Yadier Molina, talking through his sombrero

Does Molina (here getting an attaboy from Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty) also think the annual Gold Glove should be a lifetime achievement award?

You thought Yadier Molina was too intelligent to play a race card? You didn’t hear him when the Gold Glove finalists were announced and the longtime St. Louis Cardinals anchor didn’t make the cut.

“Respect to all the finalists in the 2020 National League catcher!” Molina began a furious Instagram post during the week. “Now . . . I see an injustice to those who decide or not . . . I don’t know if it’s @mlb or whoever but it’s clearly that they don’t want this Boricua Jibarito to draw with the great @johnnybench_5 . . . or me at 38 years I’m still the best.. ask every catcher in the mlb and they’ll tell you!!!”

The problems with Molina’s fury only begin with his apparent forgetfulness that another Boricua Jibarito—English translation: Puerto Rican little yokel—hold the major league record for catchers with thirteen Gold Gloves. You may have seen his Hall of Fame plaque: Ivan Rodriguez.

Molina has nine Gloves. Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has a National League record ten. If there’s a move among Gold Glove voters to deny a Puerto Rican little yokel a tenth Glove, it’s not as apparent as Molina thinks.

Under normal circumstances, the Gold Gloves would be chosen by about 75 percent managers and coaches and 25 percent statistics, surface and sabermetric alike. In pandemic-pressed 2020, the Gloves candidates were chosen by statistics (surface and sabermetric alike) alone. And they say Molina at 38 years old isn’t the best behind the plate this year, and maybe anymore.

Specifically, Rawlings, who present the Gloves every year, elected to use strictly the Society for American Baseball Research’s Defensive Index. This has only been a decade or so overdue, unless you’d like to continue seeing Gold Glove winners chosen past their primes on reputation more than real results or by highlight reels over hard season-long truth by managers and coaches with familiarity bias.

The National League’s Gold Glove catching finalists are Tucker Barnhart (Cincinnati Reds), Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs), and Jacob Stallings (Pittsburgh Pirates). Molina thinks he’s still better than the rest of the National League pack when he didn’t even make the top five Glove candidates in a year the numbers alone picked the contenders.

The numbers say Molina committed five errors in 42 games, the five being his most in a season since 2017, a year in which he won the Glove. They also say three passed balls in 42 games equaled his full-season total from 2014, another year in which he won the Glove. They say Molina tied for the fifth-most wild pitches escaping him this year with fourteen and finished seventh in the league in defensive runs saved.

He may take this as adding insult to injury, but Molina was easier for baserunners to commit crime against than Austin Nola (Philadelphia Phillies) and Austin Hedges (Cleveland Indians) this year. He hasn’t been as high as second among arresting officers behind the plate since 2010, and he hasn’t been as high as the number four handcuff clapper since 2017.

What Molina seems to have wanted—especially becoming a free agent hoping for one more, maybe two-year payday—is a Lifetime Achievement Gold Glove. As if there haven’t been too many Gold Gloves awarded on just that basis when all else was said and done. At this writing he’s the number one active catcher for games caught, catching putouts, catching assists, total zone runs for catchers, and fielding percentage.

Handling pitching staffs? The pitchers who’ve thrown to Molina lifetime have a 3.68 overall ERA teaming with him. That puts him ahead of Rodriguez; the pitchers who threw to I-Rod lifetime had a 4.68 overall ERA teaming with him. It puts him behind freshly-minted Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (3.65), Bench (3.52), Berra (3.41), and Carter (3.31). Essentially, he’s handled pitching staffs the way you should expect a Hall of Fame catcher to handle them.

Unfortunately for him, the Gold Glove doesn’t reward lifetime achievement. That’s what the Hall of Fame is for. (For all we know, maybe Rawlings strikes a Palladium Glove for lifetime achievement one of these days.) And Molina knows exactly what we know, that his Hall of Fame case rests entirely on his work behind the plate. As a hitter, Pudge, Simba, the Little General, Yogi, and The Kid he ain’t and never was. (And why didn’t someone think to give Bench his own nickname and not make him share with Gene Mauch?)

If Molina wants to play another couple of years and a team thinks he can do so—most likely as a solid veteran presence and the shepherd of its next generation behind the plate—let him have that one more payday. But when he says the Gold Glove people just don’t want some Puerto Rican little yokel meeting the great Bench while some other Puerto Rican little yokel has more Gold Gloves in his trophy case than even the great Bench, Molina is talking through his sombrero.

Joe Morgan, RIP: The Machine’s main man

A portrait of the artist as a young Astro.

In terms of watching and following and loving baseball, I went back a very long way with Joe Morgan. In the early years of the Houston franchise, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, Morgan was one of the three Astros I knew immediately, the others being his middle infield partner Denis Menke and pitcher/eventual manager Larry Dierker.

At the plate Morgan was already something of an on-base machine whose smarts with a bat, not to mention unusual power for middle infielders in the 1960s, got challenged only too often by the cavernous-enough Astrodome. Around second base Morgan and Menke were as sleek and coordinated a double play team as you ever saw.

The Hall of Famer who’s widely considered the greatest all-around second baseman ever to play the game died Sunday at 77 in his Danville, California home after a long battle with leukemia developed from myelodysplastic syndrome and with a form of polyneuropathy.

We don’t know yet whether Morgan died watching his one-time, long-time Astros opening the American League Championship Series with a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, as Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford died at home watching his Yankees tangle with the Rays last Thursday.

But one thing we do know is that the Astros handed the Cincinnati Reds the keys to the kingdom, not to mention two leases in the Promised Land, when they included Morgan—the final but most important gear in the Big Red Machine—in an eight-player swap with the Reds after the 1971 season.

The question is, why. The answer is, most likely, Harry Walker, the last Astros manager for whom Morgan played.

Aside from Walker tending to treat his non-white players like children with the brains of turnips, Harry the Hat had a habit from hell. He fancied himself a great hitting guru (he wasn’t) who’d had one unlikely success that he couldn’t live without trying to lather, rinse, repeat, repeatedly, in the years to come of his managing career.

The unlikely success was Matty Alou. He let Walker—newly installed to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates for 1966—convince him to marry a heavier bat to choking up and slap-and-tickling his way on base. Just the way Walker himself did in his own playing career. Then Alou made a huge mistake. He won the 1966 National League batting title with one of the emptiest .342 hitting averages you ever saw. He’d finish his career as one of the emptiest .300 hitters you ever saw.

Alou also finished his career with practically the same average run production per 162 games lifetime as Walker did: 120 for Harry the Hat, 117 for Alou.

When Walker took the Astro bridge, he went to work at once. He saw a pack of smart, solid hitters with decent power and able to reach base reasonably enough and failed to see them. Because what he really wanted to see was a lineup full of Matty Alous. He wanted to repeat his striking success with Alou (his batting average in ’66 was 82 points higher than his lifetime average going into that season) in the worst way possible.

And the worst way possible is exactly what Harry the Hat got for his trouble.

He tried to convince Morgan to channel the inner Matty Alou he didn’t have. He tried turning Bob Watson into the all-fields hitter he wasn’t and, while he was at it, turning Watson from a first baseman (which he was, more than capably) into a catcher (which he wasn’t, less than capably). He also tried to convince Jimmy Wynn to barrel up less and worry about his batting average more, never mind Wynn being one of the National League’s most consistent power hitters.

The fact that Wynn was an on-base machine himself by way of his smarts working out walks when need be didn’t turn up on Walker’s limited radar. Walker seemed to believe being smart enough to take the base on balls when the pitches didn’t look too hittable equaled laziness, lack of hustle.

Morgan was self-assured enough to stand athwart Walker regardless. Wynn couldn’t convince Harry the Hat that his strikeouts were an awful lot better than hitting into double plays. And neither Little Joe nor the Toy Cannon were exactly shy about letting the skipper know just that.

They tangled with Walker. (Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four covered his short stint with the 1969 Astros, remembered Wynn holding an empty rifle to Walker’s hotel room door just to blow off steam.) They lost.”The pruning of ‘troublemakers’ is a yearly project with the Astros,” snarked The Sporting News in 1971, “particularly so since Walker has been manager.”

More important, when Reds general manager Bob Howsam offered Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Cesar Geronimo, Astros GM Spec Richardson pounced. Richardson couldn’t yet admit that his malcontents had good reason for their malcontent and that his manager’s inveterate search for a lineup of Matty Alous did the Astros exactly one favour: none.

It did the Reds the biggest favour in their history. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s life as a Machinist, the Reds won four National League Wests, back-to-back pennants, and back-to-back World Series. The back-to-back Promised Land leases were accompanied by Morgan’s back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player awards. For the first five seasons of Morgan’s all-around, elbow-flapping, nail-driving tenure as a Machinist, he was the absolute best player on the team.

He was worth 47.8 wins above a replacement level player in just those five years. No other Red was close. Not Johnny Bench (32.4), not Pete Rose (31.4), not Tony Perez (18.3). The pain in the neck opponents saw at the plate or playing second base wasn’t just in their eyes. The objective and deeper measurements say the Big Red Machine would not have been at peak efficiency and would not have won without him.

Morgan even got to make a return engagement with the Astros after the Reds began dismantling the Machine rather than accommodate to the new free agency era. The Astros brought Morgan home on a free agency signing and he got to be part of the Astros’ surprise but engaging run to the 1980 National League Championship Series.

He even got to help the 1983 Philadelphia Wheeze Kids into the postseason. Not to mention joining the Giants and hitting the season-killing blow for the Dodgers, a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh putting the game out of reach and assuring the Dodgers of a second-place NL West finish.

In later life Morgan became a popular and respected baseball announcer, providing insight astride Jon Miller’s play-by-play for years of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He also became a member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. He was friendly and open, talking to anyone with a brain and discouraging people from calling him anything more formal than Joe, especially fellow former players.

His aplomb could be disarming, such as when he and Miller were at the mikes when the Loma Prieta earthquake rudely interrupted the 1989 World Series. “Well, I grew up in the Bay Area,” he said dryly, “so I’ve been in earthquakes before.” He wasn’t exactly bragging about it.

He was engagingly candid and realistic about his on-air presence and style. “I don’t see myself as a Larry King or somebody,” he once said. “When you do interviews, sometimes it turns to interrogations. I’m more of a conversationalist, not throwing hardball questions.”

Yet even he could never entirely avoid the mistreatment to which black people remain subject. He was once detained roughly in 1988, at Los Angeles International Airport, by undercover police assuming him a drug courier.

“Over the next hours, the nightmare deepened, and it was all because I was just another black man,” he wrote in his memoir. “No longer a celebrity, as anonymous as any other black man, I was exposed to whatever fury was going to be meted out.” He proved his identity at police headquarters and was also exposed to a $796,000 settlement in his favour by the Los Angeles City Council.

Morgan’s most wounding flaw as an analyst was his war against sabermetric analysis. This engaging man, with one of the finest minds his sport has ever known, dismissed the very idea of deep analysis of his sport, of which statistics are the very life blood, in the kind of shrillery and incoherence you’d sooner expect of an office seeker rejecting what was plain to see in front of him as an illusion, if not fake news.

Even when sabermetrics rated Morgan the greatest second baseman ever to play the game, ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. To Morgan, Hornsby’s .358 lifetime batting average reigned supreme. Hornsby’s lackings as an all-around second baseman, and his compiling outrageous batting stats in a heavily hitter-friendly, all-daytime, non-integrated game, didn’t even register.

This was the same man whose gracious Hall of Fame acceptance speech included, “I take my vote as a salute to the little guy, the one who doesn’t hit 500 home runs. I was one of the guys that did all they could to win. I’m proud of my stats, but I don’t think I ever got on for [those].”

So let us remember Morgan the strong-willed little big man, flapping his left arm in the batter’s box before ripping a screaming line drive or a high-lining home run, turning basepaths into guerrilla warfare turf like his hero Jackie Robinson, making second base a place for the death of an enemy rally, the field lieutenant absolutely sure he’ll clear out the thickets for himself and his troops to neutralise all opposing weapons.

Let’s also remember Morgan the family man, raising two daughters who became college athletes, divorced when he and his first wife drifted apart but remarrying happily and having twin daughters with his second wife. Morgan makes the sixth Hall of Famer we’ve lost to the Elysian Fields this surrealistic season, but their loss can only be deeper.

Whitey Ford, RIP: The Chairman takes his leave

“A couple of New York kids who made good,” Sandy Koufax’s biographer said of Koufax (Brooklyn-born) and Whitey Ford (Manhattan-born, Queens-raised), here sharing a handshake before Game One of the 1963 World Series.

When Jane Leavy researched and interviewed for her splendid biography of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, she discovered something about then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky had an animus against Koufax’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

Ford, who died Thursday at 91, was Leavy’s girlhood hero. Pinsky’s poem “Night Game” addresses Ford and Koufax, who met twice in the 1963 World Series with Koufax beating Ford twice. But over a decade earlier, Pinsky as a boy waited at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to get Ford’s autograph.

Ford then was an emerging Yankee hero, a second place 1950 American League Rookie of the Year finisher who’d rolled a 2.51 ERA after his June call-up and beat Hall of Famer Robin Roberts to finish the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” pennant winner.

Now, Ford pitched for the Army Signal Corps to fulfill his military obligation of the time. When Pinsky finally got to face Ford and asked for the autograph, Ford replied, “Not now, kid.”

When Pinsky told the story to Leavy while talking about “Night Game,” she called Koufax the morning after. After a couple of moments’ silence on the other end of the line, she noted, Koufax asked her, “Do you think he’d like a ball?” Two weeks later, Pinsky received the ball, autographed by Koufax and accompanied by a small, handwritten note saying, only, “Whitey’s really a good guy.”

“Ford subsequently redeemed himself in Pinsky’s estimation,” Leavy wrote, “with a plaintive, if belated, explanation for his youthful rudeness: ‘Soldiers don’t give autographs.’ (And in mine by asking for a copy of Pinsky’s poem. ‘He wrote nice about Sandy?’ Whitey said. ‘I’d like to see that.’)”

This was the same Whitey Ford who had a classic reaction when Koufax, winner of a spanking new Corvette as the 1963 World Series’s Most Valuable Player, left the awards banquet to discover the car parked on the sidewalk . . .with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield. “Sandy has only two flaws,” Ford cracked. “He can’t hit, and he can’t park.”

That from the pitcher who once cost the Yankees a run in a World Series game when he tagged and left third base too soon on what should have been a sacrifice fly by his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra.

The Los Angeles Times‘s Hall of Fame sportswriter Jim Murray handed Ford his enduring nickname, when he wrote rooting for the 1950s Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel with Ford—whose eight World Series Game One starts is a major league record—the chairman of the board.

A compact lefthander at 5’10”, Ford was most renowned for two things. Thing One: the likewise compact delivery that relied as much on his brains as his repertoire, an assortment of off-speed pitches he threw all around the strike zone, since he couldn’t even throw the proverbial lamb chop past a snail. Batters hit .235 off him lifetime.

“If it takes 27 outs to win,” his longtime manager Casey Stengel once said of him, “who’s going to get them out more ways than Mr. Ford?”

“He was like a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands,” recalled one-time Boston Red Sox outfielder Walt Dropo. “You’d start thinking along with him, and then Whitey had you because he never started you off with the same pitch in any one sequence.”

Thing Two: Mr. Ford’s sense of humour. A man who spends the bulk of his career cleaning up after his Yankee bestie Mickey Mantle’s messes almost as often as he befuddles hitters and pitches in the World Series (his 33 consecutive scoreless World Series innings remains a record) needs a sense of humour. And maybe a healthy supply of anti-migraine medication.

Ford wasn’t exactly allergic to the night life in his native New York (he was Queens-born), but he wasn’t exactly allergic to knowing when to shut it down, either. “His fellow rogues, Mickey, Billy [Martin], and Toots [Shor, the legendary New York sports restauranteur], were all gone,” New York Daily News writer Bill Madden wrote in his 2003 book Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “but he had survived, still the same wisecracking, self-assured son of the city.”

Wisecracking and practical joking. When Yankee infielders Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz were still barely past rookie status, according to teammate Jim Bouton in Ball Four, Ford and Mantle told the pair they’d finally arrived and were ready to go out on the town with the big boys. In Detroit, Ford and Mantle instructed Pepitone and Linz to dress to kill, hail a cab, and head to the Flame where they were to ask for Mantle’s table.

Pepitone and Linz did as instructed. They dressed to kill. They hailed their cab. And discovered the hard way that the Flame—once a legendary Detroit jazz and rhythm and blues hot spot (among others, assorted future members of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers house band had played the place)—was now a ramshackle wreck with the glass blown out and maybe two surviving toasted tables remaining.

Ford’s playful side extended to making sure the Yankee bullpen didn’t get bored when members weren’t called upon to warm up and get ready to go into a game. “I think it should be known,” Bouton wrote on 5 April, in the journals he kept to compose Ball Four, “that when Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees he set up a table with a checkered tablecloth in the bullpen. On the table there was an empty wine bottle with a candle in it. Also hero sandwiches. Whitey Ford had style.”

Ford was a thinking craftsman on the mound and a practical joking, fun-living fellow off it.

And influence. A month and a half later, Bouton had to record: “Hot flash! Whitey Ford’s Italian restaurant in the bullpen has a real rival in the Baltimore bullpen: wienie roasts.”

When Whitey and Joan Ford married in April 1951 in Long Island City’s St. Patrick Church, Stengel arranged a little surprise for the couple: he loaded the entire Yankee team, including Joe DiMaggio, onto a bus following an exhibition game to hit the church. One Yankee was too nervous to get off the bus, like his fellow rookies, so the newlywed Fords went out to greet him.

That’s how he met Mickey Mantle for the first time. The friendship that must have made Ford wonder often enough whether the devil was punking him started on a bus outside his wedding church. “Years later,” Ford said, “Mickey told me the highlight of that day for him was meeting Joan, not me.”

The ever-quick Ford got a measure of vengeance when his first grandchild was born. When his son-in-law phoned in the dead of night to announce the birth to Grandpa, Ford called Mantle—who went into the Hall of Fame with him in 1974—first thing in the morning. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Last night for the first time in my life I slept with a grandmother.”

In Pride of October Madden wrote that Ford wasn’t always comfortable having been the sole survivor among the little night-owl group of himself, Mantle, and Martin. The only time Ford was ever uncomfortable with Stengel—who judiciously managed him as an every-fifth-day pitcher to save him for the bigger games of Yankee races and the Series—was when Casey neglected to align his 1960 Series rotation to let Ford pitch more than twice, which probably did cost them that Series as much as Bill Mazeroski’s winning home run.

Ford was also uncircumspect about his late-career ball doctorings. Admitting he turned to chicanery in a bid to hang on as long as he could until elbow and arm miseries forced him to call it a career in 1967, Ford swore he never did it during his Cy Young Award-winning 1961 or his likewise 20 game plus-winning 1963.

“Well,” he added puckishly, “maybe a little.”

“For a long time,” Bouton revealed, “Whitey got away with throwing a mud ball that was positively evil.” If the grounds crews wetted the infield or the mound a little too generously, or he and/or his late-career catcher Elston Howard could mix saliva and dirt surreptitiously, Ford would get a tiny mud load on balls. One-time Los Angeles Angels pitcher/flake Bo Belinsky once said, “If a mud ball was left for me on the mound, I had two outs waiting right there.”

“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Bouton continued.

Eventually the opposition, particularly Bill Rigney, the manager of the Angels, got wise to him and he had to quit using the mudder.

Then he went to his wedding ring. He gouged such sharp edges into it that we used to kid him about having lost the diamond out of it. He’d scuff up the ball with the ring and make it do all the things the mud ball did, except maybe now the song was different. He got by with the ring for a couple of months . . .

After that, Ellie Howard sharpened up one of the buckles on his shin guard and everytime he threw the ball back to Whitey he’d rub it against the buckle. The buckle ball sang two arias from Aida.

Madden convinced Ford to show him around the Astoria, Queens neighbourhood where he grew up as the son of a Con Edison electrical worker. Ford pointed to a yellow-bricked apartment building where he’d lived ten years and adjacent to where his wife-to-be lived as a girl. “I was sixteen and she was twelve,” Ford said. “She had great legs. That’s what attracted me most about her. We moved three or four times when I was growing up there. I guess every time the rent was due.”

Some of Ford’s boyhood acquaintances and friends in that predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish neighbourhood grew up to go into baseball as he did, including future coaches Tony and Al Cuccinello and future Minnesota Twins pennant-winning manager Sam Mele. So did a kid named Anthony Benedetto, whose family owned a nearby beauty salon.

“It wasn’t until he after he left the neighbourhood,” Ford said, “that he changed his name to Tony Bennett. Kind of like me, going from Eddie to Whitey, only I think his new name did a lot more for him than mine did for me.”

Baseball-Reference shows ten major league players (including two who eventually became managers) named Whitey. Be assured that if you just say “Whitey” in any gathering, they’ll remember Ford first. But neither they nor even longtime Yankee fans will remember him as quickly as his widow, two of his three children (his son, Thomas, died in 1999), and his grandchildren.

Once during an Old-Timers Day ceremony, Ford and Berra watched the Yankee Stadium video board display a tribute to Yankees past who had passed away that year. Yogi turned to Whitey and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there!”

Ford can now tell Berra in the Elysian Fields, “Yogi, I never wanted to see your name up there, either!” Even at 91, Ford’s family and baseball fans alike weren’t quite ready to see his name up there, either.

The suddenly Luddite Hall of Fame

Allen’s Hall candidacy waits an extra year since the Hall won’t Zoom.

Dick Allen used to hit home runs that zoomed into earth orbit. Thanks to the Hall of Fame’s unexpected allergy to Zooming, Allen’s and others’ Cooperstown candidacies will have to wait another year.

Among other changes fun and dubious the pandemic has imposed upon baseball, two Era Committees—the Golden Era Committee on which Allen would now be a candidate, and the Early Baseball Era Committee—now won’t meet until winter 2021, with those they elect if any inducted in 2022.

It seems the old fogies who think baseball is headed into an abyss with newfangled analytics aren’t the only ones who think technology and the old ball game are a match made in hell. Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections:

With the nation’s safety concerns, the travel restrictions and the limitations on group gatherings in effect for many regions, it is not possible to ensure that we can safely and effectively hold these committee meetings. The Era Committee process, which has been so effective in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, requires an open, yet confidential conversation and an in-person dialogue involving the members of the 16-person voting committee.

Is Clark telling us that members of the Era Committees or the Baseball Writers Association of America (who determine their candidacies) can’t Zoom what numerous schools and non-retail businesses have arranged, managed, and zoomed since the coronavirus world tour kicked into overdrive in earnest a few months ago?

It really is so simple a child of five can do it. (Sorry, Groucho.) Lots of children of five in kindergartens are doing it.

When the Today’s Game Committee elected Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame so controversially two years ago, the committee members included Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, a man who is about as allergic to high technology as Donald Trump is to self-congratulation. And, Dave Dombrowski, last seen as the Boston Red Sox’s general manager until late last season.

Surely Clark and the Luddites among Hall governors don’t think a manager who helped introduce the computer to baseball thinking and strategising would have run home to Mommy at the idea of Zooming about Hall candidates? Or, a general manager who last worked for a team 20,000 leagues deep into analytics that require computers as much as other tools?

Technology isn’t always a gift, of course. There probably isn’t a baseball jury on earth that would say artificial turf was a baseball blessing. But if Clark thinks confidentiality would be compromised by a Zoom remote conference call, what does she think when, almost invariably, certain Hall of Fame doings and undoings get leaked to the working press routinely enough?

Fair disclosure: I have a little skin in this game. I’ve championed Dick Allen for the Hall of Fame for quite awhile now, after once being skeptical about it myself. (I’d also like to see elected his great contemporary Tony Oliva plus Minnie Minoso, both of whom deserve the honour.) But a long time reviewing the record as it was and remains convinced me that Allen belongs in Cooperstown.

I’m convinced with no further questions asked that his Hall case was compromised way less by the racism against which he waged war in Philadelphia than by a series of injuries he was sometimes foolish enough to try playing through, and that those injuries kept him (as Rob Neyer and others have observed) from posting better late-career numbers that might have solidified his Hall case.

Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook, says it better in prose than I could (and did) say it:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

 

I can and did say it statistically, too. I determined on my own that if Dick Allen had been allowed fifteen completely healthy seasons and a normal late-career, uncompromised decline phase, he might have finished his career with as many as 525 lifetime home runs instead of the 351 he did hit. (Oliva wasn’t Allen’s kind of power threat but the same healthy fifteen seasons and uncompromised decline phase might have left him with 315 lifetime homers.)

According to my Real Batting Average metric—which I’ve since modified to disallow sacrifice bunts (sorry, but intentional outs don’t and shouldn’t count) but retain sacrifice flies; and, which allows the complete look at a player that traditional batting average (treating all hits equal and factoring only “official” at-bats) denies—this is Dick Allen in his absolute nine-season peak period, and bear in mind that he missed an average twenty games per season in that period because of injuries:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-1972 5,457 2,592 685 120 33 11 .631

Forty-one percent of Allen’s hits went for extra bases, too, and they weren’t all those orbital belts that once inspired Hall of Famer Willie Stargell to suggest one reason Allen was booed by the notorious Philadelphia boo-birds (Those people would boo at a funeral—Bo Belinsky, briefly a Phillie) was that his home runs traveled too far to become souvenirs.

“What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it,” Allen told his biographer/Phillies historiographer William C. Kashatus once. “So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, Allen, Oliva, Minoso, and others covered by the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees, the Hall that includes members who were elected on behalf of being innovators (Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck) or pioneers (Albert Spalding, Barney Dreyfuss) is suddenly allergic to a little pioneering.

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.