About Jeff Kallman

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

Hinch may get a second chance—in Detroit

A.J. Hinch (left) with Jeff Luhnow. Their Astrogate suspensions end after the World Series does.

Analysing a few scenarios such as general managers now on the hot seat (Billy Eppler, Los Angeles Angels, check the cushion temperature) and other off-field doings and possible undoings, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal also ponders Ron Gardenhire’s possible successor. The Detroit Tigers manager elected to retire for his health’s sake over the weekend. Prospective successors, Rosenthal says, include A.J. Hinch.

A.J. Hinch?

Wasn’t he the manager who snoozed on Gerrit Cole in favour of Will Harris and got the rudest awakening when Howie Kendrick rung the Houston Astros’ bell in Game Seven of last year’s World Series? And didn’t it turn out he was the skipper who slept while the Astro Intelligence Agency burned his team’s legacy of three straight American League Wests, two pennants, and a city-healing World Series win?

The answers there are no, and yes.

It wasn’t even close to Hinch’s fault that the Astros couldn’t lay more glove on an obviously drained (by a long season and a barely-fixed neck and shoulder issue) Max Scherzer than a solo home run and an RBI single, before his own starter Zack Greinke ran out of fuel and into Anthony Rendon’s homer in the top of the seventh. Or, that their shortstop Carlos Correa would be the only Astro to hit safely with a man on second or better all night.

And while Cole manhandled the Nationals in Washington in Game Five, the Nats slapped him silly in Houston in Game One. Plus, with Cole never having entered a game in the middle of even the slightest jam in his entire professional pitching life, Harris—proud possessor to that point of a 1.50 regular season ERA and a postseason 0.93 entering Game Seven—really was Hinch’s best card to play in the moment. Even with Juan Soto on first.

Harris’s profession as a relief pitcher includes walking into the middle of fires running the scale from small trash can blazes to first-floor-and-climbing infernos. He threw the perfect retardant to Kendrick, a nasty little cutter off the middle of the plate and toward the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole.

“It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare,” Harris said after game, set, and Series ended with the Dancing Nats dancing on the Astros’ Minute Maid Park graves. (They won, without precedent, entirely on the road.) “He made a championship play for a championship team.”

Soon enough, alas, we learned that Hinch was aware of but did nothing much to put the AIA out of business in 2017-18. A couple of cross words here, a couple of busted clubhouse monitors there, but otherwise Hinch couldn’t and didn’t summon up the authority to tell his already over-talented club and make it stick that they needed to cheat about as badly as Superman needed an airplane.

One of the game’s most sensitively intelligent managers got caught with his Astrogate pants down around his ankles.

But wasn’t Hinch thrown out of baseball over the AIA? Didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred—jolted out of his own slumber when Astro-turned-Tiger-turned Athletic pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Astrogate almost a year ago—hand the cheating players immunity in return for spilling and make Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, and some choice draft picks to come, the sacrificial lambs?

Not quite. Hinch and Luhnow both were suspended merely for the 2020 season. Those suspensions end after the World Series does next month. Baseball’s official line will be that they did the crime, they did the time, they don’t get a do-over but they do get a fresh start if anyone’s willing to hand one to either or both.

If you’re going to ask whether they deserve second chances, period, you might say neither one of them considering the stain of the Astros’ level of illegal, off-field-based, electronic cheating. If you’re going to ask whom between them sooner deserves a second chance, you might pick Hinch in a heartbeat. Might.

No matter how far down his pants were, Hinch wasn’t even close to the one who fostered the atmosphere in which the cheaters could and did prosper. Luhnow is another story entirely. His win-at-all-cost atmosphere dehumanised his front office, and he was a lot more aware of his Astrogaters than he’s still willing to admit.

Hinch at least had the conscience and the grace to say in his own statement that “while the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” Even a small handful of accountability goes long toward cleaning up your own mess.

It was more accountability than any Astro was seen to show during that notorious February presserunless they were ex-Astros. Then, Hinch sat down with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.

In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.

Luhnow himself also declined full accountability in the immediate fallout of the Manfred report. In fact, he lied through his proverbial teeth in the formal statement he issued, saying he didn’t “personally” direct, oversee, or engage in any shenanigans and insisting, “I am not a cheater.” The revelation of the Codebreaker algorithim for extralegal sign decoding, about which Luhnow was aware enough, put the lie to it.

His mess is still considered so toxic that it likely forced Alex Rodriguez and his lady Jennifer Lopez out of the running to buy the New York Mets, after it became known A-Rod sought Luhnow’s baseball administration counsel even informally while Luhnow remained under suspension. It was like seeking family counseling from Charles Manson.

All that said and done, how strong are the chances of Hinch taking the Tigers’ bridge? He has a friend in the Tigers’ front office, Rosenthal says, namely vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.

But former Atlanta Braves/Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez—once thought the favourite for the Tiger job before they chose Gardenhire—has friends in high Tiger places, too. They are GM Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd, all of whom go back with Gonzalez to his first managing gig with the Marlins in 2007-2010.

If the Tigers end up hiring Hinch, the public relations hit they’ll take would be a couple of water drops compared to the likely flood coming for any GM seekers hiring Luhnow. Hinch may be viewed as the hapless Astrogate fiddler but Luhnow is probably seen as the one who really allowed the joint to incinerate.

The Mets may be looking to get out from under GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s laughingstock lash. Cohen may want to bring in his own man no matter what. (Former GM Sandy Alderson has “a relationship” with him and might have a hand in a new GM pick.) If they were wary of selling to an Alex Rodriguez thinking nothing of engaging Luhnow even under the table, they’d have to be wary about handing Luhnow the front office.

The Phillies may make GM Matt Klentak pay for their shockingly arsonic bullpen doing the most to keep them with a very tenuous postseason reach. A man with an image as a misogynistic cheater—who once defied his entire front office’s outrage to trade for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while Osuna remained under domestic violence investigation—won’t exactly be at the top of owner John Middleton’s wish list.

Hinch first took the Astros’ bridge as they re-emerged from Luhnow’s controversial introduction of rebuilding by tanking, leading a newly-youthful team with a few veteran pitchers to the 2015 American League wild card game to beat the New York Yankees but lose the division series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.

Two seasons later, Hinch’s Astros stood as now-tainted world champions. Assuming the Tigers have no thoughts of underground intelligence chicanery, and Hinch truly has learned the hard way about fiddling while his dugout empire burns him, he might be just the man to take a Tiger team transitioning to youth back into contention and maybe beyond in a year or two.

Gonzalez wouldn’t exactly be a lame horse. Until they began aging and the front office lost its grip, Gonzalez took his Braves to a couple of postseasons (with early exits, alas) and kept them in contention until a 9-28 opening in 2016 took him to the guillotine. Both Gonzalez and Hinch know a few things about keeping young or young-ish teams in the races.

If the Tigers seek experience on the bridge, there’s another dark horse lurking. Former Astrogate bench coach-turned-Soxgate World Series-winning manager Alex Cora’s suspension ends after the World Series, too. Officially, baseball might say he, too, did the time after doing the crimes.

Notice it’s crimes, plural. Cora was definitely culpable in Astrogate and may or may not have been directly culpable in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. The Red Sox threw their video room operator under the bus to the unemployment line after they got bagged, and after Cora either resigned to keep from being fired or got fired anyway.

One more reminder: The Rogue Sox took the technology MLB provided them (and every other team) in the video rooms and clevered up the old-fashioned gamesmanship. The Astros either altered an existing camera off mandated transmission delay illegally, or installed another camera to operate in real time. Neither was right, but MLB handed the Rogue Sox (and probably others yet uncaught) the weaponry.

To avoid even a couple of days worth of PR fury, the Tigers might reach for Gonzalez. To show they believe in second chances and have enough kidney to survive the brief enough uproar—not to mention an experienced but still very young man with a balance between analytics and in-game eyes—they might reach for Hinch.

Someone once lost the presidency of the United States after not doing more to get to the bottom of the re-election committee crimes that caught him, too, with his pants down at first but joining their cover-up soon enough. However awkwardly, Richard Nixon admitted it in the statement with which he accepted his successor’s pardon.

Since it happened in his second term, Nixon was enjoined legally from seeking a do-over. Hinch doesn’t have that restriction. And he’s a far more sympathetic figure than Nixon was seen to have been.

He obeyed the mandate of his suspension to the letter. He didn’t show up near any team, at any ballpark or facility, either of which could have gotten him banned from baseball for life. If the Tigers reach out to him after the World Series, he would do well to tell them exactly what he told Verducci in February after he owned his Astrogate culpability:

I have to stand out front . . . [with] the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen . . . [I took] seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.

It would be further evidence that he deserves the second chance Luhnow doesn’t yet, if at all.

Does Verlander down mean a coming Astro remodel?

Verlander faces Tommy John surgery. Will it begin the Astros’ reconfiguration, too?

One of the jokes going around the last couple of months is a visual of one of those make-yourself/change-yourself outdoor display signs, reading, “Going to ask Mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still good.” This year’s Houston Astros have more reason than most major league baseball teams to ask Mom for that slap.

Before the coronavirus world tour interrupted spring training, invited the hurry-up summer camps, and delivered the truncated regular season with all its foibles, follies, and folderol, the Astros figured only to wear a scarlet C. All things considered, they might settle for that right now. It might be an improvement.

They were injury-punctured almost from the words “Play ball!” when the truncated season began. If the New York Yankees’ 2020 yearbook could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, the Astros’ could be The Physicians Desk Reference. The latest casualty: Justin Verlander, who’s graduating from the injured list after a single late July start to down until 2022 after he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

We should probably consider as ESPN’s David Schoenfield does, that Verlander’s right elbow ligaments were lucky to have lasted as long as they did. He’s thrown 51,931 pitches in sixteen major league seasons—48,822 in regular season play and 3,109 in postseason play. That averages out to 107 pitches per regular season start and 100 per postseason game, in a career in which he’s averaged seven innings a start.

Verlander’s Astro deal expires after next season. He’ll be 39 when he hits the open market then. Pitchers that age not named Jamie Moyer have tricky enough markets without being 39-year-old post-Tommy John pitchers. Taking every objective factor into consideration, we may have seen the last of Verlander in a major league uniform and now count the days to the beginning of his Hall of Fame watch.

We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the Astros’ tainted legacy while we’re at it.

Verlander himself isn’t part of the taint. It wasn’t the Astros’ pitchers who cooked up that illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency operation that rendered their 2017 World Series title stained forever. But the opportunity is about to arrive for which the Astros’ new regime can apply and spread the Febreeze liberally.

Nine of this year’s team remain from the tainted 2017-18 team. Three—first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and outfielders Josh Reddick and George Springer—can hit the open market this winter. Three—shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Chris Devenski and Lance McCullers, Jr.—are signed through the end of this season and become arbitration-eligible after next year. Two—second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman—are locked in through the end of 2024.

Schoenfield thinks that of the foregoing free agency-to-be group Springer might be the one the Astros would love most to keep. But he also thinks Springer might still hold a grudge against the organisation for their bid to try signing him long-term while he was still in the minors and for their delay in promoting him to the Show.

Astroworld may be watching the last days of Springer in Astros fatigues. From this point until the end of 2021, it’s also possible that the Astros will be remade and remodeled. Maybe a tear-down on behalf of a renewed youth movement, hopefully without compromising the team’s competitiveness, but definitely continuing the cleanup of the Jeff Luhnow fallout.

The sooner, the better. New general manager James Click’s challenge is keeping the best of that era aboard and making sure the worst doesn’t get to within ten nautical miles of the franchise ever again.

The Luhnow administration’s forward-ho analytical approaches forced other teams to re-think and re-model their own player development. That was good for the game as well as for the Astros, and the braying old farts who screamed bloody murder over the thinking person’s sport being invaded by, you know, actual thinking, were invited kindly but firmly to sit down and shut up.

But the braying old farts had one point after all, even in the breach. The price for the Astros was a win-at-all-cost mindset through which Luhnow’s leadership left the Astros as misogynistic cheaters who just might sacrifice virgins while running an extracurricular spy ring, if it meant winning that one extra game to make the difference.

Not one Astro player truly paid the price—unless you count ducking pitches to their heads or elsewhere this year, that is. (On the flip side, alas, is poor Abraham Toro. He wasn’t an Astro until last August. But he leads with having taken six for the team. Not nice, not acceptable. At least Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly targeted two who were 2017-18 Astros.)

The players were offered and took immunity in return for spilling their Astrogate beans. They didn’t pay so much as a quarter’s worth of a fine, and when called upon to stand accountable in the public eye they apologised, kind of, sort of, before spring training was stopped due to the pandemic.

Harrumph if you must about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, likewise exposed as high-tech cheaters. But there were reasons they didn’t feel half the cheat-shaming the Astros have taken. For starters, they executed manager Alex Cora—thought to have been an Astrogate mastermind—before the investigation into their own Soxgate treachery was finished.

Also, the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring depended entirely upon what was handed them in their video rooms (at home and on the road) and upon someone sending stolen signs to their baserunners to send to the batter’s box. MLB handed the Rogue Sox the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to open it and drink underage. It won’t be that shocking if we discover they weren’t the only ones drinking accordingly.

But nobody on high told or allowed the Astro Intelligence Agency to either alter an existing camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a fresh, furtive, real-time camera, sending signs to the clubhouse monitor next to which someone banged the can slowly sending the stolen intelligence to the hitters.

By the way, the Red Sox are so far out of the postseason picture this year you could argue a case of instant karma. You could, that is, if you ignore that last offseason they were, inexplicably, more concerned about staying under the game’s luxury tax than about locking down their franchise player—who’s now locked in as a Dodger for life and helping them to what’s liable to hold up as coronaball’s best record.

Luhnow’s ramifications went beyond just soiling the Astros’ powerhouse and the team’s image.

We know now that the entire sport prayed that the net result of last year’s postseason would be anyone but the Astros winning the World Series. We know now that too much of the Show believed the major reason the Astros abandoned the AIA by 2019 was their possible fear of exposure.

We also know that the Washington Nationals—who sent their postseason pitchers to the mound prepared to change up as many as five sets of signs each, just in case—spoke of it being “amazing, once we were playing the Astros [in the World Series], how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

In other words, the Nats winning the Series at all gave the sport the warmest fuzzy possible. Winning it entirely on the road, in Minute Maid Park, was almost gravy.

(Last year, the Nats turned a 19-31 record into the Promised Land. This morning, the 19-31 Nats battered and bruised themselves out of a postseason trip. Wait till next year.)

Luhnow even had an impact on the sale of another major league franchise. Alex Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez lost out on buying the New York Mets as much because of A-Rod’s informal contacts with the suspended Luhnow as because J-Rod didn’t have quite the billions to tap that hedge fund wheel Steve Cohen does.

The last thing the Mets and the Show alike needed was seeing the Mets sold to someone who’d take counsel from the man who made it possible for a World Series champion and three-times-dominant American League West champion to resemble an unholy union between a high-tech frat house and an underground spy network.

The next-to-last thing the sport needed was to see an Astro fan base whose profound loyalty was second to very few ground under the Astrogate heel. Those Astro fans who refused to be shaken tripped over their own circle-squarings; those Astro fans who couldn’t help but be shaken still try making sense of it.

If the Astros are indeed on the threshold of a tear-down and remodel, it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise and their fans, and one of the best for the sport itself.

An Angellic centenary

Roger Angell, at his induction as a J.G. Spink Award winner at the Hall of Fame.

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” Roger Angell once wrote, “all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Perhaps a man whose last known published anthology is called This Old Man can’t be called forever young.

At age one hundred as of today, Angell himself can be called forever. Six anthologies of his singular New Yorker baseball writings, plus his unlikely election to the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, places him there.

“Unlikely?” you say. It was, until Susan Slusser—the San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, when she was president of the Baseball Writers Association of America—made it her personal mission to get Angell elected despite the fact that he’d never held down a daily baseball beat in any newspaper and was never a BBWAA member. “I felt very strongly,” Slusser once said, “that there should not even be a writers’ exhibit in the Hall without Roger Angell.”

Angell was inducted the same year as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas among players; Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre among managers; and, the Texas Rangers’s Eric Nadel as the Ford C. Frick Award-winning baseball broadcaster. “J.G. Taylor Spink,” Angell said, beginning his induction speech, “this was one of that early fun of tingling baseball names that rushed over me when I was a boy and first began reading about and hearing about baseball.”

As I wrote elsewhere last February, Slusser knew the often-forgotten parallel between baseball and its writing: a winning team must have at least one man who hits for distance. Angell’s distance hitting since 1962 has been as instructive and as much fun as this year’s Slam Diego Padres have been hitting for distance with the pillows occupied.

This son of Katherine Sergeant Angell—New Yorker fiction editor, who birthed her son nine days before Eddie Cicotte broke the Black Sox silence with his grand jury confession, and nine years before she would re-marry to New Yorker literary legend E.B. White—even hit for distance describing hits for distance. He hit a hefty belt of his own in 1975 when describing the first spring training encounter between a freshly-minted Met outfielder named Dave Kingman and a freshly-minted Yankee pitcher named Catfish Hunter.

Now, with one out in the top of the second, Dave Kingman stood in for the Mets, occasioning a small hum of interest because of his height, which is six feet six inches, and his batting style, which is righthanded, tilted, and uppercutting. The hum was replaced by an explosion of sustained shouting as Kingman came around on a high Hunter changeup, caught all of the ball—every inch and ounce of it—with his bat, and drove it out of the park and out of the lights in a gigantic parabola, whose second, descendant half was not yet perceptible when the ball flew into the darkness, departing the premises about five feet inside the left field foul line and about three palm trees high. I have never seen a longer home run anywhere.

. . . The Yankees were still talking about the home run the next day, when Hunter told Ron Blomberg he hoped he hadn’t hurt his neck out there in left field watching the ball depart. Others took it up, rookies and writers and regulars, redescribing and amplifying it, already making it a legend, and it occurred to me that the real effect of the blast, except for the memory and the joy of it, might be to speed Catfish Hunter’s acceptance by his new teammates. There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a three-and-a-half-million-dollar executive lovable.

The Mets inadvertently launched Angell’s baseball odyssey in the spring of their birth. New Yorker editor William Shawn—in what was surely the single most unlikely but unimpeachable moment of American inspiration since Benjamin Franklin took whomever up on the admonishment to go fly a kite—sent Angell to spring training to see what he might find. The man who succeeded his mother as the magazine’s fiction editor assented.

“[I]t was clear to me,” he wrote introducing his first anthology, The Summer Game, “that the doings of big-league baseball . . . were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study.”

I decided to sit in the stands . . . and watch the baseball from there . . . I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.

The odyssey since has seen Angell ease naturally, intelligently, and empathetically, from merely a fan among fans with a notebook and pen in his hand to an observer of particularly acute insight, especially when it came to reminding his readers that, when all is said and perhaps too much done, the men who play the game are only too human, just publicly so. Few essays published in my lifetime remind you so humanely as “Gone for Good,” his June 1975 observation (including time spent with the man) of pitcher Steve Blass’s unexpected and un-repairable collapse.

Like anyone in hard straits, he was deluged with unsolicited therapies, overnight cures, natruopathies, exorcisms, theologies, and amulets, many of which arrived by mail. Blass refuses to make jokes about these nostrums. “Anyone who takes the trouble to write a man who is suffering deserves to be thanked,” he told me . . .

“There’s one possibility nobody has brought up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that maybe I just lost my control. Maybe your control is something that can just go. It’s no big thing, but suddenly it’s gone.” He paused, and then he laughed in a self-deprecating way. “Maybe that’s what I’d like to believe,” he said.

Angell never had to come right out and say that Joe and Jane Fan, huffing, puffing, and threatening to blow down the house of a player who’s just failed dramatically, don’t get it. He’s never forgotten that even the greatest of the greats have their moments of mere humanity on the field, that the one thing a multi-millionaire player has in common with the guy just up from the minors is that, at any moment, he can look anywhere from silly to incompetent no matter what he’s done before or might do after.

Or, if a manager, he’ll stop thinking, perhaps allow sentiment and affection to supercede baseball’s immediate or coming need, and have to live with the disaster thus inflicted upon him. You may demur from the late John McNamara’s keeping creaky Bill Buckner at first base, instead of sending normal late replacement Dave Stapleton out, for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 World Series. But McNamara’s widow is also right to insist his entire baseball life shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in baseball judgment. (“We lost Game Six,” McNamara has also said, “but [the Mets] won Game Seven.”)

Angell empathised with those such as the Mets who were born in purgatory and fought their way to the Promised Land in eight years; with craftsmen such as Bob Gibson, artists such as Sandy Koufax, and such little engines that could as the 1985 Royals, the 1990 Reds, and the 2002 Angels; and, with a breed gradually more rare as time and the professional game went forward—an owner who genuinely loved the game, longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham:

He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinising. He attends every home game but is seldom recognised, even by the hoariest Giants fans. His decisions are arrived at after due consideration, and the most common criticism levelled at him is that he often sticks with a losing manager or an elder player long after his usefulness to the club has been exhausted . . .

. . . [W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him) and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. “Come on out,” he said in a cheerfully, gravelly, Polo Grounds sort of voice. “Come out, and we’ll go to the game together.”

“Baseball is mostly about losing,” Angell said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “These fabled winners here in the Hall are proud men. Pride is what drives every player, but every one of them knows or knew the pain of loss, the days and weeks when you’re beat up and worn down, and another season is about to slip away.” When Angell laboured to profile Gibson himself (“Distance,” republished in Late Innings), a pitcher whose pride was second to almost none, Angel would remember to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, near his Hall induction, that he was terrified.

Gibby brings me to his house and he gives me a swimsuit, and we’re sitting by the side of his pool, and for three or four days I’m with him all the time. And he’s telling me every single thing I want to know. When the piece was finished, he sent me a picture of himself and wrote, ‘The world needs more people like you’.”

Angell wanted and got to spend an afternoon talking baseball with Horace Stoneham? I’d still like to spend an afternoon or evening talking baseball with Angell. With a promise not to call him baseball’s prose poet laureate (a description he’s known to despise), with the quiet prayer that Angell would answer mere me as Stoneham once answered him. The coronavirus world tour makes that impossible for now.

At least his baseball anthologies—The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, and Game Time—continue living up to their customary subtitles: A Baseball Companion. He’s been that, in the permanence of print and the timelessness of lyric prose, at minimum. They’re the next best thing to sharing a seat at the ballpark with him.

Like the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, Angell grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Maybe there was something to those Giants, after all, beyond the sixteen pennants and five World Series championships they won while playing in northern Manhattan. Their old rooters included baseball’s future Cicero and Homer. Except that we know better: Cicero was ancient Rome’s Vin Scully, and—I say once more, with no apology, in wishing him a very happy centenary—Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell.

A Law against expanded postseasons future

Would the fun-fun-fun Chicago White Sox have that much fun-fun-fun playing for diluted championships in the future?

So the first two teams to clinch postseason places were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were seen as a powerhouse going into this season regardless, and the Chicago White Sox, third-place American League Central finishers last year and perhaps the most pleasant and entertaining surprise this side of the Slam Diego Padres this year. The Tampa Bay Rays—tied with the White Sox for baseball’s most wins this morning—followed quickly enough.

We know they’re going to have to navigate this pandemic-truncated season’s expanded playoffs. Will they have the same competitive incentive playing a normal 2021 season? Or, will commissioner Rob Manfred and those owners who back him on it get his way and keep regular-season and championship dilution next year and, bite your tongues, eternity to follow? Baseball’s inquiring minds demand to know, because what Manfred and company think they’ll gain isn’t good for the game.

Keith Law—author of two imperative books on re-marrying the thinking person’s sport to thinking, period (Smart Baseball, The Inside Game), and now an analyst at The Athletic—objects like me to that prospect. Let’s presume concurrence, too, from Law’s two analytical superstars, Joey Bagodonuts and Twerpy McSlapperson.

“Going forward . . . expanded playoffs would be primarily a money grab,” he writes, “and they risk diluting the regular season as a unique product while simultaneously reducing the value of individual games as broadcast properties in the playoffs. It also prioritizes short-term gain over the long-term financial health of the sport.” He knows that the regular season is supposed to mean something, and long enough did, and that baseball’s former disinclination to go the way of the NHL and the NBA (more than half its teams entering their postseasons) robs championship of more than half its meaning.

Law also thinks that making this year’s expanded baseball postseason eternity’s as well threatens the game’s integrity and the integrity of a fair and open market for those we spend our hard-earned money to see—and it isn’t Manfred or the owners he admits are his first priority in office.

It also feels like a possible shadow move to discourage the best teams from spending at or above the luxury-tax threshold, because the reward for being the best team in the regular season is so much less than it was previously. Winning 100-plus games in the regular season meant a guaranteed playoff berth when those were somewhat scarce — no team has won 100 games and missed the playoffs in the wild-card era — but with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs, 90 wins would almost certainly guarantee you a ticket into the postseason.

If 100 wins doesn’t do much for you but improve your seeding, what is the financial incentive to spend more to get to 100 when we know that the results of playoff series aren’t that far from 50/50, and making your team that much better on paper barely increases your odds of advancing? The answer is probably “very little,” and that would impact the free-agent market at all levels — even at the very top, as teams that typically run huge payrolls would no longer see the return on a $30 million investment in one player as they did under a system where fewer teams made the playoffs, and you could easily win 95 games and go home on Oct. 1.

This year, the expanded playoffs carry a concurrent threat—to player health, particularly pitchers’ health, particularly the health of relief pitchers, some of whom have already had their struggles this season thanks to the pandemic-imposed truncation’s side effects.

Don’t think for one moment that spring training’s abortion and the eventual speedy enough “summer camp” didn’t knock several players including relief pitchers off their fulcrums going in as it was. The postseason tournament will be compressed, with no off days. Uh, oh. “The more we ask guys to pitch on short rest, the more they tend to get hurt,” Law reminds us. “These innings are already high-leverage; asking premier relievers to throw more such innings on little to no rest seems like a recipe to blow guys out.”

When I began thinking hard about postseason expansion and Manfred’s wish to make it eternal, I feared with reason that it was liable to do little to arrest baseball’s recent tanking trends and, if anything, give tankers even less incentive to break the habit. When Law addresses the tankers now, he takes a different stance, one that isn’t exactly dismissable too readily. He thinks the tankers will be “disincentivised” with the postseason bar no longer even a .500 record, necessarily:

[These teams] projected to win 75 to 80 games is on the edge of playoff contention, and they’d have a much harder time selling their fans (or players, for that matter) on tanking. These teams probably won’t be in the market for the elite free agents, but they’re less likely to sell off talent, and that could in turn prop up salaries for some lower tiers of free agents because buyers would have fewer options available in trades.

The problems include what Law notices and I fear: the tankers’ fan bases may be re-engaged deeper into the regular season, but the fan bases of the superior teams may be disengaged because their playoff berths could be secure (this is my guesstimate, not his) as early as late enough August. Law also notices what I have otherwise: this year’s model made eternity’s “also puts worse teams in the playoffs, a time when you expect to see the best of the best on the field, and increases the risk that we’ll see more blowouts against depleted or just inferior pitching staffs.”

For the longest time I’ve heard those lost for ways to re-engage long-incumbent baseball fans and court prospective new baseball fans suggest that expanded postseasons were just about the likeliest saviours. Even if they agreed that most such schemes ultimately equate the game’s common good with making money for the owners. Such people could be convinced only on rare occasions that perhaps the biggest factor separating baseball from the rest was that its ultimate championships were the least diluted of any major professional American sports.

Like me, Law thinks some of baseball’s changes have been or will be better for the game. Like me, he loves the universal designated hitter: “[It] is almost certainly here to stay, which absolutely will help the sport, removing the worst hitters in baseball from National League lineups.” Like me, he applauds the automated strike zone and rejects any lingering Luddism that rejects technology when it stands to improve the game: “[T]he idea of eschewing available technology in favor of noticeable errors is confusing to anyone who didn’t grow up a fan of the sport (and to many of us who did).”

In other words, Law—like me—is very willing to trade the intellectual delights of revisiting and re-debating the most notorious blown calls in the game’s history on behalf of getting things right and, concurrently, removing excuses when many blown calls lead to blown outcomes. Don Denkinger, call your office. We’ve had too many decades worth of fun deconstructing and reconstructing Jorge Orta and the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, 1985 World Series. Let’s say it now, Don: You blew the first out but that’s not really why the St. Louis Cardinals lost that Series. But you became in due course an outspoken advocate of replay, which has done the game a huge favour, really, bless your heart.

Sam Holbrook, call yours likewise. We know you blew the interference call on Trea Turner when you didn’t acknowledge a terrible throw pulled Yuli Gurriel off first base and his glove right into Turner after Turner was safe at first. But we also know the Washington Nationals were made of tougher stuff than the ’85 Cardinals. You saw it yourself, Sam, when one out later, with Yan Gomes returned to first, Anthony Rendon hit one into the middle of the Crawford Boxes and saved you from becoming the 21st Century Denkinger.

But diluting the meaning of a championship even further than the wild card era’s done it just to make money for the owners? (And, the players, more of whom would get to divvy up at least some of the postseason spoils even if they and their teams had no legitimate business playing toward a championship in the first place.) Remember the meaning of an emergency measure: the key word is emergency. When the emergency passes and things return to something resembling normal, emergency measures made permanent lead to new and prospectively more grave disasters.

Hasn’t baseball had enough disaster over its long and mostly storied history? Weren’t the self-destruction of the 1877 Louisville Grays (forced out of business in a gambling scandal), the Black Sox scandal, the Ray Chapman tragedy, the colour line, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal (it cost fans the All-Star vote for over a decade to follow), the 1981 strike, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the mid-to-late 1980s owner collusion, the Pete Rose scandal, the 1994-95 strike, the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and Astrogate/Soxgate more than too much of enough?

Since it’s so much on behalf of the owners making money, Law reminds us, too, that a few too many postseason games erode their value as broadcast properties from which the owners make millions enough. They’ll also help suppress the ratings already being suppressed in the wild card era, or doesn’t anyone think about viewer/listener over-saturation as much as they might? Should?

The safest bet on the planet right now may be that Manfred didn’t think all that hard about that part. The bet safer than that is that Manfred didn’t and doesn’t think.

Intolerable weirdness

Comissioner Rob Manfred presents that piece of metal to the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals.

There it was. Sixteen paragraphs down, during Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin’s Tuesday morning analysis of commissioner Rob Manfred’s virtual panel conducted Monday night by Hofstra University’s business school. The main topic was the Show’s postseason, pandemic-inspired “bubble plan.” Then the real bomb detonated.

Sheinin revealed Manfred saying this pandemic season’s sixteen-team postseason “is likely to remain beyond 2020,” with “an overwhelming majority” of the owners endorsing it before the coronavirus world tour yanked baseball over, under, sideways, down.

“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” Sheinin quoted Manfred directly, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”

Back in February, Manfred got himself into a jam, dismissing thoughts of nullifying the Houston Astros’s illegal-sign-stealing-tainted 2017 World Series win, when he dismissed concurrently the World Series trophy itself (its official name is the Commissioner’s Trophy) as “just a piece of metal.” (His swift apology only helped a little.) Now he’s threatening to make the trophy exactly that, and not in rhetoric alone.

Last Friday, you may remember Sports Illustrated writer Emma Baccalieri saying a pandemically truncated baseball season such as this might make “tolerable weirdness” such as a losing-record team playing for a championship, well, tolerable. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she said, “‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred has crossed the line into intolerable weirdness. It’s not that baseball wasn’t playing chicken at that line when it went to the wild card format in the first place, or when it added the second wild card in the second place. Playing chicken is one thing. Manfred wants the clucking birds to run roughshod over “our landscape.”

Baccalieri’s colleague Stephanie Apstein suggested in the same piece that having even one losing team in the postseason just might force Manfred to see how patently ridiculous the idea is in the first place. Apparently, the more ridiculous something is, the more stubborn Manfred becomes on its behalf.

Last Friday, the Astros—already trying to play through the continuing slings and arrows of Astrogate’s aftermath and the injured list—plus the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers sat within real wild card reach with records below .500 in the wild card standings. When I sat down to write this morning, the Astros had a wild card claim at precisely .500 while two National League teams (the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals) held claims with records one game below .500.

If the truncated season ended last night, those three teams would enter the postseason as wild cards. One .500 team and two losing teams. You tell me what would be wrong if that was the case at the end of a full, unimpeded regular season.

If the Show wanted to do what it could to let teams make up for the revenues lost because of COVID-19 shutting down spring training and the first almost half the regular season, you got that. But does Manfred really want to give .500 or below teams the right to enter baseball’s championship round after a full regular season that’s supposed to leave the best teams and no others going there?

Last Friday I ran down ten wild card era teams who entered October holding wild cards and ironed up going all the way to World Series wins. Some of them remained dubious even holding the trophy, and some of them actually made history to reach the Promised Land. (That would be you, O actual or alleged curse-busting 2002 Anaheim Angels and 2004 Boston Red Sox.)

Every one of those teams at least got there on winning records. Even their own fans knew in their hearts how ludicrous it was to have enjoyed the thrills, chills, and spills of watching their teams and others fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . with the best second-place records in the game.

What’s Manfred looking for, really? The thrills, chills, and spills of a fight to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . as the best of the Show’s losing teams? Does he really think the good of the game is that powerfully defined by making money for the owners? Does he really hold the players in contempt so deep that he’d let them claim greatness when greatness isn’t required to have even the chance at a World Series title?

And where’s the Major League Baseball Players Association? Joining the owners in approving the coming postseason “bubble” is one thing. Why aren’t executive director Tony Clark (himself a former player), his board, and his thirty team player representatives standing up on their hind legs, athwart Commissioner Nero who fiddles while burning their game, yelling “Stop?”

Maybe the union, too, thinks the good of the game is defined that powerfully by making money for the players. Maybe the union thinks the more, the merrier, and the more postseason share dollars to divvy up. Maybe the union, like the commissioner and the owners, doesn’t think as deeply as they should.

Wasn’t the small epidemic of tanking teams bad enough without leaving them even more room to care little to nothing about competition on the field? Does anyone really think those owners with the tank mentality are going to shape up, re-discover what their fans really want to pay for, and build truly competitive teams knowing they don’t have to try all that hard to finish in . . . eighth place?

What about those owners (yes, they do exist) who don’t think like tankers? Who pour their dollars and souls into building and re-building competitive teams and systems for the long race year in, year out? Who field teams who finish seasons on top in their divisions? Who’d still have to run a small gamut of not-quites and not-belongings for the right to play for a world championship on behalf of which they busted their fannies all season long?

How useless it now feels to argue as I’ve argued for a very long time—that the wild cards must be eliminated on behalf of restoring genuine baseball championship, and that if we must have three-division leagues there’s a sensible and sane way to align a proper postseason.

That way would be to have the leagues’ division winners with the best regular season record getting round-one byes, while the leagues’ other two winners play best-of-threes, with the winner of those meeting the bye teams in League Championship Series returned to their original best-of-five formats. Keeping the World Series as a best-of-seven and leaving, ultimately, little to no doubt about the legitimacy of the team that reaches the Promised Land.

How useless, too, it now feels to argue that that would likely cure the number one issue that really dogs baseball’s postseason: over-saturation, the prospect that fans by their radios, in front of television sets, in front of Internet computers, can be exhausted by too much of a good thing.

I didn’t mind some of the rule changes the pandemic truncation invited. I’m all in on the universal designated hitter; few things warm my heart more than not having to see a lineup slot that hit .131 with a .161 on-base percentage all through the 2010s wasted on bats making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. The extremely occasional thrill of a pitcher hitting a home run isn’t. worth. it. Not even for the next Bartolo Colon.

I can also live very nicely with doubleheaders of seven-inning games each. (So can the players, seemingly.) The only problem I have with the idea is why it took over a century to consecrate.

I don’t like the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. I still notice how many managers forget that minimum and still leave the poor saps in even if they’re already getting killed. Poor saps such as St. Louis righthander Jake Woodford. He got pried for two more runs tacked onto Cardinal ace Jack Flaherty’s jacket Tuesday night and had five of his own battered out of him on the way to the Brewers destroying the Cardinals 18-3. And don’t get me started on the free cookie on second base each team gets in each extra inning.

But I’d rather be stuck kicking and screaming with those than to see even one normal regular season in which half of each league gets to enter the championship rounds no matter how little their season records argue for their worthiness. A .500 or a sub-.500 team entering the championship round consecrates incompetence as virtue.

That’s something baseball’s mal-competent Commissioner Nero, and those owners agreeing with his intolerable weirdness, appear clueless to comprehend.