Archive for January, 2010

The Last of the “Lame Ducks”

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Remember Bobby Bragan? The bent-backed big-bellied curse of Brooklyn and Birmingham and the fair-haired best buddy of Branch Rickey before that kid infielder Jackie Robinson came along, Bragan was his generation’s Bobby Cox. He could bait an umpire by just being there, but was at his best while shuffling to the mound, muttering under his breath. And the umps would yell at him: “What did you say Bragan? What was that?” It seems a required part of Braves’ baseball even now, a “given” on the single-sheet job description: “Must know the game. Must hate umpires.”

Bragan was that, and classically Birmingham fat, aging gracelessly as the players got younger around him. So Bragan would come out of the dugout, muttering about the unfairness of it all (carrying his Denny Lemaster hook — “oh thank God, he’s pulling Lemaster”) and you would swear he was going to lose his balance, tipping forward as he walked. I never thought he was that heavy, but back in 1965 Milwaukee Braves fan would razz him, ceaselessly, relentlessly, cruelly: “Go on a diet Bobby,” and “you’re a pig, Bragan.” He was of a “type” — a southern boy who was okay behind the plate, a player forever of the verge of being something more than just average. Neither a peripheral great nor even mediocre, Bragan was one of those guys you put in the line-up until someone better comes along. There is a whole community of guys like Bragan wandering through the underworld: Dennis Menke and . . .  well, Dennis Menke.

Bragan would have been a forgettable character, were it not for his memorable 1947 decision to circulate a petition from white players saying they wouldn’t play with Robinson, whom Rickey had brought in the break baseball’s color barrier (and transform the Trolleys from a very good to a great team). Bragan even asked Rickey to trade him: he would not play with a black man. You have to wonder what Bragan was thinking. Did he really believe Rickey would send Jackie packing because his second string catcher was a racist? Bragan quickly changed his mind. “After just one road trip, I saw the quality of Jackie the man and the player,” Bragan later remembered. “I told Mr. Rickey I had changed my mind and I was honored to be a teammate of Jackie Robinson.” Trumpets. Organ music. Fade.

Bragan never lived down that moment, but he tried. He pushed Maury Wills to the majors when he was a minor league manager in Spokane, praised Rickey as the person who had “made me a better man,” and became one of baseball’s smartest and most well-respected administrators — as head of the Texas League and then head of the governing body of minor league baseball. In the 1980 he started the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, which raises money for scholarships to keep kids in school and was elected into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. But back in 1965, Bragan was viewed by the people of Milwaukee as anything but a hero. Bragan was the manager of the lame duck Milwaukee Braves, who had announced the previous year that they would be moving to Atlanta. Milwaukee partisans were shocked — and angered. 

When a group of local businessmen sued, the Braves were forced to stay an extra year in Milwaukee. Bragan, the on-field symbol of the Braves’ ownership bore the brunt of Milwaukee’s anger, but he was never known for being a stoic (or knowing what the word meant). You could see him seeth, and the more he seethed the more fans let him have it. As I remember it (and I was there — blessedly), the anger towards the Braves and Bragan culminated on a hot August day at Milwaukee County Stadium when Bragan walked to the mound to remove a pitcher (probably Lemaster, but I can’t remember for sure) and on the way back to the dugout he motioned in Rico Carty from left field. Carty had just misplayed a fly ball and Bragan was punishing him — in public, humiliating him front of the fans. On purpose. And the Braves fans just let him have it. And I mean they let him have it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought the fans in front of me, along the third base line, were going to come out of their seats. And Bragan looked up into the stands and just smiled and nodded his head: yes, yes, I took him out. So go do yourself. You know, whatever else you might think about Bragan, he knew when not to give a damn.

Bobby Bragan died last week in Fort Worth, Texas.  Major League Baseball paid homage to Bragan in a public notice that quoted Bud Selig. “He was a dear friend of mine for nearly 50 years,” Selig said. “He had a long and wonderful baseball career as a player, coach, manager and executive.” What the announcement failed to mention is that the group of Milwaukee businessmen who forced the Braves to spend ’65 in Milwaukee was organized and led by prominent local car dealer — named (oh yeah) Bud Selig. Selig was convinced that the Braves, and Bragan, owed their home town fans something more than a single press release and an empty stadium. 

Bobby Bragan was 92. Actually I kinda liked him.

McGwire “Comes Clean”

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

This is the way the ratings work: if you want people to listen to you, you had better do something interesting — and local. And so, to celebrate Mark McGwire’s coming out party on Monday, one local sports talk show asked its listeners to decide who had hurt their sport more: Mark “the needle” McGwire? Or Washington basketball semi-great Gilbert “Wyatt Earp” Arenas. The calls flooded in, though Sports Talk Radio afficianados are nothing if not predictable. If you don’t like baseball then Mark McGwire is “fatal to the game” (as one caller would have it) and if you don’t like basketball (“Let’s get ready to Gam-blllllllle“) then Arenas is a talisman of “a league of thugs.” There’s a better answer: if Mark McGwire had brought a gun into the Cardinals locker room he would have been immediately suspended for half-a-season — and right now he’d be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

McGwire’s sin, or so it seems to us (and here we are — after a long hiatus), is not so much that he used steroids (didn’t we already know that), but that he took so long in admitting it. Oh, and in admitting it . . . well, he didn’t really admit it: he didn’t avow that somehow it had increased his power (which is what steroids do) and he refused to acknowledge that without them he might not have hit the 70 home runs that made the ’98 season so memorable. That is to say, twenty-four hours after coming clean, McGwire is now being castigated for not really “coming clean.”

The most outspoken McGwire critics appeared on the MLB Network in the backwash of McGwire’s interview with Bob Costas. “The fact is, it is a form of cheating. And the question in my mind is can you award a guy with the highest award in baseball [election to the Hall of Fame] if he cheated? And my answer is no,” Peter Gammons said. Gammons took a surprising view: he said he had voted for McGwire’s entry before admitting to taking steroids, but that he would not do so now — and he predicted that it would be “a couple of tough years” for McGwire. That is to say: there’s no reward for coming clean, at least in Gammons’ mind, and it might have been better for him if he kept his mouth shut. “He wanted to be in uniform [as the new St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach] more than he wanted to be in the Hall,” Gammons reflected. There’s something to that: our guess here at CFG is that Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt probably insisted that McGwire clean up the past — if for no other reason than to keep the press from hounding him through all of Spring Training and beyond. But that meant a public admission and an apology. McGwire agreed.

MLB Networker commenter Joe Magrane added his own voice, wondering whether McGwire’s admission was really an admission — McGwire admitted to taking steroids to “heal faster,” Magrane noted, but without explicitly admitting that he used them. “I just don’t buy it,” Magrane said. MLB Cardinals’ reporter Matthew Leach had it the other way: “If there was anything that surprised me about the whole deal, it’s that he was a little more explicit than I thought he would be.” Leach then added a classic zinger: McGwire apologized, but without really saying what he was apologizing for.

Yeah, I buy that — but let’s get serious. McGwire could come absolutely clean (“I put the needle right here, Bob , because I knew it would help me break the Maris record) but such an admission, while fueling America’s twisted obsession with public and tearful repentence, wouldn’t make any of us actually feel any better. We still wouldn’t know what to do with all those records and (for those of us who watched every minute of the ’98 season) we still wouldn’t know how to think about that day when Mark and Sammy made baseball history. (All I can say is, thank God Sammy didn’t take ’em!) And that kind of admission (an I-did-it-just-to-hit-home-runs admission) might actually make us feel worse. Then too — lest we forget —  Bud and a gaggle of owners and senior baseball executives were all arrayed in the box seats at Busch watching when Mark and Sammy put on their show. And while Bud “Claude Rains” Selig has appointed every kind of commission possible to investigate the problem, he stood and cheered just like the rest of us when Big Mac put one over the McDonald’s sign to break the record: “Steroids? Steroids? I’m shocked to learn there were steroids in baseball.”

McGwire apologized and wants to coach St. Louis hitters. Let’s leave him alone. And let’s hope, for the sake of the Nats, that he does a lousy job.