Is Mickeygate Tribegate now?

How much did the Indians really know about Mickey Callaway’s pursuits?

It’s going from worse to impossible for Mickey Callaway. But it’s going from bad enough to far worse for the Indians, too. Callaway hasn’t worked for the Indians since 2017, but it looks as though they can’t really be shocked anymore.

Team president Chris Antonetti told the press in early February he was “disturbed, distraught, and saddened” by allegations of Callaway’s sexually-oriented misconduct. That was after The Athletic exposed his inappropriateness with five media women while he managed the Mets. It may have been only the first hints.

Come Tuesday morning, Athletic reporters Brittany Ghiroli and Katie Strang published that Callaway’s kind of behaviour not only traced back to his Indians years but that several key organisation members—including Antonetti and manager Terry Francona—seemed aware enough then that Callaway’s taste for pursing women inappropriately wasn’t a one-time wild pitch.

“Since the publication of The Athletic’s first article,” Ghiroli and Strang wrote, “more women have come forward to say that Callaway made them uncomfortable by sending them inappropriate messages and/or photos, making unwanted advances and more while they worked for the Indians.”

Additionally, in 2017, an angry husband repeatedly called the team’s fan services department to complain that Callaway had sent “pornographic material” to his wife. Those calls were brought to the attention of Antonetti, manager Terry Francona and general manager Mike Chernoff; the Indians spoke with Callaway about the matter . . .

Over the past month, The Athletic has interviewed 22 people who interacted with Callaway during his years in the Indians organization, including 12 current and former employees. They say that Callaway’s sexual indiscretions permeated the workplace to such an extent that it would have been difficult for top officials to not be aware of his behavior, and they push back against any assertion that Callaway’s actions, when made public by The Athletic last month, caught team executives or MLB by surprise.

“I laughed out loud when I saw the quote (in The Athletic’s original report) that said it was the worst-kept secret in baseball, because it was,” said one Indians employee. “It was the worst-kept secret in the organization.”

After the Mets canned Callaway as manager following the 2019 season, the Angels hired him as pitching coach for incoming manager Joe Maddon. Following The Athletic‘s initial report, the Angels suspended Callaway, pending the outcome of a joint probe between the Angels and baseball’s government. Assorted reporting since has said the only reason it’s a suspension and not unemployment was Callaway’s insistence he’d done nothing truly wrong.

Ghiroli and Strang say Callaway’s reputation as a huntsman traced back to his days as a high school pitching hero (“He was a high school celebrity,” they quote “one woman he frequently pursued”) and ran into his years at the University of Mississippi, his drafting and development by the Rays (known then as the Devil Rays), and past his short, three-team pitching career, and his 2001 marriage.

““He does have a way of making you — you kind of always thought it’s just you,” Ghiroli and Strang quoted a woman from Callaway’s Memphis hometown. “Until one day you sit down with a bunch of girlfriends and a glass of wine and realize you’re not.”

Callaway had the gift of working the room profoundly enough that a career as a pitching coach all the way up from the lowest minors to the Show itself seemed almost a given. In baseball terms, Ghiroli and Strang observed, his forward-thinking and ability to present complex metrics in simpler forms made him “a key conduit” for the Indians’ pitching program overhaul.

The trouble was, his reputation for hunting women aggressively paralleled the growth of his reputation as a thinking person’s pitching coach. One of his former minor league pitching charges told Ghiroli and Strang Callaway was given to too-frequent sexualising of women in his comments and often asked players regarding women, “Where’s the beef?”

The beef to which Callaway didn’t refer is now with him, with the Indians who may actually have known what Antonetti professed to be shocked to have learned, and with anyone in baseball who’d caught onto his predatory ways without moving to stop them. The same former pitching charge told the two Athletic reporters, ““It gets kind of awkward when he’s checking out players’ girlfriends” in the stands near the dugout.

Becoming the Indians’ pitching coach didn’t send him any message about maturity, either. He’d gaze, gawk, leer, and send messages to assorted women’s social media accounts. Ghiroli and Strang also said several Indians players’ wives noted him having an extramarital affair or two.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a Cleveland issue but a baseball issue,” one who worked for the Indians told the reporters. “As women, we feel like if we report something, we’ll be looked at like a tattletale or that if we talked, (the team) will figure out who reported it.”

Ghiroli and Strang didn’t have to hunt hard to find those women. When their first report emerged, and Antonetti said the organisation received no complaints about Callaway, those women sought the two reporters out themselves. The team was even willing to have Francona talk to the husband of a Callaway paramour who’d been calling the team incessantly for accountability.

All that was before Callaway was hired to manage the Mets, who’ve since been very public about their need to investigate prospective hires more deeply than in the past. What the Jared Porter sext scrum began, the revelation of Callaway’s sexually oriented misconduct exacerbated for them.

The aforesaid husband is thought to have contacted the Mets about Callaway’s sending his wife “pornographic” material, but the then-manager-to-be assured the Mets it tied to an extramarital affair that “dissolved,” and he was working things out with his wife.

It was bad enough the Mets and the Angels were forced to reckon with the possible full depth of Callaway’s misbehaviours. It looks worse that the Indians knew more than they let on when The Athletic first exposed them. Callaway isn’t helping himself, either, if a reply to a Ghiroli and Strang query the day before they published afresh is any indication:

While much of the reporting around my behavior has been inaccurate, the truth is that on multiple occasions I have been unfaithful to my wife, and for that I am deeply sorry. What I have never done is use my position to harass or pressure a woman. I am confident that I have never engaged in anything that was non-consensual. I feel truly blessed that my wife and children have stuck with me as the most personal and embarrassing details of my infidelities have been revealed. I will continue to work as hard as I can to repair the rift of trust that I have caused inside of my family.

How about the rift of trust he’s caused inside baseball, which has much more work to do when it comes to making women feel comfortable around the arterials of the game? How about the rift of trust he’s caused among those who knew but feared reporting it?

“Some who lived through Callaway’s time in Cleveland and were subjected to his aggressive advances,” Ghiroli and Strang wrote Tuesday morning, “questioned how the men who once supervised Callaway can be trusted to fix the culture that allowed him to operate so brazenly.”

How about even the further rift Callaway’s caused between a father and son already having a somewhat difficult relationship?

“This isn’t easy,” tweeted Nick Francona—son of Terry Francona, a son once fired by the Dodgers as player development assistant, after he sought an assessment by a Boston-based group helping combat veterans such as himself deal with the lingering effects, but who also refused to help cover up sexual misconduct among Dodger minor leaguers—“but it needs to be said.” “It” was a formal statement in which he said he couldn’t “say I am surprised” about Callaway’s behaviour, for openers:

When the news . . . first came out earlier this year, I confonted my father, Chris Antonetti, and others within the Cleveland Indians. I wanted to know why they didn’t say anything to me when the Mets hired Mickey Callaway and they gave him a strong endorsement. My father lied to me and said he didn’t know. Additionally, I think he and his colleagues fail to understand what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t.

The younger Francona said he “confronted my father” again Tuesday morning and believes further that the elder Francona “simply doesn’t get it,” while admitting father and son are not particularly close “largely as a result of disagreements about his conduct.” Terry Francona has declined comment so far.

After writing that standing up for what he believes right means acknowledging his father and the Indians are wrong, the younger Francona called their behaviour unacceptable, leaving it “hard to have faith” that they can improve when they seem more concerned about covering up.

I don’t think this is a problem that is unique to the Cleveland Indians and I think there needs to be a reckoning across Major League Baseball . . . Until a truly independent outside party is brought in and there is transparency and accountability, these problems will continue to plague the sport.

We love to see women enjoy baseball as much as men enjoy it. What’s wrong with asking that women be made as comfortable working in or around the game as men? What’s wrong with asking a firm, enforceable line be drawn between a man interested in a woman personally and a man believing he has the right to hunt her down sexually? What’s wrong with asking accountability when a man (or a woman, for that matter, and yes that happens, too) crosses that line?

The proper answer to all three questions should be absolutely nothing with any of those.

The Machine is winding down?

Albert Pujols, hitting the 661st home run of his major league career last September to pass Willie Mays. His wife says he’ll call it a career when his contract ends after the 2021 season.

“Since the time he was a child, [he] would eat, sleep, and breathe this sport,” wrote Deidre Pujols on Instagram Monday. Right after she announced that that day would be day one of her husband, Albert’s final season as a major league baseball player. The loving husband responded to his wife’s post with three heart emojis.

The game and those who love it are liable to respond with a lot more than that. Tears included. Not just because of what Pujols was and the no-questions-asked Hall of Fame greatness he personified, but because of what injuries—almost all involving his feet and legs—made of the second half of his career.

But will he retire after this season, really?

Mrs. Pujols subsequently updated the post. “Today is the first day of the last season (based on his contract) of one of the most remarkable careers in sports!” it now reads. Then, she updated it again, saying she wanted only to send him into this season with blessings.

His ten-year, gigabucks Angels contract expires after this season. His tenure has been so injury addled that there came times Angel fans wondered if the Cardinals, who declined to re-sign the first baseman after the 2011 season, hadn’t slipped a whoopee cushion under their tails.

Under normal circumstances nobody likes to see the greats hit their decline phases. Were there more heartbreaking sights than Babe Ruth as a feeble Boston Brave? Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, Satchel Paige, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, and Henry Aaron showing their ages at last?

Those men at least enjoyed the shorter declines. Pujols’s body turned his into a decade. Willie Mays’s kicking-and-screaming decline lasted seven years, heartbroken that he could no longer play the game he loved the way he did for so long. Steve Carlton spent almost half a decade jumping from team to team trying to find the left arm that went AWOL after almost two decades of Hall of Fame excellence. Pujols beat him and everyone else by almost double.

Last year, Pujols finally met and passed Mays on the all-time home run list. Earlier that pan-damn-ically truncated season, Pujols received a text from Mays: “It’s your time now. Go get it.” On 13 September, Pujols finally got it to tie. He turned on Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez’s 1-1 fastball and drove it just the way he did it in the truly glory years, half way up the left field seats on a parabola down the line.

Five days later, Pujols turned on Texas reliever Wes Benjamin’s fastball right down the chute on 1-2 and drove it into the visitors’ bullpen in Angel Stadium to pass Mays.

For a few brief, shining moments, Angel fans were reminded of treasures not really theirs to know, and Cardinal fans from a distance were reminded of what they were so fortunate to see for eleven transdimensional seasons. Watching a transdimensional talent who never stopped believing he absolutely had to get better.

The three-run detonation off Brad Lidge in the 2005 National League Championship Series, kept inside Minute Maid Park only by the retractable roof bracing wall. The reverse cycle of homers in Game Three of the 2011 World Series, every one of them after the sixth inning: the three-run homer, the two-run homer, the solo blast. The deadly lifetime postseason record. All those seasons as the game’s greatest righthanded hitter as well as a very run-preventive first baseman.

And, the sweet way Pujols paid tribute to the Cardinals legend who’d long befriended him, when Hall of Famer Stan Musial died in 2013. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” Pujols insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”

Pujols was so emphatic about it that, when he became an Angel and the organisation festooned southern California with billboards announcing El Hombre‘s arrival, El Hombre blew his sombrero. He insisted very publicly that only one player should ever be called The Man, and his name wasn’t Albert Pujols. It takes longer for mob hit men to disappear their victims than it took the Angels to dispose of those billboards.

You think that was for showing and not for blowing? Few players have had as deep a reverence for baseball’s history as Pujols has had. That depth enabled Pujols to befriend Musial and mentor Mike Trout, “who might be the only position player this century to match [Pujols’s] level of peak greatness,” says The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya.

When Pujols said of Trout last year, ““We have the best player in the game, and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too,” he didn’t have to be told Trout’s already made some history of his own. He knows it. He respects it. He mentored Trout into becoming the Angels’ team leader not by way of claiming the role for himself but by what he does on the field and how he lives off it.

Pujols himself lives a well-apportioned life away from baseball. Among other things, when not raising his own family, he and his wife have worked arduously with Down’s syndrome children—among whom is their own daughter, Isabella—and against human trafficking.

His lower body ruined what should have been a kinder, gentler, simpler decline phase. It’s left him prone to as much criticism under ordinary, non-milestone circumstances as he received high praise whenever the vintage Pujols made the periodic cameo. If the Angels looked foolish for signing him long-term and extraterrestrial salary after the injuries began to chip him down, they never once doubted Pujols was giving the best he had with whatever he had left.

““He plays through discomfort,” former general manager Billy Eppler told MLB.com after he tied Mays. “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.”

Even those whose admiration for him didn’t crumple the way his injuries forced him to crumple hoped somewhere, somehow, several times the past few years, that Pujols would swallow his formidable pride, leave the rest of his formidable money on the table, let nothing further tarnish his near-singular legacy, and sink into that ten-year services contract he still has with the Angels following his retirement.

“It has been so hard to watch one of the greatest players in the history of baseball fade like this,” wrote another Athletic scribe, Joe Posnanski, almost a year ago. “Each year, I hope against hope for Pujols to be Pujols one more time. Sadly, that just isn’t how time works. He is 40 now and a decade past his prime. It hasn’t been a sad career, though; far from it. It has been extraordinary. It has been an inspiration.”

It’s not unfair to say Pujols’s contract hamstrung the Angels when administrative tunnel vision didn’t when it came to re-tooling the team back to contention. Neither is it unfair to say that spending that much for a well-established Hall of Famer who hadn’t yet been hit with his physical issues didn’t have to mean the Angels ignoring their other issues, either.

Like his final Cardinals regular season, Pujols’s first Angel season was solid, if below his former standard. His 2011 postseason and how he helped the Cardinals win that outer-limits World Series may have deked people into thinking he’d only had one off year but plenty of petrol left in reserve.

Then plantaar fascitis in his heel kept him to 99 games in 2013 and a staggering enough fall from even that 2012 performance. Further injuries below his waistline made sure he’d look like an imitation of himself from then on, despite a few shining hours, a few significant milestones, a few moments in which he looked exactly the way he did over those impeccable St. Louis years.

But he didn’t hold a gun to the Angels’ heads and tell them to waste their remaining resources, either. The Angels have been an anti-model franchise during most of Pujols’s tour with them. If Pujols calls it a career after the season to come, the Angels, their fans, and their critics won’t have Pujols to blame for what wasn’t his fault in the first place.

This is Pujols according to my Real Batting Average metric (TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP / PA):

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Career 12,394 5923 1331 312 115 108 .628
With the Cardinals 7433 3893 975 251 68 77 .708
With the Angels 4961 2030 356 61 47 31 .509

That’s what the injuries did in turning what should have been a natural decline phase into a hard-lived one.

Albert Pujols was a .708 batter as a Cardinal. His career RBA with a normal decline phase should have lined him up to finish at the top of the heap of Hall of Fame first basemen who played their careers in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. If his .628 holds by the end of this year, it’ll plant him in between Jeff Bagwell and Willie McCovey, and Pujols was the better all-around first baseman among those three plus first base RBA leader Jim Thome.

Pujols’s other nickname has been The Machine. Unfortunately, even machines have finite lives to do what they were built to do. They don’t all decline as sadly as this one did. Even if this one’s going make what promises to be a singular Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2027. With Stan Musial smiling broadly upon him from the Elysian Fields, if not blowing him a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his ubiquitous harmonica.

“Why did he quit?” Joe DiMaggio’s brother, Tom, once said when asked why the Yankee Clipper would call it a career after thirteen war-disrupted seasons and a persistent heel issue that turned into back trouble. “He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio anymore.”

Maybe the gigabucks Pujols earned as an Angel kept him from quitting precisely when he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore. Maybe his pride did it. Maybe both. Maybe, come the next off-season, it’ll be impossible at last for Pujols to tell himself he can be day-in, day-out great again. Maybe he’ll tell himself at last it’s time to let his whole record take him out of the box and into Cooperstown.

And maybe the Angels will find ways to a) make the game’s best player since Pujols joined the team proud; and, b) reach the postseason to send Pujols into retirement in a blaze of glory.

We can dream, can’t we?

Mickey’s monkey business

If the Angels fire pitching coach Mickey Callaway over a five-year pattern of sexual harassment, it’s the least of baseball’s problems with the issue.

The man who was in over his head as the manager of the Mets seems in further over his head when it comes to ladies in the sports media. As in, five years or more worth of pursuit involving five young women, with “lewd” barely covering what he’s accused of doing.

Outside baseball’s innards, we didn’t know Mickey Callaway was any kind of sexual harasser. Inside those innards, alas, there’s a real chance that such suspicions were as one woman speaking to The Athletic says, “the worst kept secret in baseball.” If she’s right, Callaway’s head on a plate shouldn’t be the only consequence.

The Athletic‘s detailed story by Brittany Ghiroli and Katie Strang hit the Net running Monday evening. “Los Angeles Angels may be hiring a new pitching coach,” said one Facebook baseball group member in posting the article to the group. Needing a new pitching coach should be the least of the Angels’s worries. Or baseball’s.

Three organisations for whom Callaway’s worked should stand up for account. The Indians, for whom he was a respected pitching coach; the Mets, whom he managed clueslessly enough in baseball terms; and, the Angels, who probably did get caught with their own pants down about Callaway’s behaviours but probably have no choice but to fire him now.

As Los Angeles Times writer Bill Shaikin says of Callaway, “This is not a he-said, she-said story.” Not with five shes saying Callaway went considerably beyond being merely tactless in expressing his apparent interests in the five.

On baseball grounds alone there wasn’t a jury on earth that would have ruled the Mets unjustified if they’d fired Callaway months before the execution finally arrived after the 2019 regular season. In human terms, it’s now to wonder whether the Mets were half asleep when hiring him in the first place.

His reported sexually-implicit approaches to media women ran for five years across three different major league teams and in multiple cities, write Ghiroli and Katie Strang. “Two of the women said they were warned about his behavior – from fellow media members and others who worked in baseball,” they say. “An additional seven women who worked in various MLB markets said that, although they had not been approached by Callaway, they had been cautioned about him.”

The five Callaway’s believed to have pursued received anything from inappropriate photographs and requests for nude images in return to unsolicited messages, “uncomfortable” comments about their appearance, and his crotch “thrust . . . near the face of a reporter as she interviewed him.”

This emerges barely a fortnight after now-former Mets general manager Jared Porter lost his freshly-minted job over unsolicited explicit texts messages he sent a woman reporter while he worked for the Cubs.

The Indians issued a statement in response to the story saying they were “made aware for the first time tonight” that Callaway behaved like a predator toward women. “We seek to create an inclusive work environment where everyone, regardless of gender, can feel safe and comfortable to do their jobs,” the team said.

When Ghiroli and Strang contacted the Mets, the team told the two reporters they learned in August 2018 of “an incident” that occurred before they hired Callaway to manage them. “The team investigated that matter, a spokesperson said, but declined to reveal the nature of the incident, the outcome of that probe or whether Callaway was disciplined. Callaway continued managing the rest of the season.”

Mets owner Steve Cohen, who bought the team over a year after Callaway was fired, handed down a terse but unequivocal statement after seeing The Athletic‘s report: “The conduct reported in The Athletic story today is completely unacceptable and would never be tolerated under my ownership.”

Cohen had better mean that. Especially since the Porter firing and now Callaway’s exposure have the team’s personnel vetting procedures under serious question. Cohen’s owned the Mets short of three months and he’s had two nasty sexual harassment scandals to clean.

“I was unaware of the conduct described in the story at the time of Mickey’s hire or at any time during my tenure as General Manager,” said team president Sandy Alderson in his own statement. “We have already begun a review of our hiring processes to ensure our vetting of new employees is more thorough and comprehensive.”

Alderson has to do better than that. It was Alderson as GM who hired Callaway to succeed Terry Collins; it was Alderson as president who hired Porter. If he was really unaware that he’d hired a pair of sexual harassers, Alderson needs to exercise a top-down remodeling of the Mets’ vetting process.

The Angels were almost as terse as Cohen in their own statement. “The behavior being reported violates the Angels Organization’s values and policies,” the team said. “We take this very seriously and will conduct a full investigation with MLB.”

Six years ago the Angels stood on values and policies—and botched completely the Josh Hamilton incident, when he relapsed to substance abuse during a Super Bowl gathering but reported the relapse to the team promptly as required. Angels owner Arte Moreno could hardly wait to run Hamilton out of town on a rail despite the outfielder obeying the protocol.

If they were that willing to purge Hamilton without so much as a by-your-leave over “values” after Hamilton voluntarily reported his relapse straight, no chaser, the Angels better not take too long dispatching Callaway.

Hamilton’s relapse hurt no one but himself. Callaway can’t claim the same. The Angels had to find about about his predations the hard way, not by way of Callaway approaching them to say he’d been caught with everything but his pants down as a semi-serial sexual harasser.

“Rather than rush to respond to these general allegations of which I have just been made aware, I look forward to an opportunity to provide more specific responses,” Callaway said in an e-mail to The Athletic. “Any relationship in which I was engaged has been consensual, and my conduct was in no way intended to be disrespectful to any women involved. I am married and my wife has been made aware of these general allegations.”

Consensual relationships don’t generally provoke what Ghirolil and Strang describe, his pursuits putting the media women in question “in a difficult position at work given what they perceived as a stark power imbalance. The women were forced to weigh the professional ramifications of rebuffing him.” Not to mention his wife now forced to weigh the marital ramifications of her husband’s pursuits.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Callaway and Porter before him remain isolated instances. Who can forget then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow rebuffing the opinion of his entire office, practically, in trading for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna at a time Osuna was still under suspension for domestic violence?

Or then-Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman making sure three women reporters heard him loud and clear when—celebrating their 2019 American League Championship Series triumph despite Osuna surrendering an almost-game-winning home run to Yankee second baseman D.J. LeMahieu—Taubman hollered, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!”

You don’t need to be a feminist to get that trading for an abuser of women or being so fornicating glad the team got him isn’t going to make women covering your team feel comfortable that they can do their jobs in the proper professional atmosphere.

You don’t need to subscribe to an automatic MeTooism to agree that a man taking “no” or “not interested” for an answer when he shows certain interest in a woman is simply plain sense and decency. For that matter, a woman taking “no” or “not interested” for an answer when she shows certain interest in a man is likewise.

Neither do you need to subscribe to cancel culture to agree that sending unsolicited shirtless selfies and asking for nudes in return, shoving your crotch in a woman’s face, continuous sexual implications in compliments about looks, near-incessant pressure to socialise together, or promising to share team information if she agrees to get drunk with you, among other things attributed to Callaway, are not the ways civilised men old enough to know better behave.

Baseball’s government is investigating the Callaway incidents. It needs to take an all-levels look into how rampant are the atmospheres in which women doing nothing more or less than their jobs feel discomfited by men taking too much more than professional interest in them, and refusing to take “no” for an answer to interest above and beyond the game.

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.