When Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola called the 1986 World Series for NBC television, their recurring theme harked to Dickens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Baseball’s 2011 season–during which it seemed New York, perhaps inexplicably, was anxious to think of anything but the silver anniversary of those rapacious Mets—was much like that. Beginning with the worst of times—the unconsionable beating of a San Francisco Giants fan in the parking lot of a security-challenged Dodger Stadium; the tragic falling death of a Texas Rangers fan trying to spear a ball for his little son tossed by Josh Hamilton. Concluding with the best, or at least the most surrealistic of times—the final day of the regular season, right down to Evan Longoria’s walkoff home run; and, the final two games of the World Series, where Game Six itself was the worst of times shoved to the best when the St. Louis Cardinals recovered from two down-to-their-last-strike moments to win on . . . a walkoff home run.
The Dodger-Giant rivalry over time has been described as a duel to the death, but not until Opening Day 2011 had the metaphor become literal. Then Bryan Stow was beaten senseless and almost to death for the heinous crime of showing up in a Giants jersey. While Stow fought for his life, and in due course began to succeed in recovering it in steps and phases, the assault helped further expose the incompetence of the Dodgers’ owner, who had carved back stadium security grotesquely enough, was about to be exposed for using the Dodgers as what some (including, reputedly, the Internal Revenue Service) called his personal ATM machine, and would file for bankruptcy within three months. After the season, Frank McCourt finally agreed to sell the team. Causing some to wonder why commissioner Bud Selig was as determined to drive McCourt out of baseball as he was to keep the financially-compromised Wilpons–caught, perhaps unwittingly, in the Bernie Madoff contretemps, with a receiver trying to determine whether they knew what Madoff was up (or down) to—from losing the Mets.
Shannon Stone asked for nothing more than his six-year-old son’s hero to toss him a ball during a July game. Josh Hamilton was nothing more than cooperative. He tossed the ball, the elder Stone reached for it, and fell to his death over a Rangers Ballpark railing. It couldn’t compensate for losing his father, but little Cooper Stone received one salve for his loss–he threw out the ceremonial first pitch opening the Rangers-Tampa Bay Rays division series. To Hamilton. Accompanied by Nolan Ryan. During the off-season, it transpired that the elder Stone’s parents wrote to Hamilton asking him to please not stop tossing balls to fans in the stands.
Derek Jeter temporarily silenced critics of his decline when he finally nailed his 3,000th major league hit and rather dramatically at that, with a long home run in Yankee Stadium early on a 5-for-5 day. For Yankee fans it was more than enough, even if some of them insisted there should have been scheduling manipulation to guarantee Jeter would get the milestone at home. For Jeter, it may not have been enough to make his the big individual day of the year. Not with Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay, becoming only the fourth player in history to nail at least seven hits and ten runs batted in on the same day, which he did during a 28 April doubleheader. Or Zobrist’s teammate, Longoria, erasing memories of his early season injury and slump when he homered twice, including the walkoff, to secure the Boston Red Sox’s stupefying from-up-nine-games collapse out of the wild card picture—though he needed help from a .108 hitter wrapping a game-tyer around the foul pole to get there. Which may yet take some of the sting out of the Atlanta Braves’s collapse, which was from a mere eight games up in the wild card chase.
We probably should have known how squirrelly this year’s postseason was going to go with one of the little critters making it literal during a St. Louis-Philadelphia division series game. The 1986 Mets went from down to their final strike in Game Six of the World Series to heading for Game Seven. The 2011 Cardinals, who’d returned from the land of the living dead in the National League’s wild card picture, were down to their final strike twice in Game Six. Except that David Freese rifled a triple just past Nelson Cruz with the Rangers in the no-doubles defence in the ninth, Lance Berkman dumped an RBI single into center field in the tenth, and Freese hit the first pitch of the bottom of the eleventh over the fence. Sending it to Game Seven, where the Cardinals triumphed after a Series dominated by close scores, managers outsmarting themselves, and reasonable baseball including but not limited to Albert Pujols’s hitting three bombs in Game Three after the sixth inning.
Triumphant manager Tony La Russa, who almost blew the Series when he got his bullpen priorities mixed up, retired two days after the staggering triumph. Pujols signed for $254 million and ten years with the Los Angeles Angels, whose surrender of catcher Mike Napoli the previous winter ended up helping push the Rangers toward the postseason in the first place. The Florida–oops! Miami–Marlins spent just as big and maybe bigger in the offseason, including for Jose Reyes, the National League’s batting champion and one of the faces of the paralysed Mets. The Yankees and the Red Sox weren’t even in the big spending off-season picture. The Red Sox may yet recover from The Collapse, if only the Nation would allow them to forget how the inmates took over the asylum and compelled their most successful manager ever to resign before he could be executed. The National League’s Most Valuable Player turned up as a positive test for excess testosterone after the regular season, and though it may turn out to have been caused by legitimate medication the woofing and warping to withdraw his award ramped up in earnest. The Mets, who have enough problems getting back to the foot of the mountain, were compelled to wire a pitcher asking him not even to think about conquering Mt. Kilmanjaro.
Jerry Meals made a meal out of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were in the middle of a surprising surge (they actually occupied first place in their division for a brief but exciting spell), when he called Atlanta’s Julio Lugo safe at the plate despite Pirates catcher Michael McKenry getting the tag on Lugo’s leg in the bottom of the 19th. It broke the Pirates’ surging spirit, won the Braves a ball game, and renewed calls for more replay, including one from Meals himself. Joe Torre, once a manager now a baseball government official, crowed about not wishing to eliminate “the human factor.” What a surprise from a man who’d been helped unconscionably by a twelve-year-old fan denying an Oriole outfielder’s catch in a postseason contest once upon a time.
Jack McKeon was crazy enough to return to managing the Florida Marlins after Edwin Rodriguez was canned. He was even crazier enough to actually bench Hanley Ramirez for showing up late to a team meeting. Jim Riggleman walked out of his job as the Washington Nationals’ manager after general manager Mike Rizzo declined to discuss his 2012 option—and after the Nats had just won eleven of twelve. Davey Johnson, a man with a resume for winning and getting fired, sometimes in the same season, was named his successor. In between, John McLaren managed one game in the interim—and was ejected in the eighth inning. Mike Quade lost the Cub clubhouse and, in due course, his job; the Cubs, who hired Theo Epstein after the architect of the Red Sox cursebusters high-tailed it off the sinking ship, did not hire Ryne Sandberg (again), who’d spent five years managing successfully in their system before leaving to manage in the Phillies’, to succeed him. The Cardinals and the White Sox hired new managers with three levels of managing experience between them: jack, diddley, and squat.
One Justine Siegel threw batting practise to eight Cleveland Indians in spring training, the first woman to do it. Carlos Santana turned the season’s first triple play. Manny Being Manny meant retiring in April rather than face a second drug-related suspension, then petitioning for reinstatement in the off-season—because he couldn’t play in the winter Dominican leagues otherwise. Kevin Gregg of the Orioles declared war on the Red Sox with three inside pitches. Carlos Zambrano declared war on the Atlanta Braves—after surrendering back-to-back bombs and decking Chipper Jones—before cleaning out his Wrigley Field locker and announcing his retirement following his ejection. Mark Teixiera declared himself the all-time single-game switch-hitting home run champion when he did it for the twelfth time in his career. Jim Thome became the senior citizen of the 600 home run club, hitting the milestone mash at the tender age of 40.
On the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances front further, Roger Clemens’ perjury trial ended in a hung jury; Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to a year’s probation and a month’s house arrest. On the arms race front, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw won their leagues’ respective pitching triple crowns; Verlander threw in the American League’s Most Valuable Player award for good measure. On the Hall of Fame front, Ron Santo was finally enshrined—posthumously—by a revamped Veterans Committee, while the Baseball Writers Association of America got to wrestle with a weak enough freshman ballot and a few troublesome ballot returns. Nobody said life was perfect. Four Tigers—Ryan Raburn, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Delmon Young—open the bottom of the sixth in Game Five of the American League Championship Series by hitting for an unprecedented postseason sequential cycle: single, double, triple, home run. Three days earlier, one Ranger—Nelson Cruz—meant one walkoff grand slam, another postseason first. Three Yankees (Robinson Cano, Russell Martin, Curtis Granderson) hit grand slams in the same 22-9 rout of Oakland, a first in baseball history. The Mariano broke the career saves record and looking only slightly like his age doing it.
While the NBA and the NHL endured lockouts, baseball continued its second decade of comparative labour peace. The new collective bargaining agreement was signed, sealed, delivered without fuss but with maybe a little muss, if your idea of progress isn’t adding more wild card teams or the prospect (allegedly) of season-long interleague play. Well, nobody said baseball government was perfect, but did baseball’s proletariat have to join in that much of the fun? Meanwhile, the Houston Astros, under new ownership, were declared the team to have been named later in the trade that sent the Milwaukee Brewers to the National League.
Death, as usual, would not be denied even in 2011. George Crowe was the first baseman the Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffers forgot in 1957—but who made the All-Star team a year later. Ryne Duren was famous for glasses that resembled the bottoms of Coca-Cola bottles, a fastball with a mind of its own as often as not, and a long but ultimately successful battle with another kind of bottle. Marty Marion was the greatest defencive shortstop of the 1940s and, at least until Ozzie Smith’s advent, in the history of the Cardinals if not the game itself. Duke Snider was Brooklyn’s matinee idol during the Boys of Summer generation. Harmon Killebrew was probably the most inappropriately-nicknamed man in the game in his time and place; few were gentler or friendlier than the Killer.
Mike Flanagan was an Oriole pitcher of renown, father of the world’s second in-vitro birth, and a long-suffering Oriole executive and broadcaster whose suicide shocked no less than that of Hideki Irabu, who couldn’t live up to his hype and couldn’t live down a Steinbrennerian insult. (“Fat pussy toad.”) Greg Goossen went from Stengelese Met (Now here’s a fella named Goossen, he’s only twenty and in ten years he has a chance to be thirty—Casey Stengel) to original Seattle Pilot to becoming Gene Hackman’s film stand-in. Merritt Ranew went from original Houston Colt .45 to original Pilot and to unfortunate immortality the hard way: he was once poleaxed from behind with a bat by . . . the on-deck hitter, after Ranew ran to aid his pitcher in a minor league brawl, resulting in paralysis to the right side of his face. Matty Alou listened to Harry Walker, picked up a heavier bat, and went from just one of the Alou brothers to a National League batting champion. Bob Forsch, a solid veteran pitcher, was the only Cardinal pitcher not to melt down during Game Seven of the 1985 World Series, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch for this year’s Game Seven.
Dick Williams turned a Red Sox country club into a chain gang, won the 1967 American League pennant, and eventually led two of the three consecutive “Mustache Gang” Oakland Athletics World Series champions. Paul Splittorff was the first 20-game winner in Kansas City Royals history before becoming a beloved Royals broadcaster. Chuck Tanner, the original schmooze manager, nearly yanked the 1972 White Sox to the American League pennant, managed the “Fam-I-Lee” Pirates to the 1979 World Series rings, then fiddled while his roster burned with drug problems. Gus Zernial was nicknamed Ozark Ike, hit some long home runs, and introduced Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe. Wes Covington was a minor-league callup who helped mean the pennant for the 1957 Milwaukee Braves.
Roy Hartsfield managed the Toronto Blue Jays for their first three seasons of life. Red Borom was the oldest living former Tiger. Cliff Dapper was the only player in major league history to be traded (by the Brooklyn Dodgers, to the minor-league Atlanta Crackers) for a broadcaster (Ernie Harwell). Gino Cimoli was the first man to bat in regulation competition in a Los Angeles Dodgers’ uniform. Wally Yonamine was the first American to play baseball in Japan after World War II and the first Asian-American to play in the National Football League. Lou Gorman helped build the ill-fated 1986 Red Sox pennant-winner. Emilio Navarro was major league baseball’s first Puerto Rican-born player and the oldest known former professional player at 105. Mel Queen went from outfielder to pitcher to helping build the Blue Jays’ farm that helped produce back-to-back World Series champions. Charlie Lea was the first Frenchman to throw a major league no-hitter.
Eddie Joost, who forged a seventeen-season playing career with his glove at shortstop, was the last living member of the 1940 Cincinnati Reds World Series winners and, in hand, the last man alive who had been on a World Series winner prior to 1941. Jim Northrup hit the triple over Curt Flood’s head that broke Bob Gibson’s Game Seven shutout and launched the Tigers toward their 1968 World Series triumph. And Charlie Metro, who once bragged about being a .400 hitter in his two major league seasons (“.200 in each season”) was one of the Cubs’ infamous College of Coaches experiment of rotating head coaches in place of a full-time manager from 1961-65, about which he offered its most pointed epitaph: “Occasionally, the team would play real well, but then they’d rotate the coaches again.” Only the Cubs . . .