The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

A thinker provokes about the thinker’s game

2019-06-03 InfiniteBaseball“This,” warns University of California Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë in his preface, “is a book about baseball by a philosopher. But do not be alarmed. It is not a work of philosophy, at least not in the conventional, academic sense.” Before getting to the meat of Noë’s Infinite Baseball, whose cover displays the charming twist of a baseball’s stitches into infinity’s symbol, I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or spank him for that.

But he does almost finish his preface by calling it a philosophical game after explaining his grounds for that. “It’s not a quantitative game,” he writes. “It’s a normative game, for its main concern is who deserves credit or blame for what.

Infinite Baseball is a small collection of essays written for NPR’s former science and culture Website 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. Noë goes forward to reassure that he is indeed writing as a philosopher about a game that is as metaphysical as philosophical, though Noë doesn’t say the metaphysical part.

Aside from thinking baseball’s main concern was one team putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other, I also get that Joe and Jane Fan in their ballpark pews or television seats often seem more animated by blame over a loss than credit for a win. So do Joseph and Janette Front-Office Muckety-Muck, who have the power Joe and Jane Fan merely dream of wielding, the power of the purge.

The italics in the aforequoted sentence were Noë’s. The timing of the book’s publication was impeccable: April Fool’s Day. Except that he isn’t kidding around when, in his more involved introduction, he says baseball is more than just the players on the diamond:

Baseball is also the practise of trying to understand what the men on the diamond are doing not only while they are doing it but in the larger setting of the game’s past and future. It is something that engages not only the coaches and managers and trainers but also the players and umpires and fans. Take away the reflection on and you are left with mere activity–with something robots could do. And that’s not baseball. Baseball without umps and coaches and fans and players trying to decide what’s happening on the field of play would no more be baseball than justice would be at work in a courtroom in which there were no parties to dispute vying with each other to resolve their conflict.

He also reminds us that an awful lot of what agitates the game’s fans and governors alike about certain contemporary bugaboos like time is an awful lot of bunk:

The idea that baseball is too slow is based on the premise that only explosive plays and big hits count as action. But baseball is more subtle than home runs and double plays. When the batter steps out of his box and fixes his batting gloves, or weighs his bat, or scratches around in the box, he’s not wasting time; he is surveying the situation before him, reading the signs, trying to figure out what pitch to look for. He is working. For the knowledgeable fan, these are moments of tactical complexity and high suspense. There’s a lot going on and there’s a lot for the spectator, together with the player, to try to appreciate. The same is true of mound visits by the coaching staff. In those moments, the coach is like the corner guy in a boxing bout; with his words he makes it possible for the pitcher to keep on pitching.

Noë thinks television obstructs that view to a certain extent, and to a certain extent he’s right. You suspect a lot of fans might be influenced by the scene in Bull Durham in which catcher Crash Davis, pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, the entire infield, and the bench coach confer on the mound—about things having little enough to do with the game and more to do with wedding gifts and religious sacrifice. It made for comic relief and distorted baseball. Real catchers and coaches won’t go to lengths that extreme to settle a pitcher down.

Baseball isn’t a perpetual motion sport, and Noë knows it. It provokes contemplation as well as drama; reflection as well as excitement. Perhaps the reason so many writers over so many generations took to baseball as an analogy of human life itself, above and beyond other games, is that they know life is not perpetual excitement. Even the most successful lives, normally, involve genuine excitement maybe a quarter of the time.

If I were to tell you nothing more than the Dodgers dropped fifteen runs on the Reds in the first inning, you might say, “Yep! That’s today’s baseball, and that’s just wrong!” You might assume the Dodgers, powerful enough in a high power era, absolutely bludgeoned the Reds. You’d be wrong. It wasn’t this year’s game. It was 21 May 1952 . . . when the Dodgers belonged to Brooklyn and played in a little temple called Ebbets Field.

And, except for Hall of Famer Duke Snider’s two-run homer off Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell to start the carnage, no other Dodger runner scored on a home run. Except for a pair of bases-loaded walks and a bases-loaded hit batsman, the remaining thirteen runs in the inning came home on singles. One homer-exhausted fan might look at that and have a hearty laugh. Another might see a swarm of tactical ground support awaiting the heavy bomber(s) that never showed up.

(Blackwell was lifted after surrendering a third Dodger run. Legend has it that no sooner did he return to the team hotel, leaving the park in disgust, than the Whip went to the bar, and saw two things: the television set showing the game still in the bottom of the first, and his own relief Bud Byerly coming into the bar after he’d surrendered a walk and four straight RBI singles. Baseball being a game of sometimes mordantly organic humour as well as metaphysical joy, you hope that’s a true story.)

You think the game qua the game is too slow for comfort? Ask yourself how you’re feeling when one team drops a 19-1 blowout on the other with most of the runs scoring in the first inning, and you still have eight more innings to watch. Other than two Dodger runs each in the third and the fifth, and one Reds run in the fifth (trivia buffs: it was Dixie Howell hitting a two-out solo home run), the rest of that game must have been a snooze. Bludgeoned into a nap. Right?

“It takes not only experience but also curiosity and patience to realise what’s at play in a baseball game,” Noë writes. Good luck with that, if you’re aware of the American prayer cited several hundred times to my knowledge in the past three decades: “Lord, grant me patience—and I want it right now!

Inside Baseball‘s first essay is called “Do We Need to Speed Up Baseball?” Noe, you might have guessed, says no way, Jose (Altuve and otherwise): “Players and spectators alike need to slow down and let baseball happen.” Its next essay is called “In Praise of Being Bored.” Stop snorting and think about it: “I say, God save us from today’s ramped-up, multi-interrupted, selfie-consumed, fast-paced world! We need to slow down. We need to turn off. We need to unplug. We need to start things and not know when they are going to end. We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent outside of real time.”

It isn’t A. Bartlett Giamatti (I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field . . . ) but it’ll work. Noe goes from there to ponder:

Instant replay. He’s a converted skeptic but still accepts the humanness of umpires.

Television. When it comes to baseball, Noë tolerates it—barely, because it leaves certain elements unseeable or undiscernable for all that it allows a viewer to see now as opposed to in its infancy.

Scorekeeping and performance numbers. He calls it all a “forensic” act, by which he doesn’t mean to equate it with performing an autopsy.

No-hitters and perfect games. Noë laments batters getting no credit for walks or taking one for the team to reach base otherwise; he also believes a perfect game—like a lot of other things credited to pitchers—is at least half a team accomplishment, however fun it is admiring a pitcher who pitched such a game.

Sabermetrics. He calls it (and the essay in which he addresses it, not always by name)  “The Numbers Game.” Noë finds it useful for true analysis and evaluation but not for controlling value. My own experience is that you’ll find as many sabermetric stat geeks declining to allow it to control all value as attempting to allow it. Makes for one of the great sub-pastimes of baseball: arguments.

Baseball language. It intrigues and amazes him that there remain those who think both are or should be finite. It also intrigues and amazes me that, in a collection of essays in which baseball language is a topic, he never once even thinks about Yogi Berra.

Pharmacy. Noë believes there’s not as much wrong as you think with baseball players and other athletes accepting pharmaceutical help, especially with injury recovery, especially when the governors of their sports tell them, in essence, “You can’t pick and choose your pain relief! Only we can pick and choose your pain relief.” (He also thinks there’s something weird when people object to people augmenting things their bodies produce with . . . things their bodies produce.)

He doesn’t address it, but my own question is whether there’s hypocrisy in Joe and Jan Fan not going “boo” when baseball’s governors approve team medical staffs administering a steroid known as cortisone—in such abundance as to risk long-term, post-baseball health—while they’re screaming bloody murder over which players sought steroids (and other actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances) by any other names.

As a society, we seem to have a totally incoherent set of values regarding the place of medicine and technology in the cultivation of athletic talent. We categorically prohibit the use of strength-building and injury-protecting PEDs, yet we allow surgical interventions like Tommy John (surgery) to become business-as-usual, letting pitchers use their body well beyond biologically sanctioned safety and performance specs.

Social media and the game. Noë wonders aloud whether the combination hasn’t produced “a whole new and very brutal kind of reality TV,” using the botched Mets trade of Wilmer Flores for Carlos Gomez in 2015—the news of which reached the fans in the stands before it reached the Mets’ social media-lacking then-manager, Terry Collins, whom Noe thinks proved “above it all” instead of “out of it”—as a microcosm in the middle of which the hapless Flores “was made to live out a social media lie.”

Within two days the Mets backed out of the deal (Gomez’s hip was an issue at the time; this year, he re-joined the Mets) and Flores punctuated his hoped-for reprieve with a game-winning home run off Nationals reliever Felipe Rivero. It helped launch the Mets’ stretch resurgence and the Nationals’ stretch fade. Go figure.

“The Matt Harvey Affair” (that, too, is an essay title)—no, silly, not the one that finally rousted the former Dark Knight out of New York last year, the one that left people “blindsided” in 2015 when Harvey (the nerve of him!) preferred to listen to his doctors (as a post-Tommy John surgery pitcher) and ease his workload until the postseason. And people wonder why when it comes to medicine baseball is more often The Daffy Doc than Dr. Michael DeBakey.

The knuckleball. Noë wonders why so few pitchers take it up in the beginning instead of as a last resort, since the pitch “can be so devilishly effective.” (He wrote the essay after R.A. Dickey, late-career knuckleballer, became the first making it his money pitch to win the Cy Young Award.) Baseball people still dismiss it often as just a trick pitch, a novelty pitch—despite Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro going into the Hall of Fame after making long careers throwing it. How many novelties are that tricky to master?

You’ll have to navigate your way through a few spells of awkward prose in the preface and the introduction (what? no foreword?) to get there, but Noë’s essays achieve the one thing baseball at its best and baseball writing at its best should achieve, even when it doesn’t convince or convert you so much as it interests you: Provoke thinking, re-thinking, arguing, and re-arguing. With far less animosity, and not a lick of the coarsely vulgar tongue that’s become epidemic in our public discourse.