RIP Vida Blue

I was devastated to hear the news yesterday about Vida Blue’s passing. He’d been ill for some time, having shown up to the A’s recent reunion of the 1974 championship team needing a wheelchair and cane to aid his diminished mobility, with people close to him now saying that he was holding on as tightly as he could specifically to make that event.

Photo by Doug McWilliams, Nat’l Baseball Hall Of Fame  / Library

Vida was a towering figure during my preteen Giants fandom in the late-1970s and early ’80s, shepherding their ascent from laughingstock to respectability. I was too young at the time to understand just how impactful the man had been on baseball’s landscape prior to his arrival in San Francisco.

Now, having written Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, about the Swingin’ A’s of the 1970s, I now know better. Vida played an outsized role on those three-time champions, having taken the baseball world by storm in 1971, butting heads with Charlie Finley during a ruined 1972, and rebounding to place three top-10 Cy Young finishes over the next four years amid whirling rumors of being traded or sold outright, and watching the rest of the roster depart at the dawn of the free agency era while he was left to languish in Oakland.  

I’ve spoken to Vida at ballparks, at symposiums and in classrooms. He even took to calling me on occasion to fact-check some conversation he was in the middle of having (usually, it seemed, with a date he likely wanted to impress). The four hours I spent with the man over lunch at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley back in 2015, however, while researching Dynastic, was the most concentrated and wonderful dose of Vida one could hope for. That’s where he gave me the line that I chose to head the book’s epilogue: “We were the team everybody wanted to come see: the freaks with the mustaches, with the long hair, that took batting practice in black shoes but came out to play in white shoes.”

He also noted the A’s primary colors during his run with the team: Wedding Gown White, Fort Knox Gold, Kelly Green and Vida Blue.

Photo by Doug McWilliams, Nat’l Baseball Hall Of Fame  / Library

Although Vida ended up having a nice career, he proved unable to sustain his early dominance. There are many reasons for this, including overuse during that 1971 campaign and his subsequent holdout in 1972. None are more prevalent than a spiraling drug problem that saw Blue not only suspended for the 1984 season following a cocaine conviction, but serving three months of jail time at the beginning of that year. He rejoined the Giants in 1985 and hung on for a couple more seasons.

Blue’s career was one of what-ifs. Nobody was more aware of this detail than Vida himself. “I blew it …” he told The Washington Post in 2021. “I can honestly, openly say I wish I was a Hall of Famer. And I know for a fact this drug thing impeded my road to the Hall of Fame … so far.”

That’s not how I like to remember him. I prefer to consider the young, cheerful wunderkind who took the American League by storm in 1971. To that end, I offer an extended excerpt from Dynastic:

The real story of 1971 was Vida Blue. Six feet tall and 190 well-packed pounds, the left-hander threw devastatingly hard and with disarming ease. His windup featured a uniquely high leg kick that brought his right knee almost to his chin, and a delivery in which he reached so far back with the baseball that his knuckles nearly scraped the dirt. He’d made his debut as a 20-year-old call-up the previous September, and pitched a one-hitter against Kansas City in his second-ever big league start. Blue couldn’t throw anything but fastballs, but that was enough—the ones that didn’t drop like bowling balls exploded so ferociously upon reaching the plate that hitters swore they saw them rise. Two starts after baffling the Royals he no-hit the Twins. “We never even saw the ball,” marveled Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew afterward, “but we sure heard it good.”

Blue’s marvelous September earned him the nod to pitch the Presidential Opener in 1971, but the magic didn’t last. The young lefty surrendered four runs in one and two-thirds innings, and Oakland lost, 8–0. Things, however, would quickly improve.

In Blue’s second start of the season he set a franchise record with 13 strikeouts over six shutout innings of a rain-shortened game. His third start was a two-hitter over Milwaukee. His fourth start was an 11-strikeout victory over the White Sox. Vida, who had spent his winter working on a curveball, was somehow even better than he’d been the previous September. Following his disastrous opening assignment the lefty won 10 straight, compiling a 1.03 ERA while spinning nine complete games in 12 starts.

“There are some guys you go hitless against and it doesn’t bother you,” noted Baltimore outfielder Paul Blair. “What you tell yourself is, Well, I got a piece of him, or at least I fouled one off. But this guy makes you go 0-for-4 and you feel humiliated. He doesn’t give you a single thing. He strips you naked right there in public. Trying to hit that thing he throws is like trying to hit dead weight.”

By early May the country was paying attention. Sports Illustrated compared Vida to Sandy Koufax. (“That’s funny,” responded Blue, “I don’t look Jewish.”) Soon he would grace the covers of Time and Newsweek, publications that didn’t ordinarily cover sports, and hold down guest spots on NBC’s Today Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Talk began in earnest about his chances of winning 30.

On May 28, more than 35,000 people crammed into Fenway Park (capacity: less than 34,000; average: 16,000) to watch Vida pitch. On June 1, he attracted more than 30,000 to Yankee Stadium for a game that would have otherwise drawn about 12,000, and the A’s suffered through a pregame clubhouse so crowded with media that Dick Williams called a team meeting just to clear the room. Back home 47 percent of all Bay Area TVs tuned in as Blue won his 12th, another complete game. By that point Charlie Finley was seeing dollar signs in everything his young star touched. Vida, scheduled to pitch only once during an eight-day homestand, was given Catfish Hunter’s slot on June 17, which served the dual purpose of providing Blue with an extra home date and knocking him from his previously scheduled spot ten days hence, which corresponded with Bat Day at the Coliseum. “We didn’t want him to pitch on a promotion day,” Williams explained. “He’s enough of a promotion himself.”

Vida’s sheer exuberance could not be suppressed. During games in which he didn’t pitch he sat in the dugout and listened to Williams rant about on-field mistakes, then would approach the skipper, a smile on his face, to say things like, “I’m going to tell Greenie [second baseman Dick Green] what you all said about him. I’m going to tell him as soon as he gets off the field.” Reggie Jackson called the pitcher a “dugout instigator, like the rest of us, but always in an innocent way.” Vida wore a Joe Namath–model New York Jets jersey while tossing footballs with clubhouse kids before games, then proceeded to run them ragged. “George, you my man, get me a soda pop,” he’d call out. “Steve, how ’bout wringing out my shirt here? Chuck, get me a dry sweatshirt.” Chuck, of course, also went by Mr. Dobson and was at the time of the request the starting pitcher for that night’s game. The right-hander politely declined. “Oh,” said Vida. “I knew I’d go too far.”

By the middle of July 1971, Blue’s 17-3 record and majors-leading totals in wins, shutouts, strikeouts, and ERA earned him the starting nod in the All-Star Game. Every one of his victories had been a complete game. Even his no-decisions were spectacular: on July 9, Blue struck out 17 Angels over 11 shutout innings, but the A’s didn’t win until the 20th. Said Jackson, “You can even get the Babe out of his grave and he’d look at Vida and say, ‘The man’s too much.’”

Photo by Doug McWilliams, Nat’l Baseball Hall Of Fame  / Library

Blue’s 18th win was a one-hit shutout of the Tigers in his first start after the All-Star break. It was also his 18th complete game of the season, and the innings were taking a toll. The lefty exceeded his career-high of 171⅔ innings by the second week of July, and two weeks later he passed 200. In Blue’s first attempt at his 20th victory, on July 30, he gave up four earned runs in six innings—only the third time all season he’d allowed that many—and lost. “I’ve never been more tired,” he complained afterward.

The pitcher, at first delighted by the accolades, grew overwhelmed by them. His attention was drawn taut by the national media, then segmented to slake the public’s thirst, one feature story at a time. “I wake up and then I’m at the ballpark,” Blue said, head spinning. “I’m pitching. Then it’s all over. I’m back in the dressing room and writers are all around me. Then I’m on an airplane. I’m in a hotel. I’m at the ballpark. Now I’m back in Oakland. Now Mr. Finley is giving me a car, and my mother and my brother and my sisters are there. Now lights are flashing. Now I’m pitching again.” No one ever said being a phenom was easy.

Blue’s roommate, Tommy Davis, took to screening calls for him at home. Vida signed so many autographs that he began using his right hand in order to save his left one for pitching. Over the course of the summer he went from “I want to sign ’em all . . .” to “You got to sign, you just got to . . .” to “You don’t got to sign. You don’t got to do nothing but die.” Still, he signed. By August, Vida was lamenting that “I sometimes feel like I’m going to crack up mentally.”

The interview Blue gave to reporters following his 20th victory, on August 7, was so dour as to be described as “hostile” by one reporter. Somebody asked whether the win would help Vida remove the monkey from his back, and the pitcher gripped his head. “There was no monkey on my back,” he yelped. “There just was the pressure, that pressure.” Somebody brought up the specter of 30 wins, and Vida snapped. “There you go again,” he yelled, slapping a table. “There’s that’s damn pressure.”

Vida won his 22nd with 10 starts left in the season, and though he’d have to succeed at an absurd pace to reach 30, people still held out hope. By the end, however, he was just a gassed pitcher trying to get by. Blue was blasted out of starts earlier than ever and won only twice more, ultimately finishing second to Detroit’s Mickey Lolich in victories.

Still, the kid had been spectacular. Vida’s final line: 39 starts, 24-8 record, 1.82 ERA, 24 complete games, eight shutouts, 301 strikeouts, and 88 walks in 312 innings pitched.


In the process, Vida became the youngest player ever to win the Cy Young or MVP Award, let alone both in the same season. He was the jolt of fresh, young energy that baseball needed, but burned too bright, too fast, and could not sustain it.

None of that diminishes the man’s place in baseball history, nor will it make him any less missed. The sport is already poorer without him. RIP, Vida.


RIP Sal Bando

Sal Bando passed away over the weekend. The unquestioned leader of the Swingin’ A’s team about which I wrote in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, his viewpoint and memories was essential to my ability to tell that tale. What kind of guy was Captain Sal? He picked me up from the airport in Phoenix, hung out with me for a day, answering all my questions—even the difficult ones—then returned me to the departure gate, saving me the price of a rental car.

On a team studded with Hall of Famers, Bando experienced the most in-sport success of any Athletic, following his 11 years with the A’s (four All-Star appearances, three top-5 MVP finishes) with five years with the Brewers. In 1974, when Bando was 30, he was mentioned as a possibility to become player-manager of the A’s after Dick Williams stepped down. That never happened, in Oakland or anyplace else, which mattered little in light of the fact that he spent eight seasons as the Brewers GM in the 1990s.

As Reggie Jackson wrote in his 1984 autobiography, “Sal Bando was the godfather. Capo di capo. Boss of all bosses on the AOakland A’s. We all had our roles, we all contributed, but Sal was the leader and everyone knew it.”

One of my favorite passages from Dynastic pertained to Bando’s influence on the 1973 playoffs against Baltimore:

Vital to the A’s was Bando’s presence in the field. Not his fielding—his presence. Prior to the series, Bowie Kuhn issued an edict aimed squarely at Dick Williams, banning a repeat of the manager’s traveling roadshow from the ’72 World Series. Managers would be restricted to one mound visit per inning the Commissioner said; any more would automatically trigger a pitching change. Williams took it in stride, saying with a wink, “That doesn’t mean my third baseman can’t go out there.” He meant it, too. Bando visited the mound multiple times each inning to work his particular brand of magic on Catfish Hunter, reminding the right-hander to concentrate on the first pitch of a given at-bat, to not be afraid to waste a pitch, to maintain his arm slot, to watch his mechanics or to just focus goddammit. It was not so different than the moment in Game 2 of the 1972 World Series when Bando stomped toward Hunter and screamed, “What’s wrong with you? Are you trying to lose this game?” Williams went so far as to laminate the team’s scouting report for the third baseman to carry in his pants pocket for easy cross-checking. It was an unnecessary gesture. “I know them backwards and forwards,” said Bando after the game. “We’ve had so many meetings about Baltimore I know it by heart.”

“Take [Bando] away and that team was nothing,” the A’s former traveling secretary Jim Bank said shortly after Bando left the team. Pitching coach Wes Stock agreed. “If there was one guy who made a difference,” he told me, “there’s no doubt in my mind it was Sal Bando.”

I miss him already.


RIP Ray Fosse

Photos courtesy of Doug McWilliams

Ray Fosse passed away yesterday after a 16-year battle with cancer. The thing is, nobody in Oakland knew anything about it until August, when, facing renewed assault from the disease, the ex-catcher could hide it no longer and had to step away from his broadcast duties for the team. Even his colleagues had no idea. I last spoke to Ray in June for a feature I was writing, and he offered no clue about having to endure what must have been a considerable personal struggle.

I’ve listened to Fosse on A’s broadcasts since the 1980s, and got to know him while researching Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, & Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. I traveled around the country to interview most of the team’s players for the book, but not Ray, who was happy to repeatedly carve out time for me before games at the Oakland Coliseum. Over the course of that summer I found myself repeatedly headed to the ballpark to hunker down for 30 or 45 minutes in Ray’s office, talking about the good old days.

Fosse was an interesting cat. He played in the big leagues for a decade and was a two-time All-Star. He won a pair of World Series with the A’s, but is best known for the collision with Pete Rose during the 1970 All-Star Game that resulted in a separated shoulder that hampered him through the rest of his career.

From Dynastic:

As a prep, the Marion, Illinois, native had turned down Bear Bryant’s pitch to play football at the University of Alabama in favor of baseball at Southern Illinois. Fosse was eventually selected seventh overall by Cleveland in the first-ever player draft in 1965, six slots after the A’s took Rick Monday. A power hitter with a rocket arm, he won Gold Gloves and made All-Star appearances his first two full seasons, in 1970 and 1971. The most notable moment of his career, however, was also its least fortunate. During the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati, with the score tied 4–4 in the bottom of the 12th inning, Pete Rose decided to win the game in front of his hometown fans. Taking off from second base on Jim Hickman’s single, Rose didn’t break stride around third. The throw home from Royals center fielder Amos Otis sailed wide, forcing Fosse several steps up the third-base line to field it. Rose led with his left shoulder as he barreled into Fosse, knocking the catcher backward and sending the ball ricocheting toward the third-base dugout. Rose scored, the National League won, and Fosse said his shoulder “felt as though it had been mangled.” When X-rays came back negative, Fosse, despite being unable to raise his left arm, opened the second half behind the plate for Cleveland, batting cleanup. The catcher, who collected 16 homers and 45 RBIs before the injury, accounted for only two and 15, respectively, in the second half. The following April, eight months after the injury, further X-rays detected the fracture through which Fosse had been playing.

Fosse ended up being an excellent defensive catcher for many years to come, but was never able to recapture the hitting touch he lost in that collision.

That wasn’t Fosse’s only notable injury. While helping to break up a clubhouse fistfight between Reggie Jackson and Billy North in June 1974, he was thrown backward into a locker partition and ended up with injuries to his C6 and C7 vertebrae, which impacted a nerve in his throwing shoulder. Misdiagnosed at first as having a separated cervical disc, he spent a week in traction at Merritt Hospital, 20 hours per day with a strap wrapped around his jaw and neck, pulling his head upward in an effort to alleviate pressure on his spine. Then he took six weeks off, hoping to heal naturally. Then he had surgery—which he scheduled himself at UCSF—to fix the problem.

After coming back that August, Fosse batted .185 with only one homer in 32 games. This led to one of my favorite comeback stories from those A’s teams. Charlie Finley wanted to omit Fosse from the playoff roster against Baltimore, but manager Alvin Dark, understanding the importance of a stout defensive presence, was adamant about his inclusion. (In the three months Fosse spent on the disabled list Oakland’s team ERA was 3.21; after he came back, it was an even 2.50.)

Fosse responded by hitting a game-sealing homer (after having already singled and doubled) in Game 2, which the A’s won behind a complete-game shutout from Ken Holtzman. (Notably, Holtzman’s 2.19 ERA when Fosse caught was nearly two points lower than it was with everybody else.)

This set the scene for the postgame press conference. From Dynastic:

After the game Fosse was shepherded to a media session in the exhibition hall between the Coliseum and the adjacent Coliseum Arena, home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. As usual, the Owner did his darndest to turn it into The Charlie Finley Show, bursting into the room and screeching, “Yeeeeeeah, Fosse—that’s my boy,” almost as soon as the questions for the catcher had begun. In his hand was a glass that had until very recently been filled with champagne. Once every head in the room had spun his way, Finley enthused, “It wasn’t the bat, it was the Fosse that swung it!” There was no moment, it seemed, beyond opportunity for the Owner to draw attention to himself. Fosse was incredulous. “Then why didn’t you want to play me from the beginning?” he yelled. It was an instinctive response. Finley didn’t even bother to answer. He didn’t have to. He’d already taken what he wanted.

The A’s won their third straight championship that season (and their second with Fosse). Finley sold him back to Cleveland after the 1975 campaign.

Fosse had worked on A’s radio broadcasts since 1986, and on their TV broadcasts since 1988. He will be missed by Bay Area baseball fans, and especially so by those who got to know him even a little.

Baseball lost a good one yesterday.


How To Get Under A Pitcher’s Skin While Wearing An Elbow Guard, In One Easy Lesson

Mark Canha is a pest. Like, the Athletic had a whole thing last week about how Canha is a pest, and A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked about Canha being a pest, and although he refuted the word itself, he went on to describe Canha with sentiments that can be boiled down to a single word: “Pest.”

“He can get under people’s skin,” said Melvin, who talked about how long Canha takes to get ready in the box and how he sees a ton of pitches and, oh yeah, how he crowds the plate. “It can be a little unnerving when you have a guy like that that isn’t afraid to get [hit by a pitch],” he added.

Which brings us to today’s topic: Why Melvin was asked about Canha in the first place. Last Thursday, Canha leaned into a pitch from LA’s Dylan Bundy, taking it off of his sizeable elbow guard. There’s a rule about batters making an effort to avoid a pitch in order to be awarded first base, but even though Canha literally did the opposite of that, the rule was not invoked here. He’s tied for the major league lead with 18 HBPs this season—six of which have come against the Angels.

Bundy was angry. In fact, Bundy had precedent. Back on June 14, the right-hander hit Canha in the same spot on the same elbow guard in a strikingly similar fashion. Canha did not lean into that one quite as much, though he made similarly little effort to get out of the way.

At this point it’s safe to assume that Bundy is not a fan. He offered some thoughts as Canha trotted to first, and Canha offered some of his own. Few of them were G-rated.

Did it have an effect? Bundy walked the next two batters, and proceeded to give up three runs—the first scored by Canha himself—in the inning.

When Canha came up again in the second, Bundy offered a clear-cut message: a fastball behind Canha’s head, which would have hit him flush had he not nodded out of the way. Somehow, this response, far more egregious than anything Canha had done, escaped further notice from both the umpires (no warnings were issued) and from the A’s themselves (that was more or less the end of the confrontation).

Oakland won that game, and three of four in the series, and is 12-4 against the Angels this year. Hell, maybe LA isn’t angry enough. The teams will face each other three more times this season, in Anaheim in September. Count on Canha getting drilled again, one way or another.

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, Superstition

It’s Mustache Time In Oakland Again

In 2018, the Oakland A’s introduced a Kelly green alternate jersey that is an unmistakable throwback to their look from the Swingin’ A’s days of the early 1970s.

Last week, A’s first baseman Matt Olson introduced a hairy upper lip that is similarly reminiscent.

Taking a page from the team that inspired the Hairs vs. the Squares moniker against the Reds in the 1972 World Series, Olson sought a way to bust out of an early-season slump. Sometimes totems can be just the thing.

“I didn’t do it to look good,” Olson said Thursday in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “You know what they say, it’s never too early to hit the panic button.”

Olson had started the season 5-for-36, but after debuting his lip sweater on Wednesday homered twice, and then again on Thursday. After the latter, his teammates held index fingers horizontally atop their lips as he rounded the bases. “I think it has to [stay] now,” Olson said of his ’stache. “Not even by choice.”

Back in 1972, of course, the lip hair came courtesy of owner Charlie Finley’s offer to pay $300 to every player who grew out his own mustache in advance of the team photo on June 18. I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

Baseball was a clean-cut sport in the early 1970s, and had been for the better part of a century. While ballplayers were known to grow mustaches over the winter months, they’d invariably shave them prior to the season, frequently as a rite of spring training. In 1972, however, Reggie Jackson did no such thing. When his lip hair remained in place through the duration of the Arizona exhibition schedule, his teammates took notice.

Whisker prohibition hadn’t always been enforced. Abner Doubleday himself wore a mustache in the 1830s. A photographic portrait of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, depicts eight of nine members sporting facial hair. But ballplayers of the early 1900s were seen as ruffians, low-ranking members of society whose reputations hindered the marketing of the sport; clean-shaved faces were part of reversing that image. In 1914, A’s catcher Wally Schang became the last major league regular to wear a mustache. Until Reggie.

“Reggie was being his basic hot dog self, wanting to do whatever he wanted to do, and no one was going to tell Reggie what to do,” said Rollie Fingers, who, along with most of his teammates, was appalled by Jackson’s new look. Understanding their inability to sway the superstar, Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker took a different tack, theorizing that growing their own mustaches would draw a blanket rebuke from Finley, who would in turn command every player, including Jackson, to shave.

The Owner learned about it on the team plane. There was Jackson, mustache in place, and the quartet of pitchers, similarly adorned. Instead of getting angry, however, Finley was thunderstruck. Always on the make for unique promotional opportunities, he let it be known: any player or staff member who grew a mustache by June 18, the date of the team photo, would receive a $300 bonus. He decreed it Mustache Day, with mustachioed fans admitted to the game free of charge. Most players jumped right on board. “For $300,” said Ken Holtzman, “I would grow hair on my feet.” Only three players—Sal Bando, Mike Hegan, and Larry Brown—remained reticent and clean-faced. During an ensuing conversation with the Owner, Bando soon found out exactly where he stood on the subject. “Mr. Bando,” Finley said to him, “I would like you to grow your mustache. We want to do it as a team, and we all are the same.” With that, the holdout players acceded. (Finley himself did not grow one, of course. He never for a moment viewed himself as being on the same level as his players.)

By June 18, not only was Finley’s own squad fully ’stached, but six members of the visiting Cleveland Indians grew out mustaches of their own, despite threats of fines from manager Ken Aspromonte if they didn’t shave after the series finale. Finley presented gold mustache spoons, with attached covers for eating soup, to players, staff, and the participating members of the Indians. At the Coliseum, 7,607 men got in free with the promotion. Plate umpire Marty Springstead took one look at third-base coach Irv Noren before the game and said, “Jesus, Irv, when are you going to shave that off?” Noren didn’t hesitate. “As soon as the goddamn check clears,” he said.

Current A’s third baseman Matt Chapman has been known to grow his own slump-buster mustache from time to time, though manager Bob Melvin took care to distinguish it from his teammate’s. “Olson’s got a little more growth going on than Chapman,” he said. “I think Chapman, it would take him a couple of years to get a mustache that actually looks like a mustache.”

Meanwhile, Olson is styling and raking in equal measures. Who knows—maybe he’ll start another trend.


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.

Update 8/11: MLB decided that as the instigator, Cintron would be suspended for 20 games, or one-third of the truncated season. It’s the longest suspension for on-field behavior in 15 years, and the longest for a coach or manager since Pete Rose was shelved for 30 games after shoving an umpire in 1988. Laureano was docked six games for his actions. Both decisions seem about right.

Communication, Retaliation

Text Diplomacy Staves Off Bad Blood Between A’s, Royals

A little communication can go a long way.

On Tuesday, Kansas City pitcher Jorge Lopez drilled Oakland’s Mark Canha, which Canha viewed suspiciously given that it came the next pitch after teammate Matt Olson drilled a massive, game-tying homer.

Canha, an emphatic bat-flipper, is no stranger to being drilled. (He’s tied for the American League lead with 17 HBPs this season.) Still, this one stuck in his craw. He was stewing over it after the game when teammate Homer Bailey approached him, phone extended.

Bailey, who played for the Royals last season, had just received a text from Lopez, and wanted to share it. It was, said Canha in the San Francisco Chronicle, “a pretty apologetic text message.”

“[Lopez] said he knows it looked bad, and he promises he wasn’t trying to do anything,” Canha said. “That says something. I’m not a big retaliation guy. I just really want to move on.”

Even A’s manager Bob Melvin, who’d described Lopez’s approach as “weak” immediately afterward, softened his stance. “You get a little emotional after games,” he said in retrospect. “I probably said something out of turn, but I don’t know what anyone’s thinking. I’m just saying what it looked like at the time.”

If only the rest of us could get along so well.

Fights, Intra-Team Fights

Mariners Confrontation Nothing New In Clubhouse Annals

Reggie 'n Billy

Given the clubhouse confrontation between teammates Dee Gordon and Jean Segura in Seattle earlier this week—apparently over a dropped flyball in a game the Mariners eventually won—it’s only appropriate to reference the greatest group of brawlers that baseball has ever seen, for whom I hold a particular affinity (and for which this post is in no way related to the fact that the paperback was just released on Monday).

I’ve already disseminated, via Deadspin, the passage from Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic detailing Reggie Jackson’s 1972 fight with Mike Epstein. So here’s a different fight story about the Swingin’ A’s, from the book, about the culmination of a weeks-long feud between Jackson and outfielder Billy North in 1974:

Jackson spent the afternoon of June 5 at a hotel in downtown Detroit with NBA players Archie Clark, Charlie Scott and Lucius Allen. There are at least two versions of what happened next. In one, a lady called for one of the basketball players, and when she found out that Reggie was there, asked to speak to him. She was North’s girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend), who may or may not have been an airline stewardess, and, having heard that he and Reggie weren’t getting along, took the opportunity to prod Jackson for details. In another version the girl came on to Reggie at a bar some weeks earlier when North was not around, only to be rebuffed by the ballplayer. Both versions were told by Jackson at different times.

The way North reacted, there may well have been a third option. He arrived at Tiger Stadium a bit later than the rest of the team, already afire. At that point, the clubhouse—a tiny space, with lockers consisting of mesh metal frames sticking out at right angles from the white-tiled wall every three feet or so—was sedate. The scant area in the middle of the room contained a table where the team’s regular bridge players—Holtzman, Fingers, Green and Knowles—were mid-game. Ray Fosse sat nearby, looking on. Reggie, naked save for a towel, entered the clubhouse from the adjacent trainer’s room just as North arrived. The center fielder started in on him as soon as he walked through the doorway. “Superstar, my ass!” he shouted, striding toward Jackson. “You’re a fucking jerk, you know that?” When North got close enough, he reared back and punched Reggie in the face, twice. Jackson was stunned, but absorbed the blows without falling. Then he lowered his shoulder and charged. “It was surreal, like, ‘Is this shit really happening?’ ” said Herb Washington, who, having spent the afternoon with an increasingly irritated North, had a good idea of what was about to go down.

North and Jackson scuffled up one side of the room and down the other, ultimately falling hard to the concrete floor. The men playing bridge in the center of the room looked up disinterestedly and returned to their card game. “I had a slam bid I wanted to play, and damned if people were fighting,” said Green. “I still played it.” Fingers was even more blasé, saying, “They’re just going to fight later anyway if we break it up now.”

That meant that the only peacemakers on the scene were Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue (the same Odom and Blue who nearly fought each other in the same clubhouse following a playoff game two seasons earlier). With Blue scheduled to pitch that night, collateral damage became a real concern, so Fosse jumped up to help. By that time North was on top of Jackson. Blue pulled on North, Fosse pulled on Blue, and everybody fell backward, Fosse crashing into a locker divider on his way down.

Everything stopped. Fosse shakily picked himself up. Jackson and North scrambled to their feet, took some deep breaths, and eyed each other warily. The peace lasted about three minutes, until North began shouting (according to Reggie), “You know damn well what this is about! You’re trying to steal my girl from me is what this is about!”

Reggie did his best to settle his teammate. “Hey man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said. “I talked to a girl … that’s all. I didn’t ask her for a date. I didn’t ask for anything. I don’t want anything from her. I don’t want your girl. I don’t want anything from you.”

The only reason Reggie didn’t want her, taunted North, was because his sexual proclivities did not lean toward her gender. Jackson flashed and, still naked, went after him again. Again the pair stumbled across the floor. Reggie clipped a locker with his shoulder and fell awkwardly, and North leapt atop him and began swinging.

Across the room, Bando looked at Tenace. “What are you doing?” he said.

“What do you mean, what am I doing?” asked Tenace.

“Why are we letting it go on like this?” asked Bando.

“Did you see what happened to the last guy who tried to break it up?” said Tenace, referring to the still-woozy Fosse. “I ain’t going to be a stinking statistic.”

“Get over here,” said Bando, pulling his teammate toward the players. Bando grabbed North, Tenace grabbed Reggie. Alou, Campaneris and Washington raced in for damage control.

Once the fisticuffs ended, Jackson decamped to find ice for his aching shoulder and North stomped off to change into his uniform. Bando looked around and clapped his hands in mock satisfaction. “Well, that’s it,” he said. “We’re definitely going to win big tonight.”

The A’s did win that night, 9-1 over the Tigers, but Jackson hurt his shoulder in the scuffle, precipitating a protracted slump. Hurt even worse was catcher Ray Fosse, who in an effort to break things up injured two vertebrae and ended up missing most of the rest of the season.

By all accounts, things weren’t that bad between Gordon and Segura in Seattle (or between broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen in Detroit).

Then again, the A’s went on to win the World Series that year, something that seems decidedly unlikely for the Mariners or Tigers.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Mark Canha: Unrepentant Bat Flipper

Canha flips

That Mark Canha flipped his bat after homering against the Giants in San Francisco on Saturday night was hardly noteworthy. It was a small affair, more toss than flip. The Giants did not appear to notice, at least so much as they let on.

It was Canha’s response to the flip, much more than the flip itself, that truly reflected the modern game.

“Growing up in San Jose and being a Giants fan and coming to all those games as a kid, it was nice to finally pop one and, given the situation, I was excited,” the Oakland outfielder told the media after the game. “So I got on Twitter and got out in front of this a little bit. I’m sure a lot of San Franciscans are offended by that, and I’m sorry.”

That wasn’t the good part. The good part is what came next.

“You know what, people getting offended by bat flips is so silly,” Canha continued. “I’m not sorry. I’m not really sorry. It’s part of our game. Everybody does it. If someone is going to throw at me because of it, I’ve got thrown at in the past this season for bat flipping. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson. If you’re offended by that, I don’t care.”

Now we’re cooking.

We’ve seen comments like these before, usually from Latin America-born players, who have tried for years to explain how celebratory displays are part of the baseball they grew up with, and how they make the game better. For a certain subset of critics, however, those guys are too other for traditional tastesforeign voices that have no business telling Americans how their sport should be played.

Mark Canha was born and raised a Giants fan in Northern California. He went to U.C. Berkeley. He now plays for the A’s. There are few better examples of a Bay Area baseball kid made good. (And, okay, maybe some of those same critics who decry foreign voices will now dismiss Canha as a West Coast liberal, as if that has anything to do with anything, never mind that the guy’s politics are closeted to the point that I have no idea what they are.)

The point isn’t that Mark Canha is trying to move the needle. It’s that he’s being honest about the fact that the needle has already moved. This is Major League Baseball, 2018, and Canha is simply a product of it.


Also intriguing is Canha’s claim that he’s been thrown at this season in response to bat flipping. There are no direct tiesseries in which he homered and was subsequently drilled. The best bet is a flip against Seattle, on May 2, of which you can catch a fleeting glimpse here.) Canha skated through the next day’s game unscathed, but was drilled by Mariners starter Mike Leake the next time the teams met, on May 22.

Then again, Canha said only that he was thrown at, not hit, in which case all box-score divination is moot. I’ll be sure to ask him about it next time I’m in the A’s clubhouse.


No-Hitter Etiquette

No-Hitter In Oakland Had Its Share Of Superstition

Manaea no-no

The no-hitter thrown by Oakland pitcher Sean Manaea against the Red Sox on Saturday gave us more than a dominating outing against baseball’s best team. It also gave us another peek into the superstitious morass found in major league dugouts when it comes to jinx avoidance.

For Manaea’s part, he said he didn’t even realize that he had a no-hitter going until the eighth, thanks to a tough error charged on Marcus Semien in the fifth, a play the pitcher assumed was ruled a hit.

Manager Bob Melvin, of course, was under no such misconceptions. “I didn’t even look at [Manaea] after the sixth inning,” the skipper said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. The idea, of course, is that mentioning a no-hitter during a no-hitter will somehow jinx the no-hittter. Looking at Manaea would have been a surefire way for Melvin to guarantee Boston’s first hit.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to this in The Baseball Codes. Manaea and Melvin are no strangers to the dance, the latter having removed the former from the middle of a different no-hitter almost exactly a year ago.

The manager was worried about having to do something similar again on Saturday, only this time in the ninth inning. The right-hander walked Andrew Benintendi with two outs, Hanley Ramirez and J.D. Martinez were the next two Sox hitters, Manaea was over 100 pitches for the first time this season, and the A’s led only 3-0. For Melvin, one of the more superstitious managers in the sport, having his closer so much as throw a warm-up pitch in the bullpen had the potential to anger the Baseball Gods. With that in mind, Blake Treinen began to stretch, but never picked up a ball.

It worked. Ramirez grounded to shortstop, the A’s forced Benintendi at second, and Manaea had his no-no.

The Red Sox, of course, were under no such auspices. Their Twitter feed did whatever it could to sway history.

It didn’t work. Congrats, Sean.