2021: Wanted—a Laundromat

Rob Manfred, baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin.

Once upon a time, when you could be sure . . . if it was Westinghouse, that once-ubiquitous home appliance maker trumpeted its angular front-loading washing machine thus: “You’ll love your Laundromat more every day!” There are those, and they may be legion, who think baseball today needs a Laundromat it can love more every day, too.

But the game may first need to remember where 2021’s laundry hamper is located. “[Major League Baseball]’s dirty laundry,” writes the irrepressibly irreverent Deadspin, “was only forgotten by the general public when some newer, shinier scandal made its way onto the scene.”

Deadspin thus began its proclamation of commissioner Rob Manfred as the eighth biggest idiot in 2021 sports. By the time you finish reading just that particular bill of particulars, you may come to think it’ll take an entire Laundromat—those vintage, Westinghouse-stocked,  self-service laundry versions of the very vintage self-service Horn & Hardart Automats, that is—to get MLB’s washing done.

Thanks to baseball’s owners and their off-season lockout, the keys to the Laundromat can’t and won’t re-open it for badly needed business. Thanks to Manfred’s determination to leave a legacy as having been baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin, baseball has continued calling the repairmen to fix what wasn’t broken while calling the dentist to set the limbs that were.

Manfred has dropped more balls than ever eluded the grasp of legnedary first base fumbler Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. From almost the moment he succeeded Bud Selig in the commissioner’s chair, Manfred has seemed to administer baseball even further down the line Selig and his then-fellow owners once engineered while ignoring blissfully their roles laying the tracks: Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids! 

The Astros caught red-handed in an elaborate and illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation? The Red Sox caught using their replay room for sign-stealing reconnaissance assuming men on base to receive and transmit the purloined letters? By the rules, Manfred could only fine Astros owner Jim Crane $5 million, “which is roughly the price equivalent of a Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell to you or I,” Deadspin snarks. He couldn’t quite hit the Red Sox like that over turning what MLB itself provides each team at home or on the road.

But he could have imposed far more stern measures than stripping the Astros of a pair of key draft picks. He could also have imposed something more grave upon the Red Sox than letting them skate by suspending their manager and banishing their video room operator. As one presidential candidate once purred about the other’s party, in debate and on the campaign trail, he had his chance but he did not lead.

That was in 2020. Over a year later, all of that was almost (underline that) forgotten by your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Tack. As in, that new old-fashioned medicated goo pitchers deployed the better to get a grip on something upon which Manfred lacks a grip—making baseballs that are as viable for pitchers to throw as for hitters to hit. The inconsistent surfaces of the balls today compelled enough pitchers to seek medicated help. That some of them saw it as a fine shield for chicanery should have been anticipated, but wasn’t.

So Manfred cracked down . . . about a couple of months after he should have done so. It simply reinforced the suspicions of too many that this commissioner picks and chooses when to enforce particular rules. It also provoked them to ask why Manfred was more alarmed about potentially cheating pitchers than he was about the continuing lack of umpire accountability.

He certainly wasn’t all that alarmed about cheating baseballs. You read that right: after the season, it came forth from Business Insider that two types of balls were used during the year. One was a little more on the dead side, the other a little more on the lively side. The magazine cited an astrophysicist who analysed the balls, found them suspicious, and even spoke to an unidentified pitcher who thought, as I wrote elsewhere early this month, that baseball’s government might have engaged a little game chicanery of its own:

This pitcher thinks MLB was also looking to manipulate particular matchups with the variable balls: send the slightly more dead balls to such lesser sets as, say, the Detroit Tigers versus the Kansas City Royals, since nobody was going to be interested in them, but send the slightly livelier balls to the marquee sets such as the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

If you’re looking for a thorough MLB investigation into what we might call Ballgate, save your vision. It hasn’t happened yet. Whether it will happen is only slightly more difficult to guess than it once was to guess which one among about eight different leg kicks and about sixteen different windups Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was likely to use to throw the next pitch your way.

(Which reminds me that the splendid staffers at Baseball Prospectus, in their book Extra Innings, once posited with splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. So Commissioner Goldberg didn’t start ball chicanery, but it’s possible he’s presided over its current tricks and treats.)

After a few comical responses to on-the-spot Spider-Tack and other substance searches that could have and almost did provoke strip teases by the suspects under potential arrest, Manfred and his administration provided further evidence that today’s baseball handles scandal by engaging one somewhat worse than the incumbent. This time, the name was Trevor Bauer.

This time, Bauer was place on administrative leave over sexual misconduct  accusations described politely as salacious, with each period of leave extended going, going, going, until he was gone, goodbye, for the final two-thirds of the season. His Dodgers—who’d signed him big without doing complete due diligence last offseason; who won 106 games and still had to win the wild card game for postseason advancement (because their historic and division rival Giants won one game more)—almost went to the World Series without him.

Meanwhile, Manfred persisted with his COVID-shortened 2020 season’s tinkerings over the full 2021. On behalf of his often-questionable or at least mis-directed alarm over the length of baseball games, Manfred persisted with the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning. He persisted with his rule that relief pitchers must face three batters at minimum before they can be relieved. The former remained a mere nuisance. The latter could have gotten someone killed.

That would be Bryce Harper, now the National League’s defending Most Valuable Player, but then taking an errant fastball off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist courtesy of Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera—on the first pitch of the top of the sixth. It could have knocked Harper’s block off. It did knock his batting helmet off. It scared the hell out of both teams and the Busch Stadium audience.

The next pitch Cabrera threw hit Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius. The three-minimum rule still prevented Cardinals manager Mike Schildt from lifting a pitcher whose lack of control was obvious to all but the blind. Harper ended up suffering a terrible slump while he struggled to play through the wrist compromise yet recovered to post an MVP season. He also texted Schildt after the fateful game to say he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to decapitate him.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters postgame. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.” It was the diametric opposite of the commissioner’s act.

Commissioner Goldberg has also sought, ham-handedly, to make the game pay through the nose for any agreement to make the designated hitter universal. He wants a trade-off: I’ll give you the universal DH, but you give me an agreement that you lose your DH if you lift your starting pitcher sooner than six innings or thereabout. If you think he’s learned nothing from his three-batter relief minimum, wait until you see him flunk this one.

Just as relievers might enter a game having nothing left, for assorted reasons, starting pitchers often enough begin a game on the vulnerable side. If Manfred really thinks he’s doing the game a favour by forcing a team to sacrifice a game’s designated hitter, because the manager got his roughed-up starter out of there early enough before getting the guy killed to death, I think I may have found a buyer for that cut-rate Antarctican beach club.

If and when the owners and the players return to the negotiating table on behalf of ending this lockout, the players should give the owners and their barely-trained seal one answer to that:

Don’t even think about it. It’s long past time for the DH to be universal. Pitchers overall have never been hitters; those very few who were were outliers, and everyone with a brain knows it. We’re tired of wasting pitchers at the plate and watching rallies die. We’re really tired of losing pitchers to the injured list when they get hurt at the plate. The DH is long overdue in the National League, one of whose ancient owners dreamed it up in the first place. Deal with it. End of subject.

Manfred’s alarm at the length of baseball games has yet to address the truest of the culprits, broadcast advertising. You can look it up: Two minutes worth of commercials between half innings equals 36 minutes per nine-inning game. That’s before the commercials during in-inning pitching changes. (You might notice it takes less time for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen and throw eight game-mound pitches than it does to run the first minute’s commercial.) And, before extra innings, which are the two second-loveliest words in a true baseball fan’s vocabulary. (The loveliest, of course, are, “Play ball!”)

The next time you watch a game on television or listen on radio or online, make note of every commercial played during the broadcast from the first pitch to the final out. When you add the times of those commercials, you can’t say you weren’t warned that you might have seen a mere two hours’ worth of baseball for your trouble. Thus persists Manfred’s likeliest definition of the common good of the game: making money for it.

Thus, too, were soiled such luminous matters as the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as an international two-way major league mega-star. (And, the American League’s Most Valuable Player.) Such matters as the Braves picking themselves up from the loss of their franchise player-in-waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the second half of the season, dusting themselves off with a trade deadline array of outfield-remaking deals, then wrestling their way to a sixth World Series game in which one of those newly-acquired outfielders, Jorge Soler, led the way bludgeoning the Astros home without another lease to the Promised Land.

Manfred presenting the Braves with the World Series trophy (you know, the one he once called a mere piece of metal) and Soler with the Series MVP award carried all the duplicity of Dmitri Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to restore and enhance freedom of expression in Russia—and the Norwegian Nobel Committee enlisting Vladimir Putin to present it to him.

Is it going to take a one-hundred-washer Laundromat to clean up this mess? You can be sure . . . if it’s Manfredhouse.