The pennant-winning Rays do several favours

Your American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, with Randy Arozarena (right front) holding his ALCS MVP award.

For those of you who still love to ponder baseball in economic terms alone, have your fun now. The third-lowest 2020 payroll in the Show just finished off the third-highest—after knocking off highest to have the opportunity. Shout it out loud. The Rays win the pennant! The Rays win the pennant!

They who have the gold don’t always rule. For that matter, neither do they who have the platinum.The Tampa Bay Rays—lucky to have a couple of steel pieces amidst a cache of aluminum, tin, and Reynolds Wrap—are one trip shy of the Promised Land as of Saturday night.

After pushing past the New York Yankees’s platinum a little over a week earlier, the Rays  melted the Houston Astros’ gold into a 4-2 win in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Playing twelve games in thirteen days, the Rays beat both in final win-or-be-gone games. That only begins to describe their flair for the impossible.

This collection of bargains enough to make you think Woolworth’s was reincarnated as a baseball team became the first in major league history to stand on the threshold of a postseason series sweep, lose the next three straight, then win the first elimination game they’d face in the set.

They became the first to send out a starting pitcher against another starting pitcher with whom he’d collaborated previously to win a seventh World Series game. Charlie Morton got the better of Lance McCullers, Jr. with five and two-thirds innings of two-hit shutout ball on his part and just a little help from the friends he says are an honour to play and compete with.

They became the first to feature a rookie hitting a seventh bomb just in the postseason, when left fielder and series MVP Randy Arozarena sent Lance McCullers, Jr.’s 2-2 fastball over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first—after McCullers hit Manuel Margot with the first pitch of the inning.

They had Mike Zunino—a Seattle trade surrender whose steady defense got undermined by a few passed balls in Game Six but whose power is steady enough when he isn’t injured—provide the rest of their Saturday night scoring with a one-out, full-count launch into the left field seats of McCullers in the second and a one-out sacrifice fly off Jose Urquidy working relief in the sixth.

And, after manager Kevin Cash hooked Morton with a better too soon than too late attitude, the Rays’ bullpen wavered and bent only in the eighth, when Carlos Correa—who’d hit Nick Anderson for the game-winning bomb in Game Five—knocked a bases-loaded two-run single off Pete Fairbanks, who then got Alex Bregman to climax his series-long futility with a furiously swinging strikeout.

If Morton follows through on earlier hints that he might actually retire at 37, he’ll retire as a member in good standing of one elite club. Name the five pitchers who’ve had multiple scoreless starts in postseason winner-takes-it-all games. The answers: Morton plus Madison Bumgarner, Bret Saberhagen, Hall of Famer John Smoltz, and Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander.

Saturday night was Morton’s fourth time out in such a game and his third as a starter. In every one of them, he never threw a pitch while his team was behind. The modest righthander who starts his delivery slow motion before his right arm becomes a whip, whom the Rays could afford because his injury history made him a bargain, really has been late-career better than advertised. If you needed a reminder, he rid himself of thirteen of his twenty batters on three pitches or less.

Arozarena also became the first rookie to hit seven homers in a single postseason. He may have been the only one who wasn’t counting. “I try not to pay attention to the statistics,’’ he said postgame, “but with the Iinternet and everyone bringing it up, you’re kind of aware of it. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the statistics outside of me and what I can control.”

When Fairbanks shook off Yuli Gurriel’s one-out single to right to strike Josh Reddick out and get Aledmys Diaz to fly out to Margot in right, it would have touched off an all-night party in Tampa Bay if not for the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Those protocols also kept the jubilant Rays from much more than what Zunino said was confetti-tossing and Silly String shooting.

“We’ve done a great job to make it as fun as possible . . . but there’s nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes,” the catcher said post-game. That’s one reason why even the World Series winner, whomever it may prove to be, might be the first to reach the Promised Land and holler out, “Wait ’till next year,” hopeful that the pandemic recedes enough to let baseball get back to whatever normal it can achieve.

“Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other,” Morton said. “You adhere to protocols; you’re social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can’t hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn’t see in a normal season.”

It also kept baseball’s Public Enemy Number One in the wake of Astrogate from facing the slings, arrows, protest banners, and live catcalls sure to have greeted them on road trips if the pandemic hadn’t substituted cardboard cutouts for live fans.That was the biggest unexpected break the Astros—having enough with being exposed as illegal high-tech cheaters—could have received.

Fans settled for social media slappings plus masking and social distancing while greeting the Astros’ team bus live with slings, arrows, protest banners, trash cans (the mode by which they sent the illegally stolen signs to their hitters in 2017 and part of 2018) and live catcalls whenever the bus pulled into the road ballpark’s parking lot.

The Rays did the Astros and the rest of us another favour by pushing them home for the winter. Assume as you shouldn’t that the Los Angeles Dodgers send the Atlanta Braves home for the winter in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series Sunday. (The Braves aren’t going to go down without a fight, their Game Six futility to one side.) The Rays prevented a World Series dominated by too-much-is-more-than-enough talk about a grudge rematch.

There’s probably no way on earth Astrogate will be forgiven or forgotten for a long time to come. But the spectre haunting America of the Astros going back to the World Series this time around haunts no more. The last thing the Series needs when America needs the Series most is to be half dominated by Astrogate regurgitation and appetites for revenge.

Be certain the Astros will return to the Series in due course. When they do, they’re liable to be just about finished with what has to be done put Astrogate into the past at last—roster and organisation turnover. They have the makings of an impressive young bullpen and a few young positional talents ready to come into their own, too.

The Rays also did us all a bigger favour than even the foregoing. Not only will there be no losing team in the World Series, there’ll be only division winners squaring off. All that early postseason mess, all commissioner Rob Manfred’s apparent wet dreams about permanently expanded postseasons. Put it behind you for now.

Just pray that Manfred doesn’t take the wrong message from it and dance this mess around permanently. Reminder: the Rays had the American League’s best irregular season record. And real division champions—of however truncated an irregular season—will battle to get to the Promised Land. That’s the way it should always be.

The only thing left is for the Rays to come to terms with going from faceless to familiar. That could prove the simplest and most pleasant of their battles.

Whitey Ford, RIP: The Chairman takes his leave

“A couple of New York kids who made good,” Sandy Koufax’s biographer said of Koufax (Brooklyn-born) and Whitey Ford (Manhattan-born, Queens-raised), here sharing a handshake before Game One of the 1963 World Series.

When Jane Leavy researched and interviewed for her splendid biography of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, she discovered something about then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky had an animus against Koufax’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

Ford, who died Thursday at 91, was Leavy’s girlhood hero. Pinsky’s poem “Night Game” addresses Ford and Koufax, who met twice in the 1963 World Series with Koufax beating Ford twice. But over a decade earlier, Pinsky as a boy waited at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to get Ford’s autograph.

Ford then was an emerging Yankee hero, a second place 1950 American League Rookie of the Year finisher who’d rolled a 2.51 ERA after his June call-up and beat Hall of Famer Robin Roberts to finish the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” pennant winner.

Now, Ford pitched for the Army Signal Corps to fulfill his military obligation of the time. When Pinsky finally got to face Ford and asked for the autograph, Ford replied, “Not now, kid.”

When Pinsky told the story to Leavy while talking about “Night Game,” she called Koufax the morning after. After a couple of moments’ silence on the other end of the line, she noted, Koufax asked her, “Do you think he’d like a ball?” Two weeks later, Pinsky received the ball, autographed by Koufax and accompanied by a small, handwritten note saying, only, “Whitey’s really a good guy.”

“Ford subsequently redeemed himself in Pinsky’s estimation,” Leavy wrote, “with a plaintive, if belated, explanation for his youthful rudeness: ‘Soldiers don’t give autographs.’ (And in mine by asking for a copy of Pinsky’s poem. ‘He wrote nice about Sandy?’ Whitey said. ‘I’d like to see that.’)”

This was the same Whitey Ford who had a classic reaction when Koufax, winner of a spanking new Corvette as the 1963 World Series’s Most Valuable Player, left the awards banquet to discover the car parked on the sidewalk . . .with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield. “Sandy has only two flaws,” Ford cracked. “He can’t hit, and he can’t park.”

That from the pitcher who once cost the Yankees a run in a World Series game when he tagged and left third base too soon on what should have been a sacrifice fly by his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra.

The Los Angeles Times‘s Hall of Fame sportswriter Jim Murray handed Ford his enduring nickname, when he wrote rooting for the 1950s Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel with Ford—whose eight World Series Game One starts is a major league record—the chairman of the board.

A compact lefthander at 5’10”, Ford was most renowned for two things. Thing One: the likewise compact delivery that relied as much on his brains as his repertoire, an assortment of off-speed pitches he threw all around the strike zone, since he couldn’t even throw the proverbial lamb chop past a snail. Batters hit .235 off him lifetime.

“If it takes 27 outs to win,” his longtime manager Casey Stengel once said of him, “who’s going to get them out more ways than Mr. Ford?”

“He was like a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands,” recalled one-time Boston Red Sox outfielder Walt Dropo. “You’d start thinking along with him, and then Whitey had you because he never started you off with the same pitch in any one sequence.”

Thing Two: Mr. Ford’s sense of humour. A man who spends the bulk of his career cleaning up after his Yankee bestie Mickey Mantle’s messes almost as often as he befuddles hitters and pitches in the World Series (his 33 consecutive scoreless World Series innings remains a record) needs a sense of humour. And maybe a healthy supply of anti-migraine medication.

Ford wasn’t exactly allergic to the night life in his native New York (he was Queens-born), but he wasn’t exactly allergic to knowing when to shut it down, either. “His fellow rogues, Mickey, Billy [Martin], and Toots [Shor, the legendary New York sports restauranteur], were all gone,” New York Daily News writer Bill Madden wrote in his 2003 book Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “but he had survived, still the same wisecracking, self-assured son of the city.”

Wisecracking and practical joking. When Yankee infielders Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz were still barely past rookie status, according to teammate Jim Bouton in Ball Four, Ford and Mantle told the pair they’d finally arrived and were ready to go out on the town with the big boys. In Detroit, Ford and Mantle instructed Pepitone and Linz to dress to kill, hail a cab, and head to the Flame where they were to ask for Mantle’s table.

Pepitone and Linz did as instructed. They dressed to kill. They hailed their cab. And discovered the hard way that the Flame—once a legendary Detroit jazz and rhythm and blues hot spot (among others, assorted future members of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers house band had played the place)—was now a ramshackle wreck with the glass blown out and maybe two surviving toasted tables remaining.

Ford’s playful side extended to making sure the Yankee bullpen didn’t get bored when members weren’t called upon to warm up and get ready to go into a game. “I think it should be known,” Bouton wrote on 5 April, in the journals he kept to compose Ball Four, “that when Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees he set up a table with a checkered tablecloth in the bullpen. On the table there was an empty wine bottle with a candle in it. Also hero sandwiches. Whitey Ford had style.”

Ford was a thinking craftsman on the mound and a practical joking, fun-living fellow off it.

And influence. A month and a half later, Bouton had to record: “Hot flash! Whitey Ford’s Italian restaurant in the bullpen has a real rival in the Baltimore bullpen: wienie roasts.”

When Whitey and Joan Ford married in April 1951 in Long Island City’s St. Patrick Church, Stengel arranged a little surprise for the couple: he loaded the entire Yankee team, including Joe DiMaggio, onto a bus following an exhibition game to hit the church. One Yankee was too nervous to get off the bus, like his fellow rookies, so the newlywed Fords went out to greet him.

That’s how he met Mickey Mantle for the first time. The friendship that must have made Ford wonder often enough whether the devil was punking him started on a bus outside his wedding church. “Years later,” Ford said, “Mickey told me the highlight of that day for him was meeting Joan, not me.”

The ever-quick Ford got a measure of vengeance when his first grandchild was born. When his son-in-law phoned in the dead of night to announce the birth to Grandpa, Ford called Mantle—who went into the Hall of Fame with him in 1974—first thing in the morning. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Last night for the first time in my life I slept with a grandmother.”

In Pride of October Madden wrote that Ford wasn’t always comfortable having been the sole survivor among the little night-owl group of himself, Mantle, and Martin. The only time Ford was ever uncomfortable with Stengel—who judiciously managed him as an every-fifth-day pitcher to save him for the bigger games of Yankee races and the Series—was when Casey neglected to align his 1960 Series rotation to let Ford pitch more than twice, which probably did cost them that Series as much as Bill Mazeroski’s winning home run.

Ford was also uncircumspect about his late-career ball doctorings. Admitting he turned to chicanery in a bid to hang on as long as he could until elbow and arm miseries forced him to call it a career in 1967, Ford swore he never did it during his Cy Young Award-winning 1961 or his likewise 20 game plus-winning 1963.

“Well,” he added puckishly, “maybe a little.”

“For a long time,” Bouton revealed, “Whitey got away with throwing a mud ball that was positively evil.” If the grounds crews wetted the infield or the mound a little too generously, or he and/or his late-career catcher Elston Howard could mix saliva and dirt surreptitiously, Ford would get a tiny mud load on balls. One-time Los Angeles Angels pitcher/flake Bo Belinsky once said, “If a mud ball was left for me on the mound, I had two outs waiting right there.”

“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Bouton continued.

Eventually the opposition, particularly Bill Rigney, the manager of the Angels, got wise to him and he had to quit using the mudder.

Then he went to his wedding ring. He gouged such sharp edges into it that we used to kid him about having lost the diamond out of it. He’d scuff up the ball with the ring and make it do all the things the mud ball did, except maybe now the song was different. He got by with the ring for a couple of months . . .

After that, Ellie Howard sharpened up one of the buckles on his shin guard and everytime he threw the ball back to Whitey he’d rub it against the buckle. The buckle ball sang two arias from Aida.

Madden convinced Ford to show him around the Astoria, Queens neighbourhood where he grew up as the son of a Con Edison electrical worker. Ford pointed to a yellow-bricked apartment building where he’d lived ten years and adjacent to where his wife-to-be lived as a girl. “I was sixteen and she was twelve,” Ford said. “She had great legs. That’s what attracted me most about her. We moved three or four times when I was growing up there. I guess every time the rent was due.”

Some of Ford’s boyhood acquaintances and friends in that predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish neighbourhood grew up to go into baseball as he did, including future coaches Tony and Al Cuccinello and future Minnesota Twins pennant-winning manager Sam Mele. So did a kid named Anthony Benedetto, whose family owned a nearby beauty salon.

“It wasn’t until he after he left the neighbourhood,” Ford said, “that he changed his name to Tony Bennett. Kind of like me, going from Eddie to Whitey, only I think his new name did a lot more for him than mine did for me.”

Baseball-Reference shows ten major league players (including two who eventually became managers) named Whitey. Be assured that if you just say “Whitey” in any gathering, they’ll remember Ford first. But neither they nor even longtime Yankee fans will remember him as quickly as his widow, two of his three children (his son, Thomas, died in 1999), and his grandchildren.

Once during an Old-Timers Day ceremony, Ford and Berra watched the Yankee Stadium video board display a tribute to Yankees past who had passed away that year. Yogi turned to Whitey and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there!”

Ford can now tell Berra in the Elysian Fields, “Yogi, I never wanted to see your name up there, either!” Even at 91, Ford’s family and baseball fans alike weren’t quite ready to see his name up there, either.

Mediocrity might get World Series representation

Yes, let’s root-root-root for the 29-31 Brewers to meet the 29-31 Astros in the World Series. Stop snarling, there is a method to such madness.

Almost half a century ago, U.S. Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska offered a defense for Richard Nixon’s dubious Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell. It proved that with friends like Hruska the hapless Carswell didn’t need enemies. Just the way baseball proves that with friends or commissioners like Rob Manfred, it doesn’t need enemies, either.

“Even if [Carswell] were mediocre,” said Hruska, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Hruska, meet Manfred and today’s major league baseball owners. For the first time since 1981’s strike-resolution postseason experiment, at least one team with a losing record enters the rounds that will end in someone winning the World Series. This time, though, it turns out to be two such teams.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 29-31, final wild card-holding Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers. Whose joint appearance in the World Series to come (baseball law: anything can happen—and usually does) might be less hazardous to the nation’s health than a questionable Supreme Court justice.

Manfred and the owners dreamed up this sixteen-team/twelve wild-card postseason as a way to take the financial sting out of the owners agreeing to any sort of baseball season during a pandemic that’s stung the economy overall. So far as most of us knew, it would be a one-time thing.

Well, so was the postseason resolution of the 1981 strike. It put first-and-second-half division winners against each other in division series. But it also put the overall 50-53 Kansas City Royals (second-half American League West winners) into the postseason and kept the 66-42 Cincinnati Reds (neither-half National League West winners) and the best overall season record out.

Who knew then that, a decade and a half later, the owners and the players union alike would go all-in on three-division leagues and a wild card that took the first bite of championship dilution, allowing teams who didn’t finish in first place to play into the postseason in the first place?

Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, then pushed for and got the second wild card in each league starting in 2012. Until this season, only two World Series featured combatants who got into the postseason by way of the wild card, in 2002 (the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants) and 2014. (The Giants beat the Royals.) There’s an excellent chance of it happening again next month.

Almost two weeks ago, Manfred let slip that he’d like to see this sixteen-team postseason format stick past the anomaly of the pandemic-shortened season. That happened five days after Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein said she hoped as many losing teams as possible got here this time only.

The reasonings between the two couldn’t be more opposed. Manfred told a Hofstra University virtual panel that “there was a lot to commend” this setup “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape,” adding that “an overwhelming majority” of the owners agree.

Apstein called the setup a disgrace: “This setup dissuades teams from trying to be good. The clearer that is this year, the more likely it is that we can go back to normal next year.” She dares to dream, as does her SI colleague, Emma Baccalieri, who said, “In a non-pandemic-restricted year, ‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”

In absolute fairness, assorted teams this year didn’t look good for assorted reasons running the spread from aborted spring training and near rush-designed “summer camps” with a three-month-plus interruption to assorted injuries, health-related opt-outs, a few COVID-19 test panics and postponements, and the usual assortment of foul balls.

But assorted teams looked good in spite of those, too. More than a few teams made baseball fun and feel-good again. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman went from scared to death that COVID might wipe him out to likely winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. The Reds, the Chicago White Sox, and the Slam Diego Padres made friends and fans all over.

Well, at least the White Sox did until they went from letting the kids play (Tim Anderson especially) to Fun Police, drilling Willson Contreras for the bat flip of the century last Friday night. Must be something in the franchise water. The White Sox may have an apparent institutional genius for going from fun-fun-fun to phooey-on-you in practically a blink.

So why on earth should we pray for a World Series featuring a pair of losing season records?  There’s still the outside chance that the very sight of two losing records playing for the Promised Land might yank even Commissioner Nero’s head out from being so far up his ass he can give you the live play-by-play of his own root canal procedure. Might.

With identical losing records, and assuming they both get past the earlier rounds on the theory that even the also-rans can and do go nuclear for short spells, the Astros and the Brewers could make real that once-infamous observation that mediocrity deserved “a little” representation, too.

The Supreme Court can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos? Well, baseball can’t be all the A’s, the Braves, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins, and the Tampa Bay Rays, to name this pandemic season’s division winners, either.

They can’t even be all the White Sox, the Padres, the Cleveland Indians, or whoever—under normal two-card circumstances—might win a playoff game between the Reds and (surprise!) the Miami Marlins. (They’d have done it tying for the second National League wild card if this had been a normal season.)

Under normal conditions the rest of the pack, never mind the bottom of it, wouldn’t be entitled to play for a little representation before baseball’s highest court. Except in their wait-till-next-year dreams.

This year’s Astros and Brewers sank from winning 2019 teams (the Astros winning the AL West, the Brewers going to the NL wild card game) to 2020 also-rans. They were compromised predominantly by the injured list, particularly as it riddled their pitching staffs and a few key position players. If mediocrity deserves representation, their pandemic season’s records mean these two playing in the World Series would be as representative as it gets.

What if it leaves Manfred still giving the live play-by-play of his own root canal work? What if it doesn’t awaken him, and those owners he says are all-in, to the abject degeneracy of a baseball postseason that invited the mediocre to play on the same field (to open, anyway) as the teams who did overcome any and all pandemic or other disruptions to rise and shine?

What if Commissioner Nero and those supporters lack the brains to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture? Why did the Dodgers, the Rays, the Twins, the A’s, the Braves, and the Cubs fight tooth, fang, claw, and coronavirus to finish on top, just to have to run through most of the rest of the lesser pack all over again to play in the World Series?” And, “Why did we remove the real incentives for teams to compete just so we could still make money and lots of it?”

It’s tempting to pray that the Astros and the Brewers do find ways to meet in the Series. (Tough openings: the Astros face the Twins in this wild card round; the Brewers have to survive the Dodgers. David had better odds pitching to Goliath.) Just for the outrage factor alone. An outrage factor that would be multiplied exponentially considering the scandal-ridden Astros in Year One following the exposure and non-disciplines of Astrogate.

It might make the Brewers—who haven’t been in the World Series since Epcot opened, Marvin Gaye released the final album of his lifetime, Cats started an eighteen-year run on Broadway, and then-Communist Poland barred the Solidarity labour union—objects of affection far beyond the Milwaukee that made Schlitz famous.

The Astros may have only eight men left (Justin Verlander, pitcher, is gone to undergo and recuperate from late-life Tommy John surgery) from the Astrogate teams of 2017 and part of 2018. But that hasn’t stopped the brickbats, catcalls, and stadium seat cutout punkings from reminding them it’s not nice to commit espionage above and beyond the temptations handed down by MLB itself in the replay rooms.

Maybe an Astros-Brewers World Series would leave Manfred and his minions to answer why they thought mediocrity deserved a little postseason representation, too. Big maybe. And maybe I’ll win the Nobel Prize.

But maybe it should also make you pray that the Indians find a way through this mess to play in and win the Series at long enough last. If 2020 were a normal season, the Indians—whose tenacious righthander Shane Bieber looks like the absolute lock for the American League’s Cy Young Award this pandemic season—might have played a 163rd game against the White Sox to see who got wild card numbers one and two. (The Yankees, the Buffalonto Blue Jays, and the Astros would have been out.)

Well, as Casey Stengel once said, now wait a minute fer crissakes. Suppose this pandemic postseason shakes out to the Indians playing the Padres in the Series. The Indians haven’t won the Series since the Berlin Airlift. The last time they got to try, they lost a Game Seven thriller to the Cubs—who hadn’t won a Series since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

The Padres have yet to hoist their first piece of World Series metal. The last time they got to try, Jose Samarago became Portugal’s first Nobel literature laureate, Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for humour, Bill Clinton faced impeachment, and the Yankees weren’t anywhere near as inclined to roll over and play dead for the Padres as the Senate was for Clinton.

These words appear after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It almost figures that the first entry into baseball’s book of life for the year to come could make the Mad Hatter’s tea party resemble a Social Register cotillion. This time, if the proverbial cream rises to the top, a Dodgers-Rays World Series would likely do nothing but compel Manfred to proclaim validation. Told ya!

So let’s root, root, root for an Astros-Brewers World Series, no matter how you feel about the Astros otherwise. Not because mediocrity deserves a little representation, but because it might re-awaken the owners. Maybe enough to stop Commissioner Nero from consecrating the poisonous precept that a franchise doesn’t even have to try to be particularly good to earn the right to play for the Promised Land.

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.

Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

2019-11-01 ZackGreinke

Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.