Skin depth vs. Globe Life Field

2020-06-25 GlobeLifeParkActuality

Considering its appearance, should the naming rights to the Rangers’ new home have been sold to an airline instead?

In 1964, crooning and caressing lyrics by songwriting legend Eddie Holland, the Temptations’ singularly gifted and ultimately troubled co-lead singer David Ruffin sang, “if you’re lookin’ for a lover/don’t judge a book by its cover/she may be fine on the outside/but so untrue on the inside.” Around him, his fellow Temptations chimed, “Oh, yeah.”

Neither Holland nor Ruffin and his four singing partners foresaw Globe Life Field, the new home facility of the Texas Rangers. The joint (it’s extremely difficult to call it a field, never mind a ballpark) is a monument to both architectural prankishness and taxpayer gullibility.

Inside, the place looks as agreeable as Houston’s Minute Maid Park, or Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Even without the pleasurably nutty home run train behind the stands in Houston or the asthetics-enhancing old railroad building behind the Yards. Surely the retractable roof was a dire necessity considering the climate. So far, so good.

But outside, the place looks like anything from a Goodyear blimp or Boeing 747 hangar to a lidded barbeque grill . . . for Paul Bunyan. The Rangers seem to have studied Minute Maid Park—which looks like a hangar only on its sectional retractable roof, atop a rather more classic and handsome ballpark-like external building—and decided the Astros didn’t go far enough marrying baseball to aviation.

Texas summers are not renowned for gentleness. The Rangers’ previous home, known first as the Ballpark in Arlington and then Globe Life Park in Arlington, was an oasis of splendor in the middle of oppressive summer heat and humidity. Beautiful to behold but often too smothering in which to play baseball, the Rangers abandoned the park after a mere 26 years.

Put that into perspective. Connie Mack Stadium (the former Shibe Park) was 67 years old when the Philadelphia Phillies moved from there into the washing machine tub known as Veterans Memorial Stadium. Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field (known occasionally as the Old Lady of Schenley Park) was 61 when the Pirates threw her over for a similar tub known as Three Rivers Stadium—which lived a whopping thirty years. (The Vet made it to 32.)

Cleveland Municipal Stadium (known colloquially to Indians fans as the Mistake on the Lake) was 63 when the Tribe moved into Jacobs Field (since re-named Progressive Field). Crosley Field in Cincinnati was 68 when the Reds sent her into the history books in favour of a bowl named Riverfront Stadium, which lived to 32 before the Reds moved into Great American Ballpark.

The Polo Grounds as last seen (three previous structures wore the name) was 52 when the New York Mets moved out of the New York Giants’ former home and into the Flushing Meadows multipurpose stadium longtime New York building tyrant Robert Moses once hoped to jam down Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley’s throat.

Ebbets Field was 46 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The park was no longer expandable and Brooklyn, like much of the country, grew metastatically after World War II. It hemmed in the park Dodger fans often called God’s Little Acre. O’Malley planned to build a new Brooklyn ballpark with what would have been sports’ first retractable roof.

Moses—who’d sworn no privately-owned sports facility would ever rise again so long as he decided New York’s building future—said, “Not so fast, buster.” O’Malley built Dodger Stadium (the Dodgers still own the park) and the place has out-lived Ebbets Field by twelve years and counting.

Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota was a measly 26 and still looking young and pretty enough when the Twins dumped her for a gasbag known as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The city fathers of Bloomington built the Met in the first place hoping to attract a major league team, either by relocation or major league expansion. (They got the former, courtesy of the Washington Senators.) That’d teach them.

Detroit Tigers fans often called Tiger Stadium (formerly Navin Field and Briggs Stadium) “The Old Girl.” When ancient former Tigers pitcher Elden Auker joined the closing ceremonies, his home newspaper in Florida headlined it, “Auker Says Goodbye to Old Girl”—jolting his maid, who asked his bemused wife just when her husband started stepping out and for how long, amusing Auker no end.

Well, now. The Old Girl was 89 when the Tigers moved from there into Comerica Park. Comerica Park is now a ripe young 20. If the current trend is to become the rule, Comerica should have six more years before someone in Detroit decides it’s time to dump the old bat in favour of prying fresh meat out of already-drained taxpayers.

Turner Field in Atlanta got hers slightly younger: she was only nineteen when the Braves decided she was far too expensive to keep. A combination of swelling capital maintenance costs and Atlanta’s suffocating traffic congestion turned her into a overpriced date, said the Braves—whose owner, Liberty Media, paid $400 million to buy them in 2007 and is only into $181 million over thirty years to pay off the remaining county bonds for Truist Park (born SunTrust Park).

2020-06-29 TheBallparkInArlington

The Ballpark in Arlington/Globe Life Park in Arlington: Granting the harsh summer peak, you still can’t help asking, “The Rangers dumped this for that?!?”

The Rangers may have found the Ballpark in Arlington/Globe Life Park trying in the peak of summer but Ranger fans found the park wholly agreeable. Agreeable enough that enough such fans hollered “foul!” and formed Citizens for a Better Arlington to oppose the city throwing half a billion dollars toward a fresh young thing when their baseball home was a measly twelve. That’s how old the BAA/GLP was in 2016, when the ballot initiative approving the bonds passed.

At least when husbands or wives throw their incumbent but aging spouses over for younger, fresher produce, they pay the price out of their own pockets. Arlington’s mayor in 2016 was Jeff Williams, elected the year before after running as a tax cutter and modest spender and winning accordingly. Then he actually had to do the job. Oops.

As a new documentary, Throw a Billion Dollars From a Helicopter, demonstrates, Williams had barely assumed his oath of office when he began “pimping for taxpayers to cover half the cost of a new billion-dollar stadium” for the team once co-owned by former President George W. Bush, as Reason writer Nick Gillespie phrases it.

Williams expertly works the levers of local boosterism, and [the film’s director Michael] Bertin relishes showing the mayor and other stadium supporters invoking the phrase “world-class city” over and over again. The new ballpark will feature a retractable roof! It will be not just a stadium but a family “destination” with bars, restaurants, and concert venues! All of which will be “world class” and make Arlington a “world-class city”! Smaller cities—Arlington has about 400,000 residents and is part of the Dallas-Forth Worth metro area—often have inferiority complexes, and sports leagues and national chains know how to take advantage of that when looking for sweetheart subsidy deals.

Williams’s schmoozing is one of two storylines Bertin pursues. The other, Gillespie writes, is “the phoney-baloney economic analysis that gets mustered up every time a team owner and pliant politicians want to sell a stadium to wary taxpayers.”

The Stanford economist Roger Noll compares stadiums to pyramids in ancient Egypt, structures built to honor dead pharaohs but paid for by the sweat and toil of living, breathing people. Noll and others point out that entertainment spending is generally a fixed pie and that local residents substitute one option for another. Teams thus don’t create new spending; they take it from other businesses, most of whom are actually paying property and other taxes. Bertin drives home the fact that most stadium boosters talk about the “economic impact” of having a team, not the actual economic benefits. Invariably, when you factor in the costs of building and financing a stadium and all the extra giveaways to team owners (who keep most or all revenue from parking, concessions, and the like), stadium projects are municipal money pits.

That multipurpose stadium Robert Moses wanted to jam down Walter O’Malley’s throat ultimately became Shea Stadium. The Big Shea was 44 when the Mets moved next door to retro-looking Citi Field. The Mets themselves agreed to pay about two-thirds of her price, and New York City still owns the joint. That’s like dumping your wife to marry that comely young debutante and discovering her father’s calling the marital shots until death do he and your new child bride part.

The coronavirus-delayed major league baseball season isn’t going to get there gently, if at all. Not with several affirmed COVID-19 cases among some teams’ players and personnel, including several among Rangers personnel that have the team jolted to speak politely. That seems a lot larger crisis than the ugliness of and around the Rangers’ new home.

Gillespie observes that Bertin was a devout and diehard baseball fan before he took up the making of Throw a Billion Dollars from a Helicopter. Globe Life Field—whose skin-deep beauty requires deeper drilling to appreciate than David Ruffin knew was required for his newfound love—stands as the newest monument to a too-classic baseball contradiction, the ugliness of its business versus the beauty of its play.

Minor subterfuge

2019-09-27 MikeMinor

Mike Minor nailed his 200th strikeout with a little sneaky help from his friends Thursday night.

Let me put it right on the table for you. What the Rangers did Thursday in a bid to fatten Mike Minor’s shot at 200 strikeouts on the season isn’t exactly the first time someone’s resorted to a little subterfuge in order to enable a particular milestone. And if you still believe that boys will be boys, it won’t be the last, either.

So the Red Sox are a little p.o.ed over Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman charging Chris Owings’s one-out popup then pulling his mitt back to let the ball hit the foul grass in the ninth? The Rangers weren’t exactly thrilled at the Red Sox swinging on first pitches in the eighth, either.

“Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout should have a big asterisk. That was bush. Chasing a milestone that way is unprofessional,” fumed Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham in a tweet. “Ask me if I care, Pete,” Minor fumed back.

“I didn’t love the idea that we dropped the popup at the end,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward to reporters after Minor nailed number 200 and, while they were at it, won the game 7-5. “But on the other side of that, they swung at three pitches in a row in the eighth inning down by two. If they have any beef with that — obviously I’m pretty sure [Red Sox manager Alex] Cora did — they chose to not try and win the game as well. They were trying to keep him from striking a guy out.”

The very nerve of the Red Sox. Trying to keep a pitcher from striking them out. What’ll they think of next? Their pitchers trying to keep hitters from hitting?

Good thing Minor wasn’t going for a no-hitter and the Rangers didn’t put the shifts onto the final Red Sox batters. The Red Sox might have been ornery enough to look at all that yummy open expanse gifted them, decided, “You’re stupid enough to give us that much room to hit, we’re not going to look a gift horse’s ass in the mouth,” and whacked a grounder or two into that gifted meadow.

But then Cora had something to say about the Guzman play. “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters himself. “We’re playing hard until the end. It’s been two weeks we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way. That’s all I ask. I don’t manage the Rangers.”

I don’t want to be the wise guy, here, but stuff such as Guzman did to help his mate keep a shot at a milestone alive goes on more often than you think. Actual or alleged.

One of baseball’s oldest legends is the 1910 race to the American League batting title between Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. The legend included Cobb sitting out the last two games to protect his average and the St. Louis Browns willing to give Lajoie, then with the Indians, his hits by hook, crook, and anything else they could get away with.

The Browns and the Tribe played a season-ending doubleheader while Cobb sat idle. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on or at the edge of the outfield grass. Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the twin bill to win the title technically. American League president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting title winner after the shenanigans were taken to him.

The Chalmers Automobile Company, which awarded a car to the batting champion in those years, gave Cobb and Lajoie a new car each, pretty much deciding they were tied. Then, they changed the award the following season, giving the car to the league’s most valuable player, not the batting champion.

And O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell were banned from baseball for life over the scandal. (Lajoie’s ninth plate appearance of the day resulted in him reaching on an error; Howell tried to bribe the official scorer into changing the ruling to a base hit, but the scorer declined.)

Decades later, Denny McLain had his 31st win of 1968 in the bag when he decided he’d help Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle secure the last milestone he wanted in his career, retiring past Jimmie Foxx on baseball’s all-time home run list. Mantle was already at 534, tied with Foxx and in third place on the list.

When Tiger catcher Bill Freehan greeted Mantle checking in at the plate, with one out in the top of the eighth, Freehan told Mantle he’d be told what was coming because McLain really wanted him to do it. Sure enough, Mantle got one where he wanted it and sent it into the upper deck, making the score 6-2, Tigers. Thanks, Denny. Mantle sweetened his own retirement pot the next day when he took Red Sox righthander Jim Lonborg deep for number 536.

Almost a decade earlier, Mantle’s far less controversial teammate was offered a season-ending gift. Bobby Richardson was a sharp defensive second baseman who was often made the Yankees’ leadoff hitter. How did a guy with a .299 lifetime on-base percentage become a leadoff hitter? For one reason only: Richardson was almost impossible to strike out. (His lifetime average strikeouts per 162 games: 28.)

Richardson was also a devout Christian then and now. His usual Yankee running mates were fellow clean-livers, shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Bobby Shantz, and the trio was nicknamed the Milk Shake Kids. The only skirts they ever chased were the ones wrapped around their own wives; the strongest drink they probably ever took was fresh lemonade.

In fact, they inadvertently helped expose the Great Yankee Private Detective Agency in the late 1950s. When GM George Weiss hired a firm in hopes of throttling some of the randier Yankees’ off-field pursuits, the joy boys shook the dicks but the dicks still latched onto a group of Yankees anyway, tailing them around town until discovering it was the Milk Shake Kids . . . and the vice to which they were in such hot pursuit was (wait for it!) ping pong.

On the final day of the 1959 season, Richardson stood with an excellent chance of becoming the only Yankee to hit .300 or better on the year. As Richardson remembered to New York Daily News writer Bill Madden for Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, he was supposed to get two gifts that day. Manager Casey Stengel would lift him from the game if he got a hit his first time up, and the Orioles were willing to do anything to let him have his hit.

The Orioles’ scheduled starting pitcher Billy O’Dell, a friend of Richardson who shared quail hunting trips with him, told him before the game he’d be “throwing one right in there for you.” Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said he’d play deep at third in case Richardson felt like a bunt. Even the day’s plate umpire, Ed Hurley, was in on the little fix: “If you hit it on the ground, just make it look close at first.”

Richardson and Madden would make you believe that, first time up, Richardson smacked a line drive to right—and Orioles right fielder Albie Pearson made a diving catch on it. Richardson laughed to Madden recalling it. “Pearson was one of my closest friends in the game—we’d spoken together at church! He must have been the only person in the ballpark who didn’t know I was supposed to get my hit!”

Richardson is as honest as the day is long; if he ever told a lie in his life his jaw would probably dislodge from his skull. But precise memory fails even the most honest of men. Because the record actually shows that Richardson got his hit leading off the bottom of the first . . . and Pearson was nowhere near the ball: it was a line double to left center field.

And Stengel didn’t lift Richardson from the game. In the third inning Richardson hit the liner on which Pearson dove for the catch, and he also smacked a one-out single in the bottom of the sixth. Richardson didn’t leave the game until the Yankees were in a 3-1 hole with one out in the bottom of the eighth (the score would hold for a season-ending Orioles win), and Stengel elected to pinch hit for him.

The pinch hitter: the future superstar of Original Mets calamity, Marv Throneberry, who wasn’t yet nicknamed Marvelous. And O’Dell struck him out. Which was less embarrassing than what happened to the next Yankee hitter after Mantle hit McLain’s gift out.

Joe Pepitone watched the Mantle-McLain comedy from the on-deck circle and concluded McLain wouldn’t quit feeling generous when he checked in at the plate. So, just as Mantle did during his at-bat, Pepitone waggled the barrel of the bat over the plate to say where he’d like some service. And McLain knocked Pepitone on his ass with the first pitch.

Joe Grzenda, RIP: Holding a riot ball

2019-07-17 GeorgeWBushJoeGrzenda

Joe Grzenda (right) with President George W. Bush, handing Bush the baseball Grzenda saved since the final, ill-fated Washington Senators game in 1971.

It took almost 34 years for a certain baseball to be pitched to home plate in RFK Stadium, Washington. And when it finally was thrown to the plate, it didn’t sail out of the hand of the pitcher who’d kept the ball all those years, despite having been invited to throw it.

The ball would have been thrown on 30 September 1971, by Washington Senators lefthanded pitcher Joe Grzenda, with two out in the top of the ninth and the Senators about to bank a season and Washington life-ending 7-5 win, assuming Grzenda could erase Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke.

Despite the invitation to throw it up to the plate when Washington re-entered the majors by way of the Montreal Expos moving to become the Nationals, Grzenda handed the honour instead to President George W. Bush, clad in a Nats jacket, who threw an admirable breaking ball to Nats catcher Brian Schneider.

Grzenda, who died 12 July at 82, two days after his 60th wedding anniversary, never got the chance to throw the ball on that surreal September 1971 afternoon. He ended up keeping the ball in a drawer in his Pennsylvania home, in an envelope marked, “Last baseball ever thrown as a Washington Senator, baseball club. Sept. 30, 1971. Murcer grounded out to me.”

That would be Bobby Murcer, Yankee outfielder, who grounded out to Grzenda for the second out of a save attempt that never got consummated thanks to a fan riot that kept Grzenda from pitching to Clarke.

Nicknamed Shaky Joe because of a few nervous habits he had on the mound, Grzenda became a Senator in 1970 after a trade from the Minnesota Twins, who’d been the original Senators until moving for 1961, which prompted the expansion birth of the second Senators in the first place.

Shaky Joe finished 1971 with a magnificent 1.92 earned run average, a 2.00 fielding-independent pitching rate, and a 1.01 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He was a sharp middle-to-late relief pitcher finishing 46 games in 1971 and credited with five saves every one of which was two innings or more. In his next-to-last major league season, he averaged two innings per gig and was, arguably, the Senators’ most reliable relief pitcher.

Several hours before he erased Felipe Alou and Murcer on back-to-back ground outs, Grzenda sat in the RFK Stadium stands well before game time and reflected. “I don’t want to leave this place,” he said. “This year has been the best I’ve had. It’s been like a beginning for me.”

Major league baseball was leaving the capital again because Senators owner Bob Short decided he couldn’t make it work in D.C. any longer—after he’d done just about everything within his power to guarantee it wouldn’t work.

Short wouldn’t sell the team to local interests or at least to buyers willing to camp in Washington, either—unless they were willing to pony up a minimum of $12 million, that is. The Washington Post‘s almost mythological sportswriter, Shirley Povich, compared that to the guy who buys a $9000 car, abuses it, spends $3,000 to repair it, then claims he has a car worth $12,000. Is that so Washington, or what?

“His fellow club owners let go unrecognised Short’s continual mistakes that got him into the mess that, he says, threatened to bankrupt him,” Povich wrote 23 September 1971.

They paid scant heed to the fact that Short foolishly overborrowed to buy the team and then pleaded poverty, and to the stubborn refusal of this novice club owner to hire a general manager, and his record of wrecking the club with absurd deals . . . [T]he impoverished Senators were the only team in the league billed for the owner’s private jet, with co-pilots. The owners had ears only for his complaint that he couldn’t operate profitably in Washington.

Publicly and to his fellow American League owners, Short promised he hadn’t bought the Senators on shaky financial standing in order to move them. According to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators, 1901-1971, Short indulged the nation’s other national pastime: litigation, threatening just that against his fellow owners unless they let him leave.

After authorising then president Joe Cronin to find a solution, the American League owners were stunned at Short’s admission he’d been talking to Texas and other areas. Short was also in hot water with the Armory Board, which owned RFK Stadium and to which the Senators owed six figures worth of back rent. That’s rather Washington, too.

When the Armory Board threatened to turn off the stadium lights, Short relished the feud. At first the board seemed to cave a bit, offering Short free rent for the first million admissions per season and the revenues from stadium billboard advertising. What the board wouldn’t do, however, was forgive the $178,000 back rent. Along came Washington’s city council to sue the Senators and the Armory Board, for failing to pay and collect rent.

That swung into action commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose boyhood included working as a scoreboard operator at old Griffith Stadium. Kuhn ordered Short “to keep his yap shut,” Deveaux wrote, while hitting the road soliciting potential buyers for the Senators. It proved to be only slightly less futile a road trip than many taken by the Senators themselves.

The American League owners took a 21 September 1971 vote on whether to allow the Senators to move. They now feared the National League might move to town if the Senators moved out, giving the nearby Orioles heavier competition than the usually hapless Nats. Short needed 75 percent of the votes to get his wish.

At first, three clubs abstained while the Orioles and the White Sox voted no. World Airways magnate Ed Daly told Kuhn and Athletics owner Charlie Finley—one of the abstentions—he was willing to buy the Senators. The problem was Finley telling Daly the eleventh hour was upon them, and Daly telling Finley he couldn’t decide that fast. That’s so Washington, too.

Thus did Finley and Angels owner Gene Autry (originally a “no” vote, and acting through a representative since he was undergoing eye surgery) change to “yes” votes. Thus would the Senators begin 1972 as the Texas Rangers. And thus would the Senators meet the Yankees at RFK Stadium on 30 September 1971,  an almost 20,000 strong crowd filling the joint, hoisting placards and banners zapping Short up one side and down the other—particularly those displaying his initials.

Grzenda wasn’t the only Senator who wasn’t anxious to leave Washington. The idea didn’t exactly thrill Frank Howard, their power hitting behemoth and star, either. Which didn’t stop the 6’8″ giant known as Capital Punishment for his glandular home runs from giving those heartsick fans one final thrill, when he checked in at the plate to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

With the Senators down 5-1 and Howard being 0-for-1 with a walk thus far, he caught hold of a Mike Kekich fastball and drove it not too far from the upper deck, and the crowd went nuclear in its momentary joy. Nudged out of the dugout for a curtain call, Howard tipped his helmet to the crowd for the first time in his baseball life, blew them a couple of kisses, then wept, as much for sorrow as joy.

The blast started a four-run inning to tie the game at five, a tie broken in the bottom of the eight thanks to an RBI single (Tom McCraw) and a sacrifice fly. (Elliott Maddox.) Then Grzenda went out to try saving it for Paul Lindblad, whose two spotless relief innings put him in line to get credit for a win.

After Grzenda erased Alou and Murcer in the top of the ninth, fans began jumping on and off the field down the foul lines. It looked menacing enough for Senators manager Ted Williams (yes, children, that Ted Williams) to order his bullpen pitchers to beat it post haste. Except that the Splinter forgot to urge them to take the safe path to the clubhouse, under the RFK Stadium stands.

As Grzenda got ready to pitch to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke, the relievers left the bullpen and headed down the field toward the dugout. Oops. “That’s when all hell broke loose,” Deveaux wrote. “The fans stormed back onto the field en masse, yanking up clumps of dirt and grass which might be kept as souvenirs of Washington Senators baseball.”

Howard playing first base had three fans climbing his back, which must have been something like three mice climbing a tree. Grzenda saw a rather large man heading his way appearing at first to have ideas about tackling the pitcher, which Grzenda eventually admitted gave him ideas about throwing his glove—which still had the ball in it—at the guy. But all Grzenda got for that was a pat on his shoulder.

Finally, as fans continued pillaging what they could, including bases, plus letters and numbers from the scoreboard, umpire Jim Honochick ruled the forfeit to the Yankees. By the time the fans got through with the place, RFK Stadium looked as though it was  tattered and torched in a terrorist attack.

Grzenda drove home from the park with his wife, Ruth, and their two children, including his then-ten year old son Joe, Jr., who wept all the way home. The Grzendas met in 1956, when the lefthander was a Tigers prospect and the Birmingham Barons’s (AA) best pitcher, and she was sitting in the stands at Birmingham (AA).

He had a look at the comely brunette and handed the bat boy a note to give her. “I had come to the game with a girlfriend of mine who I worked with at the First National Bank, and her dad,” Mrs. Grzenda revealed after her husband was inducted into the Barons’ Hall of Fame five years ago. “The bat boy brought a note over to me that said, ‘How would you like to meet Joe Grzenda?’ My girlfriend kept hitting me on my leg, saying you’ve got to meet him and her dad said that Joe was the star of the team,” she continued. “I didn’t know anything about baseball.”

The irony abounded when Bush—a former co-owner of the Rangers—threw that ceremonial first pitch with the Grzenda ball. Schneider, known as a memorabilia collector, had ideas about keeping the ball until Grzenda asked to have it back. Schneider obliged happily by all accounts. Grzenda loved two things primarily in his life, and baseball was the second of them.

They first met in Birmingham, he taking her out for hamburgers and shakes after the Barons bat boy handed her his note. They married a year later and stayed that way happily for sixty years and two days. For two thirds of their marriage, they lived and loved with the husband part of capital lore. Maybe it wasn’t quite the way Grzenda would have preferred becoming such lore. But that, too, is so Washington.

The Angels win with overloaded hearts

2019-07-03 TrevorCahill

Angels relief pitcher Trevor Cahill gives a salute to the late Tyler Skaggs. Showing class to burn, the Rangers installed Skaggs’ uniform number—in the Angels’ uniform font—behind their pitching rubber in memorial tribute for Tuesday’s game.

A teammate dies without warning as a season comes to within sight of the halfway marker. Your scheduled road opponent is gracious enough to cancel the game scheduled that night out of respect for your loss. The grief within your clubhouse and your front office is too real to suppress. And back home your fans are laying out item after item, flower after flower, message after message in your teammate and friend’s memory.

“LTBU in heaven!” said a scrawl on one souvenir batting helmet left among the memory gifts, referring to Angel fans’ customary call (Light that baby up!) after Angels wins, to light the halo around the original stadium big A scoreboard now implanted in the back parking lot.

Angel fans get to mourn Tyler Skaggs a little longer than the Angels themselves in terms of the schedule, because the Angels still had a game to play against the Rangers in Arlington Tuesday night.

Whether you’re in the depth of a pennant race, on the race’s fringes, or headed for the repose where the also-rans will commiserate when it’s all over, you know in your heart of hearts, gut of guts, and mind of minds, that the young man you mourn would rather you suit up, shape up, and step up on the mound, at the plate, on the bases, in the field, than spend more than a single day’s grief without playing the game he loved with you.

So the Angels did what they knew their lost brother wanted. They suited up, shaped up, stepped up, with Skaggs’s uniform number (45) on a small round black patch on their jerseys’ left breasts. They carried Skaggs’s Angels jersey for a pre-game moment of silence in his honour.

“It was just kind of something unplanned. His jersey was hanging in his locker. We wanted to take him out there with us one more time,” said pitcher Andrew Heaney later. “He was definitely my best friend. There’s probably about 100 other people out there that would say he was their best friend, too, because he treated everybody like that.”

His best friends beat the Rangers, 9-4, on a night during which the Rangers showed the Angels such respect as canning the walkup music and others among the normal rackets for Ranger feats at home. The Rangers even installed a red number 45 behind the pitching rubber. In the Angels’ uniform font. To do Skaggs and his team honour.

And not a single Angel tried to hide his grief at a post-game conference.

Their all-everything center fielder, Mike Trout, spent most of the game walking three times and scoring on a base hit. Maybe the single greatest star in the Angels’ firmament, ever, Trout couldn’t get through a simple expression of what Skaggs meant to himself and their team without several chokings back of tears.

“Lost a teammate, lost a friend, a brother, we just got to get through it,” he said shakily. “He was an unbelievable person. It’s all about him. Husband of Carli, what a sweet girl, Debbie his mom, you know, a good relationship with them. You know, it’s just a tough, you know, 24 hours.

“We’re getting through it, tough playing out there today, but like Brad [Ausmus, the Angels’ manager] said earlier, Skaggs, you know, he wouldn’t want us to take another day off,” Trout continued. “The energy he brought into this clubhouse, you know, every time you saw him he’d pick you up. It’s going to be tough, you know, these next couple of days, the rest of the season, the rest of our lives, you know, to lose a friend . . . All these guys in here, you know, I see these guys more than my family. To lose somebody like him is tough.”

In Washington, Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin, close friends with Skaggs since their Diamondbacks days, switched his uniform from 46 to Skaggs’s 45. Then he went out to pitch his regular turn, his manager Dave Martinez saying it was just about all Corbin could do. Corbin himself affirmed it after the Nats beat the Marlins, 3-2, Trea Turner walking it off with an RBI hit.

“When you have a loss, you want to keep things as normal as you can and just try to go out there and do what you have to do,” Corbin said after that game. But he never said it would be easy to pitch through the memories of their being drafted together by the Angels, traded together to the Diamondbacks, and in each other’s wedding parties this past offseason.

Corbin not only changed his uniform number to Skaggs’s but scratched the number in the dirt behind the mound before he managed to pitch seven innings despite being disrupted by a rain delay of over an hour, surrendering one run, no walks, and seven strikeouts.

Another Nat had personal ties to Skaggs. Adam Eaton played in the fall instructional leagues with Skaggs. And they were eventually traded away from the Diamondbacks in the same three-way deal that returned Skaggs to the Angels and sent Eaton to the White Sox.

“Saw his debut. Saw his first hit. Saw his first strikeout. Know his wife. My wife knows his family. It’s just . . . I’m not quite sure it’s hit me yet,” the outfielder said, shades covering his teary eyes. “My family, our hearts go out to his family. He’s kind of kicked us in the pants in his passing that we need to take every day as it’s our last and enjoy our family and love our family and what’s important in our life, and know that we’re blessed to play this game every day. That’s the gift he’s given us, even after.”

As for the Angels, they started the game with a first-inning, run-scoring ground out before a first-inning sacrifice fly, a third-inning solo homer, and a double steal including home put the Rangers up 3-1. The Angels tied it in the fifth on a base hit that turned into two runs home on an outfield throwing error; a four-run sixth—an RBI single, a runner-advancing throwing error, another RBI single, and a sacrifice fly—put them ahead to stay.

The Rangers got their final run on another sacrifice fly, and the Angels got their final two when shortstop Andrelton Simmons opened the top of the eighth with a walk and, one out later, right fielder Kole Calhoun drove a middle-high fastball parabolically over the right center field fence. The win pulled the Angels back to .500 and to within four games of the American League wild card hunt.

Those small details were probably the last things on their minds Tuesday night. They might be a little more concerned for Tommy La Stella, their breakout All-Star, who had to leave the game in the sixth after fouling a pitch off his right leg below his knee. But La Stella probably thought his injury was tiny compared to the wrench in the team’s hearts.

“It’s bigger than the game. The friendship and the love I had for him and his family, it’s more than that,” Trout said.

“Today it was just different,” said Calhoun after the game, “and there’s no playbook on how it’s supposed to go today and you’re supposed to act and react. But getting back to the game definitely is what he would have wanted. Today was a day that we leaned on each other like we really needed to do.”

The same thing happened ten years earlier, after rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver while out celebrating after a splendid first start of the season. The day after Adenhart’s death, the Angels beat the Red Sox, 6-3, in Angel Stadium. The win was only partial comfort then just as it was Tuesday night in Arlington.

It doesn’t always work that way.

Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died unexpectedly of a heart attack in June 2002, while the Cardinals were in Chicago to play the Cubs. The following day, they lost to the Cubs, 8-2, with the Cubs scoring all eight before the eighth inning including a four-run sixth, and the Cardinals able to muster only two in the eighth—on future Hall of Famer (and current Angel) Albert Pujols’s two-run homer—and one in the ninth on an RBI single.

When Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed in the crash of his own aircraft, the Yankees played the Orioles the day after and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in Yankee Stadium. In a game featuring three future Hall of Famers (Eddie Murray, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage) and a pitching duel between Scott McGregor of the Orioles and Luis Tiant of the Yankees, the lone run came when John Lowenstein hammered a Tiant service over the fence.

A year earlier, Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was murdered while on a visit to Gary, Indiana, in a car, when a man fired at the car hoping to hit his estranged wife, whom he suspected having an involvement, shall we say, with another man in the car. The next day, the Angels beat the Brewers in extra innings, Carney Lansford singling home Danny Goodwin with two out in the tenth.

Death in season sometimes rallies teams and other times knocks them apart. Maybe no death in Reds’ history was as shocking as the 2 August 1940 suicide of reserve catcher Will Hershberger—whose own father had committed suicide previously. Blaming himself for a doubleheader loss, Hershberger reportedly told manager Bill McKechnie more than that troubled him but nothing to do with the team, and McKechnie never disclosed the rest.

The Reds played another doubleheader the day after Hershberger’s death. They swept the Boston Braves (then known as the Bees), then went on to win the pennant with a 23-8 September before beating the Tigers in seven in the World Series. McKechnie publicly dedicated the rest of the season and the pennant chase to Hershberger, and the Reds awarded a full winning World Series share to Hershberger’s mother while they were at it.

And when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being coned by Carl Mays’s fastball in 1920, the stricken Tribe—with just a little help from the explosion of the Eight Men Out being taken out in Chicago at almost season’s end—ended up winning the pennant and the World Series.

The 1955 Red Sox were headed only to a fourth place finish but they suffered the unexpected death of promising young first baseman Harry Agganis to a pulmonary embolish on 27 June that year. The following day, the Red Sox swept the Washington Senators in a doubleheader compelled by a rainout earlier that season. The scores were 4-0 in the opener and 8-2 in the nightcap.

These Angels may or may not band up and make a surprise run to the postseason from here. But they honoured their effervescent pitching teammate now gone in the only coin all accounts suggest Skaggs would have accepted. They played ball. And they beat a team who probably didn’t really mind getting their tails kicked for just one night, because the grief felt around baseball over Skaggs’s unexpected death was just too real.

“We knew what they were dealing with on the other side,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said after the game. “We were trying to comprehend the impact something like that would have on our ball club. I can’t even describe the feelings they were having. Obviously, it wasn’t our best game, but clearly it affected us in some way. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It was just kind of obvious they deserved to win.”

“We know we’ve got an angel watching over us now,” Calhoun said. “When I got to the plate, it felt right to pay some respect to him, and like I said, we know we’ve got somebody watching over us up there.” Somebody who didn’t deserve to die at 27.