Freese’s pieces, revisited

2020-07-12 DavidFreeseSeriesMVP

David Freese hoists the 2011 World Series MVP trophy. He’d also won that National League Championship Series MVP.

Notoriously enough at the time, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson pre-Yankee mused aloud, “If I played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me.” When fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson was given a day at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on the threshold of his retirement, the host of the event told the cheering crowd, “Around here they don’t name candy bars after Brooks—they name their children after him.”

When David Freese made the St. Louis Cardinals’ difference in the 2011 National League Championship Series, I noted—after recalling he first thought his trade from the San Diego Padres to the team for whom he grew up rooting madly, the Cardinals, was a joke—“(E)veryone except citizens of Milwaukee might be laughing with the National League Championship Series’ most valuable player.”

In St. Louis, of course, they may be ready to name a candy bar after him. Freese’s Pieces, anyone? It isn’t everyone who comes up from oblivion to out-slug Albert Pujols when Pujols is having the best postseason set of his career, or drives home a ferocious exclamation point on it Sunday night with a first-inning blast that merely starts the Cardinals en route a secured trip to the World Series.

Who knew after Game Six of that NLCS that Freese’s series would prove a mere dress rehearsal for the big event to come? Not even Freese himself, about whom Joe Posnanski—amidst a series in The Athletic remembering sixty transcendent baseball moments—writes with loving eloquence that he was one kid who got to live every baseball kid’s backyard or schoolyard dream, suiting up for the home team he grew up loving, and hitting the blasts that either send the team to the Promised Land or yank them back to the threshold.

Most such kids would sell their souls to get a chance to do it for the home team even once. Freese did it twice, also in Game Six, but this time during the 2011 World Series. He tied it with a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth and won it with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eleventh. Telling the Texas Rangers, “Not so fast,” he sent the set to the seventh game his first-inning, game-tying two-run double would help the Cardinals win.

Think about the roll of Cardinals World Series heroes and from whence they came in the first place. Grover Cleveland Alexander (pitching and winning Game Six to send the 1926 Series to a seventh game his team would also win)—Elba, Nebraska. Pepper Martin (hitting .500 in a seven-game 1931 Series)—Temple, Oklahoma. The Dean brothers (Dizzy: two wins; Paul, two wins, including Dizzy’s Game Seven shutout, 1934 Series)—Lucas, Arkansas. Enos Slaughter (the Mad Dash, Game Seven, 1946 Series)—Roxboro, North Carolina. Bob Gibson (MVP of the 1964 and 1967 Series)—Omaha, Nebraska. Darrell Porter (MVP of both the 1982 National League Championship Series and World Series)—Joplin, Missouri. David Eckstein (resident pest and MVP, 2006 World Series)—Sanford, Florida.

Did somebody mention Sandy Koufax? He got to be a World Series hero twice for his hometown Dodgers, the MVP of the 1963 and 1965 Series—but that came after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and after a serious hitch in Koufax’s delivery was caught at last and fixed in spring training 1961, turning him from an untamed talent into an off-the-charts Hall of Famer.

Think a little bit, too, of how many players were Hall of Famers who came up too short in postseasons if they got there at all. Of how many—like Freese—who weren’t Hall of Famers on the best days of their regular season lives, but played like Hall of Famers when they did get to the big postseason dance. Of how the Freeses of the game live the truth of Gene Hackman’s valedictory in (of all things) the football film, The Replacements: “Greatness, no matter how brief, stays with a man.”

(Eckstein? Al Gionfriddo? Dusty Rhodes? Sandy Amoros? Don Larsen? Moe Drabowsky? Al Weis? Donn Clendenon? Gene Tenace? Brian Doyle? B.F. Dent? Dave Henderson? Mickey Hatcher? Sid Bream? Tony Womack? Edgar Renteria? Luis Sojo? Scott Spiezio? Scott Podsednik? Carlos Ruiz? Pablo Sandoval? Steve Pearce? Call your offices.)

Porter came the closest to being a homegrown Series hero, Joplin being a measly four-hour, 284-mile drive to St. Louis. Freese was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but raised in St. Louis’s Wildwood suburb. He’d set Wildwood’s Lafayette High School’s single-season record of 23 home runs and a .533 batting average in his senior year, but felt burned out enough by baseball to spurn a baseball scholarship at the University of Missouri to try studying computer science instead.

So much for that idea. After visiting Lafayette during a summer while working in his school district’s maintenance department, Freese gave baseball another shot at two other schools and—the year Eckstein made himself the cockroach the Detroit Tigers couldn’t exterminate in the 2006 Series—made himself the Sun Belt Conference’s player of the year. The Padres drafted him in 2006’s ninth round.

2020-07-12 DavidFreese

Freese about to hit the plate in a swarm of teammates, Game Six, 2011 World Series. “I just got beat up by thirty guys,” he laughed to reporters afterward. It was nothing compared to how depression was beating him up inside.

The Cardinals sent a spent Jim Edmonds to San Diego to get Freese in 2008 because they needed a solid minor league third baseman. Then, with former Angels World Series MVP Troy Glaus injured, the Cardinals needed Freese—until they didn’t. He didn’t turn up in the Cardinals’ fatigues again until 2010, where a hot start turned unfortunately into a season-ending ankle injury that June.

His 2011 threatened to be injury compromised, too, a hand fracture when hit by a pitch costing him 51 games. After his return, he finished the regular season with a flourish of eight hits in the final nine games. Then came the NLCS. Then came the World Series. Then came first and second with two outs for Freese in the Game Six bottom of the ninth, against Rangers closer Neftali Feliz. Then came Freese on 1-2 down to his and the Cardinals’ final strike—of game, set, and season.

Then came Freese swinging at a fastball on the outer half of the plate. “The beauty of it,” Posnanski wrote at the time, “was that in the instant after the ball was hit, it had a chance to be anything.”

He had obviously hit it well — the ball cracked off the bat — but there was no telling how well. It had a chance to be a home run. It had a chance to be an out. I have written before that there is nothing in sports like the successful Hail Mary pass in football, and the main reason is that no two Hail Mary passes are alike. Sometimes they deflect from one receiver to another. Sometimes they bounce off the defenders’ hands and back to a waiting receiver. Sometimes the pass just drops into a pile and sticks in a receiver’s hands. Really, there are countless geometrical possibilities. Baseball doesn’t usually have that kind of geometry. Home runs are home runs. Singles are singles. Pop-outs are pop-outs . . . But Freese’s fly was something like a Hail Mary. There was just no telling how it would turn out while the ball was in the air.

Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz misjudged where the wall was, playing in the Rangers’ no-doubles defensive alignment, and the ball sailed over his head and into the wall. It sent the game to extra innings, where Josh Hamilton restored the Rangers’ two-run lead with a home run in the top of the tenth but a pair of singles, a run-scoring ground out, and Lance Berkman’s two-out RBI single—with the Cardinals again down to their final strike—tied things up again, this time at nine each.

Then Jake Westbrook kept the Rangers to a mere base hit in the top of the eleventh and Freese led off the bottom against Mark Lowe. Remember, now, that this was also the Series in which Pujols channeled his inner Reggie Jackson in Game Three, hitting three home runs—from the sixth inning forward, nourishing a 16-7 blowout. Who could possibly top that?

For that matter, who could possibly top Freese’s Game Six-tyer? The one that turned eight innings of somewhat sloppy baseball into three innings to come of surrealistic baseball? The answer turned out to be Freese himself. On a full count. On what looked like a changeup hanging into the middle of the plate. Over the center field fence, onto the green lawn beneath the Busch Stadium batter’s eye. With Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, then the Rangers’ president, watching from the field level seats in abject disbelief.

Trotting around the bases as the Rangers left the field, Freese slammed his batting emphatically onto the third base line, down between his briefly leaping legs, a few feet before he hit the plate to be buried by a swarm of celebrating teammates. “I’m just about out of breath,” Freese told reporters in an on-field post-game interview. “I just got beat up by thirty guys.”

His Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa—whose Game Five bullpen communication breakdown got close to vaporising his image as a tactical master and big-picture strategist, and who should have blown his team to world-tour vacations for pulling his kishkes back out of the incinerator—could only say, “You had to see it to believe it.”

This was a player who battled clinical depression his entire life, fell into alcoholism while battling it and suffered a small number of accidents and incidents before he became a Cardinal, then took the battle public eight months after he married and while in the Busch Stadium visitors’ clubhouse as a Pirate. “I’ve had moments like that since high school, to be honest,’’ he told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale in 2017.

It’s been 15-plus years of, “I can’t believe I’m still here.” You win the World Series in your hometown, and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinal baseball, and sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be. So you start building this façade, trying to be something I was not. And the whole time, I was scared to death what was going to happen to me after baseball.

. . . Who knows where I was headed, but as long as I was here, I had so many friends here, I wasn’t good at just saying no. I wanted to please people, make everyone happy, and that became impossible.

What happened was the Cardinals trading Freese to the Los Angeles Angels in November 2013, the Cardinals knowing Freese needed to leave in the worst way possible to blow the pressures away. That was part two of what began resolving his inner turmoil. He met part one at his friend’s media studio a week before the deal, an intern named Mairin O’Leary—who became Mairin Freese in the simplest ceremony possible, in a Pittsburgh coffee shop in September 2016. Over a crepes breakfast.

Freese had one more chance at postseason glory as a 2018 Dodger. He did his part, hitting leadoff home runs in Game Six of the NLCS and Game Five of the World Series, but the Dodgers fell to the Boston Rogue Sox who may or may not have deployed their now-infamous replay room reconnaissance ring sign-stealing plot during that postseason.

When he retired after last season, Freese no longer saw his stupefying 2011 postseason as a cross to bear from behind the wall of depression. He looked forward to taking his almost three-year-old son to a live Cardinals game in due course. Not to mention showing the little boy what Daddy delivered in Game Six. And all that postseason, including a still-record fifty total bases and 21 runs batted in.

“It’s going to be cool when Kai understands and I show it to him,” Daddy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as he retired, “and he says, ‘Is that really you on the TV?’ He understands it’s me now if he’s watching and there’s a closeup of me hitting or something. It is going to be cool (showing him the World Series ring). Look at that damn squirrel. He might not care, which might even be cooler.”

Kai Freese will have to wait, unfortunately, until the coronavirus world tour dissipates enough to let the games bring the fans back to the stands. His father has probably told him, “Trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.”

“There are 270 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is only one player who grew up in St. Louis and got to live the dream again and again for the team he grew up loving,” Posnanski writes, observing the contrast between Hall of Famers who lacked for truly signature moments and ordinary men who have one that transcends the game itself. “I suspect David Freese is pretty happy with how it turned out.”

The guy who made St. Louis baseball the happiest place on earth in 2011 fought hard enough to get to happiness with how his baseball legacy turned out in the first place.

The second shot heard ’round the world

2019-12-24 CurtFlood

“Curt Flood stood up for us.”—Hall of Famer Ted Simmons.

Irony is almost as common to baseball as are the bat and the ball. Few examples remain more profound than one eight-player trade between the Phillies and the Cardinals in October 1969 that ended up changing the game for the men who played it.

The Phillies’ side of the deal included sending Hall of Fame-worthy third/first baseman Dick Allen to the Cardinals, whose package to the Phillies included seven-straight Gold Glove center fielder Curt Flood.

To Allen, whose Philadelphia experience was unconscionably brutal even by the norms of 1960s’ racial growing pains, the trade equaled the Emancipation Proclamation. To Flood, whose St. Louis experience including planting roots and owning and operating a portraiture studio in the city, the trade equaled what his eventual wife calls “like someone putting a knife in his stomach, or your mom throwing you away. It was that kind of deep hurt.”

Judy Pace was a groundbreaking black television actress (she had a prominent role in the popular television serial Peyton Place in its final season) and Flood’s girl friend for three years by the time Flood decided he wasn’t just a piece of livestock to be sold or dealt at will. They parted when Flood hied to Spain during his reserve clause battle but reconnected and married in 1986, eleven years before Flood’s death of throat cancer.

And Mrs. Pace-Flood thinks a fresh Hall of Fame election makes it more possible for her late husband to earn the honour as a baseball pioneer. “I’m so happy that Marvin [Miller] got in,” she tells William C. Rhoden, longtime New York Times sports columnist now writing for The Undefeated. “I want Curt to follow. There’s unfinished business.”

That business began fifty years ago today, when Flood—writing on the stationery of his portraiture studio—sent commissioner Bowie Kuhn a slightly early Christmas present, refusing to just report to the Phillies like a good little boy and rejecting the idea that he was mere property. “I believe,” he wrote, “that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodLetter

The Curt Flood letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

To those who believe to this day that the Flood letter was really Marvin Miller’s handiwork, Mrs. Pace-Flood has a reply: “People ask about the letter, they don’t want to believe that he wrote that letter,” she tells Rhoden. “They want to know if Marvin Miller wrote the letter or if Marvin gave him the ideas. No. Marvin did not write the letter. Curt was brilliant.”

Arguably, Flood was the National League’s best defensive center fielder who wasn’t named Willie Mays in the 1960s. He won those seven Gold Gloves consecutively from 1963-69. As would future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith at shortstop, Flood likewise made himself into a respectably fine hitter as the years of his career went forward. And there was more to him than just a rangy-squared outfielder.

“Flood was a quiet man, a deep thinker, and an independent cuss,” wrote John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, published three years before Flood’s death. “He told friends on the club that he’d refuse to go if the Cardinals ever traded him. He’d quit before he left St. Louis. He had strong ties to the city, after playing for the Cardinals since 1958, and had begun a photographic and art business on the side. Flood was an outstanding portrait painter, whose rendering of [Cardinals owner] Gussie Busch hung in the saloon of the owner’s yacht.”

Let it be said that even in the era when owners tended to be paternalistic when not dismissive of their hired hands on the field Busch was somewhat anomalous in how he treated his players. He treated them like princelings, even if you considered that it was patrician patronage.

Busch put baseball’s first million dollar payroll on the field in 1968. He footed the bills for private rooms in top hotels when the Cardinals made road trips. Their homecomings included each player getting a free case of one of his Anheuser-Busch beers. And when the jet age arrived, Busch—who’d previously attached his luxury Pullman car Adolphus to trains for Cardinals players to travel in—flew them aboard charter jets.

He also helped Hall of Famer Stan Musial get into the restaurant business, when Musial bought into the St. Louis steakhouse where among other things fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (a native St. Louisian) met his future wife. He helped Flood start his portrature business. He rewarded Roger Maris for two fine seasons as a Cardinal to finish his troubled career with a particularly profitable Anheuser-Busch distributorship after Maris retired.  He’d hand Hall of Famers Lou Brock a yacht and Bob Gibson a luxurious motor home upon their retirements.

And after the players threatened a spring 1969 strike over getting a hike in the owners’ contribution to their pension plan, a hike they eventually got when they could still high tail it to the spring camps and get into game shape, Busch responded by walking into his players’ spring training clubhouse in St. Petersburg with a few brewery directors and delivered a lecture that only sounded the essence of calm reason.

It was really an old-fashioned patrician dressing down to the plebeians. “I hope that many millions of fans will retain their loyalty to baseball,” Busch was quoted as telling them. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure they do . . . I don’t react well to ultimatums. I don’t mind negotiations—that’s how we get together—but ultimatums rub me the wrong way, and I think ultimatums rub the fans the wrong way . . . ”

When reporters also present asked for comments, not one Cardinal said a word, probably too stunned to speak. “One of the players,” Helyar wrote, “stood there in a particularly raging silence. His name was Curt Flood.” Flood himself held out on his own for a raise for 1969 and got it, but Busch’s clubhouse speech sounded to him as though he “had been telling us to behave or get out. I no longer felt like a $90,000 ballplayer but like a green recruit.”

Flood became a Cardinal in the first place thanks to a 1957 trade that sent him there from the Reds in a five-player swap, and he’d sworn he’d do what it took never to be traded again. Now, after the 1969 Cardinals finished fourth in the new National League East, as Helyar quoted him, Flood told a friend, “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here. No way at all.”

By November 1969, Flood called Miller to say he wanted to challenge baseball’s abused reserve system, by which the owners used the actual reserve clause’s one-firm/one-option year on player contracts to bind them for life or until the owners saw fit to trade or sell them. The Players Association agreed to foot the bill for Flood’s legal expenses, but first Flood wanted to try his luck with Kuhn. Hence the letter. And, hence, Kuhn’s reply just prior to New Year’s Day, as legendary sportswriter Red Smith put it: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Known officially as Flood vs. Kuhn, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before it was decided, the Cardinals were hit with a 1972 contract holdout, a 21-year-old catcher who’d just established himself as the number one Cardinal behind the plate. Before the kid was finished he’d expose another rupture in the owners’ armours.

Ted Simmons wanted $30,000; the Cardinals wouldn’t go much past $20,000. Simmons played under an automatic renewal, unsigned. As his season grew more torrid, he got a shock at the All-Star break, when he was in Atlanta as the NL’s reserve All-Star catcher: the Cardinals were ready to hand him $70,000: the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973.

With Simmons’s new signing the Cardinals betrayed a secret: the owners would rather open the vaults and hand a kid seventy large than let him even think about a reserve clause test. Then came the bad news for Flood, whose legal team included former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg: the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The good news: Flood kicked a door open just a little bit. The Court itself called the reserve clause “an anomaly” and “an aberration” but decided it should be remedied by Congress. Which was akin to sending a lunch argument between two sharks to be remedied by a barracuda. Someone among the owners who didn’t have oatmeal for brains tried to warn them. “As the champagne corks popped,” Helyar wrote, “[owners’ negotiator] John Gaherin still cautioned: Flood’s defeat hadn’t brought an end to the forces of change; it had only bought them some time.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter would kick the door open further after the 1974 season. When Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hunter, he took it to arbitration—and won, with the arbitrator declaring the contract breached and Hunter a free agent. Kuhn’s failed bid to get it overturned failed when Miller threatened a lawsuit.

Thus Hunter became the target of a bidding war that brought Hunter offers of, essentially, the galaxy, safe passage through the Cardassian Empire, grazing rights on Bejor, and a fleet of luxury starships. Kidding. Sort of. Hunter ended up taking the third most valuable package among the offers, from the Yankees, because of the money distribution he wanted including an annuity for his children’s education.

Hunter taught the world what a top of the line baseball player could get on a fair and open job market in a very profitable industry, in essence. All that was left was for some player, any player, to have the moxie to chase it for reasons having nothing to do with breach of contract and everything to do, more or less, with treating the reserve clause in strict interpretation. Meaning that the contract expired legally after the player had played his mandated first year and his team-optioned second year.

After the owners continued stalling on salary arbitration, which Gaherin himself believed might have forestalled the absolute end of the reserve system, one of the National League’s best pitchers refused to sign his 1975 contract after being enraged when Dodgers general manager Al Campanis “injected a deeply ‘personal issue'” into their talks.

From that moment Andy Messersmith refused to talk to anyone lower than Dodger president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any deal that didn’t include a no-trade clause, refusing to let the Campanises determine his career path. Messersmith pitched without signing a 1975 contract no matter how much money the increasingly edgy Dodgers offered as the season went on. (It may have reached as high as $550,000 over three years.)

This was no ordinary pitcher. Messersmith led the 1975 National League in shutouts, complete games, and innings pitched, with a 2.29 earned run average, a 3.09 fielding-independent pitching rate, and the lowest hits-against-per-nine rate in the league with 6.8. Not until August 1975 did Miller present himself to Messersmith, when the pitcher was the last unsigned player to remain unsigned and finally agreed to file the grievance seeking free agency.

Arbitrator Peter Seitz tried to persuade the owners to take the case away and negotiate, even offering to be the mediator if they did. They didn’t, and Messersmith won. Ted Simmons nailed it in one simple statement: “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association. At the start, it was all personal,” Messersmith said in due course. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t being the no-trade clause to the table . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Messersmith finished what Flood began. Today, with Miller finally elected to the Hall of Fame despite his late-life demurrals (he died in 2012), there’s a small swell hoping that Flood will receive the same honour as a baseball pioneer. Including new Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole, who signed a deal about which Flood himself could only have fantasised, nine years and $324 million, average annual value $36 million.

When Cole was introduced formally as a Yankee, he paid tribute to Flood, Simmons, Hunter, and Messersmith. “[C]hallenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole told the presser. “I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is.”

Flood wasn’t entirely alone during his challenge. Teammates supported him morally. So did Dick Allen, to whom the trade was liberation day. Trial testimony on Flood’s behalf came included from Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (Mrs. Pace-Flood once said his testimony almost brought Flood to tears, coming from his personal baseball idol) and Hank Greenberg. ABC Sports broadcast legend Howard Cosell backed Flood publicly.

But Flood still felt as though on the threshold of a nightmare. “You couldn’t even use the word nervous,” Mrs. Pace-Flood said in a 2017 interview. “It was completely draining for Curt, mentally and physically. It was as if his whole world was going to disappear. All that he had worked for, all that he loved, all that he ever wanted to do—those things were hanging in the balance with the outcome of this case.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodTedWilliams

Curt Flood, in the Senators’ dugout, next to his manager—Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

After sitting 1970 out, Flood actually tried a baseball comeback—with the Washington Senators, whose otherwise capricious owner Bob Short delivered perhaps the finest gesture of his baseball life on Flood’s behalf. Short made a deal with the Phillies to get negotiating rights to Flood. Then he made Flood an offer he couldn’t refuse: He offered Flood $100,000 for 1971, agreed to pay the money no matter what, and agreed further that, if they couldn’t come to terms for 1972, he’d make Flood a free agent.

The kicker, according to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators 1901-1971: Short wouldn’t put that agreement in writing, since it would violate the rules of the time. And, according to Flood himself, Short would deny those extra conditions existed if they were made public.

The worse news was that Flood no longer had it, and he knew it a little too sadly. He left the team on 27 April, leaving Short a note saying he’d tried but the long layoff proved too much, not to mention having run into financial trouble with his portraiture business. That was putting it politely. The business went bankrupt, and Flood also faced issues with the Internal Revenue Service over the home he’d bought his mother.

Flood bought a bar on Majorca to begin sorting out his shattered life, but in time he returned to America, tried broadcasting with the A’s for a spell, and reconnected with Judy Pace. He also became, of all things, the commissioner of two short-lived professional baseball leagues, the Senior Professional Baseball Association (1988-89) and the United Baseball League (mid-1990s).

“Flood seemed a strange choice to be commissioner of a league that desperately would need the assistance of the major leagues,” wrote Peter Golenbock in his book about the SPBA, The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time, published in 1991. “Later I would discover that many of the players considered themselves outcasts from baseball, so perhaps Flood’s choice as commissioner had been fitting after all.”

“Dred Scott in spikes,” George F. Will called Flood in 1993.

There was poetry and portent in the fact that Curt Flood’s career blossomed in St. Louis, the city where Dred Scott had taken his case to court. In 1966, the Cardinals moved into a new stadium that is located just a long fungo from the courthouse where Scott, a slave, argued that he had lived on free soil and therefore should be free . . . [Scott] was not the last time that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property.

That is the question Curt Flood posed when the Cardinals tried to trade him. They said he had to go wherever they decided to send him. It had always been so, and always would be. He said, well, we’ll just see about that. He rose in rebellion against the reserve clause that denied baseball players the fundamental right to negotiate terms of employment with whomever they chose. He lost the 1970 season and lost in the Supreme Court, but he had lit a fuse.

Six years later—too late to benefit him—his cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.

Will observed wryly that what was once said of another player could have been said of Flood the center fielder—two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and the rest was covered by Flood. That was nothing compared to the flood he began when he stood on his hind legs and demanded, quietly but firmly, the rights of any working man or woman from the most obscure labourer to the most elevated chief executive officer.

Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame as the citizen who first told baseball seriously that denying a man the right to sell his services fairly and openly was, shall we say, un-American. So does the California guy who finished what Dred Scott in Spikes began, when Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world one not-so-foggy Christmas Eve.

Marvin and Ted, a love story

2019-12-08 TedSimmonsMarvin Miller Press ConferenceWhen all was said and finally done, Marvin Miller got what he no longer wanted. He’d said it expressly and pointedly enough, citing specifically the assorted Veterans Committees he believed with certain merit were often enough stacked for certain results. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

Miller’s name turned up on the Modern Era Committee ballot now concluded, and there emerged a bristling debate as to whether Miller’s express wishes did or didn’t supercede the prospect that, at long enough last, he would attain even posthumously the honour many believed too long overdue but his family believed should be set aside according to his very own wishes.

More than most baseball men Miller knew that the Rolling Stones were right about one thing at least, namely that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. What he needed from this year’s Modern Era Committee to go into the Hall of Fame was twelve votes, and he got them, one shy of the thirteen awarded to enshrine former catcher Ted Simmons.

Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields now, Miller didn’t get what he wanted but got what he needed, and it’s to lament that previous Veterans Committees or their 21st Century successors-by-category didn’t give it to him while he was still alive and well enough to accept and appreciate it. But there’s a nice synergy in Miller going in however posthumously with Simmons who is very much alive, well, and working as an Atlanta Braves scout today.

Even as Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day before the Supreme Court, Simmons himself came close enough to challenging the clause himself, entering his second year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular catcher, who thought establishing himself thus even at age 22 was worthy of just a little bit more than a $6,000 or thereabout pay raise.

Simmons refused to sign for 1972 for a penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, and held in the lowest $20,000s. Simmons opened the season without a contract, the Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed, and everyone in baseball cast their jeweler’s eyes upon the sophomore catcher who defied the athletic stereotype (among other things, he’d serve time on the board of a St. Louis art museum and a knowledgeable one at that) and the clause that owners abused for generations to bind their players like chattel until they damn well felt like trading, selling, or releasing them.

This wasn’t a veteran who’d seen too much and heard too much more; this was a kid whom you might have thought had everything to lose but who lived as though principle trumped even a three-run homer. He played onward and refused any Cardinals entreaty that didn’t equal a $30,000 salary, then went to Atlanta the selected All-Star choice as the National League’s backup catcher. He’d barely landed and checked in when Devine rang the phone. Would Simmons kindly accept $75,000; or, the $30,000 he asked for for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons very nervously, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court if things came that way, never mind that Flood had yet to get his Supreme Court ruling. (And lost, alas.) He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal, but the Simmons case handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy on the black market or otherwise: the owners would rather hand a lad $75,000 than let any arbitrator get to within ten nautical miles of the reserve clause.

A former United Steelworkers of America economist, Miller won skeptical players over in the first place by being just who he was, and he wasn’t the stereotypical union man with a bludgeon instead of a brain, pressing hardest on the point that no concern of theirs was out of bounds and that the doors to the Players Association’s office would remain open whenever they wanted. His mantra was, “It’s your union,” a mantra one wishes was that of numerous other American labour unions to whom the rank and file were and often still are, generally, to be seen and not heard.

Ahead of the Simmons issue still lay Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter to shine a light on what a fair, open market portended for baseball players, when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on insurance payments mandated in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator hearing Hunter’s grievance ruled in favour of the righthander. At once, Hunter’s Hertford, North Carolina home hamlet became baseball’s hottest address, teams swooping in prepared to offer him the moon, the stars, safe passage through the Klingon Empire, and grazing rights on the planets of his choice.

Hunter merely astonished one and all by finally signing the third-richest offer in front of him, at seven figures plus for the next five seasons, and one that came at almost the eleventh minute, because the Yankees—whose representative Clyde Kluttz went back with Hunter his entire career to that point—were willing to divide the dollars according to his wishes, right down to an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. After writing the division on a napkin in a diner nook, Hunter’s first question ahead of the dollars to be done was whether the Yankees could or would do that. They could. They did.

And ahead of that, still, lay Andy Messersmith, one of the game’s best pitchers, pitching for and haggling contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring 1975. When those hagglings turned a little too personal for Messersmith’s taste, thanks to general manager Al Campanis injecting personal and not baseball issues and stinging the pitcher to his soul (and to this day he refuses to discuss it), Messersmith refused to talk to any executive lower than heir apparent Peter O’Malley and demanded a no-trade clause in the contract to come.

Like Simmons, Messersmith refused to sign unless he got the clause, out of refusing now to let the Al Campanises dictate his future if he could help it. Like Simmons, Messersmith played on in 1975, pitching well enough that when fans and artery-hardened sportswriters weren’t needling him about his unsigned contract the Dodgers were trying to fatten his calf in dollar terms. They offered him princely six-figure annual salaries at three years, but they refused to capitulate on the no-trade clause.

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association,” Messersmith, ordinarily what John Helyar (in The Lords of the Realm) described as happy-go-lucky and a little flaky, said much later. “At the start it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” Indeed not until August 1975 did Miller reach out to the still-unsigned Messersmith, the last man standing among six players who opened 1975 without signed contracts. Only then did Messersmith agree to file a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

Messersmith followed through. (Retiring pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired, agreed to join the grievance as insurance in case the Dodgers’ dollars seduced Messersmith, who wouldn’t be seduced.) The owners refused to listen when such representatives of their own as their Player Relations Committee leader (and then-Milwaukee Brewers chairman) Ed Fitzgerald, pleaded with them to consider negotiating a revision of the reserve system. “We need to negotiate while we’re in a power position,” he pleaded. Plea denied with the very pronounced sound of a gunshot’s bullet going through the owners’ feet.

And—abetted among other evidence by a newspaper article, in which no less than Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith acknowledged a proper reserve clause application would make a player a free agent after one signed season and one option season, properly applied—arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Messersmith’s favour. “Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons would say. (Helyar described him as choked up.) “[Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all, recognising as he did that teams did have certain rights in players they developed even as he knew, and insisted, that baseball players should have the same rights as any other American from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive to test themselves on a fair, open job market when they were no longer under contract.

It did more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of the day would have allowed, especially in their lamentations over the coming death of competitive balance. (Pace Mark Twain, the reports of its death were extremely exaggerated, and still are: among other things, more teams have won World Series since the Messersmith ruling than won the Series before it.) But few things were more astonishing than the owners’ subsequent chicaneries, unless it was seeing the years go passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not as popular with many of his former clients as his work on their behalf.

Simmons, of course, went forward to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown; his peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Exactly why never seemed clear, other than perhaps residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog (who traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined repositioning the field), but the advanced metrics show Simmons the tenth best catcher to strap it on, ever. Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board director.

Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League

2019-10-16 WashingtonNationals

Max (the Knife) Scherzer (31) and Stephen Strasburg (far right) join up as the party starts with finishing reliever Daniel Hudson leaping in the arms of catcher Yan Gomes Tuesday night.

Let’s face it. Three pitching-dominant games are all well and good, for the Nationals and for anyone. But there’s nothing like a little hair-raising to make even a National League Championship Series sweep feel like an honest-to-God battle.

Even die-hard Nationals fans must have suspected it might take some doing, after all, to make it “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.” But make it the Nats did Tuesday night. And make it easy for them the otherwise overmatched Cardinals didn’t.

And somehow the Nats lived long enough to win 7-4 and sweep the Cardinals who never had even a single half-inning lead in the entire NLCS.

This time, there was no Book-damaged manager to hook a boy wonder an out away from a division series shutout and watch his team implode while leaving his best arm in the bullpen. This time, there was no stretch drive collapse. This time, there was no pair of catching errors (interference and throwing) to push the plunger deeper on a fifth-inning implosion. This time even their injuries couldn’t stop them.

This time, the Nats said nuts to all that.

After demolishing the Dodgers in a fifth division series game to get here in the first place, the Nats won the pennant in a sweep that felt more like they used vacuum cleaners instead of brooms. And had Nationals Park going nuts all Game Four long.

“I can truly say this is the best time of my career,” said series MVP Howie Kendrick, who’d been up and down with the Angels, the Dodgers, briefly with the Phillies, and then endured even a career-threatening Achilles tendon rupture as a Nat in 2018 before returning to hoist the best on-base percentage of his major league life as a role player this year.

“(I)t means a lot to be around those guys. I learn so much from them, and I love these guys just as much as they love me, and I know that 100%,” said Kendrick, who went 5-for-15 in the set and hit three doubles with three runs driven in in Game Three. “I think that’s the big reason why we have success, because we truly care about the next guy.”

Enough to land Washington’s first major league pennant since year one of the New Deal. Its first league championship of any kind since the Homestead Grays won the Negro National League pennant in 1948. Making this the second time a single-team city landed pennants in each league with separate teams.

Milwaukee can brag about two National League pennants and a World Series title with the Braves and one Brewers American League pennant. Washington has three Senators pennants and a World Series title in the American League and, now, one Nationals pennant in the National League.

And in the end it didn’t come quite as easily as reading of the four-game sweep on paper will make it look. “We still got work in front of us,” said Max Scherzer after the game, before diving back into the on-field party. The Nats re-learned about hard work Tuesday night without even trying. And they’d already learned about hard work starting in late May as it was.

A team that yanks itself up from a season-opening 19-31 to get to the postseason in the first place doesn’t reach the World Series without beyond-maximum effort in the end. And survival instincts. And baby sharking a la veteran pickup Gerardo Parra, who introduced it in honour of his little daughter who loves Baby Shark.” And Natitude enough.

“We knew where we were at one point, but we knew where we wanted to go,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon, who faces his first free agency after the postseason is finally over. “The season wasn’t over and back then we were upset, but it was still the first half of the season. You don’t win the division or the World Series in the first half of the season.”

Slice and dice Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson with a little help from momentarily caught-frozen Cardinal fielders? Yank another pair off Adam Wainwright coming in to rescue the poor guy but leave the Cardinals in a 7-0 hole after just one full inning? All well and good. The Cardinals escaped three runs shy of knowing exactly how the Braves felt in division series Game Five.

But don’t let Patrick Corbin spend most of his bullets in the first four innings, when he becomes baseball’s first to strike out double digits in four innings of any postseason games, ever. Even despite surrendering a sort-of excuse-me home run to Yadier Molina that rudely interrupted three more Cardinal strikeouts in the top of the fourth.

Because even pushed out of the boat early, these Cardinals weren’t allergic to the smell of blood in the water yet as they came to the top of the fifth.

A walk, a single, and a walk loaded Cardinals on the pond with nobody out. A ground out to second by Tommy Edman nudged a second Cardinal run home; a two-run double by Jose Martinez yanked the Cardinals back to within three. Then Corbin reached for reserves enough to nail Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna on back-to-back swinging strikeouts to end that uprising before it got genuinely poisonous.

And that seven-run Nats first started looking safe again even with the Cardinals somehow grinding their way back to within three runs. Until it wasn’t.

Until Daniel Hudson relieving Sean Doolittle with two out in the top of the eighth plunked Molina with a man on and walked Paul DeJong to load the Cardinals on the pond. And with Matt Carpenter pinch hitting, the Cardinals were suddenly one solid swing away from changing the game entirely.

But Hudson ran it to 2-2 before luring a ground out to second out of Carpenter to dodge maybe the biggest howitzer shell of the Nats’ season to date. You can’t say the Cardinals went down like canaries. They made the Nats fight for their right to party.

Among numerous sadnesses for the Cardinals is that their bullpen went on from the first inning disaster to throw seven and two-thirds shutout relief, not without some doing, with seven strikeouts, one walk and four hits against them. This is what’s called heroism in a lost cause in some quarters. And it’ll be forgotten against the Nats’ final stand.

Who knew that after Corbin struck out the side swinging to open Game Four that Rendon’s sacrifice fly with nobody out and two on in the bottom of the first would prove the first splash of a profound flood? The Cardinals couldn’t have known, no matter what they did to the Braves. The racket in Nationals Park probably masked that the crowd knew nothing but merely hoped it wouldn’t stop there.

Juan Soto promptly shot one the other way into the left field corner to send Adam Eaton (double) home. After the Cardinals put eventual NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick aboard on the house, the Cardinals’ normally skintight defense betrayed them yet again.

The Nats’ grand old man, Ryan Zimmerman, slashed one up the third base line that Cardinals third baseman Edman stopped with a racing dive, scrambling up to throw to second. And the throw ricocheted off the glove heel of Kolten Wong, the Cardinals’ Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, unusually and unfortunately.

Leaving the bases loaded for Victor Robles in his second game back from a hamstring tweak. He hit a tall opposite field pop fly to shallow right, not far from the line. Wong from second and Goldschmidt from first ran toward the ball. Right fielder Martinez ran in toward the ball. With the three converging it appeared Martinez snapped his glove a time or two indicating he’d have it.

Martinez held up as if thinking Wong would have the play. Except that Wong made one move suggesting he’d back off. The ball hit the grass off Martinez’s left. It might as well have been a bomb drop. And Soto hit the plate with the third Nats run and the sharks still on the docks. Goldschmidt looked like a robbery victim. Martinez looked skyward as if praying.

But Nats catcher Yan Gomes shot one just past a diving Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong and Kendrick and Zimmerman scored runs three and four. Cardinal manager Mike Schildt pulled his starter for Wainwright, his veteran approaching the end, who’d been magnificent for him all postseason long so far.

After Corbin dropped the kind of sacrifice bunt that some people still think is sacrilege today, Wainwright ran right into Trea Turner, the Nats shortstop who’d started the merry-go-round with a leadoff single. And Turner continued obeying the Nats’ order of the first inning: jump on the first pitch if it looks meaty enough but swing on the second if you must.

Wainwright hung him a curve ball to open. Turner jumped on it, hitting a high liner to left for which Ozuna inexplicably slowed before playing it on the hop when he was a mere step and a half from a catch. Two more Nats runs. The last two Nats runs of the game as things turned out. The last two they’d need the rest of the night.

This is how pumped the Nats were in the first. Only two Nats—Turner leading off—saw third pitches in their plate appearances that inning. Turner smacked a 2-0 sinker without a lot of sink into right field to open; Robles’ bomb drop in almost the middle of Martinez, Goldschmidt, and Wong was a fifth-pitch loft on 1-2 off a sinker hitting the low inside corner. Eaton’s inning-ending line out was a third-pitch curve ball. His one on/no out double, Rendon’s sacrifice fly, Gomes’s two-run single, and Turner’s eventual two-run single, all came on the first pitch of the turns.

And just like the Cardinals against the Braves, the Nats did it without even one ball flying over the fence. Maybe the baseball that was a little hopped up during the regular season did get just a little deadened down this postseason. Maybe. The Nats bombed their way into the NLCS in the first place and surely didn’t mind settling for pistols, machine guns, bazookas, and mere cannons to win Game Four.

Even if they didn’t suspect the Cardinals would put up four in the fourth and fifth. Even if they didn’t suspect three out of their now four-man flying bullpen—rookie Tanner Rainey and veterans Doolittle and Hudson—would have to perform feats of derring-do without nets over the final couple of innings. Derring-do, hell. Hudson had to plug the leak before the Hindenburg exploded in the top of the eighth. Then he got the three NLCS-ending air outs almost in a blink. Almost.

Once upon a time, just a couple of months ago, calls to the Nats bullpen caused Nats fans to reach for the nitroglycerin pills if not call for the crash carts. Now the only thing missing Tuesday night was Rodney not getting a chance to shoot another invisible arrow up, out, and maybe clear through the Capitol Dome.

Wait until the Nats get to tangle with either the Yankees or the Astros in the Serious. They may have to stop that nasty iceberg from hitting the Titanic. And they just might be able to do it. Only one team in baseball scored more runs over the regular season’s final 123 games than the Nats: the Yankees. And if the Astros can hoist Verlander, Cole, and Greinke, with Greinke not exactly a sure thing lately, the Nats can hoist Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin. Plus Anibal Sanchez and his high enough-flying junkyard.

But World Series against either of those teams won’t be the walk in the park (Nationals or otherwise) they took against the Cardinals, and they did get close enough to being mugged near the end. Neither the Yankees nor the Astros are liable to let even the Nats’ stellar pitching do to them what they did so amazingly to the Cardinals, whom the Nats’ arms struck out 48 times in 123 at-bats.

The Cardinals hit .130 as a team with a team .195 on-base percentage; Goldschmidt, who shook off early season struggles to hit 37 home runs, had one hit in the NLCS while striking out nine times. Their best hitter turned out to be Martinez (.500/.500/.700 NLCS slash line) in a mostly part-time role; he went 3-for-8 as a starter in Games Three and Four.

“There’s not one thing you can point to,” said Goldschmidt, before doing just that in his own case. ”I didn’t play well enough to help us win. One hit in four games, that’s not going to cut it when you’re hitting third. It just came back to bite us.” So does being out-scored 20-6 in a four-game set. Oh, that shark bites.

The Nats’ pitching and depth made the difference. The Cardinals didn’t stand a chance against a pitching staff working to a 1.25 ERA and a 0.64 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in the NLCS, while theirs posted a 4.50 ERA/1.41 WHIP. Against Scherzer (eleven strikeouts in Game Two), Strasburg (twelve in Game Three) and Corbin (twelve in Game Four), the Cardinals looked like the victims of three Bob Gibsons.

These Nats aren’t exactly afraid to go the distance if they have to, either. But another kind of distance may yet be in their way: only one team that ever swept a best-of-seven League Championship Series (it was a best-of-five until 1986) went on to win the World Series, the 1995 Braves.

“You can’t simulate that type of emotion that you go through in an NLCS, nor when the World Series starts,” says Jimmy Rollins, now a TBS analyst but long the Phillies shortstop anchorage who was one key to their 2008 World Series winner after winning the NLCS in five.

“You try to use it as rest. Mentally, you’re on. You’re thinking about execution, you’re thinking about who you may face as you’re watching the games, and game planning,” Rollins continues. “You have to do something mentally. Physically, you’re body’s naturally going to shut down for a day or two, then you have to get on the field, get on a treadmill, start throwing and get it revved back up . . . usually this long of a break is the only thing that stops momentum. Hopefully that’s not the case.”

Are you kidding? These Nats aren’t exactly afraid of any worst-case scenario. They survived the worst of all starting in late May. The pitching coach was executed. The team was going to be broken up or at least partially shaved down by the new single mid-season trade deadline. Manager Dave Martinez was going to the guillotine, the lethal injection chamber, the firing squad, or the electric chair. Whichever came first.

A measly week off to keep their minds calibrated, their bodies in tune, and their hearts well enough massaged shouldn’t be that problematic. Should it? Don’t ask now. The Nats are probably still in party mode today. And considering their franchise drought plus their city not having seen a World Series since the year Franklin D. Roosevelt first threw out a first pitch from the boxes at old Griffith Stadium, you can’t blame them.

On Tuesday night, hoisting the National League championship trophy from a podium set up post-game on the infield, Martinez could afford to channel his inner Ecclesiastian. “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,” he told the Nationals Park throng who refused to leave just yet. “And this is a beautiful place.”

On the threshold of a dream

2019-10-14 StephenStrasburg

Striking out twelve in NLCS Game Three is child’s play. Getting Stephen Strasburg to crack a smile on the mound? That takes talent!

Roll over, George Stallings, and tell Yogi Berra the news. And send Phil Garner the bulletin while you’re at it. The Nationals are one win away from doing what only three teams in baseball history have ever done before. What a difference five months makes.

The 1914 Boston Braves, managed by Stallings—twelve games under .500 on 30 May; final record 24 games over .500 and into the World Series.

The 1973 Mets, managed by Yogi—twelve and a half  games under .500 on 15 August; final record three games over .500, winning the National League Championship Series and thus into the World Series.

The 2005 Astros, managed by Garner—twelve under .500 on 21 May; final record sixteen games over .500, winning the American League Championship Series and thus into the World Series.

Of the three only the Miracle Braves won their World Series; the You Gotta Believe Mets lost in seven games to the Athletics’ “Swingin’ A’s” (who swung in more ways than one), and the ’05 Astros got swept by the White Sox. (Who hadn’t won a World Series since the year before World War I ended.) It’s a shame nobody thought to stick a memorable nickname on those ‘Stros.

The Dancing Nats would like very much to become only the second major league team ever to win a World Series in the same year they were that far under .500 at one point. Even with their opponent standing to be whoever survives the Astros-Yankees skirmish in the ALCS, it’s not yet an unrealistic prospect.

That was the Nats on 24 May 2019: Twelve games under .500, the execution cocktail being mixed for their manager, and trade speculation finally if regretfully including no less than Max Scherzer himself. And you were tempted to pull out of your music library an ancient ballad by what was considered heavy metal music’s brainiest band in 1972, Blue Oyster Cult:

Then came the last days of May, I’ll be breathing dry air/
I’m leaving soon, the others are already there.
Would you be interested in coming along, instead of staying here?
They say the west is nice this time of year . . .

This is the Nats on Tuesday morning: Including the postseason, they’re 81-40 since the last days of May.

Sentimentally you want to believe a cancer-stricken ten-year-old whose lymphoma went into remission, got to spend 24 May with his Nats heroes, and throw a ceremonial first pitch changeup to Scherzer from the rubber to behind the plate got the Nats’ mojo working all over again.

Especially after Parker Staples threw out another such ceremonial first pitch before their Game Three demolition of the Cardinals Monday night. And the boy threw another changeup. Almost as wicked as the one Stephen Strasburg deployed among his other befuddling breaking balls.

But there were realistic reasons for the Nats’ self-resurrection: Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Anthony Rendon got their health back. Soto turned the dugout into Soul Train after big home runs. Kid Gerardo Parra and old man Fernando Rodney brought some much needed more fun, fun, fun to the dugout and the clubhouse, from baby sharks to shooting pantomime arrows after shutdown innings.

Let the kids play? The Nats said let the kids of all ages play. All of a sudden, the next thing you knew was the Nats taking life and baseball one day, one game at a time, and remembering for all their game prep that Hall of Famer Willie Stargell had a point when he observed, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’.”

Rich or modestly well off individually, these Nats actually remembered how to play. Not just in the field, on the mound, or at the plate. This is Animal House, without the debauchery. These are the Alpha Omega Nats. You wouldn’t be shocked if they go out for laughing gas instead of dinner and drinks after games. Especially knowing that a lot of what’s happened since 24 May comes from playing each game for itself. They quit thinking the fate of the entire season rested on one game.

When even Strasburg—who usually looked so serious on the mound and in the dugout you wondered if he’d been raised in a Skinner Box—flashed big smiles after finishing a twelve-strikeout Game Three performance while his Nats made mincemeat out of Cardinals boy wonder Jack Flaherty and a few Cardinal relievers Monday night, you know things have changed in Natville.

It didn’t faze Strasburg one bit that he didn’t join the Nats’ almost-no-no parade. It almost fazed him more that his teammates wanted to smother him in a group hug after he was done. “They’re just trying to make Stras as uncomfortable as possible,” says outfielder Adam Eaton. “It’s great, and when Stras is uncomfortable, good things happen.”

When Parra tried to hug him, Strasburg replied with a few pats on the back but otherwise tried squirming away. Not a chance. “I’m not much of a hugger,” says Strasburg, who’s often seen as the most uptight Nat. “They kind of just surround me, so I just have to take it.”

He still doesn’t dare let himself enjoy a last laugh he’s earned so richly. But he should.

Remember when the world went ballistic over the Nats shutting Strasburg down in 2012, over a year after his career began with a bang that exploded into Tommy John surgery? You can’t do that when this might be his only chance at a World Series!!! the world cried angrily. You can’t tell us this kid’s future is that meaningless, the Nats shot back indignantly.

Now Strasburg’s 31. He’s gone from child prodigy to injury-compromised, from pitching student to . . . well, if not for Scherzer he’d be man of the house. Somewhere in there he became a dependable number two who comes up big enough when he’s needed enough. And he’s even learning to lighten up. There were times Monday night when you thought he’d actually crack a little smile in the split second before he delivered to the plate.

He’s also become one of the most quiet postseason horses in history; his 1.10 lifetime postseason ERA is second only to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax among those who’ve started at least five postseason contests. And only one pitcher has ever worked a postseason game of twelve strikeouts or more without a walk: Hall of Famer Tom Seaver did that in Game One of the ’73 Series.

Some think the Nats put an end to the Cardinals’ season in the third inning Monday night. When Victor Robles—returning to the Nats lineup after being missing since Game Two of the division series with a hamstring tweak—shot a Flaherty slider, the one against which hitters on the season hit a measly buck eleven, not too hard but right past diving shortstop Paul DeJong.

When Strasburg executed what used to be a textbook sacrifice to the first base side leaving the Cardinals no possible chance of stopping Robles from taking second.

When Eaton with two outs bounced one right up the middle for the base hit that sent Robles home.

When Rendon smashed a hard foul near third base one pitch, then floated one toward the left field line for which Marcell Ozuna slid  only to have the ball bound off and out of his glove web, enabling Eaton to score and Rendon to have second. “Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” said Flaherty. “But that’s what he does. That’s why he is what he is.”

For Ozuna, who actually rated very well in left field this season as part of a very stingy Cardinals defense, that mishap was a mute horror. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play,” says Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, “as soon as you hit the ground, there’s going to be some kind of movement, and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove.”

Then it was a walk to Soto, a wild pitch to Kendrick setting up second and third, and a line drive all the way to the right center field fence. That, Flaherty says, is the one Monday night pitch he really wants to have back.

But Flaherty can’t fix the Cardinals’ bats. The Redbirds are in danger of matching the 1966 Dodgers who could only muster two runs while the Orioles swept them out of that World Series. The Cardinals’ two came because of Nats fielding mishaps. And they’ve never had a lead in any of the NLCS games so far. Pitching coach Mike Maddux’s much-talked-about pair of holes in one on the Army-Navy Club golf course earlier Monday beat anything the Cardinals did at the plate.

Their ineffectiveness against off-speed pitching is killing them. Killing them even more is that enough of them are being thrown by power pitchers who’ve figured out or re-learned that sometimes you can win battles the sneaky way. The Nats’ NLCS walks/hits per inning pitched rate? 0.52. The Cardinals’? 1.42.

That ten-run first-inning disemboweling of the Braves to win a division series they nearly lost now looks like a pleasant dream. And they’re on the threshold of a season in which they won the National League Central at literally the last minute turning into a hard day’s nightmare of a finish.

“It’s definitely better pitching than the Braves,” says outfielder Jose Martinez, who’s accounted for a little over a third of the Cardinals’ NLCS hits with his four. “They [Strasburg, Scherzer, and Game Four starter Patrick Corbin] are three of the best pitchers in the big leagues.”

And now for the weirdest part. For most of the season the Nats’ bullpen could have been tried by jury for arson. They finished with the worst bullpen ERA in baseball. Only one team ever finished a season with baseball’s worst pen and a trip to the World Series at all: the 1918 Red Sox. (Whose starting rotation included a guy named Babe Ruth.) They’d like to be the second there, too.

But four Nats relievers—Rodney, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, and rookie Tanner Rainey—have turned up in the NLCS. Their ERA over four total innings work? Zero. The worst culprits in the hard-earned division series triumph, Hunter Strickland (18.00 division series ERA) and Wander Suero (27.00 division series ERA), may be being held in a remote cabin somewhere beyond the D.C. metro area with their overseers under orders to shoot them on sight if they even think about escaping to return to the pen.

The next-weirdest part? The Nats have overrun the Cardinals without relying on the long ball. Kendrick’s jaw-dropping, division series-winning grand slam, and Rendon and Soto’s solos earlier in that fifth game, seem like aberrations now.

The ball was juiced; the ball’s deadened, has been the postseason mantra from the conspiracy minded. The Nats couldn’t care less. Out of 28 Nat hits in this NLCS only two have flown into the seats or elsewhere over the fence and only twelve overall have gone for extra bases. The Cardinals’ eleven NLCS hits so far include only two for extra bases and none over the fence. They could have put the shots at the Nats and the Nats would have turned them into base hits.

“We’re a little flustered with trying to figure out how to get there,” says Wong, “but we know how good we are. Once we get going, man, this team, we steamroll.” You heard that allegation, too? The way these Cardinals are going against these Nats, Stan Musial himself couldn’t jump-start them, never mind put them back on the highway.

And it’s a shame. The Cardinals have taken it on the chin for a few years now. Former manager Mike Matheny was so incapable of deviating from his particular version of The Book to manage in the actual moment that he cost the Cardinals big in a couple of postseasons. Then Matheny lost his clubhouse and his job early enough in 2018, when among other things he let one veteran sourpuss be as close to a clubhouse bully as definable and then couldn’t walk back a public comment about “soft” young players.

And a rogue Cardinal scouting director was caught dead to right hacking into the Astros’ computer data base over a sixteen-month period. It made Leo Durocher’s then high-tech sign stealing to effect the 1951 Giants’ pennant race comeback resemble randy kids sneaking peeks at the comely housewife next door. Chris Correa’s been banned from baseball since, and for life, but he gave the entire Cardinal organisation an unfair image as cheaters.

The Nats haven’t been devoid of body blows, either. They overshot their mark against Matheny’s Cardinals in a 2012 division series win-or-be-gone Game Five, when they jumped the Cardinals for six runs in three innings, then started pitching as though trying for strikeouts on each pitch and hitting as though trying to hit six-run homers on each swing. They ended up losing, 9-7.

Later manager Matt Williams lost his clubhouse over his Matheny-like marriage to his own Book, his astonishing inability to communicate to the point where players often didn’t know they’d play until near the last minute before games, and his complete snooze when then-reliever Jonathan Papelbon tried choking then-right fielder Bryce Harper in the dugout after being eliminated in 2015 (get in his face over alleged loafing, sure; choke him, no way, Jose)—and Williams still sent Papelbon out to pitch the ninth instead of putting him through a wall himself.

“When, exactly,” since-retired outfielder Jayson Werth demanded to know of Williams at one point, very early in that season, “do you think you lost this clubhouse?”

And Dusty Baker found himself out of a job after two years, following the Nats’ spectacular fifth-inning implosion in Game Five of their 2017 division series against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. Baker may have learned his lessons about handling pitching but that implosion, through no fault of his own, wrote his pink slip after the series. When the 2018 Nats began with a reputedly uneasy atmosphere, Baker mused aloud, “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.”

Scherzer, Strasburg, Rendon, Soto, and from-the-beginning mainstay Ryan Zimmerman seemed to prefer leadership by example over personality often as not. But something happened this season. A little new blood, a lot of remembering that baseball’s a profession but it’s also a game. And don’t let that 19-31 start get you down. One day at a time, gentlemen. Don’t stop the dance.

The Yankees and the Astros pick up in New York where they left off in Houston today, their ALCS tied at a game each. Wherever their set goes, whoever comes out as the last American League team standing, they’re not going to assume an easy time of things if the Nats do what no Washington baseball team has done since the birth of the New Deal.

Never mind doing what no Washington baseball team has done since Hall of Famer Walter Johnson—the historical antecedent for the Nats’ recent starters-as-relievers tactic—saved Game Seven of a World Series with four innings of scoreless relief. A month before Calvin Coolidge ran for and got his only elected term in the White House.

Of course the Nats have to win one more game first. They have Game Four coming and, if need be, three more shots at it coming. And even they know the Cardinals aren’t really as bad as they’ve made them look. But they really are thatclose to saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

If they can get Stephen Strasburg to smile on the mound, these Nats just might be capable of anything.