The spirit of 74

Aaron Judge

Hitting number 51 against the Angels Tuesday, Aaron Judge may yet break the single-season home run record. May.

We’re well enough past the point where looking at the scores to see how the Yankees are doing has nothing to do with a certain Yankee’s performance. If you turn to see the latest in any Yankee game without checking first on Aaron Judge’s in-game doings to that point, you’re going to flunk a polygraph hooked upon that question.

The Leaning Tower of River Avenue (how the mind’s eye produces fantasies of him squaring off against such lamp post-tall pitchers as Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and the late J.R. Richard) is having his best unimpeded (yet) season since his Rookie of the Year campaign five years ago. But nobody cares a whit about anything other than what he hits over the fence.

This year, the baseballs may still come having been consciously deadened but Judge couldn’t care less. He’s sent 51 of the miniature medicine balls into the seats through this writing. Those who care will note that he did that fourteen days before Babe Ruth reached 51 in 1927 and four days after Roger Maris reached it in 1961.

That’s talking purely about single-season home run record held by Yankees, about which there was once and still often enough not always cheerful insanity. Yankee chauvinists insist that and just about any other slugging record lack legitimacy unless set or held by Yankee batters. Which is almost (underline, please) as obnoxious as their (frequent enough) insistence that the postseason is illegitimate without a Yankee team in it.

Judge is one of the most likeable players on a team with which baseball fans not roosted in New York (and enough who are) have had, shall we say, a mixed relationship. The Yankees’ history is respected and even admired, however grudgingly, but the team is not always beloved. What’s true of several other teams is true exponentially about them.

But now and then even such parochial rooting or anti-rooting steps to one side when an individual Yankee threatens to launch himself into the precincts of the gods. That polygraph’s needles will jump right off the machine and onto the floor the moment you say that you don’t care if Judge hits a hundred home runs by the time this regular season ends just as long as the Yankees don’t win.

He’s not going to hit a hundred, of course. Seventy isn’t an unrealistic expectation at his pace. Seventy-four, which is what Judge would need to become the undisputed all-time single-season home run champion, may not be as much of a pipe dream as you think.

Judge doesn’t play under the witless lash of a commissioner who insisted without true authority to do so that the record would be illegitimate if broken after 154 games. He does play under the eye of a considerable crowd praying he gets to 74, the better to knock a suspect player out of the way. The incumbent record holder was a) not a Yankee and b) suspected of using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances to get there.

And that record holder took the record from another who was not a Yankee and suspected of actual or alleged PEDs. The point that they were quite the outliers, in a generation where numerous players using or suspected of using such substances actually saw statistical dips instead of spikes (and, yes, you can look it up), usually escapes the usually self-appointed arbiters of sports morality.

It won’t condone those users or elevate those accusers if and when Judge parks number 74. But it would be nice to remember that baseball government did nothing about the plague until that government bumped into the government government. And the government government seemed far more interested in leading players on the perp walk than they were in sending swell if hypocritical messages to kids.

Without all that, we might be allowed to watch the Judge pursuit with more joy. Without all that, we might have nothing more grave to consider than this: If Judge can send baseballs that might as well be miniature medicine balls into earth orbit, what incentive does the sport’s administration have to iron up, remove its blinders, and insist upon a uniformly made baseball that allows both pitchers and hitters a fair shake?

The only blemish I can think of that attaches to Judge was his extremely rare attack of hubris in trolling Red Sox fans after the Yankees tied their 2018 American League division series, blasting Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” (a staple in Yankee Stadium after Yankee wins) from his boom box as he departed Fenway Park.

That’d teach him. In New York, the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in the third division series game (16-4) and hung in despite a Craig Kimbrel meltdown in the bottom of the ninth to take it with a 4-3 Game Four win. Yankee fans were grateful that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none of those Red Sox (who went on to win the World Series) trolled them with boom boxes blasting the Standells’s garage band classic “Dirty Water.” (Boston, you’re my home . . .)

If that’s the only crime against common sense Judge has committed in his career, it’s not exactly a rap sheet on which to hang a man. Facing his first free agency this coming off-season, Judge stands to reap a payday equal to the value of some companies and a few tiny nations. He couldn’t have made a more powerful case in his dreams.

But this is the same player who was made aware of a Blue Jays fan handing one of his mammoth-blasted balls to another Rogers Centre fan who’d made no secret of Judge being his baseball idol and hoping to have a ball hit by Judge himself.

“That’s what’s special about this game, man,” he told reporters, after learning video of the moment went viral. “It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear, everybody is fans, everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to check out that video. That’s special.”

He did more than check the video out. The following say, before the game, he made a point of meeting the boy and his family and the fan who handed the ball to the boy, signing the home run ball for him and giving him the batting gloves he wore while hitting it.

Judge still resembles an eager nine-year-old boy himself when he flashes his familiar snaggle-toothed grin. But in the batter’s box he resembles the Jolly Green Giant when he pumps his bat and turns a pitcher’s mistake into another long bomb. Where he does it from hardly matters. His 199 OPS+ through this writing indicates he could clear several zip codes from the Grand Canyon or the last known surviving telephone booth.

If the Leaning Tower of River Avenue does it 23 more times between this writing and the regular season’s conclusion, there shouldn’t be a single baseball fan (even of the Yankee-hating variety) declining to stand up and cheer. If he doesn’t make it, stand up and cheer, anyway. Between his pursuit of 74 and Albert Pujols’s renaissance pursuit of career number 700, they’ve made the home run fun again.

“Your credibility is further impacted . . .”

Jeff Luhnow

An excerpt from the forthcoming Astrogate book by the reporter who co-broke the scandal story originally makes deposed Astros GM Jeff Luhnow look even worse.

“Winning fixes everything” became a catch phrase around the Astros in the wake of Astrogate’s presumed denouement. It also became the title of a forthcoming book examining the Astros’ organisational culture that fostered, enabled, and entrenched the team’s illegal, off-field based, highest-tech electronic sign-stealing in 2017-18.

The author is Evan Drellich, one of the two Athletic reporters (partnered with Ken Rosenthal) who first exposed Astrogate in depth by way of whistleblowing former 2017 Astro pitcher Mike Fiers in late November 2019—after the Astros lost the World Series to the Nationals in seven games none of which were won by the home team.

First, the book was to be called Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros and published a year ago. That would have been on the seventieth anniversary of the off-field based telescopic sign-stealing cheating by which the New York Giants mounted the staggering stretch drive comeback from the dead to force the fabled 1951 National League pennant playoff.

Then, the publication date changed to this past March. Then, to last month. I actually messaged Drellich via Twitter after the beginning of this year to ask the wherefore of the delays. Quite kindly, he answered that the book ended up taking longer to report out and write up than he thought going in, not to mention pan-damn-ically inspired supply chain issues prompting a possible July arrival.

But now, the book will arrive in due course under the title Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess. The newly scheduled publication date: next Valentine’s Day. Astro fans still divided between sorrow and whataboutism about the now-long-tainted 2017-18 Astros won’t necessarily consider it a love letter.

If an excerpt published in The Athletic Thursday suggests nothing else, it suggests that the ultimate mastermind of what would become Astrogate in the first place outsmarted himself when Fiers exposed the Astro Intelligence Agency and thus prompted commissioner Rob Manfred to launch a complete investigation into the AIA.

Jeff Luhnow’s organisational culture when he ran the Astro show already lacked for what enough who escaped one way or the other described as basic humanness. It went beyond the team’s newly data-driven approach to tanking in order to rebuild a winner.

“In Casablanca,” Major Strasser said infamously, “human life is cheap.” In Luhnow’s Astroblanca, people learned the hard way that human decency was cost prohibitive. And Luhnow appears to have been willing to launch a high-tech coverup to keep Manfred and his bloodhounds from unlocking the Astrogate.

“In any investigation,” Drellich wrote, “the league notifies people of interest in writing that they need to preserve their cell phones . . . Luhnow, investigators learned, had instructed one of his lieutenants, Bill Firkus, to give a personal heads up to others with the team that MLB might collect their devices, a person with direct knowledge of the league’s investigation said.”

In a “quick and hurried manner,” Luhnow asked Firkus to tell “others” not necessarily to wipe their cell phones but ‘let them know their phone might be confiscated, and that they should be comfortable with what was on there.’ But the same sources having such deep knowledge of the Manfred probe said the Astros’ then-manager of pro scouting analysis, Matt Hogan, believed Firkus’s heads-up translated as, “MLB is coming, and that there’s a chance they can take your phone, so if you have things you don’t want anyone to see, I would get rid of them.”

Maybe nobody can isolate the actual language by which Luhnow counseled Firkus and what he did or didn’t actually suggest. But MLB, Drellich wrote, thinks it found only one individual wiping a cell phone after ordering Astro personnel to preserve those phones: Luhnow.

Manfred himself sent Luhnow a letter dated 2 January 2020, slightly over a month before the notorious spring training presser at which the Astros either apologised non-apologetically or non-apologised apologetically, depending on your translation. It laid out the evidence against the AIA. When the Wall Street Journal (which also exposed the Codebreaker algorithim that paved the path to Astrogate in the first place) published a story about the letter, it didn’t mention the cell phone wipes.

But Drellich revealed that the Manfred letter spanked Luhnow for the attempted Astrogate coverup. From the letter itself:

Your credibility is further impacted by the fact that you permanently deleted information from your phone and its backups in anticipation that my investigators would seek to search your phone. You did not tell my investigators that you had done this until they confronted you about it in your second interview. While you explained that you were simply deleting sensitive personal photographs, I have no way to confirm that you did not delete incriminating evidence.

“According to people with knowledge of the league’s investigation, the GM of the Astros had wiped every back-up from his phone, besides one, and other data was missing as well,” Drellich wrote.

. . . Investigators found that Luhnow’s phone had no standard call logs, even though Luhnow had known phone calls with A.J. Hinch that should have been there. MLB also could not locate known email exchanges that should have been on his phone that were found on others’ devices. But as MLB’s investigators saw it, if Luhnow had been trying to delete a large amount of information, he didn’t do a perfect job: the phone had Skype and WhatsApp call logs dating back to 2009.

When Luhnow offered a kind of apology for Astrogate in October 2020, he told a reporter for Houston’s NBC affiliate, Vanessa Richardson, that by God nobody told him about the illegally installed extra center field camera in Minute Maid Park, nobody told him it was sending real-time imagery to a clubhouse monitor illegally, nobody told him someone figured out what to bang on the can after deciphering that illegal intelligence, and by God he’d have told them no, nein, nyet if they’d gone to him asking permission.

Sure. Just the way Albert Fall told Harry Sinclair where to stuff it with his presents in exchange for getting to bid low and win the right to draw oil from Teapot Dome. Just as Lyndon Johnson told his pal/adviser Bobby Baker to quit swapping sex partnerships for Congressional votes. Just as Richard Nixon demanded names and heads on plates when he learned about a burglary at the Watergate Hotel.

Drellich never pretended other major league teams weren’t up to electronic chicanery. Neither did Cheated author Andy Martino, whose Astrogate book detailed how the Yankees and the Red Sox and others took to anything from AppleWatches in the dugout to replay room reconnaissance for sign stealing.

But the AIA was something newer, far more advanced, and far more disturbing. It continued even as Manfred formally wrist-slapped both the Yankees and the Red Sox for swapping electronic sign stealings in 2017 and warned all teams simultaneously not to even think about it. It went above and beyond the 2018 Rogue Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring.

It went above and beyond such telescopic cheaters as the 1899 Phillies, the 1909-1910 Highlanders (Yankees), the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, the 1951 Giants (stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!), and the 1961 Reds.

MLB handed the replay room reconnaissance ringers the replay rooms they discovered could be used for espionage. It didn’t hand the Astros a license to operate their own sign-stealing closed-circuit television station.

A commenter on The Athletic‘s page publishing the Drellich excerpt asked, “Why are we still talking about [Astrogate]?” News bulletin: Baseball fans and historians haven’t stopped talking about the Black Sox scandal, the ’51 Giants, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal, the political chicaneries driving the Dodgers and the Giants out of New York, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the Pete Rose scandal, the Steinbrenner/Spira scandal, or the scandals around actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, either.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Astrogate won’t go away at last until the last member of the Astrogate teams standing no longer wears the Astro uniform. Even, then, books such as Martino’s and, in due course, Drellich’s, won’t let the scandal die the death the most stubborn Astro fans wish.

The end of an error?

Arte Moreno, Mike Trout

Angels owner Arte Moreno and future Hall of Famer Mike Trout were ecstatic when Trout became a wealthy Angel for life. But Moreno’s failure to reconstruct a team his and their greatest player can be proud of will be Moreno’s legacy if he sells the Angels.

For the first time since their team won their only World Series championship thus far, Angel fans have reason to believe there’s light at the end of a painfully long tunnel. Owner Arte Moreno exploring options to sell the franchise must resemble the liberation promise of Dwight Eisenhower telling Allied forces, “You are about to embark on the great crusade”—the night before D-Day.

Just months after Darin Erstad clutched Kenny Lofton’s fly out to center to finish their staggering seven-game 2002 Series conquest, Moreno bought the team from the Disney Corporation. He swelled with pride as the first Mexican-American major league owner. Angel fans swelled likewise over what seemed to be swelling as an era of dominance after what seemed a preceding snakebitten eternity.

It was too good to be true. The team finally shattered a near-forever of extraterrestrial collapses, failures, and tragedies that inspired things from a shortstop driving his bats through a cemetery to purge their evil spirits to a pitcher pondering a sage burning in the clubhouse and a general manager pondering engagement of a priest to exorcise their ballpark.

Now the Angels held the lease to the Promised Land and a new owner with pockets deep enough to rival a team (the Yankees) they beat three out of four in the division series that launched their championship run. Who knew? Two decades later, the Angels are a six-letter synonym for disaster. And Moreno has come to resemble the worst of the man who once owned those division series victims than he or his dwindling allies would ever admit.

From 2003 through 2009, the Angels won the American League West five out of seven tries. The team went from the second-most snakebitten AL franchise to powerhouse in what now seems a blink in time. In thirteen seasons since, the Angels have won the West once but finished the past five of six in fourth place in the five-team division.

Moreno’s Angels have gone from signing and continuing to win with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. to drafting the transcendent Mike Trout and signing the transcendent enough Shohei Ohtani . . . and becoming the team their future Hall of Fame center fielder and must-see-television pitcher/designated hitter can be anything but proud of.

With the uber-loyal Trout locked down in a gigabucks deal that makes him an Angel for life, baseball eyes knowing the Angels need a transfusion as drastically as a leukemia patient saw dealing Ohtani at this year’s trade deadline as the donor who’d deliver particularly rich blood.

“The greatest two-way player in baseball history will be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2023,” writes ESPN’s Buster Olney, “so some other teams communicated to the Angels that they would be open to trades—and willing to include their very best prospects . . . Word quickly reached the interested parties that Arte Moreno, the Angels’ owner, wouldn’t sign off on any Ohtani deal. No one was surprised.”

No one who’s watched the Angels in the Moreno era should have been.

Moreno made his fortune as an advertising executive who turned the Outdoor Systems ad operation into an enterprise that fetched billions when Moreno and his partner sold it to Infinity Broadcasting in 1998. His forte was and remains marketing. It didn’t exactly translate to baseball as opposed to Angel Stadium box office success.

Trout himself says he learned of Moreno exploring a team sale the same way the press did Tuesday, when the Angels made their formal announcement. And he hinted that, however grateful he is for Moreno believing in him and making him rich, it’s not exactly enough anymore. Some things matter more than money to competitors.

“I think once you find out who buys it, whenever that is,” Trout told the Orange County Register, “there are definitely conversations we’re going to have to have. Obviously, I want to win.”

Like many owners who ride the wild surf of their teams’ successes in the beginning, Moreno began to believe in his own baseball genius. Unlike many such owners, Moreno behaved as though his role model for baseball ownership was the 1980s version of George Steinbrenner without half the summary executions and humiliations with which that Steinbrenner tortured Yankee fans for a generation.

The 1980s Steinbrenner loved “name guys who put fannies in the seats.” Moreno has been much like that, particularly when it comes to hitters. So much so that he reeled in one after another name hitter but ignored his team’s real pitching needs, which have been somewhere between drastic and desperate for just about the whole of Trout’s career to date.

Fairness requires we acknowledge that not all those deals for all those hitters who ended up hurting far more than helping the club were bad going in. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Albert Pujols’s legs and feet reduced him to a barely-serviceable DH after that Hall of Famer-in-waiting’s first Angels season. It wasn’t Moreno’s fault that Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon were/would be throttled by injuries.

Nor was it Moreno’s fault that two prize pitchers he signed big enough, C.J. Wilson and Zack Cozart, would be hit hard enough with injuries that 1) Wilson would retire after a couple of good if not spectacular Angel seasons; and, 2) Cozart would pitch well for a third of a season before a) a torn labrum fielding a grounder cost him the rest of that season and b) shoulder and neck surgery would cost him 2019—and his career, after he was traded away.

And it’s certainly not as though Moreno anticipated Trout’s first decade worth of such play as to have him baseball’s fifth-best all-time center fielder at this writing, still, would turn into an injury-plagued second decade beginning. Say what you will about the owner’s clumsiness and hubris, but he’s not exactly the cause of Trout’s and others’ time-robbing injuries. Even Moreno isn’t that kind of jinx.

But it was Moreno’s ugly doing to run Hamilton out of town on the slickest rail he could find, after Hamilton incurred a drinking relapse while watching a Super Bowl, manned up and went right to baseball’s drug policy administration with it, but discovered his Angel bosses had different thoughts about manning up.

It was Moreno’s ugly doing, a couple of years before Trout came into his own, to gut the Angels’ scouting system almost completely. “First,” I wrote over three years ago, “they made international scouting director Clay Daniels the scapegoat for bonus skimming shenanigans by some of his subordinates; then, they pinked overall scouting chief Eddie Bane—one of whose last achievements was urging the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place—as the scapegoat for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings and trades.”

Shohei Ohtani, Arte Moreno

The Angel Stadium faithful booed Moreno as he presented Shohei Ohtani his 2021 AL MVP award. Last month, Moreno blocked deals that would have brought serious prospects back for Ohtani (a free agent after next year) and further cemented Moreno’s reputation for putting box office too far above baseball.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous doing to order his then-general manager Tony Reagins—who couldn’t persuade Hall of Famer in waiting Adrian Beltre to sign with the Angels as a free agent—to make a deal for Toronto outfielder/basher Vernon Wells post haste and or else! Then the Angels discovered the hard way that Wells was damaged goods. And the guy they sent the Blue Jays for him, bat-first catcher Mike Napoli, was going on to pitch in big for a pair of World Series teams in Texas and Cleveland and help a Red Sox team win their third Series ring of the century.

It was Moreno’s ridiculous further doing to address the Angels’ dire pitching needs over several years, ignoring quality pitching on the markets in favour of one after another reclamation project that failed in Anaheim but found either revival or retirement elsewhere. Which points to another wounding Moreno flaw. Loving and enriching the name guys putting fannies in the seats is one thing. His budgets otherwise have been tighter than James Brown’s rhythm sections without yielding comparable fruit.

“Like a lot of billionaires before him,” Olney writes, “Moreno seemed to believe he knew more about building a baseball team than the folks he hired. But the strengths that made him an extraordinary success before he bought the Angels became a weakness once he stepped into a sport that has become increasingly competitive.”

Two former Angel GMs (Jerry Dipoto, now with the second-place Mariners; Billy Eppler, now running the National League East-leading Mets) found success enough after they escaped Moreno’s all-thumbs touch. The incumbent, Perry Minasian, likewise hamstrung enough, may or may not survive this season’s disaster.

Olney reminds us that Moreno selling the Angels would be baseball’s biggest sigh of relief since Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers to the Guggenheim Group and the Wilpon family finally elected to sell the Mets to Steve Cohen. The sigh’s breeze will be felt from sea to shining sea.

The timing may be telling enough. Moreno’s attempt to buy Angel Stadium and its surrounding land from Anaheim collapsed three months ago, after Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned amid an FBI investigation into whether Sidhu shared “privileged and confidential information” with the team while they negotiated with the city. (The FBI didn’t accuse Moreno or the Angels of wrongdoing.)

The Angels are also not off the hook just yet over the accidental overdose death of painkiller-addicted pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019. They face two wrongful death lawsuits by Skaggs’s family—one by his parents, the other by his widow—in the wake of former Angels communications director Eric Kay’s conviction in federal court for providing the fentanyl-containing drug that killed the popular lefthander.

It’s worth remembering, too, that only when George Steinbrenner was suspended for his nefarity in digging up dirt on his Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield did the Yankees finally have room to rebuild themselves back to greatness. An end to the Moreno era might well produce likewise for an Angels franchise that’s had only one now-brief spell of greatness even if it has only one World Series trophy to show for it.

“Many executives,” Olney continues, “believe that the Angels have not come close to exploiting the potential of their market. ‘”Because that place might be the best to work in in baseball,’ one official said. ‘The weather is perfect. The conditions are perfect. You can live on the beach. Nobody bothers them. The fans are good’.”

With the best intentions but the worst approaches, Moreno’s Angels ownership made it possible to believe paradise was hell in disguise. By comparison, the freeway traffic chokes that so often stand between the Pacific Ocean and Angel Stadium are walks on the beach.

A tale of two front office executions

Chris Young, Jon Daniels

Pitcher-turned-MLB executive-turned-Rangers executive Chris Young (left) now succeeds Jon Daniels (right) as the Rangers’ GM . . . but the move’s timing days after Daniels was made to fire manager Chris Woodward was strange to be most polite.

When the Rangers executed manager Chris Woodward and general manager Jon Daniels, it looked at first as though the organisation simply decided too much was too little and enough already. Likewise when the Tigers decided several days earlier that there was a guillotine with general manager Al Avila’s name on it.

Avila’s dispatch wasn’t exactly likely to generate much in the way of sympathy or empathy.   Tigers owner Chris Illitch probably starting drawing up the warrant after Avila made a pair of 2017 deals that sent away future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander and ace designated hitter J.D. Martinez and brought back what proved no major league help.

Both those players went from there to help make World Series wins possible with their new clubs, back-to-back even: Verlander helped pitch the Astros to the 2017 Series rings and Martinez helped swing the 2018 Red Sox to the rings a year later.

Never mind how tainted both Series triumphs are, though it’s possible to make the case that Verlander (and his fellow Astros pitchers) wasn’t exactly among the conspirators that birthed and bred Astrogate. And we don’t know for dead last certain whether or how often Martinez himself benefitted from the Rogue Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring.

From Avila’s first season on the job his Tigers, as Defector notes, were baseball’s second-worst hitters and second-worst pitchers on a team level, not to mention the second-worst in the Show for winning and losing—behind the Orioles, who’ve spent this year going remarkably and maybe inexplicably from the tanks to within a half game’s reach of the wild card picture.

“Then again,” observes Defector writer Ray Ratto (once a longtime San Francisco Bay Area sportswriter), “[Orioles GM] Mike Elias didn’t guarantee a quarter billion dollars in current and future salaries to players who have amassed a 43-68 record, worse than every team in baseball save Oakland and Washington, who have shed payroll to be bad. Spending more to be just as bad is, well, spectacularly contraindicated.”

That was the Avila legacy in an envelope. He gave them his son Alex as a catcher and in exchange steered the team into a ditch. His best year was his first, and that’s never a good way to keep the boss from snarking you up on your way out the door. The current team is on pace to have its second-lowest runs per game output in franchise history (and since we know you’re going to ask, 1904) and the fewest homers in a full season since 1954. We’d call them God-awful, but God has lawyers.

. . .The Tigers just . . .  faded away. Neither hated nor condemned, they just eased into the Phantom Zone and stayed there. They’re not even appreciated for playing the fastest games in the majors, which is the one blessing you can provide your fans when you stink on a daily basis.

Al Avila

Al Avila, watching the Tigers work out the day before Opening Day, seeded his demolition with two 2017 trades.

In other words, if Avila was actively and consciously tanking, he had a mad genius for doing it as far away from deep scrutiny as the current Cubs, Reds, Royals, Pirates, and Nationals have drawn. (“Even the Angels get more condemnation,” Ratto writes wryly, “but that’s because unlike the Tigers, they kept their best players and still failed.”)

So the rebuilding Tigers have to start their rebuild all over again. So, apparently, do the Rangers, whose owner Ray Davis announced Daniels’s firing by saying, “Bottom line is we’re not good, and we haven’t been good for six years. To be competitive going forward, I felt that we needed to make a change.”

It was the way Davis made the change that left more than a few eyes rolling and jaws falling. He made Daniels announce Woodward’s wiring into the electric chair just a couple of days before he threw the switch on Daniels himself, whose contract was due to expire at season’s end.

Saying the decisions were brewing for several months before last Monday’s Woodward execution leaves Daniels with what The Athletic‘s Rangers beat writer Levi Weaver calls “a bad look.” That’s like saying the deal with Adolf Hitler to swap Czech freedom for “peace in our time” left Neville Chamberlain with nothing more than the proverbial egg on his face.

Except that the Czechs knew exactly what was coming, even if portions enough of the world around them still couldn’t believe it. As Weaver writes, Daniels was sent to face the press explaining Woodward’s dispatch with no knowledge that his own hemlock cocktail was being mixed.

What troubles Weaver is that, for all that dispatching Daniels might have been necessary at last, it was done not only underhandedly but a couple of years too late:

After all, as Davis made sure to point out, the Rangers haven’t had a winning season since 2016. In retrospect, the rebuild that began in earnest in 2020 probably should have begun in 2017 — never mind that one source familiar with proceedings said that Daniels intended to do just that, but was pressured into putting a better product on the field for the first season of the new ballpark. Still, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Chi Chi Gonzalez and a passel of other home-grown talent didn’t turn out to be the next core of stars that fans hoped. Those decisions land at Daniels’ feet and maybe warranted a parting of ways.

But if that were the case, it should have been done back in 2020, when it was clear that plan hadn’t worked.

Those are purely baseball considerations. They fall under such headings as the Rangers’ farm yielding negligible crops; the front office’s unique stability in the Daniels era meaning a lack of fresh blood; and, a lot of circumstantial misfortune such as a pitching staff bedeviled with injuries over too long a period.

But Weaver isolates another problem with the manner in which Daniels was handled now. Reporters so often speak to a man’s peers in a business and Weaver learned things about Daniels from fellow GMs and their underlings that might make him an exception rather than a rule in a sport whose business is as cutthroat and duplicitous as its play is ennobling.

“Daniels cared about his people,” Weaver writes. “Sometimes, in the opinion of those around the league, he cared too much, seeing the best in his employees and keeping them around when others might have pulled the plug.”

Sure, he would make a hard decision when he had to — occasionally, the fit between employee and organization just wasn’t working and it was time to part ways. But the only times Daniels ever took me to task for my reporting was when I wrote those stories. Every time, the message was the same: if you need to blame someone, blame me. I don’t want this guy’s family to read him getting ripped in the press. I’m front-facing; I can handle it.

With [Daniels’ sudden firing] it’s clear that loyalty didn’t work its way up to the ownership level . . .

. . . Choosing one’s employees is an owner’s prerogative. But to fire Daniels publicly after such a long tenure showed a lack of common courtesy or decency. Even if Davis had decided not to renew Daniels’ contract at the end of the year, keeping him around to help with the transition would have accomplished two things. One, it would have given some well-deserved dignity to Daniels, allowing him to quietly step down at the end of the season. He has earned that, and to surprise him with a firing now — just two days after he was the face of a managerial firing — is disrespectful at best.

Secondly, allowing Daniels to finish the year could have potentially been beneficial to [pitcher turned MLB vice president in charge of discipline to Daniels understudy Chris] Young. In an advisory role, Daniels could have helped to prepare Young for the remainder of the responsibilities he was inheriting. We’ll never know now: Davis didn’t run the idea by Young before making the move, opting to act now and let Young deal with the fallout.

Respected for brains on the mound and as a baseball executive in the making, Young doesn’t exactly have people worrying about whether he’ll crack. But Daniels had almost two decades on the job and shepherded the last two (and back-to-back while they were at it) Rangers World Series entrants. (They lost decisively to the Giants in 2010; they were two outs from winning the 2011 Series when they ran into a Cardinals buzz saw named David Freese.)

Daniels and Young enjoyed a close relationship for a very long time, going back to Young’s initial major league seasons pitching for the Rangers. Surely Young knows that being a people person was one of Daniels’s above-average strengths. And the Rangers have had small improvements this year even if they weren’t obviously making more better promises for next year.

How Young balances himself between people personhood and making the hard assessents of the Rangers’ roster and front office should provide interesting observations. But if he assesses the depth of the handling and timing of his former boss’s sentence to the Phantom Zone and finds himself compelled to keep one eye over his shoulder, you can’t necessarily blame him.

Fernando’s pride away

Fernando Tatis, Jr.

Tatis drydocked for actual/alleged PEDs the rest of this year and part of next. Did he really get it unknowingly?

Whether you saw it happen live or you had only to read about it, you couldn’t get it out of your head. Manny Machado—who’d been suspect of immaturity often enough in his Baltimore years—being the adult in the Padres’ room when Fernando Tatis, Jr. still couldn’t or wouldn’t shake off a pitch he thought was a ball but plate umpire Phil Cuzzi called a strike last September . . . correctly.

It wasn’t enough for Tatis that he gestured with pronouncement, though he faced away from Cuzzi, while his then-manager Jayce Tingler hustled out of the dugout to protect him and take up the argument and get himself tossed from the game. Tatis kept it up in the dugout, banging a bench a few times, grumbling all inning long while Jake Cronenworth’s one-out double ended up fruitless.

Finally Machado had enough. The wealthy veteran third baseman could be heard loud enough bawling the kid outGo play baseball! You play baseball. You can’t worry about that sh@t! You go play baseball! [Fornicate] that sh@t! At that point, Tatis must have tried pleading about the disputed pitch. Machado didn’t bite. No, it’s not. It’s not about you! It’s not [fornicating] about you! Go [fornicating] play baseball.

The Padres ended up losing to the Cardinals, some of whom were almost as frustrated with Cuzzi’s shifting strike zone as Tatis. But the Cardinals didn’t let it cave them in, either. In the eighth, Tyler O’Neill smashed a 2-2 cutter from Padres reliever Emilio Pagan into the left field bullpen. Two innings earlier, O’Neill was frustrated visibly over a Cuzzi pitch call or two. He just didn’t melt down over them.

He also earned Adam Wainwright’s admiration while he was at it. “That was a great job by him not getting too animated there,” the veteran Cardinal righthander said postgame. “If we lose him right there, we probably lose the game . . . That was a lot of maturity by him to not get thrown out right there on some tough calls.”

Maturity. The word’s being thrown around a lot in San Diego now, since Tatis—who’s missed all season so far rehabbing a shoulder injury—was handed a mandatory eighty-game suspension after a routine required drug test turned up positive for clostebol.

After the Padres hogged the trade deadline headlines by landing outfielder Juan Soto from the Nationals and relief ace Josh Hader from the Brewers, but still looking like paper tigers after getting manhandled by their up-freeway National League West rivals in Los Angeles, this was the last thing they needed when they thought they were on the threshold of Tatis’s return.

The shortstop who can and so often did electrify crowds with his bat and his derring-do on the left side of the infield said he discovered the hard way that a medication he took to fight a case of ringworm had clostebol in it.

“I should have used the resources available to me in order to ensure that no banned substances were in what I took. I failed to do so,” he said in a formal statement Friday, after pondering but choosing not to appeal his suspension. “I am completely devastated. There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be than on a field competing with my teammates.”

Once you shook off the shock of Tatis being drydocked for the rest of this season, the postseason if the Padres get there, and part of next season, your first question—other than, perhaps, what on earth this kid was thinking or not thinking—had to be just what the hell clostebol is.

A former professional bodybuilder named Greg Doucette was more than happy to discuss that, as he has on YouTube: Clostebol is a synthetic, anabolic/andreogenic steroid “that essentially mimics testosterone.” Several countries use it medically to treat ringworm, a common fungus in professional athletes, but neither the United States nor Canada are known to prescribe ringworm relief with medications including the substance.

By itself, says the San Diego Union-Tribune, clostebol is “[a]lso known as 4-cholortestosterone [and] is a synthetic derivative of the muscle-building steroid the body naturally produces in larger amounts in men than women.” Blended with another substance, as the former East Germany did under state sponsorship to create then-undetectable Oral Turinabol, it becomes potent enough to turn athletes into record breakers.

“The doping advantage of injectable clostebol,” says U-T writer Mark Zeigler, “is that, while less potent, it mimics the muscle-building properties of testosterone without the estrogen buildup that counteracts them.” You’d have to make a very assumptive stretch to determine that Tatis knew any of that about what was in his ringworm medicine.

Doucette accepts that somebody did indeed prescribe something with clostebol in it when Tatis complained about ringworm. Bear in mind that, during last off-season’s owners’ lockout, Tatis and the Padres lacked much direct communication between the club’s staff and Tatis’s home in the Dominican Republic. Was he prescribed the now-suspect medication there, in a country that may allow clostebol’s prescription to treat ringworm?

“Either somebody needs to get fired,” Doucette says emphatically, “or Fernando Tatis needs to be the picture boy for Major League Baseball . . . How do you know, when getting medications, whether or not [they include] a banned substance or not? You don’t. So what do you do? Ask an expert.”

Tatis didn’t ask. Prideful youth that he still is, it didn’t cross his mind to ask. Maybe this will prove the blow that trims his pride down to the level where it’s a virtue more than a vice.

Essentially, Doucette says, Tatis trusted his doctor and didn’t think to question what he was prescribed. He’d be far from the only human being who goes in with the assumption that his doctor knows it all and wouldn’t hand him something believed to be harmful medically or otherwise.

Baseball may have its list of banned substances, and enough of those substances may not do what they’re thought (feared) to do for a player, but even veterans aren’t likely to visit their doctors carrying that list to ask whether their forthcoming prescriptions include any of those.

Sports medicine has long been a dubious proposition in the first place. Even today, with so much more known about sports injuries now than in the so-called Good Old Days, too much sports medicine remains meatball medicine to get them back on the field as soon as possible regardless. (Preferably, yesterday often enough.) And athletes are not always trusting of team doctors, with reason enough.

Likewise, for all we know now that we didn’t decades ago, Joe and Jane Fan continue believing injuries equal character flaws and fragility. Who really knows what a cocktail of dubious meatball medicine plus a public that thinks getting hurt exposes a player as weak does to an athlete’s thinking when he has a real injury or another medical issue, never mind one while rehabbing from another?

Padres general manager A.J. Preller, whose wheeling and dealing to bring Soto and Hader aboard made him the star of the trade deadline, sounded as though he didn’t necessarily want to know. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet about it,” he told reporters after the Padres squashed the Nationals Friday.

I think the biggest thing just from our standpoint, just from (MLB’s) standpoint, there’s a drug policy in place. He failed the drug screen, and ultimately he’s suspended, he can’t play, and that’s the biggest thing. It’s the player’s responsibility to make sure that he’s within compliance of that. He wasn’t, and ultimately we’re supportive of that.

Tatis can be called for not quite being mature enough to ask questions of his doctor before accepting any kind of prescription? It’s not exactly unfair to call Preller and other Padres staff for just such a dismissal, without being mature enough to keep real communication lines clear with their player, asking questions of their own when a medical issue arises even during rehabilitation for a different issue.

Practical baseball terms tell us Tatis was on the threshold of finishing his shoulder rehab (this wasn’t the first time he dealt with shoulder issues in his career) and providing the postseason-aspirant Padres a truly incendiary plate threat joining Soto, Machado, and Brandon Drury in the lineup. The kind of deep threat that often makes the difference between a mere postseason aspirant and a prospective World Series champion.

Now the threat is to Tatis’s eventual baseball legacy and to the Padres’s World Series aspirations. (They’ve been there twice without winning since they were born the year man first walked on the moon.) The previous weekend, they were swept in style by those ogres from Dodger Stadium, losing three straight and being outscored 20-4 including surrendering eight Dodger runs each in the first two games.

“He hasn’t been part of the team all year,” said Machado after the 10-5 win over the hapless Nats Friday. “We’ve gotten to this point so far without him. We were waiting to get him back and hopefully be a spark plug for the team.”

“You hope he grows up and learns from this and learns that it’s about more than just him right now,” said pitcher Mike Clevinger, echoing last year’s Machado-Tatis confrontation over the third-strike call. “It would be nice to have somebody else, but we don’t need anybody else. We’ve got everyone we need right here.”

Without Tatis, and until they can really hang with the big boys, the Padres sitting seventeen games out of first in the NL West may not have everyone they need right there now. What they have can get them to the postseason. It can’t necessarily get them to a World Series the likely path to which runs through Los Angeles.

“Friday’s stunning revelation,” writes The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin, “did not paint anyone in a positive light.”

Tatis had been busted for, at best, gross negligence or, at worst, cheating and dishonesty. If the Padres fail to make the postseason, he will end up missing more than half of his first 578 opportunities to play a major-league regular-season game. The team, meanwhile, has suffered a thorough embarrassment just eighteen months after characterizing Tatis’ [fourteen-year, $340 million contract] extension as a slam dunk. Preller has long prided himself on knowing the makeup of players, but his most prized asset has joined James Shields, Will Myers, and [now-departed] Eric Hosmer on a list of questionable contracts.

Tatis is now the biggest name in baseball to have drawn a suspension for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances since Álex Rodríguez’s war against baseball over the Biogenesis scandal turned into a 211-game suspension. (It proved ultimately to be a 162-game suspension, since A-Rod appealed the original starting in August 2013.)

Whether he walked into it eyes wide shut or just made a reputation for self-centricity a little less small remains to be seen, in full and in final.