THE BIG HIT | The Story Has Been Told

By Ken Napzok

When I was a kid obsessed with the game, rooting for my heroes, and dreaming about taking the field myself, the Sporting News put out a couple of books called The Series: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Postseason Showcase.

The first one I procured was after the 1990 World Series and they updated it each year for a few seasons. (So go pick them up ‘91 Twins fans and ‘92 Blue Jay boosters!) Each volume went all the way back to 1903 and recounted every World Series and, later, every League Championship Series up to the most recent series at the time of publishing. I absolutely devoured those books. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Every World Series and LCS profiled told a fascinating story. 

Each story told went beyond those lines of that particular series and the teams competing between them. These championship showcases told the story of the entire season. They were snapshots of the game at that time and unique chapters to a larger story.

From the upstart American League sending the Boston Americans into face the Pirates of Pittsburgh from the “we’re better than you” National League in 1903 to the brazenly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers taking on the old guard’s proxy in pinstripes, the Yankees, in 1947 to the built by free agency wild card winning Marlins of 1997 ushering in a new template for winning, the stories roll out. 

So, what is the story of the 2019 World Series?

I wish the Sporting News was still publishing those books to help answer that.

The 2019 World Series was about a timeless game that stretches back to the 1860’s running head on into a very modern world. That’s not just going on inside baseball. That’s the world as we know it. Everything we’ve known about how to live this life is changing, but there is a part of us still wanting the comfort of all that has come before it.

We still cling to what we know and love while being intrigued, excited, and, in some cases, no longer restrained by all the New Normal rolling out in front of us. Technology — for better or worse — has brought us closer together, made us heard, and changed so much in so little time. Even how we consume those idle pleasures that entertain us has changed so much in the last few years that how we even watch baseball is brand new.

I watched part of this World Series on my phone while in the back of a car driven by a stranger that I summoned with the press of a few buttons on a device in my hands more powerful than anything in the world at the time of my birth. 

Crazy.

Yes, the 2019 World Series was about this modern age announcing itself to the world while also reminding us of where it came from. It was telling us that there is still a way to go, but if you let yourself come along for the journey, you’ll find the same joys that were always there.

The 2019 World Series wasn’t just about those sabremetric stats that have been around for decades before taking their place at the head of the statistical dinner table a few seasons ago. It was about those stats that lead to shifts, spin velocity, and bullpen days still needing to live alongside big game starters, gutsy old school gamers, and unsung players doing the one thing the stats least expected them to do. 

Each game wasn’t just about the biggest stars of the teams gearing up for huge offseason free agent takes. Though the conversations about Strasburg’s option out, Rendon’s certain testing of what’s out there and the countdown to Gerrit Cole’s huge payday were very much present. We’ve become used to those kinds of headlines since the explosion of surreal sized contracts that found players just waiting to bust out from the locker rooms of the teams that raised them and into the arms of the franchises that can pay them. No, that model doesn’t seem to work any more. Instead, each game was about these players going out and proving that the teams about to spend a fortune aren’t just tossing $300 million contracts to undoubtedly uber talented players that are more brands to acquire than players to sign; they are warriors ready to stand up strong to pressures found when your entire organization gets the chance to achieve the one thing everyone should be here for: win. 

There are those that would have us believe that baseball has long since been passed by. It can’t keep up with the current pace of the world and attention span of those in it. It’s too slow. Too long. Too old school. Too — you know — baseball. This isn’t new, though. The National Football League seemed to shoulder block baseball out of the spotlight in the late-60s and the grand ole’ game seemed to be pushed aside way back then. But Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi, and the all the half time shows in the world didn’t kill it then and these seven games of glorious baseball action now proved the heartbeat is still going. In fact, the 2019 World Series proved to be meme worthy, hashtag savvy, and talked about in more circles outside the sporting world than in recent memory. You need not put too much stock in any “TV ratings” because that old standby is just that — old. The engagements are the thing. The interactions. The trending moments. And though we live in an algorithm ruled world, they were there. 

The 2019 World Series was the final show of a decade that brought a different kind of change to the game. This wasn’t the live ball arriving in 1920 (truly the biggest in-game change yet) or expansion finally taking the game to the west coast in the late 1950s or 1960s. This wasn’t razzle dazzle like interleague play or fans voting for the final roster spot on All-Star teams. The 2019 World Series was that final show of a decade in which how we view the game, measure the game, and play the game has changed because the people watching it and playing it are living in a drastically different world. They — we — are different. It’s a change that isn’t being measured in years or even days, but in hours and minutes. Likewise, the 2019 World Series kept changing not by the game, but by the inning and pitch. 

So, congratulations to the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. It was an amazing World Series. A brand new game that managed to feel like everything that came before it. 

And that’s quite a story. 

Power Rankings

The World Series baseball week that was

5 – Road Field Advantage

In the 1987 World Series, the Minnesota Twins and St Louis Cardinals went seven tense games and when the dust settled every game was won by the home team. It happened again in 1991 and 2001. It seemed wonderfully rare and odd when the ‘87 teams pulled that off, but not completely crazy. Home field advantage is a phrase pounded into our sports loving brains from very early on. You fight for the right to go home. That magic elixir to give your team the important leg up on the competition. It’s. Why. The. All-Star. Game. Is. Played. (Right, Bud?) So two professional baseball teams playing seven games and having every win coming at home seems like… well… the way it’s supposed to be. But every game being won by the visiting team? Well, that just seems like the type of chaos Heath Ledger’s Joker was talking about in the Dark Knight. 

What is the lesson in this? 

I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s a sign of the world ending? A seventh seal of sports strategy breaking before all hell breaks loose. Or perhaps — just maybe — it’s less of a on-field lesson to be analyzed, studied, and copied for future sports success and it’s more of a case study on the focus, determination, and togetherness needed in the hearts and souls of the teammates charging into the breach. 

To win on the road means you have to put aside every obstacle and disadvantage tossed into the road before you — both real and imagined — and believe in everything you know are capable of. All the stats and strategies are great, but winning on the road is a gut check. A chance to stand alone and know that is enough. In 2019, the Nationals and Astros both went into enemy territory and came out with victories every single time. 

That is not chaos… that is the new template for success. 

4 – The Strike Zone

Back in my days as a manager of a Little League team, one of my players took a called second strike that bounced off the dirt. To say the least, the home plate umpire blew the call. Now, the ump was probably a hard working dad that was volunteering to call balls and strikes after a long, hard day at work, but the pitch literally bounced two feet before home plate and skipped like a rock tossed into a lake at the catcher. My player was mad. Really mad. He stepped out of the box, made a scene like he was Paul O’Neill in 1998 and the ump was a Gatorade jug. He stepped back in and promptly struck out looking. 

When he got back to the dugout, he looked to me for support. 

“That call was horrible!”

“It was,” I said. “But that was strike two. You let that pitch beat you even though you had one more pitch left. What are you going to do with the next pitch in life, not the last?” 

The kid — all of ten years-old — looked up at me and silently nodded in some sort of agreement before going on in his life to do great things. (I mean, he better have. That was great advice!)

My point to all of this is the Umpires in the World Series must have been in the stands during that game and thought it was ok to call whatever pitch they like a strike. 

Look, those were bad calls. The previous standard for bad strike calls we all know to be the late Eric Gregg effort in 1997. Gregg’s  strike zone in the 1997 NLCS was so liberal that balls being rolled back to the dugout were nipping the corner. Were the calls in the World Series to that level? 

Sigh.

Yeah. It seems like it. 

No one’s here to defend Lance Barskdale (the best root beer you’ve never had) and the rest of the — shall we say — debatable calls this series. They happened and the world was watching. This World Series will unfortunately be remembered for those calls. Hard for it not to be. 

However, I, for one, am not ready for C-3PO, Marvin the Paranoid Android, and any other famous Droids or Robots to step behind home plate. Human error and the floating concept of mid-chest to the knees has long been the charming standards we accepted. The strike zone is also not going to be as rigid as the Fox Sports graphic sitting on our big screen, high definition, smart TVs. The corners will change, the angles will shift, and the fine art of getting the call will always be the little factors that help you win or lose. It’s part of the tradition of this timeless game. 

Another sigh.

I know. I’m not convincing you. Technology has come too far and the stakes are too high to use the same approach that worked in 1915. Rob Manfred seems to agree as well. 

Yeah, it might be time. 

All hail our new Robot Umpire Overlords. 

3 – The Bat Walk

Let’s be clear.

When writing about and reflecting on a World Series like this one that goes the distance and fills every  line of the pages to the brim, there are many, many names and moments to choose from. The 2019 Fall Classic is no different.

There is The Original National Ryan Zimmerman finally getting his just reward. Howie Kendrick rounding the bases after hitting another Biggest Home Run of His Career. Max Scherzer crying out with joy “We won it all.” The Trey Turner Interference. Carlos Correa and George Springer being Carlos Correa and George Springer. They’re all there, just like in all those World Series gone by that take their place in our nostalgia-loving hearts. Yet these classic championship showdowns often have little moments that breakout from all of it and slip into the pop culture zeitgeist of the sport. 

Think of Roger Clemens tossing a broken bat “near” Mike Piazza in 2000. Carlton Fisk willing his home run fair in 1975. Cleon Jones’ shoe polish being found on a ball leading to a rally starting hit by pitch for the Miracle Mets in 1969. The greatest just might be Babe Ruth calling — or not calling — his shot in 1932. These are moments of tension and drama that don’t tell the entire story of the series… or even the game, but are remembered years later when someone brings up that series. 

It’s not “remember the 2000 World Series where the Mets and Yankees gave us a memorable five-game subway series that absolutely cemented that Yankee team’s place in history?”

It’s “remember when the tension between Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza exploded — literally — and Clemens threw a bat shard at Piazza?!?!” 

The 2019 series has a lot going for it, but in the year of the Bat Flip, this series gave us the Battle of The Bat Walk. 

First, it was Alex Bregman and his first inning blast in Game Six. Perhaps he was so stunned by going deep off of the red hot Strasburg that he forgot to flip his bat.

Then it was Juan Soto’s turn.

These two incidents apparently went against every unwritten rule ever (not) recorded and inspired countless tweets, think pieces, and chastising op-eds. For one day it seemed as though it was a national crisis. WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE HUBRIS OF THESE BRAGGARTS? 

Everyone had an opinion and often it was divided down the generational lines. Even the managers of both teams registered public denouncements while Juan Soto himself explained that, well, it just looked like fun when Alex did it, so he did it, too. 

Look, do we want every player carry their bats down the line or beyond? (Seriously. Who will be the first player to get to second with their lumber in hand?) Probably not. Will a Bat Walk — like Bat Flips — be policed on the field as needed? I’m sure of it. Are some of the game’s traditions important and part of the sport’s appeal? Yes. Yes, George Will, they are.

But one of the lasting memories of the 2019 World Series won’t be scandalous drama, angry outbursts, or tragic injuries. Instead, one of the things that will pass the test of time will be two of the game’s brightest stars celebrating the simple joys of the game with a little flare, a lot of confidence, and, what the game needs more than anything, personality. 

2 – Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole

One had to prove that all the hype he received back at the start of his already successful career was earned. The other had to prove that all the hype he is about to receive in the offseason will be justified. Both used this postseason to state their cases, used the World Series as their closing arguments, and it was pretty convincing. 

Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole climbed to the top of collective mound in a series that was headlined by the importance of starting pitching. It was a joy to watch. Each inning. Each strike out. Each moment another look at two of the games best performing at the top of their game. It’s just simply fun to watch. 

As stated, Strasburg has had a successful career. Not counting injury plagued campaigns, he has never had a year that was bad. Not even a below average one. His highest ERA was 2018’s 3.74 in an age of unreal offense. It’s just that until this postseason it just might seem to the casual observer as if Strasburg had gone the way of other pitchers that were inducted into the Hall of Fame after early splashes like Mark Fidrych, Mark Prior, or Kerry Wood before injuries and reality took their career’s down different paths. In 2011, Strasburg was that player. 

After a debut so hyped that the MLB network seemed to sell it as a national holiday, Strasburg followed that up with a devastating injury and that could have been it. But it wasn’t and with pitch counts and innings limits firmly in place, he didn’t just come back. Stephen Strasburg thrived. Now, thanks to this World Series, a series MVP award, and the 2019 postseason as a whole there is no question about what happened to that hot shot arm that arrived with all that fanfare in 2010. 

He won it all. 

And now he has three days to decide if he wants to cash in.

Which is exactly what Gerrit Cole is about to do. 

The entire 2019 season was Gerrit Cole’s statement to the world, but it all game into focus during October and that is no small feat. 

Being an ace starting pitcher or that go-to arm on the staff doesn’t always equate to postseason glory. One of the lasting images of this postseason was Clayton Kershaw staring into the void, knowing that his postseason legacy is muddy. Justin Verlander will be in the Hall of Fame whenever he’s ready to hang it up and he did nothing to subtract from that, of course. Yet he comes away from this World Series still lacking a win on the biggest stage of them all. 

Yep, being an ace can be a hard gig come the Fall Classic. Cole got nicked a bit in Game One, but even the strongest dams can spring leaks. the former Pittsburgh Pirate turned Houston weapon of war, rebounded with a seven inning reminder of what he has done all season long in Game Five. Each time he warmed up in the bullpen during the final game seemed to spur the Nationals on. Better take the lead now or face being shut down in the ninth by the current Best Pitcher on the Planet. 

He never got into the game. Whether or not that was a fatal tactical sin by A.J. Hinch will be debated by smarter souls than me all through the winter, but the desire to see him pitch one more time speaks volumes. Gerrit Cole is the real deal. 

October is where legends go to earn that title and Strasburg and Cole did just that. 

1 – The Future

The age of players came up a lot during this World Series. Juan Soto turned 21. Victor Robles, Yordan Alvarez, and Kyle Tucker are 22. Carlos Correa looks like a veritable Gandalf the Wizard at his old age of 24 and Alex Bregman is Father Time at 25. 

Youth has always been king in baseball. It’s the circle of the sports life. Young whizz bang prospect becomes a superstar and before you know it he’s got his aging arm over the shoulder of the new whizz bang prospect ready to replace him. The wheel keeps turning, but it is always nice to know it’s going. The 2019 World Series was a lot of things, but, above all, it was proof positive that the future is oh so bright.

That brightness won’t just be shining on those aforementioned names. Youth is rising all throughout the game — Acuna, Judge, Torres, Flaherty, Bellinger and more — and when they get their chance in the spotlight, the blinding glare will be glorious. 

If you’re a baseball fan — not just a ship passing through the sport’s night, but a fan whose heart beats with each swing of the bat — this World Series should make you feel downright great about what’s going on. 

There are problems off the field and in the clubhouses. There are concerns about ratings, game lengths, and the demographics of the audience. There are changes to make and changes to wish for. There are adjustments, trends, and new stats that still sound like scientific theories more than measuring sticks for performance. There is a lot more new coming to challenge the old. There has always been. 

But baseball (Ray). Baseball is in good hands. It does remind us of all that once was good and could be good again. Take all your questions about the future of the game and hide them away. The answers were right in front of us these past seven games. The success of the game is built into its very DNA. A batter digs in and stares down a pitcher 60 feet and 6 inches away and each pitch brings with it the chance for greatness. The only thing the game needs are those new names to play it — and they are already here. 

Remember When…

a decade of baseball coming to an end was like locking up an era in a time capsule to be forever observed, studied, joked about, and, above all, revered?

It’s coming up to that time and I did it again. 

I sat down on my couch and started to do the Streaming Show Shuffle. With my remote, smart phone, and PlayStation controller I scrolled and scrolled through endless entertainment options. Scripted programs with movie stars doing the once unthinkable Netflix shows, addictive gardening shows with polite Britsh folks planting trees for people in need, and quirky profiles on Flat Earthers, aliens, and ghost hunters. The lyrics of Bruce Springsteen float through my brain, “There’s 57 channels and nothin’ on…” as I settle on the only thing to watch, ever.

Ken Burn’s Baseball.

There is much to be said and written about this series, and that is not why I’m here today. What rewatching this documentary again (I’ve seriously lost count how many times I’ve watched every Inning.) drove home is that the 2010s are coming to close both in life and baseball and it’s time to start wondering what this decade of baseball will be remembered as? What will be its place in the history books? What parts of it will be lovingly stuffed into that time capsule?

Watching Burns’ masterpiece — one of many he’s produced — often with Lynn Novick — you really get the feeling for each decade or era of baseball. From it’s mythically convoluted beginnings to it’s Dead Ball drabness and it’s Live Ball explosions, each decade has a unique feeling eclipsed only by its lessons and scars. It’s sports being life itself and life overtaking sports. 

You often don’t fully understand what each decade is and will be remembered for while you’re actually in it. I came of age in the 1980s and baseball just seemed like modern baseball at the time. It was only years later when we all started to understand where the decade would fall on the timeline and what’s legacy — drugs, scandal, unheard of stolen base numbers, cyan being used in most uniforms, and the last decade before great change — would be.

When you think of the 1970s you think of Astroturf, free agency, and Billy Martin screaming at Reggie Jackson. The 1960s were explosive, challenging, and full of bright colors for the first time. The 1950s were full of tale tales of living legends inspiring mostly children on the East Coast as the ghosts of the game’s past start to release their grip on the idyllic pastime of rapidly changing nation. The 1940s were about Jackie Robinson, the New York Yankees, and the world being forced to grow up on and off the field. And so on and so on back to the 1860s when the game was somehow –someway — sent to us from the heavens above.

As the 2010s come to a close, it’s probably two soon to look at the decade as a whole, but it’s time to start regardless. What will this decade of social media, social change, and social upheaval mean when placed against the backdrop of baseball, often viewed as a relic from a bygone world? Will the bushy beards and bat flips of today be the mustaches of the 1970s and Bash Brother-like gestures of the 1980s? What season will be remembered as clearly as 1927, 1961 or 1998? The answers aren’t clear yet, but the search for them has begun…

This week in baseball history…

… Ken Griffey Jr put family first and never looked back.

The 1999 baseball season was Ken Griffey Jr’s 11th full season in the Major Leagues. Once the face of the game’s future (and the best number 1 card in the history of baseball cards), Griffey had become somewhat of an elder statesman by 1999 despite only being 29. With new stars already springing up around him and a new millennium approaching, Griffey had long become a cornerstone of the sport and he could still bring it having just launched 48 home runs to lead the American League for the third consecutive season. He was sitting on 398. Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s 755 was in his sites. All of this was done beneath the banner of the Mariners.

However, on November 2rd, 1999, reports emerged that Griffey Jr, the Mariner of Mariners, had formally requested that the club trade him to a team that would put him closer to his family in Orlando, Florida. That fresh faced kid with the permanent smile and carefree (and occasionally reckless) approach on the field had become a family man and that was now more important than his place on the Mariners.

As it should be.

That’s easy to say now, though. At the time there was a palpable murmur of “what?” all around the fandom. Professional sports stars talking about the importance of family was not new, but this was something different. The Kid wasn’t at the end of his career. He had so much time left. History was calling… and all of this was under contract with Seattle. Despite a couple of sub-.500 seasons in ‘98 and ‘98 following the magic of that 1995 season, the Mariners had the making of a good club going forward (they were two seasons away from a 116 win 2001 season) and Griffey was willing to walk away from that, leave this team behind, because…. because… he wanted to drive his son Trey to school more? 

How dare he!

How dare he or any superstar do that! 

Where’s the loyalty? Where’s the drive? 

He was branded a traitor by some Pacifc Northwesterners, but Griffey was pretty clear as to what happened. He was friends with NFL legend Walter Payton and he passed away on November 1st after a battle with liver disease and just a few days before that the tragic and, quite frankly, horrifying death of golf superstar Payne Stewart — a close associate of Griffey — had taken place. Both these deaths immediately and firmly changed his perspective. Family was now above baseball… and that family was based in Orlando — far from Seattle. 

Pat Gillick had just become the Mariners general manager and was promptly greeted with this request. There were some business reasons for it. Griffey and Alex Rodriquez were both set to be free agents and that was going to be quite a burden for Seattle. The club, in good faith, would find a trade partner, but couldn’t make any guarantees. That was good enough for him.

On February 10th, 2000, the Cincinnati Reds — once home to Ken Griffey Sr for so many seasons of Junior’s youth — completed a trade with Seattle to acquire the future Hall of Famer. Mike Cameron, Antonio Perez, Brett Tomko, and Jake Meyer went west. Griffey came home. 

Ken Griffey Jr’s career was never the same. Never. His 2000 season was an All-Star effort with 40 home runs, 118 RBI, and 100 runs scored for a second place club, but that was the last season in which Ken Griffey Jr was Ken Griffey Jr. (Despite two solid seasons in 2005 and 2007) Injuries struck in 2001 and never seemed to leave. The cruel equalizer age moved in. Even Reds fans didn’t seem to fully support him. (Reds manager Jack McKeon didn’t help by publicly bemoaning that the team needed pitching, not hitting.) By 2008, he was sent to the White Sox before finishing up back home in Seattle. He finished with a stellar 630 career home runs, but reaching those mythic numbers of Ruth and Aaron never materialized.  There is absolutely nothing that says these things would not have happened had he stayed, but you cannot deny that his career path changed forever when he requested the trade. 

Baseball players — athletes everywhere actually —  are human beings. That seems to be a simple, quite obvious fact that we mere mortals need to be constantly reminded of. From our excitement and love of what they do for our teams and what they accomplish before our mesmerized eyes, we can easily forget that real life finds them as well. We take and take and take. We can’t comprehend why Barry Sanders walks away from a violent sport. We get mad when CM Punk leaves wrestling battered and broken when we’d want another match at WrestleMania. And when a superstar player has the audacity to want to see his family more, we groan and moan as if they are giving up on our dreams.

On November 2nd, 1999, Ken Griffey forever altered his career, perhaps gave up the pursuit of record setting glory, and did it all for family. He’d do it all again we know… but if there was a second time around we should all try to understand it just a little bit more.


Walk Off Quote

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby

***

Ken Napzok lived five minutes from the Little League fields he played on so he never had to ask for a trade, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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