Clueless Crane

2020-08-01 JimCrane

Astros owner Jim Crane—Playing what-about-ism, implying everyone else’s fault, possibly sorry only that his boys got caught, talking to USA Today’s a still-bad look for him.

In a 1964 novel about Navy fliers in World War II, Richard Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, a fresh group of pilots assigned to a carrier performs a target hop. One of the young men overshoots the tow plane target and hits the plane, instead, flown by their squadron lieutenant. Forcing the lieutenant to a fatal water landing.

The tow pilot happened to be the squadron skipper’s best friend. When the skipper and their air group commander face questioning by the task force commander flying his flag aboard their carrier, the latter asks the skipper why they were called in. “We’re here,” the skipper replies, “because we are responsible for what happened.”

“I don’t see it that way,” the CAG practically snaps. “No matter who did what,” the skipper rejoins, “[CAG] and I are in positions of command. When you command you accept the responsibility for what is done by your subordinates.”

Maybe Houston Astros owner Jim Crane should have read The Last Tallyho. He might have learned something about command responsibility and avoiding mealymouthed avoidance of it, the latter of which he availed himself in an interview with USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale.

Astrogate returned to the otherwise coronavirus-dominant baseball news last week after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw fastballs twice behind Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and breaking balls twice making their shortstop Carlos Correa skip rope. They got Kelly an eight-game suspension and the Astros on the receiving end of fresh rounds of fury.

Remember: Commissioner Rob Manfred handed Astro players on the 2017-18 teams immunity to spill about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s off-field-based electronic sign stealing those seasons, instead of bringing the powers of his office to bear and ordering one and all to spill or be spilled. Even if the players’ union filed countering grievances, Manfred would have sent a far stronger message than a few brushback pitches.

The outrage over Kelly’s suspension was, basically, “He gets eight games for doing in essence what Manfred wouldn’t, but those guys still get off scot free?” Nobody’s justifying throwing at Bregman’s head, but the outraged are right. As a matter of fact, Nightengale asked Crane the same question, phrased a little differently. The answer may or may not surprise you.

“People are aggravated the players didn’t get suspended,’’ said the owner, “but I didn’t have anything to do with that. That was Rob’s call. Listen, it’s always going to be whatever you want to call it. A black mark. An asterisk. It happened. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the game. We broke the rules. We got penalized. We were punished. There’s no doubt it weighs on all of us every single day.”

Crane seemed to say it as though he hoped that would be the end of the story. Except that it wasn’t, quite. After apologising for sounding like a fool at the infamous February spring training press conference, the subject detoured briefly toward the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, both of whom have been reprimanded for a little espionage of their own, though not quite performed the way the Astros developed it.

“I think (MLB) had a bigger problem than everybody realized,’’ Crane told Nightengale, playing the what-about-ism card. “[The Yankees and the Red Sox] were doing things and got caught, but we’re the ones who took the bullet. That’s the way it works. I’m not trying to blame anyone else. It was our problem. We dealt with it.”

Except that, after a little talk about things such as revelations about the Astros’ less than honourable front office “culture,” Crane tried to blame, well, something close enough to everyone else as well as the Yankees and the Red Sox.

“I just think everybody was paranoid that everybody was doing it,” he said. “The technology was right in front of you. We already know two others teams were doing it and got caught. But the way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it.”

“Crane’s take . . . seems to be that he and the Astros are the real victims here, and everyone else should leave them alone already,” writes NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra. “Really. That’s the vibe he gives off on all of this. Crane seems to believe that the Astros sign-stealing fallout is overblown and that the public’s anger mostly has to do with how Crane himself bungled the P.R.”

Crane seems indeed clueless that, except for the Red Sox’s AppleWatch incident late in the 2017 season and an extra Yankee dugout phone the same time, the AIA didn’t stop at just the technology just being “right in front of you.” Not even close.

The Red Sox’s Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring didn’t involve anyone altering a real-time monitor feed to decipher opposing pitch signs to signal to their baserunners who’d then send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters. Needless to say by now, it also didn’t depend upon having a man on base to receive the stolen signs in the first place.

It would have shocked nobody to learn that the Rogue Sox weren’t the only team to operate a similar reconnaissance ring out of the replay room. And, yes, MLB handed them the keys to the hooch hutch with the replay rooms at home and on the road. Boys will be boys, alas, and asking them to resist such temptation would have been like asking Donald Trump to give up Twitter.

But the replay room reconnaissance ringers didn’t alter ballpark cameras off their  mandatory eight-second delays or install second cameras not on the delay to send signs to a clubhouse monitor in front of which someone, several someones perhaps, decoded the signs and then banged the can slowly for the benefit of Astro hitters.

Using what’s there for a little chicanery is one thing. Altering it or supplementing it illegally is something else entirely. When a team as genuinely great as the 2017-18 Astros were takes up such subterfuge—and if you need proof they were great without the AIA (which operated in Minute Paid Park and wasn’t portable), remember that those Astros had better road than home winning percentages in both seasons—it’s well past boys being boys.

Some accuse Kelly of hypocrisy because of his membership on the 2017 AppleWatch Red Sox. Well, now. Their replay room reconnaissance ring apparently began in 2018—after they hired, what do you know, the Astros’ 2017 bench coach and (we’ve known since the Manfred Report on Astrogate) AIA co-mastermind Alex Cora to manage them. All the way to a World Series ring.

Before Manfred released his Rogue Sox findings, Kelly wondered aloud, “Whenever the investigation is done I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation.”

If there is cheating involved with how good our team was we should have won every single out. We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four. We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.

Known to be an erratic pitcher who isn’t shy about a little headhunting when he thinks it’s called for, Kelly inverted the old observation, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and became a Dodger last year.

The Astros’ mealymouthed responses to Astrogate questioning as spring training opened outraged the Dodgers more than most, and enough players around the Show were outraged, because they’d been the team the Astros beat in seven to win the ’17 Series. It’s not impossible that Kelly had in mind both Astrogate and what was subsequently revealed about his former Rogue Sox when he decked Bregman and Correa.

If the Dodgers weren’t playing this year’s pandemic-inspired regional season schedule, they might have faced the Red Sox. And, inspired perhaps by a few revelations in Manfred’s Rogue Sox report and his Dodger teammates, Kelly might have sent a few messages to those 2018 Sox still on the team for tainting those ’18 Series rings.

Astroworld’s been buffeted harshly by Astrogate. It’s still tussling between those of its citizens who think the AIA was a reasonable defense against whomever else was doing illegal sign stealing and those who think their faith in their team’s greatness was misplaced or abused.

Crane hasn’t said much if anything about that yet.

Meanwhile, note once again Crane’s choice of phrasing to Nightengale: [T]he way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it. Is he saying the AIA itself was stupid? Is he saying he’s sorry only that the Astros got caught committing high crime?

“We’re sorry. We apologized. But no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to be enough,” Crane told Nightengale. “People wanted me out of baseball. They wanted players to be suspended. They wanted everything.” Setting aside that those February apologies were as non-apologetic as apologies can get, what did he expect people to want? A whitewash?

 

 

John McNamara, RIP: Forgiven

Boston Red Sox

John McNamara, who wouldn’t let himself live Game Six of the ’86 World Series down.

John McNamara died at 88 Tuesday. He lived a lot more quietly as a retiree in Nashville with his second wife, Ellen, than he once lived as an ill-fated Boston Red Sox manager. And, to the day he died, Johnny Mac lived with an extraterrestrial baseball burden.

“I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game,” Mrs. McNamara told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy when texting him of her husband’s death. “He was so much more than that. A good, kind, loving man.”

Good, kind, loving men make mistakes. Not all of them do it as publicly as McNamara once did. Not all of those doing it publicly  do it managing a World Series team with a history even half as snake-bitten as McNamara’s 1986 Boston Red Sox carried into Game Six that October.

McNamara was the good, kind, loving man whose loyalty to one, contradiction of another, and inability to read a third, abetted the next-to-last greatest heartbreak in the history of a team whose surrealistically harsh legacy needed a new century to end.

Those Red Sox defied their history when, with the California Angels one strike away from going to the ’86 World Series, late-season Red Sox acquisition Dave Henderson rifled a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, then won the game two innings later with a sacrifice fly.

The Red Sox won the rest of the set and went to the Series instead. Where they had the New York Mets—that band of mostly wild and crazy guys who made the Gas House Gang resemble monks—down to their final strike of the Series and the year. Maybe beating a franchise with their own star-crossed reputation to get to the Series in the first place was a little too presumptuous for those Red Sox?

Even before that tenth inning disaster, the Red Sox flirted with death. McNamara lifted his young, stout starting pitcher Roger Clemens with a 3-2 lead but a blister on his pitching hand. Clemens swore later the blister was no big deal. McNamara pinch hit Mike Greenwell for Clemens with one on and one out in the top of the eighth.

“My pitcher told me he couldn’t go any further,” McNamara said post-game. When that remark was repeated to Clemens, it was reported widely, the Cy Young Award winner-to-be had to be restrained from charging the manager in his office.

It tore John up that the press believed Clemens,” Mrs. McNamara texted Shaughnessy. “John would not make something like that up. When Roger told him he wanted to come out, John said, ‘You’ve got to be [expletive] me!’ That’s what happened. When the chips were down, Roger spit the bit.”*

“The decision was definitely all Mac’s,” Clemens told reporters in due course. “Yeah, my finger was bleeding and it was up to him.” That was then, this was Clemens to Shaughnessy upon McNamara’s death and Mrs. McNamara’s remarks: “Interesting. I think after Fish corrected him on the non-truthful things, they didn’t talk much after that. Need to focus on the positives . . . Sorry to hear of the passing of John. We had great success with him as our manager.”

In that same eighth, with the bases loaded against Mets relief pitcher Roger McDowell, Mets manager Davey Johnson lifted McDowell for the lefthanded half of his great closing tandem, Jesse Orosco—with lefthanded hitting, ankle-challenged first baseman Bill Buckner coming up to hit. No pinch hitter in sight.

As Shaughnessy would write in The Curse of the Bambino, there was “only one logical” reason McNamara refused to pinch hit for Buckner in the top of the eighth.

McNamara wanted his veteran war horse in the victory celebration photographs. The manager and Buckner have always bristled when this subject is raised, but leaving Buckner in the game simply didn’t make sense and was a departure from the way McNamara had managed in every other postseason victory. Boston won seven playoff and Series games in 1986, and in the final inning of every victory, Dave Stapleton was playing first base.

Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth. The game went to the tenth inning. Henderson led off against Rick Aguilera with a home run shot right off the Shea Stadium auxiliary scoreboard in left field. Marty Barrett subsequently drove Hall of Fame Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs (double) home with a base hit.

In that moment McNamara looked like a genius with a two-run tenth-inning lead. He also left his young closer Calvin Schiraldi, a former starter now working his third inning on the night, in for the bottom of the tenth. On the Mets bench, Aguilera spent most of his time in apparent deep prayer.

Back-to-back fly outs to center from Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. Carter dumping a single into right center field. Aguilera’s pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell lining Schiraldi’s 0-1 slider into short center. Ray Knight—down to the Mets’ final strike—dumping a quail into center to send Carter home. 5-4, Red Sox.

Then McNamara lifted Schiraldi for veteran righthander Bob Stanley. Finally, it seemed, McNamara paid attention to Schiraldi’s self-admitted wounding flaw as a pitcher, a tendency to indict and convict himself when things got a little dicey. The Mets, who’d developed Schiraldi before trading him for stout lefthander Bob Ojeda, thought this game was too big for Schiraldi, who’d only been closing since August after not quite making it as a starter.

Stanley had Mookie Wilson to a full count and the Mets down to their final strike once more. Then, the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and Knight to take second. Then, the slow roller up the first base side. Then Buckner playing Wilson deep on the infield creaking over to field it with Stanley going to cover first base.

Then the ball skipping through Buckner’s feet and into right field. Knight barreling home with the winning run. The Mets living to play another day and eventually winning Game Seven after being down 3-2 again, but after would-have-been Series MVP Bruce Hurst finally ran out of fuel on the mound. Buckner—who died last year—wrongfully and often cruelly derided as the Series goat, though he alone seemed to know it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world.

“Hey,” he’d remember thinking, “we get to play in Game Seven of the World Series.”

Stapleton’s major league career ended after that season for one reason: a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980, Stapleton gradually lost what bat he had and couldn’t hit now if you handed him a door. He’d lost his regular first base job to Buckner in 1984. But he was healthy and could play the position without caution tape wrapped around his hide.

“He would have fielded that ground ball,” wrote Mike Sowell in One Pitch Away. “He would have gotten the out. Stapleton knew it. The other ballplayers knew it. Maybe deep down even the manager knew it.”

Maybe he would have. But Wilson had the play beaten by about two steps at first, with Howard Johnson—to come into his own as one of the National League’s premier power hitters in 1987—on deck. The best case for the Red Sox was Wilson beating out the grounder, first and third, tie game, two out, and hoping Stanley could get Johnson out.

Another Red Sox relief pitcher, fellow former Met Joe Sambito, told Thomas Boswell the following spring training that Schiraldi was so down on himself it worried Sambito. Possibly every other Red Sox, too.

“So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in Game Six?” Boswell wrote. “He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck.”

Eventual Series MVP Knight wrecked Schiraldi at once with a leadoff liner into the left field bleachers. Schiraldi now looked like the guy who came home with anniversary roses for his wife and found his best friend in bed with her. Tie broken. Heart broken. Game, set, and Series eventually lost.

Schiraldi told Sowell that, so far as he was concerned, the League Championship Series was way more significant than the World Series: “If you lose the championship series, basically nobody remembers you. The World Series, at least you’re there. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been there.”

McNamara would long insist in the years to follow, “We lost Game Six but [the Mets] won Game Seven.” Strictly speaking, he was right. But he may not really have taken the complete measure of his players, may not have known them as fully as he might have. He also overestimated his righthander-heavy Series relief corps (Sambito was its only lefthander), as Backman hinted to Sports Illustrated after the set: “I wouldn’t have said this before the Series, but we knew that if we could get into their bullpen it would be no contest.”

McNamara lost his team gradually in 1987 and just about permanently in 1988, before he was fired in favour of Joe Morgan (not the Hall of Fame second baseman), who yanked the Red Sox up and back into the race and to a division title.

Before that dissipated ’86 Series, McNamara had a reputation as a firm but fair man managing several teams, including having been the man to take the Cincinnati Reds’ bridge when—with the Big Red Machine’s late-1970s dismantling in full swing—Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson was fired. Not a pleasant way to take a job.

McNamara managed to get the Reds to the 1979 National League West title before they were flattened in the League Championship Series in three straight by the “Fam-I-Lee” Pirates. He’d previously managed in Oakland (where a crack by Dave Duncan provoked owner Charlie Finley to fire Johnny Mac with those A’s on the threshold of dominance) and San Diego. (Where equally over-his-head owner Ray Kroc didn’t get that the Padres’ poor pitching was killing the team.)

After the Red Sox, McNamara would get final managing chances with the Cleveland Indians (where he shepherded the coming-together of the young team that would restore the Tribe to greatness in the early 1990s, though he’d be fired in 1991) and the Angels. (When Marcell Lachemann, who’d succeeded Buck Rodgers, resigned in August 1996, McNamara finishing the season before handing off to ill-fated Terry Collins.)

Remembering McNamara’s ill-fated 1987 spring counsel that his players not even think about getting to that previous World Series, Hurst thinks like Mrs. McNamara that Johnny Mac never got over the ’86 Series loss. “Everything seemed to be negative after that,” Hurst told Shaughnessy while saying McNamara’s death saddened him.

The haunted Angels relief pitcher who surrendered Henderson’s ALCS-changing home run, Donnie Moore, would find his own inner demons married to the fury of Angel fans and writers who never forgave him for throwing a nasty, down-and-away fork ball that Henderson somehow sent over the left field fence.

They culminated in Moore’s 1989 suicide. Upon which tragedy Boswell, in a Washington Post column re-published in his anthology Game Day, laid down the new law: the sports goat business was too far out of hand.

This is for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Neidenfuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky and Gene Mauch. It’s for the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’87 Blue Jays and every Cub since World War II. In particular, it’s for Donnie Moore, who shot his wife, then committed suicide this week.

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson would agree with Ellen McNamara that her husband was a good, kind, loving man who doesn’t deserve to be remembered for one larger-than-life game loss. In one of his memoirs, Jackson remembered McNamara managing him in the minors and being a man who’d stand up to bigots on the road in the minor-league South still under segregation’s yoke.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson wrote. “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant, we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good, kind, loving man does. The best of men have made the worst of mistakes, and the worst of men have often done even one thing transcending them. So why do enough of us still forgive, justify, and spin politicians’, police’s, and even soldiers’ transgressions—but still want to guillotine baseball players and managers for theirs?

A man who managed to manage 2,395 major league baseball games and win 1,160 of them, despite skippering a not-so-great team here and there, doesn’t deserve eternal condemnation for one terrible night in New York.

I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game.

Mrs. McNamara, as far as I’m concerned, it no longer is. May the angels of the Lord escort your Johnny Mac to the gentler world of the Elysian Fields, where surely Bill Buckner awaited him with an embrace, a drink, and a hearty thank you for the loyalty laid waste by one skipping ground ball.


* An interesting turn of phrase, that. I wonder if Mrs. McNamara is aware that the Yankees’ King-of-Hearts owner George Steinbrenner once used it to humiliate a prospect whose rough patch provoked Steinbrenner to banish him to the minors.

The prospect was Ken Clay, whose moment in the Yankee sun was when he combined with Jim Beattie to beat the Kansas City Royals on a two-hitter in Game One of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

Clay would ultimately be used erratically, inconsistently deployed between starting and relieving, until a particularly rough outing in September 1979. “He’s a morning glory,” The Boss said of Clay after accusing him of lacking heart. “That’s a term we use for a horse who is great in the morning workouts, who looks beautiful, but who can’t do it in the race. The horse spits the bit, and Ken Clay has spit the bit.”

The Yankees traded Clay to the Texas Rangers for Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in August 1980. After eight games with the Rangers, then 22 in 1981 following a trade to the Seattle Mariners, Clay was released in spring training. Career over, except for a bid in the 1980 Senior Professional Baseball League—where he joined, but never pitched for, the Gold Coast Suns.

Justice at last for high-tech cheaters?

2020-07-30 JoeKellyFightClub

While such “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-shirts became popular instantly, MLB and the players union finally agreed to let the commissioner hammer electronic cheaters. But are there catches?

Well, what do you know. Joe Kelly’s Tuesday night messages to Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa may have proven more than just worth an eight-game suspension (being appealed) and his canonisation as a saint in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

They have gotten both MLB’s dubious commissioner and the Major League Baseball Players Association on board with punishing future Astrogaters and Soxgaters. If they’re caught taking or transmitting such electronically-pilfered intelligence, they can be suspended without pay and lose the days of those suspensions in service time.

The news comes from one of the most unimpeachable sources—Evan Drellich, one of two writers for The Athletic (Ken Rosenthal was his teammate on it) to whom former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, an Oakland Athletic since August 2018 (after a stop in Detroit), blew the whistle on the Astro Intelligence Agency in the first place.

“MLB’s rules on the use of electronics and video grew significantly in the wake of penalties for the Astros and [Boston] Red Sox, according to a review of the document by The Athletic and conversations with officials familiar with it,” Drellich writes in an article published Thursday morning.

The league has newly hired an outside security firm to police the video replay room entrance and no later than next year plans to edit out the signs from the footage players look at in-game.

But no alteration may be as significant as the league’s ability to discipline. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the hammer, although the union can always appeal his decisions.

. . . Kelly was said by some to be delivering the justice to Astros players that MLB did not.

Whether MLB could have effectively administered that justice previously is a complicated question.

Technically, Manfred could have attempted to suspend Astros players had he not granted them immunity during his office’s investigations. But the punishments might not have stood up to expected grievances from the MLBPA because the league and union never before agreed how these specific issues would be handled. In fact, Manfred had declared in 2017, well before the Astros and Red Sox investigations, that he would hold club officials, not players, accountable for sign stealing.

No one condoned throwing at a batter’s head, as Kelly appeared to do when he threw such a pitch to walk Bregman with one out in the bottom of the sixth Tuesday, when they knew without being told that Kelly did only what it seemed at least half of major league baseball’s players—knowing how un-contrite both the Asterisks and the Rogue Sox seemed in spring training after the verdicts—thought was going to be done this season.

(It didn’t exactly take forever for a rash of T-shirts celebrating Kelly’s knockdown of Bregman and subsequent breaking-ball dustings of Carlos Correa, not to mention protesting his suspension, to go on sale online. “Free Joe Kelly” and “Joe Kelly Fight Club,” with or without Kelly’s image answering Correa’s huffing with a mock-crybaby face, seem the most popular.)

Until the coronavirus world tour knocked baseball as inside out as the rest of the world, Astrogate especially and Soxgate concurrently were the number one topic and scandal around the game. At times it was tough to determine which was more scandalous, the AIA and the Red Sox replay room reconnaissance ring, or Manfred having given players immunity instead of using his office’s powers to order them, “Spill, or be spilled.”

Not only did Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant say this was worse than the prior scandals around actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Dodger pitcher Alex Wood said, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”

Wood faced such players in the 2017 World Series. He had the lowest ERA (1.17) of any Dodger pitcher who pitched five or more innings in the set. He started Game Four in Minute Maid Park and surrendered George Springer’s two-out solo home run to break a scoreless tie and end his evening; he relieved Kenley Jansen for the Game Seven eighth and retired the side in order in Dodger Stadium.

Because the AIA’s apparatus involved either installing an additional and illegal real-time camera in Minute Maid Park, or taking an already-installed camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay, the 2017-18 Asterisks couldn’t run their sign-stealing scheme on the road. (In due course, it developed that Asterisk administrators tried but likely failed to urge scouts on the road to steal signs from the stands with cameras or field glasses.)

The 2018 Rogue Sox could operate their replay room reconnaissance ring in Fenway Park and elsewhere, anywhere, because it didn’t depend on altered or extra equipment. Basically, MLB handed them the keys to the candy store. Who knows how many other teams did as the Rogue Sox did, posting someone to decipher enemy pitch signs and signal them to a baserunner who’d then signal them to the hitter.

Remember: Sign-stealing on the field is as old a brand of gamesmanship as baseball itself. That’s why nobody went more than boo when New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was recently seen as a runner on second looking as though sending a stolen sign to the hitter.

The 1951 New York Giants posted a coach in the clubhouse/offices above center field in the ancient Polo Grounds to steal signs telescopically and relay them to the bullpen from where signs were sent to hitters who wanted them. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!) The verdict on their spectacular pennant race comeback forcing that fabled pennant playoff was left to history, alas.

The Red Sox married classic gamesmanship to off-field assistance handed to them (and anyone else who might have done likewise) in a gift-wrapped box. They didn’t install an extra camera and monitor in the room so far as is known. The new protocols now include prohibiting video room operators from communicating with players, coaches, and managers; and, outside security hired by MLB to guard the rooms, one guard for now and perhaps two after the coronavirus restrictions can be lifted.

Was Kelly punished too harshly for doing only what everyone with the proverbial two brain cells to rub together knew was likely to happen sooner or later, especially when the delayed season’s schedule included the surprise of the Astros facing the Dodgers in two sets? Another Athletic writer thinks so.

“When Manfred declined to punish the Astros, whether you agree with retaliation or not, he all but ensured opposing players would take matters into their own hands,” writes Molly Knight.

The Astros escaped their first series of this pandemic-shortened season against the Mariners without incident. But did anyone really expect none of the Dodgers to seek revenge?

MLB confirmed the Astros cheated their way through the 2017 World Series, and it still took them seven games to beat the Dodgers. It was as close as Los Angeles has come to winning it all since 1988. The scars from that series three years ago are still fresh for Dodgers fans, no matter how often Astros fans tell them to get over it. It’s hard to see how Astros fans would be over it if the trash can had been banged by the other team.

Considering that Kelly has a history as an erratic pitcher who rarely lets an actual or perceived offense go unanswered, it practically figured that he’d be the Dodgers’ version of the Green Hornet, flirting with crime to take down the grand theft felons. But keep in mind, too, that an eight-game drydock in a sixty-game season equals a 22-game suspension for a full 162-game season.

“Manfred may have thought he was sending a message about vigilante justice by giving Kelly an eight-game ban,” Knight writes. “But all he did was draw attention back to the absurdity that Astros players cheated to win a World Series and justice wasn’t served.”

Now Commissioner Nero has a hammer to swing on the high-tech off-field-based cheaters. Even if he catches another such intelligence/reconnaissance operation in the act—or another Fiers blows the whistle—and swing, and the Players Association files grievances on behalf of the hammered. He’d still send the message loud and strong that any more AIAs or Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Rings are verboten.

The question is whether he really will. And, whether the hammer will be a mallet or a marshmallow.

 

From scandal to Opening Night carnage

2020-07-25 AstroTheGrouch

The only trolling of either the Asterisks or the Rogue Sox on their Opening Nights was this cutout fellow . . . in the Oakland Coliseum.

Regular-season day one of the Houston Astros’ post-Astrogate era came in with a bang. Not the kind that indicates transmitting signs stolen off an illegally-installed camera by way of a clubhouse monitor, but the kind that means a five-run inning and an 8-2 win over the Seattle Mariners.

Their fellow sign-stealing criminals, the Boston Red Sox, saw and raised on day one of their post-Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring era. Even if, considering their opposition, you could accuse them this time of doing it the easy way, blowing the Baltimore Orioles out 13-2.

The best news for the Asterisks other than their Opening Day win? Not a single batter faced a knockdown pitch. The best news for the Rogue Sox likewise? Not a single batter got plunked, either—but Red Sox relief pitcher Phillips Valdez did hit two Orioles, one each in the eighth and the ninth. Quite unintentionally.

Neither the Astros nor the Red Sox looked good when they were exposed and affirmed as high-tech cheaters during the seasons of their recent World Series championships and barely brought themselves to own it, man up, and apologise properly this past winter. Leaving many, even their own die-hards, wondering whether retribution would be swift and sure.

The coronavirus world tour that suspended the Show until delayed “summer camp” training opened up may or may not have knocked those thoughts out, even if three Astros got hit very unintentionally during an exhibition game against the Kansas City Royals last week. Baseball in the age of pandemic isn’t very likely to put cheaters’ retribution high on its priority list.

Don’t even think about it, conspiracy theorists. Whatever the origin of the virus that launched out of China, it wasn’t anybody’s idea of giving either the Asterisks or the Rogue Sox cover for their crimes, either. Public humiliation sometimes beats a pestiferous pestilence for humbling the formerly haughty.

Just ask Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. His pitching staff was so futile Friday night that social media wags suggested the Orioles needed (and were about) to sign Dr. Anthony Fauci. The epidemiologist whose stiff-armed ceremonial first pitch, before the Washington Nationals’ season opener against the New York Yankees, sailed far enough past the home plate circle that the same wags also said controversial home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called it a strike on the corner.

“For me,” Hyde said balefully after the carnage ended at last, “I’d like to flush this one.” He’ll need the Ty-D-Bol Man to clean the commode after that one.

In a way, the Astros could have been accused of winning the easy way too on Friday night. They met the Mariners nineteen times in 2019 and won eighteen. For the Astros, no matter what they’re coming away from, competition like that is the next best thing to summer camp.

Justin Verlander, their future Hall of Famer starting pitcher, worked six innings, struck out seven, walked only one, and surrendered both Seattle runs by way of the solo long ball, from Kyle Lewis in the second and Korey Seager in the fourth. Just another night at the office.

But he was in a sober mood after the game, and not because of the two long balls he surrendered after surrendering 36 last season. (He averages 23 homers surrendered per 162 game lifetime, by the way. Turn off the alarm bells, there are Hall of Famers who surrendered a little more. Robin Roberts lifetime surrendered two fewer [503] than Eddie Murray hit. [505.])

“Obviously guys are risking a lot here,” Verlander said post-game, “myself included with a young daughter at home, to bring America’s pastime back to people and hopefully cheer them up and give them a little bit of a reprieve from a lot of the stuff that’s been happening.”

Peculiarly, considering the net result, Michael Brantley was the only Astro to collect more than one hit on a night that only George Springer and Yuli Gurriel went hitless for them. And they were down 2-0 when the fifth inning arrived and the fun began for them.

Aledmys Diaz opened with a base hit to somewhat deep center field, then took third as Martin Maldonado’s shot to third was thrown off line enabling Maldonado himself to have first on the house, before taking second on Springer’s ground out back to Seattle starting pitcher Marco Gonzales.

Jose Altuve dumped a single to left to send Diaz home and chase Gonzales in favour of Zac Grotz. The new and dubious three-batter minimum rule bit Grotz and the Mariners right in the kishkes right off the bat, when Alex Bregman singled Maldonado home and Brantley drove one into the right field seats, before Grotz got Gurriel to ground out to third and Carlos Correa to pop out to second.

The Astros tacked single runs on in the sixth and the seventh and let the bullpen finish what Verlander started. No muss, no fuss, and no known shenanigans. And it was nothing compared to what the Red Sox detonated against the Orioles. Their 10-0 lead after five innings was enough to tempt the Orioles to petition the Hague lodging human rights violations charges.

The Red Sox scored four in the third and six in the fourth, and their starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi—who opened the game with a 100-mph fastball to Austin Hays—found himself in the unusual position of having such a comfort zone he could have let each Oriole batter know what was coming and still gotten rid of them fast enough.

Three RBI doubles including a two-runner by Kevin Pillar hung up the third-inning four-spot. Well enough into the Oriole bullpen in the fourth, Andrew Benintendi walked the fifth Red Sox run home to start that inning’s fun and prompt a pitching change. Fat lot of good that did the Orioles. J.D. Martinez promptly scored Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Jose Peraza with a ground-rule double.

Rafael Devers then hit into the first Red Sox out of the inning. That relief lasted long enough for Xander Bogaerts to single Benintendi home, Pillar to single Martinez home, and Christian Vazquez to single Bogaerts home. And Bradley and Peraza had more destruction to offer the Orioles in the sixth, Bradley hitting a two-run double and Peraza hitting a single-run double right after that.

Somewhere, the Orioles snuck two runs home on a sixth-inning double (Renato Nunez) and a seventh-inning homer. (Rio Ruiz.) They may still be trying to figure out how those happened, when they’re not trying to figure out just how the Red Sox mustered the burial without Mookie Betts, who’s now the Los Angeles Dodgers’ $396 million man after the Sox sent him and David Price out west in an unlikely salary dump.

For the Astros’ new manager, Dusty Baker, it was his 3,500th game as a major league manager. “That,” he said about Friday night’s flogging, “was the strangest opener of my career.”

Maybe playing in their home playpens helped, and likewise the lack of live fans in the stands, but the only thing trolling either the Astros or the Red Sox over their high-tech cheating scandals was in the Oakland Coliseum, where the Athletics—whose pitcher Mike Fiers (a 2017 Astro) blew the whistle on Astrogate last November—hosted the Los Angeles Angels to open the season.

One of the fan-financed cutouts in the Coliseum seats showed Oscar the Grouch in an Astros hat in a trash can marked with the Asterisk logo that went viral as Astrogate unfurled last winter. The Astros travel to Oakland for the first time for a series beginning 7 August. Bet on Oscar the Astrogrouch being among the cutouts then. That should be the least of their problems.

A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

2020-04-22 2018RedSox

The Red Sox whoop it up after nailing the final out of their 2018 World Series conquest in Los Angeles. Is that title tainted now?

So the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring was the masterwork of a rogue video room operator. Not then-manager Alex Cora, not the front office, and not any of the players who transmitted stolen opposition signs to Red Sox baserunners who’d send them on to Red Sox hitters.

Sure. And the iceberg obstructed the Titanic with malice aforethought. The Hindenburg was a kid playing with matches. World War II was a backyard argument. Apollo 11 was an episode of Star Trek. The renegades working with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Dunkin’ Donuts. Bill Clinton perjured himself over an Oval Office quickie with his wife.

After an investigation that included interviews with 65 witnesses including 34 incumbent or former Red Sox players, say The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, those plus “scores of e-mails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” led commissioner Rob Manfred in a report issued Wednesday to declare it was all J.T. Watkins’s fault.

Manfred suspended Watkins from baseball without pay for this year and barred from working as a video operator for 2021’s regular season and postseason. The Red Sox got docked a second-round 2020 draft pick. If you even think about trying this kind of espionage again we’re going to be . . . very, very angry at you.

Thanks to the same promises of immunity that Manfred gave the rogue Astros in return for spilling about Astrogate, we may not know for a long time if at all which Red Sox players took Watkins’s stolen signs and ran with them.

The key to the RSRRR was that—unlike the illegally installed or altered real-time center field camera that anchored the Astro Intelligence Agency in Minute Maid Park—the Red Sox’s espionage could be done at home or on the road . . . but it depended entirely on whether the Red Sox had a man on base.

Nobody banged the can slowly to send the pilfered intelligence to the Red Sox hitters availing themselves thereof. Watkins simply let someone, who knows whom, make life a little easier for Rogue Sox baserunners. In Fenway Park and elsewhere.

Usually, if you’re on the bases and of a mind to gamesmanship, you’ve got to decipher and transmit from your own eye and in as quick a blink as possible. Watkins merely allowed the Red Sox to save their baserunners a little extra sight and brain work. How very thoughtful.

The video rooms behind the dugouts were supposed to be helpmates for managers in challenging close or errant umpire calls once replay was introduced in 2014. Hitters also use them for help correcting swing mistakes, pitchers to correct mound mistakes, or both to look again quick at opposing hitters or pitchers to see where they missed unexpected weaknesses or got beaten when they should have known better.

They weren’t installed to enable spy operations on the other guys’ pitch signs or to make life simpler for baserunners who now didn’t have to figure out how to steal signs the old-fashioned way within about a minute’s worth of time. You want to steal signs on base the old-fashioned way? Do your homework. No crib sheets, answers on your wrist, or cameras on the teacher’s answer keys.

Even before Manfred handed down his Soxgate finding and decision, a few 2018 Red Sox were saying, essentially, Who, us? Remember Steve Pearce? 2018 World Series hero, and how. He was practically a one-man demolition derby late in Game Four and through most of Game Five. It landed him the World Series MVP award.

Last week, Pearce decided to call it a career. He also decided to say Who, us? “That’s such a joke to us,” he told WEEI. “When it came out we were all kind of joking about it. We just want this to pass us. We won it fair and square. Whatever they accused us of, we were all kind of like, ‘I can’t believe this is even an issue.’ Once the report comes out we’re all going to be free.”

All but one scapegoat, so far.

“[W]e have this floating over our head when we just had such an unbelievable season,” Pearce continued. “We had the perfect team and great camaraderie with everybody and then this gets thrown out here. We’re just like, ‘What the heck?’ . . . We just want this to pass us. We just want to play some baseball. Another bump in the road, I guess.”

In fairness, one of the key moments that bumped the 108 game-winning Rogue Sox into the 2018 World Series in the first place—left fielder Andrew Benintendi’s man-on-the-flying-trapeze catch of what would have been Astro third baseman Alex Bregman’s game-winning three-run extra-base hit to deny the Astros an American League Championship Series tie at two each—had nothing to do with the RSRRR.

But what about the rest of the set? What about the Series? Not long after Pearce spoke up, Joe Kelly—then a Red Sox relief pitcher, now with the Dodgers in coronavirus limbo with everyone else in baseball—delivered his own who, us? “Whenever the investigation is done, I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation,” he, too, told WEEI last week. “If there is cheating involved with how good our team was, we should have won every single out.

“We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four,” he continued. “We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.”

You can almost hear the 1919 White Sox culprits, who won three games during their scandalous World Series loss, thinking, “We should not have even won a single inning if there was some good profitable tanking going on, either.”

Some Red Sox fans hit social media to denounce Kelly’s pompous arrogance or arrogant pomposity, depending upon whom you read where and in which language. The man who surrendered Howie Kendrick’s tenth-inning grand salami to lose Game Five and a trip to the National League Championship Series for his Dodgers knows enough about public humiliation and humility.

In all fairness, baseball government did monitor the replay rooms more arduously to guard against postseason espionage. Baseball’s chief disciplinarian Joe Torre warned both the Red Sox and the Astros before the 2018 ALCS that if they were up to electronic no good it needed to stop tootie-sweet before (are you ready?) the press picked up leaks about it.

Unlike Astrogate, which had a whistleblowing genie named Mike Fiers come out of the bottle last November, Soxgate may not have had a signature whistleblower. Rosenthal and Drellich, the Woodward and Bernstein of Astrogate, reported shortly before Manfred’s Astrogate finding and ruling that the 2018 Red Sox weren’t just ducking into their replay room to fix mistakes, correct batter’s box or mound mechanics, decide on challenging close calls, or watch Cheers reruns.

Rosenthal and Drellich dropped this curlicue into that report:

Three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season told The Athletic that during that regular season, at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using. The replay room is just steps from the home dugout at Fenway Park, through the same doors that lead to the batting cage. Every team’s replay staff travels to road games, making the system viable in other parks as well.

Red Sox sources said this system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

So it’s entirely likely that the Rogue Sox played the 2018 postseason straight, no chaser. But there’ll always be suspicion. Would playing the postseason straight let them off the hook for reconnaissance cheating during the regular season when Watkins’s replay room was about as heavily guarded as an angry drunk?

Give Manfred this much: If he thought Cora had anything to with the RSRRR, would it have been shooting fish in the barrel to discipline him? He suspended Cora for this year—-over his Astrogate co-mastermind role. For which the Red Sox either let him quit, fired him outright, or strong-armed him to quit—never mind how well-liked he remains around the team and organisation—before he could be executed when the Astrogate report came forth.

If Manfred thought Cora was part and parcel of Watkins’s roguery, would he have thrown mercy to the wind and banned Cora for half a decade? Full decade? Life? And does anyone really believe the man who cahooted with Carlos Beltran in the AIA was entirely innocent? Or did he remember his Houston boss, A.J. Hinch, smashing a monitor or two but otherwise fiddling while the AIA turned?

Letting the Rogue Sox escape with nothing more than a docked second-round draft pick and a scapegoat video room operator is at least as bad a look as Astrogate’s been for the Astros. It also contravened Manfred’s threat, when the Red Sox’s AppleWatch and the Yankees’ extra dugout phone inspired it, to fine any team caught playing CIA against the other guys.

So whom among the 2018 Soxgaters will be the first to stand up and own up? You may sooner strike oil with safety pins.