On Short Seasons, Asterisks, And Records

BAD-NEWS BRAVES BRING MORE TSOURIS TO DISTRAUGHT FAN BASE

Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Though Warren Spahn won more games (363) and had more 20-win seasons (13) than any lefthander in baseball history, he never had a 200-strikeout season . . .

He may be 37 but Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays has won a record four straight winner-take-all games . .

Leading Off

To Every Season: Musings on Baseball History

By Bill Pruden

It was 1961 and the nation and baseball were witnessing the dawn of a new era. When the nation’s new, young president, John F. Kennedy, threw out the ceremonial first ball at the Washington Senators’ April 10 opening game in the aging Griffith Stadium, it marked the start of Major League Baseball’s expansion era. Barely a week later, the young president found himself under siege following the catastrophic foreign-policy failure known as the Bay of Pigs.

Not long afterward, as the baseball season gave early indications of having historic potential, what became summer-long debates began to rage. Mantle versus Maris. The M & M boys versus the Babe. And most incomprehensibly, but perhaps most significantly, to this 7-year-old fan for whom the 1961campaign was the first season he would follow with a semblance of informed understanding, 154 games versus 162.

On so many levels, the 1961 season has informed my fandom for the last 60 years. But in retrospect, it could not have happened any differently.

My first big-league game--in Yankee Stadium, no less--came in the spring, following the historic chase of one of the game’s most hallowed records. Being there when Maris hit No. 61, I was clearly destined to grow up with the game’s history as the central part of its enduring allure.

When that love of baseball history became a piece of a larger passion for American history -- one that has been manifested in a career as a teacher and writer of the nation's story -- could there be any doubt? I love to watch the game, and like any fan, love the special feeling of arriving at the stadium and taking in the individual aspects that make baseball parks the distinctive sites that football stadiums and basketball arenas will never be. But in the end, for me, it is its distinctive history that is at the heart of my love for the game.

Given all this, I have found myself, however unconsciously, viewing the 2020 season through a lens shaped by the 1961 debate over "what is a season?" Ever since it was decided that for 2020 a "season" would be 60 games, I have been pondering its implications. I know others had concerns about seven-inning doubleheaders and extra-inning adjustments but for me, it is the meaning of the short season and its place in the continuum of baseball history that I still struggle to comprehend.

Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Indeed, once agreement on the 60-game schedule had been reached and baseball was on track to return, there was no shortage of commentary on the question of legitimacy.

Such luminaries as George Will and Bob Costas noted that yes, a short season hot streak could yield a .400 hitter to “challenge” Ted Williams or an ERA below that of Bob Gibson's iconic 1968 performance [1.12], but Costas made clear his belief that such marks would be recognized for the aberrations they would be.

Will, meanwhile, spoke of a possible "blizzard of asterisk talk." And despite her professional stature, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, arguably representing the fan in all of us, dismissed the significance of the length, saying she would leave the haggling to the experts. She said she planned to take pleasure in reverting to her 7-year-old self to simply enjoy the game.

In fact, we were spared the indignities, the asterisks, and the aberrations. But a look back at Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-game hitting streak does remind us of what could have been.

Indeed, during DiMaggio’s 1941 record-breaking 56-game streak, he posted an average of .408, with 15 home runs, 55 runs batted in, and 91 hits. Those numbers would have made for a nice season in 2020.

Jose Abreu of the White Sox led the majors in RBI with 60, while Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna was runner-up with 56. Meanwhile, DiMaggio’s home run total of 15 would have tied for 15th across the big leagues in 2020, but of course the long ball was never DiMaggio’s calling card. More impressive were the 91 hits Joltin' Joe accumulated, a figure that dwarfed the 2020 major-league high of 78 by the Nationals’ Trea Turner.

On the pitching side, a look at Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser’s 1968 and 1988 consecutive scoreless-inning streaks offers a stark reminder of what might have been accomplished in a short season, especially in an era when pitchers do amass the innings those workhorses did.

Drysdale's streak came near the end of the Dodgers’ first 60 games and he threw 118 2/3 innings while compiling a 1.31 ERA. Meanwhile, Hershiser's streak came during the Dodgers’ final 60, when he threw 106 innings with an ERA of 1.61. He did not give up a run in the month of September, throwing six complete-game shutouts, the last of which went 10 innings.

In contrast, Shane Bieber’s 2020 breakout effort, one that consisted of 77 1/3 innings in 12 appearances, was the talk of the baseball world as he captured the Pitching Triple Crown -- a feat last accomplished in 2006.

Reporters noted that Bieber’s accomplishment represented the first time an Indians hurler had won the AL Triple Crown since 1940 when Bob Feller had led the league in all three categories -- wins, ERA and strikeouts -- only to finish behind National Leaguers Bucky Walters of the Reds and Claude Passeau of the Cubs in the ERA race. Bieber’s effort included eight wins (tying him with Yu Darvish of the Cubs for most in the majors) and featured a 1.63 ERA as well as a chart-topping 122 strikeouts. But should it be included in the same conversation as Feller’s 1940 effort?

Over a 154-game schedule, Rapid Robert compiled a pitching line of 27 wins, a 2.61 ERA, and 261 strikeouts. For good measure, he boasted 31 complete games in 37 starts and even four saves (before it became an official stat) in 320 and 1/3 innings. With the Cy Young Award not yet in existence, Feller had to settle for the runner-up spot in the MVP voting behind Hank Greenberg.

None of that was Bieber’s fault. He performed under the rules as they were given and if some stat lines may seem exaggerated, in the long run will it make any difference? Does the length of the season even matter?

Will the MVPs and Cy Young winners of 2020 be treated any differently than those of the split 1981 season or the 1994 season that lacked the closure of a World Series? It is hard to know and yet somehow it just does not sit right.

In a sport where numbers and statistics are so important, they remain something that connects across generations and years. The heated comparisons between Maris, who hit 61 in 162 games, and Ruth, who had 60 in the 154-game schedule of 1927, made that very clear almost six decades ago.

Yes, there was some grousing in 1961 about the diminished quality of expansion- impacted pitching, and others looked to the impact of day versus night games and planes versus trains, but in the end, as Mantle and Maris (and ultimately only Maris) pursued the Babe and the single-season home run record, it was the question of what “was a season” upon which the threatened asterisk, as well as the legitimacy of the record itself, was based.

Of course, by the time the chemically-assisted Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made mincemeat of Maris’s record, the travails of the 1961 chase were hardly on the public’s radar although the effort had been immortalized by filmmaker and Mantle fan Billy Crystal.

Ironically, in the days after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, justifying his decision to reschedule regular-season games lost to the post-attack postponements, Commissioner Bud Selig referenced the “sanctity” of the 162-game schedule -- even though it pushed the World Series into November.

Forty years earlier, that was not how Commissioner Ford Frick saw it. If he had, Roger Maris might have been able to enjoy his accomplishments during the 1961 season. Instead, a record-breaking, MVP-winning season, capped by a World Series victory, was more trial than triumph.

While it certainly was not Frick’s fault alone, it was not something that either Maris or the game deserved. But sometimes history is like that—it is not always written by the winners.

Bill Pruden is a high school history teacher who has been a baseball fan since seeing his first major-league game in 1961. He has been writing about the game--primarily through SABR- sponsored platforms but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email is courtwatchernc@aol.com.

Cleaning Up

Atlanta Braves Fans Get More Than Their Fair Share Of Heartbreak

By Dan Schlossberg

Sooner or later, fans of every big-league team suffer gut-wrenching heartbreak. It just seems that those who follow the Atlanta Braves suffer more than most.

The 2020 season was the biggest see-saw of all.

Heading into February, Atlanta looked like a lock for its third straight National League East title and a good bet to play deeper into October than it had in years.

The pitching staff featured the talented right-left punch of Mike Soroka and Max Fried, the additions of veterans Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, and the promise of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, young veterans with past moments of brilliance.

Then came the pandemic, shuttering the game for four months. Hernandez, a shot-in-the-dark signee who showed his old Cy Young form during exhibition play, opted out for health reasons.

Not long afterward, Soroka ruptured his Achilles tendon, requiring season-ending surgery. And both Foltynewicz and Newcomb showed such poor command that they pitched their way off the roster.

Nick Markakis also opted out – after a telephone call to COVID-19 victim Freddie Freeman, the team’s best player. Freeman, weakened by his ordeal, got off to a slow start but eventually rebounded to make himself the favorite for the National League’s MVP award.

But, except for Fried, the rotation was truly wretched, posting a 5.51 composite ERA that was worse than any previous playoff team. Thanks to a dependable bullpen and robust batting attack anchored by Freeman and free-agent signee Marcell Ozuna, however, Atlanta went 35-25 in the shortened 60-game season.

But there were plenty of bumps in the road. Wrist injuries sidelined Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. Fried finished 7-0 but fell out of Cy Young Award contention when he tweaked his ankle in his final start, yielded his first home runs in more than a year, and watched his ERA rise above 2.00 for the first time all year. He fell four innings short of qualifying for the ERA title.

On the plus side, rookie starters Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson had big games late in the year that kept the Braves alive much longer than they should have been.

Always an underdog, Atlanta swept Cincinnati in the new Wild-Card Series and Miami in the NL Division Series before locking horns with the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers in the Championship Series.

The Braves teased their fans by winning three of the first four games before coming down to earth. Before the 2020 NLCS, teams that had taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series won 28 times in 31 tries. Yet this team found a way, making costly base-running blunders in three different games – all of them losses.

In the fourth inning of Game 7, Atlanta had men on second and third with nobody out. Nick Markakis hit a hard grounder to third. Dansby Swanson broke for home on contact and was tagged out in a rundown. Austin Riley, the trailing runner, tried to reach third but LCS MVP Corey Seager covered in time to take the throw from Justin Turner. That left the Braves with two outs, a runner on first, and no runs.

Earlier in the series, Marcell Ozuna handed the Dodgers an out by leaving third too soon on a sacrifice fly and Ozzie Albies was tagged out after failing to touch first base when a ball was dropped behind him. Even Little Leaguers know better.

Little Leaguers also hit better; the Braves went 4-for-25 with men in scoring position over their final three games, when they totaled seven runs, and 5-for-32 in the series. Most of the big bats, including Ronald Acuna Jr. and Travis d’Arnaud, were silent – at a time when the Dodgers hit 16 home runs and provided a clinic in unwordly outfield play.

It was not the first time the Braves melted down in the postseason.

Just last year, Mike Foltynewicz pitched a great game to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the Division Series but was knocked out in the first inning of the decisive Game 5, when the Cards plated 10 runs.

Future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro couldn’t stop the 1969 Miracle Mets, who swept the first NL Championship Series, then a best-of-three, despite three Hank Aaron home runs. Hoyt Wilhelm could have helped but was acquired after the August 31 waiver trade deadline and was ineligible for postseason play.

Joe Torre’s 1982 Braves won their first 13 games, a major-league record, but lost a best-of-three playoff series to the Cardinals with the help of heavy rain that wiped out a 1-0 Niekro lead two outs short of an official game. Given another chance, the Cards won both games not cancelled by weather.

After a long dry spell, the Braves became the first National League team to go from last place one year to first place the next. But their World Series opponent, the Minnesota Twins, did the same thing in the same year, a first for the American League.

The 1991 World Series, still the most exciting in baseball history, featured five one-run games.

One of those was Game 7, which went 10 innings.

The bad base-running of Lonnie Smith cost the Braves dearly. Minnesota managed to win, 1-0, in 10 innings after John Smoltz and Jack Morris battled in one of the best finales in Fall Classic history.

The Braves had taken a 3-2 lead in that World Series but the high decibel levels of the Metrodome, the legions of fans waving white homer hankies, and a timely Game 6 home run by Kirby Puckett kept the Twins alive.

In 1996, the teen-aged Andruw Jones led an assault against the New York Yankees in the Bronx, helping the Braves take a 2-0 lead. But they never won another game, thanks to a combination of bad defense, bad bullpen work, and awful offense.

Late-inning long balls also killed the Braves in 1992 (Ed Sprague), 1996 (Jim Leyritz), and other years during their 14-game title streak (the Dodgers, with eight straight, need six more to tie).

Atlanta has not won a World Series since 1995 nor a pennant since 1999. Until this year, they did not even reach the Championship Series since 2001. The heartbreak of psoriasis can’t hold a finger to the heartbreak of Braves country.

Consider 2011, for example. Atlanta held a 10½-game lead over St. Louis in the wild-card standings in late August and an 8½-game lead as the final month began. But then lost 18 of their final 27, handing the wild-card slot to the Cardinals, who won 17 of their last 25. The Braves lost their last five games, capping the agony on the final day with a 13-inning loss to Philadelphia, the NL East leader, after leading in the ninth. That left Atlanta one game behind the wild-card Cards.

In 2012, the last year Chipper Jones was an active player, the Braves couldn’t capitalize on home-field advantage in the new, sudden-death wild-card game. An error by Chipper, coupled with umpire Sam Holbrook’s inexplicable interpretation of the infield fly rule, negated an early Atlanta lead.

That frustration lingered into 2013 as the Braves won their first NL East crown since 2005 but lost a four-game Division Series against the Dodgers – even after holding leads in three of those games. Atlanta lost another four-game NLDS to Los Angeles five years later.

Even before they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, the Braves battered the emotions of their fans. They blew a 3-1 lead against the Yankees in the 1958 World Series and failed to win a game in a best-of-three unscheduled playoff series against the Dodgers a year later. The pennant-winning run scored on a 12th-inning error by Felix Mantilla, subbing for injured shortstop Johnny Logan, after Los Angeles overcame a 5-2 deficit with a three-run ninth.

There is some good news on the horizon, however: the Atlanta Braves of 2021 will be one of the youngest and strongest teams in the major leagues. Soroka will be back and maybe Hernandez too. So will Adam Duvall, who had 11 home runs in September before tweaking an oblique in the first game of the 2020 NLCS. Also likely to play a big part is Cristian Pache, a rookie who played well against Los Angeles after stepping in for Duvall.

If the Braves are able to keep prospective free agent Marcell Ozuna, who led the NL in home runs and RBI after signing a one-year, $18 million deal, there should be plenty of run support for the kid pitchers.

HERE’S THE PITCH Weekend Editor Dan Schlossberg is a national baseball writer for forbes.com, author of 38 baseball books, and a long-time Braves fan. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

In 10 tries, the Los Angeles Dodgers have never rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series . . .

NLCS rivals Dansby Swanson (Braves) and Walker Buehler (Dodgers) were college roommates at Vanderbilt . . .

Nick Markakis has played more games (2,154) than anyone who has never played in the World Series.