The former Dark Knight, retiring with grace

Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey, young, a Met, and a Dark Knight.

Few baseball surges of the 2010s were as electrifying as Matt Harvey’s. Few baseball shrinkages were almost that electrifying. And, after a few years of trying and getting not even close to back to where he once belonged, Harvey elected to call it a career Friday.

The former Dark Knight, who’d provoked Mets fans to declare “Happy Harvey Day!” on the days he started, announced his retirement on Instagram. “With all the amazing memories came a lot of injuries and tough times,” the 34-year-old righthander wrote.

The realization that those amazingly powerful moments that make me thrive as a pitcher and help my teammates and city win are no longer possible. Believe me I wish I could have done more and brought more of those amazing moments back to life. I have to say this is my time to say thank you, and goodbye.

Asking Harvey to retire with no regrets would be asking him to be superhuman. That’s an ask he can’t possibly satisfy. He’d tried that earlier and too often in his career, on the mound and off it, and he nearly fried himself alive trying.

In the Show, Harvey was last seen trying a comeback with the Orioles two years ago. He started with three shutout innings followed by a dicey fourth in his first Oriole start. He went on to post for the season a modest 4.60 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate, a ghastly 6.27 earned run average, a 2.57 strikeout-to-walk rate, a 1.54 walks/hits-per-inning pitched rate (WHIP), and was hittable for 11.3 hits per nine innings.

That was double the transcontinental distance from his staggering second Mets season, 2013, when he led the Show with a 2.01 FIP, posting an 0.97 WHIP and a 6.16 K/BB rate, good enough to finish fourth in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Those were the days when Harvey embraced New York and its white-hot heat as ardently as the city embraced him. “To the fans, most importantly the NY Mets fans: you made a dream come true for me,” he wrote in his retirement post. “A dream I never could have thought to be true. Who would have thought a kid from Mystic, [Connecticut] would be able to play in the greatest city in the world, his hometown. You are forever embedded in my heart.”

He’s had worse than that embedded in his heart. Harvey’s early ability to pitch like an executioner on the mound was equaled only by his ability to find and dwell among the demimonde as though it had his name on it.

He electrified the country when he started the 2013 All-Star Game and—having to shake off a leadoff double from future Hall of Famer Mike Trout followed by hitting Robinson Canó with a pitch—struck three out in two innings’ work and surrendering not a single run. (The American League went on to win, 3-0.)

He missed 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he electrified the country further when he all but ordered his manager Terry Collins to leave him in to pitch the ninth in Game Five of the 2015 World Series.

Uh-oh. Collins went with Harvey’s heart while misreading his fuel tank. He walked Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain to open, then surrendered Eric Hosmer’s RBI double. Then Collins lifted him for Jeurys Familia. Two ground outs, one of which provoked Hosmer’s daring dash home while Mets first baseman Lucas Duda threw what should have been an easy double play ball offline to the plate (Hosmer would have been dead on arrival if the throw was accurate), tied a game the Royals won with a five-run twelfth as the rest of the Mets bullpen lost its wheels.

The Royals had bypassed Harvey in the 2010 draft. The guy they took instead, infielder Christian Colón, sent what proved the Series-winning run home. “I still have nightmares over that,” Harvey would tell the New York Post about the game. “One thing I’m most angry about is not getting it done.”

He’d have better reason to be angry the following season: he was hit with thoracic outlet syndrome in July 2016 and gone for the season. And, never again the same pitcher. TOS occurs when blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and your first rib compress. That causes shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness.

“I had TOS,” Harvey’s former fellow Mets pitcher Dillon Gee once said. “I know how much that sucks. It definitely changes you. You start trying to tinker with things. It’s not natural anymore. You start being robot-ish. You start not trying to hurt one area and totally hurt another area. Your whole body is out of whack.”

Harvey’s body wasn’t the only thing going out of whack. Between TOS and a 2017 season interrupted nastily by another shoulder injury, Harvey melted down almost completely. The mound no longer elevated him; the city’s bright lights and demimonde no longer seemed to comfort him entirely.

Very publicly, he found himself dropped by a Brazilian supermodel with whom he thought a real romance was seeded—until she elected to return to her former beau, an NFL wide receiver, leaving a glittering party with the man. That was the night before he showed up late for a game against the Marlins claiming a migraine that was translated to mean a hangover.

Harvry had had such a big-timing attitude prior that now, when he needed empathy, aid, and comfort most, he had none. A year later, after refusing to try it out of the bullpen, perhaps out of stubborn lingering pride, Harvey’s days as a Met ended in a trade to the Reds. “Besides life on his fastball and bite on his slider, you know what was missing with Matt Harvey?” asked Joel Sherman of the New York Post after the deal. The answer:

Compassion. There was no empathy from a teammate or member of management for Harvey’s plight. They wanted him to rebound and do well, but that was about the team and their own selfish desire for success.

Matt Harvey

Humbled, Harvey pitched respectably for the Reds following his trade from the Mets. But he couldn’t reimagine his form successfully in stops at Anaheim, the Oakland system, Kansas City and Baltimore (above). 

Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated writer who first handed Harvey the Dark Knight nickname (picking up on Harvey’s boyhood love of Batman), advised one and all that Harvey’s taste for New York’s night life wasn’t the reason he’d collapsed on the mound. “The truth is, for all the times he wound up in the tabloids other than the sports section, Harvey failed because his arm failed him,” Verducci began.

. . . His arm likely failed him because of how he threw a baseball. And when his arm failed him, he knew no other way. He couldn’t pitch without an A-plus fastball, he couldn’t embrace using a bullpen role as a way back, and he couldn’t believe in himself again.

. . . The Mets cut Harvey because his once-fearsome fastball became the almost exact definition of a mediocre fastball (MLB averages: 92.7 mph, 2,261 rpm). Because he couldn’t find another way to get hitters out, because he could not change his mechanics and because he could not buy into the bullpen, the Mets could not keep sending [him] out to the mound as a starter.

The decline in his stuff was obvious. And there was no way his fastball was coming back with the way he throws.

As a Red, Harvey finished his walk year into free agency with a respectable if unspectacular enough performance that the Angels were willing to take an $11 million flyer on him for 2019. He lasted long enough to be designated for assignment that July. The Athletics signed him but he never saw Show action. The Royals took a chance on him for pan-damn-ically shortened 2020.

A free agent again, the Orioles took a chance on Harvey for 2021. He re-signed with the organisation for 2022 but he spent the season at three minor league levels around a sixty-day suspension after testifying in the Eric Kay trial that he’d used painkillers provided by Kay while with the Angels.

Kay was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison, having been the man who provided the drugs that killed popular Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. On the stand, Harvey admitted he’d given Skaggs (who was likely addicted to painkillers following early-career Tommy John surgery and subsequent other injuries), a few Percocets, perhaps unaware of the depth of Skaggs’s addiction. He didn’t shrink from it, he didn’t try to excuse it.

Harvey pitched in this year’s World Baseball Classic—for Italy, posting a 1.29 ERA in two starts before Team Italy lost to Japan and eventual WBC most valuable player Shohei Ohtani in the quarterfinals. It tempted him to try one more major league comeback. But it was just a temptation. Maybe the most important temptation Harvey resisted. He got to leave the mound permanently on a very high plane, at any level.

(For the record, his Team Italy manager, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, saluted Harvey upon his retirement announcement: “Look forward to teeing it up with you man..I want to Thank You for your awesome effort in the @WBCBaseball, You’re a warrior on the bump.”)

Back in 2020, he offered the Post something few who knew him as a Met might have accused him of having: introspection. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently,” he began, “but I don’t like to live with regret.”

There were just things I didn’t know at the time. Now, obviously, I’ve struggled the last few years. And what I know now is how much time and effort it takes to stay at the top of your game. I wouldn’t say my work ethic was bad whatsoever, but when you’re young, it’s not like you feel invincible, but when everything is going so well, you don’t know what it takes to stay on the field. It’s definitely more time consuming and takes more concentration.

Too many sports party boys don’t learn until their sports say goodbye to them first. Harvey learned soon enough, if sadly enough, that the party doesn’t always end on your terms. The Dark Knight who crashed and burned off the mound while his body betrayed him on it became something far more important before he retired: a man.

Albie Pearson, RIP: Little big man

Albie Pearson

Albie Pearson having a little fun with teammates in the Angels’ dugout.

“I never have the satisfaction of looking an umpire in the eye, I’m forever signing autographs for kids taller than I am, and human skyscrapers like Norm Zauchin and Jim Lemon of our club make me feel like a midget when they walk by but, hand me a bat and let me step into the box, and I’m as good as the next guy—some of ’em, at least.” Thus said 5’5″ outfielder Albie Pearson, then with the ancient Washington Senators, in the Chicago Tribune in 1958, the year he was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

He proved a man far bigger than his physical lack of stature.

Pearson died 21 February at 88. He’s remembered far better for his tenure as one of the original Los Angeles/California Angels, picked in the American League’s first expansion draft. In fact, in a couple of ways he evoked the Biblical admonition that the last shall be the first.

The Senators swapped him to the Orioles and Pearson had an up and down life between Baltimore and the Orioles’ farm system. Then he heard the Angels were being created in his native southern California. He wrote to the new team’s general manager, Fred Haney, asking to be drafted. Haney granted his wish—as the thirtieth and final player to be chosen.

When the new Angels played their first official game, against Pearson’s former Orioles mates as things worked out, Pearson drew the new team’s first walk and scored its first run, coming home after Ted Kluszewski, the former Reds muscleman, hit the new team’s first official home run with two out in the top of the first. Kluszewski would hit the second official Angels home run an inning later.

“When my kids say grace,” the devout Pearson told Sports Illustrated for a 1963 profile (“The Littlest Angel”), “they say, ‘Dear Lord, bless this food, bless Mommy and Daddy and please help the Angels win and help Daddy get a hit. Amen.”

I’m a firm believer in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I try to live by them without making myself obnoxious. I live my life as an example and I’m not ashamed of it. I want to be careful I don’t ruin my image as the little guy’s idol. I get letters from mothers telling me how proud they are of me because they haven’t seen my picture in a cigarette ad. I’m no prude and I don’t knock ballplayers who smoke or drink. I, too, live my life to the fullest, but I do it in a different way. There is something inside of me other than the shell going out and playing baseball. I’m kidded and goaded by the guys to get me in spots unbecoming to the way I believe. The person that puts his standards very high has to be careful. Everybody to his own life. I don’t try to push mine, but I’ll talk to anyone who’s interested in what I’m digging. I admit there are very few.

Sometimes, Pearson got goaded into unbecoming spots through no fault of the guys’ own—sort of. Early in 1963, Pearson asked to room with Bo Belinsky, the lefthanded pitcher who became the Angels’ sex symbol the previous season. (“I thought maybe I could get him in bed early,” Pearson cracked.) According to Belinsky biographer Maury Allen, Pearson and Belinsky shared only one thing that might, maybe, be considered a vice. Each man drove a candy-apple red Cadillac convertible. And it led to a hilarious mishap.

At the time, Belinsky’s collection of girlfriends included an Asian lady named Zenida who caught up to him not long after his once-fabled 1962 rookie no-hitter. She decided to wait for Belinsky in the player parking lot, perched atop what she thought was Belinsky’s Cadillac. Oops. “Here comes Albie out of the park with his wife,” Belinsky told Allen.

He’s walking toward the car. He sees Zenida sitting on the car, her (cheongsam) dress up to her ass, her legs twitching all over the place. She’s halfway across the parking lot and can’t really see who it is, so she’s waving because she knows it’s a ballplayer with a broad coming out of the players’ entrance and who could it be but me? When Albie gets a little closer she stops waving, but by that time it’s too late. Albie is white as a ghost and his wife is just pissed.

As roommates, Belinsky and Pearson weren’t exactly soul mates. Pearson ultimately switched to room on the road with another pitcher, Don Lee. “I tried not to disturb him,” Lee told SI. “He’s small and he burns up a lot of energy, so I know how important sleep is to him. Albie was no trouble. If he got noisy I just stuffed him in a drawer.”

Pearson developed a sound sense of humour about his lack of height early. Nicknamed the Littlest Angel, Pearson looked anything but little in 1963, his All-Star season. He had a .402 on-base percentage, a .304 hitting average (I’ll explain shortly), and though the National League won the All-Star Game Pearson started a tying rally in the third inning with a double off Cardinals pitcher Larry Jackson, coming home when Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone singled him in with one out, before Twins catcher Earl Battey singled Malzone home to tie the game at three. (The final: 5-3, NL.)

Pearson’s Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) for 1963 was a respectable .484. He wasn’t a power hitter but he was a tough strikeout: he finished his major league career with 282 fewer strikeouts than walks. Self-aware almost to a fault, Pearson was more than content to exercise his abilities as they were and not as he might have wished them secretly to have been.

“I never was a star and I never will be,” he told SI. “I fit on the field now but it wasn’t always that way. Once–well, I wasn’t taken as a freak, but it was, ‘He’s there, he’s not going to hurt you.’ If I can be an adequate ballplayer there’ll always be a place for me. I’ll do the very best I can but comes the time there’s someone better.”

Albie & Helen Pearson

Albie and Helen Pearson at Father’s Heart Ranch, which they devoted to abused and abandoned pre-teen boys with the same commitment it took to raise five children of their own. (Orange County Register photo.)

He couldn’t stick consistently as a regular as often as not. Then, during spring training 1966, he ruptured two discs in his back on a hard slide. He got into two regular season games after he recovered, that July, but elected to sit the rest of the season out and retire after it. His back plus the Lord told him to do it.

He made his way after baseball as the part owner of Mighty Mite, a company making adhesive grips for sports equipment. In 1972 he became an ordained minister in the Baptist Church. He started a southern California youth foundation aimed at keeping children far away from drugs and another non-profit aimed to train ministers and pastors for setting up churches and orphanages in South America and Africa.

By 1997, Pearson and his wife, Helen—parents of five, eventual grandparents of seventeen and great-grandparents of sixteen—sold their California home to create Father’s Heart Ranch in Desert Hot Springs, a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned boys between ages six and twelve. The facility included both a Little League baseball team and a Pop Warner football team. The companion Father’s Heart International also provided food to four thousand Zambian children left orphaned when their parents died of AIDS.

That’s the man about whom one anonymous pitcher huffed, “He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t fool around. You can’t trust that kind.” Whose smile was so incessant he was once told “to get a couple more coats of shellac on his teeth.” Whose third base coach on the Angels, Rocky Bridges, observed, “I think he’ll be an archaeological find.”

“When you see a life changed,” Pearson told the Orange County Register in 2011, before he was scheduled to throw a ceremonial first pitch in Angel Stadium, “it’s worth everything compared to getting a base hit or winning a game.”

The littlest Angel wasn’t so little, after all.

This essay was published originally by Sports-Central.

The end of an error?

Arte Moreno, Mike Trout

Angels owner Arte Moreno and future Hall of Famer Mike Trout were ecstatic when Trout became a wealthy Angel for life. But Moreno’s failure to reconstruct a team his and their greatest player can be proud of will be Moreno’s legacy if he sells the Angels.

For the first time since their team won their only World Series championship thus far, Angel fans have reason to believe there’s light at the end of a painfully long tunnel. Owner Arte Moreno exploring options to sell the franchise must resemble the liberation promise of Dwight Eisenhower telling Allied forces, “You are about to embark on the great crusade”—the night before D-Day.

Just months after Darin Erstad clutched Kenny Lofton’s fly out to center to finish their staggering seven-game 2002 Series conquest, Moreno bought the team from the Disney Corporation. He swelled with pride as the first Mexican-American major league owner. Angel fans swelled likewise over what seemed to be swelling as an era of dominance after what seemed a preceding snakebitten eternity.

It was too good to be true. The team finally shattered a near-forever of extraterrestrial collapses, failures, and tragedies that inspired things from a shortstop driving his bats through a cemetery to purge their evil spirits to a pitcher pondering a sage burning in the clubhouse and a general manager pondering engagement of a priest to exorcise their ballpark.

Now the Angels held the lease to the Promised Land and a new owner with pockets deep enough to rival a team (the Yankees) they beat three out of four in the division series that launched their championship run. Who knew? Two decades later, the Angels are a six-letter synonym for disaster. And Moreno has come to resemble the worst of the man who once owned those division series victims than he or his dwindling allies would ever admit.

From 2003 through 2009, the Angels won the American League West five out of seven tries. The team went from the second-most snakebitten AL franchise to powerhouse in what now seems a blink in time. In thirteen seasons since, the Angels have won the West once but finished the past five of six in fourth place in the five-team division.

Moreno’s Angels have gone from signing and continuing to win with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. to drafting the transcendent Mike Trout and signing the transcendent enough Shohei Ohtani . . . and becoming the team their future Hall of Fame center fielder and must-see-television pitcher/designated hitter can be anything but proud of.

With the uber-loyal Trout locked down in a gigabucks deal that makes him an Angel for life, baseball eyes knowing the Angels need a transfusion as drastically as a leukemia patient saw dealing Ohtani at this year’s trade deadline as the donor who’d deliver particularly rich blood.

“The greatest two-way player in baseball history will be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2023,” writes ESPN’s Buster Olney, “so some other teams communicated to the Angels that they would be open to trades—and willing to include their very best prospects . . . Word quickly reached the interested parties that Arte Moreno, the Angels’ owner, wouldn’t sign off on any Ohtani deal. No one was surprised.”

No one who’s watched the Angels in the Moreno era should have been.

Moreno made his fortune as an advertising executive who turned the Outdoor Systems ad operation into an enterprise that fetched billions when Moreno and his partner sold it to Infinity Broadcasting in 1998. His forte was and remains marketing. It didn’t exactly translate to baseball as opposed to Angel Stadium box office success.

Trout himself says he learned of Moreno exploring a team sale the same way the press did Tuesday, when the Angels made their formal announcement. And he hinted that, however grateful he is for Moreno believing in him and making him rich, it’s not exactly enough anymore. Some things matter more than money to competitors.

“I think once you find out who buys it, whenever that is,” Trout told the Orange County Register, “there are definitely conversations we’re going to have to have. Obviously, I want to win.”

Like many owners who ride the wild surf of their teams’ successes in the beginning, Moreno began to believe in his own baseball genius. Unlike many such owners, Moreno behaved as though his role model for baseball ownership was the 1980s version of George Steinbrenner without half the summary executions and humiliations with which that Steinbrenner tortured Yankee fans for a generation.

The 1980s Steinbrenner loved “name guys who put fannies in the seats.” Moreno has been much like that, particularly when it comes to hitters. So much so that he reeled in one after another name hitter but ignored his team’s real pitching needs, which have been somewhere between drastic and desperate for just about the whole of Trout’s career to date.

Fairness requires we acknowledge that not all those deals for all those hitters who ended up hurting far more than helping the club were bad going in. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Albert Pujols’s legs and feet reduced him to a barely-serviceable DH after that Hall of Famer-in-waiting’s first Angels season. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon were/would be throttled by injuries.

Nor was it Moreno’s fault that two prize pitchers he signed big enough, C.J. Wilson and Zack Cozart, would be hit hard enough with injuries that 1) Wilson would retire after a couple of good if not spectacular Angel seasons; and, 2) Cozart would pitch well for a third of a season before a) a torn labrum fielding a grounder cost him the rest of that season and b) shoulder and neck surgery would cost him 2019—and his career, after he was traded away.

And it’s certainly not as though Moreno anticipated Trout’s first decade worth of such play as to have him baseball’s fifth-best all-time center fielder at this writing, still, would turn into an injury-plagued second decade beginning. Say what you will about the owner’s clumsiness and hubris, but he’s not exactly the cause of Trout’s and others’ time-robbing injuries. Even Moreno isn’t that kind of jinx.

But it was Moreno’s ugly doing to run Hamilton out of town on the slickest rail he could find, after Hamilton incurred a drinking relapse while watching a Super Bowl, manned up and went right to baseball’s drug policy administration with it, but discovered his Angel bosses had different thoughts about manning up.

It was Moreno’s ugly doing, a couple of years before Trout came into his own, to gut the Angels’ scouting system almost completely. “First,” I wrote over three years ago, “they made international scouting director Clay Daniels the scapegoat for bonus skimming shenanigans by some of his subordinates; then, they pinked overall scouting chief Eddie Bane—one of whose last achievements was urging the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place—as the scapegoat for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings and trades.”

Shohei Ohtani, Arte Moreno

The Angel Stadium faithful booed Moreno as he presented Shohei Ohtani his 2021 AL MVP award. Last month, Moreno blocked deals that would have brought serious prospects back for Ohtani (a free agent after next year) and further cemented Moreno’s reputation for putting box office too far above baseball.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous doing to order his then-general manager Tony Reagins—who couldn’t persuade Hall of Famer in waiting Adrian Beltre to sign with the Angels as a free agent—to make a deal for Toronto outfielder/basher Vernon Wells post haste and or else! Then the Angels discovered the hard way that Wells was damaged goods. And the guy they sent the Blue Jays for him, bat-first catcher Mike Napoli, was going on to pitch in big for a pair of World Series teams in Texas and Cleveland and help a Red Sox team win their third Series ring of the century.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous further doing to address the Angels’ dire pitching needs over several years, ignoring quality pitching on the markets in favour of one after another reclamation project that failed in Anaheim but found either revival or retirement elsewhere. Which points to another wounding Moreno flaw. Loving and enriching the name guys putting fannies in the seats is one thing. His budgets otherwise have been tighter than James Brown’s rhythm sections without yielding comparable fruit.

“Like a lot of billionaires before him,” Olney writes, “Moreno seemed to believe he knew more about building a baseball team than the folks he hired. But the strengths that made him an extraordinary success before he bought the Angels became a weakness once he stepped into a sport that has become increasingly competitive.”

Two former Angel GMs (Jerry Dipoto, now with the second-place Mariners; Billy Eppler, now running the National League East-leading Mets) found success enough after they escaped Moreno’s all-thumbs touch. The incumbent, Perry Minasian, likewise hamstrung enough, may or may not survive this season’s disaster.

Olney reminds us that Moreno selling the Angels would be baseball’s biggest sigh of relief since Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers to the Guggenheim Group and the Wilpon family finally elected to sell the Mets to Steve Cohen. The sigh’s breeze will be felt from sea to shining sea.

The timing may be telling enough. Moreno’s attempt to buy Angel Stadium and its surrounding land from Anaheim collapsed three months ago, after Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned amid an FBI investigation into whether Sidhu shared “privileged and confidential information” with the team while they negotiated with the city. (The FBI didn’t accuse Moreno or the Angels of wrongdoing.)

The Angels are also not off the hook just yet over the accidental overdose death of painkiller-addicted pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019. They face two wrongful death lawsuits by Skaggs’s family—one by his parents, the other by his widow—in the wake of former Angels communications director Eric Kay’s conviction in federal court for providing the fentanyl-containing drug that killed the popular lefthander.

It’s worth remembering, too, that only when George Steinbrenner was suspended for his nefarity in digging up dirt on his Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield did the Yankees finally have room to rebuild themselves back to greatness. An end to the Moreno era might well produce likewise for an Angels franchise that’s had only one now-brief spell of greatness even if it has only one World Series trophy to show for it.

“Many executives,” Olney continues, “believe that the Angels have not come close to exploiting the potential of their market. ‘”Because that place might be the best to work in in baseball,’ one official said. ‘The weather is perfect. The conditions are perfect. You can live on the beach. Nobody bothers them. The fans are good’.”

With the best intentions but the worst approaches, Moreno’s Angels ownership made it possible to believe paradise was hell in disguise. By comparison, the freeway traffic chokes that so often stand between the Pacific Ocean and Angel Stadium are walks on the beach.

And now, the end is near for Trout?

Mike Trout

His back may have other ideas soon enough, but Mike Trout insists his career isn’t over until it’s over.

Time was when thinking of the Angels without thinking of Mike Trout was the proverbial non-starter. You knew you were seeing a Hall of Famer in the making the further his career progressed. You also knew concurrently that the Angels’ administrative inability to build a team their and the game’s best all-around player could be proud of made them Hall of Shamers.

Now the shame may be multiplied exponentially. Bedeviled by injuries as it was the last three years, Trout may have been hit at last by the one that puts paid to his career. May.

The official diagnosis has been “a costovertebral dysfunction” in his number five vertebra. He’ll have to alter his entire preparation and perhaps even the way he plays to continue. It’s not unrealistic to picture him becoming a full-time designated hitter soon enough. It’s also not unrealistic to wonder whether he’s been playing through any kind of back issue for long enough, and whether his team knew or dismissed it.

But a potential actual diagnosis may yet prove to be spinal stenosis. The very condition that knocked former Mets third base star David Wright and former Yankees first base bellwether Don Mattingly out of their careers and their Hall of Fame cases. Either way, Trout’s back may yet put paid to his career before its time—and his Hall of Fame case is overwhelming as it is right now.

His optimism is laudable. “I appreciate all the prayer requests,” he cracked when the official diagnosis became public, “but my career isn’t over.” But how soon will he have to walk that back?

The Angels already incurred the indignity of coming out of spring training determined to make real American League West noise, then opening their season 27-17, then collapsing into a fourteen-game losing streak and going 14-27 since they ended that streak. They’ve executed a manager and gone from postseason hopes to the dogs as the proverbial dog days of August knock on the door.

The issue that’s bedeviled them for the whole of Trout’s career to date continues bedeviling them, their inability to develop or build a serviceable pitching staff and their administration’s inability to stop just retooling under the Mud Plan: throw a few tons of it at the wall and hope some of it sticks.

Optimists such as Deadspin‘s Sam Fels would say that just shows at least the Angels, as opposed to the notorious tankers, really were trying. Pessmists would say that just shows there isn’t a truly verifiable brain among the Angels’ administrative brain trust.

But now the fallen Angels, 23.5 games out of first in the AL West and unlikely to make a 2019 Nationals-like turnaround to the postseason at all, never mind the Promised Land, are even willing to listen to 2 August trade-deadline queries involving Shohei Ohtani, their two-way pitching/hitting star. Angel fans cry “Help!” uncertain what the word even means for their team now.

Ohtani isn’t exactly unprepared for life beyond Anaheim, not just because he’s eligible for free agency after the 2023 season. Theoretically, life beyond Anaheim may happen within the next few days. It might even be only slightly beyond Orange County, if the prospects-rich Dodgers as rumoured are “engaging” the Angels in trade talk.

“Regardless of where I’m playing,” he said after yet another Angels loss Thursday, I’m going to give it my all and try to win that ballgame in front of me. I’m with the Angels right now, and I’m very thankful for what they’ve done. I love my team and my teammates. Right now I’m an Angel, and that’s all I can focus on.”

The Angels themselves aren’t yet talking about shutting Trout down for the rest of the season, reportedly. But that may not hold very long. Especially if it’s shown plausibly that he’s been playing with a bothersome back all season long, which may explain a lot about his periodic slumps that lasted a little longer, it seemed, than a typical Trout slump (yes, even Hall of Famers have them) ever did before.

The possibility also exists that Trout may never again be the player he’s been through this season, even if he knows he’s going to have to perform additional self-maintenance for the rest of what career he does have left. That’s just about the last thing long-enough-suffering Angel fans need to know.

They’ve had to grin and bear it while such a larger-than-life baseball talent with the results to back it up was never really supported with a team that could compete at all, never mind at his level. They’re not always comforted by having had the pleasure of seeing a once-in-a-billion player play above and beyond anyone else who ever wore the Angels uniform and treat them like friends at the ballpark while he was at it.

Mike Trout

Your author took this photograph of Mike Trout batting in the first inning of a 2014 game—right before he hit one over the fence.

They swallowed hard when no less than commissioner Rob Manfred accused Trout himself of being the reason he didn’t quite become The Face of the game, saying the Show couldn’t “market” him because he wouldn’t market himself. Trout isn’t big on self-promotion and, when he isn’t at the ballpark, prefers to let what he’s done at the park speak for itself. The very idea. Being a man over a brand.

Not to mention being a Hall of Famer in waiting. Trout could retire this minute and he’d go into the Hall of Fame in a walk in a few years. (The Hall’s minimum career longevity requirement is ten seasons; Trout has twelve including this year. And the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity. It’s not supposed to be a platinum watch.)

Baseball-Reference, using The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe’s JAWS calculators for Hall worthiness, ranks Trout the number five center fielder in baseball history. He has 8.3 more career wins above replacement-level (WAR) than the average Hall of Fame center fielder already. His seven-year-peak 65.1 WAR is 20.4 above the seven-year peak of the average Hall center fielder.

And, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—Mike Trout is the number one rank among those Hall of Fame center fielders who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era by far and 92 points ahead of the average for those center fielders . . .

Mike Trout 5986 2884 904 115 52 91 .680
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 102 81 .620
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 54* 21 .615
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 39* 38 .576
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 118 111 .534
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 58 56 .524
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 30* 43 .463
HOF AVG .588

About the most forward Trout has ever let himself become was that fine afternoon six years ago when he hired a skywriting team to propose to the woman who became his wife. Unless it was the days when he put the entire Angel organisation on his back, after pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s tragic death in Texas, including the team’s first home game after, when he launched a 13-0, combined-no-hitter blowout with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first and–as the Angels batted around and then some—finished that seven-run frame’s scoring with a still-one-out, two-run double.

You’d love to think Trout is right when he says his career isn’t over yet. You’d also love to think he didn’t waste and won’t continue wasting such a glittering career on behalf of an organisation that couldn’t build a top-to-bottom competitive team around and alongside him.

But if his career does end too soon, he won’t lack for a certain breed of distinguished company. Luke (Ol’ Aches and Pains) Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rick Ferrell, Harry Heilmann, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Ted Lyons, Minnie Miñoso, Ron Santo, and George Sisler are those who can tell you how it feels to reach Cooperstown without reaching the postseason. Dick Allen may join their ranks if the newly-configured Classic Baseball Era Committee (covering pre-1980 players) finally elects him, albeit posthumously a la Miñoso.

It wasn’t their fault that their teams couldn’t and didn’t build competitive groups they could be proud of, either. Mike Trout’s issue has never been his ability or the performance papers to back it. His issue has been that his Angels teams couldn’t put eight more Trouts into the lineup and didn’t find even the minimally competitive ways to augment him while he stood baseball on its head.


* From writing more extensively about Real Batting Average (RBA) last year: The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Famers played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. How could I overcome that hole?

I tinkered with a few ideas until I tripped over a best-case scenario. I took those players’ numbers of recorded sacrifice flies and divided them by the number of seasons they played under the rule. Then, I took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played. The formula is sacrifice flies (SF) divided by sacrifice fly-rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by MLB seasons. Or, if you insist on seeing it in mathematese:


Thus I had as best as I could get to the total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected those players to hit all career long. I marked their sacrifice fly numbers with (*).

Another year, ejection, and autographed ball

Jesse Winker

Jesse Winker (27) triggering a bench-clearing brawl after taking a leadoff pitch on the can in the second Sunday . . .

When pondering how to attract and keep today’s youth bound to baseball, I’m pretty sure a bench-clearing brawl depriving a particular young fan from southern California of seeing a favourite player all game long isn’t exactly what we should have had in mind. It’s hard enough being a Reds fan anywhere these days without that.

Last year, a little California girl named Abigail Courtney got to see her first live major league game when her beloved Reds hit town to play the Padres. She really wanted to see her personal favourite, first baseman (and future Hall of Famer) Joey Votto. Except that Votto got tossed from the outset after arguing a nebulous pitch call.

The girl’s heartbreak went viral, enough so that it reached Votto himself. He promptly sent her a ball that he signed, “I am sorry that I didn’t play the entire game. Joey Votto.” The next day, Votto granted Abigail a personal audience when the Reds blew her family to tickets for that game.

Abigail’s Reds rooting includes sticking with players after they move on, as several did when the Reds decided to push the plunger on 2022 before the lockout-threatened season even began. And there the Courtneys were in Angel Stadium Sunday afternoon, where Abigail wanted to see two of her now-former Reds heroes, Mariners left fielder Jesse Winker and infielder Eugenio Suárez.

If the little girl has been taught anything about Hall of Fame catcher/malaproprietor Yogi Berra, don’t be shocked if it includes one of the most fabled Berraisms flashing in neon before her pretty eyes in the second inning: It’s déjà vu all over again.

She either didn’t know or didn’t quite comprehend that there might be a little bad blood between the Angels and the Mariners after the Angels’ future Hall of Famer Mike Trout was almost decapitated in the ninth inning Saturday night. She didn’t know Angels opener Andrew Wantz was going to send a return message or two, zipping one past Julio Rodriguez’s head in the top of the first before drilling Winker on the right butt to open the top of the second.

She certainly didn’t know Winker would slip the umpires trying to restrain him and charge the Angels’ dugout on the third base side of the ballpark, luring the rest of the Mariners to pour over for a rumble against the dugout rail after the Angels—who looked to have been chirping at the Mariners after Winker took it on the cheek—came out to defend themselves.

Nor could she know yet that the umpires’ crew chief Adrian Johnson would tell a pool reporter, “I’m not aware of the incident with Trout from last night. You’re talking about the pitch that went over his head. That was nothing for us to issue warnings today. What happened today was a guy got hit. We had warnings in.”

A week earlier, while the Angels took four of five from the Mariners in Seattle, Angels pitcher (and yet another former Red) Michael Lorenzen reeled in horror after a pitch coned former Angel Justin Upton upside the head. Post-game, Lorenzen thundered over the inconsistent baseballs that pitchers were having numerous issues gripping properly including the ones they couldn’t grip well enough to control.

Abigail Courtney

. . . meant a second broken heart over an early ejection of a current or former Reds favourite for Abigail Courtney in slighty over a year . . .

Maybe for the Mariners the Upton splat meant beware. Maybe they didn’t necessarily accept Lorenzen’s post-game commentary as sincere. Maybe both sides pitching inside and tight this weekend was a little bit of mutual messaging. But just how Johnson could have figured that that didn’t mean buzzing Trout’s tower in the ninth Saturday merited pre-game warnings Sunday escapes.

A pre-game warning would have dispatched Wantz post-haste after he’d zipped Rodriguez’s head. It also would have knocked into the proverbial cocked hat any suspicion that Angels manager Phil Nevin elected to go with an opener just to have him take one or two for the team and send the Mariners messages without costing himself too heavily.

Considering the Angels’ usual wounding flaw of inconsistent-to-insufferable pitching rearing its head yet again this season—and contributing well enough to that fourteen-game losing streak that deflated their earlier-season success—Nevin was playing with matches if that was really his plan.

Abigail Courtney knew none of that going in. All she knew in the moment in the top of the second was that here she was at the ballpark to watch a couple of her favourite former Reds (we presume Votto remains her number one man in Cincinnati) and one of them got a shot in the ass, triggered one of the wildest brawls of the season, if not the wildest, then got thrown out of the game.

So did Winker’s fellow Mariners Rodriguez and J.P. Crawford, not to mention Mariners manager Scott Servais. So were Nevin and Angels Wantz, Raisel Iglesias, and Ryan Tepera. (Iglesias had a message of his own to send after his ejection, throwing a large tub of sunflower seed bags out towars the third base line in protest. Brilliant.)

Winker didn’t exactly go gently into that good not-so-grey afternoon. Before he disappeared into the Mariners clubhouse, he flipped the double bird to a section of the seats behind the dugout.

“The only thing I’m gonna apologize for is flipping the fans off,” the left fielder said after the game. “That’s it . . . They pay their hard-earned money to come and see a game, and they didn’t deserve that, so I apologize to the fans, especially the women and children.”

Lucky for Abigail that her mother is a psychologist by profession. “One of the first things I said was, ‘Honey, everybody’s fighting, but they’re all going to be OK’,” Kristin Courtney told Athletic writer Stephen J. Nesbitt. “‘Nobody’s going to get seriously injured. But Jesse’s not going to be playing anymore today’. So, there were more tears.

Abigail Courtney

. . . and, a second apologetically-autographed baseball to Abigail from a chastened player.

“She has a sensitive heart, and she really cares about baseball,” the lady continued. “She feels for everybody, and I know she was disappointed for herself because she’s been waiting to see Jesse. I kept telling her, ‘I don’t think Eugenio is going to get thrown out. I think he’ll be OK. You can cheer for Eugenio’.”

Concurrently, someone made Winker aware of Abigail’s second such broken heart in a year and eight days. And he did something about it.

When Votto got tossed in San Diego last year, he sent her the ball and made a point of meeting her before the next day’s game. When Winker was made aware Sunday, before the game ended in a 2-1 Angels win, he sent Abigail a ball he signed, “Sorry I was ejected! I hope to see you at another game soon.”

If Votto’s precedent is any indication, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished. Before his ejection broke Abigail’s heart in San Diego, Votto was in something of a 41-game slump. After redeeming himself with her the following day, he went nuts enough to hit 19 home runs with a .674 slugging percentage over the following 52 games.

Winker could use a little of that kind of mojo. Even more than he could have used the pizza an Arkansas fan named Sofie Dill sent to him in the clubhouse. (When Winker texted her thanks, she texted back, “Thank you for being awesome, Jesse! There’s a ton of people on Twitter who love you right now man.”)

The bad news: Winker has a respectable .353 on-base percentage thus far this season, but he’s slugging 153 points below his career percentage. The next time the Mariners might have a chance to see Abigail will be the Fourth of July, when they visit the Padres on her home turf.

I suspect it’s very safe to say that, while she might appreciate the balls she got from Votto and Winker after their ejections broke her heart, Abigail would much rather watch them play baseball when she gets to the ballpark. Autographed baseballs aren’t half as much fun as baseballs diving for line drive hits or flying for home runs.