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.

Rank desertion? Don’t even go there.

2020-07-11 BusterPosey

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has opted out of playing this year for the sake of his children—an incumbent pair of twins and a pair of twin newborns freshly adopted. Some dare call it desertion—erroneously.

Whatever else you think about those major league players who have opted out of playing in 2020, or who think about doing so, here’s something that shouldn’t come into play: someone snarking about such players committing “rank desertion.” (So help me, that’s how someone phrased it in one online baseball forum.) Ignore them. Let them rant their heads off, but you’re under no obligation to listen.

That’s one of the beauties of free speech, what’s left of it. You can rant your head off any old time and place it strikes you to rant. You also bear no known mandatory obligation to listen to any particular ranter for any particular reason.

Militarily, of course, “rank desertion” equals one soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, or a group of them, walking away from their units or posts without call, usually but not exclusively in wartime. In civilian terms, “rank desertion” implies someone or a group of someones walking off the job where there’s no known option aside from a labour strike or formal resignation to do it.

The players were given the opt-out option after all those weeks of haggling between the owners trying to game them out of agreed-upon-in-March pay protocols before they finally agreed to give what remained of a 2020 season a try. Handed that option, those players exercising it cannot be accused credibly of rank desertion.

There’s a coronavirus still on world tour, to various extents, and baseball players play and sojourn in places that still present exposure risks they’re not entirely anxious to bring home. Especially when they have loved ones considered in the high-risk category.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey may be the highest-profile player to opt out of the season to date. There but for the curse of injuries might he be in the Hall of Fame conversation; maybe two or even three more injury-free seasons on his jacket might keep him there. He could still get those seasons beginning next year.

As was his right under the current protocols, Posey thought more than twice about the twin babies he and his wife, Kristin, are adopting. They were born prematurely last week and at this writing remain in neonatal intensive care. The San Francisco Chronicle says the little girls are doing well enough in the circumstance.

Already the father of incumbent twin children, Posey weighed the risk and pondered the opt-out option that has yet to be rescinded. Then, he made his decision for the sake of his children’s health. The same decision Los Angeles Angels demigod Mike Trout continues weighing as the birth of his first child with his wife, Jessica, looms next month.

Trout isn’t exactly on poverty row so far as major league baseball players are concerned. Neither is Posey, even if Trout is above and beyond his and any other player’s pay grade. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has a family to consider as well, and he’s not exactly going to be among the poor by opting out of 2020, either, as he did during the week now past.

Two factors moved Markakis to opt out, the risk to his family and the very real COVID-19 infection incurred by his franchise co-face face teammate Freddie Freeman. (Braves fans have a case to make that Freeman now shares the distinction with Markakis’s fellow outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. Markakis also admits playing with no audience at first doesn’t exactly pose a thrill.)

Markakis spoke to Freeman by phone and learned fast enough. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” he told reporters last Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle pitching bellwether now trying to resuscitate his career with the Braves, has also opted out of 2020. So has Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who’d otherwise hoped to begin his return from his 2018 Tommy John surgery. So has Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose teammate Charlie Blackmon was hit with COVID-19 and who has alarms about equal to health alarms for doing so.

On health terms, Desmond and his wife, Chelsey, are already parents of four young children and Mrs. Desmond is pregnant with their fifth. That’s the immediate reason Desmond exercised his opt-out option. But it provided him a chance to speak publicly enough on social and even spiritual terms.

Desmond—who is bi-racial—laments what the George Floyd murder at police hands in Minneapolis re-exposes of society in general and, from his perspective, the game he loves otherwise. “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond began in a round of jolting but thought-provoking Instagram posts.

We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.

If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now . . .

Other opt-outs, also for familial health concerns, include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (who has yet to throw a pitch in regular-season competition for them), and three Washington Nationals: first baseman and elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman, relief pitcher Joe Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo.

Baseball’s coronavirus testings have not exactly proven the epitome of consistency or coordination. Teams like the Giants, the Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals have postponed several “summer camp” workouts over them. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman skipped a subsequent Astros workout when his test didn’t arrive back on time. That had a few of his teammates more than a little shaky.

“We want to know how these test results are going to work out for us,” said outfielder Michael Brantley. “Not having Alex here today was just another day he didn’t get to prepare. As I read around the league, a lot of players are voicing their opinions that we need our test results back faster.”

You can say anything you wish about those players opting out and others yet to come who opt out of 2020 for their health’s sake first. If baseball’s testings continue being that inconsistently performed and handled, would you really be shocked to see more players deciding their health and their families’ health just can’t be entrusted to that? Regardless of their salaries?

You can also say as you wish about Desmond’s not-to-be-dismissed-out-of-hand thoughts regarding the first American team sport to end segregation officially while still having issues 73 years later accepting and assimilating non-white personnel on and off the playing field. You don’t need to demand a quota system to say baseball can, should, and must do a better job of it.

Much as we’ve missed a major league season thus far, we seem to need reminders more often than comfortable that certain things cut both ways. Things like the “human element,” for example. The traditionalists screamed blue murder over technological advances they thought (erroneously) would erode the “human element.” But it isn’t just traditionalists dismissing the opting-out as rank deserters.

That dismissal is a plain, no-further-discussion-necessary false dismissal of, what do you know, the human element. The element that says baseball players are not invincible androids who can’t be felled by or transmit disease but mere human men, prone to all manner of incurring and transmitting affliction, particularly during a pandemic that’s become as much a political football as a challenge to medicine.

The rank desertion accusers should be asked how swiftly they’d step in and take the risk for the sake of playing a game much beloved but not without risk. When they answer, “five minutes ago,” they should be asked just as promptly whether they’d like to bring an infection back to their loved ones.

The crickets should be heard playing the entirety of a classic jazz album—In a Silent Way.

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.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Snell’s hidden plea

2019-12-07 BlakeSnell

Blake Snell was not amused by the Rays trading Tommy Pham.

Within Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s gutteral emission upon the trade of Tommy Pham to the San Diego Padres, you could find a plea pondered almost as long as professional baseball’s been played. If you wanted to.

On the surface, Snell fuming aboard the social media outlet Twitch was negative amazement that Pham would be surrendered for lesser elements: “We gave Pham up for [Hunter] Renfroe and a damn slap[penis] prospect?” And he has a pretty point, since the Rays may or may not have received equal value in return.

Baseball administrators are nothing if not men and women seeking the maximum prospective performance at the minimum prospective cost, of course. Pham earned $41. million in 2019 and was liable to earn more next season following salary arbitration; Renfroe earned $582,000 in 2019 and isn’t eligible for arbitration until after next year. And the damn slap[penis] prospect, Xavier Edwards, was ranked number five on the Padres prospect list before the deal.

Renfroe in 2019 was the Clete Boyer of outfielders, hitting 33 home runs against a .289 on-base percentage, rather companionable to the longtime Yankee third base legend’s 1967 with the Braves, 26 home runs and a .292 OBP. And Renfroe is a promising defender in his own right. But the Rays are renowned for mulcting large results out of small costs and the words “salary dump” come to mind for some, surely.

Snell apologised almost post haste. “[J]ust saying I’m sorry I’m just upset we’re losing a guy like Tommy who helped our team in so many ways!” he said. “Didn’t mean any disrespect to Edwards who I didn’t know who he was until after I said that. I was just sad to lose Tommy . . . It’s tough losing someone you respect so much and enjoy being around.”

Thus does Snell invite deeper examination, where you may find the unenunciated very present plea for loyalty and the noticeable absence thereof. Except that when you do enunciate it, you provoke another tirelessly tiring debate on where the loyalty disappeared among, well, the players, who need to learn a thing or three about loyalty while they pursue their unsightly riches, yap yap yap.

It’s been that way ever since the advent of free agency, of course. Once upon a time it amused, if only because those bellowing against the lack of player loyalty were only too obvious in their ignorance, willful or otherwise, regarding the lack of team loyalty even to Hall of Famers. In both the so-called Good Old Days and the days, years, decades to follow. It’s still somewhat amusing, even when it gets somewhat annoying.

Referencing Hall of Famers was something I did about a decade ago, for another publication, when pondering the “loyalty” question. (That publication ceased to exist not long after I published my old finding.) It began then and now with there having been but one single-team player (Walter Johnson) among the inaugural five players enshrined in 1936. The first single-team Hall of Famer to follow: Lou Gehrig, in 1939.

It goes from there to those whose careers were entirely or mostly reserve era. Thirty-six single-team Hall of Famers played all or mostly in the reserve era; eighteen (allowing the prospect of at least Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson being elected for 2020 induction) played all or mostly in the free agency era. Out of all 232 Hall of Fame players (Jeter and Munson included), it means 54 players—23 percent, not even one quarter of all Hall of Fame players—were single teamers.

The reasons vary as much as their playing or pitching styles do. Age is one. The chance to bolster or reconstruct a roster, hopefully without downright tanking, is another. Issues off the field, which didn’t begin with Rogers Hornsby’s trade after winning a World Series (as a player-manager) because he was a horse’s ass so far as his team (and a lot of baseball) was concerned and didn’t end with the Phillies’ barely conscionable mistaking of a slumping should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen for lacking heart or passion, are others.

Still others are organisational philosophy changes, and economic hardship real (think of Connie Mack’s fire sales breaking apart two separate Philadelphia Athletics dynasties) or alleged. (Think of M. Donald Grant’s capricious purge of Tom Seaver in 1977, to name one, or Charlie Finley’s capricious practically everything around the dynastic-turned-rubble Oakland Athletics of the 1970s. Among others.)

The loyalty issue has been with us since the signature dried on the Messersmith-McNally ruling that ended the reserve clause’s abuse in 1975 and provoked the immediate firing of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who heard the evidence real or imagined and ruled properly on behalf of Andy Messersmith. (The intending-retirement, non-playing Dave McNally, technically an unsigned player, signed onto the action as an insurance fallback in the event the refusing-to-sign Messersmith wavered during the 1975 season.)

And almost invariably it begins with rare diversions forward with player loyalty. The fact that owners pre- and post-free agency felt little if any comparable “loyalty” to their players remains underrated if not undiscussed if not untouched at all. The millionaires-versus-billionaires debate is an exercise in fatuity; the loyalty-versus-disloyalty debate exercises a lot of plain nonsense by people who’d impress you otherwise as being old enough and smart enough to know better.

This week Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner said plainly that the team could afford to keep only one of two now-free agent World Series heroes/homegrown Nats, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, but not both. Lerner’s are economic reasons by his own proclamation, never mind that between himself and his father they’re baseball’s second-richest owners at this writing. Warble not about “loyalty” when Strasburg and Rendon—neither now under binding contract, each free to negotiate on a fair and open job market—are told, pending an unforeseen change of mind or heart, that the team who raised them can’t afford to keep both.

Last March Mike Trout looked at two seasons to come before his first free agency and no small speculation as to whether he’d stay where he was or move elsewhere, and as to how many teams would prepare to mortgage the gold reserves to bring him aboard. That talk included a certain freshly-signed, $350 million Phillie whispering sweet nothings toward Trout regarding keeping the City of Brotherly Love very much at the front of his mind.

Then Trout and his Los Angeles Angels agreed mutually to make him an Angel for life to a $450 million extent, the major talk of which surrounded how richly he deserved the dollars while there seemed little enough appreciation for Trout himself proclaiming publicly, without sounding sirens or fireworks, that he was plenty enough content where he was. And, by the way, hoping more than kinda-sorta that the Angels, maybe, finally, might reconstruct themselves into a team their and baseball’s best player could be proud of.

That was a mutual exercise in loyalty by player and team that went noticed to a glandular level over the fact that Trout would earn the equivalent of a small country’s economy for the rest of his playing career and to a dust bunny’s level over their hard-earned loyalty to each other. Remember it the next time you eavesdrop upon or partake in yet another exercise in the just plain nonsense that baseball loyalty debates become, at least as often as Trout steals a home run from over the center field fence, or hits one there.