From technocracy to roguery, the path to Astrogate

Winning Fixes Everything

When the Astros’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18 was exposed in November 2019, there also unfurled a concurrent portrait of the Astros’s organisational culture as ruthlessness run amok. In Jeff Luhnow’s Astroblanca, human life was cheap and the rules were that there were, mostly, no rules.

As delivered by the Athletic reporter who first unearthed Astrogate, Evan Drellich, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess is as much a deep dive into a rogue baseball organisation as it is about a team that took a ticking time bomb MLB handed all thirty teams and decided detonating their own similar one just wasn’t enough.

The top rogue was Luhnow, who came to the Astros’ attention after remaking the Cardinals’ player development system successfully. He soon proved a technocrat to whom disagreement equaled treason and human considerations, nuisances, from his calculated tanking rebuild through the swamp of Astrogate staining the franchise’s first World Series title.

“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is,” is what football legend Vince Lombardi really said. Luhnow lacked the moral compass to separate ends from means. Wanting the Astros to get ahead of everyone else on the field and in an analytically reoriented front office was one thing. Losing the plot about human elements and ethics?

“Luhnow was right that change is not easy,” writes Drellich, who’d been an Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle before 2017.

But he eliminated most any guardrails along the way. He had pressed forward in the face of pushback for so long, dating back go his time [with the Cardinals] as the maligned outsider. Eventually he was rewarded with the results he sought. But he didn’t do enough to ensure the wrong boundary was never tested . . .

Before hiring Luhnow, Astros owner Jim Crane tried to lure Andrew Friedman from the Rays. Friedman didn’t want to take a rebuild on, having proven he could steer the Rays to winning despite their meager budgets. In due course, Friedman went to the Dodgers, a team fabled for rebuilding on the fly and without fear of either spending or an authoritarian front office.

Astrogate’s exposure in November 2019 opened in turn the slow but sure unfurling of a concurrent Astros portrait in which they were governed by a technocracy that lost the human plot above and beyond mere data driving. No less than baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, handing down his Astrogate report in January 2020, pronounced Luhnow’s Astros organisation as a subhuman disaster:

[W]hile no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic . . . the baseball operations department’s insular culture—one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led . . . to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

That “conduct,” of course, was the Astros taking mere replay room reconnaissance—decrypting signs between opposition catchers and pitchers, then using the old fashioned transmission of sending the intelligence to live baserunners to signal batters, a system used by more teams than just the Yankees, the Red Sox, and, yes, the Dodgers—and graduating to Astrogate’s espionage level.

Drellich reveals that the Astros began thinking outside the replay room reconnaissance box when they suspected the 2016 Rangers, against whom they’d been futile that season (fifteen losses in nineteen games; surrendering sixteen home runs in ten games at Arlington), had a live spy in the stands.

If they were right, it was also hardly unheard-of in the long log of baseball’s oldest sub-profession. But numerous teams long since shown to have done likewise, from the stands (the 1940 Tigers), the old hand-operated scoreboards (the 1948 Indians, the 1961 Reds), even beyond-center field clubhouses (the 1951 Giants), didn’t provoke aggrieved opponents to think about seeing and raising to the extent the Astros did, either. “[I]t remains the case,” Drellich writes, “that no team has been shown, through firm reporting or accounts, to have done something as blatant as Houston.”

In September 2016, Luhnow hired a Spanish-language translator, Derek Vigoa, who proved to have talents above and beyond language. Vigoa developed a spread sheet algorithm, Codebreaker, used to decipher opposing signs. By itself Codebreaker was neither cryptography (Drellich’s word) nor wrongdoing . . . unless it was used during a live game (the Astros did), not before or after it.

“The rules seemed to be an afterthought in Houston,” Drellich writes, “if they were a thought at all. Innovation, improvement—‘Data efficacy’—that was the mindset Luhnow had long fostered.” It was just such “data efficacy” that provoked Astrogate’s two main operatives, 2017 bench coach Alex Cora and 2017 designated hitter/de facto coach Carlos Beltrán, to conclude mere replay room reconnaissance and a mere spread sheet weren’t good enough.

They married Cora’s fascination with the uber-speed Edgertronic camera and Beltrán’s insistence on an extra monitor adjacent to the dugout to send the Astro Intelligence Agency light years beyond previously known methods of in-game espionage. They went from merely technologically savvy to full, above-and-beyond rogue.

Luhnow was a product of McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm infamous for making corporate cost-cutting and data-orientation into an art dark enough that too often such things as safety and human relationships were compromised, if not obliterated. (McKinsey was once brought in to tighten the ship at Disneyland, a ship-tightening that cut into maintenance costs deeply enough and may have contributed to two fatalities at the fabled theme park.)

When the Astros moved to re-evaluate and trim their scouting system if need be, Luhnow heeded an aide’s advice that they eliminate scouts lacking tech savvy. First, though, he wanted his old employer McKinsey’s endorsement. Then, he wanted the new tech-oriented scouting done by remote, dumping eight traveling scouts in August 2017, just as manager A.J. Hinch—who’d prove weak when it came to stopping Astrogate dead in its tracks—had begun working with them on postseason advance scouting.

Cora and Beltrán were respected as career-long students of the game, including and especially catching onto any small “tell” from an opponent that might give them a slight edge. Catching onto and exploiting such “tells” is part of old-fashioned gamesmanship. Training an illegally-mounted and operated real-time camera and monitor on the opposing battery isn’t even close to it.

That 2017 Astros roster was a roster to die for. But Drellich says Luhnow and his brain trust weren’t all that convinced they could get it done by themselves. “Communication was thin,” Drellich writes, “and relationships were strained. Technology was ubiquitous, and the goal was singularly to win. It’s hard to say the Astros were the most likely team in baseball to start cheating. But there couldn’t have been a team more poorly prepared to stop cheating.”

Especially after Manfred’s late-season memo to all teams, after he slapped the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s wrists over replay room and AppleWatch reconnaissance. Manfred, Drellich writes, made two large mistakes: aiming future punishments at managers and GMs; and, believing he’d just drawn a line in the sand.

Six days after that Manfred memo, the Astros played the White Sox in Chicago—and White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled, and heard, a trash can rat. And Luhnow, as Manfred noted during his Astrogate report, never passed that 2017 memo down to others on the team.

The Astros and the Dodgers held each other in suspicion as that 2017 World Series began, but the worst the Dodgers might have done was simple replay room reconnaissance with the baserunner as the hitter’s tip. “[T]here is no known evidence,” Drellich writes, “that the Dodgers were doing something as flagrant as the Astros’ trash-can system.”

Manfred’s major Astrogate error was not anticipating “how important it would be to make sure he could confidently punish players, and by not pursuing the topic with the [Major League Baseball Players Association] in advance. Even with his experience with the steroids issue, he didn’t fully grasp how players could try to gain an edge through technology, nor what the reaction would be if he ever had to let players off the hook.”

Drellich cites former commissioner Fay Vincent saying baseball’s real Astrogate mistake was “thinking that the players and the owners don’t have to come together on major issues . . . The union should have been taking a leadership role and saying, ‘We can’t have the game hurt by this kind of cheating’.”

The author also cites former union attorney Gene Orza saying not so fast, Fay: “He doesn’t understand what a union does . . . The union does not have a higher calling for the quote-unquote good of the game . . . [it] is not about, first and foremost, the health of the game. It is about defending the players that are its constituency.”

Luhnow and Hinch, of course, were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane when Manfred’s Astrogate report came down. Cora left the Astros to manage the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship. (Those Rogue Sox had their own replay room reconnaissance operation at play, though only their video operator J.T. Watkins was held to account and canned.) But he left the Red Sox before they could fire him upon the Astrogate report. Both Hinch and Cora served their 2020 Astrogate suspensions and returned to the dugout after, Cora to the Red Sox and Hinch to the Tigers.

Hinch, Cora, and Beltrán have since been forthright about their Astrogate roles—or, in Hinch’s case, his failure to stop the AIA beyond smashing a couple of the extra dugout-adjacent monitors. But they’ve done it without giving detailed, play-by-play accounts. “It’s likely,” Drellich writes, “that the finger-pointing nature of any such discussion makes it difficult to go down that road while they still hope to work in baseball.”

Beltrán was hired to manage the Mets after the 2019 World Series but fired upon the Astrogate report without having managed even a spring training game for them. He served his 2020 suspension, became a 2021 analyst for the Yankees’ YES network, and has now returned to the Mets in a front office role. Recalling Beltrán’s admission to YES host Michael Kay—I wish I would have asked more questions about what we were doing—Drellich couldn’t resist: “Beltrán was as powerful a clubhouse presence as there was on the 2017 Astros, begging the question, what was stopping him from asking those questions?”

What overseeing a cultural environment that opened the door to baseball’s worst cheating scandal didn’t do to Luhnow, suing an owner probably did. So did the revelation that, despite orders from MLB investigators not to do so, he wiped much if not most of his cell phone data. Luhnow hasn’t returned to baseball since his suspension ended. (He now co-owns a pair of soccer teams, one in his native Mexico—his parents moved there from New York just before he was born—and one in Spain.)

With only five members of the 2017-18 Astros remaining, and under the combined leadership of manager Dusty Baker and since-departed GM James Click, the Astros beat the upstart Phillies in last year’s World Series. Straight, no chaser. But winning hasn’t yet disintegrated all of the Astrogate taint. Even if the entire team now is no longer held responsible for then, opposing fans still hammer the remaining 2017-18 team members with chea-ter! chea-ter! chants. Even including the unfairly-tainted Jose Altuve.

Luhnow’s data-dominant leadership approach hasn’t left the game, either. Baseball still struggles to balance between the value of analytics and the human men who play and manage the game. But don’t make the mistake of reading Winning Fixes Everything and concluding that analytics qua analytics begets cheating.

Gathering the deepest, above-and-beyond data and applying it to player development and advancement is a virtue. It doesn’t have to leave room for an Astrogate. In the hands of a less tunnel-visioned leader, under a less nerve-exposing atmosphere, it might not have done so.

Without the sort of resolution Vincent suggested, there may yet come something worse. Astrogate has informed us already, and Drellich now reminds us vividly, that it will no longer do to dismiss cheating merely by shrugging that boys will still be boys.

Tim McCarver, RIP: On first guess . . .

Tim McCarver

Tim McCarver, gracing a Sports Illustrated cover in 1967, as his Cardinals struck for a pennant and a World Series championship.

It should have surprised no one that the most frequent phrase uttered in the notices was “first guess.” Most baseball broadcast analysts have in common with fans a trigger, if not a mastery, of the second guess. Tim McCarver, who died at 81 of heart failure Thursday, was the longtime master of the first guess.

Two decades as a major league catcher who saw the whole game in front of him and didn’t restrict himself to handling the pitchers who threw to him did that for him. That McCarver leavened it with disarming wit was merely what Duke Ellington would call a cherries-and-cream topping to your sundae afternoon.

And just as “first guess” was the most often deployed phrase in the obituaries, the most frequently deployed evidence for the defense was Game Seven of the 2001 World Series.

That’s when Yankee manager Joe Torre, with his Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera on the mound, and the bases loaded for the Diamondbacks with one out in the bottom of the ninth, ordered his infield in with Luis Gonzalez coming to the plate. At long last—Snakes manager Bob Brenly tended to leave him with nobody aboard to advance or drive home that Series—Gonzo had men on base to work with.

Watching the game on Fox Sports, I heard McCarver remind viewers that Rivera’s money pitch, his fabled cut fastball, ran in on lefthanded hitters and, if they made contact at all, it was broken-bat hits shallow in the outfield. “That’s why you don’t bring the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound,” he said.

Bing! After Gonzalez fouled the first pitch away, Rivera threw him a cutter running inside. Gonzo broke his bat sending the ball floating above Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, into shallow center, for game, set, and Series.

The man who sent grand salami into baseball’s lexicon for the grand slam (he’d done it in one of his earliest broadcast jobs, on the Mets’ team of himself, Steve Zabriskie, and Hall of Fame slugger/from-birth booth mainstay Ralph Kiner) was a catcher who never feared learning, whether it was how to handle mercurial pitchers or how to overcome his upbringing as the son of a Memphis police officer in a time of racial growing pains for the Cardinals and the country.

In October 1964, his account of the pennant races that culminated in the World Series conquest of the last old-guard Yankee team by a new breed of Cardinals, David Halberstam recorded Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson giving McCarver a quick lesson in race relations. Quick, and profound, and perhaps a little shocking even to a white kid whose baseball heroes had actually been Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Monte Irvin.

Gibson hailed McCarver and asked, “Hey, Timmy, do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson enlisted center fielder Curt Flood as his co-star, Gibson playing the white guy. He shook hands with Flood—and, after looking at his hand a moment, promptly wiped his hand on his pants. “You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. The shocked McCarver thought a moment and realised Gibson was right.

They became close friends (Any relationship you enter into with Bob is going to be intense, McCarver once said of Gibson), and McCarver had demonstrated his willingness to listen and learn. And, take a gag. His habit of yelling “Gigub” like a frog after losing a ball popping out of his mitt inspired Gibson to mimick it exactly. Those Cardinals used humour next to sobriety to teach their lessons to each other and the league.

But after leading the 1966 National League with thirteen triples, McCarver whacked one in an exhibition game the following, prompting Gibson to buttonhole him after the game, saying, “Hey, you like to hit triples!” According to Halberstam, McCarver took it to mean Gibson telling him he was a good ballplayer and just might be a good man, too. (When he was inducted into Cooperstown as a Frick Award winner in 2012, McCarver lamented and called for arresting the decline in African-American participation in the game.)

The Cardinals out-bid the Yankees and the Giants to sign McCarver with a $75,000 bonus in June 1959. The first things he did, according to Peter Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis, were to buy his parents a new car and to pay off their mortgage, before buying himself some stock in AT&T. By 1963, he’d become the Cardinals’ regular catcher.

He bought into the Cardinals’ ways of teaching the game while flinching at the ways they over-did selling their traditions to incoming young players. “One of the bad things about the Cardinal tradition,” he’d remember in due course,

was the provincialism there in St. Louis that as far as the press was concerned was a lot more unfair than the Eastern press. Everyone says the Eastern press is a lot tougher. I disagree with that. Because provincialism is a lot more difficult to deal with than a press that may be tougher but is more objective, and I’m talking about New York, Philadelphia, Boston. St. Louis is more provincial than any of them. And that provincialism, like the obligations of the family, is much more difficult for the athlete to deal with. Whenever there’s an obligation, there is less desire to do it, because you feel you have to do it.

Nelson Briles, a fine pitcher and a character in his own right, once called McCarver the team’s de facto captain behind the plate.

I have never pitched to a catcher who could call a better game, strategise behind the plate, know what was going on. He was a fiery competitor as well. He was really into the game. He paid attention to game situations, paid attention to the way the hitters were hitting, paid attention to their stance, and if they had changed. And watched what was going on.

And if you shook him off, he was in your face, wanting to know why. “What’s your reason for doing that? I’ll tell you why I called for my sign: Two pitches from now, I want you to do this.” Maybe he was not the best defensive catcher, but he battled for you. He was in the game and would constantly be there to kick you in the pants or to lift your spirits.

Tim McCarver

McCarver accepting his Frick Award to the Hall of Fame, 2012: “I saw Frank Robinson at breakfast and I said, ‘I’ll try to be brief.’ He said, ‘You?‘”

That about the kid who once had the nerve to think about going out to the mound to talk to Gibson, before their relationship solidified, only to get an earful from Gibson before he reached the mound: Get back there behind the plate where you belong! The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it. Rarely at a loss, McCarver eventually zinged Gibson back: “Bob is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

(Let the record show that the pitchers who threw to McCarver behind the plate lifetime posted a 3.23 ERA, 43 points below the league average for the span.)

He caught two World Series winners (and stole home during the 1964 Series) and in due course provided analysis on television for 29 straight Series. He was part of the trade to the Phillies that provoked Flood to his reserve clause challenge and thus began the dismantling of the reserve era finished when Andy Messersmith pitched 1975 without a contract and won in arbitration.

He became the personal catcher for notoriously insular Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, who loved that McCarver would call for as many sliders as Carlton wanted to throw. (“When Steve and I die,” he once said, “we are going to be buried in the same cemetery—sixty feet, six inches apart.”)

He became a broadcaster who learned quickly enough that the game looked far different from above than it did from behind the plate, and he adapted almost as swiftly as a Gibson heater or a Carlton slider hit his mitt. He refused to surrender his objectivity, even when it cost him, as it finally did with the Mets in 1999. Not even when the target of one McCarver barb dumped ice water over him, as Deion Sanders did when he high-tailed it from the postseason-playing Braves to play an NFL game.

McCarver ended his national broadcasting career fortuitously enough; the Cardinals went to the 2013 World Series during his final year in the Fox booth. (They lost to the Red Sox.) A year earlier, he stood at the Hall of Fame podium accepting his Frick Award. “I saw [Hall of Famer] Frank Robinson at breakfast,” he began his acceptance speech, “and I said, ‘I’ll try to be brief.’ He said, ‘You?‘”

It’s to regret only that McCarver—who analysed World Series games for ABC and CBS before joining Fox—was never paired with the late Vin Scully on a World Series broadcast even once.

He returned to St. Louis to become part of a rotating analytical team on local Cardinals broadcasts, until a St. Louis-only broadcast setup for 2021 collided with his doctor’s orders not to travel while he still lived in Florida.

“When do moments in life become memories?” McCarver asked in his Fox farewell, then answered. “I’m not sure, but maybe it starts with a flutter in your heart or a gasp in your throat and ends with just the hint of a tear in your mind’s eye. Maybe it’s the magic of October, because when it comes to baseball, I have never felt more moments to remember than in the World Series.”

That from a man whose professional baseball life began as Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s teammate and whose national baseball life ended with Xander Bogaerts playing in his first World Series, with the Red Sox. A man who caught World Series games in which Hall of Famers Gibson, Carlton, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, and Mike Schmidt played.

McCarver had only one part of life with more moments to remember, his 58-year marriage to his high school sweeheart, Anne, their two daughters (one a broadcast news producer, the other an accomplished triathlete), and their grandchildren.

Their sorrow now can be mitigated only by knowing he’s serene in the Elysian Fields with his longtime batterymate Gibson, teammates such as Musial, Briles, and Brock, opponents such as Kaline, Ford, Mantle, and Robinson, maybe even getting to call a game with Scully at last. But only partially.

The Brewers burn Burnes erroneously

Corbin Burnes

No, it wasn’t Burnes’s fault the Brewers sputtered down the stretch last year.

If you had a dollar for every time you heard a sports bar drunk or saw a social media twit blame a team’s best player for its failure to make the postseason, you’d be rich enough to pay Corbin Burnes’s 2023 salary and still have seven-eighths of the fortune you earned. But what if you’d heard the team itself blamed their best player for such failure?

That’s what the Brewers did in beating Burnes during salary arbitration. And while I’m just a little bit on the skeptical side, considering the Brewers wanted to pay him a mere $10.1 million for 2023 while Burnes sought a measly $10.8 million, a $700,000 difference, Burnes’s comments after losing his case disturb.

It’s not that teams have been immune to trying to tear players down in salary negotiations before. If there was one thing the free agency era didn’t change from the reserve era, it’s that.

Maybe they don’t get as nasty as one-time longtime Yankee boss George Weiss did, threatening to make available to Mickey Mantle’s wife a private detectives’ report on his  less-than-exemplary after-hours life to beat that Hall of Famer out of a raise. But they can and do get nasty enough even today.

Much if not most of the time, the team and the player who’s arbitration-eligible settle it before it goes to a hearing, the better to avoid the kind of nastiness Burnes described to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The kind in which the Brewers elected to blame Burnes for most of their failure to get even to the 2022 wild card game. They elected wrongly. And they may get burned (or should that be Burnesed) for it down the road apiece.

“They’re trying to do what they can to win the hearing,” Burnes said, “but I think there were other ways they could have gone about it and probably been a little more respectful with how they went about it.”

At the end of the day, here we are. They obviously won it. There’s no denying that the relationship is definitely hurt from what transpired over the last couple weeks. There’s really no way getting around that.

Obviously, we’re professionals, and we’re going to go out there and do our job, keep doing what I can every fifth day that I go out there. But with some of the things that are said, for instance, basically putting me in the forefront of why we didn’t make it to the postseason last year, that’s something that probably doesn’t need be said. We can go about a hearing without having to do that.

The Brewers ended July 2022 with a 57-45 record. Burnes himself ended July with a 2.92 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 2.31 earned run average, a .187 batting average against him, a 5-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the Brewers were 13-7 in his starts.

They were also only three games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central race and looked as though they’d have one of the league’s four wild cards in hand at the finish.

But they went 12-15 in August and finished the month six games out of first. They went 15-13 in September and finished that month seven out of first. The Central was out of the question by then, even with Burnes himself ending September by outpitching eventual 2022 Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara as the Brewers shut the Marlins out, 1-0. Come 3 October, they were eliminated from the postseason entirely.

Burnes himself had a rough August, at least by the standard of a defending Cy Young Award pitcher. His FIP for the month was 3.98, his ERA was 4.23, but the batting average against him was still .197 even if his strikeout-to-walk rate shrank to 2.7-to-1. And the Brewers were 3-3 in his six August starts.

They went 4-3 in Burnes’s September/October starts and 15-13 overall for the period. Burnes was better than in August: he had a 2.79 FIP for the final span, a whopping 6-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the batting average against him was a still-stingy .207. Overall, from August until his final season’s start, Burnes posted a 3.49 FIP, a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, and the span’s batting average against him was a still-stingy .213.

The Brewers went 7-6 in Burnes’s starts from August through 5 October. Except for a 23 August game in which they were blown out by nine runs, with seven runs against Burnes only four of which were earned, the losses were by margins of three or less (and usually two) most of the time. The other exception: a five-run loss to the Mets on 19 September during which Burnes surrendered five earned runs out of the Mets’ seven on the day.

During the same stretch from August’s beginning until their season ended 5 October, the Brewers scored 251 runs but surrendered 254 runs in sixty games. Burnes was charged with 34 earned runs with 37 total scoring against him; by earned runs, he was charged with 13 percent of the runs against the Brewers for the span. The team averaged 4.2 runs scored and 4.2 runs against per game.

I don’t see overwhelming evidence that Burnes’s performance was the key reason the Brewers fell out of the postseason picture. But I do see a pitcher who’s going to go out, pitch the best ball he can pitch with what he has, and then look forward to his first free agency after the 2024 season with a long enough memory that—even if the Brewers can afford to extend him before or pursue him to return after—they won’t even be a topic when he begins to observe his potential suitors.

A team averaging four runs a game down a stretch that cost them a postseason berth should have been smarter than to try putting most of the blame on a single pitcher for a team effort (or lack thereof), just to win a mere $700,000 dollar difference in salary arbitration. To whom will they pay or in what will they invest that seven hundred large to prove it’s worth that kind of mistake?

Due diligence dropped over Clevinger?

Mike Clevinger, Olivia Finestead

White Sox pitcher Mike Clevinger  is accused of attacking  former girlfriend Olivia Finestead and their ten-month-old daughter. Was that why the Padres let him walk into free agency? Were the White Sox completely unaware of the MLB probe when they signed him?

Two major league teams sit on edge over righthanded pitcher Mike Clevinger. One is the White Sox, who signed him as a free agent over the offseason. The other is the Padres, who let him walk into the free agency pool.

The edge is a baseball government investigation into accusations that Clevinger slapped the mother of his ten-month-old daughter around, threw an iPad at her while she was pregnant, tried to strangle her, and threw a load of tobacco juice at the little girl herself.

Olivia Finestead told reporters Clevinger did both last June, while the Padres were in Los Angeles for a set against the Dodgers. She provided photographic evidence to support the accusation. She said she gave Clevinger “leeway” for a considerable period while trying to mediate to retrieve some of her possessions and establish parameters for supervised visitation between Clevinger and their daughter.

Clevinger himself faced the press on day one at the White Sox’s spring training compound in Glendale, Arizona. One moment, he said he wanted to address “the elephant in the room.” The next, he tried steering the presser back to baseball.

“I’m not going to hide away from it,” the righthander said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s really embarrassing. It’s not who I am. Now I’ve got to sit here on my first day and answer questions about it like I am one of those people. It is devastating but I’m here to answer to the bell and I’m excited to see when the facts come out.”

That’s an intriguing way to put it. He’s “excited” to see when the facts come out? You can think of far less cavalier adjectives to apply to the net result of an MLB investigation training on whether you slapped a woman who gave birth to one of your three children and then threw what some might consider toxic waste at the little girl to whom she gave birth.

But no. Clevinger says wait until there’s “actual evidence . . . Just wait for there to be actual evidence before you start making judgments and stuff. This is about my children that I care about even more than this game.” (Clevinger has two older daughters with a different woman.)

Eyes fall upon the Padres, as San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Bryce Miller observed when the accusations were revealed last month, “because “[w]hat might concern fans and others trying to sift and sort what the Padres knew and could do about it sprung up when Finestead relayed that she had been talking to MLB’s Department of Investigations since the summer.”

Translation: What did the Padres really know, and how soon did they really know? Concurrently, what could they have done under MLB’s domestic violence protocol, which bars a club from disciplining an accused player without MLB permission. (Both MLB and the Dodgers put Trevor Bauer on ice in the first place, remember.)

“Were the allegations,” Miller asked, “part of the stew of reasoning for allowing Clevinger to wade into free agency, along with coughing up five runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Dodgers in the NLDS and failing to record an out against the Phillies in the NLCS? Were there character questions behind the scenes?”

Those questions turn into due diligence questions for the White Sox, who made Clevinger their first free agency addition this past offseason. Now, as the Chicago Tribune‘s Paul Sullivan wryly notes, he’s their number one albatross. “How much the Sox vetted Clevinger is another issue they need to examine but probably won’t,” Sullivan writes. “While they might not have known of the allegations when they signed Clevinger, as they said in a statement, the Sox obviously liked his character and believed he would be a good fit in the clubhouse.”

Put domestic violence to one side for one moment. The White Sox might have forgotten when Clevinger, then a Guardian (they were still known as the Indians at the time), violated COVID protocols in 2020. He and fellow pitcher Zack Plesac went out for a restaurant dinner and a card game with friends in Chicago without getting the team’s approval to go.

The team sent Plesac back to Cleveland in a private car but had no idea Clevinger was involved until he flew back to Cleveland with the team—including cancer-fighting pitcher Carlos Carrasco (a Met since 2021), who’d been immuno-compromised from his cancer treatments. Plesac decided it was all the media’s fault for reporting it, not his or Clevinger’s fault for doing it.

Then, Clevinger was merely immature and irresponsible. Now, he may have graduated from those to dangerous.

When White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was asked how the club could avoid walking eyes wide shut again into a situation involving a player under domestic violence investigation, the only thing missing from his word salad was dressing and croutons.

“We had several conversations at that time about what are we getting from a makeup standpoint,” Hahn told reporters. “There certainly were some positives in terms of work ethic and focus and desire to win and compete and understanding of his own mechanics and efforts to improve, which are positives. But there were maturity questions. He’d admit that probably by his own volition. That’s what I was referring to in terms of we’ve had similar guys who have had reputational questions.”

Most recently, it was Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, whom the White Sox brought back to the dugout despite a second DUI. Once a shrewd, forward-thinking skipper, La Russa’s in-game managing now drew him under fire enough despite a division title his first comeback season that, when his pacemaker barked, he retired after his second.

“That wasn’t a case of bad vetting but of Reinsdorf wanting La Russa to manage his team no matter what anyone else thought,” Sullivan writes. “La Russa could’ve bowed out once the news became public but didn’t feel the need . . . [He] never was going to get the benefit of the doubt from a large and vocal segment of Sox fans. Neither will Clevinger if he’s allowed to pitch in 2023. But unlike La Russa, Reinsdorf has no personal relationship with Clevinger, so there’s no need to pretend fans eventually will grow to like Clevinger.”

We should note in fairness that Finestead herself doesn’t look askance at the White Sox. “I was told the @whitesox didn’t have a clue of [Clevinger’s] investigation,” she posted online. “Can’t blame an organisation for something they don’t know.”

But there are still too many fans, baseball and other sports, who are too willing to overlook or forgive such grotesquery as domestic violence so long as those accused and exposed can get it done in the game. He beat/attacked his wife/child/girlfriend/one-night stand? The guy’s going to help pitch us to a World Series or quarterback us to the playoffs, so run along, old man, you bother us.

It should bother the Padres and their fans that they may have had little choice but to bite the bullet and wait until Clevinger left as a free agent.

It should bother the White Sox and their fans that they either got caught with their proverbial pants down signing him or that those in the front office responsible for vetting him fell short of full due diligence.

It should also bother Met fans that—after an offseason of bravery and boldness; wading into the free agency pool and coming up Justin Verlander, while turning away from Jacob deGrom and Carlos Correa over health concerns; re-upping keys Brandon Nimmo (outfield), Jeff McNeil (infield/outfield), and Edwin Diaz (relief pitching)—the Mets invited outfielder Kahlil Lee to spring training despite his own domestic violence issue. His former girlfriend, Keriwyn Hill, charges that he choked her and pulled her hair violently during an argument last May, while Lee played for the Mets’ Syracuse AAA team. (MLB is also investigating the Lee case.)

It should bother any decent human being. Just as it should bother us that there are still too many men who think touching a woman for any reason other than to express love is acceptable.

Ugly flamingo

Once and for all. When they began referring to the free cookie on second base to begin each extra half-inning as Manfred man, I cringed. Not just because of the concept itself, but because I did and still do like only one Manfred Mann. And it’s taking every ounce of psychic strength to keep Manfred man from killing Manfred Mann for me.

For the life of me I can’t imagine Commissioner Rube Goldberg writing, never mind singing, the lyric to Manfred Mann’s greatest single and maybe the single prettiest love song of the 1964-66 British Invasion this side of “And I Love Her”:

Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, pretty Flamingo,
then every guy will envy me, ’cause paradise is where I’ll be.

Because it was anything but some sweet day when Manfred decided it needed to be in the Show. And not every guy envies him for it. His idea of baseball paradise often includes detours into baseball’s Inferno. One of his predecessors began his professional life as a teacher and scholar whose specialty was Dante. We’re lucky if Manfred’s knowledge of Dante goes as far back as Bo Bichette’s one-time slugging father.

Many baseball “traditions” have deserved to go the way of the large stone bases with which the game we know began. Extra inning games without encumbrance or monkey business aren’t one of them.

Seriously. I get the alarm from teams concerned for the issues a long game one day leaves on their rosters for the game the day after. (Such issues are why I favoured the doubleheader of seven-inning games, and still do.) I get relief pitchers concerned for the extra erosion on their arms and shoulders if they’d worked a day or two before and then went into a late, long-lasting marathon.

But I don’t mean to say I don’t care whose arm gets ground down when I say that half the fun of baseball in the first place was the prospect of a tight game going to extra innings. When Astros rookie Jeremy Peña homered to end an eighteen-inning division series marathon and the Mariners’ season at once, it ended an affair that included twelve pitchers used between both sides and grand theater.

They don’t all go as marathon as that, regular or postseason.

They don’t all go 26 innings the way Brooklyn and Boston did in 1920, ending in a one-all tie because of darkness. (This was prehistoric baseball, before the lights went on in Cincinnati and in due course elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 25 the way the White Sox and the Brewers did in 1984 (this was the game that provided Harold Baines his [snort] Hall of Fame credential: he homered to end it), or the way the Cardinals and the Mets did a decade earlier. (This one ended with road running: the Cardinals’ Shake ‘n’ Bake McBride scored all the way from first . . . on a wild pickoff throw. No, they didn’t now dream up the pickoff throw limit the better to keep pitchers from being embarrassed by run-scoring throwing errors in the bottom of the 25th or elsewhere.)

They don’t all go 24 the way the Astros and the Mets did in April 1968, when the game ended on a classic Astroturf hit: a grounder skidding away from Mets shortstop Al Weis, allowing the winning run to score. (Credit to the Astrodome’s scoreboard operators for an inspirational message in the 20th inning: We hope you are enjoying tonight’s third game as much as you enjoyed the first two.)

Or, the way the Giants and the Mets did in a doubleheader nightcap in 1964, the Giants finally winning it and teenage Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool ending his day having played all 33 innings. (The Mets are the only franchise in Show history to play three 23+ inning games in their lifespan. They also lost all three.) In fact, in over a century plus of major league ball as we’ve known it, only eight games have gone 23 or more and only nine have gone exactly 22.

They don’t even all go eighteen, the way the Red Sox and the Dodgers did going eighteen in Game Five of the 2018 World Series, before Nathan Eovaldi’s stout six-inning relief performance was wrecked by Max Muncy with a leadoff launch over the left field fence. And I sure don’t remember anyone kvetching about the length of that one while it was ongoing.

So Manfred man was created first as one way to quicken things up during the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season, then kept year-by-year to quicken things up with or without a pan-damn-ic. Now, Manfred man’s been voted permanent by a joint competition committee until or unless voted otherwise by another joint competition committee. But who’s kidding whom?

Too many from Manfred onward complain incessantly about the length of baseball games. How many of those people kvetch about Super Bowl LVII requiring what proved to be three hours and thirty-one minutes to play? (No kvetch except over the halftime shows. I get that, too. For crying out loud, save the mini-concerts for post-game.) The team sport which yields its own singular blend of comedy and drama might take three plus hours—and even those who think Manfred’s as good for the game as a grease puddle to a pedestrian believe too much is more than enough.

“Certainly, everyone working at the game appreciates avoiding twenty-inning marathons,” writes The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris. “But those attending the game might disagree, and cite the fact that, with this rule in place, extra-inning runs have scored at over two times the rate they score in the first nine innings. That’s fundamentally different baseball! Their retort might ask baseball teams to build their rosters with more pitchers capable of going longer in emergency situations.”

The good news, and it’s the only spot of it in this regard, is that Manfred man still won’t show up in the postseason. Yet. The further bad news is that Manfred man won’t necessarily prevent the occasional extra inning games from turning into the equivalent of two games or even a third. There’s no absolute guarantee that Manfred man will turn into a run as swiftly as its advocates love to believe and its opponents per Sarris fear.

Suppose we re-aligned one of the actual key causes of protracted sports contests: broadcast commercials. (Admit it: at the stadium, you’ve seen players lingering before continuing play, the better to accommodate this call to the bullpen, that insertion of the special teams, the other double switch, the kickoff team’s advent yonder.) Imagine how much shorter a baseball game might be with broadcast commercials only between the full, not the half innings.

(Don’t go there: No, the Lords of Baseball don’t want their broadcast revenues cut; but, yes, they might go for negotiating delicious prices on mere full-inning commercials and getting them.)

Maybe that’s the core of the problem. The thinking person’s sport is somewhat overrun with short, shallow thinking. (It makes you wonder about the real objection to analytics/sabermetrics: it requires thought, and lots of it.) Starting with the man who brought to baseball’s extra half innings the ugly flamingo, also known as the ghost runner. (Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, hopefully.)