Bruce Sutter, RIP: Like skipping a rock

Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter with the Cardinals en route their 1982 World Series winner.

“It’s unhittable,” said Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams about Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter’s split-finger fastball, “unless he hangs it, and he never does. It’s worse than trying to hit a knuckleball.” Another Hall of Fame manager, Whitey Herzog, has said that Sutter would never have become injured if he’d remained a Cardinal.

Sutter, who died of cancer Thursday at 69, became a Cardinal in the first place, in 1980, because the Cubs with whom he’d arisen to become a groundbreaking relief pitcher in the first place got caught flatfoot, when the combination of salary arbitration and free agency smashed into a grave if unintended error by longtime owner Phil Wrigley.

The elder Wrigley’s mistake, according to Peter Golenbock in Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs, was leaving half his estate to his wife, Helen, whose own death meant the Wrigley estate being taxed heavily twice and leaving son William III, who’d inherited the Cubs, strapped for running the team until or unless he could sell it.

In due course, Bill Wrigley’s financial picture would wreak havoc enough on the Cubs. Sutter himself would remember (to Golenbock) the Cubs having a good team or two followed by a disgruntled team full of veterans who came over from established winners and not liking the Cubs’ post-’79 decline.

About 1979, too, the husky righthander remembered, “That was the year . . . we lost a game to the [Phillies], 23-22. You’re going to ask who gave up the last run, aren’t you? It was a Mike Schmidt home run—off me.” Hitting his second bomb of the day, the Hall of Fame third baseman conked one off Sutter and up the left center field bleachers with two out in the top of the ninth. The Cubs—whose own bombardier Dave Kingman hit three out (one onto a Waveland Avenue porch while he was at it)—went down in order in the bottom against former Big Red Machine relief star Rawly Eastwick.

Sutter learned the split-finger fastball from a minor league coach named Fred Martin and rode it to a 2.33 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 3.42 strikeout-to-walk rate, and a 1.05 walks/hits per inning pitched rate as a Cub. He won the National League’s Cy Young Award for 1979 while he was at it. Then he won a $700,000 salary for 1980 in arbitration.

The only relief pitcher never to have started a major league game when inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, Sutter found himself one of the 1980 Cubs’ few leading lights, with a 2.64 ERA and a league-leading 28 saves. He also found himself a Cardinal after that season, after the Cubs under Wrigley’s financial distresses couldn’t pull the trigger on a longer-term deal with deferrable money.

Enter Herzog, who’d only coveted Sutter for half the time Sutter pitched for the Cubs. Only too acutely aware of what happens to even great teams without shutdown relief—he’d been purged as the Royals’ manager after front office disputes trying to get them better relief pitching, before All-Star reliever Dan Quisenberry came into his own—the White Rat, doubling as general manager, brought Sutter to St. Louis for Leon Durham and Ken Reitz plus a spare part named Ty Waller.

Sutter delivered in St. Louis—he nailed down Game Seven of the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series triumph— in large part because Herzog and his then-pitching coach Mike Roarke knew even more than the Cubs how to manage a pitcher whose money pitch just so happened to put arms and shoulders in danger if not handled properly. “[N]obody knew [Sutter’s] motion better than Mike Roarke,”  Herzog wrote in You’re Missin’ a Great Game:

I knew Bruce had to come back behind his ear, then straight over the top, with his delivery. He threw that nasty split-finger pitch, which made the ball look like a rock skipping on water—tough to pick up, let alone hit—but it puts a violent torque on the arm. When you think of the guys who live by that pitch . . . how many had a couple of great years, then dropped off the map?

. . . Well . . . Roarke and I were watching Sutter throw in [spring training] and I saw he was coming kind of three-quarters, bringing the ball out to the side and across. I said, “Holy moly, Mike, he’s all out of whack!” We got right on his ass about it, and he straightened it out. No harm, No foul. Bruce saved a lot of games for us; we saved him more damage than anybody knows.

You know what? If he’d stayed with the Cardinals, Bruce would never have gotten hurt.

Sutter left the Cardinals as a free agent after the 1984 season. Owner Gussie Busch decided to share the top decision making with two Anheuser-Busch leaders, Fred Kuhlmann and Lou Sussman, and they weren’t exactly as amenable to Herzog as Busch himself was, according to Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis.

Herzog swore the pair “jerked” Sutter around over a no-trade clause; second baseman Tommy Herr swore Sussman angered Sutter during their talks. “Bruce wanted to stay in St. Louis,” remembered Herr.

I don’t think the money was that big of a deal. It became more of a personality conflict. Lou Sussman was handling the negotiations for the Cardinals. At some point, Lou rubbed Bruce the wrong way, and Bruce just said, “The heck with it. I’m going somewhere else.” Bruce did it just to spite Lou. And that was unfortunate, because we felt Bruce was just such a weapon for us.

Bruce Sutter

Before the beard: a portrait of the artist as a young Cub . . .

Braves owner Ted Turner showed Sutter a pile of money.` (Six years, $10 million, guaranteed contract.) But Turner couldn’t show Sutter a staff that knew how to manage his workload and keep him from letting his delivery and his bullpen warmups (he was warmed up far less judiciously in Atlanta than in St. Louis) wreck his shoulder at last.

He suffered inflammation in the final third of August 1985 plus a pinched nerve, the injury that almost kept him buried in the minors in the beginning, before Martin taught him the splitter. He would never be the same pitcher again. Had he not fallen under the Braves’ then-dubious care, Sutter’s percentage of inherited runs to score would have ended below 30 percent, splendid work for any relief pitcher.

He may have seen his career collapse in Atlanta, but the Pennsylvania native found Georgia life agreeable enough to stay there with his wife, Jayme, and their three sons. He was the only player inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 by way of the writers’ vote, an appropriate position considering how he’d helped to change his baseball craft.

His Hall of Fame teammate Ozzie Smith and Hall of Fame Reds catcher Johnny Bench needled him wearing fake, long gray beards as they escorted him to the podium. Sutter made hitters fear the beard from the bullpen long before anyone heard of one-time Giants bullpen stopper Brian Wilson, but he struggled to stay composed addressing and thanking his wife during his acceptance speech.

We were together through the minor leagues, through the major leagues, and now the Hall of Fame. I love you very much, I appreciate everything you have done and continue to do. I wouldn’t be here without you. I know we have some challenges to face in our future, but we’ll do ’em as we always have, together.

Their marriage was a love that endured almost as long as his love for baseball. So did several friendships Sutter made during his career, such as now-Hall of Fame teammate Jim Kaat, who ended his career as a Cardinal while Sutter anchored their bullpen.

“I feel like a brother passed away,” Kaat told a reporter. “I knew Bruce deeper than just about any other teammate. We spent a lot of time together, and as happens when your careers end, you go your separate ways. But we stayed in touch and considered each other great friends.”

The particular challenge didn’t scare Sutter. Whether throwing that rock-skipping splitter past fellow Hall of Famers out of the bullpen (let the record show that except for two homers each, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell, to name two, couldn’t hit him with a warehouse door), or making a half-century marriage raising three sons and becoming beloved grandparents to six in an often self-immolating world, there was no challenge to which Sutter seemed  allergic.

“Heaven needed a big time save,” tweeted longtime baseball analyst Dinn Mann. “Marvelous pitcher, even better person,” tweeted USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale. Baseball will miss him on earth only slightly less than his family will.

Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa has announced his retirement. His pacemaker put paid to his second term on the White Sox bridge. Will that term tarnish his legacy?

With Tony La Russa’s second retirement now a done deal, retrospectives of both the career that put him in the Hall of Fame and the second act that tarnished his reputation only somewhat abound. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to atone for firing La Russa the first time around, in 1986, but it’s fair to say what began with intrigue devolved to sorrow despite a successful 2021 but enhanced by a 2022 disaster.

I wrote of La Russa’s earliest mishaps in his second act last year. I republish much of that essay here, with a few adjustments befitting the present occasion, and wish him well as he steps away for the second and final time. 

No baseball manager is a perfect specimen, whether he lucks into the job, performs it long enough and well enough, or gets himself elected to the Hall of Fame because of his actual or reputed job performance. Many have been the managers whose reputations for genius are out of proportion to their actual performances.

Even the certified geniuses made their mistakes. Maybe none was more truly egregious than Casey Stengel’s failure to set up his rotation so his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford could start three 1960 World Series games instead of two. Unless it was Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark, with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game.

Maybe it was Dick Williams, placing public perception ahead of baseball to start gassed ace Jim Lonborg instead of a better-rested arm in Game Seven, 1967 World Series. Unless it was Gene Mauch, the Little General panicking down the 1964 stretch (with the Phillies, using his two best pitchers on too-short rest and blowing a pennant he had in the bank), or in Game Five (with the Angels) when he was an out away from winning the 1986 American League Championship Series.

Regardless of his foibles since what proved his first retirement, Tony La Russa still has an outsize reputation as one of the most deft ever to hold the manager’s job. He’s been called a genius. He’s been called one of the smartest baseball men of the last half-century. They point to his Hall of Fame plaque, the 33 years he managed prior to returning to the White Sox last season, eleven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series rings.

Those plus his longtime reputation for volumnious pre- and post-game thinking and analysis (observed perhaps most deeply in a chapter of George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball) still allow La Russa absolution from his most egregious errors.

He threw his early 2021 White Sox star Yermin Mercedes under the proverbial bus, and maybe even invited the Twins to retaliate the following day, after Mercedes swung on 3-0 (violating La Russa’s fealty to the Sacred Unwritten Rules) in the eighth inning of a White Sox blowout, and hit a home run . . . off a middle infielder sent to the mound.

La Russa is still considered one of the smartest of the Smart Guys whatever they think of Mercedes’s homer or La Russa’s definition of “sportsmanship.” They don’t always stop to ponder what La Russa thought of the Twins’s “sportsmanship” in giving up the ghost with two innings left to close even a fat deficit and sending a position player to the mound with real pitching still available to them.

Perhaps they haven’t read Keith Law, writing in The Inside Game in 2020: “Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” There’s a case to be made that La Russa’s reputation, and maybe even his Hall of Fame case, is a little more than half a product of such outcome bias.

It’s hard to argue against a manager with three decades plus on his resume plus those division titles, pennants, and three Series rings. But maybe it’s easy to forget or dismiss how often La Russa either outsmarted or short-sighted himself when the games meant the absolute most.

“Tony, stop thinking,” Thomas Boswell wrote, after La Russa’s Athletics were swept out of a 1990 Series they could have tied in four and gone on to win, instead of being swept by a band of Reds upstarts who didn’t know the meaning of the words “shrink under pressure.”

If the A’s had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they’d have been better. The usher would have brought in [Hall of Fame reliever Dennis] Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Two with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Four with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why did he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn’t and twice the A’s lost. This time, the goat’s horns stop at the top.

Outcome bias didn’t help La Russa then, a year after he’d won his first Series. But it sure helped him after a 2011 Series he won despite himself. Because smart baseball men don’t do even half of what La Russa did to make life that much tougher for his Cardinals than it should have been.

Smart baseball men don’t take the bats out of the hands of future Hall of Famers with Game One tied at zero. La Russa took it out of Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols’s hands by ordering Jon Jay to sacrifice Rafael Furcal, guaranteeing the Rangers wouldn’t let Pujols swing even with a swimming pool noodle, walking him on the house. (The next batter got lured into dialing Area Code 5-4-3.)

Smart baseball men don’t lift better clutch hitters (especially those shaking out as Series MVPs) with late single-run leads for defensive replacements who might have to try a lot harder to do the later clutch hitting with insurance runs to be cashed in—and fail. La Russa did that lifting David Freese (after he scored a single tiebreaking run) for Daniel Descalso (grounded out with two in the eighth) in Game Two.

Smart baseball men don’t balk when their closers surrender two soft hits in the Game Two ninth with a groin-hobbled bopper due up and a double play possibility very distinct. La Russa balked. He lifted Jason Motte for Arthur Rhodes with Josh Hamilton coming up. Rhodes gave the lead away and Lance Lynn gave the game away—on back-to-back sacrifice flies.

Smart baseball men don’t look past three powerfully viable and available bullpen options with their teams down a mere 1-0 and reach for . . . a known mop-up man, with the opposition’s hottest Series bat due up. La Russa learned or re-learned the hard way in Game Four. Mike Napoli thanked him for offering Mitchell Boggs as the sacrificial lamb—Napoli hit the first pitch for a three-run homer. (Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0.)

Smart baseball men don’t snooze for even a moment and forget to flash the red light when their batter (Pujols, in this case) signals their baserunner Allen Craig to try for a steal in the Game Five seventh. Craig got arrested by half a mile, inviting another free pass to the bopper and—following a base hit setting up second and third when the batter advances on the throw to third—another free pass and an inning-ending fly out.

Smart baseball men also don’t let a little (ok, a lot of) crowd noise interfere with getting the pen men up that he wants to get up in the bottom of the Game Five eighth—after ordering one relief pitcher tough on righthanded hitters to put a righthanded hitter aboard on the house, instead of getting the second out—then try sneaking a lefthanded pen man past a righthanded danger who sneaks what proves a game-winning two-run double.

They don’t try to make the Case of the Tangled Telephone out of it, either, after they end up bringing in the wrong man when nobody claimed to hear them ordering the guy they really wanted to get ready. (La Russa wanted Motte but got Lynn. Oops.)

Neither do smart baseball men drain their benches in the eighth of even a do-or-die Game Six. La Russa did. It compelled his Cardinals to perform their still-mythologised ninth and tenth inning feats of down-to-their-final-strike derring-do without a safety net beneath them. Freese took one and all off the hook with his eleventh-inning, full-count, game-winning, Richter scale-busting leadoff bomb.

The Cardinals won that Series despite their skipper. (And, because they pinned the Rangers in Game Seven, after allowing a 2-0 first-inning lead on back-to-back RBI doubles. They made it impossible for La Russa to overthink/mis-think/mal-think again after they tied in the bottom of the first and scored four more from there.) La Russa was thatclose to blowing a Series his Rangers counterpart sometimes seemed to do everything within reach to hand him.

Fairness: La Russa did plenty right and smart winning those division titles. He did plenty right and smart winning the 2006 Series in five. (It didn’t hurt that he knew what he had turning his resident pest/Series MVP David Eckstein loose.) That was two years after nobody could have stopped the Red Sox steamroller from plowing the Cardinals in four, following their self-yank back from the dead to take the last four ALCS games from the Empire Emeritus.

But the 2011 Series got La Russa compared in the long term to . . . Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager who won the 2001 World Series in spite of his own mistakes, too. Batting his worst on-base percentage man leadoff; ordering bunts ahead of and thus neutralising his best power threat; overworking and misusing his tough but sensitive closer, even throwing him out a second straight night after the lad threw 61 relief pitches the night before. (You’re still surprised Scott Brosius faced a gassed Byung-Hyun Kim and tied Game Five with a home run?)

Lucky for Brenly that he had one Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy Johnson) and another should-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher (Curt Schilling, his own worst enemy) to bail him out. Brenly hasn’t managed again since the Diamondbacks fired him during a 2004 skid to the bottom of the National League West.

When La Russa retired three days after that 2011 Series ended, he didn’t announce it until after the Cardinals’ championship parade and after he called a meeting with his players. “Some grown men cried,” he said of the meeting, adding, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.”

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings kept him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. New York City mayoral legend Fiorello H. La Guardia liked to say, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.” La Russa could say the same thing, plausibly, about a fair number of his own mistakes.

That outcome bias probably kept La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for the time being, despite his early tactical mistakes. And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident left that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.)

What made La Russa a Hall of Famer—his long-time, widely-analysed, widely-discussed ability to think ahead, to know each man on his roster and handle them as individuals without losing the team, his ability to sense and out-think his managerial opponent—was almost eroded by what ESPN’s Buster Olney calls his “own surprising decisions—including, on multiple occasions, to order intentional walks to hitters despite the fact that White Sox pitchers were ahead in the count—fuel[ing] the narrative that La Russa was the wrong manager for the team. La Russa strongly defended his choices, sometimes sounding defensive, but even some of his peers found the two-strike intentional walks indefensible.”

Last year’s White Sox scored a division title under La Russa’s hand. This year’s White Sox were done in by a slow start and rash of injuries neither of which were their skipper’s fault, but two-strike free passes were only a portion of the in-game La Russa decisions that fell under fire.

This was far, far from the years during which La Russa’s handle on matchups, on the thinkings of opposing managers, on handling a bullpen reasonably, made him a Hall of Fame skipper even with the aforesaid head-scratchers. The years that made him the third-winningest-ever major league manager and a four-time Manager of the Year winner.

Issues with his pacemaker finally took La Russa out of the game again at August’s end. But La Russa seems to know his day is done at last. (Formerly, he’d hoped to manage through the end of his contract at next season’s end.) His statement announcing his retirement isolates it:

Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses. In the major leagues, you either do or you don’t. Explanations come across as excuses. Respect and trust demand accountability, and during my managerial career, I understood that the ultimate responsibility for each minus belongs to the manager. I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.

As daring as it was for La Russa to come out of retirement for a final try, never mind that nobody in baseball but Reinsdorf clamoured for it, it’s admirable that he leaves holding himself to the very accountability he describes. We can think of times and places when it wasn’t so, of course. But maybe La Russa, too, isn’t quite too old to learn.

What really kept Maris from Cooperstown?

Roger Maris

Roger Maris in the Yankee clubhouse, 30 September 1961—the day before he swung his way into history.

Bad enough when I spot those in the baseball press I don’t know personally but perpetuate mythology over factuality. But now my editor at the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, a man who’s become a friend in the bargain, does it.

Pondering Aaron Judge’s choice of number 99 on his Yankee uniform, Dan Schlossberg writes in today’s HTP, “Perhaps he knew he would become twice as good as [Roger] Maris? Certainly, Maris never chased a Triple Crown. In fact, his .260 lifetime batting average is the leading negative whenever his Hall of Fame candidacy is considered.”

Not even close, my good friend.

Mike Schmidt hit only seven points higher than Maris lifetime and that didn’t stop his election to the Hall of Fame. OK, that’s a ringer. Schmidt is the arguable greatest all-around third baseman ever to play the game. But his lifetime .267 hitting average didn’t exactly block him from Cooperstown, either.

There are lots of Hall of Fame players who hit in the .260-.269 range lifetime. Those modest hitting averages didn’t block them, either. They had other factors in their favour. And so might have Roger Maris except for one pair of problems.

Problem one: Maris was so badly seared by his pursuit and breaking of ruthsrecord in 1961 that there were times too many writers of the time believed he began to shy away from perpetuating the greatness that was his for the taking. Never permitted to enjoy truly the blessings of having cracked baseball’s single most prestigious record, Maris looked from there like a man to whom greatness was an intruder, not a companion.

Problem two: After a solid 1962 season, the injury bug began to hit Maris. Back trouble  limited him to ninety games in 1963. He had a bounceback 1964, with 26 home runs, despite missing twenty games with assorted leg injuries. Then came 1965 and the injury that should have proved scandalous for the manner in which the Yankees handled it.

First, Maris suffered a pulled hamstring that kept him out 26 games after the first three weeks of the 1965 season. Then, come 20 June, Maris jammed his hand against the plate umpire’s shin guard while sliding home. He tried playing a few after that, but the injury was severe enough to take him out of the second game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics and out of the Yankee lineup after 28 June.

Finally the hand injury was diagnosed as bone chips for which he underwent offseason surgery. It turned out to be far worse. The hand continued to bother him as he started 1966. At last he complained about the problem, and all that did was crank the New York sports press that never truly accepted him and the Yankees themselves into harrumphing that he had no business complaining.

The hand injury turned out to have been a misdiagnosed fracture. Whatever remained of his once-formidable home run power was gone. So was Maris’s desire to continue playing. He’d played through enough injuries as it was and felt unappreciated for the effort.  The Yankees aged profoundly during and after 1964, the final pennant winner of the old Yankee guard, but the Yankees needed the Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford box office more than they needed them properly healthy, so it seemed in retrospect.

The writers chose Maris as the primary culprit, often accusing him of loafing, as some teammates did, both of whose sides were unaware of the true severity of the hand injury. If you’re looking for evidence as to why other players become either paranoid or hypochondriacal about their physical health, Maris was key evidence on their behalf.

“For those who had refused to appreciate Maris in the early 1960s,” wrote his Society for American Baseball Research biographer Bill Pruden, “his injury-plagued performance in the middle part of the decade, coming when the Yankees as a team were faltering, only seemed to confirm their views.”

For a man who had never placed any individual accomplishment above winning, it was a difficult time. Indeed, tired of battling injuries, of trying to play, even when hurt, but never seeming to be appreciated for the effort regardless, Maris gave much thought to retirement. However, before that decision could be made, the struggling Yankees traded Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals for third baseman Charley Smith.

Maris continued to play a solid right field in St. Louis for two consecutive pennant winners and their 1967 World Series champions (he also had the best Series of his career individually), before retiring at last and accepting Cardinal owner Gussie Busch’s offer to operate a Budweiser beer distributorship in southern Florida. He throve in the business with his brother Rudy as his partner, until he succumbed to lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

Injuries, not indifference or loafing, put paid to Maris’s Hall of Fame case before he had the chance to solidify one following his Hall-caliber 1960-62 seasons. Meanwhile, my friend Schlossberg went on to write, “Maris batted just .269 [in 1961] against expansion-diluted pitching.” Halt right there, Daniel.

The fear of diluted pitching when the American League expanded for the first time was probably one of the factors animating commissioner Ford Frick’s scurrilous conflict-of-interest bid to deny anyone, Maris or otherwise, legitimacy in pursuing ruthsrecord in 1961. Well, now. Would you like to know how “diluted” the league’s pitching actually became?

I know I sure did. And I found out. Pay very close attention to the following table, showing the league’s 1960 and 1961 earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching rates, walks and hits per inning pitched, strikeouts per nine innings, and walks per nine.

AL Pitching ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9
1960 3.87 4.00 1.37 4.9 3.6
1961 4.53 4.09 1.38 5.2 3.7

There was a 66 point jump in the league’s ERA for 1961, well enough shy of a full run’s difference. But look further and closer. That’s not the place you end pondering the difference in the league’s pitching from ’60 to ’61, it’s the place where you only begin.

The league’s FIP—measuring that for which pitchers alone are responsible (you can call it their ERA without their fielders’ performances factored in) remained practically the same, unless you think a mere nine-point rise is equivalent to scaling the Empire State Building.

AL pitchers also averaged a lousy single point more walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) in ’61 than in ’60. They struck out practically the same average per nine innings and walked almost exactly the same per nine. If that’s drastically “diluted” pitching, I’m a dead bolt.

If anything, Maris had a tougher time hitting 61 in ’61 than the Sacred Babe had in 1927. I’ve noted it before but it’s worth nothing again here: The advent of relief pitching above and beyond being the final repose of pitchers who couldn’t cut it as starters had a big say in it.

Ruth in ’27 faced 67 pitchers all season long, while Maris in ’61 faced 101. Ruth got to face pitchers a third time around in games 35 percent of the time in ’27; Maris enjoyed that privilege only 30 percent. He faced more fresh arms in games than Ruth did.

Did I mention again, too, that this year Aaron Judge faced 232 pitchers by the end of the doubleheader during which he hit his 55th home run of the year? That he faced pitchers a third time around in only seventeen percent of his games as of the end of that twin bill?

The myth of diluted AL pitching in 1961 isn’t quite as grave as the truly unconscionable myth of The Asterisk, of course. But it has in common with that disgrace that it never truly existed in the first place.

You’re welcome, Dan.

Paid in full to Club 700

Albert Pujols

Could you blame Albert Pujols for spreading his wings with the biggest grin on the planet after number 700 flew out?

It took Albert Pujols 98 home runs before he finally caught hold of one in Dodger Stadium the first time, off a sophomore Dodger import from Japan named Kaz Ishii. Ishii spent four years in the Show before returning to pitch again in the Japanese leagues until age 39. He retired as he began, the walk (almost six per nine innings) being his wounding flaw.

Pujols at age 39 had 656 major league home runs on his resume and would meet and pass Hall of Famer Willie Mays on the all-time bomb list, before his injury-laden decline as an Angel finally finished with a brief but memorable tenure in a Dodger uniform last year. He couldn’t possibly imagine then that his final major league wish, a 700th home run, might come in the Dodgers’ venerable venue.

But the designated hitter, the only slot available to enable Pujols to play major league baseball one more season, finally became universal this year. And the Cardinals, the team with whom Pujols arose, starred, and became a baseball immortal in the first place, were more than willing to bring La Máquina home to try. Not just because they respected what he did, but because they genuinely believed in whatever he had left in the tank.

He wasn’t going to win a National League home run title. There wasn’t that much left of his power stroke. But whatever he had to give, the NL Central leaders would accept gladly. It turned out he had just enough to give until Friday night. Not just some key hits and key big blows, but history. And key stretch drive wins.

Pujols had only six home runs before the All-Star break but thirteen from then until he checked in at the plate the first time Friday night. All of a sudden, it didn’t seem just a dream that he could get to within two freeway exits worth of sight of 700.

The Cardinals couldn’t have scripted this one better if they had Paddy Chayevsky, Budd Schulberg, and Ring Lardner, Jr. collaborating on it.

In the top of a scoreless third, with Tommy Edman aboard on a one-out walk, Pujols fell behind to his lefthanded former Angel teammate Andrew Heaney 1-2 before catching hold of a fastball practically down the pipe and drove it almost to the rear end of the left center field bleachers. Appreciating his effort in his brief time in their team’s silks, the Dodger Stadium crowd exploded.

When the Cardinals put first and second aboard after two quick outs in the top of the next inning, with Pujols about to check in at the plate, Dodger manager Dave Roberts decided not to let Pujols get a second shot at making Heaney’s night any more miserable. Roberts brought righthander Phil Bickford in. With La Máquina sitting one blast from history, the manager wasn’t going to let him have a lefthanded treat.

He was going to make Pujols earn it the hard way. Except that Bickford has a 4.26 fielding-independent pitching rate this year, and Pujols lifetime has been almost as solid against righthanders (.295/.372/.532) as he’s been against lefthanders (.301/.381/.574). On the other hand, Pujols against righthanders this year has looked like the old man he is in baseball terms.

Roberts had to know Pujols’s .209/.297/.384 against the starboard siders made it the safest bet on the planet to bring in a Bickford. When Bickford had Pujols even at 1-1, Roberts could be forgiven if he signed in contentment knowing history wasn’t going to be made on his dollar. Then Bickford threw a third straight slider just a shade down and a shade in.

Pujols may be a living ghost of his old self no matter how much history he chased this year, but he still knows what he’s doing at the plate. The mind and the eye remain intact even if the body might still be hurling obscenities toward him. He swung at Bickford’s gift right as it knocked on his door.

This one only cleared about four rows of the same left center field bleachers. But it didn’t matter how far it traveled, just that it traveled to the right place in the first place. He joined the 700 Club at last. And there wasn’t a teammate, opponent, or fan in the house who’d have denied him his right to spread his wings and grin all the way around the bases.

As he’d done so often during the peak of his Hall of Fame-in-waiting career, Pujols singlehandedly handed the Cardinals a lead, 5-0 if you’re scoring at home, and it turned into an 11-0 demolition of the ogres of the NL West.

The fun continued in the top of the fifth when—abetted by Juan Yepez with one out reaching second on a Max Muncy throwing error across the infield—Dylan Carlson smacked an RBI double, and Lars (Sometimes You Feel Like a) Nootbaar followed Carlson with a two-run homer a third of the way up the right field bleachers.

Yepez thanked the Dodgers for that fifth-inning present with a one-out blast of his own over the left field fence in the seventh, after which Carlson doubled again but Nootbaar had to settle for sending Carlson home with a mere single. Then, come the top of the eighth, Alec Burleson pinch-hitting for Pujols thanked La Máquina for the memories with a leadoff blast off Dodger reliever Hanser Alberto to finish the Cardinals’ demolition.

But this was still Pujols’s night. Lots of former teammates and opponents and watchers have been remembering some of his biggest blasts of the past.

Mike Trout, his longtime Angel teammate and a future Hall of Famer himself, can’t forget how Pujols joined the 600 Club. “The grand slam, when he hit 600,” says Trout.

Just the situation. I mean it was a big spot in the game, and everyone was thinking the same thing. “This is for 600. This is gonna be sick right here.” And then he hit it. He loves the moment. And that’s the thing—people kept asking me, “Hey, do you think he’s going to get it [700]?” For sure. The way Albert prepares himself—he doesn’t change his approach, doesn’t try to hit a homer. He’s just trying to put a good swing on the ball. That’s big.

Manny Machado was a year away from first wearing an Oriole uniform when he saw his signature Pujols attack: Game Three, 2011 World Series, when Pujols wrecked the Rangers with three homers—all starting in the sixth inning. “That,” the Padres’ gazillion-dollar third baseman says, “was just incredible.”

I mean, he was not missing. You could throw him whatever and he was going to hit it. You could even throw the rosin bag and he was probably going to hit it out. Just that sweet swing. Even all his homers, going back—his first home run. I just admire that swing, how smooth it is, how long it stays in the path. It’s impressive.

Just don’t ask former Astros reliever Brad Lidge. When the Astros were still in the National League and playing the Cardinals for a trip to the 2005 World Series, Lidge got the worst possible taste of Pujols. It only proved to delay the Astros’ sweep out of the Series by that year’s White Sox, but Lidge still can’t forget.

“I made a mistake,” Lidge says now of the hanging ninth-inning slider Pujols demolished so thoroughly that only the roof braces of Minute Maid Park kept the ball from landing in the streets behind the building. “And it wasn’t super-surprising that he didn’t make a mistake.”

With a little help from his Astros pitching staffmate Roy Oswalt, Lidge by then knew that Pujols had evolved into a Ph.D. student of the game and its pitchers. “All of a sudden,” he says, “t started to feel like he knew what you were going to throw before you did. You felt like you had to be perfect . . . He had so much plate coverage, whether you’re throwing a 97 mph fastball or a slider down and away, you had to be perfect.”

“My game plan for him,” says Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, who once threw Professor Pujols a repeat changeup and saw it fly onto Chicago’s Waveland Avenue, “was to give up a single or less.”

But that was then. This is now. The greats normally approach such milestones in decline as it is. Pujols’s injury-smashed decline was a shock long before he rejoined the Cardinals. His Angel tenure started well enough. Then the body regions below his hips began attacking him like fresh meat under attack from the wolves past which he once hit lamb chops almost at will.

None of that matters now. Baseball players don’t always get to make their dreams, never mind their final wishes, come true. The only thing better than the 700 Club for Pujols now would be the Cardinals going all the way to the World Series and coming out with what would be his third lifetime Series ring. Just ask La Máquina himself.

“[D]on’t get me wrong,” he begins. “I know what my place is in this game.”

But since Day One, when I made my debut, it was never about numbers, it was never about chasing numbers. It was always about winning championships and trying to get better in this game. And I had so many people that taught me the right way early in my career, and that’s how I’ve carried myself for 22 years that I’ve been in the big leagues. That’s why I really don’t focus on the numbers. I will one day, but not right now.

“He talks the talk and walks the walk with saying those things,” says his Cardinals teammate Nolan Arenado. “And I really believe him.”

On Friday night, making history with a two-bomb evening, Pujols made believers all over again as he joined the club heretofore populated only by Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron, and Babe Ruth. Even for one night, nobody could take that resurrected belief away.

“What have you gotten yourself into?”

Keith Hernandez

An on-base machine at the plate, Keith Hernandez’s real baseball genius was revolutionising first base as a command infield position.

Almost four decades ago, the Mets’ general manager Frank Cashen thought he’d laid the foundation for the Taj Mahal. The Cardinals’ transcendent but troubled first baseman, Keith Hernandez, thought the roof fell in on him.

A mainstay of a defending world champion, who’d driven Cashen to drink almost every time he played against the Mets, was about to become a Met.

From the moment a previous Met regime traded Hall of Famer Tom Seaver because he seemed a little too uppity about how the team should spend their money (a few parts upon himself as baseball’s best pitcher; a lot more parts on the free agency market and replenishing the farm), the Mets reverted to their original losing ways. And they weren’t half as funny about it.

It was one thing for the best first baseman in baseball to run afoul of his manager Whitey Herzog because a small morass of off-field issues sent him into the cocaine netherworld and, in 1983, into a few lazy baseball habits. It was something else to be sent to what was then, still, the National League’s version of the seventh circle of hell.

Herzog and Hernandez weren’t exactly Damon and Pythias. The White Rat was earthily thoughtful; Mex was cerebral. Where Herzog preferred the George Brett prototype right down to the pinch of Skoal in that Hall of Famer’s cheek, Hernandez smoked cigarettes and engaged Civil War period fiction and the New York Times crossword puzzle, for openers.

The thinking person’s sport had an actual thinking person in its ranks, who just so happened to be an on-base machine and a first base revolutionary. Herzog forgot the thinking side of himself and also listened to the whispers about Hernandez’s cocaine dalliance. (At the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, Hernandez would call cocaine “the devil on earth.”)

Herzog asked Cashen if he’d be willing to deal talented reliever Neil Allen. “[Allen’s] well-known drinking problem,” Jeff Pearlman noted in The Bad Guys Won, “didn’t seem to bother Herzog.” When Cashen said he hadn’t thought about it, Herzog replied, “If you think about Neil Allen and another pitcher, we’ll give you Keith Hernandez.”

To St. Louis, which roasted the Cardinals for years to follow over the trade, it was rather like Capitol Records sending Frank Sinatra to Dot Records in exchange for two spare session musicians and a tape operator. (“He came right into our kitchen and rattled our pans for about four years,” Herzog has written, “burned the Cardinals with a lot of big hits.)

Only Hernandez was probably less amused than the Chairman of the Board would have been. The first call he made when told he was about to become a Met was to his agent, Jack Childers. Hernandez wanted to know if he could afford to retire and live off his deferred income. Childers counseled his client not to even think about it. Hernandez resigned himself. Oops.

His Met tenure began with a classic, almost Metsian screwup. According to Pearlman, he caught a flight to Montreal, where the Mets were playing the Expos. The Mets’ media relations man, Jay Horwitz, sent a limousine to meet Hernandez. The limo went to the wrong gate, compelling Hernandez to catch a cab.

“When he first got there, I remember looking across the clubhouse at him,” says Ed Lynch, a pitcher on the 1983 Mets. “He was unpacking his bags, I think we’re in Montreal, and I’m thinking, ‘Boy, you poor son of a bitch. What have you gotten yourself into?’”

It took a little romancing and a lot of tour guidance from popular veteran Mets pinch hitter Rusty Staub to convince Hernandez he hadn’t exactly been sentenced to Sing-Sing. Staub showed Hernandez enough of the city’s best—the theater, the museums, the eateries, the libraries, the clubs, the lovely ladies on every street corner, seemingly—to convince the first baseman, “I’ll make a brand-new start of it, New York, New York.”

Hernandez became about 3,200 degrees more. After playing out the 1983 string, Hernandez was convinced enough to sign a five-year deal with the Mets. In his six full seaons as a Met—five solid, the sixth showing the toll the injuries and age took at last—the Mets won more games than any team in the entire Show.

As a Met, he posted a 131 OPS+ upon a slash line of .301/.388/.437, an OPS of .825, and a Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .530. Lifetime, his RBA is .528.

Among postwar, post-integration, night ball-era Hall of Fame first basemen it would put Hernandez two points above Tony Perez and in seventh place. But being an on-base machine was only part of his presence. He remains the single most run-preventive first baseman in baseball history. (+120 total zone runs above league average.) It isn’t close. (Should-be Hall of Famer Todd Helton is a distance +107 in second place.)

He wasn’t the lumbering, big-bopping first base cliche. He played the position as though a third or second baseman, not just going for the tough plays and not just his expertise at neutralising bunts, but making himself the on-field infield commander.

“Not only he would tell you what you need to do,” says Lynch, “but he’s going to tell you how the pitchers going to try to prevent you from doing it. So he gave you not only the result, but he gave you the plan to get to that result.”

“The knowledge of the league, which he’d been in for a while, the knowledge of the other hitters, the willingness to know about the other manager’s strategy, the nuances of the game, the minutiae of who’s hitting, who’s running, their tendencies—it all added up to a wealth of knowledge over there that you could draw on,” says Bob Ojeda, the best lefthanded pitcher on the World Series-winning 1986 Mets. “And I did draw on it at times, no question.”

Keith Hernandez

Now a respected, popular longtime Mets game broadcaster, Keith Hernandez points up to where his 17 hangs as a newly-retired Met uniform number.

It was hardly Hernandez’s fault that the Mets climbed the National League East ladder, reached the Promised Land, and finished his tenure with only one World Series ring and two pennants to show for a run of first or second place division finishes.

It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea to fool with Dwight Gooden’s repertoire in spring 1986, a foolery that would turn him in due course from beyond this earth to journeyman pitcher while he battled with his own drug addiction. It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Darryl Strawberry should spend most of the rest of his Mets life at war with himself, with substance abuse, and with his own team time and again.

It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Cashen should break the team apart little by little, or that he and Hall of Famer Gary Carter (Winning brings opposites together, Hernandez once said of Carter, an intelligent catcher but not in Hernandez’s cerebral league) should hit decline phases accelerated to somewhat warp speed by injuries atop their years of hard labour on the field.

Hernandez might have begun giving the Mets “a swashbuckling, devil-may-care, damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead image,” as Lynch phrases it, an image New York loved but the rest of the league didn’t, but it didn’t exactly mean he wanted swashbuckling confused with recklessness as happened with too many of those 1986 Mets.

It took the Mets a very long time to come to terms with both the best and the most controversial team in their long, surrealistic history. The beginnings of those terms included bringing Hernandez into the broadcast booth, first as a part-time colour commentator, then a full-time partner to longtime mainstay Gary Cohen plus Hernandez’s 1980s Mets teammate, equally cerebral pitcher Ron Darling.

“You do the pitching, I do the hitting,” Hernandez told Darling when completing the trio.

The most vivid continuation of that coming to terms was the Mets retiring Hernandez’s uniform number 17 Saturday, before the Mets beat the Marlins in ten innings, 5-4, in a fashion that must have reminded Hernandez of his own good old days, almost: a two-out double sending the inning-opening zombie runner home; and, a throwing error on a dying ball on the front infield grass allowing the winning run to score.

“He asked for No. 37; that was his number with the Cardinals,” Lynch remembers of Hernandez’s original arrival. “And they told him no. He looked at them funny. And they said, ‘That’s Casey Stengel’s number.’ So now he comes over, he takes 17, and that’s getting retired also.”

“I never dreamed I’d be here this long, in the organization,” the Young Perfesser told a packed Citi Field Saturday. “I am absolutely humbled and proud that my number will be up in the rafters for eternity.” With the Ol’ Perfesser and The Franchise, among others.

Perhaps another humbling day will come Hernandez’s way, in due course, if the newly-aligned Contemporary Baseball Era Committee sees fit to give his career the thorough review it merits and gives first base’s greatest defender ever and one of its steadiest on-base machines a berth in the Hall of Fame.

“I got traded to a last-place team and no one at the ballpark,” Hernandez says. “And it turned out to be such a life-changing event for me in such a positive way.” For him and, for a few glorious if not always controversy-free seasons, New York itself.