Benedict Angel?

Harkins, accused of handing an illegal weapon to the enemy.

About six decades ago, when The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s protagonist Rob Petrie assured his fellow television writer Buddy Sorrell he had no thoughts of vengenace for a practical joke, Sorrell pleaded for mercy, sort of. “C’mon, let’s be fair. If I know something’s coming, I’ll worry,” Sorrell urged, “but if I don’t know I’ll go nuts.”

At that, Petrie smirked mischievously and the third member of the fictitious writing team, Sally Rogers, rasped to Sorrell, “Congratulations, General Custer, you just sold some guns to the Indians.”

A now-former Los Angeles Angels clubhouse attendant, Brian (Bubba) Harkins, is accused of giving ammunition to the Indians—not to mention the Astros, the Athletics, the Mariners, the Rangers, and any other team playing against the Angels in their digs just outside Disneyland.

Harkins tended the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium since 1990, well before the place was made over completely from its Anaheim Stadium root. The Angels fired him last March, after baseball’s government informed the team that Harkins provided opposing pitchers with a little extra to put on their pitches.

Specifically, MLB let the Angels know they had abundant reason to believe Harkins, for whatever cause, mixed up a homemade stickum from melted-down pine tar and rosin, the better to give opposing pitchers (ahem) better grips (hee hee) on their pitches (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Harkins sued both the Angels and MLB in August charging defamation and pleading that he never made or distributed anything unlawful in all the years he worked for the Angels. Both have filed to get the Harkins suits tossed; the hearings on those will happen in January and February.

If Harkins is guilty as accused, it begs the question of why. Why on earth would one team’s visiting clubhouse master provide the visitors’ pitchers with that new old fashioned medicated goo? Angel Stadium is known as a pitcher’s park, and the climate therein isn’t exactly the type that would move a pitcher to get a little extra help keeping a grip.

It’s not as though the Angels’ pitching staff was pinning the opposition to the walls especially in the past five seasons. Their pitching problems in those years have been documented so well and detailed that the other guys have needed extracurricular equalisers on the mound about as desperately as Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson needed Acme jet sneakers to steal his record 1,406 bases.

It’s certainly not as though the Angels have been scoring vaults full of runs, either. Remember, this is the team with the best all-around player on the planet, a guy who can make things happen just kneeling in the on-deck circle, and they can’t get runners aboard ahead of him or provide more than an aging and fading Albert Pujols behind him to get him home, either.

A team whose pitching staff posts a 4.57 ERA and a 4.59 fielding-independent pitching rate over a particular five-year spread including this year is not exactly a group against whom you need salvation by salve. The other guys’ pitchers could have thrown what they throw without sticky fingers and just waited for their own hitters to prick, poke, pound, pulse, or pulverise these Angel staffs.

It’s a little beyond belief to think that Haskins may have decided one fine day that the other guys stood so little chance against an Angel staff that handed runs out like Halloween candy to trick or treaters. Set aside for one second what you do or don’t think about cheating and ask yourselves whether you’d have thought that, all things considered, the 2016-2020 Angels were the guys who needed whatever breaks their pitching staffs could get by hook, crook, or anything else they could get their meathooks on.

You might not think it any more kosher, but you might understand if the visiting clubhouse attendant for any team employing Gaylord Perry in the prime of his actual or alleged grease-balling career decided to mix up a little gunk for the visiting enemy, the better to give them an even chance against Perry, who might actually have thrown fewer actual naughty balls than he let on. (Surely you remember Perry’s little mound routine prior to delivery, the better to let the batter think he was preparing a lube job.)

Try to imagine teams’ road clubhouse people looking for and providing ways for the other guys to even things out against such real or suspected scuffers, scratchers, swampers, and ringers as Bo Belinsky, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Art Fowler, Mudcat Grant, Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley, Kevin Gross, Tommy John, Eddie Lopat, Joe Niekro, Phil (The Vulture) Regan, Preacher Roe, Mike Scott, and Don Sutton.

And, try to imagine such teams catching their trusted visitors’ clubhouse hosts handing the travelers anything, never mind Harkins’ blended Creme de Mess, to counter the like of Burdette’s suspected swamp balls. (The fidgety righthander was believed to spit his tobacco juice to the same spot by the rubber for a scoop o’sewage when he bent over.) Or, Ford’s mud or ring balls. Or, Regan’s sweat ball. (The Vulture got away with it for as long as he did because nobody suspected he was just letting his natural heavy sweat run down his arm.) Or, Grant’s soap balls. (The Mudcat once liked to soap the inside of his jersey and got nailed only when he overdid it inside his gray road uniform—and the warmth of the sun turned the Ivory so pure it foamed visibly through the material.)

Not to mention being unable to wait as long as Belinsky once swore he did for the chance of a Ford mud, ring, or buckle ball awaiting him on the mound before confiscation when it was side retired. “If Whitey left one for me on the mound,” the playboy-flake lefthander once said, “I had two outs waiting for me right there. If he didn’t, I was dead.” Did the usually clever Ford ever think he might be loading the enemy cannons himself?

John actually did little other than wait for a ball in play to be thrown back to him. If the ball wasn’t removed, he’d spot the merest scuff from the play action and turn it into a double play ground ball. When Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan showed Thomas Boswell a ball he cut with three straight gashes and said, “Any time I need four new pitches I got them,” Flanagan also said of that ball, “My God, Tommy John could make this ball sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.”

It’s rare enough now to find pitchers suspected of putting more on the ball than just their fingers. Teams taking traitorous pity on the other guys against such scofflaws among their own troops have their work cut out for them, if their own scofflaws are as slick as the Burdettes, Fords, Johns, and Regans.

My best guess is that trying to prove game by game which Indians (or Astros, Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, or others) ambushed the Angels with goop balls provided from the inside might be a fool’s time-guzzling errand. We’re pretty sure the Angels a) weren’t going rogue; or, b) if they were, they set undetected records for the driest spitters in baseball history.

Maybe the other guys approached Harkins and offered him a little extra emolument that he accepted gratefully enough to duck into the lab and blend his brews. If it can be proven that they did and he did, at least that would make perverse sense. If it can be proven that they didn’t and he didn’t, Harkins might consider himself fortunate that fired was the worst he got.

For Pujols, meeting Mays wasn’t a walk in the park

Albert Pujols just after hitting the home run tying him with Willie Mays on the career list Sunday.

A little earlier this pandemic season, Albert Pujols received a text message on his cell phone. “It’s your time now. Go get it,” the message said. The message came from Hall of Famer Willie Mays, whose 660 lifetime major league home runs Pujols has chased all season long.

With the shadows creeping in in the top of the eighth at Coors Canaveral Sunday afternoon, Pujols went and got it. With his Los Angeles Angels down 3-2 and a man on first, El Hombre turned on a meaty 1-1 fastball from Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez and drove it parabolically down the left field line and halfway up the seats.

The blast was the kind of launch for which Pujols has been fabled from the moment he first came into his own in St. Louis almost two decades ago. The kind he’s hit the last few years almost to the exclusion of anything else.

The kind that reminds you of both the greatness that will punch his Cooperstown ticket and the greatness that’s been eroded by the injuries that have sapped him since after his first season as an Angel, turning his ten-year, $255 million contract into the unfair poster child for terrible sports contracts.

When Pujols commented after Sunday night’s game, it was tough to know which affected him more, finally meeting Mays in the record book or Mays himself urging him on in the first place. “Legend,” said the agreeable Dominican who was born seven years after Mays played his last major league game. “I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

Oh, it was believable, all right. Pujols’s swing remains a work of art, even if it’s supported by legs that betrayed him almost a decade ago, a knee that underwent a surgery here and there, a heel that fought with painful plantaar fascitis costing him the final two months of 2013, feet requiring surgeries after 2015 and 2016.

“When his days are done and his legend is told,” wrote The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya, shortly after Pujols’s milestone blast, “they will talk about the swing — that beautiful, powerful swing — and the follow-through and the strut when you knew, everyone knew, that Albert Pujols got every piece of a baseball.”

The swing cemented Pujols as perhaps the best right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. It is slower now, a reality that happens with age, and the majestic drives don’t occur as often. But when they do, even for a split second, they take you back to when Pujols wrecked the league, ruined historic closer seasons and, quite simply, hit.

They take you back to when the only thing keeping Pujols’s three-run detonation against Brad Lidge inside Minute Maid Park in the top of the ninth, 2005 National League Championship Series, was the bracing for the park’s retractable roof. The bad news: that bomb won the Game Six battle but merely saved his Cardinals from losing the war in Game Seven.

They take you back to when Pujols ripped three in a kind of reverse cycle in Game Three of the 2011 World Series—a three-run blast, a two-run blast, a solo blast, in that order, and every one of them after the sixth inning in a 16-7 demolition of the Texas Rangers. The solo provided the sixteenth run.

They take you back to when Pujols was younger, unimpeded by his lower body health, and liable to either drop Big Boy or otherwise make life miserable for opposing pitchers and fielders, in a St. Louis run that left him as the Cardinals’ second-best all-around position player ever, behind the man on behalf of whom Pujols doesn’t always accept having been nicknamed El Hombre.

They take you to his deadly postseason record—the lifetime postseason .323/.431/.599 slash line; the .725 lifetime postseason real batting average (RBA: total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances); the 109 runs produced. Enough Hall of Famers don’t look half that dangerous playing for all the platinum.

Two years ago Pujols tied Hall of Famer Stan Musial on the all-time runs batted in list. Five years before that, when Musial died, Pujols was almost inconsolable. He and Musial became that close personally. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” he insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”

So insistent on the point was Pujols that, when he became an Angel and the club began hoisting billboards touting El Hombre‘s arrival, Pujols flipped. He insisted very publicly there was only one player who should ever be called The Man, and it wasn’t Albert Pujols. The billboards disappeared faster than the Angels executed their scouting staff after an international signing scandal.

When Pujols talks about his own place in baseball, he does it almost as though the idea that he’s part of it is secondary to what came before him. “I know my place in history,” he told Ardaya. “(But) it’s hard. I don’t want to — It’s almost like I take it personal, like I don’t want to disrespect this game.”

He’s even ready to hand history off to the teammate who played his first full season in an Angel uniform the same year Pujols joined the team. The teammate who’s now the Angels’ all-time franchise home run leader and has been the game’s all-everything player almost right out of the chute. The teammate who doesn’t have a team baseball’s All-Universe player can be proud of.

“We have the best player in the game,” Pujols told Ardaya of Mike Trout, “and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too.” As if he hasn’t already. Pujols knows it.

You think that’s an affectation? Pujols is the same player who refused to join the ruckus in Detroit last year, when he hit one out in Comerica Park for his 2,000th career RBI and, for whatever perverse reasons, MLB and the Tigers together tried to strong-arm the Tiger fan who caught the ball by refusing to authenticate it, until or unless he turned it over, assuming before asking that he wanted to cash the ball in big.

Ely Hydes didn’t like being treated like an opportunist. “Honestly, if they were just cool about it I would’ve just given them the ball,” Hydes told a WXYT interviewer. “I don’t want money off of this, I was offered five and ten thousand dollars as I walked out of the stadium, I swear to God . . . I just couldn’t take being treated like a garbage bag for catching a baseball.”

Pujols understood. Completely. “Just let him have it, I think he can have a great piece of history with him, you know,” he said. “When he look at the ball he can remember . . . this game, and I don’t fight about it. You know, I think we play this game for the fans too and if they want to keep it, I think they have a right to. I just hope, you know, that he can enjoy it . . . He can have it . . . He can have that piece of history. It’s for the fans, you know, that we play for.”

Hydes eventually gave the ball to the Hall of Fame in memory of his little son who died at 21 months old a year before Daddy caught the Pujols milestone.

Mays finished his career both with 660 home runs and as a shell of his once-formidable self, ground down by all those seasons and no few off-field heartbreaks, unable until his body finally put him in a stranglehold to admit that the game he loved and lived to play was no longer fun when he was Willie Mays in name only.

Those were real tears that almost poured out of Mays when he faced a Shea Stadium throng on Willie Mays Day, with the Mets who brought him back to the city of his major league youth, and told them, “There always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.”

It shouldn’t shock anyone when Pujols’s time finally arrives. You can say his time is past, that his lower body ruined what should have been a simpler, kinder, gentler decline phase, leaving him prone to as much criticism under ordinary circumstances as praise when now and then the vintage edition makes a cameo as it did Sunday night.

You should also say, as Angels general manager Billy Eppler did two years ago, that few really knew, never mind understood, Pujols’s determination to play through every lower-body malady he’s incurred since trading Cardinal for Angel red.

“He plays through discomfort,” Eppler told MLB.com. “He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it. But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone that wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”

There’s something to be said for that as well as against that. It’s not as though Pujols needed to burnish his Hall of Fame resume. And, it’s not as though the Angels couldn’t have cashed him in for things they needed even more than they needed Pujols’s cachet—things like a pitching overhaul, mostly.

He has one more year to go on his Angels deal. The Angels as they stand now are still going nowhere and they still need a radical pitching overhaul if they have any prayer of returning to competitive greatness, with Trout committed to them for life and Pujols knowing he can tell Father Time to go to hell only so much longer, if at all.

Would the Angels even think of trading Pujols this offseason, to a contender with young pitching talent to spare, in need of a veteran mentor to whom they’d be grateful for all his counsel and whatever hits he has left, before the Angels bring him back for that ten-year personal services deal that begins when his playing days end? Who knows?

Such a team could do a lot worse than drawing counsel from the man whom Baseball-Reference lists as the number two first baseman ever to play the game. Only Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig is ahead of him. But Pujols has an arguable case as the greatest all-around first baseman of all time simply because, as devastating as he’s been a hitter, he was also a far better defensive first baseman than Gehrig before his lower body resigned its commission.

Or, maybe, Pujols himself will take stock, surrender to his body’s and Father Time’s mandate at last, leave next year’s $30 million on the table, start that personal services term, and congratulate himself as baseball should on a one-of-a-kind playing career. Maybe. Only Pujols knows for certain, and he doesn’t seem to like talking about that any more than he liked talking about what it took for him to just stroll up to the plate any more.

Maybe the combination of this year’s pandemic surreality and the current major league regime’s continuing inability to promote its best and give proper due to its milestoners kept Pujols’s Sunday night smash hit from blowing the social media universe up too much beyond about an hour’s worth of ordnance.

“To be able to have my name in the sentence with Willie Mays is unbelievable,” Pujols said Sunday night. The Angels have an off-day Monday. He hasn’t hit well this season, and Sunday’s smash was only his fourth home run in 31 games. One homer every seven games on average. He and they have twelve games left.

All Pujols needs is one more meaty pitch to drive, one more summoning up of whatever remains of that impeccable swing, and they’ll be saying his name in the same sentence as Mays once again. This time, for passing him to become sole possessor of number four on the all-time bomb squad.

Maybe then, he’ll get the twenty-one guns he deserves. Maybe.

The wheeling, dealing, maybe stealing Padres

Mike Clevinger, from Cleveland outcast to the star of the San Diego Shuffle.

Entering the pandemic-truncated regular season, some thought the Show was going to be somewhere between dull and duller, not just by way of the rules experiments alone. They didn’t reckon with the San Diego Padres, of all people.

When not producing a youthful shortstop (Fernando Tatis, Jr.) who takes “let the kids play” to heart (and runs the boring old farts’ temperatures up the scale in the bargain), or hitting grand slams as if they’re going out of style, the Padres took what some presumed would be a sleepy trade deadline period and turned it into a bit of a thriller approaching Monday’s 1 p.m. Pacific time cutoff.

Landing Cleveland Indians pitcher/protocol violator Mike Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen for a package including pitcher Cal Quantrill, infielder Gabriel Arias, outfielder Josh Naylor, and catcher Austin Hedges on Monday merely seems like what Duke Ellington once called “the cherries-and-cream topping to our sundae morning.”

Especially after the Friars already made four trades in a 24-hour period prior. The fourth of those trades looked like something of a nothingburger: on Sunday, the Padres sent a fringe relief pitcher from their 60-man roster (28 in Show; 32 at alternate camp), Gerardo Reyes, to the Los Angeles Angels for veteran catcher Jason Castro, who’s set to hit free agency after this season. And, who’s not much of a hitter but is respected for his abilities at pitch framing and new-rules plate blocking.

Now, look at what that deal followed doing the Slam Diego Shuffle:

* On Saturday, the Padres cast for and reeled in resurgent relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal, sending the Kansas City Royals an outfield prospect (Edward Oliveres) and the proverbial player to be named later.

* On Sunday morning, the Padres more or less confirmed that the beleaguered Boston Red Sox were about to push the plunger on their season if not much of their roster, landing designated hitter/first baseman Mitch Moreland, a 2018 World Series hero, for a pair of prospects. (Hudson Potts, Jession Rosario.)

* And, a little later on Sunday, the Friars dealt big to the Seattle Mariners, sending two of their highest-rated prospects (pitcher Andres Munoz, outfielder Taylor Trammell) plus a pair of young sprouts with Show experience (catcher Luis Torrens, infielder Ty France) to land the Mariners’ best catcher, Austin Nola, plus relief pitchers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla.

The Mariners were thin enough in the backstop ranks that nothing could have pried Nola out of their hands unless it was enough to think they might finally, maybe, possibly begin building a real future, as a good number of published reports suggest. When the Padres landed Clevinger Monday morning, what started as jaw-dropping hope turned into jaw-dropping actuality: They’re going all-in to win now as well as later.

How surreal is this season already? The Indians put Clevinger on ice when it turned out he’d made a team flight after violating coronavirus safety protocols with fellow pitcher Zach Plesac but said nothing about it—even after Plesac got bagged—until after that team flight. The Tribe sent both to their Eastlake, Ohio alternate site.

And all of a sudden Clevinger—who had a sterling 2019 season but had a struggle or two in four starts this season before his night out of dinner and cards with Plesac and other friends—became the most coveted starting pitcher on a weird trade market that figured to feature such arms as Lance Lynn (Texas Rangers), Trevor Bauer (Cincinnati Reds), and maybe Josh Hader (Milwaukee Brewers relief act) moving to fresh territory.

This must be heady stuff for Clevinger, who’s just gone from a Cleveland outcast to the star of the Slam Diego Shuffle.

One minute, Clevinger and Plesac were still recovering in Eastlake over the denunciations of their selfishness for sneaking out after dark no matter what Mom and Dad ordered. The next, he, at least, has moved from one pennant contender on the banks of Lake Erie to another down by that glistening San Diego waterfront. Where he gets to reap the pleasures and benefits of having one of the left coast’s two true marquee talents having his back at shortstop and lightening his loads at the plate.

It was enough for the Padres to swing and fling their way into the postseason picture, sitting five games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the West but tied with the Chicago Cubs at three and a half games up in the wild card picture. They’re not just making noise, they’re making memories of the kind San Diego hasn’t seen in a very long time.

These are fun days to be a Padre. And, a Padre fan. So much so that a Twitter wag couldn’t resist wondering if their trade deadline wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing didn’t set at least one weird record: most players sharing the name Austin (including Moreland: it’s his middle name) moving to one team or another in a series of trades made by one team in the same deadline period.

Well, what’s baseball, too, if not the still-singular repository for silly records? Now the Padres hope their wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing produce the kind of record that’s not so silly, if you don’t count the semi-Mad Hatter style postseason to come. The kind of record that gets them to the postseason in the first place.

All they have to do is make sure Clevinger can’t be too seduced by that delicious waterfront to break the safety protocols again.

Indictment in Skaggs death, but . . .

Los Angeles Angels v. Seattle Mariners

Wearing Tyler Skaggs’ jersey as his teammates did that night, Mike Trout walks in front of the center field fence displaying a memorial to the pitcher who died of an overdose in Texas last year. A former Angels media person is now indicted for giving Skaggs the drug that helped kill him.

Beckham Aaron Trout was born 30 July. His father, a baseball player of some renown, attended his son’s birth, returned to his team, and hit a 2-2 slider over the left center field fence. This morning, Jessica Trout tweeted a photograph for her husband’s 29th birthday, their new son proclaiming himself the best present ever.

In a career that would indeed qualify him as a Hall of Famer should it end after this season, and Los Angeles Angels fans aren’t the only ones who hope devoutly that that doesn’t prove the case, Mike Trout has shown among other things a genuine human decency and a penchant for rising to particularly heartfelt occasions.

Homering his first time up after fatherhood blessed him is just one. Last year, alas, Trout did it in the middle of soul-wrenching grief.

His teammate Tyler Skaggs died unexpectedly after the Angels landed in Texas to finish a pre All-Star Game road trip. When the team returned home, to face the Seattle Mariners, a wrenching pre-game memorial to the fallen pitcher was followed by Trout opening the scoring with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first.

That launched a 13-0 blowout and a combined no-hitter by Angels pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena that electrified a game wracked in grief over Skaggs’s mortal demise. (“Absolutely incredible,” Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted. “Meant to be.”) His teammates, all of whom wore Skaggs jerseys for the game, laid those jerseys around the mound after the game, leaving only Skaggs’s number 45 behind the rubber exposed.

On the same morning Jess Trout helped her new son tell his father who was the best present ever, the news broke out of Texas that former Angels media relations employee Eric Kay was indicted by a federal court for distributing at least the fentanyl that contributed to Skaggs’s overdose death last year.

The Tarrant County, Texas coroner’s report revealed alcohol, fentanyl, and oxycodone in Skaggs’s system when he died, but, as the Los Angeles Times reports, an affidavit on behalf of the criminal complaint against Kay suggested the fentanyl presence was the likely specific cause of the asphyxiation that killed Skaggs. The Angels themselves said in a formal Friday statement that they hired a former federal prosecutor to help the team investigate their pitcher’s death.

We learned that there was unacceptable behavior inconsistent with our code of conduct, and we took steps to address it. Our investigation also confirmed that no one in management was aware, or informed, of any employee providing opioids to any player, nor that Tyler was using opioids.

As we try to heal from the loss of Tyler, we continue to work with authorities as they complete their investigation.

The statement contradicts Kay’s statement last October that team officials knew there was an opioid issue involving at least five Angels while he denied providing the fatal pills to Skaggs, a fun-loving and popular teammate who seemed to shield his issues with the drugs effectively enough until his death. (How effectively? His widow, Carli, told the Times two months ago her husband didn’t behave like an addict.)

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missing the entire 2015 season rehabbing. “Keep in mind,” wrote Halos Heaven‘s Jessica DeLine, “opioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient. Per the Mayo Clinic, opioids are highly addictive and your risk of addiction is increased after taking the drug for just a few days.”

Two years after that rehab season, Skaggs went to the old disabled list for 98 days with a strained oblique, followed by missing three months in 2018 with hip adductor muscle problems. “If he wasn’t prescribed any opiate after his Tommy John surgery,” I wrote last October, “who’s to say the pain of those injuries instead didn’t lead him to opiates’ doors?”

Kay’s remarks in his statement last fall practically accused the Angels of covering up. “I felt and continue to feel that it is time for everyone to stand up and take responsibility for their respective roles in this,” the statement began.

Nothing anyone does will ever provide closure for the Skaggs family. I can’t, the Angels can’t, and the courts can’t, regardless of what happens there. But at least I can help them “know”‘ instead of “wonder.” My hope is that there is some peace in that for them.

Recent Angels history says the team’s administration didn’t necessarily suffer drug issues gladly or sympathetically. When talented but drug-recovering outfielder Josh Hamilton signed a big free agency deal with the Angels, but saw his Angels service and performance disrupted by injuries, he relapsed infamously while watching a Super Bowl game.

As required by MLB’s drug agreement, Hamilton didn’t waste any time reporting his relapse to the Angels. They rewarded him for his forthrightness by running him out of town before sundown on the first unoccupied rail they could find. Right back to the Texas Rangers from whence he’d come in the first place. Barely caring either that Hamilton manned up or that they looked grotesque punishing him.

Angels owner Arte Moreno paid Hamilton’s entire remaining salary just to get him out of sight. Then, insult-to-injury: then-Angels manager Mike Scioscia demanded Hamilton apologise publicly when the Rangers next came to town. Don’t think there aren’t Angel personnel fearful that, if Moreno could exile a Hamilton, he might be liable to hang those aware of Skaggs’s ultimately fatal struggle.

Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, said last fall that blaming Kay alone for the Skaggs tragedy was shortsighted and misguided. “When all the facts come out,” the attorney continued, “I think that what happened is a tragedy. What happened is very sad on many levels. But to say it’s any one person’s fault is not right.”

Barring any plea bargain, Kay’s trial is liable to bring at least a few such facts forward. It won’t be pleasant. It surely won’t assuage the Skaggs family’s loss and grief. But it may not leave the Angels—to whom Mike Trout plighted his baseball troth for life, and for the equivalent of a tiny island republic’s economy—smelling pleasant, either.

“When stuff comes out,” said Trout, after the Skaggs toxicology report was made public last fall, “you want to know if it’s true.” If the Angels’ administration really does have any responsibility, even if it was mere knowledge upon which the team didn’t act, Trout may not want to know.

A season without the Trout hitting?

2020-07-03 MikeTrout

Mike Trout and his wife, Jessica, in a photo they posted to Instagram. If push comes to shove, Trout would rather sit this season than risk infecting her and their child-to-be.

Mike Trout’s virtues include that he’s as close to a hopeless romantic as a baseball player gets. This is the Angel who proposed to his wife by hiring a skywriting team to pop the question. He is also the Angels’ franchise face who’s pondering seriously whether to opt out of playing whatever the 2020 season happens to be.

Jessica Trout expects their first child next month. And her husband the romantic would like to be as certain as a young man can be that he doesn’t bring home such unwanted gifts for mother and child as the coronarivus.

As a matter of fact, the very thought of it makes Trout quake more than any pitcher has ever made the three-(should-be-four-)time American League Most Valuable Player quake. “Honestly,” Trout has told Los Angeles Times baseball writer Mike DiGiovanna, “I still don’t feel that comfortable. It’s gonna be tough. I’ve got to be really cautious these next couple weeks. I don’t want to test positive. I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. It’s a tough situation we’re in.”

Yes, it’s a difference from when Trout was among the players pleading, “When and where,” before the impasse between the owners and the players over starting a season finished. And, yes, there are millions of other people who’ve gone to work at far less lucrative jobs than Trout performs for money some small national economies rarely if ever see.

Let’s just put that into perspective, if we dare. The Wal-Mart or 7-Eleven clerk, the gas station attendant, the Starbucks barista, the cashier or floor walker at Macy*s, the servers at the Olive Garden, the local bartender, the dealers and floor walkers at the casino, are seen doing their jobs and judged on the spot by several thousand people every day.

But not at the same time. Not concurrently on national and even international television aboard which they’re watched by several million as well as the 55,000 who would be in the ballpark in normal, non-viral times. Unless they make a mistake too egregious to ignore, and it happens within range of the nearest smartphone camera trained upon them, their errors are unlikely to go past their boss and their complaining customers.

They don’t get hammered en masse aboard social media for having the occasional 0-for-4 day or night. They don’t get massively insulted for the heinous offense of not coming with 25 clones able to lift a team its best player can’t always be proud of from the ranks of the also-rans.

Whether or not you think it’s a crime, or at least a miscarriage of justice, the clerks, attendants, baristas, cashiers, floor walkers, servers, bartenders, and dealers don’t exactly bring uncounted millions into their companies through sales of their hats, uniforms, and aprons, or other bric-a-brac of their jobs. Nobody’s in half the hurry to hit the nearest Lids, Inc. or call Amazon up on their computers to buy their favourite barista’s Starbucks shirt.

Nobody loves the idea that those folks plus particular farmers, factory or warehouse labourers, repair people, waterfront workers, or airport workers can be replaced simply enough. Replacing a Mike Trout is something else entirely. It’s not his fault the Angels have been a nowhere team for his entire career to date. Good luck asking them (as some social media meatheads have) to just pay the ingrate off and find another player with even a passing resemblance.

Baseball’s paradoxes include one enunciated best by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, when he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitching instructor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. “You are part of an entertainment, but you are not an entertainer,” he told Thomas Boswell, reflecting on his pitching career. (The article was re-published in Boswell’s anthology, How Life Imitates the World Series.) “But I enjoyed it, probably more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

To this day people rub their eyes in amazement that Koufax walked away from baseball at the absolute height of his pitching career, at age thirty, because the thought of living without full use of his left arm—which is exactly what doctors told him he risked if he tried to pitch even one more season—troubled him that deeply. Koufax earned $125,000 in his final season, 1966. That salary in today’s dollars would be about $2 million short of what Trout stands to earn just pro-rated for the 2020 season.

Today there are probably people enough rubbing their eyes in amazement that Trout would even think of walking away from just that salary because the idea of becoming infected with a grave disease he might transmit to his wife and his child-to-be offends him as deeply as the idea of crippling himself for life on behalf of just one more season offended Koufax.

After almost three months worth of the owners trying to game the players out of their previously-agreed pro-rated season salaries for whenever a season might be played, the coronavirus world tour shows few if any signs of winding down. The least sensible among us accuse them of malingering while injured; the completely witless have been known to accuse them of inviting the injuries.

When Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. incurred a few too many injuries during his Cincinnati years, I had a few too many arguments with a few too many Reds fans accusing him of failing to stay in proper shape and thus leaving himself injury prone. As if the most perfectly conditioned athlete could yet avoid three season-ending injuries in four years and their impact on his swing, bat speed, and outfield range.

We see ballplayers as wealthy sport savants and forget more often than we should that they’re human men. (How often do you hear the least sensible fans accuse them of malingering while injured, simply because proper recovery time is longer than fans like?) We barely accept when they’re injured on the field; we wrestle with them now wrestling between their itch to play, our itch to watch them play, and their too real need to safeguard themselves reasonably and their families profoundly.

The most fearless player on the planet finds no reason to quake facing a 100-mph fastball, or running to haul down a fly ball only a foot between himself and disaster against a particularly unforgiving outfield wall. A virus with a particular penchant for death makes him fearful for his family and for himself. Trout knows it.

“I got to be really cautious these next few weeks,” he told an online news conference Friday morning. “I think the biggest thing is obviously I don’t want to test positive and I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. We thought hard about all this, still thinking about all this. It’s a tough time, tough situation we’re in, everyone’s in, and everybody’s got a responsibility in this clubhouse to social distance, stay inside, wear a mask, and keep everybody safe.”

ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez cites an unidentified major league infielder’s concern “how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling ‘Summer Camp’ might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 — up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others — will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols.”

Later Friday, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced 38 of the first 31,185 people going through its screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, and 31 were players. Thirty-eight overall out of 31,185 is .001 percent. Thirty-one out of 38 is eight points higher than Hall of Famer Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson’s lifetime stolen base percentage. (.808, if you’re scoring at home.)

Previously, it became known that Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and twelve members of the Philadelphia Phillies were infected. Today, the Atlanta Braves revealed first baseman Freddie Freeman tested COVID-19 positive.

The game’s government and players have developed protocols for testing and social distancing. But Gonzalez warns, “It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It’s why so many players are hesitant.”

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake was the first player to exercise the opt-out option on playing this year. Following suit were two World Series-champion Washington Nationals (first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross), another Rockies outfielder (Ian Desmond), and free-agent pitcher Tyson Ross. There could be more to follow, with or without Trout joining their number.

A third National, relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who’s become something of a social media star with his wife, Eireann Dolan, through their articulate tweets, has said aloud that he fears baseball won’t work this year no matter the protocols. Eireann suffers chronic lung issues leaving her prone to respiratory infections and with several hospital stays on her resume.

Doolittle would love to play this year but hates to make things worse for her. He’s popular above and beyond his team’s fan base, but he’s not exactly the final face of the Nats. Neither is Leake for the Diamondbacks; they’d take a bigger blow if they lose freshly-minted Madison Bumgarner or breakout star Ketel Marte. Blackmon’s arguably the Rockies’ face (when you can see it under his hat and behind his Bunyanesque beard), but not yet baseball’s. Freeman’s one of the Braves’s two faces. (Ronald Acuna, Jr. joins him.)

Even a truncated season without Trout would shatter not just the Angels but the game itself. Even if commissioner Rob Manfred once decided the reason Trout isn’t the face of the game above and beyond just the sport itself was . . . Trout himself, considering Trout is possibly baseball’s least self-promoting young man.

It’s almost to worry, should more players such as himself finally opt out of playing this year, that Manfred might see any coming opt-outs and decide it’s all . . . Trout’s fault, for opening his big yap, and admitting that push coming to shove would mean he’d rather take the season off than infect his wife and child-to-be.