And then there was Miguel Sano butchering a simple run-down play over the weekend. It was baseball’s version of high comedy, which, I’ll admit, isn’t saying much. In these frenetic, acrimonious times, neither hilarity nor the lazy game of baseball qualify as America’s pastime. The Play of the Day is going to get out-clicked about 1,000-to-1 by video of a senior citizen being bloodied by an airport cop. If Abbott and Costello’s irritating “Who’s On First?” has now taken a backseat to “Who’s in coach?” I doubt our culture has suffered for it. But it’s a lose-lose any way you look at it.
In fact, baseball humor was never worth so much as a guffaw. A guy can still get a reputation as a clubhouse clown by sitting naked on a birthday cake or giving an elderly coach a hot-foot. For some reason, my friends used to laugh until they cried every time they watched the wretched “Who’s On First?” bit. I’ll admit that I was always a depressive, but my reaction was to cry until I cried some more. Whenever a friend forced me to endure the bit, I would foreshadow the great George C. Scott’s climactic moment in the B-grade Hardcore.
It seems fair to assume that some Twins fans channel the great Scott when watching Sano fecklessly surround fly balls; or use his shotgun arm to fling the baseball into the right field seats; or insult his Dominican heritage by whiffing on a play my six-year-old charges had no trouble mastering back when I coached t-ball. (Hint: Run the player back to the previous base. Don’t try to outrace the runner home, because you, Mister Sano, are a very slow person. The fact that you have stolen two bases after amassing something like 850 plate appearances should tell you that.)
There are something like 85 major league players who learned the subtleties of the game on the hardscrabble fields of the Dominican Republic. In a country plagued by abject poverty, many of these kids had to make do with knotty sticks instead of bats and tattered socks instead of baseballs. But they mastered the fundamentals with more alacrity than the silver-spoon preppies whose parents shell out 60K a year for tuition at the IMG baseball academy in Florida. It’s nice to know that the American Dream is alive and well — just not in the U.S. In the Dominican, scouts search for players who can get from home to first in 3.9 seconds. In the U.S., we seem to be settling for trying to get from one end of the Amazon warehouse to the other in 39 seconds.
No one I ever coached showed promise of playing at even an online college, and most of my athletes weighed about 220 pounds less than Sano. But by the time the exhibition season ended and we broke camp to travel east on Minnetonka Boulevard, the run-down play was no more difficult than hitting the cutoff child. None of my charges ever sulked the way Sano does when he takes a called third strike (which he often does). Morale was never an issue — not when they knew that one of those penny-a-piece freezies from Costco awaited them after the contest.
If he wants to execute a run-down play in the manner of Sid Hartman on Thorazine, who are we to object?
As kids on Cretin Avenue in St. Paul, we played the old hot-box game until instinct took over. When you grow up on a street named Cretin, you acquire as much knowledge as possible. Sooner or later, your peers are going to learn what “cretin” means, and it’s best to prepare yourself early and often.
Then there’s Sano. No one really knows just how old he is, but it’s safe to say that he’s been playing baseball for at least 20 years without learning many of the game’s subtleties. It’s also safe to say that he’s always going to be a one-tool player. If a guy can hit home runs, he doesn’t have to be able to run, catch, throw or hit for average. And if that’s good enough for the Twins, it’s good enough for me. In fact, if he wants to execute a run-down play in the manner of Sid Hartman on Thorazine, who are we to object? In the context of Minnesota Mediocrity, we’re looking for entertainment, not perfection. At least Sano can make us laugh without having to indent a birthday cake with his genitals.
That said, it’s not surprising that Paul Molitor seems to be aging a couple of years every six months. Managing is like a demotion for guys who were great players, and Molitor is a prime example. He’s 60 years old, he owns a World Series ring, he was an All-Star seven times and he was voted into the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible. His glory days, in short, are over. It’s a good bet that he’ll never even pilot the Twins to a playoff game. So now he sits in a dugout and is forced to wear a pretend uniform. Coaches dress like adults in other sports, but a baseball manager never quite gets to act his age. He’s like Peter Pan in a very disappointing Neverland.
A few great players were great skippers. Joe Torre managed the Yankees to four World Series victories, but those were the Yankees. Two of the greatest players ever — Ty Cobb and Ted Williams — failed as managers. Teddy Ballgame could never quite understand why his players couldn’t hit .400. Cobb was probably just distracted, given his penchant for betting on games, investing in the stock market and killing people.
“Well, if that’s the good stuff, just give me the shit”
Molitor seems far more focused — and far more grounded — but he already has three strikes against him: (1) He never served an apprenticeship as a minor-league manager; (2) Most of his players — Sano being the shining example — have at least one fatal flaw; and (3) Now he has to answer to a new front office, which means he’s an old-timer who must contend with one of the game’s most onerous burdens: Millennials With Metrics.
I don’t see him lasting more than another year or two. And yet Molitor is almost certainly better equipped to handle the duties than another Hall of Fame player — my old pal Frank Robinson. Robinson was just a touch arrogant as a player, but that often comes with the territory. It’s a personality trait he didn’t lose in his long career as a manager — a tenure that spanned 16 seasons without winning a pennant. As it happened, I was an arrogant baseball reporter when I crossed paths with Robinson in 1977. It was my first year covering the Twins and I cherish the memory of my brief brush with the living legend. Robinson was leading Cleveland to another losing season when I found him holding court in the visitor’s dugout at Metropolitan Stadium.
Trying my best — and certainly failing — to act the part of supplicant, I asked Robinson if I could toss a question or two at him. The embattled skipper, wallowing in his own condescension, looked at me dismissively before saying, “I give all my good stuff to Sid Hartman.” (I promise: no more Hartman references until the All-Star break.)
I took a beat before my considered response:
“Well, if that’s the good stuff, just give me the shit.”
I never spoke to Robinson again, and it was just as well. The Indians fired him not long after that, but I’d like to think that moment meant as much to him as it did to me.