Down and out—but still looking up

Juan Soto and the Nationals hope to kick up their heels from 2020 deflation to 2021 redemption and beyond. Is it false hope?

Don’t look now, but baseball is about to wrap its twentieth season without a repeat World Series champion. What’s sadder about it is that last year’s world champions were so damn much fun but spent this year proving that no good deed goes unpunished.

Lots of teams get battered during any season, never mind truncated ones, but the Washington Nationals passed that practically before this one settled in through its early shakes, rattles, and COVID-19 rolls.

Until Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging on a full count, Washington hadn’t had a major league World Series champion since the Coolidge Administration or any kind of world champion since the final Negro Leagues World Series—during the Berlin Airlift.

Now the Nats have gone from baseball’s best between 23 May 2019 and the last men standing in the World Series toward the second-worst winning percentage ever for a defending Series winner. That was last year: They opened 19-31 and closed with the keys to the Promised Land. This was this year: They opened 19-31 and head for a closing with the keys to the tunnels beneath the sewers under the basement.

The worst, in case you wondered, were the 1998 Florida Marlins. (.333.) The team the Nats are about to push to one side in second place? The 2014 Boston Red Sox. (.438.) This is a very dubious elite club for which to aim at the top of the dubious the heap. NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reminds us that only 14.9 percent out of all 114 World Series winners had losing records. If you remove this year’s Nats from the picture, the dishonour roll looks thus:

1998 Marlins—.333.
2014 Red Sox—.438.
1991 Cincinnati Reds—.457.
1918 Chicago White Sox—.460.
1932 St. Louis Cardinals—.468.
Tie: 1986 Kansas City Royals; 2013 San Francisco Giants—.469.
1967 Baltimore Orioles—.472.
2003 Anaheim Angels—.475.
1994 Toronto Blue Jays—.478.
2007 St. Louis Cardinals—.481.

The Nats woke up this morning at .411. The good news, if you want to call it that: They get to finish this Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please: The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone of a season with four games against the New York Mess. (Er, Mets.) Who were supposed to be in the thick of this season’s races with or without the pandemic but had one thing in common with their comic 1962 ancestors: they never had a winning streak bigger than two games.

Assume for argument and humour’s sake that the Mets iron up and sweep the Nats to put paid to a season the Nats and the Mets would each love nothing more than to forget. Such a sweep would leave the Nats with a .383 winning percentage. Not quite enough to knock the Marlins off the highest of those low perches, but only the second defending World Champion to have a sub-.400 winning percentage trying to defend the title.

It’s not that the Nats lack for any remaining pride. Taking three out of four this week from even this year’s Philadelphia Phillies and especially their arsonic bullpen, including a doubleheader sweep Tuesday, shows they’ve got plenty enough of that left.

Maybe they don’t let themselves stay demoralised by the 12-3 smothering the Phillies dropped on them Wednesday night. Including and especially by old friend Bryce Harper—who’s been silly enough to play through back issues this year, and didn’t the Nats used to reach for the whiskey bottles over Harper trying to play through injuries when he wore their silks, too?— hitting a pair out on a night the Phillies sent five into the barren seats.

It’s what they didn’t have that picked these Nats up by the back of their necks and threw them downstairs this year. Last season, and especially last October, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Tanner Rainey, and especially Stephen Strasburg owned numerous postseason conversations. This season they’ve owned too-choice seats on the injured list.

Last year, they had Anthony Rendon. Last winter, they decided (maybe foolishly, maybe not) that they couldn’t afford to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, and let Rendon walk into the Los Angeles Angels’ free agency arms—where, as of this morning, he leads the American League in on-base percentage.

The Nats thought signing Starlin Castro would ease that pain. Castro and his right wrist hit the IL in mid-August after he broke it on a diving play at second base. The Nats also didn’t expect that only three players would play up to even minimum expectations while the rest of the roster got injured, played at barely replacement-level, or just plain collapsed.

The three are Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Luis Garcia. The third of that group is a rookie. The first is the young man who shook off what he still believes a false-positive COVID test to sport a 1.190 OPS as of Thursday morning and a real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .830.

It’s even more of a shame that this truncated season’s Nats deflated so profoundly. A performance like Soto’s over a full season might have “Most Valuable Player” stamped on the papers without that deflation.

Perspective: Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, the presumptive MVP this season, has an RBA 101 points lower than Soto’s. (.729.) The Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu, who leads the American League “batting race” as Soto does the National League’s, has a .635 RBA. Tim Anderson, second in the AL “batting race”: .596 RBA. Turner, who’s third in the NL “batting race”: .624 RBA.

The Nats also didn’t anticipate Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin being only human this year, pandemic or no pandemic, disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp or no disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp. Hands up to everyone who expected the pair would combine for a 4.20 ERA and 3.59 fielding-independent pitching. Neither did they. Neither did I.

Nobody thought their up-and-comers would shrink when handed their opportunities to come forth and be counted in. Nobody thought so many veterans would look more ancient than merely veteran. And nobody thought the Lerner ownership would wait as long as they did to hand general manager Mike Rizzo his very hard-earned due of a contract extension.

But they still don’t have manager Dave Martinez’s situation resolved. Rizzo’s promised to sign Martinez to a long-term deal to keep him on the Nats’ bridge.The Lerners should at least think about atoning for keeping Rizzo in too-long-limbo and ordering Rizzo to get Martinez’s deal done the sooner the better.

Reality check: The Nats’ morale probably wasn’t helped by Rizzo’s long-enough lame duck status before he finally got his extension, and it probably isn’t helped by Martinez’s lack of new or at least extended deal. It’s no fun when two men you respect and admire and forgive their occasional hiccups and mishaps have to lead you through a season phantasmagoric going in with question marks instead of security on their heads.

They know Rizzo worked his tail off a very long time to make them winners and finally world champions, and they withstood Rizzo’s occasional stumbles on behalf of the bigger picture. They know Martinez didn’t let that 19-31 opening last year put premature paid to that season and bought into his “It’s a beautiful day, let’s win one” philosophy without waiting for it to go on sale.

They know this year’s an aberration. They hope.

“What I do like is our potential for 2021,” Martinez told reporters Wednesday. “I’ll say it again: Our starting pitching, the horses are coming back. The back end of our bullpen is shaped up and those guys will be fresh and ready to go. We have some really young talent; we’ve got some other young talent that hopefully we’ll see in spring training.”

All they have to do is a very mild re-tooling. (Six Nats either face free agency or option rejection, they’re not really keys to the future, and letting them go or just keeping one leaves room to sign, oh, a solid fourth starter, a decent bat, maybe even a bullpen fortifier.) Also, avoid the injury list and pray that 2021 will be a normal spring training and season.

Not to mention reminding themselves that World Series winners since 1995 also tend to get back to the postseason two years after slipping the rings onto their fingers. Those 2019 memories are eternal. But the Nats don’t have to think they’ll end up becoming outliers, either.

Country Joe tosses the boss

Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, unmasked, confabs (and points to Nats GM Mike Rizzo in the second deck) with masked crew chief Joe West Sunday.

Among many distinctions, not all of them affirmative, Joe West is now the man who threw out the first general manager of the season. The Washington Nationals aren’t the only ones among the barely amused.

What a weekend for Mike Rizzo. After entering spring training with his contract status unresolved beyond his own walk year this year, he finally landed the extension he deserved when all was said and done. He barely had time to savour it when he got into West’s crosshairs Sunday.

This pandemic-truncated season hasn’t exactly gone the way the defending world champions had in mind. They’re dead last in the National League East and next-to-last in this season’s crazed wild card picture. Their tragic number for elimination is sixteen. When the only National League outfit worse is the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s enough to give last year’s self-resurrecting World Series conquerors pause going in.

Then the Nats spent the weekend with the Atlanta Braves and both sides seemed to spend much of it complaining that the umpiring was, shall we say, far less than exemplary or accurate. Rizzo all weekend was a particularly vocal complainer.

Thanks to pandemic-empty ballparks you can hear a lot more than perhaps you’d like to hear from the dugouts and even the men on the field or the coaching lines. There was Rizzo, all alone in a club box in the second deck of Atlanta’s Truist Park. Not a soul within a few hundred feet of him in either direction.

The next thing you knew, Rizzo was escorted from the premises by stadium security in the top of the seventh. That was as much a seventh-inning stretch as you could imagine in such surrealistic circumstances.

With the Braves up, 7-1 (they went on to win, 10-3), umpire Hunter Wendelstedt started pointing to the club level where Rizzo reposed and, apparently, objected to this or that call. “The umpiring crew, led by West, then went to call security,” writes Larry Brown. “The Braves’ announcers speculated that West might not have liked Rizzo complaining about balls and strikes. They also mentioned that Rizzo was not wearing a mask in the park.”

The mask issue seems a little like a red herring with no one within a hundred feet of Rizzo. Especially since a) West’s on record as thinking COVID-19 isn’t exactly a deadly enemy; and, b) Wendelstedt was unmasked while he confabbed with West, who was masked. They were probably ticked off most at Rizzo objecting to a strike call on a pitch that actually sailed in well enough off the plate while Nats infielder Asdrubal Cabrera batted.

Apparently, Rizzo kept barking over the pitch calls by the time first baseman Eric Thames batted on a 2-2 count. Then West pointed to the club boxes where Rizzo reposed and called stadium security after hollering, “You’re out! Get out!” Rizzo’s way.

“Should Rizzo be yelling at the ump audibly from his suite? Probably not, but it’s also the kind of thing that that happens every game,” deadpans Deadspin writer Sam Fels. “It’s the kind of thing that could probably be solved with a solitary look, or maybe a pointed finger. But no, that won’t due for hilljack Joe.”

You want to talk about delays of games? West held up the game so he could show Rizzo who’s boss around here. “Call security,” a voice hollered. You’d think objecting to dubious pitch calls equaled a small child refusing to go to bed when Mom and Dad so order. Unless Mom and Dad confuse proper parenting with tyranny for its own sake, they’re not Joe West.

“Joe West is the passenger on the plane who won’t let you out of the row to go to the bathroom because drink service will begin in five minutes,” Fels writes.

Joe West constantly tells the bartender when they’re low on ice. Joe West kettles protestors without informing them of curfew, then arrests them for violating curfew. It’s not so much that Joe West has to enforce the rules. He has to enforce that he knows the rules better than anyone. It’s not the order he’s after, but the acknowledgement, or more to the point the worshipping, of his knowledge and power.

West decided then and there it was time to show who knew the rules better than anyone. As His Holiness himself put it after the game, “I wouldn’t take that from a player. I wouldn’t take that from a manager. If it was Donald Trump, I’d eject him, too. But I’d still vote for him.”

Just let West try ejecting President Tweety. He’d be on the Trump tweetstorm target list faster than a base hit travels past the infield. And if West would have a GM thrown out of the ballpark for objecting to the umpiring, what’ll happen when fans—who aren’t exactly kind and gentle about questionable umpiring—are finally allowed to come back to the games?

Historically, umpires suffer neither fools nor protests gladly, even if they don’t always mind a little debate if the debator isn’t looking to show them up. The bad news is that even the best-humoured umpires lose their senses of humour when a questionable call is given.

The rules say players, managers, and coaches can’t argue ball and strike calls, and that if they head for the plate for such a protest they can be tossed. So can pitchers leaving the mound or batters stepping out of the box for such protests. But what about people in the stands, team personnel or otherwise? Umpires haven’t exactly been historically shy about throwing them out at certain times, either.

They’ve been known to eject ballpark organists or DJs for playing “Three Blind Mice” over bad calls. Or, for playing the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club. Or, for playing Bob Uecker’s sarcastic “Personally, I think we got hosed on that call” from Major League. They’ve been known to eject entire press boxes over catcalls coming down over questionable calls.

It’s one thing, too, for an ump to eject a fan suspected of doing a little sign-stealing on behalf of their hometown heroes. But good luck to the next fan who protests a pitch call by whipping up a placard that shows an eye test or performs a perfect impression of an optometrist’s business card.

Rule 4.06 bars managers, players, substitutes, coaches, trainers, and bat boys from “incit[ing] . . . by word or sign a demonstration by spectators.” (It also applies to broadcasters, technically, when fans cling to their radios in the ballpark as they’ve often done. Normally, though, such announcers escape with a mere warning.)

Rule 9.01(b) gives umps “the authority to order a player, coach, manager or club officer or employee to do or refrain from doing anything which affects the administering of these rules, and to enforce the prescribed penalties.”

Allow for pandemically empty ballparks allowing one and all on the field, in the dugouts, and even isolated singularly in the stands to hear every beef, debate, and expletive un-deleted. That said, just how could Mike Rizzo all alone in a second-deck club box objecting to pitch calls interfere with West and crew’s control of Sunday’s game?

If Rizzo was in that club box raining objections down with a full house of fans in the stands making their usual racket, only a dog could have heard it. The chances of West, Wendelstedt, and crew hearing his specific words would have been reduced to the margins and maybe further.

“We have already been in communication with the Nationals regarding what transpired during today’s game, and we will speak with the umpiring crew today,” said MLB’s government in a formal statement. “We will expect Joe West’s crew to provide a full account of their perspective, and we will follow up with them accordingly.”

Can you see the electronic strike zones and robo-umps coming a little more clearly in the rear-view mirror, too?

Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

Not right, Nats

2020-07-14 DaveMartinezMikeRizzo

Dave Martinez (left) and Mike Rizzo. The Nats’ GM hasn’t heard a peep about a contract extension or wholly new deal yet despite being in the final year of his current deal. The skipper hasn’t, either, despite having one more year on his current deal.

You built a World Series champion through trials, errors, and very occasional calls for your head on a plate while you stayed your course and kept your eye on the Promised Land. It wasn’t just any World Series champion but Washington’s first Show champion* since the Coolidge Administration.

But your contract expires after the season to follow, however truncated the coronavirus world tour makes it. Wouldn’t you think your bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at sustaining that success?

Or, you managed that club from hell to the highest waters possible, despite the not-so-great bullpen you were handed to work with when last year began, keeping them from losing their marble (singular) despite a 19-31 season beginning. They bought your go-1-0-every-day philosophy. You gave them room to go 74-38 the rest of the season and perform feats of derring-do without nets and, sometimes, logic.

You also did it while earning barely more than the minimum major league player’s salary. Wouldn’t you think, too, that the same bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at convincing your team their next theme song—Gerardo Parra, after all, has moved onward, taking the “Baby Shark” mojo with him—should be, “I Want to Take You Higher?”

Sure you would. Both of you would. But nobody in the Washington Nationals’ executive suite seems to have moved so much as a fingernail on it. Meaning, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reminds us, that general manager Mike Rizzo is a lame duck in a truncated season and manager Dave Martinez is a year from the same quack.

And, if Rizzo’s a lame duck this year he may not be the one able to move on keeping Martinez above and beyond 2021, presuming the Nats’ success sustains. Which it should, whenever the game returns to something resembling normal, with the extending of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer not exactly showing age just yet, a new young core and several reliable veterans.

This is the GM who took a big hit in 2018 when—in the middle of an already injury-compromised season that also included Bryce Harper’s walk year—he dumped two relief pitchers in circumstances described as dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

When Shawn Kelley was brought in to pitch near the end of a blowout, looked toward Martinez for guidance about an umpire’s positioning, then spiked his glove after surrendering a home run, Rizzo took it as showing up the skipper even though Martinez didn’t see it that way. He didn’t give Kelley a chance, getting in the reliever’s face then releasing him to be snapped up by the Oakland Athletics.

When Rizzo suspected concurrently that Kelley’s fellow reliever Brandon Kintzler was the source of a Yahoo! Sports story calling the Nats clubhouse a big mess, he didn’t even bother to verify it—he sent Kintzler off to the Chicago Cubs. Both Kelley and Kintzler found themselves back in the races at their new addresses. Kintzler denied emphatically, with then-Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan’s affirmation, that he was the source of the clubhouse mess story.

“If you’re not in,” Rizzo said emphatically, “you’re in the way.” In those moments it looked as though the GM himself could be charged under that statute.

Rizzo stood his ground for better or worse. So did Martinez, whose bullpen management was considered suspect but who was, in fairness, suffering a malady his predecessors had to suffer, too. For the longest time Rizzo was seen as the GM who could and did build solid starting rotations, solid position cores, and reasonable benches, but just couldn’t build bullpens with the same surety.

Martinez never lost his players when all was said and done, either. “They held onto Martinez,” writes Washington Post sportswriter Jesse Dougherty in Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series, “despite faint calls for his job, and he didn’t spend October [2018] watching the postseason. That would have been one kind of torture. He chose even worse.”

He went everywhere with an iPad that had each of the Nationals’ 162 games loaded onto it. He hunted in Wisconsin, fished outside Salt Lake City, lay in the hammock at his farm outside Nashville, and still carved out time, every day, to relive all the mistakes. There were his mistakes, mostly with the bullpen, such as leaving relievers in too long, or not striking the right balance between analytics and his gut. Then there were his players’ mistakes, such as taking the wrong plate approach, the wrong baserunning approach, or lapsing on defense . . .

He got to West Palm Beach [for spring training 2019] in early February and called for a staff meeting. That’s when he told the coaches about correcting the little things. Mistakes were met with yelling “Do it again!” into quiet mornings . . .

The calls for both Rizzo’s and Martinez’s heads ramped up at that 19-31 start last year. By the time they shoved the Milwaukee Brewers out of the wild card game, upended the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series (something about a guy named Howie Kendrick detonating a grand slam at the expense of a manager who misread his bullpen even worse), and buried the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, executions were no longer an option.

When Rizzo’s midyear trade acquisition Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging to finish what a gutsy Scherzer started (pitching five innings on fumes and probably lucky to have only two runs pried out of him) and Kendrick overturned (that pole-ringing two-run homer turning a deficit into a lead the Nats never lost) in Game Seven of the World Series, the calls weren’t for executions but canonisations.

Lately Rizzo has been more than just the deft rebuilder. The Show’s contradictory COVID-19 issues of late got a verbal beatdown from Rizzo after Nats’ tests were still delayed 72 hours after July 3.

“We cannot have our players and staff work at risk,” Rizzo said. “Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

He wasn’t alone. The A’s, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Angels, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and other teams found themselves canceling workouts or intra-squad games over testing delays. This is no bowl of Raisin Bran they’re dealing with.

Letting Rizzo be the face of the Nats when it comes to coronavirus safety protocols is one thing, Nightengale writes. Letting him sit as a lame duck otherwise isn’t acceptable. “It’s insane,” he continues, “but again this is the same ownership that fired manager Dusty Baker after winning back-to-back division titles. It’s the same owners that told Bud Black he was their new manager, only to offer him a one-year deal. The same owners who have perhaps the smallest and lowest-paid front office staffs in baseball.”

The same owners whose manager earns barely more than infield comer Carter Kieboom would have earned in a full 2020 season.

Nightengale notices something else, too. He notices that, during Rizzo’s tenure, not one Nat—other than longtime clubhouse leader Jayson Werth hit with a reckless driving charge (going 105 on the Beltway)—has made room for even the mildest scandal: “No PED suspensions. No domestic violence suspensions. No discrimination lawsuits.”

No extracurricular, off-field-based high-tech cheating, either. So far. The Astros and the Boston Red Sox may or may not be right that they weren’t the only ones operating illegal intelligence agencies during their World Series-winning seasons. The New York Yankees still have some splainin’ to do about that illicit dugout phone and possible other extracurricular Yankee panky. But nobody’s pointed any such finger toward the Nats just yet. They might be the only part of Washington you can still call scandal free. So far.

When ancient questionable tweets by shortstop star Trea Turner surfaced, Turner simply manned up, said he was young and stupid and not necessarily in that order, and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no attempt to duck, nothing more than a quick apology.

Loyalty is one thing, and Rizzo has that in abundance to his bosses and his players alike, so long as he doesn’t think those players are in the way. But what does it tell you that only two other teams won more games than the 2010s Nats while the Nats finished the decade with the keys to the Promised Land but you can find almost ten teams with better-paid front office people?

Rizzo and Martinez have earned new deals. For Martinez, it might make up for his not being named Manager of the Year over the Cardinals’s Mike Schildt as he should have been for 2019. Schildt lifting a slightly leaky boat isn’t even close to Martinez raising the Titanic.

“[T]his is a proud baseball franchise,” Nightengale writes, “and shouldn’t be run like a construction site, sitting back and making bids to get the cheapest cost.” Maybe some Nats players—who are as loyal to Rizzo and Martinez as those two bosses are to them—could drive the point home further by having their batting helmets re-shaped into construction site hard hats?

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Let us not forget: The Homestead Grays, playing their home games in Washington’s ancient Griffith Stadium, beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.