Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

Commissioner Rob Manfred with White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks before last year’s Field of Dreams game. (The Athletic.)

Having a read of ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr.’s profile of commissioner Rob Manfred, I was almost convinced that maybe, just maybe, there really was more to Manfred than met the eye. Or, more than what comes forth in his stiff presence and often clumsy remarks.

Just maybe, the man isn’t the baseball-hating or baseball-illiterate Rube Goldberg-like abecedarian the caricatures so often portray. He did, after all, grow up a Yankee fan in upstate New York and can say proudly enough that he’s the only baseball commissioner ever who played Little League baseball. “All glove, no bat,” he remembers of being a Little League infielder.

My parents received a set of classic Revere copper-bottom cookware as a wedding present eight years before Manfred was born. (I still remember the fragrance of that special powder used to clean the copper bottoms, too.) Who knew Manfred (three years my junior) was the son of Revere’s production supervisor at their home plant in Rome, New York? An hour’s drive from Cooperstown, as it happens.

Born in 1958, Manfred took in his first live major league game at Yankee Stadium with his sports-obssessed father, sitting between the plate and first base on an Old Timers’ Day. Come game time, Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle crashed a pair of home runs and the Yankees beat the Twins, 3-2. When he finally became the game’s commissioner, he handed his father the first baseball with his stamp upon it.

“This is really an unbelievable thing,” Manfred, Sr. told his son. “I can’t say I disagree,” Manfred, Jr. told Van Natta.

A couple of hundred fathoms down, though, Van Natta noted that “more than once” Manfred told him what few baseball commissioners have dared to admit, that being the buffer absorbing the heat that should go to his bosses, the owners, is part of his job. Even if it’s about as pleasant as your private parts being caught in the vacuum cleaner’s handle.

And then it came.

“Every time it’s me, it ain’t one of those 30 guys—that’s good,” Van Natta quoted Manfred as saying. “Look, who the hell am I? I don’t have $2 billion invested in a team. I’m just a guy trying to do a job. I mean it. [The owners] deserve that layer. I believe they deserve that layer of protection. I’m the face of the game, for good or for bad.”

Mr. Manfred, unless it’s to boo and hiss your heads off over this or that piece of mischief, you may rest assured that no baseball fan anywhere in this country is paying his or her hard-earned money to head for the ballpark to see you or your bosses.

But I’m going to do you a small favour, as if you know me from the greenest bat boy on any professional baseball team. I’m going to introduce you to the true faces of the game. The ones whom those fans do pay their hard-earned money to see at the ballpark regardless of the machinations and deceptions of your bosses and theirs.

Mr. Manfred, meet Mike Trout. This is the guy you blamed once upon a time for not being baseball’s face, based upon his committing no crime more grave than letting his play and his clubhouse presence and his agreeability with fans before and after games speak for themselves, with no jive about the magnitude of being him.

Meet Shohei Ohtani. This is the two-way star who lights up the joint just by flashing that thousand-watt grin of his, never mind when he strikes thirteen out on the mound one night and belts baseballs onto the Van Allen Belt the very next. Between himself and Mr. Trout, you should be asking what on earth is wrong with the Angels that they still can’t find quality pitching enough to keep them in a race after they start in one but sputter unconscionably.

Meet Aaron Judge. This is the Leaning Tower of River Avenue who sends baseballs into the Delta Quadrant one moment and then, when made aware, goes out of his way to meet a Canadian kid to whom he’s number one among baseball men and who was handed one of his mammoth home run balls by an adult fan who knew the boy wanted nothing more than to catch one Judge hit out.

Meet Joey Votto. This is the future Hall of Fame first baseman who got himself tossed from a game early last year, but—after he learned his ejection broke the heart of a little California girl to whom he’s a hero above heroes—sent her a ball with his handwritten apology and autograph on it, prompting his team to drop game tickets and a little extra swag upon her the very next day.

Meet Bryce Harper. This is the guy who never apologised for being on board with letting the kids play. The guy now on the injured list with a thumb fracture and surgery to repair it after getting hit by a pitch thrown with one of the baseballs you and yours still can’t see fit to manufacture uniformly and with allowance for fairness on both sides of it, fairness for the pitchers and for the hitters alike.

Meet Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Bo Bichette. One is the son of a Hall of Famer who did last season what even his old man never did: led his league in on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, and led the entire Show in total bases. The other is the son of a respected major league slugger, has quite a lethal bat in his own right when his swing is right, and currently leads his league in trips to the plate. Together they’ve put some zip back into the Blue Jays.

Meet Oneil Cruz. The bat has yet to come to full life but the footwork, the glove, the throwing arm, have shown so far that you can be as tall as Frank Howard, J.R. Richard, and Randy Johnson and still play shortstop as though the position was created for you and not the Little Rascals in the first place. They’re falling in love with him in Pittsburgh, which needs all the love it can get, but they ought to fall in love with him all around the Show—except when he’s going so deep into the hole grabbing a grounder or a hopper that an enemy batter loses his lunch when he’s had a base hit stolen from him.

Meet Clayton Kershaw. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s a Hall of Fame lock as maybe the best pitcher of his generation. He’s still a quality pitcher and a class act. They still buy tickets on the road when they know he’s going to take the ball for the Dodgers. He’s faced his baseball aging curve with grace under pressure. And, for good measure, he’s the one active player who was seen fit to be part of the ceremony when the Dodgers unveiled that statue of their Hall of Fame legend Sandy Koufax this month, and you know (well, you damn well should know) what a class act Koufax was on the mound and has been in the decades since off it.

(You’re not still P.O.ed that Koufax waxed your Yankees’ tails twice while his Dodgers swept them in the 1963 World Series when you were seven, are you?)

Meet Justin Verlander. Missed a year plus recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.23 ERA and a 3.53 fielding-independent pitching rate so far this season. For any pitcher that’d be a remarkable return so far. For a future Hall of Famer who’s still suiting up at Jack Benny’s age (that’s a joke, son), it’s off the chart so far.

Meet Verlander’s 25-year-old Astros teammate, Yordan Álvarez. He’s leading the entire Show with his .667 slugging percentage, his 1.081 OPS, and his 206 OPS+. If there’s one untainted Astro who’s must-see viewing whenever he checks in at the plate, it’s him.

Meet Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The left side of the Red Sox infield is a big reason why the Olde Towne Team yanked themselves back up from the netherworld into second place in that rough and tumble American League East. Did I mention that Devers currently leads the entire Show with 177 total bases?

Meet José Ramírez. The Guardians’ third baseman is giving Devers a run for his money in the All-Star balloting that closes today. That thumb injury has put a crimp into his bat for now, and it’s had its role in the Guardians’ sudden deflation at the plate, but this guy just may be the face of his franchise right now. He ought to be one of the faces of this game.

Meet Mark Appel. This is the guy who went from number one in the draft to injuries as well as pressures and even to an exit from the game only to try giving it one more try—and finally coming up with the Phillies, nine years after that draft, and tossing a scoreless inning . . . at age 30. That’s as feel good a story as it gets for the oldest former number one to make his Show debut, no matter what happens with the rest of what remains of Appel’s career. They don’t all go to hell and back.

Those are only some of baseball’s faces, Mr. Commissioner. They’re the ones the fans want to see and pay through the nose to see. Despite your tinkerings. Despite your often erroneous readings of the room. Despite your inability or unwillingness to demand the same accountability of umpires that you do of players, coaches, and managers.

Despite your inability to let your professed deep love of the game come through without tripping over itself because, as an improvisor, well, if you were a musician the consensus would be that Miles Davis you ain’t.

Tatis and Bauer continue defunding the Fun Police

Fernando Tatis, Jr.; Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer (27) wasn’t thrilled about surrendering bombs to Fernando Tatis, Jr.—but Bauer didn’t mind Tatis trolling him over them, either.

If the Dodgers and the Padres are really brewing baseball’s best rivalry since the Dodgers and the Giants, or the Yankees and the Red Sox, you can count on one less Fun Police officer overloading the Tabasco sauce. Turns out that the sense of humour of Trevor Bauer, Dodger pitcher, includes taking his lumps in the troll department.

Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. accounted for the only two runs Bauer allowed Friday night with a pair of delicious looking home runs. He hit the first in the top of the first, sending a slightly hanging cutter clean over the left center field fence on the second pitch of the game.

After rounding first, Tatis put his right hand over his eye as he turned around toward the mound, then turned to continue running it out. When he hit the second bomb in the top of the sixth, following a six-pitch, full count wrestling match, Tatis crossed the plate with a move made familiar to UFC fans by Conor McGregor. It just so happens to be the move Bauer himself busts after he has a particularly controlling inning’s work.

By his own admission Bauer missed the hand-over-eye move, which referenced Bauer’s own one-eyed pitching against the Padres during a spring training contest, but he couldn’t help noticing the Padres dugout covering single eyes after Tatis’s second homer landed about three or four rows up the left center field bleachers.

Bauer didn’t mind any of the moves at all. In fact, talking to reporters after the game, which the Dodgers yanked out to win 5-4 despite Tatis’s mayhem, the righthander whose own trolling stones make him as controversial as he is colourful sent a message to every other pitcher on the third stone from the sun who thinks letting the kids play is tantamount to heresy.

“I like it. I think that pitchers who have that done to them and react by throwing at people, or getting upset and hitting people or whatever — I think it’s pretty soft,” Bauer told reporters after the game. “If you give up a homer, the guy should celebrate it. It’s hard to hit in the big leagues. So, I’m all for it. And I think it’s important that the game moves in that direction, and we stop throwing at people because they celebrated having some success on the field.”

Where was Bauer when the Cardinals got soft on Nick Castellanos a couple of days after Castellanos smashed a home run off Jack Flaherty? When Jack Woodford drilled him with a pitch, then bumped him as he crossed the plate beneath a sliding tag attempt, before Castellanos sprung up from his slide, barked a bit at Woodford, then started walking away from the plate area when Yadier Molina returned to the plate area and gave Castellanos a shove by his neck—when Castellanos wasn’t even looking behind him?

Rest assured, Bauer would have had a lecture to deliver Madison Bumgarner two years ago, after Max Muncy launched one of his first-inning services into McCovey Cove. “Don’t watch the ball—run!” Bumgarner barked. Rounding first and heading to second as he ran it out, Muncy by his own admission hollered back, precisely, “If you don’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean.”

Perhaps if Bauer was a Dodger then, he’d have been the first to buy the blue T-shirt that hit the ground flying after that, with “Go Get It Out of the Ocean” emblazoned in white, over an upside-down reproduction of the flying baseball that’s part of the Dodgers’ official team logo.

Bauer knows Tatis has reasons enough to celebrate his handiwork lately. Friday night’s flogs came one night after the kid who’s must-see television did what no major leaguer had done before—hit a pair of bombs on the 22nd anniversary date of his father hitting a pair of salamis in the same inning against the same opponent.

Friday night also made Tatis the first player to hit a pair of bombs on back-to-back nights against Cy Young Award-winning pitchers, says the Elias Sports Bureau. On the anniversary of Pop’s pops, Tatis wreaked his two-bomb havoc on Clayton Kershaw’s dollar.

Tatis returned Bauer’s compliment, whether or not he’d actually heard Bauer say it immediately. “Payback time,” the lad told reporters, referencing Bauer’s one-eyed-jack pitching in that spring game.

It’s just fun. When you know you’re facing a guy like that — he’s doing his stuff, he’s having fun on the mound, and when you get him you get him, and you celebrate, too. He’s a hard guy to deal with.

Bauer didn’t even mind when Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer got even in the sixth for what Bauer did in the fourth. Hosmer struck out awkwardly in the fourth and Bauer delivered his pulling-the-sword-out bit, “sword” considered contemporary baseball lingo for the broken swing a hitter often delivers when he’s been fooled like a rookie on a pitch. In the sixth, though, Hosmer nearly drilled a hole in Bauer with a hard liner up the pipe, then pulled a sword of his own out after reaching first.

Once again, Bauer had no intention of ducking into a nearby phone booth and changing from your everyday not-so-mild-mannered pitcher into the Fun Cop ready to clunk all miscreants with his nightstick and drag them off to the hoosegow.

“That’s what it is to be a competitor,” the righthander said. “I’m gonna go at you. I’m gonna get you sometimes, and you’re gonna get me sometimes. We can have fun, we can celebrate it while we’re still competing at the highest level. I just thought that was important to note tonight.”

I’ve been saying for how long that pitchers need to start thinking, “Hey, you got me good this time. Have your fun. I’ll get you out the next time, and I’ll have my fun?” I’m not even close to the only one. There was Sean Doolittle two years ago, when he was still a hard-toiling and popular National. “If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit,” he said emphatically in an interview I cited at the time.

When you’re in the backyard as a kid playing and falling in love with the game and you crush the ball? You do a celebration. You stand and watch it like Ken Griffey, Jr. You don’t hit the ball and put your head down and run as fast as you can. That’s not fun. It’s okay to embrace that part of a game.

To which I wrote, myself, “I hope a lot of hitters drop to one knee and point their bats to the sky like bazookas when they hit one out. I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

The new Murphy’s Law ought to be, “Celebrate!” Said Dale Murphy himself, in one of his first essays as a contributor to The Athletic. It must have sent the Fun Police to the whiskey bottles when Murphy called out Bumgarner over that Muncy waterball:

Admiring a home run is OK. Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged. Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.

Wouldn’t you love to know what Bauer thought, when the Rangers decided it was right and proper to wait, until near the end of the final game of their final season series against the Blue Jays in May 2016, to repay Jose Bautista for an epic bat flip the previous October?

Bautista hit a monstrous three-run homer in the seventh to give the Jays a 6-3 lead that held up to send them to the previous American League Championship Series. He flipped his bat whirlybird style as he left the plate to run it out. Rogers Centre went nuclear. The Rangers pitcher who surrendered that bomb, Sam Dyson, spoke as a Fun Policeman after the game.

“Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson said after the game. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.” (I couldn’t resist rejoining, “That’s how many kids playing Wiffle ball who grow up to hit postseason-advancing skyrockets?”)

Bautista was hit by a pitch late in that mid-May 2016 game. Then, he delivered a hard slide at second to let the Rangers know he didn’t appreciate the too-long-delayed “message.” Then he had to bear the brunt of the followup brickbats when Rougned Odor swung on him. Pretty soft? The Rangers were squishy cowards in tough guy clothing behind Mommy’s dress when Matt Bush—a relief pitcher who wasn’t even a Ranger in October 2015—delivered that seven-months delayed drill.

Bauer has his faults. Misogynistic harassment of women online is known to be one of them. But he’s never been accused of being physically abusive with any woman he’s dated or associated with. The Dyson who demanded Bautista “just kind of respect the game a little more” is the one who got suspended for this season for abusing his former girlfriend.

You can hear the Old Fart Contingent [OFC] who didn’t or don’t play the game fuming about Respect For The Game, too. Most of the same OFC want to see players treat baseball like Serious Business on the field or at the plate or around the bases—but they  become the first to scream, “It’s a [fornicating] game!” when it’s free agency contract time.

Bauer and Tatis have just fired off significant shots in what should be a continuing, baseball-wide campaign to defund the Fun Police. The defunding shouldn’t be limited to players alone.