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.

Don’t blame replay for Bohm staying safe

Travis d'Arnaud, Alec Bohm

Repeat after me: Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . Alec Bohm was out at the plate . . . (Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo.)

The arguments against using replay to determine close plays included that it would take a big, big, big piece of the human factor out of a game. Well, what the hell was that we saw in Atlanta Sunday night?

It was the human factor getting it wrong despite having what Braves pitcher Drew Smyly called five different angles on a nationally televised game.

It was home plate umpire Lance Barrett missing a call on a bang-bang play at the plate in the top of the ninth but the replay review crew out of New York essentially doubling down on the wrong call, despite how right Smyly was and having five or even more angles to review.

It was Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm colliding with Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud as he arrived sliding as d’Arnaud with the ball lunged to block the plate, forcing Bohm to slide just offline enough to miss touching the plate even with his lead foot.

It was the Phillies winning 7-6 when the Braves went three-and-three in the bottom of the ninth and Bohm saying almost nothing but, “I was called safe. That’s all that matters.” Note that “I was called safe” isn’t exactly the same thing as saying, “I was safe.”

Even the Mets weren’t that coyly disingenuous about Michael Conforto elbowing his way to a blown call in his favour and a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch walkoff against the Marlins last Thursday.

With one out in the top of the ninth Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius lofted a fly the other way to left. Marcell Ozuna strode in toward the line to catch it. As Bohm tagged at third, Ozuna fired a two-hop strike down the line that hopped into the crouching d’Arnaud’s mitt. In the same split second d’Arnaud turned right, his folded leg across the plate with the tag on the sliding Bohm’s back leg.

D’Arnaud did bump Bohm in front of the plate for a moment. Bohm’s left foot, his lead foot, never touched the plate, flying just over it, and neither did the rest of his body parts, before he sprang up in a bent-knee pirouette and turned another one upright, waving his arms, including one wave that looked as though he were making a safe call.

If you want to give Barrett a benefit of the doubt you could say plausibly that d’Arnaud sprawling across the plate after the bumping tag on Bohm might (underline that) have obstructed his full view of Bohm’s slide.

“We saw it,” insisted Phillies manager Joe Girardi standing by his man and the review crew at once. “It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate is what we saw when we saw a lot of the angles.”

I saw it, too, from a lot of the angles. For Girardi to say that, Bohm’s big toe must have been on his heel. On the angle his foot flew over the plate, his heel was actually a hair or two closer to hitting the plate than his big toe was.

Smyly didn’t pitch all that well Sunday night—he surrendered five runs on five hits in five innings’ work, including a two-run homer to Ozzie Albies in a three-run first and a leadoff solo to Freddie Freeman in the bottom of the fifth. But his perspective on that play at the plate was anything but impaired.

“[I]t’s clear that his foot didn’t touch the plate, that it was on the chalk,” Smyly told reporters post-game. “Everyone saw it and sees it, everyone knows it. And for MLB not to overturn that, it’s embarrassing. Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that? That’s the way I feel about it. I think everybody feels that way. There’s five different angles. It’s clear, he didn’t touch the plate.”

#HeDidntTouchThePlate became a Twitter hashtag almost as fast as the original play went down in the first place. Better that than the Truist Park audience throwing debris down onto the field. They had every right to be outraged, but better chanting (as they did) Bull-[sh@t]! Bull-[sh@t!] than throwing junk and at least one bottle kept from doing damage by, ironically, the netting hoisted to protect fans from bullet-fast foul balls.

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, himself native to Atlanta, may have felt his team got jobbed, but he wasn’t too thrilled about the fans’ display, either. “It’s an embarrassing representation of our city because I know from being from here, that’s not how we act,” he said after the game.

And then probably the worst part of it all, I don’t think people realize we have families here. There are kids that are here, kids that are sitting in the front row, and you’ve got bottles whizzing by their heads. Just endangering kids that may not be able to protect themselves is downright embarrassing, and it should never happen again. It just can’t happen, and it never needs to happen again.

It spoiled a night on which both teams brought their bats to town and swung them with authority. From Albies in the first and Freeman in the fifth to Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly and mammoth seventh-inning home run. From Rhys Hoskins’s leadoff bomb in the fourth and Gregorius’s three-run homer two outs and back-to-back singles later, to Bryce Harper’s opposite-field leadoff launch seven or eight rows into the left field seats in the sixth.

When The Athletic queried the New York replay crew about the Bohm safe call, the journal received an e-mail reply: “After viewing all relevant angles, the Replay Official could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag. The call STANDS, the runner is safe.” How many angles was “all relevant angles?”

“It makes me not even want [replay review] anymore,” d’Arnaud said. “Honestly, it just slows the game down. It took like five minutes for them to decide that and, to me, they got it wrong. So I’d rather just not have it and get the game going.”

Some plays take a little longer than five minutes to decide, some take a little less. D’Arnaud’s frustration is the most understandable among any Brave. When Conforto was ruled a hit batsman as plate ump Ron Kulpa changed his strike call in the bottom of the ninth last Thursday, Mets broadcaster Ron Darling asked why have replay if the review umpires can’t get it right.

Kulpa admitted his mistake the following day. (He got a lovely ovation from the Citi Field audience Saturday for his admission.) Barrett hasn’t weighed back in at this writing. But the issue isn’t replay itself. The issue is that there’s still a human factor in baseball games, major league or otherwise, and that factor can still get it wrong even with every potential angle showing otherwise.

Even a major league player or two ripped the call. Padres third baseman Will Middlebrooks tweeted, “How do you watch that replay and say he’s safe. Hahaha this is a joke.” Of all people, Angels all-everything center fielder Mike Trout tweeted, “So bad…” followed by an emoji showing a smiley face in tears laughing. D’Arnaud’s brother Chase, himself a former major league utility infielder, tweeted back to Middlebrooks and Trout, “the guy makes that call in New York should be interviewed just like players who get interviewed after games.”

Not just by reporters but by baseball’s government, too.

It’s far too early in the major league season for a game and a call like that to wreak real havoc on a pennant race, of course. If the safe call was overturned as it should have been, it would have meant the Braves and the Phillies each at 5-4 and tied for first in the National League East this morning.

But if a replay review crew can still blow what angle after angle showed them wasn’t a runner safe across the plate in mid-April, how egregiously will they blow a similar call down the stretch in a game that weighs like a bank vault on the races?

The first five days

Stop me if you’ve heard it before: Jacob deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer, but the new Mets bullpen puked the bed like the old one did.

The fans are back in the stands, however limited by ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, but the Nationals have yet to play a regular-season game thanks to a few players and a staffer or two testing positive. There went that Opening Day must-see match between Max Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom.

With their opening set with the Nats thus wiped out, deGrom had to wait until the Mets went to Philadelphia Monday. Oops. That and everything else seemed to play a support role to the horrid news out of San Diego.

The news that Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres’s new bazillion dollar shortstop, suffered a partial left shoulder dislocation on a hard third inning swing at the plate during a Monday loss to the Giants.

Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters he thinks team trainers and medical people were able to pop the shoulder back together, but the team isn’t taking chances. At this writing, MRI results aren’t available and nobody knows yet whether Tatis will spend significant time on the injured list.

If it’s more than a small shoulder dislocation, it may not be significant time. If it’s something like a labral tear, Tatis could miss six months—essentially, the rest of the season—according to one doctor who knows such shoulder troubles and spoke to the Los Angeles Times. Don’t fault the Padres if they’re saying to themselves, “Thank God for insurance.”

DeGrom could use a little extra insurance himself, alas. The good news for the Mets: deGrom was his usual self Monday night. Six shutout innings, seven punchouts, three hits, three-figure speed on his fastballs. The bad news, alas: the Mets are gonna Met, so far. At least out of the bullpen.

Their on-paper impressive offense found nothing more than two runs to support their ace. They got an inning of shutout relief from Miguel Castro relieving deGrom for the seventh, but the bullpen puked the bed in the eighth—including hitting Bryce Harper with the bases loaded. Not exactly a Rhodes Scholarship move there.

The Old Fart Contingency thundered aboard social media that Mets manager Luis Rojas blew it lifting deGrom after six strong—until they were reminded the added layoff after the Washington postponement put both deGrom and the Mets into caution mode.

“If that was [last] Thursday and I’m on normal rest,” the smooth righthander said postgame of the early hook, “I don’t think there is any chance I’m coming out of that game. We discussed it before what was the right thing to do. Long season and talking to them coming in, it felt like was the right decision.”

It was neither deGrom’s nor Rojas’s fault that, after Garcia took care of the Phillies in the seventh with just one infield hit within a fly out and two ground outs, the Phillies loaded the bases on the Mets’ new relief toy, Tyler May, in the eighth with one out, before Rojas went to another new Met bull, Aaron Loup. And Loup promptly hit Harper to push Miller home, before J.T. Realmuto singled home pinch runner Quinn, Mets late third base replacement Luis Guillorme threw home off line allowing Harper and Rhys Hoskins to score, and Didi Gregorius pushed Realmuto home with a first-pitch sacrifice fly.

The Mets had nothing to answer except a two-out ninth-inning stand that came up two dollars short against Phillies closer Alvarado. Kevin Pillar singled up the pipe, Francisco Lindor—the Mets’ own new bazillion-dollar lifetime shortstop—dumped a quail into shallow right that landed just in front of and then off the glove on oncoming, diving Harper, and Michael Conforto singled Pillar home while setting up first and third.

Pete Alonso, their 2019 Rookie of the Year bomber, hit one to the back of right field that looked as though it had a chance to ricochet off the top of the fence if not clear it. It wasn’t quite enough to stop Harper from running it down, taking a flying leap with his back against the fence, and snapping it into his glove to stop a game-tying extra-base hit and end the game with the Phillies on the plus side, 5-3.

Marry the foregoing to deGrom going 2-for-3 at the plate including an RBI single, and no wonder May himself said post-game, “Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself. That’s not what teams are, and frankly Jake did almost everything today.”

Just don’t marry that to things such as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani hitting 100+ mph on the mound and hitting a mammoth home run that flew out 100+ mph in the same inning last Friday night. Ohtani the two way player is an outlier among outliers; deGrom’s merely an outlier.

As of Tuesday morning— with the National League’s pitchers having to bat because Commissioner Nero simply couldn’t bring himself to keep the universal designated hitter this year at least, and Ohtani batting second in the Angel lineup the night he started on the mound, among other things—the pitchers have a .131/.157/.192 slash line and a .349 OPS.

The pitchers at the plate from Opening Day through the end of Monday night collected thirteen hits in 149 plate appearances: nine singles, three doubles, and Ohtani’s Friday night flog a third of the way up Angel Stadium’s high right field bleachers. They also walked three times and struck out 56 times. And the OFC still insists the National League just say no to its own invention.

All around the Show, too, there was one home run hit every 35 plate appearances and fourteen percent of all 928 hits the season’s first five days cleared the fences. It took five outs to create a single run, with 5.3 average runs created per game and 631 runs created while 559 scored.

It was fun to hear the fan noises even in limited capacities, too, though the limits in Angel Stadium made Ohtani’s blast sound even more explosive at the split second he hit it. If only things had been more fun for the home crowds: the many themes for the Show’s first five days could include, plausibly, the blues classic “On the Road Again.”

The home teams’ slash lines: .225/.313/.374/.687 OPS. The road teams: .245/.328/.403/.731 OPS. The road teams drove in fifteen more runs, hit thirteen more home runs, seven more doubles, and had seventy more hits overall. They also took eleven more walks, though they struck out fifty more times and grounded into fifteen more double plays. The road rats also had a +29 batting average on balls in play over the home boys and 108 more total bases while they were at it.

Maybe the shocker among the opening road rats were the Orioles. The Woe-rioles. Taking three straight from the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Out-scoring the Olde Towne Team 18-5, including and especially an 11-3 battering on Sunday afternoon. Even those paranoid about ID cards might want to insist the Orioles show theirs, even after the Orioles got a brief return to earth from the Yankees beating them 7-0 Monday in New York.

Unless it was the Reds, taking two out of three from the Cardinals to open, including and especially a 12-1 battering Sunday afternoon that proved the best revenge against abject stupidity is to slap, slash, scamper, and smash your way to a six-run seventh when you’re already up three runs—thanks to Nick Castellanos ripping Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez for a two-out, three-run homer an inning earlier.

Castellanos got drilled by Cardinals reliever Jack Woodford Saturday . . . two days after he bat-flipped a home run. Then, when he dove home to score on a wild pitch, Castellanos got bumped by Woodford sliding in to bring down the tag Castellanos beat. Castellanos sprung up, barked at Woodford, and began walking away before trouble could arrive. Oops. Trouble arrived—when Yadier Molina shoved him from behind to spark a bench-clearing brawl.

Baseball government myopically suspended Castellanos two games for “provoking” the brawl. Who’s baseball’s official optician? Who couldn’t see what everyone else with eyes saw? And how long has Molina—handed only an “undisclosed fine” along with a few others in the scrum—been so privileged a character that he can get away with the actual kickoff of a brawl that was seeded in the first place because the Cardinals are one of the game’s self-appointed Fun Police precincts?

“I was pleased,” Cardinal manager Mike Schildt told the press after that game. “Our guys came out there. We’re not going to take it. I know Yadi went immediately right at him, got sidetracked by [Cincinnati’s Mike Moustakas]. Woody, to his credit, got up and was like, ‘I’m not going to sit here and be taunted.’ Good for him.”

Taunted? All Castellanos said when he sprang up, by his own admission, was “Let’s [fornicating] go!” Anyone who thinks Woodford lacked intent didn’t see that ball sailing on a sure line up into Castellanos’s shoulder and rib region. Nor did they see Molina very clearly shoving Castellanos without Castellanos having the benefit of a rear-view mirror.

Castellanos appealed the two-game suspension. The final result wasn’t known at this writing. But the Cardinals should be getting a message of their own: Defund the Fun Police. Pronto.

How about the Astros, who went into Oakland and swept four from the Athletics before ambling on to Anaheim and losing 7-6 to the Angels Monday night? That was despite dropping a three-run first on Angel starter Jose Quintana and yanking a fourth run out of him in the top of the fourth, before the Angels finally opened their side of the scoreboard with Mike Trout (of course) hitting Luis Garcia’s 2-2 meatball about twelve or thirteen rows into the left field seats.

The Angels pushed a little further back, the Astros pushed a little further ahead, until the Angels ironed up and tore four runs out of the Astros in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single (Dexter Fowler), a run-scoring force play (David Fletcher), a throwing error (on Jared Walsh’s grounder to first), an intentional walk (to Trout, of all people), and a sacrifice fly (Anthony Rendon).

Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning solo bomb turned out more a kind of excuse-us shot than a last stand. The game left both the Astros and the Angels at 4-1 to open the season and what could be very interesting proceedings in the American League West. Now, if only the Astros could finally get past Astrogate.

They’ve been playing and winning through numerous catcalls, howls, and even a few inflatable and actual trash can sightings in Oakland and Anaheim. Jose Altuve—who’s looked more like his old self at the plate so far—seemed mildly amused when an inflatable trash can fell to the warning from those high Angel Stadium right field bleachers.

Astrogate was and remains anything but amusing. The Astros could keep up their torrid opening and overwhelm the AL West this season, but the scandal won’t go away entirely (nor should it) until the absolute last Astrogater standing no longer wears their fatigues. Yes, you’ve heard that before. That doesn’t make it any less painful for Astro fans or less true for everyone else. The Astros, nobody else, wrote the script that made them pariahs. Bang the cans slowly, fans.

Will off-field-based illegal electronic sign stealing disappear at all? Players got same-game video access back this year. There are three security people in every team’s video room at home and on the road. League cameras have been installed in those video rooms. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to add guard dogs?

The players union agreed last year: there’ll be no more players getting away with murder even in return for spilling the deets—the commissioner can drop a lot more than a marshmallow hammer on the cheaters from now on. All by himself. He can demand answers without plea bargaining. And he doesn’t need a permission slip.

“But one of the prevailing lessons from the electronic sign-stealing era is that even if a scheme sounds far-fetched, someone might give it a whirl if they believe they can get away with it,” writes The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich, one of the two reporters (Ken Rosenthal was his partner) who helped break and burrow deep into Astrogate. “This holds true no matter what MLB does. Even a total ban on electronics, which the players would never agree to, would not be enough. In that case, a player or staffer could simply go rogue.”

In other words, boys will be still be boys, if they can-can.

Dick Allen, RIP: Big stick, bigger man

Dick Allen’s big stick hit home runs that should have had astronauts aboard.

Around noontime Monday (PST), his family announced it on his own Twitter account. I came home from a morning errand to see the news, and I could only open his Twitter and write, without clicking on the heart symbol for a like, “How can you like the passing of a great ballplayer and a good man?”

Dick Allen is dead at 78 after a battle with cancer. There’d been a swell of support for his election to the Hall of Fame in recent years. He might have made it via the Golden Era Committee this year. Except the committee decided that, well, if they couldn’t meet in person to discuss and vote, by God they weren’t going to meet until next year.

When they made that announcement in late August, I zapped the Hall of Fame and the Committee for suddenly discovering their inner Luddism: “Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections.”

They never heard of setting up a Zoom remote conference? Trust me, since I just took part in my own first one. They can be set up simply, such a conference is restricted to invited guests via meeting codes and passwords, and none would have compromised the integrity of the discussions and votes.

The Committee pushed the meeting back to winter 2021. They just might elect Allen this time around. (He missed by one vote the last time around, in 2014.) Only he’ll be well serene and happy in the company of the angels and not on earth to accept the plaque I’m sure his family will accept proudly when it’s awarded.

It’s not that my opinion means two figs, but I’ve championed Allen’s Hall of Fame election for long enough now, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind about it. I was on the fence about it for a good long while before that, alas, but once and for all I took as deep a look into the record as it was as I could and became convinced. Allen has a no-questions-should-be-asked case as a peak value Hall of Famer.

If you consider his peak to be 1964-1972, Allen’s .936 OPS and 164 OPS+ should say most of it, especially considering most of that peak came in one of the toughest hitting eras ever. If you consider the absolutely unfair and out-of-line racism he was forced to face and fight, especially as a Phillie, it’s to wonder and marvel that he could even check in at the plate, never mind play as he did when he was healthy.

Let’s look at Allen and his big stick by way of my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. When I first examined Allen that way two years ago, I discovered a flaw: I shouldn’t have included sacrifice bunts or excluded times he was hit by pitches. The former’s flaw: you shouldn’t be credited when you’re surrendering outs willingly; outs are precious. The latter’s flaw: if the pitcher’s fool enough to drill you, let it be on his head and to your credit.

The RBA metric otherwise is a bid to atone for the incompleteness of the traditional batting average, one of the single most flawed statistics ever devised. Hits divided by official at-bats treats all hits equally and misses too much of what batters do to create and produce runs on the scoreboard. (You still think all hits are equal? Tell me why a single’s as good as a double, triple, or home run and vice versa. Didn’t think so.)

My RBA adds total bases (which treats hits the unequal way they deserve), walks, intentional walks (one more time: you should damn well get credit when the other guys prefer you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you didn’t intend to fly out but it scored a run so credit to you!), and times you were hit by pitches, and divides the sum by your total plate appearances.

And, this is Dick Allen’s peak according to RBA:

Years PA TB BB IBB HBP SF RBA
1964-72 5,457 2,592 685 120 11 33 .631
Career 7,315 3,379 894 138 16 53 .612

Rest assured that these numbers helped rank Allen among the top twenty third basemen who ever played major league baseball. They would also show him with the third-highest RBA of all post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Fame third basemen except two: in ascending order, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

This is before revisiting his breathtaking power or mentioning that Allen was one of the smartest and most effective baserunners of his time. (Did you know Allen took extra bases on followup hits 53 percent of the time he reached base?) And, before lamenting that early enough injuries impacted his defense either at third base or the position to which his injury-weakened throwing arm finally sent him full time, first base.

Allen didn’t just hit home runs. Phrased politely, they didn’t need the proverbial meals and stewardesses aboard. What he hit typically should have had astronauts. When first analysing his performance two years ago, I concluded based on the evidence that, if he’d been far more healthy and uninjured, Allen might have finished his career with 525 home runs or thereabout.

Dick Allen sharing a big laugh with his old Phillies teammate Jim Bunning at an old-timers’ event in Citizens Bank Park.

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once tried to take the sting out of the Philadelphia boo birds’ booing Allen by suggesting the reason they booed him was that his home runs didn’t always stay in the park to become souvenirs.

That’s putting things too politely. Allen once told a Phillies historian (and an Allen biographer), William C. Kashatus, “I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.”

A man who grew up in a racially tolerant and accommodating Pennsylvania hamlet, but whom the Phillies sent to 1963 Little Rock with no support system, who once remembered, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, and said, “Dick, this is what we have in mind. It’s going to be very difficult but we’re with you”—at least I would have been prepared,” has no reason to apologise.

Whether you believe he was a jerk or just immature, some people persist in believing Allen’s career was shortened by it. Not so, argued Rob Neyer when writing The Big Book of Baseball Lineups: “I don’t think his immaturity had much to do with the length of his career. He just got hurt, and so he didn’t enjoy the sort of late career that most great hitters do. It’s that, as much as all the other stuff, that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, the sad irony. When the Phillies finally traded Allen out of town, to the St. Louis Cardinals, they thought they were getting Curt Flood in return in the package. To Flood, the trade smacked of treating even a $90,000 a year center fielder as a piece of property like a slave. To Allen, who’d been to hell and back almost daily in Philadelphia and rooted for Flood’s reserve clause lawsuit, the trade was his Emancipation Proclamation.

Allen incurred assorted nagging injuries and severe leg injuries after leaving Philadelphia and especially during his otherwise shining time with the Chicago White Sox. (He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first White Sox season.) “[W]hat he did for us in Chicago was amazing,” said Allen’s White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner.

Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth . . . He played hurt for us so many times that they thought he was Superman.  But he wasn’t; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon.

The best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years—by Little Rock, by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—belongs to Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook:

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

His death before the Hall election he deserves inflicts a final injustice upon a man accompanied by too many injustices too long. It elevates him and reduces his critics further that he eventually found equilibrium in his life and peace with baseball.

Allen knew and survived heartbreak enough outside of the racial buffetings: a painful divorce, the unexpected murder of his daughter, Terri, the electrical-fire destruction of the farm on which he hoped to raise thoroughbred horses. (“If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it,” he once cracked about artificial turf.)

He overcame those to re-marry happily, keep friends and family close, become one of the most popular members of the Phillies’ speakers’ bureau under a very different organisation than the one for which he played, and a friendly social media presence who beamed justifiably when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame inducted him in 2018.

When the Phillies finally retired Allen’s uniform number 15 in September, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested the timing might have been intended partially to push for Allen’s at-last enshrinement in Cooperstown. Allen himself once told Kashatus, “What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with it. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, an Allen teammate when the latter returned to Philadelphia in 1975, remembered then a teammate’s teammate who preferred to lead by quiet example and humanness. Allen often invited Christenson to lunch on road trips and once signed a bat for him as a memento: “To L.C., two homers with my bat. How about that? Dick Allen.”

Christenson once borrowed Allen’s once-fabled 40-ounce bat in a game. “Son,” Allen told the pitcher, “if you can swing it, you can use it.” Christenson used it to hit a home run in that day’s game.

Bereft on earth now are Allen’s loving wife, Willa, his family, his friends, and all of those who saw through the cluttering, clattering nonsense and saw the player and the real young man who didn’t deserve his seasons in hell and deserved election to the Hall of Fame. Now that election will have to be posthumous on earth, damn it.

But surely the Lord’s angels escorted Allen kindly and gently to the Elysian Fields, and that was the only other thing we could ask through our own loss.

————————————————————————–

Some portions of this essay have been published by the author previously.

Phillies say phooey to ’93 Series Game Six

2020-04-10 MitchWilliams

Mitch Williams didn’t run and hide after surrendering the 1993 World Series-losing home run. The Phillies threw him under the proverbial bus anyway.

One of the devices by which baseball’s keeping itself alive during the coronavirus shutdown is assorted networks, YouTube, and Twitter linking to classic games. Allowing that “classic” is in the eye of the beholder a little more often than in the eye of history, you were probably right if you thought at least a few such games might anger more than amuse.

The Phillies aren’t amused that Major League Baseball itself tweeted Game Six of the 1993 World Series. Nobody likes to remember their World Series ending with the humiliation of the other guys’ home run sending those guys to the Promised Land, of course. But there’s a little more to that story than just the Blue Jays’s Joe Carter ruining closer Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and the Phillies that night.

“Oh, not to be Mitch Williams, now that winter’s here,” Thomas Boswell wrote in a Washington Post column republished in Cracking the Show. “For the rest of us, it’s still autumn. But winter came early for Wild Thing . . . does baseball have eighteen goats to match Williams? . . . When the bullpen phone rang with the Phils leading, 6-5, when Williams saw the top of the gaudiest lineup in baseball awaiting him to begin the ninth, did he want to plead nolo contendere?”

Actually, Williams didn’t want to plead any such thing.

The Wild Thing had to deal with death threats over his blown save in Game Four (the Jays won the game 15-14) reaching him as he arrived home from Veterans Stadium. First he admitted he was terrified enough to spend a sleepless night holding his shotgun. Then he he rejected thoughts of handing the closing role to someone else: “No one’s going to scare me that much,” he answered when asked. “No one will make me hide.”

Nobody did, in fact. Not even after he walked Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to open the bottom of the ninth with the Phillies up a run and three outs from forcing a seventh game. Not even when pitching coach Johnny Podres visited him on the mound and urged him to use a slide step delivery, instead of his normal, right knee bent to his shoulder leg kick, in a bid to keep the Man of Steal from grand theft second base.

Not even after getting Devon White out on a fly to left, a base hit from Hall of Famer Paul Molitor sending Henderson to third, and Carter checking in at the plate—with yet another Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar, on deck. Not even when Williams stayed with his pitching coach’s suggestion despite its alteration of his delivery and threw Carter a 2-1 fastball when he had Carter, a low-ball hitter, thinking breaking ball.

“The only reason I hit it fair,” Carter eventually said, “was because I was looking for a breaking ball the whole time. I wasn’t way out in front of the ball. I guarantee you, if I was looking fastball, I would’ve swung and missed or hit a foul ball.” He swung instead into Toronto lore, his three-run homer nailing the Blue Jays’ second straight Series win and hammering Williams into Philadelphia infamy.

Not even facing the press gamely and answering every last question sent to him, however stupid or careless, saved the Wild Thing. “Ain’t nobody on the face of this earth who feels worse than I do about what happened,” he said straight, no chaser. “But there are no excuses. I just didn’t get the job done. I threw a fastball down and in. It was a bad pitch. I’ll have to deal with it.”

In due course, Williams gave the real breakdown. “I knew I made a mistake,” he’d say in due course. “That fastball was down and in, right in Carter’s nitro zone. I wanted to throw it up and away, which I could’ve done if I’d gone with my full leg kick. But the slide step altered my delivery and I ended up rushing the pitch.”

2020-04-10 JoeCarterMitchWilliams

Williams walks off the field after Carter (29) begins his romp around the bases. The pair have since become friends and often autograph this photo together.

Williams’s teammates had his back—at first. “We wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Mitch,” said first baseman John Kruk. “He’s not afraid to take the ball and I like a guy like that on my team,” said center fielder Lenny Dykstra, who might have had the 1993 World Series MVP to put on his mantel (or, all future things considered, put up for sale on eBay) if it hadn’t been for Carter.

Phillies historian William C. Kashatus wrote Macho Row about the ’93 Philthy Phillies, particularly a contingency within the team who lived by their own Code (the upper-case C is Kashatus’s) of solidarity inside and insularity from the outside. Clockwise the cover showed Kruk, Dave Hollins, Darren Daulton, Williams, and Dykstra. It took the figurative equivalent of five minutes after the Phillies finally left Toronto after the Series loss for someone to throw Williams under the proverbial bus.

Actually two someones. Both Dykstra and pitching star Curt Schilling—whose gutsy Game Five shutout got the Phillies as far as to Game Six in the first place—talked to the press showing “concern that Mitch Williams not return to the Phillies” after the Carter bomb, Kashatus wrote. “I love the guy,” said Dykstra. “He’s a great competitor and I’m sure he wants to pitch here again, but for his sake I hope he doesn’t have to . . . he’ll probably never be able to pitch in Philly again.”

That was mild compared to Schilling, who’d made a few World Series waves by sitting on the bench with a towel over his head whenever Williams came into a game and now suggested trading the Wild Thing would be a positive.

“What if we win and go to the postseason again next year?” Schilling asked, then answered. “We’d still be going in with the mentality of ‘Can he do it?’ Mitch was tired at the end of the season. It was a question of whether he was able to. Mitch gave his all every time out there, but, in the big leagues, it’s not a matter of giving everything and wanting the ball. It’s a matter of success.”

Nobody, of course, thought even once to question Podres’s judgment in urging Williams to the slide step delivery even with Henderson on the bases ready to commit high crime at the first known opening. Once a Brooklyn hero for beating the Yankees twice to win the only World Series the Dodgers ever won as the Brooklyn Dodgers, Podres served three more seasons as the Phillies’ pitching coach.

If Podres couldn’t make a second mound visit, the rule being a second visit by either coach or manager meaning the incumbent pitcher having to leave, why couldn’t he send Williams a sign to take the slide step off? Even with Henderson on second?

What’s the worst that could happen from there with the slide step taken off—Carter not missing, not fouling, but maybe hitting a soft fly ball on which even Henderson might not score, maybe even whacking into a game-ending double play that forces Game Seven?

Dykstra and Schilling may have insisted as Kashatus wrote, that Williams not take it personally, but then Williams did indeed get traded, to the Astros early that December. He fumed particularly over Schilling’s remarks at first, the two trading insults for a spell until Williams’s career hit the pit in Houston, Anaheim, and Arlington to follow before he retired.

Come 2008, Dykstra gave a radio interview in which he called Williams a barrel-finding joke. It prompted Williams to talk to the same station the following morning and call Dykstra “the most common sense-void person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a savant with a bat in his hand. You could have a better conversation with a tree.”

Williams even predicted Dykstra’s long-infamous Players Club venture, giving financial advice to professional athletes, would collapse. Which is exactly what happened, along with enough other financial improprieties including bankruptcy fraud to send Dykstra to the calaboose in disgrace.

Not that it taped Dykstra’s mouth shut when it came to Williams. At a 2015 comedy roast, Dykstra told Williams, “Prison was a [fornicating] fantasy camp compared to playing behind you.” Williams wasn’t exactly caught unprepared, retorting that the only real reason Dykstra still burned over the Carter home run was because it cost Dykstra that ’93 Series MVP.

Schilling ended up going from Philadelphia to become a postseason legend in Arizona and Boston, a qualified Hall of Famer who throve when the games were the biggest, until a combination of his 38 Studios’s collapse and his tendency toward political opinions delivered with threatening tones sank his public image.

The harshest part of that isn’t just that Schilling hasn’t been elected to Cooperstown but that he also caused his parallel reputation for philanthropy to become ignored or at least bypassed. He was fired as an ESPN baseball analyst at a time when he needed the income badly enough after the 38 Studios debacle for which he never shirked responsibility.

Compared to all that, Williams’s life became something of a rose garden for a long enough time. His first marriage collapsed but he’d remarried in 1993. He became a Philadelphia baseball broadcaster who attracted MLB Network into hiring him as an analyst.

Then came an incident while he was coaching one of his son’s youth baseball team’s games. A dispute with an umpire, an accusation that he’d ordered a pitcher to throw at a batter, and another claiming he called an opposing player a feline euphemism for a certain part of the female anatomy. MLB Network fired him when he refused to sign a deal barring him from those games.

Williams sued MLB Network over the firing and Deadspin‘s parent Gawker Media for defamation, and eventually won a $1.5 million settlement in 2017. The Wild Thing couldn’t resist a tweet: “To all of the people that have wondered where I have been for 3 years.today that answer was provided by a court of law#justice.”

He never bought the Phillies saying they traded him to the Astros because they “thought the fans would crucify me the next year. But they underestimated me. They didn’t understand that the fans appreciated that I didn’t run and hide after the World Series or during the off-season. The fans knew I was a guy who fit into their city. They knew that every day I walked out there I gave everything I had.”

That standing ovation with which the Veterans Stadium crowd hit Williams when he returned as an Astro in an interleague game proved it.

A decade before Williams won that settlement, the Mitchell Report and other documents named Dykstra, fellow Macho Rowers Pete Incaviglia, Hollins, and reserve catcher Todd Pratt as using or being connected to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. “If someone was using steroids on that team,” Kruk insisted, “they were awfully quiet about it. And we talked about everything on that club.”

Speculation abounded, too, about regular catcher Daulton, who eventually admitted during his battle with brain cancer, “Anything I did in the past is my fault. Not my ex-wives’ fault, nor any of my kids’ faults, not baseball, not the media—me, my fault—I did the damage.”

There are indeed reasons why the Phillies today might not be amused to be reminded of Game Six of that ’93 Series. Reasons having almost nothing to do with the standup pitcher who shook off a sleepless, death-threatened night, listened to his pitching coach once too often, and didn’t look for the nearest hideout after one pitch meant disaster.

The guy who’s since forged a pleasant friendship with the man who destroyed his 2-1  fastball and the hope of a Game Seven. The guy to whom Phillies fans gave that standing O his first time back to Philadelphia because he was maybe the only stand-up man in the crowd.

Who’d have thought, when all was said and done, that the Wild Thing was the ’93 Phillie who had the least amount of splainin’ to do?