On this day in sports history…
We Don’t Need Sports to Heal
I can barely stomach writing about baseball again. The negotiations between the owners and players are exhausting. But I come here today to discuss something else about those ongoing discussions. Over the past few months, I have seen baseball writers, fans, and politicians expressing some variation of the following:
Commissioner Manfred said it back in March:
“Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back. Our fans will be back, our players will be back, and we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:
“America needs baseball. “It’s a sign of getting back to normal.”
Agent Scott Boras:
“Time and time again, baseball has helped our country heal,” he wrote, citing its role after the strike on Pearl Harbor, the 1989 earthquake in Northern California, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo:
“We’re very, very hopeful that we can get going,” he said. “Baseball has stepped up in troubled times to be a leader. We’re used to it. It’s a distraction. It’s comforting to people. It comes with the rhythm of their life.
Baseball, and all sports, are entertainment. But the above sentiment really bothers me. Most of these statements were made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (which is not over, even if you’re over it). 110,000 people have died in this country alone. Baseball would have been a mild distraction, at best.
But as the Black Lives Matter protests have rightfully raged across the country (and the globe), I can’t help but think that the lack of sports at this time have helped our country reckon with its past, and its present. Governor Cuomo was right: baseball is a distraction. Sports are a distraction.
But for too long we have utilized distractions in our daily lives to allow us to avoid the problems in our society, in our culture. The silver lining to the dark cloud of the 110,000 deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that we don’t have those distractions right now. We can’t turn the channel to a baseball game and pretend everything is alright. We can’t go to a basketball game, see the melting pot in the crowd, and act like we are all living in racial harmony. We can’t avert our eyes from the pains others are feeling, and have felt all their lives.
This week I read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nahesi Coates. As I read him describe his daily life as a child, the things he had to think about on a daily basis just to survive, it was striking what very different worlds he and I grew up in. We haven’t even begun to rip off the scab of 400 years of racism and oppression. Until we do, we are not ready to heal.
I love baseball. But I don’t need baseball right now. And the country doesn’t, either. -TOB
Nemesis: Heath Bell never game up a home run in 27 innings of work at Coors
We’re back with another installment from Andrew Baggarly’s “Nemesis” collection. It’s a bit different this time, as our subject is a nemesis of a stadium. This is a story about Coors Field’s nemesis: Heath Bell.
Who’s Heath Bell? He’s a 69th-round draft pick who once entered an All-Star game like this:
And wore his hat like this:
That guy never gave up a home run while pitching at Coors Field. Keep in mind, a big chunk of Bell’s career was with the Padres, a Rockies division opponent. In all, Bell pitched 27 innings and never gave up one gopher ball. Of the 322 pitchers who’ve logged at least 25 innings at Coors, Bell’s the only one who can make that claim.
Bell confessed that he was as intimidated and uncertain as any other pitcher the first time he walked into the ballpark on Blake Street. But he credited two teammates with giving him the tips he’d need to thrive there.
“We had Doug Brocail in the ‘pen and Greg Maddux was one of our starters,” Bell said. “I remember playing catch and I’m throwing my curveball and it’s not breaking at all. Then Doggy walks up — that’s what we called Maddux — and he comes up all nonchalant like Doggy does. He says, ‘Hey, less is more here. Throw it easier. It’ll break more. Throw it hard and it’ll break less.’ You want to try harder to throw it past guys because you know how the ball flies. But that’s the opposite of what you should be doing.
“But I was still a little scared to do it. So in the bullpen, I asked Brocail, who was someone I talked to all the time. He said if you throw the curveball just below the belt, it will always break. But an inch above the belt, it’ll never break. And if you try to throw your big curveball, the one that comes out of your shoulder and breaks over, that won’t move at all. These guys were such great teammates and they knew from experience.”
Bell worked in a few of his own tricks, too. When the Padres would play the Rockies in San Diego, he’d throw Colorado hitters a ton of get-ahead curveballs for strikes. He was baiting them for those away games.
I love all of that: Maddux’s nickname being Doggy, doing the opposite of what your inclination might be, and especially setting players up in games played in San Diego. All of that is gold.
Also, in some sick twist, Coors Field is the setting of one of Bell’s worst memories as a player: the Rockies incredible comeback against the Padres in the 2007 play-in game. Bell pitched great (again), but the Padres ultimately lost a wild one on a controversial play at the plate.
Loving this series. -PAL
Source: “Nemesis: The pitcher who dominated Coors Field still couldn’t escape heartbreak”, Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (06/03/2020)
TOB: We need a Maddux documentary. Ten hours, like The Last Dance. Is there a player whose public perception during his career turned out to be more different from reality than Maddux? He came across very vanilla. But the stories that have slowly trickled out over the last few years paint a very different picture. He’s like a Lincecum in sheep’s clothing.
The Tale of the Real Tiger King
This was an extremely fun read. Here’s the intro:
While flipping channels not long ago in desperate search of a sports fix, I stumbled across Tiger King.
No, not that one.
Right there, in the closing credits of “The Rookie,” a few dozen names below stars Dennis Quaid and Rachel Griffiths, was the listing for the guy who played the not-so-memorable role of “Durham catcher.”
That glorified extra was Tiger King. He even had a line — “You wanna warm up?” — and uttered it to Quaid without a single animal trainer getting his forearm gnawed off.
Curious about whether that was Tiger King’s real name, I went to Baseball-Reference. And there he was, the 29th-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1993, an infielder who went on to play two seasons for the independent league Lafayette (Ind.) Leopards.
TIGER KING! The article is basically a series of anecdotes about a guy whose life is almost as bizarre as that of the Netflix star who has borrowed his name. How he ended up in The Rookie is a good example of something that happened to Tiger King that seems unbelievable:
After his minor-league baseball days, Tiger King found a new career as a traffic signal technician. It’s not a job that screams Hollywood but it turned out to be his big break.
John Lee Hancock, who directed the movie, envisioned a scene in which Quaid tested his fastball velocity by firing a pitch past a roadside speed limit sign.
Hancock wanted the lights to fritz and flicker at 76 mph before fully illuminating at 96 mph. (It’s right here in the trailer at about the 1:18 mark.)
Tiger King delivered that speed limit sign to the set. He also taught the crew how to get that flicker effect by touching two wires together.
Then he swung a hell of a trade with the director.
“I’ll tell you what,” Tiger told Hancock, “if you can get me in this movie, I’ll give it to you for free.”
Tiger had himself a deal. He was supposed to be an extra in the baseball scenes but so charmed everyone that he met, including casting director Beth Sepko, that he wound up with a speaking role.
He also became Quaid’s personal catcher off the set, the guy who would warm up the actor before the pitching scenes. Privately, sports-action coordinator Mark Ellis warned Tiger to never, ever, ever throw hard on the return throw. Rule No. 1 in sports scenes is to avoid injury to the A-lister.
“I was like, ‘Alright. Yeah, I won’t,”‘ Tiger recalled. “And every day, we’d be out there and Dennis Quaid would say, ‘Here’s my fastball!’ One out of every three or four pitches is sailing. He’s not an athlete. He couldn’t throw.”
Still, Tiger would pretend as if he were playing catch with Nolan Ryan himself, sometimes shaking his glove in feigned anguish. He’d say stuff like, “Oh that was a good one!” and “That stung a little!” Talk about acting.
In 1994, during the baseball strike, Tiger King was playing on an independent team in Minneapolis. The team ran out of money in August, but twelve players stuck around to play for free, including King.
The funny thing is, the crowds started getting larger. Sympathetic to the players’ plight, especially at a time when MLB was on hold because of the 1994 strike, fans started filling the seats in support.
“And I’m not exaggerating. We had a fish tank set up on the concourse. And we would tell people, ‘Hey, they’re not getting paid. Donate whatever you can,’” Gonzales said. “They’d throw it all in there and we’d split it up between the 12 players every night. They might get $20 bucks, it might be $10, it might be $50. It just depended on how good the crowd was.”
Another desperate-for-cash promotion offered raffle winners a chance to suit up as the “13th Man.” The winner was just supposed to sit in the dugout for the game, but players once cajoled Gonzales into dispatching a 40-year-old Denny’s busboy to the plate as a pinch-hitter.
“And on the first pitch he got drilled in the back,” Gonzales said. “Man, and I thought they were going to have to get an ambulance to get him to first base. He got smoked.”
That was the one and only plate appearance for the guy from Denny’s. He got his cup of coffee.
The whole thing is funny. Big recommend! -TOB
Source: “His Name is Tiger King, and He’s the Best Baseball Movie Netflix Never Made,” Daniel Brown, The Athletic (06/09/2020)
PAL: Dennis Quaid can’t throw? I’m shocked, based on this trailer for The Rookie. How do they cast someone who can’t throw for that role in that movie? How?
Tiger sounds like the exact kind of guy you’d want on a team.
Sounds like he was absolutely made for independent league baseball. Love the story about the broken bat, and King hitting the home run, going directly into the stands to ask the kid if the bat was juiced up in any way.
The engagement was cute enough, but – dude – secure the ring!
The summer after my freshman year, I worked as a beer vendor at the St. Paul Saints games. This was before the Twins had their new stadium, so the carrot was always “outdoor baseball”. The stadium was packed most nights. And everyone was primarily concerned with everything but the game. Tailgating was priority 1. Drinking beer was the priority for the rest of the night. Actually, a pretty great way to make a buck as a 19 year-old. Independent baseball does have some magic to it. When you take the seriousness out of baseball, it’s a great way to enjoy a warm summer night.
Press League Softball in Central Park Must’ve Been So Fun
On the surface, this is a bit of a fantasy read for me. In another life, maybe, maybe, just maybe I could’ve been working for one of these publications with a team in the Press League. Maybe I could’ve found myself playing in the Wednesday afternoon games in Central Park.
Look a little deeper, read a little longer, and you’ll see that the rise and fall of the Press League follows a similar arc to print media. Or, in John Walter’s words:
The internet killed the Press League, some say. And sure, it’s tough to get away for two hours on a Wednesday if it means a Woj bomb is going to derail your career. Besides, it’s hard enough to play third base without also having to constantly refresh your Twitter feed.
This league seemed like an absolute hoot. Until ringers took over, that is. Every publication would mine the corners of the company for good softball players. Jobs were offered in order to get some much-needed outfield defense.
Given that on/off-field interplay, careers could hinge on softball prowess. Jimmy Colton went on to be the photo director at Newsweek into the late ’90s, and he played a flawless left field for the AP. Steve (Down the Line) Fine, who held the same job at SI, was a dead pull hitter. After more than a decade of frustration, Fine hired Colton in ’98 as his deputy chief. “Half the reason Steve hired me,” says Colton, “was to lift his batting average.”
Characters, the league was full of characters. Catcher Joe (who looks exactly like you’re imagining right now), Murray Chass (The Bantam Rooster), Butch, and so many more.
What shines through is a group of (mostly) fellas who loved this little tradition. There is something inarguably awesome about playing in a work softball game on weekday afternoon. To be going to the park while everyone else was stuck at work.
And while there are some absolute gems for anecdotes (like when Al Pacino, playing in the Show League, wore an Armani suit, Gucci loafers, and cheated up in the batter’s box, or the umpire Butch moved the bases back 10 feet in order to make the game go faster), of course the league lost itself in the heat of competition. Ringers started showing up. Guys that didn’t work at any of the publications. Guys who played in the SEC. Guys on World Series rosters. Much like its industry, the Press League became almost unrecognizable to what it began as in the 70s.
Walters characterizes his story as an “elegy. To a softball league. An industry. A generation.” The entire time reading (and it’s a bit of a slog), I wished I was there in the memories. – PAL
Source: “The Spectacular Rise and Sudden Fall of Print Media … on the Softball Field”, John Walters, Sports Illustrated (06/02/20)
Video of the Week: and the crowd goes…wait.
Tweet of the Week:
Song of the Week: Fiona Apple – “Ladies”
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