Retaliation

Baseball 2020: When Fighting Words Should No Longer Matter, But Still Somehow Do

Let’s start by noting that the pitch that precipitated Sunday’s mess did not hit Ramon Laureano intentionally. It was a 77-mph, full-count curveball from Humberto Castellanos, a 22-year-old pitching in his third big league inning, in only his eighth appearance above Single-A.

Then again, Laureano had already been hit in the game … by Brandon Bailey, a 25-year-old (who the A’s traded to Houston straight up for Ramon Laureano!) making his fourth big league appearance after jumping directly from Double-A.

Then again again, Laureano was also drilled in the first game of the series on Friday … also by Castellanos, back in his second-ever major league game. This one was a fastball, but at 88 mph, it was the slowest of the four that the right-hander threw during the at-bat. Also, the game was tied 1-1 in the 12th inning and, with runners already at first and second, it loaded the bases with one out.

So it’s safe to say that Ramon Laureano was not being targeted by the Astros over the weekend. It’s also safe to say that, when a player gets dotted three times over the course of a series—and his team five times, without a whiff of retaliation—regardless of intention, he’s entitled to be annoyed. And Laureano was. After the last incident, he chirped at Castellanos (strangely, it looked like he was showing the pitcher how to release a curveball), but it never appeared that he seriously considered charging the mound. Once Laureano reached first base, it seemed as if the game would proceed apace.

That’s the build-up.

The real issue was Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, who stood on the lip of the first-base dugout and, once Laureano had taken his base, lit into him. Instigation by a coach is particularly weak, especially with manager Dusty Baker—who’d been ejected an inning earlier for arguing balls and strikes—not being around to control it. What Cintron said has not yet been revealed, but it was enough to draw the baserunner’s attention. When Cintron took a challenge step toward the field, Laureano charged.

Before we get into the real issue here, let’s say for the record that charging an opponent near his own dugout is never a good idea, no matter who’s doing the charging. The attacker is wildly outnumbered, and, with baseball fights being group affairs, his chances to so much as land a blow are minimal.

But we’re playing in a time of pandemic, when Major League Baseball has expressly forbidden this kind of thing. From the 2020 operations manual: “Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action.”

So of course we had a scrum. Astros catcher (and former Athletic) Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before he ever reached Cintron, and members of both teams ended up milling about, nose to nose, as ballplayers do. A’s catcher Austin Allen briefly scrapped with Houston catcher Martin Maldonado. Laureano and Allen were ejected.

It’s another instance of high-profile athletes willfully ignoring their civic and personal responsibilities. On one hand, if the A’s and Astros want to keep playing baseball, they should do all they can to insure that COVID never reaches their clubhouses. Yesterday’s dustup was the opposite of that. We’ve already asked once this season whether love of baseball will be able to outstrip some of its athletes’ baser competitive instincts, then asked it again only one day later when Joe Kelly taunted these selfsame Astros into another confrontation. Do we love baseball enough? The answer is still unclear.

Beyond that, there’s the example that these athletes are setting for the rest of us. If a few angry words are worth the potential cost of sparking a 50-person scrum, what does that say to the public at large about the importance of safety? Cintron acted like a meat-headed moron, and Laureano should have known better than to take the bait.

The message from all of these men, intentional or not, is that machismo trumps common sense. It’s short-sighted and stupid. Nobody is innocent here.

MLB has been doing its part, suspending Kelly for eight games—more than 13 percent of the truncated season—for his idiotic behavior two weeks back. Similar penalties are in line for yesterday’s participants.

Baseball fights are traditionally free-range affairs, rarely coming to anything serious, specifically because so many players end up involved that it’s difficult to get any actual fighting done. Maybe there was some benefit to that, pre-COVID, but no more. For the first time ever, we need our ballplayers to be more than baseball-smart. We need them to be actual-smart. The big picture is no longer about a game or a series or even a season. It’s about helping to show that we’re all in this together and are doing what we can to help the common cause.

Be better, baseball.

RIP

RIP John McNamara

John McNamara passed away yesterday at age 88. Remembered primarily as the skipper who led the 1986 Red Sox to their epic World Series collapse against the Mets, my own interaction with his story primarily has to do with his tenure with the A’s. McNamara’s first major league managerial job was in Oakland, working for Charlie Finley in 1970 (plus the final few games of 1969).

As a minor league manager, it was McNamara who shifted Gene Tenace from outfield to catcher. (As a former catcher himself, McNamara was well suited as a tutor.) While managing at Double-A Birmingham, McNamara earned respect for his refusal to patronize the segregated restaurants his team frequently encountered on the road. It was McNamara who brought his old Army pal, Charlie Lau, to be the hitting coach in Oakland. (Lau transformed the swings of Joe Rudi and Dave Duncan, among others.)

Despite leading the A’s to 89 wins in 1970—their most since 1932—Finley fired McNamara after the season to make way for Dick Williams. The manager wasn’t much hurt by the decision—he ended up managing in the big leagues for six teams over 19 seasons—but there was no mistaking the genuine weirdness with how the dismissal went down. I wrote about it for Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, very little of which made the final edit. Today, the affair seems worth revisiting. From the cutting-room floor:

Despite the successful season, everybody braced for McNamara to become Finley’s annual managerial sacrifice. The manager himself wasn’t exactly averse to the idea. After being forced to participate in the protracted embarrassment of Reggie Jackson—going so far as to convey Finley’s threat to demote the young star to the minor leagues, not as a developmental tool but as a means of embarrassment—not to mention the daily phone calls and lineup demands, McNamara was prepared to quit even if Finley unexpectedly decided to retain him. His mistake was making this known.

Two Bay Area newspapers had reported on McNamara’s dissatisfaction during the season’s final week, and when Oakland Tribune columnist George Ross dedicated his season-ending feature to players’ opinions of the situation, some of them took the opportunity to sound off. One opinion in particular struck a chord with the Owner.

“It doesn’t matter who manages this ballclub,” Dave Duncan told Ross with surprising candor. “There’s only one man who manages this club: Charlie Finley. And we will never win as long as he manages. We had the team to win it. But because of the atmosphere he creates, there’s no spirit, no feeling of harmony. We should be close like a family, but it’s not here.” Duncan had been especially angry since the team’s annual mid-season cookout at Finley’s ranch in La Porte, where the Owner introduced him as “the best third-string catcher in the league,” and then saw his playing time cut to next to nothing. But Duncan wasn’t finished.

“Everybody’s always worried about Charlie Finley,” he continued. “You can’t say that, you can’t say this, or he’ll be mad. Nobody will speak out. But how can they with their jobs to protect?”

With that, Duncan presented the Owner with one of his favorite oratorical weapons: a scapegoat. Until Ross’ column, McNamara’s firing had been based on the manager’s inability to meet Finley’s needs. But now? Now the Owner had something else. Instead of his original plan, he instead called a press conference the day after the season ended, and got right to it. “As of two days ago at 2 o’clock, Johnny McNamara had just as much of a chance of managing this ballclub as anyone else,” said Finley to a room that didn’t believe a word he was saying, as reported in Ron Bergman’s book Mustache Gang. “But when the Dave Duncan story broke, that was the end of his chances.”

Then the Owner opened up on his catcher. The story was no longer about McNamara—had a just-fired manager ever become old news more quickly?—and was all about Finley’s spat with Duncan. Over the course of 30 minutes Finley criticized the player’s maturity, lack of perseverance and gutlessness. It was a brutal assessment by any measure, let alone a team owner talking about one of his employees. Things got truly weird when Finley said that the catcher was sleeping with Charlie Lau.

His exact words: “One day I found out that Duncan was sleeping with coach Charlie Lau.” Pause. “By that, I mean they were rooming together, sharing expenses. When I found out about this, I called it to their attention, asked them to break it up immediately, because as we all know, in the Army, troops don’t fraternize with officers.

It was a valid criticism. Duncan himself said as much later. Duncan and Lau were both going through marriage separations and decided to save money by sharing a roof. But Finley’s word selection—he was a master salesman, after all, trained to choose his verbiage carefully—left a different impression. “It was another cheap shot, typical Finley,” said Duncan, looking back. “He was a cruel guy. He had no respect for anybody. Pretty soon you got to the point with him where nothing surprised you.” The Owner went on to say that Duncan and Lau ignored his orders to de-couple, and that Lau—despite his success working with Duncan and Rudi (or maybe because of it)—would be joining McNamara on the unemployment line.

First, Finley hurt his team by cutting Reggie Jackson off at the knees. Then he fired the most successful manager his team had employed in 40 years. Now he was canning a soon-to-be-legendary hitting coach, just to prove a point. The Owner continued to injure himself atop his high horse, but, as would be the case for years to come, he didn’t care.

Finley finally brought the press conference back around to McNamara by saying that the manager could have salvaged his employment had he only denied the front office interference that so clearly existed, and paid Finley the occasional public complement when it came to the helpful things he did do. Said the Owner, “no manager can allow one of his players to criticize unfairly, knowing the facts himself, without getting pinched. John McNamara didn’t lose this job. His players took it from him.”

The final word was left to Duncan, who summed it up neatly. “It’s ridiculous to believe that the reason McNamara was fired was because of me,” he said afterward, as reported in Mustache Gang. “It was obvious to everyone a long time ago that Finley was going to fire him. In order to get off the hook, he found someone to pin it on, and that’s me.”

Retaliation

What’s A Little COVID When There’s Beef On The Field?

Yesterday I discussed the general idea of social distancing on a ballfield, and how players who want to maximize the chances of playing a full, 60-game schedule would be well served to pay better attention to the league’s safety protocols.

Today I address the unwritten rules (that’s the beat of this blog, after all), which include long-held grudges and purpose pitches and cross-field taunting. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to COVID response. Because everything in the world right now comes down to COVID response.

Fireworks were anticipated when the Dodgers traveled to Minute Maid Park in Houston for their first meeting since news came out about the Astros’ trash-can banging during their disputed championship run in 2017—a run that, coincidentally, culminated in a seven-game World Series win over the Dodgers.

Joe Kelly was not on the Dodgers back then, but he’s on the Dodgers now, and he’s heard all the  stories, and he’s the kind of pitcher known to stand up for teammates. (He was on the Red Sox team that lost to Houston in that year’s Division Series.) So when Kelly threw a 3-0 fastball behind Alex Bregman on Tuesday, close enough to raise the hair on the back of Bregman’s neck, it was tough to mistake it for anything but a message.

Things got even stranger when Kelly had to cover first base after the next batter, Michael Brantley, hit a would-be double-play grounder. Kelly was mildly and inadvertently spiked, then hung around the base for a moment to convey his displeasure.

That’s when a voice in the Astros dugout—it appears to be manager Dusty Baker—yelled, “Just get on the mound, little fucker.”

Joe Kelley has proved to need far less provocation than that.

After walking Yuli Gurriel on four pitches to put men at first and second, he delivered a pitch at Carlos Correa’s head. On one hand, that kind of location is never okay. On the other, it was a curveball—not the greatest weapon for pitchers with malice on their minds—and men were on first and second.

Correa ducked out of the way without much trouble, then stared down both Kelly and the Dodgers dugout. He ended up striking out on another curveball—this one down and away—to end the inning. Kelly immediately started jawing (according to Baker, he said, “Nice swing, bitch”), then made faces at his opponent, literally sticking out his lower lip in a mock pout. That’s all it took. Benches emptied.

This is where we return to the intersection of baseball norms and social distancing. In the former category, old habits can be hard to shake. In the latter, if ballplayers wanna play ball, they better start paying better attention to MLB’s protrocols—one of which explicitly bans fighting. (The specific language: “Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.”)

Still, players from both teams crowded around home plate. While there was very little contact, and while various members of both clubs actually wore masks, these players were close, and many of them were maskless.

We’re still less than a week into the season and the Marlins are triaging and sequestered, the Phillies are dormant and the Yankees, after doing nothing while waiting things out in Philadelphia are unexpectedly playing in Baltimore. If this doesn’t spur players to pay some better attention to risk mitigation, it’s likely that nothing will.

***

Nothing is as important right now as COVID mitigation, but seeing as this is an unwritten-rules blog, we should probably wrap up the situation between the Dodgers and the Astros. There’s no question that anger lingers in LA. During spring training, Cody Bellinger said that Jose Altuve “stole an MVP” from Aaron Judge, with Carlos Correa suggesting that Bellinger to get some facts or “shut the fuck up.”

Kelly denied intent on Tuesday, going so far as to illustrate his wild nature by referencing a viral video from early in the pandemic when, during a backyard bullpen session, he missed his target and broke a window in his home. (Not referenced was the fact that, since 2015, he’s struck out well over twice as many hitters as he’s walked.)

In the opposite clubhouse, Baker was livid.

“I didn’t anticipate that,” Baker said afterward. “I didn’t anticipate throwing over somebody’s head three balls and no strikes. One of our more important guys. If you’re going to throw at somebody, you don’t throw at the head. “You don’t throw at a guy’s head. That’s playing dirty baseball.”

What Baker did not do was order his pitchers to retaliate. For one thing, the Astros were three runs down and trying to keep the game close. In a truncated schedule, every loss bears extra weight. Also, all three Houston relievers who entered the game after Kelly’s shenanigans were rookies, two of them making their big league debuts. Asking a nervous kid to understand longstanding grudges, let alone execute a controversial purpose pitch, is asking for trouble in numerous ways.

The Astros may have dodged a bullet by not having to face a series of angry opponents had the 2020 season gone off as originally planned. But ballplayers, we’ve learned, are willing to wait. Joe Kelly is certainly not the only one who wants his shot at cheaters.

Meanwhile, the fan merch is out, and it’s spectacular.

Update 7/29: Kelly has been suspended for eight games, MLB citing Kelly’s history with this kind of thing as a factor in its decision. Dave Roberts has been suspended for one game, and Dusty Baker has received a sternly worded email or something.

Update 7/29: Dave Roberts has thoughts.

COVID baseball

Do We Love Baseball Enough To Make Sure We Can Keep Playing?

There are written rules and unwritten rules and sometimes they jumble together and now we’re in a pandemic and the Marlins are infected and Kevin Kiermaier is hugging up on his Rays teammates and everything is going to hell.

Man, Florida is setting a horrible example for the rest of us.

Let’s start with Kiermaier, who on Sunday offered a natural response after beating the Blue Jays with a two-run triple in the 10th, embracing teammate Jose Martinez and manager Kevin Cash, and high-fiving pretty much everybody within reach. That’s awesome. That’s baseball.

It’s also plain dumb.

“It was a heat-of-the-moment thing for me,” Kiermaier said in a Tampa Bay Times report. “I don’t regret it one bit, I really don’t. I knew what I was doing. … I’m one of those guys where I’m trying to do everything in my power to keep myself motivated and the others around me, and I want everyone to always remember how much fun winning is.”

Boy, is he right. Playing baseball is fun. Watching baseball is fun. But we—all of us—have entered into this agreement to do the right thing by our country by trying to keep COVID exposure to a minimum. MLB set up protocols as a prerequisite for returning to play for one simple reason: Arranging games and travel for large groups presents a significant risk. If those involved do everything they can to mitigate the risk, then maybe—maybe—the league can pull off a season.

But now we have reports that the Marlins entered the stadium in Philadelphia for last weekend’s series in large groups rather than incrementally, as recommended, and that their adherence to mask protocols in the dugout was significantly lacking. One can only imagine how they behaved behind closed clubhouse doors. And now we hear the barely believable news that they decided to play after they found out about their positive tests.

One thing is sure: Players in that clubhouse were either indifferent, or thought that they were immune.

They’re not. And now, for the time being, anyway, they’re not playing at all.

So when Kiermaier behaves as if his game-winner occurred in a place without a killer virus in the air, it helps him feel good about things. But here’s the catch: It’s not about him, it’s about doing all he can to insure that the season can continue, not to mention setting an example for everybody watching from the outside.

As a nation, there’s no way to fully reopen our economy until the coronavirus is under some semblance of control. Major League Baseball has leaned against this reality by manufacturing a bubble inside which it hopes its participants can coexist with something approaching normalcy. But the only way it works is if everybody agrees to the ground rules.

MLB is willing to flaunt common sense to make this season happen, but it also recognizes the fragility of the platform on which its near-future rests. Maybe the schedule can survive a bunch of Marlins coming down with COVID, while the rest of the roster decides to play games despite clear exposure. Maybe it can survive Kiermaier’s hugs and high-fives, or the fact that umpires during that game, including plate ump Vic Carapazza, opted against wearing masks.

One thing is certain, though: It can’t survive much more. We’re less than a week in, and, with the Marlins stuck in Philly and multiple games postponed, baseball is facing its first crisis.

Baseball matters to Kevin Keirmaier. A lot. And it should. But if the people on the field can’t bring themselves to give this pandemic the gravity it deserves in the service of playing as many games as possible, maybe it just doesn’t matter enough.

They Bled Blue

Dodgers’ First Rookie Opening Day Starter Since Fernando Does Not Disappoint

On Tuesday, Clayton Kershaw hurt his back lifting weights. On Wednesday, the possibility arose that he might not be able to start LA’s first game of the season, as planned. On Thursday, Kershaw was placed on the IL and his replacement, Dustin May, became only the second rookie to take the mound on opening day in the 137-year-history of the Dodgers franchise—and the first since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.

There are some differences between May and Valenzuela. May, 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds, was drafted in the third round out of high school in Texas. Coming into the season, MLB.com ranked him as the Dodgers second-best prospect, and 23rd in all of baseball. He made 14 appearances for Los Angeles last year, including four starts, and struck out more than six hitters for every walk while posting a 3.63 ERA. 

Valenzuela, in contrast, was all but unknown going into 1981, even after having come up to the Dodgers as a call-up the previous September and throwing 17 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. At that point he had 30 professional appearances under his belt, none above Double-A.

They are both physically unique. In addition to his size, May’s enormous shock of bright red curls is almost reminiscent of an Irish Oscar Gamble.

Valenzuela, in turn, was notable for his utter lack of affectation. His scissor-straight, pitch-black hair, hanging in the Mayo style of his village, spilled down from under his cap. His physique was … unathletic. Fernando gave no regard to anything but pitching—which he did exceptionally well.

While May looked dominant at times yesterday, hitting 100 mph with his fastball, he gave up seven hits (including a bunt against the shift) to a woeful Giants offense, allowing runners into scoring position in three of the five innings in which he appeared while failing to last long enough to qualify for the win.

In his first Opening Day start, Fernando barely hit 90 … and threw a complete-game shutout against the defending division champs.

Really, this is all just a crutch for me—comparing two pitchers with markedly few comparison points—to excerpt Valenzuela’s introduction from They Bled Blue. After Fernando’s first eight starts, he was 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA, having pitched nine innings every time out. By that point, Fernandomania was in full bloom.

We may yet see Maymania, or Dustin Maynia, or whatever tag gets affixed to the phenom. In the meantime, it’s nice to remember some dominance of years past.

From They Bled Blue:

The guy standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day was not the guy the Dodgers wanted standing on the mound at Dodger Stadium on opening day. The home team faced pressure aplenty without having to consider an emergency starter in the very first game of the 1981 season, let alone it being a 20-year-old with all of 17 innings of big league experience under his belt, every one of them out of the bullpen.

At that point, LA’s pitching concerns were more akin to triage than anything resembling strategy. This was the Dodgers, for crying out loud, the closest thing to a pitching factory that baseball had known since way back in the Brooklyn days of Drysdale and Newcombe and Sandy Freaking Koufax. One might assume immunity to this sort of dilemma. Nope. Their previous game—the one-and-out playoff against Houston that closed the 1980 campaign—had hinged on just this kind of drama. Hell, it even included the same opponent currently in town to christen the new season, almost as if baseball’s schedulers wanted to help Los Angelinos clear their palates as expediently as possible. Whether that was achievable remained to be seen.

The Dodgers were already without Don Sutton, now pitching for Houston. Left-hander Jerry Reuss, coming off an All-Star campaign, was ready to slide into Sutton’s slot atop the rotation, but in the final workout before opening day pulled a calf muscle so severely that he ended up sidelined for the first 10 games of the season.

Lasorda would have bumped up the next guy, but Burt Hooton, thinking he had an additional day to recover, had undergone a procedure to remove an ingrown toenail and was forced to sit. Number 3 starter Bob Welch was tending a bone spur in his elbow that would cost him three games. Dave Goltz and third-year pitcher Rick Sutcliffe had just closed the exhibition schedule with Freeway Series starts against the Angels.

This is how Fernando Valenzuela came to be pulled aside by team brass shortly after reaching the ballpark and told that he was about to become the first rookie pitcher to start on opening day in the 98-year history of the franchise.

Valenzuela’s ascent the previous autumn had been the main reason Lasorda’s decision about who to start in the playoff against the Astros was anything but pro forma. The left-hander had debuted only three weeks earlier, on September 15, jumping from Double-A straight to the majors, and failing to yield an earned run over 17⅔ innings of relief work covering 10 appearances. It was impressive, but the kid was fresh out of Mexico and still a teenager, for crying out loud. More importantly, the last time he started a game the opponent had been the Amarillo Gold Sox. An elimination contest against the class of the National League would be a hell of a spot for Valenzuela’s premiere. So Goltz was tabbed, it ended badly, and now Lasorda had a chance to see what he’d missed out on six months earlier.

Valenzuela was a physical curiosity, with chubby cheeks and rotund belly, his Mayan features accentuated by bushy black hair spilling straight down from his cap. Wrote Jim Murray in the following day’s Los Angeles Times: “He is, how shall we say it—he is—well, he’s fat, is what he is.” Fernando did not disappoint. The guy who ended the 1980 campaign without ceding an earned run over his final 52⅔ innings, majors and minors combined, began 1981 precisely the same way. In a performance that belied his carriage, the left-hander tantalized Houston’s roster inning after inning, giving up assorted singles and not much else. By the time he struck out Dave Roberts in the ninth—with a screwball of all things—Valenzuela had thrown 106 pitches, and also a complete-game, five-hit, 2–0 shutout. The 50,511 fans crowding Dodger Stadium could hardly believe what they’d seen. A day earlier the pitcher had been so in the dark about the possibility of drawing this assignment that he threw batting practice. Now he spun gold. Fernando, too young to legally buy a beer, was seemingly beyond distraction.

“We don’t know what’s going on inside him,” marveled Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes after the game, an understandable sentiment given his new teammate’s language barrier. “All he does is smile.”

“He wasn’t one bit nervous,” catcher Mike Scioscia informed the press. “He’s so cool out there, I don’t think he even broke a sweat.”

The thing about Valenzuela wasn’t that he was an unknown pitcher making his first major league start on the early season’s biggest stage. It wasn’t that he spoke virtually no English, necessitating Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrín to translate for him at nearly every turn. It wasn’t that as a kid from the dusty plains of Mexico he had not yet adapted to life in Los Angeles. It was not his pudgy cheeks, or his stomach bulging over his belt, or the unique hitch in his delivery in which, with his lead leg lifted, he gazed skyward while clasping his hands above his head. It was not his habit of constantly blowing chewing-gum bubbles, sometimes in the middle of his windup. It was not that he was a 20-year-old who looked to be in his middle thirties. It was not even that he was left-handed, or that his out-pitch was a flippin’ screwball.

It was all of it together, a full package containing mystery (The guy barely talks!), comedy (That belly! That haircut! That form!) and straight-up befuddlement (How does he do nothing but win?). Baseball had seen its share of flashing mound talent over recent years—Mark Fidrych in 1976, Vida Blue in ’71—but nobody quite captured the collective imagination like Fernando. The guy had been so anonymous that in a baseball card industry recently flush with competition, only Fleer saw fit to include him in its 1981 set . . . and misspelled his name.

Valenzuela seemed imperturbable—Pedazo de pastel, he said when asked how he felt about starting the season opener, Piece of cake—so composed through what should have been a fraught-filled start that the Los Angeles Times was compelled to report that “if he had been 100 years old and in the majors for 90 of them, he couldn’t have looked more in control.”

As if limiting Houston to five hits in a 2–0 opening day victory wasn’t enough, two of those hits came off of broken bats, and a third didn’t breach the infield. Said Fernando with such unassuming ease that it was impossible to confuse the sentiment for bravado: “When I get on the mound I don’t know what afraid is.”

“Hell,” shrugged outfielder Jay Johnstone, looking back, “you’ve got to break him in somewhere.”

RIP

RIP Murray Olderman

Murray Olderman, longtime sports columnist and cartoonist, passed away yesterday at age 98. I’m aware of him because—in addition to his decades’ worth of stellar work—he was involved in a barely believable confrontation with Reggie Jackson during the 1974 World Series. The showdown was entirely on Jackson, who was upset about a feature Olderman had written about him for Sport magazine (an accurate portrayal), but Olderman held his own, in the process providing a great example of how not to be intimidated by a blowhard athlete.

I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. Here’s the excerpt:

As the Series moved to Oakland, Monday’s workout day at the Coliseum was supposed to be a low-key affair, a chance to get loose in the sunshine and give the national media access to players. The A’s, of course, had a poor history with workout days. The one in Los Angeles put Rollie Fingers in the hospital and Blue Moon Odom on crutches. A year earlier, the one in New York featured insurgent players wearing Mike Andrews’s uniform number on their sleeves. The one in Cincinnati the year before that was all about the reaction to Campy Campaneris’s bat toss in Detroit. It wouldn’t take long for this one to join the litany.

The drama’s genesis occurred back in mid-September, when Sport magazine published a cover story for which Reggie Jackson posed while wearing military regalia from the movie Patton. He had been interviewed for the issue by the film’s star, George C. Scott, and found the resulting copy to be entirely bland. He couldn’t say the same, however, for the second feature about him in the same issue. That one was by Murray Olderman, a Bay Area–based 52-year-old syndicated writer and cartoonist who had been desperate to schedule an interview with Reggie for his quick-turnaround piece. After doing a five-hour photo shoot for the cover, however, Jackson was in no mood to talk. He agreed only to let the writer informally hang out for a while at his condo in the exclusive Hiller Highlands neighborhood of Berkeley.

When Jackson saw the ensuing feature, he was miffed. Olderman described Jackson as “utterly charming or maddeningly harsh, depending on the situation,” and said that he “has more than a little ego, more than a limited belief in his own glorious destiny.” He spent close to a third of the space recounting Jackson’s fights with Epstein, Williams, and North.

For Reggie, though, the crux came in two parts. One was Olderman’s description of a Bible set next to a handgun atop the television, juxtaposed with copies of Penthouse and Playboy strewn around the apartment. In the player’s mind, this insinuated that holiness was subjugated by the baser aspects of his life. The other part was the depiction of former A’s ball girl Mary Barry, who was described as wearing a green bikini and spending hours in the apartment. (It did not explicitly say that the two were dating, but the notion was strongly implied.) Barry’s teenage employment with the team lent negative connotations to the description, but she’d graduated from high school by the time the story came out and was no longer in Finley’s employ. Both she and Jackson were single. “I don’t expect everyone to write nice things about me,” Reggie said after the piece was published, “but I don’t want a sarcastic treatment that makes me look like something I’m not. I’m not a hypocrite, but his story suggests it.”

Reggie’s teammates, some of them, anyway, were aware of his anger. He spoke openly of revenge fantasies, the most prominent of which involved telling Olderman off amid his journalist colleagues, returning some of the embarrassment Jackson felt. The reality, of course, was that Reggie was keenly aware of his public image and what such a plan would do to it. His teammates were somewhat less concerned.

As the A’s worked out, Blue saw Olderman on the field, pointing out various members of the A’s to his 16-year-old son, and got an idea. Grabbing the writer by the hand, he said, “Come with me, there’s someone who wants to see you,” and led him to Jackson. Reggie had decided weeks earlier that it was not in his best interests to pursue a confrontation, but with it thrust upon him, he reversed course. It was the only way to save face in front of teammates who had heard him talk repeatedly about what kind of trouble Olderman would be in the next time they met.

So Reggie began to yell. He profanely told Olderman what he thought of the article, and what he thought of the man who wrote it. And the more he yelled the angrier he became. What started as show became genuine hostility.

The scenario was just how Reggie pictured it. The field was littered with newsmen from across the country, and the moment he began to shout they gathered like pigeons to bread crumbs. Jackson was dressed for battle—batting helmet, batting gloves, dark glasses, windbreaker over his uniform—making him all the more intimidating. He screamed that Olderman was “a horseshit writer who had written a horseshit story,” told him that he didn’t want to see him again, and threatened to “punch him in his fucking mouth.” It was as if Reggie was trying to taunt the scribe into a physical altercation. Olderman did not bite.

“You better never get around me alone, that’s all I can say,” Jackson finally hollered, pointing his finger. “If you do, you’ll be in trouble.”

Olderman, wearing thick-framed glasses and a blazer, was an Army veteran and about the same size as Jackson. He was hardly cowed.

“Are you threatening me?” he asked coolly. Vida stood next to them, gazing sheepishly at the ground.

Jackson clenched his fists and told the writer he was not welcome in the Oakland clubhouse.

“Are you going to keep me out?” Olderman asked.

“Yeah,” Reggie said.

That was when Joe Reichler, MLB’s director of public relations, raced over to separate the men. “Walk away with me,” he sternly ordered Jackson. When Reggie refused, Reichler laid down the law right there: “Threaten him again, or lay a hand on him, and you won’t play the rest of the series.” Jackson backed down.

Things were quiet until the next day, when, prior to Game 3, Reichler approached Reggie as he warmed up in front of the A’s dugout. The Commissioner, he said, was “very disturbed” over Jackson’s behavior. If it happened again, Reichler said, “there’s going to be a problem, a very serious problem, and I think you know what I mean by that.”

Reggie smiled. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “everything is over.”

It was too early for everything to be over, of course. The A’s had already sent two players to the hospital, were still trying to make sense of their best pitcher’s claims that he would soon be playing elsewhere, had to fend off rumors of moving, tried to deflect questions about a lawsuit filed against their owner by one of their own, and lived down one of the most embarrassing pickoffs in big league history. Now they were also dealing with their star player verbally assaulting a member of the gathered media.

In passing, it seemed, the Series was tied, 1–1. It was easy to miss, but there was still some baseball to be played.

RIP

RIP Claudell Washington

Claudell Washington passed away far too young on Tuesday at age 65. He first gained notice as a teenage sensation on the Swingin’ A’s, the man for whom Charlie Finley predicted enduring greatness. I last saw him at an A’s reunion a couple of years back; he was wearing a thick sweater on a warm day, looked strong and conversed easily. The East Bay legend will be missed.

From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The 19-year-old Claudell Washington had been lighting up the Double-A Southern League with stats almost too good to believe: a .362 batting average with 11 homers, 23 doubles, 55 RBIs, and 34 stolen bases in only 73 games. The best part: he was a local kid—a Berkeley High School graduate—and a success story for part-time scout Jim Guinn, the Berkeley policeman who went on to sign Rickey Henderson. Washington didn’t even play for his high school baseball team; Guinn found him via local legend. The kid could dunk two basketballs in one leap, it was said, and was rated among the fastest men in the East Bay based on a single season of prep track. As if to give himself a character quirk, the six-foot, 190-pound Washington swung a comically heavy 42-ounce bat; among big leaguers, only Dick Allen’s had similar heft. “He’s the best player for his age I’ve ever seen or known,” admired Jackson upon taking a gander.

Washington’s first start was not an enviable matchup. It pitted the A’s against Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry, who, after losing his first start of the season, had won every time since. The right-hander was 15-1, one victory away from the American League record of 16 straight. That and half-price Monday tickets produced the Coliseum’s largest crowd of the season: 47,582.

Perry did not reach his mark. Vida Blue pitched ten innings of four-hit ball, and the A’s new prodigy—who had until very recently never heard of Gaylord Perry—made a quick impression. Starting at DH, Washington’s first major league hit was an eighth-inning triple. His second hit, a tenth-inning single off a still-strong Perry, drove in Blue Moon Odom to win the game, 4–3.

For a true feeling about what kind of impact Washington made on the East Bay scene upon his arrival, take a gander at the Oakland Tribune from July 2, 1975. It wasn’t a noteworthy day, per se, but it’s representative of the kind of whirlwind Washington inspired. (It’s also representative of the kind of gold that beat writer Ron Bergman spun daily.):

Claudell Washington has picked up an extra $10,000 on his way to the All-Star game, the Hall of Fame, possible sainthood, and, who knows, perhaps the seat of his own in the United Nations general assembly.

Nothing seems impossible for the 20-year-old, who raised his batting average to .306 with two hits last night, scored three runs, drove in another and stole bases number 30 and 31 as the A’s beat the White Sox, 10-1, widening their lead in the American League West to eight games.

In the seventh-inning, A’s owner Charlie Finley climbed up to the press box from his first-base box seat in White Sox Park and announced that he was giving Washington a retroactive $10,000 raise.

This marked the third midseason raise Finley has given his young star, who will reach one year in the big leagues in three days. Last year, Finley gave him a $2,000 raise for wrecking Gaylord Perry’s bid for a 16th straight victory, and $5,000 for going 5-for-5 in Detroit. That left Claudell well past $22,500, the figure for which he signed the past winter. Welcome to the land of $32,500.

Not one of the A’s players resented the raise. Not Vida Blue, who was given a Cadillac in 1971 as a midseason raise. Blue: “All I know is I’m going shopping with him tomorrow.”

No-Hitter Etiquette

Ten Years Ago Today: Armando Galarraga’s Would-Be Perfect Game

Ten years ago today gave us perhaps the most egregiously blown call in baseball history. With one out to go in a would-be perfect game, Tigers righty Armando Galarraga induced a soft tapper to the right side of the infield. First baseman Miguel Cabrera fielded it cleanly and fed the covering pitcher in time to beat the runner by a step.

Umpire Jim Joyce called him safe.

There were two primary reactions in the immediate aftermath. One was to blister Joyce over a terrible call. The other was to begin discussing, in depth and at length, the idea of universal instant replay.

Regarding the former, Joyce acquitted himself as well as anybody in his position might have. Upon watching a replay after the game, he tearfully proclaimed that “It was the biggest call of my career and I blew it,” and that “I cost that kid a perfect game.” Joyce apologized publicly, and Galarraga accepted. The class shown on both sides of the issue served as a beacon for those hopeful that grace and civility might be making a comeback to our society.

Oh well.

As for the latter reaction, instant replay was in use at that time, just not in a way that could have helped Galarraga. It had been implemented in 2008 with three express purposes: determining whether a ball was fair or foul; determining if a ball had left the playing field; and confirming possible fan interference on a home run. In 2014 the challenge system was implemented, and replay began to have significantly more effect. (I weighed in on the topic for The New York Times amid some pretty select company shortly after the game.)

My point at the time, which I reinforce now, is that there’s an unwritten-rules aspect to the call—this one covering umpires, not players—that could have prevented all of the ensuing trauma. Namely, that the first hit of a game must be clean.

It’s an easy one. Nobody—not the pitcher, not the opposition and especially not the umpire—wants a game to go into the books with the only hit allowed having been controversial … or, even worse, an incorrect call. This is especially pertinent late in the game, never mind with two outs in the ninth inning. Joyce himself said in the Detroit News that “This was a history call, nd I kicked the shit out of it.”

Had the runner that day, Jason Donald, actually beaten the throw by a half-step and been called out by Joyce, nobody would be talking about the call today.

At least it gives us some brief distraction while our country burns.

Retaliation

We Knew It At The Time, But Now He Confirms It: Brad Keller Meant To Hit Tim Anderson

With no baseball save for mishandled bargaining sessions and teams’ decisions about whether to pay their minor leaguers and other employees through these dormant months, it’s downright refreshing to hear a bona fide ballplayer discuss bona fide ball.

Even when the discussion topic is something he might rather forget.

Royals pitcher Brad Keller went on the Charity Stripe podcast on Monday and discussed last year’s incident in which he drilled Tim Anderson for flipping his bat.

Before we get into Keller’s comments, let’s revisit that day last April.

Anderson slugged a fourth-inning homer off of Keller, then … well, “flipped” is the wrong word for what he did with his bat. As I described it at the time, it was “less insouciant toss and more angry spike.”

“Did that somehow cross an ever-shifting line?” I wondered. “Had [Anderson] not turned toward his dugout—or, more pertinently, turned his back toward the Royals dugout—would it have been better received?”

It didn’t matter. In Anderson’s next at-bat, two innings later, Keller drilled him in the backside. Tempers flared.

At the time, it was confusing. Major League Baseball had just come out with its Let the Kids Play campaign, ostensibly aimed at fostering this very kind of behavior. The thing was, Anderson had some history with the Royals as pertained to his celebratory habits, which had already cleared the benches once, back in 2018. This is a vital piece. The conversations that had been circulating around the Royals clubhouse about Anderson for the better part of a year held unequivocal sway in the pitcher’s decision to act.

After Keller drilled Anderson, he didn’t say much about his motivation. This was smart, lest baseball swoop in with a punishment for intentionally targeting another player. Now, it seems, baseball has more pressing things on its agenda. So on Monday, on a podcast, Keller talked.

“It was like the first week of April,” he said. “I’m not going to say a meaningless game because every game in the big leagues means something. But the 12th game of the season doesn’t really define if you’re going to make the playoffs or not.”

Keller described how he was grinding, getting behind every hitter. Then Anderson battled him for six pitches before homering on a full count.

“How he acted afterwards, to me and my whole team, was just over the top,” Keller said. “It’s like, ‘Bro, you hit a homer. Congrats.’ This wasn’t a Game 7 homer. This wasn’t a playoff homer. This wasn’t even a homer to win the game. Ultimately, we won the game, 3-2, in the long run [Note: The Royals actually won 4-3], but that gets kind of lost in the whole transaction of everything. It just seemed like, at the time, it was an April home run. Why are you throwing your bat to the dugout? We had beefs in the past, as far as our teams, and that was just like fuel on the fire, basically, is what it seemed like. I was upset because I was grinding that day and I was already pissed off at myself, and then you pull some shit like that?”

Keller returned to the dugout angry, and found a bunch of teammates who felt similarly. He was a second-year pitcher trying to earn his place in the clubhouse hierarchy, and standing up for teammates’ feelings may well have played into his decision to act. Anderson’s blast gave the White Sox a 2-0 lead, but by the time he next batted, Kansas City had knotted the score.

“He had to know it was coming,” said Keller. “He was leading off the sixth inning, and he was literally a foot from the dirt when I was on my second warm-up pitch. I’ve never seen anyone get out to the box that fast in my life. … That was his first hit off of me in his career. That was your first hit off of me and you’re acting like you own me.”

It was indeed Anderson’s first hit against Keller in 14 career at-bats, a stretch that included five strikeouts and a double-play.  

“White Sox fans are like, Tim Anderson’s your daddy and shit, and I’m like, please. … we won the game,” Keller said. “It’s hilarious how it all transpired. I’m the worst pitcher ever. The White Sox own me. Tim Anderson owns me. I’m like, you guys don’t look at stats, do you?”

Okay, so Keller didn’t really tell us anything new, apart from confirming that the HBP was intentional. Still, it’s refreshing to hear a pitcher describe his mindset when it comes to things like this. We are in a new era of baseball, one in which celebrations like Anderson’s are ostensibly not only acceptable but encouraged. The days of angry pitchers exacting revenge on showboat competitors feels like a thing of the past, the province of old men shouting at clouds.

When Keller drilled Anderson, he was 23 years old. If the season resumes, maybe we’ll also get a chance to hear what he thinks about Letting the Kids Play.

[H/T NBC Sports]

The Baseball Codes

The Little-Known Story Of Hank Greenberg’s 250th Home Run

A few years back I wrote a feature about Hank Greenberg’s war service for a website called The National Pastime Museum. The site no longer exists, but today is a good day to dust the story off. On Memorial Day, this is for those who have served our country so well.

The feting of Hank Greenberg at Tiger Stadium on May 6, 1941, had little to do with his winning the previous season’s American League Most Valuable Player Award, or that he’d led Detroit to the 1940 American League pennant. The man was a bona-fide superstar, all but ticketed for Cooperstown after only six full big league seasons, but this was not about that, either—not directly, anyway.

The U.S. military had only recently begun its conscription process prior to entering World War II. Based largely on his being unmarried, Greenberg was among the first prominent athletes to qualify. It was known when the season began that he likely wouldn’t make it until June as a civilian; even as the Tigers played Cleveland in their second game of the season, Michigan’s local Draft Board 23 announced a Class-1A rating for Greenberg on the basis of a medical examination earlier  in the day. “I’ll ask no deferment,” the slugger told the New York Times after the game, “and will be ready when called.”

Sure enough, Greenberg’s number 621 was called shortly thereafter. Thus did he find himself on May 6, playing in his final game of the season before reporting, amid significant fanfare. Before the game, the Tigers presented him with a gold watch featuring the inscribed names of his teammates. The Briggs Stadium grounds crew gave him a pen and pencil set.

For all anybody knew, it would be the final game of Greenberg’s career. At age 30, he clearly understood the finite nature of athletic endeavors. He was also sitting on 247 career home runs, a number that a month earlier he seemed all but certain to have surpassed by then.

Early-season struggles, however, intruded. Greenberg went 0-for-3 in the season opener on April 16, and did it again in the following game. After 10 games he was batting .188. By the end of April he’d accumulated only 10 hits, only two for extra bases—neither of them a home run.

May, however, began differently. In the four-game stretch leading up to May 6, Greenberg raised his batting average 34 points, going 5-for-13 with three doubles. Home runs, however, remained elusive. It appeared that he would decamp for his indefinite war leave short of 250.

Perhaps if he had been at 249, it would have bothered him more. Even at 248 the number might have been within reach, but for all of Greenberg’s fabled power—he’d paced the American League in home runs three times, and set a record for right-handed batters with 58 during the 1938 season—he had never once connected for three in a game. Thus did he content himself on the evening of May 5—at a private party thrown by the Tigers at the Franklin Hills Country Club, which included members of the visiting Yankees—with the idea that careers do not hinge on the accumulation of round numbers.

Then, in his first at-bat of his last game, Greenberg led off the second inning by pounding a Tiny Bonham fastball into the left field stands. Now he was only two away.

An inning later, he did it again, this time with a man aboard. It was the 28th time he had gone deep twice in the same game. Now he was one away.

As Greenberg stood in the outfield the following inning, he couldn’t help but consider his circumstance. It was only the fourth inning. He imagined the drama of his first three-homer game propelling him to 250 as he went off to war. “All of a sudden,” he said later, as reported in The Second Fireside Book of Baseball, “I was intensely interested in hammering one into the stands.”

Greenberg had always been an unintentional home-run hitter, seeking only hard contact and accepting whatever followed. Now, however, he had a goal and very little time to reach it. His next at-bat, in the fifth inning, came against reliever Atley Donald. The Tigers were ahead, 5-1, and Greenberg aimed for the fences.

He fell short, lofting a fly ball to Charlie Keller in medium-deep left field.

His next time up, in the seventh, he popped up to catcher Bill Dickey. Things weren’t going as planned.

When Greenberg stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth and the Tigers ahead, 6-4, he knew that it was almost certainly his final shot at the milestone. The bases were loaded, and Donald was still on the mound, in his fifth inning of work, pitching on fumes. The first three pitches to Greenberg sailed wide of the zone.

A walk was the outcome that nobody wanted. Taking the bat out of his hands with number 250 so close at hand, even unintentionally, would have been a profound letdown. “Even Bill Dickey was rooting for me,” Greenberg said later. “He kept pleading with his pitcher to whip in a fast one, letter high.”

Finally, Donald did, providing the meatball for which everybody was hoping. It was letter high, exactly where Greenberg wanted it. If ever there was a nod to history at the expense of personal statistics, this was it. Greenberg’s rocked back in his stance and uncorked his mightiest swing.

And missed.

At that point, Donald seemed entirely willing to accommodate the would-be war hero. His next pitch floated in as fat as the first. Again, Greenberg attacked. Again, he missed.

Now the count was full. Greenberg represented what was probably his team’s final out of the game. Unless he fouled it off, one more pitch was all he would get. Over the previous three seasons, only Red Ruffing had allowed more home runs than Donald among Yankees pitchers, and Ruffing was the defending league leader in the category. Greenberg knew exactly what he was going to get.

When Donald lolled another meatball toward the plate, served up to the slugger as if on a tee, Greenberg put everything he had into his swing, intent on giving himself and his fans the most sensational sendoff possible.

The ending, however, was familiar. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Greenberg had struck out. Number 250 would have to wait.

***

The next day at the United States Army induction center, Greenberg gave out upwards of 1,000 autographs and posed for newsreel cameras while a 13-piece WPA orchestra blared what an officer called “morale building” music. At 1:30 p.m. he boarded a train for Fort Custer, Mich., headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division. Thus began his transition from baseball’s highest-paid player to lowly private, trading his $55,000 annual salary for $5.25 per week.

Greenberg spent 13 weeks in basic training before being assigned to Camp Livingston, La., where he joined the 32nd Division. Before long he was promoted to private first class, then to corporal in charge of a five-man anti-tank gun crew, then to sergeant of the machine-gun company of the 11th Infantry. All the while, he had baseball on the brain.

“As soon as I get out of the Army I’ll play ball again,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

In November, the War Department issued a discharge order for selectees age 28 and older. Greenberg qualified. He’d be back with the Tigers before training camp opened.

He left the Army on Dec. 5, after 180 days of service. Heading home to New York, Greenberg told the Associated Press that he had little to do little but “wait for spring.”

Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Greenberg the decision was easy. He re-enlisted immediately. Under the new circumstances, he said, “baseball is out the window.”

Thus began a three-year journey that saw the outfielder emerge from officer candidate school as a second lieutenant, get promoted to director of physical training of the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command at Ft. Worth, Tex., and ultimately end up as administrative commanding officer for the first B-29 overseas base of the 20th Air Force, in China, in charge of the cutting-edge Superfortress bomber. When the plane crashed on the runway during a testing run, Greenberg was among those who raced toward the wreckage, and was blown backward from 100 yards away when half of the ship’s bomb load exploded. Undeterred, Greenberg’s company pressed on to rescue five crewmen who’d disembarked just before the explosion and were huddled in a nearby ditch. As Greenberg circled the plane looking for others, the other half of the bomber’s payload went off, followed by exploding ammunition. As pieces of the aircraft landed all around him, Greenberg was pinned to the ground. Once things settled, he found the six remaining members of the crew in a nearby rice patty. Somehow, nobody was seriously injured.

These were not the adventures of a pampered ballplayer but of a bona-fide military man, doing everything possible to help the cause.

***

On June 14, 1945, two months before Japan officially surrendered, Greenberg received an honorable discharge. A week later, he was working out with the Tigers. On July 1, he trotted out to left field in Briggs Stadium for a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.

The number 249 had been hanging from the slugger’s neck for more than four years, across continents and job descriptions and military ranks. As the war drew on and his return to baseball seemed less likely, it had threatened to become a permanent fixture on his record.

But there he was, at age 34, again trying to reach the mark—four years and a lifetime away from where he had been the last time he attempted the feat. Now, he did not swing for the fences. This time everything was different. He wanted only to feel the dirt beneath his cleats and the bat in his hand, to feel like he hadn’t felt in forever—like a ballplayer again. Greenberg’s approach was easy, his expectations minimal.

In his fourth at-bat, he planted a fastball from lefthander Charlie Gassaway 375 feet into the left-field bleachers. Greenberg had his number, solid proof, finally, that he was home.