The Mets add the unwritten rule-breaking Sisco Kid

Chance Sisco, Jose Berrios

Leave a man open turf, don’t whine when he accepts the gift.

“This is what I call taking a chance,” said Old Grumpy Elder. He called to tell me the Mets picked Orioles catcher Chance Sisco off the waiver wire, and he took no chances on missing the opportunity for a dubious pun.

I happened to spot the news courtesy of New York Daily News writer Deesha Thosar on Twitter just before Old Grumpy rang. I couldn’t resist asking whether she was tempted to cue up Johnny Mathis’s ancient hit, “Chances Are.” She hasn’t answered at this writing.

From the look of it, the Mets decided they needed either a spare part or someone to pick up some minor league depth slack. Sisco didn’t exactly make Baltimore people forget Elrod Hendricks or Rick Dempsey behind the plate. He’s not ugly, so he wouldn’t make them forget Andy Etchebarren, either.

Sisco is still considered a catcher with talent despite not having turned his minor league advancements into comparable Show deliverance. The Mets optioned him to Syracuse (Triple-A) for now. His wounding flaw in the Show: proneness to striking out, though it beats hitting into double plays. (He’s averaged 1.3 hits into double plays a year so far.)

“He was actually having a decent turn behind the plate when he got there this year,” I said. “He got into 21 games and started nineteen of them. He was actually three runs saved above the league’s average at his position.”

“Never mind the esoteric crap,” Grumpy snorted. “What’s his fielding average this year?”

“Seven points above his league average for catchers.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m serious. He’s fielding a thousand percent behind the plate this year and the league average for catchers is .993.”

“OK, yeah,” Grumpy said. Then I heard him snap his fingers. “Hey! Now I remember him. From three years ago. That game against the Twins. This guy’s gonna get the Mets into hot water if he pulls a stunt like that again.”

That was a reference to the April Fool’s Day 2018 game in which the Orioles were down 7-0 in the ninth and Sisco beat out a bunt for a base hit. Not because he’s any kind of road runner, but because the Twins were foolish enough to put an overshift on him to the right side of the infield.

The small details: Twins pitcher Jose Berrios was trying to finish a one-hitter and had one out in the ninth. Sisco’s a lefthanded batter. He’d also had the only Oriole hit of the game to that point. The Twins thought a guy who hit .181 and batted (according to Real Batting Average) a mere .364 was liable to go Yogi Berra on them.

So they left him enough third base-side real estate for a homesteader to build himself a five-bedroom mini-mansion. Sure enough, Sisco dropped the bunt there and was safer at first than a nursing baby.

Berrios and the Twins were steaming mad over it. Even after they finished the Orioles despite a followup unintentional walk and a line single up the pipe to load the pillows. It took a pop out foul behind the plate and a strikeout to do it.

“You blame them for being p.o.ed at him?” Grumpy asked, deadly serious.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” Berrios told reporters after the game. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation, that’s it.”

I quoted that back to Grumpy. “The only thing worse,” he said, “would have been if Berrios was trying to finish a no-hitter.”

“Well, then,” I began, “who was the genius who told the Twins infield to leave the third base side unprotected?”

“Irrelevant,” Grumpy answered. “You ever heard of respect for the game? You ever heard of sportsmanship? You ever heard of fair’s fair?”

“You ever heard of all’s fair in love, war, and baseball?” I came back. “You don’t want your guy to blow a no-hitter or a one-hitter, you don’t leave the other guy territory that wide open. Then you’re begging for trouble.”

“C’mon,” Grumpy pleaded, “you know better than that crap. The Orioles were down 7-0. It’s not like they had a prayer left.”

“Did you forget that after Sisco helped himself to what the Twins offered on the house they loaded the bases with still only one out? Seems to me they had five prayers left at least—three on the bases and two more minimum coming to the plate.”

I heard Grumpy make a noise on the other end. I couldn’t tell if it was a snort, a grunt, a cough, or flatulence.

“Yes, his team was down 7-0,” I said. “But whatever happened to playing until the absolute last out? Since when do you just hand the other guys the finish to a one-hitter without making the best stand possible to push back and, you know, win?”

“Not the point,” Grumpy harrumphed.

“Horseshit,” I harrumphed back. “You really think Sisco was supposed to take that overshift as an April Fool’s joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into that packed right side like a good little boy?”

“No fair,” Grumpy whined. “You’re quoting yourself.”

“So what?” I said with a short laugh. “You think I’m the first writer who ever quoted himself?”

Then I remembered Twins second baseman Brian Dozier’s postgame comments. I read them back to Grumpy: “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.”

“Good for him,” Grumpy said.

“Well,” I said, “I still think it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ own tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre team’s sub-mediocre batter was less criminal than that kid seeing a big fat hole onto which to hit and doing just that. Who says even a bad team’s supposed to just roll over and play dead down seven in the ninth no matter what?”

“Winning isn’t everything.”

“What about not trying to win?” I countered. “Especially when the other guys are dumb enough to give you everything short of a gilt-edged, engraved invitation to make mischief?”

I can’t transcribe Grumpy’s answer in polite company. In impolite company, it would get him served a fist on rye with mustard.

Mudcat Grant, RIP: Motivation

Mudcat Grant

Mudcat Grant shook a nagging cold and short rest to beat the Dodgers in the ’65 Series on the mound . . .

Jim (Mudcat) Grant, the first African-American credited with 20+ pitching wins in an American League season, was also only the second American League pitcher to hit a World Series home run. But he wasn’t sure how far he’d go starting Game Six of the 1965 World Series.

The righthander pitched on two days’ rest and a cold that nagged at him for a couple of weeks. Then, with deuces really wild—two out, two aboard, and his Twins holding a 2-0 lead against the Dodgers—Grant swung on Dodger reliever Howie Reed and drove one into the left center field seats, dancing his way across the plate.

The Twins held on to win Game Six, but it proved just a holding pattern until Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax could beat them with his second Series shutout in as many days. But it still wasn’t bad for a thirty-year-old pitcher who once had to, shall we say, clean up his act.

The Mudcat was said to have rubbed the inside front of his uniform with soap, waited for the daily sun to warm up enough to produce a little foam, then scoop a little onto his hand to apply to the ball. He got away with it until the day he overdid the soap inside his gray road uniform and the foam became too visible to ignore.

Hall of Famer Don Sutton once bragged that he was accused of throwing doctored balls so often he should get a Black & Decker commercial out of it. In due course, Sutton did get just that. It’s a shame nobody thought to offer the Mudcat—who died Saturday at 81—a commercial for Dial. Or at least Lifebuoy.

Just picture the friendly-looking Grant holding a bar and purring, with that power failure-defying smile of his, “Aren’t you glad I stopped using Dial? But don’t you wish nobody else would?” Or, “Take it from a stinker on the mound—use Lifebuoy so you won’t be a stinker anywhere.”

Behind that friendly face and somewhat extroverted personality, there bristled a man who’d once gotten into racial trouble he didn’t ask for as a young Indian. In the bullpen one day, singing along with “The Star Spangled Banner,” Grant sang “this land is not so free/I can’t even go to Mississippi.” He claimed he did it for fun, but bullpen coach Ted Wilks was not amused.

“Wilks heard me and called me a (racial) name,” the Mudcat told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I got so mad I couldn’t hold myself back. I told him that Texas [Wilks’s home state] is worse than Russia. Then I walked straight into the clubhouse.”

Manager Jimmy Dykes had no clue of the source after Grant walked into the clubhouse, changed clothes, and left the ballpark entirely without a further word. The skipper suspended Grant without pay for the rest of the season and refused to rescind it even after Grant called the following day to apologise. Wilks apologised, too, but Grant understandably refused to accept that at face value; the coach would be gone after the season.

Dykes didn’t hold it against Grant, however. He settled Grant into a starting role in 1961. Grant led the Indians with 244.2 innings pitched and three shutouts and was second with 146 strikeouts behind Gary Bell’s 163. Since pitching wins then were considered the alpha and omega, though, Grant’s team-leading fifteen have to be measured against his 3.86 ERA and his 4.45 fielding-independent pitching.

Still, he made himself an Indians fixture, even working in the team’s off-season ticket office and with their community relations department, until a hard 1964 start got him dealt to the Twins that June, for pitcher Lee Stange and infielder George Banks. Twins manager Sam Mele was convinced the trade was a winner for both sides.

Mudcat Grant

. . . and with the insurance runs off his own three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

It was for Grant. As a 1964 Twin he posted his lowest ERA (2.82) over twenty or more starts in a season. In 1965 he parlayed 5.4 runs of support per start into those 21 wins that season. (In due course, Grant would write a book about the so-called Black Aces, the African-American pitchers who’d enjoyed 20+ win seasons including himself.) He also posted a 2.74 World Series ERA in three starts with two credited wins. (He beat Hall of Famer Don Drysdale in Game One, lost to Drysdale in Game Four, then beat Claude Osteen in Game Six.)

The Mudcat also swore he got his biggest 1965 help from pitching coach Johnny Sain, the one-time Boston Braves pitching standout, who’d taught him a way to throw his curve ball faster. “I’ve never had a real good fast curve before,” he told writer Jim Thielman.

I’ve always had a good fastball, a change of pace and a slow curve. They said I needed to change speeds. I’ve always been able to change off my fastball, throw a straight slow ball up there. But until this year, I never thought in terms of spinning the ball. That’s where Sain helped me.

Grant shook off a hard first half in 1966 to pitch a strong second half. Then two things happened in 1967. First, he was struck on the forearm as spring training was about to end, costing him the season’s first two weeks. Then, Mele—who’d already dumped Sain as pitching coach at 1966’s end—faced his own firing squad, replaced by Cal Ermer.  Between injuries (knee and arm) and Ermer’s inability to define his role, Grant began looking for a way out of town.

He got it when the Twins traded him and their 1965 American League Most Valuable Player award-winning shortstop Zoilo Versailles to the Dodgers for 1968. The Mudcat loved the idea—the Twins atmosphere in parts had become intolerable to him.

“It was a problem between the Minnesota manager and management and myself,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Some of it was racial, too. They made me feel as though I wasn’t even a man. I’d pitched only 95 innings and it isn’t because of my knees, either. I have lived with the knee trouble for years. But I told them I couldn’t remain with them and wanted to be traded.”

Now a full-time reliever, Grant pitched brilliantly enough as a 1968 Dodger: a 2.08 ERA, a career-low 2.57 FIP, and—even more remarkably, considering his proneness to it in the past and even allowing Dodger Stadium’s difficulties for hitters—he surrendered only one home run all season long.

The Montreal Expos adopted the Mudcat in the expansion draft, then dealt him to the Cardinals in early June. A somewhat lost season turned into a sale to the Athletics, and Grant flashed one more brilliant season in relief, with a 1.86 ERA for the year even with the A’s selling him to the Pirates that September. But after a 1971  for the Pirates and (sold back to) the A’s, and his failure to make a return to the Indians stick in spring 1972, the Mudcat called it a career.

Grant’s concern for black ballplayers didn’t end when his career did. In due course, the righthander who once led a musical group named Mudcat and the Kittens became an active and vocal presence encouraging African-American youth toward baseball.

It certainly took in his own family. (Grant was also the grandfather of 34.) Domonic Brown—who looked like a Phillies comer until an assortment of knee and leg injuries diminished him as an outfielder, then a hitter, until he finally made his way through three seasons in the Mexican leagues—is Grant’s nephew.

“We just gotta motivate them to play and we’ve got to be around,” said Grant in 2008, after he’d been an Anheuser-Busch distributor and, before that, a television analyst for the Indians and the A’s and a pitching coach for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Not to mention the author of The Black Aces.

“We haven’t been around enough,” he continued. “Now, part of that is the African-American ex-players’ fault, too, because we haven’t been there. Even though we see tons of children, we haven’t been in the inner city like we should.” He probably helped awaken others like him to get there.

Unlike some of the pitches he Dialed in once upon a time, there was no soft-soaping it for the Mudcat there.

La Russa doubles down cluelessly

Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa may be more clueless than he accused his own player Yermin Mercedes of being.

Tony La Russa wanted his live rookie Yermin Mercedes to learn a lesson in respect for the game. A Hall of Fame manager who came out of retirement to take the White Sox bridge, La Russa should remember that respect cuts in more than one direction.

If it was “disrespectful” and “clueless” for Mercedes to swing 3-0 in the top of the eighth with the White Sox blowing the Twins out 15-4 at the time, what was it for the Twins to send an infielder named Willians Astudillo out to pitch in the first place?

Astudillo threw a meatball that couldn’t even be called a knuckleball on 3-0. Whether Mercedes didn’t hear or chose not to listen to La Russa hollering to take the pitch, he drove it over the center field fence for the sixteenth White Sox run.

Mercedes and his teammates celebrated the blast when he returned to the dugout. La Russa was more than unamused. He called Mercedes out to the press after the game and again Tuesday morning. It was practically an engraved invitation to the Twins to do what relief pitcher Tyler Duffey finally did—in the seventh inning.

Duffey threw behind Mercedes with the first pitch of the plate appearance, which turned out to be the first and last of Duffey’s evening. Both Duffey and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli were ejected post haste for the drill attempt.

The attempt was foolish on a pair of levels. If you need that badly to send an opposing hitter a message, you do it the first time you see him at the plate and be done with it. You don’t do it near the potential end of the game, especially when you’re down a pair of runs and you can’t really afford an enemy baserunner who has the potential of coming home on a followup hit or two.

Lucky for the Twins that Alex Colome relieving Duffey wrapped a second walk around a pair of strikeouts for the side. They were even luckier that Miguel Sano hit his second homer of the night in the bottom of the eighth to tie before Jorge Polanco walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

For a story he seemed to think was one big nothingburger in the first place, expressing surprise more than once previously that it took hold as firm and long as it did, La Russa doubled down on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press.

“If you’re going to tell me that sportsmanship and the respect for the game of baseball and respect for your opponent is not an important priority,” said La Russa on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press, “I can’t disagree with you more. You think you need more [runs] to win, you keep pushing. If you think you have enough, respect the game and opposition. Sportsmanship.”

La Russa’s Wednesday starting pitcher Lance Lynn demurs. It was probably the most intelligent observation amidst the entire debate. “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules,” Lynn was quoted as saying. “Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

Maybe you got why the Twins decided it might not be wise to spend any more of their pitching staff when they looked dead and buried by eleven runs with a couple of innings left to play. But maybe La Russa, the Twins, and those applauding La Russa while trying to shame Mercedes would care to re-learn a little baseball history.

Specifically, they might care to re-read the pages that remind you it’s not unheard of for a team to recover from a double-digit deficit before the last inning’s played and either win the game late or force the final decision to extra innings. We take you back to 1925, presumably one of the golden years the Old School/Old Fart Contingency has in mind when speaking of how much more grand was the grand old game in those grand old days.

The Indians had the Philadelphia Athletics buried 14-2, 15-3, and 15-4. Until they didn’t, thanks to the eighth inning. You know, the same inning during which Mercedes drove the infielder’s 49-mph canteloupe over the fence. Listen up, students: The A’s arose from the dead and buried with a thirteen-run eighth—a two-run triple, six RBI singles including two sending pairs of runs home, and Hall of Famer Al Simmons with the exclamation point of a two-out, three-run homer before the inning ended.

Those A’s overcame deficits of twelve, twelve, and eleven runs to nail a 17-15 win.

You don’t even have to go that far back, students. In 2001, the 116 game-winning Mariners sat on the wrong side of such a comeback. They’d had the Indians pinned 12-2 . . . until the Tribe told them, “you only think you have us pinned.” Three runs in the seventh, four in the eighth, five (all with two outs, yet) in the ninth. John Coltrane, call your office: they call it Ascension. (The Indians eventually won it in the eleventh, 15-14.)

Fifteen years later, the Padres only thought they had a somewhat different crew of Mariners sunk with a 12-2 lead after five. The Mariners ordered, “Up periscope!” Five runs in the sixth, nine in the seventh. Deficit overcome: ten runs. Oops. That all happened before the eighth. Double oops: what’s the point?

The points include that you should also get Lynn’s point. Lynn’s, and and Dodger pitcher Trevor Bauer’s:

Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime.

Dear people who are still mad about a hitter hitting: kindly get out of the game.

Can’t believe we’re still talking about 3-0 swings. If you don’t like it, managers or pitchers, just be better.

La Russa was far less aware of the aforementioned and other double-digit deficit closures than he was of his immediate need to school Mercedes. “There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family,” he said after Monday’s game. “It’s a learning experience.”

No wonder any Twin pitcher thought he had a license to kill on Tuesday. And after Duffey attempted just that, La Russa went weasel about it: “It wasn’t obvious to me. The guy threw a sinker. It didn’t look good. So, I wasn’t that suspicious. I’m suspicious if somebody throws at somebody’s head. Then I’m suspicious. I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that.”

Translation: If one of you lot breaks the Sacred Unwritten Rules on my watch, your back means nothing to me.

Further translation: A Hall of Fame manager didn’t think there was anything wrong with waiting through four preceding plate appearances on Tuesday night before deciding it was time to teach Mercedes a lesson in manners. Mercedes’s teammates probably had every reason to believe the Twins really did shake off the Monday night mash until Duffey went behind his legs.

The Twins were probably lucky Duffey didn’t trigger a bench-clearing brawl over it.

There were moments over this week’s first three days when you’d have thought baseball’s worst problem of the week was Mercedes swinging on 3-0. As if the continuing free cookie on second to start each extra half inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the continuing metastasis of hit batsmen courtesy of control-challenged pitchers built for speed and not smarts, and the continuing embarrassment of the National League lacking the permanent designated hitter, were just nuisances like a fly at a picnic.

There were moments, too, when you’d have thought La Russa was merely the unappreciated genius trying to teach the no-respect millenials a little lesson in manners. He’d certainly like you to think so. “What did I say publicly?” he asked aboard that Wednesday Zoom conference, before answering. “I said a young player made a mistake—which, by the way, he did—and we need to acknowledge it. Part of how you get better as a team is, if something goes wrong, you address it.”

Who’s the genius who decided to address it in the public media, instead of keeping it behind clubhouse doors, and thus leave his own player prone to a duster? Who’s the genius who didn’t stop to ponder what sort of “respect” was shown his team when the other team sent an infielder to face them in the eighth instead of continuing an honest effort to come back even with two innings left to play at minimum?

Who’s the genius who also didn’t see his own starting pitcher Lucas Giolito gassed in the early seventh on 27 April, then left him in anyway and watched him surrender back-to-back an RBI double and a two-run homer, giving the lowly Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish?

Who’s the genius who let pool-noodle-bat Billy Hamilton hit with two on and one out in the top of the tenth on 5 May, despite better than decent bench help ready and waiting—then watched his lead runner get thrown out trying to steal third, before Hamilton struck out for the side? In a scoreless interleague game the Reds would win when Jesse Winker walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of that inning?

(Who’s also the genius who did enough of his part—with a lot of help from a cronyism-stacked Today’s Game Committee—to jam Harold Baines down the Hall of Fame’s throat three years ago, when Baines’s only qualification for the honour, if that, was a 22-season major league career that amounted to making the Hall of Fame the Hall of the Gold Watch?)

Funny thing about “traditions.” Baseball’s include that the game isn’t over until the final out. Baseball’s late Hall of Fame philosopher Yogi Berra interpreted it to mean, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” If you’re worried about a hitter swinging 3-0 against a reserve utility infielder, maybe you should worry more about that infielder’s team deciding the game was over two innings early regardless of the score and on which end of they sat short.

The Twins weren’t trying to be sportsmen as much as they were trying to save their pitching staff to fight another day. Well and good, and with its own risks attached. Throwing at Mercedes late in the following night’s game doesn’t mitigate that.

The Old School/Old Fart Contingency still fuming over Mercedes squaring up the infielder’s meatball like to think they’re standing up for the game’s integrity. They might want to ponder how much “integrity” is present when a team playing a game with no clock surrenders before the game’s actually over.

No, it wasn’t Baldelli’s fault

Luis Arraez

This off-balanced throw from third by Luis Arraez finished what Travis Blankenhorn’s bobble at second started for the Twins Wednesday. Neither was the manager’s fault.

Sometimes you can believe to your soul that second-guessing is in a dead heat with cheating as baseball’s oldest profession. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli may be re-learning the hard way since Wednesday’s 13-12 loss against the Athletics.

All Baldelli did was make one smart move in the top of a tenth inning the Twins shouldn’t have had to play in the first place . . . and watch in horror with every Twin fan in creation when it blew up in his face in the bottom of the tenth. Through absolutely no fault of his own.

Baldelli inserted a speedy young pinch runner, Travis Blankenhorn, for his slower free half inning-opening cookie Josh Donaldson. He found himself with a swift and fresh two-run lead after Byron Buxton, who may yet prove the Twins’ answer to Mike Trout, hit a two-run homer to return the Twins a two-run lead.

With Donaldson out of the game Baldelli shifted his second base incumbent Luis Arraez to third and inserted Blankenhorn at second. Bottom of the tenth: the pillows stuffed with A’s after Twins reliever Alex Colome walked veteran Elvis Andrus to load them up after he opened the inning with two outs and nobody on.

Then A’s left fielder Mark Canha whacked a none-too-sharp grounder right to Blankenhorn. And Blankenhorn—with double play obviously on his mind—lost his grip on the ball as he made a right-arm motion to throw without the ball secure in hand, the ball hitting the ground and A’s inning-opening free cookie Matt Chapman coming home.

And then Arraez double-clutched before throwing Ramon Laureano’s grounder with his right leg slightly unbalanced. The throw sailed wide enough behind first base to pass a train through the space, but this time the only things passing through were Andrus and pinch-runner Tony Kemp scoring the tying and winning runs.

The A’s ought to send Colome roses for really enabling the sweep that shouldn’t have been. Twin Territory ought to knock it off with hanging the goat horns on Baldelli’s none-too-bald head.

This game had no business getting to the extra innings in the first place. Not until Colome opened the bottom of the ninth by hitting Laureano with a pitch, continued by surrendering a one-out base hit to Matt Olson roomy enough for Laureano to take third, and finished by surrendering a game-tying sacrifice fly to Chapman. Picking Olson off for the side with Stephen Piscotty at the plate didn’t quite atone for Colome’s original sin.

“It’s just baseball and it’s hard to understand,” said Laureano, taking the simpler view. “We were still loose and having fun, so we knew we would win.”

“The way the first two games went and then neither team could hold either down,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin after putting his gift an an eleven-game A’s winning streak safely in the bank, “it was almost like it was going to go down to the last at-bat regardless. And then you know what? You put a ball in play. At that point in time it’s not about walks and strikeouts and all that. Put it in play and something good can happen.”

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Put a ball in play and something terrible can happen, too. If you’re an A’s fan, something wonderful happened. If you’re a Twins fan, you might want to think back to why the game shouldn’t have gotten to the extras in the first place.

For Baldelli to want some extra speed on the bases to open the top of the tenth wasn’t even close to the dumbest baseball move you’ll see. Blankenhorn had an .844 stolen base percentage in the minors. He was also a rangy enough second baseman who projected as a potential plus defender particularly adept at turning double plays.

You want to blame Baldelli for a rookie mistake, feel free. But a rookie mistake is just what Blankenhorn committed on the Canha grounder. A guy who turned 120 double plays in the minors should have remembered not to count his double plays before he turns them.

Arraez hasn’t played half the Show games at third that he’s played at second, and he isn’t the rangiest man on the planet at either position. But what he reaches or comes right to him, he handles under normal circumstances. Over three Show seasons Arraez entered Wednesday’s game with a measly four errors.

“In extra innings, if you don’t find a way to put a run on the board, you’re going to end up losing a lot of those games,” Baldelli told reporters after the game. “Doing everything possible to put that first run on the board is, I think, instrumental to finding ways to win those games.”

He did just what he thought possible opening the tenth and got immediate return when Buxton turned on Lou Trivino’s meatball up and drove it about seven rows into the high left center field seats.

And that was after Buxton spent the earlier portion of his evening going 2-for-5 with a double and taking an Olympics-like dive to spear Olson’s long sinking liner for the side, in the bottom of the sixth, preserving what was then a 10-9 Twins lead. Not to mention Nelson Cruz’s two-bomb night.

The Twins’ Wednesday starting pitcher, Kenta Maeda, the former Dodger, blamed himself for the disaster, after surrendering seven runs (three in the second, four in the third) to tie his career worst. “I could not set the tone,” he mourned. “If I had done that, we would have gotten that W.”

Yet the Twins hung up three-spots in the third, fifth, and sixth, after Donaldson himself hit A’s starter Frankie Montas’s first pitch over the left field corner fence in the top of the first.  That’d teach him.

“It’s been a hell of a trip, and not in a good way,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ now-concluded road trip, which involved postponements against the Angels due to COVID concerns followed by a loss to those Angels and now three straight losses to the A’s.

“Today was a game where we’re finding ways to not win games, even games that we should be winning,” he told the postgame questioners. “What we saw today is something we haven’t seen a ton from our group, and I stand in the front of it and take responsibility for all of it. It was a very difficult day.”

It wouldn’t have been that difficult if his man on the mound held fort in the ninth and his tenth-inning smarts weren’t rendered dumb by an anxious rook and an off-balance leg at third. Those mistakes can make Casey Stengel resemble Clyde Crashcup.

The pastor and the pension problem

Tom Johnson, in Twins jersey and a 1977 Twins cap, at GoodSports Slovakia, a program teaching and ministering Slovakian youth in baseball and in spirit. (GoodSports photo.)

In 1980, righthanded relief pitcher Tom Johnson—former Minnesota Twin, credited with sixteen relief wins in 1977; struggling with shoulder trouble in 1978; missing 1979 rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery—had reason to believe his career would still have a second act. He was signed by the Chicago White Sox during Bill Veeck’s second ownership of the team.

After five seasons as a Twin, Johnson pitched in the White Sox organisation in 1980. The same year, major league owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the player pension program. Johnson had every reason to applaud—at first.

The new plan vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day. Johnson believed he would come back strongly enough to pitch for the White Sox.

“When I initially heard they had made the decision to make the change, I was very excited,” Johnson said during a telephone interview a few days ago. “I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it because I was in the midst of trying to come back from surgery. So I had my eyes focused on getting back to the major leagues, and I had every reason to believe I was going to do that.”

But in January 1981, saying he couldn’t afford to operate in the full free agency era any longer, Veeck sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and his minority partner Eddie Einhorn.

The new owner didn’t offer Johnson a new pitching deal, but they did offer him a gig as a roving minor league pitching coach. His pitching career was over—and he was now going to be without a baseball pension to look forward to. The 1980 re-alignment omitted short-career players who played between 1949 and 1980.

“When I heard that the [pension] change had taken place,” he told me, “I was excited, because in the past all improvements to the pension plan had been retroactive. So I had every reason to believe, until I found out otherwise, that that would include me.

“I was looking forward to the new system and having a pension, only to find out this was one of the few times in which it was not retroactive,” Johnson continued. “That came later. The disappointment compounded itself when I realised I wasn’t going to make it back, my shoulder wasn’t responding the way I hoped.”

Johnson today is one of 618 still-living, pension-less, pre-1980 short-career players. Their only redress since has been the plan devised in 2011 by then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner—giving them $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. It was a start, but should they pass away before collecting the entire dollars due, those dollars can’t be passed to their families.

“That’s kind of a hard one to take,” Johnson said. “It’s like, that would be such a small thing but a good thing for us and give us some comfort in knowing that this small payment we get once a year is going to pass on [to our families].” Johnson told me that, after taxes, he gets $5,800 per year under the Selig-Weiner adjustment.

Weiner died of brain cancer two years after he and Selig struck that deal. Neither the players union nor the owners have sought to revisit the pension issue for the pre-1980 short-timers since. Asked why not, Johnson says he doesn’t know. “I have no idea, other than that people just don’t want to be bothered,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He thinks that if the issue ever has arisen in negotiations between the owners and the union since, it’s taken off the table very early if it got there at all. “Probably the reason that it hasn’t gone forward is that there hasn’t been a strong advocate in the system that believes changes are needed,” he said.

Tom Johnson, on the mound for the Twins during his career year 1977. (Twins Daily photo.)

The pre-1890 short-timers have had varying lives since leaving baseball. Johnson became a full-time minister later in the 1980s. Active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his playing days, he’s also worked for GoodSports Slovakia, a program that ministers and teaches baseball to Slovakian youth, since 1995. He’s been its president since 2006; he and his wife, Deb, lived in Slovakia full-time promoting baseball from 2005-2017.

When not supervising and making sure GoodSports staffers are paid on time—a task made arduous thanks to the coronavirus pandemic—Johnson wants to see the pension plan redressed on behalf of his fellow 1949-1980 short-career players.

Like several other affected short-career players, Johnson believes Marvin Miller—the longtime players union leader who was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously for his groundbreaking work—took one major regret to his grave: not revisiting the pension issue and redressing the freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers.

“Nobody has picked it up,” Johnson said, referring to people within the professional baseball system. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

And, like several such players to whom I’ve spoken since first interviewing former pitcher Bill Denehy in spring 2019, Johnson believes that if Weiner had lived he might well have worked toward going beyond the 2011 deal with Selig on behalf of those players. “Absolutely,” he said.

Why doesn’t Clark—the first former player to head the MLBPA—address the issue or even give it a single listen, on behalf of these former players who also partook of all players union actions pre- and post-free agency?

Clark’s playing career began two decades after the Messersmith decision ushered free agency in. Johnson isn’t alone among his fellow pre-1980 short-timers in believing the former first baseman wasn’t close enough to the key battles for which players like Johnson fought just as arduously as did baseball’s major stars.

“I would just go back to something I believe strongly about,” Johnson said. “Any issue of what you might call injustice, it’s easy not to address it if you’re not close to it, if you’re not proximate to it. And I would say, for Tony Clark, he’s just never taken the time to sit down with people like myself and hear us and get close enough to us and hear what we have to say.”

If Johnson could tell Clark one thing, it’s to take that time. “Take some time to get to know us,” he continued. “Take some time to hear from us. We played. We did walk the picket lines. We did participate in lockouts. We did work on behalf of players who are now making six and seven figures, to make it possible to make it happen.”

He might tell likewise to dozens of former ballplayers who’ve made second careers in the sports media and who could wield major influence but don’t for now. “I think it’s the same reason, it doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t know anybody that’s personally affected by it, so it’s just easy to dismiss it. I would guess some of them aren’t even aware of it, some don’t bother to be, and the ones who are made aware of it, it’s just too easy for them to go on to other things.”

If the union and commissioner Rob Manfred today can’t be made to look twice at the 1980 pension re-alignment freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers, what about individual owners—say, Steve Cohen, the new owner of the Mets; or, John Middleton, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies—each taking up just on behalf of those short-timers who played for the teams they now own?

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Johnson said. “I would love to think there would be people who would lead the way and call on other owners to step up. They don’t have to; after the difficult situation they’ve faced financially with the pandemic, I’m not hopeful.”

Not for now. But perhaps down the road that option might be considered. Perhaps by a Cohen, or a Middleton; perhaps by another. It would be a strange irony if the union that made such a terrible mistake found itself upstaged over four decades later, by even a single owner persuaded that it’s long past time to do the right thing.