to trust him again. It’s tempting to show up to spring training for twenty-five grand, but I have no intention of playing and it wouldn’t be right to take the money.”

But McNally—who died of cancer in 2002—was really only Miller’s insurance policy. It wasn’t quite his fault that he couldn’t go the distance unsigned in 1975, but it doesn’t change that Messersmith went the distance and did the proverbial heavy lifting.

Platinum arm, platinum man, cast in bronze

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax with his wife, Jane Parucker Clarke, afront the statue unveiled at Dodger Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax’s least favourite subject has always been himself. It was to wonder, then, just how he’d handle things when he came to the center field plaza behind Dodger Stadium Saturday, when a statue honouring what he means to the franchise and to baseball itself was unveiled.

It turned out that Koufax knew how not to rise to even the bait of his capture in bronze, frozen in his once-famous high and broad right leg kick as his left arm prepared to deliver to the plate.

After a tribute film was shown to the gathering, he began by quipping, “I think the film said everything I wanted to say, so I’ll be leaving now.” The gathering, which included his protegé/friend Clayton Kershaw and Hall of Fame manager/former catcher-third baseman  Joe Torre, laughed heartily enough.

People who meet him testify that he’ll talk your ears off if the subject isn’t him, preferring to learn about them, but the moment the subject becomes him he makes Puxsatawney Phil resemble a 24/7/365 social butterfly.

His best biographer, Jane Leavy, has described him as a man who’d love nothing more than to be just another fellow in the neighbourhood. Just like any other fellow who has a plaque in Cooperstown and spent the bulk of his post-playing career living as a kind of renaissance man learning about things as diverse as flying, restoring houses, theater, music, and wine, and once carrying a business card identifying himself as “Peregrination Expert”—an expert at making a long, long journey.

Come Saturday, after opening with maybe the cleverest reimagining possible of Groucho Marx’s once-famous warble, “Hello, I must be going,” the peregrination expert talked for ten minutes. Getting him to speak that long in public is an achievement worthy of a combat decoration as it is.

But he talked about practically anyone except himself. Just as he had fifty years to the day earlier, when he was inducted as the youngest man ever elected to the Hall of Fame. A day intended to do him honour—and he did call it the greatest honour of his life—turned out to be the day Koufax preferred doing honour to about sixty people who had affected his life and career.

From the high school catcher whose father urged him onto the sandlot team the older man coached to the University of Cincinnati basketball coach (Koufax attended on a basketball scholarship) who also coached the baseball team and welcomed him there. From Jackie Robinson, the only other Dodger to be secured in bronze outside that center field plaza, whom he called a teammate and friend who “went out of his way to make me feel welcome and I’ll never forget his kindness on that,” to every pitching coach he had. (Both Robinson’s and Koufax’s statues come from the same sculptor, Branley Cadet.)

From his only major league manager, Hall of Famer Walter Alston (I’m not sure if he was happy with me as a bonus player, but we came to have a pretty good relationship through the years) to assorted roommates such as Doug Camilli (reserve catcher), Dick Tracewski (second baseman, and his roommate the morning he awoke to an elbow swollen so profoundly it turned into the arthritis diagnosis that ultimately put paid to his pitching career), Norm Sherry (the reserve catcher who helped him correct the hitch that kept him from greatness until 1961), and Carl Furillo (the Brooklyn legend with the steady bat and the throwing arm that got him nicknamed the Reading Rifle).

From all his teammates during his twelve major league seasons—particularly his longtime catcher John Roseboro but also the Dodgers’ all switch-hitting infield of 1965 (Jim Lefebvre, Wes Parker, Jim Gilliam, Maury Wills)—to his relief pitchers (particularly Ron Perranoski and Phil [The Vulture] Regan). From the trainers and clubhouse manager Nobe Kowano to Vin Scully. (GOAT used to be a bad thing, now it’s greatest of all time. Well, that’s the end of the discussion. Vin Scully is the greatest of all time.)

“I think my only regret today,” Koufax said near the finish, “is that so many are no longer with us and I’m unable to let them know how much I thank them and appreciated them. Thank you to all the fans who treated me so well, and tell them how lucky they are to have such a competitive team to root for for so many years.”

“I remember one of the first times I got to sit down and speak to Sandy, it was on a flight to L.A. for Joe’s charity event,” Kershaw said before his longtime mentor and friend took his turn. “And I was sitting there, and I thought, Sandy and Joe, some old ballplayers, I’m just gonna have to sit through ‘Back when we played,’ or, ‘This is how I used to do it,’ and I thought I was going to have to sit through that the whole flight.”

Koufax would crack in due course, “Conventional wisdom has always said, ‘Don’t give an old man a microphone, he’s got too many years to talk about’.”

“But it was a far cry from that,” Kershaw continued. “I got to know Sandy on that flight and after that I thought, Wow, Sandy genuinely cares about how I’m going to do in this game. From then on I was able to talk to Sandy. He’d call me when good things happened and congratulate me. He’d call me when bad things happened to encourage me. He’d even call during the offseason to check in on Ellen and I and see how the chaos of our life had gone with our four kids.”

Koufax has no children of his own, but he has been remarried happily to his third wife, Jane Parucker Clarke, for almost two decades and counting. Once, appearing at the first showing of a documentary about Jews in sports, Koufax had a small chat with New York Times writer Ira Berkow. After Koufax seemed somewhat reserved when told most boys of his generation dreamed of striking out the Yankees and he’d done it in a World Series, Berkow asked what Koufax did dream about. Koufax pointed to his lady without missing a beat and replied, “Her.”

Those who knew him in his playing days continue to be solicitous without being obstreperous about his accomplishments. (“I have to be careful how I word things,” Torre told the Saturday gathering, “because I say I hit against Sandy Koufax, but I have to take that back: I faced Sandy Koufax.” For the record, Torre couldn’t hit Koufax with a hangar door: a pair of home runs but a .220/.233/.339 slash line against him.)

My own call is there’s a statistic that, even in the pitching-friendly era during which Koufax went from good to great to off the charts, says more about him than the 699 strikeouts he nailed in his final two, arthritic, overmedicated seasons. (Including the then-record 382 he bagged in 1965.)

Koufax’s fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP: you can see it as your earned-run average when the help from your defense is removed from the equation) for his final six seasons, the seasons that made him the ultimate peak-value Hall of Famer, is 2.18. Granting the stat applies retroactively, in his case, but ponder this: Sandy Koufax led the entire Show in FIP—the measure of what he himself was responsible for, including keeping the ball in the park, striking the other guys out, keeping the walks and hit batsmen to a minimum, everything he himself could control in a baseball game—for six consecutive seasons, and it averages out to 2.18 for the six. Even in a pitching-friendly era, that’s a surrealistic accomplishment.

So often compared to Koufax as a lefthanded pitcher, Kershaw preferred to honour Koufax the friend. “I was looking back at the time we were at [Scully]’s retirement ceremony on the field and something you said stuck with me, about Vin,” he said. You said that the thing you treasure most about Vin is that he allows you to call him a friend. And that’s the same for me. So, I’m grateful for that, Sandy. I know you don’t believe it, but there is no one more deserving of this honor.”

Kershaw had to hold tears back when he said it.

“Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Sandy,” Steve Garvey once told a reporter. “They’re the only ones that seem to grow bigger with the years.” It may depend upon how you define “big.”

Williams became a kind of cantankerous roving hitting instructor in his retirement, when not indulging his parallel passion for fly fishing, often still out to prove he knew best. DiMaggio presented himself as regal and demanded regal treatment. They seemed too aloof even in crowds on their own behalfs. Koufax guards his privacy powerfully but he’s considered accessible enough if you don’t treat him like a royal or a deity.

He’s probably been the least cantankerous or self-possessed baseball legend of his time, except perhaps for the late Yogi Berra. He’s turned up at Dodger and other spring camps over several decades to instruct and observe, to share but not “prove” his knowledge. “A lot of people look around to see how they can keep you from climbing up there with them,” the late fellow Hall of Famer (and longtime Dodger) Don Sutton once said. “Sandy has always gone out of his way to pull everybody up there with him.”

“To the extent that he removed himself from public view,” Leavy wrote in her biography, “it was not so much because he believed there are no second acts in American life as because he was determined to have one. He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished. He is proud of it. He simply refuses to exist in cinders and ashes. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of ‘Sandy Koufax’ as someone else, a persona separate from himself. If he was seeking refuge from anything, it was that.”

Having pulled everyone else up there at his own statue-unveiling ceremony, there was but one way for Koufax to conclude, and he did just that. “For all of you who came out,” he said, “thank you. To my family and friends, I love you one and all. I’m done.”

A Saturday special for Miggy Stardust?

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera beamed while tapping his heart, as manager A.J. Hinch helpd him accept a memento from the Tigers for his 500th home run last fall. His 3,000th hit was put on hold one more day by Mother Nature.

“I think,” Miguel Cabrera said when asked his first reaction after he might nail hit number 3,000, “I’m going to cry.” Then, he said, he’d remember the uncle who taught baseball to him in his native Venezuela. He also asked for “El Alma Llanera” to be played through the Comerica Park PA system after he nailed the hit.

He didn’t exactly ask for the rainout Friday that postponed it another day.

Amo, lloro, canto, sueño, con claveles de pasión, the song’s lyric says in part: “I love, I cry, I sing, I dream, with carnations of passion.” That’s as good a short description as any you might find of the way Cabrera has played baseball. Even if it omits mention of high-wattage smiling. Cabrera’s been as good at that as he’s been at the plate.

“So long as one can grasp concepts like ‘fun’ and ‘joy,’ Miguel Cabrera has always been delightfully uncomplicated,” writes Bleacher Report‘s Zachary D. Rymer. “Rarely has he shown any pretense that he’s doing something other than playing a game for a living.”

“I used to low-key creep your at-bats in my hotel room EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, after our games,” tweeted Reds first baseman Joey Votto this past Wednesday. “I knew I had to study the best to beat the best. Good luck with your final steps to 3000. You are a joy to watch.”

Votto wasn’t talking about his own hitting, necessarily, so much as he might have been talking about how him and his team could keep Miggy Stardust in check. That was about as simple as trying to stop an oncoming train with a bathroom plunger.

Cabrera may be unpretentious about the game he plays and the game he brings to it, but this is a player whose first major league hit was a home run, whose 1,000th career hit was a home run, and whose 2,000th hit was also a home run. Would it be too much to ask the Elysian Fields to arrange for number 3,000 to clear the fence for Cabrera this weekend?

Wouldn’t it?

They already arranged it for Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs. They swung it for Álex Rodríguez. But you wouldn’t necessarily bet against them moving their huge hands on Cabrera’s behalf, either. Not for a player who will become the only man in Show history to collect 3,000+ hits, 500+ home runs, and a Triple Crown.

Fifteen other Hall of Famers—including Oscar Charleston, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski—were Crown winners without finishing where Cabrera will finish in all three of those places. (Charleston and Gibson, of course, were limited to the Negro Leagues and their shorter playing schedules arbitrarily and unfairly.)

The chunky first baseman/designated hitter whose face is still mostly that of a wide-eyed ten-year-old boy is about to travel aboard his own exclusive jet. Cabrera’s surname translates to “goatherd.” He’s made goats out of plenty of pitchers from the most modest to the Hall of Famer alike.

In ten or more lifetime appearances each against five Hall of Famers, Cabrera would have a 1.000+ OPS if it wasn’t for John Smoltz, against whom his OPS is a puny .611. He has a 1.105 OPS against Greg Maddux, a .933 against Tom Glavine, a .912 against Pedro Martínez, and an .833 against Randy Johnson. When Miggy Stardust enters Cooperstown, he’ll enter with four sets of bragging rights.

The single mark against Cabrera is that he’s been a career-long negative defender. Among first basemen—and Cabrera’s played more games there than at third base since 2014—he’s five fielding runs and 38 defensive runs saved below his league average. As all-around first basemen go, Albert Pujols he ain’t.

Among third basemen, he’s less: 46 fielding runs and 88 defensive runs saved below his league average. As all-around third basemen go, Mike Schmidt he ain’t. (I could have said Adrián Beltré, too, but Beltré finished 23 short of the 500-bomb threshold, alas. It won’t keep him from welcoming Cabrera as a Hall of Famer in due course.)

He hasn’t exactly been the Road Runner on the bases, either. In fact, he’s barely beyond Cecil Turtle but without Cecil’s bag of sneaky tricks. Cabrera has only 106 infield hits in 2,999. And he’s stolen in a career (39) what Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson could steal in a season—near the end of Henderson’s career.

Cabrera has tried sixty thefts and been arrested a little over a third of the time. He’s only tried an average of three times per season. It may be miraculous, or a case of catching the other guys with their pants down, that he has a .650 lifetime stolen base percentage. Presumably, his teams warned him that any more than three tries a year would get him arrested for malicious mischief.

Except there’s no malice aforethought involved with Cabrera. This is the guy who’s been seen hugging opposing fans in the seats when diving for a foul ball, and giving Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson a grinning thumbs-up, after Hellickson once struck him out on a changeup nobody could hit—even swinging a shovel.

It takes something to stay the course even when your team has collapsed. As age and injuries caught up to Cabrera from 2017 through the end of last season, only one team in Show lost more than the Tigers in the same span. Now, the Tigers actually look like a team approaching true contention, and Miggy Stardust is their still-enthusiastic elder statesman.

Mother Nature trumped the Elysian Fields to rain the Tigers out Friday night. Maybe she knows something we and they don’t. Something about a Saturday special that turns Comerica Park into the hardiest party spot in Detroit.

Ortiz in Cooperstown: Now, about that (ahem) other stuff

David Ortiz

Boston’s 21st Century king of swing wasn’t as tainted as you still might think.

It almost figured that I’d see at least one person only start reminding us of now-Hall of Famer David Ortiz’s “taint” by noticing he’d hit only 20 home runs in his final Minnesota season, 2002, then 37 in his first Boston season, 2003. Heaven forbid such people do their homework. So I did it for him, and for anyone else who cares.

As a Twin in 2002, Ortiz hit fifteen home runs on the road but only five in the Metrodome, which was still the Twins’ home playpen. (Calling the Metrodome a park is like calling Itzhak Perlman a fiddler.) As a Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz hit fourteen homers on the road and seventeen in Fenway Park.

In other words, Ortiz—who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after the Twins released him—went from a home stadium that was killing him to a home park that was great for him at the plate. He didn’t need actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances for that.

Now, about that 2003 positive for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances? The one that marks Ortiz as a “steroid cheat” for life, in the eyes of only too many? Can we shoot that one down once and for all?

1) Those 2003 tests were supposed to be anonymous, done to determine whether the problem of actual/alleged PEDs was indeed rampant enough to begin mandatory testing. Well, they were anonymous . . . until somebody leaked the results to the New York Times six years later.

2) The 2003 tests turned out to be very problematic and even tainted. (Not to mention seized improperly by the federal government.) Even Rob Manfred himself has said of them, “it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program.”

Ortiz was never even told the substance in question. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association would tell him what it was. The last I looked, if you were accused of something horrible but never once told just what you were accused of doing, you’d have grounds to dismiss your accusers as bloody fools at minimum—and targets of defamation suits at maximum.

Manfred even said it couldn’t be confirmed for dead last certain that Ortiz actually did test positive for such a substance. That may have been the case with several other players testing positive in that supposed-to-be-anonymous test.

3) Mandatory testing for actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances began in MLB in 2004. Ortiz was tested regularly, several times a year, over the final thirteen years of his career . . . and never. once. tested. dirty.

4) By contrast, of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were suspect prior to the mandatory testing era and starting around 1999-2000. They’ve fallen off the BBWAA ballot now, after failing to be elected in their tenth and final tries and despite getting their highest vote percentages yet. (Bonds: 66 percent; Clemens: 65.2 percent.) Yes, their records prior to 1999-2000 said Hall of Famers both. Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark says, simply, “They just ran out of minds to change.”

Maybe not quite. Both their cases, the good, bad, and ugly, go to the Era Committees. The Today’s Game Committee could take them both up as soon as next fall. That’ll be small comfort to those excoriating the Baseball Writers Association of America for saying OK to some who’ve been suspected but never proven and no to others suspected and suspected and suspected again.

Saying no to those absolutely affirmed is different. Manny Ramírez tested dirty twice during the mandatory-testing era and put paid to himself. He didn’t help his own cause, either, by having been one of baseball’s biggest pains in the rump roast. What they used to call “Manny Being Manny” was Manny graduating from a fun-loving nutbag to a self-centered jerk who often wounded his teams with his antics.

Aléx Rodríguez, who was a first-timer on this year’s BBWAA ballot as well, got nailed stone cold in the Biogenesis probe, of course. That probe had its own issues, unfortunately, but A-Rod’s self-immolating bid to sue his way out of that jam until he was forced to sit an entire season out under suspension took care of him.

My own ambivalence about the actual/alleged PED question comes down as well to the following: It was and remains genuinely impossible to prove for dead last certain that using them did or didn’t give someone a performance or statistical edge. You can even look at a considerable majority of such suspects and discover their stats actually dipped, not rose, during the periods they were believed to indulge. (Jason Giambi was one such candidate, in fact.)

You can also find considerable research to suggest very plausibly that the substances which inflated arm and shoulder strength weren’t really going to help for one good reason: nearly all power hitters generate their power from the lower body, from the torso and thighs.

There were enough players, too, who dipped into the actual/alleged PED well not because they thought it would give them an edge at the plate or on the mound but because they thought—foolishly enough—that they could recover from injuries quicker and without consequences. If they learned the hard way about the consequences, could you blame them for trying? Really?

Baseball doctors aren’t exactly chock full of Nobel Prize for Medicine candidates. In enough cases they could be tried by jury for malpractise, if not quackery. You can remember how many players with careers compromised or ended for rushing it back, being rushed back, or playing foolishly through injuries?

And don’t get me started on how many injured players were denounced as “quitters” for not wanting to risk the long term and play through injuries that might have become worse. (Were, and still are. Carl Crawford had Hall of Fame talent but was sapped by injuries—including one or two he was foolish enough to try playing through, for fear that his manager might call him a quitter, too.)

As a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, I participate in an annual vote for the Hall of Fame. Symbolic regarding the real Hall of Fame, of course. But we elected Bonds and Clemens a couple of years ago. I’d like to think we, not just me,  knew Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame worthy by their careers before they were suspect.

(We also figured, I’m sure, Clemens having been acquitted of lying to Congress’s Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids [thank you again, Mr. Will] when he denied using actual/alleged PEDs.)

I’d like to think we also knew the tainted 2003 anonymous test shouldn’t taint a David Ortiz who burned to play in the biggest of the big, shone in the biggest of the big, and has three World Series rings to show for it, but never tested dirty in thirteen seasons to follow of playing in the mandatory testing era.

But it’s easier to clean up an oil spill than it is to change minds made up before or despite the real evidence coming before it. That’s something that even ironclad evidence has a tough time overcoming.