First some look for the curse

Eenie, meanie, chili beanie, the spirits are about to speak! (Photo: New York Yankees.)

Just when you think you’ve seen every last exercise in abject stupidity a sports fan can indulge, you get disabused swiftly and sickeningly. Case in point: the Twitter user (I won’t dignify him by mentioning him by handle) who offered up, quote, “if you could curse any MLB player for all of October who would you choose.” The lack of question mark is his.

He even had the temerity to use a once-famous portrait of Casey Stengel, freshly hired to manage the New York Yankees for 1949, gazing agape at a baseball backlit for the viewer, as if gazing into a job-appropriate crystal ball seeking his and the Yankees’ future. The concept of putting a hex on the Yankees’ opponents wasn’t exactly the idea.

At the very least, the Twitter twit in question must have a thing for provoking observers to think about flogging dead horses. I thought I’d written my last words for a very long time about baseball curses and goats, actual or alleged, and how truly un-funny the sports goat business really is. So much for that idea.

When the Dodgers gave Vin Scully a tribute night in his final season at the microphones, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax addressed the Dodger Stadium throng. Koufax remembered Scully slipping into church the day before a World Series and praying—not “for a win, but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody in the future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.”

Whomever Scully affected over his long and impeccable broadcasting career, Twitter Twit couldn’t possibly have been among them. A man or woman who invites you to curse the MLB player of your choice for all October isn’t someone who’d pray that the postseason would have heroes and not goats.

Later the same day as that dubious invitation, the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the National League West. They slapped the American League West champion Oakland Athletics 7-2 Tuesday after entering the game with a magic number of two. Their freeway rivals the Los Angeles Angels, who’ve clinched yet another losing season in Mike Trout’s all-universe prime, lent them a helping hand by beating the San Diego Padres, 4-2.

Thanks largely to home runs from Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, A.J. Pollock, and Corey Seager, that’s eight straight Dodger division titles. They’d like very much not to make it an eighth straight postseason of heartbreak. Heartbreak that includes back-to-back World Series losses to a couple of teams exposed in due course as illegal, off-field-based, sign-stealing cheaters.

Even their storied Brooklyn ancestors never had it that bad. Did they?

Will the Dodgers’ rotten postseason fortune continue? Will the worst among fans continue reveling in it when not abusing them for it? (Los Angeles Daily News photo.)

Things were smaller and somewhat simpler then, but the Boys of Summer’s final decade in Brooklyn shows six pennants and one World Series triumph. Before they were those bold, colour line-breaking teams, the Dodgers spent two decades plus between World Series appearances (1920, 1941) either in or around the old National League lower division.

Those were teams that inspired sports cartoon legend Willard Mullin to represent them as circus legend Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie hobo, after a cabbie taking Mullin to Ebbets Field asked how those bums were doing this time. The Dodgers haven’t been called the Bums since moving to Los Angeles. But no World Series rings since the Reagan Administration leaves them stuck somewhere between the Bums of 1920-1941 and the Boys of Summer who seemed to assemble great teams unable to stop the Yankee wrecking balls.

And you’d be hard pressed to find another franchise winning eight straight division titles with nothing to show for them except two pennants. Even the Atlanta Braves winning eleven straight NL Easts won three pennants and a World Series during that 1995-2005 streak. The Yankees won nine straight American League Easts from 1997-2006 and have five pennants and three World Series rings to show for it.

The Dodgers have done what some people would have thought impossible once upon a time. They’ve become baseball’s most snakebitten 21st Century team.

Sure, it’s easy to look at the ones who don’t get to win even the occasional division title. Sure, it’s easy to look back at the legendary poor boys of the 20th Century. Sure, it’s easy to lament for every St. Louis Brown and Washington Senator ever, or for every Cub from 1945 forward, every Red Sox from 1946 forward, every Phillie from 1950 forward.

Futile, Greek-tragic, or star-crossed, none of them bear the Dodgers’ surrealistic iniquity. They even have a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who’s been the best of his generation and who wrestles inside his own formidable baseball mind with the paradox of the pitcher who once owned the earth in the regular season but shone one moment only to be murdered the next in the postseason.

Sure enough, Clayton Kershaw was one of the suggestions proffered when Twitter Twit extended his nasty invitation. As if Kershaw doesn’t have enough to overcome entering this postseason.

Including his arguable darkest postseason hour last year, when his manager Dave Roberts—not content to give him a pat on the fanny for a well-done job striking Adam Eaton out to escape a seventh-inning division series Game Five jam—sent him out for the eighth instead of his admitted choice Kenta Maeda.

When, instead, Kershaw watched Anthony Rendon send one pitch just over the left field fence and Juan Soto send his very next pitch halfway up the right field bleachers. When Roberts then reached for Maeda—and watched as sickeningly as every Dodger fan in creation when Maeda struck out the side. Too much, too little, too late.

After that division series loss, indignant Dodger fans made a show of running over Kershaw jerseys in the parking lots. On Tuesday, at Twitter Twit’s invitation, there really were those now praying for the continuing postseason takedown of a man who’s been that rarity, an off-the-charts pitcher otherwise who also happens to be a decent, nice man hard pressed to deal with off-field catcalls and snark without entertaining thoughts of manslaughter.

Point out Kershaw’s 2.15 ERA and 2.94 fielding-independent pitching this truncated season—second on the club only to Tony Gonsolin’s 1.77/2.44—and the snarkers break out the October voodoo dolls. Kershaw may be tempted to forget his unostentatious Christian faith and go to the mound with a rabbit’s foot or a good-luck troll in his pocket.

Twitter Twit and his ilk probably don’t have much awareness that baseball’s presumed goats haven’t always been allowed to put the boos and catcalls behind them when leaving the ballpark, either. In some ways, Kershaw jerseys being run over by angry Dodger fans may be one of the more polite such exercises.

How would they like to have been Bill Buckner, playing catch with the young son not yet born when he had his rendezvous with ill destiny in Game Six of the 1986 World Series? When one of the boy’s throws bounced past and, thinking only that he was being polite, said, “That’s okay, Dad, I know you have trouble with grounders.”

That’s how Buckner learned the nastiest among long-suffering Red Sox fans extended their foul play to children. He packed his family up, high-tailed it out of New England, and made for Idaho, where he went into the real estate business. His eventual reconciliation to Red Sox Nation didn’t necessarily mean he’d forget while he forgave. Not until he was stricken with the Lewy Body dementia that took his life last year.

Another ill-fated Red Sox from the same Series, relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, struggled enough with his punishing self-criticism and his Games Six and Seven burdens without having to run into a father and son one day in the future, the son cursing Schiraldi to his face over that Series loss, and Schiraldi horrified that the father did nothing to discipline his son for it.

A year before that Series, Don Denkinger got his after he called Kansas City’s Jorge Orta safe at first when everyone saw clearly that Orta was out by two full steps or so on the play. The St. Louis Cardinals imploded from there, of course. But the outrage over that blown call included a mental case of a radio disc jockey revealing Denkinger’s address and phone number on the air and Denkinger dealing with vandalism and death threats enough to warrant FBI protection for a spell.

Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams blew a 1993 World Series save and spent a sleepless night with his rifle in his arms over death threats (not to mention assorted carpentry nails left under the tires of his and his wife’s cars in their home driveway)—and that was before he entered Game Six and served the pitch Toronto’s Joe Carter clobbered for game, set, and World Series.

Before Buckner and Schiraldi’s ill fates, California Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, already a deeply troubled soul as it was, surrendered a home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to that World Series. The sensitive righthander finally cracked under continuing abuse from fans while his career from there dissipated under injury and his marriage cracked up. In 1989 he shot his estranged wife before shooting himself. His wife survived. He didn’t.

Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was handed the goat horns for the 1939 World Series after the Yankees’ Charlie Keller blasted him at the plate with the score tied in the bottom of the tenth. What they called Lombardi’s Snooze was Keller built like the tank Lombardi was but nailing his groin on the play, unwittingly knocking the hapless catcher out while Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio scored behind Keller.

They also forgot Lombardi couldn’t have cost the Reds that Series—the Yankees were en route a sweep and it was Game Four. Lombardi was a gentle giant with a self-deprecating sense of humour about himself. He was also a lifelong depressive who eventually tried but failed to commit suicide in 1953.

You still think the curse/goat business is all that funny? It might have made for a small library worth of amusing and even semi-classic writing, but I’ve been to funnier muggings. (Including my own, in Washington, in December 1990.) It’s also made for unrealistic views of long-term futility. Curse of the Black Sox? Curse of the Bambino? Curse of the Billy Goat? Curse of Rocky Colavito? How about the curses of myopic or boneheaded management and administration?

Sometimes even the heroes learn the hard way that with certain brain-damaged fans achievement is a crime. Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s two successful home run record pursuers learned the hard way. Roger Maris (single-season) and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron (career) dealt with death threats from miscreants who didn’t want either an “interloper” (Maris, as enough Yankee and other fans saw him) or a black man (Aaron) knocking the Sacred Babe to one side.

Let’s ask Twitter Twit what I often asked Joe and Jane Fan in general. Do you really think you could have done better? Do you really think you could go to your job every day with 55,000 plus at your office or your warehouse or your store or your farm surrounding you—and maybe 550 million watching you live on television?

Do you think you could make a fateful mistake or get beaten at the wrong time in front of crowds like that and just pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, and start all over again? Would you like to go to work knowing that some other tweeter asked whom his followers would like to put a curse on at your place of business?

Don’t try telling me or anyone else you’re just going for a laugh. It isn’t all that funny to the poor soul who comes up short in the biggest of the big moment and knows his name will become synonymous with disaster for the rest of his mortal life.

We need a lot less Twitter Twit. And a lot more Vin Scully. Maybe there can’t be strictly heroes in any postseason, but maybe even today’s too-polarised Americans might think for once about putting their worst to one side and telling the Twitter Twits among us to wise up or clam up.

This bizarro postseason array to come means especially that the division champions still have to navigate—with no days off, yet—the lessers who might heat up suddenly and give them a war, if not a conquest. Once upon a time the dead-last New York Mets got thatclose to knocking the Cardinals out of a pennant on the final weekend. There’s still an outside shot of a team entering this postseason with a losing record . . . and the potential to knock a division winner out if not go all the way to the Promised Land. Funsie.

The Dodgers especially have excessive baggage to carry in without having to steel themselves for that. They’d love to make a postseason winner at last out of themselves and their Hall of Famer to be, but they know too well that one of baseball’s most irrevocable laws is, “Anything can happen—and usually does.”

So maybe the most polarised and least genial among us might yet summon up our better angel, congratulate the eventual winner, and offer the eventual defeated nothing more than, “Hey, you did your best, you came up short, it doesn’t mean we want you to have the next seat in the electric chair.”

Sure. And maybe I’ll be elected to succeed Rob Manfred.

Intolerable weirdness

Comissioner Rob Manfred presents that piece of metal to the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals.

There it was. Sixteen paragraphs down, during Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin’s Tuesday morning analysis of commissioner Rob Manfred’s virtual panel conducted Monday night by Hofstra University’s business school. The main topic was the Show’s postseason, pandemic-inspired “bubble plan.” Then the real bomb detonated.

Sheinin revealed Manfred saying this pandemic season’s sixteen-team postseason “is likely to remain beyond 2020,” with “an overwhelming majority” of the owners endorsing it before the coronavirus world tour yanked baseball over, under, sideways, down.

“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” Sheinin quoted Manfred directly, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”

Back in February, Manfred got himself into a jam, dismissing thoughts of nullifying the Houston Astros’s illegal-sign-stealing-tainted 2017 World Series win, when he dismissed concurrently the World Series trophy itself (its official name is the Commissioner’s Trophy) as “just a piece of metal.” (His swift apology only helped a little.) Now he’s threatening to make the trophy exactly that, and not in rhetoric alone.

Last Friday, you may remember Sports Illustrated writer Emma Baccalieri saying a pandemically truncated baseball season such as this might make “tolerable weirdness” such as a losing-record team playing for a championship, well, tolerable. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she said, “‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred has crossed the line into intolerable weirdness. It’s not that baseball wasn’t playing chicken at that line when it went to the wild card format in the first place, or when it added the second wild card in the second place. Playing chicken is one thing. Manfred wants the clucking birds to run roughshod over “our landscape.”

Baccalieri’s colleague Stephanie Apstein suggested in the same piece that having even one losing team in the postseason just might force Manfred to see how patently ridiculous the idea is in the first place. Apparently, the more ridiculous something is, the more stubborn Manfred becomes on its behalf.

Last Friday, the Astros—already trying to play through the continuing slings and arrows of Astrogate’s aftermath and the injured list—plus the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers sat within real wild card reach with records below .500 in the wild card standings. When I sat down to write this morning, the Astros had a wild card claim at precisely .500 while two National League teams (the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals) held claims with records one game below .500.

If the truncated season ended last night, those three teams would enter the postseason as wild cards. One .500 team and two losing teams. You tell me what would be wrong if that was the case at the end of a full, unimpeded regular season.

If the Show wanted to do what it could to let teams make up for the revenues lost because of COVID-19 shutting down spring training and the first almost half the regular season, you got that. But does Manfred really want to give .500 or below teams the right to enter baseball’s championship round after a full regular season that’s supposed to leave the best teams and no others going there?

Last Friday I ran down ten wild card era teams who entered October holding wild cards and ironed up going all the way to World Series wins. Some of them remained dubious even holding the trophy, and some of them actually made history to reach the Promised Land. (That would be you, O actual or alleged curse-busting 2002 Anaheim Angels and 2004 Boston Red Sox.)

Every one of those teams at least got there on winning records. Even their own fans knew in their hearts how ludicrous it was to have enjoyed the thrills, chills, and spills of watching their teams and others fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . with the best second-place records in the game.

What’s Manfred looking for, really? The thrills, chills, and spills of a fight to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . as the best of the Show’s losing teams? Does he really think the good of the game is that powerfully defined by making money for the owners? Does he really hold the players in contempt so deep that he’d let them claim greatness when greatness isn’t required to have even the chance at a World Series title?

And where’s the Major League Baseball Players Association? Joining the owners in approving the coming postseason “bubble” is one thing. Why aren’t executive director Tony Clark (himself a former player), his board, and his thirty team player representatives standing up on their hind legs, athwart Commissioner Nero who fiddles while burning their game, yelling “Stop?”

Maybe the union, too, thinks the good of the game is defined that powerfully by making money for the players. Maybe the union thinks the more, the merrier, and the more postseason share dollars to divvy up. Maybe the union, like the commissioner and the owners, doesn’t think as deeply as they should.

Wasn’t the small epidemic of tanking teams bad enough without leaving them even more room to care little to nothing about competition on the field? Does anyone really think those owners with the tank mentality are going to shape up, re-discover what their fans really want to pay for, and build truly competitive teams knowing they don’t have to try all that hard to finish in . . . eighth place?

What about those owners (yes, they do exist) who don’t think like tankers? Who pour their dollars and souls into building and re-building competitive teams and systems for the long race year in, year out? Who field teams who finish seasons on top in their divisions? Who’d still have to run a small gamut of not-quites and not-belongings for the right to play for a world championship on behalf of which they busted their fannies all season long?

How useless it now feels to argue as I’ve argued for a very long time—that the wild cards must be eliminated on behalf of restoring genuine baseball championship, and that if we must have three-division leagues there’s a sensible and sane way to align a proper postseason.

That way would be to have the leagues’ division winners with the best regular season record getting round-one byes, while the leagues’ other two winners play best-of-threes, with the winner of those meeting the bye teams in League Championship Series returned to their original best-of-five formats. Keeping the World Series as a best-of-seven and leaving, ultimately, little to no doubt about the legitimacy of the team that reaches the Promised Land.

How useless, too, it now feels to argue that that would likely cure the number one issue that really dogs baseball’s postseason: over-saturation, the prospect that fans by their radios, in front of television sets, in front of Internet computers, can be exhausted by too much of a good thing.

I didn’t mind some of the rule changes the pandemic truncation invited. I’m all in on the universal designated hitter; few things warm my heart more than not having to see a lineup slot that hit .131 with a .161 on-base percentage all through the 2010s wasted on bats making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. The extremely occasional thrill of a pitcher hitting a home run isn’t. worth. it. Not even for the next Bartolo Colon.

I can also live very nicely with doubleheaders of seven-inning games each. (So can the players, seemingly.) The only problem I have with the idea is why it took over a century to consecrate.

I don’t like the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. I still notice how many managers forget that minimum and still leave the poor saps in even if they’re already getting killed. Poor saps such as St. Louis righthander Jake Woodford. He got pried for two more runs tacked onto Cardinal ace Jack Flaherty’s jacket Tuesday night and had five of his own battered out of him on the way to the Brewers destroying the Cardinals 18-3. And don’t get me started on the free cookie on second base each team gets in each extra inning.

But I’d rather be stuck kicking and screaming with those than to see even one normal regular season in which half of each league gets to enter the championship rounds no matter how little their season records argue for their worthiness. A .500 or a sub-.500 team entering the championship round consecrates incompetence as virtue.

That’s something baseball’s mal-competent Commissioner Nero, and those owners agreeing with his intolerable weirdness, appear clueless to comprehend.

The postseason as “tolerable weirdness”

“We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through it together,” said the Yankee Stadium scoreboard earlier this year. How easy will it be to comfort yourselves that way during the coming weird postseason?

Stephanie Apstein, one of Sports Illustrated‘s most acute baseball reporters, has one sound reason to root for as many losing teams making this truncated season’s postseason experiment as possible. She gets why the postseasons’s expanded for 2020, but that’s as far as her approval goes: “[I]t’s going to be hard to kick the new postseason format if MLB likes what it sees here,” she writes. “And the new postseason format is a disgrace.”

Apstein promptly addresses the New York Yankees, sitting bloodied but unbowed in third place in the American League East and one game atop the league’s wild card heap. Bloodied but unbowed? Last year’s Yankee yearbook could have been The New England Journal of Medicine. This year, it could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal. Half the team staging from St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium is on the injured list this year, Apstein reminds us.

In a normal season, panic would be reigning in the Bronx. Instead, the team trudges through listless game after listless game, secure in the knowledge that it will make the playoffs no matter what. The Dodgers, the best team in baseball, did not make any major moves at the trade deadline, because what’s the point of spending prospect capital to bolster a team that has to win the barely-better-than-a-coin-flip three-game first-round series?

This setup dissuades teams from trying to be good. The clearer that is this year, the more likely it is that we can go back to normal next year.

There, I’ll say it. Apstein wants the losing teams in the postseason in the hope that even the recalcitrant commissioner Rob Manfred sees what a patently ridiculous sight it’ll be. Not to mention a deflating one. We baseball fans were so proud, so long, that our sport didn’t invite practically half of all teams to play for championships. This year, we really will be no better off than basketball or hockey fans.

Eight teams in each league will go to the postseason this year: three division winners and five wild card teams. There’s a reasonable chance that the fifth wild cards at least might go to losing teams: as of Friday morning, the overall standings show the Yankees in the American League and three National League teams (the Marlins, the Cardinals, the Giants) holding final wild card claims . . . each with records a single game above .500.

One potential American League wild card team (the Houston Astros) sits a game behind the Yankees . . . with a record this morning one game below .500. Two potential National League wild cards (the Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers) sit two games behind in that standing . . . three and four games under .500.

It could happen, more than theoretically. And more’s the pity.

Ever since its wild card era began, in 1995, baseball has had more than a few penultimate champions who got to the postseason dance on the wild card in the first place, not having been exactly the best or the winningest in their league in such seasons. I’m talking about you, 1997 Florida Marlins (second best league record), 2000 Yankees (fifth-best league record), 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (third-best), 2002 Anaheim Angels (third-best), 2003 Marlins (third-best), 2004 Boston Red Sox (second-best), 2006 and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (fourth-best, each time), 2014 San Francisco Giants (fourth-best), and 2019 Washington Nationals (fourth-best).

Even those teams’ fans must have thought to themselves how ludicrous it was to experience the thrills, spills, and chills of watching their teams fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . in second place. Never mind this year’s setup, those setups, especially with the advent of the second wild cards, dissuaded teams from trying to be a little bit better than just above average.

Last year’s Nats, of course, went from being 19-31 after 23 May’s play to dancing the lights out (74-38 on the regular season; 12-5 in the postseason) on the way to Washington’s first MLB World Series conquest since the Coolidge Administration. (The Homestead Grays, based in Washington, won the final Negro League World Series in 1948.) They beat the Astros fair and square (and entirely on the road) in the Series, no questions asked, but it’s not as though they’d been the kings of the National League all season long.

Maybe, as Apstein’s colleague Emma Baccalieri says, the price we pay for baseball at all this pandemic year is that things were bound to be a little weird. “Especially,” Baccalieri says parenthetically, “given the varying team-by-team impacts of the coronavirus—that’s made it much harder than usual to gauge a club’s actual talent level from its record.”

But Baccalieri says a one-time-only “tolerable weirdness” of a sub-.500 team in the postseason is one thing. Making it any kind of reality past this tolerably weird season is something else. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she writes, “‘tolerable weirdness’  shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred’s regime to date has seemed too often to be the regime of tolerable weirdness. We’ve had the barely tolerable weirdness thus far of things like the free cookie on second base to open each half extra inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, managers forgetting that minimum and leaving relievers in past three batters even (especially?) when they’re being murdered on the mound, and canned crowd noise in the ballparks.

About the only thing that hasn’t joined the barely tolerable weirdness yet is that hapless stadium DJ who hits the crowd noise surge by accident when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch. But don’t hold your breath.

This postseason stands an excellent chance of stretching tolerable wierdness to the point of intolerance. Even fans of the division winners, a couple of whom may have to face a sub-.500 team to open and possibly be closed out by a heretofore-undetectable surge, may think to themselves, hell must be very much like this.