Fear Strikes Out

Fear Strikes Out

Jimmy Piersall died last week at the age of eighty-seven.  I was no fan of the Boston Red Sox of his era, but Piersall was an exceptional outfielder and a lively counterpoint to the stolid genius of Ted Williams, his most celebrated teammate.  He was a kid from Waterbury, Connecticut, a local guy, volatile and troubled, who had the tough job of replacing crowd favorite Dom DiMaggio in centerfield.  Dominic DiMaggio was the youngest of the DiMaggios and was largely overshadowed by Williams and his brother, Joe, but was an outstanding center fielder and a solid offensive player as well.  Consistent and a great teammate, spectacled DiMaggio, known as the Little Professor, was a quietly effective player.  Piersall was a loose cannon, and, although he played for seventeen years, he was an unpredictable and frequently off-putting teammate, both disturbed and disturbing.

With candor, he called himself “crazy” and spent much of his rookie year in a mental hospital where he received electro-convulsive treatment for what was then called manic depression, today known as bipolar disorder.  Many contemporary fans, even the most rabid, will likely not remember the part that Piersall played in raising awareness of mental illness at a time in which few celebrities were willing to admit to weaknesses or frailties of any kind.

Despite his bouts of incapacitating illness, Piersall, who came up to the majors with the Red Sox, won a spot on several All Star teams and won Golden Glove awards throughout his career.  Casey Stengel, who managed him on the New York Mets, came to consider him the best defensive outfielder he had ever seen, putting him ahead of Joe DiMaggio as a center fielder.  Piersall’s ability to anticipate the flight of a baseball was uncanny, and, until he threw his arm out competing against Willie Mays, his ability to read baserunners’ intentions made him doubly dangerous in the field.  Nevertheless, Stengel, who championed Piersall at the end of his career, observed, “He’s great, but you have to play him in a cage.”

Piersall acknowledged his struggles, speaking freely about his mother’s mental illness and his own demons.  The film, Fear Strikes Out, was an adaptation of the book Piersall had written with Nat Hentoff.  Starring Anthony Perkins, whose vibrating nervousness made him the obvious actor to play Norman Bates in Psycho, the film wandered from Piersall’s plainspoken admission of illness to a conventional sob story about an athlete pushed to the edge by an over-demanding father.

Piersall hated the movie and frequently spoke about the cowardice Hollywood had shown in avoiding a real presentation of his disorder.  Those who followed the game, however, were reminded on  a daily basis that this outfielder played by a different set of rules.  He took a bow after making each catch, tipping his hat to the stands.  He had a hair-trigger and was quick to fight with opponents and with his own teammates.  He battled with umpires and threw his bat at pitchers.  After hitting his hundredth home run, Piersall ran the bases backwards.

Poets and lyrical fans evoke the beauty of the game waxing rhapsodic o’er the emerald fields and dusty vermillion base paths; truth tellers move beyond spectacle and metaphor to descriptions of grit and heart, weakness and failure, champions and goats.  Baseball is also the stuff of legends, some sparkling and some tawdry, every anecdote documented in the exhaustive historical register that has recorded every at bat, every hit, every run batted in.

And, from time to time, baseball offers the rich panoply of sport (nice phrase!) and characters more vivid than pop out of any other sport, with the possible exception of boxing.  What other sport relishes nicknames as baseball does?  What other sport has the likes of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, Dennis Oil Can Boyd, Harry Suitcase Simpson, Double Duty Radcliffe, Dizzy Dean, Big Poison and Little Poison Waner, King Kong Keller, Mudcat Grant Satchel Paige, Poosh Em Up Tony Lazzeri, Three Finger Brown, No Neck Williams, Choo-Choo Coleman?

There is a fine line between eccentricity and disorder, and any spectator who saw Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky’s routine on the mound had to wonder if the line had been crossed.  He grunted entire conversations to himself, pounding his glove, occasionally spitting, kicking dirt as he circled.  Normal?  Bill “Spaceman” Lee, another pitcher, was fond of tossing what he called the “Leephus”, a towering low-speed blooper pitch.  Rube Waddell pitched his way into the Hall of Fame, but was notorious for leaving the field to chase fire engines and other shiny things.  Lest zaniness be ascribed only to pitchers, recently retired outfielder, Manny Ramirez, generally described as “Manny being Manny”, raced to catch a tough fly ball, gave a high-five to a fab in the stands and then completed the play with a throw to the infield.

Billy Martin, a spark plug second baseman and manager was a confirmed carousing fighter, carrying his short fuse into every confrontation, on and off the field.  His fight with Piersall was a meeting of the unhinged, but one of his last fights, a bar fight with Ed Whitson, a pitcher nursing a smouldering resentment at what he took to be mistreatment by Martin as Yankee manager was likely one he had tried to avoid.  Whitson, all six feet and three inches of fighting fury, kicked Martin in the groin, breaking Martin’s arm by the end of the fracas.  Unlike Cobb, Martin was generally well liked, until his temper got the best of him.

Armchair psychiatrists might nominate any number of other notable ballplayers as variants from the norm, some darker variants than others.  Ty Cobb, for example, exhibited what could be considered consistent sociopathology throughout his career.  He would have said that he played the game hard, the way it should be played, filing his spikes to a razor-sharp edge, throwing himself into a slide into second base spikes high.  It was Cobb who jumped into the stands to beat an armless heckler, who assaulted a groundskeeper and choked the man’s wife when she tried to pull him off her husband.  Criticized for beating a man with no hands, Cobb replied with some heat, “I don’t care if he has no feet,” a troubling and confusing rejoinder.

Jimmy Piersall was scrappy, eccentric, and unpredictable; he was also brave and honest, living in plain sight.  He had it right from the start; in his case, fear struck out.





That’s Baseball

That’s Baseball

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:

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 cowardice 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.