The troublesome case of Curt Schilling

2020-01-05 CurtSchillling

On the mound a Hall of Famer, in retirement a Hall of Shamer.

Once upon a time, Curt Schilling’s own general manager (it was Ed Wade, during their Phillies years) described him as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.” By assorted readings I knew that the pitcher who evoked guts on the mound and philanthropy off it during his career was also a man in retirement who shot from the hip and the lip and bothered about the messes left afterward.

Which made Schilling no worse than assorted non-sports entertainers who speak of things beyond their professions and embarrass themselves likewise, but somewhat less, than they often embarrass those to whom their crafts are received as part and parcel of their daily bread.

But in 2016 there came the notorious Schilling tweet of a T-shirt proclaiming, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” with the just-as-notorious vote of approval reading, “OK, so much awesome here.” (Schilling deleted the tweet when the fit hit the shan, as Mr. Elder would say, but it still lives in a few thousand screen captures if not more.) His momentum for Hall of Fame election hit the wall the way Wile E. Coyote hit the earth falling from the cliff. The only shock, at least when it came to Hall of Fame-voting writers, is that they didn’t carry through on any undisclosed desires to burn Schilling in effigy. At minimum.

Over three years later, at this writing, Schilling by way of publicly disclosed voting has a shot at being elected to Cooperstown this time. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, out of votes disclosed publicly (the Baseball Writers Association of America has allowed that the last couple of years) Schilling has 108 votes, or 80 percent of the votes known thus far. He needs to prevail on 75 percent of the total vote, and the Tracker says that means he needs 201 more votes to get there.

The Tracker also says Derek Jeter is at a hundred percent of the known votes, Larry Walker is at 84.4 percent of those, and Barry Bonds is at 75.6 percent. (The winners will be announced on 21 January.) And even Bonds sometimes seems less a controversy than Schilling.

It’s a waste of ink to review Bonds above and beyond a simple if discomfiting fact: Whatever he did or didn’t use among actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, it happened during baseball’s so-called Wild West Era when the substances ran rampant (and often enough misconstrued) and neither their teams’ administrations, the players’ union, nor then-commissioner Bud Selig was in that big a hurry to stop them. When the owners, the union, and the commissioner finally wised up and brought in testing, the duo’s long careers were pretty much over and out.

Yet it’s Schilling who makes Hall of Fame watchers even more nervously than anything surrounding Bonds. Bonds’s admission a few years ago that yes, he was a first class jerk most of the time when he played, with or without the actual or alleged PEDs, did much to soften his once-forbidding image. Schilling’s only too renowned for the kind of diarrhea of the mouth that provokes even those who agree with him to wish his saliva glands secreted Kaoepectate.

Now we hear from Peter Gammons, one of baseball’s most long-respected journalists, whose Beyond the Sixth Game is the best available analysis of what became of the Red Sox from after the 1975 World Series and the beginning of free agency through 1985. In a lengthy but imperative read at The Athletic, Gammons examines Schilling’s Hall of Fame case and includes this quick but pungent insertion about the “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” business: “Schilling says he wishes he’d never done so, admitting, ‘it was in poor taste’.”

That may not satisfy two contingencies among those who follow Schilling’s Hall of Fame voting progress. One says Schilling did nothing more than say what a lot of people wish they’d had the guts to say about today’s journalists. The other says Schilling himself should be married to a rope and a tree for even thinking that way about journalists, when he isn’t being flogged for assorted sociopolitical opinions about which “controversial” may resemble a compliment so far as some are concerned. (We should note that most of those Hall voters uncomfortable with Schilling rarely if ever cite his support for today’s not so popular or amiable president as part of their grounds.)

Among purely baseball writers, Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Susan Slusser (the San Francisco Chronicle and a former Baseball Writers Association of America president), and Jose de Jesus Ortiz (another former BBWAA president) were three among many who decided that advocating murder equals the kind of character flaw that enjoins against Hall of Fame enshrinement by way of the character factor among the voting criteria.

When I first saw Schilling’s approval of marrying journalists to ropes and trees, I also thought he went far beyond the line that distinguishes mere criticism from thoughts of homicide. And I wished to God that Schilling remembered he could have drawn the line between objecting to flawed journalism and killing journalists without fearing he was tempering his view.

There’s as much to abhor as to admire about journalism and always has been. There’s scrupulous and unscrupulous journalism alike. Journalists delude themselves if they think otherwise. There’s also the parallel syndrome, likewise undeniable, that bias isn’t a one-way street: Readers see with their biases just as frequently, and not always scrupulously. Enough of what’s considered unscrupulous journalism is considered that not because it is that but because it speaks of things readers simply don’t want to know.

Well, enough of what a politician on any side of the ideological divide denounces as “fake news” isn’t “fake” but, rather, news he or she simply doesn’t like, too. Practising opinion journalism such as I practise now? Of course you get called unscrupulous now and then, not because you are, but because someone reading and disagreeing with your latest offering believes the disagreement by nature indicates scruples missing in action.

Applaud murdering journalists or other writers and speakers with whom you disagree or who brought you news you dispute or didn’t want to hear, and it’s something entirely beyond mere objection. Even American presidents, including the incumbent to whom Curt Schilling’s plighted his political troth, have only harassed with incessant rhetoric if not government apparatus, but they haven’t killed writers whose publications infuriated them—yet. When not using the press for themselves or against each other, that is.

Think of how many people continue to respect Thomas Jefferson as a champion of freedom including and particularly the press—until he wasn’t, then denounced him for saying nothing could be believed in a newspaper until he and his frenemy John Adams needed the newspapers to call each other a hermaphrodite and hypocrite (Jefferson, about Adams) or a half-breed atheistic libertine. (Adams, about Jefferson.) If you thought presidents resorting to schoolboy or locker room-style name-calling began with President Tweety, this Packard Panther car is in my garage and can be had for a measly three large.

Schilling knows only too well that he’s expert at shooting first and regretting later. “Gotta own the times you go off the rails,” he tweeted regarding one such regretted shot. He’s had to own the equivalent of a chain of stores worth of those times since his retirement from baseball, alas. Gammons, who’s known Schilling a long enough time and knows only too well how often his train jumps those rails, thinks the thing that seems to worry Hall of Fame voters most isn’t likely to happen:

My guess is that if Curt Schilling ever walks to the microphone on the stage in Cooperstown, he will be as close to speechless as he’s ever been, and the words that he utters will not be political but instead will honor [Jim] Palmer and [Tom] Seaver, Randy [Johnson] and Pedro [Martinez], [Greg] Maddux, Sandy [Koufax] and [Bob] Gibson.

He may mention the day Tony Gwynn went 5-for-5 against him, or much how he respected [Barry] Bonds, walking him 19 times in 100 plate appearances. I expect he would mention Johnny Podres and Terry Francona and Cal Ripken. And pay homage to Roberto Clemente, because the journey to that podium really began with [his father] Cliff Schilling’s favorite player.

As a pitcher, Schilling is qualified and then some to be a Hall of Famer. “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home,” The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe wrote in that book, “and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.”

If you doubt that assessment, be reminded that seventeen pitchers have struck out 3,000+ batters but only four of them have done it while walking fewer than 1,000. The four are Schilling and incumbent Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. Nice company to keep, particularly if you consider Jenkins may still be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated pitchers who ever stepped on the mound. If you doubt Schilling’s stature as a true big-game pitcher, you didn’t see him in several pennant races and postseasons, especially in 2004.

Schilling’s right to speak is equal only to someone else’s right to reject the thought, and to reject the thought isn’t quite the same as rejecting his right to enunciate it. Neither is concluding that the thought indicates a character as well as an intellectual flaw. He’s had his feuds with assorted journalists (including the aforementioned Heyman, Slusser, and de Jesus Ortiz), but he hasn’t been suspected of graduating from mere disputes to hunting down and trying to kill them himself, either. Yet.

The voting rule that includes the character factor reads, Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. The Hall of Fame was born in 1936; that rule, known as Rule 5, was born in 1944. The parents were Hall of Fame founder Stephen Clark and then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, whose integrity, sportsmanship, and character allowed him to refuse allowing non-white men to play major and minor league baseball.

The Hall of Fame includes no few whose play was as extraterrestrial as their characters were actually or allegedly subterranean, and they weren’t all elected before 1944, either. It also has no few whose administration of parts or all of the game were suspect. (Landis, anyone? Ford Frick? Bud Selig? George Weiss? Tom Yawkey?) doesn’t mean Hall voters are barred from considering character during or post-career. (Ponder how many still wish to remove O.J. Simpson from football’s Hall of Fame over his long-past-football-career crimes.) There’s no further absolute right to Hall of Fame enshrinement no matter your pure performance papers, really, than there is to play or work in professional baseball in the first place.

A lot of baseball players active and retired have had contentious relations and even shoving matches with members of the press. (“When you like us, we’re the press,” the late New York Times columnist/language maven William Safire once said. “When you hate us, we’re the media.”) A lot of journalists have been just as disdainful of a lot of players, for assorted reasons valid and invalid. But I can’t think of any player who ever suggested marrying even his least favourite journalist to a rope and a tree. Not even sarcastically, which was Schilling’s original defense.

If Schilling’s as sincere as Gammons suggests in regretting his wish for the marriage of journalists to ropes and trees, accept his apology, with the qualifier that you shouldn’t expect every journalist on any block to forget the sarcasm defense. “I don’t blame any journalist for eliminating Schilling from consideration,” Jaffe wrote this past November. “I’m done telling anybody to hold his or her nose and vote for such a candidate just because of stats and a highlight reel.”

Remind yourself, too, that whatever your particular political preferences, Curt Schilling’s worst enemy is the one he sees in the mirror when he shaves. If the Hall of Fame really was an institution to which was affixed and enforced, “Horse’s Asses Need Not Apply,” he wouldn’t belong. But that plane took off eons ago.

Marvin and Ted, a love story

2019-12-08 TedSimmonsMarvin Miller Press ConferenceWhen all was said and finally done, Marvin Miller got what he no longer wanted. He’d said it expressly and pointedly enough, citing specifically the assorted Veterans Committees he believed with certain merit were often enough stacked for certain results. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

Miller’s name turned up on the Modern Era Committee ballot now concluded, and there emerged a bristling debate as to whether Miller’s express wishes did or didn’t supercede the prospect that, at long enough last, he would attain even posthumously the honour many believed too long overdue but his family believed should be set aside according to his very own wishes.

More than most baseball men Miller knew that the Rolling Stones were right about one thing at least, namely that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. What he needed from this year’s Modern Era Committee to go into the Hall of Fame was twelve votes, and he got them, one shy of the thirteen awarded to enshrine former catcher Ted Simmons.

Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields now, Miller didn’t get what he wanted but got what he needed, and it’s to lament that previous Veterans Committees or their 21st Century successors-by-category didn’t give it to him while he was still alive and well enough to accept and appreciate it. But there’s a nice synergy in Miller going in however posthumously with Simmons who is very much alive, well, and working as an Atlanta Braves scout today.

Even as Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day before the Supreme Court, Simmons himself came close enough to challenging the clause himself, entering his second year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular catcher, who thought establishing himself thus even at age 22 was worthy of just a little bit more than a $6,000 or thereabout pay raise.

Simmons refused to sign for 1972 for a penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, and held in the lowest $20,000s. Simmons opened the season without a contract, the Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed, and everyone in baseball cast their jeweler’s eyes upon the sophomore catcher who defied the athletic stereotype (among other things, he’d serve time on the board of a St. Louis art museum and a knowledgeable one at that) and the clause that owners abused for generations to bind their players like chattel until they damn well felt like trading, selling, or releasing them.

This wasn’t a veteran who’d seen too much and heard too much more; this was a kid whom you might have thought had everything to lose but who lived as though principle trumped even a three-run homer. He played onward and refused any Cardinals entreaty that didn’t equal a $30,000 salary, then went to Atlanta the selected All-Star choice as the National League’s backup catcher. He’d barely landed and checked in when Devine rang the phone. Would Simmons kindly accept $75,000; or, the $30,000 he asked for for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons very nervously, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court if things came that way, never mind that Flood had yet to get his Supreme Court ruling. (And lost, alas.) He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal, but the Simmons case handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy on the black market or otherwise: the owners would rather hand a lad $75,000 than let any arbitrator get to within ten nautical miles of the reserve clause.

A former United Steelworkers of America economist, Miller won skeptical players over in the first place by being just who he was, and he wasn’t the stereotypical union man with a bludgeon instead of a brain, pressing hardest on the point that no concern of theirs was out of bounds and that the doors to the Players Association’s office would remain open whenever they wanted. His mantra was, “It’s your union,” a mantra one wishes was that of numerous other American labour unions to whom the rank and file were and often still are, generally, to be seen and not heard.

Ahead of the Simmons issue still lay Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter to shine a light on what a fair, open market portended for baseball players, when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on insurance payments mandated in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator hearing Hunter’s grievance ruled in favour of the righthander. At once, Hunter’s Hertford, North Carolina home hamlet became baseball’s hottest address, teams swooping in prepared to offer him the moon, the stars, safe passage through the Klingon Empire, and grazing rights on the planets of his choice.

Hunter merely astonished one and all by finally signing the third-richest offer in front of him, at seven figures plus for the next five seasons, and one that came at almost the eleventh minute, because the Yankees—whose representative Clyde Kluttz went back with Hunter his entire career to that point—were willing to divide the dollars according to his wishes, right down to an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. After writing the division on a napkin in a diner nook, Hunter’s first question ahead of the dollars to be done was whether the Yankees could or would do that. They could. They did.

And ahead of that, still, lay Andy Messersmith, one of the game’s best pitchers, pitching for and haggling contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring 1975. When those hagglings turned a little too personal for Messersmith’s taste, thanks to general manager Al Campanis injecting personal and not baseball issues and stinging the pitcher to his soul (and to this day he refuses to discuss it), Messersmith refused to talk to any executive lower than heir apparent Peter O’Malley and demanded a no-trade clause in the contract to come.

Like Simmons, Messersmith refused to sign unless he got the clause, out of refusing now to let the Al Campanises dictate his future if he could help it. Like Simmons, Messersmith played on in 1975, pitching well enough that when fans and artery-hardened sportswriters weren’t needling him about his unsigned contract the Dodgers were trying to fatten his calf in dollar terms. They offered him princely six-figure annual salaries at three years, but they refused to capitulate on the no-trade clause.

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association,” Messersmith, ordinarily what John Helyar (in The Lords of the Realm) described as happy-go-lucky and a little flaky, said much later. “At the start it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” Indeed not until August 1975 did Miller reach out to the still-unsigned Messersmith, the last man standing among six players who opened 1975 without signed contracts. Only then did Messersmith agree to file a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

Messersmith followed through. (Retiring pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired, agreed to join the grievance as insurance in case the Dodgers’ dollars seduced Messersmith, who wouldn’t be seduced.) The owners refused to listen when such representatives of their own as their Player Relations Committee leader (and then-Milwaukee Brewers chairman) Ed Fitzgerald, pleaded with them to consider negotiating a revision of the reserve system. “We need to negotiate while we’re in a power position,” he pleaded. Plea denied with the very pronounced sound of a gunshot’s bullet going through the owners’ feet.

And—abetted among other evidence by a newspaper article, in which no less than Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith acknowledged a proper reserve clause application would make a player a free agent after one signed season and one option season, properly applied—arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Messersmith’s favour. “Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons would say. (Helyar described him as choked up.) “[Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all, recognising as he did that teams did have certain rights in players they developed even as he knew, and insisted, that baseball players should have the same rights as any other American from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive to test themselves on a fair, open job market when they were no longer under contract.

It did more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of the day would have allowed, especially in their lamentations over the coming death of competitive balance. (Pace Mark Twain, the reports of its death were extremely exaggerated, and still are: among other things, more teams have won World Series since the Messersmith ruling than won the Series before it.) But few things were more astonishing than the owners’ subsequent chicaneries, unless it was seeing the years go passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not as popular with many of his former clients as his work on their behalf.

Simmons, of course, went forward to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown; his peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Exactly why never seemed clear, other than perhaps residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog (who traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined repositioning the field), but the advanced metrics show Simmons the tenth best catcher to strap it on, ever. Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board director.

One vote samba

2019-11-23 DerekJeterFlip

Derek Jeter performing The Flip. A few Hall of Fame-voting writers seem to have flipped, too.

There’s a rather troublesome trend brewing among Hall of Fame voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America. Since the group now allows public Hall vote disclosure, some early voters are disclosing, all right. They’re disclosing one-vote ballots and the votes are going to Derek Jeter.

Jeter’s Cooperstown enshrinement was a given from the moment he doffed his Yankee pinstripes for the last time. There’s a swelling sense that, as Newsday writer/voter Anthony Rieber puts it, Jeter “deserves to stand alone at the podium as the entire Hall of Fame Class of 2020 on July 26 in Cooperstown.”

And, a parallel sense enunciated by another Newsday writer, Steve Marcus, that the Hall of Fame is getting a little too crowded, which he emphasises with his #keeptheHallsmall hashtag. Marcus also declared, a la the headline attached to a 2019 column in question, “Legends are my baseline for baseball Hall of Fame ballot.”

I’ll take the first argument first. It’s a relative to the old discredited argument that, if so-and-sos didn’t get elected on their first tries, then so-and-sos to come shouldn’t be elected first ballot, either.

Try this one on for size: How would you like someone arguing that if Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner didn’t get to stand alone when inducted into Cooperstown, then nobody else should, either? Didn’t think so.

As it happens, only 22 players in the history of the Hall of Fame were the only ones to be elected by the BBWAA in the years they got the call. That’s less than ten percent of all major league players in the Hall, whether elected by the writers or the assorted Veterans Committees:

Rogers Hornsby (1942)
Charlie Gehringer (1949)
Luke Appling (1964)
Ted Williams (1966)
Red Ruffing (1967)
Joe Medwick (1968)
Lou Boudreau (1970)
Ralph Kiner (1975)
Ernie Banks (1977)
Eddie Mathews (1978)
Willie Mays (1979)
Bob Gibson (1981)
Willie McCovey (1986)
Willie Stargell (1988)
Reggie Jackson (1993)
Steve Carlton (1994)
Mike Schmidt (1995)
Phil Niekro (1997)
Ozzie Smith (2002)
Bruce Sutter (2006)
Goose Gossage (2008)
Barry Larkin (2012)

You might have thought a few of those men deserved to stand alone among BBWAA choices, of course. Who’d argue against Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, and Ozzie Smith? Not I, said the fly. Maybe Reggie Jackson, too. The man was one of a kind, even if some of his critics might follow saying so with “Thank God!”

Now, would you like to know whom among those BBWAA winners really stood alone? As in, standing at the induction podium with nobody else—not a Veterans Committee selection, not an executive, not a pioneer, not a Negro Leagues inductee, nobody—on their big day? Four—Hornsby, Stargell, Jackson, and Smith.

Rieber and Marcus and probably a few more writers, not necessarily confined to the BBWAA’s New York contingent, think Jeter belongs to that set and maybe even subset. Set aside for the moment that he was actually an overrated shortstop, overall, and you can still find the plausible argument that Jeter wasn’t quite in league with such position players as Williams, Mays, Schmidt, and Smith.

Come to think of it, there’s a better case that Jeter’s longtime “Core Five” Yankee teammate, Mariano Rivera, deserved the stand-alone BBWAA vote more if the circumstances granted it. Rivera was the absolute best in the business at what he did. Jeter wasn’t, quite.

Don’t go there about the postseasons just yet. Yes, like The Mariano, Jeter and the postseason were a long, happy marriage. His postseason OPS is comparable to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson’s lifetime OPS per 162 games. Think about that for a moment: Jeter as a number two hitter in the postseason was equal to a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter on the regular season, even if the Man of Steal could beat Captain Clutch in a footrace with one leg amputated.

The player who makes the absolute difference between his team getting to or missing the postseason is extremely rare. Jeter’s Yankees getting there in the first place, never mind winning five rings, were total team efforts. (Jeter did win one World Series MVP, in 2000.) Just as Williams’s Red Sox getting to only one World Series, Mays’s Giants getting to only three (winning one), Schmidt’s Phillies getting to only one (and winning), and Smith’s Cardinals getting to three (winning once) were total team shortfalls.

But Jeter did shine in the postseason. And made it look so simple a child of five could have done it. (Thanks, Groucho.) If you thought he was already built to act as though the New York heat met its match in his charisma and his ability to duck every controversy that swarmed his Yankees, come the postseason Jeter played as if the big moment was just another day on the job, just another chance to play the game he loved.

(Just for the record: Lifetime, Jeter’s best performance was in medium-leverage situations, with a .321/.380/.464 slash line. His high-leverage performance was almost even with it: .311/.391/.418. Medium-leverage OPS: .844; high-leverage OPS: .809. When the stakes were lowest, so was Jeter: .299/.371/.426, with a Boeing OPS: .797. It’s no crime that a man saves his best for when it matters just that much more toward winning.)

Reggie Jackson once talked about “the magnitude of being me,” and for all his once-outsized ego he didn’t necessarily mean it as self-congratulation. Jeter lived the magnitude of being him as though it was as natural as coffee at the breakfast table and worth just as much discussion—none.

Jeter’s Hall of Fame election would make him the tenth Hall of Fame shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. The longer I watched him, especially in all those postseasons, the more I now wanted to see how he stacks against the nine others according to my real batting average concept.

In traditional BA terms, the terms I prefer to call the hitting average, he’s a lifetime .310 hitter. And he does have those 3,465 career hits. But there’s a problem there: the hitting average is an incomplete picture of a man at the plate, and 3,000+ lifetime hits by themselves tell you nothing about what they were actually worth.

Stop snarling, grumpy old giddoff-mah-lawners. Ask yourself how proper it is to declare all hits are created equal and divide them purely by official at-bats. And ask yourself whether 3,465 career hits are really better than 3,184 hits. Yes, that’s a ringer. The 3,184 belong to Cal Ripken, Jr., whose lifetime hitting average (sorry, I’m sticking with the program again) was .276. And as I’m about to show you, Ripken was actually a better man at the plate than Jeter was, without once suggesting that it means Jeter doesn’t belong in Cooperstown.

We should ask why we don’t account for everything a man does at the plate. We should ask why we don’t add his total bases (which do treat all hits the way they should be treated: unequal, unless you really think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run), his walks, his intentional walks (why aren’t we crediting a guy when the other team would rather he take his base than their pitchers’ heads off?), his sacrifices, and the times he got plunked? (They want to put you on the hard way, let it be on their heads.) And, we should ask why we don’t divide that total by his total plate appearances.

And then, we should do just that. TB + BB + IBB + SAC + HBP / PA. That’s your real batting average. And this is how Derek Jeter stacks up with the nine incumbent postwar/post-integration/night ball Hall of Fame shortstops:

Shortstop PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Luis Aparicio 11230 3504 736 22 177 27 .398
Ozzie Smith 10778 3084 1072 79 277 33 .422
Phil Rizzuto 6719 2065 651 35 195 49 .446
Pee Wee Reese 9470 3038 1210 67 176 26 .477
Alan Trammell 9376 3442 850 48 200 37 .488
Robin Yount 12249 4730 966 95 227 48 .495
Derek Jeter 12602 4921 1082 39 155 170 .505
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 66 126 55 .520
Cal Ripken 12883 5168 1129 107 137 66 .539
Ernie Banks 10395 4706 763 202 141 70 .565
HOF SS AVG .486

Jeter’s .505 is the fourth best among the group. It’s nineteen points above the average for the Hall of Fame shortstops, and only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are ahead of him. He’s third in walks behind Ripken and Reese; he’s second only to Ripken for total bases; he’s third to last (ahead of only Rizzuto and Aparicio) for intentional walks; he’s fourth to last in sacrifices (Larkin, Ripken, and Banks are behind him), but boy did he take more for the team getting plunked. (Nobody else among the shortstops has more than 70.)

In other words, Jeter’s a bona fide, above the average, Hall of Fame shortstop, and collecting more hits than any Hall of Fame infielder counts even if the total picture offensive picture lines him up fourth among postwar/post-integration/night-ball shortstops.

It’s his defense that leaves Jeter a little overrated. He was Ozzie Smith-acrobatic at his best. His gymnastics happened often enough, even if the Wizard of Oz makes The Captain resemble an aspirant. Maybe the signature defensive play of Jeter’s career, among several highlight-filmers, was that barehand grab of a throw home from right that missed two cutoff men, Jeter running down the infield from shortstop, hitting the middle of the first base line as he grabbed the ball, and the backward shovel pass home as he stepped into foul ground, to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League division series.

But Jeter did have more limited range at the position than you remember, and he wasn’t as good at saving runs as you expected him to be when you remembered all the dazzlers he performed, despite having a strong throwing arm and steady hands. Lifetime, Jeter at shortstop was 155 defensive runs saved below average, and he was 13 runs saved below average a year.

There’s the difference. Watching Jeter and Smith their entire careers was as entertaining as it got. They were both shortstop acrobats. But that’s where the comparison ends. The Wizard of Oz was a Flying Wallenda  and the greatest defender at the position. Jeter’s no less a Hall of Famer because for all his own flying he wasn’t even close to Ozzie Smith-great at shortstop. Nobody else really was, either.

Which returns me to Steve Marcus and his legend measurement. Jeter is one of eighteen Hall of Fame ballot premieres, with fourteen more making return engagements. Never mind the controversies attached to the following players, for now (including the one his one-time general manager described as “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four”), but the ballot includes a few other legends: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa.

Of course, not every legend is a Hall of Famer (hello, Roger Maris, for openers) and not every Hall of Famer is a legend, either. (Nice to meet you, Bobby Wallace.) If Marcus and others of his like think only bona fide legends belong in Cooperstown, then Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa are as overqualified as Jeter. If they think those guys aren’t legends, they’ve been sleeping longer than Rip Van Winkle.

“It was a wacky war”

2019-06-06 YogiBerraNavy

The well-circulated colourising of Yogi Berra’s official U.S. Navy portrait.

NOTE: As a way of thanking my fellow veterans for their service and—regarding those who served with me—their comradeship during my Air Force service of 1982-87, I’d like to repeat this essay, written on D-Day’s 75th anniversary this summer.

Specifically, this republication is dedicated to the memory of George Hursey, the last known survivor of Pearl Harbour living in Massachussetts, who passed away at 98 the day before Veterans Day.

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Yogi Berra once gave a half-puckish beginning explanation as to how he became part of D-Day, World War II’s major Allied invasion of Europe from the Normandy beaches, as an eighteen-year-old Navy seaman. He made it sound like relief from boredom. As he so often did with his fabled Yogiisms, he had a knack for good humoured understatement.

Something still seems to be missing from America since Berra’s death four years ago, which was also more than a year and a half after his beloved wife, Carmen, preceded him. And there may be worse reasons to think about the Hall of Fame catcher and personality than remembering how he got himself aboard a Navy rocket boat in time to be part of D-Day.

Berra was a Yankee prospect playing for their Norfolk, Virginia farm in 1943. Norfolk also just so happened to be the headquarters of the Fifth Naval District. Which meant it was also the governing center of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. Which also meant Norfolk and nearby Newport News overrun with sailors and civilian defense workers, an estimated 750,000 of them in a pair of towns whose populations combined weren’t quite as large as that of the Bronx.

His biographer Allen Barra, in Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, has written that the lad’s first real problems in Norfolk were long lines at the movie houses he loved and trying to stretch his $90-a-month minor league salary. “I never got too hooked on cigarettes, because I couldn’t afford them,” he once said. “Maybe starvation kept me from getting cancer.”

Once, knowing his team’s two other catchers were ailing, Yogi launched a unique version of a strike, telling his manager he wasn’t well for lack of food and the ploy worked toward getting him a $5 a month raise. His mother, Paulina, helped by slipping him a few extra dollars in the mail with instructions not to tell his father. And Berra became popular enough on the Tars that one ardent fan, a lady, provided him a full hero sandwich of salami and provolone every Sunday game.

That sandwich, Barra wrote, “was for Yogi what spinach was for Popeye.” After he received the first such gift, he smashed twelve hits and drove in 23 runs in two games against Roanoke. (This was the doubleheader that prompted Carmen Berra to remember, “When I heard about the 23 RBI day, I figured he had a future.”) He played well enough to be able to think an equal or better 1944 would get him a Yankee call-up. “Yogi was looking forward to an explosive 1944,” Barra wrote. That’s a polite way to describe the one he got.

Berra knew only two things: 1) He’d be in military service soon. 2) He had no idea where. Told his draft papers were drawn back home in St. Louis, he asked for and got them sent to Norfolk. After the Tars played an exhibition game with the Norfolk Air Station (some of the Norfolk players included such Show men as pitchers Fred Hutchinson and Hugh Casey, outfielder Dom DiMaggio, and Yogi’s future Yankee teammate/fellow Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto), he talked to a warrant officer at Norfolk’s Navy training station and took the man’s suggestion to enlist in the Navy.

When his boot camp in Maryland ended, his mother underwent surgery; he was allowed to be with her until she could return home. After that, Yogi went to Little Creek to train for the amphibious service. The routine otherwise was so hurry-up-and-wait that the kid relieved his boredom at the base movie theater and with the comic books he fell in love with. Then one night he was watching Boomtown, the Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy film, when the film suddenly stopped and the theater lights suddenly came back up.

Berra and all the other sailors in the theater were ordered to line up. Officers asked for volunteers—for rocket boat duty. None of the young swabbies had a clue about rocket boats but when someone called them rocket ships, Yogi perked up. The idea that volunteering in military service was tantamount to being very careful what you wish for hadn’t yet been programmed into his mental data base.

The boats, as Barra noted, “turned out to be small landing craft, LCSSs (Landing Craft Support Small), whose purpose was to spray rockets on the beach before troop landings. There were duller things to train for. Some of the men got the hint that they might be participating in a major troop landing, perhaps the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe that the papers were always writing about.”

The sailors called the rocket boats big bathtubs. If you played with toy boats in the bath when you were a small child, try now to imagine having a bath with 48 rockets, one twin .50-caliber machine gun and two .30-caliber machine guns. The boats affirmed the aforementioned hints: their purpose in life was to hammer the Normandy beaches and clear the way for the troops’ landing crafts. Yogi and his fellows had a name for them: “The landing craft suicide squad.”

The rocket boatmen first went to Plymouth, England. Once again it seemed to be hurry up and wait. Three weeks after they arrived, though, Berra’s LCSS was attached to what was thought to be the smallest transport ship in the Coast Guard fleet, the USS Bayfield. It made for Normandy early on 4 June. The Bayfield carried six LCSSs. “Just before dawn, on the morning of June 6, 1944,” Barra wrote, “their rocket boat was lifted on the davits and lowered over the side and, in Yogi’s words, ‘expendable as hell, we headed in for Omaha Beach’.”

The LCSSs were the tiniest boats on the waters heading into firing position.

“It was scary,” Yogi would remember, “but really something to see. I was only eighteen, and I didn’t think anything could kill me. I didn’t know enough to be scared. I had my head up over the side of the boat all the time, looking around like it was the Fourth of July in Forest Park and after the fireworks we were going to go over and get some hot dogs and Cokes.”

Bless his innocent soul, Yogi probably had no idea how vulnerable the LCSSs were. The sides of those boats weren’t exactly thick. One errant enemy shell, especially one hitting any of the boats’ rockets, would have made not the Fourth of July hot dogs but them into duck soup. Berra’s peekings over the edges to see the show ended when his lieutenant advised him to put his head down if he had plans to keep it.

The LCSSs waited for their lead boat to fire a test and see if it reached the beach. If it did, the other boats would move in close. It did. And inimitably, Yogi described the boats moving in “closer than the hitter is to the left field [wall] at Fenway Park.” One and all of them began firing. “I couldn’t see all the bloodshed that they showed in the movie [Saving] Private Ryan,” he remembered years later, “but I did see a lot of guys drown.”

Berra’s and all the LCSSs did what they were sent to do. Well enough that by D-Day’s afternoon they could actually relax, though they were under orders to remain through 9 June for cover fire in the event the Nazis had ideas about the counterattack that never came.

They had more trouble from an anticipated storm smashing in on 8 June, battering the boats and even flipping Yogi’s over. Before that they had trouble through no fault of their own—a friendly fire incident. Three fighter planes appeared above and the LCSSs were under orders to shoot down anything flying below cloud level. The LCSSs fired and hit one plane. The pilot bailed and parachuted before the plane hit the drink. Yogi ordered his boatmates to keep him covered, expecting to hear a stream of German.

What he heard was a stream of English language swearing. The crew had shot down an American plane whose markings they couldn’t see in the murk of the storm. When the storm worsened, Berra’s boat flipped over. Try to resist the temptation to say that only Yogi Berra and his boat crew could survive D-Day just to get thatclose to drowning after the artillery stopped.

They hung on until they were rescued and returned to the Bayfield. A Nazi bomb fell near the ship but no serious damage occurred, according to Barra and others. Berra said later he was too tired to be scared. Years later, when he met D-Day’s mastermind, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, he couldn’t bring himself to ask Eisenhower about the invasion. “I never talked about D-Day,” Yogi remembered. “It didn’t seem right, but now I wish I had.”

With good reason. Numerous sailors believed Eisenhower was aboard one of their ships on D-Day. This was because of Eisenhower’s soon-to-be-immortal radio message (You are about to embark on a great crusade) that was actually recorded at the 101st Airborne’s headquarters while watching the first Allied aircraft reach for the skies on that day. Even today, it sounds so clear that when you play it it sounds as though Ike’s telling it to you side by side as you’re about to hit the links.

Berra and his squadron got a break to rest at Portsmouth before going to Bizerte, the coastal North African coastal town, and by 15 August 1944 he was part of the LCSS force hitting Marseilles and strafing hotels and other facilities co-opted by German forces. Berra’s boat was almost hit by mistake by a British shell that turned out to be a dud.

Berra himself got close enough to death when ships of the British Royal Navy behind the LCSSs fired at targets past the hotels and, while holding a rocket, one of his crew hollered to hit the deck. As he ducked under a gun mount, Yogi accidentally dropped the rocket. “It did not go off,” Barra wrote, “or you wouldn’t be reading this book.”

During a furious barrage, Berra got nicked by a bullet from a German machine gun before he manned his twin .50s and fired to cut down fleeing Nazis. As American troops landed, the locals swarmed the sailors with gifts and song. “It was a wacky war,” Yogi would remember. “A half hour after we were getting shot at by the Germans, the French were welcoming us.”

He rarely talked about his World War II experiences in the decades to follow. On the rare occasion he did so, even that provoked a little humour, as in the Los Angeles Times overhearing Berra talking to Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer and Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver. Wrote the Times: “Yogi survived D-Day and George Steinbrenner, and all in forty years.”

He had to survive a more sensitive customer, though: his mother. After receiving a month’s leave for the Christmas holidays, Berra went home and showed his family his hard-earned decorations: a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, a European Theater of Operations ribbon, and a Good Conduct Medal.

Paulina Berra was already in tears as it was. Her boy also earned the Purple Heart when he was nicked by that Nazi bullet, but Yogi didn’t dare make the formal application for that medal. He figured that if Mama Berra knew what the Purple Heart really meant, she’d suffer a purple heart attack.

Emotional dignity at the Hall of Fame

2019-07-22 BrandyHalladay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019-07-22 HallofFame2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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