MLB 2014: The Year in Review

The year opened with Alex Rodriguez staring baseball down, suing its government and its players' union, then allowing both to crow, "the other guy just blinked." Baseball did a lot of blinking during 2014. Not to mention winking, nodding, prodding, clodding, and thrilling. Not necessarily in that order. And how the mighty have fallen: A-Rod ended the 2014 he missed under suspension freshly penciled in as the Yankees' next ... designated hitter. And into near-irrelevancy.

Travis Ishikawa channeled his inner Bobby Thomson and The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant! Then, riding the Shot Heard 'Round the Bay and Beyond, baseball's ninth-best regular season team beat baseball's seventh-best regular season team (who beat baseball's eighth-best team in its league's wild card play-in game) in an oddly exciting World Series — which could be described otherwise as Madison Bumgarner and a cast of several.

Bud Selig, who really is resigning as commissioner, has quite a legacy to leave. (And, a reported $6 million a year salary to stay retired.) With postseasons like that, excitingly though they've been played, he's proven that the common good of the game isn't always as important as making money for it. Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred has a sizable pair of penny loafers to fill. We'll know soon enough whether Manfred thinks championship means a thing anymore.

Better contestants than the Giants and the Royals found mind-boggling ways to get shoved out of it. Baseball's best regular season team, the Angels, the only team in the Show with a .600+ winning percentage, let the Royals roach and roll them, while manager Mike Scioscia balked at one tactic that helped him guarantee their American League West ownership: filling in for a key lost starting pitcher (Garret Richards, splendid rookie, to a knee injury) with a team of relievers to cover his would-have-been starts. (The unexpected nap of Scioscia's hitters didn't help.)

The Nationals, with the National League's best regular season record, watched their manager hook their Game Two starter an out from a three-hit shutout and their hitters not named Bryce Harper sleep on the job, then lost a division series because the Giants proved to better at getting out of their own way. Harper's reward: a chance to avoid a grievance hearing on his original contract and sign a two-year, $7.5 million pact. Here's hoping he continues learning that outfield walls are unforgiving under assault.

The Orioles, tied (with the Nats) as baseball's second-best team, in a second postseason in three years after a long nightmare's journey into the abyss, overcame key season-ending injuries (Manny Machado, Matt Weiters) and one suspension. (Chris Davis, over a legitimate medication containing an amphetamine, for which players who require it must obtain a formal exemption — which he had before and has again, for 2015.) They surprised themselves by rolling the Tigers (the Show's fifth-best, almost in spite of themselves), who proved short on anything much resembling a bullpen or a defense, only to look like elephants against the Royals' squealing mice.

The Dodgers, National League West champions (and the Show's fourth-best team) in a sort of runaway after the Giants collapsed to a wild card play-in game, watched in horror as someone forgot to tell their Most Valuable Cy Young Award winner that not even Clayton Kershaw can get away with throwing one down the pipe to a guy who can be had on outer-zone pitches, in double play situations or otherwise. Matt Adams pounced on that lapse ... and the Cardinals went to a date with Ishikawa, mostly because their manager thought it untoward to bring in his closer when he most needed a stopper — because it was a tie game on the road. Setting up a World Series between two teams who had to win wild card play-in games (the Royals overthrew the Athletics; the Giants Bumgarnered the Pirates) in the first place.

Would this be the appropriate time to suggest, yet again (you thought you'd escape the year without my mentioning it even once), that with three-division league alignments there is a proper way to determine the championship, and that it would go as follows? 1) If your butts weren't parked in first place at season's end, thanks for playing and wait till next year. It's time to return the regular season to meaning something higher than the thrills and chills of an all-out, to the wire battle for ... second place. 2) The division winners with the season's best records get a round-one bye and the absurd division series is eliminated. (Am I the only one around here who thinks it's bloody absurd to have "division series" one of which in each league features a team that didn't win its division?) 3) The remaining division winners in each league play a best-of-three; the winners of those sets play the bye winners in each League Championship Series. 4) Restore the World Series's primacy no questions asked and return the League Championship Series to the best-of-five as which it was born in the first place. 5) The World Series remains a best-of-seven and a true championship.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Derek Jeter announced his pending retirement when spring training was barely open. He spent the season taking yet another grand farewell tour as a shell of his former self with a few shining moments and a lot of nonsense, on both sides of opinion, about the tour. (Adam Wainwright, Cardinals pitcher, tripped all over himself over whether he did or didn't groove one to Jeter in the All-Star Game.) It was probably the most fun Yankee fans had all season long. (By contrast, Josh Willingham and Ryan Dempster retired so quietly after the postseason finished that you could have heard a hair drop.) Yogi Berra debuted in the ninth race at Tampa Bay Downs in late February and won. No, it wasn't the Hall of Fame catcher taking up a late career as a jockey, it was a thoroughbred colt, owned by one of the late George Steinbrenner's daughters. (In case you wondered, Yogi the Hall of Famer's major league debut occurred in 1946, in game one of a doubleheader against the Athletics — Philadelphia, that is. He cracked a home run in his first major league at-bat.) Elsewhere in Florida, Giancarlo Stanton after the season signed a thirteen-year, $325 million contract, heavily backloaded, with the Marlins, who may well intend that Stanton exercises its opt-out after six years and a mere $107 million having been paid.

Max Scherzer, the prize among the fall/winter 2014 free agency class, remained unemployed by at least the week before Christmas. The Yankees, whom too many people figured to be biding their time before offering him the moon, stars, and Van Allen Belt, declared him an "unrealistic" option with two more $20+ million-a-year pitchers on the payroll. "Long-term deals for pitchers over 30 generally don't work out," a "source" told ESPN. That never stopped the Yankees before: "The only one I can recall that did is Mike Mussina." President Randy Levine simply said the chance of bringing another such expensive arm was "virtually none." Some will believe that when they see it.

George F. Will opened 2014′s most important baseball book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, quoting Robert Frost — "I would have written of me on my stone, I had a lover's quarrel with the world" — to open his love letter about his own lover's quarrel ... with the Cubs, though not with their ballpark. He closed it citing William Butler Yeats: "Life is a long preparation for something that never happens."

Jon Lester, Red Sox pitcher, lowballed on a contract extension in spring, dealt to Oakland for the A's to push from running away with the American League West to blowing the wild card play-in game, did the free agency dance, then signed for six years and the second best money on the table ... with the Cubs, many of whose fans' lives have been too-long preparations for something happening the odds of which jumped to 12-1 around Las Vegas after Lester signed.

Baseball's new instant replay rules got their Opening Day tests and passed with flying colors for the most part. Cub manager Rick Renteria called for one on a first-inning bunt and lost; Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called for one on a 10th inning pickoff and won. In the same game. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, earlier, challenged Ryan Braun's being safe at first on an infield hit — and that call was revered, too. None of these replays took more than three minutes and Gonzalez's challenge took a mere 58 seconds. The human element went unviolated after all. Baseball's new rules against catchers blocking the plate didn't always go down easily, by contrast. Braun, returning from a suspension for his presence in the Biogenesis scandal last season, was welcome mostly warmly by Brewers fans. With former Brewers owner Selig in the audience.

Horrid Opening Day opening: Angels hitting coach Don Baylor suffered a broken leg catching a ceremonial first pitch from former Angel hero Vladimir Guerrero. Fourteen pitchers underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014. Three of them underwent it for the second time. A Detroit schoolboy sent an Opening Day note to his teacher excusing himself due to an appointment with Dr. Verlander. Four days into the season a Cub outfielder, Junior Lake, took the field wearing the wrong road jersey. The night before, a PNC Park fan ran the Great Pierogi Race with the pierogis around the field periphery — and almost completed it. Derek Holland, Rangers pitcher, was no snake in the grass or anywhere else for half the season, after requiring arthroscopic surgery on his knee when he was upended at home by his dog, on the stairs. Are the Cubs trying to curse the other guys now? The dog's name is Wrigley.

Diamondbacks' general manager Kevin Towers promised his boys would be tough, tougher, toughest. They'd take no crap from anyone. They took no crap from anyone, the cowards. They were tough enough to finish ... with baseball's worst regular season record. Before the nightmare ended they hired Tony La Russa as chief baseball officer, La Russa's one-time pitching ace (in Oakland) Dave Stewart to help run the baseball operations, and fired the faulty Towers. Towers's like-minded manager Kirk Gibson was finished near season's end. Bo Porter managed his way out of rebuilding Houston at mid-season, probably doomed by communication conflicts with the front office and over-riding hot pitching hands until they fried. The Cubs threw Renteria overboard for, it is alleged, no reason better than that Rays manager Joe Maddon — he with an apparent knack for prodding young teams to World Series competition — became available, thanks to an opt-out contract clause tied to general manager Andrew Friedman's departure. (Friedman departed to take the same job with the Dodgers; the Rays fumed a bit about whether the Cubs tampered with Maddon.)

Money is almost everything: South Florida financier Gilberto Suarez copped a plea in December in return for a lenient sentence, for helping hustle Yasiel Puig out of Cuba in exchange for a fat chunk of Puig's millions. Money isn't quite everything: Matt Garza, pitcher, blew two million when the Angels tried to reach him with a four-year, $52 million contract offer last winter ... while Garza was vacationing with his wife and with no wish to be disturbed. He settled in due course for $48 million for four years with the Brewers. Brad Penny punched his way out of the Kansas City Royals' spring training camp after a few rough outings and a diminishing chance to make the club in the first place. Francisco Rodriguez got the point when he stepped on a cactus walking barefoot around the Brewer camp.

Mike Trout celebrated a six-year, $144 million contract extension with a 36-ounce steak, a first-at-bat-of-the-season flog over the fence, and the American League's Most Valuable Player award. A Mets prodigy, Jacob de Grom, became the first Met to earn National League Rookie of the Year honours since a child prodigy of thirty years before, Dwight Gooden. Dale Scott, umpire, came out of the closet quietly as half a gay married couple. Just as quietly, the news lasted one cycle. If that. Numerous heterosexual umpires could stand to take a clue from that, regarding their on-field behaviour especially.

Joe West, for example. Jonathan Papelbon, relief pitcher, was suspended several games after the bill of his cap inadvertently brushed against the ever-modest West, during a beef over a lewd gesture's ejection. West grabbed Papelbon by the jersey and shoved him to one side, but got suspended a mere game. Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, now baseball's reputed disciplinarian, meted out the sentences. He must have forgotten West once shoved him in his early managing days over something even more trite — Torre sought to ask West privately about fining a player for arguing a game-ending third strike) — and was given three days off without pay and lightened $300 in the bank account over it.

Pablo Sandoval celebrated the World Series triumph with the AT&T Park Panda Head fans, then signed a five-year contract with the Red Sox. Another Giants postseason hero, Michael Morse, signed for two years with the Marlins. Eric Hosmer of the Royals called time, swung anyway, whacked a base hit, and had it negated. John Lackey, an American League World Series hero twice in his life, was dealt to the Cardinals during the season and got hit by a pitch for the first time in his life. Once upon a time H-D-H referenced a hit-making team of Motown Records songwriters and producers. (Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland.) In 2014, it referenced a Kansas City bullpen trio who almost helped the Royals win their first World Series since the Reagan Administration. Their nickname was a lot friendlier than the Nasty Boys trio (Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, Randy Myers) of the 1990 Reds.

Another formidable trio — three keys to the Braves' 1990s and early 2000s dominance — were inducted into the Hall of Fame: pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and manager Bobby Cox. So was Frank ThomaS. So were Joe Torre and Tony La Russa. The Hall board reduced from fifteen to ten the eligibility years for players under consideration from the Baseball Writers Association of America. That could be quite a traffic jam of eligibles during the next several years to come. (Next year could be one of the lessers: only Ken Griffey, Jr. arrives for the first time.) Also inducted to the Hall: well, one more time: Roger Angell isn't baseball's Homer, Homer was ancient Greece's Roger Angell.

An effervescent 13-year-old honor student, Mo'ne Davis, became the Little League World Series's breakout star (and the first Little Leaguer to make a Sports Illustrated cover, never mind two) after she became the first of her gender to throw a shutout in the tournament, threw out a first pitch before Game Four of the World Series. She also admits to aspirations of reversing Sandy Koufax's athletic trajectory, aspiring to play professional basketball. (Koufax, of course, was a high school basketball whiz who became a Hall of Fame pitcher.) A team of black inner-city Chicago youths, known as Jackie Robinson West, won the Little League's U.S. Championship and a share of the nation's hearts, lost the Series but not those hearts, visited places ranging from major league parks to the White House, and finished the year accused of including several suburban ringers. The Little League denied. Stay tuned.

Dee Gordon, Dodgers second baseman, was traded to the Marlins at the winter meetings. He was waiting in Los Angeles International Airport to fly to Orlando and for news of a deal. He drove to San Diego to meet Marlins officials at the winter meetings ... but his luggage reached Florida before he did. The Dodgers spent the meetings overhauling their defense and parting with a superstar in name only; the Red Sox parted with a superstar in name only to add part one of a three-part rotation overhaul after they couldn't convince Lester to let bygones be bygones. Did I mention that every player for whom the A's dealt at mid-season — possibly blowing a hole in the team's chemistry while they were at it — became ex-A's by the end of the winter meetings? Eleven players changed sides among the Padres, Rays, and Nationals in one mid-December deal, tying it for the fourth-largest of all time. (The record: eighteen players swapped between the Yankees and the Orioles, in the November 1954 deal that made Yankees out of Bob Turley and Don Larsen.)

Former bullpen enfant terrible John Rocker competed on Survivor and was voted off the island in the third week, after trying, but failing to keep his baseball past (warts and all?) quiet. It's been said that Barry Bonds deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but it's still debatable as to who's inclined to agree with him. Jose Canseco, who probably still thinks (that's debatable) he was baseball's Joe Valachi of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances (if baseball has one, it's probably the late, sad Ken Caminiti), shot a finger off by accident when a handgun he was cleaning discharged accidentally. This was quite the oddity for Canseco, who usually shoots himself in the foot.

Jim Bunning, a Hall of Famer aboard the Golden Era Committee, couldn't convince all his fellows that his old Phillies teammate Dick Allen belongs. The Golden Era Committee elected no one to Cooperstown, with Allen and former Twins star Tony Oliva missing by a vote apiece and Gil Hodges missing by farther. Dick Enberg, longtime NBC sportscaster and current Padres broadcaster, became a broadcasting triple crown winner when he was voted the Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award. Enberg is already a Pete Rozelle Award (football Hall of Fame) and Curt Gowdy Award (basketball Hall of Fame) winner. Vin Scully, a Frick Award winner who never should have been removed from World Series broadcasts, lost his 1988 World Series ring shopping with his wife at Costco in December. Mrs. Scully found the ring when they got home — among the ribs. "Only Scully could lose a ring while putting meat in the bag," her husband cracked. He also affirmed he'd broadcast every Dodger home game and the road games in Anaheim and San Francisco on television in 2015. The gift that keeps on giving, probably until death do Scully and Dodger fans part.

In baseball, death in the family used to mean a player being sent down to the minors. In the real 2014 world, alas, it meant farewell to Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who lost a battle against cancer provoked by his longtime smokeless tobacco habit. Alvin Dark, once a scrappy infielder on New York Giants pennant winners, made a sad fool of himself criticizing Latin players on the Giants he managed in the 1960s. He atoned for it soon enough, took over for Dick Williams in due course, and managed the A's to their third straight World Series conquest. Ray Sadecki won 20 games for the 1964 world champion Cardinals. Jim Brosnan, relief pitcher, proved baseball players could be literate and literary, not to mention witty as the day was long. Frank Jobe married his medical skill to Tommy John's ligament replacement and changed the course of baseball pitching.

Ralph Kiner was the power hitting soul of a moribund Pittsburgh Pirates generation (and a protege of Hank Greenberg), outfoxed Branch Rickey often enough that Rickey finally traded the star he never really understood or respected, then became a beloved Mets broadcaster from the day they were born. Jerry Coleman, Yankee infielder, Marine wartime pilot, and San Diego broadcaster of malaprop mastery, slid home standing up. Jim Fregosi was the anchor of the original Angels franchise before he was traded to the Mets for a wild kid named Nolan Ryan, then eventually managed a Phillies pennant winner. Bill Henry was almost the prototype for the situational relief specialist. And, the quiet type. ("When you say hello to him," Jim Bouton once wrote, "he's stuck for an answer.")

Frank Torre was a Braves World Series hero before his kid brother Joe entered the organization, and eventually charmed a nation with his courage approaching a heart transplant as little brother approached managing a World Series. Bob Welch was baseball's last 27-game winner. Don Zimmer wore a plate in his head thanks to a bean ball, managed a few pennant competitors, and foolishly tried picking a fight with Pedro Martinez during a League Championship Series brawl game. Allen Ripley was a 1970s Red Sox pitcher known best as a member of the Buffalo Heads contingency (Bernie Carbo and Bill [Spaceman] Lee were leaders of the pack), named for their nickname for Zimmer, tweaking team administration.

Brad Halsey — pitcher, server of the bomb Bonds hit to tie Hank Aaron on the all-time list, claimant to being high on cocaine when he threw it, descender into possible bipolarity and definite prescription drug addiction — was found Halloween morning at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff. Ryan Bolden–outfielder, a first-round (2010) Angels draft pick, who never advanced past rookie ball and retired after the 2013 season because of back issues — was shot to death in mid-December in an apartment complex fight started ... by two children arguing over candy.

Bill McCool (what a name for a pitcher) was just that as a mid-to-late 1960s Reds reliever. Grant Dunlap needed twelve years just to reach the Show, had a major league career line of 6-for-17 including a triple and a bomb as a pinch hitter for the 1953 Cardinals, then became a baseball coaching legend for Occidental College. Art Quirk (now, there was a name for a pitcher) was an earnest enough rookie to merit a Sports Illustrated feature in a 1962 issue that featured a comely swim champion on the cover — and was out of baseball two years later, headed for a life of business and special-needs-charitiable success. Vern Benson was a longtime coach who got to manage the Braves in 1977 — for one game. And that was because Ted Turner, their then-owner, who'd managed his first and last game the day before, was away appealing a National League rule that managers couldn't have financial stakes in their teams.

The National League's first and next-to-latest to hit postseason pinch hit homers were lost. Oscar Taveras, the next-to-latest, hit a pinch homer one minute (Game 2, NLCS, tying the game) and was killed in a DUI road accident the next. (Actually, it was a fortnight later.) George (Shotgun) Shuba, the first (Game 1, 1953 World Series), was previously the first white teammate to shake hands with Jackie Robinson after a home run in the minor leagues. After baseball, Shuba became a postal inspector and a likable raconteur of vintage Brooklyn Dodger stories — including friendly re-enactments of his once famous handshake with Robinson with black children who met him. Sy Berger was the father of the modern baseball card — he designed the first set of Topps cards in 1952 and worked for Topps for the following forty years. (The Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle is arguably the second most valuable baseball card behind the T206 Honus Wagner.)

Yogi Berra once told a sportswriter his single greatest achievement was getting a comely St. Louis restaurant waitress named Carmen Short to marry him. (Dizzy Trout, Tiger pitcher, upon learning of the nuptials: "Hey Yogi, I hear ya got married. How does your wife like living in a tree?") Once upon a time, when the panel of television's What's My Line figured mystery guest Yogi swiftly enough, host John Daly filled the time by bringing the still comely Mrs. Berra forth as "Yogi's lovely bride." The CBS switchboards jammed with callers demanding to know when and how Berra threw his wife and kids over for this little home-wrecker. Carmen Berra died six weeks after their 65th wedding anniversary. Not for nothing did writers who knew the Berras say theirs was baseball's truest love affair.

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