The Nine

Time was that the term “the nine’ in baseball meant the whole team.  Nine men usually played the entire game from start to finish.  Relief pitching was a rare exercise, and fielders didn’t get hurt or played through pain.  Somebody might “pinch hit” on occasion, and that was about it.  This easy jargon is exemplified at the start of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal baseball poem, dating from 1888, “Casey at the Bat.”  This poem is remarkable in that it reflects the unchanging nature of the game over the past 130 years.  Essentially all the contextual details are the same, except that today most of the disappointed Mudville fans probably would have returned home glumly in motorcars.  The poem begins:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.

And thereby hangs a tale.  There’s a crowd of 5,000 watching a local game in a small town, and they’re all passionately involved in the game.  They know the players; they uniformly disapprove of the way the ump is calling balls and strikes; they understand the game situation.

Casey

“Mighty Casey has struck out”

That whole scenario is currently under attack by the new deal that Major League Baseball is working out with minor leagues, which may eliminate 20% of minor league ball.  But the more insidious destructive force in this Covid-19 year is the combination of the short season, the rule changes (a doubleheader was won in extra innings, the 8th to be exact, since now all doubleheaders are 7 innings long.  Ernie Banks didn’t say “let’s play one and a half!”), the absence of fans in the stands, and the absurdity of sixteen teams making the playoffs, three of them with losing records.

Everything was so messed up this year by the pandemic.  Spring training was begun and halted halfway through.  It was restarted in urgency in early July, so that teams could start playing the truncated 60-game schedule before the end of the month.  Consequently, and also somewhat coincidentally, many starting pitchers never found their rhythm.  Some ended up on the Injured Reserve list, some played and had bad years, some elected to have surgery that might have normally been postponed, some left to avoid infection.  A number of teams, such as the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Atlanta Braves, ended up using hurlers who would have been in the minors under normal circumstances, and found a gem or two.  But they also pitched many “bullpen games,” using a series of relief pitchers from the first inning on.  Each would pitch one or two frames, so that there was not excessive wear and tear on arms not used to throwing 90-110 pitches on game day.

The San Diego Padres found themselves in this dilemma as the post-season playoffs began.  They lost their two best starters to injury just at the worst possible time.  Luckily their opponent in the “Wild Card Round” was the St. Louis Cardinals, who won two more games than they lost in the regular season.  Also luckily, their lineup is as formidable a collection of power hitters as can be found in MLB today.  The bats cover up some of their vulnerability on the mound.   

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Trevor Rosenthal celebrates Padres’ win

The Padres pitched all three games as “bullpen games.”  Chris Paddock’s 2 1/3 innings in the first game was the longest stint of any pitcher.  Eight Padres pitched in Game 1, 8 in Game 2, and 9 in game 3.  The third-game starter was ex-Washington-National middle reliever Craig Stammen, now at age 36 the Dean of their staff.  He set the tone.  The nine Padre hurlers last night limited the Cards to 4 hits, no runs.  Trevor Rosenthal, another ex-Nat, struck out the side in the ninth to send St. Louis home for the season.  Meanwhile the Padres’ bats rapped out a team .304 average during the series, with 19 runs and 55 total bases, and a nifty .928 OPS.

With support like that, the Padres might make it interesting against their heavily-favored divisional rivals, the Dodgers.  But win or lose, they may have shifted the ageless jargon of baseball a bit.  Will “the nine” now mean the whole team, or the group of pitchers used in a single game?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2020

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“Tiny” and Tuukka

Cecil “Tiny” Thompson played goalie for the Boston Bruins for 10 seasons, from 1928-29 through 1937-38.  Five games into the next season, he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he tended the twine for two seasons before retiring.  During most of his career he started every game of the season for the Bruins, 468 in all, and he won 252 of them.

Tiny thompson

“Tiny” Thompson, Bruins goalie 1928-1938, 252 wins

Tuukka Rask has been a Boston Bruins goaltender since 2007-08.  He is into his 6th season as top goalie and has never played for another NHL team.  In his career he has played in 474 games and won 252 of them.  His next victory will make him the winningest goalie in Bruins history.

Tuukka

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins Goalie, 2007-present. 252 wins.

Today, they stand together at the pinnacle, ahead of such notables as Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek, Gerry “Cheesey” Cheevers, Tim Thomas, and even Terry Sawchuk, a career Red Wing, who spent a couple of years in Beantown during which time he saw more rubber than he probably did during his entire Detroit career and suffered a nervous breakdown.  But Thompson and Rask could not have had more different careers, and gotten to their 252-win pinnacles by more diverse routes, if they’d tried.

When Thompson played each team carried one goaltender.  So that man started every game.  The league schedules during his career in Boston were 44 games per season (8 teams), and then 48 games per season (7 teams).  If a goalie was injured during a game, the home team was obliged to have a spare goalie on hand to fill in for either side.  (No word on how they handled it if both goalies were too injured to continue; perhaps that never happened.)  That person was usually a team trainer or other staffer.  Rask has played in the era of a grueling 82-game schedule in a league of 30 teams, until Las Vegas made it 31 last season.  In that environment each team absolutely needs two goalies, though Rask has made as many as 67 starts in a season.  Luckily, the Bruins’ current alternate goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, is also highly skilled.  In the current system Rask can rest and recover from minor injuries while remaining on the roster.

Thompson was born in Canada, as was practically every NHL player then.  He hailed from Sandon, British Columbia, now a ghost town in a mining district in the southeastern corner of the province.  His name reflects his Anglo heritage.  There were also, of course, myriad French Canadians in the league (the Montreal Canadiens, by league agreement, had the first choice of prospects from Quebec province, giving them a major advantage).  And there were many players of European descent, mostly East European, whose ancestors had immigrated to Canada, often as farmers.  Rask comes from Savonlinna, a charming town in a lake district in southeastern Finland, with 33,000 people and a castle.  He typifies the influx of European players who are drawn to the NHL by the salaries, and who are needed to fill the rosters of the 31 league teams.  Many are from northern and eastern Europe, where there is natural ice in the winter.  There are now many players from the United States in the NHL as well, so the whole feel of the league is more international.  Coincidentally or not, no team representing a Canadian city has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens did it in 1993, a quarter century ago.

But the most telling contrast is revealed in the attached photos.  Thompson may have been nicknamed “Tiny,” but he stood 5’ 10” tall, and weighed 160.  Rask, though, stands 6’ 3” and weighs 176, so he’s even skinnier.  Nevertheless, Thompson had a much trickier task in blocking the puck than Rask does because of his primitive equipment.  Just look at it!  His right hand, that holds the stick, is not guarded by a blocker pad.  His left hand has a glove that’s more like a standard hockey glove than the glorified catch glove, like a first baseman’s mitt in baseball, sported by Rask.  And look at the leg pads.  Thompson’s are OK, but Rask’s are enormous, heavier, and squared-off.  They extend much farther down over his skates.  Rask’s equipment might weigh almost as much as Thompson himself did.

The most obvious and stunning difference, of course, is that Thompson has no mask.  He and all goalies of the era were expected to stop pucks with their faces and still not miss a game.  That extended right up through the era when I was first a fan.  I saw Al Rollins, the Blackhawks goalie, get a stick cut near the end of the 2nd period one night.  It opened up one whole cheek; there was blood all over the ice.  They ended the period early, adding the time to the last period.  That allowed Rollins time to get 28 stitches in his face and come back to finish the game.  They were tough dudes.  Tuukka’s biggest worries, on the other hand, are peripheral vision, which must be an issue sometimes, and what the artwork on his mask should look like.  The change, by the way, came through the legendary Jacques Plante of Montreal, the first to wear a mask in a league game.  Cheevers used a molded white mask, and every time it was hit with a puck he painted stitches on the spot that was hit.  By the end of his career his mask, rather than his face, was a network of scars.

On the other hand, Rask faces rival forwards who are significantly bigger and faster overall than players of the 1930s.  They are better trained, and are in better shape.  They skate on ice surfaces that are more uniformly hard and smooth than those in the old rinks.  They use carbon fiber sticks that flex more than the old wooden ones, and thus launch pucks at enhanced speeds.  And those sticks have curved blades, that allow better puck control and harder shots on the forehand, though they challenge puck control on backhand shots.  The rules have changed as well, so that now forwards can get breakaways through long lead passes, and odd-man rushes are easier to facilitate.  Consequently, it’s hard to read too much into comparative save percentages and numbers of shutouts over the two eras.  They didn’t keep shots against stats in Thompson’s time, but odds are that those numbers were lower in his defense-oriented game.

Rask could surpass Thompson by grabbing his 253rd win as early as tomorrow night against the Rangers in the Gahden.  And whenever it happens, he will have surpassed a great player from an earlier NHL epoch, who will retain his distinct identity even as Rask exemplifies excellence in the new NHL of 31 teams, carbon fiber sticks, and massive catch gloves.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.