Friday, January 3, 2014

MLB 2013: Unrealities

By Jeff Kallman

"What a long, strange trip it's been," sang the Grateful Dead once upon a time. Baseball's 2013 was much like that, including a few hallucinations and several surrealities. The fact that some might have wished some of the hallucinations were real may be beside the point entirely, even as other might have wished some of what was real was merely a hallucination.

Boston wished the Marathon Massacre was a mere hallucination, but they had no such wish that the Red Sox would refuse to turn the atrocity into a city's and a team's inspiration. "This is our bleeping city!" bellowed David Ortiz in its immediate wake and after the Red Sox — inverting the 2012 nightmare with a team of castoffs, bargains, spare parts, and bearded wonders — overthrew all expectations including their own to slash, thrash, mash, and dash their way to (read carefully, Yankee fans) their third World Series rings in nine seasons. (We still don't know how they did it, really, after leading the league in runs scored on the season but hitting a measly .169 among all the team not named Ortiz in the World Series.)

For 2013, Boston became America's bleeping city. And nobody disagreed when they took out an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thanking St. Louis for classy fans and a classy team of Cardinals who ran out of fuel at just the wrong time. For the Cardinals, that was.

The Mariano's classy, grand (and grandly deserved) farewell tour (including personal thank-yous to just about every ballpark worker in the league and a staggering All-Star Game moment and performance) was punctuated when an official scorer decided in September that he shouldn't be credited with a save ... because the pitcher preceding him wasn't "efficient" enough. This is something like saying the Academy Award for Best Picture was presented ill-advisedly because the trailer was insufficient. But it may have been a worthy bookend to a regular season that sort of began with a Milwaukee Brewer (Jean Segura) stealing first — when he thought he was out on a crowded second base (occupied by Ryan Braun) after he thwarted a rundown play, then saw first base open and took it. Don't ask.

The Los Angeles Dodgers — gone from leveraged rich man's plaything to flush with money and a willingness to invest it — went from the National League's subbasement (30-42 in games one through 40) to the National League Championship Series (a 62-28 regular season finish) until they ran out of gas, too ... despite one rookie fireplug (Yasiel Puig), a calmly dazzling Cy Young Award winner (Clayton Kershaw), and the inspiration of having a team and game legend (Sandy Koufax) back in their administrative folds. A Detroit Tiger pitcher (Max Scherzer) threatened Elroy Face's consecutive-win streak, didn't quite make it, but still picked up a 20+ win season and a Cy Young Award.

His Tigers, alas, ran out of gas and offense as the Red Sox were finding (with apologies to Casey Stengel) new ways to win nobody ever knew were invented yet. It went like this for them: the Red Sox clobbered the Tigers for 20 runs in their final regular-season meeting, then scored 19 runs in the entire American League Championship Series and still won the pennant. That, too, was a Red Sox thing of the year.

The defending Cy Young Award winners (R.A. Dickey, David Price) lost 13-0 games on the same day. (7 April — you can look it up.) Carlos Gonzalez argued, "I'm not just a Coors Canaveral cutter," then went out and led the National League in OPS on the road to prove it. Another fireplug rookie, Billy Hamilton, finished second on the Cincinnati Reds in stolen bases despite playing in a mere 22 games. Jonny Gomes, one of the Red Sox cast of castoffs, executed an unassisted double play to end July. Pretty good for a left fielder, no?

The (actual or alleged) curse-busting manager who fired the Red Sox right before they could fire him after the 2011 collapse resurrected himself and an unlikely team of Cleveland Indians all the way to the 2013 American League wild card game. It took five decades since Billy Shantz did it for brother Bobby, but at long last one brother (Jordan Danks) won it for his sibling (John Danks) with a home run. In early April the brothers Upton (B.J. and Justin) homered in the same inning, alas the only highlight of a season in which they were clasped to the Atlanta Braves' fold as saviors and ended up having little enough to do with the Braves winning the National League East.

Thirteen players were bagged and gagged in the scandal surrounding the shuttered Biogenesis clinic thought to provide or run conduit for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. One of them, Alex Rodriguez, spent the rest of his season appealing his suspension and seemingly bent otherwise upon doing his part to turn baseball government into a kangaroo court. Another, Jhonny Peralta, signed a big bucks deal with the Cardinals in the offseason, provoking enough debates about actual or alleged morality.

Ichiro achieved his 4,000th professional major league-level hit scandal-free. Poor journeyman Casper Wells spent one day surrendering 5 earned runs in two-thirds of an inning while going 0-for-7 at the plate. He was relieved by John McDonald. Did I mention this was in the 18th inning and they were position players (an outfielder and an infielder) and the Philadelphia Phillies, who'd be running out of quite enough all season, ran out of genuine pitchers that night?

Henderson Alvarez (Miami rookie) ended the season with a no-hitter and in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the ninth — when the winning run came home courtesy of a wild pitch. The Minnesota Twins bullpen struck out more batters than their starting rotation. The Yankees went without a home run for 28 games between June and July before Derek Jeter finally hit one out — on his first day back from the disabled list. Roy Halliday's distinguished and likely Hall of Fame career ended with his shoulder's betrayal and a streak of 17 strikeouts in 18 plate appearances — as a hitter. (Bill Hands, call your office: Hands was long the answer to a classic trivia question: "Name the Chicago Cub pitcher who recorded 14 straight strikeouts and add what was wrong with that?")

Andrew Brown, New York Met, joined Bo Jackson in the record books for hitting homers in back-to-back plate appearances — separated by 40 days in the minors. Dave Righetti, San Francisco pitching coach and once a splendid Yankee relief pitcher, survived an entire pitching career without the disabled list ... but went on it for reconstructive surgery in July — after blowing out his elbow lifting a suitcase.

David Ortiz's ALCS grand slam produced four runs charged to four different pitchers, a Tiger outfielder with a splendid headache, and a Boston cop into a fifteen-minute national phenomenon. Shane Victorino batted three times with the bases loaded in the Red Sox postseason — and went 3-for-3. With less than that on the sacks: 2-for-34. Mark Reynolds led the Cleveland Indians in homers when he was designated for assignment in August. Jacoby Ellsbury (World Series hero), Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, and (especially) Robinson Cano elected to change uniforms for off-the-charts change. Baseball government finally agreed to bring about instant replay for critical games in 2014, though the final rules to govern won't be set until next month. Mark Prior, a pitching phenom broken by overwork and assorted elbow and shoulder miseries, finally decided to retire after years of trying to get back to where he once belonged. And as an object lesson.

Cooperstown will finally have a date with an Angell — the elegantly amiable New Yorker essayist (once more around the park: Angell isn't baseball's Homer; Homer was ancient Greece's Roger Angell) was voted the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports admitted he's been refusing to elect first-ballot Hall of Famers to teach those actual or alleged performance enhancers a lesson they'll never forget. Tim McCarver retired as a Fox color analyst with the Hall of Fame on his resume. Vin Scully agreed to stay with the Dodgers for another season and The Voice just might inspire legislation to be passed mandating that he stay until death or retirement — whichever comes first.

Alas, death as it must came to Stan Musial, the game's gentle giant, and to Earl Weaver, its bristling bantam. (When he retired the first time as Orioles manager, Don Denkinger said if he ran out of money to call the umpires' association: "We'd take up a collection for him. Anything to keep him off the field.") Likewise to Paul Blair, a center fielder with eight Gold Gloves, an enduring image as a center field acrobat proving Willie Mays wasn't the sole owner of that franchise, and two World Series rings as a Baltimore Oriole. Likewise to Michael Weiner, whose brave refusal to go gently into that good grey night under the heel of brain cancer was equaled only by his stance as a genuine fan who transformed the Major League Baseball Players Association from confrontationists to consensus builders.

Lou Brissie begged for a tryout with the Philadelphia Athletics after he barely survived one leg being shot to pieces in World War II — and became a mountain of courage on the mound. (He once took a liner off that leg from Ted Williams, went down in a heap, and as players including Williams crowded around him at the mound, supposedly barked to Williams, "Dammit, Ted, why didn't you pull the damn ball the way you're supposed to?) Bill Sharman made his name in the National Basketball Association and as Bob Cousy's backcourt partner in Boston, but he was in the dugout when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard Round the World — as a New York Giant.

Gates Brown was a pinch-hitter extraordinaire for the Tigers who is remembered best, unfortunately, for landing on his chest — and two hot dogs tucked inside — sliding into base. ("I took a little English, a little math, some science, a few hubcaps, and some wheel covers," he said of his high school days.) Rick Camp did nothing as memorable as a relief pitcher as what he did to end a July 1985 game for his Braves against the Mets: send a game into the nineteenth inning with a home run. ("If this team needs me to hit a home run to win a game, they're in trouble.")

Gene Freese, freshly dealt from the Chicago White Sox, was one of the trades that made the 1961 pennant possible for the Reds. Johnny Kucks pitched a mere six years, but got into four World Series and one Copacabana brawl with the 1950s Yankees. Johnny Logan was a tenacious Braves infielder who sometimes seemed to spend half his playing time in an all-out war with his Cincinnati counterpart Johnny Temple while crediting his sure-handedness in the infield to his youth milking cows on a dairy farm. Stan Lopata was behind the plate when Robin Roberts missed a pickoff sign, threw Duke Snider a fastball down the chute, and needed Richie Ashburn running in from center to field it and throw out Cal Abrams at home to keep the Whiz Kids' 1950 pennant-winning hope alive for Dick Sisler to homer in the 10th.

Fred Talbot was a journeyman pitcher but a memorable character in the cast of Jim Bouton's Ball Four. ("When I called to see how he was doing," Bouton would remember in a followup appendix called Ball Five, "he said, 'Well, I'm still living,' and hung up. I didn't even get to say I was glad.") Virgil Trucks was very much of a pitcher, for awhile, including two no-hitters in 1952. Bob Turley was enough of a pitcher, pitching with no windup and winning the 1958 Cy Young Award, in a time when they gave it to one pitcher across the board. He became a Yankee in the first place thanks to a 15-player swap with the Orioles in 1954 that also made a Yankee out of Don Larsen.

Another ex-Yankee, Gus Triandos, set a record for passed balls catching Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball in Baltimore and inspired the invention (by Orioles general manager Paul Richards) of the big pillow glove. George Scott was a Boston rarity, a power hitting first baseman who actually played the position with grace. And Andy Pafko, who had a distinguished 17-season career, inspired the Brooklyn Dodgers front office to say, "Gentlemen, we have just traded for the pennant" ... only to be watching helplessly from left field when Thomson's liner sailed into the seats with the National League pennant attached.

Years later, Pafko agreed to meet Roger Kahn for The Boys of Summer, Kahn's classic epic catch-up to the 1950s Dodgers, despite feeling he wasn't really worthy. ("I wasn't in Brooklyn long enough," said the old outfielder who'd spent much time with the Braves and the Cubs feasting on Dodger pitching.) Pafko refused anything more elaborate than a comfortable sandwich for the occasion while agreeing to sign a glove Kahn carried that he'd gotten others on the team to sign.

"I don't belong with those others," Pafko said. "Thanks for a good club sandwich. Maybe I saved you a little money, huh? [Carl] Furillo, [Duke] Snider, and guys who could play like that, you ought to buy them the steaks."

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