No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.

These foolish things

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins

Braves catcher Brian McCann with the ball that just zipped behind Jose Urena, squarely in his mitt, squarely behind Urena’s leg . . .

It didn’t take even an eighth as long as it took Hunter Strickland to let Bryce Harper have it over a pair of monstrous postseason home runs. But it took long enough, and was just as stupid. The other difference is that the Braves’ Kevin Gausman threw behind, not into the Marlins’ Jose Urena in the second inning Friday night.

If you need to know what Gausman intended, you don’t remember what happened last 15 August. When Urena threw what ESPN Stats & Info determined was the hardest and fastest pitch he’d thrown all year to that point right into Braves Rookie of the Year in waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s elbow to lead off the first.

Urena simply didn’t like Acuna treating the Marlins like batting practise pitchers. If they couldn’t get him out, Urena was going to try to take him out. And the warnings were handed out immediately after the umpires then tossed Urena on the spot.

Friday night, there were no warnings issued going in, not until Gausman—who’d just surrendered the tying run on an infield ground out after hitting Marlins third baseman Jon Berti with a pitch—sailed one behind Urena’s thighs.

When Urena drilled Acuna last August, he was condemned almost universally but quite rightfully for hitting him after he’d put on a long distance show for two nights running. Gausman himself suggested there might be consequences for that after that game.

“I think he decided he was going to handle it a certain way,” Gausman said after that game, which the Braves went on to win 5-2. “I don’t agree with it, but it’s his career and he’s going to have to deal with the consequences.”

You might have thought the consequences would have come sooner than Friday night. Usually though not exclusively someone else in the Marlins lineup might have faced a message pitch. On the same night. Even despite the warnings.

But none went forth that night last August. Or, in the subsequent set between the Braves and the Marlins in Miami later that month, one of which games Gausman himself started. Urena got a six game suspension for drilling Acuna, which a lot of people thought was impossibly lenient in the circumstance, and didn’t face the Braves in that Miami set.

Having sort of telegraphed it after last August’s postgame remarks, Gausman didn’t exactly deny premeditation after the Braves banked their 7-2 win Friday night, either. “Obviously, the umpire thought that there was a reason behind it and decided to throw me out of the game,” the righthander told reporters. “Obviously, MLB’s going to look at it, investigate it, so I’m not going to really comment anything further than that.”

Obviously, too, Gausman had his chances to send the Marlins a message last August if he wanted to. He could have replied in kind when the Marlins batted in the top of the second after Acuna was drilled, despite the warnings, sending one up and in just enough to drop the hint.

If those warnings were too much for him to think about, he could have sent the message later that month when the Braves went to Miami and he started one of the games.

He didn’t do it either time. Whether it was a mutual agreement among the Braves’ pitchers to wait until they might face Urena himself again isn’t known as I write. Just as Urena looked to one and all as though committing a premeditated act last August, Gausman looked the same Friday night.

At least Urena got the start for the Marlins this time, a mere eight months after drilling Acuna. It’s not as though Gausman had three years to plot revenge.

But the late Don Newcombe had a policy of going after the opposition’s hottest lineup hand whenever he thought they needed an immediate message to be sent, whether it was over their pitcher knocking down or hitting a Dodger batter or—as he did once with the Phillies—silencing a bench coach throwing racial insults at the Dodgers’ early black players by dropping Del Ennis, at the time the Phillies’ hottest hitter.

When Cubs pitcher Bill Hands opened a critical September 1969 showdown with the onrushing Mets by knocking Tommie Agee down leading off, Mets starter Jerry Koosman—following Newcombe’s policy—sent one up and in tight to Hall of Famer Ron Santo in reply the next inning.

“I knew right away I was going to go after their best hitter,” Koosman said years later. (Santo led the National League with 112 runs batted in at the time.) “You mess with my hitters, I’m going after your best one. I’ll go after him twice if I have to.” Santo got hit on the wrist as he fell away from the chin music.

“If it didn’t hit his arm,” Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda said, “it would have hit him onside his head.” Mets bullpen coach Joe Pignatano had another verdict: “Koosman won the pennant for us that night.” (Agee didn’t exactly shrivel, either: when he faced Hands again in the third that night, he sent one over the fence.)

Urena looked cowardly drilling Acuna last August after Acuna’d been a wrecking crew at the Marlins’ expense. But Gausman had his chances to send the Marlins a message last year and he didn’t take a one of them. He doesn’t look all that much better than Urena did. And there’ll be those saying his possible five- or six-game suspension won’t be sufficient, either.

The old school, which is discredited often enough and with cause these days, says there do come times to take one for the team. Especially when the season is still young and you’re less likely to cost your team something critical that you would be down the stretch of a pennant race. The Braves may be lucky it happened the third night of May.

If you doubt Gausman’s or the Braves’ premeditation, be advised they called up pitcher Touki Toussaint before Friday night. Guess who went out to pitch for the Braves after Gausman got the ho-heave, stopped the second inning bleeding, and pitched four total innings of one-run, six-strikeout ball to give the Braves’ bullpen a respite.

“In the end, the biggest failure in this situation has to fall on the umpiring crew,” says Call to the Pen‘s David Hill. “Anyone who saw that the Braves called up Toussaint, and that Urena was the opposing starter, had to know what was going to happen. That both benches were not warned prior to the start of the game, or that Gausman was ejected after throwing that pitch, is entirely their mistake.”

Not theirs entirely.

“From the beginning, they were saying I did it on purpose,” said Urena about the Acuna drill and Friday night’s festivities, “but look at how they did it. That’s the way they claim they are professional?” Unfortunately, when it comes to professionalism, Urena isn’t exactly in any position to talk.