Who hit Manfred with the smart stick?

2020-08-11 BasebrawlAstrosAs

A second drill of Ramon Laureano Sunday, followed by a vulgar insult thrown his way by Alex Cintron (who ducked away when the rumble began), triggers the brawl above . . . and gets Cintron suspended 20 but Laureano, six.

Mark well today’s date on your calendar. 11 August 2020. Until further notice, it will stand as Rob Manfred’s finest hour.

Alex Cintron, the Houston Astros hitting coach who goaded Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano into charging the Astro dugout with an expletive Latinos consider grounds for justifiable homicide at most—suspended twenty games with no right to appeal.

Laureano, who’d been hit by Astro pitches three times last weekend and twice on Sunday, then had to put up with chirping from the Astro dugout after he pantomimed a slider grip following the second Sunday plunk—six games with a right to appeal. (And he should.)

Commissioner Nero using the brains he was born with for once—priceless.

USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale broke the news of Cintron first, Laureano immediately to follow, at about mid-day today. And while you can think that a player missing six games is a lot more critical than a coach missing twenty, especially in a pandemic-truncated season that still seems more Alfred Hitchcockian than Billy Hitchcockian, Cintron hit with the heaviest hammer sends a huge message.

Several key Astros hitters aren’t exactly running the table at the plate so far this year. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and George Springer are hitting at or below the Mendoza Line. Alex Bregman is hitting more like Alex P. Keaton. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley are hitting like themselves, more or less, but those three aren’t always club carriers.

Wags, try to resist temptation to say you can’t hit what you don’t know in advance. But don’t let Cintron off the hook. A team who needs their hitting coach to hit their reset buttons at the plate needs to lose that hitting coach about as much as Mike Trout needs to lose his batting eye.

With one moment of abject stupidity, Cintron cost the Astros badly-needed resetting. Twenty games in a 162-game season is twelve percent of a long season. Twenty games in a truncated, 60-game season is a full third of a season that’s already been cast for an episode of The Outer Limits.

It’s not that charging the Astro dugout after Cintron uncorked his insult was necessarily brilliant on Laureano’s part, and Laureano knows it. But I’ll say it again: A Latino especially who knows that the vulgar version of “maternal fornicator” is a pair of fighting words to most Latino men is saying something at least as stupid as a certain American president saying the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic ended World War II.

Hurling that insult at a Latino gets you pounded into hamburger at minimum. At maximum, it can get you a shot in the head, or any other portion of your body at which the gun might be aimed.

And what the hell did Cintron or the Astros expect Laureano to do when he’d been hit by a second pitch Sunday and a third all weekend long? Send flowers? Blow them to steak dinners with all the trimmings?

We’re not exactly taking Commissioner Nero all the way off the hook just yet. His handling of the Astrogate scandal was a masterpiece of deferred accountability. He suspended a manager and general manager, fined an owner what amounts to tip money, and let every Astro player availing himself of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal electronic sign-stealing network off the hook in return for spilling the deets.

He had to know good and bloody well that the Astros versus the A’s might have potential sub-stories, considering it was an A’s pitcher (and former Astro), Mike Fiers, who finally got fed up at the absence of press interest, no matter how many reporters he and others in the know told, and blew the whistle to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

You’d have to have been either a fool or a freshly-landed exile from the Klingon home world not to think that there was even a small chance that the Astros—who were only too notoriously un-apologetic about Astrogate this past aborted spring—might feel a little less remorse than repulsed that the A’s still harboured the big snitch.

Even if the A’s rotation setting meant Fiers wasn’t going to face them on the weekend. Even if the Astros’ pitching staff is injury-plagued enough that they lean as much on rookies such as the ones who did four-fifths of the weekend plunking. (Zack Greinke hit Robbie Grossman last Friday night.) Rookies aren’t immune to persuasions from their elders that one good way to make the team’s good graces is to send little messages in manners, however wrong or warped.

And, with everyone in baseball knowing that about seven-eighths of MLB players wanted if not demanded the proper Astrogate justice Manfred wouldn’t administer, Commissioner Nero looked even more foolish suspending Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly eight games for sending message pitches to Bregman and Correa in the same inning.

Nobody disputes that throwing upside Bregman’s head was dangerous stuff. But nobody with a mind disputes that Manfred’s hammer on Kelly’s head—which is still under appeal at this writing—looked even more arbitraily punitive, with or without the truncated season, compared to the blanket amnesty he granted the Astrogaters.

He did likewise with the Boston Red Sox and their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, of course. And, just as the Astros’ 2017 World Series title became tainted forever, so does the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series title. (Managed by Astrogate co-mastermind Alex Cora, the ’17 Astros’ bench coach/spymater.)

But those who still think the Astros get an unfair greater volume of scorn should remember there was (and remains) a significant difference between the two. One more time: The Astros went a few dozen bridges farther with their Astro Intelligence Agency, either installing or altering a real-time camera to facilitate their underground sign-stealing television network.

The Rogue Sox merely used what was already made available, at home and on the road. Nobody supplied the replay rooms with multiple video monitors for cheating, of course, but those rooms amounted to handing teenage boys the keys to the hooch hutch and telling them to resist temptation until they were of legal age.

Our better angels would like to think Manfred figured a few things out after the Kelly hoopla. Not just because he soon got a hammer to drop on any future cheaters, but because the hoopla reminded him in his heart of hearts that he shouldn’t have let the cheaters in Houston, in Boston, in the south Bronx (the Yankees were merely reprimanded for some 2017 chicanery), and perhaps elsewhere, off the hook anyway.

If our better angels are right, then for once Commissioner Nero put his fiddle down and behaved like an honest-to-God, genuine leader. For once.

The adult in the room wasn’t

AlexCintronJoseAltuve

Alex Cintron (right) counsels Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after a hit. Cintron’s nasty, brawl-triggering  insult to Oakland’s Ramon Laureano Sunday shouldn’t go as lightly as Cintron got off for Astrogate.

It’s a shame, really, when something like Sunday afternoon’s basebrawl is what you need to discover a particular player is a decent-seeming fellow. Even when he’s willing to call a man who goaded him obscenely into a fight a loser. Now it still remains to be seen whom commissioner Rob Manfred will suspend more heavily.

Will the hammer fall harder on Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano for charging the Houston Astros dugout? On Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron for climbing the dugout steps forward, urging Laureano to bring it, after calling Laureano something Latino men consider the most vile insult on earth?

Suspensions were expected Monday afternoon, so swiftly because the brief skirmish by the dugout violated MLB’s tightened COVID-19 safety protocols that enjoin against such rumbles no matter who did what.

By 7:30 pm Pacific time Monday, though, suspension lengths hadn’t even been rumoured, even if a host of observers expected if not hoped that Cintron would get the harder hammer drop for being the adult in the room who wasn’t.

On Monday, Laureano told reporters including ESPN’s Jeff Passan that despite being hit by pitches three times over the weekend including twice on Sunday he didn’t hold it against the Astros. Not even against Brandon Bailey, the Astros relief pitcher for whom Laureano was traded by the Astros to the A’s in the first place when they were minor leaguers in 2017.

Bailey drilled Laureano in the fifth on Sunday afternoon. Another Astros reliever, Humberto Castellanos, plunked Laureano on Friday night in extra innings and Sunday in the seventh. Laureano wasn’t exactly alone; his fellow A’s outfielder Robbie Grossman got it twice on Friday night. Laureano (five) and Grossman (four) lead the parade of A’s (fourteen) taking one for the team so far this truncated season.

The latter triggered Laureano to pantomime a proper slider grip toward Castellanos before he took first base and returned chirpings wafting from the Astros dugout. But the chirpings apparently included Cintron referring to Laureano as the crude euphemism for maternal fornicator.

“[Saying] in Spanish something you don’t say about my mother,” is how Laureano put it to Passan. In places where they don’t play professional baseball, saying that to most  Latino men can get you beaten senseless, assuming you can be beaten into a pre-existing condition. It can also get you stabbed or even shot.

Cintron being Latino himself should have known better. Suppose the reverse was true and it was Laureano who called Cintron a maternal fornicator? Would Cintron have resisted the urge to charge his fellow Latino with drawing and quartering on his mind?

We’ll never know what Laureano would have done if he could have reached Cintron Sunday afternoon. The coach who urged Laureano to bring it after the insult stepped aside and let other Astros do his dirty work. Except that Laureano’s former A’s teammate, Astros reserve catcher Dustin Garneau, tackled him specifically to keep him from getting bloodied.

The insult resonated with Laureano more than many of his peers, since his parents courageously enough sent him from the Dominican Republic to the United States alone so he could chase his baseball dreams. The chase has borne fruit; Laureano in three Show seasons has become something of a stealth star who’s thought to have the game’s best outfield throwing arm and showed some pop at the plate in the bargain last year.

Ask and he’ll tell you the only thing he hates about playing major league baseball is being away from his family. “Every day I wake up with the motivation to be with them,” he told Passan. “They sacrificed their life for me.”

They made the tough decision to let their own kid go to the States by himself and follow his own dreams. I’ve been away from my family for 10 years. It’s tough to be away from them. Any chance I have to be with them, I feel like I’m in heaven. So for [Cintron] to say that to me about my mom, it doesn’t sit well. I’ve got a fire inside me right away in that second.

A’s manager Bob Melvin swore to Cintron hurling the vile epithet at Laureano. Cintron denies he said that specific compound word. The A’s wouldn’t let Laureano tangle with the Astros alone. Their catcher Austin Allen took down Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, who was behind the plate calling every Astro pitch in the set, including the ones that drilled Laureano and Grossman.

Melvin said Monday that Laureano was remorseful about charging the dugout. “I’m a man, I’m a freaking man,” said Laureano, who accepts a suspension being likely. “Whatever happens, happens. I’ll take it. I couldn’t keep my cool and I should have. And I wasted my time with that guy.”

He even went out of his way to say he didn’t think any Astro pitcher who plunked him over the weekend did so with malice aforethought. “The other days I’ve been on base,” the ex-Astro product said, “we’ve been chitchatting, talking about life and family on the bases. Everything’s great. I get along with everybody on the Astros.”

That would make Laureano another kind of minority this season. Seven-eighths of MLB players, seemingly, wanted the justice Manfred didn’t exact when he immunised Astro players from the 2017-18 electro-cheating. Even if they didn’t dare suggest who’d be the first to deliver or how many would from there.

It might have been turned to one side over the coronavirus world tour, but then Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly served four pungent reminders to two Astros a fortnight ago. Kelly’s eight-game suspension was thought too severe and remains under appeal.

Almost forgotten, too, in Sunday’s rumble by the Bay: Cintron turns out to be suspected of being one of the 2017 men who sent the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegally pilfered sign intelligence from the monitors to the dugout and to the hitters at the plate. Like the players Manfred handed blanket immunity in return for the Astrogate deets, Cintron escaped the woodshed.

Let’s remind ourselves, too, that not a single Astro batter saw a brushback, knockdown, or plunk all weekend long, no matter how often Grossman and Laureano got dusted or drilled.

The Astros couldn’t possibly have been thrilled that A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, himself a former Astro, blew the whistle on Astrogate last November. The A’s may have been fortunate that their starting rotation schedule meant Fiers facing the Texas Rangers the night before the Astro set started and thus not scheduled to go again until this week against the Los Angeles Angels.

Intentional or no, five weekend Oakland plunks from four Astros pitchers (Zack Greinke plunked Grossman earlier in Friday’s game) was a terrible look for a team against the guys whose ranks include their whistleblower. Even if three of those pitchers are rookies.

Even if Laureano is too decent to entertain the prospect that veteran teammates or even a coach or two might have urged those Astros rooks, none of whose minor league jackets show immunity to hit batsmen, to send some messages meant to shoot the messenger’s enablers.

It’ll be a terrible look, too, if Manfred comes down harder on Laureano for charging the dugout than on Cintron for instigating the charge. But Commissioner Nero seems immune to the looks produced by his fiddling reign of error.

Houston, you still have a problem

2020-08-10 RamonLaureano

Drilled once Friday night and twice Sunday afternoon, Ramon Laureano (22) also wasn’t thrilled an Astros coach called him something that gets people up to and including shot if aimed at Latino men.

The question before the house to begin is, which was the worst look of the weekend now done. The answer may depend on a fiddling commissioner’s disciplinary response.

Until Sunday afternoon’s rumble by the Bay, the worst look might have been otherwise-touted Los Angeles Angels rookie Jo Adell channeling his inner Jose Canseco, letting a fly ball bounce off his upraised glove (alas, not his head) and over the fence.

Was the worst look now Houston Astros pitchers hitting a pair of Oakland Athletics batters five times total during the three-game A’s sweep? Was it Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron goading A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano into a safety protocols-violating dugout charge and brawl after his third such plunk and second on Sunday alone?

Sunday’s story should have been the A’s winning their ninth straight game with a 7-2 triumph following a one-run extra-inning win Friday and a two-run win Saturday. Thanks to the Astros, at this writing the main story’s likely to be Laureano’s punishment for deciding he’d had enough of being used for apparent Astro target practise.

Fellow A’s outfielder Robbie Grossman got hit twice on Friday night, once by well-established veteran Zack Greinke and once by rookie Enoli Paredes. Laureano got it once Friday night, from rookie Humberto Castellanos, and twice Sunday, the second from Castellanos and the first from another Astro rookie, Brandon Bailey.

The tales will include whether Laureano’s fed-up hollering from first base Sunday—he’d gestured previously to Castellanos in a way suggesting he had more to learn about pitching, indicating Laureano allowed that rookies will be rookies, sort of—didn’t turn into Cintron’s throwing an expletive to the outfielder that’s considered grounds for a beatdown at minimum in Laureano’s world.

We’ll know more soon,” tweeted former Astros beat writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz after Sunday’s skirmish, “but a person I respect has been told that the A’s Ramón Laureano charged toward Alex Cintron because Cintron mentioned Laureano’s mother in a bad way. In Latino culture, those are fighting words.”

Ramón doesn’t go there unless something completely offensive came out of the dugout,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin to reporters after the game. “And I think the league knows who that is. And that person should be suspended. So hopefully that’s the case.”

It probably wasn’t brilliant for Laureano to charge the Houston dugout in his outrage, a charge that provoked no few Astros to pour forth and mill and holler and violate the Show’s protocols on health and safety distancing and against brawling on those grounds.

But it was far less brilliant if indeed Cintron threw Laureano the crude expletive for maternal fornicator. Throwing that toward most Latino men (and no few Latino women, for that matter) usually means you come away fortunate if all you got was beaten into a pulp. People have been stabbed or even shot for it.

Cintron also resembled a craven coward for all but telling the outraged Laureano to bring it only to jump to one side when Laureano brought it. Even as Astros catcher Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano in a peacemaking bid for his former teammate.”I was just trying to stop the situation before punches were really thrown and stuff got out of hand,” Garneau told reporters. “That’s really what my whole goal was for that incident.”

“Cintron shouldn’t be suspended for being a coward; that’s just something he’ll have to live with,” writes an outraged enough San Jose Mercury-News columnist Dieter Kurtenbach.

[Laureano] had a right to be mad at Houston, and that’s beyond the sign-stealing stuff.

But the coaches are supposed to be the “adults in the room” and this “adult” was challenging a kid to a fight.

The sidebars are liable to include a little speculation as to whether even the rookie Astros pitchers who did most of the drilling weren’t counseled toward a little payback over a lot of lingering resentment that an A’s pitcher (veteran Mike Fiers) finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November.

Rookies want to impress their teams. They’re sensitive to orders or at least strong suggestions from their elders and superiors, even those that might get them into a little hot water. Even if acting on them tells their elders and superiors that they’re reliable, dependable guys who’ll go to the mattresses for the team right or wrong if need be.

Don’t discount the prospect that Castellanos, Bailey, and Paredes might have been following orders or taking strong suggestions strongly, too. Might. Managers and coaches will still deny to their deaths that they gave the orders, but they’ve been giving such orders or at least hinting very strong such suggestions as long as there’s been organised baseball.

There’s also the prospect that the trio picked up enough from their more established teammates that they might, even for mere moments, have thought about sending the A’s messages regarding Fiers. Might.

They do have rather well enough established control issues among them. In four minor league and winter league seasons Castellanos hit seventeen batters. In three college and four minor league seasons, Bailey hit 21 batters. And, in four minor league seasons, Paredes hit thirteen batters.

The Astros aren’t alone in having to lean upon still-shaky rookies in this truncated season. But five plunks in three games, two against one A’s outfielder and three on another one including two in one game, does. not. look. kosher. whether the plunkers are a trio of shaky rookies, a trio of veterans experienced enough to know better, or a combination of the two.

Unfortunately, the Astros haven’t looked kosher for long enough, either.

Their passionate enough fan base has wrestled since with the revelation that the genuinely great team they rooted for turned out to be high-tech cheaters in the season of their otherwise so-far greatest triumph. That fan base has also wrestled with knowing that it isn’t just other fan bases who think the current generation of Astros is tainted, even if only six regular position players remain from the 2017 roster.

Commissioner Rob Manfred let off the hook every Astro player who partook of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal electronic sign-stealing espionage in return for spilling what they knew. Come spring training, the Astros weren’t exactly apologetic about their high crimes and misdemeanors, provoking what seemed seven-eighths of Show players who didn’t wear Astros fatigues to demand where the justice was or threaten to administer what Commissioner Nero wouldn’t.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly answered those calls a fortnight ago. He decked Alex Bregman and dusted Carlos Correa twice each, in the same inning. It made him a Los Angeles folk hero and a nationwide object of empathy when he was hit with a severe suspension. (It’s still under appeal.) Even those Astro fans admitting their heroes were grand theft felons may think Kelly got burned a little too deep.

Astro batters have been hit nine times since this truncated season finally began. (Third in the league, incidentally.) Of those batters, five were 2017-18 Astros including 2017 World Series MVP George Springer getting it twice. In case you’re curious, A’s batters have been hit fourteen times on the season so far. Grossman’s been drilled four times, Laureano five. There isn’t a jury on the planet who’d say either was unjustified for harbouring lustful thoughts of murder.

The Astros’ new manager, Dusty Baker, has tried playing peacemaker with the rest of the game while trying to shepherd his Astros past the Astrogate stain. Elder though he is it’s not as though Baker has an easy time of such things, all things considered. In a managing career that has taken him to great enough heights and equivalent disaster, Baker this season must surely think there are times when hell would seem a tropical vacation by comparison.

But he’s old school enough to provoke speculation. Would you be shocked upon seeing any speculation, specious though it might be, that Baker or another coach ordered their rookie lancers to give those snitch-sheltering A’s a little something to think about?

(Codicil: Fiers—who actually faced death threats over his whistleblowing—didn’t face the Astros all weekend; he pitched against the Texas Rangers last Thursday and his next scheduled start is tonight against the Los Angeles Angels. The A’s assuredly were not trying to keep him from facing his one-time team over the weekend.)

On the other hand, of course, you wouldn’t necessarily be shocked if Baker knew or was told reliably that Cintron had indeed leveled at Laureano a phrase virtually guaranteed to raise a Latino temperature to nuclear level, and that Baker decided thus that there was no place in an already self-bedeviled Astro clubhouse for such a provocateur.

Especially when the provocation put both sides afoul of the safety protocols the Show tightened up after the Miami Marlins and, especially, the St. Louis Cardinals wrestled en masse with COVID-19 crises canceling games and throwing this Hitchcockian season into further reasonable doubt.

Baker says he doesn’t know if Alex Cintron mentioned Ramón Laureano’s mother while yelling at him before Laureano charged him,” Ortiz tweeted. “But Baker says he learned the hard way how different it is when you mention a Latino’s mother. He vowed to check on the matter.”

Baker might also be reminded that the A’s didn’t get anywhere near hitting a single Astro all weekend long, even when Astro arms hitting Grossman twice on Friday and Laureano once Friday and twice on Sunday might have given any A’s pitcher all the reason on earth to return the disfavour.

Trusty Dusty can be forgiven if he starts wondering just what the hell he signed up for in the first place.

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?

 

 

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.