Mr. Commissioner, meet the real faces of the game

Rob Manfred, Liam Hendriks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The squirrel and the blowout

PNC Park squirrel

This little fellow (or gal, who knew?) cops a proud squat on the PNC Park left field grass before leading three groundsmen on a warning track chase in the bottom of the second—and the Pirates into blowing out the Cubs Monday night.

Believe in the power of the Rally Squirrel? After Monday night’s doings, the Pirates may want to think about it. Hard.

The bushy-tailed rodent showed up to run around the PNC Park outfield and warning track as the bottom of the second got under way. After he disappeared at last, the Pirates dropped three in that inning, four the next, five in the seventh, and a 12-1 smothering of the further-sputtering Cubs.

For too long the Pirates have lived in the place where the nuts hunt the squirrels. It was lovely to see them upend things for an evening.

With Daniel Vogelbach on first, nobody out, and a 1-1 count on Michael Chavis against rookie Cubs starter Caleb Kilian, the bushy-tailed rodent scampered out onto the field from somewhere in the region of PNC Park’s third base seats.

The creature galloped toward the left field corner in a jagged route with three grounds crew in hot pursuit. One of the groundsmen carried a large washing bucket. A second carried a net whose weave was big enough to allow a human suspect to escape the moment it might be dropped over him.

The squirrel himself (or herself, who knew?) wasn’t exactly a model of precision running at first. Certainly not as swift or sure as the one who ran down the third base line as if stealing home in Coors Field eight years ago.

“[W]hat was his sprint speed?” Pirates manager Derek Shelton asked of the PNC squirrel  after the game. “We had to get that in the Statcast era. Definitely one of the worst rundowns I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a couple bad ones.”

After the three groundsmen chased him toward the deepest left field corner, the squirrel ran back and forth from the foul line to the mid-left field piece of the warning track, finally making for a passway under the center field seats’ edge and into the Cubs bullpen with the bucket man in hotter pursuit.

The Pirates in their dugout watched with bemusement. The Cubs’ relief corps looked uncertain as to whether the game was going nuts. Little did they know.

Chavis walked on five pitches. Touted Pirates rookie Oneil Cruz, all 6’7″ worth of him,  reached on a fielding error to load the pads. Fellow rookie Bligh Madris ripped a two-run single to right and stole second before Tyler Heineman struck out, but Hoy Park sent Madris home on a long sacrifice fly.

One inning later, the Pirates struck a lot more swiftly, loading the pads on Kilian with nobody out (back to back walks and an infield hit) before Kilian wild-pitched Bryan Reynolds home. Chavis waited out a four-pitch walk before Cruz sent a three-run double to the absolute rear of center field.

That ended Kilian’s evening but not the Cubs’ miseries. After the Cubs managed to sneak a run home in the top of the seventh on back-to-back singles, then an RBI single which followed back-to-back strikeouts, the Pirates got squirrely again in the bottom of the frame: a two-run double (Vogelbach), an RBI single (Cruz), an RBI double (Heineman), and a sacrifice fly (Park again).

Madris swung his way into the Pirates’ history books with his three-hit evening, the first Pirate to do it in his Show debut since Jason Kendall did it in 1996. He also became the first Pirate since Andrew McCutchen (2009) to debut with a hit, a run batted in, and a stolen base in a single game.

“That was a lot of fun and everything I could ask for,” he grinned postgame. “With [batting practice] getting canceled today, when I stepped in the box, it was really my first at-bat in the big leagues. The game threw a little bit of everything at me today. Thankful for the opportunity. It was awesome.”

Cruz, already the tallest shortstop in major league history, and ranked the Pirates’ number three prospect, got called up from Indianapolis (AAA) with Madris Monday. Madris has nothing but good to say about his Indy teammate, who poked his nose out of his hole at last season’s end and hit a home run almost from his knees.

“The guy’s unreal,” Captain Bligh told reporters. “He has tools that come around once every 100 years. He can hit pitches out of the ballpark that some guys are lucky to get out of the infield. Being here now is going to propel him to greater things.”

“What I can promise you,” said Cruz before Monday night’s game, “is you’re going to see it a lot more frequently. You’re going to see a lot of balls hit hard and a lot of balls traveling very far.” He kept the promise, too—his double was estimated to fly 112.9 mph off his bat. But he also has a howitzer of a throwing arm, throwing one grounder over to first at 96.7 mph.

Players like these are what the Pirates need to continue wrenching themselves out of tank mode and navigate the rash of injuries and illness that’s struck them of late. Not just because of their skills and prospective production, but because of . . . shall we say . . . no, let Chavis say it, as he did before Monday’s game.

“The quality guys that we’ve called up has been pretty significant,” the first baseman told reporters. “We’re not having those, um . . . we don’t have those assholes. There’s no better way to say it. You don’t have a guy with an attitude problem. Guys come up, ask questions, try to be good, stay out of the way of the older guys and are just happy to be here. I can’t say enough about all of them.”

For a team that’s just followed a ferocious nine-game losing streak by winning their next three of five including Monday’s massacre, that’s as large a light as you can ask to see facing the still-elongated end of their tunnel.

Just in case, though, the Pirates might not want to let the squirrel escape too soon. If at all.