Craig Calcaterra

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas stands on a green first base during the third inning of a spring training baseball exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Ariz., on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, players are dressed in green gear. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Associated Press

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Baseball

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Today is St. Patrick’s Day which is easily one of the weirdest holidays.

It’s weird because it celebrates and even encourages the most basic cultural appropriation and stereotyping but it’s one of the rare examples where most of those who are of the culture being appropriated or stereotyped don’t really seem to mind all that much. Maybe it’s because, at least among those in the United States, the culture is pretty far in the rear-view mirror by now, with the racial, ethnic and religious oppression the Irish suffered falling a few generations back. My Italian name notwithstanding (my dad was adopted) I am half Irish. If it weren’t for that adoption my name would be McIntyre, I was a ginger kid whose hair turned brown and, to this day, if I grow a beard it comes in red. But really, I’d have to jump through some pretty ridiculous hoops to even muster some phony outrage over Irish stereotyping. I take far more personal offense at people drinking like amateurs on March 17. That is where our anger should truly lie. Real Irishman are laughing at you and your green Miller Lite, kids.

Baseball and St. Patrick’s Day often go together because St. Patrick’s Day falls during spring training. This year, as is the case in most years, several teams will wear green uniforms or caps for their Grapefruit and Cactus League Games. The Reds started this as a tradition in 1978. We wrote about that once here at HardballTalk. For the record, here’s what the Dodgers look like today:

 

Here’s a great story about how, one year, the Dodgers went green for an entire season. It was 1937 to be precise. Between that, their temporary change to “The Robins” as their nickname and that time they wore satin uniforms, the Dodgers were kind of messed up back in the day.

What else? Oh, Irish players! Lots of people make lists of the best Irish-American players. And there have been several good ones, of course. I was more interested in finding actual native-born Irish major leaguers. There were a TON of them in the 19th century, of course, as Irish immigrants dominated during that period. That largely petered out in the 20th century for lots of reasons. The last man to play in a major league game who was born in Ireland was Joe Cleary. He pitched one third of an inning for the Senators in 1945. He gave up seven runs on five hits and walked three guys which may have caused him to ask what happened to the luck o’ the Irish. If you’re curious about Cleary, Sully Baseball did a podcast about him a couple of years ago.

That’s about all I got. Be careful out there today. And really, don’t drink green beer. You look ridiculous.

 

Remembering the ignominious end to Tim Johnson’s managerial career

Tim Johnson
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The Twitter account for the High Heat Stats website often reminds us of special baseball anniversaries and “on this date” stuff. Today was a weird blast from the past. On this day, in 1999, the Blue Jays fired their manager, Tim Johnson. But not because he was a bad manager. Indeed, in 1998 the Jays won more games than they did in any season between 1993 and 2015. No, they fired him because he lied about his military service.

It all started with a grain of truth, as many of the stories of military imposters do. Johnson was, in fact, in the military at one time. Specifically, the Marine reserves. Following his training as a mortarman in 1966, he went into the minor leagues and, while he fulfilled his obligations in the reserves, he never saw active duty.

During his playing career, which consisted of seven major leaguer years before his retirement in 1979, Johnson would share stories about seeing duty in Vietnam, but no accounts of this time claim that his stories were particularly elaborate or particularly common. He began scouting and coaching in 1980 and the form seemed to hold. After he joined Boston’s coaching staff in 1995, however, the stories blossomed and the details became more vivid. He would use examples of firefights and marching through the jungle as motivational tools. After he became the Blue Jays manager for the 1998 season he shared a story, 100% fabricated as all of his stories were, about inadvertently killing children in a firefight.

Johnson’s deception was uncovered after Roger Clemens tried to buy Johnson a birthday present: a motorcycle helmet with the insignia of his military unit on it. He asked Johnson’s wife which unit it was. She didn’t know Johnson had lied about his service and told Clemens that Johnson wasn’t in Vietnam. Word quickly spread among the Blue Jays and, thanks in part to a good bit of acrimony between Johnson, some of his players and his coaching staff, it was pretty ugly. Johnson lied for a little while longer but eventually came clean. He came clean publicly after the 1998 season was over, saying that it was as if a great weight had been lifted. The Blue Jays stuck with him at first, content to give him a second chance, but after spring training began it became clear that the distraction was too great. They fired him.

Johnson spent years in the wilderness after that. He managed several seasons in the Mexican League and in independent ball. Outside of a brief scouting gig with the Brewers he had no job in affiliated ball at least through 2012. I can’t find anything about him from the past few years, but this story about him from 2003 talks about the entire controversy, how it affected him and what led to his lies in the first place.

While it’s hard not to have at least some sympathy for Johnson — he had suicidal thoughts at times after he was disgraced — Johnson’s wounds were entirely self-inflicted. Lying about military service is extraordinarily low and disrespectful of those who served and, especially, those who faced combat and those who died. Sympathy, sure. Understanding and forgiveness is another matter entirely, especially from those who did serve and those whose Johnson’s lies impacted.

The dynamic of how small lies turn into big ones is pretty well understood. You get a benefit from the lie and want to get more so you enhance your lie. At some point the lie is so big it’s impossible to backtrack unless and until you’re caught in it. The specific dynamic of military imposter lying is less well-understood, but it’s not entirely inexplicable. Johnson said it began with his guilt over people he trained with going off to war while he went off to play baseball with a coveted reserve slot. It’s obvious, of course, that over time he enhanced his lies for more selfish reasons of self-aggrandizement and, indirectly anyway, career enhancement as a war story-telling coach.

Others who have been caught in such lies have cited variations on this. Some are simple cases of fraud in which someone attempts to obtain veterans’ benefits, official or otherwise. Some are quintessential cases of stolen valor, in which the liar wants to pass himself off as a military hero. Others are cases in which people actually appear to be trying to steal victimhood, in a sense. They desire the “status” for lack of a better term, or the sympathy people get from having suffered through and witnessed horrors. The psychology of it all is pretty fascinating even if the lies giving rise to it are inexcusable.

Oh well. I go years forgetting about Tim Johnson and what went down with him and the Blue Jays in 1998 and 1999, but every single time I’m reminded of it, I still can’t believe that actually happened. It’s one of the weirdest baseball stories in my lifetime.

Something about the Adam LaRoche thing still doesn’t make sense

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My uber-hot take on the Adam LaRoche/Kid in the clubhouse/retirement story is this: (1) it’s understandable that the White Sox didn’t want LaRoche’s son in the clubhouse every day; and (2) it’s understandable that, when confronted with that notion LaRoche, likely nearing the end of his career anyway, decided “eh, screw it, I’m retiring.” Maybe walking away from $13 million is hard for us to get our head around, but I get the situation, roughly, from both sides and can’t really see a basis for either criticizing the White Sox or LaRoche here.

Yet something still seems rather odd about this. It was crystalized in Dan Hayes’ story about the situation over at CSNChicago.com. Hayes spoke with White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and with Kenny Williams and there’s a somewhat conflicting aspect to their comments about it all.

Specifically, Eaton and Williams agreed that the White Sox players rallied behind LaRoche and his son in the Tuesday meeting where the decision to limit Drake LaRoche’s presence was communicated. Here are Eaton’s comments:

“We wanted Drake in the clubhouse, and we were backing Adam in every aspect,” Eaton said. “In that sense we’re going to miss him . . . We can say we enjoyed Drake LaRoche in the clubhouse and everything he brought in the clubhouse. He brought perspective. He helped out and around, he wasn’t a burden by any stretch of the imagination. He wasn’t a big problem last year.”

Here’s Williams:

“One thing with regards to this that I really have felt really good about is we felt that they were banding together,” Williams said. “But the way that they banded together to try to protect this young man and their teammate and everything — I told them, it’s admirable, and I love the bond that’s been created.”

So, the players were backing LaRoche and the guy who runs the team loved that bonding and banding together. Great! Except then why in the hell did Williams carry on with the policy about Drake LaRoche?

Williams talked about his concern over the “precedent” for future players, but this makes little sense. For one thing, LaRoche was entering his last year and was unlikely to be with the Sox long. In 2016, if Adam Eaton is to be believed, no White Sox player had an issue. Moreover, no one in 2017 or beyond, with LaRoche gone, was going to say “hey, that journeyman first baseman you had who isn’t here anymore? That guy? He got to do this, so why cant I?”

There have always, always, always been different rules for veteran players. Some of them get two lockers. Some of them get hotel suites instead of rooms. Some of them get separate charter flights for family or for visiting home. Hell, back in the day Jack Morris got a special deal where he didn’t have to even show up on days he didn’t pitch. Precedent? Robin Ventura or Kenny Williams or Rick Hahn can make literally any rule they want for other players and it would stick because this is baseball, not the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. More important than precedent is a clubhouse which, currently, is all on the same page and to hear Eaton and Williams tell it, they were all on the same page as being cool with Drake LaRoche in it every day.

So I think through that and it strikes me that this doesn’t make sense. In light of the above, the situation, as described by Eaton and Williams, does not satisfactorily explain the situation on the ground. What would, however, explain the situation is if current White Sox players were, in fact, unhappy with Drake LaRoche in the clubhouse and complained about it.

No player apart from perhaps a Derek Jeter, Jason Varitek or David Wright figure who is literally a captain of their team speaks for everyone in a clubhouse. There’s nothing suggesting Adam Eaton does for the White Sox at least. And he even notes in his comments that he’s a bit uneasy talking about the situation. Is he trying to create the impression of unity following a team meeting and an abrupt and unexpected retirement of player?

Likewise, no good executive, and I believe Kenny Williams is a good executive, throws his players under the bus. Williams, in this article and in his comments to Bob Nightengale of USA Today yesterday, takes full responsibility for the LaRoche retirement, to the point where he is willing to cast himself as something close to a villain, holding firm in his decision despite the fact that the entire White Sox team “bonded” and “banded together” to support LaRoche. It’s good for the outside world to believe that the players are united in every respect. It’d be bad if people thought some players were unhappy with Drake LaRoche and were the impetus for the new policy. Williams wearing it all, despite the fact the whole team allegedly banded together against him, prevents those bad things from happening.

I don’t claim to know what led to Adam LaRoche‘s retirement. I have no factual basis for contradicting what Eaton and Williams are saying here about no players being opposed to Drake LaRoche’s omnipresence in the White Sox’ clubhouse. But the situation as described seems incongruous. It does not seem to account for all of the variables of the matter as satisfactorily — and, per Occam’s Razor, as efficiently — as one in which some current players complained, Williams acted on those complaints and then took full responsibility in the interests of team harmony and not outing the guys who didn’t care for Drake LaRoche being there all the time.

I presume, eventually, we’ll hear more about what went into all of this. For now, we have no choice but to accept what people are saying about it. But what they’re saying about it all . . . seems off somehow.

UPDATE: I hadn’t seen this when I wrote this post, but um, yeah, this is what I’m talkin’ about: