Appreciating Willie, at 90 and beyond

Willie Mays

Willie Mays hits his 500th career home run in the Houston Astrodome, 1965.

I started watching baseball in earnest with the 1961 World Series, when I was pushing six, and the almighty Yankees faced the almost all-surprising Reds and beat them in five. Something about the game put a vise grip upon me that hasn’t let go in the years and over the changes good and bad since.

The Reds’ Frank Robinson was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1961. Willie Mays finished sixth. As I would learn in due course, Robinson won the award as much because he had an MVP-type season as because he played on a pennant winner, but there were better MVP cases in the 1961 National League by Mays and fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Then they finished inventing the Mets. I was no longer stuck with having to think purely about the Yankees in New York, since the National League was coming back into business there. (Assorted family members, especially my maternal grandfather, began telling me about the former exploits of the Dodgers and the Giants.)

And I’d get to see Willie Mays, even if on television alone. His Giants came to play my embryonic Mets in their former cavern, a big, horseshoe-shaped, rambling wreck of a ballpark known as the Polo Grounds. They played against each other there nine times in 1962. The Giants didn’t visit their former home until 1 June, but it certainly felt like a visit to the old neighbourhood—they swept the Mets in four.

I got to see the first of those four. Mays came exactly as advertised, playing center field as though he were part of a track meet; hitting a home run off future Giants manager Roger Craig the other way in the fifth, about 390 feet from the plate and into the right field seats; taking third from first on a seventh-inning single by another future Giants manager, Felipe Alou.

The bad news is that even a Willie Mays who leaves magnificent first impressions just warming himself up in the on deck circle can have days where someone else makes bigger impressions in the game. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit two bombs for the price of one Mays mash. And even McCovey didn’t steal the day’s headlines.

That theft belonged to Jim Davenport, a left-side infielder who wasn’t quite that serious a plate threat, squareing off against Mets reliever Willard Hunter two batters after Mays scored, with the bases loaded and one out. Davenport hit one not too far short of where Mays’s bomb landed in the right field seats.

It made the score 9-1, the Mets’ lone run to that point courtesy of Rod Kanehl hitting Giants starter Billy Pierce for a leadoff jack into the left field seats. The Mets managed to chase Pierce in the eighth with an RBI double (Charlie Neal) and a two-run single (Frank Thomas) back to back, before Felix (Wrong Way) Mantilla greeted Giants reliever Bobby Bolin rather rudely with a two-run homer.

That was the last of the day’s scoring. I’m reasonably certain that that was not the game during which Mets manager Casey Stengel visited Craig at the mound with McCovey due to hit and asked, “How do you want to pitch him—upper deck or lower deck?”

The Giants banked the 9-6 win. I didn’t get to watch the next three games, alas. Perhaps just as well, since the Giants outscored the Mets over those three games 22-6, including a doubleheader in which the scoring difference was 16-6, Giants.

Mays had himself a grand time playing baseball in New York for the first time since the Giants went west four years earlier. In game one of that doubleheader he opened with an RBI single and a run scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and continued with a two-run homer in the second, though somehow the Mets kept him quiet in the nightcap.

Then, he had one more homecoming message to deliver in the fourth game of the series, taking one of the Mets’ two Bob Millers (the righthanded one) into the left field seats with one out in the sixth.

The Giants met the Mets nine times in New York in 1962 and beat them seven times. Mays had himself an .851 OPS during those nine games. He was a lot more rude a house guest of the National League’s other newborn team in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s: despite Colt Stadium being a whole pitcher’s park, Mays battered the Colts for a 1.214 OPS in 1962.

Mays was 31 years old in 1962. But he still played as though still ten years younger. He had that stance with his feet about half a foot forward and aft of home plate, the stride starting his swing where you saw his front foot step forward about another full foot plus, swinging down and across his midsection, not extending his muscular forearms until a split second before contact, the bat sweeping a little up going around.

The stride and swing that delivered 3,283 Show hits including 523 Show doubles and 660 Show home runs, and leaves open for question even now how many of his 140 Show triples came mostly from his bat or from his legs, considering how relentless a baserunner he really was.

“Willie had great instincts on the bases and he was always aggressive,” Pete Rose has said of him. “I was an aggressive baserunner also. I developed my baserunning skills watching Willie Mays play.” An interesting recollection, that—Mays took extra bases on followup hits 63 percent of the time he reached base, meaning he took more than one base on such a hit. Rose did it 49 percent of the time.

“[O]n a single, it would have been strange if he didn’t go first to third,” Rose’s teammate, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has said. “He had one of the best turns rounding second or third you could possibly have. With his agility, he made the most perfect turns.”

Mays’s legs did as much for him playing center field as they did on the bases. He thought nothing of starting in as shallow a positioning as he could get away with before reading, hunting down, and snaring a drive. “Curt Flood was the best I’ve ever seen against the wall. He was better than Willie against the wall,” Flood’s Cardinals teammate Tim McCarver has said. “But Curt played deep. Willie didn’t play deep; he played shallow. Willie never went to the wall. Willie was the wall.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller had a dugout seat with the rest of the Indians during the 1954 World Series, including and especially for the catch for which Mays remains remembered singularly, the run to the absolute rear of the Polo Grounds’ right center field, some 460 feet from the plate, to haul down Vic Wertz’s drive.

To everyone else in the house—including a writer named Arnold Hano, sitting in the bleachers and writing A Day in the Bleachers about that game and that play—the play seemed God’s next to last miracle. (My last miracle, said George Burns as God in a 1977 film, was the 1969 Mets.)

“That really wasn’t that great of a catch,” the curmudgeonly Feller once said. And why? “As soon as it was hit, everyone on our bench knew that he was going to catch it . . . because he is Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Wouldn’t you love to know even now just whom the meatheads were that denied Mays first-ballot Hall enshrinement?

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he name-checked Mays respectfully. “The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run,” said Teddy Ballgame himself. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.” Willie went and got 138 more of ’em before his life as a player finally ended.

For me it was baseball fortune to get to see the better of Willie Mays even in his thirties, even if he was on the road team or I had to wait for one of the Giants’ turns on the old national network Game of the Week telecasts. It was worth the wait to see him square off against such Hall of Famers as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, the aging Warren Spahn, the young Tom Seaver, the young Steve Carlton.

You might care to note that Mays faced Spahn more than he faced any pitcher, Hall of Famer or otherwise, and had ownership papers on the lefthander who owned a nasty screwball and was a bit of a screwball himself. According to Stathead, Mays faced Spahn 253 times, hitting eighteen home runs among 68 hits, with a slash line pretty close to his overall career slash: .305/.368/.587, and a .955 OPS.

His first major league hit was a home run off me,” Spahn said often enough, “and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Drysdale might have told Spahn, “Why the hell didn’t you strike him out?” Mays faced Drysdale 243 times and, while he hit a measly thirteen bombs off the Dodgers righthander, the slash line is .330/.374/.604. The OPS is .978. Why the hell indeed.

Having learned more than a shard of baseball history by age 16 and having seen more than enough of Mays even as a road player to know that I was watching greatness that belonged not of this world but about five dimensions beyond it, it was easy to feel a little New York sentimentality when the Giants—entering a somewhat testy reconstruction and no longer afford to carry aging players, not even Hall of Famers—sold Mays to the Mets to let him finish where he began.

He only looked resplendent in the Mets’ fatigues, under the blue hat that brandished the same orange interlocked NY which once crowed Mays’s forehead on the old black Giants hat. Sunday, 14 May 1972, was my mother’s 42nd birthday; she was a year older than Mays. The date was also Mays’s first game as a Met.

The Mets took an early four-run lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand salami off erstwhile Indians howitzer Sudden Sam McDowell. The Giants tied the game with a four-run fifth. Leading off the bottom of the fifth came Mays, who’d been 0-1 with a walk and a strikeout when he checked in against Giants reliever Don Carrithers.

Mays hit one about 400 feet over the left field fence to bring the Shea Stadium house to a boil of delight. The fan’s heart prayed it might be an unlikely revival; the analyst’s head knew in its heart that it was only a question of when, not if we’d have to imagine baseball games played somewhere without Mays playing in one of them.

The greats don’t always go gently into that good gray night when they can no longer play the games that made their names. This son of an Alabama industrial league ballplayer  fought a small war in his soul when his age insisted he was no longer able to play the game he loved so dearly at the level on which he’d played it for so many years. Some said he’d become sullen, moody, dismissive in the clubhouse. Some resented him, others felt for him, still others mourned.

The smiles may have become rare now but when they came he still looked like the Say Hey Kid. But, yes, you can look it up: Mays never said, “Say hey!” His early habit of starting greetings to people with “Hey . . . ” inspired beat writers covering the Giants to tab him the Say Hey Kid.)

When he smiled as a Met, you still saw him in his youth, you didn’t see the manchild who was yanked rudely into manhood by a San Francisco that shocked him with skepticism as a New York import rather than a hero of their own. By a San Francisco that also shocked him, for all its reputation otherwise, when his bid to buy a home with his first wife was obstructed long enough by the sting of neighbourhood racism.

But when he accepted the now-inevitable, you cried the tears he fought to suppress when the Mets gave him a Willie Mays night, 25 September 1973, and he addressed the Shea Stadium throng and his pennant-aspiring teammates alike, when Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson beckoned him to a microphone:

I hope that with my farewell tonight, you will understand what I’m going through right now. Something that—I never feel that I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at the kids over here [pointing toward his Mets teammates], the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.

The game couldn’t possibly love Mays back as deeply as he loved the game, but it did its best with what it had. Today Mays celebrates his 90th birthday as the oldest living Hall of Famer, and someone like me who was there for enough of his best on the field and at the plate wishes almost as much as he must at times that we could take him back to one more day in the prime of his youth and turn him loose.

This sexagenarian and a half who saw more of him than he had a right to expect would love to shake his hand and say thank you for the honour of watching him play the game the way he played, but the fear is that “thank you” would be insufficient.

We’d love to remove the glaucoma that’s caused him to stop driving and playing golf, and take him back eyes wide open to make one more rambling catch in the depth of the Polo Grounds or in the eye of the Candlestick Park hurricane. We’d love to take him back to the day he won a second National League Most Valuable Player award eleven years after he won his first; we’d love to show him the record and get him at least two or three other MVPs he should have won.

We’d love to take him back to hit one more bomb off the Warren Spahn who only thought we’d have gotten rid of Mays if Spahn had only struck him out; to have his way with Spahn, Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, and others, or let him have one more crack at the Bob Gibson who more or less owned him in comparison or let him have one more chance in the single most transcendent one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter you could ever hope to see, Willie Mays facing Sandy Koufax.

We’d also love to bring back his beloved Mae Louise, his second wife, who wept with him that farewell night at Shea Stadium, and whose eventual suffering with Alzheimer’s her loving husband didn’t allow to stop him from tending her, caring for her, loving her until she died a little over eight years ago.

But all we can do is say “Happy birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more,” we Americans who’ve never really said goodbye to the man who transcended the game we’ve loved, and who have no known inclination to do so. America without Willie Mays would feel like England without the Beatles: anything except themselves anymore.

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.

Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

Mike McCormick, RIP: Mr. 500’s battles

2020-06-17 MikeMcCormick02

A Comeback Player of the Year-winning perseverance probably helped Mike McCormick win the first National League Cy Young Award in 1967.

Ask who was the first Giant (New York or San Francisco) to win the Cy Young Award and some might answer with either Tim Lincecum (who did win twice) or Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (who didn’t win even once).

Now, drop a hint: He’s the only pitcher in the 500-home run club. OK, we’re getting technical. But Mike McCormick did hit home run number 500 . . . by any major league pitcher.

The bad news is that he also surrendered Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s 500th home run. So put McCormick into the membership-of-one 500-home run club on both sides of the ball.

McCormick was also the first pitcher to win the National League’s Cy Young Award, after the prize was divided for each league following Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s retirement, ending Koufax’s ownership (three in four seasons, the last two back-to-back) of the original major league award.

Until Lincecum won the Cy Young Award back-to-back, McCormick was also the only Giant ever to win the prize.

You’d have spotted McCormick on the road in a heartbeat if you knew some of the foregoing. His personalised license plate read “Mr. 500.” Mr. 500 died at 81 Saturday at his Cornelius, North Carolina home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Native to California, the lefthanded, hard-throwing McCormick had ideas about going to the University of Southern California with his high school all-star teammate Ron Fairly before scouts from all but one major league team began showing him the bonus money in 1956. When the New York Giants showed the 16-year-old $50,000, McCormick didn’t hesitate.

“I realized that fifty thousand dollars will buy me a lot of education,” he once told SF Giants: An Oral History author Mike Mandel, “and it’s an opportunity I may never get again, so I accepted it.”

The bonus rule of the day that required such signings to be kept on major league rosters for two full seasons before they could be farmed out. McCormick spent much of his first two in the Giants bullpen as the team moved from New York to San Francisco. Though numerous writings cite the elder Giants treating him decently, McCormick spent an awful lot of time walking the New York streets alone.

His roommate knew only too well how the kid felt: the late Johnny Antonelli, the first of the bonus babies under that old, silly rule. Antonelli was treated often enough as a pariah during his early years with the Boston Braves–until such veterans as pitcher Johnny Sain parlayed Antonelli’s fat bonus into their own salary hikes, and until Antonelli was drafted into the Army and then traded to the Giants.

In 1959 McCormick stepped forth as the Giants’ third starter. In 1960, he led the National League with a 2.70 earned run average and struck out twice as many as he walked. He fell off somewhat in 1962, but the Giants had reason to believe McCormick and Marichal were about to become the core of a youthful and powerful pitching staff.

They didn’t bargain on one little wrinkle. McCormick threw over a thousand major league innings before his 23rd birthday. At 19 he threw 178.1; at 20, 225.2; at 21, 253; at 22, 250. In 1962, his shoulder went AWOL and his manager Alvin Dark accused him of malingering.

“I couldn’t throw the ball 60 feet without getting tears in my eyes,” he once told Mandel. The pain was so serious McCormick admitted to hoping his catchers wouldn’t throw the ball back after a pitch. He spent the 1962 World Series on the bench and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in the same deal that also made an Oriole out of relief specialist Stu Miller.

With the Orioles McCormick worked as a spot starter in 1963 but was sent to the minors in 1964—his first taste of minor league service. In the interim, Johns Hopkins doctors ruled he’d suffered a torn muscle in his shoulder that may or may not have been his rotator cuff.  Despite pitching well enough on the farm the Orioles traded him to the Washington Senators for another minor leaguer before the 1965 season opened.

Two seasons in Washington enabled McCormick to reinvent himself as a control-oriented pitcher with a lively screwball who looked and worked better than his won-lost records with the Second Nats. (He also took a single cortisone shot each spring from then on, nothing as insane a volume as other pitchers were administered far too often.)

When they traded him to the Giants for outfielder Cap Peterson and pitcher Bob Priddy in December 1966, the Giants hoped McCormick would just help balance the rotation as its only lefthander. They got better than they expected.

The 29-year-old McCormick wasn’t the National League’s most dominant pitcher in 1967 (Hall of Famer Jim Bunning actually was), but getting credit for a league-leading 22 wins and rolling a sub-3.00 ERA, after four seasons in which it looked as though he’d be another shoulder-wrecked casualty of youthful overwork, did him more than a few favours. He had above-league-average run support and his bullpen only blew one of his starts after he left the game.

McCormick probably won his Cy Young Award two ways: those 22 wins and his too-obvious Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning revival. Sometimes voters reward the effort a little more than the actual results. “He left the Giants’ employ five years ago as a fastball pitcher,” wrote then-San Francisco Chronicle writer Ron Fimrite. “He returned this year as a craftsman.”

It would be his final shining moment. In 1968—the year he surrendered Aaron’s 500th— his screwball took a powder and, despite a briefly shining 1969, McCormick’s pitching days were all but finished. Further injuries, further ineffectiveness, bounding from the Giants to the Kansas City Royals to the New York Yankees and back to the Giants, with a few minor league stops along the way.

McCormick found retiring easier said than done when he tried it first in 1972. But he finally called it a career in 1973. “I was a victim of bad pitching,” he once said. “My own.”

He wasn’t exactly left high and dry after baseball. He’d worked as a stockbroker in many offseasons and eventually became a Bay Area office equipment salesman and worked in promotions for the Giants as well. Divorced from his first wife, the father of three re-married happily, had a fourth child, and eventually retired to North Carolina.

“I loved the competing,” he told the Chronicle in 2002. “I’d play every day if I could, and that’s probably part of the reason I hurt my arm. I’d never say no. I’d say, ‘Fine, give me the ball. I’ll go get ’em.’ I loved it.” If only those who coached and managed Mr. 500 knew how to love his arm back.

Money isn’t everything

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The electric horseman: Manager Torey Lovullo (left) welcomes Madison Bumgarner home.

Arizona the region and not necessarily the baseball team said something to Madison Bumgarner for long before he became a Diamondback at last. Enough to compel him to sign a new contract paying him less than he probably could have earned, even though he’s in the re-invention stage of his career. Sometimes there’s no place like a second home, too.

And more often than you think, money isn’t everything.

Time was when you couldn’t have pictured Bumgarner in anything other than the black-and-orange Giants hat and cream fatigues. When you saw the tenacity on the mound that turned him into a postseason myth in those fatigues and assumed, no matter what else came into play around him, that a Giant he was and a Giant he’d stay.

Madison Bumgarner and the Giants? Married even in the free agency era like Hall of Famers George Brett and the Royals, Tony Gwynn and the Padres, Chipper Jones and the Braves, Mariano Rivera and the Yankees, and Mike Schmidt and the Phillies. Not to mention future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers (so far) and Mike Trout and the Angels, plus Yadier Molina and the Cardinals, and David Wright—whom injuries obstructed from consummating a Hall of Fame career—and the Mets. Right?

But maybe you didn’t catch onto Bumgarner and his wife falling in love with something aside when the Giants hit spring training every year in Scottsdale, Arizona. Something like Arizona itself. The place means almost as much to Bumgarner as the heat of baseball competition and the chance for winning that, right now, the Diamondbacks present better than the Giants do.

“First and foremost, winning,” he said when the Diamondbacks introduced him as their newest Snake Tuesday. “That’s what the whole decision is based on, and being with a team that’s my brand of baseball. They play the way I like to play. They just play hard. They’ve got a bunch of grinders on this team, guys that don’t take any pitch off. They’re just a hard-nosed group of guys.”

That’s a terrific reason for a pitcher who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit” to think about a new team, of course. But the lure of Phoenix and the surrounding ambience of Arizona itself was just as powerful, maybe the only presence that could hit Bumgarner for distance and get away with it.

The long-enough-time Giants horse becomes the Diamondbacks’ own Electric Horseman. The Bumgarners imported a few of their horses from Bumgarner’s native North Carolina to Arizona every spring. The Giants training there was so seductive to him that, once he knew the Diamondbacks were more than interested when he finally became a free agent, he was even willing to trade a fan base he came to love as deeply as he loves to compete to surrender.

“It’s tough,” he admitted about leaving them behind. “The fans in that city mean so much to me. I mean, shoot, it’s been ten years there and we won three world championships and have been through a lot together. They’ve always been as good as they could possibly be to me, and I’ll never forget that. I’ll always be thankful for it. That part of it was tough, but coming here, so far, this place has exceeded all my expectations, and like I said, I’m really excited about it.”

The fact that he still gets to have a few skirmishes a year with the Dodgers now that he’s staying in the National League West couldn’t possibly have eluded MadBum, either.

Stephen Strasburg re-signing with the Nationals, like Trout extending for life with the Angels last spring, said essentially that there’s no place like home, even an adopted home. (Strasburg is a native southern Californian; Trout is native to a region near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.) Bumgarner signing with the Snakes says there can be no place like the home you long for.

The Giants could have offered him everything including ownership of McCovey Cove, his own private cable car, free feed for the rest of his life at the Fisherman’s Wharf eatery of his choice, and an on-the-house lease to any piece he chose at Hearst Castle down Highway 1 in San Simeon. Once the Diamondbacks indicated they wanted him, you couldn’t pay him enough not to swap the Bay for the desert.

If you think that’s even just a slight exaggeration, be advised that assorted published reports say the lefthander with the Dreamliner wing span in the split second before he throws to the plate had nine-figure offers to ponder from elsewhere, but he instructed his agent, VC Sports’ Ed Cerulo, that Arizona was “the number one place for me.” And money wasn’t everything.

“We definitely left some money on the table,” the newest Diamondback said when the team introduced him formally Tuesday. “You can say that.” If the published speculation is true and Bumgarner looked at $100 million or better for five years in other offers, he’s left at least $15 million behind overall while agreeing to pitch—according to The Athletic‘s Zach Buchanan—for $6 million in 2020 before hitting $14 million for 2021, $18 million a year in 2022-23, and back to $14 million in 2024.

Essentially, Bumgarner gave the Diamondbacks a new-home discount. No, make it actually: Buchanan reported that $5 million a year is deferred from the 2021-23 annual salaries until the deal is finished. And general manager Mike Hazen—who traded a somewhat more expensive desert lover named Zack Grienke to the Astros in 2019’s marquee trade deadline swap—“plans to use that [2020 payroll] flexibility” to shore up the Diamondbacks for contention.

Buchanan thinks Bumgarner all but willed the new Diamondbacks deal into existence, sort of, but don’t dismiss Hazen—who once said that on the one hand he wasn’t exactly starving for starting pitching but, on the other hand, he wasn’t exactly going to say no to the chance for more—being just a little bit shrewd in his own right, either:

Hazen admitted that adding to his rotation wasn’t his top priority, or really any sort of priority, entering the offseason, but that Bumgarner made it plain early on that he preferred to end up in Arizona. Though Hazen stopped short of saying that affinity for Phoenix prodded him into engaging on the longtime Giants starter, the structure and overall value of Bumgarner’s deal—and Arizona’s lack of rotation holes before offering it—suggest the Diamondbacks were able to capitalize on a specific advantage they had over the 29 other major-league teams.

It also looked like the early speculation that made the Bumgarner deal a possible to-come trade scenario for incumbent starting pitcher Robbie Ray isn’t necessarily so. Bumgarner’s deal flexibility lets the Snakes shore up without having to invent payroll room. They’d rather save the invention for the field if they can help it.

And, more important, Hazen’s willing to gamble that Bumgarner continues re-inventing himself on the mound to the point where he’ll deliver better goods than he could with the Giants since 2017. “We just watched a guy leave here in the middle of last season who reinvented himself every year he was here,” Hazen told the Tuesday presser, referring to Greinke. “We feel like [Bumgarner] has that ability.”

The entertainment possibilities can’t be resisted, either. Assuming the Diamondbacks have a better sense of humour now than they had when the late Kevin Towers was their general manager, don’t be shocked to discover a hitching post outside the players’ entrance at Chase Field. Or, to see Bumgarner galloping up to the park aboard one of his horses, maybe hollering, “Hi yo, Tumbleweed! Away!”

Or (sorry, it’s impossible to resist), to see a staredown and bawl-out with an enemy batter (preferably a Dodger?) who’s just hit one over the right field fence in Chase Field turn into a cheerfully snarky “Go get it out of the pool!” T-shirt.

Life and baseball with Bumgarner could be mad fun for the Diamondbacks, even if Bumgarner isn’t yet ready to resign his Fun Police commission. Almost as much fun and soul embracing as life in Arizona for Lieutenant and Mrs. MadBum themselves.