Trump the Baseball Fan

On Saturday night, President Trump diverged from his usual Twitter themes to comment on Dodger manager Dave Roberts’ handling of his pitching staff in Game 4 of the World Series. Trump criticized the manager for removing a starter who was pitching well from the game:

Ann Althouse thinks the president was using baseball as a metaphor. His subliminal message, she says, was: don’t change horses in midstream. Trump is the starting pitcher; he is doing well and we should stick with him.

Perhaps. But sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar, and I think Trump really was focused on baseball. In fact, his point is one that I and many others have often made. Today’s managers handle starters and bullpens according to a formula. Everyone has a role and the manager usually sticks relentlessly to that role. Often, this means lifting a pitcher even though he is pitching well and getting batters out. In my early years as a baseball fan, this was rarely done. If a manager lifted a pitcher, it was because he was tiring or was getting hit hard.

The problem with lifting a pitcher prematurely–as I would say–when he is throwing the ball well and getting batters out is that you never really know how the next pitcher will do. We have all seen it happen many times: a manager will take out a pitcher who is cruising and replace him with someone else, following a rote formula, and the reliever promptly gets shelled.

That is what happened in Game 4, and Trump’s complaint is one that has often been voiced by old-time fans. Like me.

At risk of belaboring the point, I will cite a historical example–Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves. By 1991, we were already into the era of pitchers’ roles being mechanically applied by managers. But in Game 7, the Twins manager, Tom Kelly, a traditionalist at heart, departed from the script.

The starters were Jack Morris for the Twins and John Smoltz for the Braves. In one of the most famous pitching duels in baseball history, both teams had shutouts going through nine innings. Morris had gone the distance, while Smoltz had relief help. When Morris came off the field after retiring the Braves in the ninth, Kelly told him he had done a great job but he was going to take him out. In today’s baseball, of course, it is becoming rare for a pitcher to go nine innings and almost unheard of to pitch longer than that.

But Morris protested, telling Kelly he had plenty left. The Twins pitching coach joined the conversation, telling Kelly he thought Morris’s stuff was still good and he believed he could pitch another inning. According to legend, Kelly thought for a moment and then said, “Ah, what the hell. It’s only a game.” He sent Morris out to pitch the 10th. Morris retired the Braves and the Twins won the game, and the Series, with a run in the bottom of the inning.

Would any manager today do what Tom Kelly did in 1991? I doubt it. And that, I think, is what Trump was rightly protesting.


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