Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.

On legally mandating the anthem before the games

If ten Texas state senators and its lieutenant governor have their way, it’ll be Texas law to play “The Star Spangled Banner” before all games in the Lone Star State including at the Houston Astros’ home.

Among many things, in his farewell address this nation’s first president hoped his thoughts and suggestions would move his countrymanpersons “to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” The Father of His Country might have had legislating as well as posturing patriotism in mind. Even though Texas wasn’t even a gleam in the new nation’s eye just yet.

A tentet of Texas state senators wants “The Star Spangled Banner” as required playing, listening, and posturing before every sports contest hosted in the Lone Star State—preseason, regular season, and postseason. For openers. As reported by Reason‘s deputy managing editor, Jason Russell, the tentet would like to tell one and all playing games in the state, “or else!”

Or else, among other things, no government entity state or local can make deals “that require a financial commitment” with any sports team “unless the agreement includes written verification the team will play the anthem before all games,” Russell writes. “If a team fails to comply, it would be in default of the agreement.”

Apparently, the Texas Ten took their cue from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is no known relation to the longtime ESPN SportsCenter anchor now hosting his own show on Premiere Radio Networks. In February, Patrick was not amused to learn the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks weren’t playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before their pre- and regular-season home games.

It’s not that anybody noticed until the final such game, because thanks to the pan-damn-ic there were no fans present until that final game. Then the NBA decided, not so fast, it’s time to re-enforce the league’s rule that the national anthem will be played before all NBA games, whether or not the Mavericks or their owner Mark Cuban likes it.

What has this to do with baseball? Well, two American League teams hail from Texas. So do four minor league teams even under the dubious new minor league realignment. If Patrick and the Texas Ten get their way, they’ll be spanked, too.

Russell observes that if the bill passes and is signed into law, major sports teams that let teams dispense with “The Star Spangled Banner” would find such decisions “affect[ing] stadium subsidies, any kind of government-funded tourism sponsorship, and possibly even arrangements where local law enforcement provides security.” The good news: the bill isn’t likely to cut the mustard in the courts, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court.

It’s one thing for the NBA or the NFL (which has mandated it since after World War II) as essentially private organisations to require it. It’s something else entirely for any government at any level to do so.”This legislation already enjoys broad support,” Patrick harrumphed last month. “I am certain it will pass, and the Star Spangled Banner will not be threatened in the Lone Star State again.” (He meant the flag as well as the song.)


“Patrick’s proposal that the Texas Legislature pass a state law requiring the national anthem be played represents state action,” writes attorney and journalism professor Amy Kristin Sanders in an e-mail to the Website of televisions Law & Crime. “As a part of its speech protections, the First Amendment also bars state actors from compelling others to speak—and requiring someone to play the national anthem is just that.”

We can surmise with little fear of contradiction that that isn’t exactly what an ancient Red Sox third baseman named Fred Thomas had in mind during the 1918 World Series.

On leave from the Navy to play in the Series, with the Navy’s full blessing, Thomas heard a Navy band (it was common in those times for military bands to provide music at sports events) strike up “The Star Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch and saluted spontaneously, as he might have been expected as a Navy man himself.

Thomas’s salute prompted other players in both dugouts (the Red Sox played and would beat the Cubs in that Series) to stand and salute, not to mention the already-standing crowd to salute likewise. This, by the way, was thirteen years before “The Star Spangled Banner” became America’s official national anthem.

Red Sox owner Harry Frazee decided that for the rest of that Series two things would happen: 1) For all games played in Fenway Park wounded war veterans would have free admission. 2) “The Star Spangled Banner” would be played in their honour before the start of those games. As with Thomas’s spontaneous salute, Frazee’s gesture did not come to him at the wrong end of a gun, actual or rhetorical.

It inspired other sports teams and leagues to do likewise, gradually, and entirely on their own, in the years to follow before and after the anthem became official. Baseball has never had a formal rule mandating either “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” (which became an unofficial but consistent tradition in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity), but neither has it rejected the tradition of it.

When kneeling protests emerged a few years ago among black athletes spearheaded by long-former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick over rogue police brutality against black suspects, the passions both ways soared like a grand slam. They still do when the anthem issue arises, with or without the kneeling protests, as with Cuban and the Mavericks.

And you can’t always interject that kneeling is as much a gesture of respect and genuflection as it might be a gesture of protest. Even if you argue that kneeling protesters might appeal as much to a higher authority as against a particularly abusive temporal one. Even if you agree without taking a knee that there should be no place for rogue police in any diligent such department.

I’ve gone on record about it before, but Patrick’s harrumph compels it one more time: Is it absolutely necessary to sound “The Star Spangled Banner” before every damn last sports contest played all year long? If we believe patriotism must originate and remain in the heart, doesn’t the day-in, day-out pre-game playing erode rather than enhance the patriotic impetus by making it formal obligation instead of free and organic?

My past thoughts haven’t changed. I have no wish to eliminate the National Anthem from sporting events entirely. I also have no wish that Patrick and the Texas Ten should prevail and inspire other states to likewise. I remain in agreement with National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger, who wrote almost three years ago, “I’m not sure that patriotism is compatible with compulsion,” to which George Washington himself might have answered with a resounding if quiet “it isn’t.”

And, I remain convinced that, on behalf of removing only too much of the compulsory factor from an impetus that must come purely from the heart and soul, playing “The Star Spangled Banner” ought to be limited to the following sports events:

* Opening Day for major sports leagues’ regular seasons or, in the case of non-team sports, major tournaments. (The U.S. Open in tennis and golf; the Masters’ tournament; the PGA Championship; etc.)

* Any games played on major national holidays. (Since I’m a baseball writer, let’s start from there: Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, Labour Day. Also, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Presidents Day.)

* All-Star Games in major sports leagues.

* The Super Bowl.

* Game One of each major sports league’s final round: the World Series (first things first!) NBA Championship, the WNBA Championship, the Stanley Cup Final (if Game One begins in the American team’s arena).

* Game Seven of such championship rounds, if they go that far.

And, in the immortal words of Porky Pig, eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-dee, eba-that’s all, folks.

I won’t expect the commissioners or governing bodies of major sports to stop and ponder, never mind enact the foregoing. They’re many things, but bold isn’t necessarily among them. Not the sort of bold that enhances and advances their games, anyway.

The eyes of the nation should be upon Texas, if only to see that the way to patriotic wisdom is more often than we think to travel the road assuredly not taken. Certainly not by the Lone Star State’s second in command plus ten lawmakers unaware that they wish to make dubious and unconstitutional law.

No argument here?

Lou Piniella often performed his own punt, pass, and kick demonstration when recalcitrant umpires simply refused to see his wise, temperate, and sagacious logic.

Before the tragic shooting that ended his career as a major league umpire (but not his life, which cancer ended sixteen years later), the late Steve Palermo had, shall we say, an exchange with then-Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella over a pitch call. “Where was that pitch at?” demanded Piniella over the strike he believed a ball.

Palermo was renowned before and after his shooting for balancing dignity, competence, and wit. Now he couldn’t resist suggesting to Piniella—no slouch himself for spontaneous wit—that a Yankee in front of thirty thousand people had no business ending a sentence with a preposition. “OK,” Piniella shot back, “where was that pitch at, asshole?”

Umpires aren’t always supreme at levying the syntax. Some of them are barely competent to be calling balls and strikes in the first place. Enough so that the advent of robotic strike zone helpmates may prove sooner than we think. Causing self-appointed baseball purists a few stomachaches.

Such purists had trouble enough with official replay, never mind that it takes far less time for a replay review than for a debate (ahem) between a manager and an umpire. Robby the Umpbot makes enough of them go from apoplectic to St. Vitus Dance. One of the things they fear is the further dissipation of on-field arguments.

Many don’t want to hear about the time element. To them, managers rushing from the dugout intent on ranting their heads off, slicing and dicing umpires to chunks, is first class entertainment. They may not have paid explicitly to get into the ballpark to see umps and skippers collide, but they won’t say no if there’s a robust, randy, rip-roaring clash between the two.

It isn’t about time,” insists one fellow member of an online baseball discussion group. “I saw some of Piniella’s greatest tirades first hand and it was theatre. I miss the rising tide of an umpire warning a dugout only to have the manager come boiling out and the fun had just begun.”

Such people miss Piniella the player grown up (prove it) to become a major league manager and going nuclear at the slightest drop of a dubious call. If Piniella ever opened a school for baseball managing, many suspected, a student wouldn’t graduate without the appropriate credits for base and hat throwing.

Early in his managing career, Piniella kicked dirt, threw his hat, and ran temperamental sprints between umpires during a nationally-televised game against the Indians—on his wife’s birthday. The loving husband called his wife at home. Mrs. Piniella answered, “I’m forty-three years old and I’m married to a four-year-old.”

Not exactly. Let a four-year-old witness a Piniella, a Billy Martin, an Earl Weaver, or a Bobby Cox exploding on an ump. Let the poor tyke decide then and there, that’s the way to get Mom and Dad to reverse when telling him “no.” Sweet Lou, Billy the Kid, the Earl of Baltimore, and the Sage of Atlanta merely got sent to their rooms. The real four-year-old would arrive unable to sit for hours.

Lots of umpires cross the line between sound game administration and tyranny for its own sake. They behave as though they’re the reason you paid your way into the park or ponied up for a cable television sports package in the first place. It’s absolutely fair to suggest that the Piniellas, Martins, and Weavers had their share of justifiable arguments, if not justifiable tantrums.

Other umpires aren’t exactly the tyrannical type and don’t believe they’re the stars of the show. But the cool judges don’t like their judgment questioned any more than the hanging judges do.

If they’re supposed to be the adults in the room, so are the managers and the coaches. Even Weaver, who suffered neither fools nor umpires gladly, knew it. “You must remember that anyone under thirty — especially a ballplayer — is an adolescent,” Weaver told Washington Post baseball bellwether Thomas Boswell once upon a time.

I never got close to being an adult until I was 32. Even though I was married and had a son at 20, I was a kid at 32, living at home with my parents. Sure, I was a manager then. That doesn’t mean you’re grown up.

Until you’re the person that other people fall back on, until you’re the one that’s leaned on, not the person doing the leaning, you’re not an adult. You reach an age when suddenly you realize you have to be that person. Divorce did it to me. It could be elderly parents, children . . . anything. But one day you realize, “It’s me. I’ve got to be the rock.”

That’s the same man about whom Palermo remembered, “That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places. And that was on days I didn’t throw him out.”

Last year’s pan-damn-ically truncated irregular season forced games played without fans in the stands. The echo wasn’t half as deafening as some tirades from managers to umpires. Maybe the most unforgettable was Nationals manager Dave Martinez disputing a call with a loud, roaring, audible-outside-the-yard Horseshit! Horse [fornicating] shit! Didya hear me?!?

Football arguments aren’t that much fun, are they? Maybe with good reason. If a football player objects to a referee’s call and the call isn’t reversed, the player’s next move might resemble this:

When Palermo died, Royals manager Ned Yost remembered being a backup catcher in a game Palermo worked behind the plate. “As a catcher, some umpires are horrible to work in front of,” Yost said. “They don’t want to talk. Steve was always good about being able to talk and discuss pitches. If you thought it was a strike, he would always engage.”

It’s one thing when players go berserk with the umps. Weaver’s observation doesn’t just apply when it comes to managing them. You want to talk Sacred Unwritten Rules? Being the adults in the room is one of them for the arbiters and the skippers.

No nonsense, please, about managers going out for the rounds with the umps just to fire up their teams. If you’ve got to get yourself sent to your room to fire your players up, you might consider a different career.

(It’s to wonder whether Bobby Cox is really proud of breaking John McGraw’s record for ejections with 158. As successful as his Braves were, it’s impossible to believe Cox needed to fire his players up that often. It’s more possible to believe people were shocked that Cox wasn’t ejected from his own Hall of Fame induction.)

The umps have an unfair advantage, of course. They’ve also been known to get hotter than Weaver when one of their own gets disciplined for taking it too far. Rare, but it happens. When the old umpires’ union’s chief Richie Phillips lamented in 1999 that umps wanted to “feel good about themselves,” he referred largely to his men steaming when colleague Tom Hallion was suspended for bumping Rockies catcher Jeff Reed during an argument.

Imagine how the umps then or now would have reacted if a player wasn’t suspended for bumping an ump. Billy Martin (truly a case of arrested development) would have resembled Cicero.

Nostalgia for the Martins’, Piniellas’, and Weavers’ explosions runs almost fever pitch, but none runs by comparison (if at all) for the genuinely adult confrontations. A shame. If Gil Hodges spoke to plate umpire Lou DiMuro at all late in Game Five of the 1969 World Series, it was more like a news commentary from Eric Sevareid. The Miracle Mets skipper was about as animated as a cactus.

Hodges simply retrieved a ball smudged with shoe polish from Cleon Jones’s spiked shoe, walked calmly out to the plate area, and showed it to DiMuro. DiMuro ruled Jones a hit batsman and awarded him first base. The next Mets batter, Donn Clendenon, hit one off the left field scoreboard.

The umpires need far more Steve Palermos and far fewer Angel Hernandezes. But maybe the skippers need far more Gil Hodgeses and far fewer Billy Martins. (For more than one reason.) The tantrums aren’t “theatre,” they’re Daffy Duck versus the Tasmanian Devil—on amphetamines.

So it’s fun, fun, fun to see Dave Roberts or Dusty Baker or Aaron Boone or Joe Maddon or Dave Martinez get into an umpire’s face and read him the riot act. I’ll surrender that fun, fun, fun happily on behalf of getting things right in the first place. I did it with replay. I’ll do it with Robby the Umpbot.

Lament if you must over high tech dissipating the violent dialogues between managers and umpires. But is it really less edifying to get things right than to see forty-, fifty-, or sixty-somethings turn baseball games into Duck Amuck without being half as funny? The answer is . . .

Welcome, Robby the Umpbot?

James Hoye’s game-ending strike call on a badly borderline pitch didn’t amuse Oakland manager Bob Melvin or batter Nick Punto in this 2014 debate. (Ironically, Hoye at last review was considered an ump friendlier to hitters than pitchers when calling balls and strikes.) Too many umps with too many individual strike zones may mean the robot ump coming to the Show soon enough once the bugs are un-bugged.

Now and then, it seems as though I can’t live life too long before I hear someone arguing that the Supreme Court often gets a little too big for its constitutional britches. Surely you’ve heard the argument, “The Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is,” countered customarily by those who demur with, “That’s what you think.”

Baseball has a comparable argument. The rule book isn’t quite the Constitution, of course, but if you think about aligning a baseball game to the Supreme Law of the Land the pitcher taking a sign from his catcher and winding up to throw to the plate could be the Preamble, and—unless the batter connects—the strike zone could be Article I. (It’s actually in Rule 2.0, but let’s not get technical.)

And there are those who love the game and all it stands for dearly who’ll tell you, “The strike zone is what the umpire says it is.” If you think the Constitution is grist for judicial tyranny arguments, just get yourself into a debate about the strike zone as grist for umpires as judicial tyrants—and the coming of robotic umpiring.

The so-called “traditionalist” doesn’t want anything or anyone other than umpires deciding the strike zone and calling balls and strikes. That’s the way it’s been done for a century and a half, right? I don’t want to automate those guys out of a job. Leave that to [the] auto industry. Keep automation out of baseball.

Never mind that automation didn’t come strictly to the auto industry. Never mind, too, that baseball’s welcomed automation since the advent of the electric-light scoreboard and the pitching machines that are still in use in spring training camps.

For the ump behind the plate, his job begins with construing MLB Rule 2.0’s definition of the strike zone properly: [T]hat area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap [determined by] the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

It doesn’t say, “The strike zone is whatever the umpire says it is.” Like the Supreme Court as defined in Article III of the Constitution, the umpire has pitch and play-calling perimeters. Like the Supreme Court, the umpire also has limits. Unfortunately, both retain the capability of disobeying those limits. The Supreme Court may actually be better behaved. May.

Enough baseball people thought about it enough that the automated strike zone is all but on the threshold of arriving in the Show. It’s going to be tried this season in the newly-constructed Low-A Southeast League, which you used to know as the Florida State League. It’s not exactly bug-free just yet, as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark warns:

This is said to be an “improved” version of the [Automated Ball-Strike System] used in the Atlantic League and Fall League. But what baseball needs to study most closely is what definition of the strike zone needs to be plugged into the computer to produce a zone that resembles what current hitters and pitchers think of as a strike. When the Atlantic League used the rulebook strike zone in 2019, the robots called strikes on pitches that not a single human in the park thought was a strike. That has to change for this system to work in the big leagues.

So there is some thought that ultimately, baseball might need to shrink the top of the electronic zone significantly, bring the bottom of the zone up slightly and expand the corners microscopically. But those adjustments might also be used to produce more balls in play. So this is a highly significant work in progress.

They’ll have to work out lots of bugs first, of course. Things such as tracking pitch movement accurately and the technology’s timing algorithms. Things also including but not limited to making sure Robby the Umpbot doesn’t call “strike!” on big curve balls that bounce in front of the plate and up onto the absolute floor of the zone—assuming the next Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t swing on it anyway and loft a bloop single or rip a screaming line drive past the infield.

They’ll also have to find the way to program it to conform to the tiny subtleties in the batter’s box movements of the one man on the field who does have the greatest legal leeway to define the strike zone. It ain’t the men in black and gray, kiddies.

The strike zone rule allows the batter leeway to define the zone. There’s no official uniform batting stance. If there was, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson would have been up you-know-what’s creek. There were times the Man of Steal at the plate looked almost like a catcher in a crouch behind it. It’s not on the umpires to say, in effect, “I don’t like your batting stance, so I’m just going to teach you a little lesson in the proper plate approach.”

(There are no official uniform pitching deliveries, either, in case you wondered. The pitchers who’d be up the same creek if there were would only begin with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, with his approximately sixteen different windups and half as many leg kicks, including his famous Rockettes-like high kick.)

The ump who blows a strike call or a play call isn’t committing mischief even an eighth as grave as the Supreme Court blowing the Dred Scott decision. But think of the rallies compromised or ended, the stretch drive games, the championship series games killed, because of the umpire calling it not just wrong but flagrantly wrong.

The umps aren’t exactly strangers to debates over strike zones and their assumption of the right to define them. The original Major League Umpires Association imploded in large part over baseball government’s 1999 bid to hold them to account over them. MLB asked teams to chart the pitches and report individual umpire strike zones, the old union said, essentially, you our bosses have some pair evaluating the performance of we your employees.

“[J]ust another case of Big Brother watching over us,” snapped old MLUA chief Richie Phillips. Then Phillips turned up on the 14 June 1999 installment of Real Sports, the HBO sports program, and equated umpires with (wait for it!) federal judges: “And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

That one Sandy Alderson—now the Mets’ president of baseball operations, then the commissioner’s executive vice president of baseball operations—couldn’t resist: “Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

Alderson might also have pondered that there was cause for alarm about pitchers more concerned who was calling their pitches than who’d be trying to hit them.

“The game is played by humans… why take away one of the most human elements of the game???” demands a member of an online baseball forum in which I take part. “That’s what makes it beautiful.” Is one of the most human elements of the game no longer supposed to be trying to get it right? Are the players the only ones required to get it right while the umpires are obliged to anything but?

If you don’t want to automate the umpires out of the home plate part of their jobs, insist that they do their jobs. We’re not trying to eliminate the colourful, fun umpires; God knows it makes the game a lot more fun when your Fernando Tatis, Jrs. and Mookie Bettses are matched by your Ron Lucianos and Dutch Rennerts.

Oops. Luciano left the game in 1979. (And, tragically, committed suicide a decade and a half later.) Rennert retired after the 1992 season. (He died three years ago.) In 1991, a survey of managers, general managers, coaches, and scouts rated Rennert—whose Statue of Liberty-high raised fist and kneeling thrust right calling a strike was topped only by a holler that could (and usually did) drown out a full house at Dodger Stadium—the third-best umpire in the Show.

Today’s umpires are about as much fun as a COVID diagnosis. Watching them blowing calls and then so ostentatiously behaving as though the rules are what they say are the rules on the spot isn’t entertaining. You’ll sooner name the starting lineup of the 1903 St. Louis Browns on Opening Day without clicking the link than you’ll name fans who pay royally for a day at the ballpark to see the home plate ump first.

Those who can’t accept a technological corrective to arbitrary self-aggrandising, potentially wrong game-changing behaviours should be pitied. Those who insist the “human element” alone justifies denying the corrective and keeping umpires above the actual rules of baseball play, even if it means games and maybe even championships turning or ending for the wrong reasons, should be condemned.

This commissioner gotta commission better

Commissioner Rob Manfred hands a piece of metal to 2020 World Series-winning Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter.

Once upon a time, when Ed Fitzgerald chaired the Milwaukee Brewers and former Red Sox star George Scott was their first baseman, Scott surveyed the lay of the team’s baseball land. Then, he offered Fitzgerald sage counsel which the chairman may or may not have taken above and beyond a shaft of Scott’s underappreciated wit.

“You know, Mr. Fitzgerald,” said the Boomer, “if we’re gonna win, the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” It’s to wonder whether Scott, who died in 2013, might be surveying the lay of baseball’s land today from his seat in the Elysian Fields, adding, “And, the commissioner gotta commission better.”

Good luck with that. Commissioner Rob Manfred remains baseball’s Nero, fiddling while the game burns. The good news is, the fires are scattered and more vulnerable than the current edition of the Pirates. The bad news is, Manfred too often behaves as though this fire needs just a couple of sprinkles to quench while that fire requires gasoline. When he’s able to make up his mind in the first place.

The fact that there is confusion about whether or not there will be a universal DH in MLB for the upcoming season,” tweets former Dodgers and Mets player development official Nick Francona, perhaps channeling his inner George Scott, “is a reflection of how bad the commissioner is at doing commissioner things.”

Commissioner things include something outlined formally in the Major League Baseball Constitution: Section 2(b) and 2(c) let the commissioner investigate and remedy or punish “any act, transaction, or practise charged, suspected, or alleged not to be in the best interests of the national game of Baseball.”  Section 3 outlines the commissioner’s punitive remedies, including the maximum $2 million fine against a team, $500,000 fine against an owner or club executive, and “an amount consistent with the then-current basic agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association.”

In other words, baseball commissioners have slightly broader powers over the game than presidents of the United States have over the country. But they don’t always use those powers when they should and ignore them when they shouldn’t.

Think of things this way: Presidents have itched for grander powers than that chintzy Constitution gave them in the first place. Sometimes they’ve gotten them; sometimes, Congress has handed them to the president on a platter. But even there the president has his (or her, perhaps, in the future) limits, even if he (she) accepts them kicking and screaming.

Richard Nixon once thought that if the president does it it’s not illegal–and was disabused of that idea profoundly enough. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama shamelessly believed, as Clinton’s aide Paul Begala once said, infamously, “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kinda cool,” regarding lawmaking which isn’t really the executive branch’s constituted function, though assorted Congresses past have pawned enough of their lawmaking off to the executive branch. Donald Trump once said, “Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Maybe those men should have sought to become baseball commissioners. Section 4 of the MLB Constitution says that, unless it’s something on which votes are required, the commish can’t be limited in acting in the game’s best interest.

Tanking teams? Guess what. Section 4 says the integrity of the game “shall include without limitation, as determined by the Commissioner, the ability of, and the public perception that, players and clubs perform and compete at all times to the best of their abilities.” (Emphasis added.) For clubs, you’d have to be naive at minimum or sight and hearing impaired at maximum to believe a club’s performance is limited to the play on the field.

Astrogate? Well, it was fully within Manfred’s right to decide the better part of valour was to hand players on the 2017-18 Astros blanket immunity in return for spilling about the how and why of the Astro Intelligence Agency. That doesn’t mean it was within his smarts. So the Astros got fined $5 million max, owner Jim Crane got fined five hundred large, Manfred threw in a couple of forfeited choice draft picks for good measure, and—except for general manager Jeff Luhnow—the cheaters got away with it officially, if not in the public eye.

If only the powers to act in the game’s best interest included the kind of intelligence test that would have required Manfred to remember the good of the game isn’t restricted to making or saving money for it. He could have told the tankers, “Nobody likes to lose, money or games, but if you didn’t get into this game to even try winning you might want to think about getting out.”

(P.S. The commissioner can force an ownership out, at least by way of calling for a vote to throw him or her out. There’s no “deprivation of property rights” involved, as someone of my former acquaintance tried to plead when Bud Selig finally forced Dodgers owner Frank McCourt to sell. Baseball’s a franchise business. Just like McDonald’s. Break the rules, abuse your franchise, you’re out, whether you’re making Big Macs or a baseball team.)

Manfred had the same power to tell the 2017-18 Astro players, “You’re going to spill, or I’m going to spill you.” The Astros might not have even thought about trying that non-apologetic apology/apologetic non-apology presser last year before the pan-damn-ic shut spring training down.

And Manfred could have made an effort toward more than near-boilerplate in denouncing cheating, the way A. Bartlett Giamatti—then president of the National League—did in upholding the suspension of ball-doctoring Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross, even if Manfred isn’t anywhere in Giamatti’s league as a writer, speaker, or thinker:

Acts of cheating . . . are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist.

Manfred’s ham-handed bid to try tying the universal DH to the expanded postseason was so clumsy—though not quite as clumsy as his try at reneging on the pro-rated players’ pay deal before last year’s irregular season finally launched—that you couldn’t blame the players union from saying no, nein, and nyet. The commissioner also gives little indication that he understands the former’s benefit to the game on the field and the latter’s compromise of it.

Has anyone shown Manfred the historical futility of pitchers at the plate instead of throwing to it? (Does he even know the DH was a National League idea first?) Has anyone explained to him the universal DH isn’t going to add jobs as much as it’ll offer a fair number incumbent pine riders chances to get in the game, because they may not be leather virtuosi but they can sure swing the bat and create runs?

Has anyone really sat Manfred down to explain that the postseason was diluted and saturated already with the double wild cards in each league without his even thinking about making last year’s pan-damnic-ally inspired expansion/dilution a permanent thing? Has anyone explained to Manfred that the more postseason games, the more saturation, and the more general fan interest dissipates by the time the World Series rolls around?

All that and more might require something that seems beyond Manfred’s competence, if not his being. Whatever errors his predecessor and former boss Bud Selig committed, and Selig was baseball’s Fiorello La Guardia in that regard (the legendary New York City mayor: When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut), even his least flexible critics never questioned that Selig genuinely loved baseball.

Few fans and certainly no commissioner before or since have been as eloquently shameless in loving baseball as deeply as the ill-fated Giamatti loved the game. It’s not even close. But not even in anger would Selig refer to the World Series trophy as just a piece of metal, under any impetus. Dive into the voluminous published writings about his successor and you won’t go more than a few minutes without seeing questions as to whether Manfred even likes, never mind loves the game. One minute it seems yes, the next, no.

Baseball hasn’t been quite as irrevocably “traditional” as its self-appointed purists wish to think. Much like the country that is its home, the game has rid itself of dubious traditions in the past and created or allowed newer ones throughout its history. It takes a commissioner of vision to conjugate the distinctions and develop or promote the remedies required if and when required.

Manfred isn’t exactly a man of vision. Unless you consider monkeying around with the ball, awarding free cookies on second base to open extra half innings, imposing arbitrary limits on pitching changes, ignoring the real culprit of protracted games (hint: it takes less time to bring relief pitchers in and have them ready to face the next batters than to run the commercials that run during those changes), and fiddling while the tankers burn the their fans and the game itself visionary.

It’s enough to make you afraid of what’s going to happen when the current collective bargaining agreement finally does expire after this season. That is, unless Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark—himself not necessarily over-endowed with vision—decide at last to start thinking about the true good of the game above and beyond saving or making money for it.

Maybe it’s time to consider a different way to choose a baseball commissioner. From the beginning, the commissioner has been the owners’ pick alone. Maybe it’s finally (if not long past) time to bring the players into that process. Maybe it’s time for a commissioner to be chosen from a vote of thirty team ownership representatives and thirty team player representatives.

Quick: Name one fan who ever paid his or her hard earned dough for a day or night at the ballpark to see the team’s owner—except perhaps for lusty protest over protracted calamity. (Who else remembers the Yankee Stadium Banner Day winner of the late 1980s, wearing a monk’s outfit, carrying a Grim Reaper’s scythe, from which hung the placard, “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does”—and ejected from the yard promptly on official orders?)

Manfred is in over his head holding the job. He shouldn’t have had the job in the first place. But so long as he does—barring an uprising among his employers, the owners, he has it through the end of 2024—this commissioner gotta commission better.