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Mudville: May 17, 2024 12:49 pm PDT

Stealing History

Everybody knows Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the only World Series perfect game, but, what if …

Don Larsen was dealing like never before on the mound.

On this October day in 1956 the big right-hander had retired the first 18 Brooklyn Dodgers batters he faced in Game 5 of the World Series.

Casey Stengel had gotten much more than expected from Larsen, who at that point in his career was 30-40 with a 3.82 ERA in 124 games. Don’t forget in the 1955 World Series won by the Dodgers in seven games over the Yankees, Larsen was the loser in the pivotal Game 4 when in the fourth inning he surrendered home runs to Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges. The Yankees lead had collapsed as the Brooklyn Dodgers went on to win their first World Series.

The mighty Yankees could not have a repeat of that result in 1956.

Even though Larsen clearly was at his best this day, this was a game the Yankees, Stengel, and the Yankees all-knowing analytics department could not afford to get away. They were all in agreement and the Ol’ Professor said as much to the nodding reporters after the game, who understood why Larsen was removed after six innings because the Yankees, like so many other teams, did not want Larsen to face the Dodgers’ potent lineup for a third time around, especially in October.

“A lot is being pushed down the throat of the fans these days as they are asked to go deeper into their pockets to pay for a less entertaining game, all the while having history stolen out from under their expensive seats.’

With the shadows creeping in, go to the fresh arms in the Yankees bullpen.

Everyone knew that the numbers show the third time through the order can be so dangerous for a starting pitcher, especially a pitcher who was 10 games under .500 over his career and was closing in on 200 innings pitched for only the second time in his career – and had lost 21 games only two years earlier. In fact, up until that moment in his career, Larsen had allowed 942 baserunners in 671 innings with 300 walks to 327 Ks.

Far from perfect and the numbers pointed that out.

So Stengel removed the 27-year-old Larsen from the game and everybody understood why, even the TV analysts who had noted earlier in the game the “gravitational pull’’ on Larsen’s pitches. He had never pitched such a game in his life and the odds were against him (as shown on the Yankees DraftKings scoreboard) to believe this day would be different.

In Game 2 against the Dodgers just three days earlier, Larsen was knocked out in the second inning of a 13-8 loss. Remember, analytics is about what happened, not what is happening.

There was no way the Nerds could imagine a 97-pitch perfect game this time out.

No, the Yankees got more than they expected from Larsen and the Nerds were not going to allow it to go any further. The 64,519 fans were appreciative of his effort. After the sixth inning, Larsen put on his jacket in the Yankees dugout and received congratulations all around, including Mickey Mantle, who homered in the fourth.

Larsen did his job, he kept his team in the game. The Nerds were satisfied.

There had never been a perfect game in the World Series, and this wasn’t Whitey Ford on the mound for the Yankees, this was Don Larsen, the imperfect man and pitcher …

Yes, how silly those words seem now some 66 years after Larsen’s perfect game, still the only perfect game in World Series history.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 8, 1956. Don Larsen works in the fourth inning of his World Series perfect game on October 8, 1956. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

Of course, there were no Nerds to get in Don Larsen’s way back then and he pitched that perfect game; and he created a lifetime baseball memory for so many people.

If Nerds were in charge of teams in the 50s, like they are now, that could not have happened.

After all, this past week Clayton Kershaw was pitching a perfect game against the Twins at chilly Target Field and was removed after seven innings and only 80 pitches by manager/puppet Dave Roberts and his merry band of Nerds.

All the usual excuses were trotted out.

It was only Kershaw’s first start of the season and he had not thrown more than 75 pitches in spring training. It’s a long year and the Dodgers need Kershaw for October, not April. And who cares about the fans who would have witnessed baseball history because there have been only 23 perfect games in major league history.

The Nerds know better. After all, since they have instituted all their pitching changes and risk aversion there have been no more Tommy John surgeries (that is sarcasm, folks).

Kershaw went along with the decision but then again, all pitchers are pretty much all-in on anything the Nerds tell them these days.

They love the message from the Nerds: “Don’t push it, you might get hurt. And don’t even think about pitching a complete game. Two hundred innings is a stretch. Look, you can win the Cy Young Award with only 167 innings pitched. Our job is to keep you on the mound … so we can pull you out of games earlier.’’

Quite the strategy.

The sad truth is the fans, and Kershaw and the legion of Dodger fans, had baseball history stolen from them and pretty much no one blinked.

That is the saddest part of this.

The next day Kershaw said, “In the moment, it felt like that was the right call for my personal health, the best interests of the team, and me being ready in October.’’

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 13: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks to the dugout after recording a strikeout against Nick Gordon #1 of the Minnesota Twins to end the sixth inning of the game at Target Field on April 13, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Dodgers 7-0. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

He also said, “The only thing I feel bad for is if I was a fan, I would want to see somebody finish the game. … If I was bringing my son to the game and there was a perfect game going on? That’s why you come to the games, to see something special. So, from a fan’s perspective, I get it. I do feel bad for that. It’s tough to swallow.’’

You think?

Well, swallow hard fans, that’s Rob Manfred Baseball in 2022. Just like Fake Runners are tough to swallow in extra innings. A lot is being pushed down the throat of the fans these days as they are asked to go deeper into their pockets to pay for a less entertaining game, all the while having history stolen out from under their expensive seats.

And you wonder why longtime fans, and even those in the game for decades, have had enough, and even some long-time sportswriters.

Here at The Story we think about the fans and the direction the game is going.

This latest Kershaw development is more reason to believe the Nerds have won. It’s their game now. For those who don’t like it, swallow hard. We’ve all lost. The game may never go back to the way it once was before and that’s a fact of this baseball life.

Just remember this truth: When Nerds win, you lose.

And yes, my Don Larsen fantasy history rewrite is a tough one to swallow now knowing the imperfect man was perfect that day and gave so many fans so much joy for so many years, but you don’t matter now. Baseball doesn’t care about an 80-pitch, 13-K effort and a perfect seven innings being the end of the line for a future Hall of Fame pitcher like it was for Kershaw the other day.

In 1956, ‘66, ‘76, ‘86, ‘96 and 2006 Clayton Kershaw would have gotten his shot at baseball infamy and the fans could have witnessed a lifetime memory.

Youngsters could say: “I became a baseball fan the day Clayton Kershaw pitched that perfect game at Target Field.’’

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 17: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers poses for a photo during the Los Angeles Dodgers Photo Day at Camelback Ranch on Thursday, March 17, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

I think the best comment came from Kershaw was when he admitted the day after: “I could have thrown nine innings and been fine for the rest of the season. I could have thrown two innings yesterday and be hurt the next day. Nobody knows.’’

Nobody knows.

And that got me thinking about some other historical moments in baseball and maybe, just maybe, some moments in history might have changed if Past Baseball acted like Manfred Nerd Ball of today.

For example, Pete Rose never would have bowled over Ray Fosse in that All-Star Game in Cincinnati in 1970 if that play was today, the way the collision rules have been rewritten. That play showed the passion that Rose played with even in an exhibition game – but the All-Star Game used to mean something.

Pete Rose was not about to give up coming down the line. And Fosse did not have the ball yet.

“You got third base coach Leo Durocher chasing you down the line you better get your ass home,’’ Rose said years later.

Pete Rose crashed home with the winning run with his father sitting in the first row. Rose played in 17 All-Star Games, the National League won 16.

Another irony of today, of course, is that Rose is banned from baseball but betting is everywhere in the game while the all-time hits leader is a non-person in the game, but you can bet on every aspect of baseball and MLB Network will tell you how with constant flashing reminders on the screen.

A year later in 1971, the Orioles produced four 20-game winners. We will never see four 20-game winners on the same staff anymore with the Nerds in Charge and the continued erosion of starting pitching under their “leadership.’’

Wins don’t matter anymore, pitchers don’t pitch deep enough into games anymore and it is all about the bullpen and throwing the baseball as hard as you can, not commanding the baseball.

Boasting one 20-game winner and three more pitchers with a good crack at the charmed circle, the Baltimore Orioles meet the Cleveland Indians 9/24 needing just one more win or Detroit Tigers loss to clinch the American League Eastern Divsion title. The Oriole hurlers are (LtoR) Jim Palmer (19-9), Dave McNally (20-5) standing rear, Pat Dobson (19-8), and Mike Cuellar (19-9).

In that 1971 season Jim Palmer finished 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA over 37 starts and 282.1 innings. He was 25, Mike Cuellar, 34, was 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA over 38 starts and 292.1 innings. Pat Dobson, 29, was 20-8 with a 2.90 ERA over 37 starts and 282 innings. Dave McNalley rounded out the 20-win staff with a 21-5 mark, a 2.89 era and 30 starts for 224 innings.

The year before Palmer pitched 305 innings and over his last five starts threw 44.2 innings. His last two starts of 1971 were complete games. In 1969, he went 12 innings in the final regular season game of the year to beat the Tigers and Mickey Lolich, 2-1.

Palmer pitched 19 seasons, compiling a 268-152 record and a 2.86 ERA over his Hall of Fame career, totaling 3,948 innings. The work was good for him.

Flash forward to 2021. No Oriole pitcher won more than six games and John Means led the staff with 146.2 innings pitched – and now this season he is out with elbow woes.

I personally love what Angel manager Joe Maddon said after intentionally walking Corey Seager with the bases loaded in a 9-6 win over the Rangers on Friday.

What in the world of analytics were you thinking, Joe?

“Numbers are one thing, human beings are something completely different,’’ offered Maddon, who knows both worlds, human and numbers. “And for me the human element right there required what we did. That’s it. It had nothing to do with math. It was just the right thing to do in the moment to minimize their damage possibly and also, possibly, to pump us up a bit.’’

Knowing Maddon so well, I believe he is trying to educate both his players and his Nerds on the different possibilities in the game of baseball as he tries to make the Angels a relevant organization again. It may not work but at least he is trying.

Another number I was thinking about for Stolen History is Ted Williams’ .406, the last man in the majors to bat .400 back in 1941. I think the Nerds not only would have halted certain historical moments like Don Larsen’s perfect game, but if you use the Nerds to your advantage, you could have made history.

So let me end on a positive note.

The incomparable Tony Gwynn.

This brings me to Tony Gwynn, who loved to talk hitting with Ted Williams, an old San Diego guy and a new San Diego guy at the yard talking hitting. I was privileged to hear some of those conversations. I believe that if the Nerds were around when T. Gwynn was playing, he would have used them to his advantage. When they threw the shift at him, no matter how they employed the shift, Gwynn would have taken full advantage and hit the ball to the open spot. He was all about bat control.

In fact, if Nerds ran baseball and front offices when Tony played like they run them now, I am sure that with his eight batting titles Tony would have hit over .400 at least once and possibly twice, joining Ted Williams in that .400 club.

Take what the Nerds give you hitters, and you will prosper.

For in the end, Nerds believe only in numbers and not the human element.

Sometimes in this game of baseball as Don Larsen, who was born in San Diego in Pt. Loma, showed the human spirit can rise above the numbers and the limitations put on players to create a beautiful baseball moment that lives forever.

After being perfect, Larsen pointed to his terrible start in Game 2 at Ebbets Field and said: “When it was over I was so happy I felt like crying. I wanted to win this one for Casey. After what I did in Brooklyn, he could have forgotten about me and who would blame him? But he gave me another chance and I’m grateful.”

All these years later no one has forgotten what Don Larsen did that day.

As Dick Young said in the press box: “Damn, the imperfect man just pitched a perfect game.’’

The human spirit is what makes baseball a perfect game.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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