The first five days

Stop me if you’ve heard it before: Jacob deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer, but the new Mets bullpen puked the bed like the old one did.

The fans are back in the stands, however limited by ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, but the Nationals have yet to play a regular-season game thanks to a few players and a staffer or two testing positive. There went that Opening Day must-see match between Max Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom.

With their opening set with the Nats thus wiped out, deGrom had to wait until the Mets went to Philadelphia Monday. Oops. That and everything else seemed to play a support role to the horrid news out of San Diego.

The news that Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres’s new bazillion dollar shortstop, suffered a partial left shoulder dislocation on a hard third inning swing at the plate during a Monday loss to the Giants.

Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters he thinks team trainers and medical people were able to pop the shoulder back together, but the team isn’t taking chances. At this writing, MRI results aren’t available and nobody knows yet whether Tatis will spend significant time on the injured list.

If it’s more than a small shoulder dislocation, it may not be significant time. If it’s something like a labral tear, Tatis could miss six months—essentially, the rest of the season—according to one doctor who knows such shoulder troubles and spoke to the Los Angeles Times. Don’t fault the Padres if they’re saying to themselves, “Thank God for insurance.”

DeGrom could use a little extra insurance himself, alas. The good news for the Mets: deGrom was his usual self Monday night. Six shutout innings, seven punchouts, three hits, three-figure speed on his fastballs. The bad news, alas: the Mets are gonna Met, so far. At least out of the bullpen.

Their on-paper impressive offense found nothing more than two runs to support their ace. They got an inning of shutout relief from Miguel Castro relieving deGrom for the seventh, but the bullpen puked the bed in the eighth—including hitting Bryce Harper with the bases loaded. Not exactly a Rhodes Scholarship move there.

The Old Fart Contingency thundered aboard social media that Mets manager Luis Rojas blew it lifting deGrom after six strong—until they were reminded the added layoff after the Washington postponement put both deGrom and the Mets into caution mode.

“If that was [last] Thursday and I’m on normal rest,” the smooth righthander said postgame of the early hook, “I don’t think there is any chance I’m coming out of that game. We discussed it before what was the right thing to do. Long season and talking to them coming in, it felt like was the right decision.”

It was neither deGrom’s nor Rojas’s fault that, after Garcia took care of the Phillies in the seventh with just one infield hit within a fly out and two ground outs, the Phillies loaded the bases on the Mets’ new relief toy, Tyler May, in the eighth with one out, before Rojas went to another new Met bull, Aaron Loup. And Loup promptly hit Harper to push Miller home, before J.T. Realmuto singled home pinch runner Quinn, Mets late third base replacement Luis Guillorme threw home off line allowing Harper and Rhys Hoskins to score, and Didi Gregorius pushed Realmuto home with a first-pitch sacrifice fly.

The Mets had nothing to answer except a two-out ninth-inning stand that came up two dollars short against Phillies closer Alvarado. Kevin Pillar singled up the pipe, Francisco Lindor—the Mets’ own new bazillion-dollar lifetime shortstop—dumped a quail into shallow right that landed just in front of and then off the glove on oncoming, diving Harper, and Michael Conforto singled Pillar home while setting up first and third.

Pete Alonso, their 2019 Rookie of the Year bomber, hit one to the back of right field that looked as though it had a chance to ricochet off the top of the fence if not clear it. It wasn’t quite enough to stop Harper from running it down, taking a flying leap with his back against the fence, and snapping it into his glove to stop a game-tying extra-base hit and end the game with the Phillies on the plus side, 5-3.

Marry the foregoing to deGrom going 2-for-3 at the plate including an RBI single, and no wonder May himself said post-game, “Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself. That’s not what teams are, and frankly Jake did almost everything today.”

Just don’t marry that to things such as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani hitting 100+ mph on the mound and hitting a mammoth home run that flew out 100+ mph in the same inning last Friday night. Ohtani the two way player is an outlier among outliers; deGrom’s merely an outlier.

As of Tuesday morning— with the National League’s pitchers having to bat because Commissioner Nero simply couldn’t bring himself to keep the universal designated hitter this year at least, and Ohtani batting second in the Angel lineup the night he started on the mound, among other things—the pitchers have a .131/.157/.192 slash line and a .349 OPS.

The pitchers at the plate from Opening Day through the end of Monday night collected thirteen hits in 149 plate appearances: nine singles, three doubles, and Ohtani’s Friday night flog a third of the way up Angel Stadium’s high right field bleachers. They also walked three times and struck out 56 times. And the OFC still insists the National League just say no to its own invention.

All around the Show, too, there was one home run hit every 35 plate appearances and fourteen percent of all 928 hits the season’s first five days cleared the fences. It took five outs to create a single run, with 5.3 average runs created per game and 631 runs created while 559 scored.

It was fun to hear the fan noises even in limited capacities, too, though the limits in Angel Stadium made Ohtani’s blast sound even more explosive at the split second he hit it. If only things had been more fun for the home crowds: the many themes for the Show’s first five days could include, plausibly, the blues classic “On the Road Again.”

The home teams’ slash lines: .225/.313/.374/.687 OPS. The road teams: .245/.328/.403/.731 OPS. The road teams drove in fifteen more runs, hit thirteen more home runs, seven more doubles, and had seventy more hits overall. They also took eleven more walks, though they struck out fifty more times and grounded into fifteen more double plays. The road rats also had a +29 batting average on balls in play over the home boys and 108 more total bases while they were at it.

Maybe the shocker among the opening road rats were the Orioles. The Woe-rioles. Taking three straight from the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Out-scoring the Olde Towne Team 18-5, including and especially an 11-3 battering on Sunday afternoon. Even those paranoid about ID cards might want to insist the Orioles show theirs, even after the Orioles got a brief return to earth from the Yankees beating them 7-0 Monday in New York.

Unless it was the Reds, taking two out of three from the Cardinals to open, including and especially a 12-1 battering Sunday afternoon that proved the best revenge against abject stupidity is to slap, slash, scamper, and smash your way to a six-run seventh when you’re already up three runs—thanks to Nick Castellanos ripping Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez for a two-out, three-run homer an inning earlier.

Castellanos got drilled by Cardinals reliever Jack Woodford Saturday . . . two days after he bat-flipped a home run. Then, when he dove home to score on a wild pitch, Castellanos got bumped by Woodford sliding in to bring down the tag Castellanos beat. Castellanos sprung up, barked at Woodford, and began walking away before trouble could arrive. Oops. Trouble arrived—when Yadier Molina shoved him from behind to spark a bench-clearing brawl.

Baseball government myopically suspended Castellanos two games for “provoking” the brawl. Who’s baseball’s official optician? Who couldn’t see what everyone else with eyes saw? And how long has Molina—handed only an “undisclosed fine” along with a few others in the scrum—been so privileged a character that he can get away with the actual kickoff of a brawl that was seeded in the first place because the Cardinals are one of the game’s self-appointed Fun Police precincts?

“I was pleased,” Cardinal manager Mike Schildt told the press after that game. “Our guys came out there. We’re not going to take it. I know Yadi went immediately right at him, got sidetracked by [Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas]. Woody, to his credit, got up and was like, ‘I’m not going to sit here and be taunted.’ Good for him.”

Taunted? All Castellanos said when he sprang up, by his own admission, was “Let’s [fornicating] go!” Anyone who thinks Woodford lacked intent didn’t see that ball sailing on a sure line up into Castellanos’s shoulder and rib region. Nor did they see Molina very clearly shoving Castellanos without Castellanos having the benefit of a rear-view mirror.

Castellanos appealed the two-game suspension. The final result wasn’t known at this writing. But the Cardinals should be getting a message of their own: Defund the Fun Police. Pronto.

How about the Astros, who went into Oakland and swept four from the Athletics before ambling on to Anaheim and losing 7-6 to the Angels Monday night? That was despite dropping a three-run first on Angel starter Jose Quintana and yanking a fourth run out of him in the top of the fourth, before the Angels finally opened their side of the scoreboard with Mike Trout (of course) hitting Luis Garcia’s 2-2 meatball about twelve or thirteen rows into the left field seats.

The Angels pushed a little further back, the Astros pushed a little further ahead, until the Angels ironed up and tore four runs out of the Astros in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single (Dexter Fowler), a run-scoring force play (David Fletcher), a throwing error (on Jared Walsh’s grounder to first), an intentional walk (to Trout, of all people), and a sacrifice fly (Anthony Rendon).

Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning solo bomb turned out more a kind of excuse-us shot than a last stand. The game left both the Astros and the Angels at 4-1 to open the season and what could be very interesting proceedings in the American League West. Now, if only the Astros could finally get past Astrogate.

They’ve been playing and winning through numerous catcalls, howls, and even a few inflatable and actual trash can sightings in Oakland and Anaheim. Jose Altuve—who’s looked more like his old self at the plate so far—seemed mildly amused when an inflatable trash can fell to the warning from those high Angel Stadium right field bleachers.

Astrogate was and remains anything but amusing. The Astros could keep up their torrid opening and overwhelm the AL West this season, but the scandal won’t go away entirely (nor should it) until the absolute last Astrogater standing no longer wears their fatigues. Yes, you’ve heard that before. That doesn’t make it any less painful for Astro fans or less true for everyone else. The Astros, nobody else, wrote the script that made them pariahs. Bang the cans slowly, fans.

Will off-field-based illegal electronic sign stealing disappear at all? Players got same-game video access back this year. There are three security people in every team’s video room at home and on the road. League cameras have been installed in those video rooms. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to add guard dogs?

The players union agreed last year: there’ll be no more players getting away with murder even in return for spilling the deets—the commissioner can drop a lot more than a marshmallow hammer on the cheaters from now on. All by himself. He can demand answers without plea bargaining. And he doesn’t need a permission slip.

“But one of the prevailing lessons from the electronic sign-stealing era is that even if a scheme sounds far-fetched, someone might give it a whirl if they believe they can get away with it,” writes The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich, one of the two reporters (Ken Rosenthal was his partner) who helped break and burrow deep into Astrogate. “This holds true no matter what MLB does. Even a total ban on electronics, which the players would never agree to, would not be enough. In that case, a player or staffer could simply go rogue.”

In other words, boys will be still be boys, if they can-can.

It’ll take more than winning . . .

What Carlos Correa took on the shouhlder from Chris Bassitt on Opening Night isn’t likely to be the last such drill—not until the absolute last Astrogater isn’t an Astro anymore.

“Got to hear some boos, finally,” said Astros righthander Zack Greinke after Opening Night in Oakland. “That wasn’t fun to listen to, I didn’t think, but we played good so it didn’t matter. Hopefully we’ll keep playing good and it won’t be as big of an issue.”

Greinke wasn’t a member of the Astros in 2017. The season-opening roster now has only five remaining from that World Series-winning team: second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.

But there’s a reasonable enough suspicion that the Astros won’t stop hearing boos and catcalls until every last member of the 2017-18 team is gone, either to other teams or from the game itself. The pan-damn-ically truncated, fan-less, irregular 2020 season kept the Astros shielded from anything beyond fans outside the parks serenading their team bus.

Lucky them. Until now. With fans returning even in limited numbers this season, the Astros won’t be immune to road fans letting them have it. If Greinke thinks wins will neutralise them—wins such as their 8-1 Opening Night win over the Athletics—he may be guilty of wishful thinking.

That’d be a far less grave offense to be guilty of than the one over which the Astros remain convicted by the evidence and in the eyes of the rest of the game and its fans. The stain won’t leave for a long enough time. The pan-damn-ic didn’t really amputate the long arm of Astrogate after all.

Fair? Probably not to the 89 percent of the Astro roster who weren’t there and had nothing to do with Astrogate. More than fair to the eleven percent remaining.

Limited though it was by safety protocols, the Oakland crowd wasted no time. During pre-game introductions they booed the Astros loudly, accompanied by a few who carried assorted trash cans to bang just as loudly. The Astros should consider themselves lucky if lusty booing and can banging on the road are all they get.

“That’s fine,” said outfielder/designated hitter Michael Brantley of the Oakland crowd. “This is a veteran team. We’ve been in the World Series, we’ve been in the playoffs. The guys know how to compete day in and day out. They can boo, they can yell, they can do whatever they want. But at the end of the day we have each other’s backs, and that’s all that matters.”

Having each other’s backs is one thing. Genuine contrition for the worst cheating scandal major league baseball saw since the at-long-last-affirmed exposure of the 1915 New York Giants as pennant race comeback telescopic cheaters seems not to be Astro policy. That non-apologetically apology at last year’s spring-opening presser, pre-COVID shutdown, was no act, apparently.

They still don’t seem to get it so far. They still don’t seem to get just how terrible a look it was when commissioner Rob Manfred handed all 2017 players blanket immunity from discipline in return for spilling the deets about the Astro Intelligence Agency—the ones who either took an existing center field camera off its mandatory eight-second delay, or installed a new and illegal real-time camera, to steal signs from a clubhouse monitor and signal the stolen intelligence to their hitters with bangs on a large vinyl trash can nearby.

They still don’t seem to get, so far, that the AIA went a lot farther than went any team (the 2018 Boston Rogue Sox for certain, others quite possibly) who merely used existing video rooms at home and on the road to steal signs and relay them to baserunners to send the batters.

They still don’t get what then-Dodger pitcher Alex Wood meant when he said he’d rather face a batter using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances than an AIA-like sign stealer, because the former still doesn’t know what’s coming and lacks the 50 percent or better chance of hitting it before he even sees the pitch.

They still don’t get why Astrogate team member Correa inspired lusty cheering when A’s starter Chris Bassitt drilled him in the fourth inning despite a runner being aboard. Or why Correa, Altuve, Bregman, and Gurriel are liable to be ongoing targets for brushbacks and knockdowns so long as they’re Astros.

Former Astrogater George Springer, now a Blue Jay, opened the season on the injured list. Will he face the catcalls from Blue Jay opponents unable to forget he was one of the Astrogate team? Time will tell, though other former Astrogaters haven’t really felt it in the hips or on opposing fans’ lips. Yet.

Remember: When Astrogate exploded from mere revelation in November 2019 to Manfred’s final report and limited discipline—the team fined and stripped of draft picks, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch suspended for the season, then Luhnow and Hinch fired by owner Jim Crane who seemed himself barely able to grok the outrage—it wasn’t just fans outraged by the AIA.

Long ago, the father-in-law of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald, fearing his son-in-law might yet remain free on appeal in the deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, proclaimed publicly, “If the courts of this country won’t administer justice, I most certainly will.” More players than you may remember said much the same thing about administering to the Astros the justice Manfred truly denied, though they didn’t quite have murder in their hearts for the unjudged.

Dodger relief pitcher Joe Kelly showed such players weren’t kidding, late last July, when he got his chance and sailed ball four past Bregman’s shoulder and subsequently threw one behind Correa’s head. For every one soul a little put-off by Kelly’s dusters, there were probably three who thought he didn’t go far enough administering Astrogate justice.

Too many fans would love nothing better than to see every last being in Astro fatigues pay such prices as Bregman and Correa. I observed one social media poster writing, and probably speaking for too many “Bean balls, mound charging, spiking, spitting, fighting, punches, headlocks, punches to the face hard and often. Umpires should call every pitch against them a strike.”

And then we should get really mad?

Actually, we should have Wednesday night—at home plate umpire Brian Gorman. He called strike on a wide outside pitch to Brantley early in the game, called balls on two more strikes so obvious Helen Keller could have seen them, and then Brantley slashed a single more or less into center field on one of the upper strikes that Gorman might have called a ball if taken. Brantley should have been out on strikes in that plate appearance.

Gorman was an equal opportunity offender. He called strike three on the A’s Matt Olson on a pitch that was far enough off the outside corner to slide a bat through without it touching either side. All night long Gorman’s strike zone was more improvisational than music legends John Coltrane, Cream, and Miles Davis. Robby the Umpbot may be closer to arriving at last than people think or might like.

You can search the archives of this journal and see precisely where I stood (and continue to stand) on Astrogate. So you know I’m not just looking to take the culprits off the hook when I say there’s a limit to how much Astrogate justice their opponents can administer and road fans can demand.

I get the urge and itch to send messages to Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Gurriel. (McCullers being a pitcher won’t be batting unless he’s in the game and the Astros are playing a National League team on the road, thanks to Commissioner Nero forcing the absence of the universal designated hitter for this season at least.) They were members of the Astrogate team and they got away with murder.

But Brantley didn’t join the Astros until 2019. The rest of the roster had nothing to do with Astrogate. Joe and Jane Fan don’t always draw the proper distinctions, but the players can, do, and should. Save the return messages for the real culprits. Right?

Sort of. Nobody held a gun to the Astros’ heads to compel them to extend Gurriel another year with an option for next year. Nobody held guns to their heads to compel them to try for an extension for Correa, who now says he’s looking forward to the free agency market he’ll hit after this season.

Altuve and Bregman are locked in as Astros until 2024. Nobody will hold guns to the Astros’ heads and force the team to extend or re-sign them further. If any team reads the appropriate tea leaves and decides to make a trade play for either one, nobody will hold the Astros hostage until they agree to retain the pair.

It’s not fair to blame the entire 2021 Astro roster for the crimes of the eleven percent remaining Astrogaters. But it’s entirely understandable. The Astros will have to live with the continuing ramifications of their cheating and the continuing outrage of opponents and fans until the absolute last Astrogater no longer wears their fatigues.

On legally mandating the anthem before the games

If ten Texas state senators and its lieutenant governor have their way, it’ll be Texas law to play “The Star Spangled Banner” before all games in the Lone Star State including at the Houston Astros’ home.

Among many things, in his farewell address this nation’s first president hoped his thoughts and suggestions would move his countrymanpersons “to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” The Father of His Country might have had legislating as well as posturing patriotism in mind. Even though Texas wasn’t even a gleam in the new nation’s eye just yet.

A tentet of Texas state senators wants “The Star Spangled Banner” as required playing, listening, and posturing before every sports contest hosted in the Lone Star State—preseason, regular season, and postseason. For openers. As reported by Reason‘s deputy managing editor, Jason Russell, the tentet would like to tell one and all playing games in the state, “or else!”

Or else, among other things, no government entity state or local can make deals “that require a financial commitment” with any sports team “unless the agreement includes written verification the team will play the anthem before all games,” Russell writes. “If a team fails to comply, it would be in default of the agreement.”

Apparently, the Texas Ten took their cue from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is no known relation to the longtime ESPN SportsCenter anchor now hosting his own show on Premiere Radio Networks. In February, Patrick was not amused to learn the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks weren’t playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before their pre- and regular-season home games.

It’s not that anybody noticed until the final such game, because thanks to the pan-damn-ic there were no fans present until that final game. Then the NBA decided, not so fast, it’s time to re-enforce the league’s rule that the national anthem will be played before all NBA games, whether or not the Mavericks or their owner Mark Cuban likes it.

What has this to do with baseball? Well, two American League teams hail from Texas. So do four minor league teams even under the dubious new minor league realignment. If Patrick and the Texas Ten get their way, they’ll be spanked, too.

Russell observes that if the bill passes and is signed into law, major sports teams that let teams dispense with “The Star Spangled Banner” would find such decisions “affect[ing] stadium subsidies, any kind of government-funded tourism sponsorship, and possibly even arrangements where local law enforcement provides security.” The good news: the bill isn’t likely to cut the mustard in the courts, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court.

It’s one thing for the NBA or the NFL (which has mandated it since after World War II) as essentially private organisations to require it. It’s something else entirely for any government at any level to do so.”This legislation already enjoys broad support,” Patrick harrumphed last month. “I am certain it will pass, and the Star Spangled Banner will not be threatened in the Lone Star State again.” (He meant the flag as well as the song.)

Threatened?

“Patrick’s proposal that the Texas Legislature pass a state law requiring the national anthem be played represents state action,” writes attorney and journalism professor Amy Kristin Sanders in an e-mail to the Website of televisions Law & Crime. “As a part of its speech protections, the First Amendment also bars state actors from compelling others to speak—and requiring someone to play the national anthem is just that.”

We can surmise with little fear of contradiction that that isn’t exactly what an ancient Red Sox third baseman named Fred Thomas had in mind during the 1918 World Series.

On leave from the Navy to play in the Series, with the Navy’s full blessing, Thomas heard a Navy band (it was common in those times for military bands to provide music at sports events) strike up “The Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch and saluted spontaneously, as he might have been expected as a Navy man himself.

Thomas’s salute prompted other players in both dugouts (the Red Sox played and would beat the Cubs in that Series) to stand and salute, not to mention the already-standing crowd to salute likewise. This, by the way, was thirteen years before “The Star Spangled Banner” became America’s official national anthem.

Red Sox owner Harry Frazee decided that for the rest of that Series two things would happen: 1) For all games played in Fenway Park wounded war veterans would have free admission. 2) “The Star Spangled Banner” would be played in their honour before the start of those games. As with Thomas’s spontaneous salute, Frazee’s gesture did not come to him at the wrong end of a gun, actual or rhetorical.

It inspired other sports teams and leagues to do likewise, gradually, and entirely on their own, in the years to follow before and after the anthem became official. Baseball has never had a formal rule mandating either “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” (which became an unofficial but consistent tradition in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity), but neither has it rejected the tradition of it.

When kneeling protests emerged a few years ago among black athletes spearheaded by long-former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick over rogue police brutality against black suspects, the passions both ways soared like a grand slam. They still do when the anthem issue arises, with or without the kneeling protests, as with Cuban and the Mavericks.

And you can’t always interject that kneeling is as much a gesture of respect and genuflection as it might be a gesture of protest. Even if you argue that kneeling protesters might appeal as much to a higher authority as against a particularly abusive temporal one. Even if you agree without taking a knee that there should be no place for rogue police in any diligent such department.

I’ve gone on record about it before, but Patrick’s harrumph compels it one more time: Is it absolutely necessary to sound “The Star Spangled Banner” before every damn last sports contest played all year long? If we believe patriotism must originate and remain in the heart, doesn’t the day-in, day-out pre-game playing erode rather than enhance the patriotic impetus by making it formal obligation instead of free and organic?

My past thoughts haven’t changed. I have no wish to eliminate the National Anthem from sporting events entirely. I also have no wish that Patrick and the Texas Ten should prevail and inspire other states to likewise. I remain in agreement with National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger, who wrote almost three years ago, “I’m not sure that patriotism is compatible with compulsion,” to which George Washington himself might have answered with a resounding if quiet “it isn’t.”

And, I remain convinced that, on behalf of removing only too much of the compulsory factor from an impetus that must come purely from the heart and soul, playing “The Star Spangled Banner” ought to be limited to the following sports events:

* Opening Day for major sports leagues’ regular seasons or, in the case of non-team sports, major tournaments. (The U.S. Open in tennis and golf; the Masters’ tournament; the PGA Championship; etc.)

* Any games played on major national holidays. (Since I’m a baseball writer, let’s start from there: Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, Labour Day. Also, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Presidents Day.)

* All-Star Games in major sports leagues.

* The Super Bowl.

* Game One of each major sports league’s final round: the World Series (first things first!) NBA Championship, the WNBA Championship, the Stanley Cup Final (if Game One begins in the American team’s arena).

* Game Seven of such championship rounds, if they go that far.

And, in the immortal words of Porky Pig, eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-that’s all, folks.

I won’t expect the commissioners or governing bodies of major sports to stop and ponder, never mind enact the foregoing. They’re many things, but bold isn’t necessarily among them. Not the sort of bold that enhances and advances their games, anyway.

The eyes of the nation should be upon Texas, if only to see that the way to patriotic wisdom is more often than we think to travel the road assuredly not taken. Certainly not by the Lone Star State’s second in command plus ten lawmakers unaware that they wish to make dubious and unconstitutional law.

The A’s re-up the whistleblower

Mike Fiers—the A’s re-sign the Astrogate whistleblower.

Under ordinary circumstances a team signing a good pitcher who’s a worthy number-four man in a starting rotation isn’t extraordinary. But then there’s Mike Fiers, whom the Athletics have re-upped for 2021 on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. There’s also San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser dropping a troublesome suggestion.

Now the Giants’ beat writer and a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Slusser was a longtime A’s beat writer for the Chronicle. So when she says, “The A’s were the only team to make Fiers an offer, I’m told. Interesting – was he being blackballed for being a whistleblower? I certainly hope that’s not the case,” it ought to sound an alarm or two.

Lots of teams have been in need of third and below starters. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for an innings-eating righthander with fourth-starter solidity to find a job even in this winter’s somewhat surreal market. Except that Fiers, who did say his preference was to stay in Oakland, isn’t just an ordinary fourth starter.

Whistleblowers don’t fare as well as some people think after their whistles blast cases of wrongdoing to smithereens. When Fiers blew his on the Astros’ illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheating of 2017 and some of 2018 (at least) to The Athletic, it seemed as though half of baseball considered him a hero and half a rat bastard.

He moved to the Tigers for 2018 and to the A’s later that season. He warned both collections of new teammates that the Astros were playing with a stacked deck. He and others suspecting the Astros of extracurricular pitch intelligence also tried futilely to convince members of the press to run with and investigate it; those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run without a name willing to go on public record.

That’s when Fiers finally put his name on it to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in November 2019. From which point it swelled toward Commissioner Rob Manfred’s marshmallow hammer, the hammer constructed when he handed Astro players immunity in return for spilling, suspended a GM and a manager, voided two key draft picks and fined owner Jim Crane pocket money.

The Astros likely weren’t the only team in the Show using extracurricular off-field-based sign stealing, just the most sophisticated. They took an existing center field camera off the mandatory eight-second delay or installed a surreptitious new such camera, set monitors up in the clubhouse, and translators would decode the pitch signs and signal hitters with bangs on an adjacent trash can.

The 2018 Red Sox turned out to have enlisted their video rooms at home and on the road for a little extra aid to old-fashioned gamesmanship: the signs would be decoded off the feeds and sent to baserunners to signal batters. They—and anyone else thinking and doing likewise (would you be shocked?)—didn’t install anything extra.

Essentially, the Show handed those Rogue Sox and others, who knows how many yet, the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to imbibe while Mom and Dad high tailed it out of town for the weekend.

Some looked at Fiers’ membership on the 2017 Astros and discovered a rank hypocrite, never mind that if he’d blown his whistle then he’d also have been denounced most likely as a backstabber on the spot. (Fiers wasn’t on those Astros’ postseason roster.) It’s called hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

“Even in cases of obvious right and wrong,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig last year, “crying foul on family is easy to call for in retrospect and hard to do in real time.” Remind yourself if you will how often you learned of egregious wrongdoing and lamented the lack of a whistleblower. Now ask how simple it really is to blow the whistle in the moment or even a comparatively short time later.

It took New York police legends Frank Serpico and David Durk several years’ futility trying to get that police department to attack graft before they finally went to the New York Times and launched the largest New York police scandal since Brooklyn-based bookie Harry Gross was found to have enough police on his payroll to staff half his borough’s precincts.

Cheating may be sports’ oldest profession, but affirmations don’t always happen concurrent to the instances, for the reason Carig enunciated. When Joshua Prager finally affirmed what was long just suspected—that the 1951 New York Giants cheated their way back into the pennant race to force the fabled playoff with an elaborate telescopic sign-stealing operation—it was half a century after the fact, with the surviving principals willing to talk long retired.

Prager eventually expanded his expose into The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World. “A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell when Prager first hit The Wall Street Journal running.

Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

If revealing the Astros’ elaborate 2017-18 system at last made Fiers a criminal, maybe baseball needs more such criminals. If other teams needing fourth starters refused to even think about him because he blew a whistle instead of a ball game, after two years worth of trying futilely to get others to investigate without a blown whistle, something’s worse than a hanging slider driven out of sight.

Slusser doesn’t know for dead last certain. Neither does anyone else, possibly including Fiers. To those who still think blowing the whistle is worse than the crime, perhaps you’d like to ask what might have been, instead, if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t suffered a pang of conscience and an inability to lie under oath enough to expose Richard Nixon’s White House taping system.

One more grip of Jim Bouton

Wasn’t it true, Don Vito Corleone wondered while commiserating with a fellow Mafia chief in The Godfather (the novel, not the film), that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward? It proved to be for the late pitcher/writer Jim Bouton, whose sometimes deceptive but nearly-incurable optimism was finally smashed when his youngest child was killed in August 1997.

Driving home in New Jersey, Laurie Bouton stopped short to stay out of an accident in front of her, but a driver behind her didn’t do likewise, smashing into her car. The 31-year-old an uncle described as “Jim all over again” for her free spirit died hours later. It destroyed Bouton’s generally sunny view of life—until it reconciled him to the New York Yankees.

In fact, as biographer Mitchell Nathanson also notes in Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Bouton struggled for months to follow until Laurie’s oldest brother, Michael, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the Yankees to do what had never yet been done and invite his father back for an Old Timers Day. (Father once revealed his son’s essay moved him to tears.)

What nobody including Bouton knew was that his decades-long blackballing from the Yankees—for whom he once starred as a pitcher, before his too-hard throwing style ruined his arm and shoulder, reducing him to the margins and back to a knuckleball he abandoned earlier in his career—had absolutely nothing to do with Bouton’s own longtime prime suspect.

Mickey Mantle was hardly thrilled at Bouton’s Ball Four revelations about him, but six years before Laurie’s death the death of one of Mantle’s sons provoked a sympathy letter from Bouton. That prompted Mantle to call his old teammate to say yes, he was ok with Ball Four at last and, no, he wasn’t the reason for Bouton’s Old Timers Day freeze-outs.

The freeze-outs turned out to be courtesy of former Newark Star-Ledger writer Jim Ogle, whom Bouton zinged in Ball Four for treating players “purely on how much they were helping the Yankees to win. Charm, personality, intelligence—nothing counted. Only winning. Ogle didn’t have even the pretense of objectivity . . . in fact, Ogle’s ambition was to work for the Yankees. But they would never give him a job.”

Until they did. The Yankees hired Ogle to direct their club alumni association in 1975, his duties including, as Nathanson writes, “keeping the Yankees in the good graces of their most iconic alumni and organizing Old Timers Days. In his mind both responsibilities could be best discharged by blackballing Jim Bouton.”

Nathanson’s book unfurls Bouton’s story with both affection and the kind of candor Bouton himself would have appreciated. (And in fact insisted upon, when he and his wife agreed to let Nathanson have access to everything from family doings and undoings to the still-preserved Ball Four notes and tapes that ended up sold to the Library of Congress during Bouton’s final illness.)

It’s the story of an intelligent and sensitive young man who didn’t become a pitcher because he looked to turn sacred cows into steak or to write the book that secured his name and sent baseball and about half the world of sports journalism to the rye bottle, either.

Nathanson’s Bouton is a pitcher who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience to heed, with no malice aforethought but flying in the face of an establishment unwilling to concede the great and glorious game (A. Bartlett Giamatti’s phrase) was only too human. He couldn’t deny the caprices he saw in front of him, whether front office people engaging one-sided, lopsided, deceitful contract talks with players to players themselves proving unheroic often enough while letting the fans in the stands or with their morning after newspapers worship them as gods.

The fun-loving Bouton loved the game but hated its business and duplicities. The longer his pitching career went despite the arm issues, the less Bouton could turn the blind eye. Unlike most players even then, Bouton talked freely when interviewed and didn’t try to hide the sides of him that were unlike the typical jock of his time. Some respected him for it, others rejected him for it.

When his established sportswriting friend Leonard Shecter suggested he keep a kind of running diary on his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, Bouton revealed he’d already begun taking notes. Anyone could do it regarding the old imperial Yankees; who else would have thought about doing it among an expansion team of fellow outcasts just trying to keep their jobs and their sanity?

Many Bouton teammates weren’t sympathetic to his final product. The embarrassments of some kept them from seeing that Bouton humanised them and thus elevated them. He was as observant of their field or mound struggles as their off-field shenanigans, sorrows, and oft-ignored or mistreated injuries. He told the world these were human men when it seemed often enough that baseball ignored or denied their humanness.

Bouton had already stepped beyond the bounds of baseball’s proprieties before starting his Ball Four season. He’d supported publicly a threatened American boycott of the 1968 summer Olympics if South Africa’s then whites-only teams were allowed to compete. He spoke against the Vietnam War whenever asked.

Bouton’s original notes, tapes, and the pages shaped by his editor/friend Leonard Shecter for Ball Four now repose in the Library of Congress.

But with Ball Four he was considered either a revelator by those who loved the book or a traitor by those including then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who tried to suppress it. (Or, in the case of the San Diego Padres, leaving a burned copy of it on the Astros’ dugout steps.) It was enough to seed a followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the controversy, his final pitching days before his first retirement, and his early days as a New York sports reporter.

That book wasn’t quite the hit Ball Four was, of course, but it offered a few more insights into what Bouton thought and felt about becoming an unexpected literary star. Not to mention his further thoughts on the real reason the old guard sportswriters resented him: he’d told the stories they thought they should have told but, for assorted and not always edifying reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Some saw themselves as keepers of the proverbial baseball flame. Others saw themselves as club adjuncts. Jim Brosnan, whose from-the-inside books Nathanson called “tell-some” books, had annoyed them enough. This was too much of enough already.

But Ball Four proved in due course as significant as any other evidence, when it was introduced at the arbitration hearings through which pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what outfielder Curt Flood’s brave but failed prior lawsuit (begun the same year in which Ball Four first appeared) started, ending the reserve era and its suppressions of player pay and rights. Well after its literary stature was affirmed.

The book inspired a rash of further tell-alls from baseball’s insides, from players and collaborators who lacked Bouton’s wit and Shecter’s sensibilities. They hardly understood  that Ball Four‘s success lay as much in Bouton’s ability to show baseball’s humanness as in the, shall we say, steamy revelations on which those subsequent books leaned most heavily. (“More outrageous than Ball Four” was a tellingly typical cover blurb.)

Nathanson goes into fine detail Bouton’s years as a sports reporter, his head-buttings with those who thought sports reporting equaled promoting their teams instead of, you know, real reporting. He also goes deeper into the truest conflict inside Bouton’s psyche and life—the guy who achieved beyond his own expectations but couldn’t resist a challenge because he had something to prove past the challenge itself.

His love of baseball the game prompted him toward a comeback bid in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a spell with the minor league legend Portland Mavericks. He eventually made it back with the Atlanta Braves for a September 1978 spell—he once went mano-a-mano with Houston’s ill-fated howitzer J.R. Richard, pitching him to a draw—then walked away feeling for the first time that he didn’t have to prove a thing anymore.

His first baseball retirement led to the crumpling of his first marriage; Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, had simply grown apart, though Bouton wasn’t immune to the occasional extracurricular activity, with the emphasis on occasional. (They divorced in 1981.) He didn’t really move to do something about it, though, until he met an attractive academic named Paula Kurman unexpectedly at a fundraiser to which both were invited.

Jim Bouton and second wife Paula Kurman, at a Ball Four retrospective.

It was Kurman (a speech therapist with Ph.d in interpersonal communications) who showed Bouton most of all what even his own family couldn’t, that he no longer had to take up quixotic challenges to prove himself to himself. The deception in his optimism until then was that it masked a man who had a difficult if not sometimes impossible time believing in his own worthiness. They married in 1982.

Bouton promoted Big League Chew (his Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson came up with the idea but Bouton sold and promoted it to buyer Wrigley), became a motivational speaker, helped to renovate an old but somewhat storied minor league ballpark, joined his wife learning and becoming a competitive ballroom dancer, continued writing, and eventually also became a stonemason who’d build walls and other supplementing fixtures for their home in the Berkshires.

In other words, this unfairly reputed miserable smasher of icons for its own sake was as normal, life-affirming, and human a man as his critics didn’t or couldn’t see. (Well, not everyone gets dance lessons from stage and film legend Marge Champion.) That 1978 Old Timers Day appearance simply began Bouton’s return from the ranks of the living dead into which his daughter’s senseless death plunged him.

“Looking up in the stands, at all of the family and friends who were there . . . ,” Nathanson writes (they included a contingent of friends bannering themselves “Laurie’s Girls!”), “[Bouton] understood that life could and would go on. It was what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it most.”

The only thing that could and did knock Bouton out permanently enough was the 2012 stroke he suffered on the fifteenth anniversary of Laurie Bouton’s death. It exposed a condition of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and presented him the first and only challenge he couldn’t take on as successfully as he had others. It didn’t rob his intelligence, but his intelligence made him too aware of what he’d lose.

The most famous single line in Ball Four is the one that closed it: “You see, you spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.” On the day of Bouton’s death in 2019, his ability to speak gone, “in the netherworld between life and death,” his wife put a baseball into his right hand.

In his final act of life on earth, Bouton did with that ball what Nathanson’s biography will do to you once you open the covers and start reading. He gripped it tight.