Friday, December 23, 2016

MLB 2016: The Most Unheard-of Things

By Jeff Kallman

Somewhere at the height of the -ism bearing his name, Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared something was the most unheard-of thing anyone had ever heard of. Like the presidential election in which the people's choices were between a crank and a crook, baseball in 2016 was much like that. In spring, Manny Machado won Best of Breed at the Westminster Dog Show. (Relax, Oriole fans: it was a Mexican hairless whose owner named the pooch after the third baseman.) At November's beginning, the Chicago Cubs (read it and savor deeper, Cub Country) returned to the Promised Land — ending their 108-year rebuilding effort — at the expense of the Cleveland Indians.

That was then: the Cubs started too many seasons (decades?) with puckish, fatalistic fans whipping up placards as the first pitch was thrown saying, "Wait 'till next year!" This is now: This year was next year. The Cubs survived a 3-1 Series deficit to overthrow a no-quit Indians team. Both teams took the Series to the absolute end of Game Seven — abetted by a surrealistic rain delay between the ninth and 10th innings — despite their otherwise clever, intelligent, but occasionally over-managing managers. Only one of them left spring training under predictions of going all the way to the Promised Land. Hint: it wasn't the Indians. (That was then: as the late Mike Royko once conjugated, the team with the most ex-Cubs usually lost. This was now: the team with the most and best ex-Red Sox won.)

Baseball Prospectus picked last year's World Series opponents to finish the opposite, calling the Mets likely National League East champions and the Royals likely American League basement-dwellers. That'll teach them. The Mets fought an injury epidemic to claim the first of two National League wild cards, only to lose when a no-name Giant named Conor Gillaspie smashed a ninth-inning 3-run homer, enabling Madison (Don't Look at Me!) Bumgarner to become his own closer after a season in which the Giants' bullpen blew thirty saves including nine in which the team led after eight innings — five of those in September.

But there went the Giants' reputed even-year magic. The only shock in the Giants losing the division series to the Cubs, after they'd looked like baseball's best team going into the All-Star Break but one of its worst after, was that it took four games to do it. Clayton Kershaw did the impossible in the Dodgers' division series — he earned the save in the clinching kitchen-sink game against the Nationals, who went from running away with the NL East to yet another early winter vacation. (The Elias Sports Bureau noted Kershaw was the only Dodger not named Kenley Jansen to record a save all year long.)

Then, he beat the Cubs in Game 2 of the League Championship Series but couldn't force a Game7 after the Cubs — who'd been surviving with a sudden rash of late-game battering-battered him for five runs in five innings when his curve ball resigned its commission and the Cubs sat on his fastballs with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in hand.

All of a sudden this postseason, managers discovered what men like Bucky Harris (with Firpo Marberry, 1924 Senators) and Casey Stengel (with Joe Page, 1949 Yankees) knew long before they were born: there come times when you need a stopper like five minutes ago, never mind his official job description. Thus did men like Andrew Miller (Indians) become postseason stars, Aroldis Chapman become damn near postseason burnouts, and Buck Showalter (Orioles manager) become postseason goats. Miller was brought in when needed, not when his job description told him he "should" be in. So was Chapman.

By Game 7, of the Series both men were gassed and very vulnerable. Showalter, found in an American League wild card game situation where he needed a stopper like right now, not with a lead to protect, couldn't find Zach Britton, his absolute best pitcher in any job, and left Ubaldo Jimenez (normally a starter) in to face Edwin Encarnacion — watching a hanging meatball sail into the second deck of Rogers Centre to send the Blue Jays forth ... to be manhandled by the Indians.

Kyle Schwarber, who planted one atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard in postseason 2015, then smashed a homer and a fan's windshield in spring training batting practice this year, tore up his knee in the season's first week. Gone for the season? Not quite. To everyone's shock, maybe even his own team's, Schwarber rehabbed well, played some tuneup games in the Arizona Fall League, and showed up for the World Series. He didn't hit anything into the next counties but he gave the Cubs a spiritual lift and a few timely hits while he was at it.

Yoenis Cespedes re-signed with the Mets, came to spring training with a vehicle fleet any transportation company would have envied, fought through a couple of injuries to have a splendid 2016, then re-signed with the Mets for four more years. Adam LaRoche retired in spring rather than let the White Sox front office dictate how often his son could join him in the clubhouse. Chris Sale performed open-box surgery on ugly White Sox throwback uniforms mid-season, then was traded to the Red Sox in a winter meetings blockbuster with the White Sox going into full rebuild. Goose Gossage, one-time White Sox and Hall of Famer, decided Bryce Harper — incumbent second-best all-around player in baseball (before a shoulder issue compromised his 2016 performance) — had no business deciding that baseball needed to be made fun again.

Mark Melancon signed a record deal for closers with the Giants during the winter meetings. The Royals traded Wade Davis to the Cubs, ensuring the end of the Royals' once-vaunted H-D-H bullpen. Melancon's record lasted long enough for Aroldis Chapman, acquired by the Cubs from the Yankees at mid-season, pitching heroically in the World Series, to break it when he signed as a free agent with . . . the Yankees from whence he'd come. For less dollars than offered elsewhere. Then, he complained about manager Joe Maddon's usage of him in the final three Series games, a little over a month after the rest of us wondered about the same.

After the winter meetings, Kenley Jansen gave himself a wedding present: he rejoined the Dodgers for five years and less dollars than at least two or three other teams offered. And the team with the most and best ex-Red Sox who won the World Series signed another one: Koji Uehara, relief pitcher, the last man standing when the Red Sox won a third World Series in a) one decade, and b) this century. Already you have to like the Cubs' chances next year.

The shortstop the Rangers once signed for the equivalent of developing a badly-needed pitching staff decided to retire after 2017; the Yankees convinced him to do so before the final third of 2016 — as former teammate Ichiro Suzuki smacked his 3,000th major league hit. In between, Alex Rodriguez and humility became close friends. Trevor Story (Rockies) opened the season becoming the first National Leaguer and the only rook in baseball history to hit his first two major league bombs on Opening Day. He also hit 7 in his first six games and 10 in April, the former setting another rookie record and the latter tying a Show record. On the same day, the Rangers beat the Mariners 3-2, despite Felix Hernandez and the Mariners one-hitting the Rangers on the day. Prince Fielder's second surgery for a herniated neck disc meant career over.

The daughter of Hall of Famer Don Drysdale (from his first marriage) objected to his widow selling his memorabilia without offering a chance at least at her father's 1962 Cy Young Award. Mike Piazza, incoming Hall of Famer, objected to a collector selling the jersey he wore to hit a dramatic home run in the first New York home game after 9/11. Chapman and Jose Reyes were suspended over domestic violence cases to open the season despite their wives/partners refusing to press charges; Hector Olivera, Braves pitcher, was docked 82 games over an incident with a female acquaintance. Jeurys Familia, Mets closer, victim of Gillaspie's 11th-hour wild card bomb, faced a possible suspension to open 2017 despite his wife refusing to press domestic violence charges against him over a late October incident. Bud Selig was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Committee, who seemed not all that troubled by the fact that Selig in essence thought and behaved as though he was saving the game by damn near breaking it in half and half again.

Matt Bush — former number one draft pick, imprisoned shy of three years over running a motorcyclist down in a car he drove while drunk — made it back to the Show the hard way. Then, after impressing as a Rangers relief pitcher, Bush got himself in the middle of a nasty brawl between the Rangers and the Blue Jays in May: he drilled Jays star Jose Bautista, about whose division series bat flip the previous October the Rangers still steamed, prompting Bautista to exact payback with a takeout slide against Rangers infielder Rougned Odor — who threw on to first as if trying to hit Bautista, then gave Bautista a nasty shove before punching Bautista in the face.

Making it worse: the Rangers had waited until the final regular-season game against the Jays to send Bautista the, ahem, message. Guess who ended up with the last laugh? The Jays went to the American League Championship Series after Odor threw a short-hop double play ball to Mitch Moreland at first, Moreland unable to get batter Russell Martin, then unable to throw in time to stop the division series-winning Jays run (Josh Donaldson, if you're scoring at home) from scoring. That was what you call Odorous karma.

The problem was, after the Jays' elimination, that Bautista had trouble finding new employment as a free agent. Dan Duquette, Orioles general manager: the Orioles wouldn't sign him because their fans despise him. Bartolo Colon, Mets pitcher since signed with the Braves as a free agent, became the oldest man in baseball history to hit his first major league home run.

Noah Syndergaard, another Mets pitcher, beat the Dodgers one fine day on the mound and at the plate: his 2 homers accounted for all the Mets' scoring. Jaret Edward, a Cleveland area high school pitcher, struck out every hitter he faced (15) in a regional playoff game shortened to five innings by the mercy rule. The Braves showed no mercy to Fredi Gonzalez, making him the first manager thrown out for the season. Robin Ventura showed mercy to the White Sox, resigning at season's end; as a not-that-terrible manager he was an excellent third baseman.

The owners and the players signed off on a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that ends World Series home field advantage according to the All-Star Game result (good); the 15-day disabled list now the 10-day disabled list (jury out); the all-stars chosen by the manager now to be chosen by the commissioner's office (dubious at best); market-disqualified clubs (those who won't get revenue sharing because of actual or alleged large markets) reduced with the Athletics phasing out over four years (bad news for the A's, who could use less such news); hiked competitive balance tax thresholds (20 percent for first timers, 30 for second, 50 for third or more — depends on how you look at it); teams $40 million plus past the threshold having their highest draft picks moved 10 spots back (depends on how you look at it, again); 10 days for players to accept qualifying offers and no second one the year after he got the first (not bad); smaller market teams surrender third highest draft picks and larger market teams their second and fifth highest picks to sign players who declined qualifying offers (beats the former first-round pick surrender); the minimum major league salary now to $535,000 a season (reasonable); a plan to play games in Mexico, Asia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and London over the coming five years on behalf of "growing" the game (wait and see); random drug tests hiked to 4,800 a season, all players subject in the offseason (sound as a nut); a smokeless tobacco ban (no complaint); cutting the period of designation for assignment to seven days (no argument); and, an agreement to forge anti-hazing/anti-bullying policies. (What took them so long?)

The lone vote against ratifying the CBA: Rays owner Stuart Steinberg. Meanwhile, at about the same time, baseball government produced an anti-hazing/anti-bullying policy — including a ban on male players dressing as women on the teams' annual rookie dress-up day rite. Angels relief pitcher Huston (Sparks Fly on E) Street was not amused. Pablo Sandoval's bid to come back from his first horrendous Red Sox season ended early with shoulder surgery — after an embarrassing moment in which his belt snapped on national television. During the winter meetings, he was seen after having undergone a tremendous weight loss. From Kung Fu Panda to Kung Fu Panther? Wait till next year.

Kershaw missed almost a third of the season with back issues. The Indians made it to the end of the World Series despite losing three key men (Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar). Mark Teixiera announced his pending retirement and the Yankees unexpectedly went from the Bronx Geezers near the All-Star Break to the Bronx Burners down the stretch with an influx of fresh young blood, some of which came from the Indians in the Andrew Miller deal. Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey spent his December birthday walking around Toronto handing gift cards to the needy. Trevor (Dem Drones) Bauer sliced a pinkie working on one of his remote control drones (a hobby) during the post season and got sliced and diced by the Blue Jays (in the American League Championship Series) and the Cubs (in the World Series).

The Angels had the American League's Most Valuable Player, Mike Trout (his second such award), showing the voting writers didn't hold it against Trout that his team cratered. Cubs super-sophomore Kris Bryant had the National League MVP sewn up before he shone in the postseason. Rick Porcello won the American League Cy Young Award on his pitching wins alone; Justin Verlander was actually the league's best pitcher in his big bounce-back year. Max Scherzer, the National League's winner, had a better year than Porcello and was a better pitcher — but he wasn't actually as good as Kershaw or Syndergaard, even though he had a 20-punchout game to polish his apple.

Baseball has better chances surviving the (read it and don't weep, Cub Country) world champion Cubs than the nation has surviving President-to-be Trump. One of whose supporters, Curt Schilling, got into hot water twice for shooting from the lip. In April, ESPN fired Schilling as an analyst over his public objection to North Carolina's law barring transgenders from using the bathrooms marked for their new genders. In November, Schilling offended even non-writers, and even those customarily critical of the media ("When you like us, we're the press; when you hate us, we're the media" — the late William Safire), when he tweeted apparent approval of a T-shirt saying "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required." Schilling pled sarcasm. Not all demurring from voting the should-be Hall of Famer to Cooperstown this time pled likewise, but plenty seemed to lean on Voltaire, despising what he said but defending his right to say it.

Barry Bonds, working as a Marlins hitting instructor (the team let him go after the season), made an unprovoked apology for having been "straight stupid" about having been surly and uncooperative during his playing career from college to his final days with the Giants. Adam Jones, Oriole, saw NFL quarterback Colin Kapaernick's knee protest against actual or reputed race inequality during the National Anthem and thought it couldn't happen in baseball because it was too much of a white man's sport. You suspected few saw through the surface to see that baseball's allure for black athletes today isn't close to what it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Then, when the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler (one of the world champion Cubs, become a free agent), they suggested one reason for the signing was a hope he could help them improve their standing among black people and help begin re-inspiring young black athletes to think about playing baseball.

Vin Scully finally retired and left the nation emptier for his pending absence. (We tried to warn him.) He was sent off with assorted baseball personnel paying him homage on his home turf and the White House paying him homage with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hall of Famer Rod Carew underwent a heart and kidney transplant and was expected (thankfully) to make a full recovery.

David Ortiz took his farewell tour, accepted some remarkable and some amusing parting gifts (the Orioles sent him the clubhouse phone he once smashed in frustration), and led the American League in runs batted in, OPS, and slugging. He also hit 48 home runs while he was at it. It all took a toll as he couldn't hit worth a lick in the Red Sox's division series loss to the Indians, yet just about everyone in Red Sox Nation and beyond wished he could stay one more year. But his body resigned its commission at last. His body, but not the memories.

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