About Jeff Kallman

Member, Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and the Society for American Baseball Research.

Great misfortune meaning unforeseen baseball reward?

2020-04-07 ChaseFieldIn a 1930 collection of brief essays, The Book of Journeyman, Albert Jay Nock—once upon a time a semi-professional baseball player himself—included a piece called “Decline and Fall.” He began by disclosing a New England college trustee revealing golf becoming more popular than baseball on campus since baseball’s “over-commercialisation” now impressed students as lacking golf’s class.

Accepting all that, Nock saw “one merit” in that shift of view, writing that golf “is no game to watch—one must play it oneself to get anything out of it.” Funny, but that’s what a lot of people who don’t like to watch baseball say about baseball, even as the fact that so many people have loved watching baseball’s “great spectacle made its commercialisation possible.”

There is some commercialisation of football and tennis, but it will never go any distance as it has in baseball; and golf, I think, will always remain a player’s game. How odd it would be, though, if a generation should grow up which knew not baseball! America would no longer seem like America.

Nock couldn’t have foreseen the future popularity of football, or future baseball administrators becoming as inept as they’ve been in preserving and enhancing the game’s popular value. But neither could he know a day would come when a viral pandemic, whose advent and arrival was bungled worse than any commissioner bungled baseball’s standing, would bring baseball to a halt indeed.

The meme cliche is now weeks old in which you can remember just how profoundly Joni Mitchell’s ancient lyric fits baseball this minute: “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The winter of malcontent over Astrogate melted uneasily enough into spring before the coronavirus’s surge forced American sports to suspend themselves. Baseball’s absence has made more than a few of the restless more so.

Now comes word of a plan of sorts to bring the major league game back  “as early as May,” as ESPN’s Jeff Passan phrases his report, with the apparent blessing of “high-ranking federal public health officials” he says believe baseball can return safely—in Arizona alone, and with nobody in the stands to root-root-root for the home team or otherwise.

The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including the Arizona Diamondbacks’s Chase Field, 10 spring training facilities and perhaps other nearby fields. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium, sources said. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.

There was indeed talk of playing to empty houses by design before baseball and other sports suspended over the coronarivus. Baseball has a precedent, of course, thanks to the 2015 riots that battered Baltimore, a surreal game between the Orioles and the White Sox for which Camden Yards was closed to the public and both teams (the Orioles won, 8-2) felt as though they were playing in the Twilight Zone.

But this isn’t the immediate aftermath of a city-breaking riot provoked by the combustibility of police malfeasance and looters using the very real outrage over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody as beards for their destruction. This is baseball and the world at large trying to overcome one of recorded history’s worst pandemics while trying to find its way back to a semblance of normalcy.

It’s bad enough that governments and leaders seize upon the virus as a beard for their impulses toward bringing their subjects further under control than they’ve craved without such pandemics. It might be just as bad if industries feeling the impact of the shutdowns reach for desperate ploys upon their returns, whenever those returns may be.

Aside from the logistics Passan discusses in fine detail, neither baseball’s government nor the Major League Baseball Players Association has agreed to any plan under which the game might return for even a portion of 2020. This was baseball government’s formal statement:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so. While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.

The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

It’s not just a “format for staging games” they have to consider. They’ll have to consider suspending baseball’s already ridiculous broadcast blackout rules. If you think there are fans restless without baseball at all now, just imagine how ornery they’ll become if they can’t watch any single-state-located games.

They’ll also have to consider ways to make a pennant race and a postseason feasible off a circumstantially shortened season. And there have been times past when seasons disrupted turned into the game outsmarting itself. (The 1981 strike, the split season, and the first divisional-series postseason, anyone? Where the two best teams in each National League division didn’t even make the postseason cut?)

There’s talk that includes the possibility of playing seven-innings-a-game doubleheaders, the better to get as close to a full season as possible. Never mind that a key reason why the doubleheader faded away was owners exhausted of losing gates (doubleheaders traditionally charged a single admission to both games) and players not named Ernie (It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two!) Banks exhausted of being exhausted from playing them.

Try this one on if you like. Suspend the wild cards. Especially if it becomes possible to play baseball in its usual venues, not just in Arizona, draw a schedule that enables each league’s teams to play each other in season series twice. Schedule limited interleague play, as contingent upon local or regional reach as feasible. (This could prove problematic for the Braves, but it’s time for baseball’s brain trusts to use, well, their brains.) Assuming baseball can return in June, all this could make a 100-game schedule workable.

Now, just this once, seize the moment. Streamline the postseason at long enough last. Give the division winner with the best season’s record a round-one bye and let the other two winners play a best-of-three division series. Let those winners meet the bye teams in a best-of-five League Championship Series. And let the World Series remain the prime and the only  best-of-seven.

You guessed it: I’m sort of (ho ho ho) sneaking in a proposal I’ve long advocated on behalf of de-saturating postseason baseball and making pennant races mean something once again. Aren’t you finally tired of all the stretch drive thrills watching teams fight to the last breath to finish . . . in second place?

(It’ll also address an alarm raised by Clayton Kershaw and others. Who really wants the World Series played near Christmas in “neutral” territory? Jingle ball all the way? Who wants to kill the fun of the combatants playing before their home crowds when scheduled?)

Whether baseball can return in May or even June, this would be the ideal condition in which to try it out. If you think the broadcast ratings might take a jump when the season gets underway at all, think of what’ll happen to them when they’re not drowning in postseason excess. Would it be so terrible if that, too, inspires baseball to restore proper championship competition for non-pandemic seasons to come?

This might also be a time for baseball’s government to re-consider the already execrable plan to contract the minor leagues. If you think the Show’s going to make the nation feel loved again upon its return, just imagine what the minors will do for the hamlets, towns, villages, and smaller cities where they play. Remind yourself while you’re at it that that execrable plan is another reason to believe baseball’s better off without Jeff Luhnow, the Astrogate-deposed general manager whose brainchild the minor league contraction was in the first place.

This much we can guess: Baseball’s return is going to be the biggest morale boost this nation has seen since the game was able to return after the respite imposed by the horror of 9/11. Even those to whom baseball is no great shake will feel comfort that somehow, somewhere, there’s a ball game being played.

You might think it either silly or salacious to lean upon even a fictitious Mafia don for comfort, if not wisdom. But in The Godfather (the novel, not the film) Don Vito Corleone mused how true it was that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward. Baseball has a couple of great chances now to prove how right that is.

Al Kaline, RIP: Mr. Tiger was a pussycat

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Hall of Famer Al Kaline (left) with Fred Hutchinson, his first major league manager. Hutch introduced the lad to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who introduced him to wrist strengthening that enhanced his formidable enough hitting–but Kaline’s glove and arm were equal.

Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, whose career ended before Andy Messersmith shattered the reserve era once and for all, once turned down a salary raise because he believed he didn’t earn it. He still became the first Tiger to sign a six-figure single-season contract in due course.

A year ago, a teammate of Kaline’s on the 1973 Tigers told me during a telephone interview about how Kaline—who died today at 85—became a team leader without big talk or big noise.

“Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” said Bill Denehy, the former Mets pitcher whose third of three major league seasons was in Detroit. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player.”

Kaline signed with the Tigers right out of high school for a $35,000 bonus. Under the once-infamous Bonus Baby rule of that era, such players had to be kept on major league rosters for two seasons before they could be farmed out for real seasoning. Of all the players impacted by that bonus rule, Kaline was one of only three to become Hall of Famers. (The others: Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew, though Killebrew was the only one of the three to see minor league time after his bonus period expired.)

The son of a Baltimore broom maker and a scrubwoman, Kaline used his bonus to pay off his parents’ mortgage and for his mother to undergo eye surgery. “They’d always helped me,” he once told a reporter. “They knew I wanted to be a major-leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me time for baseball. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.”

Kaline was in a Tiger uniform the week after his high school graduation. By the time he became eligible to be sent to the minors, in 1955, it was the last thing on the Tigers’ mind: he was about to become the American League’s batting champion. He developed a near-picture swing, partially on Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s advice, Williams having suggested he try squeezing rubber balls and moderate small weight lifting to build his wrists.

What Denehy considered the ultimate team player on the Tigers proved it on the final day of his major league career, against the Orioles. Coming in having hit in thirteen of his previous eighteen games, including the one that gave him 3,000 lifetime, Kaline also hadn’t hit one out since that September 18. His next home run would be the 400th of his career.

It never came.

Kaline batted twice against the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar, striking out and flying out, while also playing through a badly ailing shoulder. When his next turn to hit arrived in the fifth, Kaline put baseball ahead of a notch on his resume. He told manager Ralph Houk to take him out, which Houk did, sending Ben Oglivie up to pinch-hit against Baltimore reliever Wayne Garland.

The tiny Tiger Stadium crowd booed lustily. “I was sitting there in the clubhouse,” Kaline remembered, “and I could hear them booing. I really felt sorry for Ben. It wasn’t his fault.” Houk, for his part, empathised with Kaline. “With a hitter as great as he is,” he told reporters, “you don’t send him back out there when he says he’s had enough. I think I owed Al that much.”

When Kaline became the (still) youngest batting champion (at 20), he tied for second with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. That wasn’t the only thing he had in common with the Yankee legend. Kaline dealt with osteomyelitis, too, but in his left foot, requiring removal of some bone and forcing him to learn to run on the side of the foot, something that plagued him along with numerous other injuries in his career.

Writing The Cooperstown Casebook, Jay Jaffe ranked Kaline the number seven right fielder who ever played the game, including that his 155 defensive runs saved lifetime are second only to fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente among right fielders. Yet when Kaline became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980, fans and the Detroit press hammered the Tigers yet again over Kaline’s early exit in that final game.

Kaline also faced questions over it even then. “That was one of my most embarrassing moments,” he said long afterward. “But you have to understand that I didn’t realize at the time the fans came out to see me in my last time at-bat.”

He had nothing for which to apologise. A man who puts baseball ahead of his own potential milestone and knows when it’s time to sit down is entitled to dispensation.

“When you talk about all-around ballplayers, I’d say Kaline is the best I ever played against. And he’s a super nice guy, too,” said the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, during Kaline’s final season, Robinson just so happening to be a super nice guy himself. (“Around here,” Brooks Robinson Day MC Gordon Beard said, “people don’t name candy bars after Brooks Robinson—they name their children after him.”)

“There aren’t too many guys who are good ballplayers and nice guys, too,” Robinson continued. “Your attitude determines how good you’re going to be — in life as well as in baseball. He’s got a great attitude.”

So much so that Kaline began getting applause in opposing ballparks around 1969-70, something that didn’t go unnoticed by him. “This makes a guy feel good,” he told The Sporting News in 1970. “Most of it is for being around so long. I’ve stood the test of time. And I haven’t done anything to embarrass the game or myself.”

Kaline’s humility was as legendary in Detroit as his playing consistency. He missed five weeks in 1968 with a fractured forearm, then saw limited time when he returned. He even questioned whether he belonged in the World Series when Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, who’d gotten most of Kaline’s plate appearances in the interim, had run the distance.

That’s when then-manager Mayo Smith devised his gambit of moving Stanley from center field to shortstop, displacing good glove/spaghetti bat Ray Oyler, and shifting Northrup to center field, enabling Kaline to take his usual post. Kaline’s two-run single in Game Five yanked the Tigers from the brink of elimination and he finished the Series with a 1.055 OPS.

That was the man who said after the Tigers clinched the pennant in the first place, “I don’t deserve to play in the World Series.”

Kaline became a respected commentator on Tigers’ game telecasts, working with play-by-play man George Kell and then, after Kell retired from the booth, Ernie Harwell. He did that for two decades to follow before he was moved to the Tigers’ front office in an advisory role. More than that, making friends among just about everyone who met Mr. Tiger seemed to come second nature to him.

He had numerous admirers even among his opponents. “I like to watch him hit,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once. “I like to watch him hit even against us. He’s got good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is that he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches, too.”

Yet the Tigers honoured him with one of only six statues around Comerica Park by having him seen with a glove, rather than a bat in his hand. It depicts Kaline making a leaping, one-handed catch, very much like the catch he made scaling above the old Yankee Stadium right field, field-level scoreboard, to take a homer from Mantle in 1956.

Kaline was as elegant an assassin shooting down runners from right field as he was at the plate. “He was the only fielder,” tweeted actor/baseball fan Jeff Daniels, “who could make the ball come to him.” Not long ago, though, Kaline lamented contemporary outfielders doing less work on their throwing than he and his contemporaries did.

“The outfielders really need to be practicing making long throws because sometimes you can go several games before you have to make a long or hard throw,” he told a writer.

They don’t do it at all. Today the outfielders play long catch before the game, and they work on the outfield walls when they go to another ballpark but they don’t regularly practice throwing home like we did when I played. They just don’t do it. Throwing in game conditions is a lot different then just playing long catch in the outfield. In a game you have to move your feet a lot faster and you don’t have time to set up and throw . . . I don’t know why they don’t practice throwing home at least once every series just to get used to game situations as you possibly can.

Two years before that robbery against Mantle, Kaline threw White Sox baserunners out in three straight innings. The bad news was the White Sox still slapping the Tigers silly in that game, a 9-0 win with sixteen White Sox hits. Typically, Kaline refused to call for fireworks on his own behalf. “That was a pretty fair day,” he said of his three kills in three innings. “I liked it.”

Kaline had only one more enduring marriage than with the Tigers—with his wife, Louise, his high school girl whom he married after the 1954 season and whom he loved for her beauty, her brains, and for her ability to talk baseball. One of their two sons played in the Tigers organisation briefly.

When baseball changed the name of its annual sportsmanship/community involvement award to the Roberto Clemente Award, Kaline was the first to win the award under that name. Fittingly. Both men had 3,000 hits or more and howitzers for throwing arms. But Kaline has just one up on Clemente: his was the first uniform number (6) retired by his franchise.

Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” tweeted longtime Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”

Always felt that to be a slam-dunk HOFer you had to have an ego and be selfish, always knowing how many W’s or HRs you were away from Cooperstown,” tweeted Claire Smith, a Hall of Fame baseball writer herself. Then I met #AlKaline Billy Williams, Sandy Koufax, Phil Niekro — gentlemen & gentle men. “R.I.P. Mr. Tiger.”

In numerology, 6 means, basically, family, home, harmony, nurturing, and idealism. It sounds like a thumbnail sketch of Kaline himself. If we have to say farewell on the day this gentleman and gentle man went to the Elysian Fields, the date is only too appropriate, too. The sixth.

Stolen bases justify electronic cheating?

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I bet you didn’t think the Man of Steal gave the Astro Intelligence Agency legs. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Would you like to know one reason why the courts are often held in contempt? Federal judge Jed Rakoff has just given you one. He thinks Rickey Henderson gave the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring legs.

Rakoff has proclaimed himself a longtime baseball fan. He has also dismissed a lawsuit by fantasy baseball players against the Astros, the Red Sox, and baseball government over Astrogate/Soxgate espionage, who argued that the Astros and Red Sox shenanigans tainted the games based on which they played theirs.

Arguing as Rakoff does that the evidence on the fantasy players’ behalf is insufficient to proceed is one thing. They probably had less to go on than does Mike Bolsinger, the Blue Jays reliever who was farmed out never to return after he was destroyed by the Astro Intelligence Agency in August 2017 unaware going in that the deck against him was stacked.

But the judge’s opening statement deserves to become at least as infamous as Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in his time: “A sport that celebrates ‘stealing,’ even if only of a base, does not provide the perfect encouragement to scrupulous play.” Right then and there you should feel less bothered that the suit was dismissed than about what Rakoff’s choplogic says about his judgment over graver matters than baseball espionage.

“Nor can it be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) bodies,” he continues. “But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly (in the 1956 movie musical High Society), ‘There are rules about such things’.”

The Chairman of the Board spoke to the future Princess of Monaco about love and war and what’s fair in both, not whether the Man of Steal was really a shameless criminal for stealing as many bases as Robin Yount drove in runs. (1,406.)

Rakoff’s essential view, as translated by Yahoo! Sports writer Chris Cwik, is this: “Bettors should know teams will do anything to win. He cites spitballs, corked bats and steroids to make his argument. By Rakoff’s logic, the sign-stealing scandal is the risk bettors take when they place money on a sport known for cheating scandals.”

In other words, there’s a presumption of guilt.

Uh, no. We may presume baserunners will try stealing signs or pitchers might try getting away with a little ball alteration, but that’s not the same as assuming (as the Astros claim they did) that teams are opening and operating their own off-field-based, extralegal intelligence agencies.

Suppose Rakoff were alive and on the bench in 1919. Would he have ruled that angry fans and double-crossed bettors should have known going in that game fixing was a troublesome enough norm before Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to the grand jury?

Or, suppose the plaintiffs could have known in advance (there’s no sign-stealing in the courts, we think) that Rakoff would mention actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. They could have introduced Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood’s observation that he’d rather face a juicer than a hitter getting signs through espionage, because at least the juicer (assuming he isn’t getting electronically stolen signs) still has to guess and try to hit it.

It might not have helped their case, but it might have kept Rakoff from opening his dismissal with the logic-chopping claim that, essentially, Rickey Henderson justifies Astrogate.

At last, an Astrogate apology

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A video capture made infamous by Jonboy after the first Astrogate revelations: Evan Gattis at the plate in 2017, about to face a pitch from Danny Farquhar just before Farquhar called his catcher to the mound to switch signs . . .

Maybe Evan Gattis felt a little too much heat last week, when he snarked about being the last to land a nasty drinking cup with Mike Fiers’s face and the caption “Snitches Get Stitches.” And, when he hastened to walk it back after his boast got him a small firestorm (including “Cheaters Get Heaters”) of snark-back.

Maybe, too, the former Astros backup catcher was reminded that was him at the plate in a 2017 game against the White Sox, on preserved and notorious video, getting electronically stolen signs banged his way until White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled the proverbial rat, called his catcher out to the mound, and changed signs posthaste.

Whatever compelled him, the now-retired Gattis isn’t feeling too snarky about Astrogate anymore. He unloaded to The Athletic‘s podcast 755 is Real this week. He unloaded a no-holds-barred apology for the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18, even while acknowledging that by now no apology on earth will untaint or restore the Astros’ image.

And he’s also more than willing to give Fiers—the original Astrogate whistleblower, the only one among four 2017 Astros who was willing to put his name on the record to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November—his props, rather than saluting even a just-kidding threat against the now-Athletics pitcher.

“I don’t think I can win the hearts over of anyone right now at all, or maybe ever,” Gattis told 755 is Real. “I don’t know how to feel yet. I don’t think anybody—we didn’t look at our moral compass and say, ‘Yeah, this is right.’ It was almost like paranoia warfare or something. But what we did was wrong. Like, don’t get it twisted. It was wrong for the nature of competition, not even just baseball. Yeah, that was wrong. I will say that.”

Retired since the end of the 2018 season, Gattis didn’t stop there. “If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, then (so be it),” he said, after saying he hated to see general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch fired almost the moment their suspensions for 2020 were handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred.

“And I don’t know what should have been done, but something had to be [fornicating] done,” the former catcher continued. “And I do agree with that, big time. I do think it’s good for baseball if we clean it up. But I really don’t know to this day, and I’ve thought about it a [spit] ton, know what I mean? And I still don’t know how to feel.

“I’ll get ripped by somebody—‘That’s not an apology’—and if I do apologize, that’s still not going to be good enough. No [spit], it’s not going to be good enough. I understand that it’s not [fornicating] good enough to say, sorry. I get it.”

Luhnow and Hinch may have been suspended from baseball through the end of the 2020 season, whenever the season might be played if it’s played thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but they’d be free to seek other baseball employment afterward. Even if 2020 ends up canceled entirely. There are those who say nobody should even think about hiring them even as concession hawkers.

Luhnow fostered the victory-uber-alles culture within the Astros organisation that too often operated according to Major Strasser’s law (expressed in a memorable line in Casablanca), “You’ll find that human life is cheap.” A culture that allowed Luhnow to dismiss internal alarm when he dealt for a relief pitcher still under suspension for domestic violence and call for an internally-developed sign-stealing algorithm that paved the way to the AIA.

Hinch didn’t exactly look the other way when he caught onto the AIA, but he did nothing to stop it other than smashing one or two of the monitors in the clubhouse from which the opposing signs picked up by an illegal camera were transmitted for translation to pass on to Astro hitters. He fiddled while the plot apparently led by his then-bench coach Alex Cora and his then-designated hitter Carlos Beltran—both of whom eventually lost managing jobs over their Astrogate culpability—burned opponents with little to no idea they walked into a stacked Astro deck.

“For some players that we faced, that I’d never faced before or something like that, even selfishly we didn’t get to find out how good those people are—and they didn’t either,” said Gattis to 755 is Real. “I think that was the one cool thing about playing in the big leagues, was just to find out how good you are, which I think is valuable. Everybody wants to be the best player in the [fornicating] world, man, and we cheated that, for sure. We obviously cheated baseball and cheated fans. Fans felt duped. I feel bad for fans.”

Gattis may have handed ammunition, inadvertently, to former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger’s legal team, in Bolsinger’s lawsuit arguing that—when he was trying to hang in as a remade relief pitcher with the 2017 Blue Jays—the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing operation destroyed him in what proved his final major league appearance.

In that game, the Astros got more stolen signs banged on the can to their hitters than in any other game for which banging-the-can-slowly could be determined. They also got more when Bolsinger was on the mound than when they faced any other Blue Jays reliever that day. Bolsinger was torn apart for five runs when he entered with two out in the bottom of the fourth, escaping only when he managed to get Alex Bregman to fly out.

The Blue Jays sent Bolsinger to Triple A right after the game. He might have been a former starter reduced by injuries to a journeyman trying to remake himself as a reliever, and I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it’s worth a reminder: Even a marginal relief pitcher has the right to know that his major league career got torpedoed straight, no chaser.

The Astros have had the original Los Angeles judge in the Bolsinger lawsuit removed for “prejudice,” never mind that the judge was chosen at random. They followed that by filing to have the suit either thrown out or moved to Texas in the name of “fairness.” They also face a lawsuit back east from a group of fantasy baseball players arguing that the AIA tainted the games through which they played their fantasy ball.

Aside from handing both lawsuits’ plaintiffs valuable close air support, Gattis isn’t so willing to be snarky about Fiers anymore, either, if his comments to 755 is Real are any indication.

“With Fiers, he had something to say, dude,” the former catcher continued. “It probably started out with him saying exactly what he said—some of these guys coming into the league, they don’t [fornicating] know yet that this [spit] goes on. And I respect that. And he had something to say. So he had to [fornicating] say it. And then we had to get punished. Because if not, then what? It’ll get even more out of control.”

Gattis acknowledged that previous reports citing an anonymous 2017 Astro had it right that Brian McCann, the longtime Brave who joined the Astros for 2017-2018, who retired after a final tour with the Braves last season, objected to the AIA “and made his feelings known at least a couple of times,” as Athletic writer David O’Brien phrases it.

“I could tell it was eating him up,” Gattis told the podcast. “He didn’t like it one bit . . . He’s played so long, and he just understands what it takes to get to the big leagues, and he’s got a lot of respect for ballplayers. You could just tell.”

But you can also just tell that a man making his objections known at least a couple of times isn’t quite the same thing as a man in McCann’s position—a veteran with respect in the clubhouse, whose voice would be heeded assuming he puts more weight into it than a couple of objections made known—pushing a little further within his particular boundaries to turn mere objections into a needed confrontation.

And Gattis isn’t exactly ready to lay the Astrogate onus as heavily as others upon Beltran, whose standing as so respected a veteran, with a Hall of Fame-worthy playing resume, is said often enough to have felt just a little omnipotent among his younger teammates.

“[N]obody made us do [spit] — you know what I’m saying?” Gattis said. “Like, people saying, ‘This guy made us do this’ . . . That’s not it. But you have to understand, the situation was powerful. Like, you work your whole life to try to hit a ball, and you mean, you can tell me what’s coming? What? Like, it’s a powerful thing. And there’s millions of dollars on the line and shit? And what’s bad is, that’s how people got hurt. That’s not right; that’s not playing the game right.”

The Astros weren’t exactly overcome with remorse when Manfred’s Astrogate report was released in January. They weren’t exactly allergic to (depending on your viewpoint) non-apologetic apologies or apologetic non-apologies when spring training opened. Owner Jim Crane persists in his delusion that the Manfred report “exonerated” him and his ignorance that, when you lead, you assume responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates.

Now it’s only to lament that Gattis couldn’t have said upon his retirement what he finally said to 755 is Real. It might have made a far larger difference. Still, the fact that Gattis was willing to go on the public record as he now has to 755 is Real is staggering enough. Whether he saw the light, felt the heat, or came up somewhere in between.

Does Tim Tebow face a final curtain?

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Tim Tebow at the plate for Syracuse in 2019; the parent Mets have invited him to 2020 spring training as a non-roster invitee.

If he earns nothing else when his athletic career ends at last, Tim Tebow will earn eternal respect for his stubborn determination to play on until the last sports uniform is torn from his back. Whether that uniform will come off this year remains open, but Tebow can look forward to a spring reprieve at minimum.

The Mets have handed him a non-roster invitation, which probably indicates he’ll start a second season with the Syracuse Mets (AAA). But it isn’t likely to indicate that his chances of playing major league baseball, slim enough as they are already, will improve. At 32 years old, and with a total performance resume described as dubious at best, Tebow’s professional athletic career may head for the final curtain.

Tebow has played in the Mets’ system since 2016, almost a year after his last chance at quarterbacking in the National Football League ended with the Philadelphia Eagles. His previous baseball experience was as a high school junior, when the Angels thought of drafting him had he played the game as a senior first. When not playing baseball the former Heisman Trophy winner works as an ESPN college football analyst and motivational author.

He hasn’t exactly flown like an eagle in the Mets’ system, but he remains popular with fans and even with fellow Mets minor leaguers, who cite him as a good teammate regardless of what he does at the plate or in the field. That jibes with his NFL reputation, in which few put off by Tebow’s sometimes overbearing popularity faulted Tebow himself for it.

Nor was it Tebow’s fault that he wasn’t able to cling as an NFL quarterback or that his actual skills didn’t equal even a modest NFL backup. (What he really had were the skills of a solid running back.) I’ve seen no better assessment of his core dilemna—the one momentarily obscured by his fluke late-season Denver success—than that of How They Play‘s Tony Daniels:

His throwing style was awkward, and his passing was inaccurate as a result. He adopted a run-oriented mindset early in his career that caused him to take off running when his primary receiver wasn’t open or when he felt pressure. The most glaring reason why he failed as a quarterback in the NFL was because of the coaching he received in high school and at Florida.

Tebow was never forced to develop into a conventional quarterback. Because he was big, strong, and could run, his coaches at the lower levels simply went with the flow and allowed him to run without helping him to develop other skills. As a result, he simply improved on what he naturally did well and got weaker at what he didn’t do well; passing the football . . . Why else would NFL quarterback coaches have to work so hard with him on his mechanics? What were his high school and college coaches doing when he was in their practices? Was no one working with him on his footwork, stance, throwing motion, delivery, and following through then?

You stay mindful of the good teammate’s spiritual clubhouse value (“He’s the kind of guy who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing well,” said a Seattle Pilots teammate of pitcher Gary Bell after a Bell trade), you remain mindful at once that baseball teams require ability and results. Whatever the Angels saw in him as a high school junior was atrophied long enough.

By the time the Mets decided Tebow was worth having, maybe more to goose their minor league gates, he wasn’t a bona-fide baseball prospect. His personality and agreeability made you wish in your heart of hearts for some previously-unimaginable emergence of baseball talent. (They still do.) His shameless religious faith, which seemed jarring at first to the jaded, should never have been jarring and remains something to behold and admire in a time when spiritual faith sees more knockdown pitches than any hitter does.

Tebow launched his baseball career with a bang in his first professional plate appearance. But after four minor league seasons, one or two interrupted by injuries, Tebow’s  batting statistics—along traditional and what I call real batting average lines—would be impressive here and there . . . for a decent National League-bound pitcher:

Traditional Stat Line AB H BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 940 210 85 327 .223 .299 .255 .495
Real Batting Avg. Line PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Tim Tebow, 2016-2019 1048 318 85 0 5 18 .406

Looking in absolute fairness, Tebow’s lifetime RBA is higher than only two 2019 Silver Slugger Award qualifiers with 500+ plate appearances last year, but those two qualifiers have other abilities that make them at minimum just able to play major league baseball.

Tebow’s best minor league season was 2018—at AA level Binghamton—and this was with a traditional slash line of .273/.336/.399 and an RBA showing a deceptive .453. He played in 87 games that season with his more or less standard results: little power with inconsistent bat speed, an apparent allergy to walks, five strikeouts for every walk, little running speed, and not a lot of outfield range.

Somehow, he became a AA All-Star; that may have tied to an unexpected showing for hitting safely with two out and runners on second or better. (He had 53 such plate appearances and hit .346, with thirteen runs driven in but only two of eighteen hits going for extra bases.) Then he lost almost half of July and all the rest of the season with a broken hand, which stopped once-unlikely momentum for him in June and in July’s first half: he hit a combined .317 for June and July, even if it wasn’t exactly that productive a .317. The Mets then moved Tebow up the ladder to AAA Syracuse last year. His slash line: .163/.240/.255. (OPS: .495.) His RBA: .326.

And yet, as Syracuse.com’s Lindsay Kramer wrote toward the end of the Syracuse Mets’s season, “While it could be argued that other players might have been a lot more deserving of the at-bats that appeared wasted on Tebow, at least his roster spot didn’t deny a quality young prospect playing time.”

That was on 13 August, after Tebow’s season ended with a cut to his left pinkie. In what could be called a summation of his baseball career to date, Kramer wrote, “[G]etting a chance is one thing, taking advantage of it another. Tebow . . . showed perseverance in his bid to transition from NFL quarterback to pro baseball player but that dedication is still a long way from producing numbers anywhere near someone deserving of a big-league look.”

Or, at last, generating the positive attendance numbers that once made the Mets’ Tebow experiment an unlikely success at the gate. “Poor play plus poor attendance numbers is a brutal combination,” wrote Sportsnaut‘s Jesse Reed. “Tebow is beloved by many, yet he isn’t compelling his fans to come watch any more.”

Said Tony DeFrancesco, last year Syracuse’s manager and for 2020 the Mets’ first base coach, “It might take a little more time than people expected, third year professional ball, first year Triple-A. Unfortunately, injuries got to him. Those are at-bats that I think Tim really needs to develop, to really understand his swing, his decision-making, seeing pitches. So I think that still has to improve.”

Said Rene Rivera, a catcher at Syracuse last year but with eleven seasons of major league experience, “He tried. He didn’t seem to be so comfortable with the league. This is a tough league. This is a lot of veteran players, a lot of upcoming big-leaguers. We know that he didn’t do well by the numbers. But I think the good thing that he takes with him is the experience that he can come next year and be more comfortable and know what he has to do to be successful.”

The S-Mets’s hitting coach, Joel Chimelis, observed that consistency (“You don’t have room to have a swing one day and not the next day”) is “very difficult” to show in the Show if you can’t show it in the high minors. Tebow can drive balls when he connects properly, but connecting properly is the question for which the answers fade further in the rear view mirror for a now 32-year-old who wasn’t exactly a prime prospect in the first place.

“Not everybody’s body works the same,” Chimelis continued. “Guys are a little bit more flexible than others around the hips, a little bit more bat speed. Me, personally, I’d rather have quickness, bat speed, than power because bat speed is power. If you have bat speed, you’re going to drive the ball. And it’s not necessarily the biggest guy that’s driving the ball and hitting the ball the hardest. He’s kind of big, so he has to be more efficient with his mechanics in order for that to happen.”

Such assessments earned by other minor leaguers at or close enough to Tebow’s age, and often younger, usually send them the message that it might be time to exercise whatever exit strategy they have toward taking up another line of work, if they don’t have one off-season already.

Sports history is overcrowded with athletes who proved better human beings than performers in their chosen sports. Getting the athletes whose talents were as good as their selves was rare enough. Getting the athletes whose selves were as admirable as their talents were trans-dimensional made the former seem routine.

2020-01-10 TimTebowDemiLeighNelPeters

Tebow with his fiancee, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, after they became engaged during a visit to his Jacksonville home.

That’s why we revere the like of Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken, Albert Pujols (even in his heartbreaking, protracted, injury-seeded decline), and Mike Trout. Talent above and beyond, people better than their sports legends. It’s also why you root for someone like Tim Tebow, who personifies exponentially the guy who’s a better man than he’ll ever be a ballplayer.

If you consider such things to be rewards for such decency, be advised that, a day before I wrote here, Tebow celebrated his year-old engagement to a South African beauty queen, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, 2017’s Miss Universe, who met him during her reign, enjoyed her first American Thanksgiving at his home, and thanked him publicly for his support when her reign ended.

When Tebow and Nel-Peters announced the engagement on Instagram, they charmingly asked followers for help with wedding hashtags. The followers weren’t exactly shy about providing such help. One, referring to Tebow’s oft-remarked habit of kneeling in prayer on NFL sidelines (it became famous as “Tebowing”), suggested “#TookAKneeForDemiLeigh,” perhaps after seeing a shot of Tebow popping the question—on his knee—during one of her visits to his Jacksonville home. Others stretched it a mite: “#TyingTheTebow,” “#ToHaveAndTebow,” that sort of thing.

Mrs. Tebow-to-be isn’t just another ethereal pageant queen, either: a month after she was crowned Miss Universe, carjackers in Johannesburg forced her to hand them her car keys and get into their car, whereupon she administered a prompt, solid punch in the throat to one of the thieves and escaped for help. She also conducts worldwide self defense workshops.

Her husband-to-be doesn’t have to worry about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-always-true observation that there are no second acts in American life. Tebow fashioned one even before his first in football ended. Baseball’s been close enough to a third act for him. His athletic career may approach the final curtain sooner than he’d prefer, but his numerous virtues include that he has his second act with a long, pleasant epilogue yet to go, and impeccable taste in woman.

Now it’s Soxgate, too?

2020-01-07 AlexCora2018RedSox

2017 Astros bench coach turned 2018 Red Sox manager Alex Cora hoists the 2018 World Series trophy. The ’18 Sox are now believed having used their replay room for off-field sign-stealing, amplifying suspicions around Cora himself.

Long before he became a major league coach then manager, Alex Cora endeared himself to me when he was a Dodger hitting a seventh-inning home run on 12 May 2004. It wasn’t the home run itself but what led to it—Cora hit the eighteenth pitch of a plate appearance against Cubs pitcher Matt Clement into the right field bullpen. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Ben-Hur weren’t that epic.

I watched that game live on television from my then-home in Huntington Beach, California. Cora wasn’t exactly a power hitter, of course; Sammy Sosa hit as many home runs in 2004 (35) as Cora hit in his entire fourteen-season playing career. He was a clever utility infielder whose best work was with his glove on either side of second base and his brains otherwise, and he was valuable enough as a utilityman to play on the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series winner.

As Cora checked in at the plate on that May night, the Dodgers’ still-very-much-missed voice Vin Scully noted he’d hit a couple of fly balls earlier in the game, “but if you don’t have power, a couple of fly balls is wasted opportunity.” He batted with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh and a short-career left fielder named Jason Grabowski aboard with a leadoff walk.

Cora looked at ball one up and away to open. He took a strike near the outside corner, then took ball two away, then fouled one off. And then the fun really began without once going to ball three. Cora fouled eleven more off. We’ll let Scully take it from there:

. . . The crowd now is really into the pitches . . . and still two and two. Nobody out. Big foul . . . wow! . . . It’s a sixteen-pitch at-bat, and the crowd loves it, and look at Dave Roberts. They’re all enjoying this battle. Matt Clement and Alex Cora. Coming into the game, Cora was hitting .400 against Clement, he is oh for two tonight. So the game within the game here. So here’s the sixteenth pitch. What an at-bat! . . . [foul ball] . . .  Seventeen pitches . . . it is the rare time that you can be in the ballpark and everyone is counting the pitches, and it’s gonna be a seventeen-pitch at-bat, now, at least. We, I don’t know, you know, they don’t keep records of pitches in at-bats, but it’s kind of special. This will be the seventeenth pitch. Grabowski’s exhausted, and Mike Ireland reminds me how about if Grabowski had been running on every pitch? Time . . . ohhh, the crowd is loving it . . . Ever see so much excitement? And nothing’s happened, that’s what’s really funny about it. All right, here’s the seventeenth pitch—and, it’s foul. Foul ball by a hair! So that means that it will be at least an eighteen-pitch at-bat . . . Clement has made more pitches to Alex Cora right now than he has made in any inning but the third . . . the eighteenth pitch—high fly ball into right field, back goes Sosa, way back to the gate, it’s gonnnne!! Home run, Alex Cora, on the eighteenth pitch, and the Dodgers lead, four to nothing. What a moment! 9:23 on the scoreboard if you want to write it down for history . . . what an at-bat! And Dusty Baker says, “We’re gonna stop the fight.” And Dusty’s going to bring in a fresh horse. That’s one of the finest at-bats I’ve ever seen. And, then, to top it off with a home run, that is really shocking. Yeah, take a bow, Alex, you deserve it and then some. Oh, by the way, that also means the Dodgers have homered in six straight, but it took a whale of a job to do it. Stay where you are, four-nothing Dodgers, and look at the ball club.

Cora would have been remembered for that surrealistic plate appearance if nothing else had his baseball career ended when his playing days did. Even if the Los Angeles Times didn’t remember; their game coverage the following day said not a lick about Cora’s seventh-inning stretcher.

The paper called it the way you see it now in the box scores: Cora, home run. Baseball Reference, bless them, gives you a little more: it notes the pitch count up to and including Cora’s loft just into the right field bullpen. An edited YouTube video clip from the original Dodger broadcast including the Scully call is preserved by MLB, the editing dropping out in favour of the full coverage as Cora was about to face his fifteenth pitch.

Brainy as he was it was no wonder Cora parlayed himself into coaching and, in due course, managing. Except that now it appears more certain than suspected that Cora—whose inaugural season as the Red Sox manager finished with beating his former Dodgers (managed by his May 2004 Dodger teammate Dave Roberts) in the 2018 World Series—knows something more about fouls than just whacking them away to set up an unlikely two-run homer.

Cora was the Astros’ bench coach during their run to the 2017 World Series conquest. Before that postseason ended he’d agreed to become the Red Sox’s next manager. And one of the first things he was quoted as telling his new team, whom the Astros pushed aside in the 2017 division series, was, “You guys were easy to game plan against. Too many bad takes.”

Those were nothing compared to the bad take now surrounding Cora. Because Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, who seem to be for The Athletic with Astrogate what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were considered to be to the Washington Post for Watergate, now say the 2018 Red Sox had a little espionage operation of their own in play during that year’s regular season. And, that unlike the Astros’s engagement of an off-field live-feed camera for sign-stealing, the Red Sox thought of something they could try at home and on the road:

Three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season told The Athletic that during that regular season, at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using. The replay room is just steps from the home dugout at Fenway Park, through the same doors that lead to the batting cage. Every team’s replay staff travels to road games, making the system viable in other parks as well.

Rosenlich (well, the combination worked for Woodstein, right?) are careful to clarify that nobody including whomever the Red Sox three might be thinks the Red Sox tried it during that postseason, if only because they would have been caught as red-handed as the original five Watergate burglars:

Red Sox sources said this system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

This wasn’t exactly as “egregious” (Rosenlich’s word) as the Astro Intelligence Agency’s underground television network, contravening baseball’s rule mandating eight-second camera feed delays to send stolen signs to a monitor near the dugout steps from where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen opposition signs to the batter with bang-the-can-slowly. But it’s no less beyond the ordinary bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship, even if the Red Sox system did involve at least one man on the field.

The Red Sox operation was workable only with a runner on base. They simply took the burden of catch-and-release away from the baserunner who’s usually the one who engages the on-field gamesmanship of sign stealing. Someone, who knows whom, would be in the Red Sox replay room at home or on the road, catch the sign from catcher to pitcher, and send it to the runner to send to the hitter. You’ve got to be a lot more swift to do it that way, and apparently the 2018 Red Sox were during the regular season.

Not that Rosenlich lack for a caution or two. “It’s impossible to say for certain how much this system helped the Red Sox offense,” they write. “But their lineup dominated in 2018, when they led the league in runs scored.” And, like the Astros, the Red Sox—who got caught flatfoot in 2017 when one of their people was caught using an AppleWatch to try stealing Yankee signs—were convinced enough that others were doing likewise that they weren’t above a little creative against-the-rules espionage themselves.

“You got a bunch of people who are really good at cheating and everybody knows that each other’s doing it,” Rosenlich quote “one person with” the ’18 Sox. “It’s really hard for anybody to get away with it at that point . . . If you get a lion and a deer, then the lion can really take advantage of the deer. So there’s a lot of deers out there that weren’t paying attention throughout the season. In the playoffs, now you’re going against a lion.”

Using the replay room for sign-stealing didn’t exactly begin with the 2018 Red Sox. “It was also similar,” Rosenlich write, “to one the Yankees and other teams had employed before MLB started its crackdown. (Hitters can legally visit the replay room during games to study some video.)” The trick was to be swift enough afoot to make it work without using further electronic devices.

Rosenlich also exhume a three-page March 2018 memo to team presidents from MLB’s chief baseball officer, Joe Torre (himself a former major league catcher), in which he emphasised just how much against the rules high-tech off-field sign-stealing is: “To be clear,” the memo said, “the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game violates this Regulation.”

And sometimes the replay room monitors weren’t always immune to being compromised themselves, with Rosenlich observing, “Some would stay in the video replay room the entire game, while others would disappear for periods of time.” The duo go on to cite an unnamed video scout, not with the Red Sox, directly:

Some acted like they were your best friend, root you on. Others would tell on you for the littlest things that weren’t even real,” the scout said. “It was very inconsistent how each person took their job and what they were actually doing . . . You knew this guy was a stickler, and with this guy you could get away with some stuff. How does it stop cheating? The teams that were going to cheat were going to cheat, no matter what.

Whither Alex Cora? Rosenlich are already on record as reporting that Cora and new Mets manager Carlos Beltran (a designated hitter with the ’17 Astros who was often approached by teammates as having the mind of a coach himself) had an as-yet-undetermined hand in at least devising the Astro Intelligence Agency. Nobody knows yet just how Cora and Beltran helped devise it if indeed they did.

But Cora going from the Astros’ world champion as their bench coach to the ’18 Red Sox as their first-year manager taking them all the way to a 108-win regular season preceding a World Series triumph now looks a little too suspect. Did he know about and/or sanction the ’18 Red Sox’s replay room rompering? Did he suggest, based on any direct knowledge of the Astros’ slightly more arduous technique, that the replay room just might be a slightly simpler way to steal signs and get away with it?

No, Astroworld. The Red Sox’s replay room rompering doesn’t get the Astros off the hook. The everybody’s-doing-it defense isn’t going to wash for the Astros, and it won’t for the Red Sox, either. Red Sox Nation, of which I’ve been a member since that thriller of a 1967 pennant race in hand with being a Met fan since the day they were born (ask not my October 1986 pharmaceutical bills), is about to join Astroworld in having to come to terms with at least some of their heroes being cheaters.

“The issue . . . extends beyond individual teams, encompassing the league’s enforcement and upkeep of its own rules,” Rosenlich write. “Many inside the sport believe there is cheating and then there is cheating-cheating. In this view, the Astros undertook the latter, while more indirect video-room efforts—at least before late 2017—counted as the former.”

If and when the actual Astrogaters are revealed in full, Astroworld will be anything but amused, just as I wasn’t amused to discover that a team whose reconstruction into a powerhouse I admired turned out to be riddled with a human factor-challenged front office and field personnel who weren’t above extralegal espionage. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Astros should learn within the next two weeks just who’s going to be taken to the Astrogate woodshed and whether they come out bruised, battered, or broken.

It doesn’t amuse me that Alex Cora, a player whose tenacity I cheered one fine May 2004 evening and whose intelligence I always admired, may well have gone from helping to devise one elaborate cheat to at least fostering a second that was less elaborate if not less egregious. It amuses me even less that the Red Sox had to do it the new old fashioned way, too.

Short of posting armed Pinkerton guards inside the replay rooms, how baseball’s government handles Astrogate, Soxgate, and any other -gates yet to be affirmed should prove at least as intriguing as Cora’s once-upon-a-plate-appearance foul mastery. The kind he’s suspected of now, involving two teams, is more liable to end not with a two-run homer but a called strikeout.