Salami on special at the Slam Diego Deli

Rookie Jake Cronenworth joined the Padres’ grand slam parade Saturday.

A spectre may be haunting major league baseball—the spectre of San Diego. The Padres, usually renowned for a checkered history, lots of ugly uniforms, a handsome ballpark where hitters usually go to die, and a seeming genius for watching as many as three top-of-the-line players depart for every one or two they could find. Rudely interrupted by a couple of pennants.

That was then and this is now: The Padres now wear uniforms that are passable, if unlikely to put them on the best-dressed men’s lists. They make the right headlines in the press and hash in the National League West and elsewhere. They also make hash out of the National League leader board, where you’ll find them as of this morning at the top for total bases, stolen bases, walks, slugging, OPS, and home runs.

Previous generations of baseball’s big bopping teams have earned colourful nicknames: The Bronx Bombers, the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Harvey’s Wallbangers. To those add now Slam Diego. These Poundres don’t just hit home runs, they hit conversation pieces. Especially with the bases loaded. The Slam Diego Deli is the Show’s first to grind salami on special in four consecutive games.

When rookie shortstop Jake Cronenworth saw and raised center fielder Trent Grisham’s three homers in a Saturday burial of the Houston Astros by slamming Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos, it was the fifth San Diego slam in six games while they were at it.

The 13-2 win was also the Padres’s sixth straight win overall and raised their record in interleague play to 6-0 so far. These are not your grandfather’s, your father’s, or even your big brother’s Friar Ducks. Sitting, that is.There’s nothing like a not-so-little beatdown laid upon last year’s American League pennant winner to redeem a five-game losing streak that ended when the Poundres flattened the Texas Rangers 14-4 last Monday.

That just so happened to be the same game in which the Slam Diegans’s gigastar-in-the-making, Fernando Tatis, Jr., provoked this year’s first major debate over the Sacred Unwritten Rules—when he faced Juan Nicasio in the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, one out, a 3-0 count, and a 10-3 Padres lead in Globe Life Hangar, and hit something too meaty to resist over the right field fence.

Baseball’s boring old farts screamed about Tatis’s lack of manners. Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who harrumphed after the game about how offensive Tatis was for daring to swing 3-0 late in the middle of a blowout, lifted Nicasio for Ian Gibaut, who threw right behind Manny Machado’s rump roast immediately to follow.

The problem was that, this time, most of baseball applauded Tatis and decided the SURs a) were patent nonsense and b) don’t cover when a hitter as good as Tatis is fed something Ray Charles could have hit for distance. Apparently, so did Commissioner Nero, suspending Gibaut three games.

The further problem, once Padres manager Jayce Tingler got over his own dismay at Tatis violating the SURs, is that the whole hoo-ha just put rocket fuel into the Padres at the plate. The following night, they could only muster a 6-4 win over the Rangers but Wil Myers joined the deli crew in the top of the first, with the bases loaded and two out, clearing the left center field fence and staking the Pads to an immediate 4-0 lead.

The night after that, back in Petco Park, the Padres and the Rangers wrestled to a tenth inning ted at two. After the Rangers snuck an unearned run home in the top of the tenth, Machado checked in with the bases loaded on the free cookie at second to start their bottom of the tenth, a dubious-enough sacrifice bunt (sorry, I still say you don’t give outs to the other guys, especially with a man in scoring position gifted you), and back-to-back walks.

Machado re-opened the Slam Diego Deli by hitting a full-count meatball over the left center field fence. The night after that, Eric Hosmer checked in with one out, the Padres in the hole 2-1, and the pads padded on two base hits and a walk. Hosmer nailed Rangers starter Kyle Gibson with a drive down the right field line and into the seats. The Padres needed every morsel of that salami even more this time; they had to build and then hold on for the 8-7 win.

When they beat the Astros 4-3 Friday night, there may have been some wags thinking the Padres were on the threshold of disaster. The deli stayed closed. The Padres didn’t even load the bases once against five Astros pitchers. Don’t tell us the magic was gone before we really had a fair shot at it sinking in at maximum depth.

Thank God for Cronenworth. Be so [fornicating] glad the Poundres have Cronenworth. In the bottom of a second inning that began with a 2-1 lead and already added five runs on a leadoff bomb (Myers), a three-run homer (Grisham), and an RBI single (Ty France), Cronenworth tore into a Castellanos fastball on 3-1 and tore it over the right field fence.

“It’s somebody different every single night stepping up,” Cronenworth said after the Saturday night massacre. “Grish has three home runs tonight, Manny hit a home run tonight, Wil [Myers] hit a home run tonight, [starting pitcher] Zach Davies had an incredible outing. It started with him shutting their offense down and getting us back in the dugout as quick as possible.”

Don’t ask about his turn behind the San Diego Deli counter, though. The bad news is that the kid has the boilerplate mastered: “Put a good swing on a good pitch. Just keep my approach up the middle. Just happened to put a good swing on it.” Thank you, Friar Obvious.

Institutionally, the Padres have a few reasons to thank the Astros. It was the Astros who got them into San Diego in the first place, after that lovely city by the harbour and the Pacific hosted the Pacific Coast League Padres for generations. (Including a local kid named Ted Williams playing his minor league ball there, in the era when the PCL was the a major league in everything but name.)

The National League’s second expansion intended for Montreal and Dallas to have new teams. The Astros’s founding owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, banged a gavel and said, “Not so fast, buster.” Hofheinz would rather have blown the Astrodome to smithereens than sanctioned a rival team playing a hop, skip, and bronco-busting bull’s jump up the road from (as then-Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone called it) the world’s biggest hair dryer.

So the National League’s lords relented and, with no little help from Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley—who needed a place to dump his general manager Buzzie Bavasi, when O’Malley son and heir Peter was ready to graduate to the Dodgers’ front office—what was meant for Dallas ended up by the southern California seas.

Once upon a time, another Padres owner, Ray Kroc (McDonald’s mastermind and magnate), took to his own public address system to commiserate with fans over “the stupidest baseball playing I’ve ever seen.” Who the hell needs a Big Mac when you’re running the National League’s least-expected delicatessen lately?

“It shouldn’t be against any rules”

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Looks like a winner to me.

Collin McHugh may have opted out of pitching in 2020, but the former Houston Astro hasn’t opted out of thinking. Lucky for us. Concerning the Fernando Tatis, Jr. grand slam kerfuffle, McHugh has wisdom the old farts will likely ignore but the young and young-at-heart will receive as writ.

Swinging in a 3-0 count should not be against any rules, no matter the score,” McHugh tweeted the morning after Tatis’s eight-inning salami on 3-0 rubbed the Texas Rangers the wrong way and got the next San Diego Padres batter, Manny Machado, a pitch thrown right to and past his rump roast.

“Before a game I would always look to see what [percent] a guy swings 3-0,” McHugh continued. “If it’s over 20%, it means I can’t just groove one. The guys who will never ‘give you a pitch’ at the plate are the toughest AB’s.”

Someone among the Rangers brain trust ought to communicate McHugh’s wisdom to Ian Gibaut, who relieved Juan Nicasio after Nicasio’s 3-0 fastball just off the middle of the plate took a ride into the fan cutouts behind the right field fence off Tatis’s bat Monday. Gibaut is the Ranger who thought Tatis’s flouting of the Sacred Unwritten Rules earned Machado a target off his tail.

Tatis wasn’t the only hitter running afoul of the SURs that day. In Atlanta’s Truist Park, Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto had the temerity to send Braves reliever Will Smith’s service on a 445 foot trip to the seats in the top of the ninth and give it a far quicker look of self-admiration than the young Nat has given other such thumps in his young career.

Smith promptly switched his Braves hat for his Fun Police hat and fired an expletive Soto’s way. That’ll teach him. Not only did Smith’s bark prompt Soto to take an even slower trip around the bases than he might have planned, it prompted Nats manager Dave Martinez to play the other side of unwritten law enforcement as Soto’s defense attorney.

“Will Smith said something to Soto that I didn’t really appreciate,” the manager told reporters after that game—which the Braves came back to win on Dansby Swanson’s game-ending bomb. “So I just want to let him know, hey, it wasn’t Juan who threw the ball. His job is to hit so just be quiet and get on the mound. You threw the pitch, make a better pitch.”

Well, what do you know? A piece of me would love to think Martinez might have seen what I wrote earlier Tuesday morning:

You let a hitter get into a 3-0 count with or without the bases loaded? That’s on you. You throw him something he can meet with the bat at all? That’s on you. You want to scream bloody murder because he didn’t thank you nice fellows by taking strike one and his medicine after you were already so generous as to let him and his take a seven-run lead on you going in? That’s on you, too.

But I know better. I have about as much chance of being seen, never mind read and heeded, by the manager of the defending world champions as Donald Trump has of being added to Mount Rushmore. And Rangers manager Chris Woodward has less chance of being seen as a wise man than as an artery-hardened wisenheimer.

“You’re up by seven in the eighth inning — it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0,” you may remember Woodward fuming after the Padres finished what they started, a 14-4 blowout. “It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game. But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis, so just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right. I don’t think we liked it as a group.”

This season has already challenged norms enough. Remember: we’re trying to get through a major league baseball season in a time of coronavirus pandemic. The Show’s government has put into place enough truly dubious actual rules and experiments. The whole thing continues to play a lot like you’d imagine an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits Brought to You By Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle.

You would have thought the last thing any team wanted to exhume was yet another fruitless debate on yet another violation of the SURs that does nothing much more than make the exhumers resemble the would-be enforcers of a protection racket.

You might also have thought the Rangers had a working sense of their own 21st Century history. We take you back to 22 August 2007, in Camden Yards, when a different group of Rangers could have been brought up on charges of human rights violations for the 30-3 massacre they laid on the Baltimore Orioles that fine evening.

The abuses included a ten-run top of the eighth—including Travis Metcalf grinding salami—with the score already 14-3 . . . and a six-run top of the ninth when the casualties amounted to 24-3. I don’t remember if the Orioles raised any objections to any SURs that may or may not have been violated during the carnage, but I did wonder at the time whether they’d suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

McHugh isn’t the only pitcher present or past who thinks the Rangers should have spent more time making solid pitches and less time complaining because one not-so-solid pitch got demolished on 3-0 late in a blowout-to-be.

“I’m old enough that I grew up in a game that a lot of older guys had all the power and they would tell you how to act, what to do, and you did what they told you to do because that’s how it was,” said Ron Darling, once a world champion 1986 New York Mets pitcher and now a Mets broadcaster.

“Unwritten rules only work if everyone knows the unwritten rules,” Darling continued. “By their very definition, nobody knows an unwritten rule, so what you have now is you’re trying to make a decision that a 3-0 count in a seven-run game is off limits. I’m just not with that at all.”

How about we ask Zach Davies, the Padres’ starting pitcher Monday night, who might have a thing or three to say about whether the SURs ought to overthrow such game facts as the Padres bullpen entering the game with the third-highest collective earned-run average of any Show bullpen? Such bullpens make even seven-run leads feel about as secure as a bank whose vault is left open after closing time.

“A lot of guys talk about unwritten rules of baseball, but you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re gonna try to get your pitch as a hitter and he didn’t miss,” Davies told The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin.

So you can’t really fault him for that, in my opinion. Some guys feel differently, but everybody has their own opinion on it. Make sure your 3-0 pitch is a little bit better. I’ve been hit on 3-0 and homers have been hit off me, maybe not in the same situation, but that’s something that everybody kind of has a little bit different opinion on.

Would Tatis have escaped scrutiny (and would Machado have escaped a sailer toward his seat) if he hadn’t hit a three-run homer an inning earlier? That one made the score 10-3 in the first place. Grinding salami in the next inning regardless of the count could be taken by some teams and their pitchers as putting out the first insult’s fire with gasoline.

Meanwhile, it looks like San Diego’s Wil Myers taught the Rangers and their Tuesday starting pitcher Mike Minor a little lesson in manners in the top of the first. With two out and the bases loaded, Myers caught hold of a Minor changeup that hung like a condemned man and hung it into the left center field bullpen.

Then Tatis exacted his own revenge on Gibault in the top of the fourth, after Jurickson Profar belted a two-run homer. With Tatis singling to left with two out and Machado drawing the walk that pushed Minor out of the game, bringing in Gibault in the first place . . . Tatis stole third.

He was stranded, and the most the Rangers could muster was a four-run bottom of the fourth, kicked off when Joey Gallo bombed San Diego reliever Javy Guerra for a three-run homer with nobody out.

But the real messages were sent and re-sent. Including Gibault and Woodward being suspended for their upholding of the SURs Monday night. Gibault appealed his three-game suspension and thus was able to get Tatis’s return message; Woodward served his suspension Tuesday.

Another former major leaguer, Chris Singleton, tweeted a political campaign-style T-shirt emblazoned, Tatis-Machado ’20: Take the Cake. Sounds like a winning ticket to me. Neither actual presidential campaign has yet devised a campaign slogan that snarkily creative, which figures. And letting them have fun is just about the last thing the country needs.

The haunted Hideki Irabu

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Hideki Irabu, too haunted to succeed—or live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So did he. Whoever he really was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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