The Last Third

As we say goodbye to perhaps the last truly enjoyable World Cup in history, we need to realize that it is not a dream, it is a fact: the next one, in 2022, will be held in Qatar. Will the next Winter Olympics be staged in Death Valley? What the hell, it needs a little work but there are millions of euros and dollars and bitcoins to be made. They know about money in Qatar, a nation of 2.6 million people who enjoy the highest per capita income in the world. Football (soccer) in the desert! Oh well, we Americans have golf in the desert, don’t we? We celebrate diversity, at least on paper, but this is more like culture clash. Qatar is mainly under Sharia law. Alcohol consumption and illicit sexual relations are punishable by flogging. That might actually be preferable to what happens to miscreants here, who are often forced to endure game shows and televised poker. Apostasy and homosexuality are punishable by death. Apostasy, for all of you numerous  secular folks out there, would be equivalent, in the United States, to not liking barbecue.

How does FIFA make these decisions? Despite my access to Wikipedia, which knows everything, I don’t know. I suspect, though, that it is much like the way that the International Olympic Committee operates, in that wire transfers and luggage containing suitable forms  of currency insure that fairness applies in the selection of sites.

They don’t have any Putin or Trump types in Qatar. It’s a family affair, and guys like that are a waste of money. They have an emir, part of the Al Thani dynasty that has been ruling since 1825. The current dude is Tamim binHamad Al Thani and he gets his dough from natural gas and oil reserves.  The best thing that can be said about Qatar is that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have cut off diplomatic ties with them.

Meanwhile, the major league baseball season slogs on toward the dog days. They call everything after the All Star Game the second half, but arithmetically it is really the last third. What significant things can be tallied after the first 98 games or so?

  1. THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS ARE DONE FOR
  2. FIRING MIKE MATHENY WON’T IMPROVE THE CARDINALS DEFENSE
  3. BRYCE HARPER WILL NOT WIN THE TRIPLE CROWN
  4. CLEVELAND WINS THE CENTRAL ON THREE WHEELS
  5. MILWAUKEE HAS PROBABLY PEAKED
  6. ATTENDANCE WILL CONTINUE TO FALTER IN MORE PLACES
  7. PRESIDENT TWEETY WILL ATTEND NO GAMES
  8. OAKLAND WILL CONTINUE TO BE A PLEASANT SURPRISE
  9. THE RAYS WILL NOT MOVE TO OKLAHOMA CITY
  10. WIN OR LOSE, BRUCE BOCHY WILL RETIRE IN NOVEMBER

I Woke Up Woke

I had a term for my friends who would sometimes, back in the day as we say, get so involved with their “partying” that they could not remember things that occurred while they were in that presumably happy state. I would refer to them as Ripped Van Winkle. I should not assume that everybody knows the story of Rip Van Winkle because that assumes that everybody reads or gets read to them all of the books and stories that I enjoyed back in my youth, which was so long ago that people had telephones merely for talking to each other. Rip Van Winkle, a fictional character in a story written by American author Washington Irving, takes a walk in the Catskill Mountains purportedly to temporarily get away from his nagging wife. He runs into a strange group in the woods and imbibes some of their mysterious liquor and, tying one on for the ages, falls asleep for twenty years. While he slept, the American Revolutionary War began and ended and his beard grew by a foot. When he awakes, he goes back home but doesn’t recognize anyone. It all eventually works out. To me, the best part was that Rip had a dog named Wolf.

I had a similar experience a few months ago. I was hospitalized for a week and that week proved two important things to me which I will now reveal. First, the health care system in the United States is just another business like casinos and dope smuggling and selling iPhones and the fact that it is considered an industry is a national disgrace. Second, it is absolutely assured that nurses and other healthcare workers are some of the hardest working, compassionate, and skilled people on the planet and I will be eternally grateful for their care and love. So I slept a lot. Some of the dreams I had were nightmares and some of the waking hours were like that too but mostly I was treated very well while at the same time I was quite anxious to get the hell out of there.

Even after I got back home I was sleeping a lot while recovering. After one of those long nights, I woke up feeling like the world had changed. So had I, or so it seemed. The mundane matters no longer held my interest. life was far too short to remain hung up about relatively trivial things. If people like Trevor Bauer were being rewarded for mediocre careers with wildly inflated salaries, so what? It’s not my money. If certifiable idiots like Rob Manfred wanted to alter the game beyond recognition with ridiculous rule changes, let it be. If owners of teams with loyal fan bases like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Oakland Athletics decide that winning isn’t important as long as they get TV money, calm down and accept life for what it is. They can’t all be Buster Posey or Mike Trout. Stop yearning for the days of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, Tom Seaver and Gil Hodges and Chuck Tanner. The time may soon again be upon us when young boys and girls are free and healthy enough to get together and play just for the fun of it. I feel like Rip Van Winkle about a lot of things. Music, for instance. Now, with the help of Apple and others, we have dozens and dozens of what they call genres. Where did all of that come from and where was I when it happened? Like, what is House? Happy spring training everybody.

Pandemic Ball

Before there was Curt Flood, there was Ty Cobb—almost. The major league baseball season in 1918 was abruptly halted with a month left and many games to be played. There was a huge, disastrous influenza pandemic going on then but the big reason that games had to be halted was that most constant feature of the history of civilization—war. America, or at least its business leaders, wanted to help Great Britain, its old pal, destroy Germany. Many professional baseball players were being drafted into the armed forces or were volunteering. Cobb signed up for a job that was apt for his personality, being a flame thrower. In addition, that June Provost Marshall General Crowder had issued a “work or fight” order that meant to force all draft age men to either join the military or go to work in “essential” industries. Baseball did not have television executives around in those days to explain how essential baseball players were.

The owners were all fairly well to do in 1918 but they tended to be individuals like Jacob Ruppert or Charles Comiskey rather than investor groups like we have today so the scale of business was smaller and more easily managed. They were patriotic and generous then, as well, just like what we have today. Each of the leagues, the established National and the adolescent American, had presidents to guide them on their righteous courses but there was not yet a commissioner over both leagues because no one had tried to fix a World Series. Anyway, the owners saved themselves a bundle in payroll due to the aborted season. What they granted to the players was that the players would all be released from their contracts. All would become free agents. Now, legal beagles among us will recognize that what has been called the reserve clause meant that a player could negotiate a new contract only with whatever team he had signed with previously. There was no freedom of movement except for retirement. Now, with this move, the owners had made free agents of all players. That was going to destroy the thing that was helping the owners make lots of money and not have to constantly be rebuilding their teams. Ty Cobb counted among his skills the ability to hit, to steal bases. to play a good outfield, and, especially, to negotiate contracts. When World War I was essentially over and the press inquired of Cobb as to if and where he might play when the 1919 season began, he replied that he expected the owners to be competitive. No such luck, players, the owners secretly agreed to keep their hands off each others’ property and everybody just went back to work.

Now here we are in 2021 and what the heck is going on? Well, just about everybody who doesn’t still believe in the Lizard People realizes that there is a real pandemic going on that has claimed the lives of over half a million people here in the United States alone. Nevertheless, whistling while they work, Major League Baseball is going almost full blast. Players are getting traded, free agents are signing big contracts and, holy mackerel, there is a Grapefruit League and a Cactus League getting done. We are going to have a 162 game schedule, say the players and the owners. Arizona and Florida, two of the hottest hot spots for the virus and its mutants, are going to be busy. Can this really be true? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m wishing it were so and would love it as much as anyone. But I need some kind of super pill to swallow to help me suspend disbelief.

 

Hall of Ghosts

We were like ants, like they used to tell us it was with the Chinese, so many of us that, if half of us went missing, there would still be lots more. Just the numbers alone made us special. War babies. That was the original term before “baby boom” made us “baby boomers” and then, as we progressed from being agents of change in various succeeding markets like housing, school building, 45 RPM records, LPs, cars, drugs, prisons, assisted living centers, and now crematoriums, it is simply “boomers”.

Of course, many of us didn’t make it all the way to senior status. A large segment of the lower income bracket boomers went to war and never came back. Others fell by the wayside the way people normally do and insurance company executives have made all of the necessary adjustments.

One hundred and seven former major league baseball players died in 2020. I don’t know if that is a high number or a low number or an average number (Bill James probably knows) but it has been a significant year for deaths of all kinds and some really significant players have passed from the scene this year. The significance is tied to the Boomer thing, as the late father of one of our three boomer presidents may have put it. That’s because so many of those men were prominent in the big leagues that we the boomers have been following from our earliest days. I remember folks my parents’ age spending a lot of their conversational time talking about so and so or what’s her name who just died and thinking, damn, they sure do talk about death a lot. Well, now that’s us. We boomers spent a lot of time, 50 years or so it seems, coming of age but here it is. Half the Beatles are dead and have been for some time. All of the Rolling Stones have been dead for some time but no one has told them all. Dylan just looks like it.

I can’t recall all 107 players who died in 2020 and will only mention some but it’s a difficult thing to grasp. For instance, if you graduated from high school in the mid sixties there was a team in St. Louis that was really special. They won it all over the end of empire Yankees in 1964, won a great World Series over the Boston Red Sox in 1967, and then blew a 3-1 lead in games in’68 to the Detroit Tigers. Two great competitors who made all of that possible were Bob Gibson, the fiery right handed pitcher, and Lou Brock, the base stealing outfielder who also hit for average and power. It’s hard to imagine the world without them.

Much of the winning in the 1970s occurred in Cincinnati after the Reds acquired second baseman Joe Morgan from the Houston Astros. He was equivalent to Willie Mays in his ability to beat his opponent by hitting, running, stealing bases, and fielding. He also played well for a long time and then entertained us with his astute analysis in the television booth.

Al Kaline made it to just one World Series but his steady magnificence for the Detroit Tigers was an excellent example of skill and grace and good manners. Don Larsen had a mostly mediocre career but his moment to shine in the 1956 World Series was unforgettable as he threw a perfect game against the hard hitting Brooklyn Dodgers. I’m no Yankee lover but Whitey Ford was the very definition of a money pitcher as the lefty piled up win after win, especially in the “post season”, which in his day meant the World Series. Speaking of lefties, Johnny Antonelli was one of the first big winners of my youth as his 1954 Giants swept my favored Cleveland Indians. Another very good lefty who passed this year was Mike McCormick, who won the Cy Young award for the Giants in 1967. The Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn, was a great power hitting and speedy outfielder who was one of Houston’s first big stars.

It’s also very hard to imagine the world without Tom Seaver. The so called Miracle Mets of 1969 were actually not such a miracle because they had the strong man from Fresno out there twice a week to keep them in the game for at least nine innings. He had to wear a few other uniforms before he was through but I have to think of Tom Terrific as a Met.

The arguments will continue as to whether Dick “Sleepy” Allen should be in the Hall of Fame. When someone suddenly passes it is a natural thing to begin to think better thoughts about him and he certainly has the credentials. Beyond that he was a good strong man and a great all around athlete and team mate. Rest in peace, Dick, and all of you others. One last personal note. Biff Pocoroba also died this year. He was no contender for the Hall of Fame. I mean no disrespect, but Biff was a family favorite just because of his name. When my son and I would play Whiffleball in the yard, we would often use his name in announcing the next batter and start to giggle. Because his name kind of said what he was–a power hitting catcher. His best year was 1977, when he had 24 doubles, 8 homers, and 44 runs batted in. He played his entire career with the Atlanta Braves. And we don’t just miss the stars, because what we love is the game.

The No Ball Era

We have a smart television now. We were content to hobble along with our clumsy, fat old set despite its obvious limitations but our son took mercy on either us or it a while back and bought us one of the slim ones with the huge screen so we could count Joe Buck’s nose hairs. It is mostly resting now since the 2020 World Series ended but we do use it for watching movies or old episodes of Fargo or some such streaming stuff. My smart TV thinks I live in Tulsa. I don’t want to give too much away but from where I live you can’t drive to Tulsa in one day. Still, it’s kind of fun to get Oklahoma regional news headlines and comforting to know that other areas of this great land of ours have the same prominent issues, like where to get the best rate on your next “re-fi” or what the governor is pretending to know about the pandemic.

So I hate to be the one to break the news to you all ( all of the news appears to be breaking these days) but there isn’t going to be any baseball to play or watch or talk about this coming season. I know, everyone is pretending that it’s all going to be okay and MLB network and ESPN and all the usual sources are going through the motions of announcing the signing of free agents or the speculation about trade possibilities and pennant predictions, but, come on, it ain’t gonna be. And, really, that’s okay because we all have some serious stuff to pay attention to that cardboard cutouts and fake crowd noise isn’t going to relieve us from this time. Not that we don’t need diversions, but the money men are not going to put up with another faux season that doesn’t pay the bills. The San Francisco Giants just guaranteed $6 million for next season to a right handed pitcher who had a 7.22 earned run average last season and, even though they are owned by a consortium of people wealthier than most of us can imagine, you don’t accumulate wealth of any magnitude by throwing cash around carelessly unless you are seriously running for president.

Can we get along without the exploits of Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger and George Springer until further notice? I think we are about to find out the answer to that. Will we be shaken to our cores minus the double guessing of Aaron Boone and Joe Maddon? Apparently the NFL and the NBA are staggering forward as well although I barely pay attention. It’s hard to imagine contact sports and portable morgues co-existing much longer.

We will, many of us who are sick or not sick, still have a lot of extra time on our hands and eyes and ears. So, without baseball (okay, other sports too), what will we do? Well, besides our smart televisions and other appliances, we have Social Media. Let’s face it, though, faceschnook, twitter, and all of that other crap are getting a bit long in the tooth. We need something fresh and, without baseball, I need another avocation. I am taking steps to compete with those antiquated outfits that sell too many ads, invade too much privacy, and are owned by far too wealthy people. No, we are going to be different. There will be a strict limitation on photos. There will be no pictures at all of whatever you just had to eat. You might think that it’s cool, but none of the rest of us gives a damn. There will be absolutely no photos of cats doing anything at all. Take your cats and shove them to faceschnook. I think, after a few years of social media monitoring, that I know what people really want from them. What we want is to spew hostility, because we really feel a lot of it. We are mad and we are not going to take it anymore. Let it all hang out and, don’t worry, there will be no algorithm. We’ll have Al Gore Rhythm, which means no rhythm at all. No one will keep track of anything you do. We’ll just have an annual membership fee. There, I feel better already. I will call it Some Hostile Information Today To You. Yeah, that’s good. So long, See you on S.H.I.T.T.Y.

October Surprise

This has been an extremely tense October so far with a pandemic raging, more and more evidence of global warming plus, on a personal level, my new job. I probably should have just turned it down, but with things going the way they are economically I just couldn’t refuse. Representatives of the sovereign state of Bulgaria approached me about helping them with a problem. They were quite frank. International relations are important to them, they said, and they hoped to assist their country and its government in understanding better the culture here in the United States. Normal diplomatic channels have been sending mixed and confusing messages for the last four years, they said, so perhaps I could help them by reporting on some aspect of the American culture that I was comfortable with and thereby help make life more understandable for all of us. Plus, they would pay me.

It just so happened that the major league baseball season was coming to a close with an unprecedented 16 team playoff schedule that promised to be a great source of information for my new friends. The fact that I would not be able to attend any game in person but would need to rely on television only enhanced the opportunity. I was able to report that the things that Americans seem to be most interested in are eating food that they don’t have to cook themselves (especially if it contains canned “cheese” sauce and pickle slices), shopping for automobile insurance, drinking alcoholic beverages, driving new cars that easily slide sideways through all sorts of obstacles, and gambling their paychecks on all manner of sporting events so that other people can get really rich really fast. There were other things of note as well, such as the white man in a white suit with white hair and a white beard who seemed to like dripping brown gravy on top of pearly white mashed potatoes, which seemed a bit Freudian or something.

The games were a lot better than the incessant advertising, though, even when Joe Buck was working. It must be said that, despite lots of genuine excitement and loads of talented stars, the quality of play was not up to usual MLB standards. This was noticeable all season, and much of it had to do with the shortened schedule of both preparation and actual games. Base running gaffes were common and fielding errors as well as mental mistakes definitely marred things a bit, but what fun it was to have some ball to watch! It was, after all, the best we could do in 2020 considering the tragedy of Covid 19.

Oh, those Rays! Tampa Bay versus Atlanta was our personal wish but those damned Dodgers had to go and ruin things. At least we have a clear choice to root for in the World Series. That would be the Rays, a winning team assembled by intelligence, hard work, and bold thinking. Now we all know them. Did you know who Mike Brosseau was a couple of weeks ago? Neither did I, but Rays fans sure did. Last year, Randy Arozarena was just an interesting name to many of us. Now we know better. The list goes on: Nick Anderson, Willie Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle. Others, like Hunter Renfroe. Tyler Glasnow, Kevin Kiermaier, and Charlie Morton we may already have been familiar with. What has become evident is that this is a very good team with sensational defense, tough pitching, and good situational hitting. Watch out, you West Coast launch anglers with the left handed tire salesman. Here’s a side note about Justin Turner: one wished that the ghost of the dearly departed Bob Gibson could have appeared on the mound for the Braves on Turner’s next at bat after he played footsie with a pitched ball and got awarded first base.

Out of all the beautiful plays so far, the one that had me applauding in my Bulgarian spy armchair was the gorgeous sacrifice bunt put down by Houston’s Martin Maldonaldo that led to two runs when George Springer did the right thing. And kudos to Dusty Baker for his managing job too. The vilified Astros got caught doing something just about every other team might try and, yes, that was wrong, but for people to condemn that team while selecting the Cheater of Cheats to reside in the White House comes across as lame indeed.

A Bulgarian salute also goes out to TBS, the network vastly superior in covering baseball to the one we are stuck with now. Pedro Martinez, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson and Ernie Johnson were superb.

We are witnessing death too, and I refer not only to the many outstanding players we have recently lost but also to certain baseball traditions that are fading away: pitchers batting, sacrifice bunts, choking up and taking what is given and, sadly, starting pitching period.

Some of us are also wishing death to certain things: microphones on the field, gold chains, fake crowd noise, and incessant advertisements. Happy World Series!

Okay, Zoomer

Forgive me, Commissioner, for I have been a doubter, but here we are, having a post season after the weirdest “season” on record. And yes, I am eating it up. 2020 is already assured of being one of the strangest years in the history of years, all things considered, but let me quickly go on record as being totally mortified that ABC, still a low grade outfit after all these years, had the poor taste and undignified crassness to interrupt the ninth inning of a crucial major league playoff game just to give us a “special report” about the health of a third rate television star. That was disgusting.

The Miami Marlins are already the story of the year. I have to admit, I have fancied myself a serious follower of the sport for a number of years now, but I cannot rattle off the names of the Marlins roster with any confidence. Now I know about Sixto Sanchez and Garrett Cooper and Lewis Brinson and some others but, especially after Covid 19 set them back early on, none of us was really giving these guys any kind of chance even with the expanded playoff scheme.

Another interesting team among the also rans was the San Francisco Giants. I had figured that they were probably good for 19 wins in their 60 game schedule and there they were contending right up to the end and finishing 29-31. Credit Gabe Kapler and his extensive crew of modern coaches for putting together a credible offense from the unlikely collection of veterans like Brandon Belt, Donovan Solano, Mike Yastrzemski, and Alex Dickerson along with youngsters like Mauricio Dubon and Joey Bart. The Toronto Blue Jays, in their newly adopted city of Buffalo, New York, and the St. Louis Cardinals were also very pleasant examples of teams overcoming extreme difficulty to salvage a memorable season.

Since almost no one was able to attend any of the games in person, we were all subjected to viewing games on television whether or not we could ever actually afford to buy tickets. This meant, of course, being deluged with an endless repetitive cycle of the same tired advertising to make us feel small and stupid. Who could have predicted that so many rejects from comedy writing schools would eventually find gainful employment writing ads for insurance companies? Hankook Tires, however, repeats with the most insulting ad award for the excessively lame bit featuring Clayton Kershaw demonstrating unsafe, irresponsible driving combined with illogic fit for a presidential speech writer.

The rule innovations introduced in this short season were all bad for the game but MLB continues to seek new fans among the casual, bored potential sports fans out there who might also be amused by watching hunting on roller skates. Runner on second to start extra innings? Well, I had hoped that it might help bring back bunting but no chance I guess. Universal designated sitter? It is no doubt time for folks like me to give up on fighting this . Okay, zoomer, I guess I’d just as soon watch some fat guy work the count to three and two, foul a few off and then strike out instead of watching some poor bastard pitcher who never got trained on the sacrifice pop out. The three batter minimum on relievers? Makes absolutely no difference.

It’s a new game in many ways but it’s still the best one going. The passing these last few weeks of two of the icons of an era gone by must be noted with true respect. Lou Brock and Bob Gibson were a pair of real winners in every sense of the word. The memories are all good with those two, and may they rest in peace.

Another Packed House

Sometimes, when I am not quite awake and not quite asleep, I get the feeling that I’m just in the middle of a dream. When I’m really awake and making espresso it will all go away, right?  No, man, you had better try going back to sleep. The dangerous world really did get even more dangerous. The Ignoramus-In-Chief is still looking for someone to blame. Can’t talk about Clinton or someone will bring up Epstein. The Amazon Rainforest won’t be there to bail us out of this one. The Green Berets are refusing to invade the bat caves. Larry King won’t answer his phone. The Pope has his own problems. Fauci is getting higher ratings. People testing  today won’t know if they are positive or negative for two weeks unless they work in the White House or play baseball.  Ah, yes, baseball.

Wait, though! The other night, while I was sleeping, they established universal designated sitters! No! The worst part of that is that everyone is happy about it. And even John Smoltz says he likes  the runner on second base to start extra innings. Oh, Lord, take me now!  And you know what I’m going to say about relief pitchers having to face three batters. The bullshit story is that they are trying to make games move faster. That’s what  polite people call disingenuous and what folks in my neck of the woods call happy horseshit. Many of you are familiar by now with the Baseball Anarchy remedy for long games, which only really bother people who get in for free anyway. That is, ten pitchers per roster for one thing. For another thing, let’s deep six the Ridiculous Replay Review. The idea seemed good at first, but then it got implemented. Gosh, maybe that portly fellow with indigestion made a mistake on that out call at first base. Let’s have a look. Well, it’s anything but instant, even when the call is obviously right or wrong. No, we have to make a long distance call to New York or Calcutta or wherever the replay gods hang out. Then someone has to wake them up and refill their beer steins while they watch the tape. Then they send their decisions via Morse code to all the ships at sea and one of the ships uses a carrier pigeon to send a message to the proper ball park and someone there phones the umps. Many fans have been conceived in less time than it takes for the average replay review to be consummated. So it’s bizarre but we have baseball except in those places where too many players have been infected. Plus, I’ve been water boarded enough to accept it all, even the post season that now includes almost as many teams as the NBA does. I’ve seen the first two hits in the career of Chadwick Tromp and that was fun. I have seen  Johnny Cueto and Max Scherzer pitch. I have seen  Cody Bellinger make several outs. I have not seen a Madison Bumgarner snot rocket and I don’t care. It may not last very long but I’ll take it, even if it includes Joe Buck and that awful Taco Bell commercial  for the Grilled Cheese Burrito box that hurts my stomach, Let it roll.baseball anarchy logoBig Klu

Brave New World

It was one of those headlines that made you look twice. Then read it again to make sure it wasn’t something from the Onion or part of a dream. The major leagues are going to try to have a season right here in 2020.  There are more deaths from this virus already than this country had in World War I and there is no sign at all of abatement but here we go, empty stadiums and all.

Golly gee! Right away my head began to spin and my legs started taking me in a direction I had not traveled in quite a long time.  The next thing I knew I had opened the door to the neighborhood tavern and, once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that there was no one in there that I knew, except for Nick, the bartender. Nick never acknowledges your presence until your  wallet is in your hand.  There was one sly guy standing near the side door with a bottle of beer in his right hand and his left hand  held a lit cigarette that he could step right outside with if anyone made a fuss. I was the only one wearing a mask, including Nick, so I guess the side door was handy for that as well. I needed to talk, so I was glad that there was music playing although I didn’t see a juke box. It was Joe Walsh playing Time Out,  “wake you up to tell you it’s okay to sleep some more, by the way, is there any you can sell us?” and not so loud you couldn’t have a conversation but loud enough you could talk.

There was a little man with a pony tail on a stool at the end of the bar nursing a drink of some kind. He looked to be Asian or maybe Native American, I can’t always tell and I never ask because it’s rude and I hate to show my ignorance. Anyway, he had a kind face and was smiling so I began to unload.  Do you follow baseball? Yeah, well, did you hear? Sixty games! No fans in the stands and masks in the dugout! Holy shit, this is weird. Oh, and the most Mickey Mouse thing of all, if there are extra innings—–yeah, right, a runner on second to start the inning! But the worst, the absolute worst is Designated Sitter in both leagues! That’s it man. Pitchers hitting is gone forever. Sacrifice bunts, what’s that?  Squeeze play, forget it! I had hope. I had hope but now it’s gone. I can’t believe it! Sorry to be so upset, thanks for listening.

I admit that I drank the first beer too quickly but I ordered another and told myself to sip this time. The kind man said that his name was Elmer and that he had an answer for me if I would be so kind as to provide another drink for him. I said thank you and asked Nick for a bottle of mineral water for Elmer. Eventually, it arrived. Now the juke box or whatever it was  featured Ry Cooder singing It’s Just Work For Me and I was still sort of fidgeting. Elmer had a sip of water and began to speak. You have your reality and I have mine, he said. Every living thing does. What holds us all together is heavy as a stone and light as a feather. It is fragile and it is strong. It is big and it is small. What do you want to do? Do you want to be back to 1972, when Richard Nixon wiped the floor with George McGovern? Do you like Sansabelt slacks? Do you want cigarettes to cost a dollar a pack so you can start smoking again? Is Barry Manilow your favorite singer?

He looked at me with a little half smile. I wanted to smack his little face. I thanked him for his time, gulped down the rest of the almost cold beer and went back out into the searing heat. Okay, then, I’ve got nothing against Ron Blomberg or Harold Baines or any of those guys. It’s just that the game I’ve always loved is—-okay, screw it. Let’s go. Let’s go all the way like a co-ed softball league. Let’s have more wretched excess than Blind Faith and Vanilla Fudge put together. Sixty games? Hell, let’s have 60 double headers of five innings each! Guys don’t pitch more than five innings anyway. Instead of using nine innings to figure earned run average, let’s use five. Who cares? Old school pitchers like Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer could start both games of the double header. So called “closers” could get two saves in one day. Then you have a 120 game schedule, sort of like a strike year. And why stop with designated sitters? With that extra inning rule we would be ripe for designated runners too. And, not to denigrate the good fielders who can’t hit much, let’s have designated fielders who also aren’t allowed to bat. Sure. It’s an age of specialization so now youngsters can choose early on what aspect of the game they prefer to practice. Perfect. We would all rather just play video games anyway, right?

SLEEPY

Teammate Bob Uecker gave him the nickname Crash. The reason he received that name was his learned preference for wearing a batting helmet not just when he was at the plate but also on the bases and in the field. The Philadelphia Phillies decided for some reason that his name was Richie even though no one ever had called him by that name before. Back home at Wampum High School and nearby Chewton, Pennsylvania he was known as Sleepy. On his birth certificate, he was named Richard Anthony Allen, one of nine children raised in the small western Pennsylvania town mostly by his mother.

He was called Sleepy because an early childhood injury left him with a droopy left eyelid. Dick Allen is in his late seventies now. I never saw him play baseball, even though I grew up close to Wampum and was only slightly younger, until he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1971, but I did see him play basketball once. That was in 1961 and it was a treat. It was a game played during the Christmas holidays with former high school stars at the local YMCA and Sleepy Allen amazed me by dunking the ball with his back to the basket. Dunking wasn’t done much in those days and was a bit of a novelty, especially for a person who stood five feet, eleven inches. Richard and his brothers Harold and Ron filled the local sports pages in those days  with their exploits for Wampum High School as all three of them were All State basketball players  for a team that almost never lost under legendary coach L.Butler Hennon, whose son, Don Hennon, became an All American play making and shooting guard at the University of Pittsburgh.

We all found out about Dick Allen the baseball player in 1964. He became National League Rookie of the Year that season as part of a Phillies team that probably should have won the pennant. He batted .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in. At  22 years of age he was looking like a star for Philley for a long time. He had power and speed, stole bases and had good baseball smarts. He also committed 41 errors at third base.

Philadelphia fans were happy to have a contending team again but the City of Brotherly Love had, and retains to this day a reputation for unfriendliness  to perceived enemies or miscreants. In 1965, Allen incurred the wrath of many by taking on the Big Donkey, Frank Thomas, when Thomas made racially denigrating statements toward himself and Wes Covington. Allen punched the veteran Thomas and Thomas went after Allen with a baseball bat. Thomas was a career fielder on a level with what Allen had shown in ’64, and was ten years older with perhaps a few good slugging years left, so the next thing he knew he was playing for Casey Stengel as a New York Met. Philadelphia was very late to the integration party, waiting until 1957, or ten years after Jackie Robinson made his Dodgers debut, and those Phillies fans who preferred their stars to be white showed their feelings with signs saying “We Want Thomas”.  Dick Allen had spent the 1963 season playing for the Little Rock, Arkansas Travelers . Those were the days of Governor Faubus, who attended the opening game of the Phillies’ Triple A minor league team  as fans held a sign that read “Don’t Negro-ize Our Baseball”. Wampum, Pa. wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t like that.

So it was a rough start as far as non baseball stuff but Allen went on to have what many consider to be a Hall of Fame career. His career batting average was .292, he slugged 351 home runs in 15 seasons while driving in 1,119 runs, he was very good in 1966 and ’67 for the Phillies, and it was mostly good but by 1969 he really wanted out and he was traded to St. Louis. After a good year there he was traded again, this time to the Dodgers. This was the team that he dreamed about playing for as a youth, but after a good season there in what was not a good park for hitters, he  ended up in the American League playing  for the Chicago White Sox, managed by old family friend Chuck Tanner. Allen crested there in 1972, winning the Most Valuable Player award with a .308 batting average, 37 home runs, 113 RBI. a .420 on base percentage, and a slugging percentage of .603. The years of acrimony and controversy seemed to be suddenly over, but it was not to be.  There came his sudden retirement in 1974 followed by a couple of sub par seasons back in Philley and then an almost ridiculous finale playing for Charlie Finley’s suddenly woeful Oakland A’s in 1977. The baseball world was left to ponder what might have been. Could he have been a Hall of Fame player? Many feel the answer is sure, but….and others feel he is one anyway. The feeling here is that he comes pretty close, but no.

Chuck Tanner said, “What I knew about Dick from having grown up nearby, and, see,this is what other people in baseball didn’t know, was how much Dick Allen liked to win. It was all he cared about.”  What Bob Gibson said was. “Dick was the same way I was. You don’t get in our way when we’ve got ball to play. We’ve got baseball on our mind. Why didn’t the writers ever figure that out? Why didn’t the headlines ever say GIBSON AND ALLEN CARE TOO MUCH ABOUT BALL TO MAKE SMALL TALK?

Sleepy scores points with this writer by saying, “As far as I was concerned the DH was the worst thing that had happened to baseball in my lifetime.” He had it in his Oakland contract that he would not be asked to DH.

Finally, yes, like it or not, racism is still an important part of all of our lives, and it obviously had a big effect on Dick Allen’s. The way he put it was this: “All my career,I had people tell me I was a natural hitter. Never once did they take into account how I studied the pitchers, how I analyzed the defense. Stan Musial and Ted Williams were great students of the game. Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson were naturals. It’s patronizing and insulting and, what’s worse,people think they are being complimentary when they say it.”

Why did Dick Allen wear that helmet all of the time?  Because while he was on the field, he was subjected, not always but often enough, to various dangerous things coming at him out of the stands from the paying customers.

Faux Ball

After fifty one days of sequestration, I finally worked up the nerve to go shopping and I mean actually inside of a store.  It wasn’t so much courage that got me there but rather  that thing called cabin fever. I think I pulled it off, but of course we just don’t know about anything these days, do we? There have been times in the past when I have surely smelled of alcohol but that was a different kind for a different reason.

Yes, I have the yips and sometimes the dog walks, pleasant though they may be, just aren’t enough. For one thing, where are my box scores? Look, playing ball is still the best way to enjoy the game but I finally reached that age where, just like the tykes in tee ball, even if I hit the ball my legs don’t know what to do next. So it’s fun to watch and then, lacking that, catch up on the box scores of last night’s games and see how everybody did. There is enough information there that you can almost re-create the whole game,which was something I tried to do often as a young lad delivering the afternoon newspaper. In July and August the sun would be hot enough to blend the ink right into my hands as I folded the papers before practicing my peg home (the spot on the customers’ porches right in front of the screen doors, preferably just right so they could open the door without touching the paper). In between stops I would take peeks at the sports page and see how my favorite players performed. Oh, Rocky Colavito  was 0-for-5 again. But Herb Score struck out 14 and the Indians beat Kansas City again. It took a little study but the motivation was there.  I learned that Schndnst was just an abbreviation for Red Schoendienst, a name I was proud to know how to spell early on. And, of course, Klszwsk, or Ted Kluszewski, the guy with no sleeves.

We played ball a lot and however we could. Some kind of bat and something resembling a ball. My brother Jimmy and I were made assistant managers of the family market one summer in the late fifties. That’s a fancier way of saying that the store was in what  the business boys call a downward spiral and we, as almost teenagers, were left in charge  of things  during very slow business days while our Dad attended to other important things. We were supposed to keep busy and we did that but it got boring. So if the Pirates were playing in Chicago it would be a day game and, in those days, the Cubs and Pirates were often contending but for seventh place. We would be listening on KDKA and inevitably it would get us fired up for ball. Playing ball in a store behind showcases and in front of a walk in cooler was not ideal but it was what we had. Also, there was the matter of a bat and a ball. There was a steel, the instrument for sharpening knives that had a handle, which was handy. Okay, but what about a ball? The steel was narrow, so it couldn’t be too big or too small or we’d have nothing but foul tips. Wadded up paper was too light. Jimmy, ever resourceful, came up with a solution. Over by the meat slicer was a loaf of Wonder Bread, so the cops could come in and make themselves a sandwich. They weren’t doing it so much lately with the baloney not being so fresh, so who would care? So he wadded up a slice and went into his windup. That Wonder ball was hard to hit from 20 feet, I’ll tell you. But we had a game and some laughs.

So it is surprising how well I’ve adjusted to not having baseball this season. Those classic games on You Tube or MLB are okay but I haven’t seen as many as I thought I would. I have a bunch of baseball books but they have all been read. The two best are both by David Halberstam, October 1964, an excellent description  of  the shifting  balance of power in baseball  as the old Yankees dynasty crumbled, and Summer of ’49, a story so well told about a year when both leagues had furious, exciting pennant races that it inspired me to replay the entire season with my Strat-O-Matic board game. Yes, I confess, I am one of those. I’ve played alone and with other people for over fifty years now and I’m not tired yet. I know you are all dying to know, so I can tell you  that the Yankees did not beat the Red Sox by a game as in real life. No, I was not nearly as smart as Casey Stengel and Boston won by three games without ever being seriously challenged except early on by Cleveland. No, I did not cheat. The Dodgers came in more to form. edging the Cardinals by two games after, as in real life, St. Louis was swept in a four game series by lowly Cincinnati in the last week. Then I was somewhat surprised when Brooklyn lost the World Series to Boston. Not enough pitching after Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe. Oh, and Ralph Kiner tied Babe Ruth‘s record with 60 home runs for Pittsburgh. So I have now outed myself to the world but guess what? I don’t care, I’ve got something to do and my spouse has not shot me yet. Of course, we don’t have a gun. Actually, she loves baseball as much or more than I do, but rolling dice is not her favorite sound.

It is going to be very interesting to see what happens to this game of ours as well as the rest of our culture as this pandemic plays out. Here is hoping we all make it, faux ball or not.