Dark are baseball’s video rooms

Javier Baez wants his and other players’ in-game television back.

The following program is not brought to you in living colour, on NBC or elsewhere around the Show. Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs shortstop, is not amused.

Baez is having less than an exemplary season at the plate as it is without being frustrated because a valuable tool he and most players use during games is denied them this year.

They can’t duck into the video room during games this season to review their prior plate appearances or pitching turns during games, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly when they check in at the plate or on the mound next.

“To be honest, it sucks because I make my adjustments during the game,” Baez told ESPN writer Jesse Rogers Monday, and that was after he picked up three hits while his Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-1. “I watch my swing. I watch where the ball went, where the contact was. I’m mad. I’m really mad about that we don’t have it.”

Baez thinks, not without reason, that it simply wasn’t right for baseball’s government to put the entire Show on video restriction simply because of the malfeasance of two known teams at least. Think of Mom and Dad grounding all the kids because one broke into the liquor cabinet while the others were nowhere within two miles of the scene of the crime.

As Rogers writes, “In-game video was taken away this season in the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.” But the culprit wasn’t Astrogate alone.

Bad enough: the Astros either adjusted an existing camera illegally or installed another one just as illegally to enable off-field-based sign stealing. Nowhere near as bad, though enough Astro fans think otherwise, of course: the Boston Red Sox didn’t adjust or install cameras, but they did develop off-field-based sign-stealing reconnaissance by way of their existing video room.

Video rooms are in all ballparks behind both dugouts. The Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring involved someone deciphering pitch signs on existing screens, then signaling a baserunner to send the sign to the hitter. The Rogue Sox exercised a sophisticated if sneaky variation of old-fashioned gamesmanship, but doing it by way of the video room was a major no-no.

Unlike the Astros’ extracurricular installations or adjustments, whichever they were, MLB itself installing the video rooms handed the Red Sox and every other team surrendering to similar temptations the keys to the liquor cabinet expecting they’d be good little boys and not even think about drinking unlawfully.

“[P]rotocols put in place during the coronavirus pandemic all but assured that there would be no way to monitor usage properly,” Rogers writes. “Now players can’t watch their at-bats until after games.”

The old-school old farts would remind you, of course, that once upon a time, in the dark days before technology advanced at warp speed to destroy Life As We Knew It When the Going Was Good, coaches and managers observed batters and pitchers and suggested adjustments accordingly, if not necessarily astutely, all by their own selves. With no subversive help from God or those subversive technocrats from General Electric, RCA, Bell & Howell, IBM, Wollensak, or others.

(Oops. Wollensak’s and other hand-held spyglasses and telescopes ended up in the hands of such off-field sign-stealing cheaters as the 1940 Detroit Tigers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, and—especially—the 1951 New York Giants, to name a few.)

What brass balls on early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charley Dressen, then. Dressen once helped Gil Hodges break out of a ferocious batting slump by commissioning a filmmaker to shoot hours of footage of the beleaguered first baseman at the plate. Then, he showed Hodges on extensive film the backward mis-step he’d take in the box—his back foot pulling himself and his swing off line—and gave a successful suggestion on how to keep that step from hurting his swing. Career saved.

The nerve of such people as the now-late Lou Brock. In the mid-1960s, he first took up the practise of filming enemy pitchers to study everything he could about their mound  tendencies and how he might exploit them for more efficient basepath crime. (I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!—Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale.) From Kodak to Cooperstown.

The gall of such people as the late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. In the early-to-mid 1980s, Gwynn started carrying a video recorder and player around with him, at home and on the road, while his wife shot and captured his plate appearances so he could study them as a rabbinical scholar studies the Talmud, during and after games alike, and correct any mistakes or flaws he happened to catch.

Today’s baseball player can normally survive a tough plate appearance or turn on the mound, duck into the video room at next opportunity, and observe and adjust on the fly. Or, have a successful turn, then study and retain what he did right. Argue against such legitimate helpmates? You might as well argue the American family never had it so good as when they had to beat the dust and dirt of the rugs and slipcovers hanging on clotheslines, instead of reaching for the Electrolux.

This is not to suggest that a batter or a pitcher has lost the capability to think hard enough on their own and figure necessary adjustments. Minds greater than baseball minds rarely say no to all the sound help they can get from all the sound sources they can find, technological or otherwise.

Try to convince yourself that even such a Hall of Famer as Ted Williams would have said no to seeing some film of himself at the plate and catching the occasional kink or further refining the betters. When he met and befriended Gwynn late in life, Teddy Ballgame surely approved of Captain Video’s private television production operation on behalf of (the horror) improving himself at the plate.

Set to one side the temptations that manifest because boys will be boys, in Houston, Boston, and anywhere else, and video lacks what even the best managers and coaches have no matter how well they train themselves or get themselves trained otherwise. Video doesn’t lie, or at least surrender to coaches’ biases based on how they swung or pitched back in their Good Old Days.

(How many coaches ruined how many players by trying to bend them to their own former playing ways or toward presumed styles? Possible racial considerations to one side, the Cubs traded Lou Brock after they couldn’t make him into the pure slugger he really wasn’t. The Mets once thought their phenom pitcher Dwight Gooden needed to stop trying to miss bats and add off-speed pitches he couldn’t throw comfortably though their pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre once did. Hall of Fame talent ruined: Gooden’s confidence and in due course his shoulder and his career were compromised.)

After the Astrogate/Soxgate kerfuffles, baseball’s government decided the video room’s future would include specially hired and trained security the better to keep the game’s grand theft felons from even thinking about future replay room reconnaissance cheating. Baez doesn’t exactly object to the idea. He just didn’t think the future wouldn’t be right now.

“We didn’t cheat. We’re not cheating, and we got to pay for all this,” he told Rogers. “It’s tough . . . but a lot of players are struggling, too. A lot of stars are struggling, and I’m just one more. The way that it is is not the way we play baseball. And I need video to make adjustments and during the game. It doesn’t matter who is there to watch us. It doesn’t matter if we have all the police the MLB wants to send over here.”

In this pandemically truncated season played in conditions unheard of in previous seasons, many players aren’t struggling but many players are. The reasons are varied widely. And it isn’t as though Baez is crying out from the subterranean depths. His Cubs at this writing have the best record in the National League Central and the fourth-best in the entire league. Somehow.

Once upon a time, in 1980, the hits on the music charts included a ditty called, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The lack of video in this Quiet, Please! Geniuses Playing with Mental Blocks season isn’t going to kill the baseball star. (Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Mike Trout, call your offices.)

But it’s not making their serious work of play simple, either.

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