Monday, June 18, 2018

GO EASY ON THE LASAGNA


GO EASY ON THE LASAGNA
By David H. Lippman
           

The Yankees reached into their seemingly bottomless magician’s hat of minor league stars and pulled out what appears to be yet another amazing rabbit on Friday night, in the form of Jonathan Loaisiga, whose name I had to check twice before putting down. Doubtless he will become a portion of the Associated Press’s spelling test for would-be baseball writers, for that very reason alone.

Summoned to replace the injured Jordan Montgomery or Masahiro Tanaka in the Yankees’ questionable pitching rotation, Loaisiga seemed a strange choice. He hasn’t pitched a lot of game in the minors, none above Double-A ball, and his career had been derailed by injuries. When I heard that he was assigned the start, I was reminded of my English relatives in the War to End All Wars, later called the Great War, now called World War I, who were sent into the trenches of Flanders or into Sopwith Camel biplanes to cope with the German Army or the actual Red Baron, and were soon lying dead on the barbed wire or in crashed aircraft. Their average life expectancy was three weeks and some of these young pilots or Tommies were dead in a day.

Anyway, the first thing we learned about Loaisiga was that his teammates had trouble with his Nicaraguan name, so they called him “Johnny Lasagna.” He seems to have taken that well, but that may have more to do with his limited English. The second thing we learned was that he prepared for the grim task of making his major league debut as a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees (baseball’s flagship franchise) in the new version of their storied home, (New York’s Yankee Stadium), against the Tampa Bay Rays (well, at least they’re mediocre) by watching World Cup soccer action on the big-screen TV in the clubhouse.

With that done, Loaisiga went out to the bullpen like every other major league starter since Cy Young and Christy Mathewson, joined by the pitching coach, did his warm-ups, and then took the mound. Like nearly every major league pitcher making his first major league appearance, he was a little nervous and jittery at the start, walking the leadoff Ray hitter. That set off the usual groans – walking a leadoff hitter is invariably fatal – but after that, he was astonishing to the audience.

He struck out six hitters, didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, pitched shutout ball, and got out of his first major league jam in the same inning when he loaded the bases with two out, and struck out Christian Arroyo swinging to snuff out the incipient rally and preserve the 1-0 lead.

After five innings and 91 pitches, Loaisiga turned the 2-0 lead over to the bullpen, which held it for him, aided by a bases-clearing double by Gary Sanchez, whose picture in the dictionary accompanies the word “slump.”

Never mind, Loaisiga was the toast of the town for at least one night and lasagna was probably the meal ordered at a dozen postgame parties.

But before too much hope and excitement is placed on this young man, let’s give him a chance to do two more things: first…let him pitch some more, so that we can see that this is yet another triumph for the new and improved Yankee farm system. Loaisiga had some advantages in his first start – he was facing the woeful Tampa Bay Rays, which lack solid pitching and hitting, and they are having a lot of trouble hitting many other pitchers around baseball. Sending a new guy out to cope with a lousy team is a good way to break him in.

Another advantage for Loaisiga was that the Rays, like all teams he first faced, had never seen him. They weren’t batting against a pitcher, but a scouting report, and probably not a good one at that, as he came straight up from Double-A, not Triple-A, and the Rays might not have done too much scouting on him as a potential opponent – more as potential acquisition, looking at him as “what he can do for us than to us.”

Finally, Loaisiga made his debut in the friendly atmosphere of Yankee Stadium. The Yankee fans would be supportive of a kid making his debut. As soon as he showed talent, poise, and calm, they got behind him. That’s an important psychological boost – think about what might have happened if his major league debut came in Boston’s Fenway Park.

Some of you may remember that the Yankees once sent a pitcher named Tim Redding out to cope with the Boston Red Sox in his first appearance as a Yankee. The Yankees acquired him in a trade for Paul Quantrill from the San Diego Padres. Redding had posted a ghastly 0-5, 9.31 ERA for the Padres, and their batting practice pitcher could do better than that. He started the game, and served up six runs on four hits and four walks. He was yanked in the first inning. He was designated for assignment the next day and spent the rest of the year in Columbus. Admittedly, Redding’s prior record did not spell excellence, but sending a new Yankee to start his first game at Fenway Park is very much like sending that Royal Flying Corps pilot with his three weeks training out to face the Red Baron.

The important issue for Loaisiga is going to be what happens as his career expands. He’s already got his line in the Yankee all-time statistics list, the all-time baseball register, will get his pension, and may even be named to his high school’s sports hall of fame. Now he has to build on one very solid and impressive performance next time out, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Fortunately, he seems to have the tools to do so, based on both his pitching and the calm with which he faced the Rays. The tougher part is going to be living and playing at the major league level.

For one thing, he won’t be able to get away with the same types of pitches he used to obliterate Double-A players. He won’t be able to “put them away” so easily. He’ll serve up home runs to Manny Machado and Mookie Betts. That’s a fact of life. Luis Severino uncorked a home run to David Ortiz in his major league debut, and that enabled the Sox to win the game, 2-1. There was no shame in losing to a David Ortiz home run – lots of major league pitchers, including some brand names and Hall of Famers, have stood there forlornly on the mound, gazing into the right field stands as yet another “Big Papi” HR blasted into the seats. It happens. That’s baseball. Loaisiga’s challenge will be to turn around, bear down, and get the next guy after the home run.

There are many pitchers who could not, but the one that comes to mind in this situation is a young man from Kansas City named David Clyde, who was the star pitcher at Westchester High School in 1973. Drafted first by the hapless Texas Rangers, owner Bob Short had the brilliant idea to pitch the kid in the majors for two games – straight from high school to the big leagues – to pack the seats, thus improving his chances of selling the team. Then Clyde would go back to the minors for seasoning.

Well, Clyde made that first start, in front of the first sellout crowd in Arlington Stadium’s history, facing the middling Minnesota Twins. Clyde walked the first two batters he faced. Then he got some help.

Home plate umpire was the colorful Ron Luciano, who was a warm and decent guy to everyone but Earl Weaver. He called a fair game for Clyde – in fact, a bit too fair. He gave Clyde a strike on an outside pitch to the third hitter, and the rookie was able to gain time and regain his composure. Clyde gave up one hit – a home run to Mike Adams – and struck out eight, and departed after five innings with a lead. Despite the incompetency of the Texas bullpen, they held the lead, and Clyde’s first game was a 4-3 win.

As planned, Clyde took the mound for his second start, pitching effectively against the Chicago White Sox for six innings until a blister forced him out of the game.

This was a year in which the Rangers went on to lose a whopping 105 games under acerbic rookie manager Whitey Herzog, best chronicled in Mike Shropshire’s screamingly funny book, “Seasons in Hell.” At the year’s end, a writer reviewing the Rangers’ season wrote that their highlight film should be “the love scene” from that year’s movie “Deliverance.” Lucky for the sportswriter, his editor was not a movie fan.

Facing continuous disaster, Bob Short made a move that boosted his box office – he scuppered the plan to send Clyde down to the minors, and the poor kid made 18 starts. The stands were packed when he pitched, at home and on the road. 113,000 people went to Arlington Stadium and endured muggy heat and hardy mosquitoes in his first four home starts. The Ragners drew a mere 590,000 all season long.

But soon Clyde was overmatched. Twenty days after graduating from high school, he was facing hitters like Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, and Bobby Murcer. They used him as a punching bag. To compensate, Clyde began overthrowing his curve, and lost command of the pitch and the speed differential. His final record for the year was 4-8, with a 5.01 ERA. In his last nine starts, he lasted 38 innings, and posted a 7.34 ERA.

It doesn’t take a sabermetrician to recognize that such statistics are not the mark of a team ace. It took the new Rangers manager, Billy Martin, even less time to realize that the team’s great future needed to go the minors. The Rangers’ brass, seeing the box office receipts when Clyde pitched, disagreed. Clyde spent time in the minors, and a collection of Rangers pitching coaches made all kinds of changes in his pitching style, and then sent him back to the trenches to win the War to End All Wars. In 21 starts, Clyde was 3-9, with a 4.38 ERA. He gave up 129 hits, including 14 home runs in 117 innings.

Clyde made one start for the Rangers in 1975, and suffered an injury. Back to the minors. For three seasons. The one-time ace pitched for Triple A-Tucson in 1977 and struck out 148 men in 128 innings, but walked 119. His final record was 5-7 with a 5.84 ERA. Clyde was now 22 years old, and the Rangers considered him washed up. So did Clyde’s wife, who divorced him. So did Clyde, who became addicted to alcohol.

With these three strikes, it’s no wonder the Rangers traded Clyde and designated hitter Willie Horton to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Tom Buskey and infield John Lowenstein and some bobblehead dolls.

When the depressed Clyde arrived at Cleveland camp, their shrewd pitching coach Harvey Haddix deconstructed all of Clyde’s many pitching changes and had the weary young man go back to his high school pitching style. It worked, sorta kinda. He was 8-11, with a 4.28 ERA and 83 strikeouts. Granted that nobody could have done well with the 1978 Cleveland Indians, it was something of a comeback. In 1979, Clyde pitched in nine game (3-4, 4.91 ERA), before tearing his rotator cuff. That was the end of the trail, even though the Indians traded him back to the Rangers at season’s end, for baseball cards, but Clyde suffered another injury. The Rangers released him, and Clyde made one last attempt to hook on, this time with the Astros. They weren’t interested. They had Joe Niekro, J.R. Richard, and Nolan Ryan.

Short was able to sell his team and the new management claimed bizarrely that Clyde’s pitching appearances made the Rangers a viable item for purchase. That meant: it could draw attendance and was therefore a potential source of profit. Bottoms in the seats were good for the bottom line. Baseball people, Martin and Clyde himself, agreed that the young pitcher was the poster boy for a kid rushed up too early. He would not be the last, though.

In 1981, the Mets and their media machine ballyhooed Tim Leary, who had posted an astonishing 15-8 record, with a 1.76 ERA and 138 strikeouts for the Jackson Mets. With the Mets setting records for defeats and empty seats at Shea Stadium, they promoted Leary to the majors and he made his major league debut on April 12, facing an Amazin’ seven batters before departing with a strained elbow. The Mets promised he would be back shortly. He spent four months on the disabled list and had to go to Triple-A to rehab. He never pitched for the Mets in 1981. He suffered another injury in 1982 spring training and never pitched. In 1983, he was 8-16, with a 4.38 ERA, but made two starts in September, one of them a complete game victory over the Montreal Expos.

Next year, the Mets gave up on “the next Tom Seaver,” having given up (twice!) on the original, as well, and Leary wandered around the majors, earning National League Comeback Player of the Year honors with the World Champion 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, who rewarded Leary for his efforts by trading him after the World Series to Cincinnati.

In 1990, Leary was shipped to the Yankees with Van Snider for Hal Morris, minor leaguer Rodney Imes, and a bag of batting practice baseballs. With one of the worst teams in the history of the Yankees, Leary did his best. He posted a 9-19 record. That actually means a lot – you have to have a lot of ability, determination, and hardness to go out there every five days for a team that can’t muster runs behind you, and give it everything you’ve got. It’s kind of like leading the first wave out of the British trenches on the First Day of the Somme…but I think you get the metaphor.

Leary did well in 1990. He posted a 4.11 ERA, which is not bad for 19 losses. He also did badly: he uncorked a league-leading 23 wild pitches. Yet the Yankees re-signed him for three years and $5.95 million. In 1991, he was 2-8 with a 6.95 ERA, when he was demoted to long relief. He finished the year at 4-10 with a 6.49 ERA. In 1992, he was 5-6 with a 5.57 ERA when the Yankees traded him to the Seattle Mariners for minor leaguer Sean Twitty and a stack of Conway Twitty albums. I hope that Leary invested that $5.95 wisely.

Leary’s problem was similar to Clyde’s…rushed up too soon, followed by an instant injury, and he probably never really recovered. He should have gone to Triple A, worked on facing higher level pitching, and had his physical conditioning monitored better. But the Mets wanted instant success. Instead, they got instant failure.

In 1984, they still wanted instant success, and this time they got it. And it wasn’t the physical problems that would do the pitcher in…it was the mental strain.

The story of Dwight Gooden does not need rehearsing. He burst onto the New York scene like Halley’s Comet, posting a 24-4 record in 1985, winning the Cy Young Award, making the Mets respectable. Next year the actual Halley’s Comet zoomed over Earth, and Gooden’s comet began to disappear. He never posted 20 wins again, and his career began to stumble downhill at an astonishing rate of speed. Very quickly he was in rehab centers and enduring suspensions for cocaine and alcohol addiction, and suffering injuries that reduced his fiery fastball to next to nothing.

I covered the 1984 and 1985 Mets for their house magazine, “Inside Pitch,” and I vividly remember the insane media circus that surrounded this kid at his locker after his incredible victories. He could crush anything in his path on the mound, but off the diamond, he was terrified and lost. He faced the microphones of radio reporters, who had the sensibilities and humanity of an army of eighth-graders, looking fearful. He struggled to give answers to fatuous questions. He was asked about everything from how he pitched to Mike Schmidt to what he thought about the Reagan Presidency. He was barely prepared to cope with either.

Later, I realized that this same level of fear and terror probably caught up with him when he emerged from Shea Stadium and found himself surrounded by adoring fans, eager groupies, and fast-talking con men, eager to take his major league minimum salary. Ballplayers call such hangers-on “greenflies,” because they won’t go away, and they all want something – mostly to bask in the glory of the ballplayer, but also to get something from him…money, sex, autographs to sell (more money).

Doc was ill-equipped by temperament or team to handle anything about New York, and within a very short time, he was snorting cocaine. He missed the 1986 World Championship Parade, which was unbelievable – Keith Hernandez climbed over a fence in Bowling Green to reach his float – and later missed chunks of seasons and whole seasons from failing drug tests. He even attempted suicide.

The same thing is going to happen to Jonathan Loaisiga, particularly if he’s successful. Smokin’ hot women will whisper to him in Spanish to come up to his hotel room and do things I can’t describe here. If he’s lucky, it won’t be followed by a blackmail scam involving a guy pretending to be the girl’s husband or father. Guys with a slick line and slicker brochures will try to sell him investments in everything from aardvarks to zebras. Mickey Mantle lost a World Series check to the Canadian Bomb Shelter Company and George Foster his Mets money to a man who sold fake Ralph Lauren shirts – the horses on the shirts had three legs. Reporters are going to pound Loaisiga for quotes on everything from how to pitch to Manny Machado to what he thinks of Donald Trump’s immigration plans. He’s going to need some help keeping the riffraff away, and staying focused on the hitter at the plate.

So that’s my catechism and suggestion to Yankee fans. Let the kid pitch. Let the kid play. He’s not going to be the same next start as he was in the first one. The other teams have scouts, too. American League hitters have seen him on ESPN by now. They’ll change their approaches. He may run into trouble and will. Give him a chance.

More importantly, to the media, fans, and conmen who want a piece of “Lasagna,” don’t ask. You can get some at another restaurant. He may be a kid who had a good start, but he’s also a human being. Treat him like he is one. Give him a little respect. Don’t ask him what he thinks about the New York gubernatorial race. Girls, show some self-respect. Con men, find some other mark. Overheated fans who want 50 autographs…how many do you really need? Give him space.

And a warning to Mr. Loaisiga…the Yankees once signed a pitcher named Brien Taylor. This kid had lightning and thunder in his arm. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft. He got profiled on “60 Minutes.” The street he grew up and lived on was named after him in his honor. He got into a bar fight one off-season, damaged his left arm, and that was it for his career. He never got past Double-A and his minor league career numbers are a 5.12 ERA and 352 walks in 436 innings. He wound up working for the US Post Office and doing time for drug dealing.

In other words, stay out of trouble in bars. Or anywhere else.


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