Manfred must go. How and from whom to choose his successor?

Thomas Boswell

Should this man be baseball’s next commissioner—and none too soon?

Major league baseball’s lockout continues apace. So does the egg on commissioner Rob Manfred’s face, even if Manfred doesn’t acknowledge it.

Bad enough: Few involved in the lockout directly, and few observing it closely, comprehend what Steven Goldman, a Baseball Prospectus writer and (in Forging Genius) the most incisive analyst of Casey Stengel’s success as a Yankee manager, comprehends with little effort and lots of sense:

If one feels the owners have somehow been shortchanged by the players in the past or would be unfairly impacted by the players’ proposals, among them a shortening of the paths to arbitration and free agency, make an objective argument for why this is so. Similarly, if one believes the players do not currently receive their fair share of baseball’s revenues, then prove it as best one is able. Failing to do either is to admit to being a kneejerk partisan. Telling other people that they’re wrong and deserve less money than they’re asking for isn’t just something you can have an opinion on, like whether or not you like creamed spinach . . .

. . . As has been related here and elsewhere, the players’ share of revenue has been falling as owners emphasize younger players. The value of free agency has resultantly been diminished, and whereas some players are still cleaning up, there is an increasing number of players who don’t last long enough to escape Pittsburgh and get some of that sweet Dodgers swag. Simultaneously, not only do the owners not open their books to the players, many of them are clearly not trying. We know that without seeing the books because we as fans can see the teams, see the minimal payroll, note the revenue-sharing payments vanishing without a trace, not to mention the increasing amounts of online and non-baseball revenue that teams now collect. We have to be fair, but we don’t have to be stupid.

Worse: Major League Baseball-owned MLB Network’s summary dismissal of longtime baseball writer/television analyst Ken Rosenthal, over comparatively benign critiques of Manfred published elsewhere eighteen months earlier, has brought corresponding questions to a boil. None seems more glaring than the one asking not whether Manfred’s competent to continue, but whether baseball needs an entirely new way to choose his successors.

The owners hire a commissioner. They can fire him any old time they please, so long as they pay him over the remaining time for which his contract calls. But nobody else in the game has a vote on the hiring. This can and has created a few, shall we say, problems in the past. With the game in Manfred’s hands, it’s made those problems seem like brief if rude interruptions.

Manfred’s current contract expires in 2024. So long as the owners continue to believe he operates by the maxim that the good of the game equals making money for them, his job is safe. Never mind suppressing free agency’s cumulative value; never mind treating the play of the game as a perverse Rube Goldberg experiment to be bent toward the attention-and-thought-challenged; never mind monkeying around with basic equipment such as the baseballs themselves; never mind its owned-and-operated media franchise strong-arming a reporter daring to question Manfred’s competence.

The players have no say in choosing the game’s maximum steward and administrator. Neither do those who manage and coach them. Neither do those charged with keeping the games honest, the umpires, never mind that the umpires have their own issues that Manfred has proven distinctly disinterested in addressing too often. Hands up to everyone who thinks there’s something very wrong with that.

Very well, you holdouts. Allow me to ask you two questions I’ve raised or addressed in the past. 1) Do you buy tickets to baseball games for the distinct pleasure of seeing your team’s owner(s)? (You Yankee fans of the 1980s fed up with George Steinbrenner’s act and hoping to let him have it, sit down, you’re outliers.) 2) Do you believe the commissioner should quit trying to fix what isn’t broken but leave what is broken alone to fix itself?

If you answered no to both, good. Now, hear me out further.

There’s no valid reason on earth why the commissioner should be chosen among the owners alone. Imagine if the president of the United States could be elected solely by the nation’s state governors. That would be seen, rightly enough, as an abomination. Now, if you agree the presidency should be filled by the people acting through the electors chosen based upon the people’s votes, why would you disagree that baseball’s commissioner should be chosen solely by the designated voters from thirty ownerships?

Major league baseball has not just thirty owners but approximately 1,200 players, based upon the 40-man rosters. It also has thirty managers overseeing their players and their coaching staffs, and 76 umpires spread among nineteen umpiring crews. There is no sensible reason anyone can exhume why voting for the commissioner shouldn’t include the player representatives for all thirty major league teams, their managers, and the nineteen chiefs representing their crews.

Perhaps, then, a commmissioner elected thus would be inclined better to see the complete picture and not just the portions that equal maximum revenues on which to base future owner shenanigans. And that provokes the next but just as critical question: from among whom should the game’s next commissioner be chosen?

The Selig-to-Manfred era has made plain enough that the next commissioner shouldn’t come from among the owners. Neither should the next commissioner come from among anyone who’s worked in a front office. Nor should the next commissioner come from among the players, the managers/coaches, or the umpires. The perception of certain preternatural biases would be overwhelming enough from among them, even to those who tend to forget those attached to those chosen by the owners alone.

Prior to the Selig-Manfred era, commissioners were a federal judge (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), a former governor and U.S. senator (Happy Chandler), a sportswriter turned president of the National League (Ford Frick), a retired Air Force general (Spike Eckert), a lawyer who’d been the National League’s attorney (Bowie Kuhn), a travel executive turned U.S. Olympics organiser (Peter Ueberroth), a Yale scholar-turned-president-turned National League president (A. Bartlett Giamatti), and an entertainment attorney turned president of Columbia Pictures (Fay Vincent).

Setting aside issues that may or may not have soiled those commissionerships, the deep record shows that only one of those pre-Selig-Manfred commissioners had little enough knowledge or even love of the game: The retired Air Force general (his hiring provoked a sportswriting wag to dub him the Unknown Soldier) played a very little baseball in his youth and was known otherwise to prefer squash, tennis, golf, polo and horse jumping.

The best you could say of him is that he hired the first African-American to hold a major job in the commissioner’s office. To his eternal credit, Eckert broke the colour line in baseball’s administration when he hired Hall of Famer Monte Irvin as assistant director of public relations and promotion operations. Eckert’s successor Kuhn put Irvin in full charge of it, a job Irvin did until he resigned when Kuhn did in 1984.

Since it’s not unprecedented to have a sportswriter/broadcaster become baseball’s commissioner when he grew up, never mind his inability a) to shake the presence of the man (Babe Ruth) for whom he once ghost-wrote or b) to act decisively as commissioner unless it threatened a) (Ford Frick might as well have been nicknamed “It’s a League Matter”), I can think of a very solid candidate.

No, silly, not Bob Costas, whom two-thirds of the world (including me, once upon a time) thought as strongly that he should have the job as Costas thought he shouldn’t, often vociferously. But the candidate I have in mind is a retired longtime baseball writer of impeccable talent, established insight, and genuine love of the game.

He has a concurrent love for golf but is not otherwise sinister. He is known to have walked a very even line between the self-imploding fooleries of the owners and the sometimes self-defeating strategems of the players. He has been known to suffer neither fools nor malcompetent umpires gladly. His knowledge and love of the game is rivaled only that of the commissioner least apologetic about expressing it ostentatiously if lyrically, the ill-fated Giamatti.

There are five books collecting his best work to present as evidence so far; God and an insightful publishing house willing, there’ll come a sixth. Commissioner Thomas Boswell, anyone?

Enjoy the lack of NL DH while you have it, if you must

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, a pitcher who thinks his breed at the plate, instead of throwing to it, is a waste of lineup slot.

Guess what you didn’t hear if you watched the World Series on Fox Sports Friday night. You didn’t hear as much about what happened in the bottom of the second as you should have heard. More’s the pity.

Right then, right there, in Truist Park, in Game Three, occurred a textbook example of what can happen when the life of a rally may depend upon a) a pitcher with a pool noodle for a bat looming on deck; or, b) that pitcher having to swing his pool noodle bat when there’s a chance to put runs on the scoreboard.

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud was on second with a two-out double. The Astros ordered starting pitcher Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia to signal the intentional walk to Dansby Swanson. (Remember, you don’t have to make the pitcher throw four wide ones for the free pass anymore, which is a good thing for not adding wear on the arm.)

Looming on deck—Braves starter Ian Anderson. Rookie. Promising young pitcher, but swings a bat that might as well have been made by Ronzoni. Hit 54 cents on the regular season, hit zipadee-doodah in the postseason approaching the plate now. The net result? Garcia struck him out to end the threat and the inning.

What a surprise.

Neither Fox broadcaster Joe Buck nor John Smoltz—the Hall of Fame pitcher who pitched many a splendid game for the Braves in his career—spoke much if at all about the deeper significance of Anderson’s wasted plate appearance.

Oh, they’ve mentioned the coming of the universal DH, which is liable to begin next season, but if you were looking for the deep take you didn’t really get it. Especially from Smoltz, a pitcher who finished his career with a .159/.226/.207 slash line at the plate. They spoke more of Anderson having the maturity of a 65-year-old in his demeanor than they spoke of what his second inning plate appearance really indicated.

This year’s pitchers batted a whopping .110 with a .150 on-base percentage. Since the last decade of the dead-ball era, they’ve batted .162. It has been, it is, and it’ll always be the single most guaranteed lineup waste in baseball. It isn’t even close.

“For every Adam Wainwright,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Game Three, “there’s ten [pitchers] that can’t hit. They don’t hit anymore at a young age, they’re specializing in pitching or whatever at a young age, so after experiencing it last year, I’m all for the DH.”

Wainwright is the Cardinals’ grand old man who’s actually batted .193 in sixteen seasons to date, including ten home runs and 51 total extra-base hits over the span. For a pitcher, that’s splendid and outlying plate production, in most generations. He’s even managed to knock 75 runs home.

It’s a wonder Wainwright doesn’t threaten first degree murder every time he has to bat—he lost a full season of his career to an Achilles tendon injury incurred . . . running the bases.

You want to ask Smoltz’s longtime, Hall of Fame rotation mate Tom Glavine about it? The New York Times did. “Take the brutality, so to speak, of what pitcher hitting has become, and I still feel like it allows for way more strategy in the National League,” lamented the .203 lifetime-hitting lefthander. “I’m hoping that that part of the argument will certainly be a strong one, but it seems now that there’s more momentum than ever to get rid of it.”

The brutality of what it has become? How about the brutality of what it always was? Then-Pirates owner William Temple Chase wasn’t just talking to hear himself talk when he lamented his five main 1891 Pirates’ pitchers hitting .165 as a group and proposed that off-season that the game should adopt what we know as the designated hitter. (It failed by a single vote.)

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball,” said the ancient paper Sporting Life in agreement with Temple. “It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was a great hitter,” Glavine continued, “but as a pitcher, I was certainly a good hitter, and I felt like my ability to do that was an advantage every time I went out on the mound. I wasn’t necessarily going to get an RBI base hit or whatever, but I knew two things: Number one, if I had to bunt, I was going to get the bunt down, and number two, I wasn’t going to be an automatic out.”

Glavine was an out for 80 percent of his lifetime plate appearances. Getting the bunt down simply meant that thirteen percent of the time he was a wasted out while he and his Braves and Mets were at it. How is a pitcher bunting not normally an automatic out, anyway? Beating those bunts out for base hits isn’t exactly a constant thing with them, either.

How about if the National League had taken its head out of its colon in the first place—pitchers wouldn’t have to worry about wasting outs, and managers wouldn’t have to watch helplessly when their pitchers a) ended rallies, or b) injured or winded themselves running the bases on the rare occasions when they picked up base hits.

This time, I won’t apologise for beating a dead horse, because in this case the horse was and remains right, and the bottom of the second in Game Three Friday night proved it.

“It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” wrote now-retired Thomas Boswell in 2019. “But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

If and when he does it, that is. Scherzer was 0-for-2021 at the plate, including four hitless postseason plate appearances and one sacrifice fly that doesn’t count as an “official” at-bat in the scoring. Forget Ty Cobb, Max the Knife didn’t even get to run it out as if he thought he was Ralph Kramden.

The word also is that, when the owners and the players start talking turkey to work out the next collective bargaining agreement, they may consider allowing the universal DH—at a price: the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred may actually demand that a team surrender its DH for the rest of the game unless their starting pitchers go a minimum number of innings.

Brilliant. As if the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers hasn’t screwed things up enough often enough? (Not just because too many managers are leaving them in beyond the third batter with opposing rallies in the making, either.)

Suppose they do impose a six- or seven-inning starters’ minimum in return for the universal DH. What happens to every starting pitcher who has a bad start and gets shot early, often, and full of more holes than a hanging target in a police shooting range?

Forget about blowing the poor sap’s ERA to infinity and beyond. You’re going to force him to stay in for a minimum six- or seven- and maybe sink his team so far that the Navy SEALs couldn’t get them out alive?

Baseball’s the thinking person’s sport. Those who govern and play it should start thinking again. At least one starting pitcher now lost for the rest of the World Series does some thinking.

“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute, and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound,” said Braves pitcher Charlie Morton to the Times. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”

They used to say a player’s only as smart as his batting average. Morton’s a Ph.D. better than his lifetime .127 average.

“I’m trading me into retirement”

Claude Osteen, Thomas Boswell

In this Washington Post photo, Thomas Boswell (right) interviews former pitcher and then-Phillies pitching coach Claude Osteen during the 1980s.

If Roger Angell isn’t baseball’s Homer because Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell, it’s also accurate to say something about Thomas Boswell. So I’ll say it. He isn’t baseball’s Publius; Publius was the American founding’s Thomas Boswell.

When Boswell was named a Washington Post sports columnist in 1984, together with Tony Kornheiser, then-Post editor Ben Bradlee (as Kornheiser liked to joke) said neither man alone was good enough to replace departing Dave Kindred—so he hired both to replace him.

In the years before and since, Boswell has proven that if Publius was our founding’s Boswell it took three to make one of him. Maybe you’ve heard of them: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. And they weren’t half as potent a top of the order as Rickey Henderson, Mike Trout, and Willie Mays.

Therefore, The Federalist is merely the nation’s second most important book, behind the five-way dead heat known as How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, The Heart of the Order, and Cracking the Show, the four known anthologies of Boswell’s baseball writings, plus Game Day which collects his writings on lesser games but also some choice baseball writings.

I spent a year working for a Washington think tank, at a time when think tanks actually thought and thought wasn’t considered either politically incorrect or an impediment to Making America Great Again. My days began with reading the two most important writers the Post had to offer—Boswell and his elder Shirley Povich in the sports section.

Only then would I make the trek in to work.

Well before that, I spent an Air Force hitch in Omaha and trekked to a particular bookstore downtown to pick up the Post on the days Povich and Boswell appeared on my way to Offutt Air Force Base. My days there were incomplete until I could spend lunch with the pair.

When I was done with each of their essays, I returned to finish my day’s work well assured that I was better informed about the things that mattered than the colleagues and superiors with whom I worked gleaning the mischief of the Soviet Empire and the vicissitudes of the Middle East as an intelligence analyst.

Povich went from this island earth to the Elysian Fields in 1998. Boswell remained. He never once failed to engage, instruct, enlighten, inspire, and entertain. He never once forgetting both the men behind the players or the play that needed to be made for the sake of the game itself. And I don’t mean just a fielding error or an errant double play grounder on a meatball that should have been turned into a line drive or a parabolic bomb.

Over all those years and in all those essays and books, Boswell wrote with insight and empathy about such men as his boyhood idol Roy Sievers (Boswell grew up a Senators fan), Hall of Famers such as George Brett, Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Sandy Koufax, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, and Carl Yastremski, to name a few.

The Sievers piece I remember wasn’t collected in one of Boswell’s books but, rather, in a book called Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful. It also ran as a cover story for The Washington Post Magazine while I worked in that city. I kicked myself in due course for losing the copy I saved when moving back upstate New York, but I never forgot Boswell’s for-Opening-Day appreciation of the 1957 American League home run champion:

A baseball hero is a toy of childhood. Electric trains, cowboy guns and plastic soldiers are the same find. But with a baseball hero, a youngster reaches out, for one of the first times, into the world outside the family. That connection with a big, mysterious environment gives a certain sense of power; children discover they can invest their affections and actually get something special back in return. However, hero worship also brings with it the first morsels of the sort of pain and fear that we come to associate with the word “reality.” We begin to learn about adult disappointments and the profound uncontrollability of nature.

I was fortunate. I got a wonderful hero. When I was eight years old in the spring of 1956, somebody gave me my first pack of baseball cards. Pathetic as it sounds, I can still remember where I was standing when I opened them: beside a coffee table in the living room. In that pack was only one player from my hometown team, the Washington Senators. I’m convinced that, by the luck of the draw, the player on that card was destined to be my first (and, as it turned out, only) hero. It could have been Herb Plews, who made four errors in one inning, or Chuck Stobbs, who lost 13 games in a row.

But it was Roy Sievers.

Boswell republished it in the Post when Sievers died in 2017. If you think he was able to balance the sentimentalism from the substance talking about his boyhood hero, you should have read him when he wrote about the consequences of fan insanity married to human frailty equaling one grotesque, tragic denouement, Donnie Moore shooting his wife before killing himself:

You and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose . . .

Numerous other athletes who’re in trouble—taking heat, answering tough questions, hearing catcalls—got themselves in hot water by doing what they knew was wrong. All Moore did was pitch despite a sore arm, throw a nice nasty knee-high forkball, and watch it sail over the left field fence . . .

The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.

If Boswell has anything in daily newspapers resembling an equal for trying to remind Joe and Jane Fan that those who play baseball aren’t automatons squeezed out from a single algorithm and design, it might be the New York Times‘s venerable Ira Berkow. (If you don’t believe me, invest wisely in Berkow’s anthologies Pitchers Do Get Lonely and It Happens Every Spring.)

Why neither has been made a Hall of Famer via the J.G. Taylor Spink Award escapes. Maybe someone in the Baseball Writers Association of America should kick off a loud drumbeat on their behalf the way Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle did for Roger Angell. Angell needed the drumbeat because he wasn’t a daily newspaper essayist but bloody well deserved to be there as the most elegantly lyrical of baseball writers who practised their professions for weekly or other magazines.

When Pete Rose first ran into the dumpster fire of his own making, in 1989, Boswell asked, “[W]hat happens when you become larger than life? The ego needed to be great and the judgment required to be wise aren’t often found in the same package.”

When Mike Schmidt shocked the game by retiring in May 1989, while he was still among the National League’s RBI leaders though he wasn’t hitting often or hard anymore, Boswell wrote, “Most great players these days torture their teams, their fans, and themselves, playing for years past their prime, for the checks and the cheers.”

Instead, Schmidt left memories—of the player who finally dragged the Phillies to five division titles, two pennants, and their only world title . . . Even with three MVP awards and a World Series MVP behind him, he lived a slump as though he had never been in one before and might never get out of this one . . .

Schmidt . . . was not meant to comb gray hairs. From him, we only expected the sublime. He looked like some huge, graceful shortstop misplaced at third base. When he came to bat, the number 20 on his back might have stood for the number of rows he intended to hit the ball into the bleachers.

For many fans, Schmidt’s departure was a shock that left a sense of loss. Didn’t we half expect him to hit 35 more home runs this year as though the trick were done without effort? Once in awhile, however, the man himself knows best. On Memorial Day, Schmidt connected again. He did what so many great athletes have failed to do; he left us wanting more.

When the Astros were hoist by their own illegal, off-field-based, electonic sign-stealing petard, unable or unwilling to say plainly that they cheated and were sorry about it, before the coronavirus shut 2020 spring training down, there was Boswell to tell it like they weren’t: “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed . . . ”

Unfortunately, getting caught is usually what does it. Then, in the Astros’ refrain of the day, [outfielder Josh] Reddick said, “If we win, we shut everybody up.”

No, you don’t. The Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Seventy years later, they were still in a metaphoric cornfield in “Field of Dreams,” coming out at dusk to ask whether they could just be allowed to play a game of baseball again.

Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma — most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

As of 30 June, Boswell is pulling the brake on his Post career. The pan-damn-ic kept him from covering last year’s World Series up close and personal; five eye surgeries last year married to that convinced him, as he wrote 7 May, “I’ve gradually gotten the memo, sent from me to myself: ‘This is the appropriate time’.”

Branch Rickey said, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

I’m trading me into retirement. I’m happy about it. But I’m going to miss many aspects of the only job I’ve ever had. To my surprise, with age, it’s now clear what I will miss the most — the readers.

I’ve been one of them ever since I picked up a copy of How Life Imitates the World Series. Until then, Boswell essays published outside Washington and around New York were about as frequent as excursions to Atlantis. Boswell hasn’t published an anthology since Cracking the Show in 1994. He’s as overdue for a new one as the Cubs were for winning the World Series in 2016.

Baseball players learn the hard way that there comes time when the spirit remains willing, the brain keeps believing, the heart still beats, but the body orders them where to shove it and they can’t let themselves obey. Just ask Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Steve Carlton, and Albert Pujols. The rarest are the Schmidts, the Jackie Robinsons, the Sandy Koufaxes who obey the orders before their legacies get shoved.

Writers whose pens, typewriters, word processors, computers never fail them may be more rare than than the Hall of Famer who fields like a vacuum cleaner and hits like you could put him into an old-fashioned telephone booth and he’d still hit one across the Grand Canyon.

“To avoid the column-decompression bends,” Boswell concluded, “I will be writing and chatting several more times until June 30. By then, the cicadas will leave. And so will I. They will go underground for seventeen years. I hope to go everywhere else.” The column’s headline said, “it’s time to see what I missed.”

Just please tell me it’ll be the way Alan Freed once signed off his nightly radio shows, “It isn’t goodbye, it’s just good night.” Even one Boswell exegesis a year is worth two hundred from anyone else and ten times that many from me.

Otherwise, I’ll wish Boswell and his wife, Wendy, nothing but joy in their human journey still to come. I just hope the BBWAA re-awakens enough to make bloody certain that their itinerary includes Cooperstown—and not as tourists.

No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2019-05-28 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of unwarranted baseball goats.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including [Donnie] Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Moore, the former Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the Red Sox when the Angels were a strike away from nailing the 1986 American League pennant. Three seasons later, he shocked baseball and the world by shooting his wife before turning the gun on himself and killing himself.

A haunted man as it was before the pitch, Moore apparently couldn’t bear the weight of that pitch. It wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. He threw Henderson a forkball that snapped down and away and was as shocked as anyone else in old Anaheim Stadium when Henderson sent it over the left field fence. The game went to extra innings and the Angels lost the game and, two games later, the pennant.

To the Red Sox. Who suffered even worse miseries when they were a strike away from winning that World Series. Their bullpen melted down in the bottom of the tenth against those tenacious Mets, right down to allowing the tying run home on a wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball.

Then Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson shot a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ailing Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the winning run home to Buckner’s and his team’s horror. A Red Sox Nation that already suffered from too many decades of surrealistic calamity on the threshold of triumph could bear no more.

Buckner, who died on Memorial Day, turned out to be made of stronger stuff than Donnie Moore, and Buckner endured far worse than Moore did. And just as Moore’s Angels had two more chances to win that American League Championship Series but failed, Buckner’s Red Sox had a Game Seven yet to play in that World Series—and were defeated.

Boswell was hardly the only one to say after Moore’s suicide that the goat business wasn’t funny anymore. And it didn’t stop those inclined to look for goats wherever they could be found, and try making their lives a nightmare forever after.

A well-syndicated Washington Post sports columnist for eons now, author of several best-selling anthologies of his work especially about baseball, Boswell was probably roundly ignored when he pleaded to put the goat business out of business by addressing the “goats” with forgiveness they shouldn’t have had to beg in the first place:

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not. 

Boswell opened the essay with a small roll of “goats,” but—perhaps unwittingly—he omitted their equally unwitting progenitor. Baseball’s goats have long since been Fred Merkle’s children.

That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team a pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead from the moment the game ended didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged fans and outraged writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Never tell people like that that two laws are inviolable: No game can be won by both sides, and Berra’s Law (It ain’t over until it’s over) has yet to be ruled inoperative or unconstitutional.

Merkle’s children were made to suffer under the ridiculous belief Boswell outlined, that losing a game or making a mistake in a game isn’t just a question of a mistake or a defeat but, rather, a question of sin. “The unspoken assumption,” Boswell wrote, “is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.”

Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly the epitome of morality off the field, but in Game Seven of the 1926 World Series—with Bob Meusel at the plate, Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck, and two out in the ninth—Ruth bolted for second. Everyone on earth knew a one-armed man could throw him out stealing. Amoral? Not a chance. Self-involved? Surely. But . . . he was The Babe.

Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi didn’t have Ruth’s kind of cred in Game Four of the 1939 World Series. The gentle giant was clearly morally flawed when Yankee outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller blasted into him at the plate, knocking him out cold, as Keller and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio behind him scored the game and Series-winning runs in the tenth.

It couldn’t possibly have been Keller being built like a tank and nailing the otherwise likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—to finish a World Series sweep.  “Lombardi,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace.”

So should have had Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox shortstop who held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky had to take a too-high throw in from late-game center field insertion Leon Culberson before turning to try throwing home proved entirely beside the point, to those who insisted that Pesky was obviously the devil’s spawn.

Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough.

The priest told Branca God chose him because He knew he’d be strong enough to bear the burden. Branca proved stronger than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square.

Was it moral lacking that caught 1964 Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey by as much surprise as it caught anyone else in late September, in Connie Mack Stadium, when Red rookie Chico Ruiz stole home for the game’s only run—starting the infamous Phillie Phlop?

Was Willie Davis prosecutable for terpitude when he lost a pair of fly balls in a too bright sun, and committed a third error off one of them, in Game Two of the 1966 World Series? (Which just so happened to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game as things turned out.) Did sunblindness mean its victim required an exorcism?

When B.F. Dent hit the three-run homer over the Green Monster to overthrow a Red Sox lead for what turned out keeps in the 1978 American League East playoff game, did it expose Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez as a moral idiot? (Come to think of it, was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski morally suspect when, with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he popped out to end the game?)

I guess Tom Niedenfeuer was morally suspect when his manager Tommy Lasorda, that devilish apostate, decided it was safe for him to pitch to Jack Clark with two on, first base open and the Dodgers one little out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game. Guess that made Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he hit a home run that may have traveled to Pasadena, and those Dodgers couldn’t score a lick in the bottom of the ninth.

Maybe Don Denkinger was really degenerate when—in the bottom of the ninth, with Clark’s Cardinals themselves three outs from a World Series championship—he mistakenly called Jorge Orta leading off safe at first when every camera angle showed him out by a step and a half.

Never mind that the Cardinals still had the chance to keep the Royals from overthrowing their lead. And, that nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to implode entirely in Game Seven, with or without Denkinger himself rotated behind the plate. In St. Louis and elsewhere, Denkinger became Beelzebub incarnate.

Time healed a few of Merkle’s children, of course. Sometimes it was a short volume of time; other times, it took a generation or two. Sometimes one or two of Merkle’s children shook it off almost immediately.

Maybe it was easy for Babe Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, the Big Fella, and could get away with blunders that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Tommy Lasorda to shake off one mistake because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to work after he saw his first pitch to Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series sail into the left field seats with the pennant attached.

From whence the perennially star-crossed, snake-bitten Red Sox picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again in 2004, and delivered four straight wins against their eternal tormentors from the south Bronx after being down to the final three outs of what would have been a sweep . . . and swept the Cardinals—Enos Slaughter’s descendants—in the World Series.

Every so often those who get ruined as spectacularly as the ’03 Red Sox get a chance at immediate redemption and pounce on it. But maybe we don’t really know what goes through the minds of human men playing human games who come up short in the worst possible moments of such games.

Sometimes they heal in unexpected ways. Branca and Bobby Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the revelation and final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback the (then) high-tech cheating way. Buckner and Wilson forged a comparable friendship in the years following their rendezvous with baseball’s often cruel destiny.

So have Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and Joe Carter. Already having a blown save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series, Williams pitched into infamy in the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, when Carter hit a Series-ending three-run homer that turned what was still called the SkyDome into bedlam.

Known now to have taken the ball after a sleepless night following death threats, Williams never flinched post-game, answering even the most ridiculous questions without once trying to pass responsibility on. In the worst defeat in the Phillies’ own tortured history to that point, Williams proved a better man than his critics including a teammate or two who wanted him run out of town. He also accepted a near-immediate reaching-out from Carter himself.

“Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter once told the Toronto Star, when he and Williams hooked up for an event to help Canadian at-risk children. “Over the years I’ve seen him at MLB Network, but I’ve always known what type of guy Mitch is. He’s a great guy and the great thing about baseball is not just the sport itself, but the people you meet. Lives are going to be crossed, paths are going to be crossed a lot. It just so happens we’re kind of intertwined now and I thought it would be a great gesture to bring him back here because he is a fun guy to have around . . . he really is.”

What pounds the minds of fans who can’t resist smoking out goats when their heroes lose, or doing their level best to make life miserable for those poor souls? Ask cautiously. You might be afraid of the answers.

“The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket,” Boswell wrote, “and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment. Still, before we boo or use words like ‘choke’ and ‘goat,’ perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.” Don’t be afraid to say it’s well past time to stop letting single failures define entire careers. Game failure isn’t crime.

Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. And they’d be lying through their teeth if they say they’d have done no questions asked what Merkle’s children couldn’t do in those moments.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.