Yadier Molina, talking through his sombrero

Does Molina (here getting an attaboy from Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty) also think the annual Gold Glove should be a lifetime achievement award?

You thought Yadier Molina was too intelligent to play a race card? You didn’t hear him when the Gold Glove finalists were announced and the longtime St. Louis Cardinals anchor didn’t make the cut.

“Respect to all the finalists in the 2020 National League catcher!” Molina began a furious Instagram post during the week. “Now . . . I see an injustice to those who decide or not . . . I don’t know if it’s @mlb or whoever but it’s clearly that they don’t want this Boricua Jibarito to draw with the great @johnnybench_5 . . . or me at 38 years I’m still the best.. ask every catcher in the mlb and they’ll tell you!!!”

The problems with Molina’s fury only begin with his apparent forgetfulness that another Boricua Jibarito—English translation: Puerto Rican little yokel—hold the major league record for catchers with thirteen Gold Gloves. You may have seen his Hall of Fame plaque: Ivan Rodriguez.

Molina has nine Gloves. Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has a National League record ten. If there’s a move among Gold Glove voters to deny a Puerto Rican little yokel a tenth Glove, it’s not as apparent as Molina thinks.

Under normal circumstances, the Gold Gloves would be chosen by about 75 percent managers and coaches and 25 percent statistics, surface and sabermetric alike. In pandemic-pressed 2020, the Gloves candidates were chosen by statistics (surface and sabermetric alike) alone. And they say Molina at 38 years old isn’t the best behind the plate this year, and maybe anymore.

Specifically, Rawlings, who present the Gloves every year, elected to use strictly the Society for American Baseball Research’s Defensive Index. This has only been a decade or so overdue, unless you’d like to continue seeing Gold Glove winners chosen past their primes on reputation more than real results or by highlight reels over hard season-long truth by managers and coaches with familiarity bias.

The National League’s Gold Glove catching finalists are Tucker Barnhart (Cincinnati Reds), Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs), and Jacob Stallings (Pittsburgh Pirates). Molina thinks he’s still better than the rest of the National League pack when he didn’t even make the top five Glove candidates in a year the numbers alone picked the contenders.

The numbers say Molina committed five errors in 42 games, the five being his most in a season since 2017, a year in which he won the Glove. They also say three passed balls in 42 games equaled his full-season total from 2014, another year in which he won the Glove. They say Molina tied for the fifth-most wild pitches escaping him this year with fourteen and finished seventh in the league in defensive runs saved.

He may take this as adding insult to injury, but Molina was easier for baserunners to commit crime against than Austin Nola (Philadelphia Phillies) and Austin Hedges (Cleveland Indians) this year. He hasn’t been as high as second among arresting officers behind the plate since 2010, and he hasn’t been as high as the number four handcuff clapper since 2017.

What Molina seems to have wanted—especially becoming a free agent hoping for one more, maybe two-year payday—is a Lifetime Achievement Gold Glove. As if there haven’t been too many Gold Gloves awarded on just that basis when all else was said and done. At this writing he’s the number one active catcher for games caught, catching putouts, catching assists, total zone runs for catchers, and fielding percentage.

Handling pitching staffs? The pitchers who’ve thrown to Molina lifetime have a 3.68 overall ERA teaming with him. That puts him ahead of Rodriguez; the pitchers who threw to I-Rod lifetime had a 4.68 overall ERA teaming with him. It puts him behind freshly-minted Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (3.65), Bench (3.52), Berra (3.41), and Carter (3.31). Essentially, he’s handled pitching staffs the way you should expect a Hall of Fame catcher to handle them.

Unfortunately for him, the Gold Glove doesn’t reward lifetime achievement. That’s what the Hall of Fame is for. (For all we know, maybe Rawlings strikes a Palladium Glove for lifetime achievement one of these days.) And Molina knows exactly what we know, that his Hall of Fame case rests entirely on his work behind the plate. As a hitter, Pudge, Simba, the Little General, Yogi, and The Kid he ain’t and never was. (And why didn’t someone think to give Bench his own nickname and not make him share with Gene Mauch?)

If Molina wants to play another couple of years and a team thinks he can do so—most likely as a solid veteran presence and the shepherd of its next generation behind the plate—let him have that one more payday. But when he says the Gold Glove people just don’t want some Puerto Rican little yokel meeting the great Bench while some other Puerto Rican little yokel has more Gold Gloves in his trophy case than even the great Bench, Molina is talking through his sombrero.

Bob Gibson, RIP: Disabusing prejudice and pretense

Bob Gibson gets the better of fellow Hall of Famer Al Kaline during the 1968 World Series.

How terrible is this? Bad enough for the St. Louis Cardinals that were sent home for the winter by the San Diego Padres Friday night, when  former Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side all called in the top of the ninth Friday night.

Worse: The greatest pitcher in Cardinals history lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at 84 concurrently, on the anniversary of setting a record striking out seventeen Detroit Tigers in Game One of the 1968 World Series. Losing a Bob Gibson who was at least as good a man as he was a pitcher on such an anniversary stings even deeper.

Calling Gibson a tenacious, relentless, intimidating competitor on the mound is probably the first way he’s remembered, complete with the gags and exaggerations that have long since been both cliche and deceptive. Remembering that he was an intelligent man who was his own kind of sensitive and suffered fools no more happily than plate-crowding batters should be equal.

We remember the peculiar elegance of Gibson on the mound even past the severity of his otherwise handsome face as he began a pitch. It only began with the full back-swing of his long arms starting his windup and the leg kick that bent and lifted his knee even with the lettering on the front of his uniform.

There was that half turn that showed half his number 45 on his back, the slight incline of his body as he actually began to throw, then, especially, that whip-like arm movement down and across his body, glove arm extending up behind his shoulder like an eagle’s wing in flight.

There were his legs looking a split second as though they’d give way until he swung his right leg over and across his left, almost in a football punter’s kick, landing to keep him from sprawling to the ground as he finished his delivery in three steps but still keeping him erect enough to field a ball batted back toward the mound if need be.

Like his fellow Hall of Famers and contemporaries Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, you could remove Gibson’s uniform and still identify him immediately, even from the highest seat in the park. A notoriously swift worker on the mound, Gibson at full delivery speed often seemed like an armada of men aiming to paralyse hitters and a solitary man rushing to catch the last train before he’d be late for work.

“Bob Gibson pitches,” Vin Scully once said of him, “as though he’s double-parked.”

Said his longtime Cardinals catcher and life-long friend Tim McCarver, who learned how to tease for positive effect from men like Gibson himself, “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He’s always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Gibson did pitch 53 lifetime shutouts in 482 lifetime starts, and he did lead the National League three times including with thirteen during his out-of-the-box 1968, the year of his spectacular 1.12 earned run average. In the Year of the Pitcher, that was both a staggering achievement and only somewhat flukish. (His lifetime ERA pre-1968: 3.12, His lifetime ERA post-1968: 3.01.)

“You can’t say it was flukish, although some people have said that,” Gibson told Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell, during Angell’s visit to his home outside Omaha that produced a remarkable 1980 New Yorker profile. (It’s been republished twice, in Late Innings and Game Time.) “Just say it was totally unusual. Everything I threw that year seemed to go where I wanted it. Everything was down, all year.”

Baseball imposed a few rule changes including a lower mound after that Year of the Pitcher. “The next year,” Gibson admitted, “was a terrific struggle. I had a good season, but I never worked so hard in my life, because so many of my breaking pitches were up. I’ll never know, but I doubt seriously I’d have had another 1.12 ERA, even if they’d left the mound where it was. I’d like to think I’d really perfected my pitching to that point, but I’ll never know.”

Off the mound, Gibson was both a gentle, friendly needler on the days he didn’t pitch and a self-aware man who found some of the gentlest and wittiest ways of deflating racial prejudice when it confronted him directly or made itself manifest in his presence.

“In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest,” he wrote in his memoir, Stranger to the Game. He chose to fight it on human terms and not on the terms of the rioter, the vandal, or the vigilante. Coming to the Cardinals as they were still feeling racial growing pains as the 1950s crossed into the 1960s, Gibson and his fellow black teammates chose to tease and teach at once, not inflame.

McCarver, the son of a Memphis police officer, once got a very solid taste of such teaching, as described in David Halberstam’s October 1964. “Hey, Timmy,” Gibson hailed, “do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson drew in Curt Flood as his straight man, played the role of the white boy, then shook hands with Flood—and immediately looked at his hand a moment before wiping it on his pants.

“You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. McCarver thought twice and realised Gibson was right, and admitted as much. That routine and other subtleties were Gibson’s ways of encouraging whites willing to know him as a man to be better friends as well as teammates. “For him,” Halberstam wrote, “friendship was based not just on ability, it was based on what kind of a man a teammate was; how he treated others, what he really believed in.”

He also knew how to disabuse fans of their pretenses. Asked once why he disdained the idea of himself or any baseball player as a role model to a fan’s son, Gibson answered the inquiring father, “Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid.”

Gibson gave Angell another, more telling take on such disabuses. Fans, he told Angell, “always know so much, to hear them tell it, and they always think baseball is so easy.”

You hear them say, “Oh, I was a pretty good ballplayer myself back when I was in school, but I got this injury . . . ” Some cab driver gave me that one day, and I said, “Oh, really? That’s funny, because when I was young I really wanted to be a cab driver, only I had this little problem with my eyes, so I never made it.” He thought I was serious. It went right over his head.

It was remarkable in its own right that Gibson could use an eyesight problem in a joke aimed at deflating an annoying fan. Considering his fatherless boyhood of too much illness too often—rickets, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma (one of Gibson’s few known commercial product endorsements was for Primatene Mist)—the wonder may be that he lived to pitch his way into the Hall of Fame at all, never mind life as full a life as he lived until pancreatic cancer struck him in 2019.

“Bob Gibson is a nice man, but he’s quiet,” McCarver told Angell for that 1980 profile, “Distance.”

He doesn’t enjoy small talk. He doesn’t like to waste his time with anything that’s weak or offhand. He wants to deal from strength all the time . . . He’s very proud, you know, and he had a ghetto upbringing, so you could understand why he was so sensitive to bigotry . . . Any relationship you get into with Bob is going to be intense. He’s a strong man with strong feelings.

Bob Gibson and his wife, Wendy, at the unveiling of a statue honouring Gibson in his native Omaha.

Gibson retired to his native Omaha, where he helped start a successful bank that did most of its business in Omaha’s black community but was governed on his impetus by an inter-racial board of directors. He also opened a successful restaurant (Gibby’s) near his alma mater, Creighton University, which hired inter-racial workers and managers.

His enduring—and very exaggerated—image as a hard-throwing kind of baseball samurai who treated the game as total warfare was belied when Angell asked him about late-career changes to his approach. “Pitching,” Gibson replied, “is about ninety per cent thinking.”

I threw hard when I was younger, but I didn’t know how to get people out. I don’t care how hard you throw, somebody’s going to hit it if you don’t think out there. It’s not all that detailed—you don’t think three or four pitches ahead. But one pitch might set up the next two you throw—it depends on what the guy does with it. You know. If he misses a fastball by a foot, then he’ll see another one. If he fouls it off or just misses it, he’ll probably get a breaking ball next. It isn’t exactly scientific, or anything.

Still, Gibson’s image as an executioner has never really dispelled. In the hour after his death, a social media friend of mine referenced what he thought was Gibson once having said he’d knock his own grandmother down at the plate. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron actually said Gibson would do just that. Another Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn, once did say, unapologetically, that he would do just that.

Gibson might talk about batters he’d knocked down and why. He also once admitted his competitive spirit included making sure his daughters as little children could still never beat Daddy playing tic-tac-toe. But never even in jest did he suggest he’d knock one of his children, one of his wives (his first marriage produced two of his daughters; his second marriage produced his third and endured until his death), his mother, his grandmother, or any other relation.

Angell once called Gibson a compulsive truth teller. Such a man would understand the one-time lament of one-time Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their histrionic press coverage in the 1960s: “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?”

I finally lost my own patience with the exaggerations when I saw a forum entry insisting flatly that anyone hitting a home run off Gibson (he surrendered 257 lifetime and averaged surrendering 17 a year) was guaranteed to take one in the ribs, the back, the shoulder, or any other extremity Gibson could reach.

Aside from having seen Gibson pitch often enough when I was growing up to know how exaggerated the image was, it was very much like a trans-decade version of the classic party telephone game—where you whisper something to the person next to you and, by the time it comes back to you from around the circle of friends, it’s nowhere near what you said in the first place.

So I looked it up. In a seventeen-season career, Bob Gibson only ever hit one batter the absolute next time up after he hit one out off him—Hall of Famer Duke Snider, in April 1961. More to the point: Thirty-six times in 528 major league games, Gibson surrendered at least one home run and hit at least one batter in the same game, and only three times was it the same batter who hit one out against him. He also retired with 102 lifetime hit batsmen. Placing him at number 85 on the all-time plunk list.

For the record, the three bombers who got drilled after homering off Gibson—not their next times up but in much later plate appearances in those same games—were Willie Crawford, Ron Fairly, and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. He also surrendered home runs after hitting batters with pitches in . . . fourteen games lifetime.

If Gibson was trying to hit batters after they dialed nine on his dime, he failed miserably. He was unapologetic about pitching inside and insisted that if a plate crowder got hit inside it was his fault for over-crowding the plate, but he wasn’t exactly trying to drill holes in home run hitters’ bodies or heads. And this was a pitcher with outstanding control of a whistling fastball and a nasty, knee-trembling slider.

As a matter of fact, Gibson hit only two men with pitches more than four times—both light-hitting middle infielders, Ron Hunt and Roy McMillan. In fact, McMillan’s sixth came in a 1965 game, when his career as a fine defensive shortstop was winding down with the New YOrk Mets . . . and Gibson got plunked by Jackson when he batted in the top of the fifth. All things considered, you wouldn’t blame McMillan if he said he wanted to have Jackson’s children right then and there.

Gibson once spent a few seasons working as a pitching coach for another friend and former teammate, Joe Torre, now a Hall of Fame manager but then managing the then-hapless Mets and Atlanta Braves. That didn’t last; he found it difficult to connect with a new generation of pitchers with fat contracts and little else beyond just throwing hard without thinking. His post-baseball business success didn’t satisfy him half as much as playing baseball did.

“Yes,” his second wife, Wendy, told Angell in 1980, “he’s still looking for something, and don’t know if the right thing for him will ever come along. It’s sad.” Told of that observation, Gibson denied sadness.

I just think I’ve been spoiled. When you’ve been an athlete, there’s no place for you to go. You’re much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has been all along. I’m like millions of others now, and I’m finding out what it’s like. I don’t think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball. I haven’t found my niche now that that’s over—or maybe I have found it and I don’t know it. Maybe I’ll still find something I like as much as I liked pitching, but I don’t know if I will. I sure hope so.

I never had the impression Gibson was a spoiled man. I saw him on the mound and, whenever he re-appeared on the public radar, as that perhaps too self-aware man who asked for few things more than that you engage him as a man, that you not insult him by admiring the pitcher while disdaining the man, because of his colour or otherwise, and that you be as straight, no chaser with him as he’d be with you, even teasing you to teach you.

It’s enough to make me wish I’d gone to Gibby’s one night, while I lived in Omaha during my Air Force service, and met the man first and the former pitcher second. I would have liked and respected him without seeing him one more time on the mound, the retired assassin who wore a chain around his neck with a gently bejeweled number 45, the man who mingled around his integrated business and crowds with firm ease.

The man who was wary of the duplicities of the sports press yet was so pleased by Roger Angell’s revelatory profile that he sent Angell a photograph that he inscribed, “The world needs more people like you.”

The Elysian Fields now have Gibson, and the Lord’s angels now end his suffering, grant him eternal peace, and reunite him with such favourite teammates as Lou Brock and Curt Flood, and such favourite managers as Johnny Keane and Red Schoendienst. They also remind us how blessed we were to have had him as long as we did, though it doesn’t make our loss any less profound and sad.

The power of positive Padre-ing

It didn’t need a meal and a stewardess a la Willson Contreras, but Fernando Tatis, Jr.’s Thursday bat flip was second only to hitting two bombs in two innings helping the Padres steal the Thursday Show.

Clayton Kershaw channeling his future Hall of Famer self to pitch eight innings, strike thirteen out, walk one, scatter three hits, and refuse to let a single Milwaukee Brewer even think about coming home? Fun, and who cares?

The Oakland Athletics having a ball on the Chicago White Sox bullpen’s dollars and walking as much as swatting their way to a division series for the first time in fourteen years? More fun, and who cares again?

Marcell Ozuna joyously pantomiming a selfie up the first base line after he launched a mammoth two-run homer against Atlanta reliever Raisel Iglesias, driving the Fun Police and the boring old farts out of their skulls while helping the Braves to their first postseason series win since the immediate wake of 9/11? Marvelous. And who cares yet again?

The Slam Diego Padres thinking they were twelve outs from winter vacation one moment and deciding that being swept out of a wild card series by the St. Louis Cardinals was not a viable option? Now you’re talking.

Yes, it’s possible that the Padres and the Cardinals fighting baseball’s equivalent of the Battle of the Bulge right down to the final out, with Fernando Tatis, Jr. playing George Patton, just to force a third wild card game, was the most must-see baseball on a Thursday that was overloaded with must-see.

If we weren’t going to get a continuing opportunity for the 29-31 Brewers to push onward and possibly (underline that, gang) meet the 29-31 Houston Astros in the World Series, and thus make a first class chump out of Commissioner Nero and his hopes that this sixteen-team-opening postseason becomes a permanent blight on the concept of championship, the least we could get was some plain fun ball.

The Padres made sure it was the very least and absolute most when they out-wrestled, out-bopped, out-slapped, and out-lasted the Cardinals, 11-9, in Petco Park, the lair where the big bats normally went to die at the mercy of the infamous Dreaded Marine Layer. The one that floated into San Diego and turned booming home runs into bloated, crashing fly outs. Or, once in awhile, turned those bombs into measly dropping base hits at best.

These Padres couldn’t care less about that marine layer. They’ll just drive their long balls right through it and part it the way God parted the Red Sea. And they won’t even let it bother them that they can finish five innings, sit in the hole 4-2 against the Cardinals, and sit concurrently twelve outs from being swept into early winter vacation.

The Cardinals tack up two more in the top of the sixth? Tatis will just have to hit a three-run homer followed by Manny Machado hitting a solo bomb in the bottom to tie it. Then the Padres will keep the Cardinals from scoring in the top of the seventh, Wil Myers will hit one over the left field fence to open the bottom of the seventh, and—two outs after a walk to Austin Nola—Tatis will send one over the right field fence for a 9-6 lead.

“I feel like we needed that big swing for the entire team to get us going,” said Tatis—who hit four homers only three other extra-base hits from 2-27 September—about that first bomb. “We were missing a lot with runners in scoring position. I feel like whoever did it first, we were going to feed off that. Thank God I did it first, but I’m just happy the team clicked and we won the game.”

Padres reliever Drew Pomeranz has to plunk Matt Carpenter to open the St. Louis eighth and Tatis himself has to throw offline on the next play to set up second and third for Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong to hit back-to-back sacrifice flies and close the Cardinal deficit back to a single run? No problemo. Jurickson Profar will be more than happy to bop a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth and Myers will be even more than that to hit one over the center field fence.

Then Paul Goldschmidt leading off the top of the ninth hit an 0-1 bomb against an old Cardinals buddy, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, once a lights-out closer, but addled since by injuries and picked up by the Padres from the New York Mets’ scrapyard. For several brief, none-too-shining moments, it looked as though walking Carlson and letting Yadier Molina single Carlson to second meant Rosenthal was going to let the Cardinals re-tie at least and make the bottom of the ninth either a Padres last stand or a Padres plotz.

No chance. Pop out to second, swinging strikeout, and ground out to first. And pandemonium wherever Padres fans were watching since the pandemic-mandared empty ballparks came into force. Even the broadcasters working remotely from ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters let their enthusiasm for a game like that spill into the next work stations where another team was still covering and calling Kershaw and company.

“We’re in the playoffs. The game was not done, the job was not done until we get those 27 outs, we cannot back down, we cannot settle,” Tatis went on to say about his second homer. “There was a lot of game left. I was wanting to keep motivating my teammates, just to let them know, to keep on. They are a team that they’re going to answer back, so we’ve got to keep doing the work.”

How could the Dodgers and the Brewers possibly top the Friars roast? These Padres just did in one three-inning stretch what they’d never done in any postseason series—hit five over the fences. They never came back from four or more runs behind in any previous postseason—but they came back from 4-0 Thursday.

Tatis and Myers also became the first teammates to swing for the Delta Quadrant twice in a single postseason game since—wait for it!—Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Game Three of the 1932 World Series. The one in which Ruth is still alleged to have called his shot. Neither Tatis nor Myers thought of calling theirs, but don’t bother us now, brothers and sisters.

For that matter, the last time the Cardinals blew a four-run lead in a postseason game was Game Four of the 1982 World Series, a series they won. Not to mention that in the past eight years the Cardinals won 139 times straight in games where they scored nine or more runs. Until Thursday.

“We played a great lineup, a great team,” said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who lasted three and two thirds and two runs worth Thursday, “and they came at us over and over and over again and we never backed down. We answered back almost every time. Every time we put them in a hole they came right back.”

The Friars’ work is never done yet. They still have to push, shove, and rumble past Jack Flaherty Friday. Flaherty started the irregular season brilliantly enough, then faltered mostly due to one horrific nine-run battering inflicted by the Brewers in mid-September. But he’s still Jack Flaherty. And he’s no pushover. Yet.

But that won’t diminish what the Padres did Thursday and all season long. Lots of teams made baseball fun again this year. These Padres made those guys resemble funeral home staffs. Even when you beat them, which happened 23 times against 37 times they beat the other guys, they wouldn’t let you go without feeling like the whole game was a party.

Oh, yes. Before I forget. When Tatis launched his second bomb, he delivered a lovely bat flip two steps out of the batter’s box. It wasn’t even close to requiring a meal and a stewardess on board, as Willson Contreras’s flip a week ago, but it spun like a Lockheed Constellation engine’s propeller warming up nonetheless.

The joyous leaping forearm bumps among Tatis and Myers and their mates after they crossed the plate were just as rich and just as much fun. Take that, Bambino, wherever you are!

For Pujols, meeting Mays wasn’t a walk in the park

Albert Pujols just after hitting the home run tying him with Willie Mays on the career list Sunday.

A little earlier this pandemic season, Albert Pujols received a text message on his cell phone. “It’s your time now. Go get it,” the message said. The message came from Hall of Famer Willie Mays, whose 660 lifetime major league home runs Pujols has chased all season long.

With the shadows creeping in in the top of the eighth at Coors Canaveral Sunday afternoon, Pujols went and got it. With his Los Angeles Angels down 3-2 and a man on first, El Hombre turned on a meaty 1-1 fastball from Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez and drove it parabolically down the left field line and halfway up the seats.

The blast was the kind of launch for which Pujols has been fabled from the moment he first came into his own in St. Louis almost two decades ago. The kind he’s hit the last few years almost to the exclusion of anything else.

The kind that reminds you of both the greatness that will punch his Cooperstown ticket and the greatness that’s been eroded by the injuries that have sapped him since after his first season as an Angel, turning his ten-year, $255 million contract into the unfair poster child for terrible sports contracts.

When Pujols commented after Sunday night’s game, it was tough to know which affected him more, finally meeting Mays in the record book or Mays himself urging him on in the first place. “Legend,” said the agreeable Dominican who was born seven years after Mays played his last major league game. “I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

Oh, it was believable, all right. Pujols’s swing remains a work of art, even if it’s supported by legs that betrayed him almost a decade ago, a knee that underwent a surgery here and there, a heel that fought with painful plantaar fascitis costing him the final two months of 2013, feet requiring surgeries after 2015 and 2016.

“When his days are done and his legend is told,” wrote The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya, shortly after Pujols’s milestone blast, “they will talk about the swing — that beautiful, powerful swing — and the follow-through and the strut when you knew, everyone knew, that Albert Pujols got every piece of a baseball.”

The swing cemented Pujols as perhaps the best right-handed hitter the game has ever seen. It is slower now, a reality that happens with age, and the majestic drives don’t occur as often. But when they do, even for a split second, they take you back to when Pujols wrecked the league, ruined historic closer seasons and, quite simply, hit.

They take you back to when the only thing keeping Pujols’s three-run detonation against Brad Lidge inside Minute Maid Park in the top of the ninth, 2005 National League Championship Series, was the bracing for the park’s retractable roof. The bad news: that bomb won the Game Six battle but merely saved his Cardinals from losing the war in Game Seven.

They take you back to when Pujols ripped three in a kind of reverse cycle in Game Three of the 2011 World Series—a three-run blast, a two-run blast, a solo blast, in that order, and every one of them after the sixth inning in a 16-7 demolition of the Texas Rangers. The solo provided the sixteenth run.

They take you back to when Pujols was younger, unimpeded by his lower body health, and liable to either drop Big Boy or otherwise make life miserable for opposing pitchers and fielders, in a St. Louis run that left him as the Cardinals’ second-best all-around position player ever, behind the man on behalf of whom Pujols doesn’t always accept having been nicknamed El Hombre.

They take you to his deadly postseason record—the lifetime postseason .323/.431/.599 slash line; the .725 lifetime postseason real batting average (RBA: total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances); the 109 runs produced. Enough Hall of Famers don’t look half that dangerous playing for all the platinum.

Two years ago Pujols tied Hall of Famer Stan Musial on the all-time runs batted in list. Five years before that, when Musial died, Pujols was almost inconsolable. He and Musial became that close personally. “I know the fans call me El Hombre, which means The Man in Spanish,” he insisted, “but for me and St. Louis there will always be only one Man.”

So insistent on the point was Pujols that, when he became an Angel and the club began hoisting billboards touting El Hombre‘s arrival, Pujols flipped. He insisted very publicly there was only one player who should ever be called The Man, and it wasn’t Albert Pujols. The billboards disappeared faster than the Angels executed their scouting staff after an international signing scandal.

When Pujols talks about his own place in baseball, he does it almost as though the idea that he’s part of it is secondary to what came before him. “I know my place in history,” he told Ardaya. “(But) it’s hard. I don’t want to — It’s almost like I take it personal, like I don’t want to disrespect this game.”

He’s even ready to hand history off to the teammate who played his first full season in an Angel uniform the same year Pujols joined the team. The teammate who’s now the Angels’ all-time franchise home run leader and has been the game’s all-everything player almost right out of the chute. The teammate who doesn’t have a team baseball’s All-Universe player can be proud of.

“We have the best player in the game,” Pujols told Ardaya of Mike Trout, “and five or six years from now, he’s going to be making history, too.” As if he hasn’t already. Pujols knows it.

You think that’s an affectation? Pujols is the same player who refused to join the ruckus in Detroit last year, when he hit one out in Comerica Park for his 2,000th career RBI and, for whatever perverse reasons, MLB and the Tigers together tried to strong-arm the Tiger fan who caught the ball by refusing to authenticate it, until or unless he turned it over, assuming before asking that he wanted to cash the ball in big.

Ely Hydes didn’t like being treated like an opportunist. “Honestly, if they were just cool about it I would’ve just given them the ball,” Hydes told a WXYT interviewer. “I don’t want money off of this, I was offered five and ten thousand dollars as I walked out of the stadium, I swear to God . . . I just couldn’t take being treated like a garbage bag for catching a baseball.”

Pujols understood. Completely. “Just let him have it, I think he can have a great piece of history with him, you know,” he said. “When he look at the ball he can remember . . . this game, and I don’t fight about it. You know, I think we play this game for the fans too and if they want to keep it, I think they have a right to. I just hope, you know, that he can enjoy it . . . He can have it . . . He can have that piece of history. It’s for the fans, you know, that we play for.”

Hydes eventually gave the ball to the Hall of Fame in memory of his little son who died at 21 months old a year before Daddy caught the Pujols milestone.

Mays finished his career both with 660 home runs and as a shell of his once-formidable self, ground down by all those seasons and no few off-field heartbreaks, unable until his body finally put him in a stranglehold to admit that the game he loved and lived to play was no longer fun when he was Willie Mays in name only.

Those were real tears that almost poured out of Mays when he faced a Shea Stadium throng on Willie Mays Day, with the Mets who brought him back to the city of his major league youth, and told them, “There always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.”

It shouldn’t shock anyone when Pujols’s time finally arrives. You can say his time is past, that his lower body ruined what should have been a simpler, kinder, gentler decline phase, leaving him prone to as much criticism under ordinary circumstances as praise when now and then the vintage edition makes a cameo as it did Sunday night.

You should also say, as Angels general manager Billy Eppler did two years ago, that few really knew, never mind understood, Pujols’s determination to play through every lower-body malady he’s incurred since trading Cardinal for Angel red.

“He plays through discomfort,” Eppler told MLB.com. “He endures a lot and doesn’t talk a lot about it. But I can tell you that he’s definitely someone that wants to play and fights through a lot of adversity to make sure he’s out there and contributing to the club.”

There’s something to be said for that as well as against that. It’s not as though Pujols needed to burnish his Hall of Fame resume. And, it’s not as though the Angels couldn’t have cashed him in for things they needed even more than they needed Pujols’s cachet—things like a pitching overhaul, mostly.

He has one more year to go on his Angels deal. The Angels as they stand now are still going nowhere and they still need a radical pitching overhaul if they have any prayer of returning to competitive greatness, with Trout committed to them for life and Pujols knowing he can tell Father Time to go to hell only so much longer, if at all.

Would the Angels even think of trading Pujols this offseason, to a contender with young pitching talent to spare, in need of a veteran mentor to whom they’d be grateful for all his counsel and whatever hits he has left, before the Angels bring him back for that ten-year personal services deal that begins when his playing days end? Who knows?

Such a team could do a lot worse than drawing counsel from the man whom Baseball-Reference lists as the number two first baseman ever to play the game. Only Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig is ahead of him. But Pujols has an arguable case as the greatest all-around first baseman of all time simply because, as devastating as he’s been a hitter, he was also a far better defensive first baseman than Gehrig before his lower body resigned its commission.

Or, maybe, Pujols himself will take stock, surrender to his body’s and Father Time’s mandate at last, leave next year’s $30 million on the table, start that personal services term, and congratulate himself as baseball should on a one-of-a-kind playing career. Maybe. Only Pujols knows for certain, and he doesn’t seem to like talking about that any more than he liked talking about what it took for him to just stroll up to the plate any more.

Maybe the combination of this year’s pandemic surreality and the current major league regime’s continuing inability to promote its best and give proper due to its milestoners kept Pujols’s Sunday night smash hit from blowing the social media universe up too much beyond about an hour’s worth of ordnance.

“To be able to have my name in the sentence with Willie Mays is unbelievable,” Pujols said Sunday night. The Angels have an off-day Monday. He hasn’t hit well this season, and Sunday’s smash was only his fourth home run in 31 games. One homer every seven games on average. He and they have twelve games left.

All Pujols needs is one more meaty pitch to drive, one more summoning up of whatever remains of that impeccable swing, and they’ll be saying his name in the same sentence as Mays once again. This time, for passing him to become sole possessor of number four on the all-time bomb squad.

Maybe then, he’ll get the twenty-one guns he deserves. Maybe.

Lou Brock, RIP: “First base is useless”

With their son Lou, Jr. in the background, Hall of Fame thief Lou Brock and his wife, Jacqueline greet well wishers on his 81st birthday in June.

Lou Brock’s philosophy on the bases was simple enough. “First base,” he once said, “is useless. And most of the time, it is useless to stay there.” On 1,245 major league occasions Brock attempted grand theft next base. On 938 occasions, he succeeded.

It knocked fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb out of the record book, Cobb having held yet another of those records presumed unbreakable with his 892 lifetime thefts. Yet Brock himself predicted his records for career stolen bases and single-season stolen bases (118, breaking Maury Wills who’d broken Cobb’s old mark) would fall in due course—to the very felon who did break them, fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

A long-enough battle between 81-year-old Brock and diabetes and multiple myeloma ended Sunday afternoon. Swell timing. A week earlier, the pitcher he faced most often in his major league career, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, died at 75 after a battle with Lewy body dementia abetted by COVID-19.

Brock was blessed with a power failure-defying smile and an equally bright if not overbearing confidence in himself and his abilities. He wasn’t a particularly great defensive outfielder, though he worked hard to improve, but the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t pay his handsome for their times salaries because he was where balls hit to left went to die.

They paid Brock to get his fanny on base somehow, any how, and turn a baseball game into six parts track meet and half a dozen parts grand larceny. If he couldn’t snatch the bases, the least he could do was invite himself to live rent free in pitchers’ and catchers’ heads.

“[T]he most important thing about base stealing is not the steal of the base, but distracting the pitcher’s concentration,” the master thief once said. “If I can do that, then the hitter will have a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.” If the hitter swung at that better pitch and connected, that was more than all right with Brock; 53 percent of the time he reached base he took extra bases on followup hits.

Brock was as much a gentleman off the field as he was a larcenist on it. “There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered,” remembers longtime St. Louis Post-Dispactch writer Bernie Mikllasz. “A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man.”

That finer man became a Cardinal in the first place because the Chicago Cubs, who raised him, had no clue what to do with an outfielder who was swift afoot but not exactly the kind of power hitter normally seen on patrol in the ballpark depths. Brock himself may have hurt as much as helped his own Cubs cause by doing the unthinkable in the Polo Grounds on 17 June 1962, in the top of the first inning. One day before Brock’s 23rd birthday.

The Cubs faced the embryonic New York Mets and their stout lefthanded pitcher Al Jackson. Don Landrum’s leadoff walk turned into a stolen base thanks to Marvelous Marv Throneberry at first for the Mets. He misplayed the throw from home on the Ken Hubbs strikeout trying to catch Landrum leaning.

Hall of Famer Billy Williams grounded Landrum to third. Fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks worked Jackson for a walk. Fellow Hall of Famer Ron Santo tripled Landrum and Banks home. (With Richie Ashburn playing center field for the Mets that day, the game featured five Hall of Famers.)

Up stepped Brock. He swung and drove the ball to the same spot near the bleachers on the right side of center field as Santo’s triple traveled. Except that, somehow, some way, Brock’s drive flew past where Santo’s ball was rudely interrupted. Straight into the bleachers. Four hundred and sixty-eight feet from home plate. Real estate previously claimed by only two men in baseball history, Luke Easter in a 1948 Negro Leagues game, and Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.

Only Brock had no clue. He gunned it out of the batter’s box in his usual style, that of a man on the dead run from a process server. Rookie that he was, Brock actually thought the second base umpire giving the traditional home run signal was trying to tell him that at his rate of speed he had a clean shot at an inside-the-park job.

He learned otherwise when he was mobbed back in the dugout and Santo came over to holler, “Did you see where that ball went? I needed binoculars!”

Two years later, in 1964, the Cubs thought themselves in dire need of further pitching help. They also figured Brock could bring it their way in a trade. Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues legend who signed Brock for the Cubs in the first place, suspected the Cubs also feared being seen as “too black” by a fan base not always comfortable with their group of black players, even the popular Banks and Williams.

But another former Cardinal pitcher, Lew Burdette, obtained earlier that season, did his level best to talk the Cubs out of the trade. The Cubs’ target was righthander Ernie Broglio. Once a pitcher with formidable promise, the Cubs saw only the pitcher who’d finished third in the 1960 Cy Young Award voting (it was a major league award then, not one for each league) and won eighteen games in 1963. Burdette tried to warn them otherwise: Broglio had an elbow issue  and was taking more than one cortisone shot.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, general manager John Holland chose to ignore the word Burdette passed via then-College of Coaches head coach Bob Kennedy. The Cubs delivered the trade and learned the hard way just how badly damaged Broglio’s goods were. (For the record, the full trade involved Brock, relief pitcher Jack Spring, and spare starting pitcher Paul Toth going to the Cardinals for Broglio, veteran pitcher Bobby Shantz, and outfielder Doug Clemens.)

Not that the Cardinals were thrilled about their new toy. Broglio may have been struggling with his elbow but he was personally popular with his teammates. “Our friendship,” catcher Tim McCarver once said, “blinded us to what kind of effect Lou would have on the team — until we saw him run.” Said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, “We thought it was the worst trade ever.”

They thought so until they proved the last team standing after that wild final weekend on which they won the pennant at the last split second, practically, following the infamous Phillie Phlop. When they noticed Brock in 103 games for his new team stole 33 bases, scored 81 of his season-long 111 runs, rolled up a .387 on-base percentage, and threw 21 doubles, nine triples, and twelve home runs into the mix for a .527 slugging percentage as a brand-new Cardinal.

Brock only looked cheerful, bright, and happy as the day was long during a game, and it caused enough people to misunderstand his commitment. “Some in the press and in the stands considered him too casual about his job,” wrote David Halberstam in October 1964, “but that was a misperception. In fact, he was driven, not merely by a desire, but by a rage to succeed.

As a Cub, Brock was seen as too intense and self-critical for his own good. “He’d break out in a big sweat,” then-Cub pitcher Larry Jackson observed, “just putting on his uniform.” As a Cardinal, he finally turned that intensity into progress without losing his natural joy in the game. He became so devoted to his craft that he started filming pitchers to study their tendencies for his on-base advantage. (Hall of Famer Don Drysdale: “I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!”)

Brock pitched in on the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series conquest but became a first class pain in the ass to the 1967 Boston Red Sox in that Series. When it wasn’t Gibson tying the Sox into knots from the mound, it was Brock hitting .414 and stealing seven bases. A year later, the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games but it wasn’t Brock’s fault—that time, he hit .464, stole another seven pillows, and broke Bobby Richardson’s record for World Series hits with thirteen.

“Ernie is top of the charts,” Brock told ESPN’s William Weinbaum about Broglio in 2011. “He is a good man, a man with integrity. We have a good relationship because we laugh, we talk, and people, for whatever reason, are still interested.” Interested enough that you’d have thought Ernie’s real surname was Brockforbroglio.

Born to Arkansas sharecroppers, Brock’s family moved to Louisiana when he was two. “Jim Crow was king,” he once said of his youth, “and I heard a game in which Jackie Robinson was playing, and I felt pride in being alive.” He also learned a few lessons about conquering fear at home—when he told his father he feared animals were running under his bed, “[Dad] solved the problem quickly—he cut the legs off the bed.”

Just the way no few enemy pitchers, catchers, and infielders probably wanted to cut the legs off Brock before he swiped their clothes for good measure with the bases. What they couldn’t do, diabetes finally did in 2015, at least to part of his left leg.

After baseball (Cardinals owner Gussie Busch forgot all the animosities of earlier players’ union actions and dropped a sumptuous yacht on Brock as a retirement present), Brock prospered as a St. Louis florist and the inventor of a unique small umbrella hat (the Brockabrella) aimed at letting fans stay by their seats instead of fleeing to the indoor concourse during rain delays.

He saw his son, Lou, Jr., play football at USC and in the National Football League as a cornerback/safety for two seasons before becoming a Sprint/Nextel executive. He and his wife, Jacqueline, also became ordained ministers of the Abundant Life Church who frequented numerous Cardinals games and special events over the years.

Two years after losing that part of his leg, Brock was also stricken with multiple myeloma, the cancer that begins in the plasma cells. He didn’t let them keep him from savouring life or welcoming socially-distancing visitors to his home with his Jacqueline on his 81st birthday this past June.

“You have a great smile,” Brock once told then-ten-year-old Jeff Kurkjian, the son of writer Tim Kurkjian, in Cooperstown. “Let everyone see it. A great smile can disarm people like nothing else. Smile as much as you can. We don’t smile enough in the world today.”

I hope that was Ernie Broglio slipping his way to the front of the line awaiting Brock at the Elysian Field’s gates and handed him a cold beer and a bear hug. Unless his longtime manager (and Hall of Famer) Red Schoendienst beat Broglio to the front with a cold one—and a mock arrest warrant signed by the Lord for grand larceny. One and all smiling.