The end of an error?

Arte Moreno, Mike Trout

Angels owner Arte Moreno and future Hall of Famer Mike Trout were ecstatic when Trout became a wealthy Angel for life. But Moreno’s failure to reconstruct a team his and their greatest player can be proud of will be Moreno’s legacy if he sells the Angels.

For the first time since their team won their only World Series championship thus far, Angel fans have reason to believe there’s light at the end of a painfully long tunnel. Owner Arte Moreno exploring options to sell the franchise must resemble the liberation promise of Dwight Eisenhower telling Allied forces, “You are about to embark on the great crusade”—the night before D-Day.

Just months after Darin Erstad clutched Kenny Lofton’s fly out to center to finish their staggering seven-game 2002 Series conquest, Moreno bought the team from the Disney Corporation. He swelled with pride as the first Mexican-American major league owner. Angel fans swelled likewise over what seemed to be swelling as an era of dominance after what seemed a preceding snakebitten eternity.

It was too good to be true. The team finally shattered a near-forever of extraterrestrial collapses, failures, and tragedies that inspired things from a shortstop driving his bats through a cemetery to purge their evil spirits to a pitcher pondering a sage burning in the clubhouse and a general manager pondering engagement of a priest to exorcise their ballpark.

Now the Angels held the lease to the Promised Land and a new owner with pockets deep enough to rival a team (the Yankees) they beat three out of four in the division series that launched their championship run. Who knew? Two decades later, the Angels are a six-letter synonym for disaster. And Moreno has come to resemble the worst of the man who once owned those division series victims than he or his dwindling allies would ever admit.

From 2003 through 2009, the Angels won the American League West five out of seven tries. The team went from the second-most snakebitten AL franchise to powerhouse in what now seems a blink in time. In thirteen seasons since, the Angels have won the West once but finished the past five of six in fourth place in the five-team division.

Moreno’s Angels have gone from signing and continuing to win with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. to drafting the transcendent Mike Trout and signing the transcendent enough Shohei Ohtani . . . and becoming the team their future Hall of Fame center fielder and must-see-television pitcher/designated hitter can be anything but proud of.

With the uber-loyal Trout locked down in a gigabucks deal that makes him an Angel for life, baseball eyes knowing the Angels need a transfusion as drastically as a leukemia patient saw dealing Ohtani at this year’s trade deadline as the donor who’d deliver particularly rich blood.

“The greatest two-way player in baseball history will be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2023,” writes ESPN’s Buster Olney, “so some other teams communicated to the Angels that they would be open to trades—and willing to include their very best prospects . . . Word quickly reached the interested parties that Arte Moreno, the Angels’ owner, wouldn’t sign off on any Ohtani deal. No one was surprised.”

No one who’s watched the Angels in the Moreno era should have been.

Moreno made his fortune as an advertising executive who turned the Outdoor Systems ad operation into an enterprise that fetched billions when Moreno and his partner sold it to Infinity Broadcasting in 1998. His forte was and remains marketing. It didn’t exactly translate to baseball as opposed to Angel Stadium box office success.

Trout himself says he learned of Moreno exploring a team sale the same way the press did Tuesday, when the Angels made their formal announcement. And he hinted that, however grateful he is for Moreno believing in him and making him rich, it’s not exactly enough anymore. Some things matter more than money to competitors.

“I think once you find out who buys it, whenever that is,” Trout told the Orange County Register, “there are definitely conversations we’re going to have to have. Obviously, I want to win.”

Like many owners who ride the wild surf of their teams’ successes in the beginning, Moreno began to believe in his own baseball genius. Unlike many such owners, Moreno behaved as though his role model for baseball ownership was the 1980s version of George Steinbrenner without half the summary executions and humiliations with which that Steinbrenner tortured Yankee fans for a generation.

The 1980s Steinbrenner loved “name guys who put fannies in the seats.” Moreno has been much like that, particularly when it comes to hitters. So much so that he reeled in one after another name hitter but ignored his team’s real pitching needs, which have been somewhere between drastic and desperate for just about the whole of Trout’s career to date.

Fairness requires we acknowledge that not all those deals for all those hitters who ended up hurting far more than helping the club were bad going in. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Albert Pujols’s legs and feet reduced him to a barely-serviceable DH after that Hall of Famer-in-waiting’s first Angels season. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon were/would be throttled by injuries.

Nor was it Moreno’s fault that two prize pitchers he signed big enough, C.J. Wilson and Zack Cozart, would be hit hard enough with injuries that 1) Wilson would retire after a couple of good if not spectacular Angel seasons; and, 2) Cozart would pitch well for a third of a season before a) a torn labrum fielding a grounder cost him the rest of that season and b) shoulder and neck surgery would cost him 2019—and his career, after he was traded away.

And it’s certainly not as though Moreno anticipated Trout’s first decade worth of such play as to have him baseball’s fifth-best all-time center fielder at this writing, still, would turn into an injury-plagued second decade beginning. Say what you will about the owner’s clumsiness and hubris, but he’s not exactly the cause of Trout’s and others’ time-robbing injuries. Even Moreno isn’t that kind of jinx.

But it was Moreno’s ugly doing to run Hamilton out of town on the slickest rail he could find, after Hamilton incurred a drinking relapse while watching a Super Bowl, manned up and went right to baseball’s drug policy administration with it, but discovered his Angel bosses had different thoughts about manning up.

It was Moreno’s ugly doing, a couple of years before Trout came into his own, to gut the Angels’ scouting system almost completely. “First,” I wrote over three years ago, “they made international scouting director Clay Daniels the scapegoat for bonus skimming shenanigans by some of his subordinates; then, they pinked overall scouting chief Eddie Bane—one of whose last achievements was urging the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place—as the scapegoat for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings and trades.”

Shohei Ohtani, Arte Moreno

The Angel Stadium faithful booed Moreno as he presented Shohei Ohtani his 2021 AL MVP award. Last month, Moreno blocked deals that would have brought serious prospects back for Ohtani (a free agent after next year) and further cemented Moreno’s reputation for putting box office too far above baseball.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous doing to order his then-general manager Tony Reagins—who couldn’t persuade Hall of Famer in waiting Adrian Beltre to sign with the Angels as a free agent—to make a deal for Toronto outfielder/basher Vernon Wells post haste and or else! Then the Angels discovered the hard way that Wells was damaged goods. And the guy they sent the Blue Jays for him, bat-first catcher Mike Napoli, was going on to pitch in big for a pair of World Series teams in Texas and Cleveland and help a Red Sox team win their third Series ring of the century.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous further doing to address the Angels’ dire pitching needs over several years, ignoring quality pitching on the markets in favour of one after another reclamation project that failed in Anaheim but found either revival or retirement elsewhere. Which points to another wounding Moreno flaw. Loving and enriching the name guys putting fannies in the seats is one thing. His budgets otherwise have been tighter than James Brown’s rhythm sections without yielding comparable fruit.

“Like a lot of billionaires before him,” Olney writes, “Moreno seemed to believe he knew more about building a baseball team than the folks he hired. But the strengths that made him an extraordinary success before he bought the Angels became a weakness once he stepped into a sport that has become increasingly competitive.”

Two former Angel GMs (Jerry Dipoto, now with the second-place Mariners; Billy Eppler, now running the National League East-leading Mets) found success enough after they escaped Moreno’s all-thumbs touch. The incumbent, Perry Minasian, likewise hamstrung enough, may or may not survive this season’s disaster.

Olney reminds us that Moreno selling the Angels would be baseball’s biggest sigh of relief since Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers to the Guggenheim Group and the Wilpon family finally elected to sell the Mets to Steve Cohen. The sigh’s breeze will be felt from sea to shining sea.

The timing may be telling enough. Moreno’s attempt to buy Angel Stadium and its surrounding land from Anaheim collapsed three months ago, after Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned amid an FBI investigation into whether Sidhu shared “privileged and confidential information” with the team while they negotiated with the city. (The FBI didn’t accuse Moreno or the Angels of wrongdoing.)

The Angels are also not off the hook just yet over the accidental overdose death of painkiller-addicted pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019. They face two wrongful death lawsuits by Skaggs’s family—one by his parents, the other by his widow—in the wake of former Angels communications director Eric Kay’s conviction in federal court for providing the fentanyl-containing drug that killed the popular lefthander.

It’s worth remembering, too, that only when George Steinbrenner was suspended for his nefarity in digging up dirt on his Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield did the Yankees finally have room to rebuild themselves back to greatness. An end to the Moreno era might well produce likewise for an Angels franchise that’s had only one now-brief spell of greatness even if it has only one World Series trophy to show for it.

“Many executives,” Olney continues, “believe that the Angels have not come close to exploiting the potential of their market. ‘”Because that place might be the best to work in in baseball,’ one official said. ‘The weather is perfect. The conditions are perfect. You can live on the beach. Nobody bothers them. The fans are good’.”

With the best intentions but the worst approaches, Moreno’s Angels ownership made it possible to believe paradise was hell in disguise. By comparison, the freeway traffic chokes that so often stand between the Pacific Ocean and Angel Stadium are walks on the beach.

The All-Star Game was Clayton’s place

Clayton Kershaw, Blake Grice

National League All-Star starter Clayton Kershaw with fan Blake Grice, who touched Kershaw by telling the future Hall of Famer he was meeting him for Grandpa’s sake.

By right, this year’s All-Star Game start for the National League should have belonged to the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara (he leads the Show’s pitchers with 5.3 wins above replacement level and his 1.76 ERA). And if the game were played someplace other than Dodger Stadium, it might have been Alcantara’s to start.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, managing the NL All-Stars as the previous season’s World Series skipper does, had his own idea. Especially since this was the first All-Star Game in Dodger Stadium since Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, and a Dodger icon was having an All-Star worthy season himself.

So Snitker elected to hand the opening ball to Clayton Kershaw. A Hall of Fame lock, approaching the sunset of an off-the-charts career, starting the All-Star Game in his home ballpark. You could imagine Snitker thinking to himself that you couldn’t pay to pre-arrange more serendipitous circumstances. Even with his own All-Star Max Fried among his pitching options.

It was a class gesture by the defending World Series-winning manager. Only one thing could have seen and raised, and that one thing was Kershaw himself. By most reports, one of the first things the 33-year-old lefthander did when Snitker called him to say the opening ball was his was to call Alcantara himself.

“He was awesome about it. I was really thankful about that,” Kershaw said, after the American League hung in for a 3-2 win through no fault of Kershaw’s own.

He let himself take the entire atmopshere in, even foregoing his usual pre-start intensity that compels teammates, coaches, and even his manager Dave Roberts to say nothing much more than “hello” to him. (He even let Roberts share lunch with him on Tuesday.) About the only thing Kershaw did remotely work-related was study some American League scouting reports.

One he didn’t have to study was Shohei Ohtani (Angels), whom Kershaw retired thrice when pitching last Friday. Wary of opening the All-Star Game with one of his signature breaking balls, Kershaw pumped a fastball that doesn’t have its former speed and Ohtani—interviewed before the game, promising to swing on the first pitch—smacked a broken-bat floater up the pipe into short left center for a leadoff single.

Then, having Aaron Judge (Yankees) 1-2, Kershaw suddenly couldn’t think of what to throw next. Some described him as buying time when he lobbed a throw to first. He bought more than he bargained for. He’d caught Ohtani having a snooze. Ohtani had drifted away from the pad and Kershaw’s lob turned into the first All-Star pickoff in fourteen years.

The two-way Angel could only laugh. Kershaw could only grin after first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals) tagged Ohtani out. Dodger Stadium went nuclear. Kershaw finished striking Judge out, walked Rafael Devers (Red Sox), and lured Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. (Blue Jays) into an inning-ending ground out. The man who wanted to take it all in from start to finish then ducked out of sight and to a press podium under the ballpark.

Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw

All they could do was grin and laugh after Kershaw (right) picked Othani off first while working to Yankee bombardier Aaron Judge.

While the National League took an early 2-0 lead with Mookie Betts (Dodgers) singling home Ronald Acuña, Jr. (Braves; leadoff double off AL starter Shane McLanahan [Rays]) and—after a double play grounder by Manny Machado (Padres)—Goldschmidt hammering one into the left center field bleachers, Kershaw finished his press conference with a ten year old boy raising a hand.

“What’s up, dude?” Kershaw asked pleasantly.

The boy introduced himself as Blake Grice and told Kershaw how much his late grandfather loved both him and the Dodgers’ long-enough-retired broadcast deity Vin Scully and had wanted to meet them both. (His family had passes courtesy of MLB itself.) “So this moment is important to me,” the boy continued, “because I’m meeting you for him.”

The father of four children himself, Kershaw couldn’t resist when he heard that and saw the boy’s tears of likely gratitude for getting to do something for his grandpa in the presence of a Dodger icon who’s been the closest the Dodgers have had to longtime eminence Sandy Koufax.

“Come here, dude,” Kershaw beckoned. He hugged the boy, gave him a clap on the back, and said, “Great to meet you. Thanks for telling me. That took a lot of courage to tell me that. Your grandad sounded like an awesome guy.” When Kershaw asked Blake if he had a parent with him, the boy’s father held up his cell phone. Kershaw beckoned him forward and he snapped a photo of the pitcher and the boy speaking for Grandpa.

It was more than enough to atone for the prayers thousands of fans in the ballpark and perhaps the millions watching on television must have had that, despite going down to its ninth straight All-Star loss and 21st such loss in 25 such games, the National League didn’t tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s because the latest to emerge from baseball’s apparent laboratory of mad science would have had the game decided in favour of the Home Run Derby winner’s league if nine full innings ended in a dead heat. (On Tuesday it would have been the National League, thanks to Juan Soto [Nationals] winning the Derby.) Thank God and His servants Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that that didn’t come to pass.

The AL overthrew the NL lead with one out in the fourth when Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees) batted with Jose Ramírez [Guardians] aboard (leadoff single) and took Tony Gonsolin (Dodgers) far into the left center field bleachers. Byron Buxton (Twins) following at once found himself ahead in the count 2-1 when he caught hold of a Gonsolin fastball up and drilled it into the left field bleachers. Just like that, Gonsolin had surrendered 882 feet worth of home run travel.

Buxton admired game MVP Stanton’s blast from the on-deck circle and thought to himself, “I ain’t matching that.” Until he damn near did. “I don’t even know if you can put it in words how hard [Stanton] hit the baseball,” Buxton said after the game.

It made all the difference when the game otherwise became a pitching duel of sorts between eleven American League pitchers (including Framber Valdez [Astros] getting credit for the “win” despite striking nobody out in his inning’s work) and nine National League pitchers including the hapless Gonsolin tagged for the loss and, officially, a blown save.

For just the sixth time in four decades an All-Star pitcher got to start the game in his home ballpark. And for a few shining moments on the mound, Kershaw gave his home park’s audience a thrill topped only by the one he gave a ten-year-old boy looking to do his grandpa in the Elysian Fields a favour that couldn’t be done while the older man still lived on earth.

None of the highest highs or the comparatively few lows he’s endured in fifteen major league seasons have let Kershaw forget that baseball at core is about rooting, caring, loving. He had the parallel chance to remind a Dodger Stadium audience about it and to affirm it for a ten-year-old boy. He didn’t flinch at either opportunity.

Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

Commissioner Rob Manfred with White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks before last year’s Field of Dreams game. (The Athletic.)

Having a read of ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr.’s profile of commissioner Rob Manfred, I was almost convinced that maybe, just maybe, there really was more to Manfred than met the eye. Or, more than what comes forth in his stiff presence and often clumsy remarks.

Just maybe, the man isn’t the baseball-hating or baseball-illiterate Rube Goldberg-like abecedarian the caricatures so often portray. He did, after all, grow up a Yankee fan in upstate New York and can say proudly enough that he’s the only baseball commissioner ever who played Little League baseball. “All glove, no bat,” he remembers of being a Little League infielder.

My parents received a set of classic Revere copper-bottom cookware as a wedding present eight years before Manfred was born. (I still remember the fragrance of that special powder used to clean the copper bottoms, too.) Who knew Manfred (three years my junior) was the son of Revere’s production supervisor at their home plant in Rome, New York? An hour’s drive from Cooperstown, as it happens.

Born in 1958, Manfred took in his first live major league game at Yankee Stadium with his sports-obssessed father, sitting between the plate and first base on an Old Timers’ Day. Come game time, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle crashed a pair of home runs and the Yankees beat the Twins, 3-2. When he finally became the game’s commissioner, he handed his father the first baseball with his stamp upon it.

“This is really an unbelievable thing,” Manfred, Sr. told his son. “I can’t say I disagree,” Manfred, Jr. told Van Natta.

A couple of hundred fathoms down, though, Van Natta noted that “more than once” Manfred told him what few baseball commissioners have dared to admit, that being the buffer absorbing the heat that should go to his bosses, the owners, is part of his job. Even if it’s about as pleasant as your private parts being caught in the vacuum cleaner’s handle.

And then it came.

“Every time it’s me, it ain’t one of those 30 guys—that’s good,” Van Natta quoted Manfred as saying. “Look, who the hell am I? I don’t have $2 billion invested in a team. I’m just a guy trying to do a job. I mean it. [The owners] deserve that layer. I believe they deserve that layer of protection. I’m the face of the game, for good or for bad.”

Mr. Manfred, unless it’s to boo and hiss your heads off over this or that piece of mischief, you may rest assured that no baseball fan anywhere in this country is paying his or her hard-earned money to head for the ballpark to see you or your bosses.

But I’m going to do you a small favour, as if you know me from the greenest bat boy on any professional baseball team. I’m going to introduce you to the true faces of the game. The ones whom those fans do pay their hard-earned money to see at the ballpark regardless of the machinations and deceptions of your bosses and theirs.

Mr. Manfred, meet Mike Trout. This is the guy you blamed once upon a time for not being baseball’s face, based upon his committing no crime more grave than letting his play and his clubhouse presence and his agreeability with fans before and after games speak for themselves, with no jive about the magnitude of being him.

Meet Shohei Ohtani. This is the two-way star who lights up the joint just by flashing that thousand-watt grin of his, never mind when he strikes thirteen out on the mound one night and belts baseballs onto the Van Allen Belt the very next. Between himself and Mr. Trout, you should be asking what on earth is wrong with the Angels that they still can’t find quality pitching enough to keep them in a race after they start in one but sputter unconscionably.

Meet Aaron Judge. This is the Leaning Tower of River Avenue who sends baseballs into the Delta Quadrant one moment and then, when made aware, goes out of his way to meet a Canadian kid to whom he’s number one among baseball men and who was handed one of his mammoth home run balls by an adult fan who knew the boy wanted nothing more than to catch one Judge hit out.

Meet Joey Votto. This is the future Hall of Fame first baseman who got himself tossed from a game early last year, but—after he learned his ejection broke the heart of a little California girl to whom he’s a hero above heroes—sent her a ball with his handwritten apology and autograph on it, prompting his team to drop game tickets and a little extra swag upon her the very next day.

Meet Bryce Harper. This is the guy who never apologised for being on board with letting the kids play. The guy now on the injured list with a thumb fracture and surgery to repair it after getting hit by a pitch thrown with one of the baseballs you and yours still can’t see fit to manufacture uniformly and with allowance for fairness on both sides of it, fairness for the pitchers and for the hitters alike.

Meet Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. One is the son of a Hall of Famer who did last season what even his old man never did: led his league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, and led the entire Show in total bases. The other is the son of a respected major league slugger, has quite a lethal bat in his own right when his swing is right, and currently leads his league in trips to the plate. Together they’ve put some zip back into the Blue Jays.

Meet Oneil Cruz. The bat has yet to come to full life but the footwork, the glove, the throwing arm, have shown so far that you can be as tall as Frank Howard, J.R. Richard, and Randy Johnson and still play shortstop as though the position was created for you and not the Little Rascals in the first place. They’re falling in love with him in Pittsburgh, which needs all the love it can get, but they ought to fall in love with him all around the Show—except when he’s going so deep into the hole grabbing a grounder or a hopper that an enemy batter loses his lunch when he’s had a base hit stolen from him.

Meet Clayton Kershaw. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s a Hall of Fame lock as maybe the best pitcher of his generation. He’s still a quality pitcher and a class act. They still buy tickets on the road when they know he’s going to take the ball for the Dodgers. He’s faced his baseball aging curve with grace under pressure. And, for good measure, he’s the one active player who was seen fit to be part of the ceremony when the Dodgers unveiled that statue of their Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax this month, and you know (well, you damn well should know) what a class act Koufax was on the mound and has been in the decades since off it.

(You’re not still P.O.ed that Koufax waxed your Yankees’ tails twice while his Dodgers swept them in the 1963 World Series when you were seven, are you?)

Meet Justin Verlander. Missed a year plus recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.23 ERA and a 3.53 fielding-independent pitching rate so far this season. For any pitcher that’d be a remarkable return so far. For a future Hall of Famer who’s still suiting up at Jack Benny’s age (that’s a joke, son), it’s off the chart so far.

Meet Verlander’s 25-year-old Astros teammate, Yordan Álvarez. He’s leading the entire Show with his .667 slugging percentage, his 1.081 OPS, and his 206 OPS+. If there’s one untainted Astro who’s must-see viewing whenever he checks in at the plate, it’s him.

Meet Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The left side of the Red Sox infield is a big reason why the Olde Towne Team yanked themselves back up from the netherworld into second place in that rough and tumble American League East. Did I mention that Devers currently leads the entire Show with 177 total bases?

Meet José Ramírez. The Guardians’ third baseman is giving Devers a run for his money in the All-Star balloting that closes today. That thumb injury has put a crimp into his bat for now, and it’s had its role in the Guardians’ sudden deflation at the plate, but this guy just may be the face of his franchise right now. He ought to be one of the faces of this game.

Meet Mark Appel. This is the guy who went from number one in the draft to injuries as well as pressures and even to an exit from the game only to try giving it one more try—and finally coming up with the Phillies, nine years after that draft, and tossing a scoreless inning . . . at age 30. That’s as feel good a story as it gets for the oldest former number one to make his Show debut, no matter what happens with the rest of what remains of Appel’s career. They don’t all go to hell and back.

Those are only some of baseball’s faces, Mr. Commissioner. They’re the ones the fans want to see and pay through the nose to see. Despite your tinkerings. Despite your often erroneous readings of the room. Despite your inability or unwillingness to demand the same accountability of umpires that you do of players, coaches, and managers.

Despite your inability to let your professed deep love of the game come through without tripping over itself because, as an improvisor, well, if you were a musician the consensus would be that Miles Davis you ain’t.

Smarts in Houston, suicide in Cleveland

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani took perfection into the sixth, where a bunt couldn’t do what a subsequent base hit did . . .

Shohei Ohtani didn’t just flirt with perfection Wednesday, he almost seduced it. A twelve-punchout performance on the mound; a two-run double to finish the first-inning carnage against Astros starter Jake Odorizzi; a perfect game broken with one out in the seventh. And his Angels in sole possession of the American League West’s penthouse. For now.

But right before Astros catcher Jason Castro fisted a base hit over second base into short center with one out in the Houston sixth, their own second baseman Niko Goodrum tried to break the would-be perfecto in a manner that usually brings the wrath of the Sacred Unwritten Rules chauvinists down upon the miscreant. On 0-1 leading the inning off, Goodrum tried to bunt an Ohtani slider up the third base line.

This time, the chauvinists didn’t rain acid down upon Goodrum. For one thing, the Angels put an overshift on against the lefthanded-hitting Goodrum. Just why the Angels thought a .133/.133/.200 slash line on the season to date required an overshift escapes for the moment.

But Goodrum did exactly the right thing receiving so much free, delicious real estate upon which to hit. His team down six, and knowing he wouldn’t be wasting an out with a bunt, Goodrum did absolutely nothing wrong sizing the scenario up and dropping a bunt toward that free territory—except the ball bounding over the chalk into foul territory halfway up the third base line.

Which was the spot to where Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon ran from his positioning adjacent to second base and grabbed the ball just in case, with Ohtani also bounding over from the mound. Back on the mound, Ohtani and Goodrum wrestled to a 2-2 count before Goodrum swung and missed at a nasty curve ball hitting the outer edge of the zone.

Maybe if Goodrum had pushed a successful bunt up the line and landed on first base practically on the house, the SUR chauvinists would have gone nuclear. Maybe. It’s become a little more acceptable according to the SURs to drop a bunt if the other guys are silly enough to think an overshift is a good way to keep a batter below the proverbial Mendoza Line from breaking it up the old fashioned way.

Come to think of it, Ohtani himself put on a demonstration of one of the only other times it’s wise to bunt—if you think you can get a base hit out of it without a full shift against you. With one out and nobody on in the Angels’ sixth, against Astros reliever Cristian Javier, the lefthanded-hitting Ohtani faced a slight overshift, slight enough to move Astros third baseman Alex Bregman to a more standard shortstop positioning but still leaving him room to move if he wanted to drop one.

On 1-2 Ohtani chopped a beauty toward the third base side of the mound and blasted out of the box. Javier pounced as best he could but he threw a rising sailer over and past the upstretched mitt of leaping Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. It was an exercise in futility, considering Ohtani would have beaten a cleaner throw by about a step on the play, and considering the Angels stranded him on first for the inning.

Goodrum and Javier have a teammate who understands, ahem, perfectly about perfecto-breaking bunts. Justin Verlander had it happen to him, while still pitching for the Tigers on 21 June 2017. He took a perfect game bid against the Mariners into the sixth, with the Tigers up 4-0 to that point.

With one out, Seattle’s swift center fielder Jarrod Dyson squared, bunted one between the mound and first base, and ran himself into a base hit. Unlike Goodrum’s attempt Wednesday, Dyson’s successful bunt that day kicked off a three-run Mariners inning that pushed Verlander out of the game. It also preceded a four-run Mariners seventh at the expenses of Tigers relievers Shane Greene and Alex Wilson.

That was the part that roiled Verlander far more than any perfecto-breaking bunt ever could. “It was a perfect bunt,” Verlander said of Dyson. “That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.”

Goodrum played smart baseball, even if his bunt bid bounded foul before he finally struck out swinging. Even if the Angels finished what they started, a 6-0 shutout to take two of three from the Astros in Houston after losing three of four at Angel Stadium to open the season. At least neither manager, Dusty Baker (Astros) nor Joe Maddon (Angels), fell asleep at the proverbial switch Wednesday.

Dallas Keuchel

. . . but Keuchel looks to be praying for mercy amidst an unconscionable nine-run second/ten-run total beating before he was lifted too little/too late.

That dishonour belonged to White Sox manager Tony La Russa in Cleveland earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader. Despite a well-enough rested bullpen thanks to a week-opening pair of rainouts, a pen that hadn’t exactly been overworked in a preceding set against the Rays, either, La Russa inexplicably left his veteran starter Dallas Keuchel in to take an early ten-run beating on a day Keuchel’s stuff didn’t exist from the outset.

Keuchel had enough trouble trying to shake off a first inning during which a pair of White Sox defensive miscues helped cost him a run before he surrendered a hit. He never got out of the second alive: a leadoff throwing error; four straight singles two of which pushed runs home with the bases loaded; a grand slam; three straight singles more, a wild pitch advancing the first of those Guardians to second and the third sending another run home; a run-scoring ground ball turned into another White Sox error; and yet another RBI single.

Finally, La Russa got Keuchel out of there and brought in Tanner Banks. He got a prompt step-and-throw double play at first and a ground out right back to the box for the side.

Joe and Jane Fan can bleat all they want, as one or two I saw aboard social media did, that sometimes you just have to take one for the team, sometimes you just have to try to  “save” your bullpen even if it means getting murdered, and it’s just one April loss against a long season to come, and the goal is to win two of three, innit?

“I’m 100% certain LaRussa knew Keuchel didn’t have it,” said one such fan, in fact. “Sometimes the decision to leave guys in or take them out is more about 162 games than 1 game. As is the case here. He was hoping Keuchel could survive that inning and make it thru an inning or two more.”

A Hall of Fame manager, even coming out of retirement for one more turn, knows he should be thinking of every game until or unless his team is eliminated mathematically from a pennant race. He should know well enough when his starter doesn’t have it. Knowing that, and knowing he had a reasonably rested bullpen, just how does a conscientious manager not get that poor starter the hell out of there before the game goes from a small leak to a flood?

Keuchel came into the game throwing little more than meatballs and matzo balls as it was, before Jose Ramirez—the Guardians third baseman flush with a yummy new contract extension—stood in in that second inning with the bases loaded, three Guard runs in, nobody out yet, and sent a hanging 1-1 cutter over the left field fence.

If La Russa “knew” Keuchel didn’t have it before that, it shouldn’t have been allowed to go there in the first place. Especially if he was going to go to Banks to clean up the mess. Banks hadn’t pitched since the previous Sunday. He also hadn’t surrendered an earned run in his three previous relief gigs. And what did he do when La Russa brought him in?

After getting that step-and-throw double play to end the second inning before the Guards could have made the case against their human rights violations any worse, Banks threw three more hitless, shutout innings, before Matt Foster and Anderson Severino finished with only one further Guards run to come—when Steven Kwan singled Myles Straw home off Severino in the ninth.

There was a time when La Russa would never have let a game get that far out of hand that soon if his starter didn’t have it going in. That’s part of how La Russa became a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings in the first place. “The manager didn’t get them ready to play,” La Russa said of his team after that blowout loss, and before the White Sox lost the nightcap, 2-1. “I take the heat for that.”

Lucky for him and them that there is still a long season to play yet.

Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.