One cheer for the White Sox

Yermin Mercedes

Hitting this home run on a 3-0 count in the ninth in Target Field got Yermin Mercedes a target on his back in May—placed by his own manager.

Somewhere among the legion of September call-ups this year, there was one missing conspicuously from the now American League Central champion White Sox. A fellow having a splendid time of things overall at Charlotte (AAA-East), considering he’s a catcher at a somewhat advanced age. A fellow who exploded out of the box in the Show this year but ran into an unforgivable hiccup near the end of May.

The hiccup wasn’t his, but his manager’s.

Yermin Mercedes’s 2021 in Charlotte was respectable enough to finish with a .782 OPS, a .502 real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), but a September snub and a likely absence from the White Sox’s postseason roster.

It may or may not be because he stumbled a moment after his manager threw him under the proverbial bus in May, for reasons described most kindly as brain damaged. In a season during which there were controversies politely called dumb, this one may yet confer upon Tony La Russa the Ignoble Prize for Extinguished Achievement.

But it defies baseball sense that Mercedes shouldn’t earn another shot with the White Sox while they carry one backup to Yasmani Grandal who carries a .616 OPS. and isn’t exactly a run-stifler defensively.

Mercedes hit the road swinging right out of spring training, going 8-for-8 right through the sixth inning of a game against the Angels. He was the only Show player since 1900 to open a season that way. It looked as though his only flaw was that, unlike the cars with whom he shares a marque, he can’t go 0-60 in three seconds flat.

But then came that fine May day when Mercedes checked in at the plate in the ninth inning  against a Twins position player on the mound, first baseman Willians Astudillo. Yes, the White Sox were blowing the Twins out, 15-4. But, yes, the Twins still had five legitimate relief pitchers available for duty.

Astudillo threw Mercedes yet another meatball, on a 3-0 count, and watched it sail over the center field fence. So did La Russa, who turned out to be distinctly unamused at his own player. Mercedes had just broken one of the Sacred Unwritten Rules, and the Hall of Fame manager considered him a heretic with No Respect for the Game.

La Russa probably swore he gave Mercedes a take sign on 3-0, though CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder was hardly the only one who thought that might have been either disingenuous or downright false. If true, Snyder wrote, it’s worth a stern talk—in the dugout, in the clubhouse office, anywhere except in the press where La Russa took it.

“I heard [Mercedes] said something like, ‘I play my game’,” La Russa was quoted as saying. “No he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents.”

Oh. As though the opponent showed so much respect for the game that they simply rolled over, played dead, and sent a first baseman/catcher to the mound to pitch an inning, even the ninth? We’re supposed to respect an opponent when they all but tank the rest of the game?

(Don’t even think about telling anyone you can’t possibly overcome a 15-4 deficit. The 1925 Philadelphia Athletics would love to prove you wrong. After closing twelve-run deficits twice in a game against the Indians, they closed an eleven-run deficit in the eighth and went on to win, 17-15. They upheld Berra’s Law [it ain’t over until it’s over] decades before Yogi gave it a formula.)

The following day, Twins relief pitcher Tyler Duffey threw behind Mercedes the moment after coming into the game. La Russa said in the press he had no trouble at all with Duffey doing that. His pitcher (and Cy Young Award conversation member) Lance Lynn demurred: “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

One up for Sir Lancelot. Perhaps Lynn was somewhat amazed that a skipper who admitted a fortnight earlier that he didn’t know the written rules could now be called a strict constructionist about the unwritten ones.

For all anyone knows, the La Russa-inflated dustup with the Twins knocked more than a little air out of Mercedes, who finished May with a .311/.366/.480 slash line, fell to .271/.328/.404 by the end of June, and was sent down to Charlotte. The frustrated Mercedes first threatened retirement, then reported to Charlotte after all.

Who’s to say La Russa’s foolish mishandling of that 3-0 home run, to say nothing of all but encouraging the Twins or anyone else to throw at his batters if they swing on 3-0 against a position player on the mound, didn’t deflate Mercedes inside no matter how he tried not to let it show?

Exhumed from retirement, La Russa’s Hall of Fame resume of thirteen division championships, six pennants, and three World Series rings, I wrote after the 3-0 homer, “won’t save him, if he costs himself his clubhouse and the White Sox turn from early-season surprise to season-closing bust.”

Well, the White Sox didn’t exactly turn from early-season surprise to regular-season closing bust. They were fun to watch as often as not, particularly playing and winning the Field of Dreams Game against the Yankees in mid-August. (“Hey, Dad—want to pitch me a walk-off?”)

They didn’t exactly overwhelm an American League Central that has underwhelmed just about all season long, either. This wasn’t entirely their fault. It’s not easy to lose impact players or significant pitchers to injuries for varied lengths of time. It’s also not easy to play the game with the occasional but nagging suspicion that your manager can hang you out to dry at any moment, for any reason, even (especially?) a foolish reason.

They’d lost eight of eighteen before opening a Thursday doubleheader with a 7-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland. Their .561 winning percentage entering today is lower than last year’s short-season .583.

It doesn’t get all that much better from there. They’ve been a .500 team since the All-Star break. They entered that Cleveland set Thursday with a 25-29 record against all .500-or-better teams. They’ve swept only one season series this year—all seven against the .323-winning Orioles. They may or may not have surprises in store for their likely round-one postseason opponent—the Astros, who took their season series against each other 7-2.

La Russa hasn’t always resembled the genius he’s cracked up to be, still. Oh, he was about as clever and attentive as he could be in keeping his oft-wounded charges from dissembling even in a weak division. La Russa and his White Sox endured where others haven’t after the injury bugs became a plague.

But look to the unwisely missing backstop among their reserves. To his credit, La Russa offered Mercedes a show of support—last month, at a time Mercedes pondered aloud whether his next baseball stop might be in Japan. It took La Russa a mere four months to pull him back out from under that bus.

“As you probably know, if you are paying attention, several times he said how close we are,” La Russa said then. “He knows I’m a supporter of his. So I’ll reach out to him and see what’s going on. It could be he’s just feeling frustrated. I’ll try to explain to him he’s got a big league future.”

Four months after La Russa treated his Mercedes like a rustbucket Trabant, that might be a bit of a tough sell.

Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Even Hall of Fame managers aren’t always the geniuses they’re cracked up to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony La Russa

La Russa’s 2011 Cardinals won a World Series despite the skipper’s missteps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings keeps him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. It’ll probably keep La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for now, despite his early tactical mistakes.

And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident leaves that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.) All that previous outcome bias won’t save him, if he costs himself his clubhouse and the White Sox turn from early-season surprise to season-closing bust.

La Russa doubles down cluelessly

Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa may be more clueless than he accused his own player Yermin Mercedes of being.

Tony La Russa wanted his live rookie Yermin Mercedes to learn a lesson in respect for the game. A Hall of Fame manager who came out of retirement to take the White Sox bridge, La Russa should remember that respect cuts in more than one direction.

If it was “disrespectful” and “clueless” for Mercedes to swing 3-0 in the top of the eighth with the White Sox blowing the Twins out 15-4 at the time, what was it for the Twins to send an infielder named Willians Astudillo out to pitch in the first place?

Astudillo threw a meatball that couldn’t even be called a knuckleball on 3-0. Whether Mercedes didn’t hear or chose not to listen to La Russa hollering to take the pitch, he drove it over the center field fence for the sixteenth White Sox run.

Mercedes and his teammates celebrated the blast when he returned to the dugout. La Russa was more than unamused. He called Mercedes out to the press after the game and again Tuesday morning. It was practically an engraved invitation to the Twins to do what relief pitcher Tyler Duffey finally did—in the seventh inning.

Duffey threw behind Mercedes with the first pitch of the plate appearance, which turned out to be the first and last of Duffey’s evening. Both Duffey and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli were ejected post haste for the drill attempt.

The attempt was foolish on a pair of levels. If you need that badly to send an opposing hitter a message, you do it the first time you see him at the plate and be done with it. You don’t do it near the potential end of the game, especially when you’re down a pair of runs and you can’t really afford an enemy baserunner who has the potential of coming home on a followup hit or two.

Lucky for the Twins that Alex Colome relieving Duffey wrapped a second walk around a pair of strikeouts for the side. They were even luckier that Miguel Sano hit his second homer of the night in the bottom of the eighth to tie before Jorge Polanco walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

For a story he seemed to think was one big nothingburger in the first place, expressing surprise more than once previously that it took hold as firm and long as it did, La Russa doubled down on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press.

“If you’re going to tell me that sportsmanship and the respect for the game of baseball and respect for your opponent is not an important priority,” said La Russa on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press, “I can’t disagree with you more. You think you need more [runs] to win, you keep pushing. If you think you have enough, respect the game and opposition. Sportsmanship.”

La Russa’s Wednesday starting pitcher Lance Lynn demurs. It was probably the most intelligent observation amidst the entire debate. “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules,” Lynn was quoted as saying. “Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

Maybe you got why the Twins decided it might not be wise to spend any more of their pitching staff when they looked dead and buried by eleven runs with a couple of innings left to play. But maybe La Russa, the Twins, and those applauding La Russa while trying to shame Mercedes would care to re-learn a little baseball history.

Specifically, they might care to re-read the pages that remind you it’s not unheard of for a team to recover from a double-digit deficit before the last inning’s played and either win the game late or force the final decision to extra innings. We take you back to 1925, presumably one of the golden years the Old School/Old Fart Contingency has in mind when speaking of how much more grand was the grand old game in those grand old days.

The Indians had the Philadelphia Athletics buried 14-2, 15-3, and 15-4. Until they didn’t, thanks to the eighth inning. You know, the same inning during which Mercedes drove the infielder’s 49-mph canteloupe over the fence. Listen up, students: The A’s arose from the dead and buried with a thirteen-run eighth—a two-run triple, six RBI singles including two sending pairs of runs home, and Hall of Famer Al Simmons with the exclamation point of a two-out, three-run homer before the inning ended.

Those A’s overcame deficits of twelve, twelve, and eleven runs to nail a 17-15 win.

You don’t even have to go that far back, students. In 2001, the 116 game-winning Mariners sat on the wrong side of such a comeback. They’d had the Indians pinned 12-2 . . . until the Tribe told them, “you only think you have us pinned.” Three runs in the seventh, four in the eighth, five (all with two outs, yet) in the ninth. John Coltrane, call your office: they call it Ascension. (The Indians eventually won it in the eleventh, 15-14.)

Fifteen years later, the Padres only thought they had a somewhat different crew of Mariners sunk with a 12-2 lead after five. The Mariners ordered, “Up periscope!” Five runs in the sixth, nine in the seventh. Deficit overcome: ten runs. Oops. That all happened before the eighth. Double oops: what’s the point?

The points include that you should also get Lynn’s point. Lynn’s, and and Dodger pitcher Trevor Bauer’s:

Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime.

Dear people who are still mad about a hitter hitting: kindly get out of the game.

Can’t believe we’re still talking about 3-0 swings. If you don’t like it, managers or pitchers, just be better.

La Russa was far less aware of the aforementioned and other double-digit deficit closures than he was of his immediate need to school Mercedes. “There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family,” he said after Monday’s game. “It’s a learning experience.”

No wonder any Twin pitcher thought he had a license to kill on Tuesday. And after Duffey attempted just that, La Russa went weasel about it: “It wasn’t obvious to me. The guy threw a sinker. It didn’t look good. So, I wasn’t that suspicious. I’m suspicious if somebody throws at somebody’s head. Then I’m suspicious. I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that.”

Translation: If one of you lot breaks the Sacred Unwritten Rules on my watch, your back means nothing to me.

Further translation: A Hall of Fame manager didn’t think there was anything wrong with waiting through four preceding plate appearances on Tuesday night before deciding it was time to teach Mercedes a lesson in manners. Mercedes’s teammates probably had every reason to believe the Twins really did shake off the Monday night mash until Duffey went behind his legs.

The Twins were probably lucky Duffey didn’t trigger a bench-clearing brawl over it.

There were moments over this week’s first three days when you’d have thought baseball’s worst problem of the week was Mercedes swinging on 3-0. As if the continuing free cookie on second to start each extra half inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the continuing metastasis of hit batsmen courtesy of control-challenged pitchers built for speed and not smarts, and the continuing embarrassment of the National League lacking the permanent designated hitter, were just nuisances like a fly at a picnic.

There were moments, too, when you’d have thought La Russa was merely the unappreciated genius trying to teach the no-respect millenials a little lesson in manners. He’d certainly like you to think so. “What did I say publicly?” he asked aboard that Wednesday Zoom conference, before answering. “I said a young player made a mistake—which, by the way, he did—and we need to acknowledge it. Part of how you get better as a team is, if something goes wrong, you address it.”

Who’s the genius who decided to address it in the public media, instead of keeping it behind clubhouse doors, and thus leave his own player prone to a duster? Who’s the genius who didn’t stop to ponder what sort of “respect” was shown his team when the other team sent an infielder to face them in the eighth instead of continuing an honest effort to come back even with two innings left to play at minimum?

Who’s the genius who also didn’t see his own starting pitcher Lucas Giolito gassed in the early seventh on 27 April, then left him in anyway and watched him surrender back-to-back an RBI double and a two-run homer, giving the lowly Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish?

Who’s the genius who let pool-noodle-bat Billy Hamilton hit with two on and one out in the top of the tenth on 5 May, despite better than decent bench help ready and waiting—then watched his lead runner get thrown out trying to steal third, before Hamilton struck out for the side? In a scoreless interleague game the Reds would win when Jesse Winker walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of that inning?

(Who’s also the genius who did enough of his part—with a lot of help from a cronyism-stacked Today’s Game Committee—to jam Harold Baines down the Hall of Fame’s throat three years ago, when Baines’s only qualification for the honour, if that, was a 22-season major league career that amounted to making the Hall of Fame the Hall of the Gold Watch?)

Funny thing about “traditions.” Baseball’s include that the game isn’t over until the final out. Baseball’s late Hall of Fame philosopher Yogi Berra interpreted it to mean, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” If you’re worried about a hitter swinging 3-0 against a reserve utility infielder, maybe you should worry more about that infielder’s team deciding the game was over two innings early regardless of the score and on which end of they sat short.

The Twins weren’t trying to be sportsmen as much as they were trying to save their pitching staff to fight another day. Well and good, and with its own risks attached. Throwing at Mercedes late in the following night’s game doesn’t mitigate that.

The Old School/Old Fart Contingency still fuming over Mercedes squaring up the infielder’s meatball like to think they’re standing up for the game’s integrity. They might want to ponder how much “integrity” is present when a team playing a game with no clock surrenders before the game’s actually over.

The suddenly Luddite Hall of Fame

Allen’s Hall candidacy waits an extra year since the Hall won’t Zoom.

Dick Allen used to hit home runs that zoomed into earth orbit. Thanks to the Hall of Fame’s unexpected allergy to Zooming, Allen’s and others’ Cooperstown candidacies will have to wait another year.

Among other changes fun and dubious the pandemic has imposed upon baseball, two Era Committees—the Golden Era Committee on which Allen would now be a candidate, and the Early Baseball Era Committee—now won’t meet until winter 2021, with those they elect if any inducted in 2022.

It seems the old fogies who think baseball is headed into an abyss with newfangled analytics aren’t the only ones who think technology and the old ball game are a match made in hell. Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections:

With the nation’s safety concerns, the travel restrictions and the limitations on group gatherings in effect for many regions, it is not possible to ensure that we can safely and effectively hold these committee meetings. The Era Committee process, which has been so effective in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, requires an open, yet confidential conversation and an in-person dialogue involving the members of the 16-person voting committee.

Is Clark telling us that members of the Era Committees or the Baseball Writers Association of America (who determine their candidacies) can’t Zoom what numerous schools and non-retail businesses have arranged, managed, and zoomed since the coronavirus world tour kicked into overdrive in earnest a few months ago?

It really is so simple a child of five can do it. (Sorry, Groucho.) Lots of children of five in kindergartens are doing it.

When the Today’s Game Committee elected Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame so controversially two years ago, the committee members included Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, a man who is about as allergic to high technology as Donald Trump is to self-congratulation. And, Dave Dombrowski, last seen as the Boston Red Sox’s general manager until late last season.

Surely Clark and the Luddites among Hall governors don’t think a manager who helped introduce the computer to baseball thinking and strategising would have run home to Mommy at the idea of Zooming about Hall candidates? Or, a general manager who last worked for a team 20,000 leagues deep into analytics that require computers as much as other tools?

Technology isn’t always a gift, of course. There probably isn’t a baseball jury on earth that would say artificial turf was a baseball blessing. But if Clark thinks confidentiality would be compromised by a Zoom remote conference call, what does she think when, almost invariably, certain Hall of Fame doings and undoings get leaked to the working press routinely enough?

Fair disclosure: I have a little skin in this game. I’ve championed Dick Allen for the Hall of Fame for quite awhile now, after once being skeptical about it myself. (I’d also like to see elected his great contemporary Tony Oliva plus Minnie Minoso, both of whom deserve the honour.) But a long time reviewing the record as it was and remains convinced me that Allen belongs in Cooperstown.

I’m convinced with no further questions asked that his Hall case was compromised way less by the racism against which he waged war in Philadelphia than by a series of injuries he was sometimes foolish enough to try playing through, and that those injuries kept him (as Rob Neyer and others have observed) from posting better late-career numbers that might have solidified his Hall case.

Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook, says it better in prose than I could (and did) say it:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

 

I can and did say it statistically, too. I determined on my own that if Dick Allen had been allowed fifteen completely healthy seasons and a normal late-career, uncompromised decline phase, he might have finished his career with as many as 525 lifetime home runs instead of the 351 he did hit. (Oliva wasn’t Allen’s kind of power threat but the same healthy fifteen seasons and uncompromised decline phase might have left him with 315 lifetime homers.)

According to my Real Batting Average metric—which I’ve since modified to disallow sacrifice bunts (sorry, but intentional outs don’t and shouldn’t count) but retain sacrifice flies; and, which allows the complete look at a player that traditional batting average (treating all hits equal and factoring only “official” at-bats) denies—this is Dick Allen in his absolute nine-season peak period, and bear in mind that he missed an average twenty games per season in that period because of injuries:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-1972 5,457 2,592 685 120 33 11 .631

Forty-one percent of Allen’s hits went for extra bases, too, and they weren’t all those orbital belts that once inspired Hall of Famer Willie Stargell to suggest one reason Allen was booed by the notorious Philadelphia boo-birds (Those people would boo at a funeral—Bo Belinsky, briefly a Phillie) was that his home runs traveled too far to become souvenirs.

“What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it,” Allen told his biographer/Phillies historiographer William C. Kashatus once. “So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, Allen, Oliva, Minoso, and others covered by the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees, the Hall that includes members who were elected on behalf of being innovators (Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck) or pioneers (Albert Spalding, Barney Dreyfuss) is suddenly allergic to a little pioneering.