For safety’s sake on the mound and at the plate . . .

Josh Smith

Josh Smith took one for the team Monday—a slider in his face . . .

Maybe it depends upon your definition of “good news.” Rangers outfielder Josh Smith took one on the jaw in the third inning Monday, on an 89 mph slider from Orioles relief pitcher Danny Coloumbe. A Rangers trainer looked him over before he walked off the field under his own power, but Smith was sent to the hospital regardless.

“We did take him to the ER,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, the former three-time World Series-winning Giants manager now in his first season out of retirement. “He had some CT tests. They came out clean. So, we got good news there. He’s feeling better as I’m speaking right now. Tomorrow, we’ll just reevaluate him.”

Coloumbe himself was in the game that early because Orioles starter Kyle Bradish was knocked out of the game an inning earlier. Not by a Rangers uprising—the Orioles held on to win, 2-0—but by a line drive off his right foot, courtesy of Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. Initial X-rays showed no fracture but Bradish is out for now with a bruise.

If you want to call it that, Bradish was a little more fortunate than Smith. Not just because Heim’s liner nailed his foot and not his face, but because the liner was measured as traveling 104 mph.

Go ahead and say baseball ain’t beanbag if you must. But at least acknowledge that batters injuring pitchers on bullet-train line drives back to the box aren’t trying to be cute or sending messages. Neither are pitchers injuring batters even on 89 mph sliders they’re not throwing as purpose pitches and may not be able to control.

There was also Boston’s Justin Turner and San Diego’s Austin Nola taking pitches in the face during spring training. There were Bryce Harper (Phillies) and Kevin Pillar (then a Met) each taking one in the face two seasons ago. There’ve been others. Too many others. On both sides of the ball.

Unless Commissioner ADD and his rules-changing fetishists take a hard look at another rule change or two, someone’s going to get killed, either by a pitch or a line drive in the head. Maybe the first change should be moving the pitching rubber back at least the equal distance to the length of home plate.

Kyle Bradish

. . . an inning after Orioles starter Kyle Bradish was hit in the right foot by a comeback line drive. Bradish was lucky—it could have been his face.

Right now, you think the rubber is 60’6″ from the plate. You’re wrong. As my cherished Mets/Senators/Tigers friend, former pitcher Bill Denehy, pointed out to me when we first talked four years ago, the actual distance is 59’1″ from the front of the plate. The 60’6″ is the distance from the rubber to the back point of the plate. Throw in a pitcher who can break three digits on the speedometer with a long stride, and the distance shortens. Dangerously.

Denehy was the player sent to the Senators to finish the agreement by which Hall of Famer Gil Hodges became the Mets’ manager. Today he’s almost as passionate about moving the rubber back for safety’s sake as he is about the struggle to get full major league pensions for himself and 500+ other pre-1980, short-career players frozen out when the owners and the players’ union re-aligned the pension plan in 1980.

“What baseball hasn’t seemed to take into account is, if you go back forty years ago, the average fastball back then was probably about 85 miles an hour,” the former righthander  said by phone from his Florida home Monday.

You had your exceptional pitchers who could throw at 95, or Nolan Ryan who was over 100. As the fastball has increased . . . they’re also not taking into account the size of the ballplayer. You now have several pitchers 6’8″ or 6’10”. When you look at a pitcher that tall, he’s going to take a stride as long as seven feet. If you take that closer to home plate, you’re throwing 100 mph not at 59’2″ but less than that because of the stride that person takes.

That’s looking from the mound side of the equation. Now, look at it from the batter’s box. Denehy is just as emphatic about it. As well you might expect of a pitcher who experienced two batted balls hitting him in the head, a hit just off his eye in college and once off the side of his face in the minors.

“Because of the strength and the velocity of the balls coming off the bat nowadays,” he said, “a pitcher, if he throws his all out fastball like the majority of the relief pitchers do today, he’s not going to be in that perfect fielding position. If a ball is hit around the head area, he’s not going to have the time to be able to get the glove up to deflect or move his head in one direction or the other to get out of the way of a line drive.”

The day before we spoke of it, the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run that traveled 485 feet at 118 mph. Some drives, line and otherwise, have been measured traveling as fast as 122 mph. When you watch a game on television and note what the exit velocity of a batted ball is shown to be, picture that ball traveling not into the outfield or over the fence but up into the pitcher’s face.

Bill Denehy

Because of the strength and velocity of the balls coming off the bat nowadays, [a pitcher’s] not going to be in that perfect fielding position. If a ball is hit around the head area, he’s not going to have time to be able to get the glove up to deflect or move his head in one direction of the other to get out of the way of a line drive.—Bill Denehy, former major league pitcher.

Now do you get it? These aren’t all “glazing” or “glancing” blows as too many people want to think. These can be howitzer shells against which either a pitcher whose stride shortens an already deceptively-short distance from the plate, or a batter set to hit, has maybe minus a second to react and survive. You can’t just shake off a 118 mph bullet hit right back into your grille or a 101 mph bullet thrown up into it.

The control issue has two sides to it. Those tasked with finding fresh talent still seem to prize velocity uber alles. It’s no longer just a pleasant joke that an absolute control pitcher such as Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who couldn’t throw a ball through a sheet of paper but knew what he was doing on the mound and knew where to put his pitches, wouldn’t get even half a second look as a prospect today.

Those who note the inconsistency of manufactured baseballs the past few years struggle to convince baseball’s government that too many of the inconsistently-made balls are difficult if not almost impossible for pitchers to control even if they’re not trying to throw bullet-train fastballs alone.

The independent Atlantic League tried moving the rubber back in 2021. Wrote Bleacher Report‘s Brett Taylor, “Unlike other changes that were met with skeptical acceptance, that one was never particularly popular, nor did the data bear out that it was getting the intended results (more balls in play, as batters should have a little more time to make contact).”

The cited link is a Ringer piece by The MVP Machine co-author Ben Lindbergh with Rob Arthur. The piece said the rule was designed to “increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce player injuries.” Notice which one was the last of four considerations noted.

Ray Chapman was killed by a fastball to his head in 1920; Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane was nearly killed by one in 1937. It took several experiments, too many of which were laughed out of town, before batting helmets became mandatory between 1953 (when Branch Rickey’s Pirates began using them) and 1971 (when the last grandfathered such player retired).

But Herb Score may have been lucky to be alive after Gil McDougald’s line drive crashed into his face in 1957. His pitching career was compromised soon enough, after his elbow blew out while making an impressive early 1958 return. It left him never the same pitcher again, but he lived a full life after the mound as a beloved Cleveland baseball broadcaster from 1964-1997.

Hall of Famer Mike Mussina took one on the mound in 1998. Three years later, he called his injury “almost entirely mental,” as if saying that overcoming any fear that any ball he threw would be hit right back to him was harder than getting hit in the face. He was lucky a broken nose was all he got from it.

It’s no funnier when a pitcher gets drilled in the face than when a batter gets it. Spare us the mental toughness bit, please. Mental toughness is admirable but it should not be tested by injuries that can be made a little more preventable—and a lot less potentially fatal.

Do you want to see pitchers going to the mound and batters going to the plate with football helmets and facemasks on their heads? Didn’t think so. The absolute least you can do for their protection—screw basepath action, more balls in play, and paces of play—is move the damn rubber back another seventeen inches. (And, dammit, start making consistent baseballs fair to both pitchers and batters that even the speed-uber-alles pitchers can control.)

Baseball’s supposed to be the thinking person’s sport. It’s too long past time for the game’s thinking people to do some hard thinking and doing about this.

Emotional dignity at the Hall of Fame

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Brandy Halladay represented her Hall of Fame husband Roy with emotion and dignity Sunday afternoon. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Brandy Halladay wasn’t the first widow to speak for her husband at his Hall of Fame induction, as she did Sunday. Vicki Santo did likewise for her husband, third baseman Ron, seven years earlier. Dona Vera Clemente did it for her husband, right fielder Roberto, in 1973. One and all would surely have preferred their husbands accept their honours for themselves.

I don’t know if Mrs. Santo or Mrs. Clemente were present Sunday, and Ron Santo died after a lifetime battle with diabetes (even during his playing career) and before the honour overdue him was finally bestowed. But Mrs. Clemente might have empathised with Mrs. Halladay even if only for a brief spell. Both their husbands perished in airplane crashes. But the similarities ended there.

Roberto Clemente was killed in 1972, on a humanitarian flight he arranged in an ancient Douglas DC-4 to deliver supplies to earthquake-smashed Nicaragua. He’d been through his own buffetings as a young Puerto Rican proving himself a major league baseball master, and he’d achieved his own kind of comfort in his own skin.

Roy Halladay was killed in 2017, four years after his retirement, while enjoying his favourite relief. He’d proven himself as a major league pitcher but he turned out to be fighting a war within himself that no success on the mound, no amount of love from his wife, children, and family, could negotiate successfully. Comfort in his own skin proved too elusive a quarry.

On Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, newly-inducted Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez remembered getting hooked on baseball watching Clemente and assorted World Series highlights on television. “All I wanted to do was play the game and like most kids in Puerto Rico, I wanted to be like Roberto Clemente,” said Martinez, the designated hitter who was a study in scholarship at the plate. “What a great example Roberto Clemente was to all of us in Puerto Rico. What an honor to have my plaque in the Hall alongside with his.”

His fellow newly inducted Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera, once remembered of Martinez, “I couldn’t get him out. My God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But Rivera, the arguable greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen, also has a direct connection to Halladay that now reposes in the Hall’s museum, after Mrs. Halladay donated a talisman her husband carried with him the rest of his life once he acquired it.

The talisman is a baseball on which Rivera allowed Halladay to trace the grip of his fabled cut fastball, the pitch that broke more bats than classic movie stars broke hearts, and handed to Halladay during the 2008 All-Star break, after Halladay approached Rivera at that break asking to learn the pitch.

The Mariano, who loved to teach as well as to pitch, and who’s remembered from his clubhouses and elsewhere around the game for a Sandy Koufax-like interest in pulling everybody no matter whom up with him, marked the ball with lines showing the grip and gave it to Halladay. Mrs. Halladay gave the ball to the Hall of Fame before the induction ceremony. It reposes with a small plaque describing its significance in a display between two of Halladay’s uniform jerseys, one Blue Jays and one Phillies.

Also before the induction ceremony, Sports Illustrated profiled her husband, revealing he’d learned two things from his father: how to pitch, and how to fly. As the magazine so soberly phrased it, “One gave his son life. The other killed him.” Both were delivered by a father perhaps too determined to shape a son whose talents included nullifying parental displeasure with wit.

It may have done something else. “I feel like my brother lost out on a lot of his childhood,” his sister, Heather, told SI writer Stephanie Apstein. “I don’t fault [our father] for it anymore, but I think that my brother could’ve been just as good without being pushed so much and having all that responsibility.”

To Harry Leroy Halladay, Jr., Apstein writes, the process was the reward. To his Hall of Fame son, the process only led there. Major difference.

Maybe that’s how Harry Leroy Halladay III excelled as a mound workhorse who eventually pitched a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter in the same season, win Cy Young Awards in each league, but also admit while querying the University of South Florida about auditing psychology classes, “I would, however, like to take some general psychology courses, because I feel the root of many athletes’ struggles is a warped or underdeveloped self worth and identity.”

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Left to right: Harold Baines, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, and  Brandy Halladay for her late husband Roy. (Hall of Fame photo.)

He may have referred especially to himself. He was the son of a commercial pilot who’d once been an Air Force Thunderbird flier and who all but drilled him in the pitching and the flying arts. He refused to raise or coach his own two sons the way he’d been raised and coached. There’s a line between persistence and perpetual pushing, and the pitcher who once asked The Mariano for a cutter tutorial wouldn’t cross it.

When Halladay’s body was recovered from the crash of his Icon A5 airplane, the toxicology report showed that among the substances in his system (for some of which he could have been prosecuted had he lived) were a few associated with depression, including Prozac. Once, according to Apstein, he asked his sister whether he was lost or depressed. The sister replied, “I think it’s probably a little of both.”

And Halladay kept something else quiet for long enough: he was addicted to an anti-anxiety drug known commercially as Ativan. He finally advised his sister not to even think about accepting a prescription for it. “I think he felt like he needed to hide his mistakes because he didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t as good as they thought he was,” she told Apstein. “He thought they wouldn’t understand that he was human. Just because you’re a good baseball player doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes.”

Nobody in the stands at a game really knows what goes through the minds of the men who play the game, and everybody in the stands thinks they are or should be all alike, all mechanical, and all impervious to the flaws and buffeting that bring those who can’t play baseball professionally to the assorted racks of their regrets.

We watched Mariano Rivera, the elegant game-ending assassin; we watched Mike Mussina, the stoic-looking craftsman; we watched Edgar Martinez, the professor putting on a daily lecture in the batter’s box and practising what he preached; we watched Lee Smith, as bullish a bull as ever strode in from a bullpen; we watched Harold Baines, never spectacular but a quiet guy who was simply there with and for you. And we watched Roy Halladay, who dismantled hitters with deadly aplomb.

But we had no clue what animated or haunted these men. The Mariano—nicknamed “Mo” and “Sandman” in the game and on his plaque—kept an active faith in God and family; the Moose kept one foot planted firmly in his small-town root refusing to forget its value; Gar likewise kept one foot planted firmly in the Puerto Rican soil and mind that forged and supported him.

Lee Smith didn’t carry a nickname but, instead, a gratitude to a sibling who nurtured him and an awareness of what it meant to black children to see one of their own as a shutdown relief pitcher that was as calm as his presence on the mound wasn’t to many a hitter. Harold Baines also lacked a nickname, and he played the game the way he remembered his brickmason father supporting a family: “You work at it, you put your head down, you keep your mouth shut and work at your craft day in and day out.”

Roy Halladay pitched the way Baines played. He worked at it. He put his head down (or kept it up). He kept his mouth shut, most of the time. He worked at his craft day in and day out, from boyhood under the guidance of a perhaps too-overbearing father, too bent on turning his son into a pitcher and a pilot, until his shoulder finally told him it went to the enemy side.

He proved the most inwardly compromised of all six new Hall of Famers when baseball ended but the sky still seduced him. He’d been a solid husband, father, and friend seeking improvement as a man, peace in his inner being, desperate relief from his depression and the addiction it delivered. The one place above all where he found them if only for brief spells killed him.

When Brandy Halladay took the Cooperstown podium to speak on her husband’s behalf, in a speech that left few if any dry eyes including her own, she spoke for something more than a pitcher and his game, even as she thanked the living Hall of Famers present for being “such a good example” to her husband.

She spoke for a still-young man who lost his life looking for his freedom from an insidious inner condition that rudely and persistently interrupted the otherwise embracing husband, father, friend, student, man.

“I think that Roy would want everyone to know that people are not perfect,” said his widow, a woman whose pretty face is also as friendly looking as the day is long. “We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another. We all struggle. But with hard work, humility, and dedication, imperfect people can still have perfect moments. Roy was blessed in his life and his career to have some perfect moments.”

The one man who couldn’t see the blessings for the curses was Roy Halladay himself.

Mo, Moose, and Cooperstown

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The BBWAA Hall of Fame class of 2019, left to right: Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, and The Mariano. (CBS Sports montage.)

On the day of the announcement, it came forth that Red Sox writer Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram-Gazette changed his mind. Charity says he saw the light; certain realities suggest he felt the heat. But after calling closing the low hanging fruit of baseball achievement and refusing to submit his ballot rather than snub Mariano Rivera, Ballou weighed the tonnage of heat he took “from writers and observers whose voices are important” and submitted his ballot—with a vote for Rivera.

It’s not exactly an unqualified change of heart, of course. “No baseball history would be complete without a serious mention of Rivera, of course, even if that mention is based upon a flawed statistic, the save,” Ballou writes. “It was gut instinct that convinced me to not cast a vote against Rivera originally, since he was a “know when I see it” performer. However, logic said his greatness was based on baseball’s most useless statistic, the save.”

Apparently, being great while doing a particular job under the specific perimeters of the job should still be held somewhat against the man who does it. If you care to read my original rejoinder to Ballou’s original plan of ballot non-submission and my concurrent analysis about why he was wrong about The Mariano, you can. I’m pretty sure that the last thing anyone cares about today is whether Bill Ballou saw the light, felt the heat, or fell somewhere between them. Rivera probably doesn’t. Nor should he.

The only thing Ballou withholding his ballot would have done was . . . absolutely nothing, so far as an impact on Rivera becoming the first Hall of Famer ever to be elected with one hundred percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote on his first ballot appearance. That was the only question facing him as his election approached. Anyone else who thought he wouldn’t be a first ballot Hall of Famer at all probably spent the last quarter century in the Delta Quadrant.

Mike Mussina wasn’t one of them. And Mussina, too, is going into the Hall of Fame, though it was his sixth try. As Rivera was renowned for his singular cutter (Hall of Famer Chipper Jones likens it to “throwing chainsaws”), Mussina was for his knuckle curve. And just as The Mariano exuded class and dignity while assassinating opposing hitters, Mussina exuded likewise while making a powerful career-value Hall of Fame case and still maintaining a little curmudgeon.

Maybe the classic example was a 31 May 2006 game against the Tigers. Mussina took a shutout into the ninth inning, until Magglio Ordonez swatted a two-out single to send Placido Polanco home with an unearned run. (Polanco reached on a throwing error with one out.) Yankee manager Joe Torre looked like he was about to step out of the dugout holding a hook with Mussina’s name on it. Watch the clip. You can’t tell whether Mussina said, “Joe, stay back!” or “You stay back!” Torre stayed back. And Mussina struck Carlos Guillen out to end the 6-1 Yankee win.

Only the second man in baseball to retire after a 20 game-winning season (after Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax), Mussina became a Yankee in the first place not because of big free agent dollars but because he had no intention of re-upping with the Orioles after they infuriated him during his walk year. Not because of anything they did to him, but because they traded  one of his best friends on the club, catcher B.J. Surhoff. Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post columnist who belongs in the Hall of Fame as a Ford C. Frick Award winner but hasn’t gotten it yet, unconscionably, told the story right after Mussina was elected to Cooperstown:

The Surhoffs had a child they believed could get better medical care at Johns Hopkins than anywhere else, and B.J. absolutely wanted to stay in Baltimore. But Mussina, and other Orioles, believed he was traded in part out of spite after petty tiffs with a member of ownership.

“That’s it,” spit out Mussina, who was in his free agent walk year. “I’m out of here.”

The next year, he was a Yankee. Cause and effect?

Some ask why Mussina and why not Andy Pettitte? The answer is simpler, really, than just dismissing Pettitte over his admission that he tried human growth hormone in a bid to deal with nagging elbow trouble. Mussina was a better pitcher than Pettitte, by a large enough margin. They both pitched in a time of inflated offense, and neither of them show up big for peak value, but Mussina was better at getting outs by his own devices than Pettitte and, while batters could get their hits off both, Mussina was a little tougher to hit against than Pettitte and a lot tougher to avoid the strikeout against. (Pettitte has a 2.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio; Mussina, a 3.58 K/BB rate.)

Who would you rather have on the mound if your team makes it to the World Series? Mussina—who pitched his entire career in the rough-tough American League East—went to two World Series and while his won-lost record in those Series is only 1-1, he has a 3.00 ERA and a 1.27 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, while Pettitte pitched in eight World Series with a 5-4 won-lost record but a 4.06 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP. Mussina’s overall postseason record is 7-8 but a 3.42 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP; Pettitte is 19-11 with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. I submit that you actually have a better chance to win with Mussina on the mound than with Pettitte.

You don’t have to compare those two pitchers to make Mussina’s Hall of Fame case, but you might care to note that, by way of the Bill James Hall of Fame measurements, Pettitte met 44 of the Hall of Fame pitching standards and Mussina met 54, with the average Hall of Famer meeting 50. Mussina also mops the floor with Pettitte on the Black Ink (league leaderships) and Gray Ink (league top ten) Tests, Mussina showing 15 Black Ink and 250 Gray Ink to Pettitte’s 7 and 103, respectively. Mussina ranks as the number 29 starting pitcher of all time; Pettitte ranks 90th.

Edgar Martinez, who made it to the Hall of Fame at last and on his final BBWAA ballot try, says this about Rivera: “It was always a challenge to face him, but I enjoyed the competition and I think he did, too.” That’s putting it politely. As Rivera himself once put it, “It didn’t matter what I threw him. I couldn’t get him out. My God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The only thing he left out was dessert: Martinez’s lifetime slash line against The Mariano is .579/.652/1.053. The last is only Martinez’s slugging percentage against him; the OPS would be 1.705.

Think about that: The likely second greatest hitter who ever played the bulk of his career as a designated hitter (if you’re not giving Frank Thomas the number one spot, you need help) had a 1.705 OPS against the no-questions-asked greatest pitcher ever to work as a major league closer.

It makes you sad that Martinez’s teams weren’t as good as Rivera’s teams long range; the thought of seeing them tangle in more than just a couple of postseason games is just too delicious to bypass. It probably makes Mariners fans sadder that they couldn’t send a lineup of Edgar Martinezes up against a pitching staff of Mariano Riveras. And it makes you look forward to the pair of them needling each other affectionately on the Hall of Fame stage.

Roy Halladay once picked up a baseball that still showed the imprint of Rivera’s cutter grip and carried it in his travel bag on road trips for the rest of his career. It’s to mourn further that Halladay didn’t live to see himself go into Cooperstown with Rivera, Mussina, and Martinez. (Halladay died in the November 2017 crash of his Icon a5 airplane; his widow posted a statement of thanks after the election was announced.)

The best starting pitcher of the 21st Century so far (well, among those not named Clayton Kershaw, anyway)—who also made the Hall of Fame on his first try this time around, and who’s the only pitcher in the game’s history to pitch a perfect game in the same season during which he’d pitch a postseason no-hitter—Doc Halladay would probably love playing maitre d for whether Rivera or Martinez shake hands before or after Gar hands The Mariano three plates, one with breakfast, one with lunch (a Ballouney on wry, perhaps?), and one with dinner.