It’s In The Alley For a Triple!

Before the whole world and everything done on it got completely organized, homogenized, and made into video games, we were often called upon to improvise our own fun. Back when he was still considered funny, Bill Cosby recorded a hilarious bit about playing football on an urban street with parked cars and lamp posts and other obstacles not generally associated with a playing field. You could seldom count on having enough players to field a regular side whether it was football, basketball, or baseball. My brother Jimmy and I even had an improvised game of “golf” which featured a ball (not necessarily a golf ball),a baseball bat (usually cracked) and a small hole dug into the ground in our backyard with the heel of one of our feet. No driving, just putting.

Most often, though, we played “stocking ball”. The equipment was pretty easy to obtain. We needed an old sock or two, the kind that came up over the calf. An old rag or the other sock was stuffed inside and a round shape was created. No stitching was involved; the ball was held together with a strong rubber band. The rubber bands that came with the boxes of wieners to our meat market were the treasured ones for this purpose. Before the first inning was over, these balls were not round at all but rather flat and roughly square. This affected the pitching more than the hitting but nobody cared. The bat was sometimes an actual baseball bat but most often we used a pick handle, which wasn’t round either but great for bat speed. Gloves were extraneous and disdained. The batter’s box was at the foot of the back porch steps. The pitcher’s “rubber” was on a line with the second garage window, the one farthest from home plate. We would mark a line with our feet but you could tell that you were in the correct position by looking at your reflection in the garage window. There were no bases unless you had teams but generally it was one on one with me and brother Jimmy, who was a year older. Occasionally it would become more of a family affair with my brother Paul joining Jimmy’s side against me and our dad. In those cases, the corner of the garage became first base and we would go first to home, sort of like cricket.

The layout of our backyard “field” was even stranger than the Polo Grounds that the New York Giants played in. We had a two car garage with wooden doors that swung open east and west and halfway across the door closest to us was the right field foul line. The left field line was extremely narrow for political reasons. Facing the pitcher as a right handed batter, to your left would be our next door neighbors’ back yard. The Sherbines’ driveway was on the border line, so to speak, because they entered from the alley whereas our driveway was accessed from the street and was on the other side of our house. Therefore the bushes planted next to our yard just before theirs became foul territory because, while the Sherbines were somewhat tolerant of our shenanigans, they were not amused by the fetching of foul balls into their backyard. That’s how I learned not to be a pull hitter. Now, if you hit one on a fly to the alley past their property, it would be fair. There were lots of ground rules like that.

So without bases, how did Jimmy and I determine hits and runs? It was the length of the hit before the stocking ball hit the ground. If you got it past the sidewalk that ended just before the garage, it was a single. Past that second window toward the alley was a double. Into the alley on a fly was a triple. Beyond the alley and into the neighbors’ yards on the other side was a home run. It was doubly important not to yield a homer to center or right because then the pitcher would have to deal with a feisty dog in order to retrieve the ball and often, in those cases, re-wrap the sock. Any ball caught on the fly was an out; balls not making it as far as singles territory were ground outs.

I lost a lot. Jimmy was just a year older, but he was a lot better. We both threw pretty hard for adolescents but he was more accurate. Despite being younger and less skilled, I was not necessarily learning to be a better sport. It got rather antagonistic at times. He would start bragging about how far that last homer had gone and I might be tempted to throw the next pitch at him. Getting hit wouldn’t hurt much unless our ball had been rained on and hardened up a bit, but of course it was an insult. We would sometimes be in angry moods anyway. The games would start on Sunday afternoons after we had been altar boys at 7 AM Mass so that we could finish our Sunday paper route before noon so we’d be a bit tired going in. Plus we umpired the games ourselves and balls and strikes had to be agreed upon, so to speak. His strategy was to let me walk him two or three times and then blast one. In retrospect, that was a good strategy but at the time I was kind of Puerto Rican as in, “Swing the bat, asshole!”. The fights sometimes got physical but then the commissioner, our mother, would threaten to call the game and we would try to cool off. Most of the time the war was peaceful, though.

When I was batting I also liked to be the stadium announcer as in “Now batting, number 9. Bill Mazeroski, etc. The other thing I liked to do was mimic the form of players I’d recently seen on television. I would try to pitch like Jim “Mudcat” Grant or affect the batting stance of Roberto Clemente or Dick Stuart. I’d watch an inning or two if a game was on TV but not be able to sit still anymore and go out to mimic those players. I could keep Jimmy in a better mood in this way but he would usually still pound me. We lived between Pittsburgh and Cleveland so those were our guys to root for and try to emulate.

Whiffle ball came along one day and, while that was fun and funny in a different way, stocking ball somehow seemed more like the real thing. I’d like to play today.

Prejudices Confirmed As Drought Ends

Surreal has become one of those overused terms used more and more by athletes and their coaches to describe things that happen in the course of events and, while occasionally it may be apt, too often it is not. For instance, if a pitcher from the American League has to bat in an interleague game or the World Series and he hits a triple off a Cy Young Award winning pitcher, that’s an unusual thing but it’s not surreal. Now, if a manager called time out and approached the mound in order to replace his pitcher and the pitcher suddenly transformed into a giant cockroach and bit the manager’s head off, that would be surreal, like Jefferson Airplane’s pillow. The 2016 World Series managed to come close to being surreal, especially when rain starting pouring down as extra innings approached but let’s just call it bizarre and go from there.

Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor,Jason Kipnis and most of those tough, gritty, never say die Clevelanders will most assuredly remain in contention for the World Series for many years to come even if some veterans like Carlos Santana and Rajai Davis begin to fade away. Cleveland, playing without some of its best players due to injuries (Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, most of Danny Salazar) went up against the powerhouse Cubs and very nearly pulled it off. The midseason acquisition of Andrew Miller obviously helped a lot but the core of this team is solid. Their one vulnerability is outfield defense, which finally showed itself in the last two games, but the return of Brantley will help that problem. This team seemed to take many observers by surprise, but that is only because we hadn’t seen them very much and their success through most of the playoffs confirmed my prejudice that strong starting pitching is still the basis of winning baseball.

Jake Arrieta‘s home run and a pleasant sprinkling of other hits by pitchers throughout the playoffs confirmed another prejudice—that the designated sitter is for slow pitch softball only. Also, I think we saw ample evidence that teams with players that know how to bunt successfully and are willing to do it can score more runs than the teams that prefer to pop up or hit into double plays. Another difference that pitchers batting makes is that the managers may choose to use a pinch hitter at times to replace them. This might have fouled up Madman Maddon’s overuse of Aroldis Chapman in the sixth and seventh games. The Cubs won the series but, while I have long been a Joe Maddon fan because of his unorthodox thinking and refreshing approach, I think he was blowing the series for his team but that his players picked him up, as they say. Arrieta and Hendricks both came out of their last starts too soon. Maddon was reminding me of the tight sphincter reaction of Matt Williams‘ removal of Jordan Zimmermann a couple of playoffs ago that helped the Giants eventually beat the Nationals in the 2014 N.L. championship series. I think sometimes that a manager who, like us in our uneasy chairs rooting at home, gets nervous and feels like he just has to do something so he changes pitchers. Maddon, having won, is covered, but here’s what I think the repercussions of that kind of maneuvering are: the starter pulled too soon is shown a lack of confidence which may surface in the future to the detriment of the team and himself; the rest of the bullpen gets a loud and clear message that they are thought not good enough and, as in the seventh game, when they have to be used after all, the message may be resonating. Is that putting too much psychology into it? Aren’t these big boys playing at the highest level who are confident, secure people? Well, so far, humans are still human. As for Chapman, maybe he is that strong. Or, maybe things won’t be so rosy when spring training rolls around for whatever team he pitches for next.

All of that brings up another favorite prejudice of mine, the almost absurdly funny fascination with the closer as I described in a previous diatribe. Francona, unlike Maddon, was pretty much forced to use the bullpen earlier and more frequently due to the fact that two of his starters were injured in September and the probably correct decision was made to use only three starters. Thus, the way Andrew Miller was used was more like the way relievers were used back in the day: get us out of trouble now. I predict that the whole emphasis on “closers” will one day, perhaps soon, go away.

It was a great series after all, however, and my one last complaint is that it’s too bad that so many young (and old!) people were not able to enjoy it “live” because Generalissimo Rupert had to have all night games. Many bright stars like Javier Baez, Roberto Perez, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber were on display and gave us thrills. And Kyle Hendricks. Maybe the real reason I got mad at Maddon was that he ruined my quip that, with the game so near the rock and roll Hall of Fame, my money was on Hendrix.

It’s Been a Long Time

How have the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians done in the World Series versus each other? Well, we don’t know, because they haven’t faced each other in all of the more than 100 years that they have been around. The last time Cleveland played in the Fall-Winter Classic was 1997, long before Google had replaced the public library system and Bill Clinton had begun grooming himself to be First Gentleman. As you must have heard Joe Buck say a thousand times during the National League championship series, the Cubs haven’t been there since 1945, which was even before the Ed Sullivan show. One would have thought that these two ancient organizations would have battled each other at some point, but nope. I looked it up, with very little help from Google.

It seems a bit quaint now, but 1945 occurred in a period once described as the war years, roughly the first half of the decade of the 40s as far as the United States was concerned. Wars weren’t supposed to last forever then and another difference was the military draft, which meant that many ballplayers either enlisted on their own or were “selected” to join the fight. The effect on major league baseball was a well documented dilution of the talent pool that meant that more youngsters and aging veterans of the baseball wars dotted every roster. The 1944 Cubs had finished fourth in the eight team league, 30 games behind the pennant winning Cardinals. Stan Musial was one of the Cardinals who wasn’t around for the 1945 season and Chicago replaced St. Louis as N.L. champs by three games. Those Cubs were led by Phil Cavaretta, Stan Hack, Peanuts Lowrey and Andy Pafko. The pitching staff was strong,as Hank Wyse and Claude Passeau, who had combined for 31 wins the previous year, upped their total wins to 39 in ’45. Those Cubs lost to Detroit in seven games as Hank Greenburg returned from military service in time to slug two World Series home runs and the Tigers were champs. It was the tenth pennant of the 20th century for the Cubs and we haven’t seen them in the Series since. Some goat kicked Mrs. O’Leary’s cow or something.

Three years later, The Cleveland Indians had to beat both Boston teams to do it, but they were World Series winners over the Boston Braves in six games after beating the Red Sox in a playoff for the American League pennant. Cleveland has been to the Series thrice since then, getting swept by the Giants in 1954, losing in six games to the Braves in ’95, and losing in seven to the Florida Marlins in ’97. So an organization that hasn’t won it all since the forties is going to do it this year provided both cities on the Great Lakes are not frozen over before Halloween.

The 1995 Cleveland team had a parallel to the ’54 bunch in that it dominated its league with a 100-44 short season record followed by a sweep of the Red Sox and a six game league championship series win over Seattle. The 1954 Cleveland team won 111 games to beat the perennial A.L. winning New York Yankees by eight games. However, though the World Series losses by each team were considered upsets, the National League teams may well have been the stronger teams overall. The Mike Hargrove managed Cleveland teams would win their division again in ’96 and ’97, but the team that made it to the World Series in ’97 finished just 11 games over .500. Those Indians had the fewest wins of any of the post season entries for the A.L. but Jaret Wright and Orel Hershiser led the team that had a regular season team ERA of 4.73 past the Yankees and Orioles to face the wild card team of destiny from the N.L., Florida, for all of the marbles. There were some sluggers on that Cleveland roster:Albert Belle, who had hit 50 homers in 1995 and 48 in ’96,was no longer around but Jim Thome, Matt Williams,Manny Ramirez,David Justice and Sandy Alomar Jr. all hit between 21 and 40 home runs and the team totaled 220. There were no rumors that the clubhouse water cooler had been replaced by a steroids bar. It was just the times, man. At any rate, Miami’s team of destiny won it in seven games and now, 19 years later, Cleveland is back.

It says here that Joe Maddon and the cuddly Cubbies are stronger defensively, have more power, more pitching, and better depth. It also says here that Terry Francona and the team he manages have been under rated all season long and are likely to push it to six or seven games and maybe even win. Perhaps all drones have been grounded and the talent that many of us haven’t seen enough of will surprise the experts yet again. They have Francisco Lindor, Cody Allen, Corey Kluber and others we have not heard so much about or seen play very often. They also have good veteran strength with Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana, and the unbelievable Andrew Miller. There will be different people celebrating this year, that is assured. I only ask one thing of each contestant. If Chicago wins, please go back to just day baseball at Wrigley Field. If Cleveland wins, please please please lose that hideous Wahoo Sam logo.

The Also Rans

It’s almost time to put the television into off season mode, a lethargic semi-retirement thing that will last until the black headed grosbeaks return to us from Costa Rica or Mexico as they do every April to make their babies. There promises to be more international soccer available on the tube this winter and that is a good thing but, for the most part, the old machine will be resting.

The head and heart experts tell us that nostalgia is not a good thing to slide into, that staying in the present is best for our souls. I do not yearn for the days of Eisenhower, cars without seat belts, or Lawrence Welk, but I do miss that brief moment in time when baseball was all over the place with TBS when Ted was still around, WGN when the only thing it really had to offer was the Cubs, and ESPN before it got bought up by ABC or Disney or China or whatever. We had Harry Carey, Chip Carey, John Sterling and a host of other colorful characters entertaining us with live baseball at all hours and we got to watch all of the teams, not just the Yankees and Red Sox. I sometimes wonder how there can be a Golf Channel and yet not a Baseball Channel where we could view classic games from the past or winter ball or any number of programs to satiate the baseball glutton. Or perhaps I could, as the smart ass who came into my coffee shop one day suggested, “get a life”. Nowadays, of course, we have mlb.com, but I will save my ranting about the deterioration of that ad clustered site for another day. It ain’t the same. Boss Rupert rules the day and we are just consumers. One thing I will not miss is the commercial where the guy in the suit falls backward into the swimming pool and then drives away in his Lincoln like it’s a cool thing. I will miss the Flex Seal guy though because he is so earnest.

Now is a good time to add my thoughts about the departure of two great voices from my southern California days, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg. Scully, as even people who don’t follow the game know, was the voice of the Dodgers ever since the Whiskey Rebellion and is widely recognized as the best broadcaster of sports of all time. I was a Pirates fan when I arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 but, before long, Vin pulled me in and convinced me that, not only were the Dodgers the premier baseball organization in baseball but also that Farmer John bacon and sausage were things I could not live without. Dick Enberg tried his best to make the Angels palatable and got me listening in my car, which is where LA people spend most of their time. He also covered the Rams and UCLA basketball when those teams were very good and, despite a sort of altar boy appearance and delivery, was very good.

The season, though, is not quite over yet, although the teams that have been getting mowed by the Chicago Cubs may dispute that. What about some of those teams that are already finished? We are down to the Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers and the Wahoo Sams now, but while everybody is repeating themselves about those guys, let’s have a quick look at some of the also rans.

The best thing that can be said about the Cubs-Giants series is that it was a great advertisement against the designated sitter. Let those pitchers bat and make those hitters field! It became obvious that the Giants need a “closer” (hate to use that word) but what they also are in need of is a right side power hitting outfielder who can run and throw. It’s very doubtful that Mac Williamson will be that guy but their current crop of flychasers are all approaching Social Security days.

The Kansas City Royals’ reign as champs is over now after they succumbed, yes, to injuries but also to a serious drop in effectiveness by their starting pitchers. I think that they will return as contenders but Cleveland has become the class of that division and will not be going away.

The Houston Astros fell back a bit in 2016 but there is too much talent there to dismiss that team and the Texas Rangers will remain strong as well although stalwart veterans Adrian Beltre and Cole Hamels aren’t getting any younger. We seem to be thinking this every season, but Seattle could be threatening with a little tweaking and some luck.

The final season for David Ortiz found the roller coaster decade for the Boston Red Sox zooming toward the top before they were sidetracked by the determined Franconas. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and gritty veteran Dustin Pedroia got surprising help from Hanley Ramirez and Jackie Bradley but there is no telling where that erratic pitching staff will take them next time. The Orioles pound the ball in that little park and Buck Showalter is nowhere near as foolish as he looked in that last game but they are a big question mark after a somewhat bizarre season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates suddenly appeared to become committed to mediocrity this year and, if that persists, they will continue to drop back to their old ways of hoping and moping. Andrew McCutchen needs his dreads back and some serious upgrading of the infield defense. The Cardinals will be back because they just about always are. The three teams in the N.L. West not named Dodgers or Giants are considering merging into one team in order to contend. It’s unfortunate what happened to the Marlins but that division has two over rated teams at the top and Miami still has lots of talent. The Phillies will be my dark horse choice next year.

Okay, now we can all go back to watching Joe Buck try to complete a coherent sentence.

Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around

At first it seemed like the best way to attempt to summarize this season for the San Francisco Giants would be to ingest some high quality hallucinogenic mushrooms and just start scribbling. However, one never really knows what doing something like that will lead to and there was work and other responsibilities so I didn’t. Besides, I didn’t have any to eat. It likely would have made it all make more sense, though.

On Sunday, July 10, the Giants beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-0 as Madison Bumgarner won his tenth game against four losses. The team thus arrived at the All Star break with a 57-33 record and a 6.5 game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. Their record was the best in all of major league baseball at the time, three games better than either the Texas Rangers or the Chicago Cubs. Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto,and Jeff Samardzija had a combined won-loss record of 32-10. Cueto (13-1) was deservedly named to start the All Star game in San Diego. Bumgarner pitched a one hitter that day with 14 strikeouts. Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Brandon Crawford were each hitting pretty well at the time. So the fact that second baseman Joe Panik, right fielder Hunter Pence (no relation to the Cro-Magnon governor of Indiana), and third baseman Matt Duffy were all out of the lineup for extended periods didn’t seem to be hurting them. Besides that, veteran starting pitchers Jake Peavy and Matt Cain were combining periods of ill health with periods of ineffective pitching. People like Reuben Tejada, Grant Green, and Mac Williamson were filling in. Yet, there the Giants were, on top of it all.

Then the Giants got Pence and Panik back and traded Duffy for what looked like a better pitching bet in lefty Matt Moore. They then proceeded to take eleven weeks off, losing 41 of 66 games to fall hopelessly behind the Dodgers. The Giants found every conceivable way to lose games. The bullpen went from mediocre to not very good to scary. The hitting, especially with runners in scoring position, virtually disappeared. Samardzija was giving up a lot of long balls. Posey went two months without a home run. Manager Bruce Bochy got disrespected on the field by relievers Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo and, at one point, had to spend a night in a hospital. The fielding, a constant plus over the last few seasons, had some bad times as well. Even the great Giants announcing crew seemed to lose their spirit and sound sullen and defeated.

Finally, at the end of September, their last road trip ended with losses in two of three games in L.A. and a slit of four in San Diego that the Giants simply just had to win. Oh, well, we thought, October just means it’s that much closer to April. Hello, wait! The last home stand featured what seems like a resurrection. Starting with a 12-3 blasting of Colorado, they won 5 of the final six games including a sweep of the Dodgers who, admittedly, had already clinched. Now a wild card game featuring Bumgarner at his best and the unheralded Conor Gillaspie. What’s going on? Now,in my own words of just a few days ago, they are bear bait. Well, we’ll see.

Cubs’ Coronation Clinched?

The darkened, standard time days of November are looming ominously in our near future and many people are anxious. Some of them are anxious about the presidential election but these are people who probably watch too much television, and as a perusal of the local listings for television programs demonstrates, these are probably not the sharpest tools in the box. As a glance at those same listings proves, there is also not a lot to choose from. No, what the most intelligent, educated, and kindly people are anxious about is: can anybody (especially my team) beat the Cubs? We are here to answer that question with a no holds barred, emphatic probably not. However, to quote yet another famous television star, Crazy Guggenheim, “You never know, you know?”

As of this writing, the San Francisco Giants would travel to New York for the one game heart attack to determine who will be bear bait. The Mets have been playing better ball than the Giants lately, but who hasn’t? It’s been a war of attrition throughout the major leagues this season with injury after injury and the Metropolitans have been right in the thick of that with a current roster that bears little resemblance to the one that started the season. Their vaunted starting pitching staff became the favorite of ambulance chasers, with only the old man of the bunch, Bartolo Colon, unfazed. The Giants win the Perversity Award after scratching and clawing to the best record in baseball at the All Star break, then getting most of their wounded back and subsequently losing 42 of their last 68 games, a cool .382 pace that has been the worst in baseball. With Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, however, they cannot easily be dismissed. It says here that they will be though because losing, like winning, is contagious. St. Louis,still alive, looks great one day and terrible the next. As a wild card team,they would be dangerous, however, because they have been demonstrably better in road games.

Among the National League division winners the Cubs have the most strength all around the diamond.Anthony Rizzo. John Lackey. Addison Russell.Kris Bryant. Aroldis Chapman. Jake Arrieta, etc. They have speed, defense, pitching, power, pitching, versatility, and pitching. The Nationals did surprisingly well despite the fact that howitzers were knocking down their troops almost as often as their chief divisional rivals, the Marlins and Mets. I would have rated them next in line before Stephen Strasburg and, even more importantly, Wilson Ramos were injured. I think they’re toast, but it’s hard to count out a Dusty Baker squad. The Los Angeles Dodgers just might be the ones to spoil the Cubs’ aspirations. They won the division after we all were counting them out, and it is definitely not the same old crew. Yasiel Puig is back from obedience school and doing well, Clayton Kershaw looks healthy, Kenley Jansen remains consistent, Justin Turner remains hot, but mostly, Corey Seager. Who played shortstop for them last year? Right. Plus Zack Greinke is still hurling for Arizona, the team that conceded the season when it chose its uniforms.

It looks like Baltimore will be traveling to Toronto for the wild card game in what the Sporting News affectionately used to call the Junior Loop. To determine the winner of this game, take a quarter and flip it three times calling heads each time with the bird of your choice in mind. One thing is not in doubt—the winner will have home run power.

It surprised me that the Blue Jays did not win the division and it pains me to be wrong about the Red Sox but I just didn’t know. I didn’t know how good Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley were going to be, I figured Craig Kimbrel wasn’t going to help, I thought Hanley Ramirez was finished, and I underestimated that young designated hitter. I still think that they are vulnerable on the mound, but it may not matter. Cleveland is very solid but late injuries hurt their chances. The Texas Rangers have been steadily marching along and Yu Darvish is looking good but both Darvish and Cole Hamels will have to look like their old selves to get very far in the post season. We’ll see. If I had to pick an A.L. team to have the best shot in the World Series it would be Boston. And of course, as you know, I’m never wrong. I was also a Bernie Sanders supporter.

CLOSE THIS

Santiago Casilla is and has been, as far as anyone can tell, a good, honorable man who stays out of trouble, makes friends easily, and has worked hard and successfully at his job, which for the past seven years has been pitching baseball for the San Francisco Giants. Lately, however, to speak his name among followers of the San Francisco baseball team is to induce moans and groans and calls for his banishment to the caves where lepers and people who vote for third party candidates have been sent. Why? Has he been molesting children, beating his wife, or refusing to stand for the National Anthem? No. He has been “blowing saves”. Manager Bruce Bochy, an overly patient man if ever there was one, has apparently had enough. The other night Bochy turned to others to protect a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning but Hunter Strickland and Steven Okert yielded five runs and the Giants lost an important game to San Diego, 6-4. So who will be the Giants'”closer” now? Many teams every season face the same question. How about this for an answer: nobody.

I must confess that I was quite a statistics nerd as a youngster but that was before the onset of computers and now I sort of resent a lot of them. The most meaningless stat currently bobbing around is the one called “saves”. If I start the ninth inning of a game with my team ahead, 6-3, and I give up a walk and three hits that score two runs but then get the third out I get a “save” in the 6-5 victory. Wow. If I start a game and give up two runs in the first inning and then leave the game after six innings trailing 2-1 and my team never catches up while losing, 3-1 for instance, the statistic I get is a “loss”. Now, which job performance was better? Some saves are well earned but as they accumulate it gets hard to tell the difference. Okay, that’s one objection to the relatively new status of “closer” on every pitching staff but I have more. I think it was over rated genius Tony LaRussa who started us down this path to absurdity. In 1987 LaRussa was managing the Oakland Athletics and he had on his pitching staff a 32 year old right hander who threw pretty hard but seemed on the verge of burning out as a starting pitcher. Dennis Eckersley was that pitcher. He was mostly a starter between his rookie year of 1975 and 1986. His best season was 1978 for the Red Sox, when he won 20 and lost 8 with 16 complete games in 35 starts. He was just about as good in ’79, winning 17 and losing 10 with the same earned run average of 2.99 that he had the year before and 17 complete games in 33 starts. That’s particularly impressive when your home field is Fenway Park. By ’87 some wear and tear was starting to show. LaRussa was putting together his machine like efficient team that won a World Series in 1989 and probably should have won a couple more. The A’s had Dave Stewart, a 30 year old reclamation project who averaged over 7 innings per start that year with 261 innings pitched, but other starting pitchers like Curt Young and Steve Ontiveros were not so hardy. So Eckersley became a relief pitcher and, like Greg Cadaret and Gene Nelson, was able to keep things within reach after early departures while the offensive machine that consisted of Carney Lansford, Terry Steinbach and the McBashroid Brothers developed their run scoring capabilities and the A’s became a .500 team.

The next season the A’s really blossomed and Eckersley also did in his new role. They won 104 games, finishing 13 games ahead of the Twins in the A.L. West. LaRussa was looking very smart, both for making Stewart his ace starter and for the conversion of Eckersley to ace reliever, not yet termed “closer”. Eckersley’s innings decreased from the 115.67 in “87 when he had started two games to 72.67 in “88 with a league leading 45 saves in 60 games compared to 16 saves in 54 games in ’87. The ERA decreased from 3.03 to 2.35. He wasn’t perfect, though, as Kirk Gibson might tell you. Then, in 1989, the A’s just about were perfect and so too was Eckersley as they added Rickey Henderson to the mix again and won it all.

This led, as things so often do, to other organizations asking themselves, “Why don’t we try that?” What was now different was not so much having relief pitchers but having more specialized roles. Tony effectively had said to Eck, “Go let it all hang out, because I’m only going to use you when we are ahead in the ninth, and then go pound some Budweisers”. Now, of course, we have seventh inning pitchers, eighth inning pitchers, left handed specialists, and some very insidious myths being perpetrated.

First, the idea of not using one of your supposed best pitchers unless you have the lead after eight innings is nothing short of ridiculous.We all know that the game is very often very much on the line before that. Waiting for the offense to get you a lead first is both insulting to the rest of your pitching staff and not showing much confidence in your batters’ ability to score late (oh, that’s right–not against any of the 30 lights out invincible closers).

Second, sorry, but I believe it has become rather obvious that there aren’t 30 lights out, invincible “closers” on the planet at any one time. Why pretend that there could be? Eckersley and Mariano Rivera are in the Hall of Fame as are other relief pitchers.They are deserving but, at least for now, they cannot be cloned. What made more sense was the way teams used bullpens previously, which I predict they will return to before too long. What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing,it’s bad enough to have starters who can’t go past five innings but then to also have relievers who can’t pitch more than one or who can only face batters from one side of the plate borders on lunacy. What we have today is quantity over quality. Let’s jump into the wayback machine for a short hop to 1977 just for argument’s sake. One World Series team from that season was the New York Yankees, who won a lot of games despite having rather spotty starting pitchers. Their bullpen wasn’t exactly invincible either, but fortunately they had Sparky Lyle, a lefty who toiled 137 innings at various times in various games with a 2.17 ERA and 26 “saves”. They also had righty Dick Tidrow, who could give them a long start OR a long relief session. He pitched 151 innings. Starters sometimes don’t get that many innings these days. And the Yankees won the whole thing. The Pittsburgh Pirates had fairly good starters led by John Candelaria in ’77 but they also leaned heavily on a bullpen that featured Goose Gossage (133 innings, 1.62ERA), Kent Tekulve (103 innings), Grant Jackson (91 innings with two starts) and Terry Forster (87 innings including six starts). The Philadelphia Phillies were perhaps the best example. They had four guys who could finish a game: Tug McGraw, Gene Garber, Ron Reed, and Warren Brusstar. They had 46 saves among them. Reed started 3 games and they all pitched between 71 and 124 innings while backing a starting staff that featured Steve Carlton and several Hail Marys.The Phillies won 101 games and the East Division that year. The physiology hasn’t changed that much in 39 years.

Third, there are young people today being trained to pitch as relievers. This is all wrong. Every pitcher should begin as a starting pitcher just like every batter should learn to field a position. Give up on them when they are 35, not 13. This is the worst of all the bad features.

Finally, something we’ve now heard so many times that we start to assume it must be true: it takes a “certain mentality” to pitch the ninth inning. Look, it takes a certain mentality to get out of bed every morning and get ready for a workday that could be dangerous and body wrecking or perhaps just boring and repetitive with little reward. People do it, however, to get the bills paid and try to support their children or at least themselves. I got your certain mentality right here. If you can pitch you should pitch and that’s what managers need to get across.