Baseball According to “Brockmire: ” A Look at the Game as Seen on TV

Baseball according to “Brockmire” is surprisingly accurate.

The IFC series Brockmire, for those unfamiliar with the baseball-centric sitcom, is a biting portrait of the titular Jim Brockmire, a former big league broadcaster whose on-air meltdown a decade earlier condemned him to a bleak occupational exile from which he has emerged to accept the PA-announcer gig for a minor league squad that features a wealthy but washed-up Japanese pitcher, a 400-pound pinch hitter nicknamed Fatty Boombalatty and a third baseman with 13 kids.

Got that? It’s simple, really. Brockmire, which stars Hank Azaria as the hard-drinking broadcaster, is an unyielding depiction of a complicated guy whose unlikely return to The Show must begin in a dying Pennsylvania town.

Call it the American Dream gone sideways, with baseball as its truth.

As Season 2 approaches, let’s look at Season 1 and its handling of the Pastime itself.

Episode 1: “Rally Cap”

The scene: Brockmire is drinking at a Morristown bar with Jules James, owner of the Morristown Frackers. She points to a photo of Willie Stargell.

“Pops got his last hit right in front of us — little squib back to the pitcher,” she tells Brockmire. “Guy’s a Hall of Famer, but in that moment he’s just an overweight middle-aged man in yellow Spandex hustling to beat out an infield single.”

Fact check: On Oct. 3, 1982, Stargell did indeed beat out a squib to the pitcher in his final at-bat.

Analysis: Not long is the list of aging stars who managed base hits in their final at-bats en route to Cooperstown. Most notable is Ted Williams, who, at 42, launched a valedictory dinger at Fenway Park. Less dramatic were the RBI singles of Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench.

Longer is the list of aging stars whose final at-bats were unpleasant sojourns en route to the Hall. Honus Wagner, at 43, whiffed. So did Willie Mays. As for Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, they said goodbye with groundouts.

Among players on this list, Stargell is the lone figure to have legged out a squib in his farewell at-bat. As such, he is the most fitting embodiment of a familiar type: the past-his-prime superstar who, by pushing his failing body to its unsparing limits, is barely hanging on to a young man’s game. We envision a bloated Babe Ruth, now in the uniform of the Boston Braves, serving out the remainder of his time as a gate attraction by straining to gather, in that one last at-bat, the strength that made him the Sultan Of Swat. Yet all he gathers in this late-May game is the strength of a man in the December of his years. And he returns to the dugout, retired.

We envision a slowed Willie Mays, now in the uniform of the New York Mets, straining to reclaim the Say Hey Kid but finding instead a 42-year-old man. At least he went down swinging, we tell ourselves. At least he offered at that September pitch. But we understand: It was a remnant of his prime, a residual commission of the player he could no longer impersonate. We remember: His final regular-season at-bat was not his parting moment. Rather, it came as a prelude to his pair of misplays in the World Series, so emblematic of a glory gone into fade.

The game had passed him by. He was chasing it.

Chasing it, too, was Pops, a man who, on Oct. 3, 1982, used the 90 feet between home plate and first base as a means to forestall, even reject, baseball mortality by hustling his way to safe!

Episode 2: “Winning Streak”

The scene: Brockmire and his tech-savvy but baseball-oblivious intern, Charles, are in the booth at Morristown Stadium prior to a game. Charles turns to Brockmire, who is wearing his trademark houndstooth jacket, and asks, “Is dressing badly … just a thing in baseball?”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“Superstition is a thing in baseball,” Brockmire replies. “It’s tradition that if you’re on a losing streak, you change everything that you’re doing. And if you’re on a winning streak, you don’t change anything.”

Fact check: It is decidedly so.

Analysis: On Aug. 5, 1911, the Pittsburgh Press published this item: “Ambrose McConnell, of the White Sox, has a queer hobby. He picks up pins of every description, never passing one by without stopping to gather it in. Amby has a theory that every pin picked up means a base hit for him.”

Amby McConnell wasn’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last, major leaguer to embrace superstition. In fact, he wasn’t the first to collect pins as a means of self-help. When McConnell debuted in 1925, longtime ace Rube Waddell was already a decade into the practice of collecting pins as a performance enhancer.

In baseball’s fin-de-siecle days, superstition came as commonly as tobacco. Upon winning 28 of their final 31 games to clinch the NL pennant, the 1894 Orioles attributed the streak to drinking turkey gravy before batting practice. At least one Oriole, John McGraw, also embraced the folkloric belief that a wagon carrying empty barrels would bring good luck. Like McGraw, Babe Ruth believed in the empty-barrels myth. He also made sure to step on second base whenever he returned from the outfield. Joe DiMaggio had the opposite approach: He made sure to touch second base whenever he returned to the outfield.

For all their talents, Ruth and DiMaggio were little different than other players who believed in ritual magic as a means of exerting control over a game of frequent failure. In a 1998 journal article, Jack Connelly addressed superstition in baseball’s early years:

One answer is that it’s older than other major American sports and is enmeshed in folklore. The early player was generally uneducated and quick to embrace any possible remedy for poor fielding or a batting average that matched his weight. Putting a lady’s hair ribbon under his cap or a rabbit’s foot in his pocket seemed as sensible as, say, working to improve his fielding or batting style. Players kept photographs, four-leaf clovers, a box of crickets, even frilly women’s underwear in their lockers.”

Like the early player, the modern player is no stranger to magic. In the early 2000’s, a pair of Justins developed rituals that centered on their stomachs. Verlander, the pitcher, would eat three Crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza from Taco Bell before every start. Morneau, the hitter, would eat two Jimmy John’s Turkey Toms before each home game. Another heir to gustatory magic was George Gmelch. A minor league first baseman in the 1960’s, Gmelch twice struck out four times in a game after eating pancakes for breakfast. Following the second golden sombrero, he never again ate pancakes during the season. After retiring, Gmelch became a cultural anthropologist and wrote an indispensable treatise on baseball superstition. In it, he recognized his pancake-rejecting ritual as a taboo.

“Failure to observe a taboo … leads to undesirable consequences or bad luck,” he wrote. “Taboos usually grow out of exceptionally poor performances, which players often attribute to a particular behavior or food.”

Whereas taboos grow out of bad performances, Gmelch explained, rituals grow out of good. Taken together, rituals and taboos form the basis of baseball magic, a practice that Gmelch likened to the fishing magic of Trobriand Islanders. In the inner lagoon, where fish were plentiful and there was little danger, fishermen relied on knowledge and skill. On the open sea, where fishing was dangerous and yields varied widely, fishermen used magical ritual to ensure safety and increase their catch. “Whether they are professional baseball players (or) Trobriand fishermen,” he wrote, “people resort to magic in situations of chance, when they believe they have limited control over the success of their activities.”

In baseball, the vagaries of chance are visited less on fielding than on hitting and pitching. Witness the sign of the cross, ubiquitous in the batter’s box but absent in the field. Witness the rituals of pitchers, unseen at the other eight positions. Onetime closer Randy Myers would circle the front of the mound after every pitch before retracing his footprints to the rubber. But fielders? They just spit.

The reasons are clear: Fielders succeed about 95 percent of the time. Hitters, conversely, succeed about 25 percent of the time. What’s more, a hard-hit ball can become a highlight-reel catch. Likewise, a nasty slider can go for a duck-snort double. Pitchers, in short, control only their own pitches. Batters control only contact. The rest is up in the air.

Locked in this war of uncertainties, pitchers and hitters share a rich history of ritual magic — from Honus Wagner, who’d ditch a bat once it had produced 100 hits, to Turk Wendell, who’d brush his teeth between innings. As Gmelch wrote, “It is wrong to assume that magical practices are a waste of time…. The magic in baseball obviously does not make a pitch travel faster or more accurately, or a batted ball seek the gaps between fielders.” But magic, he added, “gives practitioners a sense of control — and an important element in any endeavor is confidence.”

In 2011, Jim Leyland used his own magic to gain a measure of confidence. During a 12-game winning streak, the Tigers skipper refused to wash his underwear.

Episode 3: “Kangaroo Court”

The scene: Split into two factions, the Frackers are squabbling in the locker room. At issue: Third baseman Pedro Uribe has demanded that pitcher Yoshi Takatsu pay a $100 fine for an undisclosed transgression. Summoned, Brockmire agrees to a “major league kangaroo court.”

Fact check: This is a thing. Rather, it was.

Analysis: In 1991, Mets outfielder Vince Coleman found himself the subject of a $30 fine for loaning his glove to a former teammate, San Francisco’s Willie McGee, whose equipment had been stolen.

The charge: conspiracy.

Of course, having violated the universal prohibition against aiding and abetting the enemy, Coleman could have considered himself fairly adjudged in the kangaroo court of law, especially in comparison to Don Zimmer. Eight years earlier, Yankees DH Don Baylor had fined the coach “just for being Don Zimmer.”

For decades, teams of both the minor and major league varieties have conducted kangaroo courts — i.e., informal mock trials designed to mete out monetary punishment for minor violations of tradition or protocol. Following an Astros win against the Mets in 1991, Houston outfielder Steve Finley had to pony up for the crime of appearing on the Mets’ postgame radio show. Those same Mets later fined Alejandro Pena for prematurely shaking hands with first baseman Dave Magadan. Alas, the reliever thought the game had ended, and his wallet would pay the price.

More generally, players have paid fines for infractions that occur outside the game itself, like wearing the wrong jersey to batting practice, and in-game transgressions like failing to advance a runner.

“Guys have to be able to accept criticism in fun,” Baylor told the Los Angeles Times in 1991,“but I think it’s something that helps bring a team closer together.”

It’s strange, then, that kangaroo court has largely vanished from the majors.

Per a 2013 article in AZ, “kangaroo court is all but dead.”

“(N)obody has it anymore,” said Arizona’s Eric Hinske. “I broke in with Toronto (in 2002), and I haven’t seen it since 2005.”

Might major leaguers restore the tradition after watching Brockmire?

Not if intern Charles has something to say.

“Baseball is a (bleeped)-up sport, I want you to know,” he says upon being told of the reason Yoshi is on trial: Specifically, Yoshi refused to throw at an opposing batter, as Uribe demanded, after Uribe got plunked.

Of course, major leaguers already know how bleeped-up a sport it is.

That’s why they need kangaroo court. What say you, Mr. (bleepin’) Foreperson?

Episode 4: “Retaliation”

The scene: Riled by the abrupt return of his estranged wife, Brockmire, in the booth, is redirecting his anger into the play-by-play during a game between Morristown and rival Butler.

“Morristown, do we have any dignity left?” he hisses into the mic. “Well, the answer to that lies in the hands of a Japanese millionaire who may not speak any English, but he speaks the language of baseball. And he knows exactly what to say next. Say it!”

On the mound, Yoshi promptly beans the batter in retaliation for the Uribe hit-by-pitch.

“Yes!” Brockmire shouts. “Justice, sweet justice, has finally come to Morristown!”

Fact check: True! The retaliatory plunk is an enduring part of baseball.

Analysis: It happened in 1983, at the A’s spring training site. Ed Farmer, on the mound, reared back and delivered a 90-mph fastball directly into Wayne Gross’ back. More notable is that the plunking took place during batting practice. Far from being opponents, Farmer and Gross were teammates.

Three years earlier, you see, Gross had homered off Farmer when they were opponents. And in taking his own sweet time to round the bases, Gross had incurred the wrath of the lanky reliever. Grudge initiated, Farmer vowed revenge. It didn’t matter how long it might take. It didn’t matter if they wore the same uniform.

The code had to be satisfied.

Retaliation, as every fan knows, is as much a part of baseball as relievers running aaaaaalllll the way from the bullpen to join a hold-me-back brawl. Yes, it’s ugly. But no, you can’t erase it. Retaliation, in whatever form, is coded into baseball DNA.

“Baseball players are the most macho, remorseless, vengeful people I’ve ever met,” wrote Tim Kurkjian in a 2013 piece for ESPN. “If you mess with them, if you mess with a teammate, they are going to get revenge.”

Nolan Ryan would leave a baseball-shaped bruise on your midsection for bunting in the early innings. Other hurlers have carried less-immediate grudges. Stan Williams, a big league pitcher from 1958 through 1972, kept a hit list inside his cap. Of course, a pitcher’s personal grievances are his own business. Incited by an affront to his dignity, he will take matters into his own hand by delivering four-seam retribution for offenses that include admiring a dinger or flipping the bat.

To the pitcher’s mind, each is a capital offense. Yet each, to a less primitive mentality, is something baseball could do without.

It is the other brand of retaliation — the Frackers’ brand, the tribal brand — that baseball will likely never eliminate. As in countless other cases within the historical realm of nonfictional ball, Uribe got steamed because Yoshi wouldn’t exact revenge on his behalf. And if a player adheres to just one code, he should adhere to this one: Stick up for a teammate –an eye for an eye, a bruise for a bruise.

In baseball, the code is the lone way of balancing the scales of sweet justice. The brushback, the knockdown, the plunking: Dual in purpose, each is both a person-to-person message — “Don’t mess with my teammate” — and a means of patrolling the margin between the batter’s wheelhouse and his seventh rib.

This is part of the game. The game is all business.

To ask a pitcher not to throw inside is to ask a linebacker to tackle softly. To ask a pitcher not to retaliate on behalf of a teammate is to request that he not have teammates at all. Yes, it’s barbaric. Yes, it’s tribal. But we all belong to a tribe.

Why else do we stand and holler whenever those relievers run aaaaaalllll the way from the pen?

Episode 5: “Breakout Year”

The scene: Excited, Brockmire informs Charles that he has landed an interview on network TV.

Charles recoils. “No one my age watches network TV.”

Ignoring his millennial sidekick, Brockmire continues: “It’s just the thing I need to get back into baseball.”

Says Charles, “This might just work, because nobody my age watches baseball, either.”

Fact check: True-ish. Per research, millennials just don’t do baseball.

Analysis: Much is made, and with a dramatic gnashing of teeth, of the millennials’ distaste for baseball. Glued to their ever-loving iPhone, the techie generation is but one colossal shrug at the feet of the American Pastime, and the grizzled overlords of the grand old game are positively distressed.

Indeed, at this instant, Commissioner Rob “Fix It” Manfred is devising ways to change the game so that it appeals to 22-year-old youths whose attention spans, or so the experts tell us, are the temporal equivalent of half an Aroldis Chapman fastball. How, short of bending a black hole to baseball’s will and thereby altering the very fabric of spacetime, can we match such an attention span to the entirety of Chapman four-seamer?

With regard to this our national emergency, I speak thus to Mr. Manfred: Who gives a rat’s arse? Who cares if the game is Too. Damn. Slow for the quintessential, market-researched millennial? Chill out, Rob, watch some ball and remember what everybody and their grandmother — particularly their grandmother, it would seem — has told us: There’s no clock in baseball.

Correction: Only if you go back in time is there no clock.

In the good old days, when Willie Mays and the New York Giants played the grand old game at the Polo Grounds, nobody sweated the pace of play. True, without TV and its hucksterism, the game did move faster. Rather, it ended quicker. Example: On September 29, 1957, when Mays went 2-for-4 in a 9-1 loss to Pittsburgh at the Polo Grounds, the contest lasted two hours 35 minutes.

But listen. You hear the echoes of Manhattan crickets? Hear that Gotham tumbleweed? Only 11,606 spectators bothered to show up. And this was the final game Willie and the boys would ever play in New York.

Know this, too: Attendance on Opening Day, 1958, for the Giants’ debut in San Francisco, came in at 23,448, or about the average attendance of Phillies’ home games (23,523) in 2017. Know this: The Phils ranked 25th.

So there you go: no clock, sure, but no fans, either. Even on a celebrated Opening Day, when baseball’s greatest player made his trumpeted debut for San Francisco, only a Citizens Bank Park’s worth of fans managed to see it. The takeaway: People who want to see baseball will see baseball, regardless of the circumstances of the time. Those who don’t won’t. You can’t fix indifference.

Today, the clock is ticking like the boobiest of traps, ready to change an otherwise timeless game on behalf of people who aren’t even asking for a tweak. Why would they suddenly get all geeked if the game speeds up a tick? You’re gonna accelerate what they already ignore? You can tuck and trim at the edges, but at some point, a fan has to emerge and commit.

Episode 6: “Road Trip”

The scene: The year is 1975. Young Jimmy is tossing a baseball to himself and doing the play-by-play while his apathetic dad sits nearby. Upon releasing the “pitch,” Jimmy turns, catches the ball and rolls it across the grass.

“Oh!” he shouts, scooping and throwing the ball. “Brockmire snap-throws to the first baseman, Brockmire, who lays down the tag. Aaaaaaand … Brockmire is out!”

Fact check: This is sooooooo true.

Analysis: Each episode of Brockmire begins with a flashback, typically profane: There he is, throwing that infamous tantrum in the broadcast booth. There he is, brandishing a jungle snake while kissing his Filipina lover.

This time, though, the flashback is bittersweet. There he is, indulging his youthful love of the game — and his precocious love of describing it — while his indifferent dad pursues his own dream of building a backyard tiki bar. His father’s overt indifference, we’ve surmised, is the motivating factor in Jimmy’s creative game of baseball solitaire. Contrary to the archetypal baseball dad, the elder Brockmire is more concerned with the phony annexation of equatorial bliss than he is the real conferment of a cultural heirloom by way of an old-fashioned game of catch.

Jimmy’s bold soliloquy, delivered off the cuff, is a surrogate for the father-son conversation he isn’t having. His one-person throw-and-catch routine is likewise a stand-in for the game of catch he hasn’t gotten to share.

Kid, welcome to The Show.

Steeped in nostalgia and sweetened by Field of Dreams, the father-son catch has become a familiar American trope. Fondly recalled and eagerly anticipated, it is held up as an indispensable experience in the becoming of a constant bond. In tossing the ball back and forth, and on equal terms, the boy and his dad are forging a fluid communion that moves in two directions at once. The boy, at the behest of his father, is by cadence becoming a man. And the man, at the bidding of his son, is sustaining the childhood joy he once inherited and has planned to pass along.

By this dynamic is the lineage preserved: Baseball, as a key piece of the patrimony, supplies the rite of passage that brings boyhood to manhood and manhood back to its past. And there, in memories of what remains a devotion, the next generation of American dads will make a gift of American traits. Boyhood is bound to fatherhood by this simple game.

Given the indifference of his own dad, however, Jimmy is forced to a employ a different trait that many Americans boast as a birthright: rugged individualism, they call it. Dad or no dad, every kid must embrace the ingenuity that brought his forebears up from the mud. In the absence of senior guidance, he’s got to cowboy up.

Young Jimmy did what a lot of us did: He played ball, by himself. In the family den, I’d make multiple personalities of my 10-year-old self by tossing a ping-pong ball in the air and whacking it with the Wiffle bat, calling the action all the while.

“Paschal winds up. Heeeere’s the pitch! Paschal hits a loooong drive to left! Paschal races for the ball!”

Alone is not the best way to grow up, but it is a way.

Episode 7: “Old Timers Day”

This one’s about the media. You’re not interested.

Episode 8: “It All Comes Down to This”

The scene: The score is tied in the ninth inning of the season finale, and rival Butler has loaded the bases. Drunk, Brockmire makes his way to the field, calls timeout and summons the players to the mound.

“You guys are great,” he slurs, teary-eyed.

He turns to Uribe. “You, I love.”

Uribe glances at his teammates.

“Why is Brockmire sobbing and telling us he loves us?”

Brockmire interjects. “Because I do love you guys. You’re all playing a game that you fell in love with as kids. And that’s beautiful.”

Fact check: You can’t fact-check love, right?

Analysis: If we ignore the ontological nuances in which history’s philosophers have trafficked, facts come in two flavors: First is the empirical fact. Supported by the sort of data that sabermetricians both cultivate and employ, the empirical fact is Troy Tulowitzki’s career swing percentage of 43.31 percent on four-seam fastballs.

Second, and harder to quantify, is the statement that is consistent with reality. Brockmire’s observation — “You’re all playing a game that you fell in love with as kids” — certainly qualifies as a statement, but does it qualify as a statement of fact? More to the point, do the Frackers’ actions support the implication that they still love the game?

In search of evidence, we look around the infield. Uribe, the third baseman, is trying to earn enough money to cover his child-support payments, that’s for sure, but mightn’t he earn more in an off-the-field capacity? If so, why is he here?

Danny, the second baseman, once turned a “gorgeous double play at a juco in upstate New York,” that’s true, but by all appearances, he seems more concerned with collecting kangaroo-court fines for the purpose of buying porn-site passwords than in climbing the ladder to the bigs. If that’s the case, there are 9-to-5 ways to do it.

As an audience, we aren’t privy to their private motivations. Is Uribe really playing for the love of the game — a love he developed, as Brockmire suggests, as a child — or is he playing for the love of his own children? We don’t know.

We believe, or want to believe, that his love of the game is his reason for being in Morristown, a place where the ground catches fire if you throw a cigarette on it and where the average kid is so fat he can’t get off the sidewalk without help. Perhaps our belief is rooted less in the Uribe’s unquantifiable actions than in our own immeasurable sentiment. Simply put: Is this about Uribe, or is this about us?

The sentiment comes like gospel: “You’re all playing a game that you fell in love with as kids.” Another sentiment, more easily verified than Brockmire’s revealed truth, is this: “We’re all watching a game that we fell in love with as kids.”

Brockmire is the only guy on the show with an eye to The Show, but we have learned the truth of his moment on a minor league field: He loves these men because they play a game he played as a boy, alone, while calling the action that sustained his dream. That is a third kind of fact: the brute fact, the fact that cannot be explained.

John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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4 years ago

I saw episode 6 “Road Trip” as one of the few non-judgemental episodes on TV about a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. In the present political climate it was bold and honest about a subject that is not discussed on TV that often. Brockmire has the tortured complexity that Azaria and the writers of The Simpsons never allow Apu to have. Honestly complex characters who are People of Color were largely non-existant on TV before “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “The Wire.”

4 years ago

“Analysis: In 1991, Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman found himself the subject of a $30 fine for loaning his glove to a former teammate, San Francisco’s Willie McGee, whose equipment had been stolen.”

njguy73’s verdict: Wrong. Coleman was a Met when it happened.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago

Is this sponsored content, or what?

kenai kings
4 years ago

The point made in commenting on episode five is spot on. “You can’t fix indifference.” Those who don’t care for baseball, or about baseball are not going to be swayed to follow the game by tinkering with the game. AND many of us who do follow the game will be very disappointed with the end result I believe.

Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

Absolutely an abomination. The illusion of a game suspended in the air that could go on forever vanishes. Better to leave it a tie than to artificially decide it in such an arbitrary way.

4 years ago

Give the ’58 Giants fans a break. Unlike the Dodgers, who moved into the 100,000 seat Coliseum when moving west, SF had the minor league Seals Stadium to play in, with a seating capacity of about 22,900 after being enlarged for the Giants.

Las Vegas Wildcards
4 years ago

Willie Stargell’s last at bat is interesting for a number of reasons. The 1982 Pirates were still playing meaningful games in mid-September, but this was the last game of the season played at Pittsburgh. Even before his knees went bad, Stargell wasn’t the type of player known for beating squibs to the pitcher. The plan must have been for Willie to start that day, it was known this was his final season.

Wish there was video of this hit, one can only surmise Stargell gave the best effort he could in what he may have known was his last at bat as a player. Obviously, no one would have blamed a future hall of famer with bad knees to take it easy in a meaningless game on what appears to be a sure out. In today’s game, healthy players with speed frequently don’t give 100% running down the line on grounders and fly balls. If Stargell didn’t know in advance this would be his last at bat, it’s possible the effort to reach 1B convinced him he was done for the day.

Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago

Tremendously poignant. Call for eyewitness reports.

kenai kings
4 years ago

Finally got around to watching this… crap! It borders on soft porn. It is based on a character created by the lead actor (translation… so bad he has to write himself a job!). Very few funny scenes, which usually rely on the whit and observations of the young techie, Charlie.
Azaria should stick to voice-overs.