Racist death wishers, go to hell

Kenley Jansen, his wife Gianni, and their children, at Dodger Stadium.

There went those ideas. Ideas such as writing about how Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again with an even-up World Series, and pushed themselves to one game short of the Promised Land Sunday night.

From Mookie Betts’s game-opening triple to Corey Seager’s immediate RBI single. From Joc Pederson’s third inning-opening bomb to Max Muncy’s two-out, just-out-of-reach placing fifth-inning flog. From  Kershaw’s determined five and two thirds innings with less than the absolute best of his repertoire to the Rays’ tenacity to the Game Five finish. And, to both bullpens throwing zeros on the scoreboard.

That’s what I wanted to write about. But no. I had to learn some bunches of human scum just had to paste Kenley Jansen with the kind of thing that would be considered obscene in Sodom, Gomorrah, and the worst little whorehouse anywhere.

In the wake of Game Four’s extraterrestrial climax in the Rays’ Series-tying favour, Jansen’s Instagram account was flooded with racist insults, which are grotesque enough, and death threats against him, which are low enough. But the flood also included threats against his wife and children, for which there’s no redemption for those so dehumanised as to level them in the first place.

I’d like to say that that kind of degeneracy is a brand new phenomenon, but I know better. Didn’t I remember the anniversary of Joe Carter’s 1993 Series-winning three-run homer off Mitch Williams a few days ago by recalling, among other things, Williams receiving death threats after he’d blown a save in Game Four of that set? And I’m not naive enough to think it began with Williams, either.

I’m old enough to remember when Hall of Famer Henry Aaron required security and the FBI’s close surveillance when he lived and played under the spectre of racial insults, hate mail, and death threats. Not because he’d tried and failed on baseball’s biggest stage but because he had the audacity to challenge and succeed in passing Babe Ruth on the lifetime home run list.

You almost don’t want to imagine what Aaron would require from the cyberspacious descendants of such creatures if he were chasing the Babe under today’s social media scrutiny. At least the racist hate and death-threat mail didn’t arrive his way within about three seconds after it was posted.

Jansen has not performed without his postseason struggles over his career. Few enough Dodgers who’ve seen their regular-season dominance for eight years running collapse in those postseasons have. Being a black man by itself is enough to provoke too many who lack the brains God conferred upon a paramecium.

But what the hell could Jansen have done to provoke racist death threats?

Was it merely throwing the fastball that cruised off the middle of the plate, right into Rays pinch hitter Brett Phillips’s bat, and off the gloves of both center fielder Chris Taylor and catcher Will Smith as the tying and winning Rays runs crossed the plate Saturday night?

Was it Jansen’s inexplicable lapse in not backing the plate after Muncy’s relay throw to Smith down the first base line bumped off his mitt and behind the plate, before Smith swept around to tag a Randy Arozarena who hadn’t yet arrived to within forty feet of the plate after an unlikely trip and tumble before he scored the winner?

Was it Jansen’s apparent postgame indifference about the lapse when talking to postgame reporters?

About throwing the pitch Phillips swatted to start that Three Stooges-like climax, reality check. It’s far too easy to hammer a pitcher leaving a meatball out over the plate but far too difficult to remember that he didn’t exactly say to himself, “This see-saw needs to go bumper cars.”

Show me the pitcher who delivers intending for what he throws to be hit into right center field, left center field, the bleachers, or out of town, and I’ll show you a pitcher who knows better than to take the mound in a professional baseball game in the first place.

Jansen’s not the first and won’t be the last experienced pitcher to get caught in the middle of a jaw-to-the-floor ninth-inning shock and find himself on the wrong side of the plate area when he should have been behind it backing whatever play might come. His being there might not have stopped the winning run, or it might have forced the game to extra innings.

We didn’t know in the moment. We’ll never know. On strict baseball terms, it’s fair game to criticise Jansen for not being where he belonged. It’s fair game to question whether the moment’s shock knocked his concentration out just long enough. Playing race cards and suggesting he and his family deserve execution over it is so far beyond those bounds you shouldn’t even be able to imagine it, never mind have to see it.

Jansen also isn’t the first and won’t be the last veteran unable to say, simply, that he’d made a bad mistake not backing the play. He isn’t the first and won’t be the last to find no words for Phillips floating his unintended meatball into right center other than what equals, “It is what it was.”

Wasn’t it possible that what Jansen tried to say though his tongue betrayed him was, hey, this was only Game Four, we’ve just got to shake it off and come out to play tomorrow? If it was, did he deserve a social media scum bath?

Teasing over his prior postseason puncturings is one thing. Go ahead, tell the world that the minute you see him warming up in the pen you want to get blind drunk, call your analyst, or stick your head in the oven. Those may not be in good taste but at least they don’t cross the line into human degeneracy.

As an orator, Jansen isn’t exactly James Earl Jones. (For the record, he’s not African American, either, as if that’s a distinction with a difference to the racist—he’s native to Curacao and, with his wife and children, lives there with his parents in the off-seasons.) He won’t sell out auditoriums speaking of the magical waters into which baseball’s dreamers dip as they come to the Field of Dreams and reunite with the heroes of their increasingly distant youths.

Yet there still remain creatures among us who think even that’s a capital crime.

We watch and love baseball because it speaks as no other sport does to our aspirations, our need to wander and explore, our need to come home from our wanderings and explorations. No other major sport defines its scoring that way. You score touchdowns and field goals in football. You sink baskets on the hard court. In golf, it don’t mean a thing if it got too many swings before you sink one into a hole. In racing, you cross a certain line or (if you’re a horse) hit the wire.

But A. Bartlett Giamatti was so right about what happens when the umpire says “Play ball!”—long as you travel and as far as you roam, your job is to come home. You don’t always control the journey. You know nothing at the outset of the pitfalls, pratfalls, and powder kegs awaiting you, nor do you know when they’ll meet you and just what triumph or disaster awaits.

You might reconsider those before you continue watching sports as though success and triumph equal godlike transcendence, failure and loss equal irredeemable character absence, and the defeated deserve to lose their lives. Freedom of speech allows anyone to make an ass of him or herself. To those crossing that line into the sewers of racism and death threats, three words: Go to hell.

Jansen lingered in the Dodger bullpen during Sunday night’s Game Five knowing he wasn’t in the game’s pitching plans and leaning now and then against the bullpen fence. Looking somewhere between thoughtful and troubled. If he tortured himself trying to conjugate how the hell to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy, you can’t blame him.

Even an obscurity such as me can spend over almost fourteen hundred words trying. And I still have no more idea whether I succeeded than I have that anyone gives a single damn what I think.

Put the goat milk down

As Randy Arozarena pounds the plate celebrating the Game Four-winning run, Max Muncy—whose spot-on relay throw home bumped away wild—looks momentarily shell shocked.

Very well, I surrender for the time being. Nothing written or said by me or anyone is going to stop Joe and Jane Fan from hanging the goat horns on any or all of Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith.

As if they’re anticipating yet another Los Angeles Dodgers full postseason meltdown from there. As if to prove myself and others right when we say baseball fans too often prefer a glass of goat milk to the hero sandwich.

As if Tampa Bay spare part Brett Phillips didn’t nail Jansen’s errant off the middle pitch for that floating line single whose hop began the chain of events that turned a certain Dodgers win and 3-1 Series advantage into an 8-7 Rays win and maybe the . . . third most devastating loss in Dodger history? The fourth?

It can’t ever be the other guys being a little more heads-up and winning. It can only be our guys blowing it higher than Old Faithful. It can only ever be our guys leaving the front door open for them to rob us so blind we’re lucky if they left a couple of napkins behind while absconding with the cash, silver, and jewels.

Thus was Game Four of this Wild Series nothing to do with the Rays hanging in tenaciously and finding their way back to timely hitting, but everything to do with the Dodgers hell bent for becoming eight-straight division winners who found ways to turn championship-caliber teams into the 1962 New York Mets.

“I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet,” those Mets’ manager Casey Stengel liked to say. Far as Joe and Jane Dodger fan are concerned, those Mets had nothing on these Dodgers, and it’s easier to turn Donald Trump into an educated thinker than to imagine those Mets within two coasts distance of a World Series.

Saturday night’s frights only sent the Dodgers into Game Five in a head heat with the upstart, upset-minded, 99 Cent Store-budget, wing-prayer-and-wishes Rays. This Series has a minimum two more games to go. The worst case scenario after the hapless Taylor and Smith performed their leathery Ricochet Rabbit ball act was future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw pitching a possible tiebreaker instead of the Promised Land game.

You want worse Dodger defeats than Game Four? Here’s a roll for you:

Game Four, 1941 World Series. (Mickey Owen drops the strike that would have tied that Series at two.)

Game Three, 1951 National League pennant playoff. (Ralph Branca. Bobby Thomson. The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!)

Game Six, 1985 National League Championship Series. (Sure it’s safe to pitch to Jack [the Ripper] Clark with first base open and the Dodgers an out from forcing Game Seven.)

Game Seven, 2017 World Series. (Yu Darvish tipping pitches and bushwhacked in the first two innings, little knowing those Houston Astros played the full season with a stacked camera and monitor and an empty trash can.)

Game Five, 2015 National League division series. (Back-to-back tying homers from Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto; ultimate winner: ex-Dodger Howie Kendrick slicing salami in the tenth.)

So you want to condemn Jansen, Taylor, and Smith to the same Phantom Zone where live the goats of baseball past? Feel free if you must. The rest of us will continue to forgive. Well, maybe we won’t forgive Jansen too soon for neglecting to back up the plays at the plate. Even if he couldn’t have stopped Randy Arozarena from diving home after the relay escaped Smith, Jansen should have been there regardless.

But we’ll forgive Jansen the pitch Phillips tagged. We’ll forgive him because .202-hitting spare parts aren’t supposed to hit established closers even for floating line drives and the percentages on 1-2 were in his favour.

We’ll forgive him because who the hell knew such a spaghetti bat would turn the finish into veal parmigiana. We’ll forgive Taylor and Smith, too, because we know in our hearts and guts they committed errors of anxious anticipation.

Taylor couldn’t wait to field Phillips’s floater on the hop and throw to his cutoff man Max Muncy—until the hop bounded off his glove’s fingers. Smith couldn’t wait to get the tag on Randy Arozarena—until Muncy’s relay glanced off his mitt as he turned for the tag . . . and learned the hard way Arozarena tripped over himself halfway down the third base line while the ball traveled to the track well behind the plate.

And if you, Joe and Jane Fan, won’t forgive, we who know your rage and sorrow obstruct your vision and thought will forgive them for you. The Dodgers lost a ballgame on Saturday night. They didn’t lose a third lease on the Promised Land in four years. Yet. The Rays won a ballgame Saturday night. They haven’t crossed the Jordan. Yet.

We’ll forgive Jansen, Taylor, and Smith just the way we should have forgiven Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Tom Niedenfuer, Tommy Lasorda, Bill Buckner, John McNamara, Grady Little, all Cubs from 1909-2015, all Red Sox from 1919-2003, all Indians from 1949 forward, all Giants from 1963-2009, all Phillies from 1900-1979/1981-2008, and maybe even a couple of Yankees from last year and this.

We’ll forgive them just the way we should forgive every Diamondback since 2002, every Brave other than those from 1995, every Oriole since 1984, every Red (except one) since 1991, every Tiger since 1985, and every Angel other than those from 2002.

Just the way we should forgive every Brewer, Padre, Mariner, and Ranger so far. Not to mention every St. Louis Brown who ever walked the face of the earth and every Washington Senator who walked it from 1925-71.

We’ll forgive them because Thomas Boswell was right when he wrote, in 1990, “The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.” It would be easier to amend the U.S. Constitution than to overturn that law.

To err is human . . . and ties a Wild Series

Brett Phillips hits the single heard ’round the world Friday night in the ninth . . .

The unhappiest place on earth Saturday night simply had to be wherever Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith were after World Series Game Four ended. If you still find them there today, please resist the temptation to pound pairs of goat horns onto their heads. No matter how many real, aspiring, or alleged prose poets insist on leading you there.

Until further notice—and the way this Wild Series is rounding, bumping, and stumbling into shape, further notice could come as soon as Game Five—Jansen, Taylor and Smith were the three most deeply wounded or sick men on the planet who aren’t suffering COVID-19. They don’t need gasoline poured onto the flames inside their souls, even if Jansen might be more worthy of a critique than Taylor and Smith.

But Brett Phillips may also have been the single highest young man on the planet who needed no alcohol or marijuana to get there, among a crowd of Tampa Bay Rays teammates who probably thought they were somewhere near Phillips’s cloud after what he triggered in the bottom of the ninth.

“The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips,” purred Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck, just before Jansen turned and delivered on 1-2. Nobody says Jansen intended to help Phillips answer in the affirmative. And Phillips, the Floridian who grew up a Rays fan in the first place, wanted nothing more than a simple line-moving base hit.

The ones you should feel for truly are Taylor and Smith. Jansen got into trouble not just by failing to make the pitch that ended up ending Game Four but by failing almost inexplicably to back up home plate, when his proper presence might have choked the Rays off at the pass enough to send the game to extra innings instead of an 8-7 Dodgers loss. Might.

The husky righthander intended anything but throwing Phillips a grapefruit to line softly but surely past the Dodgers’ right-side infield shift and into right center field for a base hit when the Rays were down to their final strike and a 3-1 Series deficit, with Clayton Kershaw looming to start Game Five.

But Taylor didn’t see the ball shoot off Phillips’s bat intending to let it carom off the fingers of his glove when he ran in to play the hop and had his eye just long enough on Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier rounding third that he cheated himself out of a clean play. And Taylor didn’t hit his cutoff man Max Muncy past first base with a perfect strike just so Muncy’s relay down the line to Smith could bounce off the edge of Smith’s mitt at the split second the catcher began turning to make a sweeping tag at the plate—unaware that trail runner Randy Arozarena wasn’t even close to scoring yet.

Smith certainly didn’t intend for Muncy’s relay to ricochet behind his right side and all the way to the track behind the plate area. He simply didn’t see Arozarena tripping into a tumblesault halfway down the third base line, scrambling back toward third, before realising the ball escaped in the first place.

“Obviously, Will can’t see that Arozarena fell,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “Unfortunately, it was like that ‘unperfect’ storm. Just unfortunate.” The manager may have his flaws, but understatement isn’t one of them. This “unperfect” storm became a tsunami in almost a blink.

Arozarena recovered, dove, and pounded his hand on the plate nine times before he finally stood up with his team the winner. That ball might never have gone all the way back, though, if Jansen had backed up the plate the way pitchers are trained to a fare-thee-well to do.

Instead of saving the Dodgers’ hides and sending Game Four to extra innings, perhaps, Jansen inexplicably went toward the third base line almost in a jog. He stood next to it as Smith finished the ball-less sweep tag on a runner yet to arrive, and only as Arozarena finally shot toward the plate as Smith scampered back in a futile bid to retrieve the ball did Jansen run toward the plate.

Then he ran past it, and around the back of it while Arozarena landed with the winning run. He probably wanted to run through the clubhouse, out of the building, and into that Texas night and oblivion if he could have found it. Instead, Jansen faced the press, credited the hitters for doing their jobs, but couldn’t let himself own the backup lapse.

“Yeah, I mean, you know I tried to see, you know, what could I do,” Jansen said postgame. “I could’ve run a little bit more and then just see the play. But like I say, we came up short today, tomorrow’s another day and we’re going to come out there and give everything we’ve got and try to win ballgames.”

This oft-bruised relief pitcher usually faced up to disaster without flinching or ducking during a too-heavy host of Dodgers postseason calamities past. Now, he couldn’t bring himself at last to admit he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a little more hustle might have given the Dodgers at least one more inning to play, one more inning to make a Series advantage. Might.

How long before it really sinks in for one and all that the possible most insane finish to any World Series game ever came down to the last man sitting on the Rays’ bench? A guy who’d played in parts of four major league seasons, barely hit above the notorious Mendoza Line, and never hit a game-winning anything until the Rays were down to their final Game Four strike?

“When these guys were in the [2008] World Series,” the happy hero said postgame, “I was in eighth grade watching them. And now to be a part of it, helping these guys win a World Series game, it’s special.”

And how long before the “double Buckner” riffing on social media dissipates? Bad enough the late Bill Buckner was given too many years of unwarranted hell despite his moment of horror meaning only that his Boston Red Sox would get to play a Game Seven. Jansen, Taylor, and Smith’s moments of horror mean only that this Series is tied.

Jansen (74) could barely admit he’d blown it by not backing the plate when Smith lost the relay throw.

Nor was this quite ancient Dodgers catcher named Mickey Owen letting a Game Four-ending strike three become a passed ball, enabling Tommy Henrich to reach first starting a game-winning rally giving the Yankees a 3-1 Series lead instead of tying the Series at two each.

Short memories may be alien to Joe and Jane Fan who often leave you wondering what they crave more, the hero sandwich or a glass of goat’s milk. But they’re absolute requirements for a baseball player’s professional survival, as one reporter surely knew when asking Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner postgame just how that ninth-inning calamity could have happened while describing it in perfect thumbnail.

“You pretty much saw it,” Turner replied with a slightly dazed expression, before repeating the thumbnail in his own words and returning to standard boilerplate: show up, do the work, figure out a way to win tomorrow. Lucky for both teams that there would be a tomorrow.

The Dodgers thought for a moment that they’d send Clayton Kershaw out to the Game Five mound with a 3-1 Series advantage and just nine innings away from the Promised Land at last. Now Kershaw will pitch the biggest game of his life just to break a tie and leave Roberts to ponder whether to go for a bullpen Game Six or shove every one of his chips to the middle of the table with Walker Buehler starting on short rest.

As God and His servant Stengel are my witnesses, I swear to you that Rays manager Kevin Cash didn’t have Taylor misplaying Phillips’s line single or Smith mishandling the relay throw home in mind when he said and meant that, “eventually,” his team would get some bounces going their way.

A-ro-za-rena (as Buck pronounced it while he rounded third), his record-setting bombardier with nine this postseason, after a leadoff deficit-halving launch in the fourth, bouncing back up from that trip-and-tumble to shoot home with the game-winning run? Not even close to a flicker in Cash’s thinking.

“We’d tied the ballgame,” the manager said postgame, “so you’re feeling better, and then you’re sitting there saying, ‘My gosh, can this go any worse?’ There was so much that went through that game right there that I probably don’t even have the best recall right now.”

He did mean things like ten Rays hits including three homers and seven official runs batted in. He did mean bounces on balls the Rays put into play, including the broken-bat balloon shot Kiermaier—whose seventh-inning homer re-tied the game at six—lofted just past onrushing Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez with one out in the ninth.

Maybe the only thing Cash could have predicted was Phillips having the fortitude not to let two strike calls that should have made the count 3-0 and not 1-2 rattle him. Subsequent replays including from straight above showed both those called strikes missing either side of the plate by a yarn thread. Veteran hitters are known to fume, sulk, or scream over such calls.

Phillips didn’t challenge plate umpire Chris Guccione. He didn’t demand immediate accountability from the Elysian Fields archangels. He just reset in the batter’s box, refused to take his eyes off Jansen’s incoming meatball just a little in off the middle at the belt and hit a no-doubt line drive that caught Taylor—moved from left to center field in a seventh-inning double switch—a little too far back before he ran in to play the ball.

The whole thing happened so swiftly it was easy to think that Phillips’s bat flew right out of his hands after he connected, instead of him dropping the bat almost by-the-way as he started running; and, that Smith actually lost the ball when he spun for the tag try. You might clean up at the sports book in the future if you bet on people remembering it just that way.

It might make you forget Turner setting a Series record in the top of the first, when he hit one out for the second straight Series game in the same inning. It might make you forget Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager meeting Arozarena in a five-way tie for the most single-postseason bombs in the third, with a blast so high and far that Rays starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough didn’t even bother to turn and watch.

It might make you forget Seager tying Arozarena lasted exactly one full inning before Arozarena led off the fourth by hitting Dodgers starter Julio Urias’s first service over the right field fence to stand alone with nine. It might make you forget that the Rays’ oft-saluted bullpen actually had their worst struggle of the Series, after coming into Game Four with a collective ERA under two when taking over for Yarbrough’s games.

It might even make you forget what would have been the most surrealistic play of the night until Phillips hit that soft ninth-inning liner. When Muncy drove Seager home with the third Dodger run, tried advancing to second on the futile throw home, but overslid the base, popped right back up, and stumbled into Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who wrapped his arms around Muncy somehow as the pair fell back—with the ball still in Adames’s glove and Muncy’s foot off the base for the out.

This was also the night the Dodgers set a new single-postseason record by scoring their 54th run on two outs, and a night on which at least one run scored during nine consecutive half-innings, especially in the bottom of the sixth—when Brandon Lowe, whose Game Three looked as though his ferocious postseason slump returned, hit Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez for a three-run homer and the first Rays lead since winning Game Two.

Cash met the postgame press with the kind of wicked grin you expect to see from the joker who just snuck into a swanky cotillion and swiped the most choice bottle of hooch from the wet bar when everyone else was too busy preening to notice. Then a reporter asked him where in the Rays playbook was the play on which you tie and win off a double-ricochet pair of errors.

“We worked on that a lot in spring training over the last couple of years,” Cash said while rubbing the corner of his right eye. “We hadn’t put it in, but I’m glad it was able to play in our favour tonight.” Then he flashed the same hooch-swiping grin with which he started and laughed.

If Jansen, Taylor, and Smith laughed even once in Game Four’s aftermath, it was that they might not weep. For Taylor and Smith, especially, you might want to think about saving a hug for them instead of a slug. There are, after all, two more Series games to play at minimum.

Mortal men on immortal fields show their mortality only too often at the worst possible moments. We should call it being human enough. Unfortunately, in sports, the fans have their own perverse code: to err is human, to forgive is not always fan policy.