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.

Does Luhnow still not get it?

Jeff Luhnow, in front of the uniforms of two Astros Hall of Famers about whose baseball counsel he couldn’t have cared less—but probably should have.

Deposed and disgraced former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow wants you to know that those who brewed what became Astrogate went rogue on him. He also wants you to know that nobody told him a blessed thing about the off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing scheme, and things would have been different if they had.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, yes. Once upon a time, in 1971, I heard it from deposed New York City police commissioner Howard Leary. He’d either looked the other way, or denied what was in front of him for years, as graft ran even more rampant in his department than a decade earlier, when bookie Harry Gross had almost as many New York cops on his payroll as the city did.

Luhnow gave an extensive interview Monday to Vanessa Richardson of KPRC, Houston’s NBC affiliate. “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame,” Luhnow told Richardson, “because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked Jim for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”

When Leary in 1971 was hauled before the Knapp Commission empaneled to get to the depths of what clean cops Frank Serpico and David Durk exposed to The New York Times, the ex-commissioner told the panel wearily that nobody told him anything, either, and by God things would have been different if anybody had.

The original Times story actually prompted Leary to denounce the paper for McCarthyism of the worst sort (his words). Serpico biographer Peter Maas revealed in due course that, when one of the few superiors Serpico trusted suggested to Leary that the plainclothesman was due a promotion and commendation for trying to expose rampant corruption, Leary snapped, “He’s a psycho!”

“In that case,” the superior rejoined dryly, “maybe the department needs more psychos.”

The Astros don’t need psychos to move past Astrogate. But they could use a lot better than their former general manager continuing to throw people under the proverbial bus while insisting falsely enough that it wasn’t him or didn’t begin with him.

Richardson asked Luhnow for a kind of timeline of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operation. After beginning his reply by mentioning “a cabal” of video staffers and “coaches” executing the sign-stealing scheme via illegal camera operation—and saying they actually opened for business in 2016—Luhnow said, “It was pretty blatant. They were assigning duties, ‘Who’s on codebreaker duty tonight’.”

Pay close attention to “codebreaker.” Now, remind yourself that last February Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond exposed a front office-developed algorithm called  Codebreaker, and shown to Luhnow in September 2016, brought to him by an Astros front-office intern who told him the algorithm could steal opposing catcher’s signs.

That was already far above and beyond traditional on-field gamesmanship, baserunners or coaches catching and deciphering opposition pitch signs to transmit to batters. (Or, catching pitchers tipping pitches.) That also preceded whoever it was that decided to either take an existing center field camera off mandatory transmission delay or install an additional camera transmitting real-time to clubhouse monitors.

If Luhnow wants you to believe nobody told him a bloody thing about any such espionage, beware the for-sale sign on whatever North Pole beach shop he owns.

Former longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Jose de Jesus Ortiz pounced at once. “If Luhnow wants to say [Astros] players & [former manager] AJ Hinch didn’t tell him, he can go there,” Ortiz tweeted angrily enough. “Some might even believe him, but in my 23 years of covering ball I’ve found that players rarely spill info outside of the group. You can think you know, but you don’t. But he hired the ‘code breakers’.”

That was after Ortiz fumed, “Here’s the [fornicating] truth about Jeff Luhnow & baseball ops under him. They didn’t take into consideration what Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Reid Ryan & Enos Cabell had to offer on baseball ops. It’s quite rich of him to [be] wondering why they didn’t know” about the Astros’ extralegal sign-stealing.

Luhnow didn’t mention a specific name, and Richardson hadn’t even prompted him to go there, but when he said, “one of the people who was intimately involved, I had demoted from a position in the clubhouse to a position somewhere else, and after I was fired he was promoted back into the clubhouse,” the assumption quickly became that he referred to Reid Ryan—the son of Hall of Famer Nolan.

Craig Biggio, of course, is a Hall of Fame second baseman. Enos Cabell was a corner infielder/outfielder for the 1972-80 Astros. They may not be the only baseball people whose counsel their baseball employers ignore, but the Astros’ apparent ignorance thereof hurt worse than any of the 285 pitches that hit Biggio during his long playing career.

Reid Ryan was the president of the Astros’ business operations for seven years until he was re-assigned in November 2019. (And, replaced by Crane’s son, Jared.) He was known if anything for applying himself to enhancing the fan experiences at Minute Maid Park.

When he was demoted his father quit the organisation outright at once. (Reid also insisted after his reassignment that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title wouldn’t really be tainted by the AIA cheating operation.) That wasn’t exactly part of the future Nolan Ryan had in mind after he threw his final major league pitch and accepted his plaque in Cooperstown.

Luhnow was the president of baseball ops. Jim Crane made clear Reid Ryan handled business & Luhnow handled baseball ops,” Ortiz reminds us. “It was Luhnow’s culture. I wish him well, but he exits Houston as he arrived, [defecating] on people who devoted their lives to the Astros.”

Luhnow’s Astro “culture” was long exposed as a result-oriented culture in which human relationships were cheap and too often disregarded.”Luhnow had all year to speak,” Ortiz continued. “But as was the case throughout his tenure Luhnow is as calculated as ever. That’s why baseball folks throughout the country say he’s dismissive of traditional baseball folks, scouts, players, etc. He sees them as assets, people to manipulate.”

He practised what legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is still misquoted as saying, even today: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. He denied responsibility when the Astros were exposed and caught in the first place. He barely flinched when it turned out the most apologetic Astros for Astrogate were such former Astros as J.D. Davis, Tony Kemp, Dallas Keuchel, and Jake Marisnick.

But he said little to nothing about the former Astro who blew the Astrogate whistle in the first place. Mike Fiers’s revelations included that he and several other players tried convincing sportswriters to expose the AIA only to discover those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run with it without even a single player willing to put his name on it.

The Oakland Athletics, for whom Fiers has pitched since mid-2018, filed formal complaints with Manfred’s office. So, apparently, did a few other teams. Manfred made a point of saying his office investigates any and all such complaints, yet nothing really seemed to move until Fiers spilled to Athletic reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich almost a year ago.

When Hinch spoke to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci after his own firing, he, too, was remorseful over his Astrogate role, which was kind of a non-role of sorts: aside from destroying a couple of the clubhouse monitors receiving the illegally-pilfered intelligence, he did nothing much if anything.

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

That’s still a great deal more owning up than Luhnow has done. The former GM still thinks he was targeted specifically on behalf of Manfred needing a head or two on plates to show the commissioner meant business. He also still thinks it was just about everybody else’s fault.

“The reality is, the Astros cheated in 2017, and cheated a little bit again in 2018 using just the decoder method, and it was wrong, and it should never have happened, and I’m upset,” Luhnow told Richardson.

I’m really upset that it happened. I’m upset for our fans, I’m upset for players on other teams that gave up hits as a result of this that should never have happened. If we won games because of it, it should never have happened, and we didn’t need to do it. We had a great team. The team we put together in 2017, a lot of which is still together today is one of the best teams of the 21st century, and has had an incredible stretch. And there’s no reason why we needed to explore breaking the rules to gain an advantage, it made no sense to me.

Now he tells us. On the threshold of a World Series in which his former Astros won’t be appearing thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays.

If there was no reason for the 2017-18 Astros to break the rules to gain an advantage, why didn’t Luhnow kill it in its Codebreaker crib? The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves may win their next World Series titles sooner than the answer arrives.

Luhnow would have done far better to heed not the actual or alleged Vince Lombardi credo but that of another sports legend, writer Grantland Rice:

When One Great Scorer comes
to write against your name,
He marks not that you won or lost,
but how you played the game.

The pennant-winning Rays do several favours

Your American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, with Randy Arozarena (right front) holding his ALCS MVP award.

For those of you who still love to ponder baseball in economic terms alone, have your fun now. The third-lowest 2020 payroll in the Show just finished off the third-highest—after knocking off highest to have the opportunity. Shout it out loud. The Rays win the pennant! The Rays win the pennant!

They who have the gold don’t always rule. For that matter, neither do they who have the platinum.The Tampa Bay Rays—lucky to have a couple of steel pieces amidst a cache of aluminum, tin, and Reynolds Wrap—are one trip shy of the Promised Land as of Saturday night.

After pushing past the New York Yankees’s platinum a little over a week earlier, the Rays  melted the Houston Astros’ gold into a 4-2 win in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Playing twelve games in thirteen days, the Rays beat both in final win-or-be-gone games. That only begins to describe their flair for the impossible.

This collection of bargains enough to make you think Woolworth’s was reincarnated as a baseball team became the first in major league history to stand on the threshold of a postseason series sweep, lose the next three straight, then win the first elimination game they’d face in the set.

They became the first to send out a starting pitcher against another starting pitcher with whom he’d collaborated previously to win a seventh World Series game. Charlie Morton got the better of Lance McCullers, Jr. with five and two-thirds innings of two-hit shutout ball on his part and just a little help from the friends he says are an honour to play and compete with.

They became the first to feature a rookie hitting a seventh bomb just in the postseason, when left fielder and series MVP Randy Arozarena sent Lance McCullers, Jr.’s 2-2 fastball over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first—after McCullers hit Manuel Margot with the first pitch of the inning.

They had Mike Zunino—a Seattle trade surrender whose steady defense got undermined by a few passed balls in Game Six but whose power is steady enough when he isn’t injured—provide the rest of their Saturday night scoring with a one-out, full-count launch into the left field seats of McCullers in the second and a one-out sacrifice fly off Jose Urquidy working relief in the sixth.

And, after manager Kevin Cash hooked Morton with a better too soon than too late attitude, the Rays’ bullpen wavered and bent only in the eighth, when Carlos Correa—who’d hit Nick Anderson for the game-winning bomb in Game Five—knocked a bases-loaded two-run single off Pete Fairbanks, who then got Alex Bregman to climax his series-long futility with a furiously swinging strikeout.

If Morton follows through on earlier hints that he might actually retire at 37, he’ll retire as a member in good standing of one elite club. Name the five pitchers who’ve had multiple scoreless starts in postseason winner-takes-it-all games. The answers: Morton plus Madison Bumgarner, Bret Saberhagen, Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander.

Saturday night was Morton’s fourth time out in such a game and his third as a starter. In every one of them, he never threw a pitch while his team was behind. The modest righthander who starts his delivery slow motion before his right arm becomes a whip, whom the Rays could afford because his injury history made him a bargain, really has been late-career better than advertised. If you needed a reminder, he rid himself of thirteen of his twenty batters on three pitches or less.

Arozarena also became the first rookie to hit seven homers in a single postseason. He may have been the only one who wasn’t counting. “I try not to pay attention to the statistics,’’ he said postgame, “but with the Iinternet and everyone bringing it up, you’re kind of aware of it. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the statistics outside of me and what I can control.”

When Fairbanks shook off Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single to right to strike Josh Reddick out and get Aledmys Diaz to fly out to Margot in right, it would have touched off an all-night party in Tampa Bay if not for the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Those protocols also kept the jubilant Rays from much more than what Zunino said was confetti-tossing and Silly String shooting.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible . . . but there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes,” the catcher said post-game. That’s one reason why even the World Series winner, whomever it may prove to be, might be the first to reach the Promised Land and holler out, “Wait ’till next year,” hopeful that the pandemic recedes enough to let baseball get back to whatever normal it can achieve.

“Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other,” Morton said. “You adhere to protocols; you’re social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

It also kept baseball’s Public Enemy Number One in the wake of Astrogate from facing the slings, arrows, protest banners, and live catcalls sure to have greeted them on road trips if the pandemic hadn’t substituted cardboard cutouts for live fans.That was the biggest unexpected break the Astros—having enough with being exposed as illegal high-tech cheaters—could have received.

Fans settled for social media slappings plus masking and social distancing while greeting the Astros’ team bus live with slings, arrows, protest banners, trash cans (the mode by which they sent the illegally stolen signs to their hitters in 2017 and part of 2018) and live catcalls whenever the bus pulled into the road ballpark’s parking lot.

The Rays did the Astros and the rest of us another favour by pushing them home for the winter. Assume as you shouldn’t that the Los Angeles Dodgers send the Atlanta Braves home for the winter in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series Sunday. (The Braves aren’t going to go down without a fight, their Game Six futility to one side.) The Rays prevented a World Series dominated by too-much-is-more-than-enough talk about a grudge rematch.

There’s probably no way on earth Astrogate will be forgiven or forgotten for a long time to come. But the spectre haunting America of the Astros going back to the World Series this time around haunts no more. The last thing the Series needs when America needs the Series most is to be half dominated by Astrogate regurgitation and appetites for revenge.

Be certain the Astros will return to the Series in due course. When they do, they’re liable to be just about finished with what has to be done put Astrogate into the past at last—roster and organisation turnover. They have the makings of an impressive young bullpen and a few young positional talents ready to come into their own, too.

The Rays also did us all a bigger favour than even the foregoing. Not only will there be no losing team in the World Series, there’ll be only division winners squaring off. All that early postseason mess, all commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent wet dreams about permanently expanded postseasons. Put it behind you for now.

Just pray that Manfred doesn’t take the wrong message from it and dance this mess around permanently. Reminder: the Rays had the American League’s best irregular season record. And real division champions—of however truncated an irregular season—will battle to get to the Promised Land. That’s the way it should always be.

The only thing left is for the Rays to come to terms with going from faceless to familiar. That could prove the simplest and most pleasant of their battles.

The waiting is the hardest part

The Rays, looking just the way you expect a team that’s gone from the 3-0 threshold of the World Series to the 3-3 threshold of . . .

What the hell happened Friday? Did the Houston Astros merely iron up? Did the Tampa Bay Rays merely melt down? Was the truth somewhere in the middle? Does it mean the Astros getting the least likely trip to the World Series since 2004?

Forget the Beatles. This is Tom Petty’s turn to sing:

The waiting is the hardest part.
Every day you see one more card.
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.
The waiting is the hardest part.

Don’t the Astros and the Rays know it. We have to wait to Saturday to find out whose waiting was the hardest part for what redemption. The Rays couldn’t put the Astros away after a 3-0 American League Championship Series-opening lead, after all. What was once their set to win is now anybody’s to lose.

Every day, these Rays see one more card turned any way but their way. On Friday night the Astros didn’t need anyone to hit one out in the ninth to beat the further-dissembling, further-static Rays, 7-4, in Petco Park. You can’t win all your postseason games with eleventh-hour, record-book dramatics. Sometimes you have to win the old-fashioned way, catching your worthy adversary self-weakened and pouncing while the pouncing is good.

All the Astros needed other than a four-run fifth to overthrow an early Rays lead was to not remind the Rays to pay attention to the early warning signs. Such signs as their refusing to lay off Astros starter Framber Valdez’s swan-diving curve balls and make him throw more fastballs. Such signs as resisting the temptation to try hitting six-run homers whenever they did coax fastballs out of the young sprout.

They also needed to make the Rays forget that starting Blake Snell carried a risk, too. Entering Game Six only two Astros in the day’s starting lineup had career batting averages lower than .300 against him while seven had lifetime marks against him over .400.

It didn’t hurt, either, that Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ semi-regular second baseman playing left field Friday, chose the worst possible nanosecond to throw the wrong way when his partners could have cut an Astro run off at the plate and maybe stopped the fifth-inning bleed.

If he had stopped the bleed the Rays might be preparing for the World Series. Might. It’s not that the Rays are unaccustomed to doing things the hard way, it’s that they’re not getting too accustomed to making things more difficult than they should be.

And if you do that to these Astros, you discover the harder way that they aren’t exactly renowned for showing mercy to the walking wounded. They’re more liable to cut your heart out than let you live long enough to receive a transplant. When you have an opening, shove with your shoulders, Casey Stengel preached to his imperial 1950s Yankees. When the Astros have an opening, they shove with an Abrams tank.

You’ve got to love this team,” said manager Dusty Baker after the game. “Well, some people hate this team. But you’ve got to respect them.”

Well, the skipper has a point, alas. There is something perversely respect-worthy about a team that brought the wrath of baseball world down upon their heads all by themselves, slipped into a surrealistically-arrayed postseason experiment despite an irregular season losing record. They managed to seize that gift and turn it into this staggering an ALCS comeback, when it looked to all the world as though their season would end as ignominiously as their year began.

It doesn’t make the Astros lovable outside their own fan base. And that fan base remains divided almost as badly as the country now is politically speaking. But it does make them resemble the grand theft felon who withstands the heat, defies the doubt, and remakes/remodels his life far enough in the plus column. His crime won’t be forgotten no matter when it’s finally forgiven, but he’s making a powerful case for rehabilitation. So far.

Snell had to be better than his 2018 Cy Young Award-winning self to prevail. If he wasn’t, the Rays had to quit trying to channel their inner Murderer’s Row and get back to sending the merry-go-round going ’round on the bases—if they got there at all. Unfortunately, Snell spent so much time trying to find the wipeout strikeout pitch he pitched a dangerous game of chicken for four full innings before his day ended with two on and nobody out in the top of the fifth.

The only clean inning he threw was the third when he sandwiched a full count strikeout to George Springer between two slices of ground out from Martin Maldonado and Jose Altuve. It was barely enough to keep the Rays clinging to the 1-0 lead they snatched in the second, when Willy Adames hit an RBI double into the left center field gap and off the wall eluding Springer. It wasn’t enough to keep manager Kevin Cash from hooking Snell in the fifth and leaving Diego Castillo to get rid of the Astro pests.

No soap. Maldonado dropped a surprise sac bunt in front of the plate pushing Yuli Gurriel (leadoff walk after opening 0-1) to third and Aledmys Diaz (single) to second. Springer defied the left-side shift and squirted a two-run single through the right side of the infield.

Then the Rays’ vaunted defense suffered the unlikeliest brain vapour of the day—and maybe the season. The clowns unexpectedly disappeared the Raysling Brothers’ Circus aerialists and acrobats at the worst possible hour. Altuve hit one down the left field line that caromed right to Lowe. With Springer grinding toward third and being sent home, the Rays were set up perfectly for a play at the plate.

All Lowe had to do was hit his left-side cutoff man and Springer was an obituary. Except that Lowe threw to second. Where nobody was. Then, a walk and a passed ball allowing Altuve third later, Carlos Correa showed he was just as capable of sending a man home the easy was as he was going downtown in the bottom of the ninth, singling Altuve home with the fourth Astro run. The game turned out to be signed and sealed right there.

Think Altuve’s past that frightful attack of apparent yips that helped the Rays push the Astros up to the edge of the roof in the first place? He’s reached base eleven times in seventeen plate appearances since. He’s even delivered errorless play at second base. We can pronounce him recovered well enough. So far.

From there Cash’s usual bullpen virtuosity failed him. He sent barely-tried Shane McClanahan out to work the sixth and Brantley greeted him rudely hitting a 2-0 pitch over the left center field fence. The kid had to wriggle out a one-out single to retire the side with no further damage. Lucky him. Not.

Was Cash now managing just to live to play a Game Seven? After the Rays wasted first and second in the bottom of the sixth when Lowe dialed an inning-ending Area Code 4-6-3, Cash sent McClanahan back out for the seventh, most likely in the hope of just surviving to leave the rest of the Rays’ bullpen A-list fresh for Seven if need be.

The poor kid surrendered Astro runs six and seven on an RBI single by Brantley and a one-out sacrifice fly by Kyle Tucker, after which he walked Gurriel before Cash finally exercised a personal mercy clause and lifted the lad in favour of Jose Alvarado. After Zunino committed one of his three passed balls of the game—meaning the Rays likely sending Michael Perez out to catch Charlie Morton for Game Seven—Alvarado struck Josh Reddick out swinging for the side.

The side and a 7-1 Astros lead. Manuel Margot greeting Aaron Scrubb with a leadoff bomb in the bottom of the seventh turned into further abject Tampa Bay frustration when they grunted to first and third against Scrubb, chasing him in favour of Blake Taylor, but Randy Arozarena—to this point the Rays’ biggest blaster of the postseason—grounded out meekly to first base.

What was the point of Margot hammering a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth with two out when Adames would ground out for the side almost too swiftly? And, when pinch hitter Yoshi Tsutsumago singled with one off Astro closer Ryan Pressly just so Michael Brosseau could dial Area Code 6-4-3 to end it?

If you have the answer to those and other similar questions, the Rays need to know. Gravely.

This is more than just three straight elimination games the Astros have survived to force Game Seven. This is more than the Astros threatening to become the only team other than the 2004 Boston Red Sox to win the pennant after getting thatclose to being swept out of an ALCS.

“We’re going to show up tomorrow and do everything we can, like we always do, to find a way to win and pick each other up,” Cash said after the game. “There’s no doubt the momentum has shifted, but I would bet on this team being very capable of bouncing back.”

Didn’t the Rays make the same bet on themselves before Games Four, Five, and Six, too? Remember, in baseball especially anything can happen—and usually does.

To an awful large chunk of baseball world, these Rays are the unassuming, studious, sum-of-parts talented Smart Kids trying to stay one step ahead of the school bullies after refusing to just let the bullies copy their mid-term exams. It doesn’t stop the bullies from copying all the time, as witness the Astros out-Raying the Rays in Game Five. But neither do the Smart Kids outsmart themselves entirely without more than an excuse-me counterattack.

Once upon a time the Astros were the smartest of the Smart Kids—before they were exposed as cheaters in disguise. Morton eventually went over to the new Smart Kids’ side. He gets to face Lance McCullers, Jr.—his old Astro rotation mater, with whom he once collaborated to win a World Series Game Seven. He’s also pondering whether his 37-year-old self may or may not pitch major league ball for the final time Saturday.

Morton out-dueled McCullers in Game Two this week with five shutout innings. “On a selfish level, I didn’t want this to be the last memory I had of the game,” he said while he was at it. “The way it’s had to go with [coronavirus] testing and isolation, not being able to really enjoy special moments together in the clubhouse—this is a very trying time for the game. I got to spend it with a tremendous group of people. It would be an honor, if it is my last year, to have done it with this group.”

The real-world Smart Kids, the Not-So-Smart Kids, and the Plain But Pure Enough Kids together, hope Game Seven won’t be the end of Morton’s and the Rays’ season, if not his career.

One shortstop, one swing, one win

Carlos Correa—no, he wasn’t conducting The Four Seasons, either.

Realistically, nobody thought the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros were going to play a short American League Championship Series. Not even when the Rays bedeviled and bedazzled their way to a 3-0 series lead.

But if the acrobatic and customarily timely Rays end up falling home for the winter, Carlos Correa may yet prove the one who drew up the tickets to be punched.

The Rays and did overcome their opener John Curtiss serving George Springer one pitch to drive off the third patio of the Western Metal Supply Co. building behind the left field fence. They had eight more innings to do it Thursday afternoon, and they did.

But can they overcome Nick Anderson serving Correa a 1-1 pitch to send over the center field fence with one out in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Astros, 4-3? Depending on the answer, the Rays will find themselves either going to the World Series or going home with questions to haunt them all winter and maybe beyond.

Maybe that sounds too pessimistic for a team still holding a 3-2 ALCS lead. But remember the 2004 New York Yankees. They still led that ALCS 3-2, too, despite the Boston Red Sox’s throwing a sweep prospect out the window at the eleventh hour and being on the apparent march. We still know how that worked out for the Empire Emeritus.

We also know the Rays and the Astros tried to play each other’s best games Thursday. The Rays showed long ball power at the plate—and little else. The Astros played the Rays’ bullpen game—and neutralised the Rays when things called for their usual merry-go-round approach. They left just enough room for Correa to wreck the Rays’ arguable best reliever of the year.

It’s not that Anderson was gassed or prone to doing things he wasn’t supposed to do, or that manager Kevin Cash failed to read his man fully. This wasn’t Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly throwing an already-overworked Byung-Hyun Kim out for a third inning to be ruined on his sixtieth pitch of the niight by Derek Jeter’s fabled Mr. November blast.

The only thing Anderson did was throw Correa a nasty fastball tailing toward the outer part of the zone. But the only thing Correa did was exercise an adjustment he said postgame that he made in the clubhouse cage, with hitting coach Alex Cintron, earlier on the afternoon, then send that would-be tailer into postseason immortality when it looked to most as though Game Five headed to extra innings.

Correa saved his manager Dusty Baker from doing what he would have had to do but with as much enthusiasm as a mid-20th century child taking his castor oil for an illness. Having pushed just about every bullpen chip he had to the middle of the table, Baker would likely have had to reach for his intended Game Six starter, Framber Valdez. He could match the Rays bullpen for bullpen through nine. After nine, he’d have made a suicide bet.

With one swing Correa saved Valdez for his intended assignment and put himself and the Astros into the record book. Name one other postseason game in which the winning team homered on the first and the final pitch. You can send Magellan on an around-the-world sail and come up with only one. The one Correa won.

Name any other player in Show history to hit two postseason game-winning home runs without ever doing it in the regular season? Did you say Red Sox legend David Ortiz? Big Papi had eleven in regular-season play. Did you say Bernie Williams, the longtime Yankee center field stalwart? Williams did it three times in regular-season play. But if you said Carlos Correa, give yourself a pat on the back at least as hearty as the flip Correa gave his bat as he proceeded up the first base line to run it out.

Name any other shortstop in Show history to hit a game-winning bomb in a postseason elimination before Correa teed off. If you said nobody, make that pat on the back a big pounding slap. Jeter’s rip off Kim? Tied the 2001 World Series at two games each. Ozzie Smith’s gone-crazy-folks blast off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer, in Game Five of the 1985 National League Championship Series? All that did was put the St. Louis Cardinals ahead 3-2.

Once again, Correa swings alone.

“That’s as big a moment as I’ve ever been involved in,” Baker said after Thursday’s game.  “That’s one of the reasons I came back . . . That’s as sweet as it gets right there.” Baker should know. In a nineteen-season playing career and a 23-season managing career, Baker was never part of any postseason game that ended with a home run until now.

(Yes, folks. That was the same Tom Niedenfuer who’d get destroyed in Game Six in 1985, when Tommy Lasorda thought it was perfectly safe to let him pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from going to the World Series, and Jack the Ripper thought it was even safer to hit a first-pitch three-run homer for which the Dodgers had no response in the bottom of that ninth.)

The magnitude of Correa’s blast is yet to find its full definition. That would require the Astros hanging in to win the ALCS. If they do, Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark has news for you: they’d buy Correa membership in a very exclusive club of players whose postseason game-winners kept their eventual World Series-winning teams from going home for the winter if they’d lost the games won by their game-winners.

That club now is merely Bill Mazeroski (Game Seven, 1960 World Series), Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (Game Six, 1991 World Series), Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 ALCS), and David Freese (Game Six, 2011 World Series). Mazeroski’s, of course, won that World Series. Puckett, Ortiz, Freese, and now Correa bought their teams another day to play.

Correa didn’t point to the fences the way Babe Ruth remains alleged to have done in the 1932 World Series, but Baker swore after the game Correa told him before going out to the plate in the ninth that he was going to end the game right there. Correa swore he told Jose Altuve the same thing.

“Please Lord,’’ Baker did admit to praying, “let us walk it off.”

“I wanted to drive the ball,” Correa told reporters, “and I felt I could do it. So when I was walking on the field, I said, ‘I’m going to end it’.’’

Until or unless someone else spills and says the shortstop and the skipper were full of it, give them the benefit of that doubt. It’s maybe the first such benefit any Astro has earned this year. They brought enough of that lack of benefit upon themselves in the Astrogate aftermath. They should have considered themselves sadly fortunate the pandemic-mandated empty ballparks in which they played kept them from facing maybe the most hostile road crowds baseball’s seen this side of its classic blood rivalries.

It’s going to be tough enough for the Astros to finish what’s been done only once before, rise from the dead to win after being down 3-0 in a postseason set. Third baseman Alex Bregman illuminated that for his teammates, say a few published reports: he showed them a documentary of those 2004 Red Sox.

Those Red Sox did it to their historic rivals. These Astros aren’t trying to take it to, say, the Oakland Athletics or the Texas Rangers. OK, so there’s no blood feud involved. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not one Astro has any particular animus against the Rays themselves. Just as happened in last year’s division series, the one the Rays almost swiped from the Astros, the Rays are just another obstacle on the Astros’ way back to the World Series. For now.

Are the Rays worried yet? Maybe they should be. Unless they can remember how to hit situationally and stop trying to get their Yankees on. Cash can say all he wants that he doesn’t think the Rays are getting home run happy, but all of a sudden the Rays are doing nearly all their scoring with the long ball.

That five-run fifth in Game Three was a usually-typical Rays uprising—single, force out, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, back-to-back hit batsmen the second of which forced in a run, two-run double. The only aberration was the bunt. The Rays didn’t sac bunt all year before then. (Neither did anyone else in this postseason.) Just like old Casey Stengel (and how today’s boring old-school farts forget!), the Rays don’t believe in surrendering outs normally.

Innings and rallies like that seem distant memories. And you can’t go to the World Series on any kind of memories.

They scored two of their three Game Four runs on a two-run homer. They scored all three of their Game Five runs with home runs. When first baseman Ji-Man Choi led off the top of the eighth pulling one into the right field seats off Astros reliever Josh James, it tied the score at three and had one and all thinking along with the Astros: “We have them right where they want us.”

Late innings. The Astros’ largely youthful bullpen spent for the day. The Rays’ other high-leverage bulls still lurking, with Baker in danger of having to burn Valdez and force himself into a Game Six alternative.

Then Correa shook away Bregman’s leadoff pop fly out to short right field, speared by Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe running toward the line from the infield shift/fourth-outfielder array. Correa took a ball one curve ball up and a little in, then swung and missed on an Anderson curve that dropped smack dab in the middle of the strike zone.

Then Anderson threw that fastball tailing away from the middle of the zone. It didn’t tail away quick enough to keep Correa from turning it into a satellite.

The Rays’ missing man refuses to surrender. Kevin Kiermaier hadn’t been seen since he was drilled on the wrist during that Game Three fifth-inning push, until he pinch-ran for Mike Zunino in the top of the ninth and stayed in the game for center field defense. His absence in Game Four and almost all Game Five probably hurt more than the Rays would ever admit.

“We like our chances,” Kiermaier said postgame. “We have a lot of confidence in our bunch that we’ll get the job done . . . We have to work at-bats, have solid approaches, move base to base like usual.”

They beat Valdez and company sort of that way in Game One, a solo homer, an RBI single, and their don’t-even-think-about-it bullpen. They’ll have to do it again in Game Six. Not even a lineup of nine Randy Arozarenas can hit home runs every time up.

Their best chance to hang in and win is playing Rayball and not letting the Astros even think about playing it. Thanks to Correa, the Astros now have other thoughts in mind.