Horace Clarke, RIP: Not his fault

2020-08-11 HoraceClarke

Horace Clarke—the Yankees’ Lost Decade wasn’t even close to all his fault.

Arguably, the worst era in the history of the New York Yankees that had nothing to do with George Steinbrenner’s King-of-Hearts style of leadership was 1965-1974. Calling it the Yankees’ Lost Decade may be an understatement. Saying it proved that even the Yankees were only human, after all, doesn’t really fit comfortably, however true it was.

Calling it the Horace Clarke Era—after the good-field/no-hit second baseman who died 5 August at 81, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease—was patently unfair, too. It still is. Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio said, famously, “I thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.” There isn’t a jury on earth who’d rule Clarke out of line if he’d surrendered to the temptation to say, “Lord, you got a minute?”

The whole thing began when the Yankees, in one of baseball’s most devious double switches ever, fired manager Yogi Berra the day after they lost a thriller of a seven-game 1964 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Days later, they hired Johnny Keane, who’d just beaten them in that Series.

Keane’s Cardinal skids were greased deviously during the season, before the Cardinals survived to win the pennant. He stunned owner Gussie Busch by handing Busch his resignation–at the presser Busch called to announce his re-hiring. Berra was likewise a victim of back-channel backstabbing whose execution was planned no matter how the season finished. Not even a 31-12 stretch to win the pennant could save him, despite Bill Veeck’s valedictory (in The Hustler’s Handbook):

Normally, you win a pennant when all your players have a good year together. The Yankees won it with all their players having bad years together . . . With all their difficulties, the Yankees did move on with that rush down the stretch. Unless I have been sadly misinformed by all those sensation-seeking columnists, the manager during that stretch run was Yogi Berra.

By 1964’s end the Yankee farm was practically a dust bowl. Owners Dan Topping and Del Webb, looking to sell, parched it along with other cost-cuttings to pump up Yankee profits and impress a likely buyer. The buyer turned out, somewhat controversially, to be the Columbia Broadcasting System during the ’64 season.

The few prospects the Yankee farm yielded between the end of the Casey Stengel era and the end of Berra’s 1964 would prove to be journeymen (Hal Reniff, Tom Tresh, Rollie Sheldon, Phil Linz, Pete Mikkelsen), injury-ruined (Tresh, Jim Bouton), inconsistent (Steve Hamilton, Bill Stafford), or talented but troubled and troublesome. (Joe Pepitone.)

The Yankee stars showed their age and then some. Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford probably should have retired after 1964. Roger Maris’s post-1962 injuries already began sapping his formidable power. Tony Kubek’s back would finish his career after the 1965 season. His double-play partner Bobby Richardson–overrated as an early-in-the-order man because he was an impossible strikeout–called it a career on his own after 1966 . . . and after only eight seasons as a regular.

If you needed an idea of just how badly shaped the post-Berra Yankees would become, you had only to look at Mel Stottlemyre, the August 1964 callup who proved one of the two Yankee heroes down that stretch. (Early September acquisition Pedro Ramos, a journeyman starter whom Berra put in the bullpen shrewdly, proved lights out in eleven key appearances including eight saves.)

Stottlemyre earned 20 wins in 1965 and 20 losses in 1966. He was the same pitcher in both seasons–1965 fielding-independent pitching: 3.24; 1966: 3.35–but he was somewhat lucky in 1965 (2.60 ERA) and very unlucky in 1966. (3.80.) He’d have a fine career, though well short of a Hall of Fame one, until a decade plus worth of throwing his trademark hard sinkerballs claimed their price in June 1974. Rotator cuff blown. Pitching career over.

Keane wouldn’t survive past an early 1966 stretch. Trying to bring a run-and-gun style of baseball to a team built for the big inning did him no favours. Houk–whose tenure as GM is described most politely as controversial (and almost illegal, when he tried breaking the rules to fine Bouton $100 a day for a contract holdout)–fired Keane that May and returned to the dugout, perhaps deciding he was miscast in the front office. When Keane died in January 1967, after taking a scouting job with the Angels, the Yankee toll taken on him left him looking a quarter century older than his 55 years.

Ford finally surrendered to his elbow and shoulder miseries and retired after 1967. Mantle finally did what he should have done three years earlier and called it a career after 1968. Maris wasn’t allowed such dignity; the Yankees unconscionably hid a wrist fracture’s actuality from him, then traded him to the Cardinals after 1966 despite his intentions to retire. (The Cardinals allowed Maris a dignified finish, playing for back-to-back pennant teams, and then a life as a successful Anheuser-Busch distributor.)

Veteran Elston Howard, Berra’s successor behind the plate, a late bloomer largely because of the Yankees’ old trepidations about bringing black players along, was traded to the Boston Red Sox during the 1967 stretch drive at age 38 but in position to mentor the youthfully remade Red Sox toward their surprise pennant.

Most of the few bright lights the 1965-74 Yankees really produced couldn’t and wouldn’t live up to the franchise’s legend. Owned by CBS from 1964-1973, the Yankees learned the hard way that when it came to running a baseball team the Tiffany Network was more like a costume jeweler.

Bobby Murcer was burdened by too much hype comparing him to Mantle (both from Oklahoma, both signed by the same scout, both with breathtaking power, both five-tool players) to make the team his with or without Mantle lingering. Fritz Peterson was a talented pitcher who battled to win despite finishing his career with the lowest old Yankee Stadium ERA (2.52) of any pitcher–including Ford. (He also ended his Yankee days controversially following the infamous “life swap” of wives and children with pitching teammate Mike Kekich.)

Roy White was a reliable outfielder and steady bat, but the ’65-’74 Yankees needed more around him to make his Tommy Henrich-like play mean anything. (The good news: the popular, respected White managed to last long enough to play on two Yankee World Series winners after the team was remade/remodeled back to greatness.)

Thurman Munson arrived behind the plate in 1969 and, soon enough, he’d anchor the Yankees’ return to greatness in the mid-to-late 1970s before his tragic 1979 death in a plane crash. Murcer would return from tours in San Francisco and Chicago to taste of postseason play in 1980 and 1981, before becoming a popular Yankee broadcaster.

And, then, there was Clarke.

A 1965 rookie, Clarke was the fourth major leaguer to hail from the Virgin Islands. (Outfielder Joe Christopher, pitcher Al McBean, and catcher Elmo Plaskett preceded him.) He was a second baseman with good soft hands, excellent range (he was consistently above his league’s average for fielding percentage and range factors), double-play deftness, and a futile bat. The classic old good-field/no-hit middle infielder.

He was also a genuinely nice guy in the bargain who never thought he’d been cursed to be a Yankee when being a Yankee was damn near like being a 1965-68 Met, though even he admitted to having days in which it seemed the devil was having a hearty laugh at his expense.

The Original Mets of 1962-64 were funny when they lost. How could they not, with Stengel managing them and schpritzing his triple-talking wit to shield them. With Abbott pitching to Costello. With Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on Second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want to Think About It at shortstop.

Sooner or later, of course, most running gags run their course. (Fibber McGee’s closet remains an outlier.) The post-Stengel Mets of 1965-68 were as funny when they lost as a screen window on a submarine. The 1965-74 Yankees weren’t even that funny, not on the field, anyway.

Just why the Yankees’ Lost Decade came to be called “The Horace Clarke Era” escapes me, and I was there, growing up in Long Beach, on Long Island, to see it. And, hear it, since broadcast legend Red Barber was part of the Yankee team until his execution at end of 1966 and–knowing of his years as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ anchor broadcaster–the only reason any Met fan had to listen to Yankee home games if the Mets weren’t on the air.*

Why single out the Virgin Islander who played second base like a gazelle but couldn’t hit with a telephone pole? Why him and not, say, modestly endowed catcher Jake Gibbs? Peterson’s retrospective book, When the Yankees Were On the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era, offered a suggestion from no less than Clarke himself.

[E]very time I hear “the Horace Clarke Era” I don’t know how to take it, but I think it is mostly because we were losing and I was a member of all those teams. I could understand fans, writers, and commentators were spoiled at being so successful for so long . . . But . . . I’m going to tell you something. While I was there, [writers] always targeted me, I was targeted more than anybody I think because I played just about every day. When I was traded to San Diego [in May 1974], a writer wrote, “You know, that guy wasn’t so bad after all.” Because he had gone to the record books and saw what I had done over those years.

Clarke knew his limits, at least at the plate. But he also believed he was blessed regardless. “I am happy, my friend,” Clarke told the New York Post‘s Mike Vaccaro in 2004. “I played major league baseball for parts of ten years, and I played in the magnificent city of New York, and as a child in St. Croix that was beyond dreams. Yes. I am a happy man.”

If he’d been a Cub (as Murcer eventually became for a spell), Clarke might have rivaled Hall of Famer Ernie Banks for thinking every day was beautiful enough to play two. Might.

Even a Clarke gets to stand with the immortals now and then. The second time, though, he might have chosen a little differently. On 30 September 1971, Clarke was the scheduled Yankee batter with two out and Joe Grzenda on the mound trying to save the Washington Senators’ final home game ever.

Knowing the Senators’s duplicitous owner Bob Short was about to hijack them to Texas (banners festooned with Short’s initials sometimes dominated in the stands), heartsick fans finally stormed the field, left it looking like the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and forced a forfeit before Grzenda (who died last year) got to throw even one pitch to Clarke.

Clarke made more pleasant history the previous season. Between 4 June and 2 July 1970, he busted up no-hit bids by three pitchers, Jim Rooker (Kansas City Royals), Sonny Siebert (Red Sox), and Joe Niekro (Detroit Tigers)–every one in the ninth inning. Call him “No-Hit No-Way Horace,” if you like.

In due course, Clarke became a baseball instructor for the official sports program of his native Virgin Islands and a Royals scout. “I was proud to be a Yankee,” he told Vaccaro. “I just played there at a difficult time for everyone. But I had a blast.”

Once upon a time, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver remembered managing pitcher/playboy Bo Belinsky in the Orioles’ minor league system. “Bo wasn’t no angel,” Weaver told a Belinsky biographer, “but I’ll tell you this, he wasn’t the worst guy I ever knew in baseball, either.”

Horace Clarke wasn’t a Hall of Famer on the best days of his life, but I’ll tell you this. Whatever went wrong with the Lost Decade Yankees, Clarke wasn’t even close to the main reason. May he have been shepherded to a sweet eternity in the Elysian Fields, where every soft-handed, rangy second baseman has a place with the Lord’s angels.
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* On 22 September 1966, Yankee Stadium was practically empty as the Yankees faced the Chicago White Sox. Red Barber ordered a camera pan of the ballpark. When he was refused, Barber addressed his viewers: “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.”

What Barber didn’t know at the moment was that one of the 413 present in the ballpark was CBS honcho Mike Burke, whom the network assigned to administer the Yankees, attending his first live Yankee game. Burke was made aware of Barber’s on-air remarks and forced the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s ouster at breakfast the following week.

The Ole Redhead retired as a full-time sportscaster after that.

 

Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

With a friend like Trump . . .

DonaldTrumpNewEnglandPatriots

President Donald Trump, holding a New England Patriots helmet at the White House celebrating the Pats’ Super Bowl LIII victory. He managed to conflate a football beneficiary of the former Alabama coach running for the Senate with the man who coached the Pats’ American Football League ancestors, among others.

When last we had occasion to think of Donald Trump in sports terms having nothing to do with kneeling during the National Anthem, he attended Game Five of the last World Series in Nationals Park. He was booed rather lustily, with intermittent chants of “Lock him up!” punctuating the chorus.

The “lock him up!” chants returned in the seventh inning—not for President Tweety, but for home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose evening to that point was full of such dubious calls (including the fourth ball called a third strike on Nationals outfielder Victor Robles during the inning) that both Nationals and Houston Astros fans alike wanted him in the stockade.

Now, though, the president about whom “polarising” often feels high praise arouses the attention of Deadspin, the online sports publication. He arouses it by way of the campaign trail, on a conference call, supporting former longtime Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville’s campaign as Alabama’s newly-crowned Republican nominee to the U.S. Senate.

Trump wanted to praise Tuberville as the reason the University of Alabama hired a particular football coach, after the Auburn Tigers bushwhacked the Crimson Tide in six straight meetings between the two schools. Then, he wanted to praise that coach. Uh, oh. “Beat Alabama, like six in a row, but we won’t even mention that,” President Tweety began, starting with Tuberville. “As he said . . . because of that, maybe we got ‘em Lou Saban . . . And he’s great, Lou Saban, what a great job he’s done.”

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban must be double-checking his records to be sure he didn’t change his name inadvertently, somewhere. And, to re-assure himself, with apologies to Mark Twain, that the reports of his death have indeed been exaggerated greatly. The National Football League and its long-ago-absorbed upstart competitor the American Football League would love to know how the real Lou Saban coached from beyond.

That real Lou Saban, as Deadspin couldn’t wait to remind anyone caring, coached in both American pro football leagues and in college football for a very long time. But not past 2002, after a decade of working at far lower than Division I programs.

The president who once denounced the late Sen. John McCain for having been captured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War (“I like people who weren’t captured”) and makes a fetish of “winning” (without stopping to think that one man’s “winning” is another’s self-immolation) chose quite a winner to conflate with Alabama’s incumbent football coach.

Saban, who may or may not be a second or more distant cousin to Nick, was a charter coach of the Boston Patriots, when the AFL was born in 1960. From there he enjoyed a sixteen-season career coaching in the AFL and—when his Denver Broncos moved with the merger—the NFL. He had three first-place finishes (coaching the Buffalo Bills, 1963-65) and two AFL championships. And that’s all, folks.

He had six winning seasons in sixteen coaching the pros. His final record as a pro football coach is 95-99-7. Except for his back-to-back AFL championships, Saban never led his teams past a single playoff win. He did get to return to the Bills in 1972, coaching the teams fabled for O.J. Simpson and the Electric Company offensive line, but they never got past second place or a single playoff loss, either. He resigned after a 2-3 start in 1976 and never coached in the NFL again.

But he did return to the college coaching lines, which he’d visited once in the middle of his pro coaching life (University of Maryland: 4-6 in 1966), and where his coaching career began for a single season in 1956. (Northwestern University: 0-8.) He coached the University of Miami to back-to-back losing seasons (1977-78) and Army (1979) to one losing season. His complete coaching record at the major schools: 15-35-2.

Saban left Miami in the middle of a row over three freshman players attacking a Jewish student in yarmulke while he walked toward a campus religious service. They carried him to Lake Osceola in the middle of the campus and threw him in. Having been off campus when the attack happened, Saban returned to learn of it and say, according to Bruce Feldman’s history of Miami football, “Getting thrown in the lake? Sounds like fun to me.”

After he left Army, Saban took a brief, curious career turn. He became one of George Steinbrenner’s “baseball people,” doing Steinbrenner (a personal friend) a favour and becoming president of the New York Yankees for 1981-82. Even allowing that Steinbrenner did love football, engaging a football lifer as a baseball president seemed along the line of hiring a furniture designer to develop vacuum cleaners.

If Saban had anything to say about some of the turmoil around those Yankees, there seems little enough record of it:

* Steinbrenner fired first-time manager Gene Michael in 1981, after Michael challenged The Boss to knock it off with the constant threats. Steinbrenner’s bid to mollify The Stick became a classic of Yankee panky: Why would you want to stay manager and be second-guessed by me when you can come up into the front office and be one of the second guessers?

* Steinbrenner burned through three managers in 1982: Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon (who’d picked up Billy Martin’s pieces and led the Yankees to a World Series championship in 1978), Michael again, then Clyde King.

* Steinbrenner hired former Olympic hurdler Harrison Dilliard to help turn the Yankees into a speed team, an idea so hilarious as it was accompanied by continuous running drills in spring training that wags began calling the Yankees “the Bronx Burners.” (The experiment lived only slightly longer than some Yankee managers kept their jobs.)

The man who thought it sounded like fun for three of his Miami players to dunk a Jewish student in Lake Osceloa isn’t on record anywhere that I know of suggesting what fun Steinbrenner’s King of Hearts act in the south Bronx must have been for those on the wrong end of His Majesty’s scepter.

Lou Saban died at 87 in 2009, two years after Alabama hired Nick. He might not have had a real reputation as a long-term winner but he did have one as a teacher. He was also in no position to be the direct beneficiary of  Tuberville’s constant seawalling of the Crimson Tide. Alabama isn’t exactly renowned for hiring octogenarian head coaches. Nick Saban, on the other hand, has a long-term winning reputation in college football: a 248-65 record; three Bowl Championship Series wins; and, ten bowl game wins otherwise.

Deadspin offers the charitable suggestion that Trump might have conflated Saban with Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coaching legend. Careful with that axe, Eugene: In some portions of the South, confusing or conflating a Crimson Tide coach with some Hoosier coach can provoke the same kind of tavern debate (if not brawl) as could be provoked in the northeast, formerly,  if you inadvertently confused or conflated Mookie Betts with Mookie Wilson.

Trump’s sports record is dubious at best, shall we say. When he hasn’t beaten his gums about kneeling National Anthem protesters (a subject for another time, for now), he’s been a football owner (in the failed United States Football League some say he destroyed in the first place), a less-than-knowledgeable advocate (speaking politely) of Pete Rose’s reinstatement to baseball and election to the Hall of Fame, and a public critic, equally less than knowledgeable, of Maximum Security’s rightful disqualification in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

With an expert like that on his side, I’m not entirely sure that Tuberville—whose own college football coaching career was impressive enough (159-99 record; seven bowl wins)—needs adversaries.

The Yankeegate letter

2020-06-13 YankeeStadium

What further manner of extralegal sign-stealing Yankee panky might be brought in from the cold?

We’re about to learn the details of commissioner Rob Manfred’s 2017 written admonition to the New York Yankees about extralegal sign stealing. Federal judge Jed S. Rakoff has ordered the letter unsealed and submitted publicly and “minimally redacted” by both the Yankees and Major League Baseball no later than Monday. Very interesting.

That the Yankees used an illicit dugout telephone and may have used their own replay room reconnaissance on behalf of extralegal sign stealing in or before 2017 wasn’t exactly a baseball state secret, however often it was buried beneath the hooplas of Astrogate and Soxgate before the coronavirus turned most of that to one side.

The case involves the DraftKings fantasy baseball playing group suing MLB for fraud over the extralegal sign stealing scandals that jolted and discredited both the Houston Astros (2017-18) and the Boston Red Sox (2018). Rakoff ruled against DraftKings two months ago, but DraftKings thinks there was more in Manfred’s written Yankee spankee than both Manfred and the Empire Emeritus disclosed.

Beware the fool factor, though. Rakoff’s April ruling was comparable in its absurdity to Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time after agreeing to hand Hitler the Sudetenland 1938:

A sport that celebrates ‘stealing,’ even if only of a base, does not provide the perfect encouragement to scrupulous play. Nor can it be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) bodies. But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly (in the 1956 movie musical High Society), “There are rules about such things.”

As I couldn’t resist writing then, “The Chairman of the Board spoke to the future Princess of Monaco about love and war and what’s fair in both, not whether the Man of Steal* was really a shameless criminal for stealing as many bases as Robin Yount drove in runs. (1,406.)” Saying DraftKings didn’t have a case wasn’t the same thing as arguing choplogically that fantasy baseball players ought to go in with the presumption of guilt.

Remove for the moment the ongoing haggling over getting a major league baseball season underway at long enough last, the haggling provoked mostly by the owners trying to strong-arm the players into accepting a renege on their March agreement (full pro-rated player salaries, for openers) and the players saying, “We’ll just see about that.”

Absent all that, few baseball fans were unaffected by Astrogate and Soxgate. Fewer still were thrown more into internal turmoil than Astro fans and Red Sox fans faced with the actualities that their heroes, teams of excellence and (ahem) intelligence, who seemed to need extralegal espionage about as badly as the Flash needs a jet pack, were barely-apologetic high-tech cheaters.

Numerous players joined the fun in denouncing the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. No few of them were Yankees. Now the Yankees may or may not be exposed as going beyond a naughty extra dugout telephone or even their own replay room reconnaissance. No few in the social media swamp demand, too, that the hypocritical Yankees duct tape their mouths shut from this day forward.

So you thought the “what-about” style of rejoinder was limited to answering valid critiques of office holders with the comparable mischief or crimes committed by their predecessors. Must we be reminded continuously that mischief or crimes by one don’t justify those by a successor?

When I reviewed the second-edition publication of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime, I wrote that, just after the Rogue Sox were caught taking a bite out of an AppleWatch on behalf of espionage against the Yankees, a Yankee fan thought so well of sometimes beleaguered catcher Gary Sanchez that the fan decided to do Sanchez a huge favour at the plate. As Dickson told it:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

Dickson couldn’t resist adding that that may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of the ballpark for sign stealing.

(Reminder: Sometimes fans blow the whistle on the spies. It happened in Wrigley Field in 1960, when bleacher fans caught Milwaukee Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay red-handed among them, training binoculars on the home plate area and relaying stolen signs to their hitters. Those fans tipped off the Cubs’ bullpen, who relayed the word to the dugout, that Buhl and Jay were jobbing them.)

We’ll know soon enough whether there is a genuine Yankeegate coverup on our hands above and beyond what we knew already about their illegal dugout phone and possible replay room reconnaissance. The Yankees would prefer the fuller disclosure of Manfred’s 2017 letter not happen, of course. Richard Nixon wasn’t exactly anxious to have the White House tapes disclosed fully, either.

“The plaintiff has no case anymore,” says a statement from Yankee attorney Jonathan Schiller to The Athletic, “and the court held that what MLB wrote in confidence was irrelevant to the court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case. Under established law, this supports the Yankees’ right to confidentiality required by the Commissioner of Baseball.”

This isn’t an instance of compelling public disclosure of scouting information. It’s not even an instance of compelling public disclosure of team financial value, never mind that fans can never help noticing player salaries are known publicly and to the last dollar but teams’ and their owners’ financials often seem to require extracurricular excavation.

Disheartened Astro and Red Sox fans would probably want nothing more than to know who else—aside from since-purged Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Astros bench coach-turned-Red Sox manager Alex Cora, former 2017 Astros DH-turned-New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, and Rogue Sox replay room operator J.T. Watkins—availed themselves of those espionage operations.

Disheartened Yankee fans would probably want nothing less of their team, too. Every baseball fan probably wants to know that the line between on-field gamesmanship and off-field-based subterfuge won’t be crossed again any time soon.

The history books have long revealed those players, coaches, and managers who took up high tech cheating in their times. (It didn’t begin or end with the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, the 1951 Giants, or the 1961 Reds.) Do heartsick Astro, Red Sox, and Yankee fans really want to wait that long before knowing once and for all who was or wasn’t among their teams’ extralegal cheaters?

DraftKings may have no legs claiming deliberate fraud, but if the Astros and the Red Sox couldn’t escape disclosure Yankeegate shouldn’t be treated as a mere annoyance, either. Especially with the chance that, if nothing new might be exposed, everything known might be clarified further–and deeper. Might.


* – Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

The haunted Hideki Irabu

2020-04-22 HidekiIrabu

Hideki Irabu, too haunted to succeed—or live.

It took an unusual young man to forgive one of George Steinbrenner’s ugliest insults by giving The Boss a slightly unusual birthday present a few months later. If only Hideki Irabu’s sense of humour could have saved him from the lifelong haunting that finally ended in his 2011 suicide.

In a spring 1999 exhibition game, the righthanded pitcher failed to cover first base adequately on an infield play, and Steinbrenner denounced him as a “fat, pus-sy toad.” You don’t need me to tell you how that looked in cold print with the hyphen removed.

What you didn’t know, unless you read a jarring 2017 profile by Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Reiter, is that Irabu got a little good natured revenge a few months later. He sent Steinbrenner a birthday present: a large, mechanical toad delivering a rather pronounced ribbit when you punched a button. According to Reiter, The Boss appreciated it enough to keep it in his office for the rest of his life. (Steinbrenner died a year before Irabu’s suicide.)

Twenty years before Reiter’s profile, and 23 years ago today, the Yankees made a deal with the Padres to bring Irabu to the Bronx. The Yankees thought they were getting the anomalous “Japanese Nolan Ryan,” who threw white heat in contrast to most Japanese pitchers living purely on finesse. Neither the Yankees nor anybody else thought they were getting a walking, haunted, overly self-critical and self-analytical complexity who’d end up a suicide at 42.

A pitching star in Japan who chafed at the Japanese game’s continuing reserve system, who wanted only to decide his own future after a decade pitching in the Japan Pacific League, Irabu—whose purchase by the Padres roiled other American major league teams who wanted a shot at bidding for him—stood fast in his wish to play for nobody but the Yankees.

“Hideki and his agent are free to do and say whatever they want,” said then-Padres president Larry Lucchino, “but we will march ahead at our own pace.” Irabu and his agent Don Nomura said, “Company, halt!” Then, the Padres blinked. They sent Irabu, Jackie Boxobolts, and Jerry McJerryrig to the Yankees for Richie Rinkydink, Randy Matchbox, and three million bones.

That led to the creation of the posting system that has since allowed Japanese players without the required nine years for free agency to ask their teams to post them for bidding by MLB teams. Making Irabu a kind-of Nippon Professional Baseball equivalent to Curt Flood in the American major leagues.

But Irabu isn’t remembered that way half as often as he’s remembered for being the Japanese pitching virtuoso who self-dismantled during and after tortuous Show career. Even before he became an NPB fixture, Irabu’s was a life about which “complicated” doesn’t begin to fit.

Irabu didn’t insist on becoming a Yankee solely because he knew and respected the team’s history and larger-than-life image: as Reiter revealed, he believed that if he could succeed in a Yankee uniform his father—an American Air Force meteorologist, Steve Thompson, stationed in Okinawa, who’d met and dated a Japanese waitress and learned of his son when receiving word while in Vietnam—would have to find him.

Irabu’s mother birthed and raised him in Japan and, after marrying an Osakan restauranteur, told her son he’d been sired by an American who’d only seen him once after his birth. Only decades later would Irabu learn Thompson’s letters to his mother never reached them because they’d moved onward while Thompson was still in Vietnam.

Irabu’s mixed heritage, which happened to make him larger than other children as well as giving him brown hair and rounder eyes, didn’t go over well with other Japanese children who bullied him mercilessly. To Irabu, as Reiter revealed, baseball saved him from a life in the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, “which always found a way to use large, lost young men.”

His pitching talent made him the NPB’s top pitcher by 1997 at age 28. When Irabu insisted on having a say in his own American future and out-lasted the Padres into trading him to the Yankees, the Japanese media and his Japanese teammates accused him of disrespect. That was almost nothing compared to what hit the reserved righthander whose bulk hoisted a pair of sad-looking eyes but a smile that looked as though flashing it meant he’d defied someone a little too cheerfully.

When he arrived in New York, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped shove curiosity and intrigue into hyperdrive hype. Giuliani presented Irabu a Tiffany apple and called his arrival symbolic of the American immigrant experience as a whole but that experience which often began in New York itself.

Irabu probably had no clue that American politicians were at least as talented as baseball people in forging unrealistic expectation.  When the pol in question was also the most unapologetically visible Yankee fan this side of George Constanza, Irabu would have had a better shot at getting away with the taking of Pelham 1-2-3—stark raving naked.

“Lay that upon the Japanese Nolan Ryan,” I wrote after Irabu’s 2011 suicide, “and anything short of a perfect game to open would have been considered a let down, if not the second coming of Pearl Harbour.”

The day after Guiliani handed him the Tiffany apple Irabu struck nine Tigers out in six-and-two-thirds. But he finished 1997, during which he had a turn in the minors, with a 7.09 ERA. The following spring he was considered “an out-of-shape bust,” as Reiter recalled it, nowhere more jarringly than in a Seinfeld series finale scene in which uber-fan Constanza bellowed, “How could you give 12 million dollars to Hideki Irabu?”

What nobody really knew was that Irabu’s surliness with the press and contrasting amiability in his clubhouse—upon his death, assorted teammates remembered his pleasantry and humour—disguised a still-young man still searching for a real home.

His battles with the Japanese press may have stemmed in part from being grilled, broiled, and basted by a press representing a home where he never felt accepted; his sense that America would never really accept him, either, was only partially thanks to the language barrier.

As a pitcher, as Reiter gleaned, Irabu was a constant self-questioner. The real source of his American lack of success probably rooted in his habit of constant change, from his exercise routines to his pitches and mechanics, even after his best outings. He also turned out to have a pronounced spiritual side, asking those few closest to him about faith and religion.

Reiter wrote that those few who were close to him knew what he really sought: a father figure and a place to belong. He thought he’d found the former in people like his agent Nomura, his translator George Rose, his fellow Yankee pitchers David Cone and David Wells, and even Steinbrenner; hence, the mechanical toad as the birthday present. The latter was even more tough. “There wasn’t a home for him,” Nomura told Reiter. “It’s almost like he was always at the visitors’ ballpark.

“There were so many different velocities—87, 89, 84, 95, 97,” Cone told Reiter about Irabu’s ability. “He was a big guy, strong, and you’d heard about the power—but it wasn’t all power. He seemed to have finesse as well . . . The day he pitched, we thought, Wow, if he’s on, he’s going to win the game for us. He could dominate an opposing lineup. That’s the way we saw him.”

Irabu was actually named the American League’s Pitcher of the Month twice, for May 1998 (he had a 1.44 ERA that month) and for July 1999. (4-0 with a 2.64 ERA.) The talent was clearly in place. (“When he was into it,” remembered longtime Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, “he threw the nastiest pitches in the league.”) It belonged to a still-young man who fought what proved an unwinnable war with himself.

Then Thompson finally sent his mother a note in spring 1999 and, after she revealed it to him, Irabu agreed to meet him. Though discovering they had much in common—including a pronounced taste for self-medicating through alcohol and a chain-smoking habit (Irabu was known to smoke half a cigarette between innings during his starts), and an equally pronounced stubbornness as children—Irabu couldn’t keep the connection.

Irabu accepted it when Thompson told him of those old, unanswered letters, but father and son couldn’t bond otherwise. A too-thick language wall, too much time past. “Irabu realized,” Reiter wrote, “that just as Thompson didn’t want anything from him, he didn’t want anything from Thompson.”

Thompson died of cancer at 81, five years after the suicide of the son he barely knew. Reiter wrote no one feeling remorse over Irabu’s suicide felt it deeper than Thompson did. His wife revealed to Reiter that he’d made and kept a photo album full of pictures of Irabu on the mound.

Two “uninspiring” seasons following a trade to the Montreal Expos, a brief comeback as a closer with the Rangers, a better comeback in the NPB a year after that, then a surprising two years’ trying in the American independent leagues, Irabu realised that baseball had given him up.

So did he. Whoever he really was.

The lawyer who worked with Nomura, Jean Afterman, told Reiter that Irabu “was fascinated by life. He was a kid philosophy major. He had a lot of questions about life. He had a lot of curiosity. He had a lot of, as we would say in this country, things to work out.”

When his professional baseball life finally ended, Reiter wrote, Irabu became obsessed with one thing despite trying a couple of businesses in southern California: baseball. He also sank further into depression, his former merely binge drinking becoming continuous and leading to a pair of unseemly arrests, as did his use of assorted antidepressants.

After his wife gathered their daughters and left him—they’d “become acculturated to American life,” the New York Times wrote, in ways he couldn’t and didn’t—Irabu seemed to lose whatever taste for life remained to him. “In the last year of his life, Irabu’s few remaining friends suspected that he was heavily medicated,” Reiter wrote.

The light had gone out of his eyes, they say. A rec-league teammate told police that Irabu had been despondent at a practice four days before his death—”I don’t want to live anymore,” he’d said—and he hadn’t been seen since the day after that. But no one thought to check on him until it was far too late.

A post-mortem search of his home turned up half a bottle of Paxil and two Ativan pills, the latter an antidepressant that’s believed tied to suicidal tendencies and even more dangerous when mixed with Irabu’s favourite self-medication, alcohol. His toxicology report showed he had three times the legal driving limit of alcohol in his system and Ativan in his liver when he hanged himself.

NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra wonders what if anything might have been different if Irabu had stayed with the Padres and not forced his trade to the Yankees despite its pioneering stature. Reiter wrote that tragedies aren’t as simple as toxicology reports, unexamined death wishes, or self-compromised talent.

They’re often deeper than even the pitcher who didn’t ask for the hype he was hit with and couldn’t live up to. The pitcher who spent his life seeking what was robbed from him originally. The pitcher who wanted one thing that the country where he grew up and first throve refused him but too much past denied him in the country he adopted.

More than anything or anyone, more than even the people who hyped him and then dismissed him when he couldn’t live up to it, he wanted and needed to know who Hideki Irabu really was.