Jack Smith, RIP: Haircut, shave, and pension throat cut

Jack Smith

Jack Smith, when he was a Dodger following seven years in their minor league system.

One of the last entries by longtime newspaper humourist Lewis Grizzard before his death in 1994 involved a haircut. Specifically, the one he received from “an old-school barber” whom he suddenly recognised as a one-time pitcher he’d seen with the 1960s Atlanta Crackers.

“THAT Jack Smith,” wrote Grizzard. “Hard to believe. There I was getting a haircut from a barber who was also a boyhood idol.”

Smith was a righthanded relief pitcher who’d bounced around the Dodgers system for seven years before he got a call-up in September 1962, when injuries sidelined reliever and former World Series MVP Larry Sherry temporarily. By his own admission, he was a hard thrower no matter what the pitch, but his number one issue was wildness.

He died at 85 on 7 April at the Westbury Health and Rehab facility in Conyers, Georgia, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was also one of the now 612 short-career major leaguers between 1949-1980 who were frozen out of baseball’s pension plan when the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the plan in 1980.

That re-alignment changed pension vesting to 43 days major league time and health care vesting to a single day—excluding Smith and other short-career players during the time frame noted above. Their sole redress came by way of the 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-players union director Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days major league time up to four years worth.

Weiner’s death in 2013 took further chances to get better redress for those players off the table, where the issue still remains, and where today’s players union director Tony Clark seems too little interested in revisiting it.

Once again, I find it unconscionable and morally repugnant that [the MLBPA] is turning its back on older men and their families,” said A Bitter Cup of Coffee author Douglas J. Gladstone, whose book first exposed the pension freezeout. “I’d love to know if Frances Clark and her three kids, Kiara, Jazzin and Aeneas, know how badly Tony is treating the men who ushered in free agency?”

A year after he won the Southern Association (AA) earned run average title with the Crackers, Smith appeared headed for another such title with Omaha (AAA) when the Dodgers called him up after Sherry’s injury. He appeared in eight games, finished two, saved one, and posted a 2.42 fielding-independent pitching rate that belied his 4.50 ERA.

The lone save was part of the Dodgers’ effort to stay in the pennant race and, in due course, force a playoff with the Giants. Smith relieved Hall of Famer Don Drysdale for the ninth. After walking Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs and giving up a single to Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, he retired Hall of Famer Billy Williams on a fly out, surrendered a run on pinch hitter Nelson Mathews’s ground force out to shortstop, and shook off a second walk to get George Altman out on a pop foul near third base.

The effort sealed Drysdale’s 24th credited win of 1962, en route his only Cy Young Award, which kicked off a streak of five straight Cy Young Awards (then strictly a major league award) awarded to Los Angeles pitchers: Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax thrice (1963, 1965-66) and Angels righthander Dean Chance (1964).

Smith appeared in the first two of the three 1962 pennant playoff games. In the first game, he got the sixth inning-ending double play after Sherry surrendered back-to-back home runs by Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda and pitched a shutout seventh, in a game the Dodgers lost 8-0. (Still struggling for a rhythm after a long layoff due to a finger circulation issue, Koufax himself got hit for a two-run homer by Mays in the first and a solo by Jim Davenport in the second.)

But Smith wasn’t quite so successful in the second game despite the Dodgers’ win. With the Dodgers up 7-5, he took over for Ron Perranoski after back-to-back singles (Davenport and Mays) opened the Giants’ eighth. He surrendered an RBI single to Ed Bailey and lost Cepeda when Frank Howard playing right field misplayed Cepeda’s fly.

Smith yielded to Stan Williams, who walked Felipe Alou and surrendered a sacrifice fly to John Orsino with the run charged to Smith, before getting Jose Pagan to ground out to third and getting the Giants out in order in the ninth. Ron Fairly won the game with a sacrifice fly. (The Giants won the third game and the pennant, 6-4.)

Jack Smith

Smith as a Brave; when they sent him down to the Atlanta Crackers, he decided to trade pitching for barbering after a final baseball season in 1965.

He made the Dodgers out of spring training 1963 and posted his arguable best major league effort on 28 April, against the Cardinals, with 4.1 innings of shutout ball, after the Cardinals jumped Johnny Podres for two in the first and reliever Ken Rowe for five in the second. The Dodgers managed to close the deficit to 7-4 while Smith was in the game; the Cardinals went on to win, 9-5.

After he relieved Pete Richert for the sixth, with the Dodgers in the hole 8-0 to the Pirates, the Pirates tore four runs out of him before he got the side out, a sacrifice fly by Smoky Burgess and a three-run homer by Bob Bailey. It was the last inning Smith pitched in a Dodger uniform; he was sent back to the minors, where the Milwaukee Braves claimed him in the subsequent Rule V draft.

He had a decent 1964 with the Braves, making 22 appearances, finishing nine games, and posting a 3.77 ERA and 3.70 FIP, but the Braves sent him down to the Denver (AAA) in the Pacific Coast League. In 1965, the Braves moved him to the Crackers, who’d moved to the AAA International League and become a Braves affiliate since he’d pitched for them last.

Smith had a solid 1965 in Atlanta (the Braves themselves, of course, moved there for 1966), but he decided he was tired at last of flying around the country playing baseball. He’d gone to barber college in the off-seasons and even brought some of his gear to the Braves clubhouse.

Smith opened an Atlanta barber shop, Smitty’s Bullpen, in a Marriott hotel while with the Crackers his second time. The place was so successful (then-Braves manager Bobby Bragan was a semi-regular customer) he decided to stay with it full time, retiring from baseball after the 1965 season, and finally retiring as a barber in 2016.

Some of those who follow the short-career player pension issue believe one reason they were frozen out was that they were viewed as little more than September call-ups. Smith was one in 1962, but he was on Opening Day rosters with the Dodgers in 1963 and the Braves in 1964.

His major league life didn’t last long enough to be part of the players union’s emergence as a serious force in the game. His career ended before a committee led by Hall of Fame pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, plus veteran pitcher Bob Friend and outfielder Harvey Kuenn, led to Marvin Miller’s hiring as their first independent executive director.

Smith wasn’t there to be part of the Players Association pushes and actions that led in due course to Curt Flood’s courageous but failed reserve clause challenge; the bidding war that followed Catfish Hunter’s free agency after Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment; and, Andy Messersmith’s pitching without signing a 1975 contract, then taking it to arbitration and winning the end of the reserve era, finishing what Flood started.

But Smith and his fellow 1949-80 short-career players weren’t allowed to pass the monies provided by the Selig-Weiner deal of 2011 on to their survivors after their passings. Smith is survived by his wife, Susan, three children, two stepchildren, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He may not have received grand dollars from the Selig-Weiner deal but they were something, after all. If any remained yet to come, they stopped with his death.

“It’s worth contemplating a reassessment of this,” wrote New York Post columnist Ken Davidoff, in an early February profile of a Smith contemporary, former Yankee reserve outfielder Jack Reed, “because these guys are part of the game’s tapestry and history that make it so special.”

When Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel skippered the calamitous Original Mets, he once told his barber, “Haircut, shave, and don’t cut my throat, I may want to do that myself.” Smith’s post-baseball success as a barber doesn’t change the fact that he and his fellow short-career pre-1980 players had their throats cut.

The players spurn the universal DH—for now

Marcell Ozuna is just one DH-type player in a tough 2020-21 market with the universal DH still off the table.

No, the Major League Baseball Players Association didn’t shoot themselves in the proverbial foot when they spurned the universal designated hitter this time. They want it, as should every rational baseball fan. But it’s wise to wish they’d spurned it for the best reason.

The owners were willing to let the universal DH remain permanent and not just a 2020 irregular season experiment—if the players would agree to permanently-expanded postseasons. How very big of them. The players told the owners to stuff that trade.

“Both the league and union seem to agree a universal DH is a good idea, in part because pitchers, if prevented from hitting, no longer could get injured swinging for a hit or running the bases,” observes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “But the league, viewing the creation of fifteen DH jobs as an economic gain for the players, wants a tradeoff. It initially suggested enacting the universal DH in exchange for the players agreeing to an expanded postseason for 2021, a concept the union rejected.”

The players know that further expanded postseasons equal further contracted competition for player signings and even trades. They know further expanded postseasons equal the next best thing to a de facto salary cap. They know further expanded postseasons equal more excuses for tanking.

So the players sacrificed something short distance that would mean a little more money in their pockets, in order to prevent something else that might take a lot more money out of players pockets long distance. Enough of the owners exposed themselves, yet again,  as refusing plain common baseball sense on behalf of continuing to make money for themselves regardless of their product’s viability.

Those owners are witless to comprehend the continuing dilution of championship play that postseasons already long expanded brought before last season’s dismal experiment of sixteen-team league postseason entries. How can we expect them to comprehend the value of the permanent universal designated hitter?

They might not be terribly impressed with arguing, well, forget the payroll question a moment and consider the play on the field. You know, the thing you’re selling in the first place. But the players and the game’s real fans should be.

This winter’s snail’s pace free agency market was a drag enough without a small but considerable group of men past their fielding prime but still loaded with hits in their bats augmenting it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s indecisiveness on consecrating the universal DH for all time helps leave those men in limbo and those owners’ teams bereft of fortified real offense.

With the permanent universal DH off the table for one more year at least, players such as Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, and Marcell Ozuna couldn’t draw a bead on their real market values this winter. Among other league-wide dilemmas, the Mets still have to juggle to keep both Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith in the lineup. As MLB Trade Rumors writer Steve Adams noted, “NL teams are left to build a lineup and a roster without knowing whether they’ll have a spot for an extra hitter.” They know now.

According to NBC Sports, six teams including three National League clubs have eyes on Ozuna. “[M]aybe one of the biggest reasons the Braves are balking on [trying to re-sign] Ozuna at the moment,” writes Jake Mastroianni of the FanSided journal Tomahawk Take, “is because his defense was even worse than they thought when they signed him last offseason.” Other NL clubs would feel a lot more comfortable adding him as a DH since Ozuna at best is a replacement-level defender.

The owners need less poison pills and more vision.

Never mind the American League teams playing this market slow enough when they’ve had the DH since the Nixon Administration. You’d think National League owners in need of more men on base or more men to drive in the runs would have stepped up and decided taking every chance to get more runs on the board than the other guys is worth ending the tradition one of their own ancestors wanted to end the year Carnegie Hall opened.

You’d think NL owners would be relieved at last not to have to risk their pitchers’ health on the rare occasions they reach base or their pitchers’ subsequent effectiveness in games during which they reach base, somehow. You’d think the money-conscious owners would want to preserve their seven-figure annual investments in good pitchers by enabling the rule that would let them sign still-useful veteran bats for half that much.

You’d also think those owners would be sick and tired at last of watching Jello bats hogging the number nine lineup slot to hit about .166 over the past century worth of Show baseball. Bad enough the so-called purists also continue whining about not just one of the nebulous sides of “tradition” but the nebulous side of preserving “strategy” that means keeping a batting order spot available for the most automatic out in baseball this side of Mario Mendoza.

Quick: Ask them how swiftly they’d sign a .166-hitting position player even if he could play the field like Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente. According to how many defensive runs saved above their league averages they were, those are the greatest fielders at all non-battery positions in baseball history. All but one of whom could hit a bit. A few of whom could hit a lot.

Want the answer? See you in about a hundred years, if that soon.

Belanger was the worst hitter among the foregoing group of defensive virtuosi. No questions asked. He had 22 intentional walks in his eighteen-season career and nineteen of them came when he batted eighth in the lineup. Guess I have to come right out and say it. Opponents didn’t hand him first base on the house because he was liable to hit a three-run homer and they’d rather have chanced lesser bats doing the clutch hitting.

They put Belanger on so they could rid themselves of the Jim Palmers, Mike Cuellars, Dave McNallys, and Pat Dobsons for side retired. In Year One B.D.H. (1972), that redoubtable Oriole starting rotation hit a death-defying .161 together and—for those who still think strikeouts are worse than hitting into double plays—struck out 151 times between them.

Palmer was the most consistent hitter of the group with a whopping .224 traditional batting average. Unless you’ve got that man who’s a human Electrolux in the field, or unless you’re a tanking masochist, you’re not going to sign .224 hitters for the rest of your batting order or bench any time soon if you can help it.

So why would you insist on keeping a group that hit .166 over the past century in that number nine slot? I say again: you want “strategy,” why wouldn’t you want that spot opened up for a possible second cleanup-type hitter or a possible extra leadoff-type hitter? It’s been tried before and, when you put the right bats in in those roles, it pays off handsomely enough.

I’d rather the players spurned a deal of the universal DH for permanent further expanded postseasons because the already-expanded postseason has already diluted real championship competition. Because they were sick at the sight of even an irregular season sending six second place teams, three third-place teams, one fourth-place team, and two teams with losing records to the championship rounds.

“[I]f the bar to reach the postseason is lowered, some clubs won’t feel as compelled to spend for an extra couple of wins to push themselves over the top,” Adams observes, appropriately. “The margin for error is much greater when nearly half (or even more than half) of the teams in the game qualify for postseason play than it is when only a third of clubs do. That’s especially true when at any given point, there are a handful of teams tanking and actively doing everything they can not to win games.”

Sometimes the players, too, have to remind themselves that the common good of the game is more than just making money for or in it. Maybe while negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement they’ll push for the universal DH for all the right reasons. While they’re at it, maybe they’ll tell the owners and Commissioner Nero not to even think about making it contingent upon what’s good for the owners but bad for baseball.

A Curt Flood Award? The first should go to Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

My first notice came when I saw San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser’s praise: “How wonderful! The [Major League Baseball Players Association] is instituting a Curt Flood Award for the Oakland native whose efforts helped bring about free agency and allow players to, eventually, be paid their worth on the open market. It will be handed out for the first time Thursday.”

I know who should receive the first Curt Flood Award, and I hope to God the Players Association thinks likewise. The first Flood Award ought to go to Andy Messersmith.

Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” he began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood fired his gun from the same city in which a certain former slave proclaimed that living now on free soil made him thus a free man.

Small wonder that George F. Will would nickname Flood Dred Scott in Spikes. “[Scott] was not the last time,” Will wrote in 1993, “that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property . . . Six years later—too late to benefit him—[Flood’s] cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.”

Flood’s was the groundbreaker that didn’t quite make it. But the graceful center fielder kicked a door open just wide enough for further pressure. Catfish Hunter kicked it a little further open in 1974, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hunter was thus awarded his free agency.

The Hunter case didn’t challenge the reserve clause itself. The bidding war to follow for his services was won by the team who actually offered him the third-highest dollar-worth amount among the suitors but the division of the dollars Hunter wanted most, including an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. But it shone a light his fellow players had only suspected might reveal platinum on a fair, open job market.

The official name of the case to come would be John A. Messersmith vs. Los Angeles Dodgers. (Messersmith preferred to be known as Andy, though his middle name was actually Alexander.) The official net result of his almost unexpected 1975 challenge was to finish what Flood began. Almost unexpected?

Messersmith first emerged as a California Angels comer with a bristling fastball, a deadly changeup, a 2.77 ERA, a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, and an upbeat personality that didn’t mind crossing the line to periodic flakiness. The Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 1972, in a multi-player swap that made a somewhat temporary Angel out of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

He was just as good and stubborn on the mound with the Dodgers, finishing fifth in the 1973 National League ERA race (2.70), then becoming one of the league’s two 20-game winners with a 2.59 ERA in 1974 for a pennant-winning Dodgers aggregation. He also finished second to his relief pitching teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting.

“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever managed,” said his manager, Walter Alston, before that World Series. “He can do it all. He can pitch, field his position, has a good move to first . . . Andy is the kind of guy who wants the baseball. He wants to pitch and that’s why I put him up there with the other great pitchers I’ve had the good fortune to manage.”

Andy was also the kind of guy who proved to be just as stubborn talking contract as getting hitters out. He reported unsigned to spring training 1975, the original issue being not whether he’d get a well-earned raise from the $100,000 he earned in 1974 but how much of a raise. Then, according to Wall Street Journal writer John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm: The Real History of Baseball, the Dodgers’ then-general manager, Al Campanis, screwed the proverbial pooch:

As they sat in [Campanis’s] Vero Beach office . . . Campanis infuriated the pitcher. Quite apart from how well the pitcher had performed, quite apart from how much the Dodgers could allegedly afford, he injected a deeply “personal issue.” (Even eighteen years later, the matter cut so deep with Messersmith he wouldn’t elaborate on it.”)

Two things happened. One, Messersmith severed talks with the GM. “This is way out of the boundaries of negotiations; this is something else,” he told Campanis. “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” He insisted on shifting the talks to Peter O’Malley, the club’s president. The other thing to emerge was a new non-monetary demand. No way, Messersmith decided, would he let Al Campanis be in a position to dictate his career. He’d already had to change teams once when he crossed his first GM, the Angels’ Dick Walsh. Now he wanted a no-trade clause in his contract. “I’m going to have some control of my destiny,” declared Messersmith.

O’Malley was more to Messersmith’s taste but no more amenable to a no-trade clause. “We’ve never given one,” he said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

So Messersmith refused to sign a new contract and pitched 1975 without one. “At the start,” he’d say later, “it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” The National League’s hitters got a not-so-friendly reminder. Messersmith led the league with forty starts and seven shutouts, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA, and the hitters only hit .213 against him.

“Every time he took the ball,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed. He was doing it for us all.”

By August, however, Messersmith found himself pitching for something above and beyond the need to stuff Al Campanis. The union’s original executive director, Marvin Miller, called him. By that time baseball had only one unsigned player on active duty—Messersmith himself. Miller wanted to know if Messersmith would consider filing a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

The Dodgers didn’t make it simple for him. Neither did the near-constant questions from sportswriters Helyar summed up as, “So how ’bout that contract, Andy?” They kept hiking the money the longer and the better Messersmith pitched. Come September, Helyar noted, the offer was three years and $540,000 total. But the offer still excluded the no-trade clause that was Messersmith’s most unbreakable demand.

“We had no intention of trading Andy Messersmith,” O’Malley insisted. “He was a quality individual, a quality performer, and a delight to have on the team.” Messersmith took one look at Campanis still in the front office and decided there was no dollar amount able to buy him off.

“When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant,” Helyar quoted Messersmith remembering. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and [union general counsel] Dick [Moss]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Miller’s only concurrent worry was whether the incredible money would back Messersmith off the grievance track. The union director thus enlisted pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but contemplating retirement following persistent arm soreness. McNally agreed join a grievance. Messersmith had no intention of backing away from it. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I need to see this through.”

There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere. I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse … this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

When the hearings in the case finally took place before arbitrator Peter Seitz, Messersmith stood his ground. And the earth moved under his feet.

After first flattening Kuhn—especially the commissioner’s staggering bid to claim that the end of the reserve clause would mean corrupted or thrown games—Moss delivered a knockout punch with the least likely glove: Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, courtesy of a Minneapolis Star story from March 1974: “If [a player] doesn’t sign by March 10, I can invoke the option clause. If I do that, I can cut him as much as I want up to 20 percent. Of course, he would then be playing out his option. At the end of the season he would be a free agent.”

In other words, for decades the owners used the strict language of uniform players contract Section 10(A) unlawfully, agreeing among themselves not to sign players who refused their incubment teams’ offers. Seitz, who preferred (and indeed all but begged) that the owners and the players negotiate and settle themselves, was left no choice after the owners’ Player Relations Committee leader John Gaherin told him, “There’s no change in our position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank. Miller signed “assent” and Gaherin signed “dissent” on the document aboard which Seitz ruled in favour of Messersmith. (And McNally, though it was understood if often forgotten that the former Baltimore Orioles standout had signed onto the case strictly as a human insurance policy.) Gaherin promptly and almost apologetically handed Seitz a letter firing him as baseball’s arbitrator.

“Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons said. “[Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It’s what showed a new life.”

It would also have been nice and in the spirit of Flood and Messersmith if the union had thought concurrently to finish what former executive director Michael Weiner began in 2011, and bring complete and final pension redress to what remain 600 plus short-career major league players frozen out of the 1980 pension re-alignment.

Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig made possible their current stipend of $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The bad news: those players can’t pass the stipend on to their families should they pass on before the stipend ends. They also can’t be part of the players’ medical plan. Miller himself is known to have said that failing to review and revamp that 1980 pension realignment while he led the union was his biggest regret.

But if there’s a better inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Award than the man who finished what Flood began, I’m unaware of him. Baseball players since have known what they owe Flood. They don’t always remember what they owe Messersmith, too. Giving him the first Flood Award would remind them powerfully.

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.

 

Having a wild Wednesday

2020-06-18 NationalsPark

Nationals Park.

What a Wednesday. It only began when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted, “Breaking: MLB and players union are closing in on an agreement to play the 2020 season, via players. Deal expected to be for prorated pay and include expanded playoffs.”

Heyman kicked off what was possibly baseball’s most exciting day since the Washington Nationals shook, rattled, and rolled their way to winning Game Seven of last year’s World Series.

The difference is that the excitement had nothing to do with a gutsy pitching performance, or one manager having to hook a bold starting pitcher whose tank reached empty after surrendering a two-run homer, or another manager calling for a play review so his next pitcher might have a little more warmup time, or the first manager’s best relief option being reached for a foul-pole ringing, coffin-forming home run.

It had to do with baseball itself being exhausted of the unconscionable standoff between owners to whom the good of the game means making or saving money for it and players who don’t like people trying to renege on agreements but whose itch to play the game can be ignored for only so long before they have to scratch it.

On Tuesday came the word that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark met up and talked. Come Wednesday, once Heyman hit the merry-go-round switch the horsies galloped almost all over the place.

Some said the deal might be a 66-game season with a postseason expansion from ten to sixteen teams. Others said a 60-game season. Jayson Stark of The Athletic tweeted get your kicks on route 66: “12 games each vs 4 division opponents. 3 games each vs 4 interleague opponents. 6 games (home and home) vs interleague rival.”

Halt right there, tweeted NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra: “16 playoff teams is a joke. As it is I have made a mental distinction between the season and the postseason, considering them different things but if they go to 16 the season starts hurtling toward meaninglessness.

Slow down, returned Stark, who ran down a quick list of teams who’d have made last year’s postseason in a 60-game season for a sixteen-team field: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Colorado Rockies in the National League; the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Oakland Athletics.

You may have noticed, as Stark couldn’t resist noticing, that among the missing in that scenario would have been 2019’s world champion Nats.

Then came the first chink in the chain pulling the merry-go-round in its circles, from Heyman’s fellow MLB Insider scribe Robert Murray: “Two sources with direct knowledge do not expect Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to the MLBPA to get a deal done. If a deal will be agreed upon, as [ESPN’s] @JeffPassan said, it needs to be for more than 60 games.”

Around 5 p.m. Pacific time USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale elucidated on the new proposal also including a universal designated hitter for this year and next. Shortly before that, former major league general manager Jim Bowden noted a likely deal would mean both the owners and the players foregoing grievances-to-be.

Then Heyman weighed in again, around 5:20 PDT: “The framework of the deal between Manfred and union chief Clark included: 60 games at 100% full prorated pay, waiver of grievances, 16-team expanded playoffs for 2 years, universal DH, more. Owner sources say it was agreed to pending constituency approval, meaning owners, players

Two hours and ten minutes later, Murray slipped another chink into the merry-go-round’s motor chain: “People familiar with players’ thinking believe that they are seeking more games because they don’t feel a 60-game season is worth losing their right to file a grievance. ‘The ability to file a grievance,’ one agent said, ‘is almost worth letting the owners cancel the season’.”

What seems still to be another key is that the players don’t want a too-short season and a too-convoluted postseason but, as Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal posited, they may be willing to settle for 65 games. May. For a nation starved for major league baseball that may yet prove as good as major medical relief. May.

A day earlier, Yankee president Randy Levine, a man not necessarily renowned as a moderate among baseball administrators, struck another bull’s eye when he isolated one key issue other than dollars tied to that March agreement: “From what I’ve discovered, the holdup is not about the number of games or money at this time,” he said.

The holdup, as I understand it, is about resolving the other items in the March 26 agreement. They include final agreement on all of the health and safety protocols, deciding what happens if a season is interrupted by a second wave of the virus, which players can opt out and under what circumstances can they, and a host of issues like that.

Exactly. The owners often behave as though they forget it won’t be them at risk if baseball returns while the coronavirus’s world tour continues. The players—you know, the ones the fans pay to see play—will be at risk. So will fans once they’re allowed to return to the ballparks. So will the stadium workers, from the concession stand workers and hawkers in the stands to the grounds crews, stadium maintenance, and scoreboard personnel.

The owners also behave as though getting into baseball is a guaranteed financial bath. As though Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t buy the White Sox for $100 million in 1981 but has a team now worth $1.7 billion. As though David Glass—who’d helped Reinsdorf push for the 1994-95 strike—hadn’t bought the Kansas City Royals outright for $96 million in 2000 (he’d been the team president up to that point) and sold them for $1 billion last year. To name two.

Small wonder the players don’t want to surrender their right to a grievance without a battle, and small wonder the owners want them to agree to such a surrender.

So perhaps when all was said and done on Wednesday’s merry-go-round, the best news was the likelihood of the universal DH for this year and next. Unless there’s a codicil somewhere that isn’t yet known, bank on the universal DH remaining universal. At long enough last, the National League will have what a slightly pre-20th century Pittsburgh Pirates owner first proposed for sound reasons and last year’s collective pitchers’ batting average (.125) justifies: the end of a wasted lineup slot and too many rallies aborted in the womb.

There may be a deal to get a 2020 season, any 2020 season, played yet. Maybe by the end of this week, maybe by the end of the coming weekend. But while we’re at it, there is a suggestion we might make to the players who have, otherwise, done a better job than normal of making Joe and Jane Fan understand just who’s done the most to try hustling them.

The MLBPA’s Player’s Trust has committed $1 million to minor league players whose leagues may not play this year because of the coronavirus’s not-so-grand world tour. Yet there remain a little over six hundred former major league players who played before 1980 whose careers were short for assorted reasons—and who were frozen out of a pension plan re-alignment that year which gave full pensions to players with 43 days major league service and full health benefits upon one day’s MLB service.

Longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller eventually said that not revisiting that mistake was his biggest regret. His successor once removed, Michael Weiner, collaborated with Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig in getting those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service.

It was a beginning, but there were two problems. One is that the players in question can’t pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths. The other is that the ill-fated Weiner—who loved baseball deeply, left no doubt about it, and earned a reputation for reasonableness even in his hardest negotiatings—died of brain cancer before he could have the chance to think about pressing the matter further.

Others have tried prodding Clark toward giving those pre-1980 short-career players a second look and building upon what Weiner and Selig began. Himself a former longtime first baseman, Clark has disinclined thus far. Even when New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden acknowledged, by way of a source inside the MLB apparatus, that Clark “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Legally, neither MLB nor the players’ union is obliged to send another dollar their way. (Neither, for that matter, is the separate Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, likewise disinclined, especially after forcing three of the 600 plus—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman Eddie Robinson—off its pension services committee.) Morally is something else entirely, when you remember that those 600+ players were Players Association members who stood with their fellows during the moves and pickets that pushed open the door toward free agency and all its riches.

If the Players Trust can send drydocked minor leaguers $1 million for openers, surely the MLBPA can find a way to do further right by those 600 plus who were frozen mistakenly out of the 1980 pension realignment. Assorted current players sort-of strong-armed their teams into taking better care of their drydocked minor leaguers. Such players might want to think about their wrongly frozen-out major league predecessors a little more.

Even a commitment to revisit and readjust the pension plan for those pre-1980 short-career players when the Show gets back into business would be a serious step toward resolving Miller’s regret and finishing what Weiner and Selig started.