October 7, 2015

“Like Déjà Vu All Over Again”: Playoff Baseball With Yogi Berra, Yadier Molina, and Hurricane Joaquin

Book RevBy Stuart Mitchner

I’m planning ways to pipe “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics into the St. Louis clubhouse when the Cardinals host the National League Central Division playoffs this Friday. Why send a Power Pop anthem to a team that has won 100 games in spite of losing virtually half their starting lineup this season? That’s not miracle enough? Not if you add to that truckload of adversity the loss of a potential Hall of Fame catcher and proven post-season clutch hitter who saves pitcher’s souls and throws out baserunners at a major-league-leading clip. When “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold,” Yadier Molina is the center that holds, and at this writing, there’s no way of knowing how effective he’ll be even if he’s cleared to play in the post season.

The September 20 incident that put Molina out of action is an example of what his former manager Tony LaRussa calls “beautiful baseball” — in the bottom of the eighth inning in a do or die game against the surging Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo racing for home, a perfect throw from right-fielder Jason Hayward snagged on one hop by Molina, one quick stab of Molina’s mitt to tag out the sliding runner, a medley of forces converging in game-saving synchronicity. Except that as the catcher executes the neat rapier-like motion of the tag, the force embodied by the 6’3, 240-pound Rizzo going hellbent for home has Molina slinging off his mitt, in pain from what proved to be a partially torn ligament in his left thumb, and just like that, the one indispensable player is out for the last ten days of the regular season and perhaps the playoffs.

So it goes with baseball. Beautiful, yes, but also inevitably bipolar, a field of ups and downs and broken dreams.

“He Was Out!”

On September 22, two days after Molina went down, baseball lost one of its greatest catchers and most quotable characters when Yogi Berra died. In the unlikely event that Berra ever visited a therapist, he’d have been sure to vent about how the umpire blew it in the first game of the 1955 Yankees-Dodgers World Series when Jackie Robinson stole home. Endless replays of the moment available online show Robinson being called safe as he slides under or into the tag, after which Berra is seen furiously berating the homeplate umpire. According to Harvey Araton in Driving Mr. Yogi, “When it came to the Robinson call, Berra wore his certitude like a badge of honor, even signing a photo of the play that was destined for Barack Obama with the inscription, ‘Dear Mr. President: He was out.’”

In fact, if anyone in baseball is the therapist, it’s the catcher. As Bengie Molina points out in his memoir (with Joan Ryan), Molina: The Story of a Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty (Simon & Schuster 2015), the catcher has to be “the steadying influence, the soothing advisor who knows what the pitcher needs before the pitcher does.”

The Church of Baseball

Molina’s memoir describes how and why he and his brothers Yadier and José became major league catchers, with eight World Series and six world championships between them. The Molinas grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, in a barrio called Ponderosa, “in a house balanced on stacks of bricks with wooden steps to the front door.” The baseball field seemed like an extension of the house even before they moved to Espinosa where the field was just across the street. The father told his sons “that the foul lines don’t really stop at the outfield fence but go on forever, into infinity. And it was possible for a baseball game to last forever if a team managed to keep getting on base or no team scored. So baseball could defy space and time.” To Bengie, “That sounded more like God than anything I heard in church.”

A locally renowned player himself, the father (called Pai, “short for Papi”) took care of the field, bringing a rake “to clear the rocks and smooth the infield divots …. He’d push a nail into the dirt beside home plate and attach a string. He’d tie the other end to the base of the outfield foul pole. He sprinkled chalk one handful at a time along the string to make straight baselines. Then he’d measure the batter’s box and chalk that, too.”

Kissed by the Baseball Gods

Molina also offers a brother’s-eye view of what makes Yadier Molina one of the great catchers of his era. While Bengie was a solid hitter and two-time Golden Glove winner, his kid brother grew up to become a seven-time all-star, the winner of seven gold gloves and counting, and twice a runner-up (third and fourth) as the National League’s Most Valuable Player. At ten, Yadier was already “much better” than his older brothers had been at the same age: “He was thick and solid and had a cannon for an arm. He could already hit the ball over the fence at the park across the street …. Yadier had been kissed by the baseball gods not only with his body and talent but with being born into a baseball family …. He soaked up everything we said, even when it looked like he was fooling around and not paying attention.”

Perception and Punishment

You learn a lot about what it means to be a catcher in Bengie Molina’s book. As he puts it, the dugout became his “classroom,” ultimately his “graduate school,” where he learned from a more experienced catcher “how to be quiet in my body behind the plate,” “how to provide the biggest target,” how to argue with an umpire (“never face to face”), how to call a pitch while projecting “calm and confidence to all his teammates.” Key to the course was observing the pitcher’s face and body language. “Was he still thinking about the double he gave up? Was he annoyed at the second baseman’s throwing error? Was he losing his nerve? … Did a pitcher respond to failure with productive anger? Did it make him even more competitive and determined? Or did it plunge him into a funk? A catcher had to manage a pitcher’s mood, coaxing and cajoling like a patient father.”

As for occupational punishment, Bengie’s teacher “didn’t have a body part that hadn’t been hit by a pitch or foul tip.” Toes, inside ankle, top of foot, inside part of heel, inside part of calf or knee or knee itself, top of knee, quadriceps muscle, inside quad, biceps, belly, ribs, chest, neck, face, shoulder, arms. Add thumb to the list, as Yadier recently learned, thanks to what is still the single most hazardous play a catcher has to make, even though it’s now against the rules for the runner to make football-style body contact to knock the ball out of the catcher’s glove.

Hurricane Joaquin

Only a Cardinal fan of long standing could explain why the news about Hurricane Joaquin rouses thoughts of the 1982 World Series and “One Tough Dominican” named Andujar, who died at 62 last month and whose favorite word in English was “youneverknow.” If ever a pitcher needed a soulmate behind the plate, it was Joaquin Andujar, who loved Bonanza and after striking someone out would sometimes point his index finger at the batter and go bang. Joaquin was known to teammates and opponents alike as a “hot dog” or, his translation, fantoche. “I like to drive people crazy,” he admits in a classic article by Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf.

As it happened, the Dominican’s soulmate behind the plate was a double for Clark Kent named Darrell Porter, who came immediately to mind with the idea of the catcher as one who “manages the pitcher’s mood.” My first experience with the way television can bring you into the game was in the close-ups of the handsome, bespectacled Porter beaming sympathy and encouragement into Joaquin Adujar’s tempestuous hot dog soul at crucial moments. Porter was the Series MVP because of his bat but it was his super-hero-in-disguise presence that kept Cardinal pitchers stable and focused. The combination of soulful Porter, who struggled with substance abuse throughout his life and died at 50, and flaky Andujar, who loved the sound of rain on the roof, is one of those character mixtures that illustrate what Tony LaRussa means by beautiful baseball.

Molina and the Mets

In the event that the Cardinals and the Mets meet in this year’s National League Championship Series, Mets fans will be sure to recall Yadier Molina’s role in the 2006 NLCS. In Molina, Bengie describes telepathically coaching his brother while watching a telecast of the deciding game. In the ninth inning, with Yadier batting, the game tied 1-1, and a man on base, Bengie yells at the TV: “He’s going to throw you another changeup! Sit on it, sit on it. That’s what’s coming.” Sure enough, the next pitch was a changeup and “Yadier smashed it over the left field wall to put the Cardinals ahead 3-1. He pointed to the camera, and I pointed back. ‘I told you!’”

In the bottom of the ninth, with a rookie named Adam Wainwright pitching in relief, the Mets loaded the bases. When Yadier went to the mound to calm his pitcher, Bengie knew what he was saying: “I could almost hear him: ‘Stay back, trust in yourself, keep your focus.’” Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals won the pennant, and went on to win the World Series.

Nine years later, Wainwright, now the Cardinal’s ace, is coming back from what was thought to be a season-ending injury. Once again, he’ll be pitching in relief and Molina will be, Cardinal fans hope, catching and calming him. And perhaps the Mets will be the opposing team, and it will be, as Yogi famously said, “like déjà vu all over again.”