Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

Depends on whose kids play, I guess

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Tim Anderson, a milli-second from making breakfast out of Brad Keller’s full-count grapefruit . . .

It’s beginning to look a little more like letting the kids play, which baseball wishes to push as its watchword, is going to have more exceptions as the season ambles forward. And, it isn’t just from those players still wedded till death do they part to the Sacred Unwritten Rules.

Apparently, baseball’s most notorious umpire wants to have his say about it, too. Apparently, too, there are teams who don’t mind their own kids playing but are ready to rumble if their opponents play.

Come Wednesday baseball’s incumbent hottest hitter, Tim Anderson, learned the hard way about what happens when you’re one of the kids who wants to play but Joe West decides in the moment that he’s your daddy, and Daddy needs to send you to your room for objecting vociferously though not violently over being hit by a pitch your next time up after hitting one out.

Oh, yes, Tim. You came to play, and—with Eloy Jimenez on second and two out—Royals’ starter Brad Keller threw you a full count grapefruit. And just like any major league hitter who happens to be heated up well enough, you saw that grapefruit and knew it meant one thing—breakfast. And oh, did you feast on it. You drove it so far into the left field seats there should have been coffee served with it.

And, considering you’d just had such a yummy breakfast courtesy of a pitcher against whom you’d been (read carefully) 0-for-13 with five strikeouts and not a base on balls on the ledger otherwise, there shouldn’t be a jury on earth that would consider you out of line for striding moderately out of the batter’s box watching it fly, then throwing your bat toward your own dugout as if momentarily in the javelin event at the Olympics before running out the breakfast bomb.

Neither you nor Keller have any clue, probably, that Cy Young’s unrelated namesake is still the only American man to win Olympic gold in the javelin throw, or that Babe Didrikson was the first American woman to win Olympic gold in it. All you know, Tim, is that you’re not staring Keller down, you don’t look into his team’s dugout, you don’t do anything in any way to show the Royals up, unless the Royals suddenly believe firing your bat toward your own dugout shows them up.

You probably care, Tim, only that your next time up Keller throws the first pitch of the plate appearance into your can, and that he probably wishes it was a shot put, not a baseball. And it’s very possible that Keller cares deeply about the little fact that you’ve hit eight home runs off Royals pitching in your career, two more than you’ve hit against any other team.

So right after you got canned, you take a step or two toward the mound and Royals catcher Martin Maldonado—who has the job because Salvador Perez, the catcher who thinks you have no right to have fun until or unless you’ve won a World Series ring, is out for the season with an injury—slithers into your presumed path.

You talk to Maldonado while then giving Keller a well-earned glare. You’re not thinking about charging Keller, like a bull or anything else. You even give Maldonado two pats on the shoulder as you both stride up the first base line, and it looks as though it’s going to be no big deal. Looks aren’t everything, alas.

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. . . then, flinging his bat like a javelin toward (underline this, gang) his own dugout . . . 

Because Jose Abreu leads your teammates out of the dugout and the Royals come pouring out of theirs. It’s going to take about seven or eight minutes and a couple of scrums between a couple of coaches and managers, yours and theirs, to get the whole thing settled, even as—rather intriguingly—the mob ended up not around the mound or the plate but near first base.

And all the while, Tim, you’re doing something rather remarkable with a little help from your friends, much as Keller is. You’re both staying away from the rhubarb.

The Royals may be chirping like canaries toward you, and a few of your mates might be chirping likewise toward Keller, but you two aren’t even near the crowd. Even if your coach Joe McEwing has his arms around you from behind just in case, but you sure don’t look like you’re ready for a piece of anyone in Royals fatigues.

Your manager Rick Renteria may be barking at Royals manager Ned Yost to get his kids off the field unless they’re playing in its positions, and Yost may be barking back that there’s no way he’s going to let your boss or anyone bark at his boys. But you and Keller, with a little help from at least a couple of your friends, are actually behaving yourselves during this little danse d’absurdio.

Far as you know, Tim, Keller should be the only one who gets a ho-heave, and maybe your mates should get at least one chance to send the Royals a message in return. Maybe. You’re all about having fun while you play. You know that word “play.” Even if you’re not aware of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell’s wisdom: “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’.” Even if you’ve never seen Bull Durham and heard Crash Davis remind his teammates, “This game’s fun, okay?”

Yet you may forget one small detail, Tim.  You may forget that Joe West, one of the base umpires for the game, doesn’t forget.

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. . . then, getting drilled his next time up by the pitcher off whom he’d never hit one out until his previous time up.

Last year, you asked him about whether he or anyone else saw you get touched when Javier Baez of the Cubs slid rather hard into you trying to break up a double play in the making. And Country Joe sent you and your skipper to the showers. And you said, quote, “I don’t have much to say about him. Everybody knows he’s terrible. But I didn’t say much. He threw me out. It’s OK.”

Well, it turns out not to have been OK. Because once things settle down Wednesday, Country Joe rounds up the umpires and decides Keller, Renteria, Royals coach Dale Sveum, and . . . you should be sent to your rooms.

You get Keller. You get your skipper. You get Sveum. But you? The original victim? This is like a father learning the neighbourhood bully beat the hell out of his son for no reason and deciding his son needed to be spanked for it.

And you, the son, are diplomatic enough not to reference Daddy’s previous unwarranted punishment over the Baez slide debate, such as it was, when Mother asks what the hell you are doing in time out with a sore bottom for the rest of the day. (You may wish to wonder whether Mother reminded Daddy that, thanks to these punishments he’s now number three on the all-time umpires’ ejections survey thanks to passing Hank O’Day.)

And when the White Sox send someone from their media relations department to ask what Daddy and his fellow umps thought when Daddy laid down the law, all they say in reply is, “Because of the language that was used on the field, the umpires declined comment.”

Somewhere in the middle of the scrum, Tim, Country Joe Daddy actually put his hands on your manager trying to usher him the hell out of it. Now, if you wonder, Tim, where the hell West gets off with that kind of contact—when you and every other fool knows there’d be hell to pay if it had been your manager putting hands on Country Joe Daddy or any other umpire in like circumstances—you’re hardly alone, I’m sure.

Even diplomatic you, Tim, can’t be blamed if your spontaneous thought about that and your ultimate day’s punishment is, “You’ve gotta be joking.” What’s not a joke is that of course the Royals deny any intent on Keller’s part to teach you a lesson about play. Of course Keller himself says he wasn’t trying to put a hole into your left butt.

And of course you and me and everyone else watching that game knows it was about as not-trying as the day Hunter Strickland nailed Bryce Harper on the first pitch of an at-bat, over a pair of home runs almost three years old.

We also know the Royals are a little on the hypocritical side when it comes to these things. They have no problem with one of their own remembering the umpire doesn’t say, “Work ball.” (That one of their own last year, Alcides Escobar, is now in the minor league system of . . . the White Sox. Just sayin’.) They just don’t like it when one of the opposition remembers.

Go back out and have fun today, Tim. Your manager has your back, too. As he says, wisely, about home runs like yours and spontaneous celebrations like yours, “You want him not to do that? Get him out.” What a concept.

And as for you, Brad Keller, I have this: Instead of throwing at the guy who ate your grapefruit for breakfast the next time he faces you, get him out . . . and have a little celebration of your own.

Strike him out. Make your hand into a pistol and fire it (just like Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley used to do), or fan it. (Just like the late Joaquin Andujar used to do.) Or, make like you’re firing an old fashioned tommy gun. Or, drop to a knee and fire an imaginary bazooka toward him as he slinks back to the dugout. If hitters can have fun, why can’t pitchers?

Or, if the next time up the circumstance allows you to lure him into a double play grounder, make sure your infielders are ready to mime a juggling act. If hitters and pitchers can have fun, why can’t the fielders?

“Remember when you were a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball?” should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen, near the end of his career, once reminded pressing young Hall of Famer-to-be Mike Schmidt. “You were having fun. Baseball’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

Sound counsel for both Tim Anderson and Brad Keller, the latter of whom happens to be two years younger than the former, but who chose instead to behave like a scolding old get-off-my-lawn fart. And, for Joe West, who’s old enough to know better, still young enough to enjoy it, but may think he was born a scolding old get-off-my-lawn fart.