Rings? We don’t need no stinkin’ rings

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So I’m standing at the Pearly Gates, the video of my life playing in the background, a team of celestial functionaries leafing through my file, smirking with ill-concealed amusement at my presumption in expecting a happy outcome as I face the final judgment.

“Ah. there’s not much to go on here,” the senior gatekeeper taps the folder.  “No good deeds we missed in compiling this, eh?”  I shake my head.  “Well you certainly were alive for much of your time on Earth, but in terms of purposeful …”  He shakes his head.  “You must have done something with the years you were given?”

No need to drag this out any longer. I make it easy for him. “Sports.  I watched a lot of sports.”

I’ve got no regrets, for the most part, but I probably don’t need to watch one more set of talking heads beating the same conversations to death.  I certainly don’t need to hear a retired athlete celebrated as an authority because he’s got a ring, or three, or five.  I don’t need to hear another argument in which an athlete’s legacy is determined by the number of appearances in championship games and the number of championship rings carried away.

The practice of distributing rings dates back to the 1927 Yankees, arguably the most dominant team in the history of baseball.  A few years earlier, Yankees had been given pocket watches after a World Series victory, and in subsequent years players asked for more practical tokens of appreciation. Frankie “The Crow” Crosetti, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1932 to 1948 and Yankees’ third base coach until 1968, participated in 23 World Series and took away 17 World Championship rings.  It’s no wonder that early on The Crow asked that he might be awarded a shotgun instead.

The greater objection to the fetishising of rings is that many of the most remarkable athletes of their era finished their career without winning a championship, and some of those athletes are in my personal pantheon.   I’m not talking about  the Charles Barkleys or Sergio Garcias, very good players whose place in the history of their game will be noted among others of equal ability, but the remarkable players – Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Dick Butkus, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino.  Barry Sanders retired without a ring as did LaDainian Tomlinson.  Some dynastic franchises had a few off years so that Elgin Baylor never won a title with the Lakers and Don Mattingly never with the Yankees.

Oh, and Eli Manning has two rings; Peyton has one.  One of them is among the greatest modern quarterbacks; the other has two rings.

This peeve of mine emerges as Spring Training is about to begin again, and Mike Trout may end this season, and the next, and the next without claiming any hardware or jewelry.  It isn’t easy for me to admit this after a lifetime of loyalty to Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and relatively recent loyalty to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but Mike Trout is one of the three ball players I most admire, the other two being Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey, Jr..  What do these three have in common, besides baseball genius?  Yup, no rings.

Baseball’s never been better, and there are some notable phenoms playing at a level never seen before.  Altuve, and Stanton, and Votto, and Judge, and Ramirez, and Blackmon, and Gordon may end up at the top of the heap by the end of their careers.  I love the long ball, the stolen base, the hit-and-run as much as the next person (which reminds me that Rod Carew never bagged a ring, and he’s about as slick a batsman as we’re likely to see), but I’m a particular fan of players who sew up a defense, players whose defensive skill changes the character of a team.

Some names arrive easily and immediately –  Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Mike Schmidt, catchers Johnny Bench, Pudge Rodriguez, maybe first baseman Keith Hernandez.  Among the less recognized outfielders as fielders, Bonds, Yastrzemski, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline.  Had he not become among the most fragile infielders, there is no doubt Troy Tulowitzki would be in the mix.  Kevin Kiermaier’s gonna be a monster fielder, Billy Hamilton too.

My nomination for most undervalued fielder of the modern age is Jim (Jimmy Baseball) Edmonds, a pretty fair hitter as well.  He ended up with a .284 batting average and 393 home runs, more than respectable.  Any of us who saw him pull certain home runs out of the air, particularly those who remember him as a Cardinal taking away a shot hit by Jason LaRue of the Reds, think of him as the most exciting fielder of his time.  LaRue hit a blast to center field,  Edmunds turned, his back to the ball, raced to the warning track, climbed the center field wall and somehow stretched well beyond human stretching capacity to rob LaRue of a homer.

I’d take Jim Edmonds with his single ring (2006 Cards), Griffey, Ichiro, and Trout anytime. Meanwhile, we missed our shot with Frankie Crosetti, the most be-ringed if all time.

Here’s Edmonds as a rookie grabbing a Cal Ripken shor:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chicken for All Seasons – A Fond Tribute to America’s Best Mascot

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After more than 5000 performances, 510 in a row for the San Diego Padres, Ted Giannoulas finally hung up his beak in 2016.  Giannoulas first put on the feathers in 1974 as a stunt sponsored by a San Diego radio station; his first gig was handing out Easter eggs to kids at the San Diego Zoo.  From that humble beginning Giannoulas created a mascot that has earned a spot in the pantheon of great mascots, to many observers, the greatest mascot of all time.  Baseball fans in San Diego count The Chicken as their own, and his work with the Padres established him as the capon crusader, but almost from the start, he also supported the Clippers who then played in San Diego.

The San Diego Chicken evolved into the Famous Chicken when Giannoulas fled the coop, taking his show on the road.  At this point, he’s flown more than a million miles, and, boy, are his arms tired.

As a student and sports fan at San Diego State, Ted Giannoulas wanted to bring fans of all ages a way to enjoy a game, particularly during the “down” moments, between innings or before the first pitch.  Mascoting is a rare art; few are able to bring a costumed character truly to life.  Ted Giannoulas was a star from the start, almost immediately winning the hearts and minds of San Diego’s fans.  So devoted were San Diegans to Giannoulas’ Chicken that they massed in protest when KGB radio fired Giannoulas in 1979.  In what must have been a virtual barbecue, fans loudly booed the replacement pullet, driving him to defeat and obscurity.

Once restored to his rightful place in the pecking order of mascots, Giannoulas kicked his performance into an even higher level of confrontive gymnastics.  In describing his oeuvre, Ted Giannoulas is quick to assure his fans that he has been the only performer in that suit since his restoration in 1979.  He admits that he can no longer do the splits as he once did as a spring chicken, but says he stills starts down until he collapses, adding yet another piece of schtick to the aging chicken’s routine.

I’ve seen The Famous Chicken in ballparks from coast to coast, and have had the particular pleasure of seeing Giannoulas take on other mascots in almost every setting; they simply do not have a chance.  With his customary brio, The Chicken approaches his foe with a deliberate and challenging heavy step.  A flick of the wing invites battle:  Bring It On, Lehigh Valley Pig Iron!  Whatcha Got, Modesto Nuts?  Hey, Topeka Train Robbers, I Gotta Whole Lotta Sumpin’ For You!

I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Huntsville Stars, during Michael Jordan’s break from basketball.  When he and the Birmingham Barons came to town, it was on, even though the teams’ mascots were unprepossessing.  Their lame mascot, “Babe Ruff” looked like a Pound Puppy on Welfare.  The Stars weren’t much better; “Homer, the Pole Cat” was as significantly shabby.  At that time, the Stars were the A’s Double A franchise in the Southern League having recently sent Jose Canseco up to the majors after an MVP season in Huntsville.  Jordan was the main attraction, of course, and the games were sold out, but the mascot battle paled next to the stunning display of Jordan’s largesse in providing his team a luxury bus so they could travel in comfort and style during the steamy southern summer.  The bus cost Jordan $350,000.00 and can be yours at auction with an opening price of $20,000.00.  At the time, however, it was a thing of wonder, and many fans missed the first innings walking around the bus in the parking lot.

In  addition to the Barons, the League did present some notable franchises and notable mascots.  The Tennessee Smokies had colorful mascots, Homer, Slugger, and Diamond (really); The three bear”ish” things were actually more garish than colorful, kelly green, navy blue, and mango.  The Montgomery Biscuits, however, provided built-in drama.  Monty the Biscuit was chased by Big Mo a biscuit-hungry … thing.  The big news from Montgomery is that, while Mo stays, Monty has been replaced by a miniature pot-belly pig entitled, The Duchess of Pork.

The Chicken was henpecked in court following a series of ill-advised match-ups, one of which I was privileged to witness.  My kids had been entranced by Barney, the much beloved (by them) purple dinosaur, but fortunately had just outgrown their allegiance as we attended our last game in Huntsville.  The Memphis Chicks were in transition, finishing their relationship with the Royals and just about to become an affiliate of the soon-to-be defuncted Expos.  As a result, their mascot was AWOL, and a good thing too, as Blooper,  had been designed when the Chicks were the Chickasaws (nice).  As noted, Homer the Polecat was not an impressive specimen, so spent most of the game walking through the crowd, looking for some sort of validation.  The main event, therefore, was a tussle between something that looked an awful lot like Barney and The Famous Chicken.

It probably goes without saying that Barney took a beating from one side of the diamond to the other.  My kids still talk about the chicken scissor kick that propelled Barney into the Chicks’ dugout.  Whoever was in the Purple suit did a good job of feigning injury, although I’m pretty sure I heard him pleading, “No mas, no mas”.

What do I say to a chicken that is one of my children’s happiest memories?

Thank you, Ted Giannoulas, and I hope you’ve put away a nest egg commensurate with your contribution to the great game of baseball.

The Greatest?

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In the interminable weeks between the end of the conference championships and the start of Super Bowl LII sports commentary waxed hyperbolic, having no real reporting to offer, resolutely chewing on the same theme hour after hour.  Tom Brady, The Greatest Quarterback of All Time, would carry the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory, despite having recently managed to wedge his throwing hand into a crevice in running back Rex Burkhead’s helmet, despite the likely loss of  Brady’s favorite target, a man described as “a self-aware lump of protein powder”, pass catching Golem Rob Gronkowski, despite the glaring weaknesses in the Patriot’s defense, and despite the best efforts of the talented and well-coached Philadelphia Eagles.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is also Greatest of All Time, an honorific now somewhat diminished when squashed into the acronym and meme GOAT.   The Patriots themselves are occasionally termed the Greatest Football Dynasty of All Time, and in empty hours in sports journalism, strident argument rages as the case is made for LeBron James or Michael Jordan as, you know, the Greatest of All Time.

We (sports fans) were charmed by the effrontery, the chutzpah, with which a young Muhammad Ali declared himself The Greatest, but cringe a bit when Wayne Gretsky is still termed, The Great One.  Those who survived the Depression and fought in World War II are the Greatest Generation, and I’m told Alexander, Catherine, and Gatsby were all pretty Great.

Then, in addition, Time, I believe, is something of a mystery, perhaps vulnerable to manifold topology, but maybe not, an obscure way of observing that even the most prescient of us has a fairly limited set of experiences against which to judge the absolute standard of performance in any sport.  The same holds true for actors and entertainers, but we seem less compelled to deify even the most obviously superior.  Is Meryl Streep the Greatest Actress of All Time?  Dunno.  Maybe.  Doesn’t seem to matter as much as the LeBron/Jordan battle.

I’m not sure why this need to wax hyperbolic has set in; perhaps having known what might have been the best of times and now sliding into what feels like the the worst we find comfort in speaking with absolute certainty ?  Maybe the ferocity of competition and the necessity to keep score inherent in sport as we know it demands final judgment.  My guess is that since we experience the great moments of sport from a distance, second-hand, our sport becomes the championing of one athlete or team over another, a game that never ends.

In those long weeks before the NFL championship game, sports outlets routinely drag out whatever football footage they happen to have in the can.  Over a period of two days, I saw clips of Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Jerome Bettis, and Earl Campbell. Nobody’s screening O.J.’s scrambling breakaways at USC, but I remember them well.

Want to pick one as the greatest?

Go ahead, but don’t forget the runners whose feats may not have been so meticulously preserved on film.  I’ve seen grainy footage of Red Grange breaking loose for a touchdown, but only have the sportwriters’ words to describe the heroics of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Doak Walker.

I keep my collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia close at hand in case someone drops by and wants to see a copy of his rookie contract or my well-oiled 1959 Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove, and I treasure my memories of him in the field and at bat, but is he the greatest of all time?  A version of this sort of question came up as a friend of mine who had attended Bolles School in Florida as did Chipper Jones asked if Jones, a first ballot Hall of Famer, had a place in my list of the ten best third basemen of all time.

I have two lists, of course, the best to play the position for the New York Yankees and the ostensible best to have played in the major leagues.  In responding, I was aware once again that I take a player such as Adrian Beltre for granted as I took Paul Molitor and Ron Santo for granted.  I knew Wade Boggs was a heck of a third baseman, but thought of him primarily as a hitter as I did George Brett.  The Braves weren’t on television every day back when they played in Milwaukee, so I didn’t see enough of Eddie Matthews.  Writers assure me that Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and Jimmy Collins should be in the mix.  In the end, however, it comes down to my memory of Mike Schmidt’s dominance in his era, particularly in the Phillies’ world series victory in 1980, and my reverence for the fielder known as “the vacuum cleaner”, Brooks Robinson.

All of that said, Chipper more than earned a spot in the top four or five.  Will Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson make the cut twenty years from now?  I hope so.

As for the Jordan/LeBron argument, the game is still afoot.  Steak or lobster?  Pie or ice cream?  Valhalla or Olympus?  I have only this to add to the conversation:  Jordan played on his high school’s junior varsity team until his junior year; LeBron averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman.  I saw LeBron play for St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.  In my mind, case closed.

Except … I also saw Jordan literally fly.

 

 

Play Ball!

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I wrote this piece when I still had plans to get to Spring Training.  Not looking good this year, so here’s a wistful memory.

Today, February 22nd, the world starts over again.

In Phoenix, Arizona at the beautiful new Salt River Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks take on the Grand Canyon University Antelopes, the Lopes, in the opening game of Spring Training in what is known as the Cactus League, pre-season major league baseball in Arizona.  Tomorrow, in the Grapefruit League, the Detroit Tigers play Florida Southern College’s Water Moccasins at the recently renovated Publix Field in Lakeland, Florida.  Times have changed as increasing numbers of fans fleeing the end of winter follow their teams to sunshine, and Spring Training facilities are spiffier, ticket prices higher, T-shirts and hats more expensive, and autographs harder to snare.  Nonetheless, the relaxed pace of training games, the appearance of rookies who might turn out to be stars, genuinely splendid weather, and the opportunity to see the best players in the game up-close and personal, all of that is catnip to baseball fans.

Today you can cheer for the Lopes or Diamondbacks for $6.00 and drop another six bucks tomorrow when the Brewers take on The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers at my favorite park, Maryvale Baseball Park, a scaled down park tucked into a neighborhood that seats about seven thousand laid back Brewers fans, the most loyal and cheerful fans in Arizona.  I’m not a Brewers fan, but I love sitting in the midst of a Wisconsin family reunion, cousins from Kenosha, twins down from Janesville, Uncle Bub from Green Bay now living in Appleton, the newlyweds from Eau Claire.  They rib each other mercilessly and send the kids out for the park’s signature Klement’s bratwursts.  The Brats are fabulous, but Klements hasn’t stopped there;  they not only offer other irresistible and distinctive sausages, they suit ’em up and race them.   Bets are laid down when the five costumed racing sausages (Brat, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage, Hot Dog, and Chorizo) appear before the home team bats in the sixth inning.

Maryvale is a small town within the western city limits of Phoenix, but so gently removed from city life that an unprepared visitor can drive right by the park, confusing it with the Maryvale High School’s fields unless you stop for lunch at Wendy’s .  The park offers shaded seating, a necessity on some sun-baked afternoons, but for $8.00 a fan can camp out on  the grassy berm that extends from the third base bleachers to the first base bleachers, looking down into the bullpens cut into the berm on each side.  I watch baseball on television because I can’t get to games during the season, but I miss the distinctive pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt only a few feet from my place on the berm.

Actually, of course, I miss it all – the sweep of grass in the outfield, the puff of dust when a hard hit ball skids past second base, the smell of impending thunder as the grounds crew drags the tarp over the infield.  There’s even more to miss about baseball during Spring Training.  My son and I shared a section of the stands with scouts from twelve major league teams, sitting close to home plate as they clocked fastballs and counted the corners each pitcher could paint with consistency.  Until that afternoon, we had never seen a World Series Championship ring up close; that day we saw twenty.

We sat behind Peter Gammons, Groton and UNC educated sportswriter and ESPN baseball analyst, one of the three or four most respected baseball guys of our time, a shameless Red Sox homer, but capable of balanced reporting nonetheless.  My son showed precocious grace in not asking for an autograph but offering a handshake as Gammons attended his first game since recovering from a life threatening brain aneurysm.

We were behind home plate when a Cuban refugee named Aroldis Chapman first pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in a game against the Dodgers.  We had heard he threw hard, but until we saw the blur from mound to plate, pitch after pitch, some of which were actually strikes, we could not have imagined what a 105 mile an hour pitch looked like from the batter’s point of view.  We literally stood ten feet behind  Ichiro Suzuki at the Mariner’s park as he nailed runner after runner from deep centerfield, including a peg to FIRST base that clipped Jim Thome in stride.

Sadly the Cubs quirky stadium, HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa has been replaced with a shiny new park in Mesa, and the Athletics have moved from downtown to a refreshed HoHoKam; probably for the best that one of the most dangerous viewing experiences has been taken out of circulation.  We sat above the third base dugout, happily hoping we might see a foul tip and go home with a ball, when Aramis Ramirez skinned a foul line drive over the first base dugout literally knocking a patron out of his seat.  From that point on, we sat behind a net or paid v.e.r.y. close attention to each at bat.

With no expectation other than catching a game, on March 21st, 2009, we drove in heat and painfully slow-moving traffic from Peoria to Surprise, a western suburb.  The Rangers and Royals share the park, one of the prettiest, and on that evening, the Rangers hosted the Dodgers in what was a fairly uneventful game, until the crowds parted, the atmosphere turned electric, and a procession emerged.  Muhammad Ali supported by his wife, Wayne Gretzky, George Brett, and Joe Torre.

And we got to see a ball game as well.

Spring Training has a rich history including some exotic choices for pre-season locale back before Arizona and Florida claimed the season.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Hot Springs, Arkansas hosted the greatest number of teams (Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Spiders, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox).  Fans who travelled to Hot Springs in 1918 would have seen a Red Sox pitcher shoved into emergency duty in the outfield.  Babe Ruth looked promising, knocking two home runs, including one  that is alleged to have soared more than five hundred feet, landing in a nearby Alligator farm.  Mr. Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs trained on Catalina Island in the 1920’s, a convenience for Wrigley as he owned the island.  The Dodgers trained in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The Cactus League exists because Bill Veeck, one of baseball’s greatest showmen and innovators having trained his Boston Brewers in Ocala, Florida, where segregation was harshly enforced, in 1946 took his next team, the Cleveland Indians to Tucson and convinced the Giant’s owner to train in Phoenix.  A year later Veeck signed Larry Doby, the second African-American to play in the major leagues, the first to come directly from the Negro Leagues,  and the first in the American League.

I’m pleased that spring baseball in Arizona has its roots in an owner’s farsighted and humane vision, pleased that eight National league teams and seven American League teams meet in pre-season play, and pleased that an ambitious fan can pack a lot of baseball in a fairly short trip.  And, it’s worth noting that whatever Saint Patrick’s Day might look like back in Chicago, the Cactus League version is much less about green beer and much more about familiar team hats decked with shamrocks and presented in rich Kelly green. You ain’t seen baseball hats until you’ve seen a green rattlesnake forming the familiar Diamondback “D”.

I’ll close with two thoughts.  The first was written by Jim Murray, Pulitzer Prize sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times:

Spring is the time of the year when the ground thaws, trees bud, income taxes fall due, and everybody wins the pennant.

The second, a thoughtful, perhaps unexpectedly reflective statement from Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, a remarkable player and widely known for referring to himself in the third person, as in “Rickey needs a hit tonight”.

I love playing this game and every spring training feels like the first.

 

 

That’s Baseball

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Poets celebrate baseball’s clean geometry, the sharp contrast of lush green outfield and dusty red base paths.  They may have missed the transition from the languid serenity of games past to open warfare as new rivalries empty bench after bench.  Tigers now loathe the Twins, Jay hate the Braves.  Red Sox vs Yankees?  Hardly a blip on the screen.

Lets take Oriole’s Manny Machado sliding into second spikes high, carving beloved Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s leg into Salisbury steak.  It happens; that’s baseball.  Then, two days later, the Sox’ pitcher, Matt Barnes either lost control of a fastball high and inside, or threw at Machado’s head.  Again, it happens.  Again, that’s baseball.

That last paragraph is mildly factual and intentionally provocative because the situation between Pedroia, Machado, and Barnes, the Orioles and the Red Sox represents the curious and oddly anachronistic nature of the game while also revealing quite a lot about its contemporary nuances.  It’s tempting to idealize baseball, quoting George Will, “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals”, or, letting oneself become completely rhapsodic, quoting James Earl Jones’ great speech in Field of Dreams:

“Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around”, you’ll say, “It’s only $20 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

 

He was not wrong, but baseball is also red in tooth and claw, more than a game to the men who take it up as a profession.  There is much on the line every time a player takes the field; every play is attached to the statistics that measure his value, every play could end his career.  Two teams face each other with the legacy of hard feelings barely contained in their last meeting.  These two teams are the Red Sox or the Orioles, but they are also made up of men who have worked for years to develop skills that set them apart from other men, skills that include all the elements the fan sees from the stands and some that only players see.  The smallest fissure, the slightest crack allows one player an edge over another; weakness or cowardess is immediately sensed and parlayed into advantage.  One game is played out inning-by-inning and recorded on the scoreboard; the other, a complicated and shifting balance of power goes largely undocumented.

Beanballs, brushbacks, hard tagging, taunting, posing, running up a score, coming into a base with spokes flashing are all part of the dubious cotillion players call respect.  Enter Machado and Pedroia.

Let’s begin with Pedroia.  He is more than an excellent ballplayer, although he is that in spades.  Pedroia was Rookie of the Year in 2007, American League MVP in 2008, only the third player in history to win those honors back-to-back.  An All Star, Golden Glove, Silver Bat, Defensive Player of the Year, and perennial nominee for the Heart and Hustle Award, Pedroia is also the last active member of the Red Sox team that broke the “Curse of the Bambino”, the Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2004 and again in 2007, his rookie year.  For all of that, Dustin Pedroia, capable, steady, and consistent was the nice kid among a phalanx of very large personalities who were pleased to refer to themselves as a band of idiots.  That charmed team was loose and confident, eminently skilled but gifted with a goofy resilience that allowed them to come back from a three game deficit in the ALCS in 2004, finally pushing the New York Yankees from their pedestal.  With the exception of a single year plagued by injury, Pedroia has been a star; in the past four years, he has become the clubhouse leader and the face of the Red Sox.  At this point in his career, the closest comparison to Pedroia in terms of the respect with which he is held would be would be the Yankee’s “Captain”, Derek Jeter.

And Machado?  In the first place, he’s really good, an All-Star third baseman and shortstop, the best fielding third baseman for the Orioles since Brooks Robinson, which is to say the best since divinity touched earth and played the hot corner.  The guy can hit too; in his second year in the majors, Machado tied Ty Cobb’s record, having racked up 40 multi-hit games before the age of 21 and is always capable of boosting a ball four hundred and fifty feet to the upper decks above center field.  Phenomenal fielder and way above average hitter, Machado should be a lock for a Hall of Fame career … if he can avoid a third surgery on his knees.  He went under the knife after dislocating his left knee in 2013 and his right knee in 2014.

And, he may have a problem with anger management.

Returning to the Orioles in 2014 after that first surgery,  Machado had two terrible, very bad days in games against the Oakland A’s.  Attempting to reach third base, Machado was tagged with some vigor by third baseman, Josh Donaldson, and responded verbally with some lack of discretion.  Already miffed (not a baseball term), Machado took exception to Donaldson’s tag with such animation that the benches cleared and uncomplimentary exchanges between the teams ensued.  Then, when Machado came up in the eighth inning, pitcher Wi-Yin Chen blew him back from the plate with a pitch that would have caught him in the chest.

The next day, in the spirit of temperance, Machado hit the A’s catcher, Derek Norris, in the head with his backswing.  Baseball being baseball, pitcher Fernando Abad threw twice at Machado’s recently repaired knee; Machado’s response was to throw his bat at Donaldson, and the benches met again.

So, he may be a hot head.  But … I’m not sure he’s a jerk.  The slide into Pedroia looks bad, to be sure, but it doesn’t look intentional.  Machado’s behavior as he connected with Pedroia, quickly trying to hold him up, doesn’t look mean-spirited, and a review of the action indicates that Machado began the slide late, awkwardly, and always aware of the damage that could be done to his knees, may have been trying to avoid jamming his leg into the bag.

It’s possible.

Most of the furor about the incident has followed Barnes’ almost lobotomizing Machado in retaliation for the injury done to Pedroia and Pedroia’s unusual charity toward Machado.  Managers, players, and sports hosts have almost uniformly defended Barnes’ action as part of the unwritten code of baseball.  In its most polished form, the sentiment argues that teammates stand up for each other.  In practice, it generally means that pitchers throw at batters in response to any number of perceived provocations.

“You hit our guy; we hit your guy” is at least rough justice.  Primitive but understandable.  “You pose after hitting a home run; our guy throws at your head”?  Not so noble.  “You flip your bat?  Time to straighten you out.”  “You’re a promising rookie.  Time to bring you down to earth – literally”.  Equally regrettable.

Any other unwritten rules that can earn you a Spaulding in the ear?  Well, don’t step on the pitcher’s mound; that’s likely to rile a pitcher who considers it his turf.  By the same token, don’t show disrespect for the pitcher by stepping into the batter’s box while the pitcher is warming up.  Almost any behavior that casts aspersion on the pitcher, the pitcher’s character, the pitcher’s ability, the pitcher’s moustache is likely to result in a retributive delivery from the aggrieved hurler.

And, lest it go unmentioned, that ball is travelling at more than ninety miles an hour.

My son and I visited the Louisville Slugger museum and factory, walking past the hundred and twenty-foot replica of Babe Ruth’s bat in order to see how bats are made and to gawk at the bats hefted by our idols.  The trip would have been more than worthwhile had it only included a long look at the bat used by Joe DiMaggio in his 56 game hit streak, but it also offered the opportunity to stand in a simulated batter’s box so as to see what a hundred mile an hour pitch would look like coming at us.  A replica of Randy Johnson, six feet and ten inches of pitching fury, launched the pitch as we stood in.

There’s not much to say after an experience such as that; I don’t know how to put whimpering, slack-jawed terror into words.  The possibility of being hit, and perhaps hit again is one of the many factors that have prevented me from acting on my boyhood dream of playing in the Big Leagues.  In his excellent account of the story behind baseball stories, I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love, Tim Kurkjian recalls interviews with players who have been “beaned”; they are terrified and traumatized, but some return and step in anyway.  Unbelievable.

As far as I can tell, Craig Biggio holds the unwanted record of most frequently hit in the course of a season, having been dinged thirty-four times in 1977.  Over the course of his career, Biggio was hit by a pitched ball two hundred and eighty-five times which may have something to do with the way his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame describes him  Characterized as a “gritty spark plug who ignited the Astros offense for twenty seasons,” Biggio crowded the plate, daring pitchers to try to brush him back, which they obviously did several hundred times.  He never picked a fight or charged the mound, leaving it to his own pitchers to even the score when it was clear that turnabout was needed.

That’s what some players and fans consider an essential part of baseball, grit and retaliation.  Get hit with a pitch?  Don’t rub it. Wait for your pitcher to hit one of theirs.

I think the stakes are too high and an adjustment has to be made before someone gets killed.  Bench clearing brawls, hurrah.  The more the merrier. Assault with deadly weapons?  Can we talk?

Maybe in a time in which a high school sophomore throws at 93 miles per hour, the time has come to remember Ray Chapman, beaned by Carl Mays in 1920, dead the day after he was struck.  Or Dickie Thorn, struck in the face in 1984, orbital bone shattered, partially blinded.  Or rising Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro, slammed in the face, fracturing his cheekbone and causing his vision to so deteriorate that he was done at the age of 26.  Or Mike Jorgensen, whose seizures after being hit in the face almost killed him.  Or Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, after whom Mickey Mantle was named, skull shattered, knocked unconscious, essentially in a coma for ten days.  Or Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, virtually blinded when struck by a fastball to the face.

Barnes’ bean ball missed Machado’s head by millimeters, hitting his bat behind his head. Let’s just consider ourselves lucky and hope players and managers can move beyond retaliatory combat.