“Remember 1951?” OK, you asked for it.

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

No, Giants fan, you do not want anyone  remembering the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

This one’s for the Giants fan[s] who hoisted a large, stylish enough sign showing a flying baseball and the words, “Remember ’51,” in Oracle Park Friday night. Whomever you are, allow me to assure you that the last thing you want anyone remembering is 1951.

I get it. You’re remembering the Giants mounting a staggering pennant race comeback from thirteen games out of first place around mid-August to force a playoff against the Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant.

You’re remembering Ralph Branca relieving Don Newcombe and pitching to Bobby Thomson. You’re remembering, especially through that flying baseball image, Thomson turning on Branca’s 0-1 fastball and depositing it into the lower deck of the Polo Grounds’ left field seats.

You’re remembering The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. You’re remembering Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges going out of his mind screaming The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

In the thrill of history’s hour Friday night, the 107 game-winning National League West champion Giants and the 106 game-winning National League wild card Dodgers finally met in a proper postseason for the first time ever in their long, ancient, rivalrous history together.

That was then: A pair of pennant playoffs between each other, under the ancient baseball regimes, in 1951 and 1962, both won by the Giants. This was Friday night: The Giants won division series Game One, 4-0, in which the Dodgers weren’t even a quarter of the kind of tenacious and energetic they’d been in beating the Cardinals at the last minute in the wild card game.

Giants second-full-season starter Logan Webb out-pitched the Dodgers four-full-season veteran Walker Buehler. Webb deployed his impressive collection of breaking balls and changeups to catch the Dodgers off-balance, sometimes asleep. Buehler struggled to find a handle but managed to endure after Buster Posey—the last Giant standing from their 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series winners—sent a two-run homer ricocheting off the back of a Levi’s Landing column into McCovey Cove in the bottom of the first.

By the time Buehler found his handle, he got to exercise it only long enough for another former World Series champion, Kris Bryant (2016 Cubs, a Giant since this year’s trade deadline), to park one into the left field seats to open the bottom of the seventh. With Buehler out of the game after one out in that inning, Brandon Crawford hit one into the center field bullpen with two outs against a second Dodger reliever, Alex Vesia, in the bottom of the eighth.

So, yes, the Giants opened decisively enough and impressively enough Friday night. Now, back to you, Giant fan with the “Remember ’51” sign. I saw the sign, in a brief moment on the TBS telecast early in the game. They didn’t show it again all night but it stuck in my head well into Saturday morning.

You don’t really want the rest of baseball world to remember what you might actually hope the thrill of history’s hour now might compel it to forget. Here’s a hint: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 2017 Astros weren’t baseball’s first cheating champions by a long Shot. Come to think of it, neither were the 1951 Giants. But since you brought it up with that stylish-looking sign, gather around and allow me to ask.

Do you really want us to remember again what ’51 Giants manager Leo Durocher hatched after he discovered his recently-acquired spare part, Hank Schenz, owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass—and had used it to steal signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard behind that park’s bleachers when he was a Cub?

Do you really want us to remember again that Durocher called a team meeting to announce he’d cooked up a plot to start stealing signs from the Polo Grounds clubhouse above and just beyond center field? With catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks wielding the Wollensak and tapping codes for the stolen signs to the Giants bullpen, from where the purloined intelligence would be flashed to the batter?

Do you really want us to remember again that, when Durocher asked his players who wanted the stolen signs, his Hall of Fame left fielder Monte Irvin refused stolen signs? Meaning his rookie Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays wouldn’t take them, either? Much as Mays felt beholden to “Mister Leo,” he felt even more beholden to Irvin as a big brother figure, and he’d assuredly follow Irvin’s lead.

Do you really want us to remember again how, while the Dodgers went a very solid 33-26 down the stretch in August and September 1951, the Giants with their little furtive intelligence operation cheated their way to shooting the lights out—going 40-14 down the same stretch, including a sixteen-game winning streak that included thirteen home wins—to end that season in the first-place tie?

Do you really want us to remember again the day Dodger coach Cookie Lavagetto smelled enough of a rat to bring a pair of binoculars into the Dodger dugout in a bid to catch the Giants in the act—but had them confiscated post haste by an umpire?

As now-retired Thomas Boswell snorted in 2001, after The Shot Heard ‘Round the World was chosen baseball’s greatest moment by The Sporting News and second-greatest sports moment by Sports Illusrated, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Do you really want us to remember Bobby Thomson telling Joshua Prager, the Wall Street Journal writer who affirmed the Durocher plot at last in 2001 (turning it into a splendid but troubling book, The Echoing Green), “I guess I’ve been a jerk in a way. That I don’t want to face the music. Maybe I’ve felt too sensitive, embarrassed maybe.”

Maybe you don’t remember that Ralph Branca never blamed anyone beyond Durocher directly when talking about it for publication. Branca always said of Thomson (who became his friend in later years), “He still had to hit the pitch.” He carried the weight of surrendering that pitch and that loss with uncommon grace for the rest of his and Thomson’s lives. (Thomson died in 2010; Branca died in 2016.)

“Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca,” Boswell wrote, “I’ve been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he’d caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions.”

You, Giant fan(s) hoisting “Remember ’51” Friday night. Before you bring that sign back Saturday night, rooting for the team that stunned this year’s National League by winning the West despite everyone else trying to write them off as a fluke phenomenon, think it over. Hard.

You don’t really want everyone else remembering the greatest shame and sham in Giants history. You don’t really want us remembering the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff long exposed as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff. You don’t really want us to remember all over again that the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

Do you?

Gone, Cubs, gone

Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant

That was then: Anthony Rizzo clutching and hoisting the off-balance throw Kris Bryant (17) made to end the 2016 World Series as world champions. This is now: They’re not Cubs anymore.

I called it the Code Blue Series when the contestants were confirmed. One team that hadn’t won the World Series since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford. The other, a team that hadn’t won the Series since the threshold of the Berlin Airlift.

“I’m sleeping with this thing tonight,” crowed Anthony Rizzo, speaking post-game, about the double play ball he caught on the relay to start Chicago’s post-National League Championship Series parties. “Are you kidding me?”

The same Rizzo who clung to the dugout rail in Game Seven of that surreal 2016 World Series, admitting to teammate and eventual manager David Ross that he was on the brink of his nineteenth nervous breakdown.

“I can’t control myself right now. I’m trying my best,” Rizzo said.

“It’s understandably so, buddy,” Ross replied, with a very knowing smile. He’d been there, done that, with the 2013 Red Sox.

“I’m emotional,” Rizzo admitted.

“I hear ya,” Grandpa Rossy replied.

“I’m an emotional wreck.”

“Well, it’s only going to get worse,” Ross advised. “Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.”

Once upon a time, possibly thanks to Chicago newspaper legend Mike Royko, the maxim was that the teams with the most ex-Cubs lost. That was then, this was the 2016 Series: The Cubs—the team with the fewest ex-Cubs and the most ex-Red Sox—won. After a couple of that-almost-figures hair-raisers, none raising more hair than Game Seven.

Now, third baseman Kris Bryant—subject to the most trade rumours the past two years—is traded to the National League West-surprising Giants. Shortstop Javy Baez is traded to the National League East-leading-almost-by-default Mets, where he’ll gladly play second base for the chance to hold the keystone with his buddy Francisco Lindor at short. And first baseman Rizzo has become a Yankee.

The 2016 core is gone, Cubs, gone. Four men from that team now remain.

Ross retired as a player after that Series triumph and has managed them since last season, having days enough now when he must think Lucifer’s practical jokers have made him a too-frequent target. Right fielder Jason Heyward’s stellar defense once atoned for his feeble bat, but he isn’t quite the defender he used to be even if he’s still a shade above the league average for run prevention. Catcher Willson Contreras remains a mainstay and leads the team with his 3.2 wins above replacement-level.

And Kyle Hendricks, who pitched magnficently enough in the 2016 Series, leads this year’s Cub rotation with an ERA two ticks from four despite his twelve credited wins.

The Cubs approached Friday’s trade deadline all-in on selling while the selling was good, because their National League Central chances were anything but and the last of the true core was due to hit the open market. And the team administration has a lot to atone for, for having failed to fortify the team viably in the seasons to follow the 2016 heights.

It’s still too telling that the single most fun moment in Cubs baseball this season came from Rizzo, the first baseman taking the mound on the wrong end of a blowout, striking out his Braves buddy Freddie Freeman to laughs all around the park—especially between those two.

If the Dodgers hadn’t swept in and swept the Padres to one side in the Max Scherzer lottery, the Great Cub Fire Sale might have dominated the proceedings entirely.

But it’s hard not to think about that World Series now that Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are gone at last. Especially after Rizzo made an almost immediate impression with his new team Friday night. (Yankee announcer Michael Kay called Rizzo “the linch pin” of the 2016 Cubs.) He broke a scoreless tie between the Yankees and the Marlins by sending a 1-0 hanging cutter into the second deck behind right field in the top of the sixth. (The Yankees went on to win, 3-1.)

It’s hard not to remember Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning home run off then-Indians relief ace Andrew Miller in Game Four. Making Fowler the first Cub to hit a World Series homer in Wrigley since Chuck Klein—in 1935. And, making him the first African-American Cub to hit a World Series homer ever.

It’s hard not to remember Bryant—with the Indians six innings from the Promised Land— parking a 1-1 pitch into the left center field bleachers off then-Indian Trevor Bauer to start turning the mostly quiet Confines crowd on the Chicago leg of the Series into a nuclear meltdown of joy in Game Five.

It’s hard not to remember Rizzo and eventual Series MVP Ben Zobrist scoring in the first in Game Six, after Indians outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall misread and misplayed Addison Russell’s shuttlecock fly to right center. Or, after the Cubs loaded the bases to push Indians starter Josh Tomlin out, Indians reliever Dan Otero feeding Russell grand salami with mustard.

It’s hard not to remember Jake Arrieta pitching to Naquin with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the fourth, same game, and striking Naquin out on one of the nastiest divers Arrieta ever threw in his life.

It’s hard not to remember Game Seven, especially. When Ross had to atone for a horrible throwing error past Rizzo one inning by smashing a one-out homer the next. When the late rain delay prompted Heyward’s clubhouse pep speech.

When Rizzo took the free pass in the top of the tenth, took third on an RBI double, and scored after another intentional walk and a base hit to left—the base hit being Miguel Montero’s second-most important bases-loaded hit for the Cubs that postseason.

When Bryant picked off Michael Martinez’s short grounder on the dead run, with two out and a run in to close the Cub lead to a single run, then threw a little off balance and herky-jerky at that to first—and Rizzo snapped the ball in his mitt as dearly as he might have clung to the Hope Diamond after a daring heist.

Russell forced himself off the Cubs and out of the Show entirely in due course, after the sick case of his abuse of his wife exploded into headlines and forced his suspension. He played in the Korean Baseball Organisation last year and plays in the Mexican League this year.

Montero talked his way out of Chicago. First, he complained about his loss of 2016 postseason playing time to Ross and Willson Contreras behind the plate. Then, in 2017, he was gone for good after blaming Arrieta publicly for the Nats running wild on his arm on the bases in a June game. Two subsequent hiccups of comeback bids with the Blue Jays and the Nationals—retired.

Zobrist, who came to the 2016 Cubs after winning the 2015 Series with the Royals—a down 2017, a comeback 2018, retired after 2019. Now, he’s undergoing a painfully public divorce in which his wife’s accused of having an affair with the minister they engaged for marital counseling in the first place.

Arrieta—allowed to walk as a free agent after a 2017 that began his still-ongoing decline phase. Jon Lester, who somehow got past his throwing issues to first base and stood tall enough when it counted—now a National-turned-Cardinal. John Lackey, pitching for his third different Series winner—retired after fifteen seasons and a down 2017. Aroldis Chapman, the howitzer relief pitcher but a domestic abuser himself—a Yankee since 2017.

This week? The Cubs’ place in the race was probably sealed for the season when they lost eleven straight from 25 June through 6 July, but seven of the eight players they moved by Friday’s deadline also stand to hit the open market after the season. Resurgent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel—dealt to the crosstown White Sox and right back into the races—has a 2022 option.

Maybe the real end of this generation of Cub contenders came in 2018, during the second half of which they lost 22 games in which they scored one or none. Including the humiliations of scoring a measly two runs in back-to-back losses that cost them the NL Central title and the NL wild card in one thirtysomething-hour period.

Maybe it was sealed once and for all by 2019, when they lost a pair of humiliating series in the last two regular season weekends and, as ESPN writer Jesse Rogers observed, the Joe Maddon era ended when the skipper “wasn’t able to out-manage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

“The Ricketts family had cut back on payroll spending while continuing to use Wrigleyville as a private cash machine,” writes the redoubtable veteran scribe Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The franchise didn’t keep up with other contenders in terms of on-field talent. It settled for being very good instead of great. The idea—always—is to win. Cubs fans got that, which is why they were irritated when the club didn’t get a whiff of the World Series again.”

Maybe that was what irritated the remake/remodel/re-conquer mastermind Theo Epstein enough at last to swap the Cubs’ front office for a gig in the commissioner’s office, where he now works helping to get baseball back to where it once belonged, a balance between pitching and hitting. He won’t have his hands tied by ownership caprice anymore. We think.

It stung when Ross kept Bryzzo out of the Thursday lineup at home, denying them a final appearance before the Wrigley faithful. He said Rizzo already had the day off pre-planned and was concerned about giving Bryant’s legs a rest. Cub Country didn’t need anyone to say maybe the front office handed Grandpa Rossy an order the better to keep the deals to come from being wrecked.

We saw Bryant in tears on his cell phone in the Cubs dugout at Nationals Park Friday, receiving the news he was going west. We saw Rizzo taking his young family to walk the Wrigley Field grounds one more time the day before, before he went east. Those sights will linger for Cub Country almost as vividly as Bryan’s off balance pick and throw of Martinez’s grounder to Rizzo to finish 2016 will. (This is gonna be a tough play, Bryant—the Cubs! Win the World Series! hollered announcer Joe Buck.)

President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer says the deals helped the Cubs duck a complete rebuild thanks to the youth the deals bring back. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes,” he said to Rogers. “Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

Nature of the beast. Hoyer was only too well aware of other teams going all the way to the end of their team control only to require years of rebuilding. Teams like the Phillies, the Tigers, and the Giants, the last of whom have begun making noise that’ll be amplified a bit with Bryant on board.

“They ran to the end of the cliff and fell off and they had to rebuild,” he continued. “We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year, but we weren’t, so with that we were able to speed that process up dramatically.”

But going from “Go, Cubs, Go!” to gone, Cubs, gone, still stings. Even if we’ll always have 2016.

The joke’s on the Cubs

2019-06-01 MattCarpenter

Marcel Ozuna (23) gives Matt Carpenter the icy spoils of thwarting the Cubs’ impersonation of the Chicago Bears’ defensive line Friday night.

Doing a comic sketch over the winter in which he referred to St. Louis (the city, not the Cardinals) as “boring” has gotten Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant a mouthful in Busch Stadium Friday night. It even got him a few from his own teammates, who apparently can go along with a gag.

But it wasn’t all that funny when what began as a rather admirable pitching duel between the Cardinals’ Mike Mikolas and the Cubs’ Yu Darvish ended in the bottom of the tenth with Matt Carpenter driving the winner home off Cubs reliever Steve Cishek with the bases loaded, one out, and the Cubs shooting themselves in the defensive foot.

“They had their entire 25-man roster on the right side of the field, so I just knew that hitting pull side on the ground—pull side in the air, that’s fine, we could still score—pull side on the ground was not an option,” Carpenter said after surviving a celebratory jersey-shredding and a big Gatorade ice dump on the infield. “So my approach in that at-bat was to look for something to hit the other way and get something in the air and was able to do it.”

The Cardinals’ third baseman exaggerated only slightly, of course. But the Cubs did line up four players along the edge of the grass on the right side of the infield and moved their outfield far enough right when Carpenter checked in at the plate. The infield looked more populated by the Chicago Bears’ offensive line than a baseball team.

And the Cubs looked even more ridiculous for putting that exaggerated an overshift upon a batter who’s far more of a line drive hitter than a ground baller. Carpenter may be struggling to get himself on track at the plate this year so far, but he’s a) a .283 hitter lifetime in high leverage situations; and, b) a .646 hitter when he gets something to hit on a line, standard or high.

Most likely the Cubs hoped Carpenter’s comparative weakness as a pure fly ball hitter (.194) and a ground ball hitter (.236) would work in their favour, maybe a double play to send the game to an eleventh inning. They misread their assailant almost completely, especially with Cishek starting Carpenter with nothing he could put on the ground if he’d been swinging an ax to chop the ball in half.

Cishek only got to throw two pitches to Carpenter. The first was a slider that climbed instead of slid up and in for ball one. The second landed almost right down the pipe, and Carpenter lifted it like a golfer with a five-iron, sending it down the left field line.

Where the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, a catcher by trade inserted into left field in a double switch, and about as swift as an earth mover, could only watch as the drive hit the grass a few feet away from his onrushing self and bounced into the corner left field stands.

The net result wasted a delightful pitching duel between Mikolas and Darvish. A duel that shook off an early one-all tie with both runs coming home on sacrifice flies, the Cardinals opening in the bottom of the first with left fielder Marcel Ozuna scoring Carpenter on an opposite field fly and Darvish, of all people, pulling a sac fly to left in the top of the second to score (Chris Berman, call your office) his catcher Victor (Beta) Caratini.

The Cubs managed six hits off Mikolas and the Cardinals three off Darvish, but both pitchers worked effectively enough with Darvish slightly better in six than Mikolas in seven, Darvish striking out six against three walks and pitching mostly to his defenders with somewhat surprising composure considering his continuing inconsistencies.

One minute, Darvish looks like a solid number three starter this year. The next, he looks like he can’t find the strike zone with a search party. His previous outing, against the Reds, saw him get six runs battered out of him in seven innings’ work, after a trio of starts in which he kept the other guys (including the Reds) to three or less.

On Friday night it was as if Darvish wanted revenge for the four-inning, five-run mugging the Cardinals laid on him on 4 May, in which he helped hand them the machetes with five walks. Realising in the shaky first that his fastball started asleep, Darvish went to an array of curve balls and cutters for the most part in the second before his four-seamer awoke.

Miklas had the opposite trouble: his breaking balls weren’t quite as effective as his fastballs early on; Darvish himself tagged a curve ball for that second-inning sac fly. But as the game went on Miklas’s fastballs came alive just enough for him to use as either out pitches or setup pitches for his breakers and the occasional changeup.

The Cubs were more than a little infuriated when young Dillon Maples, sent out to work the tenth, threw what looked at every angle like a full-count strike three to Harrison Bader, the Cardinals’ right fielder, with Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong (one-out double) on second. Except that Laz Diaz called it ball four. It was the type of slider no less than ESPN’s Stats and Information department says gets called a strike 92 percent of the time or better.

“That’s the kind of thing that bums me out,” the manager said after the game. “To have pitches taken away from him in a crucial moment . . . Now my guy has to go home and feel bad about himself tonight. And it wasn’t even a borderline pitch. It was a strike.

Maples tried to shake it off but he walked Jedd Gyorko to load the pads for Carpenter. “I just made a close pitch and obviously didn’t get the call I wanted,” the young reliever said after the game. “So I was a little upset, but you have to move on.”

But when he didn’t, Maddon went to Cishek and the Monsters of the Midway infield defense. And Carpenter de-fanged the beasts with one swing and one floating opposite field fly.

The Cubs didn’t have one of their better games even before Carpenter left them with the proverbial egg on their tenth-inning faces. They went 0-for-8 with men on second or better, officially. The Cardinals weren’t that much better, going 1-for-5 in the same situation.

But the Cubs at least had a few laughs when the game got underway and Bryant batted in the first. When the Busch Stadium audience let him have it as he walked up to the plate, Bryant was amused to see his buddy Anthony Rizzo leading the Cubs dugout and bullpen in a chorus of booing.

“It was pretty funny,” said Bryant after the game. “I wanted to look and see all who was doing it . . . I think he told the bullpen guys to get in on it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever roundly booed one of my own guys before,” Maddon cracked. “I can check that off the list.”

Bryant hit Miklas’s first pitch to him past the infield for a base hit. It was the only hit Bryant got all night. The goal-line stand the Cubs tried in the tenth, alas, was about as funny as the proverbial pickpocket in the nudist colony. But it gave Carpenter and the Cardinals the last laugh.