Commissioner Nero fiddles while MLB burns

2020-07-28 MarlinsPark

Marlins Park, which won’t host the Marlins vs. the Baltimore Orioles for a second day in a row after the Fish were flogged with COVID-19.

A month and a half ago, I wrote that Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred had to go. The grounds already were several. Now, you can add that Manfred won’t even think about closing the Show for the season unless the coronavirus infects enough players on a team to rule it out of competitiveness.

Just when you thought you’d seen and heard everything from Manfred, the spectre of several Miami Marlins COVID-19 positive, of the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouses infected, and of games cancelled over positive tests, prompted this commissioner to put the competition ahead of health and safety.

MLB Network interviewer Tom Verducci, who normally writes for Sports Illustrated, asked Manfred just what it would take to close the Show, whose early performances have already run the gamut from farce to foolery and back under several Manfred-pushed rules experiments.

Those weren’t what the interviewer addressed, though. The issue was COVID-19 outbreaks among one team at minimum. Forget dropping the ball. Manfred threw it from the mound over the outfield wall. It only began with the commissioner saying the Marlins’ outbreak wasn’t “a nightmare,” before four more Marlins tested positive, raising the total number to seventeen—fifteen of whom are players.

“A team losing a number of players, making it completely noncompetitive, would be something we would have to address and have to think about making a change,” he said. “Our first concern is the health of the players and their families. And making sure we do everything possible to minimize the spread of the virus to our employees.”

Do you really need me to suggest that Manfred spoke out of both sides of his mouth while making clear enough that a team rendered futile on the field took even a slight priority over that “first concern” about player health and that of their families?

The Marlins outbreak, which may or may not have been seeded in Miami, prompted the Phillies to test en masse on Monday, while the same day’s scheduled Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles was cancelled, as was the Phillies’ scheduled game against the New York Yankees. Tuesday morning came word that the tested Phillies tested negative. Their Tuesday game against the Yankees is postponed anyway. So is the second scheduled game between the Marlins and the Orioles.

Four of the Marlins’ infected were pulled away before the Sunday game against the Phillies, including scheduled starting pitcher Jose Urena. Manfred could and should have stepped in to cancel it if the Marlins’ administration didn’t. He didn’t, either. Indeed, that the game got played not after a call from competent medical and health observation but in a group text-message vote.

Last Friday, around the time the Fish began to flail, and two Atlanta Braves catchers were sent home showing symptoms but testing COVID-19 negative, Thomas Boswell fumed over the sense that Manfred already put the coffers of his bosses, the owners, ahead of the good of the game with his gimmicks such as a sixteen-team postseason, a free man on second to open each extra half-inning, and a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers.

Concurrently, though, Boswell hammered Manfred’s apparent lacking when it comes to his sport’s taking the pestiferous pandemic seriously enough to be the adult in the room when need be.

“You don’t measure disaster for a country — with refrigerator trucks lined up with corpses — the same way you measure it for a pro sport,” he wrote. “But how do you measure it for a sport? I don’t know . . . League bosses, who are not at risk, and athletes, who think they are invulnerable, are both going to be tempted — to keep playing chicken with the virus until it makes them stop.

“As most of the world already knows, by then it is usually disastrously too late.”

Manfred chose the media platform MLB itself owns to say he’d close the Show first and foremost if any team loses enough players to leave it non-competitive. (Resist the temptation to remind him of a pre-existing condition, Marlins fans.) He put that ahead of “our first concern” of the health and safety of players, their loved ones, and other MLB team employees.

A certain American president of dubious repute is often seen and even heard believing the coronavirus world tour has been nothing more (and nothing less) than a plot cooked up somewhere, anywhere, to thwart his re-election campaign. Now a baseball commissioner of dubious repute can be seen as possibly believing the pandemic has been a plot cooked up to keep the owners from making money.

Dave Martinez, the manager of the defending world champion Washington Nationals, looked upon the Marlins outbreak and shivered. “I’m going to be honest with you, I’m scared. I really am,” Martinez told Washington’s ABC news affiliate.

I go from here, home, back here every day, that’s all I do. I wash my hands, I went from 47 times a day to probably 99 times a day. Wear my mask everywhere I go. But there’s always that concern, you know. You don’t know, because of my heart condition, what happens to me if I do get it. I have to be extra careful. With that said, sometimes I tend to put myself aside and worry about other people more than me. I think that’s why I’m here, because I worry about those guys before I put myself first.

Martinez’s Nats were scheduled to travel to Miami to play the Marlins this coming weekend. “He says the players are his family, and he’s already lost a lot of sleep this month,” tweeted the Washington Post‘s Nats beat writer, Jesse Dougherty. “When asked about whether he has doubts about going to MIA this weekend: “Hopefully they make the right decision. That’s all I’m going to say.”

And, from among the players who opted out of playing this season over the pandemic, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price is probably more secure in believing he did the right thing. Especially considering baseball’s health and safety protocols have had issues and hiccups tracing back to the beginning of that delayed spring training called “summer camp.”

Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” the lefthander tweeted after the Marlins news exploded Monday. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”

That and more is what the commissioner says isn’t “a nightmare.”

Manfred and only too many within and without MLB thought any COVID-19 hits would strike maybe one, two, three players or MLB employees in just a sixty-game season. “Time to blow up that assumption,” Boswell wrote this morning.

If half of the Marlins team can test positive within a few days, then the scale of danger to health — the number of people who may get sick and the severity of the damage they may suffer, including prime-of-life pro athletes — just shot through the ceiling.

Our assumptions, while well-intentioned, have been blown to pieces. And in short order, so will the season of one, or perhaps several, of our sports.

So has been Manfred’s reputation, what’s left of it. The commissioner showed what kind of leader he was operationally, factually, and even morally before the coronavirus went on world tour. It wasn’t a great showing.

He’s never been able to bring himself to address complete umpire accountability. He slapped the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox on the wrists over illegal dugout phone and AppleWatch sign-stealing cheating in 2017 and handed down a nebulous directive rather than demand an immediate rule book change and clarification.

He let Red Sox and Houston Astros players walk in return for information rather than bring the powers of his office to bear on them over their off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing cheatings. He suspended two managers for this year (Carlos Beltran, a 2017 Astros player, was forced out of managing the New York Mets before he managed even a spring training game for them) but never even thought of holding the teams’ ownerships to real account.

The cheating players skated, their owners paid what amounted to tip money (for them) in fines, their fan bases were forced (sometimes kicking and screaming) to come to terms with chicanery that compromised each’s recent World Series titles, and Manfred dismissed the World Series championship trophy—which many thought should be stripped from both the Astros (2017) and the Red Sox (2018)—as just a hunk of metal.

He never quite suggested he might be interested in investigating whether the Astros and the Red Sox might be right in suggesting they weren’t exactly the only ones willing to flout rules against off-field-based electronic sign-stealing, either.

Nor did he demand the Yankees explain why they’re so desperate to challenge a judge’s ruling that a disciplinary letter over their 2017 sign-stealing cheating be made public, either, or said anything else about the letter itself. “[I]f the infractions cited by Manfred [in the letter] were as minor as originally claimed,” asked Beyond the Box Score writer Sheryl Ring in mid-June, “why are the Yankees so reticent to turn the letter over?”

Don’t forget Manfred’s push on behalf of his bosses, the un-impoverished owners, to try reneging on that March agreement and gaming the players out of their full pro-rated 2020 salaries if and when the season got underway.

Now that COVID-19 has taken out about half the Marlins’ playing team, Manfred is slightly more concerned for teams’ competitive ability—which can also be viewed as making money for the owners—than their health?

Here’s something on which the owners and the players might unite if put to them properly. Manfred’s successor, and every commissioner to follow, should be anyone except another owner, his hand-picked successor, or other baseball official. The successors should also be elected by representatives of all ownerships and by the players through their team player reps.

But I’m convinced even more that Manfred must go. Commissioner Nero’s been fiddling while MLB and the country that loves it burn. His music is cacophonous.

Be prepared for Show over

2020-07-27 MiamiMarlins

The Marlins players—not team management, not health/safety experts—elected to play Sunday despite COVID-19 already hitting some of them. Now eleven players at least plus two coaches are COVID-19 positive. Where were the adults in the room?

MLB and the players’ union,” tweeted ESPN’s Buster Olney early Monday morning, “made the mutual decision to try to play a season this year, and those two entities share the ethical responsibility of pausing, postponing or cancelling if that’s what is in the best interests of players and staffers. The Marlins’ situation tests this.”

The Miami Marlins’ situation is that fourteen people with the team, mostly players but a few coaches, tested COVID-19 positive while the Fish opened the truncated regular season in Philadelphia. Including their scheduled Sunday starter against the Phillies, Jose Urena. The team has postponed at least their Monday home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

A series postponement may not be unlikely. Which might disappoint the Orioles purely on baseball terms, having just accomplished the unlikely feat of beating the Boston Red Sox two straight (7-4, 7-2) on opening weekend, after getting their brains beaten in 13-2 to open the set.

Exactly where the Marlins so affected caught the infections is still, pardon the expression, up in the air. They played an exhibition against the Braves in Atlanta the day before the regular season finally began, and the infected players and coaches could have been hit either in the Truist Park clubhouse or in the Citizens Bank Park clubhouse.

The New York Yankees were supposed to open in Philadelphia Monday night and station themselves in the same visitors clubhouse the Marlins just vacated. Says ESPN, “Sources told . . . Marly Rivera that the Yankees have been informed that the visitors’ clubhouse has been completely fumigated several times. The Yankees also brought their own clubhouse personnel down from New York City to work the game, if it happens. No decisions have been made yet, sources said.”

That was early Monday morning; now as I write it’s later Monday morning. A season postponement? It may happen. Major League Baseball convened an “emergency meeting” Monday in the wake of the Marlins’ situation. The Yankees-Phillies game for Monday is postponed, too. And, yes, this is getting quite out of hand.

But a season postponement may not happen yet, either. USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reports, “There will be additional priority testing for teams who have an outbreak, MLB officials say, but no serious talks as of yet cancelling or pausing the season. In the words of one owner on the conference call: ‘Obviously, the situation is fluid’.”

How brave and bold of them.

With the coronavirus world tour still playing and only too many people still treating it from somewhere between carelessness and ignorance, getting a major league baseball season going from any point this summer was going to be tricky enough. We knew that right out of the proverbial chute, when young Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested COVID-19 positive on Opening Day, though he’s asymptomatic just yet.

For all the fun and folly accompanying the season’s long-delayed opening, it’s no kind of fun when fourteen Marlins test positive over opening weekend. That followed two Braves sent home after testing positive but no symptoms showing yet.

When the Nats hosted the Yankees to open the delayed season, there was commissioner Rob Manfred sitting on national television talking more about . . . his sixteen-team postseason array. The designated hitter wasn’t even a millionth of the gimmick that idea is. It only begins with removing more than half the urgency of a regular season whose competitive urgency was already diluted by its wild card system.

Sure we’ve loved it when wild-card winners turn up the last team standing with the World Series trophy hoisted high. Including the Nationals, who did it last October after a staggering regular-season comeback. But we’re not fools. We know damn well that the wild card system has equaled asking fans to sit on edge over the thrills, spills, and chills of teams fighting to the last breath for . . . second place.

Manfred and his Major League Baseball Players Association counterpart Tony Clark have a genuine burden on their hands trying to navigate the sport through a terrible pandemic that’s yanked their country and half the world over, under, sideways, down. And the big thing for Manfred opening was a postseason array that might, maybe, probably see the sport’s best teams knocked out early and often.

“If Manfred’s judgment is this bad or if he is this pliant to the money lust of his bosses,” fumed the Washington Post‘s most valuable player, Thomas Boswell, “then what chance is there that he will have the backbone or the leadership skills to shut down this season if needed?”

Backbone? Leadership skills? Like the New York Police Department brass who sooner sent a few flunky cops to trial rather than root out the bottom-top corruption it took Frank Serpico and David Durk going to The New York Times to even try rooting it out, Manfred didn’t have the backbone to bring the powers of his office to bear and drop real hammers against the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox over their caught-red-handed, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing cheatings.

Manfred slapped three managers and a general manager—whose teams executed them without Manfred—but the owners allowing it on their watches and the players availing themselves of it got away with it. You think that’s the Manfred who’s going to have the backbone to stop the season if the viral infections metastasise among the troops?

At his bosses’ behest, Manfred forced Clark and his charges to fight a ridiculous-sounding counter-battle against the owners using the coronavirus tour’s shutdown of spring training and the regular regular season to shove a de facto salary cap for the season down the players’ throats. That’s Manfred’s idea of backbone.

“The scary core of MLB’s predicament — and soon the NBA’s and NHL’s, too — is: Playing our sport is what we do, who we are and how we make our money,” Boswell wrote. “We’re going to try to do it until the virus stops us.”

From all over the world we’re learning the lesson that this is a terrible basic assumption. You get ahead of this virus before it even looks like a problem, or it ends up crushing you. South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany, with a combined population of 325 million (the United States has 330 million) had 15 deaths Thursday. Arizona, with 7.2 million, had 89 dead.

You don’t measure disaster for a country — with refrigerator trucks lined up with corpses — the same way you measure it for a pro sport. But how do you measure it for a sport? I don’t know . . . League bosses, who are not at risk, and athletes, who think they are invulnerable, are both going to be tempted — to keep playing chicken with the virus until it makes them stop.

As most of the world already knows, by then it is usually disastrously too late.

You saw it yourself watching the games that finally arrived. Enough players, coaches, managers were playing chicken. Please. There’ve been how many ballplayers who played through injuries, “manning up,” earning their praises, and ultimately hurting their teams because they were fool enough to play through injuries? What’s trying to play unmasked and unsafe through a pestiferous pandemic, then? Supermanning up?

That was before the depth of the Marlins’ infections emerged. And now emerges, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, that deciding to play Sunday’s game in Philadelphia wasn’t decided by MLB, by Marlins team leadership, by the union, by health and safety experts, but by . . . Marlins players, by way of a group text message. Fish playing chicken. Bet the Phillies clucked, too, if not necessarily with unanimous approval.

I admit it. It was easy enough to bask in the Show’s return and either forget or keep as an aside the risk that the coronavirus would have innings enough to play among the games and the teams. Even while some of the worst ramifications of baseball’s gimmicky 2020 season experiments—the free runners on second to start each extra half-inning; the three-batter minimum for relief pitching appearances—delivered things uncomfortably between the rock of disaster and the hard place of farce.

Taking a few small but profound safety precautions doesn’t exactly mean the end of the world as we know it. No matter how many would-be God, Juniors in government from the top down really do want to use it as cover for their next nefarious real attacks on what remains of our freedom.

What a country. We were the “can-do” people for so many generations. When somebody told Ben Franklin to go fly a kite, Ol’ Ben said, “Hell, yes. Who cares if it looks like rain?” And lightning struck.

We gave the world the lightning rod, swivel chairs, automatic flour mills, suspension bridges, fire hydrants, compression refrigeration, coffee percolators, circular saws, dental floss, lathes, doorbells, lock-stitch sewing machines, combine harvesters, solar compasses, Morse code, circuit breakers, sleeping cars, ice cream makers, rotary printing presses, jackhammers, safety pins, dishwashers, fire alarm boxes, elevator brakes, burglar alarms, breast pumps, and submarines.

We gave it condensed milk, light bulbs, mass-produced toilet paper, electric stoves, escalators, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, refrigerator cars, air brakes, fire sprinklers, mimeographs, synthesisers, air brushes, phonographs, cash registers, metal detectors, electric irons, electric fans, thermostats, photo film, electric mixers, fuel pumps, stop signs, smoke detectors, and zippers.

We gave it medical/surgical gloves, mufflers, remote control, batteries, the assembly line, hearing aids, air conditioning, offset printing, the powered airplane, automatic transmission, traffic lights, toggle light switches, hydraulic brakes, toasters, polygraphs, garage doors, radio arm saws, audiometers, instant cameras, electric razors, freon, sunglasses, car audio, electric guitars, bug zappers, and the Richter scale.

We gave it programming languages, fluorescent lamps, digital computers, fiberglas, xerography, Teflon, deodorant, cruise control, microwave ovens, space observatories, Tupperware, credit cards, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cable television, and correction fluid, a.k.a. Liquid Paper. (Hey, hey, she was a Monkee’s mother!)

We gave it bar codes, the artificial heart, voltmeters, lasers, LEDs, weather satellites, jumbo jets, personal computers, microprocessors, e-mail, cell phones, the Heimlich maneuver, digital cameras, ethernet, stealth aircraft, and the Internet.

For openers.

We fought and beat dreaded diseases past, and we made a few of them extinct while we were at it. We also fought and won a couple of world wars and finally defeated the most ruthless and bloody tyranny ever to rule anywhere on earth. We also invented baseball as the world’s known it roughly since the year before one of us invented pressure tape.

You’re telling me that the “can-do” people are now the “don’t-even-think-about-it” people? You’re telling me the people who invented all the above now consecrate and abet leadership and neighbourly luddism that tries to rule us without knowing a coronavirus from a computer virus?

All of a sudden it looks easier for the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres to think about winning a World Series than it did for us to beat smallpox and polio. (You don’t want to know the bureaucratic loop-de-loops Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk would be put through today to get their vaccines to, you know, the people who need them.)

God forgive me, it was too easy to get lost in the thought that the Show was really back no matter what. Even with the piped-in crowd noise. Even with the cockamamie-looking empty ballparks other than cardboard cutouts of humans and other living creatures. It was even easier to laugh our fool heads off when Adam Duvall’s home run Saturday bopped the cutout of Jeff McNeil’s Alaskan malamute puppy right in the snoot.

Well, it was just as easy to anticipate the return and itch for major league ball no matter the lingering risks. It’s not so easy or funny anymore. As much as I might enjoy the games themselves, for all the gimmickry and all, I’d rather wait till next year than continue the risk that more than just a school of Marlins have to fight the damn virus.

Mr. Manfred, Mr. Clark, show some real backbone and be ready to just say no to the rest of the season. To pay the players their pro-rated 2020 salaries, thank them for giving it the old college try, and call it sick pay. Then—assuming more of them haven’t tested positive in the interim—to send them home to safety and their loved ones.

Don’t even think about how the owners can’t possibly afford it. Everyone from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the smoggy shores of California knows that’s only slightly less of a lie than anything out of a politician’s mouth.

We went almost four months without the Show. If we have to, we’ll survive without it the rest of the year. Because too many people still aren’t wising up and living safe just yet, and too many leaders are still using it as an excuse to play Gods, Jr. And, from the early look of it, too many players, coaches, and managers still do think or act as though they’re invulnerable.

In more than one way, the Marlins just told baseball world otherwise. “[H]ere we have it,” writes a rueful Stephanie Apstein for Sports Illustrated, “the least surprising possible outcome of MLB’s decision to fly some 1,500 people around the country, from one coronavirus hotspot to another, buttressed by a hope and a prayer and instructions not to spit, in service of playing baseball: They have to stop playing baseball.”

We have to have adults in the room. Now.

Oh, say, can’t you see?

Giants Anthem Baseball

“I see nothing more patriotic than peaceful protests when things are frustrating and upsetting,” says San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler about some of his players and coaches kneeling before a Tuesday exhibition game while facing the flag for the national anthem.

When I was a boy growing up in a Reform Jewish family, the prayers spoken in temple on Shabbat included one that translated thus: “Unto Thee alone every knee must bend and every tongue give homage.” In that context, to kneel is to humble oneself before a greater power, as indeed do church congregations around the world.

Two Scientific American writers, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner (whose surname is also that of the infielder who helped stop Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), once observed that first-glance research indicated “nothing threatening about kneeling.”

Instead, kneeling is almost always deployed as a sign of deference and respect. We once kneeled before kings and queens and altars; we kneel to ask someone to marry, or at least men did in the old days. We kneel to get down to a child’s level; we kneel to beg.

While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference . . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.

But kneeling during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a sports event became a trigger of outrage when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did so in a gesture of protest against real police killings of real, unarmed African-American men.

The kneel before the anthem has revived in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. It still is the kind of trigger that got Kaepernick into hot water, most recently when several San Francisco Giants including their manager did so before an exhibition game. “I see nothing more patriotic,” said Gabe Kapler to reporters, “than peaceful protests when things are frustrating and upsetting.”

During the initial outrage, a fire onto which a certain president poured gasoline by demanding publicly the firing of Kaepernick and anyone else of similar mind and gesture, it seemed too simple to see the gesture as equivalent to grinding the American flag under the heel.

Smith and Keltner noticed something to which nobody else paid much mind if at all: “[W]ith a single, graceful act, Kaepernick invested it with a double meaning. He didn’t turn his back as the anthem was played, which would have been a true sign of disrespect. Nor did he rely on the now-conventionalized black-power fist.”

The fist first raised in tandem by Olympic gold medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games, even as both men kept their heads bowed on the medal podium. And a thought is provoked: Would those screaming bloody murder over a knee taken during “The Star Spangled Banner” prefer the raised clenched fist as a protest? A flag burning on the field? A riot, with or without looting and plundering included?

Of course they wouldn’t. Neither would you. Neither would I. We should acknowledge  that the Giants didn’t turn their backs as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, either. Neither did Joey Votto and several fellow kneeling Cincinnati Reds teammates before an exhibition against the Detroit Tigers. It’s not impossible to consider that a gesture of quiet protest before the anthem and the flag is not the exactly same thing as a protest against the anthem or the flag.

You’re not required to subscribe to every last clause of the social-justice-warrior’s indictments to concur that rogue police attacking if not killing black people is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave is supposed to acknowledge or support. But you’re not out of line, either, if you want to say that perhaps the time is long enough due to re-consider whether playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every last sporting event everywhere renders it meaningless.

“By choosing to make standing for the anthem a matter of coercion rather than a voluntary act of patriotism,” wrote John Hirschauer of The Daily Wire—a conservative news and opinion Website at that time, “it (quite wrongly) suggests that (sports) executives and the kneeling movement’s many malcontents in the country are unable to provide a coherent reason why America is worth honoring in spite of its flaws. Worse, it furthers the very narrative that drives protests like Kaepernick: The established authorities are afraid of the message they bear, and it is the established authorities’ ill-reception of this message that perpetuates the ‘systemic racism’ that threatens the lives of black men in America.”

“Saying that simply kneeling for the national anthem is so offensive that it must be confined to the locker room or banned outright,” wrote Robby Soave of Reason around the same time, “reflects the same hypersensitivity that plagues the social justice left.”

I don’t write all this lightly. I’m an Air Force veteran and the paternal grandson of a New York police officer who would have been appalled at rogue cops doing murder. I’m only too well versed in the knowledge that there are and have been countries too abundant where citizen patriotism is coerced upon the merest occasion and to the point of promising death to those who resist the coercion.

And I continue to wonder as I wondered originally: What’s the big deal? Why on earth does the national anthem need to be played before every game, match, race in creation? Doesn’t that really render the anthem meaningless? If we can (should) agree patriotism properly defined must come from the heart and not from external pressure, what should be done in this instance? My answer is the same as two years ago at first, and last year in the revisiting.

Stop playing the anthem before every last event every time.

Save it for the games, races, matches that coincide with genuine national holidays such as (thinking from today forward) Labour Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July.

Save it, too, for the truly significant games, races, matches: Opening Day games, the Super Bowl, Game One of the NBA Finals, the WNBA Finals, Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals (assuming they begin in the American team’s arena), the Indianapolis and Daytona 500 races, the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes (if the race will indeed crown a Triple Crown winner), Day One of the Masters Tournament, each sports league’s All-Star Game, the MLS Cup Championship Game (Major League Soccer), Games One and (if there is one, as last year) Seven of the World Series.

If nothing else, you’ll have far fewer times to trouble yourself over players kneeling during the anthem’s playing for this or that protest. You’d also remove a sufficient coercive weight from the patriotic impulse that now makes the anthem too much a matter of habit and not enough a parcel of the heart.

As major league baseball’s coronavirus-delayed Opening Day is about to begin as I write, be reminded gently that, before you fume, froth, or flame over any players in tonight’s games taking a knee as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays, they could exercise far, far more destructive ways to protest a wrong or make a point against it. As too many among us do.


You don’t have to be a Houston Astros fan to appreciate a few of Minute Maid Park’s charms and quirks. (Perhaps an Astro fan will tell me how good Torchy’s Tacos are.) Especially the train that gets a-rollin’ whenever an Astro hits a home run. USA Today photographer Troy Taormina has provided a view for anyone not seated in the appropriate spot at the place:

2020-07-19 MinuteMaidParkTrain

Notice Taormina took that shot on a day the Astros just so happened to be hosting the New York Yankees. Be reminded, too, that Yankee Stadium ancient and modern alike have one thing the Astros lack: an honest-to-God working train behind their stately playpen:

2020-07-19 YankeeStadium

What you see behind the stadium is, of course, the elevated No. 4 rapid transit train, running down River Avenue past its turnaway point from Jerome Avenue; and, the 161st Street station whose platform begins behind the right field seats. Essentially, the Yankees (with a lot of help from New York taxpayers) built the new yard across the street from the old yard:

2020-07-19 YankeeStadiums

The original Yankee Stadium got a major facelift and re-make in 1974-75, which—considering the eventual full flowering of George Steinbrenner’s outsized King-of-Hearts-style rule—prompted assorted wags to say the stadium born as the House That Ruth Built was now the House That Ruthless Rebuilt. The train kept a-rollin’ all night and day long.

But the facelift/re-make robbed baseball fans awaiting the next 4 train of a singular pleasure. Even if you weren’t a Yankee fan you appreciated being able to see much of a game from the southmost platform of the 161st Street station from above and slightly beyond the rear end of the center field bleachers:

2020-07-19 YankeeStadiumTheFirst

I am native to the Bronx and, after my parents moved us to Long Island, I spent many a school break or weekend visiting my maternal grandparents, who were confident and kind enough to give me the run of the city. There’s no false modesty involved when I say that in those years I may have known the New York City elevateds and subways better than a lot of their own motormen did.

If I knew the Yankees were home, I’d take that 4 train (it stopped at Kingsbridge Road, crossing the train’s Jerome Avenue span, which was only a short walk to Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment) to 161st street, move to the platform’s southmost end, and watch for the chance that the Yankees would get their tails kicked from one end of the Bronx to the other.

The trouble for Yankee fans was that, at the time I began turning the city into my personal playground (New York was considerably different in my youth), the odds of the Yankees getting their tails kicked were extremely favourable. In 1966, my own father died, and so did the old imperial Yankees at last. They accomplished something unseen of them since the year the Titanic lost its heavyweight bout against the iceberg: they finished dead last in the American League.

Most of us Met fans since the day they were born couldn’t resist thinking what an absolute bitch karma could be when in the mood. This Met fan couldn’t resist reminding himself of what more knowledgeable observers knew: the remaining Yankee stars were aging (Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Elston Howard), consistently injured (Jim Bouton), or both (Mantle and Ford); and, the Yankee farm system—except for a small handful of promises who turned out journeymen for assorted reasons (injuries, attitudes)—was suddenly as fertile as the Sahara Desert.

This Met fan since the day they were born also had his first taste of live major league baseball in that ancient, rambling wreck known as the Polo Grounds. The trains rolled behind the Polo Grounds, too, once upon a time. Sort of.

2020-07-19 PoloGrounds

What you see behind and to the right of the far right field stands is the station of the ancient Ninth Avenue El. Above and behind the center field bleachers and clubhouse/office building structure is the portion that survived to be the Polo Grounds Shuttle—until it wasn’t. To the left of the left field stands was the subway yard; as the masthead of this journal shows, you could see trains reposing between the ballpark and the main yard through the rear of the lower deck seats.

New York closed the shuttle in 1958. The underground 158th Street station on the B and D lines of the IND system beneath remain alive today. The Polo Grounds, of course, doesn’t. The Mets played there in 1962 and 1963 until Shea Stadium opened. By the time Grandpa Morris took me to my first Mets game in 1962, the subway yard was long succeeded by a group of apartment buildings and the Ninth Avenue El was ancient history.

The trains didn’t keep a-rollin’ but the Mets did. “Rollin'” was a polite way to put it. The 1962-63 Mets were baseball’s number one comedy troupe. They made Ernie Kovacs’s television surrealism resemble Norman Rockwell. They had Who’s on first, What’s on second, You Didn’t Want To Know’s on third, and You Were Afraid to Ask at shortstop.

The number 7 elevated went right behind Shea Stadium on the right field side and stops at the same station, Willets Point, to take Met fans to Citi Field. The major difference is that you can’t see the train from the Citi Field stands as you could in Shea Stadium. Which made interesting viewing when you arrived early for a game or another event.

2020-07-19 BakerBowl

Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl. Note the subway yard across the street behind the right field wall. Note, too, the wall lacks the team endorsement for a deodorant soap augmented memorably by a disgruntled Phillies fan in the 1930s . . .

For a very long time the Broad Street Line in Philadelphia rumbled within reach of Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, and runs adjacent to Citizens Bank Park today. Once upon a time, however, the Phillies played in Baker Bowl, and that box of pain (except to Chuck Klein, lefthanded power hitter) sat across the street from a subway yard on the right field wall side. (The legend continues about the disgruntled 1930s fan who took paint to a team endorsement for a certain deodorant soap on the right field wall: “The Phillies use Lifebuoy! . . . and they still stink!“)

The Union Pacific’s Phoenix line passes Chase Field in Arizona. The Metro Blue and Green lines took you to the Metrodome in Minneapolis, if you dared. Navy Yard-Ballpark Station takes you to Nationals Park on the Green Line, but the station’s underground. What’s the fun in that?

The good news if you’re going to Wrigley Field: you get to take the elevated Red Line, and the Addison Street station is a very short walk (about half a city block) from the yard. The bad news: You can’t see the trains from the ballpark. Those houses on Sheffield and Waveland block almost all your views even without the latter-day rooftop bleachers.

It’s not that you go to a baseball game to watch the trains, though if your team is busy getting clobbered on the field that day the trains make for a nice diversion. In Minute Maid Park you need a home run to see the train roll, but at assorted parks past and present the trains kept a-rollin’ all night and day long. Until they didn’t.

2027-07-19 AstrodomeWithColtStadium

An aerial view of Colt Stadium (foreground) adjacent to the newly-opened Astrodome in Houston. The trains didn’t roll to or past them but the cars rolled in and out. In Colt Stadium, alas, so did the mosquitoes.

I’m sure I left a couple of parks out of this survey, but at least Astro fans get a train in the ballpark now. Once upon a time, you got to either Colt Stadium (outdoors) or the Astrodome (The world’s biggest hair dryer—Joe Pepitone, Yankee turned Astro) by motor vehicle. Unless you happened to own a helicopter and were related to a nearby landowner.

If it was Colt Stadium, you had to carry something only slightly more important than hand sanitizer, alas. “This is the only park in the league,” said Hall of Fame outfielder Richie Ashburn, winding his career down as an Original Met in the year that birthed the Mets and the Astros-to-be (born the Colt .45s), “where the women wear insect repellant instead of perfume.”

Rank desertion? Don’t even go there.

2020-07-11 BusterPosey

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has opted out of playing this year for the sake of his children—an incumbent pair of twins and a pair of twin newborns freshly adopted. Some dare call it desertion—erroneously.

Whatever else you think about those major league players who have opted out of playing in 2020, or who think about doing so, here’s something that shouldn’t come into play: someone snarking about such players committing “rank desertion.” (So help me, that’s how someone phrased it in one online baseball forum.) Ignore them. Let them rant their heads off, but you’re under no obligation to listen.

That’s one of the beauties of free speech, what’s left of it. You can rant your head off any old time and place it strikes you to rant. You also bear no known mandatory obligation to listen to any particular ranter for any particular reason.

Militarily, of course, “rank desertion” equals one soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, or a group of them, walking away from their units or posts without call, usually but not exclusively in wartime. In civilian terms, “rank desertion” implies someone or a group of someones walking off the job where there’s no known option aside from a labour strike or formal resignation to do it.

The players were given the opt-out option after all those weeks of haggling between the owners trying to game them out of agreed-upon-in-March pay protocols before they finally agreed to give what remained of a 2020 season a try. Handed that option, those players exercising it cannot be accused credibly of rank desertion.

There’s a coronavirus still on world tour, to various extents, and baseball players play and sojourn in places that still present exposure risks they’re not entirely anxious to bring home. Especially when they have loved ones considered in the high-risk category.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey may be the highest-profile player to opt out of the season to date. There but for the curse of injuries might he be in the Hall of Fame conversation; maybe two or even three more injury-free seasons on his jacket might keep him there. He could still get those seasons beginning next year.

As was his right under the current protocols, Posey thought more than twice about the twin babies he and his wife, Kristin, are adopting. They were born prematurely last week and at this writing remain in neonatal intensive care. The San Francisco Chronicle says the little girls are doing well enough in the circumstance.

Already the father of incumbent twin children, Posey weighed the risk and pondered the opt-out option that has yet to be rescinded. Then, he made his decision for the sake of his children’s health. The same decision Los Angeles Angels demigod Mike Trout continues weighing as the birth of his first child with his wife, Jessica, looms next month.

Trout isn’t exactly on poverty row so far as major league baseball players are concerned. Neither is Posey, even if Trout is above and beyond his and any other player’s pay grade. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has a family to consider as well, and he’s not exactly going to be among the poor by opting out of 2020, either, as he did during the week now past.

Two factors moved Markakis to opt out, the risk to his family and the very real COVID-19 infection incurred by his franchise co-face face teammate Freddie Freeman. (Braves fans have a case to make that Freeman now shares the distinction with Markakis’s fellow outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. Markakis also admits playing with no audience at first doesn’t exactly pose a thrill.)

Markakis spoke to Freeman by phone and learned fast enough. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” he told reporters last Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle pitching bellwether now trying to resuscitate his career with the Braves, has also opted out of 2020. So has Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who’d otherwise hoped to begin his return from his 2018 Tommy John surgery. So has Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose teammate Charlie Blackmon was hit with COVID-19 and who has alarms about equal to health alarms for doing so.

On health terms, Desmond and his wife, Chelsey, are already parents of four young children and Mrs. Desmond is pregnant with their fifth. That’s the immediate reason Desmond exercised his opt-out option. But it provided him a chance to speak publicly enough on social and even spiritual terms.

Desmond—who is bi-racial—laments what the George Floyd murder at police hands in Minneapolis re-exposes of society in general and, from his perspective, the game he loves otherwise. “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond began in a round of jolting but thought-provoking Instagram posts.

We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.

If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now . . .

Other opt-outs, also for familial health concerns, include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (who has yet to throw a pitch in regular-season competition for them), and three Washington Nationals: first baseman and elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman, relief pitcher Joe Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo.

Baseball’s coronavirus testings have not exactly proven the epitome of consistency or coordination. Teams like the Giants, the Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals have postponed several “summer camp” workouts over them. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman skipped a subsequent Astros workout when his test didn’t arrive back on time. That had a few of his teammates more than a little shaky.

“We want to know how these test results are going to work out for us,” said outfielder Michael Brantley. “Not having Alex here today was just another day he didn’t get to prepare. As I read around the league, a lot of players are voicing their opinions that we need our test results back faster.”

You can say anything you wish about those players opting out and others yet to come who opt out of 2020 for their health’s sake first. If baseball’s testings continue being that inconsistently performed and handled, would you really be shocked to see more players deciding their health and their families’ health just can’t be entrusted to that? Regardless of their salaries?

You can also say as you wish about Desmond’s not-to-be-dismissed-out-of-hand thoughts regarding the first American team sport to end segregation officially while still having issues 73 years later accepting and assimilating non-white personnel on and off the playing field. You don’t need to demand a quota system to say baseball can, should, and must do a better job of it.

Much as we’ve missed a major league season thus far, we seem to need reminders more often than comfortable that certain things cut both ways. Things like the “human element,” for example. The traditionalists screamed blue murder over technological advances they thought (erroneously) would erode the “human element.” But it isn’t just traditionalists dismissing the opting-out as rank deserters.

That dismissal is a plain, no-further-discussion-necessary false dismissal of, what do you know, the human element. The element that says baseball players are not invincible androids who can’t be felled by or transmit disease but mere human men, prone to all manner of incurring and transmitting affliction, particularly during a pandemic that’s become as much a political football as a challenge to medicine.

The rank desertion accusers should be asked how swiftly they’d step in and take the risk for the sake of playing a game much beloved but not without risk. When they answer, “five minutes ago,” they should be asked just as promptly whether they’d like to bring an infection back to their loved ones.

The crickets should be heard playing the entirety of a classic jazz album—In a Silent Way.