“The best thing I could have done is play with Hank Aaron, and be with Hank every day.” —Dusty Baker
The first person I thought of when I heard that Hank Aaron died was Dusty Baker. I never met Aaron, but I’ve spent significant time around Dusty, and it was obvious from the beginning how much reverence Baker holds for the man.
Here’s the thing about that. Dusty is among the most charismatic figures I’ve ever interviewed, a man who commands the attention of a room simply by being in it. He would drop life lessons as a matter of course during his pregame press conferences while managing the Giants. I found myself in a constant state of wonder around him.
So to see a man like that in such obvious awe of somebody else—even a peer, which is what Aaron was to Baker, in addition to being a mentor—speaks volumes about the nature of Hank Aaron’s character. The sheer number of times that Dusty refers to lessons that Aaron taught him can be overwhelming.
Going through interviews I did with Baker for They Bled Blue and The Baseball Codes, a pattern quickly emerges:
“Hank Aaron always used to tell me to go out in the elements get used to them …”
“Hank told us no matter what you do, stay together …”
“Hank told me don’t bunt on Drysdale, don’t showboat, don’t dig in against him …”
“Hank taught us not to clown or showboat …”
“Hank told me and Ralph Garr to work out during the strike …”
“Hank taught us to walk behind the umpire on your way to the plate …”
“Hank used to tell me Don Newcombe didn’t like you hitting the ball up the middle on him …”
“Hank would to tell us all the time to keep the umpire in the equation. If he was a shorter umpire, he was gonna be a low-ball umpire. A taller guy would be a high-strike umpire …”
“I came from the Hank Aaron school, where you just run around the bases …”
See a pattern?
I’ve long harbored a deep admiration of Aaron, aided Baker’s unyielding appreciation. Baseball lost one of its brightest lights, now or ever, today.
I’ll close with something Dusty told me one spring training many years ago:
“I say ‘Hank Aaron taught me this,’ or ‘Hank Aaron taught me that,’ because it’s not right for me to say I thought something up when I didn’t. People are always saying, ‘Dusty, what do you know on your own? You’re always using other people’s names.’ Well, I can’t act like the genius expert who invented all this stuff. There’s not a whole lot of new knowledge—there’s just a lot of old stuff that people are trying to make new.”
Aaron had the good stuff, and Dusty knew it. He’s spent a lot of years making sure that we know it, too.
Don Sutton, who passed away yesterday at age 75, has a unique place in each of my three books. In Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, he faced the A’s as a member of the Dodgers. In They Bled Blue, he faced the Dodgers as a member of the Astros. And in The Baseball Codes, he appeared as a ball scuffer par excellence.
Sutton spent 16 of his 23 big league seasons with the Dodgers—his first 15 and his last one—and his time in LA came not only to define him as a pitcher, but to materially influence the players he left upon his departure, who would win the World Series the following season.
LA is where Sutton enjoyed the six-year stretch from 1972 to 1977 that opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to him. During those seasons, the right-hander made his only four All-Star teams and posted five top-5 Cy Young finishes (one third, one fourth and three fifths).
“If I had to pitch one guy in a game seven, it would be Don Sutton,” Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This. “I loved him. But sometimes I was one of the only ones.”
Sure enough, Sutton was not known for cozy relationships with his teammates, a detail noteworthy in his 1978 clubhouse fistfight with Steve Garvey. He frequently extend a similar mindframe to his manager. Sutton was the rare star on those late-1970s Dodgers to not have played for Lasorda in the minor leagues, a detail that helps explain why the two were frequently at odds. After 11 years playing for the staid Walter Alston in Los Angeles, Sutton bristled when Lasorda was installed.
“With Walt, there wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah,” the pitcher explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to make the adjustment.” (Sutton once told a reporter who was furiously scribbling to keep up with one of Lasorda’s Great Dodger in the Sky monologues: “You know what you can do with those notes you’re making? Shred ’em and put ’em around your shrubbery at home and watch it grow.”)
From They Bled Blue:
When the Astros snatched Sutton up [in December 1980] with a four-year, $3.1 million offer, it was impossible for Lasorda not to take it personally. The right-hander had been an Alston man, publicly lobbying for coach Jeff Torborg to replace the storied manager in 1976, even when Lasorda was all but a lock for the position. “I just don’t believe that I could play for a manager who’s a headline grabber, who isn’t honest,” Sutton said at the time, later refusing to become “one of [Lasorda’s] bobos.” Things grew so heated that Lasorda challenged Sutton to settle their differences with fists. The pitcher declined. Their differences remained.
Sure enough, Sutton never garnered a single Cy Young vote in four years under Lasorda during his prime, though the two reached enough of a détente for Sutton to return to LA for his final season, in 1988.
More than that—during that—was a fascinating aspect of Sutton’s success: an ability to scuff baseballs that lent his pitches the type of movement that few of his peers possessed. He was said to adhere a piece of sandpaper on a finger of his glove hand, which he would use to mar the ball to wondrous effect.
No less than Nolan Ryan confirmed as much after hitting a home run off of Sutton during the first week of the 1980 season. It was the first of Ryan’s career, and he managed to get the ball returned to him … at which point, he said later, “that thing was all scuffed up.”
When Sutton joined the Astros, a chorus of opinions held that Lasorda, who knew all of his secrets, would have him all but undressed on the mound. Sutton’s pitch-perfect response was to question the source. What else would Lasorda say he wondered in the Los Angeles Times: “Those other years I lied?” (Lasorda never did have him checked.)
From They Bled Blue:
During the 1981 season, Sutton agreed to secretly film an instructional video for NBC-TV about how to cheat in baseball, wearing a ski mask to protect his identity, with the film reversed to make him look like a southpaw. (He ended up scrapping the project when a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the shoot.) “I keep telling you guys, I don’t use sandpaper,” he informed reporters before the season opener in Los Angeles. “Sandpaper gets wet and crumbles. [I use a] sanding wheel. I already checked to see if there was an outlet there on the mound, but they removed it.” Once, when an umpire searched Sutton for abrasive surfaces, he instead found a note reading, “It’s not here, but you’re getting warm.”
I recounted my favorite story about Sutton’s scuffing in The Baseball Codes. It involves a game from 1987, in which Sutton, by that point pitching for the Angels, was carving up the Yankees:
George Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and was shocked when the camera zoomed in to show close-ups of what appeared to be a small patch, or even a bandage, on the palm of Sutton’s left hand. The WPIX broadcasters brought it up whenever the pitcher appeared to grind the ball into his palm between pitches. It was, they said, probably why Sutton’s pitches possessed such extraordinary movement that day. He was in all likelihood scufﬁng the baseball.
Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Stadium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating? “Our television announcers are aware of it,” yelled Steinbrenner. “I’m sure the Angels are aware of it. You’re probably the only guy there who doesn’t know it. Now, I want you to go out there and make the umpires check Don Sutton!”
“George,” Piniella responded, “do you know who taught him how to cheat?”
Steinbrenner confessed that, in fact, he did not.
“The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitching for us tonight,” Piniella said. “Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out, too?”
Don Sutton pitched 23 seasons and won 324 games while striking out 3,574 batters, seventh all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. He passed away less than two weeks after his former manager, Lasorda, in much less expected fashion, another Hall of Famer felled in a string that has seen too many pass too soon.
Pitchers and catchers are still a month away from reporting (assuming that spring training comes off as planned), and we’re already talking about pine tar and other banned substances in meaningful ways.
For that we can thank Brian Harkins, the former visiting clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels, who’d been on the job since 1990 but was fired back on March 3 for providing pine tar and other sordid material to opposing pitchers, “as a courtesy,” he said. Now, he’s suing.
This is just starting to unroll, and already it’s juicy. Harkins is claiming to have been scapegoated in violation of labor laws, and that the substances he provided have been tacitly approved by Major League Baseball inasmuch as there has never been a focused crackdown on their usage. There is something to the idea that team employees should know better than to help the opposition in that kind of way, but on Harkins’ latter point he is unequivocally correct. Pine tar can be found in every dugout in the league, and unless a pitcher has blatantly ignored the simple courtesy of trying to be subtleabout using it, the commissioner’s office hasn’t done a damn thing about it, pretty much ever.
When MLB moved to dismiss the suit, Harkins ratcheted up the heat, claiming that a veritable All-Star roster of pitchers—including Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander—use the type of stuff he was canned for providing. Harkins said that he was taught to mix rosin and pine tar into a potent concoction back in 2005 by a pitcher believed to be Troy Percival. The smoking-gun piece of evidence he provided for his larger claims was a text from Gerrit Cole in 2019 in which the then-Astro asked about getting hooked up:
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”
Harkins’ point is the same one that I made in The Baseball Codes back in 2010, which was true long before I wrote it and which has been true ever since: tacky substances like pine tar help pitchers grip the ball in cold or wet conditions, which is essential in their line of work. As guys like Trevor Bauer have recently pointed out, pine tar also helps spin rate, which helps movement, which helps pitchers succeed.
And they will do it with or without the likes of Brian Harkins.
The real story here is the timing, which leads to an easy conclusion of hypocrisy. Last spring, in the wake of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, MLB announced that it would be strictly enforcing (maybe for the first time) rule 8.02, prohibiting pitchers from loading up baseballs with any kind of foreign substance. Sign stealing had been going on for decades, but it took the Astros breaking the system for the league to crack down on it. Apparently cheating is cheating, and substances are banned, and MLB has an image to maintain.
One week after that announcement, Harkins was fired. Now he’s in court, demanding a jury trial.
It is clearly in MLB’s best interest to settle this thing (something the Angels should have considered, perhaps, before firing the guy), because if it does go to court we’ll get to see how much more of the iceberg is submerged beneath Harkins’ claims.
Tommy Lasorda’s passing wasn’t much of a surprise—he’s been in failing health for years now—but it was nonetheless shocking. Knowing that the baseball world is without one of its longstanding, premiere personalities will do that. Lasorda died Friday at age 93.
Lasorda was a gigantic figure, in bulk and presence alike. He reveled in his rotundity, to the point that his pasta-borne figure seemed almost necessary to constrain the force of his personality—that if he’d somehow been a slender man, he might have exploded from the pressure of his own id.
It’s not overstatement to say that Tommy Lasorda was the most important figure in the Dodgers organization since the time of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the heyday of Walter O’Malley. He gave his life to that team, spoke endlessly about bleeding Dodger blue and talking to the Big Dodger in the Sky. He wanted to live no place but LA, work for no team but the one for which he worked.
So significant was Lasorda that when I set out to write a book about the Dodgers’ 1981 championship season—They Bled Blue was published in 2019—I came to realize that no part of the story could be told without a full understanding of the man. That’s why Chapter 1 is titled The Manager, and why it tells Lasorda’s story starting from the moment he joined the franchise as a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in 1949. The man set the tone for everything to come, especially once he gained some power, and demanded requisite attention. There was simply no other way for me to approach this story. It had to be Lasorda.
The chapter begins like this:
Tommy Lasorda was always a shill. Long before he became a fount of managerial enthusiasm and brand fealty, he was a shill. Back when he was a career minor league pitcher, and then a scout, and then off to manage in remote minor league outposts like Pocatello and Ogden, in the employ of the Dodgers nearly every step of the way, even then he was a shill. The guy loved his team and wasn’t shy about letting the world know it.
I have heard from some people who take offense to the word “shill” in this context, who view it as a pejorative. Not me, not here. To me, the word shill is a complete sentiment, describing somebody wholly given to whatever he may be selling, and Tommy Lasorda never stopped selling the Dodgers. I could think of no more apt term to describe the genuine fervor behind Lasorda’s love for his ballclub, which came to define him in so many ways.
Lasorda is remembered for being a rotund ball of energy whose embrace of LA’s celebrity culture brought new levels of glitz to the Dodgers’ clubhouse. This is fine, but it also helps obscure the fact that he won two World Series and four National League pennants and two Manager of the Year Awards and helmed four All-Star teams. More even than that, to me, was the depth with which he cared about the players in his charge. This passage, from They Bled Blue, describes a period during the 1976 off-season, shortly after Lasorda was hired to manage the team:
To make sure his players knew precisely where he stood, Lasorda wrote each of them a letter explaining the privilege he felt in having a team like the Dodgers under his direction. The players had never seen anything like it. He followed the letters with phone calls to discuss his expectations for the season. He spoke to Bill Russell about stealing more bases. He told Garvey that he wanted to see more power. He suggested to Davey Lopes that an uptick in walks could make him the game’s best leadoff hitter. He informed Dusty Baker that a poor 1976 season—Baker’s first with the Dodgers, in which, hampered by a knee injury, he batted only .242 with four homers—had no bearing on 1977, and that the left field job would be his for the duration. He even telephoned reserve players, reminding them that any club with championship aspirations needed contributions from across the roster, and that players without starting roles had to become the best backups they could be. The guy long known for surface enthusiasm showed just how deep he could run. Lasorda wanted to reach his players at gut level, and this was an effective first step.
As a chapter, The Manager runs more than 6,000 words, far too long to excerpt here, so I will instead offer select passages, many of them taken from footnotes, that illustrate Tommy Lasorda in an economy of words:
During his playing days, when Lasorda protested the decision to send him to the minors, GM Buzzy Bavasi asked who should be cut instead. In what would become one of the manager’s favorite stories, Lasorda named a fellow rookie. “If I was in charge,” he proclaimed, “I’d cut that Sandy Koufax kid.”
As a player, Lasorda fought so much that in 1956 he received a telegram from American Association president Ed Doherty, reading: “Dear Tom, the exhibition you put on last night was a disgrace to baseball. You’re hereby fined $100 and, furthermore, my advice to you is, if you want to fight, join the International Boxing Congress.”
The brawls sparked by Lasorda’s relentless hail of knockdown pitches raised such cumulative furor within the Dodgers organization that in 1960, Bavasi effectively excommunicated the pitcher, kicking him off the Montreal roster with instructions to never return. Lasorda was devastated. Entirely unprepared to do anything else with his life, he pled for another chance. He could reform, he said. He would pitch nicely, toe the company line, do whatever it took. It wasn’t enough. When Bavasi refuted his entreaties cold, the almost-ex-pitcher fired the lone arrow remaining in his quiver and urged his boss to read a letter he’d sent to then-scout Al Campanis years earlier in which he proclaimed undying loyalty to the organization, long before such loyalty was a prerequisite for sustained employment. The GM may have been exasperated, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. Bavasi still wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more of Lasorda’s shenanigans as a pitcher, but he was sufficiently swayed to hire him on as a scout. At age 33, Lasorda’s pitching career was finished.
There really was no end to Lasorda’s shtick. He taught Bill Russell’s infant daughter Amy her first word: “Dodgers.” After a physical examination, Lasorda mentioned that doctors thought they found a spot on his heart, but soon realized it was actually a Dodgers logo. Sample ramble from the manager: “You’ve heard about the ‘Blue Fever,’ ‘Great Dodger in the Sky,’ ‘Dodger Blue,’ and how Dodger Stadium is Blue Heaven? Well, when nine people died in LA last year, their last words were, ‘Did the Dodgers win?’” Lasorda then labeled the fact that the Dodgers had in fact won “a great Blue coincidence.”
When Lasorda was a coach under Walter Alston, the Expos made him a lucrative offer to become their manager. He turned them down, saying, “I just couldn’t see myself telling people about the big Expo in the sky.” When Alston finally retired, Lasorda signed a one-year pact for $50,000, called it “the greatest day of my life,” and noted that the Dodgers had botched the negotiations. “If you’d have waited just a little longer,” he told Walter O’Malley, “I would have paid you to let me manage.”
When Lasorda finally became manager in LA, someone noted that he had already received more ink than Alston had in 23 years on the job.
I’ll close with a quote from longtime Dodgers trainer Herb Vike, who worked with Lasorda in Spokane and Albuquerque before joining him in Los Angeles. “Tommy believed,” Vike told me. “He believed all the time. He went around the clubhouse and all over the field, saying, ‘I believe, and you gotta believe.’ Everything was Dodger blue. He said his blood was Dodger blue. He would preach to the ballplayers and he would preach to the crowd. He had everybody believing in the Dodgers.”
He most certainly did. Here’s to Lasorda getting to see one last championship before he departed.
In the wake of Dick Allen’s death yesterday, it seems worth noting that recent months have seen the passing of an undue number of his African American contemporaries. Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have all died since September, not to mention the passings this year of Horace Clark, Lou Johnson, Bob Oliver, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn. As these men have departed, so too has their era.
Baseball in the 1960s and ’70s is impossible to consider without those guys, plus Mays and McCovey and Robinson and Aaron and Stargell and Parker and Carew and Vida and Dusty and Reggie (J.) and Reggie (S.). We can ask ourselves where such players might fit within the current structure of baseball, and the answer is more likely than at any time since the mid-1950s that they wouldn’t. Sort of.
The above players would make a major league roster in any era that allowed it. Today, though, given the lack of infrastructure to shepherd minority kids—particularly urban American minority kids—through baseball’s ranks, they might opt to do something else instead.
More difficult for me than the luminaries are players who fell somewhere between bench guy and superstar, men who scrapped their way onto rosters and forged admirable careers. Guys like Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, Jim Bibby, Oscar Gamble, Johnny Jeter, Dave Nelson, Thad Bosley, Willie Horton, Dave Cash, Horace Clark, Larry Hisle, Chet Lemon, Tommie Reynolds and Ken Singleton. End-of-bench roles went to white players in overwhelming numbers back then, so the Black men who seized those positions showed particular resolve.
These aren’t original thoughts. Baseball has long been reckoning with its athletes going off to the NBA or the NFL or careers outside of sports. Initiatives like MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program exist, and are fantastic. In researching They Bled Blue, I met Ken Landreaux at the MLB-sponsored Compton Youth Academy—one of eight such academies across the country—which offers amazing facilities, training and opportunities for a host of kids that would not otherwise have access to that level of attention. These places are vital.
But there’s no getting around the fact that while U.S. cities were once a source of low-cost prospect acquisition—a place where unknown and underserved talent could be signed for a song—that designation has shifted to Central America and the Caribbean. Exploitation of desperate prospects is a subject for another day, but it does show just how much MLB has lagged in filling the domestic void, to its own detriment.
As of last opening day, the Diamondbacks, Royals and Rays didn’t have a Black player between them. Nearly half of major league teams had two Black players or fewer. According to SABR, in 1984, more than 18 percent of all MLB players were African American. Last year that number was around 7 percent.
This isn’t about minority representation, which has blossomed thanks to increased Latino participation. This is about the loss of Black players (especially, as pertains to recent obituaries, Black stars), and how it reflects a profound loss within the sport.
Notable from yesterday’s ALCS game was Dusty Baker’s mound visit to Zack Greinke. It was the sixth inning, runners were on first and second with one out, and Randy Arozarena—about the hottest hitter in baseball over the past month, including a homer against Greinke earlier in the game—was coming to the plate as the tying run. Astros closer Ryan Pressly was in the bullpen, warmed up and ready to go.
What happened at that point was not what people expected. Catcher Martin Maldonado told Baker that Greinke still looked good and that he thought the right-hander could get out of the jam. It worked. Baker left Greinke in.
“Maldy was adamant about, ‘He can get this guy,’ ” said the manager afterwawrd, in an MLB.com report. “I said ‘OK, you got it then.’ This is the ballgame right here. It was more old school, doing the right thing that I thought was right. And we came out ahead.”
This is unusual in the modern game, where most managers have their minds made up—have already signaled to the bullpen—before they reach the mound. It brings up the underappreciated topic of mound conference etiquette, to which a chapter is devoted in The Baseball Codes.
Much of the topic concerns respect between pitcher and manager, which can be in short supply when a hot-headed hurler disagrees with the decision to remove him from the game. Balls are flipped into the air rather than handed off, threats are leveled and feelings get scuffed. We’ve covered that kind of thing in this space before. That’s the opposite of what happened with the Astros yesterday.
More akin, though not quite specific, given that Greinke remained silent while Maldonado lobbied on his behalf, is the idea that when a manager asks how a pitcher feels, the pitcher lies. This is less true than ever in the modern era of bullpenning, but not so long ago, rare was the pitcher who failed to lobby about staying in the game. From The Baseball Codes (which, it should be noted, came out in 2010):
Even if the pitcher is clearly spent, his shoulder, elbow, or hip shooting pain with every pitch, he’ll insist to his last breath that he can still get the job done. “They’re starting pitchers,” said Tony La Russa. “They need to be heroes.”
“If you don’t say the right thing it’s perceived as a lack of heart,” said pitcher David Cone, who admitted to deceiving manager Joe Torre about his condition during a mound conference in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the 1996 World Series. (Cone insisted he was ﬁne, stayed in the game, and, despite increasing fatigue, willed his way out of a jam.) “All guys worth their salt do it,” he said. “That’s why it’s hard for a manager to go out there. They know that in the heat of battle it’s hard to get straight answers from a pitcher.”
“When [Cone] lied to me, he had to make it the truth,” said Torre. “He just had to ﬁnd a way to get it done, and that’s what separates those guys. That’s what matters.”
It’s the same section of the Code that prevents players from missing games for all but the most serious injuries. Anything less than an unﬂinching desire to compete—or at least the appearance of such—is perceived as weakness of character. It’s a ﬁne line walked by athletes, and especially star players; even though staying in a game at limited capacity might hurt one’s team, asking out when it counts is tantamount to surrender. Few in baseball want to see perceived cowardice in action from their teammates, even if it’s ultimately for the collective good.
Beyond pitcher removal, a primary function of mound visits involves the manager or coach offering a pep talk or bit of strategy. This only goes so far. Even a century ago, pitchers bristled at the thought. Take it from Rube Bressler, a pitcher from 1914 to 1920 (and an outfielder/first baseman for a dozen years thereafter), who discussed the idea in The Glory of Their Times:
“Those conferences out there on the mound really get me. The pitcher knows he’s in a jam. What can they say to him? They just remind him of it, that’s all. Having pitched and played first base both, I know what they do. The catcher and the infielders run over to you and pick up your rosin bag, like they never saw one in their life before, and all they say is, ‘Bear down, buddy, you’ll get out of this. Just bear down and work hard. You can do it.’ Then they give you a quick pat on the rear end and run back as far as they can get out of the line of fire.
“Now just what do you learn from that? You already had a vague feeling that things weren’t going just right. To tell the truth, you knew darned well that you were in a heck of a jam. And you’ve been bearing down, and you’ve been working hard. All it does is make you even more worried than you already were, which was plenty. There are mighty few pitchers who can survive those conferences on the mound, take it from me.”
A more contemporary account comes from 1993 AL Cy Young winner Jack McDowell, who in the very first interview I did for The Baseball Codes explained a mound encounter he once had with a coach.
“I had walked the first two guys on something like eight pitches, and [pitching coach Don Rowe] comes out and says, ‘Now, the pitching plan …’ ” he said. “They had an actual pitching plan with the White Sox that year, and it was to throw two of the first three pitches for strikes. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m trying to fucking throw one pitch for a strike, one, tell me how to throw one for a strike, Don. I know I’m supposed to throw two of the first three for strikes.’ Jesus.”
So did it help?
“Hell, no, it didn’t help. I’ll call time out and go back and read my 50-page manual on how to pitch. Shit.”
When it comes to the Astros, Maldonado’s lobbying yesterday may ultimately have been helpful for nobody more than Greinke himself. “I thought it was nice having some guys have confidence in you,” the pitcher said after the game. That was good.”
After Baker’s visit, the right-hander struck out Arozarena and, after an infield hit loaded the bases, Mike Brosseau to escape the jam.
A stunning autumn of terrible baseball news, lowlighted by the passing of Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford, just got worse. Joe Morgan has died at age 77.
Morgan is best remembered as the sparkplug for Cincinnati’s unstoppable Big Red Machine, which won back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976 behind Morgan’s back-to-back National League MVP Awards. He was small (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) but strong, hitting 289 homers while stealing 689 bases over a 22-year career. Remarkably, Morgan’s reputation was cemented prior to the time when on-base percentage was truly appreciated, even though that was a key part of his offensive game. Morgan batted better than .300 only twice in his career, but topped 100 walks eight times and led the league in OBP four times. To judge by Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, Morgan’s 1975 season was among the 20 best campaigns of any player ever, at any position.
Speaking personally, growing up as a Giants fan in the early 1980s, I got to see up close what a guy like Morgan could do for a foundering ballclub. The Giants of the late 1970s, when I achieved baseball consciousness, were more or less terrible until Morgan joined the team as a free agent in 1981. This was awesome for 11-year-old me; I’d been imitating his back-arm batting-stance flap for years, and was excited to see it in orange and black.
In 1982, his second season in San Francisco, Morgan kept the Giants in contention until the schedule’s final week. They wouldn’t win, of course, because back then the Giants never won. For me, Morgan’s lasting impact came on the season’s final day. I wrote about the moment just last week for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club.
The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is among the best in sports, but from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s it was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Dodgers were a much better team, frequently in the playoffs and occasionally winning it all, while the Giants seemed to be perpetually in fifth place.
Really, all we Giants fans had was beating the Dodgers, and even that did not go well. In 1980, The Sporting News ran an entire feature about the Giants having won only 15 of 60 against LA to that point since Tommy Lasorda took over as Dodgers manager in 1977. Willie McCovey once said that he’d rather lose to a college team than to the Dodgers. One can only imagine his particular anguish.
Then came ’82. Even after the Giants dropped out of the race, they were in prime position to affect the outcome. The Dodgers, battling Atlanta for the division title, closed their season with three games at Candlestick Park. We Giants fans were ready to play spoiler.
So what happened? The Dodgers roared into town and won the first two games by a combined score of 19-2. That put everything into play for the season’s final day, when, with the Braves losing to San Diego, the Dodgers needed one more victory to force a divisional tie.
I was 12 years old, at the stadium with my father, sitting in the grandstand along the left field line. I remember how packed Candlestick was—a rare occurrence for a stadium used to hosting fewer than 10,000 fans at a time—and how the energy was downright palpable. It was my first real taste of meaningful baseball, even though, win or lose, San Francisco’s season would end that day.
Giants starter Bill Laskey, wrapping up his rookie campaign, gamely matched Fernando Valenzuela into the sixth, each pitcher giving up a pair of runs. (Even then, the teams’ methods of scoring seemed to represent the franchises as a whole, the Dodgers scoring on a two-run homer by Ron Cey while the Giants leveraged a bases-loaded walk and a double-play grounder.)
This is where the magic happened. This is where Joe Morgan happened.
The seventh inning started hopefully, with Bob Brenly singling and Champ Summers doubling him to third with nobody out. On the broadcast, Vin Scully called Candlestick Park “a chamber of horrors.”
Then Greg Minton, the Giants closer who was for some reason already pitching in the seventh inning, was allowed to hit for himself. He struck out. Of course he struck out. Then Jim Wholford also struck out. It was turning into a very Giants inning in every imaginable way … until Morgan stepped to the plate.
Reliever Terry Forster worked the count to 1-2, and then hung a slider that Morgan pummeled over the right field fence for a three-run homer. We fans at Candlestick lost our damn minds. The seemingly insane move of letting Minton bat with the winning run at third paid off when Moon Man held LA to two hits over the final two innings, cementing a 5-3 win and ending the Dodgers’ season.
That home run—Morgan’s home run—is my first meaningful baseball memory, an event for which I can firmly place the date and situation. It is what I recall first when thinking about prime baseball moments early in my life. It showed me what a truly great player, even one at the end of his career, can bring to a ballclub.
Joe Morgan was only a Giant for two years, but those years were utterly influential in cementing me as a baseball fan, and for that I am grateful.
Yankees great Whitey Ford, one of the final remaining ties to New York’s amazing championship teams of the 1950s, has passed away at age 91.
The guy is all over The Baseball Codes, partly because he was so darned good, but mostly because he was so open about the various ways he tried to game the system during his career. As a young man, Ford had no need for cheating, but as he got older and began to lose his stuff, he realized that a little extra-curricular help would benefit him greatly.
Some of this help came courtesy of a stainless steel ring he wore, which featured a small rasp—about a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide—welded onto one side. Ford put a Band-Aid on top of it to make it less visible, and wore it on his glove hand to escape notice. He kept the rasp turned toward his palm so that when he rubbed up the ball, he could easily gouge the surface. “One little nick was all it took to get the baseball to sail and dip like crazy,” he wrote in his book, Slick. (Catcher Elston Howard would do similarly for him, using a sharpened shin-guard buckle, prior to returning the ball to the mound.)
Ford would also use tacky substances to lend extra spin to his breaking pitches. His go-to was a concoction he came up with himself, made of turpentine, baby oil and rosin, which he said looked like white glue. Ford stored it in a roll-on deodorant container so as to freely brandish it in the dugout during games. (One story has Yogi Berra mistakenly trying to use it under his arms after emerging from the shower, necessitating that his armpit hair be cut away to free him from the stuff.)
Ford’s chicanery was not limited to ball doctoring. He would, on occasion, pitch from several inches in front of the rubber in order to get closer to the plate. “If you covered the rubber up with dirt, it was easy to do,” he wrote in Slick. “It’s just something nobody’s ever looking for. When I coached ﬁrst base for the Yankees, I never remember checking to see if the pitcher had his foot in contact with the rubber when he delivered the pitch. Sometimes you could stand with both feet on the rubber, get your sign, and then when you pitched, your ﬁrst step could be about three feet in front of the rubber. Talk about adding a yard to your fastball.”
My favorite Ford story, however, leads off Chapter 7 of The Baseball Codes, Don’t Show Players Up:
It was a simple question. From the batter’s box at Candlestick Park, Willie Mays looked at Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and, pointing toward Mickey Mantle in center ﬁeld, asked, “What’s that crazy bastard clapping about?”
What that crazy bastard was clapping about only tangentially concerned Mays, but the Giants superstar didn’t know that at the time. It was the 1961 All-Star Game, and Ford had just struck Mays out, looking, to end the ﬁrst inning. The question was posed when Ford passed by Mays as the American League defense returned to the dugout—most notably among them Mantle, hopping and applauding every step of the way, as if his team had just won the World Series. There was a good story behind it, but that didn’t much matter in the moment. Willie Mays was being shown up in front of a national baseball audience.
Under ordinary circumstances there is no acceptable reason for a player to embarrass one of his colleagues on the ﬁeld. It’s the concept at the core of the unwritten rules, helping dictate when it is and isn’t appropriate to steal a base, how one should act in the batter’s box after hitting a home run, and what a player should or shouldn’t say to the media. Nobody likes to be shown up, and baseball’s Code identiﬁes the notion in virtually all its permutations. Mantle’s display should never have happened, and Mays knew it.
Mantle had been joyous for a number of reasons. There was the strikeout itself, which was impressive because to that point Mays had hit Ford like he was playing slow-pitch softball—6-for-6 lifetime, with two homers, a triple, and an astounding 2.167 slugging percentage, all in All-Star competition. Also, Ford and Mantle had spent the previous night painting the town in San Francisco in their own inimitable way, and Ford, still feeling the effects of overindulgence, was hoping simply to survive the confrontation. Realizing that he had no idea how to approach a Mays at-bat, the left-hander opened with a curveball; Mays responded by pummeling the pitch well over four hundred feet, just foul. Ford, bleary and already half beaten, didn’t see a downside to more of the same, and went back to the curve. This time Mays hit it nearly ﬁve hundred feet, but again foul. It became clear to the pitcher that he couldn’t win this battle straight up—so he dipped into his bag of tricks.
Though Ford has admitted to doctoring baseballs in later years, at that point in his career he wasn’t well practiced in the art. Still, he was ahead in the count, it was an exhibition game, and Mays was entitled to at least one more pitch. Without much to lose, Ford spat on his throwing hand, then pretended to wipe it off on his shirt. When he released the ball, it slid rotation-free from between his ﬁngers and sailed directly at Mays’s head, before dropping, said Ford, “from his chin to his knees” through the strike zone. Mays could do nothing but gape and wait for umpire Stan Landes to shoot up his right hand and call strike three.
To this point in the story, nobody has been shown up at all. Ford may have violated baseball’s actual rules by loading up a spitter, but cheating is fairly well tolerated within the Code. Mays’s reaction to the extreme break of the pitch may have made him look bad, but that was hardly Ford’s fault. But then came Mantle, jumping and clapping like a kid who’d just been handed tickets to the circus. It didn’t much matter that the spectacle was directed not at Mays but at Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who immediately understood the motivation behind Mantle’s antics.
Stoneham had gone out of his way to make Mantle and Ford feel at home upon their arrival in town a day earlier, using his connections at the exclusive Olympic Club to arrange a round of golf for the duo, and went so far as to enlist his son Peter as their chauffeur. Because the pair of Yankees had failed to bring golf equipment, their ﬁrst stop was the pro shop, for shoes, gloves, sweaters, and rental clubs. The total came to four hundred dollars, but the club didn’t accept cash. Instead, they charged everything to Stoneham, intending to pay him back at the ballpark the following day.
That night, however, the three met at a party at the chic Mark Hopkins Hotel. Ford attempted to settle his tab on the spot, but Stoneham’s response wasn’t quite what he anticipated: The owner told him to keep his money . . . for the moment. Stoneham then proposed a wager: If Ford retired Mays the ﬁrst time they faced each other the following afternoon, he owed nothing. Should the center ﬁelder hit safely, however, Ford and Mantle would owe Stoneham eight hundred dollars, double their original debt. Ordinarily, this sort of bet would be weighted heavily in favor of the pitcher, since even the best hitters connect only three times out of ten, but Ford was aware of his track record against Mays. Nonetheless, the lefty loved a challenge even more than he loved a drink, and quickly accepted Stoneham’s terms.
Mantle, however, wasn’t so cavalier, telling Ford frankly just how bad a deal it was. “I hated to lose a sucker bet,” he said later, “and this was one of them.”
That didn’t keep Ford from sweet-talking him into accepting Stoneham’s terms. In center ﬁeld the next day, Mantle found himself signiﬁcantly more concerned about the potential four-hundred-dollar hole in his pocket than he was about the baseball ramiﬁcations of the Ford-Mays showdown. So, when the Giants’ star was called out on the decisive spitter, it was all Mantle could do to keep from pirouetting across the ﬁeld. Said Ford, “Here it was only the end of the ﬁrst inning in the All-Star Game, and he was going crazy all the way into the dugout.”
“It didn’t dawn on me right away how it must have looked to Willie and the crowd,” said Mantle. “It looked as if I was all tickled about Mays striking out because of the big rivalry [over who was the game’s pre-eminent center ﬁelder], and in the dugout when Whitey mentioned my reaction I slapped my forehead and sputtered, ‘Aw, no . . . I didn’t . . . how could I . . . what a dumb thing.’ ”
Whitey Ford was a 10-time All-Star, the best pitcher on baseball’s best team for well over a decade, and, in one of baseball’s most remarkable records, took the hill for Game 1 one of the World Series eight times.
To judge by yesterday’s game, Manny Machado, a guy known for overt displays of showmanship, is less tolerant when the other team does it. Or maybe it’s that he approves of bat flips—even the excessive kind, the kind where regular bat flippers go, “Hoooo, that sure was something”—but not when a pitcher gets into the act. Or maybe Machado thinks celebrating his own feat is cool, but Dodgers pitcher Brusdar Graterol celebrating teammate Cody Bellinger is not.
So what’a a little hypocrisy between ex-teammates?
All of which to say is that Machado, a guy with maybe the worst reputation of any big leaguer—in a players’ poll last year, referenced in one of the links above, 65 percent of his colleagues rated him as the dirtiest player in the sport, with the runner-up garnering less than 10 percent—doesn’t have much in the way of moral authority when it comes to this kind of stuff.
* With the Padres trailing 4-3 in the seventh, two outs and a runner on second, Fernando Tatis Jr. smoked Graterol’s first pitch—a 99-mph sinker—407 feet to center field. Unfortunately for the Padres, center field at Globe Life Field is precisely 407 feet from the plate, and Bellinger made one of the great catches in playoff history.
* In that moment, Graterol went from goat to hero. Tatis was the first hitter he’d faced. He’d already balked the tying run into scoring position. Now he was facing the prospect of surrendering the lead altogether.
When Bellinger came up with the ball, Graterol lost his damn mind.
Let’s give it to the guy. Sure, we haven’t seen anything like this from a pitcher pretty much ever, but the fellow was excited. When Machado was excited earlier in the game, he had a bat to throw. From the mound, Graterol threw the only things available: his cap and his glove.
This was a series-winning celebration, not an I-just-escaped-the-seventh-inning-of-Game-2-by-the-width-of-a-nose-hair celebration. It was more Little League than Major League. It was the kind of thing that you can easily see an opponent getting ticked off over.
Just not Manny Machado. Maybe if it was Eric Hosmer—Tatis’ Code-whisperer back in August—Graterol would have responded differently. But Machado has no right, now or ever, to lecture a fellow player about on-field comportment. Hell, he likely inspired Graterol with his own actions earlier in the game. When Machado, on hand in the on-deck circle, started yelling at the pitcher—a triple “fuck you” followed by “I’ll be waiting for you”—Graterol offered a perfect response: He waved and blew kisses.
Various Dodgers, primarily Max Muncy, emerged to shout Machado back to his dugout, and the confrontation more or less ended there … for the time being. Maybe Machado will be waiting. Maybe some of his teammates are willing to take up the cause. If anything does happen, it’ll probably go down next season, when every inning isn’t quite so fraught.
If so, it’ll be the dumbest fight in baseball history, two guys overreacting to each other’s overreaction on the field. Let the kids play.
Ronald Acuña homered on the second pitch of yesterday’s Game 1 of the NLDS and pimped it, and the Marlins drilled him in response. How stupid is that? Let’s count the ways.
* Miami plunked Acuña with nobody on and one out in the third inning, while holding a 4-1 lead. It was still anybody’s game, and gave the Braves a baserunner with the heart of their order coming up.
* Plate ump Andy Fletcher warned both dugouts, which pissed off Braves skipper Brian Snitker, but more importantly seemed to fluster Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara—and almost certainly affected his willingness to work inside. Sure enough, two batters later, Marcel Ozuna doubled Acuña home. The next hitter, Travis d’Arnaud, doubled home Ozuna, reducing Miami’s lead to 4-3.
* With Alcantara still on the mound in the seventh, Acuña continued to be angry. With one on and nobody out, he singled sharply to center field. That ended Alcantara’s night and began a six-run rally that iced the game for Atlanta.
There is, of course, a history here. In 2018, Acuña homered eight times in eight games, including five straight—three of which came leading off against the Marlins. Miami pitcher Jose Urena responded by drilling him in the elbow. Earlier this season, Urena hit Acuña again, making five times in all that Marlins pitchers have drilled the guy. Nobody else has done it more than twice.
Alcantara’s ensuing claims of unintentionality are believable (Snitker himself, “guarantee(s) he wasn’t trying to hit him”), but it comes with a caveat. To counter a guy who is hitting .318/.414/.645 with 17 homers and 44 RBIs against them—by far his best numbers against any team—Miami has taken to pitching Acuña consistently inside. In their view, hitting him on occasion simply comes with the territory.
That doesn’t mean that the Braves have to like it. Pitchers who play inside must have the control to do so effectively, especially during the postseason, when issuing free baserunners frequently ends badly. Acuña is clearly fed up with it, and while he had the presence of mind yesterday to avoid getting tossed from the game over it, there are sure to be repercussions.
One of them involves the Marlins being down a game in the series. They’ve been pitching Acuña inside for years, and he continues to pummel them. Maybe try something different in Game 2, Miami.