Phillies Determined to Hoard Every Last Dollar

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Regardless of whether you found yesterday's unveiling of a rejiggered Phanatic acceptable or not we should all be clear as to what that unveiling represents: the organization's determination to hoard every last dollar out there. 

Without getting into the specifics of the club's dispute with the designers of the Phanatic as well as the nuances of intellectual property law, the club's attempt to perform a legal end-around by way of sky-blue tail feathers is yet another brazen money grab by the organization that is telling in what it says about how the club feels about its fans.  In short, it simply doesn't care about us.

We know this because the Phanatic by now is woven into the cultural fabric of both the city and its sports fans.  Mess with him, even a little, and you mess with so much more.  The Phillies know this, of course, which is why their revamp hews as close to the old Phanatic as their lawyers determined was legally possible.  Yes, he does still look like the Phanatic.  Except that he's not the Phanatic.  Instead, he looks like something a team of lawyers came up with in an effort to save their client a few million dollars.

Of course, a few -- or more likely several -- million dollars is nothing to sneeze at.  And if the Phillies truly believe they're in the right here they ought to go to court and prove it.  Maybe they are.  And maybe they will.  But in the meantime the creature that took the field in Clearwater yesterday emitted the stink of a group of very rich men trying to get away with something.  And confident that we -- the fans -- either won't care or, even better, will cheer them on for doing so. 

We shouldn't let them get away with it.  The design team that, let's face it, created the creature we know as the Phillie Phanatic, are artists who are entitled to the protection of the law.  Whether the law is in their favor or not in this instance ought to be litigated.  The Phillies braintrust ought to be familiar with how these sorts of things are resolved -- each team puts their best out there and in the end, the best team wins.  The guys in the clubhouse do that 162 times every year.  Like them, their bosses want to win here as well.  Except that they very badly don't want to play the game.

There's an arrogance to all of this.  A nastiness.  A pettiness.  The Phillies would like us to believe that not only are they a family but that all of us -- fans and organization -- are sort of an extended clan, all in this together.  Except that they'll not hesitate to pick our pockets whenever they can ($14 beer anybody?) and won't hesitate to hold a cultural icon hostage in their effort to protect their bulging wallets.

Watching the legalistic transformation of the Phanatic yesterday I couldn't get that P.T. Barnum phrase out of my head: There's a sucker born every minute.  Whatever we do as fans, we ought to make sure the organization knows we won't be played for their want of every last dollar. 


Roy Halladay and the Kobe Bryant Aftershock

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

First let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way.  Yes, Roy Halladay was a fantastic pitcher.  A Hall of Famer.  A wonderful part of baseball history; an indelible part of Phillies history, even.  His #34 should be retired (at least by the Blue Jays).  Okay, done.

Now let’s talk.  While a Hall of Fame pitcher for Toronto, Halladay was a great pitcher for all of two years here in Philadelphia.  He won a total of 55 games in pinstripes – two more than Don Carman.  Of course, he won a Cy Young Award in 2010 and pitched two no-hitters – one of them perfect – but other players have had excellent albeit abbreviated stints here, too.  We remember those seasons and those players but we manage to keep it all in perspective.  Hell, John Denny won a Cy Young Award here in 1983.  He even started two World Series games in pinstripes.  The Phillies seemed to have had a steady handle on Halladay’s tenure here, at least until Kobe Bryant’s tragic helicopter crash.  Then something changed.

After Halladay’s awful death in a 2017 plane crash the Blue Jays did the right thing and retired his number.  The Phillies did the right thing as well by honoring him on their Wall of Fame.  It was the appropriate honor for someone who unquestionably touched the city’s baseball fans during his short time here.  The Phillies Wall of Fame is an eclectic collection.  There are the all-timers, of course -- Schmidt, Carlton, Ashburn, Robin Roberts, but there are also those who resonate only with Phillie fans – Juan Samuel, Darren Daulton, Pat Burrell, John Kruk.  And then there’s John Vukovich, who is perhaps there to remind everyone not to take the whole damn thing so seriously.  Halladay fits nicely here.

Halladay gave the city two indelible moments and for that he deserves to be remembered. The Wall of Fame honor did that even though the Phillies turned the page from Halladay pretty quickly after his arm finally gave out in 2013.  They issued his #34 to A.J. Burnett the next season.  Then Aaron Harang wore it, followed by A.J. Ellis, Brett Oberholtzer and, finally, Andrew Knapp in 2017.  After Halladay died Knapp switched numbers, which was appropriate – it would have been jarring to see #34 in 2018 and think of anyone other than the pitcher who thrilled the city just a few years before. 

Then Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash.  And for some reason a week later the Phillies decided not only that the Brett Oberholtzer’s of the world wouldn’t wear #34 next year or even for the next few years but that nobody, ever, would wear it again.  Fair enough, but Halladay has been retired since 2013 and deceased since 2017.  Which suggests that this move has more to do with Kobe Bryant than Roy Halladay. 

Interestingly, the number Knapp switched to in 2018 was 15.  There’s another guy in Phillies history who wore that number for a long time, thrilled fans with his otherworldly ability, and holds the record for enduring more crap than any player in club history: Dick Allen.  The Phillies not only won’t retire Allen’s number, they sometimes appear to go out of their way to scrub him from their history.  Sure, they’ll bring him back for a Wall of Fame event once in a while but you get the feeling they sort of wish they didn’t have to deal with him and his legacy.  Every time his name comes up so also arises a discussion of what absolute ogres so many within the organization and fans in the stands were to him when, on the field, he was the Roy Halladay of his time – the pinstriped Übermensch who could seemingly perform feats on a baseball diamond nobody else in the game would even contemplate. 

If the Phillies want to retire Halladay’s number, fine.  Even though the event itself seems to bear a closer relationship to Bryant’s death under similar circumstances and the club’s calculated eagerness for a large gate in a season that promises to be challenging when it comes to ticket sales, so be it.  But it should now be clear that they’ve opened the door when it comes to this honor.  Yes, Halladay is a Hall of Famer but he’s not a Phillies Hall of Famer.  Joe Morgan’s in the Hall of Fame too and he was not only a Phillie for a short time like Halladay, he was instrumental in accomplishing something as a Phillie Halladay never could – strapping the club on his back and seemingly willing it to a World Series.  But there’s no rush to retire his #8 down at Citizens Bank Way.  Allen may never had led the Phillies to postseason glory but he was the club’s first black superstar and paid a hefty price for being so.  Some might say he’s still paying that price, over a half-century later.

If the Phillies are interested in doing the right thing they ought to tell Andrew Knapp it’s time for him to switch numbers one more time.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of the former Yankee and "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton is coming out in May.  Follow him on Twitter.  Or don't.  Either way he'll survive.


BASEBALL’S ORIGINAL SIN

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

It seems as if every few years baseball finds itself in some sort of existential crisis.  Today it’s sign stealing, a generation ago it was performance-enhancing drugs, before that it was Pete Rose and gambling, before that it was the fixing of the 1919 World Series.  In each instance, turmoil tarnishing America’s National Pastime.

The thing is, none of these crises are or were unique to baseball.  Football’s New England Patriots essentially did a few years earlier what the Astros seem to have perfected over the past three seasons, PEDs are right now to the NFL what Gatorade was in the sixties, and gambling and game-fixing have been a part of college basketball seemingly as long as there’s been college basketball.  So why is it so much worse when it happens in baseball?

In fact, it’s not worse.  At least objectively speaking.  But it feels worse because even though baseball has long abandoned its perch as America’s most popular sport it is still, curiously enough, intertwined with our national identity more tightly than all the other sports combined. 

The metaphor of baseball as America can be strained and overused but when it shows up in the impeachment trial of an American president, as it did Thursday when New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries listed baseball, along with apple pie and the Constitution as the three most American things he could think of, you know it’s not based on nothing.  And it’s because there’s something to the synergy between baseball and America that everything bad becomes more pronounced and awful when it happens in baseball.

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s the mecca of college basketball, Madison Square Garden, was home to some of the crookedest games in the history of organized sports.  At least seven schools were implicated in a multi-year point shaving scandal, including perennial power Kentucky and the only double national champion (NIT and NCAA) in the history of the sport – City College of New York.  The scandal was, well, scandalous, and reported breathlessly at the time, with programs and lives ruined in the fallout.  Here’s betting you never heard of it.  Here’s also betting that you’re not only acutely aware of the 1919 Black Sox scandal but that you can name at least one of the players involved.  And here’s also betting that you probably know at least one person who can name several.

The “steroid era” of the ‘90s and early 2000s is a now generally agreed-upon black stain on baseball, its perpetrators shamed, destined to be forever shunned for how they soiled the game.  But the same fans who even today can’t stomach Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens don’t seem to mind it at all when their football team’s offensive lineman quietly accepts his four-game suspension for ingesting a similar cocktail.  PEDs in football have always been, if not accepted, then tolerated as one might a groin pull.  Unfortunate when they occur, requiring a few weeks on the sidelines for rehabilitation, and then it’s back on the field as if nothing ever happened. 

 Why, then, is baseball singularly judged?  Turns out, ironically enough, it’s not because it is different.  It’s because it is not.

Baseball’s original sin resides in the chasm between what we want it to be and what it in fact is.  When it fails it’s not that it fails differently but that it fails in ways that demonstrate that it in fact is no different than any other institution in American life.  And there is a special place in Hell for those who so reminds us of this reality (which explains the reaction to Mike Fiers).  We castigate baseball for being no different than, say, football; for failing to be better than everything around it.  Its sin, then, is America’s: not that it’s the worst but that it failed in its promise to be the best. 

Returning to the Black Sox scandal, when he banned the Black Sox from baseball despite their just having been acquitted in a court of law, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis positioned baseball where he believed it to justifiably reside: above and apart from the scrum of ordinary life.  Baseball, Landis was convinced, was better and would conduct itself according to a higher standard. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” he wrote, “no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball again.” 

And there you have it.  The dirty business of litigation, the side deals, the prejudices of juries wouldn’t be permitted under Landis’s watch to tarnish a game that stood above and apart from all that.  Implicit in his words was an acknowledgement of a purity of spirit in baseball that was foreign to boxing, basketball, football, what have you.  Baseball was different.  Baseball was better. 

Of course, it hasn’t lived up to this standard, not by a longshot.  How could it?  It is, after all, just a game, played by flawed individuals and run by those similarly flawed.  No different, really, than boxing, basketball, or football.  But baseball’s failures seem bigger and more dispiriting because of the pedestal it claimed for itself and so often lectured from. 

The concept of American exceptionalism has taken a similar beating for some time now.  The founding document of the nation set it up for spectacular failure, declaring not only that all men were created equal but that everyone was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Good luck with that.  When America fails it’s usually not because it is uncommonly abhorrent but because it shows itself to be no different than its sister nations.  All men might have been created equal but they sure as hell weren’t treated that way for centuries.  In this, America isn’t unique.  It’s just not better.

Baseball will, of course, survive its current moment of crisis just as America will no doubt survive its present calamity.  And then we’ll all return to expecting more from both and being profoundly outraged when they reveal themselves to be ordinary once again.


Baseball Has No Love For Truth-Tellers

Mike_Fiers_on_April_7 _2016By Arturo Pardavila III on Flickr (Original version)UCinternational (Crop) - Originally posted to Flickr as "Mike Fiers pitches vs. Yankees"Cropped by UCinternational, CC BY 2.0, Link
 
By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Before her lame sorry, not sorry yesterday afternoon, Jessica Mendoza expressed loud and clear what pretty much everybody in baseball was saying under their breath about Mike Fiers, the former Astro who spilled the beans on his old organization to the Athletic last November: that irrespective of the truth of his allegation, it was the act of speaking out, of exposing the truth, that was the real sin.  For baseball has no love for truth-tellers.  They’re rats, turncoats, lowlifes, for violating the omerta of the clubhouse.  If baseball has a problem -- and yes, of course it does -- it’s not so much this sign-stealing incident, which will percolate through the next few months and then go the way of the steroid crisis.  Instead, it’s the persistent belief that there is something sacred about a Major League clubhouse.  That misguided assumption has been dragging baseball down for decades and shows no sign of letting up.

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‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (FRUSTRATED PHILLIES FAN EDITION)

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

‘Twas the night before Christmas and throughout CBP

No one was happy, least of all Girardi

The winter meetings took place just a few days before,

Where they won a few battles but just lost the war.

 

For while Didi was fine and Wheeler some aid,

Neither portended a postseason parade.

But Klentak closed shut his laptop, content to fall short,

Saying: “I’ll deal with it later, when pitchers and catchers report.”

 

When out on Ashburn Alley there arose such a clatter,

It rose Andy McPhail and all the front office waste matter.

Away to the window they flew like a flash,

Along with the owner, who tripped over his cash.

 

When what to their wondering eyes did appear,

But two Cole’s – Hamels and Gerrit -- not elsewhere but here!

And with the two pitchers were John Boggs and Scott Boras,

Agents floating about them like heavenly auras.

 

More rapid than eagles their suitors they came,

When they last pursed their lips and whistled their name:

Now Yankees, Now Dodgers, Now DC and Atlanta,

Who will pay our fair lads; become their baseball Santa?

 

The owner sighed deeply, his face wore a frown,

For the pitchers signed elsewhere and not for his town.

Aha, not so quick! Said Boras with glee,

If you promise us more, we’ll void those deals, you’ll see!

 

The owner whipped out his checkbook, thrilled at his luck,

Even though he knew well this would cost plenty a’buck.

Not so fast! so spoke Klentak, holding high his spray chart,

This Cole’s too expensive, that one’s an old fart.

 

But Gerrit's a winner, said the owner, and Hamels touches our hearts,

They’ll at least keep fans’ interest 'till training camp starts.

Humbug! Sneered Klentak, as he did not care,

"For we’ll beat out the Marlins; we don’t need this pair."

 

"Besides, we’ve got Nola, and we’ll put Kingery at third,

We’ll figure a way to polish this turd.

And what of Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin?

Our bunch is better than this kid and that has-been."

 

McPhail then piped up, swearing that he knew best,

Though it had been many decades since he’d known success.

Their twin Cole offer, he said, was both nutty and crazy,

"Besides, we’ve got two Adams -- both Morgan and Haseley."

 

So the owner said Pass! to Boggs and to Boras,

Who put their Coles back in their stockings and then tipped their fedoras.

"You’ll rue this cold evening when you had the chance,

To make your club better, to help it advance."

 

But the brass didn’t think so, for they were swimming in dough,

It just didn’t matter if they finished high or real low.

For fans bought Harper jerseys, bad food and their merch,

As if tithing to them, as if CBP were a church.

 

So as they sprang to their sleigh and gave their team a whistle,

The Coles and their agents saw Girardi shiver and bristle.

And to him they exclaimed as they drove out of sight:

Get out while you can -- call back MLB Tonight!


NOW THAT MILLER’S IN, WHAT ABOUT ALLEN?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

After what seems like an eternity, the wrong has been righted – Marvin Miller is going to the Hall of Fame.  Yes, it will be against his wishes, and it appears as if nobody in his family (Miller died in 2012) will be attending his induction ceremony (again, as per his wishes), but whatever.  A baseball hall of fame without Marvin Miller is like a Popeyes chicken sandwich without hot sauce.  There’s no zing, no zip, nothing to tingle the lips coming in and burn the throat going down.  So much of what gave baseball its style, its flash, its zesty palatability, in the last half-century lies at the feet of Miller in one way or another – free agency, offseason excitement, competitive balance: all of it is at least partially because of Marvin Miller.  So that’s great.

But what comes next?  After all, Miller didn’t achieve any of this on his own.  Nor could he, not even in the best of circumstances.  For Miller was an outsider’s outsider in the world of the baseball clubhouse – a Jew from Flatbush with a pencil mustache that recalled William, rather than Boog, Powell, everything about him screamed “interloper” the moment he walked into his first clubhouse as Executive Director of the MLBPA in 1966.  He desperately needed help from the inside in order to get anything done.  And he got it.  From a few unlikely sources, one of them perhaps unintentionally, but crucial help nevertheless.

There were three players who bridged the seemingly cavernous gap between Marvin Miller and the hundreds of players he needed to convince to stand up for themselves in order to transform the MLBPA from a backwater organization to the most powerful union not only in sports but in the entire country.  Those three were Jim Bouton, Curt Flood, and most unlikely of all, Dick Allen

Bouton was an insider who thought like an outsider.  An agitator kicking from within the penthouse – Yankee Stadium – nudging and questioning not only Yankee management but the entire power structure of major league baseball.  Why were the players constantly told to keep mum about their salaries when the clubs would trumpet the few large ones as loudly as possible, thereby giving the public the (false) impression that if a player like Mickey Mantle was making $100,000, a guy half as good was probably making at least half as much?  All the players knew that that guy was making no more than ten grand, if that, but they were all but sworn to secrecy by the salary omerta inaugurated decades earlier by the owners for the sole benefit of the owners.  Bouton broke that silence and allowed the players to find their voice.  Miller would teach them to yell but Bouton first taught them to whisper.

Flood was a man who refused to be treated like anything less.  “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” he wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on December 24, 1969, upon his trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies (For Dick Allen, of all people).  He later filed suit against Kuhn and the owners, seeking to overturn the game’s antitrust exemption.  He took both his case and his cause all the way to the Supreme Court where he eventually lost, but the sheer force of his standing up for what he knew to be right led others to find their spines as well.  Miller would lead them into free agency but Flood first showed them how to walk.

And then there was Dick Allen.  Flood’s line to Kuhn about not being a piece of property?  Essentially cribbed from Allen, who said the same thing a year earlier.  “They treat us like guinea pigs,” he told The Daily News’s Stan Hochman during spring training 1968. “They tell a guy, ‘Run into that wall.’  If he does and gets hurt, they look for someone else.”  When everyone around him was clamming up Allen was speaking out, telling anybody who’d listen that the players were being treated like property and not people.  It wasn’t right, he said, over and over.  And he wasn't going to sit around and take it.

The players might not have joined in but they were listening.  One who was listening most intently was none other than Jim Bouton, who was taking Allen’s daily struggles with Phillies management in from afar, wondering what was going on.  “This might just be a man trying to be one around people who expect something less and used to something less,” Bouton scribbled about Allen on one of the 978 sheets of scrap paper that formed the bones of what would become his landmark book, Ball Four, which subverted the game’s power structure once and for all, showing not only fans but his fellow players that the men who played the game were worth far more than the minuscule numbers on their paychecks. 018

Unlike Bouton and Flood, Allen never professed a social cause for his actions.  He had no larger agenda.  He simply demanded to be treated like a professional, no matter that he was playing a boys’ game.  His field of vision might never have extended beyond the tip of his nose but his example was there for all to see.  I will not be paid less than I’m worth.  I will not be called “Richie” when my name is Dick.  I will not do the club’s bidding unless I’m part of the decision-making process and properly compensated for my time.  Sadly, almost nobody spoke up for him.  But soon they were demanding to be treated as professionals, too. 

Miller would have been organizationally impotent without Bouton, Flood and, most of all, Allen.  Miller spoke the words, Bouton spoke the words, Flood spoke the words.  Dick Allen, however, lived them.  And it was because he lived them and told his story the way only he could that the MLBPA grew as powerful as it did.  It was Allen’s speaking up about his treatment in Philadelphia, after all, that led Flood to refuse to consent to his trade there in the first place.

You can argue Dick Allen’s numbers.  You can argue that his career wasn’t long enough or that he didn’t hit enough home runs or that his defense wasn’t Hall of Fame-caliber.  But you cannot argue that his off-field issues and controversies (and there were plenty of them) make him a lesser candidate.  Not after Marvin Miller’s enshrinement you can’t.  Not if you understand anything about what it was like to be not just a ballplayer but a black ballplayer in the America of the 1960s.  Not if you know anything about either baseball or American society.

Congratulations to Marvin Miller, even though this was about the last thing he was looking for.  Now it’s time to do right by Dick Allen and enshrine him next year when he becomes eligible for induction once again.  Like Miller, Allen's just about had it with the sanctimonious crowd who enjoy nothing more than lecturing on the many ways he's ruined the game, and isn't sitting at home waiting for the honor.  Regardless, he just might show up if elected despite everything he’s said about both the Hall and the sanctimonious crowd to the contrary.  And his would no doubt be a speech for the ages. 


Phillies, Flyers Court Fans Who Couldn't Care Less About the Phillies or Flyers

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Seeking to capitalize on the growing number of fans not in any way interested in actually watching professional sports, executives of both the Phillies and Flyers have recently undertaken bold initiatives to tap into this burgeoning market.

“We recognize that along with those fans who actively dislike our club and boo vociferously,” an unnamed Phillies executive said recently⃰ who requested anonymity lest he be relieved of his duties for stating the obvious, “there exists a larger demographic that actually prefers not engaging with us at all.”  The Phillies are one of a growing number of MLB clubs seeking to engage these non-engagers by providing a game-day experience designed to enable them to completely forget the fact that they’re not only at a major league stadium but in fact paid good money to be there.  “We try to do whatever we can to make an evening with us feel like an evening without us.  If we’ve done our job, the only time a fan realizes he’s at a Phillies game is when he is swiping his debit card.” 

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Book Review: May 17, 1979 -- When the Phillies, the Cubs, and the Wind All Blew

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Kevin Cook watched a four-decade-old baseball game on the internet and decided to write 253 pages about it.  Or at least that’s how it feels.  Although his book is officially titled “Ten Innings at Wrigley,” the first two-thirds of it screams, more appropriately: “Three Hours on YouTube.”  For Cook’s book is, frustratingly, largely as advertised: a summary of every at-bat that occurred during each half of the ten innings played between the Phillies and the Cubs that long ago afternoon.  No exceptions. 

At least Cook chose an interesting game.  The May 17, 1979 game between the Phillies and Cubs ended 23-22 in favor of the powder blues, with home runs rocketing over the ivy with abandon.  It was a fun game to watch.  I should know – I watched it in real time as it was happening.  Or at least all but the first few innings of it, as I didn’t get home from school until after the Phils had staked the seemingly insurmountable lead the Cubs would then proceed to surmount.  Regardless, it was a fun game.  The wind was blowing out, the sun was shining, and everybody was hitting.  Pete Rose, my new favorite player (having been signed away from the hated Reds the previous offseason), had three hits, Larry Bowa had five, and the Phils seemed primed to run away with the National League East once again, their fourth divisional title in succession.  For the ’79 Phillies that May, everything seemed to be coming up, well, roses.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course.  The May 17th game would be one of the last highlights of the season for the Phillies, as injuries and, probably more damaging, overall locker room grumpiness, doomed them to a fourth-place finish when all was said and done.  The Cubs, being the Cubs, could boast of even fewer highlights in 1979; they were on their way to another season in the wilderness and everybody knew it.  When the wind was blowing the right way at Wrigley, though, even they could be counted on to provide some thrills.  And on this day, it was and they did. 

Cook takes the reader through every at-bat in every inning, chronicling the Phils’ large early lead and the Cubs’ comeback.  They’d eventually tie the game at 22 before losing, of course, in the 10th on, what else, a Mike Schmidt home run.  If you’re a Phillies fan of certain vintage, you’ll probably enjoy the name drops sprinkled through the text such as Randy Lerch, Ron Reed and – wow! -- Rudy Meoli.  (If this isn’t the first time you’ve thought of Rudy Meoli in decades, you’re most likely a Meoli.)  And older Cubs fans will most likely chuckle upon encountering such long-forgotten names as Larry Biitner and Mick Kelleher.  Fans of both clubs might even do what I did – open their laptops and bring up the game itself to take in a few innings and bask in the analog nostalgia.

Which highlights a major problem with the concept of the book.  With the game itself so easily accessible, it’s unclear why anybody needs such a detailed summary of it on paper.  More problematic, those watching the game on YouTube will probably do what they’re likely to do when reading the book – stay for a few innings and then tune out.  It was just an early season game between two teams going nowhere, after all.  Not all that much to get excited about. 

I’m going to assume that Cook was not responsible for the book’s subtitle: "The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink," but it does him no favors.  Marrying the game to the idea that baseball was on the brink brings with it an expectation that at some point the larger historical significance of the game will be broached.  To his credit, Cook doesn’t go there, perhaps realizing that the game, itself, doesn’t have any.  It was just a game, after all.  A fun game, yes, but that’s about as far as it went or can possibly go.  Was baseball “on the brink” as the subtitle suggests?  Perhaps, but on the brink of what, exactly?  Cook never says and it’s not clear how this game contributed to anything more than an enjoyable afternoon for those like me who were lucky enough to have watched it. 

The book’s final hundred pages do go a bit beyond the game that afternoon, discussing in clipped fashion the 1980 Phillies, Dave Kingman, Bill Buckner and Cubs reliever Donnie Moore, whose postscript was nothing short of ugly and tragic.  These tales are interesting but have been told before, mostly in deeper dives than Cook attempts here. 

The one exception of note is Cook’s telling of the feud between Kingman and Buckner, which hasn’t received as much ink as it probably should.  As well, the hypothesis that Kingman, of all people, and as retrograde as he could be personality-wise, might actually have been a primitive version of the modern day power hitter, (a “three true outcome” hitter if ever there was one back in the ‘70s) is a fascinating one.  So, too, is the notion of the contact-hitting Buckner as, in retrospect, a portrait of the type of hitter soon to go out of fashion.  As Cook teases here and there throughout the book, Kingman represented the future of baseball and Buckner the past, and the two players hated each other largely because neither could understand the other’s approach to the game.  A study of this relationship would be fascinating.  Fingers crossed that one day we’ll get one.

Until then we have this.  Enjoyable enough on its own terms but, like the game it describes, once it’s over you’ll wonder what it was all about in the larger scheme of things.

Kevin Cook, Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball on the Brink.  New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2019.  253 pp.  Cloth, $28.00. (This review, along with numerous reviews of baseball books, will be featured in an upcoming issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture)


WE’RE ALL MANAGEMENT NOW

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

When I was six I got a Strat-O-Matic baseball game for my birthday.  This was 1972 and, my luck, the one I received came with a starter set of 1971 Expos cards.  Imagine the fevered delight of any six-year-old when he discovers he’ll have the thrill of managing from his basement the likes of Boots Day and John Boccabella for the foreseeable future. 

I can’t remember who the other team was that accompanied the Montreal cards; all I can recall is sitting in my basement watching these Expos strike out, pop out, and ground out with stunning alacrity.  In the real world, the Phillies were sending to the plate the likes of Denny Doyle, John Bateman, and Roger Freed so from where I sat, my Strat-O-Matic experience was alarmingly true-to-life.  This was baseball, I thought.  Real baseball.  And I was not merely playing it but orchestrating it.

Just as in real baseball, Strat-O-Matic offered insight if you took the time to look hard enough.  Those ’71 Expos were terrible but the more I played the more I saw the value of a player like Ron Fairly.  Rusty Staub was the unquestioned star of that club but Fairly’s card was fantastic; he seemed to get on base all the time and was maybe the toughest out in their lineup.  Ron Hunt was another player I learned to appreciate through his Strat-O-Matic card.  Soon I was batting them first and second every game even though the real-world Expos not only moved them around the order but sometimes didn’t play them at all.  Idiots, I’d say to myself.  I know better.

Strat-O-Matic begat Statis-Pro Baseball (where I discovered the deceptive magic of Paul O’Neill years before the Yankees would), which begat Rotisserie Baseball, which begat the sabermetric boom that we’re presently in the midst of.  In the process we’re all more in the know now than we have ever been before.  In short, we’re all management now, or at least we think we are. 

In the old days, when ballclubs traveled by train and sportswriters wrote breathlessly about them, we like to think that players were mythologized beyond belief – “godded-up” as critics of that era describe how they were written about.  And they were.  But along with that came a perspective that was clearly in management’s camp.  The writers of that era were working on the owners’ dole and weren’t about to do anything to screw that up.  So fans were offered a sweetened-up version of the game; one that gave them their heroes but also beat home the idea that these heroes were lucky to be there and ought not to rock the boat.  Fans, seeing the game through the eyes of management as conveyed to them by the sportswriters they read every morning, understood this implicitly.  In the process, the Yankees won seemingly every year, a few other teams tried, most didn’t, but everybody ended up comfortably in the black each October.

That perspective starting changing in the ‘60s, such that by the ‘70s and ‘80s fans were identifying more with the players than the people who paid them.  The owners were exploiting them no matter how much money this one or that one made, the players were the game, and the best ones were worth whatever it cost, were the budding narratives.  It’s no surprise that as this mindset emerged, the Players Association grew stronger and more powerful.  And in the process, baseball became more competitive.  Heroes may have become passé but stars ruled and in this star-laden era, a wider swath of clubs participated in a World Series than ever before.  And along the way clubs made more money than ever, although they were forced to spend more in order to do so.

Games like Strat-O-Matic and Statis Pro pushed back against the rising player-centered narrative, albeit inadvertently.  And fantasy baseball and sabermetrics crushed it into the dirt.  Today we’re back, if not quite where we started – baseball gods reside only in heaven nowadays – but pretty damn close.  Once again we see the game through management’s eyes, tinkering with our rosters here, looking for underappreciated value there, mixing this with that to see what might happen.  The players exist primarily as assets or liabilities; widgets of one sort or another, to be plugged in here or there, or nowhere if we might save a dollar or two in the process.

Which explains why players such as Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and Francisco Lindor are on the trading block right now.  All of these players are popular in their home cities, in the prime of their careers – 26 or 27 years of age – and on clubs seemingly built to contend next season.  Yet they very well might be moved.  Forty years ago fans in Boston, Chicago and Cleveland would be screaming bloody murder.  Today they calmly talk about “acquiring assets,” “cost certainty,” and “maintaining payroll flexibility” in giving management not merely a pass but a hearty pat on the back for reducing the likelihood that their hometown club will be able to compete for the postseason in 2020. 

Today’s fan not only sides with management, in his eyes he IS management. 

The brainwashing is nearly complete.  Baseball is not only run by bean counters; its most ardent supporters consider themselves kindred spirits.  To the astonishment of just about everybody, the accountants won.  Who knew they were even playing?

It would be one thing if there was solid evidence that the type of thinking now being sanctioned by armchair GM’s predictably worked, but for every club like the Astros (who, in any event, may very well have gotten where they are as much by old fashioned sign-stealing as new-age player development metrics) there are a large handful like the Pirates and Marlins, who sell and sell and sell while chanting breathlessly and vaguely about a future that each season seems to be another year further off on the horizon.  Now it’s not only the Have-Not’s who are doing the selling but the Have’s as well.  And still the armchair GM’s cheer.

The means have become the end.  For too many clubs the goal now is cost-control.  Achieve that and call the season a success irrespective of the results on the field.  To this, amazingly, the crowd roars. 

We’re all in our basements now, rolling the dice, flipping the cards, running the numbers.  The real games are on TV upstairs.  But the living room’s empty.