This commissioner’s time should be done

2020-06-16 RobManfredBaseballsThat was last week: Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying there would absitively, posolutely be major league baseball in 2020. This was Monday, to ESPN: Manfred saying, “Not so fast.” Never mind that the March agreement the owners are trying to walk back gives Manfred absolute authority to order the season to go.

“I’m not confident,” he told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg for a special called The Return of Sports.  “I think there’s real risk; and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is gonna continue.”

Not long from there, Manfred said . . . of course! It’s the players’ fault, for ending “good faith negotiations” that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows really means “on the owners’ terms” coming from his lips. Anyone with the same two brain cells also knows that the owners crying “good faith” equals Donald Trump closing his Twitter account.

Want to know what the players really turned down over the weekend, with an emphatic harrumph of, “Seriously?”

The owners wanted a 72-game season at 70 percent pay per game played, 80 percent if the one-time-only (we think) expanded postseason (the owners wanted the players to say yes to 22 more such games) was played to the end. The players would get a 64.5 percent pay cut taking 100 percent of the safety risks—there’s still the coronavirus on its grand tour, you know.

Ken Rosenthal, writer for The Athletic, half the team (with Evan Drellich) who blew open the Astrogate/Soxgate illegal sign-stealing scandals, thinks plausibly that Manfred—whose powers include acting in the game’s best interest but who’s employed purely by the owners to whom the game’s best interest involves making money for them first—would rather incinerate the forest than see it for the trees.

Rosenthal also thinks Manfred is beginning to get one thing: strike a deal with the players who aren’t buying the owners’ Kickapoo Joy Juice or see his legacy as a baseball commissioner go into the tank.

The threat of a billion-dollar grievance from the [Major League Baseball] Players Association has forced Manfred to reconsider exercising his right to set a schedule for the 2020 season and return to his original mission of reaching a deal that is acceptable to both sides. What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns.

Baseball’s better commissioners have been remembered among other things for appearing the next best thing to statesmen. Find me someone with skin in baseball’s game—a fan, a player, an owner (even), an analyst, a broadcaster, an historian—who’d call Manfred a statesman, and I’ll find you the last sworn-in government of the lost continent of Atlantis.

It’s been hard enough to think of Manfred as someone who genuinely loves the game after he made such remarks as the World Series trophy being just a piece of metal, trying to explain why it was one thing to discipline three 2017 Houston Astros while taking owner Jim Crane off the Astrogate hook but something else to strip their World Series championship.

Now Manfred has little choice other than that between finding and striking a deal with the players to get a 2020 season at all, or let it go and watch as nobody but the most stubborn among the tunnel-visioned takes Manfred or the owners seriously as stewards of the game any longer.

Remember: The owners are talking through their domes if they think anyone with an IQ higher than half (.064) the collective batting average (.128) of MLB’s pitchers last year buys their poverty cries. As Thomas Boswell pointed out early Monday, the average major league team value jumped by over $1 billion in the past six years—from $811 million to $1.9 billion.

Manfred’s contract as baseball commissioner is extended through the end of 2024. Assuming he doesn’t do anything else to implode the game between now and then—even assuming he finds a way, somehow, to be as Rosenthal describes, “the adult in the room, a leader with a sense of the game’s place in our society, the caretaker of the sport”—maybe it’s time at last to think of a better way to choose his successor.

There’s no reason on earth that the commissioner should be hired by and beholden to the owners alone. There’s no reason on earth a plausible candidate shouldn’t stand for election by the owners and by the Players Association through the thirty team player representatives. The commissioner should be beholden to neither faction but the consensus choice of both.

“Players come and go, but the owners stay on forever,” then-American League president Joe Cronin once told the late Marvin Miller, early in Miller’s tenure as the union’s executive director. Let’s just see about that. The owners stay only until they designate successors (think of the New York Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner or the Detroit Tigers’ Chris Illitch) or sell. Fans don’t wear team jerseys with the names of owners on their backs.

The game stays on forever. And with very few exceptions the first thing you think about when you think about the game is the men who’ve played it. You don’t think of Joe Cronin as a meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog league president before you think of him as a Hall of Fame shortstop and even a manager. You don’t think of Joe Torre as baseball’s top cop before you think of him as an outstanding catcher/third baseman and a Hall of Fame manager.

You don’t always think of Bill White as the first African-American (and next-to-last) president of the National League before you remember him as an outstanding first baseman who also helped shepherd the St. Louis Cardinals through their racial growing pains. You don’t think of Nolan Ryan as a baseball executive (including a term as the president of the Texas Rangers) before you remember him as a Hall of Fame pitcher with seven no-hitters on his resume.

You don’t think of the late, ill-fated Mike Flanagan as a Baltimore Orioles executive before you remember him as a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. You don’t think of Eddie Lopat as a snake-in-the-grass baseball executive (when a Kansas City Athletics player reminded him about a promised salary raise, Lopat the general manager shot back, “Prove it!”) before you think of him as a pitching star on five straight Yankee World Series winners.

You don’t even think of Al Rosen as the baseball executive who put a shot of rocket fuel into player salary inflation when he was the San Francisco Giants’ general manager (the once-notorious Bud Black deal), before you think of him as a powerful third baseman who swept the first-place votes as the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, but whose career was torpedoed by back and leg injuries.

But you probably think Manfred wouldn’t be able to tell you any of that. You’d probably be right. He has to go. And, among numerous other lackings, the owners need to own up and agree—whether or not they’d accept that their duplicities brought us here in the first place—that baseball needs a better way to choose a better steward. A steward to whom the good of the game isn’t always the same thing as making money for it.

Grapefruit vs. Cactus, regular season?

CoronavirusRedImagine there’s no National League or American League, for one season, at least. Imagine, instead, there’s a Cactus League and a Grapefruit League, for just one season. If you take the word of USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, it could happen this year when baseball’s able to return. If it’s able to return this year.

For just one season I’d be all in. Thanks to a combination of a pestiferous viral pandemic and assorted and sundry responses running the line from ignorant to delayed to scrambling and back, it’ll be a short baseball season if the game can come back. A short season is better than no season.

Nightengale says the Cactus/Grapefruit realignment is just one idea being tossed around the horn for when the stay-at-home/social-distancing orders are lifted. But it’s not a terrible idea at all. That’s the alignment we get watching the spring exhibitions, so it isn’t exactly as though we’d be thrown into the Twilight Zone now.

“The plan would have all 30 teams returning to their spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, playing regular-season games only in those two states and without fans in an effort to reduce travel and minimize risks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nightengale writes. “The divisions would be realigned based on the geography of their spring training homes.”

Under this plan, Nightengale continues, both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues would be arranged in three divisions each: North, South, and East for the Florida-based Grapefruit League and Northeast, West, and Northwest for the Arizona-based Cactus League.

And how would the teams be arrayed within those divisions? Nightengale has your answer, too:

Grapefruit League: North—New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates. South—Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles. East—Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins.

Cactus League: Northeast—Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics. West—Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels. Northwest—Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals.

OK, the bad news is that the Cactus League would have fewer logistical and distance problems, since the Arizona spring camps are separated by no more than an hour’s drive apiece. The spread in Florida is a lot wider, which Nightengale notes might compel a few tricky maneuvers in the event any team personnel might need to be isolated.

A few traditional rivalries would get temporary short shrift to a certain extent, too. It’ll take a little getting used-to picturing the Yankees and the Red Sox in different divisions, not to mention the Dodgers and the Giants or the Cubs and the Cardinals likewise, with the Cubs and the Cardinals in different leagues in the bargain.

On the other hand, several in-state rivalries remain intact, such as they are. The Reds and the Indians for the honour of Ohio. The Phillies and the Pirates, for Pennsylvania power, never mind how lopsided it now is in the Phillies’ favour. The Dodgers and the Angels for bragging rights to Interstate 5 traffic jams.

How delicious would it be, also, to see even a temporary seasonal rivalry between last year’s World Series combatants—each of whom behaved rudely enough in the other’s house, one of whom won it all in the other’s house, with the winner also out-smarting the other’s flair for espionage even before the other’s exposure as electronic, off-field-based cheaters?

You say it’s theoretically possible that the World Series comes down to the Cardinals vs. the Cubs? Since the Grapefruit/Cactus alignment would keep them apart on what comes of the regular season, how surrealistically bristling would it be to see those two traditional division rivals otherwise in a hammer-and-tongs, few-holds-barred feud for a lease to the Promised Land?

Even if they can’t play the games in St. Louis or Chicago, oh boy will Cardinal and Cub fans go nutsh@t over that.

If there’s one thing baseball’s great for, it’s stirring the imagination. Now we could have one of the greatest imagination stirrers in recorded baseball history. And all it took was a nasty little virus out of a Chinese province that resembles a ball spiked with (depending on the developed image) rubber darts or red broccoli florets to do it.

Except that there are still a few problems. The players themselves would be far less than thrilled to be isolated into playing games strictly in one or the other region. Especially those who happen to be expectant fathers with their anticipated offspring due during the season and their wives expecting them to be there for the deliveries.

No matter how much money they’re paid to play, you can’t blame them for not wishing to be isolated even further from the families away from whom they spend enough time during a normal regular season.

Not to mention that, no matter how often some fans in the stands are bothersome nitwits (reality check: a few such fans are too many, and they’re there, they always have been there), enough players admit it’s just not the same playing in empty ballparks—which could still happen, depending on the extent to which the social distancing orders get lifted.

This much we know: Forget the dollars at stake, they want to play. Bears gotta bear, bees gotta bee, and baseball players gotta baseball. They’ll consider any and just about all alternatives if it means playing ball with the least amount of family encumbrance.

“When you’re trying to get really creative, why say no now?’’ says Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa—who now works as a senior advisor for Angels baseball operations, and whom Nightengale says was told of the possible Grapefruit/Cactus plan.

“So you have a unique season. I’ve got no problem with that,” La Russa continued. “I’m not sure we’ll be able play in our own cities across the country, so if you split it up like that, it’s a possibility.”

How would they play, then? Nightengale says each league would play twelve games each within their new temporary divisions, six apiece against other teams in the league, at least one doubleheader a night when all the teams are on the schedule because of the fifteen-team leagues.

And, everyone plays with a designated hitter.

Oh, you can hear it now. The “traditionalists” snarling and foaming over further polluting the game. Making those poor National League teams now in temporary league with those sissy American League teams take it like a manperson.

Never mind that last year the National League’s pitchers batted a whopping .133 overall or that all Show pitchers batted a lethal .100 overall. You want to keep wasting a lineup spot on that? Instead of your team putting what amounts to an extra cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type hitter in the spot? Instead of having a fifty percent or better shot at putting more runs on the board?

I was in the anti-DH camp for a long enough time. For life, actually. And for the same reason—“tradition.” I don’t dismiss tradition lightly, but there are traditions worth keeping and traditions worth dumping. Baseball’s dumped a few traditions best left to the scrap heap, too. Remember how long it was “traditional” to bar non-white players from “organised” baseball? Or to play strictly day ball?

Sure, it’s a blast (pun intended) when a pitcher hits one into the seats—once in the proverbial blue moon, but it’s just a little self-defeating to sustain some cockeyed idea of “tradition” when you might be adding a little more real run creation/production. “It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” the incomparable Thomas Boswell wrote last year.

But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL. But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.

By the way, the blow that arguably did the most to put the last World Series into the Nationals’ bank? After the same Max Scherzer pitched on less than fumes and somehow managed to keep things no worse than a 2-0 Nats deficit through five innings?

That would be Howie Kendrick, turning on a Will Harris cutter arriving off the middle of the plate, sending it off the Minute Maid Park right field foul pole with a bonk! “It doesn’t add up,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa when it was over. “The way [Harris] throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and [Kendrick] hits it off the foul pole.”

Kendrick was the Nats’ DH on the evening. Do you still want to argue against it sticking around after the coronaball season when baseball goes back to normal next year?