Monday, December 28, 2015

MLB 2015: It Got Late Early Out There

By Jeff Kallman

"This was the year," Dave Barry wrote with the year having barely a fortnight to go, "when American sports fans became more excited about their fantasy sports teams — which, for the record, are imaginary — than about sports teams that actually exist." Barry is obviously not a baseball fan, the breed of whom would probably say of 2015 that, in more ways than one, it got late early out there.

Baseball fans cared so passionately about their real teams that fans of one of them, the Kansas City Royals, tried stuffing the All-Star Game ballot box for their heroes and made no apologies for it. Not even when it looked like the arguable worst second baseman in the American League stood a chance of making the game's starting lineup. And that was at a point where the Royals looked like they were going from America's Team to America's Bullies, with testiness seeming as common as pestiness among the players. Hopefully Royals fans were willing to settle for such trivial pleasures as their heroes winning the World Series. With sound field intelligence and a refusal to let little things like being an out away from a possible loss stop them.

Candor would require Royals fans and everyone else to acknowledge the Royals had no little help from the New York Mets — who weren't even expected to be far out of the National League East basement, never mind going to the Series. After a couple of key non-waiver trade deadline deals, the Mets pitched, batted, bombed, battered, and bludgeoned their way to the Series, only to discover the hard way how adroit the Royals would be at exploiting their most wounding flaw, a defense — especially in the infield — that would have meant a Union of Soviet American Socialist Republics if they'd been on duty during the Cold War. Thus did the Mets lose a Series they actually could have won. Could have.

But the Mets had no little help from the Washington Nationals, who had too little help from their somewhat crowded disabled list. Still, the Nats opened the season as prohibitive World Series favorites and deflated midway through the season as the Mets traded up and then heated up to stay. Manager Matt Williams — who probably lost the team at 2014's division series loss and earned a reputation for By The Book managing despite the immediate game needs, and for robotic non-communication in and out of his clubhouse — was executed summarily at season's end. Sending his spoiled new closer to pitch an inning after said closer tried choking his (and the league's) most valuable player only stamped the execution orders. The Nats hired Dusty Baker to succeed him. Baker promptly suggested we need more black and Latino players in baseball because — wait for it! — they tend to be faster. Once upon a time, Jimmy the Greek lost a broadcasting career for saying things like that.

Max Scherzer was unemployed as of New Year's Day but very well employed when the Nats landed him on a seven-year deal. Chipper Jones, Hall of Famer in waiting, heard and tweeted that the FBI deemed the Sandy Hook atrocity a hoax — then was forced to apologise for being badly misinformed. At year's near-end he was hired for the Braves' front office. Alex Rodriguez mended fences with the new commissioner at year's beginning (sort of), issued a handwritten apology to the fans as ESPN the Magazine published a slightly jarring, semi-psychological profile of his year in purgatory, then tied and passed Willie Mays on the all-time home run, list while inexplicably becoming just about the most valuable Yankee as they made a run to the wild card game.

John Smoltz — the third of the pitchers who helped Jones's teams dominate the National League East once upon a time, now Joe Buck's baseball broadcast partner for FOX Sports — was inducted into the Hall of Fame. So were Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Craig Biggio. Newly affirmed baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Hall of Fame voters shouldn't presume actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances without concrete evidence (good) and that the All-Star Game's annual location should be determined by a Super Bowl-style bidding process. (Bad.) He also thought pitch clocks would solve speed-of-game issues. (Wrong.) Commissioner-emeritus Bud Selig left a legacy that says when he was good he was quite good, all things considered (including how he got the job in the first place), but when he was bad he was terrible.

Tim McClelland retired after 32 years as a major league umpire. He's still remembered best for being the plate ump upon whom George Brett sought to commit multiple amputation after the Pine Tar Homer was disallowed. Dontrelle Willis retired for the second and (we think) final time after one more stalled comeback attempt. Should-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling was compelled to defend his daughter's honor, and rather compellingly, after his simple end-of-February tweet congratulating her for going to college to play softball resulted in scores of vulgar tweets about sexual intentions toward her. One such tweeter turned out to be a Yankee ticket seller who'd only been on the job since January and whom the Yankees sent looking for other employment.

Newly installed Twins manager Paul Molitor barred cell phone and tablet use by his players from half an hour before game time until the final game out. The Brewers barred high fives in spring in a bid to stop a pink eye outbreak. Newly installed Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced against home run pimping. Joe West (umpire renowned for thinking he's God, Jr.) ejected A.J. Pierzynski (Braves catcher, renowned for thinking the game is his personal schoolyard) in an exhibition game merely by looking to the Braves' dugout and intoning, "You need a new catcher."

Yu Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery, saying goodbye to his and the Rangers' 2015. Except that it didn't — the Rangers managed to come out of nowhere to win the American League West ... after the Houston Astros, supposedly in phase whatever of their rebuild, owned the division for about two thirds of the season. Cliff Lee repeated the injury that drydocked him for much of 2014, a tear in his elbow flexor tendon. The Phillies elected to buy him out at season's end. Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays pitcher) had to postpone his breakout for a year after undergoing ACL surgery on his left knee. Stephen Strasburg did time on the DL with neck stiffness, returned, and suffered a left oblique strain. Before revealing he'd had surgery for a cancerous growth on his back after the season.

Josh Hamilton relapsed in his substance abuse battle on Super Bowl Sunday, manned up and fessed up to baseball government at once, baseball government refused to punish him for it, but the Angels denounced that refusal and their tormented outfielder publicly before running him out of town on a rail back to the Rangers. And Hamilton was supposed to be grateful? The Brewers threw out the first manager of the year. The Marlins threw out the second — when things were barely settled after Shelby Miller of the Braves got thatclose to no-hitting them. The Marlins replaced him with their general manager, who'd never managed a day in his life or even in his dreams. Then they hired Don Mattingly, freshly liberated from the Dodgers, after the season, while they couldn't make up their minds whether to deal Jose Fernandez. The Phillies were fired by manager Ryne Sandberg, not long after embattled general manager Ruben Amaro, doing too much more fiddling while the Phillies burned, said the fans just didn't understand baseball. Then, he didn't. Before the season ended, Amaro himself faced the guillotine.

Khris Davis, Milwaukee outfielder, hit one out against the Giants near the end of May. Then, he didn't — the Giants challenged, saying he didn't touch the plate. Then, he did: new Brewers manager Craig Counsell called for replay and the homer stood. Then, he did it again — in the third inning, he hit one out and made sure nobody could doubt when he stomped the plate. The Yankees retired Bernie Williams's uniform number and wags suggested that, at the rate they were going, they'd have to move Monument Park to Monument Valley — in Utah.

Mayday: Joey Votto (Reds) took ball one, ball two, ball three, and his base, from Matt Grace (Nationals). Nobody in Great American Ballpark noticed, protested, or wondered where on earth was ball four. Not the umps, not Nats manager Williams, not Reds manager Bryan Price, not even the broadcasters. (A scoreboard error turned out the culprit.) Oops. The Reds went from there to finish a six-run inning, winning the game and thus the weekend series in a walk. Baseball's first amphibious pitcher, Pat Venditte, premiered for the Oakland Athletics in early June. Said whom? Said the East Oregonian, a newspaper who a) hired Yogi Berra to write headlines; or, b) now have bragging rights over getting both sides wrong. Venditte, incidentally, pitched two scoreless innings in his debut. Presumably, without throwing a wet one.

Front-office personnel in St. Louis were caught hacking into the Houston Astros' databases. The Dodgers won a June game on a walk-off balk. David Ortiz got his first start at first base in over a decade — and didn't record a single putout all game long, the first time that happened in Red Sox history. (His one fielding chance involved him picking a grounder and tossing to the pitcher for the out.)

Hero yesterday, gone today: Travis Ishikawa won the 2014 pennant for the Giants with a walk-off three-run homer. His 2015 involved a back injury near spring training's end, a spell in the minors, a futile return to San Francisco, a designation for assignment — and a pluck off the waiver wire by the Pirates, who'd surrendered him to the 2014 Giants the same way. Gone yesterday, hero today: Kirk Nieuwenhuis — designated for assignment by the Mets in late May; traded to the Angels for cash toward the end of May; designated for assignment in early June; re-claimed by the Mets off the waiver wire; sent to Las Vegas; recalled to New York July 6; July 12 — hit 3 home runs in a game against the Diamondbacks, the first Met ever to accomplish the feat in a home game. That's what's called follow the bouncing ball and then hit it out of the park.

The non-waiver trade deadline produced exponential absurdism (Troy Tulowitzki traded to the Blue Jays despite Rockies owner Dick Monfort's verbal oath never to trade him without his consent or notice) and exponential surrealism. (The Mets trading for Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez, then scotching the trade over medical concerns, but not before Mets shortstop Wilmer Flores learned he'd be part of the trade — from fans in the stands, causing him to weep. After the trade died, Flores stepped in against Washington and belted a game-ending home run.) Not to mention a couple of pennant hopes (Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati pitching ace, going to the Royals; David Price, pitching ace for a sinking Detroit ship, going to the Jays; Shane Victorino, erstwhile World Series hero in Boston, going to the Angels who needed bench fortification), only a couple of which proved a help toward the postseason. Price is now a very wealthy Red Sox; Cueto, a none-too-impoverished Giant. Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto lost a power struggle with manager Mike Scioscia and eventually took the same job in Seattle. Dave Dombrowski left the Tigers after the non-waiver trade deadline, became the Red Sox's president of baseball operations, and watched GM Ben Cherington take a hike.

August 12: All 15 home teams won their games. It only took major league baseball over a century to achieve that. The previous weekend: sweeps galore and a little assault and battery at Yankee Stadium, thanks to fans a) throwing an opposition homer back to the field — and hitting Yankee left fielder Brett Gardner in the coconut; and, b) wrestling with Yankee first baseman Mark Teixiera over a foul on which Teixiera could have made a play. Texiera later thundered he preferred insult to battery, and who could blame him? Hisashi Iwakuma became only the second Japanese-born-and-raised major league pitcher to throw a no-hitter — 19 years after Hideo Nomo accomplished the feat in (believe it or not) Coors Field. Iwakuma no-hit the Orioles, but at home; Nomo (throwing his second no-hitter) remains the only pitcher ever to no-hit the Orioles in Camden Yards. Alex Rios hit a monstrous home run in Cleveland and produced the customary Progressive Field home run fireworks. Problem — Rios plays for the Royals. The fireworks technician tried to bury himself in his hat.

Tommy Hutton was too much homer for those who weren't Marlins fans but not enough homer for those who were his Marlins bosses — and they ended his 19 years behind the Fish mikes. Mike Hessman retired as the lifetime home run champion — of the minor leagues. After the season the Dodgers wouldn't re-sign Zack Greinke for Snakebucks, then dealt for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman ... showing how little they learned from the Nats dealing for Papelbon in July: Both clubs had very capable closers. Both ended up with egg on their faces, the Dodgers thanks to a domestic violence investigation involving Chapman, which throttled the trade. Jason Heyward signed as a Cub free agent in December and needled the Cardinals' "aging" team; critics replied that he seemed too comfortable being one of the role players for a guy signing for star dollars. The 40th anniversary of the reserve clause's death and free agency's game-wide, game-changing, game-enhancing birth passed without even a whimper from anyone, never mind a peep from Andy Messersmith.

Manfred more or less ended his season by denying reinstatement to Pete Rose. Among the usual absurdities spoken and written whenever Charlie Hustler is the subject came a) the "hypocrisy" of keeping Rose out while promoting online fantasy sports betting (don't go there; baseball's sponsors include Budweiser but players still can't drink during games); and, b) Donald Trump, real estate wheeler dealer turned presidential candidate, tweeting: "Can't believe Major League Baseball just rejected @PeteRose_14 for the Hall of Fame. He's paid the price. So ridiculous — let him in!" A man to whom the Constitution is an impediment to "making America great again," never mind that the Constitution was what made America great in the first place, would never let the truth get in the way of a juicy tweet.

Paraphrasing Yogi Berra, about whom more anon, the Great Umpire decided 2015 should be no different than any other year for deciding it should be late early on this island earth. Chicago, alas, would like to know why the Great Umpire saw fit to declare 2015 a beautiful day to lose two — baseball icons, that is. Ernie Banks ("It's a beautiful day — let's play two") was Mr. Cub at minimum, Mr. Baseball to many, and sadly unable to find in his personal life the pleasure he felt and gave on the field — or to fans to whom he'd give a signed ball and photo when they asked only for a signature on a napkin. Minnie Minoso, arguably Mr. White Sox, found baseball a joy for which he could never say thank you enough, despite his single unfulfilled dream of reaching the Hall of Fame in his lifetime.

Somewhat less iconic: Lennie Merullo, infielder (it was alleged), dying as the oldest surviving Cub and the last surviving evidence that the Cubs had been seen in a 20th Century World Series after the end of World War II — even if the sighting was only three months after.

Alex Johnson was talented, tortured, traveled (eight teams), often his own worst enemy, ultimately happier off the field than on it despite signing every autograph ever asked of him — even in the year in which he edged out Carl Yastrzemski for the American League batting championship. ("[Manager] Lefty Phillips came over to congratulate me; I said, 'The people in Boston are going to be mad at us'.") Johnson remains the only Angel to win that title. (He also compelled baseball to treat mental issues as injuries in a landmark ruling.) Stu Miller, better than serviceable relief pitcher, got windblown into an All-Star Game balk as a Giant but helped Steve Barber consummate a no-hitter as an Oriole — despite the Orioles' losing the game. Jeff McKnight hit his first major league homer off Jack Morris in 1989, got to play every position except pitching and center field, singled in his final major league at-bat — the day before the 1994 strike began — and died of leukemia.

Al Rosen missed a Triple Crown by a misstep at first base in 1953, looked like a Hall of Fame third baseman until injuries and a front-office foolishness sent him to retirement, built a few winning teams as a general manager/president, then — signing a mediocre pitcher to superstar money in fall 1990 — ramped up baseball's 1990s hyperinflation with the best of intentions but the shortest of visions. Bill Monbouquette, Red Sox pitcher, had to throw one extra strike — thanks to a blown no-swing call — to nail Luis Aparicio for his only no-hitter. (The home plate ump's blown call inspired even White Sox fans to holler the wrong Bill McKinley had been assassinated.) Dave Bergman hit .258 lifetime with one 13-pitch, game-ending three-run homer and endless victims (Ozzie Guillen was a particularly choice such target) of his hidden ball trick mastery.

Victor Sanchez, Mariners pitching prospect (rated the organization's 11th-best minor league prospect in 2014), died over a month after he swam accidentally into a boat propeller — on Valentine's Day. Alison Gordon was the first woman assigned to cover a team daily when the Toronto Star assigned her to the Blue Jays; she wrote a pungent, witty memoir (Foul Ball! Five Years in the American League) and several subsequent novels with baseball themes or hooks. Lon Simmons called them as he saw them before the microphone for the Giants and the A's. So did Milo Hamilton, for the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals, the Cubs, the White Sox, the Braves, the Pirates, the Cubs again, and — for 27 years — the Astros, though it was calling a certain milestone home run (There's a new home run champion of all time, and it's Henry Aaron!) that made his name forever.

Ollie Brown (Downtown Ollie Brown to teammates and fans ... in honor of his throwing arm) was the Original Padre — the first player picked in the expansion draft that created the Padres and the Montreal Expos. Fred Gladding was a 1960s relief pitcher of some note who missed the Tigers' 1968 World Series triumph — because he was traded to the Astros (for Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, winding his career down) before 1968 — but he was also the first reliever to lead the National League in saves in the first year (1969) saves were recognized officially. Jim Fanning played a couple of ho-hum seasons with the Cubs in the late 1950s but became the first and only manager to take the Expos to a postseason appearance — in strike-disrupted 1981, losing the League Championship Series to the Dodgers, and after he'd been the team's general manager since birth.

Earl Averill, Jr. was remembered primarily for his Hall of Famer father and for a feat no Hall of Famer including the old man achieved, tying a record (set by — wait for it! — Piggy Ward in 1893) by reaching base in seventeen consecutive plate appearances with the 1962 Angels. (The streak began against the Yankees in early June and ended against the Athletics later in the month.) Dick Mills had a sip of coffee with the 1970 Red Sox, appearing in relief in two blowout losses, before becoming a pitching guru. Darryl Hamilton — outfielder (he got the first hit in the first regular season interleague game, June 1997, as a Brewer vs. the Giants), respected MLB operations assistant, baseball broadcast analyst — was a Father's Day murder-suicide victim, shot dead by his girlfriend before she shot herself, leaving their infant son without parents and his two older sons without a father.

Nelson Doubleday, Jr. co-bought the Mets and helped return them to greatness for a spell in the 1980s — before presiding over the team's gradual dismantling. Billy Pierce's parents bribed him to undergo a tonsillectomy at ten with a major league glove and baseball — a bribe producing a seven-time All-Star and a two-time World Series pitcher. Joaquin Andujar — pitcher, occasional human time bomb — reminded baseball fans that in baseball there's just one word: you never know. Barney Schultz was a late-blooming knuckleballing relief specialist ("Eleven saves in two months! That's more than he had in his whole career!" — Gene Mauch) whose 1964 bloom got busted by a ferocious Mickey Mantle grand slam in the World Series.

Jack Spring, relief pitcher, was a throw-in from the Cubs in the infamous '64 deal that made Lou Brock a Cardinal. Doc Daugherty had one major league plate appearance — as a pinch hitter for the 1951 Tigers (he struck out) — before becoming a respected high school football coach whose charges eventually included Bob Jeter, a back on the first two Green Bay Super Bowl winners. Randy Wiles set the Louisiana State University shutout record before pitching five games, winning one, losing one, for the 1977 White Sox. Bud Thomas, shortstop, had a brief cup of coffee with the 1951 St. Louis Browns — he was in the lineup when Eddie Gaedel created his (no pun intended) small ruckus, and batted .350 in his brief stay — but gave up baseball when he was sent down then refused the team's move to Baltimore. That loss was Missouri's gain; Thomas became a longtime, respected educator.

Dean Chance was Bo Belinsky's Angels running mate and — in 1964, when the award went to one pitcher across the board — baseball's youngest Cy Young Award winner until Dwight Gooden a shard over two decades later. The same year, John Tsitouris, whose temperament probably kept him from being a consistently good pitcher, pitched the distance to win the game that began the fabled Phillie Phold — in which the game's only run scored on a Cincinnati rookie stealing home. Norm Siebern lost some flies in the Yankee Stadium sun in a World Series, was traded to the Athletics in the deal making a Yankee out of Roger Maris, then made a respectable career as a first baseman. Tommy Hanson looked like a Braves comer until his shoulder wrecked his pitching career; "catastrophic organ failure" with a little help from controlled substances took his life at 29.

George Genovese batted twice and walked once (he grounded out otherwise) for the 1950 Washington Senators, then eventually stocked several teams' worth of San Francisco Giants — with such as Bobby Bonds, Dave Kingman, George Foster, Jack Clark, Chili Davis, and Matt Williams, to name a few — as a respected scout. Ken Johnson's modest parts-of-thirteen-seasons pitching career had a negative highlight: he's the only man in major league history to lose a nine-inning no-hitter (Pete Rose, having failed to bunt his way on in the ninth, reached on Johnson's throwing error, scoring the only run of the game on a subsequent infield error), a feat he accomplished for the 1964 Houston Colt .45s. Dave Henderson, dying a month after a kidney transplant, broke Anaheim's heart with a shot over the left field fence (off the tragic Donnie Moore) with the Angels a strike away from going to the 1986 World Series, then hit a tiebreaking bomb in the top of the 10th in Game 6 of that Series, which might have proved the Series-winning blow except for the bottom of the inning.

A poorly-educated boy from a St. Louis immigrant community — who once admitted the only way he liked school growing up was "closed" — grew up to become a D-Day hero (with the Navy), the greatest all-around catcher ever to play major league baseball, and twice a pennant-winning manager. And, an American icon who proved to be America's friend. "It gets late early out there," Yogi Berra once said about the shadows crawling over part of the outfield. It got late too early when Yogi — a sweet man whose sweet innocence of language made him as legendary as his play — died in late September, a year and a half after his beloved wife, Carmen, preceded him there. Theirs is still a love story that endures, even more than his baseball legacy does.

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