Monday, December 24, 2012

2012: Mime and Reason

By Jeff Kallman

What to call 2012? Numerous possibilities creep into the mind, all of which make sense and most of which make no sense, but never let it be said that baseball nonsense is quite the same thing as nonsense nonsense. Take your pick which was more amusing nonsense: a struggling Alex Rodriguez caught flirting from the Yankee dugout during a postseason contest, or Michael Morse forced to pantomime the grand slam he'd just hit — trust me, Marcel Marceau would have had no worries — after a replay ruling in its favor compelled a brain-damaged umpire to order the three men he sent home back to their bases of departure to be sure they'd touched 'em all.

Once upon a time, the nation's capital had a baseball reputation: "Washington — First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." This year, it was "Washington — First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League East." Considering the capital's drought, in pennant competitiveness and, then, without a baseball team at all, the spunky, engaging Nationals' elimination in a thriller of a five-game division series — after they'd pushed it to the fifth game with a walk-off home run — was only slightly painful.

The St. Louis Cardinals' attempt to repeat their 2011 miracles ended in the National League Championship Series, courtesy of the eventual World Series conquerers, the San Francisco Giants. The Giants refined escape from the dead into a black-and-orange art (warming up against the Cincinnati Reds) and, while they were at it, humiliated in the Series a Detroit Tigers team who was supposed to pitch and hit them right under the table. The Baltimore Orioles snuck into the postseason after a cheerfully shocking regular season finish — not to mention winning 16 straight extra-inning affairs along the way — and conquest in the American League wild card game, then got a little too eager, too often, trying to assassinate a merely hittable CC Sabathia, and went home for the winter with much to be proud of, anyway. The Oakland Athletics were even sneakier, starting rookie arms 101 times on the way to dumping the Texas Rangers for the division title on the final day, then almost beating the Tigers in the division series.

As for the Empire Emeritus? Raul Ibanez refused to act his age and hit a pair of game-tying homers in the division series, then---as a free agent---signed up for a third tour with the Seattle Mariners. Of his own free will. Derek Jeter fractured his ankle to open the League Championship Series and all of a sudden the Yankees began acting a little too much like their ages. The Tigers' LCS conquest was a mercy killing. And the Yankees spent the offseason in apparent determination to ... act their age.

The Chicago Cubs couldn't act their shoe sizes, never mind their ages, in early September: while being outscored 31-9 over four games with the Nats, they decided to show those upstarts from the Potomac who the men were around here, in the fourth game. They launched a couple of brawls and, essentially, showed the world one of the reasons why they've just finished the 105th year of their rebuilding effort. Earlier in the season an infant Nat, Bryce Harper, proved an electric enough rookie early enough and often enough that Philadelphia's Cole Hamels decided to teach him a little lesson in humility, drilling the baby Nat — who's no baby — in the back. The inning didn't end before Harper stole home.

On the same night, Baltimore Chris Davis earned a win by pitching the 16th and 17th innings. In the previous innings of the game, Davis went 0-for-8 with five punchouts. Setting himself up to become the American League's first position player to earn a pitching win since Rocky Colavito in 1968. Two nights later, Josh Hamilton drilled four 2-run homers in Camden Yards. Seven months after that, Hamilton drilled a $125 million, five-year grand slam with the Los Angeles Angels.

Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown. Mike Trout should have won the league's MVP. If Julius Erving had been a baseball player, he'd have been Trout, a human highlight reel who became the first man (never mind rook) in history to hit 30+ home runs, steal 40+ bases, and score 125 runs. When Trout robbed J.J. Hardy of a home run 27 June, he had the kind of hang time up against the fence that Dr. J. used to have going from mid-court to the basket for a dunk or a mini-dunk. Arizona's Aaron Hill hadn't hit for a cycle since college — but he did it twice in 2012, on 18 and 30 June. Jamie Moyer, whose college days may or may not have occurred during the Kennedy Administration (that's a joke, son), became the oldest man to win a game on the mound and drive in a run at the plate. Jim Thome became baseball's all-time walk-off home run leader, with his 13th such bomb, leaving behind such extinguished gentlemen as Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, and Frank Robinson — all of whom settled for a measly twelve.

You could call 2012 the year of the no-no. San Francisco's Matt Cain was perfect about it, to the point of tying Sandy Koufax's record for punchouts in a perfect game. (Fourteen.) King Felix Hernandez pitched another of the year's perfectos. So did Philip Humber, in his second start of the season, who may or may not have to change his name to Humble considering the aftermath of his jewel: in thirteen starts to come, poor Humber missed time with an elbow strain, went 4-5 with five no-decisions otherwise, and had, essentially, pitched his way to the bullpen by August 7. Johan Santana's no-hitter may have been the second-most talked about simply because it it took a measly 8,119 games before any New York Met had ever pitched one. Then an ankle sprain and inflamed lower back guaranteed he'd end 2012 where he spent all of 2011, on the disabled list. Only the Mets.

Melky Cabrera gave the National League World Series home field advantage by delivering the winning All-Star Game tally, then got himself suspended for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances and was fool enough to try using a beard to post a Website discussing the matter. It compelled him to withdraw formally from the National League batting race and the Giants to withdraw him from their postseason roster and future plans. Bartolo Colon, making an impressive comeback in Oakland, got bagged for synthetic testosterone. The Boston Red Sox got bagged for their worst season since 1965, managed to trade three bloated contracts and their accompanying strugglers to the suddenly-gigarich Los Angeles Dodgers, and couldn't wait to fire the divisive new manager whose idea of stabilizing a clubhouse still shaky from the 2011 collapse was to throw one after another lit match into the toxins in the air.

The Dodgers last winter: still lain low in the ledger thanks to the shenanigans of then-owner Frank McCourt. The Dodgers this winter: looking like the Yankees, without the old Steinbrennerian madnesses, under new ownership (including basketball legend Magic Johnsons), with fat new television dollars, and an apparent willingness to leave no dollar unspent if necessary. The Mets, still looking a little shaky after barely escaping the Bernie Madoff mess with their lives, extended the face of their franchise (David Wright) and did nothing while their most popular 2012 player — a pitcher who won 20 games, led the National League in strikeouts, and won a Cy Young Award, all while pitching with a knuckleball and a best-selling memoir on his hands — was trashed ignominiously, and wrongly, by a New York columnist while they were working a deal to trade him to Toronto. And all R.A. Dickey wanted from the team was a two-year extension at considerably below market value. That's gratitude for you.

Chipper Jones retired with his Atlanta Braves, yet again, getting very little for their effort, being pushed out of the postseason in the National League wild card game. Hopefully his inevitable Cooperstown plaque will relieve some of that sting, not to mention the Playboy model with whom he took up after his second divorce became final. The Houston Astros prepared to become the team named later in the deal that made National Leaguers out of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Miami Marlins dumped the Blizzard of Ozz and about half the team while they were at it following season's end. Destroying the good will they'd inspired by giving Adam Greenberg — whose career had been killed before it really began when he was beaned on the first major league pitch he saw seven years earlier — a single at-bat. On the other hand, they threw him to R.A. Dickey's wolf. Welcome home, Greenberg ... whom, by the way, the Orioles have signed to a Triple-A deal.

Death be not proud: Gary Carter was believed unfairly to be a self-magnifying showboat during his career; only as the years of his retirement passed did too many appreciate his smile, his apple-pie image, and his genuine enthusiasm for the game, the people who played it, and the people who watched it weren't lies. Mel Parnell probably should have gotten the ball instead of Denny Galehouse for the 1948 pennant playoff game. The shortstop on that Red Sox team, Johnny Pesky, became perhaps the franchise's most beloved figure in the decades to come, as a coach, minor league manager, parent club manager, coach, and all-around representative. It was nothing less than absolute justice that Pesky should have lived to see his Red Sox win two World Series before he reached 90. Parnell had first christened Fenway Park's right field foul pole the Pesky Pole, after Pesky hit a game winning homer just past it.

Pedro Borbon may not have said during the 1973 National League Championship Series, "If Pete Rose starts a brawl with Bud Harrelson, I'll eat my hat" — but the Cincinnati relief ace did try to eat the bill of Met pitcher Buzz Capra's hat during the brawl, which was almost the next best thing. Dave Philley played eighteen seasons, was a fine defensive outfielder, and was probably remembered best for being one of the 14 men ejected by umpire Red Jones in a 1946 game. (After White Sox pitcher Joe Haynes knocked Ted Williams down with a pitch, the White Sox bench began heckling Jones, and Jones — uncertain where it started — threw out everyone on both benches except White Sox manager Ted Lyons, White Sox coach Mule Haas, and a bat boy.)

Eddie Yost was known as the Walking Man because it seemed to be his best weapon for getting on base. (He led his league in walks six times and finished his career with 1,614 strolls up the first base line.) Dennis Bennett once pitched in the same game as his brother for the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. Dave Boswell was, unfortunately, remembered better for an off-field fight with manager Billy Martin than for winning 20 with the same season's American League West-winning Minnesota Twins---and for career all but over after season's end, following an unexpected freak shoulder injury while delivering a pitch. Moose Skowron was a tough Yankee first baseman with a heart tender enough that he couldn't bear his marital collapse until he finally gave in, hired a detective, and ended up remarrying happily. Jerry Lynch was a non-pareil pinch hitter whose idol in that role was Smoky Burgess, "but I was the better clutch hitter because I hit 18 dingers. I rang the bell eighteen times." He rang the bells often enough for the pennant-winning 1961 Reds.

Harry Parker was an effective relief pitcher for the 1973 surprise-pennant Mets. Ryan Freel was a lively Cincinnati utilityman in the Aughts who lost count of the concussions he suffered playing across the line between hard nosed and bull headed and committed suicide just before Christmas. Pascual Perez was a hard headed pitcher who triggered an infamous round of game-long brawls, once couldn't find his way to Yankee Stadium in a traffic mishap, and was murdered during a robbery. Champ Summers was one of the players who took umbrage to Perez having drilled Alan Wiggins to open the game and the round of basebrawl. Jack Kralick was one of the last pair of pitchers to homer in the same game for the same team, then pitched the first no-hitter by a man wearing a Twins uniform, but ended his career when he might have been a Met thanks to injuries in an automobile accident. Mike Hershberger got his first major league hit off Kralick, in 1961, then led the American League in sacrifice flies in 1966 and outfield assists in 1965 and 1967.

About the only job Lee MacPhail didn't hold in baseball was probably stadium usher. About the only job Marvin Miller had to do was the job he did precisely — shepherd players out of their days as chattel, into their years as marketable employees as every other American enjoyed the right to be. Baseball since the Messersmith/McNally ruling has seen more different teams win pennants and World Series than won them before the ruling and everyone, owners and players alike, making fortunes. The sport is more competitive now than ever. And there are still those too witless to believe Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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