Labour Day looks and lamentations

2019-09-02 WashingtonNationals

Brian Dozier (9) has a feature spot in the Nationals’ dugout dancing. But can baseball’s version of Dance Fever dance themselves into the postseason?

Maybe you did figure on things like this coming. Maybe you didn’t. But it might still be fun to consider them anyway. Prowling around early morning on Labour Day, you can discover, among other things recent past and present:

Looks Aren’t Everything Dept.—Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto looking as though someone spiked his Raisin Bran with castor oil as he arrived at the mound and saw the bullpen gate open. Realmuto calls it poor timing, and we’ll take his word for it, but the Phillies’ bullpen isn’t exactly disaster free.

Mercy, Mercy, Me Dept.—You really want a mercy rule after Dodgers catcher Russell Martin threw the final inning of a blowout shutout? According to the irreplaceable Jayson Stark, no position player turned that trick since 1917.

Merciless Dept.—Royals shortstop Alex Gordon started a game as the cleanup hitter and finished it pitching two innings. The previous men to start a game hitting cleanup and end up pitching more than one inning in the same game? Ted Williams (1940) and Babe Ruth (1919). Gordon has bragging rights on Martin and a passel of other pitching position players now.

The Basement Tapes Dept.—Six teams came into September with excellent chances of finishing 35 games or more out of first place in their divisions. Two have better chances than that of finishing 40+ games out of first. And one (the Royals) stands to finish 35+ games out of first in the American League Central without being in last place.

But six that far out of first never happened before in the divisional play era. And, according to Stark, it only happened twice before that: in 1906, when the Cubs won 116 games; and, in 1954, when the Indians won 111. (And, when the Yankees won 103—but finished second.)

Houston, We Have No Problem Dept.—The Astros have their third straight American League West title pretty much in the safe deposit box. There’s only one good reason for them to keep grinding aside from their comparatively simple schedule the rest of the way: home field advantage in the American League Championship Series.

The other American League guys who rival the Astros for the greatest ratio of 2019 success to injured list crowding, the Yankees, also rival the Astros for gorging on home cooking: At this writing, the Astros are 51-17 in Minute Maid Park and the Yankees are 49-20 in the House That Ruthless Built.

And only one team since the advent of the wild card has played .700+ lights-out at home without winning a League Championship Series: the 2001 Mariners.

Bronx Bombing Dept.—When it was time to awaken on Labour Day, the Yankees needed one more ninth-inning home run to become baseball’s first. team. ever. to get at least twenty homers on a season in every inning, first through ninth.

Strike The Stage Dept.—With Justin Verlander throwing a fourteen-strikeout no-hitter Sunday, the Astros got closer to setting a precedent: they could finish the season as baseball’s first. team. ever. whose pitching staff will lead the game in strikeouts and whose hitters will finish dead last in striking out.

St. Elsewhere Dept., Continued—Looks like I wasn’t kidding about the Yankees being the American League East’s best and baseball’s version of a M*A*S*H post-op section. Gio Ursehla hitting the injured list with a groin injury Friday made for the 29th Yankee to go to the infirmary this year, breaking the record of 28 by the Dodgers three years ago. Paging Dr. Westphall . . .

Twin City Rockers Dept.—Maybe the Twins can bomb their way to the American League Central title. They’re now baseball’s most prolific single-season smashers with 268 clearing the fences, passing last year’s Yankees. And they’ve also re-gained a five-and-a-half game lead over the Indians as of this morning, with the Indians both a half game behind for the first AL wild card and only a half game ahead for the second card.

It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over Dept.—The Braves went 19-9 in August including an 11-2 finish to the month. The National League East is still theirs to lose right now. But could they lose it? They could, theoretically—to the Nationals. You know. The guys who were among those left for dead before 23 May.

But since 23 May, according to The Athletic, the Nats have a better record (58-27) than the Braves (56-31) and have thus been baseball’s best team since that date. Unfortunately, that 19-31 season opening counts, too. And guess who get to play each other for seven games early this new month?

By the way, the Nats since the All-Star break are 30-16 and the Braves are 30-17. If there’s a time for the NL East leaders to be overthrown, it starts with a four-game set in Sun Trust Park 5 September and could continue with three in Nationals Park starting—wait for it!—Friday the 13th.

The Nats may have the slightly tougher tuneup for the first set, though: the Mets haven’t looked as good in the last two weeks as they did coming out of the All-Star break, but they’re not exactly pushovers just yet, either. And the Nats get to tune up for the Braves against the Mets at home before hitting the road. The Braves get a two-game tune up against the Blue Jays before greeting the Nats.

Too Little, Too Late Dept.—Unless they have a not-too-likely third wind in them, the Mets’ season may be cooked. They were 24-10 after the break and before they swept the Indians last month; they’re 2-7 since, thanks to a sweep by the Braves, in games they could have won, and thanks to a followup sweep by a Cubs club that sometimes hasn’t looked quite as good or at least as consistent as their record.

The Mets had to prove they could hang with the big boys after fashioning that staggering post-break run against mostly the also-rans and the never-woulds. But getting swept by the Braves at a moment when they could have turned the NL East at last into the dogfight everyone predicted out of spring training hurt. So did the followup sweep by the Cubs. They’re four out for the second wild card. Their postseason hope is slimmer than a thread.

Taking two of three from the Phillies in Citizens Bank Park this weekend wasn’t exactly meaningless, but they get three with the Nats in D.C. this week and another set with the Phillies at home this coming weekend. And even if their post-break record is 29-17 (one less win than the Braves), and almost wholly dependent upon how everyone else still in the picture does, this is crunch time for the Mets, whose postseason odds still sit at a seven percent chance at the postseason. This makes or breaks them.

Monsters of the Midwest Dept.—The Cardinals’ self-resurrection makes life even more interesting for the Cubs, who now sit in the second NL wild card spot and only three games behind the Cardinals for the NL Central. And other than two sets to come against the Cardinals, the Cubs have as cream puff a schedule to come as you could ask. The worst the Cardinals seem to face the rest of the stretch is a set with the Nationals starting 16 September.

So at least one and possibly both the sets to come against each other could find both the Cardinals and the Cubs in duel-to-the-death mode. But don’t rule out the spoiler factors to come, either. Pride still counts for plenty among the also-rans who’d like nothing better than to be the ones who make life miserable, or at least more challenging than it ought to be, for the big boys.

Brief Candles Dept.Who says Astros strongman Yordan Alvarez can’t walk home for the year with the American League’s Rookie of the Year award? Only 62 games, you say? It isn’t exactly unprecedented. I can name you a Hall of Famer who won a Rookie of the Year award despite playing in only (count them) 52 games the year he copped the prize: Willie McCovey, 1959.

Aside from which, Alvarez is liable to play in just about all the Astros’ remaining regular season games, giving him possibly 85 games. Ryan Howard copped an ROY playing 88. So if the Rookie of the Year should be the guy who does some of the most unheard-of things you ever heard of among rooks, Alvarez ought to have the award in the bank the same way it looks as though the Mets’ Pete Alonso does in the National League.

It’s just a shame in that regard that the Astros have a great chance of reaching the World Series and the Mets need the rest of the league to drop dead to get there, just about. Because the idea of Alonso and Alvarez tangling in a Series with their rookie credentials and plate firepower would be . . . forget must-see TV. It’d be damn-well-better-see TV.

He’s the Greatest Dancer Dept.—Remember the Sister Sledge disco hit of that name? If they gave that award out in baseball, this year’s Nats—those Dancing Fools, those  Tighten-Uppers, those Dance Fevered, who turn dugout celebrations into Arthur Murray clinics and Nationals Park into the Land of a Thousand Dances—would win the prize without even a sliver of competition.

But if they get to the postseason, would the Nats think of doing the Stroll for their on-field victory celebrations? Why the hell not?

A tale of two literary baseball seasons

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The books they said would subvert baseball. The game goes ever onward and the books never remain out of print. (So far.) Fifty years ago, Jim Bouton pitched his Ball Four season; ten years before that, Jim Brosnan pitched The Long Season.

The New York Public Library’s list of 20th century Books of the Century includes only one book pertaining to sports, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Yes, I was surprised, too, considering such volumes as Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, anything by Roger Angell (one more time: he isn’t baseball’s Homer, Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell), Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, and Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers, among others.

But there Bouton’s volume reposes, in a club to which also belong T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, John Dos Passos, Albert Camus, Agatha Christie, Grace Metalious, and Tom Wolfe. Before you retort that Bouton didn’t exactly write The Waste Land, Light in August, Invisible Man, On the Road, or The Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s only fair to say that Eliot, Faulkner, Ellison, Kerouac, and Wolfe never had to try sneaking a pitch past Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock, Harmon Killebrew, or Willie Mays, either.

Bouton was with the Astros when Ball Four was published in April 1970, after excerpts appeared in Look. To say it was received less than approvingly around baseball is to say Baltimore needed breathing treatments after the Mets flattened the Orioles four straight following a Game One loss in the 1969 World Series. “F@ck you, Shakespeare!” was Pete Rose’s review, hollered while Bouton had a rough relief outing against the Reds. All things to come considered, it was a wonder Rose knew Shakespeare wasn’t a brew served on tap at the ballpark.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary season of the one Bouton recorded for Ball Four and the sixtieth anniversary of the one animating Brosnan’s The Long Season. The books have their common ground and their distinctions, chief among the latter being that Bouton didn’t shy from detailing things even Brosnan, whose candor was considered jolting enough in its own time and place, didn’t dare to tread. If Brosnan even hinted at them, it was euphemistically. Bouton didn’t bother with euphemisms.

The two pitchers have something sadder in common, too. Brosnan suffered a stroke from which he was recovering when sepsis came manifest and caused his death in 2014 at 82, a year after his wife of 62 years died. Bouton, on the threshold of 80, suffered a stroke in 2012 that left him with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a brain disease linked to dementia and compromised his ability to speak and write. Making it worse: the stroke occurred on the fifteenth anniversary of his daughter Laurie’s death in a New Jersey automobile accident.

Bouton’s wife, Paula Kurman, a speech therapist among other things (she has a Columbia University doctorate in interpersonal communications) who has worked with brain damaged children during her career, has worked with him carefully (“Together we make a whole person,” she once told a Society for American Baseball Research panel, to laughter that was sad as much as approving) and he has regained much of his speaking ability.

But he continues to struggle with what Kurman told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times was “a pothole syndrome: Things will seem smooth, his wit and vocabulary intact, and then there will be a sudden, unforeseen gap in his reasoning, or a concept he cannot quite grasp.”

Brosnan’s book was seeded two years before The Long Season‘s focus when he bumped into Sports Illustrated editor Bob Boyle. Having heard the bespectacled reliever had ideas about writing a book about major league baseball, Boyle suggested an article first “if something significant happens.” Brosnan turned in an essay about his trade from the Cubs to the Cardinals for veteran shortstop Alvin Dark, a trade one reporter described as the Cubs committing theft by trading “a mutt for a pedigreed pooch.”

“Loved it,” Boyle told Brosnan. “Why don’t you write a book about a whole season?” Two years later, that’s exactly what Brosnan did. He praised and needled in the same arch but honest tone, even if he did sanitize much of the vocabulary of the locker room or the dugout, as Bouton wouldn’t need to do a decade later. He showed the better and lesser sides of several players, but even his needles seemed not to come from malice aforethought.

Bouton was approached to do what became Ball Four by iconoclastic sports writer/editor Leonard Shecter, who’d previously written an in-depth profile of Bouton for Sport. Shecter proposed an in-season diary somewhat along Brosnan’s lines. “Funny you should mention that,” Bouton replied. “I’ve been taking notes.” During the 1969 season, Bouton would observe of his teammates, “My note-taking is beginning to make the natives restless.”

Brosnan offered no sense of wanting any kind of revenge for any kind of slight, in an era when players were too often slighted under a system that kept them, in essence, indentured servants. (One reviewer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that Brosnan’s “pot shots,” such as they were, didn’t enrage fellow players “because ballplayers didn’t read; it was so out of character, or so he said.”) Bouton was often accused of trying to settle scores, particularly about the Yankees, his former team about whom he wrote and spoke extensively enough when the occasion suggested it. All Brosnan and Bouton did was try to show baseball and its players, coaches, managers, and administrators, as a too-human game played and run with too-human foibles, follies, and fantasias alike.

The devil was really in the details and even the language in Ball Four, from neither of which Bouton shied a single step. But both pitchers were accused of a kind of insider trading for fun and profit. “Brosnan has his say about many who may have, in times past, had their say about him,” wrote Bill Veeck of The Long Season, at a time Veeck still owned the White Sox. “This just doesn’t seem to come off so well, and tends to lessen the impact and enjoyment of his undeniably colorful material.” Presumably, Veeck took his own critique to heart when writing his own Veeck—as in Wreck, which did for baseball executives’ memoiring what Brosnan and later Bouton did for players’, and what Veeck did even further with his subsequent The Hustler’s Handbook.

“As an active player on a big-league team I had seemingly taken undue advantage by recording an insider’s viewpoint on what some professional baseball players were really like,” Brosnan wrote, after The Long Season and Pennant Race (his followup, about the 1961 Reds’ unexpected National League pennant winner) were republished on the latter’s season’s fortieth anniversary. “I had, moreover, violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty and sobriety — i.e., what they were really not like. Finally, I had actually written the book by myself, thus trampling upon the tradition that a player should hire a sportswriter to do the work. I was, on these accounts, a sneak and a snob and a scab.”

Bouton got the chance to address the hoopla around Ball Four in a followup book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally (its jacket featured a baseball with a blackened eye drawn onto the hide) which was just as funny as Ball Four and sometimes a lot more poignant.  “I think it’s possible,” he wrote, “that you can view people as heroes and at the same time understand that they are people, too, imperfect, narrow sometimes, even not very good at what they do. I didn’t smash any heroes or ruin the game for anybody. You want heroes, you can have them. Heroes exist in the mind, anyway.”

Or, out of their minds, if you ponder one reaction to Ball Four. Before the Astros farmed Bouton out in 1970, Bouton discovered a burned copy of the book on the steps of the dugout, courtesy of the Padres. Even Brosnan’s and Veeck’s books avoided that kind of grotesquery.

The worst to happen to Brosnan after The Long Season and Pennant Race, not to mention other essays published in several other magazines, was the White Sox (to whom Brosnan was traded early in the 1963 season, long after Veeck sold the team) inserting a clause in his proposed 1964 contract barring him from writing for publication without prior team approval. Refusing to sign a contract with a clause like that in it, Brosnan retired after no other team took even a flyer on him, despite both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News taking his side.

Bouton was either reviled as “a social leper” or a cancer on the game for having written and published Ball Four. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn actually tried to suppress the book, hauling Bouton into his office, demanding Bouton sign a statement saying it was all the pernicious work of his editor Shecter. Bouton probably had to restrain himself from telling Kuhn where to shove the statement when he wasn’t trying to restrain himself from laughing.

It was Dick Young of the New York Daily News who described Bouton as a social leper for writing Ball Four. When he ran into Bouton on an Astros visit to Shea Stadium, he said hello and, when Bouton needled him for talking to social lepers, Young replied, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t take it personally.” That reply gave Bouton the title of his followup book, in which he credited such overreactions in the sports press for doing almost the most to ensure Ball Four a best seller.

Both pitchers were witty, literate, and not even close to being thoroughgoing jocks. Brosnan made his way as a competent if mostly unspectacular relief pitcher and spot starter with a strong slider who had his moments. Bouton was a promising, hard throwing Yankee starting star, with a live fastball and a hard curve ball, until two seasons of overwork (1963 and 1964, and a whopping 520.2 innings over the two) left him with arm and shoulder trouble (it began a third of the way through 1964) that reduced him to marginal relief work and prompted him to make the knuckleball, which he’d thrown only as a change of pace previously, his bread and butter pitch.

Brosnan kept so many books in his locker that his 1961 Reds teammate, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, nicknamed him the Professor. Bouton was no less literate or cerebral, though he may not have had a locker library equal to Brosnan’s, but his early ferocity as a competitor (he was once famous for his cap falling off his head as he delivered) inspired New York Post writer Maury Allen to nickname him Bulldog.

But Bouton may have put baseball into perspective even more than Brosnan did. Both pitchers were very aware of the worlds around them, and both wrote about the periodic spells of boredom, racial tensions, off-field skirt chasings, and self-doubts endemic in their professional baseball lives. Brosnan saved them for his books and articles; Bouton was less reluctant to speak his mind about things like politics, Vietnam, and civil rights when asked or when a conversation left him the opening.

Bouton bought even less into the still-lingering press representations of athletes as heroes. Teammates didn’t always hold with that or other things, like calling them out on it when they made mistakes that cost the Yankees games he pitched.

“After two or three years of playing with guys like [Mickey] Mantle and [Roger] Maris,” he wrote in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, “I was no longer awed. I started to look at those guys as people and I didn’t like what I saw. They were fine as baseball heroes. As men they were not quite so successful. At the same time I guess I started to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Instead of being a funny rookie, I was a veteran wise guy. I reached the point where I would argue to support my opinion and that didn’t go down too well either.”

“He stands out,” Shecter wrote of Bouton in Sport, “because he is a decent young man in a game which does not recognize decency as valuable.” Much the same thing was said of Brosnan no matter what particular writers did or didn’t think of his two books.

Brosnan’s post baseball life including writing, advertising work (he’d done it in the offseasons of his pitching career), occasional sportscasting, and raising his family in the same Illinois home he bought with his wife, Anne, in 1956. (When they married, one local story’s headline, referencing his wife’s maiden name, said, “Pitcher Marries Pitcher.”)

Bouton became a sports anchor for New York ABC and then CBS before trying a baseball comeback in the White Sox system and then with the independent (some say notorious) Portland Mavericks, a comeback that ended with getting five starts for the Braves in late 1978. In one of those starts, Bouton squared off against Astros legend J.R. Richard, on the same night Richard broke the National League single-season strikeout record for righthanders, and pitched Richard to a draw. “The young flamethrower against the old junkballer,” Bouton wrote of the game.

A concoction Bouton and Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson invented in the bullpen, shredding gum into strands similar to chewing tobacco, became a hit as Big League Chew when they sold the idea to Wrigley. Bouton also continued writing, became a motivational speaker, and survived the collapse of his first marriage to meet and marry Kurman, blending two families, becoming founders and leaders of a recreational baseball league playing by 19th century rules, and becoming competition ballroom dancers. The Renaissance Bulldog.

The Washington Post‘s distinguished literary critic Jonathan Yardley wrote of The Long Season that it was literature about “[a]n ordinary season — life as it’s really lived — rather than an extraordinary one.” You could say, then, that Pennant Race was literature about an extraordinary season lived and played by ordinary men, if you don’t count Frank Robinson. Ball Four, which ran more temperatures higher up scales than Brosnan could claim, could be called an ordinary season lived and played by ordinary men. Recorded by a man whose extraordinary side was eroded by injuries.

Bouton may have hit the true key as to why all three books also unnerved baseball and its assorted establishments. “If Mickey Mantle had written Ball Four,” he later remembered, “it wouldn’t have been a big deal. A marginal relief pitcher on the Seattle Pilots had no business writing a book.” Likewise, if Robinson or Stan Musial had written The Long Season (Brosnan began 1959 with the Cardinals but was traded to the Reds midway) instead of a middle relief pitcher, it might not have proven a big deal.

Brosnan’s and Bouton’s books became baseball classics (as did Veeck—as in Wreck), and Ball Four also helped further expose the abuses heaped on players by front offices before the end of the reserve clause but probably caused no few of its younger readers to become sports journalists themselves. One suspects even now that Bouton’s revelations about the one-sided contract negotiations to which reserve era players were subject might have infuriated the purists more than his revelations about players’ sex drives, amphetamine indulgences, pranks, and feuds did.

Whenever one of Bouton’s former Ball Four-season teammates goes to his reward, Bouton is genuinely saddened. “I think he came, over the years, to love them,” Kurman told Kepner. “As each one died, he got really teary about it. He realized how deeply they were part of him.” (The Pilots, of course, were sold and moved to Milwaukee for the 1970 season, becoming the Brewers. Writing in Ball Four Plus Ball Five, a tenth-anniversary update, Bouton said, “The old Pilots are a ghost team, doomed forever to circumnavigate the globe in the pages of a book.”)

The Long Season remains “a cocky book, caustic and candid and, in a way, courageous, for Brosnan calls him like he sees them, doesn’t hesitate to name names, and employs ridicule like a stiletto,” as wrote Red Smith, arguably the best baseball writer in New York (then with the Herald-Tribune).

Ball Four‘s true success, wrote Roger Angell himself, “is Mr. Bouton himself, as a day-to-day observer, hard thinker, marvellous listener, comical critic, angry victim, and unabashed lover of a sport. What he has given us is a rare view of a highly complex public profession seen from the innermost side, along with an ironic and courageous mind. And, very likely, the funniest book of the year.”

And in the long, long, long wake of Brosnan’s and Bouton’s books, baseball hasn’t collapsed, the world hasn’t imploded, that Star Spangled Banner yet waves, and men and women of note or fame can be considered in all their human flaws, foibles, and fantasias, without being seen where appropriate as any less than heroes.