The squirrel and the blowout

PNC Park squirrel

This little fellow (or gal, who knew?) cops a proud squat on the PNC Park left field grass before leading three groundsmen on a warning track chase in the bottom of the second—and the Pirates into blowing out the Cubs Monday night.

Believe in the power of the Rally Squirrel? After Monday night’s doings, the Pirates may want to think about it. Hard.

The bushy-tailed rodent showed up to run around the PNC Park outfield and warning track as the bottom of the second got under way. After he disappeared at last, the Pirates dropped three in that inning, four the next, five in the seventh, and a 12-1 smothering of the further-sputtering Cubs.

For too long the Pirates have lived in the place where the nuts hunt the squirrels. It was lovely to see them upend things for an evening.

With Daniel Vogelbach on first, nobody out, and a 1-1 count on Michael Chavis against rookie Cubs starter Caleb Kilian, the bushy-tailed rodent scampered out onto the field from somewhere in the region of PNC Park’s third base seats.

The creature galloped toward the left field corner in a jagged route with three grounds crew in hot pursuit. One of the groundsmen carried a large washing bucket. A second carried a net whose weave was big enough to allow a human suspect to escape the moment it might be dropped over him.

The squirrel himself (or herself, who knew?) wasn’t exactly a model of precision running at first. Certainly not as swift or sure as the one who ran down the third base line as if stealing home in Coors Field eight years ago.

“[W]hat was his sprint speed?” Pirates manager Derek Shelton asked of the PNC squirrel  after the game. “We had to get that in the Statcast era. Definitely one of the worst rundowns I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a couple bad ones.”

After the three groundsmen chased him toward the deepest left field corner, the squirrel ran back and forth from the foul line to the mid-left field piece of the warning track, finally making for a passway under the center field seats’ edge and into the Cubs bullpen with the bucket man in hotter pursuit.

The Pirates in their dugout watched with bemusement. The Cubs’ relief corps looked uncertain as to whether the game was going nuts. Little did they know.

Chavis walked on five pitches. Touted Pirates rookie Oneil Cruz, all 6’7″ worth of him,  reached on a fielding error to load the pads. Fellow rookie Bligh Madris ripped a two-run single to right and stole second before Tyler Heineman struck out, but Hoy Park sent Madris home on a long sacrifice fly.

One inning later, the Pirates struck a lot more swiftly, loading the pads on Kilian with nobody out (back to back walks and an infield hit) before Kilian wild-pitched Bryan Reynolds home. Chavis waited out a four-pitch walk before Cruz sent a three-run double to the absolute rear of center field.

That ended Kilian’s evening but not the Cubs’ miseries. After the Cubs managed to sneak a run home in the top of the seventh on back-to-back singles, then an RBI single which followed back-to-back strikeouts, the Pirates got squirrely again in the bottom of the frame: a two-run double (Vogelbach), an RBI single (Cruz), an RBI double (Heineman), and a sacrifice fly (Park again).

Madris swung his way into the Pirates’ history books with his three-hit evening, the first Pirate to do it in his Show debut since Jason Kendall did it in 1996. He also became the first Pirate since Andrew McCutchen (2009) to debut with a hit, a run batted in, and a stolen base in a single game.

“That was a lot of fun and everything I could ask for,” he grinned postgame. “With [batting practice] getting canceled today, when I stepped in the box, it was really my first at-bat in the big leagues. The game threw a little bit of everything at me today. Thankful for the opportunity. It was awesome.”

Cruz, already the tallest shortstop in major league history, and ranked the Pirates’ number three prospect, got called up from Indianapolis (AAA) with Madris Monday. Madris has nothing but good to say about his Indy teammate, who poked his nose out of his hole at last season’s end and hit a home run almost from his knees.

“The guy’s unreal,” Captain Bligh told reporters. “He has tools that come around once every 100 years. He can hit pitches out of the ballpark that some guys are lucky to get out of the infield. Being here now is going to propel him to greater things.”

“What I can promise you,” said Cruz before Monday night’s game, “is you’re going to see it a lot more frequently. You’re going to see a lot of balls hit hard and a lot of balls traveling very far.” He kept the promise, too—his double was estimated to fly 112.9 mph off his bat. But he also has a howitzer of a throwing arm, throwing one grounder over to first at 96.7 mph.

Players like these are what the Pirates need to continue wrenching themselves out of tank mode and navigate the rash of injuries and illness that’s struck them of late. Not just because of their skills and prospective production, but because of . . . shall we say . . . no, let Chavis say it, as he did before Monday’s game.

“The quality guys that we’ve called up has been pretty significant,” the first baseman told reporters. “We’re not having those, um . . . we don’t have those assholes. There’s no better way to say it. You don’t have a guy with an attitude problem. Guys come up, ask questions, try to be good, stay out of the way of the older guys and are just happy to be here. I can’t say enough about all of them.”

For a team that’s just followed a ferocious nine-game losing streak by winning their next three of five including Monday’s massacre, that’s as large a light as you can ask to see facing the still-elongated end of their tunnel.

Just in case, though, the Pirates might not want to let the squirrel escape too soon. If at all.

The Cincinnati Dreads

Hunter Greene

Hunter Greene (here) and reliever Art Warren combined to keep the Pirates hitless—and the Pirates still found a way to win with a little help from the Reds themselves.

“Come an’ see my amazin’ Mets,” their original manager Casey Stengel liked to crow about his 1962 theater of the absurd. “I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet.”

Reds manager David Bell isn’t that quick with a quip. Whatever his other virtues, he won’t occupy half the space in the quote anthologies that Stengel does. The Young Perfesser he ain’t. His team’s as funny as the eastbound end of a westbound horse.

Today’s Reds are compared a little too often to those embryonic Mets for futility. When the Original Mets won their very first game after nine straight life-opening losses, “Break up the Mets!” became a prompt wisecrack. These Reds have actually been 6-4 in their last ten games, but their 9-26 record hasn’t inspired such cracks as that. Red fans may yet just crack.

But even those Mets never figured out a way to no-hit the opposition and lose. This year’s Reds figured that out all by themselves in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Against the Pirates, who aren’t exactly out of the tank yet but have at least won in double digits by now. The franchise whose past includes a Big Red Machine have now become the Cincinnati Dreads.

The 1962 Mets (ha! you thought I’d avoid saying it again) had Abbott pitching to Costello with Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on Second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want to Think About It at shortstop. These Reds don’t even have the understudies for My Mother, the Car.

Those Mets finished their tragicomic maiden season with their first owner  insisting, as she entered 1963, “Let’s hope it is better this year. It has to be. I simply cannot stand 120 losses this year. If we can’t get anything, we are going to cut those losses down. At least to 119.”

This year’s Dreads have a team president who listened to his fan base’s lament over purging five key players on the threshold of Opening Day, thus leaping from competitiveness to tanking in a single bound, and replied, “Well, where you gonna go?”

Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? I mean, that’s the other thing, I mean, you wanna have this debate? If you wanna look at what would you have this team do to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists, it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And, so, be careful what you ask for. I think we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have.

Joan Payson had a wry sense of humour and a realistic assessment of her embryonic Mets and the unlikely, almost countercultural affection they stirred among New York fans bereft of two storied National League franchises, left with nothing but the smug hubris of a Yankee fan base spoiled by incessant success and blind to the Original Mets’ earthy appeal.

Phil Castellini thinks he can afford to be smug in a one-team baseball city, but he hasn’t learned that buying what you can afford doesn’t always mean you should buy it at all. Especially when you all but admit that the common good of your team and its game is nothing more than showing profit and making money for it.

Mrs. Payson—formerly the lone stockholder voting against the New York Giants moving west—became New York’s empathetic favourite grandma. Mr. Castellini, the son of the Reds’ owner, seems more like Cincinnati’s unapologetically distant, carping, authoritarian father.

Those Mets were a newborn team plucked from the flotsam and jetsam of the National League, in the league’s first expansion draft. These Reds may not even be that good. And that doesn’t stop at what might yet prove to be this year’s won-lost record.

Those Mets and their fans learned to laugh, like Figaro, that they might not weep. These Reds may have to learn to laugh that they might not fall to the temptation presented to 1988 Orioles manager Frank Robinson, late in that team’s season-opening 22-game losing streak. Robinson showed an empathetic reporter a button he’d been given saying, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

It hasn’t been lovely for this year’s Dreads, but their fans have to scream now, anyway. The boss all but threw them under the proverbial bus. Among several major league fan bases about whom you can say frustration is a way of life, none of them are as rightfully frustrated as Red fans now.

Last year’s Reds finished third in the National League Central with a winning enough record and continuing hope for another solid race. Then Castellini’s general manager Nick Krall either sent or allowed to walk Nick Castellanos, Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez, and Jesse Winker. For the moment I struggle to remember the last time any team effected a fire sale on the threshold of Opening Day.

Castellanos signed with the Phillies and is having a solid season thus far. Gray is solid enough in the middle of the Twins’ starting rotation after his trade there for a spare bolt. Suarez and Winker have opened sleepily in Seattle for the most part, but the Reds could probably have received more in return than a middling pitcher and a few washers.

But nothing seems more telling about this year’s upended Reds than touted rookie howitzer Hunter Greene plus relief pitcher Art Warren combining to no-hit the almost-as-moribund Pirates but still losing, 1-0 Sunday. Thanks to the rule that proclaims no-hitters official only if the no-hit-pitching team throws nine no-ht innings, this one doesn’t even count—except as one further entry into the 2022 ledger of Reds roughing.

What a difference half a century plus eight years makes. On 23 April 1964, the Reds were no-hit by Ken Johnson (a former, very brief Red) and the Houston Colt .45s, but they won, 1-0 . . . and Johnson retains credit for a no-hitter. The game was played in Colt Stadium—about which Original Met (and Hall of Famer) Richie Ashburn observed, “This is the only park in the league where the women wear insect repellant instead of perfume.”

Thus did Johnson have to face the Reds in the top of the ninth. That’s where he lost the game but not the no-hitter. Johnson himself threw Pete Rose’s one-out bunt for a hit wild, allowing Rose to second. Rose took third on a ground out but scored when Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox—approaching the end of his playing career—booted Vada Pinson’s grounder. Johnson retired Hall of Famer Robinson on a fly out to left for the side, but Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall finished the shutout he started in the bottom of the ninth.

That was then, this was now. (Four other teams between 1964 and Sunday have thrown no-hit baseball but lost.) For Sunday’s eventual stinker, the good news was Greene striking nine out in seven and a third innings and 118 pitches. The bad news was Greene walking five while three Pirates pitchers kept the Reds to four hits and two walks. The worse news was Greene walking the next two men he faced after getting rid of Pirates right fielder Jack Suwinski on an eighth inning-opening ground out.

Exit Greene, enter Warren, who promptly walked Pirates left fielder Ben Gamel to load the pads before third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes grounded into a run-scoring force out. Warren managed to induce an inning-ending infield pop out, but the Reds disappeared in order in the top of the ninth.

There wasn’t a Little Tramp, a Keystone Kop, a Marx Brother, or a Stooge among them, either.

By dint of their postgame comments, these Dreads don’t exactly have among them a Shelley Berman, a Lenny Bruce, a Godfrey Cambridge, a George Carlin, or even a Chester A. Riley. What a revoltin’ development that is.

And that single most frustrated fan base in the Show can only shrug, shake its heads, and not so much lament but accept, while quoting an ancient black spiritual that might yet become the Reds’ 2022 epitaph: “Were we really there, when this happened to us?”

Mistakes don’t equal murder

Will Craig, Javier Baez

Will Craig, after taking the errant throw pulling him down the first base line and into unexpected infamy . . .

“I guess I’m going to be on the blooper reels for the rest of my life,” said Pirates first baseman Will Craig last Friday, before the team’s game with the Rockies was postponed by rain. And, the day after Cubs shortstop Javier Baez deked him and his into a third-inning rundown that looked like the year’s funniest television moment in the moment.

It wasn’t all that funny in retrospect when Joe and Jane Fan plus Joke and Jerk Sportswriter/Talk Show Commentator started painting Craig as though he flunked the casting calls for Howard the Duck.

“It all boils down to me losing my brain for a second,” the 26-year-old Craig continued. “I take full responsibility for it and now will just try to keep moving forward. I know I’m a good defensive player and I can do a lot of good things on that side of the ball.”

The snarky side might suggest Craig and the Pirates who collaborated with him on the season’s most surrealistically slapstick play thus far handled things like men who’d learned their infield basics from the 1962 Mets.

Observing his coming place on eternity’s blooper reels indicates Craig—who won a Triple-A Gold Glove during his minor league life—has at least the sense of humour those ancient Mets needed just to get through that first calamitous season without losing their marble. Singular.

Maybe, too, the fact that neither the Pirates nor the Rockies look destined to reach this year’s postseason works in Craig’s favour. If he’d suffered last Thursday’s mishap in a postseason game, especially a World Series game, Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk alike would do everything in their power to make the rest of his baseball life—and maybe his life life—a living death.

Baez batted with two out and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras aboard in the top of the third, with the Cubs ahead 1-0. Baez whacked a sharp ground ball to Pirates third baseman Erik Gonzalez. He picked the ball cleanly. Then, he threw to first well enough off line to pull Craig forward, several feet down the line and in front of the pillow.

Craig had only to tag Baez or touch first for inning over. Then Baez got cute. Enough to break Craig’s concentration and prior knowledge for just long enough.

With about three feet between himself and Craig, he hit the brakes and went about-face back toward the plate, with Craig chasing him down the line instead of thinking about just tagging first. This is the kind of thinking lapse to which major league rookies are prone—even those with outstanding defensive reps in the minors, as Craig had—and into which even grizzled veterans can and do get caught sinking.

Contreras kept gunning it all the way home. Craig flipped to catcher Michael Perez. Contreras slid under the tag and Baez took off back to first. Perez threw past second baseman Adam Frazier looking to cover the base and Baez hit the afterburners for second.

I’m still trying to fathom how Craig ended up the sole goat on the play. Why does he wear the horns alone, when Gonzalez’s off-line throw started the whole megillah in the first place? Why does he wear the horns alone, when Perez threw well past first instead of bagging Baez there?

Baez basically had second on the house and the Cubs had a 2-0 lead. It became 3-0 when Cubs center fielder Ian Happ dumped a quail into short right center on which Baez with a good jump scored.

The official scoring on the play, according to Baseball-Reference, reads thus: Javier Baez—Reached on E3 (catch) (Ground Ball to Weak 3B to 3B); Contreras Scores/No RBI/unER; Baez out at 2B/Adv on E2 (throw).

Where were the Pirates to cover their rookie mate’s head and hide? Committing a pair of chargeable errors, that’s where. Where were the Pirates in the dugout to remind Craig in the immediate moment, step on first? Maybe they were as dumbstruck as everybody else in PNC Park when the thing began to unfurl. Maybe.

At least Craig’s manager had his post-game back. “He made a mistake and that’s it,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “You don’t option a guy [to the minors] because of the fact he made a mistake. We make mistakes in all realms of life. It just happened to be something nobody’s ever seen before.”

I didn’t mention the 1962 Mets just to be cute. Writing Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? about that embryonic troupe, Jimmy Breslin swore the Mets infield lapsed almost likewise in the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the Cardinals.

Yes, I saw those Mets. They had Who the Hell was on First, What the Hell was on Second, You Didn’t Want To Know Who was on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop. If it could have happened to anybody in the past, those Mets were them.

Breslin swore first baseman Marv Throneberry—the Original Mets’ original super-anti-hero—got so caught up trying to catch Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer in a rundown (they had Boyer cold, according to Breslin) that he and fellow Met infielders Rod Kanehl and Charley Neal forgot about Hall of Famer Stan Musial on third—to Musial’s slack-jawed amazement, before The Man shot home with what proved the winning run.

That was Breslin’s story. I had to be a spoilsport and look it up. I looked at every game log involving the first games in every doubleheader between the Mets and the Cardinals in 1962. They played three doubleheaders against each other that year. That play never happened.

There ain’t much good you can write about us, but I don’t see where that gives people the right to make stuff up, lamented Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their notoriety in the mid-to-late 1960s. All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?

The ’62 Mets may not have pulled a mental mistake quite as grave as Craig’s, not against the Cardinals, anyway, but that didn’t give Breslin any more right to misremember than it gives Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk the right to make Craig resemble the most blundering bonehead on the block this side of . . .

No, we’re not going to exhume Bill Buckner’s corpse. Or John McNamara’s. Or those of Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Charlie Dressen, Ralph Branca, Casey Stengel, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Dick Williams, Curt Flood, Tommy Lasorda, or Donnie Moore.

We’re not going to haul the still-living among Tom Niedenfuer, Don Denkinger, Mitch Williams, Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Buck Showalter, Matt Weiters, the ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs (and every Cub from the [Theodore] Roosevelt Administration through the Obama Administration), the ’78 Red Sox, the ’07 Mets, the ’17 Nationals, and maybe every St. Louis Brown who ever walked the face of the earth, before the court, either—kangaroo or otherwise.

They failed despite their efforts, often as not in baseball’s most broiling hours. They suffered momentary lapses of eyes, ears, and minds, too, and with a lot more at stake than what’ll yet prove a meaningless game between two National League bottom feeders.

Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk still don’t get what Thomas Boswell (whose pending retirement will still be a loss to baseball wisdom) wrote upon Moore’s 1989 suicide:

Nobody will ever be able to prove that the haunting memory of giving up Dave Henderson’s home run in the 1986 American League playoffs led Moore to commit suicide. Maybe, someday, we’ll learn about some other possible cause. [Alas, we did.–JK.] But right now, what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this “goat” business isn’t funny anymore . . .

The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.

Rookies make mistakes. Well-seasoned veterans make mistakes, even if they’ll be misremembered by even the funniest and sharpest reporters. Even managers who win ten pennants and seven World Series (including five straight to open) in twelve years make mistakes—the way Hall of Famer Casey Stengel did, when he failed to plot his pitching to allow his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford three instead of two 1960 World Series starts.

Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski and his Pirates still say thank you. Ford steamed quietly about it for years, until Stengel finally apologised to his old lefthander and earned Ford’s forgiveness. (Remember that when you think of a certain fan base’s unspoken motto, To err is human, to forgive must never be Yankee policy.)

Rookies and veterans alike also have things unexpected happen to them that turn routine plays into disasters you’d think made Hurricane Katrina seem like just a bathroom pipe break, the way Joe, Jane, Jerk, and Joke paint the poor souls.

Lucky for Craig that he does have that sense of humour about it. He’s already proven he’s made of better stuff than his critics and howlers, which doesn’t take all that much.

Felipe Vazquez, from closer to sexual convict

Felipe Vazquez

Vazquez’s too-prominent tattoos identified him when his face couldn’t in messages he sent an underage girl.

Two seasons ago, Felipe Vazquez was the arguable best pitcher on the National League’s arguably most dysfunctional team. The lefthanded closer on the National League Central’s bottom-feeding Pirates was having a career year and his second consecutive All-Star season when he got clipped over his apparent taste for and sexual misconduct with at least one underage girl.

When Vazquez was arrested on 17 September 2019, the charges came from two places. From Pennsylvania, charging him with statutory sexual assault, unlawful contact with a minor, corruption of a minor by a suspect eighteen or older, and indecent assault of a victim under sixteen. And, from Florida’s Lee County, charging him with computer porn–soliciting a child and providing obscene material to minors

Now Vazquez stands convicted of fifteen counts involving statutory sexual assault, sexual abuse of children, and child pornography in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. A jury handed the verdict down on Thursday after needing just four hours to determine they didn’t buy Vazquez’s defense argument that his thirteen-year-old victim misled him about her real age.

“I felt we put on a very strong defense,” said one of Vazquez’s attorneys, Gary Gerson, to Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate KDKA. “Obviously, the jury disagreed. I’m not sure exactly what their assessment of the case was. But it appears to be that they have concluded that Felipe had a mistaken belief but it was not reasonable.”

On the trial’s fourth day, prosecutors argued Vazquez’s accuser was a minor at the time and remains one at age seventeen, with Vazquez interested not in a real relationship but in self-gratification, KDKA said. As if to emphasise the age point at the time she encountered Vazquez, they presented the jury with images of her.

Vazquez himself testified on Wednesday. KDKA said the pitcher told the court his dealings with the girl started with innocent social media conversation before things “began to veer toward adult topics.” He also testified that he’d asked her to give proof of her claimed legal age to avoid trouble, adding she sent what appeared a Pennsylvania identification card showing her of legal age.

KDKA added that he told the court he’d “had intimate relationships with other female followers and fans.”

The girl herself testified earlier in the trial. KDKA said she admitted not knowing whether Vazquez knew she was only thirteen when they first mat on social media, and she affirmed telling her mother when a police interview paused that she should have been the one in trouble.

Maybe the jury came to believe that Vazquez as a then 26-year-old professional baseball player was more than old enough to know better himself. MLB actually sent him the same message when they put him on its restricted list practically as soon as his arrest finished being processed.

The Pirates also wasted no time banishing him to the Phantom Zone, after the team learned of the bust and both team president Frank Coonelly and then-general manager Neal Huntington called a team meeting before their scheduled interleague game against the Mariners. “By game time, looking around [PNC Park], it was as if Vázquez had never played for the Pirates,” wrote The Athletic‘s Rob Biertempfel.

His clubhouse locker was empty. His banner outside PNC Park had been taken down. His image was scrubbed from the scoreboard videos. His name was deleted from the list of National League save leaders that flashes on concourse monitors before the game. The scorebook magazines with Vázquez on the cover, which normally are handed out to fans as they enter the stadium, were stashed out of sight.

His 2019 arrest sent a far more dark cloud over a team of Pirates that was already battered by its own dysfunctional clubhouse. And “dysfunctional” may have been a kind way to describe things.

Another Pirate reliever, Keone Kela, instigated a wild bench-clearing brawl on the night of the non-waiver trade deadline, when he threw at Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich—over a pair of April home runs one of which landed in the Allegheny River. The brawl was even more memorable for involving then-Red Yasiel Puig . . . who wasn’t yet aware he’d been traded to the Indians.

That year’s Pirates seemed to earn and rather relish a reputation for headhunting on the mound. But they also seemed too willing to brawl with each other when the occasions arose. The Dietrich drill happened a week before Kela was suspended two days over a confrontation he’d had with the Pirates’ performance coach Hector Morales, a confrontation requiring then-manager Clint Hurdle’s intervention.

When Hurdle did intervene, an exchange between skipper and reliever was called downright insubordination on Kela’s part by a few other Pirates. The manager who’d previously led the Pirates to a couple of postseasons before the team was said to have gone into the tank was canned after the season and elected to retire from baseball, but nobody to my knowledge has said whether 2019’s implosions factored into the latter decision.

That year’s Pirates also had to deal with suspending bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, over an argument with yet another Pirate reliever, Kyle Crick, who’d accused Rojas of giving Vazquez preferential treatment. Rojas ordered Crick to mind his own business none too politely, apparently. Biertempfel wrote at the time that another Pirate went to the team’s administration insisting Rojas get “the same level of punishment as Kela had.”

Kela is now with the Padres, his fine 2021 so far rudely interrupted by pitching forearm strain that’s turned into Tommy John surgery. Crick remains with the Pirates, with a somewhat deceptive 1.59 ERA as a middle reliever/setup man, considering his 3.49 fielding-independent pitching rate and his troublesome 4.8 walks per nine innings so far this season.

In case you wondered, too, Dietrich is now in the Yankees’ minor league system and Puig—who’s denied allegations in a sexual assault suit—is playing in the Mexican League after finding no MLB takes this winter and spring.

The Pirates are at the bottom of the NL Central again this season. So far. They’re 5-6 in their last eleven games, with back-to-back walkoff wins in there. Former Red Sox rebuilder Ben Cherington is now their general manager. The team has announced they’ll open PNC Park to full capacity by July.

Their current closer, Richard Rodriguez, has been off the charts thus far even with the Pirates at rock bottom: a 0.47 ERA/1.71 FIP, and though he’s not particularly a strikeout artist, he pitches like a man allergic to walks. (0.5 per nine innings so far.)

You hope only that Rodriguez and the rest of this year’s Pirates are likewise allergic to the kind of dysfunction that battered a 2019 edition finishing 22 games out of first in their division and climaxed with his predecessor’s sordid denouement.

Vazquez is set for sentencing in three months. Florida charges involving the same girl remain pending. The now-former pitcher could be looking at “decades” worth of imprisonment in the United States, unless the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency elects to deport him home to his native Venezuela.

Vazquez’s nickname is Nightmare. But there’s another word for the man who took himself from a nightmare for opposing batters to a nightmare for an underage girl and her family. The word is degenerate.

Protest by postponement

When Mookie Betts (far left) elected not to play in protest over Jacob Blake’s shooting by police, his Dodgers mates—including manager Dave Roberts (second from left) and pitchers Clayton Kershaw (second from right) and Kenley Jansen (far right)—had his back and joined him postponing against the Giants.

This is now: The Show’s government stood by teams postponing games Thursday in a show of respect to Jacob Blake, a young African-American man shot by rogue police, and quiet outrage over the manner in which Blake was shot. (Seven bullets in the back, with his children in sight in their car.)

But that was then: A Cincinnati Reds pitcher was hustled the hell out of Dodge for standing on behalf of not playing baseball during Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral. What a difference 52 years makes.

“Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake,” MLB’s official statement said Thursday, “we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice.”

It could also have said plausibly that baseball stood athwart the grotesquery of Kyle Rittenhouse—a white teenager (seventeen), making his way from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where violence and destruction reigned courtesy of those who seize upon genuine grief, rage, and sorrow as a beard to destroy—now accused of shooting two to death after his arrival.

Once the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks stepped up front as the first professional sports team to decline play Thursday in protest over Blake’s shooting, and theirs was a playoff game, baseball teams who had yet to play on the day—several games had finished already or were well enough in progress—began to step up front as well.

The Milwaukee Brewers and the Reds postponed, particularly after Brewers relief star Josh Hader spoke publicly about the team considering it. Those who chose to condemn Hader a few years ago, after immaturely racist tweets in his school days surfaced, should ponder once again (if it occurred to them in the first place, when Hader apologised publicly) that, yes, mis-oriented youth can and often does mature into thoughtful adulthood.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants postponed their Thursday night game after Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, informing his teammates earlier in the day he had no intention of playing as a show of protest, discovered to his happy surprise (he’d encouraged the Dodgers to play anyway) that one and all his teammates had his back on that.

The Dodgers’ long-enough-time franchise face Clayton Kershaw took the lead on backing him. “Mookie was saying, ‘If you guys want to play, I support that’,” Kershaw said when asked. “But we made a collective, group decision to not play tonight and let our voices be heard for standing up for what is right.”

The Seattle Mariners elected as a team not to play Thursday night, and their scheduled opponents, the San Diego Padres, agreed no questions asked. “For me, and for many of my teammates,” tweeted Mariners infielder Dee Gordon, “the injustices, violence, death and systemic racism is deeply personal. This is impacting not only my community, but very directly my family and friends. Our team voted unanimously not to play tonight.”

Elsewhere around the Show individual players declined to play even if their teams went ahead and played, and none of those players looks to face retribution or team discipline for their decisions while their teammates mostly (not unanimously, alas) likewise supported their stance.

Paralyzed waist down by his wounds, Jacob Blake isn’t exactly a model citizen, alas. He had a knife on his car’s floorboard though not in his hands, and police were dispatched to the location after a woman’s call that her boyfriend (Blake) was present when enjoined formally against being there. He also had an arrest warrant upon him. Neither gave Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey the right to pump seven bullets into his back.

Wherever he is in the Elysian Fields, Miltiades Stergios Papastergios must be thinking to himself, “Slowly comes the dawn.” You know him if at all by his Americanised name, Milton Steven Pappas. In 1968, he took a stand similar to that taken by the aforementioned teams and players and refused to budge when circumstances altered the original plan. The Reds traded him post haste afterward, and nobody knew for certain whether that stance provoked it.

Milt Pappas became a Red, of course, in the infamous trade that sent Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, where Pappas was once part of the Orioles’ heralded but ruined “Baby Birds” starting rotation full of fresh youth. He pitched serviceably if not spectacularly for the Reds but, with Robinson winning a Triple Crown in his first Baltimore season and continuing to play like his Hall of Famer self, it wouldn’t have mattered if Pappas was the second coming of Robin Roberts.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in early April 1968, baseball’s Opening Day coincided with the day of King’s funeral. Baseball would have played fully if the Pittsburgh Pirates—with such non-white stars as Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, plus former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills—hadn’t refused to play. The Pirates triggered similar actions by other teams.

Baseball’s then-commissioner, William D. Eckert, was denounced for “calling up the club owners, not to tell them what to do, but to ask them” over the King funeral, wrote New York Daily News columnist Dick Young. But two months later former U.S. attorney general turned senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, freshly triumphant after winning California’s Democratic Party primary, was murdered after he left the stage at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel on 6 June 1968.

With the Kennedy assassination, Eckert decreed no games should be played during Kennedy’s funeral. The man nicknamed Spike but derided previously as “the unknown soldier” (he was a retired Air Force general with no known previous baseball tie) proved he learned fast, even if he had to learn the hard way.

The Reds were scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals with a starting time well after the Kennedy funeral might have ended originally. Then, the funeral was delayed, after Washington’s notorious enough traffic issues delayed the funeral train’s procession. It looked as though the Reds and the Cardinals would play during the funeral after all.  Not so fast, Pappas insisted. He felt then and to the day he died four years ago that the game shouldn’t be played out of respect to Kennedy.

Reds manager Dave Bristol and general manager Bob Howsam felt the opposite. Howsam even visited the Reds clubhouse to pronounce that RFK himself would have wanted the game played. Pappas argued against playing right then and there. “Who is this guy, anyway,” Pappas told a reporter later on, “to tell us what Bobby Kennedy would have wanted us to do?”

The Reds’ players promptly took a team vote, some after having been strong-armed by Bristol, Howsam, or both. The vote was 13-12 in favour of playing. Pappas quit on the spot as the Reds’ player representative. Six games ended up postponed anyway despite the funeral delay. Three days later, in a deal Howsam swore was in the works before Kennedy’s assassination, he traded Pappas to the Atlanta Braves in a five-man swap making Reds out of fellow pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll.

Baseball’s government, much like America’s, often has to learn the hard way about doing the right things as opposed to doing the expedient or the partisan things. There’s little to the appropriate causes monetarily as many do, other than symbolic acts that speak louder than rioters enough because their familiarity and popular appeal is powerful weight to throw above and beyond a game.

Those who think Thursday night’s players and team were out of line might care to ask what they’d prefer as a protest against rogue police and citizens alike—postponing baseball games and denouncing racism; or, breaking entire cities.