Eyes on Cherington from Pittsburgh?

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Ben Cherington (right), with Red Sox owner John Henry and the proof that Cherington knows how to raise shipwrecks: the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series triumph, for openers.

Few baseball fans are as frustrated as Pirate fans. Few deserve even a small ray of hope more. Pirate fans got one such ray when longtime Clint Hurdle was purged at last after a season in which he lost a clubhouse that seemed hell bent on destroying itself when it wasn’t pursuing silly field feuds.

They got another such ray of hope when the Pirates decided Hurdle’s execution was merely the wick lighting the powder keg of a near-complete front office house cleaning, which only began when pitching coach Ray Searage was pinked after a season during which the Pirate staff became too-much-reputed headhunters.

They got a third such ray when the house cleaning continued when president Frank Conolly and general manager Neal Huntington were purged, after a couple of years in which reputedly blockbuster deals blew up right in the Pirates’ faces even despite a warning sign or two.

And now comes a fourth such ray, in the word that candidates to be the Pirates’ next president of baseball operations include former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington.

Currently second in command to Blue Jays president Tony Lacava, Cherington is one man in baseball if there’s any such man who knows what it means to actually be able to raise and reconstruct the Titanic. He did it in New England, maybe the second most arduous baseball market for turning shipwrecks into cruises to the Promised Land.

The Red Sox hired Cherington in the first place after the 2011 season ended with the iceberg hitting the ship. His job only began when he was overruled at the top and the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine to skipper the ship after Terry Francona—and Cherington’s predecessor Theo Epstein—abandoned it before they could be made to walk the plank.

Hiring Valentine proved the equivalent of removing Captain Smith from the bridge when the iceberg hit and installing Captain Queeg in his stead. Valentine took a clubhouse already full of noxious gases from the 2011 sinking and threw one after another lighted match into it. He was probably lucky that all he got was canned just days after the regular season ended.

Somewhere during the worst of that nightmare Cherington figured out that just because someone else dumped Smith for Queeg was no reason for him to go J. Bruce Ismay. He began repairing the ship even underwater, masterminding the August 2012 deal with the Dodgers that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford out of Boston.

Major payroll surgery, that, the kind bringing the rookie GM what he’d need to augment his still-very-much-serviceable veterans with what I observed after the Valentine firing: “pieces that weren’t exactly top of the line but weren’t exactly losers, either.”

Cherington also got to dump Valentine, which could only have been his due after the rookie GM found himself as much company psychiatrist as boss when one after another player went to him seeking to keep their marbles—singular—during the depths of the Valentine nightmare. And he was the epitome of grace in throwing the switch:

Our 2012 season was disappointing for many reasons. No single issue is the reason, and no single individual is to blame. We’ve been making personnel changes since August, and we will continue to do so as we build a contending club. With an historic number of injuries, Bobby was dealt a difficult hand. He did the best he could under seriously adverse circumstances, and I am thankful to him.

You’d be hard pressed to find any other baseball general manager who could have been that diplomatic about a man who was lucky to escape with his life. It’s true the 2012 Red Sox were bedeviled by 27 trips to the disabled list, but it’s also true that four other 2012 teams (the Athletics, the Braves, the Orioles, the Yankees) were battered by injuries and still either won divisions (the A’s, the Yankees) or went to their leagues’ wild card games. (The Braves, the Orioles.)

The season recently ended gave further object lessons in how to navigate troubled waters when crews hit sick call almost en masse. Managed intelligently, they were the Yankees, the Astros, and (doesn’t it just roll off the tongue, Washington?) the world champion Nationals. Managed like several flew over the cuckoo’s nest, they were the 2012 Red Sox.

Then Cherington swung the deal that brought former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell back from Toronto to manage the team for 2013. He imported such inexpensive pieces as Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Joel Hanrahan, Brock Holt, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Koji Uehara, and Shane Victorino.

He also picked up where Epstein left off in rebuilding the Red Sox farm. He watched Hall of Famer in waiting David Ortiz rally a team, a town, and a region after the Boston Marathon bombing. (This is our [fornicating] city!!) He re-fortified when injuries hit, and watched Uehara—whom he’d thought would be a perfect sixth- or seventh-inning relief option—step up as a lights-out closer.

And, he watched his freshly repaired team of savvy vets, comeback kids, and young sprouts refuse to lose more than three straight on the season and march all the way to the Promised Land for the third time since the new century began. It also made Cherington only the third Red Sox executive ever to be named The Sporting News‘s Executive of the Year.

The rebuild, which Cherington picked up and ramped up without even thinking about tanking? (Tanking’s never an option for a team whose owner learned what not to do and how not to do it watching the win-or-be-gone George Steinbrenner style, anyway.) Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley, Jr., all of whom loomed large in the 2018 World Series triumph, were Cherington recruits.

It was just a shame Cherington wasn’t around to savour it.

His only missteps were some free agency signings that blew up in the Red Sox’s faces: Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore. When Dave Dombrowski accepted his Detroit walking papers and the Red Sox walked Cherington out to walk Dombrowski in, Cherington still left the Red Sox a solid nucleus that didn’t exactly escape Dombrowski’s sights in 2015.

Dombrowski signed and dealt for several nuggets of his own. He watched the Red Sox go last-to-first in 2016 and repeat in the East in 2017, both of which ended in early postseason exits. Then, after hiring Astros bench coach Alex Cora to manage the crew following Farrell losing the clubhouse at last, Dombrowski watched Cherington’s seeds flower fully as the Red Sox won last year’s World Series.

But Dombrowski reverted to form and drained McCherington’s Navy while ignoring the under-constructed, over-taxed bullpen as one after another 2019 Red Sox starter was hit by either injury or inconsistency bugs. Thus did the Red Sox execute Dombrowski in early September, when their season was too long lost.

And since the Red Sox didn’t reach out and bring Cherington back (they hired former Rays vice president Chaim Bloom), though it wouldn’t necessarily be either untenable or unheard-of (reference the 1967 Cardinals, who brought Bing Devine back successfully after canning him in mid-1964) the Pirates might want to give a long, serious, thoughtful look at him.

The Pirates’ sunken ship makes the Red Sox upon Cherington’s advent resemble a sturdy aircraft carrier by comparison. And if ever a team needed a man who can prove he knows how to raise a wreck from the bottom of the sea, the Pirates do.

The sordid case of Felipe Vasquez

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Pirates relief pitcher Felipe Vasquez. His ubiquitous tattoos helped identify him as a sex predator with at least one underage girl.

Let’s see. Either the Astros or the Braves will be the next team to clinch their division titles, and in theory they could do it on the same day, since they both awoke this morning with magic numbers of three. In theory.

The Astros have a better shot at doing it first since their remaining schedule is just a trifle easier than the Braves’. But remember Andujar’s Law: In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know. And the Astros’ main 2019 rivals for the best ratio of excellence to injury compromise or depletion, the Yankees, are a game from clinching their division.

I was wrong so far about the loss of Christian Yelich to the Brewers and their general manager David Stearns was right so far. I thought losing their by-far best player for the season last week meant a gut punch to their season. Stearns thought it was just a gut punch for the night. Stearns wins that argument.

Even if they did it against bottom feeders mostly, the Brewers are 6-1 since Yelich went down after fracturing his knee cap on his own foul off the plate. And they’re tied with the Cubs, who have their own issues, for the second National League wild card.

And I’m still rubbing my eyes over the fact that this year, too, as seems to happen too often in baseball’s wild card era, we’re watching all the thrills, chills, and spills of at least eight teams fighting to the last breaths to finish . . . in second or even third place.

As of this morning it’s still possible mathematically that the National League’s second wild card could be won by a team finishing third in its own division, and two teams (the Mets in the NL East; the Brewers in the NL Central) still have a shot at that. Which means, in theory, a third-place team could heat up enough to go to, if not win the World Series.

And even if the Giants and the Red Sox are out of the races, it was still a thrill Tuesday night when Mike Yastrzemski of the Giants—the grandson of the Red Sox’s Hall of Fame legend Carl Yastrzemski—confabbed with Grandpa on the field before the game at Fenway Park, then blasted one into the center field seats with two out in the top of the fourth.

But all the above gets knocked to one side upon the news that the best pitcher on major league baseball’s possible most fractured and fractuous team this year may be a sex criminal.

Bad enough that the Pirates’ clubhouse became a well known mess this season. Enough of a mess that two of the key culprits, relief pitchers Kyle Crick and Felipe Vasquez, had a clubhouse fight over Vasquez’s music that caused Crick a season-ending finger injury. Way worse is Vasquez arrested Tuesday in Pittsburgh, on Florida and Pennsylvania charges involving sexual misconduct with underage girls.

According to KDKA, CBS Pittsburgh, Vasquez is charged with “computer pornography–solicitation of a child and one count of providing obscene material to minors,” out of Lee County, Florida. Denied bail at his arraignment in Pittsburgh Tuesday—senior district judge Eilenn Conroy considered him a flight risk—he faces an extradition hearing a week from today.

Far more grave is what Pennsylvania State Police announced Tuesday evening, according to The Athletic: charges of statutory sexual assault, unlawful contact with a minor, corruption of a minor by a suspect eighteen or older, and indecent assault of a victim under sixteen.

Yardbarker reported this girl told officers she met Vasquez when she was thirteen and they kept in touch via text messages and other computer/phone apps. USA Today‘s Chris Bumbaca reported the girl’s mother “discovered the messages, two pictures and a video one week after they were sent to the victim on July 16. At that point, the mother told the suspect he was communicating with a minor. Police began an investigation on Aug. 8.”

Bumbaca added that Vasquez’s face wasn’t visible in the images but authorities identified him by way of his numerous and too-distinctive tattoos, and by the girl addressing him as Felipe during their text message exchanges.

“These allegations are very, very serious,” said Pirates pitcher Chris Archer, whose own season ended officially Sunday thanks to shoulder issues keeping him on the injured list since late August. “One term that was used earlier was heinous. Right now, as far as we know, they’re just allegations. There’s not a lot more we can say.”

There wasn’t? The Pirates wasted practically no time wiping Vasquez off the face of their earth before the Pirates hosted the Mariners at PNC Park Tuesday evening, The Athletic‘s Rob Biertempfel writes.

By game time, looking around the stadium, it was as if Vázquez had never played for the Pirates. His clubhouse locker was empty. His banner outside PNC Park had been taken down. His image was scrubbed from the scoreboard videos. His name was deleted from the list of National League save leaders that flashes on concourse monitors before the game. The scorebook magazines with Vázquez on the cover, which normally are handed out to fans as they enter the stadium, were stashed out of sight.

The Pirates informed the commissioner’s office almost at once and Vasquez was put on administrative leave and baseball’s restricted list. He’ll face worse if he’s tried and convicted. And that would still be nothing compared to what his victims and their loved ones have to come to terms with. They deserve your compassion and your prayers.

This isn’t just an athlete accused of and disciplined for domestic violence. This is one accused of having or seeking actual sexual activity with underage girls. ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted even more grating news this morning: “Police said . . . Vazquez admitted that he drove nearly an hour in 2017 to meet a 13-year-old girl and tried to have sex with her, according to a criminal complaint released today. After a failed attempt, Vazquez, then 26, left to go to a game, per the complaint.”

Only after 1980’s-1990s Cubs/Indians/Yankees/Giants outfielder Mel Hall’s career ended did we learn he spent much of his off-field career maneuvering 12- and 13-year-old girls into sexual activity. Those grotesque maneuverings continued after his career ended. Hall was finally arrested for rape in 2007 and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2009.

Until now the worst thing that ever happened to the Pirates in legal terms (the absolute worst at all, of course, was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s death in a 1972 plane crash) was probably six players testifying and facing discipline from then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth as part of the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials.  Analysts observing the dissipation of this year’s Pirates and suggesting a housecleaning should come may want to amend that suggestion to a fumigation.

One of life’s saddest realities is that there are times, indeed, when a man can be accused falsely and wrongly of such sordid crimes as those with which Vasquez is charged. The evidence known thus far suggests he isn’t even close to one of those men.

Rickey don’t lose those numbers

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Hiring Allan Roth (right) as MLB’s first full-time (and then some) team statistician in 1947 may remain Branch Rickey’s least appreciated baseball innovation.

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players, but in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started in this century? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.

The wreck of the Pirates

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The Pirates have more problems than just the reputation for headhunting earned by such brawls as this with the Reds on trade deadline day . . .

The iconic Roberto Clemente would have been 85 today. He’s probably playing a game in the Elysian Fields and, when getting news of his old club on earth today, shaking his head in dismay. Any way you look at it, and several have over the past couple of days, the Pirates are a mess.

Even winning three out of five from the Angels and the Cubs entering Sunday can’t turn this wreck of a leaky boat into the U.S.S. Constitution. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was nothing compared to the wreck of the Pittsburgh clubhouse. These Pirates couldn’t raid an Everglades airboat and get away with it.

No baseball team likes to lose. The Pirates’ 7-26 run since the All-Star break would harry in a hurry anyone to the rack of their regrets. But there’s no hard written, hard enforced rule that that kind of futility on the field has to equal a clubhouse carpeted by rubber wall to rubber wall eggshells, either.

And nobody seemed to know just how deeply troubled the Pirates may have been until a couple of days ago. When The Athletic‘s Rob Biertempfel published a piece headlined, “A pair of altercations between players and coaches highlights the Pirates’ fraying clubhouse.” I’m not entirely certain all hell has broken loose as a result, but consider.

The worst kept secret in the National League was the Pirates’ pitching staff riddled by injuries and inconsistencies. The second-worst has been the Pirates’ apparent indifference to the periodic scrums into which they get when their penchant for pitching inside and tight crosses the lines between inside tight and headhunting. But . . .

“While the problems with health and performance are well-chronicled,” Biertempfel wrote, “the clubhouse conflicts have not been as apparent, aside from the team’s announcements of a pair of suspensions in July for separate altercations involving coaches and two relievers, Keone Kela and Kyle Crick.

“The details of those incidents, many of which have not previously been reported, illustrate rifts caused by envy, charges of favoritism, and overt insubordination against manager Clint Hurdle and his staff.”

Not been previously reported? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which covers the Pirates daily, almost looked willfully ignorant about it. In early August, the paper’s Jason Mackey did a run-down of the Pirates’ problems on the field that hit things squarely enough. But almost nothing in the paper has appeared to shine even a flicker on the team’s deeper issues beyond almost rote announcements of suspensions involving two relief pitchers and one of those pitchers, Keone Kela, denying profusely that he’s a clubhouse pain.

Notoriously, Kela got himself a ten-game suspension for instigating what ultimately became a wild trade deadline-night brawl when he threw at Derek Dietrich—over a pair of April home runs one of which landed in the Allegheny River—and admitted outright he wanted to decapitate the Cincinnati outfielder.

But over a week earlier Kela got into a tangle with performance coach Hector Morales. The team announced his two-day suspension “for violating team rules.” What wasn’t revealed at the time was manager Clint Hurdle having to intervene and Kela engaging Hurdle in a shouting match that Biertempfel and others say amounted to downright insubordination against the skipper.

“Clint wasn’t even in the vicinity to break up anything,” Kela told Mackey. “I was letting [Morales] know that we had some differences in terms of what we believe with [team] culture. Clint and I have never had a shouting match at each other. And honestly, if you can’t tell, I’m truthful. I don’t have anything to lie about.”

Kela missed two months this season with shoulder inflammation. Since his return he’s been one of the Pirates’ better relievers. But after the Dietrich incident people were reminded that Kela had a reputation for trouble with the Rangers, including but not limited to “confronting players and causing disruptions” after spring training 2017.

They seem to have included what the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described as “multiple heated exchanges with more established teammates.” When the Rangers sent Kela down to AAA Round Rock as that spring training ended, that paper said most Rangers players agreed with the move.

“The Rangers decided that Kela, projected to be a key member of their bullpen, should be sent to the minors in an effort to preserve clubhouse chemistry,” wrote the Star-Telegram‘s Jeff Wilson. “It is the first known punishment for Kela since he joined the Rangers, even though sources have indicated he has a track record of confronting players and causing disruptions in only two seasons in the majors.”

So why did the Pirates deal for Kela in 2018 at the former non-waiver trade deadline? They liked his arm and the idea of adding him to a promising bullpen, even though, as Biertempfel notes, “they knew he came with a history of clubhouse issues.” But after the blowup with Morales and the outrage over the brawl with the Reds, “sources with the Pirates told The Athletic that many players are wary of Kela because his demeanor can be so mercurial.”

A week after the Kela-Morales-Hurdle showdown, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas was suspended by the team over a confrontation with Crick. Apparently, Crick challenged Rojas over preferential treatment perceived to be given to closer Felipe Vasquez and Rojas ordered Crick to mind his own business. When they argued over the issue, Biertempfel wrote, “a player went to management and insisted that Rojas should get the same level of punishment as Kela had.”

You expect certain key performers to get a few breaks on the team, and Vasquez is both a veteran and a two-time All-Star. He “is not always on the field during the pregame period when other relievers are stretching and shagging flies,” Biertempfel wrote. “Earlier this season, Vázquez explained there are times when he is doing other things — such as getting a massage, working with a conditioning coach or taking a nap — to sharpen his performance during the pregame period.”

If Crick was annoyed over such preferential treatment, and he may not be alone, you might expect one of the Pirates’ veterans to step in and settle him down. But that’s the problem, Biertempfel wrote: “many sources say the Pirates are lacking leadership — the no-nonsense, active type that was brought by players such as [long gone] A.J. Burnett and David Freese, as well as the low-key, calming presence of veterans like [long gone] Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison.”

Early in the 2018 season, when former Nationals manager Dusty Baker was interviewed and the subject of the Nats’ reportedly skittish clubhouse came up, Baker said it flatly: “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” Werth at the time had signed with the Mariners as a free agent, after an offseason in which his agent may or may not have deflected several offers, but he retired that June.

The Nats prize veteran leadership, even if some such as Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and since-departed Bryce Harper often seemed more likely to lead by example rather than with a vocal, gently-but-firmly hands-on approach. Or, a rah-rah rousing. This year, however, the Nats’ clubhouse is one of the game’s more fun loving and cohesive. So are Harper’s Phillies. The cost-obsessed Pirates, of course, have unloaded several veterans in recent years on behalf of the ledger more than the field.

As the Nats once missed Werth, it’s entirely likely that the Pirates really miss McCutchen, whose skills may not be as acute as they were during his glory seasons in Pittsburgh but whose gentle style of off-field leadership might have gone a considerable distance in keeping the current waters undisturbed. He might even have kept the Pirates from adding such a known pot-stirrer as Kela in the first place. Might.

But there have been chronically losing teams who’ve found ways to band up and brace each other up in the lowest of hours. When the 1988 Orioles opened the season with a 21-game losing streak, players and manager alike took to gallows humour to keep their spirits from flying south. A new reporter on the Orioles beat coming aboard at the absolute depth of that streak? “Join the hostages,” Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. cracked to welcome him aboard.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, handed the bridge after Ripken’s father was fired earlier in the collapse, merely displayed similar wit and displayed a button handed him by a fan: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.” Told of a local radio personality determined to stay on the air until the Orioles finally won a game, Robinson sympathised: “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.”

Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn finished his career as maybe the only conservatively decent player on the expansion, 1962 Mets—losers of 120 games, who managed somehow to avoid losing 21 straight at any point. (Their longest losing streak: seventeen.) Ashburn was most impressed by how the losing didn’t affect the morale of those Mets, made of veterans (mostly) and youth (somewhat) alike.

“Any losing team I’ve ever been on,” said Ashburn, who’d played with several as the 1950s Phillies faded following their unlikely 1950 pennant, “had several things going on. One, the players gave up. Or, they hated the manager. Or, they had no team spirit. Or, the fans turned into wolves. But there was none of this with the Mets . . . So we lose 120 games and there isn’t a gripe on the club. It was remarkable. You know, I can remember guys being mad even on a big winner.”

When the 1958 Yankees clinched their pennant on the road, the team flight home was ruined by a nasty incident in which relief star Ryne Duren, in his cups and celebrating the clinch, walked up and down the aisle of the plane planting big cigars between assorted Yankee lips. He came to Ralph Houk, third-string catcher-turned-coach, and his thanks for putting a cigar between Houk’s lips was to get his face smashed in.

An enterprising New York Post reporter named Leonard Shecter—the future editor of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—was aware of the incident. Being chewed out for missing one story, Shecter mentioned the Duren-Houk incident. The Post verified it and ran with it. The Yankees were so furious that then-general manager George Weiss canceled the usual pennant-clinching party.

And God only knew the “Mustache Gang” Athletics of the early-to-mid 1970s ran roughshod over the league—and each other. And not necessarily in that order. Even with three Hall of Famers on the team. (Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson.) Even managed by Dick Williams, a Hall of Fame manager who changed from the tyrant he was with the 1967-69 Red Sox to a far more laissez-faire skipper when he took the bridge of the Swingin’ A’s.

Wrote Bouton, in “I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad”, Williams this time figured there was no point to rules if they weren’t making the team play better. He probably would have gotten his own lights punched out if he figured otherwise.

From what I know of the new Dick Williams and the bunch of guys on the 1972 Oakland team, they didn’t have many rules. Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.

. . . Which doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way. That was maybe 10 or 15% of the reason. The other 85% was because they had a lot of good baseball players.

The Pirates don’t have a lot of good baseball players. They have a few good hitters who amount to a reasonably empty team .270 traditional batting average and a couple of decent pitchers who’ve kept them from worse than a team 4.99 ERA and 4.69 fielding-independent pitching rate. And owners to whom competing isn’t supposed to cost, you know, money—despite the franchise and its owners said to be worth $1 billion. Each.

Gallows humour? From the look of it, these Pirates have all the humour of a tax examiner. There’ll sooner be a real gallows on the PNC Park field than there’ll be even gallows humour in the Pirate clubhouse.

Kela, for one, thinks the Pirates’ dissension is all in the game. “It’s in any major sport,” he told Mackey. “When you’re playing at an elite level and you’re here to win, it’s a livelihood. You’re going to have disagreements because everyone has a viewpoint on how things should be done.”

Elite level? The only thing elite about these Pirates is that they can fight among themselves at the Swingin’ A’s level. They’re not good enough baseball players to get away with it for very long. If you see bolts of lightning hit PNC Park this afternoon, that’ll be Roberto Clemente telling his old organisation, “I am not amused.”

“This is how we play [fornicating] baseball!”

2019-08-03 DerekDietrich

Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich ducking the Keone Kela fastball that would have put a hole in his head otherwise but did light the wick that ignited Tuesday night’s rumble.

With one remark after the dustup settled, the game ended, and the Pirates finished blowing out the Reds, 11-4, Tuesday night, Pirates pitcher Keone Kela exposed himself the jerk of the week. He also restored attention yet again to the continuing inanities within baseball’s so-called unwritten rules.

Because it was Kela who re-ignited tension between those two teams that climaxed in one of the most sanity-challenged brawls baseball’s seen in recent seasons. Over something that exploded but was presumed settled in the season’s second week.

Few pitchers like to admit they’re up to something when one of their services dusts, brushes back, hits, or nearly decapitates a hitter. Kela not only wanted to send Derek Dietrich a fresh message in the eighth inning Tuesday night, he had no intention of covering it up.

“People could say it’s overdue,” Kela said after the basebrawl game. “At the end of the day this is baseball, and I have to protect my teammates. I have to do what I feel is right. Not only that, you have to pitch in. That’s part of this game.”

Protect his teammates against what? A mammoth home run hit over three months earlier? As if Dietrich’s 7 April shot into the Allegheny River could re-ignite, fly back out of the river, and keep flying in all the weeks to follow until it hit one or another Pirate in the face? Either someone whacked Kela with the proverbial stupid stick or he thinks everyone else listening to him forgot to have their bolts tightened.

Chris Archer—a man who isn’t exactly unknown for celebrating here and there whenever he strikes a hitter out—sent one behind Dietrich’s back, first pitch, close enough to his head, the next time Dietrich batted after that river shot. The benches and pens emptied at once. Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig tried taking the entire Pirate roster on by himself.

Message sent, however dubious. It got Archer a five-game, not a five-start suspension. The Reds fumed especially because all Archer provoked otherwise was an umpire warning to both sides, instead of an immediate dispatch, since nobody with functioning eyes could possibly miss the meaning of a pitch behind the head of a hitter who’d played “Wade in the Water” on his dollar the previous time up.

The Reds got the best revenge of all that time when Dietrich batted again in the eighth and hit one that traveled only as far as the right field seats. They can’t all be splash hits. And that should have been the end of it once and for all. Except that nobody sent the Pirates the memo.

If you can consider it good news, neither Archer nor Kela waited as long as then-Giants reliever Hunter Strickland once waited to drill Bryce Harper over a pair of division series bombs. If you think Kela sending a message over an almost three-month old incident is ridiculous, you should have heard what they called Strickland hitting Harper in the hip with the first pitch of an inning almost three years later.

Kela never faced Dietrich until Tuesday night. He also has the nerve to suggest he’s being made an example for simply being honest, receiving a ten-game suspension for his role in opening Tuesday’s festivities. Kela should consider himself fortunate that a ten-game siddown-and-shaddap is all he got.

But he doesn’t. He actually has the nerve to appeal the sentence. If baseball’s discipline chief Joe Torre still has a shred of intelligence, he’ll rule, “Appeal denied.” For once in its life baseball government sends a powerful message. A starting pitcher getting a five-game suspension gets, basically, nothing. A relief pitcher getting ten games hurts an awful lot more.

On Tuesday night, home plate umpire Larry Vanover issued warnings to both sides after Kela bent Dietrich, who jerked back to save himself a hole in the head, before striking him out to retire the side. A few Reds including Joey Votto had a few sweet nothings to chirp toward Kela.  “You’re a pussy, bro. That’s pussy shit,” Votto hollered. “[Fornicate] off!” Kela appeared to chirp back. “This is how we play [fornicating] baseball!”

Reds manager David Bell got himself ejected later in the eighth after arguing a questionable strike call against Puig. Reds reliever Jared Hughes decided for himself what the warnings didn’t mean when he drilled Starling Marte on the first pitch when Marte batted in the top of the ninth. Hughes was ejected promptly and Amir Garrett was brought in to relieve him.

After getting Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman to ground out, he threw pinch hitter Jose Osuna so meaty a two-seam fastball that Osuna probably had no choice but to make a three-run homer out of it. Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, managing in Bell’s stead, came to the mound to take the ball.

As Johnson arrived, a Pirate or two including pitcher Trevor Williams chirped toward Garrett, who had some choice words, expletive included, in reply to Pirates first baseman Josh Bell at least. Then, as if hearing a starter’s pistol only he could hear, Garrett jolted Johnson, the Reds, and everyone else in Great American Ballpark when he charged the Pirates dugout, fists swinging, greeted by a swarm of Pirates intent on burying him alive.

The Reds looked so jolted by their man’s charge that it took them a few moments before they finally swarmed the Pirates’ swarm. This time, Puig came a little late to the party, from his right field position, but his initial intent seemed to be getting Garrett the hell out of there, in one piece if possible.

In an irony that’ll be talked about most of the rest of the season, Puig wasn’t even a Red anymore: the news broke minutes before Garrett’s charge that he was going to the Indians in a three-way deal that brought the Reds talented but tortuous pitcher Trevor Bauer and sent Padres bombardier Franmil (The Franimal) Reyes to the Tribe. Puig didn’t yet know he was standing up for technically former teammates.

Come Thursday, after whatever dust settled from the new single trade deadline doings Wednesday, there came the word of who was being punished how, beyond Kela’s ten-game sentence:

Garrett—eight games, for charging the Pirate dugout like a bull.

Osuna—five games, for whatever he was doing during the rumble near the dugout.

Hughes—three games for drilling Marte.

Pirates pitcher Kyle Crick—three games for, presumably, swinging fists.

Puig—three games, likewise, for “aggressive actions,” probably because he returned to the pile after seeming to depart after trying to extract Garrett.

Bell—six games, for being foolish enough to return to the field and join the party after he’d been ejected over the Puig strike call.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle—two games, not just over the Tuesday night scrum but because one of his pitchers was stupid enough to throw at Dietrich again after another did it in April.

Except for Hurdle, who began serving his sentence Friday, they’re all appealing.

There’s a perverse dignity in Kela’s comment upon receiving his ten-game suspension. “Me being honest, I guess the truth will get you crucified,” he told reporters. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to sit here and bald-faced lie. The game sees enough of that.”

It may be refreshing to see a pitcher actually cop to trying to decapitate a hitter who offended him or his team. But what about a pitcher trying to decapitate a hitter over a months-old incident that was presumed reasonably to have been settled business? Kela can plead all he likes that at least he didn’t hit the man, but admitting he threw at and over his head (this is how we play [fornicating] baseball!) is a dangerous look.

Will Dietrich be under a life sentence of brushbacks, knockdowns, and attempted decapitations whenever he faces Pittsburgh pitching? Will the Pirates come under closer scrutiny for the apparent penchant toward inside pitching that seems often enough as though their pitchers don’t care whether even non-plate crowding batters get hit?

Actually, they just might. With Torre’s plain statement singling out “multiple intentional pitches thrown at Dietrich this season,” plus previously known formal complaints from the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Diamondbacks, and the Reds prior to the Tuesday night dance, the Pittsburgh (This is How We Play [Fornicating] Baseball) Pirates now have an official headhunting reputation.

That’ll last longer than any of the suspensions will. And it’ll keep baseball government more than a little on edge, too. The Pirates and the Reds have six more meetings before this season ends. Three in PNC Park in late August; three more in Great American Ballpark to end the regular season. Don’t be shocked to see S.W.A.T. teams deployed strategically at each ballpark until those sets end without further ado, if they do.

Pushing a plate crowder off the plate is one thing. Trying to assassinate a guy who’s guilty of nothing more than hitting a couple of over-three-month-old, glandular home runs, and admiring his handiwork in a moment he doesn’t expect to be that glandular, makes you look smaller than a garden slug.

Kela has something of a reputation for trouble even without the Tuesday night soiree. The Rangers may have been pitching needy at the time but it didn’t stop them from shipping him out of town and to the Pirates at last year’s old non-waiver trade deadline after a number of unsavoury incidents with his Texas teammates.

A week before the rumble with the Reds the Pirates suspended Kela a pair of games over a fight with the team’s performance coach Hector Morales. On Wednesday, a report at MLB Trade Rumours suggested the Pirates talked to the Brewers about a trade that would send Kela to Milwaukee. Even headhunters have their limits with their own.

As in April, I’m reminded of something Nats reliever Sean Doolittle said last fall, when proclaiming himself all in on baseball’s reputed drive to let the kids play. “I promise you, they’re not disrespecting the game,” Doolittle said last fall of the those batters who dial long distance, if not the river, and celebrate on the spot.

If you’re the pitcher who surrenders such bombs, Doolittle had a further message: “If you got your feelings hurt, that’s on you. If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit.”

Concurrently, if you’re the hitter who just got struck out stylishly enough by the enemy pitcher, it’s on you if you take offense should the pitcher simulate fanning a pistol (Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley did that now and then) or shooting an arrow into your hide. Letting the kids have fun should work both ways. Doolittle knows it.

Maybe that’s one reason why he’s enjoying a successful season as perhaps the only Nats relief pitcher who wasn’t prone to throwing gasoline on fires for too long while the Pirates sink deep into the NL Central basement. Maybe, too, they ought to post Doolittle’s words in the Pirates’ clubhouse and bullpen. The Pirates’, and everyone’s.