Rolen rolls into Cooperstown at last

Scott Rolen

A big enough bat at the plate . . .

When Scott Rolen was in his absolute prime, Sports Illustrated said of him, among other things, that he “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” When he was with the Cardinals following his somewhat unfairly contentious departure from Philadelphia, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked where Rolen ranked among his era’s third basemen, then answered: the best at the moment.

Rolen’s overdue election to the Hall of Fame Tuesday still inspired carping enough among the philistines who think it was just another case of defining the Hall down. Maybe he wasn’t charismatic. He certainly wasn’t the cheerleading or the self-promoting type. But he was just as SI‘s Tom Verducci described him in 2004, “a no-nonsense star who does it all.”

That’s practically what they said about legendary Tigers second baseman and Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, too. He was so no-nonsense he was nicknamed the Mechanical Man. Rolen was many things at the plate and in the field. Merely mechanical wasn’t among them.

“Rolen played with an all-out intensity,” wrote The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield . . . and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25–30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.”

This son of Indiana schoolteachers did little more than let his preparation and his play do most of his talking. It’s worth repeating further that he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed, a play faltered, or a game was lost. He played to win, but he lived what most confer lip service upon: let’s get ’em tomorrow. I say it again: if Rolen was a fighter pilot, he’d have earned a reputation as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff.

He has the numbers to support it, too, at the plate and in the field, where he knew what he was doing with a bat in his hand and didn’t sacrifice his body at third base or on the bases for naught. Once, he dropped into a slide into second base that wasn’t aggressive or out of line but so forceful that he flipped Royals second baseman Tony Graffanino and knocked shortstop Gerónimo Berroa down. Observed Verducci, “[It was] like a bowling ball picking up a 2-5 combination for the spare.”

“Berroa had this look on his face,” said Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris to Verducci, “like, I didn’t even hear the train whistle!”

First, let’s review Rolen one more time according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. This table shows where he stands among all Hall of Fame third basemen who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

HOF 3B PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Schmidt 10062 4404 1507 201 108 79 .626
Chipper Jones 10614 4755 1512 177 97 18 .618
Eddie Mathews 10100 4349 1444 142 58 26 .596
Scott Rolen 8518 3628 899 57 93 127 .564
George Brett 11625 5044 1096 229 120 33 .561
Ron Santo 9397 3779 1108 94 94 38 .544
Wade Boggs 10740 4064 1412 180 96 23 .538
Paul Molitor 12167 4854 1094 100 109 47 .510
Brooks Robinson 11782 4270 860 120 114 53 .458
HOF AVG .557

You see it right. RBA has Rolen as the number-four offensive third baseman of the group and seven points ahead of the average RBA for such Hall third basemen. You can do an awful lot worse than to say you weren’t quite as great a batter as Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, and Eddie Mathews. But you can’t exactly carp when you shook out slightly better at the plate than George Brett, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Brooks Robinson.

Scott Rolen

. . . and an Electrolux at third base.

Now, let’s put Rolen at third base. Only one of those Hall of Famers has more defensive runs above his league average than Rolen does (+140) above his—Robinson (+293). And, only two of them join him among the top 24—Schmidt (+129) and Boggs (+95). The eye test told you that Rolen was willing to throw himself under a train to make a play at third. It also told you what the meds confirmed in due course, that injuries were going to grind him into a harsh decline phase, as happened after his last solid St. Louis season.

“[He’s] the perfect baseball player,” then-Brewers manager Ned Yost said of him not long after he reached the Cardinals in the first place. “It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

Maybe the Phillies should have had Yost to lean upon instead of Larry Bowa (manager) and Dallas Green (advisor) during Rolen’s first six-and-a-half major league seasons. Green especially dismissed him in 2001 as “satisfied with being a so-so player. He’s not a great player. In his mind, he probably thinks he’s doing OK, but the fans in Philadelphia know otherwise. I think he can be greater, but his personality won’t let him.”

That was at a point when Rolen struggled at the plate though he was making plenty of plays at third base. Rolen finished that season with a splendid enough .876 OPS and the second of his eight Gold Gloves. His personality won’t let him. Again, the misinterpretation of Rolen’s even strain as indifference.

Call it a classic case of not knowing what you had until he and you were both gone, but Bowa offered a far different assessment upon Rolen’s Cooperstown election. “To be honest with you,” Bowa told MLB-TV, “I thought he should have gotten in a few years ago. I was very happy for him.”

This guy is the ultimate professional, played the game the right way. As a manager, as a coach, you looked at guys like that, very few mental mistakes, always on top of his game. Played the game as hard as you could play for nine innings. There was really nothing Scott couldn’t do on the baseball field. He was a hitting machine, he drove in runs, hit lots of doubles, unbelievable third baseman. He had a tremendous pair of hands, a great arm. If he didn’t play a game, it was because he had an injury or something like that. This guy posted every day. His work ethic, off the charts. This guy was a tremendous baseball player.

That’s the manager who ripped Rolen a few new ones and demanded then-Phillies GM Ed Wade trade him, after Rolen called out the Phillies’ penny-pinching anticipating the arrival of Citizens Bank Park. “Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them,” Rolen told then-ESPN writer Jayson Stark. “I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium, for the sun to shine.”

In St. Louis, Rolen found a home and three postseason trips including a World Series ring, yet he ran afoul of manager Tony La Russa, who soured on him for—the horror!—injuries he incurred during honest competition on the field. Then-GM John Mozeliak eventually traded him to the Blue Jays, a deal Mozeliak came to regret by his own admission.

When former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty landed in Cincinnati and discovered Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he didn’t hesitate to wrest him from the Jays onto the Reds. He helped those Reds to a couple of postseasons while he was at it—even after a brain-scrambling concussion and lower back issues.

If you should happen to be traveling through Smithville, Indiana, you may come upon a facility known as Camp Emma Lou. It’s a retreat built by the Enis Furley Foundation, created by Rolen and his wife Niki in 1999, aimed at children and their families struggling with illness, hardship, and other issues and giving them expenses-paid weekend retreats. The foundation and the camp are named for two of Rolen’s dogs.

That’s also the current Indiana University director of baseball player development, who got the call from the Hall and granted a request from his son immediately following a call to his parents with the news. “[I]t’s about thirty degrees here, supposed to snow twelve inches,” he told a reporter, “but there we were, about fifteen minutes after the call, in the driveway having a catch. I’ll remember that forever.”

It’s not every son who gets to have a catch with a freshly-minted Hall of Fame father.

Frank Thomas, RIP: The needling and the damage done

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas, signing autographs in the Polo Grounds as an Original Met. As a Phillie, his 1965 fight with Dick Allen accelerated Allen’s undeserved war with Philadelphia racists.

Baseball’s best known Frank Thomas who isn’t the Hall of Fame bombardier died Monday at 93. The good news: That Thomas had a colourful history as one of the Original Mets, for whom he played from their 1962 birth through August 1964. The bad news is that he had a terrible history involving a teammate of colour on the 1965 Phillies.

It soiled a respectable major league career as a power-hitting outfielder/corner infielder, a three-time All-Star with the 1950s Pirates, and an Original Met who was grateful to have been remembered when the Mets reinstituted Old Timers Day last year and he fought through a neck injury to appear.

Thomas survived nasty contract battles with Branch Rickey, then running the Pirates, whose genius as a baseball thinker and courage as baseball’s colour line breaker in signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers was countered by his often devious and insulting penury when it came time to pay his players reasonably.

He also prospered somewhat with and survived the Original Mets, that expansion troupe remembered best as baseball’s version of . . . well, they really did have Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Didn’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop.

Thomas became the Mets’ first home run king, hitting 34 in 1962, a team record that stood until Dave Kingman smashed it by two in 1975. He also factored in one of the most typical of the inadvertent sketches that, perversely enough, endeared his Mets to a generation of New Yorkers bereft of the Dodgers’ and Giants’ moves west and drowning in a couple of generations of Yankee dominance and hubris.

Center fielder Richie Ashburn, eventually a Hall of Famer based on his long career with the Phillies, despaired of collisions between himself and shortstop Elio Chacón on pop flies to short left center and desparied of how to call Chacón off. Teammate Joe Christopher knew enough Spanish to tell Ashburn to holler Yo la tengo! (I got it!) Sure enough, the next such short pop to short left center had Chacón steaming out from short and Ashburn rumbling in from center.

Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo! Ashburn hollered. Chacón caught the drift at once and stopped dead. Ashburn was saved for about five seconds. Thomas had also come steaming in from left. He crashed into Ashburn and the ball fell safe. Someone forgot to hand Thomas the yo la tengo! memo.

(The pull-hitting Thomas also spent so much time trying to hit the “o” on a Howard Clothes sign on the Polo Grounds’s left field wall—because the New York clothier promised a luxury boat to the Met who hit it the most at season’s end—that mananger Casey Stengel finally hollered at him, “If you want to be a sailor, go join the Navy!”)

That season proved Thomas’s final truly solid year at the plate. After a somewhat down 1963 and a 1964 that saw him in and out of the lineup with a few nagging injuries, the Mets traded Thomas to the pennant-contending Phillies that August. He hit respectably enough until he fractured his thumb on a hard slide into second base, ending his season just before the infamous collapse that cost the Phillies a pennant with which they seemed to be running away.

But now age 36, Thomas started too slowly in 1965 before the 3 July pre-game incident that ended his Phillie days in ignominy. Should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen, the Phillies’ superstar in the making and the National League’s 1964 Rookie of the Year, was taking grounders at third while Thomas was in the batting cage and Phillies center fielder Johnny Callison came out to third to chat with Allen.

According to Phillies historian (and eventual Allen biographer) William C. Kashatus, in September Swoon, Callison suggested to Allen they give Thomas the business over a strikeout following three failed bunt attempts during a plate appearance the night before. In the batting cage now, Thomas took a big swing and miss. “Hey, Donkey!” Callison hollered. (Thomas’s nickname was the Big Donkey; he was also known as Lurch.) “Why don’t you try bunting?”

“Instead of responding to Callision,” Kashatus wrote, “Thomas glared down the third base line at Allen and shouted, ‘What are you trying to be, another Muhammad Clay, always running your mouth off?'”

Insulted by the comparison with Cassius Clay, the colourful but controversial heavyweight boxer who had recently changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Allen charged the cage, and the two players went at each other. Allen hit Thomas with a left hook to the jaw, sending him to the ground. When he got to his feet, Thomas was wielding a bat and connected with Allen’s left shoulder. By now the rest of the team was at home plate trying to restrain the two players.

In his memoir, Crash, Allen remembered Thomas knowing it was Callison who’d taunted him but aiming his return fire at Allen, wrongly.

The Muhammad Clay remark was meant to say a lot. It reminded me of how Frank would pretend to offer his hand in a soul shake to a young black player on the team. When the player would offer his hand in return, Thomas would grab his thumb and bend it back. To him, it was a big joke. But I saw too many brothers on the team with swollen thumbs to get any laughs. So I popped him. I just wanted to teach him a lesson. But after he hit me with the bat, I wanted to kill him.

Callison said hard feelings between Thomas and Allen were building well before the “Muhammad Clay” remark. One of the brothers to whom Allen referred was young outfielder Johnny Briggs, whom Kashatus quoted as saying Thomas “often made racially inflammatory comments.” But Kashatus also quoted Briggs as saying of Thomas, “Thomas agitated everybody on the team. He was just as abusive to the white guys. But the press turned that fight into a racial issue and refused to let up.”

The game that followed the ugly brawl included Allen slashing a three-run triple and Thomas hitting a pinch home run in the next inning. The Phillies lost 10-8 to the Reds . . . and Thomas was put on release waivers afterward. This, Kashatus noted, was despite Allen intervening on behalf of not letting Thomas go, pleading with manager Gene Mauch not to let it happen out of regard for Thomas’s wife and eight children. (Dolores Thomas died in 2012; one of his children, his daughter Sharon, also died before her father.)

Mauch’s fatal mistake otherwise was ordering one and all involved in the Thomas-Allen fight to keep their mouths shut or face fines: $1,000 each, except for $2,000 for Allen. That only enabled that capricious Philadelphia sports press of the time to help make life as a Phillie more miserable for Allen than the city’s racists already began making it, until he finally got the trade he’d been trying to force for long enough.

With Thomas’s release, Kashatus wrote, the veteran wasn’t bound by Mauch’s edict, and appeared on a Philadelphia radio show that often had him as a guest. “I’ve always tried to help him,” Thomas insisted. “I guess certain guys can dish it out, but can’t take it.” Said Tony Taylor, the Phillies’s talented Latino second baseman, “Since Dick was black and Thomas was white, [the Philadelphia writers] made it into a racial thing and gave Dick the label of trouble-maker. It wasn’t fair.”

“Thomas was going to go anyway,” Mauch eventually admitted about his further-fading veteran. “I should have shipped him sooner. Instead, the press came down on [Allen’s] head. If he did one little thing wrong, they would see it as so much worse because, in their heads, he was a bad guy.”

The Phillies dealt Thomas to the Astros, where he was further unhappy from knowing his baseball aging wasn’t going to reverse itself. (He’d move to the Braves and then the Cubs from there but retire in 1966.) “I would not say I enjoyed my time there,” he told an interviewer in 2017, “but not because of the city or the players.”

I was just in a bad place personally. I was an old fogey. When you reach your thirties in baseball, you’re an old man. Expendable. But I loved the guys in Houston. Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and my favorite Jimmy Wynn. I once got Wynn with the hidden ball trick. He was so angry with me. But what I remember most is that I hit two home runs and then they traded me! My last at-bat in Philadelphia was also a home run. I guess I just needed to stop hitting them!

Let the record show that Thomas spoke affectionately there of two black players, Hall of Famer Morgan and Wynn. Let it show further that, when the black Frank Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first, white Frank Thomas—once one of four consecutive Braves to hit home runs in an inning, along with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, plus slugging first baseman Joe Adcock—was invited to join in the fun and accepted happily.

“I was the original, but he was better,” Thomas once said of his namesake. “We hold the record for most home runs hit by two players with the same name.” (Thomas is right: the two Frank Thomases actually combined for 25 more home runs than Ken Griffey, Sr. and Hall of Famer Jr. did.)

“I was told that his father was a fan of mine and named him after me,” he continued. “I have met him several times and I love him. I told him that I used to be The Big Hurt, but after meeting him I know that I was just The Little Hurt.”

Between those, and more than a few stories I’ve seen saying Thomas and Allen eventually buried the hatchet together, my better angel wants to believe that that 1965 fight and its immediate aftermath jolted the Big Donkey into a permanent awakening about human relations.

Enough, already

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, shown before a Reds game in Great American Ballpark in 2018. His letter to commissioner Rob Manfred should receive a single-word answer.

Last Friday, TMZ revealed Pete Rose sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred four days earlier. Just how TMZ obtained the letter is open to speculation. Some might suspect someone in Manfred’s office leaked it; some might suspect Rose himself. Neither suspicion is implausible.

If you’re inclined toward charitable thought, Rose’s letter is a letter of apology, an acknowledgement of accountability, a plea for forgiveness from a man who’s been punished enough via the opprobrium he still receives as baseball’s most prominent exile.

But if you temper charity with realism, it’s yet another example of what The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal describes as words ringing hollow from a man who can’t get out of his own way. A man who still doesn’t get it. A man whose most stubborn remaining partisans still don’t get it, either.

“[F]or Rose,” Rosenthal writes, “untrustworthy behaviour is nothing new.

He spent the first fourteen years of his ban denying that he bet on baseball, including in his 1989 autobiography, Pete Rose: My Story. He served five months in prison in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. A secret meeting in Milwaukee with former commissioner Bud Selig in 2002, during which he admitted betting on baseball as a manager for the first time, also apparently went awry. News of the meeting leaked, and Rose promptly followed it with an appearance at a sports book in Las Vegas.

Two years later, Rose released a second autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, as the Hall of Fame prepared to induct two new members, Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Rose said the timing wasn’t his fault. Nothing is ever his fault . . .

For all Manfred knows, he could reinstate Rose and then be subjected to some other bombshell. Rose has admitted to betting on baseball only after his playing career ended. But in June 2015, ESPN obtained copies of betting records from 1986 that provided the first written corroboration Rose had gambled on games as the Reds’ player-manager. It’s always something.

In August, the proof that it’s always something reared grotesquely enough after Manfred agreed to allow Rose to take part in the Phillies’ commemoration of their 1980 World Series title. Rose made it far less about that 1980 team and far more about himself.

It took nothing more than Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey doing nothing worse than her job, asking Rose whether his presence—considering that only the statute of limitations kept him from facing consequences over an early-1970s extramarital affair with a teenage girl—thus sent a negative message to women. Saying he wasn’t at Citizens Bank Park to talk about that, Rose added, “It was 55 years ago, babe.”

“Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey,” I wrote then. “Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.”

That’s the Rose effect. He makes it all about him. In the same moment, he can and often does make it impossible to look for what he insisted to Manfred should be sought and kept under full focus.

That’s the man who hired on as a baseball predictions analyst for online sports betting site UpickTrade last year and told a presser, “For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989. That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.” (Suspended?)

Until he is, that is. “Despite my many mistakes,” Rose wrote to Manfred now, “I am so proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player—I am the Hit King and it is my dream to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Like all of us, I believe in accountability. I am 81 years old and know that I have been held accountable and that I hold myself accountable. I write now to ask for another chance.”

A man who hung around as a player above and beyond his actual shelf life on behalf of the self-elevating pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record is only slightly more hubristic than the teams enabling him to do it regardless of his actual on-field value. The publicity factor overrode the honest competition factor often enough then and still does, often enough.

Hubris often leads to tunnel vision. It did for Rose. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that he could have retired right after that 1980 Phillies world championship with a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame case even if it meant falling short of Cobb by about 632 hits. There were people (including Rose himself, sometimes) who believed he had some preternatural entitlement to pass Cobb despite his actual playing value.

Rose’s wins above replacement-level [WAR] from his rookie 1963 in Cincinnati to his 1983 World Series ring with Philadelphia: 80.4. Rose’s WAR from 1981-86, when he finally surrendered to Father Time and took himself out of the Reds lineup to stay: -0.8.*

Rose being a Hit King shouldn’t make a single bit of difference to Manfred. Not now, not ever. Rose’s pride in his playing accomplishments shouldn’t make a single bit of difference. Nor, for that matter, should any of MLB’s promotional deals with this or that online legal gambling operation. (Don’t go there, Roseophiles: Gambling isn’t the only legal activity for which your employers can discipline or fire you for indulging on the job. Just ask anyone who ever lost a job for showing up high as a kite, wired up the kazoo, or bombed out of his or her trees.)

There’s only one thing Manfred should consider. It’s called Rule 21(d). The rule against betting on baseball. The rule that makes no distinction between whether you bet on or against your team. The rule that calls for permanent, not “lifetime” banishment. The rule that prompted the Hall of Fame itself—faced with the prospect of Rose’s election despite its mandated punishment—to enact its own rule barring those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list from standing for election on any Hall ballot.

Rose “can continue pleading to Manfred, appealing to public sympathy. But Rose, to borrow a term from horse racing, one of his favorite sports, is getting left at the gate,” Rosenthal writes. “His race for Cooperstown remains permanently stalled, and it’s no one’s fault but his own.”

Accordingly, the commissioner’s sole answer to Rose now and forever should be, “No.” As for any and everyone else, the answer now and forever should be, but probably won’t be, Enough, already.

——————————————————————————————————

* By contrast, Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. pulled up on the positive side of the WAR ledger when they broke revered career records. Aaron, the year he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record: 2.1. Ryan, the year he broke Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record: 2.6. Ripken, the year he broke Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak: 3.9.

Come to think of it, when Ryan threw a bullet past Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to record lifetime strikeout number 5,000—with then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in the ballpark itching to pump his fist celebrating the milestone—he was having an All-Star caliber 5.1 WAR season in the bargain.

Ryan, of course, was an outlier even among outliers, a point forgotten often enough and conveniently enough by the ill-informed who insist on comparing pitchers since to him and wondering why simply no one has his one-of-a-kind endurance. 

A pitcher’s lament, a manager’s triumph

Dusty Baker

Astros manager Dusty Baker (second from left) joins his players—including Game Six starting pitcher Framber Valdez and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña (second from right), the first rookie to win that prize—hoisting the Series trophy after beating the Phillies 4-1 Saturday night.

If Jose Alvarado wants to find the nearest deep cave into which to make his residence until spring training, nobody should fault him. Not everyone can perform the impossible at will.

The Phillies’ redoubtable lefthanded reliever came into the bottom of the sixth of World Series Game Six with one key mission, take care of the Astros’ lefthanded munitions expert Yordan Alvarez with runners on the corners and one out. It might have been easier for Tom Thumb to scale the Empire State Building with a crosstown bus on his back.

This could have been construed as Phillies manager Rob Thomson believing he was still living a charmed life in his first two-thirds season on the bridge. Believing that a hard-won 1-0 Phillies lead could be kept in place or possibly enlarged the rest of the way.

Believing his righthanded starter Zack Wheeler wasn’t the right matchup for Alvarez looming with two occupied bases. Believing Alvarado would avoid the disaster into which he pitched when brought in for the same matchup in Game Five and hit Alvarez on the first pitch.

All Alvarez did now with a 2-1 pitch was send it over the farthest ledge behind center field, into some seats beneath a Blue Cross/Blue Shield advertising sign. All that did was sink the Phillies and yank the Astros to what they, and their fan base, needed in the worst way possible, a no-questions-asked, untainted World Series conquest.

Alvarado didn’t get beaten doing what he knew he wasn’t supposed to do. He didn’t get beaten serving a meatball without sauce. He got beaten throwing one of his best pitches, a nasty, shivering two-seam fastball, to a bomber who can and often does turn your best pitches into nuclear warheads no matter how they swivel up to the plate.

“Nothing moving. It didn’t move,” Alvarado said postgame. “If it moved, he had no chance. When he hit the ball, the sound says, ‘OK, that’s gone’. Because the guy is a power hitter. I watched it. But, again, sometimes you win, and sometimes you tip your cap.”

But Alvarado was wrong. The pitch moved enough. He got beaten by a hitter who moved his bat more than enough into it. Don’t condemn him. Don’t demand his post-haste measuring for a guillotine brace.

“[Y]ou’ve got Alvarado throwing 99 mph left-on-left sinkers,” Kyle Schwarber said. “And [Alvarez] ran into it and hit it out. Tip your cap. That’s a good hitter over there. I would take [Alvarado] on him any day of the week.”

Embrace Alvarado for having the guts to stare into the belly of the best a second straight World Series game and not run home to Mami at the very thought of it. A man with a regular-season 1.92 fielding-independent pitching rate earns more than a little respect.

Thomson may have some real explaining to do, though, as to why he kept Nick Castellanos—whose bat was as feeble as his glove had become a half-out-of-nowhere defensive weapon during the Series—batting behind Bryce Harper and, essentially, affording Harper as much protection as a tot with a pop gun offers a Brinks truck.

Just don’t be stupid enough to blame Alvarado for the Phillies’ inability to make Schwarber’s leadoff homer in the top of the sixth stick long enough to buy some insurance. Be better than that, this time, Phillie fan.

These upstart, self-resurrecting Phillies finally couldn’t hit what these Astro pitchers served them. They lunged at too many breakers instead of forcing them to come to their wheelhouses, they let too many fastballs elude them, and when they still had three innings left to overthrow the 4-1 Astro lead that stuck, they couldn’t and didn’t summon up enough.

Then give these Astros their due. Give them the credit they deserve for finally overcoming one World Series loss in which they won nothing at home, a second when they ran into a chain saw made in Atlanta, and the single worst cheating scandal in 21st century baseball, if not all baseball history.

Give these Astros the credit for playing untainted, un-sneaky, un-shifty (except on one or the other side of the infield here and there), unapologetically excellent baseball to beat these Phillies in six usually thrilling games.

Give them credit for making hash out of Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s more-cookies-for-everyone, three-wild-cards postseason array, not to mention defying the early-round upsets over the biggest-winning regular season teams, and living up to their 106 game-winning season where the 111 game-winning Dodgers couldn’t.

Give splended Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña his props for earning both the Most Valuable Player Award of the American League Championship Series and the World Series (the first rook ever to win a Series MVP and a Gold Glove for his defense) and for damn near making Houston forget it ever had a fellow named Carlos Correa holding shortstop down.

Give center fielder Chas McCormick his props for running down what would have been J.T. Realmuto’s at-minimum eighth-inning double in Game Five and leaping to catch it before hitting the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard wall and landing in a heap on his back while leaving his imprint on the warning track and holding onto the ball like a life preserver.

Give Game Six starter Framber Valdez and the Astro bullpen their props for keeping the formerly vaunted Phillies offense—capable of turning games around in single swings until running into a no-hit wall in Game Four—from getting any ideas above and beyond The Schwarbinator’s liner into the right field seats.

And then give Astros manager Dusty Baker the biggest hug you’ve got to give for a man who’s been in this game fifty-four years as a player and manager, won a World Series ring as a player, had several postseason heartbreaks including World Series losses as a manager, and finally reached the Promised Land.

Baker really had to do this one the hard way. He took on the uphill job of managing a team riddled by the disgrace of Astrogate and their inability to speak entirely forthrightly about their 2017-18 cheating including about it being part of their 2017 Series triumph. It was comparable to Gerald Ford trying to clean up after the Nixon Administration’s Watergate mess.

But Ford lost the only presidential election for which he stood after that. Baker withstood the Astrogate heat, kept his head as the self-battered organisation turned itself and its Show roster over and away from the Astrogate stench, and brought his Israelites across the Jordan at last.

“Game Six has been my nightmare,” Baker told his team in the clubhouse after this Game Six. “I ain’t lying. I was like, damn that, man. We’re going to win today. I got Game Six off our ass, off my ass. We’ve got (Justin Verlander’s first credited World Series) win off his ass. And I’m telling you, you guys played your asses off. I didn’t have to do [poop].”

Baker and Game Sixes formerly meant disaster. 2002 World Series: he lifted starter Russ Ortiz with his Giants up 5-0 and ostentatiously handed Ortiz the “game ball.” The Angels thrashed back with three runs each in the next two innings, then ran away with Game Seven.

2003 National League Championship Series: Baker’s Cubs were five outs from going to the World Series when a double-play grounder bounded off his shortstop instead of turning two, opening the dam for a five-run Marlins rally and a Game Seven loss.

Game Six, last year’s World Series: Baker’s Astros didn’t incur anything close to those two disasters. The Braves made sure of that by shutting them out 7-0 to win the Series.

Now he couldn’t forget what his father told him after the 2002 deflation: “Man, after the way you lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll ever win another one.” Now, the son could be sanguine about the father’s fatalism.

“I was, like, I didn’t really want to get to Game Six again, but I was like, well, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be,” the son said Saturday night. “My dad didn’t mean anything negative . . . back in the old school, there was such thing as negative motivation. In the new school, negative motivation doesn’t work.”

No team had quite the negative motivation these otherwise filthy-dominant Astros have had since their 2017-18 cheating, which went above and beyond anything else devised and executed by teams past, exposing and staining them in the wake of their 2019 World Series loss.

It’s the black mark on a franchise that’s gone to six straight American League Championship Series and won four of them. A franchise that’s won two World Series titles over six years with a .622 winning percentage over those six regular seasons, something  almost never done, according to Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, by the greatest teams.

Not the Oakland Mustache Gang of the early 1970s. Not the Big Red Machine. Not the 1996-2002 Yankees. Not the Aughts’ Red Sox. Not the 2010s Giants. You’d have to go back to the 1953-58 Yankees—those of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and manager Casey Stengel—to find one from the post-World War II era.

But guess what, ladies and gentlemen? Only three position players remained from the Astrogate teams. And they had almost nothing to do with the biggest of the big Series moments for these Astros and this manager. Air Yordan? Flying Jeremy? Tucker the Man and His Dream? Framber Valdez (is Coming)? Cristian (Soldier) Javier and his no-hit-opening oratorio? Every member of the bullpen that just rolled a Series ERA of 0.83? They didn’t show up until the Astrogate aftermath.

What the Astros needed most, said broadcast legend Bob Costas, himself a Frick Award winner thus enshrined in the Hall of Fame, was “to win outside the shadow of 2017 . . . ”

There will always be skeptics because of ’17. But they have now been a truly excellent team for a sustained period of time. I think fair-minded people already have put this in its proper context and proper proportion. So by winning again, especially with Dusty Baker as one of the faces of it, and five years removed from 2017, I think most people will have a fair sense of it.

Guess what else we can do now? We can put to bed forever all the talk over all the years about the long-suffering Baker’s “entitlement” to win a World Series at last.

It was both annoying as the day was long and absolutely unworthy of the man himself, the man who loved and encouraged all his players, from the last man on the roster to the cock of the walk, to exercise their abilities as they are, rather than as anyone else demanded, and was loved back by anyone who dealt with him over all those seasons.

Baker felt less “entitled” to anything than those who admire him and even criticise him when need be felt for him. Now he can put all that in a trunk, flashing one of his signature toothpick-punctuated grins, and lock it tight.

“After a while,” he said thoughtfully after Game Six, “I quit listening to folks telling me what I can’t do. All that does is motivate me more to do it because I know there’s a bunch of people in this country that are told the same thing, and it’s broken a lot of people. But my faith in God and my mom and dad always talking to me made me persevere even more.”

The 73-year-old man who once took too much blame for a few extraterrestrial calamities now didn’t give himself quite enough credit. There’s only so much Mom, Dad, and even God can do for a man, with a World Series or anything else.

“We’re going to play to the end”

Kyle Schwarber

Kyle Schwarber hitting his first-inning bomb off Justin Verlander in Game Five. “We’re going to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us,” he says approaching Game Six. The “where,” of course, is up to Zack Wheeler and the Phillies against Framber Valdez again.

Approaching World Series Game Six, the Phillies could lean on the experience of one member who’d been there, done that, down 3-2 in a Series, then took the final two and the world championship. That was seven years ago, when he was a Cub, his season began (thanks to injury) in the World Series, and the Cubs finally did what seven-eighths of the earth thought wouldn’t happen in its lifetime.

“We’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the course of this year to be in this position,” said Phillies left fielder/bombardier/periodic base thief Kyle Schwarber as the Phillies traveled to Houston Friday. “I think when we get there, you’re going to see a really resilient club and we’re going to play until the very end and we’re going to see where it takes us.”

Funny, but that’s just about what every 2016 Cub said, too, when the then-Indians had them on the ropes with the Series returning to Cleveland for Games Six and Seven.

That was then: the Cubs pushed, shoved, pitched, and pounded their way through two arduous games. This is now: The Phillies, whose World Series drought is barely an eleventh of those Cubs’, will have to do all that plus rip, snarl, tear, slice, dice, and air fry. Just as when he was a 2016 Cub, the Schwarbinator won’t surrender, to these Astros or anyone else.

“It’s going to take everything,” said Schwarber, who did what he could to keep the Phillies from losing Game Five when he opened with a nasty home run off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in what proved a to-the-max 3-2 Phillies loss. “It’s going to take everyone. We’re excited. Trust me. Sure, it’s frustrating, but we’re also very excited.”

The Phillies are in a strange position this postseason. They enter Game Six with their first series deficit since they wrestled their way to the final National League wild card in the first place. Beyond that, they have reason not to fear. They’ve come back several times to get here in the first place.

Game One of the wild card set against the Cardinals? Down 2-0 in the top of the ninth. Then: bases-loaded hit batsman, two-run single, run-scoring infielder’s choice, RBI single, and a sacrifice fly, and two Cardinal runs in the bottom of the inning weren’t enough to deny the first win of a Phillie sweep.

Game Four, National League Championship Series? A four-run Padres first didn’t exactly bury them alive. Bottom of the first: Two-run homer (Rhys Hoskins), RBI double (Bryce Harper). Deficit cut to one. Bottom of the fourth: Tying RBI single. Bottom of the fifth, after Juan Soto put the Padres back up with a homer? Two-run homer (Hoskins, again), RBI double (Harper, again), RBI single, two-run Phillie lead. Bottom of the sixth: Solo bomb (Schwarber), three-run lead. Bottom of the seventh: Solo bomb (J.T. Realmuto), four-run lead, ultimately four-run win.

Game Five, NLCS? Call it the Mud and Guts Game if you must. Bottom of the third: Phillies take a 2-0 lead with another Hoskins two-run thump. Top of the fourth: Soto cuts the San Diego deficit in half with another solo smash. Top of the seventh, with the Citizens Bank Park rain turning the field into a swamp and pitching grips and strides into mush and mire? The Padres take a 3-2 lead with an RBI single and two wild pitches enabling a run. Bottom of the eighth? Harper fights and fouls his way to a dramatic opposite-field two-run homer. Two Phillies relievers make it stick for the pennant.

Game One, World Series? Kyle Tucker’s two bombs help the Astros bushwhack Aaron Nola in the first three innings. So the Phillies return the favour by ripping five out of Verlander—RBI single and immediate two-run double in the top of the fourth; two-run double in the top of the fifth. The score stays tied at five until Realmuto breaks it for keeps with a leadoff bomb in the top of the tenth, and David Robertson survives a double, a walk, a wild pitch for second and third, and gets the game and win-ending ground out.

All the Phillies need to do now is continue overcoming that nasty 0-for-20 with runners in scoring position until Jean Segura slapped an RBI single in the eighth in Game Five. They need Zack Wheeler to be his best self on the Game Six mound. They need to continue overthrowing their earlier reputation for defensive mishaps and cut the Astros off with more of the glovework and derring-do they began flashing during the Philadelphia leg of the Series.

They need, in other words, to be better than the best of their selves that pulled them into the Series and into the 2-1 Series lead the Astros wrested away from them on their own soil. Astros Game Six starter Framber Valdez, who manhandled them in Game Two, also in Houston, intends to let them do nothing of the sort.

“I think I’m just going to try to continue doing what I’ve been doing all season,” Valdez said through an interpreter after Game Five. “Just try and attack hitters early, try to breathe, try to stay calm, try to meditate. It’s something that’s really exciting. I think it’s something that really adds a lot to your career, and I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

It’ll add something to the Astros’ resume, too: their first untainted World Series rings. Not to mention handing their manager Dusty Baker—the man who steadied the Astro starship after it was strafed by the in-house phasers of Astrogate, keeping his gradually turning-over team playing through the aftermath, three seasons following its exposure, despite the organisation’s turmoil and grotesqueries—the first World Series triumph of his long and mostly distinguished managerial career.

The Astros know the Phillies won’t be simple pickings despite shutting them out back-to-back in Philadelphia, once with a combined no-hitter. It’s the Phillies’ job not to make things simple for the Astros.

“What a better storybook ending,” asked Castellanos, whose limp bat is almost forgotten when you’ve seen his defense turning into must-see television all of a sudden, “than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?”

First things first, Schwarber would remind one and all.

“We’ve got a pretty good pitcher going for us in Game Six,” the Schwarbinator says. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back offensively. I don’t think anyone believes more in this group than we do. That’s going to be a big thing for us. We’ve just got to be able to play all the outs. We’re going to see where it takes us.”

First, it needs to take them past the Astros in Game Six. Then the Phillies can worry about who writes their storybook ending—the team of Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry (who wrote the screenplay for The Natural); or, any given Astro, plus Jack Benny and Fred Allen, climaxing their long-running mock on-air feud while satirising the notorious weeper quiz show Queen for a Day:

Allen: An expert operating the Hoffman Pressing Machine will press your trousers
Benny: Now wait a minute! (Studio audience laughter and noise.) Now wait a minute, Allen!
Allen: Keep your shirt on, King!
Benny: You bet I’ll keep my shirt on!
Allen: All right, folks, tune in again next—
Benny: Come on, Allen, give me my pants!
Allen: Quiet, King!
Benny: Where are my pants?
Allen: Benny, for fifteen years I’ve been waiting to catch you like this.
Benny: Allen, you haven’t seen the end of me!
Allen: It won’t be long now!