The kids are alright, the postseason isn’t

Steven Kwan

Steven Kwan’s grand salami slammed an exclamation point on the young Guardians’ AL Central division clinch last weekend. But the postseason to come has exposed, yet again, a flaw too many in baseball government’s current (lack of) thinking about the current (lack of) true pennant race and championship meaning . . .

Considering what most seemed to think going into this season, you could be forgiven if you thought the Guardians might dig deep enough into music history to declare their team song the Who’s rock and roll chestnut, “The Kids Are Alright.” They might also reach further for Nat King Cole crooning “They tried to tell us we’re too young . . . ”

They may keep trying to tell them, now that the young Guards are the American League Central champions. Maybe the division wasn’t exactly the strongest in the league. The Guards still had to prove that their actual foray into the past—going as old-school on the field and at the plate as they could get away with—would still work.

It may (underline that, ladies and gentlemen) be the only thing old school about the postseason to come.

Less than three decades ago baseball’s postseason was the nation’s most meaningful because it remained the most exclusive in professional team sports. Even with divisional play then, you finished your season with your cans parked in first place or you waited until next year. Well, let’s look at three decades ago precisely.

There were a mere four divisions. East and West, each league. Their champions were the Blue Jays, the Athletics, the Pirates, and the Braves. The Blue Jays and the Braves went to the World Series; the Braves, of course, got there on Sid Bream’s impossibly dead legged dash home. The Blue Jays won the Series in six; Pat Borders (1.250 OPS in all six games) was the Series MVP.

Come 1995, the World Series restored after its cancellation due to the owner-provoked players’ strike, baseball accepted three divisions and a wild card team in each league. This didn’t dilute the season’s competition so much as people feared, even if there was something disconcerting in watching a couple of teams fighting to the last breath to finish in second place.

That was also the year the classic Braves teams of 1991 through the mid-Aughts won their only World Series, against a club of the Guardians’ Indians ancestors. (Hall of Famer Tom Glavine through eight plus Mark Wohlers in the ninth shut the Indians out, 1-0.) Both the Braves and the Indians finished the season as division leaders. All remained reasonable.

Next month, baseball will see what the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL have known for a few decades—forty percent of its teams going to the postseason. This month, we’ve seen the result of the Manfred Administration’s propaganda that a more deeply expanded postseason entry field would surely guarantee more exciting pennant races.

It’s been exposed as a factual and shameless lie. A lie even more egregious than the lie that the pitch clock will shorten the times of games while the continuing proliferation of broadcast commercials between each half inning and during pitching changes actually does elongate them.

Deadspin‘s Sam Fels has observed just how much more “exciting” it’s been, if you define “exciting” as putting fannies in the seats. He couldn’t help noticing that, last week:

* The Phillies, hanging by a thread in the National League race, hosted the Jays, hanging in for a home-field wild card advantage. Citizens Bank Park holds 42,792 people. Both those Phillies-Jays games, postseason-critical games, barely drew half for each.

* The Milwaukee ballpark formerly known as Miller Field can hold 41,900, but held barely half when the wild card-contending Brewers hosted the National League East-leading Mets for three games. The Brewers drew slightly more than half the park’s capacity and still about a grand less than their 2022 average thus far.

“Those aren’t bad crowds,” Fels writes, “but at the end of September against a well-known and good team . . . wasn’t the point of all this that September attendances would be juiced?”

 . . . That doesn’t mean there aren’t teams drawing well. They’re the names you’d expect–the Dodgers, Yankees, Padres, Braves, Cardinals, Astros. And the overall economy has many factors that don’t Uleave a whole throng of people with the disposable income to attend a ton of games. Except, again, we were told that more teams vying for more playoff spots were supposed to punch through these kinds of factors. It’s what they’ve been telling us for nearly 30 years.

It may just be that fans actually recognize when the regular season is devalued, and the dangling carrot of just two or three wildcard games doesn’t really get the loins tingling. Or that teams that have playoff spots locked up for months can’t really generate excitement until those playoffs actually arrive, unless you’re the Dodgers. Playoff expansion was supposed to bring anticipation and excitement to places it doesn’t normally live. Look at the numbers and tell us.

I looked at the same numbers as Fels. Then I caught hold of the Mets hosting the Marlins in Citi Field Tuesday night, a game that’ll be remembered if at all for a) the Mets losing 6-4, to fall into a tie with the Braves atop the NL East; but, b) Marlins pitcher Richard Bleier  becoming the first pitcher since the birth of the American League to balk three times against . . . the same batter, enabling the Mets’ Jeff McNeil to score without stealing a base or a ball in play after he reached himself on an infield hit.

Citi Field can hold 41,922 in the seats. Tuesday’s game drew 69 percent of that. The game was meaningless (other than the spoiler role) to the eliminated Marlins but critical to the Mets, especially since the NL East is the only remaining division race yet to be resolved, and the formidable, defending World Series champion Braves refuse to go gently into that not-so-good gray night. (Hurricane Ian may have more than a little something to say about the two combatants’ coming weekend set in Atlanta.)

Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani

Trout and Ohtani, plus the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, are almost all that’s left to root for thanks to baseball’s postseason race competition dilution.

All of that tells us playoff expansion does no favours to the game or its fans, but it does plenty of favours for that which is nearest and dearest to Commissioner Nero’s and his employers’ hearts. Well. They may remain the gang that believes the common good of the game equals making money for it, but they can’t (or won’t) answer what good 40-60 percent full houses do for those cherished coffers.

The expanded pelf for the playoffs goes to all teams regardless of whether they become postseason teams. “This only softens that lack of additional fans attending games that they’ve come to realize doesn’t really mean anything,” Fels writes. “MLB can shrug off the lack of heightened ratings or attendance with the bigger checks from TBS, FOX, and ESPN.”

Almost the only things left for which to root are Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, and Angels unicorn (pitcher/designated hitter) Shohei Ohtani. Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols reached his lifetime 700 home run milestone in his homecoming finale with the NL Central-champion Cardinals, but Judge, Trout, and Ohtani still have long distance achievements to achieve.

The Yankees are the official AL East champions, and on Wednesday Judge met Roger Maris at last as the AL’s single-season home run champion. Pressing perhaps understandably since he matched Babe Ruth’s 1927 output, Judge has eight games left to pass Maris. Few are willing to bet against him still.

The Angels go nowhere (again) through no fault of Trout’s or Ohtani’s own. But with eight games left to play on the season future Hall of Famer Trout still has a shot at a 40th home run or more despite missing 31 percent of the season on the injured list. (He had 37 after Tuesday.) It’s to wonder what he might have hit if he hadn’t missed that time. Would 60+ have been out of the question? We’ll never know now.

Ohtani has a shot at a 40th home run, too. (He has 34 at this writing.) He can also become the only man in Show history to have a 40 home run season at the plate and finish on the mound with an ERA and a fielding-independent pitching rate below 3.00. At this writing, Ohtani sits with 34 home runs, a 2.47 ERA, and a 2.52 FIP. Not to mention 203 pitching strikeouts and counting. Say good night, Babe.

But how long can Commissioner Nero and company shrug off the further dilution of real pennant race competition? The kind that would compel owners in all baseball cities and not just the big boys to make substantial investments in their teams, from the ground up, year in and year out? Whoops. Better not go there. We may be striking toward 21st century schizoid heresy.

The end of an error?

Arte Moreno, Mike Trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shohei Ohtani, Arte Moreno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the end is near for Trout?

Mike Trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————————————————————-

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

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

SF / SRS x YRS

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

Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

Commissioner Rob Manfred with White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks before last year’s Field of Dreams game. (The Athletic.)

Having a read of ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr.’s profile of commissioner Rob Manfred, I was almost convinced that maybe, just maybe, there really was more to Manfred than met the eye. Or, more than what comes forth in his stiff presence and often clumsy remarks.

Just maybe, the man isn’t the baseball-hating or baseball-illiterate Rube Goldberg-like abecedarian the caricatures so often portray. He did, after all, grow up a Yankee fan in upstate New York and can say proudly enough that he’s the only baseball commissioner ever who played Little League baseball. “All glove, no bat,” he remembers of being a Little League infielder.

My parents received a set of classic Revere copper-bottom cookware as a wedding present eight years before Manfred was born. (I still remember the fragrance of that special powder used to clean the copper bottoms, too.) Who knew Manfred (three years my junior) was the son of Revere’s production supervisor at their home plant in Rome, New York? An hour’s drive from Cooperstown, as it happens.

Born in 1958, Manfred took in his first live major league game at Yankee Stadium with his sports-obssessed father, sitting between the plate and first base on an Old Timers’ Day. Come game time, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle crashed a pair of home runs and the Yankees beat the Twins, 3-2. When he finally became the game’s commissioner, he handed his father the first baseball with his stamp upon it.

“This is really an unbelievable thing,” Manfred, Sr. told his son. “I can’t say I disagree,” Manfred, Jr. told Van Natta.

A couple of hundred fathoms down, though, Van Natta noted that “more than once” Manfred told him what few baseball commissioners have dared to admit, that being the buffer absorbing the heat that should go to his bosses, the owners, is part of his job. Even if it’s about as pleasant as your private parts being caught in the vacuum cleaner’s handle.

And then it came.

“Every time it’s me, it ain’t one of those 30 guys—that’s good,” Van Natta quoted Manfred as saying. “Look, who the hell am I? I don’t have $2 billion invested in a team. I’m just a guy trying to do a job. I mean it. [The owners] deserve that layer. I believe they deserve that layer of protection. I’m the face of the game, for good or for bad.”

Mr. Manfred, unless it’s to boo and hiss your heads off over this or that piece of mischief, you may rest assured that no baseball fan anywhere in this country is paying his or her hard-earned money to head for the ballpark to see you or your bosses.

But I’m going to do you a small favour, as if you know me from the greenest bat boy on any professional baseball team. I’m going to introduce you to the true faces of the game. The ones whom those fans do pay their hard-earned money to see at the ballpark regardless of the machinations and deceptions of your bosses and theirs.

Mr. Manfred, meet Mike Trout. This is the guy you blamed once upon a time for not being baseball’s face, based upon his committing no crime more grave than letting his play and his clubhouse presence and his agreeability with fans before and after games speak for themselves, with no jive about the magnitude of being him.

Meet Shohei Ohtani. This is the two-way star who lights up the joint just by flashing that thousand-watt grin of his, never mind when he strikes thirteen out on the mound one night and belts baseballs onto the Van Allen Belt the very next. Between himself and Mr. Trout, you should be asking what on earth is wrong with the Angels that they still can’t find quality pitching enough to keep them in a race after they start in one but sputter unconscionably.

Meet Aaron Judge. This is the Leaning Tower of River Avenue who sends baseballs into the Delta Quadrant one moment and then, when made aware, goes out of his way to meet a Canadian kid to whom he’s number one among baseball men and who was handed one of his mammoth home run balls by an adult fan who knew the boy wanted nothing more than to catch one Judge hit out.

Meet Joey Votto. This is the future Hall of Fame first baseman who got himself tossed from a game early last year, but—after he learned his ejection broke the heart of a little California girl to whom he’s a hero above heroes—sent her a ball with his handwritten apology and autograph on it, prompting his team to drop game tickets and a little extra swag upon her the very next day.

Meet Bryce Harper. This is the guy who never apologised for being on board with letting the kids play. The guy now on the injured list with a thumb fracture and surgery to repair it after getting hit by a pitch thrown with one of the baseballs you and yours still can’t see fit to manufacture uniformly and with allowance for fairness on both sides of it, fairness for the pitchers and for the hitters alike.

Meet Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. One is the son of a Hall of Famer who did last season what even his old man never did: led his league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, and led the entire Show in total bases. The other is the son of a respected major league slugger, has quite a lethal bat in his own right when his swing is right, and currently leads his league in trips to the plate. Together they’ve put some zip back into the Blue Jays.

Meet Oneil Cruz. The bat has yet to come to full life but the footwork, the glove, the throwing arm, have shown so far that you can be as tall as Frank Howard, J.R. Richard, and Randy Johnson and still play shortstop as though the position was created for you and not the Little Rascals in the first place. They’re falling in love with him in Pittsburgh, which needs all the love it can get, but they ought to fall in love with him all around the Show—except when he’s going so deep into the hole grabbing a grounder or a hopper that an enemy batter loses his lunch when he’s had a base hit stolen from him.

Meet Clayton Kershaw. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s a Hall of Fame lock as maybe the best pitcher of his generation. He’s still a quality pitcher and a class act. They still buy tickets on the road when they know he’s going to take the ball for the Dodgers. He’s faced his baseball aging curve with grace under pressure. And, for good measure, he’s the one active player who was seen fit to be part of the ceremony when the Dodgers unveiled that statue of their Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax this month, and you know (well, you damn well should know) what a class act Koufax was on the mound and has been in the decades since off it.

(You’re not still P.O.ed that Koufax waxed your Yankees’ tails twice while his Dodgers swept them in the 1963 World Series when you were seven, are you?)

Meet Justin Verlander. Missed a year plus recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.23 ERA and a 3.53 fielding-independent pitching rate so far this season. For any pitcher that’d be a remarkable return so far. For a future Hall of Famer who’s still suiting up at Jack Benny’s age (that’s a joke, son), it’s off the chart so far.

Meet Verlander’s 25-year-old Astros teammate, Yordan Álvarez. He’s leading the entire Show with his .667 slugging percentage, his 1.081 OPS, and his 206 OPS+. If there’s one untainted Astro who’s must-see viewing whenever he checks in at the plate, it’s him.

Meet Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The left side of the Red Sox infield is a big reason why the Olde Towne Team yanked themselves back up from the netherworld into second place in that rough and tumble American League East. Did I mention that Devers currently leads the entire Show with 177 total bases?

Meet José Ramírez. The Guardians’ third baseman is giving Devers a run for his money in the All-Star balloting that closes today. That thumb injury has put a crimp into his bat for now, and it’s had its role in the Guardians’ sudden deflation at the plate, but this guy just may be the face of his franchise right now. He ought to be one of the faces of this game.

Meet Mark Appel. This is the guy who went from number one in the draft to injuries as well as pressures and even to an exit from the game only to try giving it one more try—and finally coming up with the Phillies, nine years after that draft, and tossing a scoreless inning . . . at age 30. That’s as feel good a story as it gets for the oldest former number one to make his Show debut, no matter what happens with the rest of what remains of Appel’s career. They don’t all go to hell and back.

Those are only some of baseball’s faces, Mr. Commissioner. They’re the ones the fans want to see and pay through the nose to see. Despite your tinkerings. Despite your often erroneous readings of the room. Despite your inability or unwillingness to demand the same accountability of umpires that you do of players, coaches, and managers.

Despite your inability to let your professed deep love of the game come through without tripping over itself because, as an improvisor, well, if you were a musician the consensus would be that Miles Davis you ain’t.

Another year, ejection, and autographed ball

Jesse Winker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Courtney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Courtney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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