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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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Ron Darling Yale’s Ron Darling threw ‘probably 170 or so pitches without feeling tired’. Photo courtesy Yale Athletics.

Enjoy Baseball at a Distance – in Space or Time

Mike looks forward to this year’s Covid-hit baseball, and back to another year with no pro-ball and ‘the greatest college game ever played’
By Mike Carlson
Published on April 16, 2020

It's not even summer yet, and already I miss baseball. With unseasonably summery weather providing a small solace for the lockdown, which began during spring training, it's almost as if Mother Nature wanted to punish us further. Baseball is special because it starts in the spring, bringing us the hope of another year. It continues through the balmy days of summer, distracting us daily, and then, as the leaves start to fall, it leaves most of us inevitably disappointed that things hoped for in March didn't materialize in October. I exclude Mets fans from this equation.

Major League Baseball announced on April Fools’ Day that the London Series between the Cubs and Cardinals would not take place in mid-June. Obviously trying to handle the logistics of two countries coping in their own ways with the virus made advance planning and work more difficult. Just four days earlier, MLB and its Players Association (MLBPA) had announced an agreement aimed at salvaging whatever sort of a season might be salvageable, and since the agreement appeared to undo baseball's previous optimistic hope of a mid-May restart, the London Series was a predictable casualty.

But the deal between the two often antagonistic factions holds out real promise of some sort of season. Here in Britain (where government calls on soccer pros to make sacrifices billionaire bankers need not consider) such a deal is beyond comprehension. In a classic labour relations compromise, baseball players are giving up salary. At first two months of reduced payments, on a scale starting at $5,000 per month for anyone with more than three years service and for the others, depending on the size of their contracts and the split between major and minor league payments, ranging from $1,500 down to $275 monthly. This represents a huge savings for the owners, as the overall salary bill will be about $170 million, while for the first two months of the season it would be something like $1.3 billion.

As always, it is tilted toward the already successful, and there is no provision at all for free agents, non-roster invitees to spring training, or minor leaguers. MLB has promised to consider helping them out, and frankly, another $20-25 million on the bill would not be a huge burden.

In return the owners agreed to consider the 2020 season as counting toward service time, regardless of how little of the season, or none, is played. This would serve to vault many of the lower-paid into arbitration-eligible situations next season, with a good shot at a big increase in salary. It also means players in the last years of their contracts would become free agents, including some, like the Dodgers' Mookie Betts, who might never play for the team which traded for them.

Both sides agreed flexibility in the resetting of the season; how it will be restructured, what the playoffs might look like, and how long past the normal closing date it might run. The possibility of lots of doubleheaders, expanded rosters well into the season and late-season games (including the post-season) held in warmer or domed neutral sites will all be in play.

The COVID-19 stoppage is not like previous seasons when lockouts or strikes reduced or cancelled play. I had just left MLB International, and was presenting baseball on Sky, when the 1994 strike took away my main freelance work. But I remembered something the Spaceman, Bill Lee, had said during the 1981 strike: “People are complaining there's no baseball, but there's lots of baseball, just not major league baseball”. That isn't true this time around: no minor leagues, no twilight leagues, no high school or college ball. But there is always nostalgia, and I remember very well one game from that 1981 strike season, an NCAA regional playoff between Yale and St. John's, which has become legendary as the greatest college game ever played. Not that it doesn't deserve the accolade, but the reason it has it is because the New Yorker's baseball writer, Roger Angell, decide to take in the game.

His story about it, ‘The Web Of The Game’ has become as classic as the match itself. Angell arranged to attend at Yale Field with 91 year-old Smoky Joe Wood, the former pitcher for the Red Sox and outfielder for the Indians, who from 1924 to 1942 was the baseball coach at Yale. Joe Wood's most famous moment came on September 6, 1912, when he went head to head with Walter Johnson. Johnson had won 16 games in a row earlier that season; Wood was on a 13-game win streak, and was pitching a day early in the rotation simply to face Johnson. He pitched a two-hit shutout, with Johnson surrendering a run on back to back doubles by Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis. Wood went 34-5 that season, with a 1.91 ERA, and went 3-1 in the World Series which the Sox won. He was living in West Haven, where all my grandparents lived, and not far from Yale Field. Angell's essay breaks down the barriers of age and time, as Wood marvels at the game he watches.

Because the game they watched was a marvel. St John's was 31-2, led by their one-two punch of starting pitchers, Frank Viola and John Franco. Yale, at 24-13 were Ivy League champs, led by pitcher/outfielder Ron Darling. Darling, recruited to Yale as a quarterback by football coach Carmen Cozza, had given up gridiron, and was up there with the two St John's hurlers as a pro prospect. And so it proved. Darling, who finished all 28 of the games he started at Yale, pitched 11 innings of no-hit ball, striking out 16. But Viola, in his 11 innings, had spun a 7-hit shutout of his own, though Yale had left 12 on base.

In the top of the 12th, St John's second-baseman Steve Scafa hit a single to left field. At this point, the whole St John's team came to the top step of their dugout to give Darling a standing ovation. Scafa stole third, and after an out, catcher Dan Giordano reached on a throwing error by shortstop Bob Brooke. Brooke was one of three others on the Yale squad who would play pro sports: outfielder Rich Diana, from nearby Hamden, was a running back who played for the Dolphins; outfielder Joe Dufek was a quarterback who played for the Bills. Brooke was a hockey player, who would play for the US at the 1984 Olympics and for the North Stars, Rangers and Devils. Giordano left for a pinch runner and Scafa stole second. Then the Redmen worked a double steal; Darling slipped after his pitch and couldn't cut the throw off, and Scafa scored from third before the throw from the run down got to the plate. Reliever Eric Stampfl shut down Yale in the bottom of the inning for the win. Darling threw probably 170 or so pitches, without, he said later, feeling tired. He and Viola became best friends, and teammates briefly on the Mets.

What no one remembers is that this was part of a four-team, double elimination tourney to get to the College World Series. The other teams were Maine and Central Michigan, and Maine won their matchup 10-2 earlier that Thursday. Not surprisingly, the two teams from the late game were drained: on Friday the Chippewas beat the Elis 7-2, and Maine beat the Redmen 10-5. Saturday, St John's eliminated CMU 23-13, then beat the Brown Bears 10-5, handing freshman pitcher Bill Swift his only loss of the season in four starts. So on Sunday, with Viola still unable to pitch on two days rest, Maine won the regional 15-0, and went to the CWS for the first of four straight years, with Swift, who also had a long major league career, as their pitching star.

But no one remembers that. What they remember is Darling and Viola in a pitchers duel which rose above the casual atmosphere of Yale Field on a warm spring day. I recommend you find Angell's story (online or in his collection Game Time) and read it: it will whet your appetite for baseball at a time we're unlikely to see it for a while, and remind you why it is so easy to enjoy from a distance: whether space, for those of us living abroad, or time, for those of us lucky enough to have our memories and our lives.

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