Postseason expansion: Strike this mother-of-bad-ideas out

Atlanta Braves

Freddie Freeman, Series MVP Jorge Soler, and William Contreras in the celebration crowd after the Braves downed the Astros last October.

You can point to any number of issues animating the current lockout that portend calamity, of course. But you can count on half your hand how many would bypass calamity into downright disaster. Expanding the postseason even further than it has been already is the big one.

As Deadspin analyst Sam Fels knows only too well, the fourteen-team postseason proposal is bad enough in and of itself, with the players “very hesitant, but mostly because they know it’s the biggest matzo ball they have to lob to the owners in order to get what they want in another area.”

That plus suggestions of tying the overdue and very needed universal designated hitter to other things either side wants are the skunks awaiting their invitation into the room. The universal DH should be made so with no strings attached. The further-expanded postseason should be rejected likewise.

“The players know that the more playoff teams there are, the more teams will be aiming for the middle and the bottom seeds rather than going all out to win divisions and top seeds which deflates salaries,” Fels writes. “But the players might want whatever they can get in return for expanded playoffs.”

Players, don’t do it. You’ll live to regret it. You’re under no obligation to validate the owners’ tunnel vision. You’re under every obligation to take up your share in reminding one and all that the common good of baseball isn’t the same thing as making money for it, or trying to inflate the profits that the owners will likely do all in their power to keep you from enjoying your reasonable share of it.

The incumbent postseason structure has already diluted both the meaning of the regular season and the depth of a real championship. Someone, anyone, needs to remind his fellow players, competitors that they are, that there’s no genuine competition or metaphysical engagement in playing or watching the battle and the chills, spills, and thrills of fighting to the final breaths to finish . . . in second place, or even further back.

Baseball’s three-division leagues need to go. Proposals that should be heard include making each league a four-team, four-division, two-conference league, which would require expansion of one new team in each league to even things out. While we’re at it, let’s do away with regular-season interleague play once and for all except the two occasions on which it’s supposed to mean anything substantial: the All-Star Game, and the World Series.

And I’m prepared to get even more outlandish, if that’s the way you think of that basic idea. But hear me out. In two-conference leagues, assuming interleague play goes the way of the Louisville Grays*, the regular season scheduling should be strictly intra-conference.

You still want a none-too-short postseason, then? There’s a right way to do it, and that’s the sort of thing that will facilitate it, without further fostering the oversaturation that’s been the real killer of postseason interest.

That, and eliminating the wild cards entirely. There should be no postseason reward for finishing in second place or further back. (You say you want to put the brakes on tanking teams? There you have it. They shouldn’t be that willing to tank if they know it’s either finish in first place or wait till next year. ) Everybody with me? Good. Now here ’tis.

The two division winners in each league’s conferences can play a best-of-five division series. That’s eight teams, ladies and gentlemen, with a maximum possible ten games. Then, the two conference winners in each league can play a best-of-five League Championship Series. Five more games maximum. (Which is the way the LCS was played from its 1969 birth through 1985.) Then, your league champions would still meet in a still best-of-seven World Series.

That’s 22 games maximum possible as opposed to today’s maximum possible 43 postseason games. With such prospectively reduced postseason saturation, think of the broadcast dollars baseball and the broadcasters can still mulct from advertisers. They’d still be glandular enough. And championship legitimacy would be restored at long enough last.

A splendid time should be had by one and all watching the regular season mean something once again, the broadcast ratings return, the interest never flagging, and the bank accounts still swelling. (Not to mention reminding one and all, the owners especially, that fans don’t buy tickets, or tune in, because they want to watch the owners.) It would be depth triumphant over mere width.

Would that help begin settling such issues as service time manipulation or owners’ continuing bids to suppress player earnings? Would it help get out of Commissioner Nero’s head such nebulous things as three-batter minimums for relief pitchers and into his head that umpires require true accountability at long enough last?

Would it help awaken both the commissioner and his paymasters that the real cause of game delaying is the two minutes or more of broadcast commercials not just between innings but with every pitching change?

Would it help get into the thick skulls of today’s organisations that if they’re that dismayed with one-dimensional offenses they ought to seek the next prospective Henry Aarons and bypass the next prospective Adam Dunns? That they ought to demand a universal, no monkeying around baseball that gives the pitchers and the hitters at least the appearance of an even battle? (Remember: Good pitching is still going to beat good hitting—and vice versa.)

Those are questions for which the answers now remain undetermined. But that realignment toward the greater and more meaningful postseason might be a start. Take me out to the real World Series again.

What should be the proverbial absolute no-brainer is the universal DH. The evidence is established long enough. Pitchers as a class can’t hit and never could. It’s not worth the periodic thrills from the outliers among them to continue perpetuating the farce (not to mention the dangers) of pitchers at the plate.

It’s not. worth. it. to continue seeing rallies ending when pitchers on the mound pitch around their ways out of jams (thank you again, Mr. Boswell) by handing the batters ahead of them passes so they can rid themselves cheaply of that pitcher coming up to the plate swinging a Ronzoni Slugger.

And it shouldn’t be tied to any other issue. Especially not to the postseason that requires rethinking back to the point where a championship means something genuinely substantial.

————————————————————————————————–

* The Louisville Grays were charter members of the National League in 1876. They lived long enough to be undone by major league baseball’s first known gambling scandal in 1877.

Pitcher Jim Devlin, left fielder George Hall, and utilityman Al Nichols were caught throwing games for payoffs and banned from baseball for life. Shortstop Bill Craver was banned for life for refusing to cooperate with the investigation that unearthed the scandal.

Manfred must go. How and from whom to choose his successor?

Thomas Boswell

Should this man be baseball’s next commissioner—and none too soon?

Major league baseball’s lockout continues apace. So does the egg on commissioner Rob Manfred’s face, even if Manfred doesn’t acknowledge it.

Bad enough: Few involved in the lockout directly, and few observing it closely, comprehend what Steven Goldman, a Baseball Prospectus writer and (in Forging Genius) the most incisive analyst of Casey Stengel’s success as a Yankee manager, comprehends with little effort and lots of sense:

If one feels the owners have somehow been shortchanged by the players in the past or would be unfairly impacted by the players’ proposals, among them a shortening of the paths to arbitration and free agency, make an objective argument for why this is so. Similarly, if one believes the players do not currently receive their fair share of baseball’s revenues, then prove it as best one is able. Failing to do either is to admit to being a kneejerk partisan. Telling other people that they’re wrong and deserve less money than they’re asking for isn’t just something you can have an opinion on, like whether or not you like creamed spinach . . .

. . . As has been related here and elsewhere, the players’ share of revenue has been falling as owners emphasize younger players. The value of free agency has resultantly been diminished, and whereas some players are still cleaning up, there is an increasing number of players who don’t last long enough to escape Pittsburgh and get some of that sweet Dodgers swag. Simultaneously, not only do the owners not open their books to the players, many of them are clearly not trying. We know that without seeing the books because we as fans can see the teams, see the minimal payroll, note the revenue-sharing payments vanishing without a trace, not to mention the increasing amounts of online and non-baseball revenue that teams now collect. We have to be fair, but we don’t have to be stupid.

Worse: Major League Baseball-owned MLB Network’s summary dismissal of longtime baseball writer/television analyst Ken Rosenthal, over comparatively benign critiques of Manfred published elsewhere eighteen months earlier, has brought corresponding questions to a boil. None seems more glaring than the one asking not whether Manfred’s competent to continue, but whether baseball needs an entirely new way to choose his successors.

The owners hire a commissioner. They can fire him any old time they please, so long as they pay him over the remaining time for which his contract calls. But nobody else in the game has a vote on the hiring. This can and has created a few, shall we say, problems in the past. With the game in Manfred’s hands, it’s made those problems seem like brief if rude interruptions.

Manfred’s current contract expires in 2024. So long as the owners continue to believe he operates by the maxim that the good of the game equals making money for them, his job is safe. Never mind suppressing free agency’s cumulative value; never mind treating the play of the game as a perverse Rube Goldberg experiment to be bent toward the attention-and-thought-challenged; never mind monkeying around with basic equipment such as the baseballs themselves; never mind its owned-and-operated media franchise strong-arming a reporter daring to question Manfred’s competence.

The players have no say in choosing the game’s maximum steward and administrator. Neither do those who manage and coach them. Neither do those charged with keeping the games honest, the umpires, never mind that the umpires have their own issues that Manfred has proven distinctly disinterested in addressing too often. Hands up to everyone who thinks there’s something very wrong with that.

Very well, you holdouts. Allow me to ask you two questions I’ve raised or addressed in the past. 1) Do you buy tickets to baseball games for the distinct pleasure of seeing your team’s owner(s)? (You Yankee fans of the 1980s fed up with George Steinbrenner’s act and hoping to let him have it, sit down, you’re outliers.) 2) Do you believe the commissioner should quit trying to fix what isn’t broken but leave what is broken alone to fix itself?

If you answered no to both, good. Now, hear me out further.

There’s no valid reason on earth why the commissioner should be chosen among the owners alone. Imagine if the president of the United States could be elected solely by the nation’s state governors. That would be seen, rightly enough, as an abomination. Now, if you agree the presidency should be filled by the people acting through the electors chosen based upon the people’s votes, why would you disagree that baseball’s commissioner should be chosen solely by the designated voters from thirty ownerships?

Major league baseball has not just thirty owners but approximately 1,200 players, based upon the 40-man rosters. It also has thirty managers overseeing their players and their coaching staffs, and 76 umpires spread among nineteen umpiring crews. There is no sensible reason anyone can exhume why voting for the commissioner shouldn’t include the player representatives for all thirty major league teams, their managers, and the nineteen chiefs representing their crews.

Perhaps, then, a commmissioner elected thus would be inclined better to see the complete picture and not just the portions that equal maximum revenues on which to base future owner shenanigans. And that provokes the next but just as critical question: from among whom should the game’s next commissioner be chosen?

The Selig-to-Manfred era has made plain enough that the next commissioner shouldn’t come from among the owners. Neither should the next commissioner come from among anyone who’s worked in a front office. Nor should the next commissioner come from among the players, the managers/coaches, or the umpires. The perception of certain preternatural biases would be overwhelming enough from among them, even to those who tend to forget those attached to those chosen by the owners alone.

Prior to the Selig-Manfred era, commissioners were a federal judge (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), a former governor and U.S. senator (Happy Chandler), a sportswriter turned president of the National League (Ford Frick), a retired Air Force general (Spike Eckert), a lawyer who’d been the National League’s attorney (Bowie Kuhn), a travel executive turned U.S. Olympics organiser (Peter Ueberroth), a Yale scholar-turned-president-turned National League president (A. Bartlett Giamatti), and an entertainment attorney turned president of Columbia Pictures (Fay Vincent).

Setting aside issues that may or may not have soiled those commissionerships, the deep record shows that only one of those pre-Selig-Manfred commissioners had little enough knowledge or even love of the game: The retired Air Force general (his hiring provoked a sportswriting wag to dub him the Unknown Soldier) played a very little baseball in his youth and was known otherwise to prefer squash, tennis, golf, polo and horse jumping.

The best you could say of him is that he hired the first African-American to hold a major job in the commissioner’s office. To his eternal credit, Eckert broke the colour line in baseball’s administration when he hired Hall of Famer Monte Irvin as assistant director of public relations and promotion operations. Eckert’s successor Kuhn put Irvin in full charge of it, a job Irvin did until he resigned when Kuhn did in 1984.

Since it’s not unprecedented to have a sportswriter/broadcaster become baseball’s commissioner when he grew up, never mind his inability a) to shake the presence of the man (Babe Ruth) for whom he once ghost-wrote or b) to act decisively as commissioner unless it threatened a) (Ford Frick might as well have been nicknamed “It’s a League Matter”), I can think of a very solid candidate.

No, silly, not Bob Costas, whom two-thirds of the world (including me, once upon a time) thought as strongly that he should have the job as Costas thought he shouldn’t, often vociferously. But the candidate I have in mind is a retired longtime baseball writer of impeccable talent, established insight, and genuine love of the game.

He has a concurrent love for golf but is not otherwise sinister. He is known to have walked a very even line between the self-imploding fooleries of the owners and the sometimes self-defeating strategems of the players. He has been known to suffer neither fools nor malcompetent umpires gladly. His knowledge and love of the game is rivaled only that of the commissioner least apologetic about expressing it ostentatiously if lyrically, the ill-fated Giamatti.

There are five books collecting his best work to present as evidence so far; God and an insightful publishing house willing, there’ll come a sixth. Commissioner Thomas Boswell, anyone?

L’affaire Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal (right), shown interviewing Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts for Fox Sports at All-Star festivities. MLB Network decided Rosenthal’s comparatively mild critiques of Commissioner Nero Goldberg were still a little too harsh for the bosses’ comfort–even if they were published elsewhere.

A very long time ago, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock counseled a protege named Frank Chodorov about writing: “Frank, don’t pick your reader up by the back of his neck and throw him downstairs. Lead him gently.” Whether Ken Rosenthal is aware of either of those two quiet giants of libertarian thought, he has been that kind of baseball writer, observer, and commentator.

Though he’s not given to rapid and bundled shafts of mirth, Rosenthal rarely fails to inform, instruct, and delight. He was required reading for a very long time on the Fox Sports website; he has been required reading at The Athletic since just about the day that journal was born. His additional presence at the MLB Network simply meant that the network benefitted from a well-seasoned reporter going deep as a finely-composed sauce.

Until it didn’t, as of Monday. If you thought the government government can be petty with in-house critics, for once it looks downright sanguine about them compared to baseball’s government.

The owners of the MLB Network decided that they just can’t have a known non-rabble rousing reporter criticising baseball commissar Rob Manfred on their (read: his) dollar. Never mind that Rosenthal’s apparent thought crimes occurred in June 2020 and weren’t even committed aboard MLB Network.

Permit me to take you back to baseball in suspended animation during the early months of the pan-damn-ic. Manfred and the owners attempted to renege on a deal to pay players full pro-rated salaries for 2020 whenever it might begin, even as they still pondered whether there would be even an abbreviated season. From his roost at The Athletic, Rosenthal (with Evan Drellich, the reporter with whom Rosenthal blew Astrogate wide open upon Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing) was having none of that:

What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns . . .

The best commissioners offer statesmanlike presence and superior vision. Few ascribe those qualities to Manfred, and few would argue baseball is in a better place since he took over for Selig on Aug. 14, 2014. Rather than simply enjoy the fruits of the 2016 CBA, a lopsided victory for the owners, the clubs have gorged on them, alienating the players. And once again, they are valuing their own short-term interests over the long-term interests of the sport.

As critiques of baseball’s government go, Rosenthal (and Drellich) were mild sauce compared to numerous lights of varying statures. God and His servant Henry Aaron only know that when I want to compliment Manfred I’ve called him Commissioner Nero, fiddling while baseball burns. Or, Commissioner Goldberg, citing Manfred as a man giving an excellent if troublesome impression of how Rube Goldberg’s evil twin might have been, if Goldberg had had one.

Mild, schmild, MLB Network says. It iced Rosenthal for close to three months, while still paying his agreed-upon compensation, until the 2020 trade deadline at August’s end. When Rosenthal’s MLB Network contract expired at the end of 2021, the network decided not to renew him. Just why it merely iced him almost three months, then waited until his deal with them expired to let him go, is for mere speculation for now.

Under normal if no less tasteful circumstances, dumping actual or perceived in-house critics doesn’t require eighteen months to execute. The truly cynical might suggest MLB Network wanted to sustain a pretense of objectivity, even if it meant keeping Rosenthal on hand rather than dump him at once while honouring his contract otherwise. The less cynical might agree that dumping Rosenthal at once would have left MLB Network with a far worse look than it has now.

“The timing of this news could not be worse for MLB,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Dan Gartland of Rosenthal’s purge. “The league’s status as a villain and a bully has been cemented during the ongoing lockout, and so even if Rosenthal’s departure was due to, as an MLB spokesperson told the [New York] Post, ‘natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year’ and not his 18-month-old criticism of Manfred, just the perception that the league has punished a well-liked and well-respected reporter for a fair critique of a widely despised authority figure is damaging to the network’s credibility.”

As the Boston Globe‘s Chad Finn notes, purging Rosenthal inflicted an unwarranted stain on the numerous reporters working there who lack Rosenthal’s profile:

[T]he decision to dump Rosenthal did their reputations no favors. Major League Baseball executives, particularly original network president and CEO Tony Pettiti, have insisted since the beginning that they want MLB Network to be editorially credible and they would not interfere with the journalistic duties of the correspondents.

Then, because the commissioner cannot accept that criticism comes with his job, the network goes and dumps the popular and respected Rosenthal for what were accurate rebukes? The perception is not fair, but Manfred’s actions implicitly suggest that the reporters who remain are in lockstep with how the commissioner’s office wants the league covered. At the very least, they now know what the consequences are for being critical of the boss.

Or, the bosses, if you remind yourself that Manfred serves at the owners’ pleasure and can be dumped by the owners any old time they choose it—provided, of course, that they pay the rest of his contracted-for salary. You know, just as the Yankees paid off in full all those decades ago, whenever George Steinbrenner decided to throw out the first manager of a season.

Since the lockout began, MLB Network has limited its live programming. MLB.com notoriously purged players’ faces from their stat pages. The site also published an FAQ on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations on day one of the lockout . . . entirely through the eyes of Manfred and his bosses, the owners.

Thus the most significant issue with professional sports leagues establishing their own media networks. They can be valuable resources for fans during off-seasons. But they can also become a league’s version of Izvestia. “No one is expecting Rosenthal to be allowed to bash Manfred on MLB Network,” writes Gartland, perhaps forgetting for the moment that Rosenthal’s bash wasn’t aboard the network, “but it’s refreshing when league-owned media outlets publish less-than-flattering stories.”

Weep not for Rosenthal, whose roosts at The Athletic (as a writer) and Fox Sports (as an on-air reporter/commentator) are at least as secure as a bank vault. Weep instead for the thinking person’s sport that’s been used, misused, and abused by a commissioner and his paymasters for whom genuine thinking proves beyond their pay grades.

2021: Wanted—a Laundromat

Rob Manfred, baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin.

Once upon a time, when you could be sure . . . if it was Westinghouse, that once-ubiquitous home appliance maker trumpeted its angular front-loading washing machine thus: “You’ll love your Laundromat more every day!” There are those, and they may be legion, who think baseball today needs a Laundromat it can love more every day, too.

But the game may first need to remember where 2021’s laundry hamper is located. “[Major League Baseball]’s dirty laundry,” writes the irrepressibly irreverent Deadspin, “was only forgotten by the general public when some newer, shinier scandal made its way onto the scene.”

Deadspin thus began its proclamation of commissioner Rob Manfred as the eighth biggest idiot in 2021 sports. By the time you finish reading just that particular bill of particulars, you may come to think it’ll take an entire Laundromat—those vintage, Westinghouse-stocked,  self-service laundry versions of the very vintage self-service Horn & Hardart Automats, that is—to get MLB’s washing done.

Thanks to baseball’s owners and their off-season lockout, the keys to the Laundromat can’t and won’t re-open it for badly needed business. Thanks to Manfred’s determination to leave a legacy as having been baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin, baseball has continued calling the repairmen to fix what wasn’t broken while calling the dentist to set the limbs that were.

Manfred has dropped more balls than ever eluded the grasp of legnedary first base fumbler Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. From almost the moment he succeeded Bud Selig in the commissioner’s chair, Manfred has seemed to administer baseball even further down the line Selig and his then-fellow owners once engineered while ignoring blissfully their roles laying the tracks: Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids! 

The Astros caught red-handed in an elaborate and illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation? The Red Sox caught using their replay room for sign-stealing reconnaissance assuming men on base to receive and transmit the purloined letters? By the rules, Manfred could only fine Astros owner Jim Crane $5 million, “which is roughly the price equivalent of a Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell to you or I,” Deadspin snarks. He couldn’t quite hit the Red Sox like that over turning what MLB itself provides each team at home or on the road.

But he could have imposed far more stern measures than stripping the Astros of a pair of key draft picks. He could also have imposed something more grave upon the Red Sox than letting them skate by suspending their manager and banishing their video room operator. As one presidential candidate once purred about the other’s party, in debate and on the campaign trail, he had his chance but he did not lead.

That was in 2020. Over a year later, all of that was almost (underline that) forgotten by your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Tack. As in, that new old-fashioned medicated goo pitchers deployed the better to get a grip on something upon which Manfred lacks a grip—making baseballs that are as viable for pitchers to throw as for hitters to hit. The inconsistent surfaces of the balls today compelled enough pitchers to seek medicated help. That some of them saw it as a fine shield for chicanery should have been anticipated, but wasn’t.

So Manfred cracked down . . . about a couple of months after he should have done so. It simply reinforced the suspicions of too many that this commissioner picks and chooses when to enforce particular rules. It also provoked them to ask why Manfred was more alarmed about potentially cheating pitchers than he was about the continuing lack of umpire accountability.

He certainly wasn’t all that alarmed about cheating baseballs. You read that right: after the season, it came forth from Business Insider that two types of balls were used during the year. One was a little more on the dead side, the other a little more on the lively side. The magazine cited an astrophysicist who analysed the balls, found them suspicious, and even spoke to an unidentified pitcher who thought, as I wrote elsewhere early this month, that baseball’s government might have engaged a little game chicanery of its own:

This pitcher thinks MLB was also looking to manipulate particular matchups with the variable balls: send the slightly more dead balls to such lesser sets as, say, the Detroit Tigers versus the Kansas City Royals, since nobody was going to be interested in them, but send the slightly livelier balls to the marquee sets such as the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

If you’re looking for a thorough MLB investigation into what we might call Ballgate, save your vision. It hasn’t happened yet. Whether it will happen is only slightly more difficult to guess than it once was to guess which one among about eight different leg kicks and about sixteen different windups Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was likely to use to throw the next pitch your way.

(Which reminds me that the splendid staffers at Baseball Prospectus, in their book Extra Innings, once posited with splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. So Commissioner Goldberg didn’t start ball chicanery, but it’s possible he’s presided over its current tricks and treats.)

After a few comical responses to on-the-spot Spider-Tack and other substance searches that could have and almost did provoke strip teases by the suspects under potential arrest, Manfred and his administration provided further evidence that today’s baseball handles scandal by engaging one somewhat worse than the incumbent. This time, the name was Trevor Bauer.

This time, Bauer was place on administrative leave over sexual misconduct  accusations described politely as salacious, with each period of leave extended going, going, going, until he was gone, goodbye, for the final two-thirds of the season. His Dodgers—who’d signed him big without doing complete due diligence last offseason; who won 106 games and still had to win the wild card game for postseason advancement (because their historic and division rival Giants won one game more)—almost went to the World Series without him.

Meanwhile, Manfred persisted with his COVID-shortened 2020 season’s tinkerings over the full 2021. On behalf of his often-questionable or at least mis-directed alarm over the length of baseball games, Manfred persisted with the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning. He persisted with his rule that relief pitchers must face three batters at minimum before they can be relieved. The former remained a mere nuisance. The latter could have gotten someone killed.

That would be Bryce Harper, now the National League’s defending Most Valuable Player, but then taking an errant fastball off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist courtesy of Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera—on the first pitch of the top of the sixth. It could have knocked Harper’s block off. It did knock his batting helmet off. It scared the hell out of both teams and the Busch Stadium audience.

The next pitch Cabrera threw hit Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius. The three-minimum rule still prevented Cardinals manager Mike Schildt from lifting a pitcher whose lack of control was obvious to all but the blind. Harper ended up suffering a terrible slump while he struggled to play through the wrist compromise yet recovered to post an MVP season. He also texted Schildt after the fateful game to say he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to decapitate him.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters postgame. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.” It was the diametric opposite of the commissioner’s act.

Commissioner Goldberg has also sought, ham-handedly, to make the game pay through the nose for any agreement to make the designated hitter universal. He wants a trade-off: I’ll give you the universal DH, but you give me an agreement that you lose your DH if you lift your starting pitcher sooner than six innings or thereabout. If you think he’s learned nothing from his three-batter relief minimum, wait until you see him flunk this one.

Just as relievers might enter a game having nothing left, for assorted reasons, starting pitchers often enough begin a game on the vulnerable side. If Manfred really thinks he’s doing the game a favour by forcing a team to sacrifice a game’s designated hitter, because the manager got his roughed-up starter out of there early enough before getting the guy killed to death, I think I may have found a buyer for that cut-rate Antarctican beach club.

If and when the owners and the players return to the negotiating table on behalf of ending this lockout, the players should give the owners and their barely-trained seal one answer to that:

Don’t even think about it. It’s long past time for the DH to be universal. Pitchers overall have never been hitters; those very few who were were outliers, and everyone with a brain knows it. We’re tired of wasting pitchers at the plate and watching rallies die. We’re really tired of losing pitchers to the injured list when they get hurt at the plate. The DH is long overdue in the National League, one of whose ancient owners dreamed it up in the first place. Deal with it. End of subject.

Manfred’s alarm at the length of baseball games has yet to address the truest of the culprits, broadcast advertising. You can look it up: Two minutes worth of commercials between half innings equals 36 minutes per nine-inning game. That’s before the commercials during in-inning pitching changes. (You might notice it takes less time for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen and throw eight game-mound pitches than it does to run the first minute’s commercial.) And, before extra innings, which are the two second-loveliest words in a true baseball fan’s vocabulary. (The loveliest, of course, are, “Play ball!”)

The next time you watch a game on television or listen on radio or online, make note of every commercial played during the broadcast from the first pitch to the final out. When you add the times of those commercials, you can’t say you weren’t warned that you might have seen a mere two hours’ worth of baseball for your trouble. Thus persists Manfred’s likeliest definition of the common good of the game: making money for it.

Thus, too, were soiled such luminous matters as the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as an international two-way major league mega-star. (And, the American League’s Most Valuable Player.) Such matters as the Braves picking themselves up from the loss of their franchise player-in-waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the second half of the season, dusting themselves off with a trade deadline array of outfield-remaking deals, then wrestling their way to a sixth World Series game in which one of those newly-acquired outfielders, Jorge Soler, led the way bludgeoning the Astros home without another lease to the Promised Land.

Manfred presenting the Braves with the World Series trophy (you know, the one he once called a mere piece of metal) and Soler with the Series MVP award carried all the duplicity of Dmitri Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to restore and enhance freedom of expression in Russia—and the Norwegian Nobel Committee enlisting Vladimir Putin to present it to him.

Is it going to take a one-hundred-washer Laundromat to clean up this mess? You can be sure . . . if it’s Manfredhouse.

Renaming the Spink award, revisited

Claire Smith

Claire Smith at her Hall of Fame induction. The Spink Award deserves a better re-naming than “Career Excellence.” Smith would be one viable candidate for whom to re-name the award appropriately.

The good news, in case you missed it as I did, is that the Baseball Writers Association of America last February removed the name of J.G. Taylor Spink from the award that enshrines baseball writers in the Hall of Fame. The bad news is that the BBWAA re-named it the Career Excellence Award.

That’s the kind of name you affix to a retirement party and a gold or platinum watch to someone who’s spent his or her life with the company without having been particularly above and beyond the simple call of duty. It’s not the kind of name by which you honour the best of your best.

When first we learned the writers were considering the purge of Spink’s name from the award, I was (and remain) all in. Spink may have published The Sporting News for almost half a century, but he also opposed “organised baseball’s” racial integration. Ironically enough, the Spink Award was established in 1962—the year in which Spink himself passed away but Jackie Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“In August 1942,” noted Daryl Russell Grigsby in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, “[Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

There have been fan riots in the stands, of course, but unless I’ve missed one the customary causes seem to have been copious alcohol (Ten Cent Beer Night is only the most notorious of that lot) or large enough contingents of opposing teams’ fans in the home ballparks.

You’re far less likely to see a fan brawl inspired by race than you are by, say, a not-so-friendly argument between Cub and White Sox fans during interleague play. Heaven help Chicago if the Cubs and the White Sox ever tangle in a World Series for only the second time in their history. (The first: 1906—when the Hitless Wonders, the White Sox whose .230 team hitting average was the American League’s lowest, beat the 116 game-winning Cubs in six.)

When the BBWAA first announced they would remove Spink’s name from the award in question, I noted a Spink Award Hall of Famer (oops! now we call her a Career Excellence Award Hall of Famer), Claire Smith, telling USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale the previous summer, “If this is the time of introspection, if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.”

They did half of “this.” The other half should be considered un-tenable. Those baseball writers deemed worthy of Cooperstown enshrinement deserve far better than being called mere Careers of Excellence. (While we’re pondering, when will now-retired Thomas Boswell receive his due election to the Hall of Fame?) For whom, then, should the award really be re-named?

I thought almost a year ago that re-naming it for any of the following would be proper. I haven’t changed that thought since. Let’s revisit, in alphabetical order.

Roger Angell—The first non-BBWAA member elected to the Hall. He wasn’t a daily baseball beat writer, which blocked him from BBWAA membership. It took San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser, when she was a BBWAA president, to nudge and push the BBWAA into recognising Angell’s oeuvre as long overdue for honour. Yet again, with the same feeling: Angell isn’t baseball’s Homer; Homer was ancient Greece’s Angell.

Alison Gordon—The first lady to be sent onto the baseball beat, in 1979, covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star. Said she, a well regarded humourist when handed the Blue Jays, and who died in 2015: “You had to have a sense of humour to cover the Blue Jays, at least in the first few years.” Said one-time Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby: “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.” She also went on to write some fine crime novels hooked around baseball.

Sam Lacy—One of the first black members of the BBWAA. Lacy was to the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Wendell Smith was to the Pittsburgh Courier, a consistent but prudent pressure point upon major league baseball to end segregation in the game once and for all. It’s a shame that he could and did write a fine memoir but his baseball journalism, so far as I know, remains un-collected.

Jim Murray—The Los Angeles Times fixture (1961-1998) was what Fred Allen would have been, had Allen chosen to become a sportswriter instead of a transcendent radio comedian. Murray was actually awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990, about which he rejoined the committee gave it to the wrong man: he said the award belonged to one who brought a corrupt government down, not one who quoted Tommy Lasorda correctly.

Shirley Povich—The grand old man of Washington sports journalism. Which is very good for a grand old man who became the Washington Post‘s sports editor at the ripe old age of 20 and raised that sports section all by himself. “Shirley Povich is the only reason I read your newspaper,” Richard Nixon once told then-Post publisher Katherine Graham. Well.

Damon Runyon—He may or may not be remembered more on Broadway, but Runyon is actually a Hall of Fame baseball writer (elected posthumously in 1967) who’s credited with being perhaps the first to highlight the unusual, the eccentric, the weird, and the surreal, on field or in the stands. (If you don’t believe me, you might have a gander at Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.)

Claire Smith—The Padres tried to manhandle her out of their clubhouse after Game One of the 1984 National League Championship Series. Padres first baseman Steve Garvey said not so fast, then buttonholed Smith to give her an interview. It provoked then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to rule equal clubhouse access for writers regardless of gender. From the Hartford Courant (the first woman assigned to the daily Yankee beat, in 1983) to the New York Times, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to ESPN (she was a news editor before the network included her among 300 staff cuts in 2020), Hall of Famer Smith’s career can be described in two words: baloney proof.

Red Smith—He may have been as close to a poet laureate among daily baseball writers as the art got. Winning his Pulitzer Prize in 1976 helps his case. So does being big enough to do what the comparative few have done, admit when he got things wrong in the past, whether it was coming to see baseball’s owners weren’t exactly among the pure or whether it was seeing the International Olympics Committee was (and too much remains) a 19th Century relic.

Wendell Smith—He was the first black member of the BBWAA, not to mention the first black sportswriter to be enshrined in Cooperstown. His writings for the Pittsburgh Courier carried the heaviest water on behalf of ending baseball segregation. He also planted the name of Jackie Robinson into Branch Rickey’s ear, when Rickey seized upon Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s death to put into motion what he’d long wanted, bringing black players to the “organised” game. Smith’s criminally un-anthologised; the Hall of Fame has a considerable collection of his thanks to his widow’s donation, but this Smith deserves far deeper recognition and honour.

That might be a far tougher group from whom to choose renaming the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame award. But on this we might agree once and for all: “Career Excellence Award” simply swung and missed.