How not to strip the naughty sauce

Max Scherzer

Max the Knife wasn’t quite ready to perform a full strip tease over his third stop-and-frisk Tuesday night . . . but but perhaps some pitcher will, soon.

Long before she surrendered the newspaper columnist’s life for life as a novelist and eventual periodic Newsweek columnist, Anna Quindlen observed cheekily (in her early New York Times column, “Life in the 30s”) that basketball allowed women a sublime extracurricular pleasure. It was the only sport, she wrote, in which women got to watch men run around in their underwear.

Let’s be kind and allow that Quindlen thought boxing was as much of a sport as Charles Manson was a family counselor. But she wrote when the NBA’s uniforms still resembled something as close to men’s underwear as you could get away with in public without filming a comedy movie scene.

That was also then, and this is now. Major League Baseball’s ham-fisted mid-season bent on enforcing foreign-substance rules long on the books and long un-enforced may yet give women another such sublime pleasure. Baseball may yet be the first American sport in which women at the ballpark will get to watch men perform strip teases on or around the pitcher’s mounds.

Don’t be afraid to bet the rent or the mortgage on it. There just might be a pitcher ready to coordinate with the ballpark’s public address people and have David Rose’s ecdysiastical  classic “The Stripper” cued up and ready to go, hard and loud, at the split second he hands his hat to an umpire under orders to stop and frisk for naughty sauce.

It nearly happened at least twice on Tuesday night. First, Nationals ace Max Scherzer finally decided too much was enough with Phillies manager Joe Girardi’s harassment in the fourth inning—and thrust his hat and glove to the ground before yanking his belt open savagely enough that you thought he would drop trou on the spot.

Scherzer didn’t, of course. But Athletics reliever Sergio Romo almost did out in Oakland after finishing the seventh. Romo dropped trou just enough that his almost knee-length uniform jersey still kept his hind quarters covered well and good. He bent forward just so, leaving you the impression Romo was trying to moon the fools who imposed the current crackdown without quite being too cheeky about it.

So neither Max the Knife nor El Machon felt confident enough to perform baseball’s first known on-the-field striptease. Somebody just might, though. It could take long enough for Jacob deGrom to make plans, coordinate, then sail into it to David Rose’s tune at the moment he’s accosted and handed the search warrant.

When deGrom had the dubious honour of being the first under the fresh crackdown (or should that be crackup?) to be stopped and frisked Monday afternoon, he couldn’t stop grinning wide when he wasn’t laughing his head right off his shoulders. Maybe if Scherzer had been the first he’d have thought it was funny, too. Maybe.

But do you think a fellow like deGrom, who’d laugh his way through one of his sport’s most ridiculous over-compensatory gestures, would find it hard to resist a shot at making the Chippendales resemble the Chipmunks in order to send a counter-message to baseball’s garbled and clumsy one?

Commissioner Rob Manfred is a man with a ten-thumbed touch and a pronounced cognitive inability to recognise the true roots of crises that spring from his apparent need to demonstrate that Rube Goldberg should have been a baseball executive.

But even Manfred and his gang couldn’t ignore the ridiculously sublime message sent if and when baseball’s best pitcher decides the way to start putting a stop to this is to channel his inner Gypsy Rose Lee. Could they? They already seem somewhat immune to the concept that there might have been a better way to address the naughty sauce than this.

Resisting Manfred’s Rube Goldberg side to experiment with the baseballs themselves would have kept this issue from getting sticky in the first place. Pitchers normally have enough trouble just keeping their arms, elbows, and shoulders from breaking and tearing, whether they’re throwing speeding bullets, voluptuous breaking balls, or slop.

Not to mention their sides, swinging the bats, in the National League at least, since the designated hitter is not yet permanently universal as it should be.

(Don’t even think about it. Just as Nolan Ryan was an absolute outlier for his 27-season career and insane in the brain work loads—though it’s oft forgotten that Ryan had physical issues very early in his career, including missing all 1967 with one—Jacob deGrom and his .407/.407/.444 slash line as of Wednesday morning is an absolute outlier among this years pitchers hitting a whopping .112/.153/.142 slash line thus far.)

Of course, resisting Manfred’s Goldberg side would also require—what do you know—the immediate disappearance of the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers and the free cookie on second base to begin extra half-innings. Don’t say it as though disappearing them would be terrible things.

What has Manfred thought about his precious pace-of-play improvement campaign now that the mandatory stop-and-frisking for naughty sauce has gone from the ridiculous to the deranged and has probably delayed games by a few more minutes apiece?

What does he think’s going to happen to the pace of play when an indignant pitcher finally gets beyond Max Scherzer’s or Sergio Romo’s kind of annoyance and goes as full Ned Braden as a baseball player can go on grass and dirt?

(Who’s Ned Braden? As played by now-retired actor Michael Ontkean, Braden was the anomalously non-violent minor league hockey player diverting the bloodthirsties’ howling blood lust during an on-ice championship game brawl by performing a gracefully-skated strip tease around the rink—provoking the high school band in the stands to make with “The Stripper” and the ladies in the arena to go bonkers with delight—in the Paul Newman film Slap Shot.)

In absolute fairness, it doesn’t seem as though the umpires are necessarily thrilled about being under orders to stop and frisk for naughty sauce, either. Understandable. They have enough trouble with their current reputations for being only too human, with the almost-pandemic blown calls and enough in their ranks believing fans pay their hard earned dough to come to the park to see them behave as laws unto themselves.

They need to be the Commish’s Elite Guard about as badly as deGrom needs two more miles an hour on his best fastball. No member of the crew working the Yankees-Royals game Tuesday night could have felt thrilled about having to stop and frisk Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisiga after coming out of an eighth inning in which he was slapped silly for four runs on five hits.

Some of us call that adding insult to injury. Others of us wondered if the umps were trying to tell him that, if he did have a little naughty sauce at hand (or anyplace else on his assorted anatomy), there was no excuse for getting pinata’d like that.

The crew working the Nats-Phillies game that got Scherzer’s underwear in a twist has the likewise dubious honour of having thrown out the first manager because of the naughty sauce crackdown.

Girardi called for the third Scherzer stop-and-frisk, just because a) he could, and b) there’s a too-fine line between real cheating alarm and bad-faith gamesmanship (which the memo says can get a manager suspended, folks), but when he tried goading Scherzer and several hollering Nats coaches into a fight Girardi got sent to bed without his supper for the night.

Clayton Kershaw thinks that’s not enough. “I think there should be a punishment if they don’t catch anything on the guy,” the future Hall of Famer said after he saw Max the Knife get knifed in the fourth. “I think Scherzer, you know, he’s one of the best pitchers of our generation. To see him get checked . . . and mess up his rhythm . . . you better find something if you’re going to call him out like that.”

So who’s it going to be, ladies and gentlemen? Who’s going to be the first pitcher to decide too much is enough and go Ned Braden on or around the mound before Manfred gets the a-ha! and addresses the naughty sauce—and the baseballs themselves—reasonably? Who’s going to be the first likewise indignant umpiring crew to let him?

Maybe make the Girardis strip tease if they’re going to cross the line between reasonable doubt and trying not to pay the rent to live in a pitcher’s head. (Oops. Better be judicious about that, especially if you’ve seen Tony La Russa lately.)

I wonder if someone makes breakaway baseball uniforms. If this keeps up, he or she may soon find themselves making such Mets, Nats, A’s, or other uniforms. Unless entire teams decide to play with nothing on but their briefs, jocks, and socks. Nothing to see there! Move on! David Rose, wherever you are, cue up the band.

The Book of Ecdysiastes 1, 3, and 4

Max Scherzer

“I’m so happy I could just strip!”

“In the name of God and His servant Preacher Roe, just what the hell did Joe Girardi think he was doing out there tonight?” That was Gunko Gluedius on the Zoom. He was watching the Phillies play the Nationals Tuesday.

He couldn’t believe Max Scherzer came straight from the injured list and onto the suspect list. Three times in the same game.

“The TSA isn’t this freakazoid when they run you through the airport security checks,” I said, as calmly as I could. I know Gunko. He’s a pitching freak. It’s almost the only part of baseball he really loves. The other part is watching people like Anthony Fauci throw ceremonial first pitches sideways while aiming forward.

“No, they’re not,” Gunko replied. “Not with me, anyway. I had to fly to Seattle last week. I didn’t have the pre-check pass but they still didn’t think I should be peeled like a banana.”

Sometimes Scherzer looks like a fellow who’s spent as much time under the old-fashioned automotive grease rack as he’s spent on the mound. Sometimes he looks like a fellow who spent too much time cleaning the oven so his wife could have a big break.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s given to keeping anything like Goop, Pennzoil, Easy-Off, or pieces of Brillo hidden around his assorted anatomy.

He didn’t have to be thrilled about it, but he knew going in he’d be checked after his first inning’s work. But then Girardi decided to get cute. Especially with the Nats holding a 3-1 lead after three, the lone Phillies run to that point courtesy of former Nat Bryce Harper hitting a down and in cutter up and out into the right field seats in the second.

After a clearly unamused Scherzer stood for his second mandatory random search of the game in the third, Girardi asked the umpires to check Max the Knife again in the fourth.

“I bet that’s the only time in baseball history a manager decided to punish a pitcher for surrendering a bomb to his guy,” Gunko joked. I’m not necessarily sure he’ll win that bet.

As soon as he realised the fourth inning warrant was sworn out and being delivered, any amount of cute left Scherzer’s person at once. He thrust his hat and his glove to the ground. Then he opened his belt with such a savage yank there must have been those fearing for a split second that he was going to peel himself like a banana.

You thought the Citi Field people missed an opportunity by not playing “The Pink Panther Theme” when Jacob deGrom had the honour of first come, first frisked under the Show’s new this-time-we-mean-it-until foreign substance crackdown?

The Citizens Bank Park people should have had that classic from the Book of Ecdysiastes on cue and ready to blast, bump, grind, and growl. Right down to the last trombone.

“I bet you every woman in the house would have coughed up double the price of their tickets to see Scherzer drop trou–and anything else he could think of,” Gunko crowed.

Unless his wife would cough up triple the going price to have divorce papers drawn up on the spot. Grounds? Since Max the Knife isn’t exactly reputed to be one of baseball’s heretofore-unconfirmed cheaters, I’d hazard the guess it would be on the grounds of unaccounted for exhibitionism outside the marital home.

But perhaps Mrs. Scherzer instead would lead the cheers. “Get it, honey, Get it! Show ’em what I know you’re made of!”

Obviously, not even pitching and surviving Game Seven of a World Series with nothing left to throw but meatballs, grapefruits, and canteloupes up to the plate after a neck issue almost took him out showed enough of what Scherzer’s made of.

Remember, the Phillies’ pitchers had to be stopped and frisked, too. Except that Nationals manager Dave Martinez isn’t the kind of guy who’d have had three warrants per pitcher per game sworn out.

He’d better not be. When Scherzer got the third stop-and-frisk order of the night, Martinez looked more ready to file brutality charges than Scherzer did.

Maybe Martinez remembered the night Girardi was managing the Yankees and his starting pitcher Michael Pineda got caught and suspended for suspicious ring around the neck.

“Did you see Scherzer hollering, ‘I got nothing! I got nothing!’ when he got searched the third time?” Gunko hollered to me. Of course I did. It was easier to read Scherzer’s lips than the first George Bush’s.

If you think the pitchers were trying to get away with murder with their new fashioned medicated goo before—and just maybe they were doing it not to be cute but to deal with Commissioner Nero’s incessant ball tinkering the last few years—beware the managers trying to get away with murder for using their newly-conferred freedom to file ball police complaints not to uncover contraband but to live and rattle rent-free in a pitcher’s head.

They can be sent to bed without their supper for it, too. Not just after Girardi got sent there after Scherzer stared him down cold following the fourth-inning flap. It’s in the memo:

Please note that a manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request in bad faith (e.g., a request intended to disrupt the pitcher in a critical game situation, a routine request that is not based on observable evidence, etc.)

“Oh, that’s cute,” said Gunko when I read that portion to him. “Bad faith, huh? That’s about as clear as a glass of water from the East River.”

“I haven’t had a glass of water from the East River since Bill Clinton was still in the White House, Gunko. But it’s right there. This isn’t supposed to become downright harassment.”

By that time, the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins made the score 3-2 with a healthy belt on a highball out over the left center field fence off Nats reliever Tanner Rainey. Somehow, another Nats reliever, Brad Hand, survived the bases loaded and one out in the ninth to escape with his and the Nats’ lives.

By that time, too, up in New York, Yankee pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga got frisked on a warrant—after pitching two thirds of the eighth inning and getting battered like a pinata on five hits for four earned Royals runs. Why were those umps patting Loaisiga down—for not using the naughty sauce properly?

And where were the Oakland Coliseum PA people when Athletics relief pitcher Sergio Romo almost did what Scherzer couldn’t quite bring himself to almost do—drop trou after finishing the seventh, but only far enough to let his long jersey keep him covered? Not even two bars of “The Happy Organ.”

“Let’s talk about bad faith,” Gunko urged. “You ever heard of the cop who pulls a driver over for a taillight issue and uses it as an excuse to have the poor sap’s car searched and stripped without a warrant? Don’t tell me there’s a manager alive who wouldn’t dream up a taillight issue for an excuse to have a pitcher stripped, searched, and slammered.”

I wouldn’t dare tell Gunko that. It’s right there, in Ecdysiastes 1, 3, and 4.

There’s plenty unfair about veiling player injuries

Bryce Harper

Bad enough: Bryce Harper—here about to be nose-coned by a Genesis Cabrera fastball—suffered a wrist injury on this pitch that sapped him at the plate in May. Worse: his manager Joe Girardi still thinks it’s fine to lie about player injuries.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi says sharing injury information with the press is “somewhat unfair to us.” It’s not exactly fair to a lot of people, especially the injured player(s). Especially with this season’s injuries seeming to come in multiples, which too many observers feared possible, if not likely, after last year’s pan-damn-ically inspired short, irregular season.

Last Tuesday, Bryce Harper was finally put on the injured list with a wrist injury. His manager was forced to admit he’d lied previously about Harper’s actual condition, saying he gave Harper last Sunday off, maybe to help the right fielder start shaking a slump away.

Never mind for the moment that the Phillies have real player depth problems. The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolates a more severe problem: “There might be a larger issue when it reaches this point: The Phillies would rather engage in subterfuge to trick the opposing manager than play with an actual full roster.”

You might recall Harper taking a hard and fast Genesis Cabrera pitch off his nose onto his left wrist leading off the sixth in St. Louis near April’s end. At that moment, between Harper getting dropped and followup Phillies batter Didi Grigorius taking the next pitch off his ribs, the outrage was over both Phillies being injured with those pitches and the abject stupidity of the three-batter minimum rule for relief pitchers.

The rule denied Cardinals manager Mike Schildt the option of getting Cabrera the hell out of there on a night he clearly lacked control of his bullets. The umpires’ refusal to eject Cabrera after Grigorius got drilled outraged the normally mild-mannered Girardi enough to get himself the ho-heave after making a pantomime of ejecting Cabrera himself following the umpire warnings.

But something was clearly wrong with Harper in the month to follow. His April finished with a 1.063 OPS (.448 on-base percentage; .615 slugging percentage). Now his May finishes with a 179-point OPS drop, to .884. His on-base percentage dropped 53 points; his slugging percentage, 126 points. He went from 48 total bases the season’s first month to 13 in May.

The Phillies may have had depth problems most of the season so far, but someone in that organisation should have seen something wrong with Harper. The lefthanded-swinging right fielder was clearly unable since the Cabrera drill to hit hard when making contact, and enemy pitchers figured it out early enough to keep pounding him with fastballs. He should have been send to the injured list far sooner than now.

But no. And Girardi thinks just keeping his mouth shut about who’s hurt where and how badly is going to help? If the other guys’ pitchers figured Harper’s swing was weakened and exploited him accordingly, does Girardi really think he’s doing Harper or anyone else on his team any favours by not talking up?

“There is a distinct advantage to the other manager if I tell you a guy’s wrist is hurt,” Girardi said last Tuesday, after the Phillies finally had to surrender and send Harper to the injured list.

And the idea here is to win games . . . I understand you want to know. But there are distinct advantages that I can give another club if they know everything that’s going on over here. So I’m sorry that I had to do that. But we’re trying to win games, and he’s just not ready to go. I thought he’d be ready on Monday or Tuesday. He’s not.

News flash: The other guys already know who doesn’t look right. Especially if he has an injury history the way Harper does.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly, whose team hadn’t faced the Phillies in April but did so twice this month, figured it out immediately last Sunday, when he saw Harper on the Phillies bench last Sunday wearing a red pullover shirt but not his Phillies uniform top. Mattingly and his Marlins knew Harper wasn’t going to play before Girardi finally had to quit lying his way around the issue.

Harper still has his career-long critics, of course, but even they acknowledge (however begrudgingly) that he hates to sit a game out unless he absolutely must. Baseball men “know to never read too much into Girardi’s words because he was notorious for less-than-truthful injury updates when he managed in New York,” Gelb observed.

Then Harper told Girardi last Sunday morning the wrist still wasn’t right. Come Monday, Girardi fed the press a line about merely deciding Sunday night he’d give Harper an extra day off.

Sure, Joe. Let Joe and Jane Fan think all he needs is an extra day’s rest. Let them think they haven’t seen what their own eyes tell them. Let them think the man’s just slumping. Let them think he’s just struggling as he’s done at times in the past.

Anything except letting the other guys think what they already know because they’ve been in the game long enough to know better. The hell with your guy’s reputation or health. Even if he should have been sent to the injured list and the real doctors long before he finally was. It’s going to do your team how much good now?

It’s not that Joe and Jane Fan always know when a player struggles because his health compels the struggle. They see such a player—whether a replacement-level player or a $300 million dollar gigastar—and assume without knowledge that the man is either having a slump or exposing himself as the overrated bum they always knew him to be.

It gets even better when Joe and Jane start rhapsodising about the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When ballplayers were invariably warriors, real men who played through broken limbs or even tuberculosis. Joe and Jane don’t like to be reminded that in the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game players had so few choices about things in general and baseball medicine, such as it was, in particular, that baseball medicine could have been hauled before the boards to answer for downright malpractise.

Red Schoendienst

Everyone in the league knew something was wrong with Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst in 1958—then he was diagnosed as having played the year with tuberculosis. Fat lot of good that did him or his Braves.

Even today, you can find a player who finds as much reason to trust his team medical staff about as far as he could throw a subway train, then goes to a more reliable doctor—and gets himself into hot water with the team. It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

Did I say tuberculosis? Joe and Jane love reading about the “guts” it took 35-year-old Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst to play 106 games in 1958—including stretching a double into a triple on the basepaths during the World Series—despite everyone in the National League including his own team knowing something was badly wrong with the ten-time All-Star, who knew what?

Yankee Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle remembered Schoendienst being exhausted beyond normality after pulling up at third on that hit. Diagnosis after the season: tuberculosis. Missed practically the entire 1959 season. His Braves lost that Series to the Yankees, then lost the 1959 pennant in a playoff against the Dodgers.

Mantle spoke of Schoendienst in his 1964 book (with Babe Ruth/Casey Stengel biographer Robert W. Creamer) The Quality of Courage. Exactly what good did it do his team or himself that Schoendienst “courageously” played through a disease that could have killed him, infected others, and then missed most of the following year?

A player who earned his living as much with his second base defense as his bat, Schoendienst was never the same player again. He hung around for portions of four more seasons before becoming a successful manager, and even his second base abilities drained away before he called it a playing career.

It’s not that Joe and Jane Fan share a particularly acute or enduring memory today, either. They spent more time bemoaning the Jacoby Ellsbury contract with the Yankees for his protracted absences than they did bemoaning the fact that Ellsbury spent so much time in drydock because of assorted injuries he’d actually incurred, you know, playing the game. (Did I mention the manager when Ellsbury first joined the Yankees was Joe Girardi?)

They also tended to forget that teams carry particularised insurance covering those big contracts in the event of injuries. They’d rather carp about such players “stealing” money from their teams as if they went out with premeditation and malice aforethought to get injured during games.

The biggest idiots among the fans still think Albert Pujols “stole” millions from the Angels, rather than stopping to think the reason Pujols dropped so far off the table in the first place was his lower body health, only starting with a frightening recurrence of plantar fasciitis after his first Angels season.

It doesn’t take much to leave a player anything but the player he was until that one particular injury, either. Especially when he’s still only 28 years old. Playing through a wrist injury did Harper no favours at all. In April: he swung and missed 26 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone and still posted that 1.063 OPS for the month. After the Cabrera drilling: he swung and missed at 37 percent of what he saw in the zone—and his OPS cratered.

“Beyond the simple fact that no Girardi updates for the remainder of his time as Phillies manager can be taken at face value,” Gelb writes, “there have to be real questions about Harper. Is there more than a sore wrist at play here?”

If there isn’t, it shouldn’t be a shock, either. A single injury can and too often does send a player from the Hall of Fame track to the wrong side of the track. It’s bad enough Joe and Jane Fan couldn’t care less. It’s worse when his own manager thinks the solution includes lying through his teeth about it.

From Genesis to Revelation

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper, a split second before his nose met Genesis Cabrera’s fastball leading off the sixth Wednesday night.

Eons ago, it seems now, Yogi Berra had a handy response to those who thought he looked like one of the title supporting players in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket,” the Hall of Famer said, “All you have to do is hit the ball. And I never saw anybody hit one with his face.”

Berra got a few laughs while he drove home one point. But the flip side is that you can see one hitter too many take one with his face, which is every hitter who ever had to do it.

Thank God and His servant Stengel that it’s still the exception. It still doesn’t erase the fear of longtime watchers and fans that the latest such victim will be the game’s next Tony Conigliaro. Such fears even among his critics struck when Bryce Harper’s face was in the top of the sixth Wednesday night.

Hit one with his face? Harper led off the inning seeing one pitch from Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera. The pitch sailed up and into Harper’s nose on the left side while knocking his batting helmet clean off his head and the Phillies’ right fielder crumpling to the ground in the batter’s box.

The man who nearly went from Genesis to Revelation merely picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked away from the plate under his own power. Rather gutsy for a man who was lucky he wasn’t decapitated by a fastball that veered so far off course it would have inspired “Mayday! Mayday!” calls from the crew if it was an airplane.

What we ought to be hearing now is louder demands that the ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers unless they ended an inning facing fewer needs to go the way of the Oldsmobile. Faster than the Oldsmobile went away, too.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi anguished for his man but maintained in the moment, sending Matt Joyce out to pinch run. Then Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius checked in at the plate. He saw one pitch from Cabrera, too. This time, the errant fastball didn’t sail up toward his sight lines but, rather, did a magnificent job of trying to bore a hole in his ribs.

The umpiring crew issued warnings to both sides. Nothing more. Since a manager can’t remove an out-of-control relief pitcher until he’s seen three batters minimum under the current and extremely dubious rule, it should be on their heads as to why Cabrera was allowed to remain in the game despite two pitches dropping two batters dangerously enough.

That was enough to send Girardi sailing out of his dugout in raw fury. As might you if you’d seen the first two of your men scheduled to bat in the inning coned and drilled back-to-back, on two pitches, courtesy of a pitcher who’d just entered the game but shown as much control as a runaway truck.

Raw fury and naked fear. Girardi knows only too well the terror of fastballs reaching your face. He took one in his own pan from then-Padres pitcher Woody Williams in 2000. As happened to Harper Wednesday night, that Williams pitch drew blood from Girardi’s own schnozzola. “It’s extremely scary,” he said of Harper’s drop, “and I can tell you from experience.”

Under normal circumstances, Girardi is one of the more mild-mannered men in baseball, even given his well-known competitiveness. But he was enraged almost as much by the umps not even thinking of sending Cabrera to the rest of the night off as he was by his first two sixth-inning swingers getting hit by those out-of-control fastballs.

“I understand why they give the warnings, right?” he told reporters. “I understand they don’t want things to escalate. They don’t want people to get hit. But if a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go, right? If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”

So Girardi fumed to the umpires and, rather theatrically, turned to Cabrera and made the gesture umpires usually use when they’re giving someone the ho-heave. If you can think of any precedent for a manager throwing an opposing player out of the game, Girardi might like to know it. The gesture proved only that, lawfully.

But it also proved Girardi’s own departure, when plate umpire Chris Segal promptly did to him what he believed appropriately should have been done to Cabrera. As he walked off the field following the thumb, Girardi barked at Cabrera, “Throw the [fornicating] ball over the plate!” Not an unreasonable demand.

He also exchanged a bark or three from a distance with Cardinals manager Mike Schildt, who spoke after the game like a man who didn’t exactly have in mind trying to beat the other guys by assassination instead of playing baseball.

Schildt also admitted something that flies in the face of the pan-damn-ic inspired three-batter relief minimum rule. If not for that rule, Schildt told reporters, he would have gotten Cabrera out of the game the moment Harper hit the deck.

“That’s a failure of the three-batter minimum,” he told the press. “It absolutely is that. Completely, absolutely, no doubt. But that’s an outlier of it.” He’s right about the hit batsmen issue with one pitcher whose control went AWOL for the evening. But as The Athletic’s Matt Gelb observes rightly enough, “The rule was designed to quicken games (it has not) and has generated unintended consequences (too many to count).”

Schildt won’t hear Girardi complain. This very circumstance—a pitcher brought in with his control missing stuck for three batters even if he hits one, never mind two—has been one of Girardi’s primary exhibits when fuming, as he’s done from the moment it poked its nose out of its hole, against the three-batter minimum.

After Grigorius took his base to set up first and second, Andrew McCutchen singled Joyce home to break the three-all tie and chase Cabrera out of the game. One inning later, Grigorius himself sent Alec Bohm home on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly with what proved to be the final score, 5-3 Phillies.

Then things got a little testy in the bottom of the eighth, after Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod shook off Nolan Arenado’s leadoff single to strike Paul DeJong out and lure Tyler O’Neill—who’d hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second—into a broken-bat grounder to short that Grigorius might have caught but took on the hop for a step-and-throw, inning-ending double play.

Viewers at home then saw a commercial followed by Coonrod walking off the field, but not without pointing and hollering at the Cardinals dugout. Small wonder. During the commercial break, Coonrod looked as though he wanted nothing more than to bake five and twenty Redbirds in a pie.

Phillies third baseman Brad Miller—whose own two-run bomb tied the game at three in the first place an inning before Harper and Grigorius got coned and drilled—tried to stop Coonrod before inadvertently letting go of the reliever’s hand. But Coonrod, himself a St. Louis product, put all thoughts of one-man demolition out of his mind and settled for a few hollerings, though he knew in his heart of gut Cabrera wasn’t exactly trying to vapourise his two teammates.

“As a teammate, you appreciate the intensity,” Miller told reporters after the game. “The dude came in and got some big outs for us. It’s a close game. And, yeah, he was a little fired up, obviously. Three getting hit like that was pretty scary.” “Three,” of course, refers to Harper’s uniform number.

Cabrera himself was genuinely contrite after the game—wasn’t he? “I want to apologise for all of the action that happened, especially to Harper,” he said through his translator. “I really wish him the best. I hope he has a speedy recovery, in whatever it is that happened, and that he’ll be able to return to baseball activities. The game got away from me at that point. I’m really sorry for everything that happened today. None of it was intentional. And again, I’m sorry for everything.”

Is it just me, or did a lot of Cabrera’s remark sound like prepared boilerplate?

Struggling teams are known to feel more than a little fired back up after confronting near-disaster. Until Wednesday night, the Phillies were a back-and-forth .500 team with inconsistency at the plate and arson out of the bullpen. What they showed after Harper and Grigorius got drilled reminds you that it’s a somewhat sad thing if and when a team rehorses and irons up after coming face to face with near manslaughter.

Opening Day: Snow fooling

There was nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. The snow took control of the transmission when Miguel Cabrera hit this Opening Day home run . . .

Just because the expected Opening Day marquee battle between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) had to be postponed (COVID-positive Nats players and a team staffer to quarantine), that didn’t mean Wednesday was going to lack for the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This is baseball. Where anything can happen—and usually does.

Especially if Opening Day is also April Fool’s Day. The part that wasn’t a gag—fans in the stands again, at long enough last. The sound was glorious, even if reduced from most normal capacities thanks to the continuing if only slightly receding pan-damn-ic.

Comerica Park should have been playing “Winter Wonderland” Wednesday. The Tigers’ aging star Miguel Cabrera shouldn’t be blamed if he was singing “Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Especially when he more than a little hard on the Bieber, turning on the Indian ace’s rising snowball, hitting a two-run homer, and . . . sliding into second base, unable to tell through the snow that the ball flew out.

I don’t know if the Coors Field public address people had it cued up, but they could and should have sounded “Don’t Pass Me By” after Dodger first baseman Cody Bellinger hit an RBI single . . . off Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia’s glove and over the left field fence. The problem: Justin (Who Was That Unmasked Man) Turner not seeing the ball reach the seats and retreating to first, compelling Bellinger to pass him on the basepath.

Oops. On a day the Rockies thumped Clayton Kershaw and managed to squeeze a win out after doing what Rockies usually do in the off-season—in this case, unloading their franchise player and all but reveling in front office dissembly and mission abandonment—Turner was the gift that . . . added insult to injury for the defending World Series winners.

The sleeper star in waiting in Blue Jays silks might have thought about singing an ancient  T. Rex number called “The Slider.” Gerrit Cole’s was just too juicy for Teoscar Hernandez to resist in the sixth. He sent it into earth orbit or 437 feet and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium—whichever came first. Who needed Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.?

Just one thing was wrong. Hernandez needs to work on his bat flips. He didn’t have one. A blast like that was just begging for him to go Willson Contreras. Hernandez just ambled up the base line carrying his bat, then kind of nudged it away to the grass. He’s young, with plenty of time to learn, though. And his blast tied the game the Jays went on to win, 3-2.

Which is the score by which the Phillies beat the Braves in ten innings—after Bryce Harper began the inning as the free cookie on second base, took third on J.T. (Nothing Is) Realmuto’s ground out, waited patiently as Didi Gregorius was handed first on the house, then came home with the winner when Jean Segura sliced a single to left.

The game got to the tenth in the first place because Phillies manager Joe Girardi decided he wasn’t quite ready to trust the National League’s leading arsonists with taking over from certified innings-eater Aaron Nola with a 2-0 lead in the seventh. The Braves were far more ready to trust Pablo Sandoval—erstwhile Giant, one-time World Series hero, all-time poster child for Slim Slow—to pinch hit for Max Fried’s relief Tyler Matzek with a man on.

. . . and slid into second unable to tell at first whether the ball or the snow cleared the fence.

Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than ready to hit Nola’s 0-2, slightly down and slightly in fastball into the right field seats. Girardi is many things but a crystal ball operator isn’t one of them. If he had been, he could have lifted Nola safe and sound because the Phillies’ bullpen apparently forgot to refill the gasoline cans for a change. Not even a bases-loaded jam in the eighth could keep Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris and Conner Brogdon from keeping the Braves scoreless over the final three and a third.

Does Philadelphia believe in miracles? Don’t ask too quickly, folks. Remember: this is the baseball town in which a typical wedding concludes with the minister pronouncing the newly-married couple husband and wife—then addressing the gathering with, “You may now boo the bride.” As much as I hate to drop a cliche so worn you see more holes there than in an oil field, the Phillies have 161 games left to play. Ruh-roh.

That was last year’s pan-damn-ically irregular season: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, who sometimes evokes Willie Mays when he’s not on the injured list, walked twice all year long. This was Opening Day: Buxton should have had “Cadillac Walk” as his entrance music—he walked twice. He also blasted a two-run homer to the rear end of American Family Field in the seventh and had his arm calibrated so well that the Brewers didn’t dare to even think about running wild on him.

Buxton’s blast made it 5-3, Twins. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Twins undid their own sweet selves with a badly timed error, making room for a ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying comeback that turned into a 6-5 Brewers win on—wait for it!—a chopped ground out that left just enough room for Lorenzo Cain to score the winner from third. (A transplanted Minnesotan of my acquaintance thinks, only, “That’s so Twins!”)

The Twins were saved from Opening April Fool’s Day ignominy by the Reds, alas. The Cardinals spotted Jack Flaherty a six-run lead in the first—abusing Reds starter Luis Castillo with an RBI infield hit, a bad error by Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez playing shortstop, and Dylan Carlson ringing a three-run homer off the foul pole—before he had to throw a single competitive pitch in the game.

Flaherty didn’t quite have his A game. A C+ might be more like it. Lucky for him and the bullpen that the Cardinals felt in the mood to abuse the Reds the rest of the way: An RBI single and a run home on a wild pitch plus a two-run homer in the fifth, and it didn’t matter if the Cardinal arms let the Reds have all six of those first-inning runs back. Let the Cardinals’ song for the day be “The Eleven,” as in the 11-6 final.

The bad news for the Angels opening at home against the White Sox: the lineup struck out ten times. The good news: only four of them came in the final six innings. Meanwhile, they beat the White Sox 4-3 like pests instead of power drivers: walking here, working counts there, game-tying single here (Justin Upton), solo homer (Max Stassi) there, RBI single (Mike Trout) and RBI ground out (Albert Pujols) yonder, the bullpen keeping the White Sox quiet the final three.

Not to mention the Still Best Player in the Game ending his Opening Day with a .750 on-base percentage: that RBI single plus a pair of well-worked walks in four plate appearances. Trout could also point proudly to something not usually associated with the Angels the last couple of years: they didn’t let the game get away early, and they nailed it late with a two-run eighth and a shutdown ninth by reliever Raisel Iglesias.

Unfortunately, time will tell if a triumph like that proves an April Fool’s joke that wasn’t half as funny as Miguel Cabrera’s home run slide.

But here’s no joke: There were 222 hits on Opening Day and a mere 35 percent of them went for extra bases, including a measly thirteen percent being home runs, while fifteen percent of the day’s hits were infield hits. The games produced a .311 batting average on balls in play. There were even nineteen tries at grand theft base and 79 percent of them succeeded.

Maybe the rumours of the all-around game’s death are more than slightly exaggerated for now. When there’s a slightly higher percentage of infield hits than home runs on a day, the small ballers should take their victories where they can find them. But you wonder if Cabrera will inspire more than a few players to think it’s time to work on their home run slides.