Pete Rose, without the other stuff

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, fresh young Red . . . without Rule 21(d) and the Cobb-chase circus, how was he really as a player?

Is it strange to think of Pete Rose at eighty years old? Of course it is, especially for those old enough to have seen half or better of his playing career. But eighty he is, as of Wednesday past, and he is also freshly employed by UpickTrade—to sell baseball predictions to subscribers for $89 a month.

“Picks provided for MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL, Tennis, Golf and major Horse Races. Grow your sports bankroll with the Hit King.” Thus Upick ballyhoos Rose’s prognostications. During a media conference on his birthday Wednesday, Rose insisted he wouldn’t be betting, merely picking based on his baseball experience and knowledge.

Baseball’s most notorious gambling exile this side of the Black Sox, tying himself to a Website picking events for bettors to bet, giving himself one more dubious look in a life full of them, is purely coincidental. Right? Rose wouldn’t exactly agree.

“For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame,” he told that Wednesday presser, “you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989.”

That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

If I’m ever bestowed that honor, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world. I don’t think me picking games—not betting on games, I have to keep saying that—picking games for customers will not in any way, shape or form hurt my opportunity to get to the Hall of Fame someday. I’m not the only guy that’s ever made a bet in the world of baseball. I probably bet today less than any of them.

“Suspended?” Have it your way, Pete.

I’m not going to re-argue the Rose “suspension” now. The mountain range of evidence, the long and pitiful record of the lies Rose told for decades, and especially the plain language of Rule 21(d) should have put paid to that argument long ago. So should the Hall of Fame itself deciding, quite appropriately, that those ineligible for standing in organised professional baseball had no business appearing on ballots through which they might be conferred baseball’s highest honour.

(To those who insist baseball’s recent agreements with certain legal gambling enterprises mean Rose should be un-banned, remember that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean your employer lacks the right to ban you from doing it when it involves your job.)

But I would like to do one thing. For argument’s sake, I’d like to make as though Rose’s violations of Rule 21(d) never happened, that he was never banished from the game for which he continues professing his deepest love, then ask and answer the following question: How absolutely great was Pete Rose as a player?

The eternal image of Rose the player is that of a junkyard dog clawing his way to whatever he gained on the field, at the plate, on the bases. His lifetime partisans hoist the near-constant image of headfirst slides and praise him irrevocably as evoking all that was once right and proper about the game. But his .375 on-base percentage ranks 215th all-time. And his percentage of extra bases taken on followup hits was yanked down to 49 percent thanks to his six-year decline while still chasing Ty Cobb’s hits record.

Speaking of which, let’s put the Hit King business to bed. Allen Barra tried, in his 2002 book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century. Rose in his view was “an arrogant, shallow, self-centered jerk who hung around years after he had any value on the field simply to eclipse [Ty] Cobb’s [career hits] record. You’re a fan, you want to pay money to watch that kind of circus junk, then you pay your money. I stopped caring about the so-called record two years before Rose surpassed it.”

Was Barra out of line? From his Rookie of the Year season 1963 through the end of his first regular season with the Phillies, his first eighteen seasons, Rose collected 3,557 hits. He could have retired right then and there, after playing on the 1980 Phillies’ World Series winner, and had himself a very Hall of Fame worthy career, plus a hit total a lot of Hall of Famers might have envied still.

Rose’s most emphatic partisans will find ten 200-hit seasons among those eighteen years and insist that that plus eventually breaking Cobb’s career hit record make him the Hit King indeed. Barra didn’t have the stomach for that, and neither do I. Perhaps audaciously, he asked whom you think is baseball’s greatest hitter, ever, and lo! many of the answers to that turn up . . . well . . .

Many say Ted Williams, but Teddy Ballgame never had one 200+ hit season. Many say Mickey Mantle, and he never had one, either. Many say Willie Mays, and he had only one. Many say Henry Aaron, but he has something else in common with Babe Ruth: only three 200+ hit seasons. (And don’t many still say the Babe?) Many say Stan Musial; he had a measly six. Many say that Mike Trout is in their league—and he is—but the most hits he’s collected in a single season thus far is 190.

Those players one and all were (are, in Trout’s case) better batters than Pete Rose was. Says who? Says my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances, says who:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Ted Williams 9788 4884 2021 243 57* 39 .740
Mike Trout 5514 2642 838 104 52 84 .675
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Stan Musial 12718 6134 1599 298 110* 53 .644
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Henry Aaron 13941 6856 1402 293 121 32 .624
Pete Rose 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

If you believe a lifetime .483 batter was better than a lifetime .740 batter, be my guest. But you say that doesn’t really prove anything? Well, now. How about the extra base hit percentages for each of these fellows? Be forewarned: Rose is going to come up smelling like a thorn.

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Mike Trout 1,396 264 48 306 618 .44
Ted Williams 2,654 525 71 521 1,117 .42
Mickey Mantle 2,415 344 72 536 952 .39
Henry Aaron 3,771 624 98 755 1.477 .39
Stan Musial 3,630 725 177 475 1,377 .38
Willie Mays 3,283 523 140 660 1,323 .35
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

By the way, since he spent so much of his late baseball life obsessed with catching and passing Ty Cobb, be advised that Cobb’s extra base hit percentage is three points higher than Rose’s.

Rose also doesn’t look like such a Hit King when compared to two more of his own contemporaries who both belong in the Hall of Fame and may well get there the next time the Golden Era Committee meets later this year:

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Dick Allen 1,848 320 79 351 750 .41
Tony Oliva 1,917 329 48 220 597 .31
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

There’s a guy whose career overlapped Rose’s by a few years before Rose retired as a player—a guy who’s a match for Rose’s skill set: an early-in-the-order batter with a little power and a near-surrealistic ability to reach base. (Barra once pointed out that, in each player’s fifteen best seasons, this guy reached base more often than Rose and used fewer outs to do it.)

Player H 2B 3B HR XBH XBH%
Tim Raines 2,605 430 113 170 713 .27
Pete Rose 4,256 746 135 160 1,041 .24

Now, let’s look at Allen, Oliva, Raines, and Rose according to RBA. (You may also find yourself breaking the grip longevity alone might have on you, since you’re going to see a very wide difference between Rose’s career longevity and career value.)

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537
Tim Raines 10359 3771 1330 148 76 42 .518
Pete Rose 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

Remove, too, that business about Rose playing in “more winning games than any player, ever.” Saying it almost implies that his teams absolutely wouldn’t have won without him. His actual offensive winning percentage is 67 percent as a Red through 1978 and 55 percent for the rest of his career. Frank Robinson’s OWP as a Red is 74 percent; Joe Morgan’s as a Red is 76 percent.

Which leads to a point I can’t remember people talking much about: whether Rose was the absolute best player on his teams during his absolute prime, the first eighteen seasons of his playing career during which he played on three World Series winners and several division winners and reasonably high in other pennant races.

I ran down Rose’s wins above replacement-level player (WAR) in each of those seasons, from his Rookie of the Year 1963 through 1980, when he ended the Phillies’ World Series win with that staggering foul catch. Except for two of those seasons, Rose was one of his teams’ top ten players and thirteen times one of his teams’ top five. But my guess is that you’ll have one of two reactions to the deets, disbelief or an overwhelming desire to shoot the messenger:

Year Pete Rose WAR/Rank Team Leader/WAR Team Finish
1963 2.4 (8) Vada Pinson (6.4) 5th
1964 1.3 (15) Frank Robinson (7.9) 2nd
1965 5.6 (2) Jim Maloney (9.0) 4th
1966 4.1 (2) Jim Maloney (7.4) 7th
1967 4.8 (4) Gary Nolan (6.0) 4th
1968 5.5 (2) Tony Perez (5.9) 4th
1969 6.6 (1) 3rd
1970 4.8 (4) Johnny Bench (7.4) 1st
1971 5.1 (2) Lee May (5.4) 4th
1972 6.1 (3) Joe Morgan (9.3) 1st
1973 8.3 (2) Joe Morgan (9.3) 1st
1974 5.9 (4) Joe Morgan (8.6) 2nd
1975 4.1 (5) Joe Morgan (11.0) 1st **
1976 7.0 (2) Joe Morgan (9.6) 1st **
1977 2.9 (7) George Foster (8.4) 2nd
1978 3.4 (6) George Foster (4.9) 2nd
1979 3.1 (5) Mike Schmidt (7.9) 4th
1980 -0.3 (20) Steve Carlton (10.2) 1st **

Once. Only once did Pete Rose lead his team in WAR for a season, only once was he the absolute best player on his team, and that was a season in which the Reds stood on the threshold of becoming the Big Red Machine despite their third-place finish.

Twice Rose was the best position player on a team where WAR determined the team’s best player period was a pitcher, and those teams finished in fourth and seventh place. And, in five straight seasons of the Big Red Machine’s heyday, Rose finished second twice, third once, fourth once, and fifth once to Joe Morgan, the overwhelming best player the Machine had.

Rose was a well-established, well-seasoned veteran when Morgan came to the Reds, but it’s absolutely arguable that those Reds would not have won without Morgan. Remember that Morgan’s offensive winning percentage as a Red is 76 percent. For the same seven seasons they were Reds teammates, Rose’s OWP is 68 percent. The Big Red Machine had better chances of winning races because of Morgan than because of Rose.

Which reminds me: what was Rose doing winning the 1973 National League’s Most Valuable Player award (the only MVP of his career) when Morgan was that much better? Easy: Rose led the league in “batting average” while playing on a division winner. So help me, if they’d known about and measured according to RBA they’d have seen the pair a lot differently:

Player, 1973 PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Joe Morgan 698 284 111 3 4 6 .585
Pete Rose 752 297 65 6 0 6 .497

I saw Rose play often enough during his entire career. I saw the headfirst sliding, the running to first base on walks, the hard-nosed style that so often crosses lines to bull headed (or beyond reasonable bounds, as in blasting Ray Fosse at the plate in the 1970 All-Star Game without even thinking of a mere takeout slide) and wasn’t exactly something on which Rose held the franchise.

He was very lucky that playing the game that way didn’t shorten his career by about ten seasons and maybe more. Baseball is littered with similar players who played their bodies right out of the game long before Rose finally did, playing themselves out of providing too much further real value to their teams before their bodies or their brains finally told them to retire or else.

If you remove the issues that sent Rose to organised baseball’s Phantom Zone, and compelled the Hall of Fame to enact a rule denying that men considered persona non grata should be considered for the game’s highest honour, this is how I see him:

Pete Rose would have been a Hall of Famer even if he hadn’t clung to and consummated the pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record, though I also think his 44-game hitting streak in 1978 really kick-started the final discussions about his true or reputed status as a legend. (So did making good on his once oft-stated oath to become baseball’s first million-dollar singles hitter.)

There’s no shame in Rose being a 76 percent singles hitter; so was Tony Gwynn. But I’m going to tell you Tony Gwynn was more valuable at the plate than Pete Rose was. (It isn’t Gwynn’s fault that he lacked the caliber of teammates in his career that Rose enjoyed in his.) Says who? You guessed it: RBA, says who:

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mr. Padre 10232 4259 790 203 85 24 .524
Charlie Hustle 15890 5752 1566 167 79 107 .483

Rose wasn’t close to being the greatest all-around player of his or any era. Yes, he was a multi-position player who played 500+ games each at five different positions. Except for the 673 games he played in left field, he was double-digits below average for run prevention while being worth 52 runs saved above his league average in left field. For nineteen percent of all the games he played.

He was foolish for behaving practically as though he was entitled to take a shot at breaking Cobb’s record despite the fact that, for his final six seasons as a player, his real value to his teams was below that of a replacement-level player. Whether you’re in your prime or a veteran looking to boost your legacy, there’s no such thing as being “entitled” to break a record, revered or otherwise.

Cal Ripken, Jr. put up with a large load of crap pursuing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. Yet Ripken didn’t behave as though it was his entitlement, unless you think saying often enough that it was part of his profession to show up and play every day equals entitlement. Ripken also had far more value to his teams while chasing and passing Gehrig than Rose did while chasing and passing Cobb.

Injuries reduced Albert Pujols to barely replacement-level player after his first year as an Angel. It’s been sad to see for anyone who remembers when he was a Cardinal. But Pujols doesn’t seem to behave as though he was entitled to achieve certain milestones,  the last of which was passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list.

The circus surrounding Rose’s pursuit of and passing Cobb did exactly as Allen Barra described: it “overwhelm[ed] discussion of Rose’s other qualities and deficiencies as a ballplayer.” He’s the Hit King by accumulation alone. He wasn’t close to being the greatest hitter of the post World War II-post integration-night ball era; he wasn’t the best player on his teams in his prime with one exception.

Should I go one step beyond? OK, you talked me into it, and please remember we’re still discussing as though violating Rule 21(d) hadn’t banished Rose to the Phantom Zone. With a  circus-less look at his record as it was, Rose might (underline that, ladies and gentlemen) have had to wait one or even two tries before getting his plaque. He wouldn’t have been either the first or the last of the genuine, Hall of Fame greats to enter as a slightly overrated player.

Remember, too, that slightly beats the living daylights out of being very overrated, or being in Cooperstown despite having little to no business being there in the first place. Just ask Harold Baines, Clark Griffith, Chick Hafey, Waite Hoyt, Travis Jackson, George Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, Tommy McCarthy, and Phil Rizzuto. (The Scooter does belong in Cooperstown—as a broadcaster. Really.) Among others.

It would have been mad fun to have that discussion involving Pete Rose. Absolutely. I’d imagine the passions on all sides of that argument would have been brought to as much of a boil as those on all sides of the argument about, you know, that other stuff.

Unfortunately, only one man was and remains responsible for that other stuff.

————————————————————————————————–

* Recall if you will from a previous essay: The sacrifice fly wasn’t made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several Hall of Famers including Ted Williams and Stan Musial played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. I took Williams’s and Musial’s (and the others’) recorded sac flies, divided them by the number of seasons they played after the rule took force, then took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played.

In simple math, the formula is SF/SRS [sac fly rule seasons] x MLB seasons. It was the best I could develop for getting the total sac flies you could have expected Williams and Musial (and the others) to hit all career long.

** World Series winners.

Paul Lo Duca learns the hard way

Paul Lo Duca, Billy Wagner

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner share a high-five after nailing down a Mets win. Claiming Joe West’s strikes could be bought with Wagner’s classic Chevy sends Lo Duca from high five to out five hundred large . . .

You can accuse one of baseball’s two most notorious umpires of anything you like. Call him a craven self-promoter. Say his strike zone behind the plate is more flexible than politician’s policy positions. Tell the world he’s a meathead for complaining about the length of a baseball game between two certain teams over whom he appoints himself judge and jury.

Those won’t get you hauled into court to answer for defamation. But say on the air that Joe West’s strikes could be bought for the price of using your pitcher’s classic automobile and it’ll cost you six figures. Especially when West wasn’t even behind the plate in the games in question when you caught that pitcher.

Former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca is learning the hard way after losing a defamation lawsuit West filed in 2019. That year, Lo Duca accused West, the single most notorious umpire this side of Angel Hernandez, of being very generous calling strikes with relief ace Billy Wagner on the mound, after Wagner agreed to let the chunky umpire use the lefthander’s 1957 Chevrolet any old time he chose whenever they were in town together.

That’ll cost Lo Duca $500,000 plus interest paid to West after a decision in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday, during a session to determine damages for which Lo Duca didn’t even show up according to numerous published reports.

Lo Duca claimed on a 2019 sports betting podcast that he talked to Wagner after a game in which Wagner both advised Lo Duca to set up a little more inside on the hitters and suggested West would give Wagner the inside corners a little more generously. Why? Here’s Lo Duca himself aboard that podcast:

We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen. I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’

I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field.

I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, “What the [fornicate] just happened just right now?” And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, “What’s the secret?” He’s like, “Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.”

I’m like, “This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?”

'57 Bel Air

A 1957 Chevrolet, the kind of car Billy Wagner didn’t use to buy strikes from Joe West.

There were two problems with Lo Duca’s revelation, as things turned out. Problem One: West countered, and the records support him, that he was never behind the plate when Wagner was on the mound with Lo Duca catching in either 2006 or 2007, the two seasons Lo Duca spent with the Mets. Problem Two: Wagner himself submitted a December 2020 affidavit denying he talked to Lo Duca about buying West off with a vintage Chevy or anything else.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge John Kelley found it too simple to rule in West’s favour when Lo Duca didn’t show up Monday or respond directly to West’s suit otherwise. As of this writing, Lo Duca hasn’t responded to the court ruling and Wagner hasn’t spoken publicly about the case or the critical conversation he denies ever happened.

West remembers working only one Mets-Phillies game behind the plate in the 2006-2007 time frame and Wagner wasn’t on the mound at any time during the game—which ended on a home run, not three straight punchouts. Unlike on a lot of occasions when he calls strikes balls, balls strikes, outs safe, and safes out, West was dead right about that.

You can look it up. In 2006-2007, the Mets played 27 games that ended in walk-offs. Their record in those games: 18-9. (That’s a .667 winning percentage in those games, for those scoring at home.) They included two walk-off games with the Phillies in each year; the Mets won only one of those games:

9 May 2006—Final score: 5-4, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Mets reliever Aaron Heilman’s throwing error on Bobby Abreu’s grounder, allowing David Delluci (two-out triple) to score the winner. Billy Wagner: didn’t pitch. Paul Lo Duca: caught and batted second in the lineup. Home plate umpire: Doug Eddings.

23 May 2006—Final score: 9-8, Mets, sixteen innings. The walk-off blow: Carlos Beltran’s leadoff home run off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. Wagner: pitched the 11th; fly out, two swinging strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Jeff Kellogg.

28 August 2007—Final score: 4-2, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Ryan Howard’s two-run homer off Guillermo Mota. Wagner: didn’t pitch. Lo Duca: caught and batted seventh. Home plate umpire: Joe West. Most likely, this is the game West himself remembers.

30 August 2007—Final score: 11-10, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Chase Utley’s RBI single through the hole at second, after Tadahito Iguchi singled to tie the game and stole second. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered the tying and winning runs. Lo Duca: entered the game in the eighth taking over for Mike DiFelice and batting eighth. Home plate umpire: Ed Hickox.

Four times the Mets and the Phillies played games ending in walk-off hits in 2006 and 2007. Joe West was the plate umpire for one of those games, in which Wagner didn’t pitch but Lo Duca caught. In the two games in which Wagner did pitch, he struck out two of his three batters in the first game but struck out none of the batters he faced in the second game.

As a matter of fact, Wagner was credited with the pitching wins in three Mets walk-offs in 2006 and two in 2007. So we should have a look at those, too:

9 April 2006, vs. the Marlins—Final score: 3-2, Mets. The walk-off blow: David Wright’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. Wagner: pitched the top of the ninth, worked his way out of a two-out jam by inducing a ground out to second base, no strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Ed Montague.

1 May 2006, vs. the Nationals—Final score: 2-1, Mets. The walk-off blow: Lo Duca’s grounder to relief pitcher Gary Majewski on which Majewski’s throwing error trying to start a double play allowed Endy Chavez to score the winner. Wagner: pitched a spotless ninth with two swinging strikeouts and a ground out right back to the box. Home plate umpire: Chris Guccione.

19 May 2006, vs. the Yankees—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright scoring Lo Duca with a fly single off Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Wagner: struck the side out swinging in the top of the ninth. Lo Duca: of course, caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Alfonso Marquez.

23 June 2007, vs. the Athletics—Final score: 1-0, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright’s RBI double. Wagner: shook off a leadoff single in the top of the ninth to get a bunt ground out, a fly out, and a swinging strikeout. Lo Duca: started the game but came out for a pinch hitter in the sixth. Home plate umpire: Marvin Hudson.

21 August 2007, vs. the Padres—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Luis Castillo’s RBI single. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered a game-tying run on Kevin Kouzmanoff’s sacrifice fly, during a rough inning in which he surrendered a single, a walk, and a hit batsman to load the bases for Kouzmanoff. Lo Duca: didn’t play. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.

Five times between 2006 and 2007 Billy Wagner ended up the pitcher of record in walk-off wins by the Mets; only once did he get credit for the win when the Mets walked it off after he’d surrendered a tying run. Paul Lo Duca was behind the plate for Wagner in three of the five. Joe West didn’t call balls and strikes in any of those five games, including the one such game in which Wagner did strike out the side—against the Yankees, not the Phillies—with Lo Duca behind the plate.

West plans to retire after this season. Trying to bring Lo Duca to account, West’s legal team pressed his fear that the Lo Duca podcast appearance would injure his chances to be elected to the Hall of Fame, especially considering he stands to break Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem’s record for games umpired. As The Athletic points out, umps elected to Cooperstown earn a lot more on the rubber chicken and autograph circuits if they have the Hall of Fame on their resumes.

Never mind whether or not you think West belongs in Cooperstown. Lo Duca forgot one of the key lessons we learn at ages younger than Lo Duca’s when he first made the Show: Look before you leap. The tide may have receded.

The Machine is winding down?

Albert Pujols, hitting the 661st home run of his major league career last September to pass Willie Mays. His wife says he’ll call it a career when his contract ends after the 2021 season.

“Since the time he was a child, [he] would eat, sleep, and breathe this sport,” wrote Deidre Pujols on Instagram Monday. Right after she announced that that day would be day one of her husband, Albert’s final season as a major league baseball player. The loving husband responded to his wife’s post with three heart emojis.

The game and those who love it are liable to respond with a lot more than that. Tears included. Not just because of what Pujols was and the no-questions-asked Hall of Fame greatness he personified, but because of what injuries—almost all involving his feet and legs—made of the second half of his career.

But will he retire after this season, really?

Mrs. Pujols subsequently updated the post. “Today is the first day of the last season (based on his contract) of one of the most remarkable careers in sports!” it now reads. Then, she updated it again, saying she wanted only to send him into this season with blessings.

His ten-year, gigabucks Angels contract expires after this season. His tenure has been so injury addled that there came times Angel fans wondered if the Cardinals, who declined to re-sign the first baseman after the 2011 season, hadn’t slipped a whoopee cushion under their tails.

Under normal circumstances nobody likes to see the greats hit their decline phases. Were there more heartbreaking sights than Babe Ruth as a feeble Boston Brave? Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, Satchel Paige, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, and Henry Aaron showing their ages at last?

Those men at least enjoyed the shorter declines. Pujols’s body turned his into a decade. Willie Mays’s kicking-and-screaming decline lasted seven years, heartbroken that he could no longer play the game he loved the way he did for so long. Steve Carlton spent almost half a decade jumping from team to team trying to find the left arm that went AWOL after almost two decades of Hall of Fame excellence. Pujols beat him and everyone else by almost double.

Last year, Pujols finally met and passed Mays on the all-time home run list. Earlier that pan-damn-ically truncated season, Pujols received a text from Mays: “It’s your time now. Go get it.” On 13 September, Pujols finally got it to tie. He turned on Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez’s 1-1 fastball and drove it just the way he did it in the truly glory years, half way up the left field seats on a parabola down the line.

Five days later, Pujols turned on Texas reliever Wes Benjamin’s fastball right down the chute on 1-2 and drove it into the visitors’ bullpen in Angel Stadium to pass Mays.

For a few brief, shining moments, Angel fans were reminded of treasures not really theirs to know, and Cardinal fans from a distance were reminded of what they were so fortunate to see for eleven transdimensional seasons. Watching a transdimensional talent who never stopped believing he absolutely had to get better.

The three-run detonation off Brad Lidge in the 2005 National League Championship Series, kept inside Minute Maid Park only by the retractable roof bracing wall. The reverse cycle of homers in Game Three of the 2011 World Series, every one of them after the sixth inning: the three-run homer, the two-run homer, the solo blast. The deadly lifetime postseason record. All those seasons as the game’s greatest righthanded hitter as well as a very run-preventive first baseman.

And, the sweet way Pujols paid tribute to the Cardinals legend who’d long befriended him, when Hall of Famer Stan Musial died in 2013. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” Pujols insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”

Pujols was so emphatic about it that, when he became an Angel and the organisation festooned southern California with billboards announcing El Hombre‘s arrival, El Hombre blew his sombrero. He insisted very publicly that only one player should ever be called The Man, and his name wasn’t Albert Pujols. It takes longer for mob hit men to disappear their victims than it took the Angels to dispose of those billboards.

You think that was for showing and not for blowing? Few players have had as deep a reverence for baseball’s history as Pujols has had. That depth enabled Pujols to befriend Musial and mentor Mike Trout, “who might be the only position player this century to match [Pujols’s] level of peak greatness,” says The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya.

When Pujols said of Trout last year, ““We have the best player in the game, and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too,” he didn’t have to be told Trout’s already made some history of his own. He knows it. He respects it. He mentored Trout into becoming the Angels’ team leader not by way of claiming the role for himself but by what he does on the field and how he lives off it.

Pujols himself lives a well-apportioned life away from baseball. Among other things, when not raising his own family, he and his wife have worked arduously with Down’s syndrome children—among whom is their own daughter, Isabella—and against human trafficking.

His lower body ruined what should have been a kinder, gentler, simpler decline phase. It’s left him prone to as much criticism under ordinary, non-milestone circumstances as he received high praise whenever the vintage Pujols made the periodic cameo. If the Angels looked foolish for signing him long-term and extraterrestrial salary after the injuries began to chip him down, they never once doubted Pujols was giving the best he had with whatever he had left.

““He plays through discomfort,” former general manager Billy Eppler told MLB.com after he tied Mays. “He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it. But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone that wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”

Even those whose admiration for him didn’t crumple the way his injuries forced him to crumple hoped somewhere, somehow, several times the past few years, that Pujols would swallow his formidable pride, leave the rest of his formidable money on the table, let nothing further tarnish his near-singular legacy, and sink into that ten-year services contract he still has with the Angels following his retirement.

“It has been so hard to watch one of the greatest players in the history of baseball fade like this,” wrote another Athletic scribe, Joe Posnanski, almost a year ago. “Each year, I hope against hope for Pujols to be Pujols one more time. Sadly, that just isn’t how time works. He is 40 now and a decade past his prime. It hasn’t been a sad career, though; far from it. It has been extraordinary. It has been an inspiration.”

It’s not unfair to say Pujols’s contract hamstrung the Angels when administrative tunnel vision didn’t when it came to re-tooling the team back to contention. Neither is it unfair to say that spending that much for a well-established Hall of Famer who hadn’t yet been hit with his physical issues didn’t have to mean the Angels ignoring their other issues, either.

Like his final Cardinals regular season, Pujols’s first Angel season was solid, if below his former standard. His 2011 postseason and how he helped the Cardinals win that outer-limits World Series may have deked people into thinking he’d only had one off year but plenty of petrol left in reserve.

Then plantaar fascitis in his heel kept him to 99 games in 2013 and a staggering enough fall from even that 2012 performance. Further injuries below his waistline made sure he’d look like an imitation of himself from then on, despite a few shining hours, a few significant milestones, a few moments in which he looked exactly the way he did over those impeccable St. Louis years.

But he didn’t hold a gun to the Angels’ heads and tell them to waste their remaining resources, either. The Angels have been an anti-model franchise during most of Pujols’s tour with them. If Pujols calls it a career after the season to come, the Angels, their fans, and their critics won’t have Pujols to blame for what wasn’t his fault in the first place.

This is Pujols according to my Real Batting Average metric (TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP / PA):

PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Career 12,394 5923 1331 312 115 108 .628
With the Cardinals 7433 3893 975 251 68 77 .708
With the Angels 4961 2030 356 61 47 31 .509

That’s what the injuries did in turning what should have been a natural decline phase into a hard-lived one.

Albert Pujols was a .708 batter as a Cardinal. His career RBA with a normal decline phase should have lined him up to finish at the top of the heap of Hall of Fame first basemen who played their careers in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. If his .628 holds by the end of this year, it’ll plant him in between Jeff Bagwell and Willie McCovey, and Pujols was the better all-around first baseman among those three plus first base RBA leader Jim Thome.

Pujols’s other nickname has been The Machine. Unfortunately, even machines have finite lives to do what they were built to do. They don’t all decline as sadly as this one did. Even if this one’s going make what promises to be a singular Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2027. With Stan Musial smiling broadly upon him from the Elysian Fields, if not blowing him a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his ubiquitous harmonica.

“Why did he quit?” Joe DiMaggio’s brother, Tom, once said when asked why the Yankee Clipper would call it a career after thirteen war-disrupted seasons and a persistent heel issue that turned into back trouble. “He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio anymore.”

Maybe the gigabucks Pujols earned as an Angel kept him from quitting precisely when he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore. Maybe his pride did it. Maybe both. Maybe, come the next off-season, it’ll be impossible at last for Pujols to tell himself he can be day-in, day-out great again. Maybe he’ll tell himself at last it’s time to let his whole record take him out of the box and into Cooperstown.

And maybe the Angels will find ways to a) make the game’s best player since Pujols joined the team proud; and, b) reach the postseason to send Pujols into retirement in a blaze of glory.

We can dream, can’t we?

A few ways to fix the Hall of Fame vote

This year’s Hall of Fame vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America is troubling, for more reasons than just Curt Schilling falling short by sixteen votes and Schilling’s demand to be removed from the writers’ ballots. Something is wrong, drastically so, with the vote. For the sake of the Hall of Fame, it needs to be fixed. But how?

The answer isn’t simple. But there’s one sub-issue to consider at once: the blank ballots. How many the writers submitted is less relevant than the thought that, perhaps, if you submit a blank ballot, you should lose your Hall vote for a spell.

Voting for the Hall of Fame isn’t exactly a right. The Hall conferred the privilege upon the writers almost a century ago. With privilege comes responsibility, no matter the controversies that do or don’t surround a particular year’s candidates. The responsibility includes the one holding the privilege to do his or her job, think hard, and vote.

If assorted BBWAA members thought it was difficult to impossible to resolve certain questions around certain players while considering their Hall ballots, they don’t always seem to find it too difficult to write magnificent ravings about those questions and players when the occasion arrives.

As a life member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, I cast votes for the IBWAA’s Hall of Fame roll every year since becoming such a life member. Such votes are neither simple, cut, dried, or prenatal surgery. Last November, I voted, citing why I voted for this player or didn’t vote for that player. If a man can do that in what amounts to a symbolic Hall election, surely the BBWAA can do theirs in a real one.

The writers might consider that blank ballots are simply not acceptable regardless of the moment’s controversies. They might also consider that those submitting blank ballots should have their Hall vote privileges suspended. It might convince the blankers to think twice, thrice, as much as it takes.

The Hall of Fame itself should step up, step in, and decide the writers have played enough games for long enough, it’s time to broaden the Hall of Fame vote. You can pick numerous instances if you like, this year and in years past, but perhaps it’s time the BBWAA and the Eras Committees are no longer the only groups privileged to vote for the Hall.

Come to think of it, the former Veterans Committee really put its own foot in it (hardly for the first time) when they enshrined former comimssioner Bud Selig. We should have expected certain ramifications and after-effects, when players indulging actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances pre-testing still tie the BBWAA up in knots but the old Veterans Committee elected the commissioner who let the so-called Wild West Era run wild.

Who else should be invited to vote for the Hall of Fame? I have a few ideas:

1) The living Hall of Fame players themselves. No one should feel funny about allowing such as Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, George Brett, Dennis Eckersley, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rollie Fingers, Vladimir Guerrero, Rickey Henderson, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Willie Mays, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Nolan Ryan, and Ozzie Smith, to name a few, voting for successors worthy of joining their fraternity.

Some of them get to be part of assorted sixteen-member Eras Committees, of course, which also include “executives, and veteran media members” according to the Hall itself. We can adjust that: The Hall of Famers should have to choose whether to vote concurrent to the BBWAA or as members of one or another Era Committee considering overlooked/snubbed BBWAA candidates—but not both.

Why shouldn’t such Hall of Famers as Ken Griffey, Jr., Johnny Bench, and Rollie Fingers, among others, have Hall votes?

2) The living Ford C. Frick Award winning broadcasters and those currently working in the broadcast booths. They see as much of the games as the writers do. The Hall would not be disgraced by the like of Marty Brennaman, Chip Caray, Bob Costas, Ray Fosse, Jaime Jarrin, Jim Kaat, Buck Martinez, Tim McCarver, Jon Miller, Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, or Suzyn Waldman, among others, having a vote.

3) The established statistics mavens, since statistics remain the life blood of baseball.  Please tell me you don’t think it would be a travesty for Allen Barra, Bill James, Rob Neyer, or the folks at Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, retrosheet, and The Elias Sports Bureau to be included in the Hall of Fame vote. If much of their work has provoked re-assessments of several subsequent Hall of Famers, they should not be regarded as voting interlopers.

4) Those writers/historians who were never admitted to the BBWAA but who’ve established themselves long and with particular distinctions as blessings to the game. Find us a valid reason for ageless Roger Angell, Peter Golenbock, John Helyar, Donald Honig, Richard Goldstein, George F. Will, or plenty of the fine excavators of the Society for American Baseball Research, just for openers, to be excluded from the Hall vote. You’ll have a simpler time finding Atlantis.

5) Umpires with above-average ratings. (God and His servant Doug Harvey only know you don’t even want to think of bringing Angel Hernandez or Country Joe West into the voting fold.) Those folks had the second-best views of Hall of Fame candidates for themselves. (The first-best is probably a tossup among several.) The best umpires didn’t just call the pitches or the plays, they developed particular appreciation for players who strove for and achieved Hall of Fame-level excellence.

They would not lack credibility as Hall voters if allowed the chance. Should a voting umpire lose his (or her, in due course?) above-average rating, their Hall vote can be suspended for that year.

6) How about the IBWAA? As in, members not concurrent BBWAA members but whom the IBWAA leadership deems by their actual works to be worthy of a Hall of Fame vote to exercise wisely and diligently. (Fair disclosure: I’m not an IBWAA leader or officer yet.) The IBWAA is not just another gaggle of fans ranting our heads off. We’ve got some excellent observers/analysts/commentators among us who have earned the chance.

7) Establish a Pioneer Committee. This would be a group considering and giving due to those people—players, executives, statisticians, others—whom we’d consider to have changed the game profoundly in ways other than how they played or managed or administered the game. (It wouldn’t have let Marvin Miller wait until death did he part for his well-deserved Cooperstown enshrinement, either, if it lived while he did.)

The Pioneer Committee could begin with considering Curt Flood, who kicked the door to free agency open just enough with his reserve clause challenge. And, Andy Messersmith, who shoved the door open all the way by finishing what Flood started and prevailing. And, Tommy John, who enjoyed a long, distinguished second act after undergoing the first of the ligament-replacement elbow surgeries that’s long since borne his name.

They didn’t quite post Hall of Fame playing careers, but they all changed the game profoundly, and irrevocably. There should be a place in the Hall of Fame for all three.

This Pioneer Committee should also consider those such as Allan Roth, arguably the godfather of deep statistics; and, Bill James, who picked up where Roth left off, all but invented sabermetrics, and sired subsequent generations of deeper analysts many of whom came to play key roles in re-developing baseball organisations. If those are unworthy of Hall consideration, remember that my Antarctic beach club has yet to find a buyer.

The BBWAA should also re-consider the ten-vote maximum on the Hall of Fame ballot. The max was imposed in the first place out of concern to do whatever the writers could think to keep those nefarious suspected users of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance from getting through.

Aside from that jet taking off decades ago (greenies, anyone?), they shot themselves in the foot with the limit. The bullets traveled far enough to delay or torpedo entirely more than a few legitimate Hall of Fame cases thanks among other things to several instances ballot jam. Kenny Lofton surely isn’t the only man wondering why the number ten center fielder ever to play major league baseball can’t be in Cooperstown (pending a future Era Committee consideration) except as a visiting customer.

Raise the ballot max back to fifteen. Maybe that wasn’t perfect, either, but it might return the writers a little more of the proverbial wiggle room to cast thoughtful, reflective votes that, among other things, won’t leave enough of the Loftons as baseball’s wronged men to be done right at some future date if at all.

While they’re at it, they should dump once and for all the prejudice against first-time votes. If you think a player belongs in the Hall of Fame, vote him on the first ballot. You don’t need reminders of how many Hall of Famers you’d assumed Cooperstown locks waited five or more ballots to get their due, or how often you wrote fuming over that very sad fact.

(People still think it’s more than a little surreal, if not insane, that Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Craig Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero aren’t first-ballot Hall of Famers. Even if things worked out well enough for Ford that he got in on his second try, the following year—next to his old running mate Mickey Mantle, on Mantle’s first.)

So why not invite Joe and Jane Fan into the Hall of Fame voting discussion yet? There’s a very good reason not to. They’ve turned All-Star Game voting into ballot box stuffings or gold watch honoraria. (The All-Star Game vote system needs a complete overhaul, but that’s another day’s subject right now.) Do you really want to know how much worse they might make the Hall than did the Today’s Game Committee that decided Cooperstown should be Harold Baines’s gold watch?

On Schilling wanting off the Cooperstown ballot

Why should members of a profession for whose lynching Curt Schilling once called want to vote him into Cooperstown?

The Hall of Fame pitching a shutout in this round of Baseball Writers Association of America voting wasn’t really that big a surprise. Curt Schilling’s post-results tantrum after he fell short by a measly sixteen votes was, somewhat. What to make, then, of Schilling’s demand that the BBWAA remove him from its ballot for what would be his final bid for Hall of Fame election by them?

The bad news, for those who’ve come to consider him poisonous entirely by way of about 95 percent or more of his infamous tweets, is that neither the BBWAA nor the Hall of Fame can just send him off the ballot with a single finger snap. Yet. The BBWAA’s ballot rules enjoin against it, and the Hall of Fame may be likely to reject it on those very grounds, no matter what Schilling has asked of the Hall in that regard.

But perhaps the BBWAA should find a way to amend its rule and grant Schilling his request. Maybe the best thing would be for a future Eras Committee to contend with his candidacy. If Schilling thinks his “peers” would be more likely to elect him, someone might remind the former righthander that one of his own general managers (Ed Wade, Phillies) once called him “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.”

Schilling’s rant included referencing his own having won a few humanitarian awards during his pitching career, but there have also been references over the years to his not quite having been the most popular or respected man in his clubhouses, too. When he teamed with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson on the 2001 World Series-winning Diamondbacks, a member of the organisation told baseball writer Joe Posnanski, “[W]ith Johnson, teammates hated him on the day he pitched, loved him the other four days. And with Schilling, teammates loved him on the day he pitched, hated him the other four days.”

I’m not a member of the BBWAA. I don’t have an official Hall of Fame vote. I am a life member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, however, and every year we, too, conduct votes symbolically for our own Hall of Fame. Sometimes, we’ve elected people before the BBWAA. We pitched a shutout this time around, too.

Back in November I wrote about my own IBWAA ballot choices and what the thinking was behind it. My choices did include Schilling. (For the record, I also voted yes on Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, and Billy Wagner.) In the passage I wrote on behalf of that vote, I concluded, “I don’t have to love or respect Schilling as a person to respect what he did on the mound. When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see Schilling’s plaque, just tell them he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be a Hall of Famer at the ballpark and a Hall of Shamer away from it.”

Immediately preceding that, I cited Jay Jaffe’s essay on Schilling in The Cooperstown Casebook: “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, 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.”

Jaffe has since changed his mind, and not just because he knows that those who think denying Schilling his Cooperstown plaque comes purely from his support for Donald Trump aren’t thinking. Mariano Rivera made no secret of his own support for Trump before his own unanimous election to the Hall, but neither is The Mariano on record as supporting among other Schilling positions the lynching of journalists.

“[A]s a first-time [Hall of Fame] voter,” Jaffe wrote after Tuesday’s Hall shutout, “I avoided invoking the character clause . . . on the grounds that the clause was conjured up by a commissioner (Judge Landis) who spent his entire 24-year term upholding the game’s shameful color line. I viewed my omission of Schilling as a protest against the notion that he’s owed any deference for his hateful post-career conduct; if he’s ever elected, it won’t be in my name. More than ever, I stand by that decision.”

Writing as I am about to write is painful enough. I watched Schilling pitch over many years of his career. I saw how great he was on the mound, I saw the way he dominated batters whether pitching for also-ran teams or World Series champions. I saw the ways he lived for and triumphed in the biggest of the big games, sometimes despite his body attempting sedition. I also knew Schilling had (and has) a love of the game so deep he never forgot being awed at Frank Robinson managing him early, or getting to pick the brains of Hall of Fame pitchers, or admitting he’d watch Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez when they were teammates “because any day they pitched could be history.”

“He’s a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.”—Ed Wade, Schilling’s GM with the Phillies.

I was too willing to overlook too much simply because by the record alone, the eye test and the deepest statistical look alike, Schilling belongs in the Hall of Fame. He may be the greatest or at least the toughest big-game pitcher who ever took the mound. I’ve seen a boatload of pitchers, Hall of Famers and otherwise, who stood tall and delivered big when the biggest of the big demanded it; I’ve seen a boatload of pitchers, Hall of Famers and otherwise, who didn’t. (Conspiracy theorists, if you still believe the Bloody Sock Game was fraud, you can still buy my beach club in Antarctica.)

But I’m familiar, too, with the wisdom projected in 1949 by an essayist not remembered much today outside the intellectual circles of those who believe, as I do, in something not much discussed or pondered over the past decade plus: freedom. The essayist was Frank Chodorov, today unsung often enough as a bellwether of the freedom philosophy. Writing in his one-man broadsheet analysis about the leaders of the Communist Party USA brought to trial under the Smith Act, in May 1949, Chodorov demurred from such a prosecution, despite being a staunch anti-Communist himself:

The danger, to those who hold freedom as the highest good, is not the ideas the communists espouse but the power they aspire to. Let them rant their heads off—that is their right, which we cannot afford to infringe—but let us keep from them the political means of depriving everybody else of the same right.

Schilling’s political opinions are one thing. So is criticising journalism with which he disagrees. His approval of lynching journalists (recanted swiftly enough, but hardly forgotten), and for things that would indeed amount to depriving others of their rights or at least compromising them in broad sweeps, are something else entirely.

There are journalists who dishonour their profession and our intelligence in ways too numerous. I’ve had a career as a journalist in regional daily newspapers, regional daily news radio, and trade journalism. I’m too well aware that there are and have always been such journalists. They didn’t begin or end with, for one grotesque example, Walter Duranty’s notorious use, misuse, and abuse of his New York Times berth to propagate on behalf of one of history’s bloodiest tyrannies.

There’s no such thing as the perfect, fault-free journalist, whether a straight reporter, an analyst, or a commentator. The day I claim to be one now or to have been one then, just shoot me dead. But the flip side to the precept that “fake news” is news someone (usually in authority) doesn’t want to hear or doesn’t want known is that there has been fake news as long as there’s been news at all.

If it was purely a matter of rejecting Schilling’s political opinions that would be simple business. He has the same mere right to be wrong as anyone else, regardless of what today’s “cancel culture” left, right, or over-under-sideways-down would argue to the contrary, regardless even of some of Schilling’s own remarks that imply merely being wrong should be a punishable crime.

“To be sure,” Chodorov also wrote, “our history is not free of political efforts to put limits on what people may think . . . authorities [have] sought to get at ideas by inflicting punshment on those who held them . . . It is to the credit of the American genius for freedom that ultimately the right to think as one wishes prevailed, even though too often some were made to suffer for it.”

Hall of Fame debaters, who are legion, remind others that the Hall itself hardly lacks for honourees of dubious character or thought. Such honourees are not generally known to have called for the execution of the journalists with whom they often disagreed, sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately, sometimes violently. Baseball players have never been immune to testy relations with writers who covered them. Testy relations didn’t exactly equal wanting to speed the writers’ deaths, either.

It’s not just Hall of Famers incumbent or in waiting who’ve found the baseball press equal to a castor oil over the rocks. But even Jason Vargas threatening to knock a writer the [fornicate] out for daring to question then-Mets manager Mickey Callaway over a dubious non-move that cost the Mets a ball game late wasn’t quite threatening to knock the writer the [fornicate] into the cemetery.

Let Schilling rant his head off, wherever he pleases, to whomever he pleases, from whichever forum allows, until or unless he violates that forum’s rules flagrantly enough. That is his right, which we cannot afford to infringe, and his right to rant his head off holds hands with anyone else’s concurrent right to ignore or denounce his rants. Let us just keep from him the political means of depriving everybody else of the same right.

Let us also not insist that a certain group of journalists should yet confer upon him an honour for which they have the privilege of voting since he is on the record as approving their profession’s dates with lynch mobs. Not even if giving him 71 percent of their Hall of Fame vote this time equals their telling him, “Thank you, sir, and may I have another.”