Dark are baseball’s video rooms

Javier Baez wants his and other players’ in-game television back.

The following program is not brought to you in living colour, on NBC or elsewhere around the Show. Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs shortstop, is not amused.

Baez is having less than an exemplary season at the plate as it is without being frustrated because a valuable tool he and most players use during games is denied them this year.

They can’t duck into the video room during games this season to review their prior plate appearances or pitching turns during games, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly when they check in at the plate or on the mound next.

“To be honest, it sucks because I make my adjustments during the game,” Baez told ESPN writer Jesse Rogers Monday, and that was after he picked up three hits while his Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-1. “I watch my swing. I watch where the ball went, where the contact was. I’m mad. I’m really mad about that we don’t have it.”

Baez thinks, not without reason, that it simply wasn’t right for baseball’s government to put the entire Show on video restriction simply because of the malfeasance of two known teams at least. Think of Mom and Dad grounding all the kids because one broke into the liquor cabinet while the others were nowhere within two miles of the scene of the crime.

As Rogers writes, “In-game video was taken away this season in the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.” But the culprit wasn’t Astrogate alone.

Bad enough: the Astros either adjusted an existing camera illegally or installed another one just as illegally to enable off-field-based sign stealing. Nowhere near as bad, though enough Astro fans think otherwise, of course: the Boston Red Sox didn’t adjust or install cameras, but they did develop off-field-based sign-stealing reconnaissance by way of their existing video room.

Video rooms are in all ballparks behind both dugouts. The Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring involved someone deciphering pitch signs on existing screens, then signaling a baserunner to send the sign to the hitter. The Rogue Sox exercised a sophisticated if sneaky variation of old-fashioned gamesmanship, but doing it by way of the video room was a major no-no.

Unlike the Astros’ extracurricular installations or adjustments, whichever they were, MLB itself installing the video rooms handed the Red Sox and every other team surrendering to similar temptations the keys to the liquor cabinet expecting they’d be good little boys and not even think about drinking unlawfully.

“[P]rotocols put in place during the coronavirus pandemic all but assured that there would be no way to monitor usage properly,” Rogers writes. “Now players can’t watch their at-bats until after games.”

The old-school old farts would remind you, of course, that once upon a time, in the dark days before technology advanced at warp speed to destroy Life As We Knew It When the Going Was Good, coaches and managers observed batters and pitchers and suggested adjustments accordingly, if not necessarily astutely, all by their own selves. With no subversive help from God or those subversive technocrats from General Electric, RCA, Bell & Howell, IBM, Wollensak, or others.

(Oops. Wollensak’s and other hand-held spyglasses and telescopes ended up in the hands of such off-field sign-stealing cheaters as the 1940 Detroit Tigers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, and—especially—the 1951 New York Giants, to name a few.)

What brass balls on early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charley Dressen, then. Dressen once helped Gil Hodges break out of a ferocious batting slump by commissioning a filmmaker to shoot hours of footage of the beleaguered first baseman at the plate. Then, he showed Hodges on extensive film the backward mis-step he’d take in the box—his back foot pulling himself and his swing off line—and gave a successful suggestion on how to keep that step from hurting his swing. Career saved.

The nerve of such people as the now-late Lou Brock. In the mid-1960s, he first took up the practise of filming enemy pitchers to study everything he could about their mound  tendencies and how he might exploit them for more efficient basepath crime. (I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!—Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale.) From Kodak to Cooperstown.

The gall of such people as the late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. In the early-to-mid 1980s, Gwynn started carrying a video recorder and player around with him, at home and on the road, while his wife shot and captured his plate appearances so he could study them as a rabbinical scholar studies the Talmud, during and after games alike, and correct any mistakes or flaws he happened to catch.

Today’s baseball player can normally survive a tough plate appearance or turn on the mound, duck into the video room at next opportunity, and observe and adjust on the fly. Or, have a successful turn, then study and retain what he did right. Argue against such legitimate helpmates? You might as well argue the American family never had it so good as when they had to beat the dust and dirt of the rugs and slipcovers hanging on clotheslines, instead of reaching for the Electrolux.

This is not to suggest that a batter or a pitcher has lost the capability to think hard enough on their own and figure necessary adjustments. Minds greater than baseball minds rarely say no to all the sound help they can get from all the sound sources they can find, technological or otherwise.

Try to convince yourself that even such a Hall of Famer as Ted Williams would have said no to seeing some film of himself at the plate and catching the occasional kink or further refining the betters. When he met and befriended Gwynn late in life, Teddy Ballgame surely approved of Captain Video’s private television production operation on behalf of (the horror) improving himself at the plate.

Set to one side the temptations that manifest because boys will be boys, in Houston, Boston, and anywhere else, and video lacks what even the best managers and coaches have no matter how well they train themselves or get themselves trained otherwise. Video doesn’t lie, or at least surrender to coaches’ biases based on how they swung or pitched back in their Good Old Days.

(How many coaches ruined how many players by trying to bend them to their own former playing ways or toward presumed styles? Possible racial considerations to one side, the Cubs traded Lou Brock after they couldn’t make him into the pure slugger he really wasn’t. The Mets once thought their phenom pitcher Dwight Gooden needed to stop trying to miss bats and add off-speed pitches he couldn’t throw comfortably though their pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre once did. Hall of Fame talent ruined: Gooden’s confidence and in due course his shoulder and his career were compromised.)

After the Astrogate/Soxgate kerfuffles, baseball’s government decided the video room’s future would include specially hired and trained security the better to keep the game’s grand theft felons from even thinking about future replay room reconnaissance cheating. Baez doesn’t exactly object to the idea. He just didn’t think the future wouldn’t be right now.

“We didn’t cheat. We’re not cheating, and we got to pay for all this,” he told Rogers. “It’s tough . . . but a lot of players are struggling, too. A lot of stars are struggling, and I’m just one more. The way that it is is not the way we play baseball. And I need video to make adjustments and during the game. It doesn’t matter who is there to watch us. It doesn’t matter if we have all the police the MLB wants to send over here.”

In this pandemically truncated season played in conditions unheard of in previous seasons, many players aren’t struggling but many players are. The reasons are varied widely. And it isn’t as though Baez is crying out from the subterranean depths. His Cubs at this writing have the best record in the National League Central and the fourth-best in the entire league. Somehow.

Once upon a time, in 1980, the hits on the music charts included a ditty called, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The lack of video in this Quiet, Please! Geniuses Playing with Mental Blocks season isn’t going to kill the baseball star. (Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Mike Trout, call your offices.)

But it’s not making their serious work of play simple, either.

Don’t blame or curse the writers, bros

2019-06-23 SethLugo

Seth Lugo, who shouldn’t have been left in to start the eighth Sunday, after surrendering Javier Baez’s difference-making three-run homer.

Maybe the most frequent refrain around last year’s Mets was Jacob deGrom pitching like a virtuoso but his team losing for him regardless. It didn’t stop him from winning a deserved Cy Young Award then. But it stopped him and the Mets from banking a badly-needed win in Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon.

And it threatened to turn into a rumble in the clubhouse jungle after the game, after manager Mickey Callaway heard one too many questions around the likely theme, “What on earth were you thinking or not thinking when you let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning when he didn’t exactly have even his C+ game to work with?”

Not to mention Mets pitcher Jason Vargas challenging Newsday writer Timothy Healey to a fight as the postgame interviews ended. “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro,” Vargas snapped, when Healey first stood his ground after Callaway demanded team public relations people escort him away.

A man who surrenders four earned runs in four and two thirds innings, as Vargas did Friday in a game the Mets hung in to win 5-4, should spend more time thinking about knocking hitters out at the plate than knocking reporters out for doing nothing more than, you know, their jobs.

Because there was deGrom Sunday afternoon, with a nine-strikeout, two-run, six-hit start, shaving another point or two off his ERA, his breaking balls coming out to play very nicely with others starting in the second, playing a little too nice for the Cubs’ comfort, mostly, and coming out after six innings with a 3-2 Mets lead.

And there was Lugo—arguably the Mets’ most reliable bullpen bull this year so far, after shaking away some early-season struggling—unexpectedly laboring through the seventh, though the box score by itself won’t show it. He needed ten pitches to surrender a leadoff single to Victor Caratini and six to coax pinch hitter Daniel Descalso into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 before getting Albert Almora, Jr. to ground out for the side.

Listen up. It wasn’t the writers who decided it was better to send a less-than-fully-armed Lugo out to pitch the eighth instead of opening with a fresher Robert Gsellman, who’d been loosening up during the seventh.

It wasn’t Healey who fed Kyle Schwarber a sixth-pitch hanger on which Lugo was lucky The Schwarbinator didn’t hit across the street but rather up the middle for a none-too-deep base hit. Or, who walked Anthony Rizzo on 3-1 after Kris Bryant flied out to center. Or, who had Javier Baez in the hole 0-2 before serving him a slider that slid insufficiently enough to be sent into the right field bleachers.

Goodbye, 3-2 Mets lead. Hello, 5-3 Cubs lead to stay, after Pedro Strop took care of Robinson Cano and Carlos Gomez on back-to-back swinging strikeouts before pinch hitter Dom Smith lined out to right for game and series split.

And, goodbye for the time being to the good feelings of Rookie of the Year candidate Peter Alonso busting the National League’s record for home runs before the All-Star break Saturday and becoming the Mets’ all-time rookie home run leader Sunday when he sent Cole Hamels’s changeup seven or eight rows into the left field bleachers in the top of the fourth, leading off and tying the game at one.

Not to mention Tomas Nido—the backup catcher who isn’t much at the plate but is valued because he works so well with deGrom in spite of Callaway’s insistence that not even a Cy Young Award winner should have a personal catcher—surprising one and all in the top of the fourth with a 1-0 rip into the center field bleachers to give the Mets the lead they’d expand when deGrom himself snuck an RBI single through the middle later in the inning.

What did Callaway, Vargas, and any other earthly or otherwise being in Mets silks think the writers were going to ask about after a loss like that? Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance leading the Wrigley faithful in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch?

Actually, the first subject was Edwin Diaz, the Mets’ closer. Why wasn’t Diaz considered for a five-out save at the earliest sign of eight-inning trouble? “Just because you think so?” Callaway retored to Yahoo! reporter Matt Ehalt, who asked the question. “Absolutely not. We have a very good plan, we know what we are doing and we’re going to stick to it.”

If that’s the case, why not send Gsellman out to work the eighth from the outset, since it wasn’t exactly hidden from plain sight that Lugo laboured through the seventh?

Then came the questions about Lugo starting the eighth, including from Healey, apparently, and then came the testiness from Callaway and, in time, Vargas, who needed Gomez and Noah Syndergaard to restrain him before Healey finally departed.

A manager who’s been considered on the hot seat over dubious in-game strategies and his bullpen management since just about the second week of the season is in no position to bark “Get this [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse” at anyone, never mind a reporter seeking clarification on the non-move that turned the game away from the Mets in the first place.

Callaway said he thought Healey was being sarcastic when saying “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” after the questionings ended. First the skipper told Healey not to be a smartass. Then came the expletives undeleted.

Healey tried to assure Callaway he wasn’t being sarcastic but Callaway wouldn’t quit. He said much later Sunday the testiness began with “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” a harmless pleasantry rendered unpleasant when Callaway snapped back with Vargas in earshot and, apparently staring at Healey for a considerable period. “(I) recalled asking him if everything was OK,” Healey said.

Apparently not. That was when Vargas threatened to knock Healey the [fornicate] out, bro. “[T]hen Vargas took a couple of steps toward me,” Healey said. “Some people said charged—charged is super-strong.”

Whether Healey was right or wrong, so long as he and the other writers in the postgame interviews weren’t insulting Callaway and Vargas and merely asking tough but reasonable questions about the critical moment in the Mets’ loss, Callaway and Vargas stepped over a line. Office holders holler “fake news” as much over reporting they simply don’t like as over false reporting. But even they’re not known customarily to throw obscenities in reporters’ faces under or after tough questioning. (We think.)

“No matter what the reporter did,” veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said, “this can’t happen . . . The problem is Mickey Callaway probably should’ve been fired a month ago . . . ever since, this has been lingering over this team . . . everybody is simply waiting.”

“While Callaway has never had an outburst like this before with a reporter, the second-year manager has pushed back when asked critical questions,” Ehalt himself wrote later Sunday. “Vargas had not had an incident like this with a Mets reporter since he joined the team last year.”

Diaz himself also urged someone, anyone, to get Healey out of the area, but apparently Diaz and other Mets feared the altercation getting even more serious. They had to be unnerved already by their manager and one of their pitchers jumping all over Healey as it was. Especially if it was as much out of character for Vargas as seems to be the case.

After Healey finally disappeared, some reporters lingered to talk to Diaz. Without incident, apparently. But these Mets are a tense outfit right now and may have been long before Sunday afternoon’s follies.

The bullpen new general manager Brodie Van Vagenen built for this season is mostly mis-built. Some of his acquisitions have misfired. Former closer Jeurys Familia, re-acquired for this season, has proven an arsonist as as a setup man. And veteran second baseman Robinson Cano looks too vividly like an aging imitation of the one-time star who parlayed his Yankee success into glandular dollars in Seattle from whom the Mets took him in the deal that made Diaz himself a Met.

Under criticism this year for periodic loafing, Cano looked even more so Sunday, on a second-inning grounder that turned into a too-easy step-and-throw double play. And he showed his age in the fourth, unable to throw on to first while in mid-leap over a slide at second, to finish a likely double play.

And, there are still the Wilpons in the executive command post still unable or (Met fans and some writers accuse) unwilling to overhaul the organisation and allow a sound balance between analytics and game sense to take hold.

The Mets are good at jumping to apologise for their manager’s and pitcher’s out-of-line behaviour toward the reporters doing nothing worse than being reporters. If Callaway, Vargas, and any other Mets really thought no one would ask about why Lugo was left in to work the eighth after he was—by his own admission—less than at full power in the seventh, the question becomes whom among these Mets still have their heads in the game.

The team didn’t need to apologise. It should have been the manager and the pitcher doing it. No matter how beleaguered they are in fact or in supposition, no matter how out of character it might have been, they behaved out of bounds.

Callaway looked at first like he’d survive the vote of confidence he got publicly after the Mets suffered a weekend bushwhacking by the Marlins last month. Now the Mets may yet end up having to apologise for having engaged a manager as far in over his head as Callaway seems increasingly to be.