The Astros trip on their own banana peel

2019-10-22 BrandonTaubman

Brandon Taubman.

For an organisation as intelligent as the Astros’ organisation, even they trip on banana peels now and then. But what do you think when one of their own drops the banana peel on which they trip?

Assistant general manager Brandon Taubman dropped this peel, apparently, toward the end of the Astros’ pennant-winning celebration Saturday night. And it exploded into a small firestorm when Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein revealed it Monday night.

With three female reporters in earshot, at least one of whom wore a bracelet promoting awareness of domestic violence, Taubman hollered, “Thank God we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!” He may or may not have aimed his outburst at those three reporters directly. But this is more than just a terrible look. “Grotesque” may only begin to describe it.

The Astros got Osuna when the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to be rid of him while he was under suspension for domestic violence in mid-2018. The case was withdrawn after the trade to the Astros, when the woman—with whom Osuna has a now four-year-old child—refused to return from Mexico to testify against him and Osuna signed a legal document agreeing not to have contact with her for a year to follow.

“The three female reporters were approximately eight feet away and one was visibly shaken by the comment, the eyewitnesses said,” writes Houston Chronicle reporter Chandler Rome. “There were no players in the area and no interviews were being conducted at the time.” And one Astro staff member reportedly apologised for Taubman’s quick rant.

Taubman’s outburst might seem somewhat bizarre even if Osuna didn’t have a domestic violence case in his recent past. With the Astros leading and hoping to avoid a seventh American League Championship Series game, and thus avoid burning Gerrit Cole in favour of him starting the World Series, Osuna surrendered Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu’s game-tying two-run homer in the top of the ninth.

It took Yankee manager Aaron Boone electing to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman try to finish what he started—pitching to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve on 2-1, with outfielder George Springer aboard and a late insertion good-field/spaghetti bat on deck—to get Osuna off that hook. Altuve hit the shot heard ’round Astroworld and sent the Astros to the World Series.

“If [Taubman] wanted to offer support for Osuna, he would tell Osuna,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “not yell it in front of reporters and cameras.” He’d have taken Osuna to one side, put an arm around him, and reminded him, listen, we wouldn’t have gotten here without you in the first place, and, hey, we won the pennant, my friend, now let it out and shake it away, because we still need you in the World Series.

This was more than an empathetic executive trying to comfort a subordinate whose best-laid plans exploded in his face. And in the middle of the purely baseball mayhem it was too easy to forget one domestic abuser in an Astro uniform got thatclose to blowing the game for the Astros in the top of the ninth while another domestic abuser in a Yankee uniform threw the pennant-losing pitch in the bottom.

Taubman barking his support for Osuna in earshot of others and in the words that he chose was a horror. Not for standing by his man after he’d been humiliated on the mound, but for the implication that in acquiring him in the first place the Astros put a game ahead of a moral and ethical issue.

The Astros responded to Apstein’s story by denouncing it in a statement as a “misleading and completely irresponsible . . . attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.” (That would be “fake news” in today’s lingo.) When Apstein tweeted the story and the Astros offered that response, another Chronicle reporter, Hunter Atkins, tweeted in response that it wasn’t misleading at all: “I was there. Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.” He wasn’t alone in what he saw.

Neither are the Astros alone in putting the game ahead of moral and ethical issues.

That was the same implication attached to the Cubs when they dealt for Chapman for the Yankees in 2016 and the Yankees for first acquiring, then trading (for middle infielder Gleyber Torres), then re-signing him as a free agent. The Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs as the Bombers slipped out of contention; they got him in the first place after the Dodgers backed out of a deal with Chapman’s original team, the Reds, upon Chapman’s domestic violence suspension the previous winter.

Chapman’s presence and contribution to the Cubs’ staggering 2016 World Series win put the Cubs on the proverbial horns of a dilemna. Even Cub fans had a difficult time reconciling the 108-years-in-waiting return to the Promised Land to the fact that a pitcher accused of domestic violence helped get them over the mountaintop at last.

The Cubs’ dilemna was resolved only partially when Chapman returned to the Yankees. Forgotten were the small details of Chapman’s case: police didn’t press formal charges against him because of “contrasting stories” as well as concerned of evidence. Also forgotten, alas, was Chapman initially apologising only for having a gun, not necessarily for the incident itself.

Dealing for and eventually re-signing Chapman left the Yankees with a bad look, too. It left them looking as though morality and ethics could just step aside when there were baseball games and pennant races to plan. But unless some New York beat writer is sitting on it even now, nobody in the Yankee organisation to anyone’s knowledge ever hollered, “Thank God we got Chapman! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Chapman!” and got away with it, either, with or without reporters female or otherwise in earshot.

Yankee owner Hal Steinbrenner spoke about forgiveness and second chances. So did the Cubs, though with a lot less sanguinity, after shortstop Addison Russell’s case exploded last offseason, when—as Russell’s suspension for domestic violence was to carry into this season’s beginning—his former wife gave an interview in which she ran down the details of love turned to infidelity, suspicion, and finally violence.

Chapman’s case dropped for lack of evidence and clashing stories was nothing compared to Russell’s ex-wife delivering the gory details. But standing by Russell even with qualifiers didn’t do the Cubs any favours this season. After returning from his suspension, Russell had an injury-marred season and may not even be a Cub for 2020 after September callup Nico Hoerner made a big impression.

That won’t be the same as it would have been if the Cubs had rid themselves of Russell when the details about his abuse came to light. The Blue Jays knew enough about Osuna to want him out of their sight, the sooner the better; the question of how soon and how much the Cubs really knew about Russell remained open. And Steinbrenner told reporters about Chapman, “He admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?”

That’s sort of what the Mets said, too, when relief pitcher Jeurys Familia returned after his brief 2017 suspension for domestic violence. They traded him to the Athletics in July 2018, then re-signed him as a free agent last winter.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said the Osuna deal might actually help raise awareness of domestic violence in due course. And, in fairness, as Apstein herself observed, the Astros have since “made some gestures to demonstrate how seriously they took domestic violence, referencing in a statement their “zero tolerance policy,” donating $214,000 to various shelters and hanging fliers with hotline numbers in every women’s restroom at Minute Maid Park.

Few spoke up about one flip side of those coins—that there’s no such thing as an inherent right to play professional sports.

Maybe the Astros, the Yankees, and the Cubs should have asked former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice about that. He lost his career after he was caught on video attacking his fiancee. In due course Rice’s fiancee became his wife. And the couple together sat for interviews in which Rice candidly admitted he had the end of his football career coming.

When the Astros first acquired Osuna, it put several Astros on the spot, particularly pitcher Justin Verlander. The future Hall of Famer has been outspoken against domestic violence. Two months before Osuna’s acquisition, Verlander tweeted angrily when an Astros minor leaguer named Danry Vasquez was caught on video hitting his girlfriend several times.

“I hope the rest of your life without baseball is horrible. You deserve all that is coming your way!” Verlander thundered. The Astros released Vasquez and he joined the independent Lancaster Barnstormers. The Barnstormers released him when they saw the video. He now plays in the Mexican League for the Rieleros de Aguascalientes.

But when Osuna joined the Astros, Verlander said on the record, “It’s a tough situation. I think the thing for us to remember here is that the details have not come to light. We don’t know the whole story. Obviously, I’ve said some pretty inflammatory things about stuff like this in the past. I stand by those words.”

So far, Verlander’s been right about the actual details never coming to light. But baseball government knew enough to slap Osuna with what was the third-longest domestic violence suspension since its policy was born three years earlier.

Taubman gave the Astros a grotesque look with his late Saturday outburst, which those who were there seem to believe came entirely out of nowhere and without being asked. With the World Series about to begin the timing is worse, but the Astros can and need to do more than just wipe the egg off their faces.

They were foolish enough to lock themselves into a cage over their hair-trigger defense of Taubman and their likewise hair-trigger accusation that Apstein’s story was nothing more than a hit job. There’s also no inherent right to work in a major league baseball organisation off the field, either, whether you’re an assistant general manager or a peanut hawker in the stands.

When then-Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa was caught red-handed hacking into the Astros’ scouting computer database, commissioner Rob Manfred slapped the Cardinals with the maximum allowable $2 million fine and banned Correa from baseball for life, while Correa was sentenced to more than three years in prison.

Acquiring Osuna in the first place discomfited more than just Astro players. Assorted published reports say that not everyone in the Astros’ organisation was thrilled, either. You wouldn’t be wrong if you think those same less-than-thrilled Astro people wish Taubman would go away and fast. I’m betting a boatload of Astro fans feel likewise.

Because those same Astro people now must ask whether the organisation and baseball itself really wants to say computer espionage deserves a lifetime banishment but a man so publicly ignorant about domestic violence, by comparison, is no great shakes.

UPDATE, 11:41 pm Pacific time: Brandon Taubman and Astros owner Jim Crane released statements:

2019-10-22 AstrosTaubmanCrane

Note the phrasing: “if anyone was offended.” There’s no “if” about it. At least three in direct earshot and who knows how many more reading all about it were offended. And, there’s no appropriate language in which to thank your Maker for a man known for domestic violence.

How the Yankees beat themselves

2019-10-20 AroldisChapman.jpg

It almost figures that Aroldis Chapman’s smile of utter disbelief would be taken the wrong way by Yankee fans after Jose Altuve’s Saturday night special.

Aroldis Chapman showed a very odd smile almost immediately after Jose Altuve ended his assignment and the Yankees’ season with one swing. Then, as the Astros’ little big man rounded third, Chapman finally made the long, head-down walk off the mound into the Minute Maid Park visitors’ clubhouse.

Every report from that clubhouse after the Astros’s stupefying 6-4 win Saturday night describes Chapman as, phrased politely, bent out of shape. He sank at his locker, refusing to look up unless one or another teammate happened by for a pat on the back. And when he looked up, the towel he put over his head stayed put.

He’s not the only man who ever smiled in disbelief after being humiliated in front of a full house in the ballpark and a throng watching on television or listening on radio. And he won’t be the last. He’s not even the only Yankee who ever smiled in disbelief in a moment like that.

Even Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera showed a very similar smile after Luis Gonzalez singled the Diamondbacks into a World Series ring on the longtime Yankee bellwether’s dollar. But I don’t remember Yankee fans crawling all over The Mariano the way they hammered Chapman over it.

“At that moment when the ball went out, I couldn’t believe it,” the 31-year-old lefthander who still throws the proverbial lamb chops past wolves said after Altuve’s drive banged off the left field pavilion concrete. “I couldn’t believe it went out at that time of the game. For that split-second, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Why did Chapman throw Altuve a second straight slider on 2-1 after showing him two fastballs that didn’t quite reach his once-signature 101 mph but still had plenty enough giddyap to stay above the average? Did beleaguered Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez lose the plot? Did manager Aaron Boone call the pitch from the dugout? And did either or both simply make a terrible call?

“I fell behind in the count and wanted to get ahead with the slider, and I didn’t,” Chapman said. “It didn’t land in the spot where I wanted, and he took full advantage of that. That’s what I was trying to do in that at-bat.”

In the moment you, too, sat in disbelief, even if you were an Astro fan and even if you knew that if anyone could or would come up big enough in that moment, a pennant on the line in a game tied in the top of the ninth, it just had to be Altuve.

Look at the Astros through the full ALCS set. Alex Bregman, who’s liable to be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player if Mike Trout isn’t, had a solid on-base percentage but slugged .222.

Yuli Gurriel looked like an Astro bust overall until he smashed a three-run homer in the Game Six first. Carlos Correa hit a couple of home runs including the electrifying Game Two winner but hit 22 points below his weight otherwise. And their likely AL Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, was last seen offering a ransom for his kidnapped bat.

And look at the Yankees. Aaron Judge hit one out in Game Two (and it was his only homer all postseason long) but nothing else among his six hits in 27 plate appearances went for extra bases. Except for one home run Giancarlo Stanton’s bothersome quad made him useless in the designated-hitter role. Brett Gardner, Mr. Savages-In-The-Box? He had a .345 . . . series OPS.

Sanchez, the classic good-hit/terrible-field catcher, hit one out and managed to drive three in but he was otherwise good for nothing much at the plate. Of all the Yankee regulars, only D.J. LeMahieu—whose two-run homer in the top of the ninth set the stage for Altuve’s heroics in the bottom of the inning in the first place—and Gleyber Torres showed real value in the batter’s box.

Then you remembered Chapman began reaching for his slider more after 2016. Including 31.1 percent of the time this season and 38.3 percent of the time when he had a hitter at two strikes, according to MLB.com. And with George Springer aboard on a two-out walk, Chapman and the Yankees didn’t even think about putting Altuve on to pitch to Jake Marisnick, a late-game insertion who’s known for his defense far more than his bat.

Boone said it wasn’t an intentional walk situation but a situation to pitch aggressively. “[H]e just hung a breaking ball,” Boone told reporters after the game. “That’s obviously a pitch he’s trying to not give in and probably get down and out of the zone, see if you get a chase or something, and he hung it.”

Except that there wasn’t a jury on earth who’d convict him for malfeasance or cowardice if he’d ordered the free pass to Altuve. And of the eleven breaking balls Chapman threw in the inning, four of them hung—including the strike at which Altuve looked one pitch before the hanger that graduated Altuve from mere Astro heart and soul into eternal Astro legend.

All season long Boone and the Yankees operated around their bullpen. All season long Boone managed his pen adroitly, refusing to overwork those bulls, refusing to let the other guys have the same looks at the same arms in too-short intervals.

And all of that disappeared in the American League Championship Series. Against a team that pounces on the slightest mistake and refuses spurn such gifts as seeing the same arms in just about the same situations. And, against a Chapman whom the Astros hadn’t even seen except for two ALCS innings before Saturday night but whose slider suddenly made the ten most wanted list.

In fact, Chapman was almost in danger of resembling the forgotten Yankee this postseason. And when he did appear, he didn’t miss as many bats as usual. Even inserted to pitch the ninth in a Game One division series blowout, when he got one strikeout and two contact outs plus a walk. When a man with a 13.4 strikeouts-per-nine rate on the season doesn’t miss that many bats, the alarm should be blasting.

Just don’t ask Chapman if his use during this postseason factored into the final disaster. He isn’t buying it. “What happened on the field is what happened on the field,” he said matter-of-factly. “It had nothing to do with that.”

Far more sensible to point to assorted Yankee mistakes all series long and even all Game Six long. They weren’t as slapstick in Game Four as they were in Game Six, but Game Six was its own comedy of errors, official and unofficial alike:

* Playing for the double play with nobody out and the Astros having first and third in the bottom of the sixth. Down a run, the Yankees should have played the infield in. Instead, they got the double play grounder, but shortstop Didi Gregorius unexpectedly took a quick peek toward the plate before throwing. That moment cost the Yankees the double play and the run scored regardless.

* Letting Tommy Kahnle pitch a third day in a row. Kahnle was one of the Yankees’ best relievers in the set but it was bad enough the Yankee bullpen rarely if ever appeared in differing conditions without Kahnle being extended like that. The Yankees may have been lucky to escape the sixth with only one run scoring in the inning.

* Judge ambling too far toward second base on Aaron Hicks’s seventh-inning pop to shallow left. Granted that Astros left fielder Michael Brantley wasn’t known for his defensive virtuosity, but his diving catch, springing up promptly, and throwing strongly back to first doubled Judge up too easily. You got why Judge got over-aggressive but every baserunner matters in a tight game and he cost the Yankees a chance to push one around the circuit.

* Edwin Encarnacion was such a bust as the Yankee designated hitter this series that, with Stanton still ailing, Boone could and should have reached for alternatives. He had Cameron Maybin on the bench. He could have assigned the defensively challenged Sanchez to DH in Game Six and sent Austin Romine, who doesn’t hit much but handles things far better defensively, out behind the plate.

The Astros entered Game Six with a shot at both the pennant and at not having to burn Gerrit Cole in a Game Seven when they’d far prefer to have him open the World Series if they got there. The Yankees entered Game Six needing to do or be dead. Those Game Six mistakes built the Yankee coffin Altuve nailed tight shut.

Neither the Astros nor the Yankees hit with authority during most of the ALCS, but the Yankees had potential tying or go-ahead runs at the plate 26 times in the set. Entering Game Six they were 5-for-29 with men on second base or better. The Yankees also became notorious this set for failing to cash in several bases-loaded situations including first innings in Games Three and Four. But staying loyal to the veteran Encarnacion, a June trade acquisition, cost the Yankees dearly.

He may have hit 34 home runs during the season but come the ALCS Encarnacion looked twice his 36 years. He wasn’t anywhere near resembling the bombardier who once sent the Blue Jays into a division series with a mammoth game-ending three-run homer made possible when Orioles manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t even think about bringing in his best reliever because it wasn’t a quote save situation.

All season long Boone looked like a master administrator. You don’t win 100+ games in your first two seasons otherwise. But in Game Six he looked like a novice while his team got out-played, out-thought, and out-smarted most of the way.

Right down to the moment he wouldn’t even think about giving up the ghost, walking Altuve on the house after 2-0, and pitching to a .289 regular-season on-base percentage instead of a .353 OBP with a man on in the bottom of the ninth. If he’d ordered Altuve walked he might have gotten extra innings and another chance.

And don’t even think about blaming Game Six plate umpire Marvin Hudson. Both the Astros and the Yankees had plenty of reasons to complain about his Rocky Horror Picture Show-wide strike zone: a little to the left, a little to the right, let’s do the Time Warp again. The only wonder was that no Astro or Yankee was tempted to try fouling Hudson into the concussion that took Jeff Nelson out of the set unintentionally.

The Yankees measure their success by World Series appearances. And they’re not even a twentieth as obnoxious about it as their fans. Of all the cliches around the Yankees, the truest is that they don’t like to lose. Of all the cliches around Yankee fans, the truest are a) they think annual trips to the World Series are their birthright; and, b) to err is human, but to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.

They’ve just finished only the second decade in their history without reaching a World Series. And they did it by failing to deliver the second part of their most successful manager ever’s wisdom: Baseball is percentage plus execution. With occasional lapses operating the former.

The first ended the year Eugene Debs was imprisoned for speaking against World War I, Prohibition took legal effect, Albert Cushing Read made history’s first transatlantic flight, American women received the vote, and eight members of the White Sox either did their best to throw a World Series or kept their mouths shut about those trying to do it.

It’s enough to make a team whose average age this season is 28 feel as though the average age is 86.

And the way Jose Altuve 86ed the Yankees in the end sent him to the same chamber of legends where Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Gonzalez, Dave Roberts, and David Ortiz reside in the small but honoured sub-chamber of Yankee slayers.