Happy birthday, Hoover

2020-05-18 BrooksRobinson

“I’m beginning to see [him] in my sleep. I’m afraid that if I drop this paper plate he’ll pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”—Sparky Anderson, on Brooks Robinson.

You think of the damnedest things during a quarantine/shutdown. Especially on the 83rd birthday of a fellow who was nicknamed after a vacuum cleaner for the way he played third base.

“I’m beginning to see [him] in my sleep,” lamented Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson during the 1970 World Series, as Brooks Robinson got into the thick of the acrobatic thievery he committed against the Reds. “I’m afraid that if I drop this paper plate he’ll pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

“If he wanted the car that badly,” said Robinson’s fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, himself robbed of three hits in broad daylight, of what Sport magazine handed Robinson as the Series’ most valuable player, “we’d have given it to him.”

Robinson’s career-long acrobatics got him nicknamed The Hoover. He’d have gone down as the greatest ever to play the position if fellow Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hadn’t come along to combine breathtaking power, equally breathtaking plate patience (though Phillies fans roasted him for years over how many walks he’d take if need be), and elegant third base sweeping and cleaning.

The only nickname ever applied to Schmidt, alas, was “Schmitty,” about as pedestrian a nickname as you could bestow upon a man whose home runs have been described as conversation pieces and whose defense was a murderous balance between elegance and Robinson-like grand theft.

“Schmidt . . . was not meant to comb gray hairs,” wrote Thomas Boswell when Schmidt retired on Memorial Day 1989, tearfully admitting he couldn’t play the game like Mike Schmidt any longer, despite being the National League’s RBI leader in the moment. “From him, we only expected the sublime. He looked like some huge, graceful shortstop misplaced at third base. When he came to bat, the huge number 20 on his back might have stood for the number of rows he intended to hit the ball into the bleachers.”

If we’re looking to apply vacuum cleaner names to great defenders, maybe Schmidt should have been called the Electrolux, fabled at once for its rather elegant look, quiet power, and all-in-one attachments. And maybe the following should have been handed to these gentlemen who were case studies at their positions:

The Swivel-Top. (General Electric’s canister of the early 1950s that the company said gave you “reach easy” cleaning: who else but Willie Mays?)
The Electrikbroom. (Keith Hernandez.)
The Convertible. (Bill Mazeroski.)
The Hoover Junior. (Mark Belanger, who played shortstop next to Robinson at third for almost two decades.)
The Aero-Dyne. (A sleek Hoover tank model of the late 1940s-early 1950s. Ozzie Smith.)
The Roto-Matic. (Clete Boyer, who was an acrobat at third base but couldn’t hit with a hangar door.)
The Premier. (Johnny Bench.)
The Celebrity. (Derek Jeter, who’s actually somewhat overrated as a defensive shortstop even with his collection of highlight-reel plays.)
The Air-Way. (Nomar Garciaparra, before the injury bug stung repeatedly.)
The Compact. (Roberto Alomar.)
The Kirby. (What else, for who else? Kirby Puckett.)
Eureka! (Ken Griffey, Jr.)
The Courier. (A short-lived 1960s machine by Sunbeam that looked as though someone had the clever idea of sticking vacuum cleaner works into a Samsonite hard-shell suitcase. So who should get it? Andruw Jones, who traveled and delivered incomparably in center field for years before his staggering decline phase.)
The Roomba. (Matt Chapman.)
The Wind Tunnel. (Lorenzo Cain.)
The Shark. (Nolan Arenado.)

Don’t be too quick to lament the absence of Graig Nettles on the foregoing list. (If you don’t think he should have been considered in the first place, you were probably under sedation through a few World Series.) There isn’t a vacuum cleaner on the planet with a name that could possibly replace Puff the Magic Dragon.

Except that Nettles acquired the nickname not because of his way with making baseballs disappear into outs from third base but because of the way he made himself disappear after launching practical jokes. If only he could have made himself invisible just before reaching, diving, ranging, or angling for a batted ball and then re-appear just after throwing on to first. The Hoover beating, sweeping, and cleaning couldn’t compete with that if he tried.

On the other hand, there were Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart and Marvelous Marv Throneberry. First basemen both. The type who caused their own teams to keep the crash carts on red alert. Stuart once got a standing ovation for catching a hot dog wrapper floating down from the stands and not dropping it. Throneberry inspired Jimmy Breslin himself to write that having him at first base for your team was like having Willie Sutton working at your bank.

Bless them both, but Stuart and Throneberry married to vacuum cleaners would probably be the blower ports.

. . . and, who will be COVID-19’s Piazza?

2020-05-14 MikePiazza911

Hall of Famer Mike Piazza runs out his larger-than life, late-game, post-9/11 two-run homer that electrified a city and a country. Who’ll be a similar baseball hero post-coronavirus pandemic quarantine?

The discussions are on for when and whether major league baseball will return this year. Some of them trigger bristling suggestions that the owners want to use this to suppress player pay further, via a 50-50 revenue split that might, admittedly, mean lower takes for the owners, too.

Others trigger equal suggestions that the players—who already agreed (in March) to play with pro-rated 2020 salaries when they can play again this year—want someone to remind the owners they had a deal. If necessary, a reminder by way of a bat brought down onto their heads.

And most of those discussions trigger concurrent thoughts, debates, and analyses over just how to keep the players, the team personnel, and the ballpark workers and operators safe when the major league games return, wherever they’re played.

But let’s put those to one side for now and think of something else: If and when the Show goes on again, and whenever fans can and will be allowed back into the stands reasonably, who’s going to be the coronavirus’s Mike Piazza?

We take you back to 21 September 2001, ten days after the 9/11 atrocity, and New York City’s return to baseball by way of the Mets hosting the Atlanta Braves at since-departed Shea Stadium.

To Piazza batting in the bottom of the the eighth against Steve Karsay, with one out, one on, and the Mets down 2-1. To Piazza turning on Karsay’s service just off the middle of the plate and sending it far enough over the center field fence that it banged off the second tier of a three-level television camera scaffold.

To the ballpark whose packed Friday night crowd included 9/11 responders and their families exploding in unapologetic emotion from the moment Piazza’s blast ricocheted off the scaffold.

Four innings earlier, Piazza scored the Mets’ first run following his one-out double to right center field, after Robin Ventura singled him to third and Tsuyoshi Shinjo brought him home with a sacrifice fly. That tied the game at one, but the Braves made it 2-1 in the top of the eighth when Brian Jordan doubled home pinch-runner Cory Aldridge.

“If there was any time to give up a home run, though I obviously didn’t want to, that was the time,” Karsay himself would remember of Piazza’s surrealistic blast.

Piazza had been somewhat in the thick of 9/11’s immediate aftermath, doing what he could along with several teammates and their then-manager Bobby Valentine to help clean up, boost morale, and make sense of the atrocity, while baseball ceased for the first ten days following the attacks.

“I can’t describe that week,” Piazza remembered to MLB Network around the time of his Hall of Fame induction in 2016, “and I can’t describe what it was like to come back and play, because I don’t remember any of it, in a way.”

Not even the moment captured impeccably by a New York newspaper photographer, Piazza sitting on the rooftop of his apartment building with a view of the empty World Trade Center area at sunset, gazing toward the empty region as if still unable to believe what he no longer saw, knowing how it got that way in the first place.

2020-05-14 CarolGies

Carol Gies and her three sons at Shea Stadium during pre-game ceremonies honouring fallen 9/11 responders such as her firefighter husband, Ronald.

Piazza may not have been able to remember but fans and first-responder families wouldn’t forget, including Carol Gies, whose firefighter husband Ronald died in the 9/11 atrocity. “It was a day I will never, ever forget,” she said. “It was a decision, should we go, shouldn’t we go, should we go. We were terrified because here it is, a ball field, and the terrorism and stuff, and we decided as a family that it was some place their father, my husband, would want us to be.”

Despite their pennant race grapple, Valentine remembered the Mets thinking not so much about a competition with their National League East rivals but that the game itself “was so much bigger than anything I’ve ever been part of before.” Today Valentine is the athletic director of Sacred Heart University and active in coronavirus relief and aid efforts.

“It was just inevitable that something really special was happening,” he said of just playing the game. Even he couldn’t predict what would happen when Piazza swung on 0-1 in the eighth.

One of Piazza’s fellow Hall of Famers played third base for the Braves that night. “That’ll be a game that’s etched in my memory forever,” said Chipper Jones in 2012.

You’re talking about two heated rivals. We didn’t necessarily like each other all that much back then. And we got together before the game, we came together grown men shaking hands, giving hugs. I think we all as Braves knew that night we were in trouble, because we’re not only playing, you know, a very good baseball team, but you just had the feeling that God and every other baseball god was on New York’s side that night.

The matinee idol, Mike Piazza, ends up hitting this storybook homer that sent everybody home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We’d done our jobs as baseball players, to entertain people, but we had gone, I feel, above and beyond just the normal day’s work, and we owed it to the city of New York and the northeast United States to help heal a little bit.

Police, fire, and paramedic bagpipers marched from the fence toward the infield before the game, as the Mets and the Braves lined up along the base lines. “I heard the bagpipes,” said Piazza, whose tears were captured on camera, “and I lost it. I remember looking up and praying to God saying, ‘Lord, please give me the strength to get through this’.”

The Lord obviously gave him a lot more strength than he asked.

Today’s players, more players than you think, do what they can with whatever they have in their home regions, from donating food to donating dollars and even time as the coronavirus continues its strange and terrifying journey. A nation that closed ranks in a classically American can-do spirit following 9/11 now struggles to do likewise around the current pandemic.

“The post-9/11 American esprit de corps did not last forever, but it lasted for better than a year,” writes Jonathan V. Last, the executive editor of The Bulwark. “We are barely 12 weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and the country is already deeply divided.”

Who, then, when fans are allowed to return to the ballparks at last, will prove to be the pandemic’s Mike Piazza?

Will a pitcher or combination of pitchers rear and throw a no-hitter in the first game back, the way Los Angeles Angels pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena did in their first home game following the unexpected death of fellow pitcher Tyler Skaggs last year?

Will Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Lucas Giolito, Jack Flaherty, or Madison Bumgarner step on the re-opening mound and pin the other guys’ bats back with a no-hitter or even, dare to imagine, a perfect game?

Will Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso, Juan Soto, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Anthony Rendon, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, D.J. LaMahieu, Matt Chapman, Tim Anderson, Joey Votto, Rafael Devers, or even aging and badly ground down Albert Pujols find himself with men aboard in the latest innings and a hefty home run just waiting to be hit to bring down the ballpark’s and the nation’s house?

Try to imagine the future Hall of Fame plaques, for those above making their cases,  including post-pandemic dramatics, reading the way Piazza’s plaque does: “Helped rally a nation . . . with his dramatic home run in the first Mets game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.”

“I got to be honest with you,” Piazza said in that 2016 interview. “I truly feel uncomfortable when people say, ‘You’re a hero.’ I have to disavow myself from that. I don’t feel like I was a hero. I really don’t.”

Whoever will be the same kind of hero when the Show returns from the coronavirus quarantine is liable to feel likewise. And the health care providers and other front-liners in the pandemic who might be at the ballparks, when finally allowed to be, will remember those they could and couldn’t save even as they explode in joy upon the moment if it comes.

. . . and, will it come back smartly?

2020-05-12 SeanDoolittle

Sean Doolittle during last year’s World Series. He’s now concerned that baseball considers everyone’s health before coming back.

Forget for the moment how arduous might become the grapple between owners and players on how to pay whom if the Show returns. More significant will be how to keep more than just the players healthy, a significance that has not escaped the thoughtful eye, ear, and mind of one Washington Nationals relief pitcher.

Sean Doolittle isn’t even close to the only major league player with health on his mind. But it isn’t every player who’s unburdened himself aboard Twitter to lay out the health questions that must be answered if the Show is to come back to give a coronavirus-exhausted nation even a small degree of respite.

Bear with me,” Doolittle (who calls himself Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle on Twitter) began his Monday stream, “but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season.”

There are players and other personnel now who may be more vulnerable to the virus than others almost regardless of the health and safety protocols MLB might secure, as Ken Rosenthal observes in The Athletic. Colorado outfielder David Dahl is one. Rosenthal cites the Mayo Clinic saying your vulnerability to life-threatening infections heightens after spleen removal. Dahl’s spleen was removed five years ago.

Doolittle’s own wife, Eireann Dolan, is vulnerable thanks to being asthmatic. Two Chicago Cubs, pitcher Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, are cancer survivors. Cleveland pitcher Carlos Carrasco has battled leukemia and, six years ago, undergone “non-invasive heart procedure,” Rosenthal writes. At least three players are Type 1 diabetics: pitchers Scott Alexander (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Jordan Hicks (St. Louis Cardinals), and outfielder Adam Duvall (Atlanta Braves).

One and all of them plus countless more players are only too willing to play ball this year. “Obviously, this thing is unstoppable if it gets you the right way,” said Rizzo, who’s worked with and through his charitable group aiding Chicago front-line workers, in April. “But they said I’m cured and as strong as ever and that everything functions the right way. If I was to get it, they’re not overly concerned, like they would be with older people who have had conditions before.”

Doolittle also knows it’s not that simple to work with. “Because this is a novel virus, there is still so much we don’t know—including the long-term effects,” he said aboard his Twitter stream. “On top of respiratory issues, there’s been evidence of kidney, intestinal, and liver damage, as well as neurological malfunctions, blood clots & strokes.”

Referencing several research results, the lefthanded relief pitcher cited coronavirus patients’ vulnerability to scarring in their lungs, “found even in asymptomatic patients, and because the virus often affects both lungs, can cause permanent damage in some cases. Definitely a concern for an athlete.”

It’s also a concern, and Doolittle knows it, for those who work in close enough proximity, including clubhouse personnel, press personnel, team staffers, and stadium workers. Baseball as a game may work in a kind of social distancing on the field, if you don’t count the three-man cluster of batter, catcher, and umpire at the plate, but off the field in the dugout, the clubhouse, and the ballpark is something else.

Even if the Show returns come July with no fans in the stands to begin, it isn’t going to be simple. “We know that sharing indoor spaces greatly increases the infection risk,” Doolittle continued, “and it’s rare that only 1 person gets sick. Will there be modifications made to clubhouses or other facilities to prevent a spread?” Indeed.

“Even if maybe guys don’t realize it right now, it’s our job and MLB’s job to make sure all those concerns are taken care of,” says Cardinals relief pitcher Andrew Miller, who’s a member of one of the player’s association’s executive sub-committees. “Health and safety of our players and our staff is first and foremost before we can even think about getting games off the ground and the logistics of all that.”

Baseball players might not be in close contact during a game the way football players are,” Doolittle tweeted, referencing the prospects for an NFL season this fall, “but there is a lot of shared space in a clubhouse among players, coaches and staff.”

That’s one reason why it isn’t going to be as simplistic as just keeping the owners from using baseball’s measured return to try suppressing players’ pay, considering the question to be answered as to whether the players will play for a 50-50 revenue split or for the contracted-for pro-rated 2020 salaries to which they agreed in March.

“The risk of exposure to the virus is one reason players are adamant about not accepting a further reduction in pay,” Rosenthal writes. “They agreed in March to pro-rate their salaries in a shortened season, but the league will seek additional concessions, sources said, because the games, at least initially, will be played without paying customers.”

Doolittle also pondered, not unreasonably, whether baseball could or would consider additional health care benefits for players and staffers “extend[ing] beyond their employment and into retirement to mitigate the unknown risks of putting on a baseball season during a pandemic?”

We don’t have a vaccine yet, and we don’t really have any effective anti-viral treatments. What happens if there is a second wave? Hopefully we can come up with BOTH a proactive health plan focused on prevention AND a reactive plan aimed at containment.

Doolittle and other players hope any plan to bring the Show back considers plans to acquire enough real coronavirus tests “ethically,” and the best, most feasible protocols if any player, staffer, or ballpark worker contracts the virus.

The owners and the players union have that to think about as well, even if they also have to ponder concurrent issues. For the players, they know the longevity of given careers isn’t guaranteed. For the owners, whose longevity is far more assured, there’s the risk that the national economy’s eventual recovery doesn’t happen before they’re forced to furloughs, firings, and bankruptcies.

“We want to play,” Doolittle concluded. “And we want everyone to stay safe.”

Not once in his Twitter exegesis did Doolittle talk about money. The cynic might reply that that was easy for him not to say, since his full 2020 salary would have been $6.5 million and his pro-rated nut wouldn’t exactly be pocket money. Hearing comparable health and safety concern from more players such as Doolittle and Miller would go plenty far enough.

Before this week’s return proposal, earlier ideas that meant complete player isolation put several players on edge for having to go to the serious work of play without their families. A normal baseball season provides separation enough. A season played in near-isolation with out-of-the-ordinary health and isolation issues is tricky above and beyond the safety concern.

Mike Trout and his wife, who’ve been donating quite liberally to front-liners in the region of his native southern New Jersey (including donating food), await the birth of their first son in August. He’d rather hit the deck after taking a hit off the helmet from a headhunting pitcher than be absent when Baby Trout premieres.

Clayton Kershaw, whose third child (and second son) was born three months ago, and who raised money (and matched it dollar-for-dollar out of his own deep pocket) for a Los Angeles group serving 13,000 meals a day during the pandemic, has suggested the balance between playing baseball safely and being isolated from their families didn’t exactly thrill himself or his fellow players.

Still, it’s always reassuring to know that there are those who actually play the game, who understand that, for all the dollars they earn to play it, the common good of the game isn’t always the same thing as just making money for it or dividing the spoils from it.

They also know a coronavirus-exhausted country needs what they do. Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon doesn’t want to be ill, doesn’t want people making each other ill, but wants a way for the game to return for those who love it and those who depend on it for their living.

“But bigger than that,” Blackmon said in a Monday radio interview, “this country needs baseball.” This country, and baseball itself, also needs to have it done right.

The Show’s coming back?

2020-05-11 CodyBellinger

Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you . . . but . . .

Baseball, the sport that more or less invented social distancing (if you don’t count the batter, the catcher, and the home plate umpire in a close enough cluster), is about to return to America, so it is said. At least the Show will. This brings good news, bad news, and very bad news.

The good news is, the proposed July return acknowledges a nation in dire need of respite from the coronavirus’s toll in human life and human mischief and exhausted of asking, “Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you.”

The bad news is, there’ll have to come bristling debate on part of the proposal: will the players get only their cuts of a half-and-half league revenue split, or will they get their normal if prorated-for-time 2020 salaries?

The very bad news is that slightly more than half season to come may leave room for some of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s mischief. The proposal approved by major league owners and submitted to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association includes that the postseason will begin with fourteen teams, courtesy of two more wild cards each in the American and National Leagues.

Manfred has only sought such a postseason expansion for almost as long as he’s been Bud Selig’s successor, of course. Bad enough that some of his thoughts about redressing play-of-game issues have run the gamut from nonsense to more nonsense. Worse is that he has no apparent thought that play-of-postseason requires even more serious redress.

Even if the proposed structure for this year is one time only, well, we’ve heard it before when baseball’s governors tried things once—and let them linger regardless of their wisdom or enhancement of the game.

The postseason is already long enough. And we’ve suffered long enough, too, the thrills and chills of teams fighting down the stretch to the very last breath to determine who’s going to finish . . . in second place.

The original wild card advent legitimised the second place finisher as a championship contender, which was bad enough, and removed the time-honoured incentive of the first place finish as the sole legitimate entree into postseason play. Manfred appears to be witless to comprehend it even as he further exposes himself a man to whom the common good of the game equals little more than making money for it.

You guessed it: here I go yet again. But a three-division league giving a round one bye to the division winner with the best record of the three, while the other two slug it out in a best-of-three division series, with that winner playing the bye team in a best-of-five League Championship Series, would a) produce far more of a genuine league champion and b) far fewer viewers turning off or avoiding television sets or radios on the road to the best-of-seven World Series.

All that said, there are a couple of things to come in the short 2020 season that Manfred, the owners, and the players alike would be wise to make permanent. Rosters are proposed to expand from 26 to 30. Sound as a nut. Make it permanent.

The designated hitter will come to the National League for the short 2020. Good. Make it even more permanent. Pitchers batted for a .128/.159/.163 slash line in 2019. That is unacceptable production no matter what you think of “tradition,” and baseball history is nothing if not full enough with traditions that deserved to be and were killed. OK, you asked for it: Thomas Boswell’s wisdom, one more time . . .

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL. But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.

Depending upon the team’s up-and-down lineup possibilities, I’d far rather have what amounts to an extra leadoff hitter or cleanup hitter in that spot than a gang of spaghetti bats who might maybe hit one to the back of the yard as often as Halley’s Comet shows up. Assuming they don’t get injured swinging or running the bases and taken out of action when you need their arms the most.

I don’t want Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jack Flaherty, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Josh Hader, Noah Syndergaard (when he returns), or Jon Lester wasting time at the plate no matter how many home runs they’ve hit once in a blue moon. I want them strictly on the mound missing bats or luring outs. That’s why they’re paid what they’re paid.

Beyond that? I’m not going to complain about the possible electronic strike zone, I want the balls and strikes called right, too, which means by the rule book and not according to Angel Hernandez’s mood on a particular afternoon or evening.

But I’m going to complain that Manfred and company continue underrating and underdiscussing umpire accountability, which still seems not to exist much if at all. More’s the pity. When the Korean Baseball Organisation sends an entire ump crew to the country’s minors for re-training after a few too many complaints about a few too many individual strike zones, the American Show needs to pay attention. And the Hernandezes, Joe Wests, and C.B. Bucknors ought to be made to watch their behinds.

MLB’s return will mean empty stadiums to begin with gradual re-openings, not to mention one-time mixed-league divisions based on geography to a great extent and special considerations for keeping players, coaches, managers, umpires, and grounds crews safe. It may sound like a pain in the sliding pants, but it may also beat the living hell out of the alternative, which we’ve had restlessly enough for over a month and counting.

And, like anything else, desperate times call for desperate or at least temporarily ameliorative measures. The only thing we have to fear is that the least appealing of them might become permanent and the most appealing and truly necessary among them might become memories after the season ends.

Draft Shaft

2020-05-11 OzzieSmith

You never know when the late draft rounds will bring you another Wizard of Oz . . . but this year’s draft won’t have that chance.

Do you think you could win a division at least, a pennant a little more generously, or a World Series at most with a team such as this? An asterisk means the player is a Hall of Famer incumbent or likely in waiting.

C—Mike Piazza.*
1B—Albert Pujols.*
2B—Ryne Sandberg.*
3B—Wade Boggs.*
SS—Ozzie Smith.*
OF—Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, Dave Parker.
SP—Mark Buehrle, Jacob deGrom, Roy Oswalt, Nolan Ryan*, John Smoltz*.
RP—Goose Gossage*, Eddie Guardado, Trevor Hoffman*. Sergio Romo.
DH—Howie Kendrick.

That group has players who all played on division winners. Fifteen of the eighteen played on pennant winners. Eleven played on World Series winners. Nine are Hall of Famers incumbent or (in Albert Pujols’s case) in waiting. One delivered the biggest blow to send the Washington Nationals to the Promised Land in Game Seven last October.**

And all of them were taken after the fifth round of major league baseball’s annual draft, which has now been stopped at the fifth round for this year. The culprit, of course, is the coronavirus. The hope, of greater course, is that this will be a one-time limit. The fear is that Andujar’s Law (In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know) still applies, and baseball government may (underline that) consider this a possible permanent thing.

That was then: 1,200 players would hear their names called in the annual June draft. This is now, at least: A mere 150 will hear their names called. “The advent of hard-slotting and the sophistication of the amateur scouting apparatus has made it tougher for players to slip through the cracks,” write The Athletic‘s Rustin Dodd and Andy McCullough. “How much talent will baseball miss out on this June? It is too soon to know. Many college players will simply be forced to accept $20,000 bonuses or return to school — and college sports face uncertainties as well.”

Another Athletic writer, Keith Law, author of The Inside Game, has further less than encouraging news:

With the current financial situation and uncertainty of when, or if, we will see baseball this year, as well as the likelihood that we’ll see little to no minor-league baseball this summer, some reduction in the draft made sense from a player development standpoint, and it saves MLB teams some cash in the short term. But this decision to essentially draft and sign as few players as possible could have significant long-term consequences for players and teams alike, most of them not good.

The most obvious impact is that we’ll see a lot of good players who had some major-league potential go undrafted this year . . . Any change to the draft or college scholarship availability will disproportionately hit players from disadvantaged backgrounds, reducing their choices, their opportunities to play and their potential return if and when they are drafted. It’s great to talk about increasing diversity in youth baseball and to try to get more young players of color into the sport. You have to back that up with real money, however, and this appears to work against those goals — if you’re cutting bonuses and opportunities, your talent pool will consist only of players who can afford to make little to no money while they play. Players who need incomes, or who might have been able to use a six-figure signing bonus to get by while they played in the minors, might end up leaving the sport for other careers.

Which could prove even more life-altering if MLB goes through with a shameful proposal to contract the minor leagues. As Law goes on to observe, “It takes money away from some of the players who do sign, even before we consider the risk that some teams will lowball high picks and spend less than their total bonus pools. It creates potential logjams of players at four-year colleges and reduces players’ leverage in future drafts. The savings are marginal and matter in the short term — just until revenues return when games resume — more than the long term.”

In other words, it’s going to do the biggest favour to MLB’s owners, who still have to decide whether 2021 will feature a January draft for the players who miss out on this June’s shorter draft (it’s been done before, forty years ago), and whether this shorter draft to come next month is a one-time aberration. As if the game doesn’t have enough to worry about trying to figure out how to get even half a season under way.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s regime has been marked well enough by issues ranging from seeming indifference (umpire accountability, the survival of the minors) to seeming short sight (immunity to cheating players leaving us only to guess—pending future whistleblowers—about just whom really availed themselves of the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring) and back to ignorance. (Dubious pace-of-play suggestions/adjustments and equipment tinkerings that imply Manfred knows little enough about the game he oversees.)

What he does regarding the draft now abbreviated thanks to a pestiferous pandemic may well begin the final definition as to whether he’s been little more as a commissioner than a fiddler while baseball potentially burns. Manfred often seems indifferent to his prospective legacy. Would he wish it to include that he might have blocked future Hombres, Wizards of Oz, Geese, and Expresses from playing the game?


** Give me a nudge and I’ll add that Kenny Lofton has a Hall of Fame case that was flattened one-and-done on an overcrowded 2013 BBWAA ballot , while Jim Edmonds and Dave Parker probably would have more solid Hall cases if they hadn’t been thwarted by injuries too often.

Between the latter two, Edmonds has the far stronger case. Parker missed on 2019’s Modern Era Committee vote. Neither Edmonds [highlight-reel, run-preventive defense, and power hitting] nor Lofton [virtuoso table setting and defense] are eligible again until the 2023 Today’s Game Committee where they might have a better chance. Might.