Who hit Manfred with the smart stick?

2020-08-11 BasebrawlAstrosAs

A second drill of Ramon Laureano Sunday, followed by a vulgar insult thrown his way by Alex Cintron (who ducked away when the rumble began), triggers the brawl above . . . and gets Cintron suspended 20 but Laureano, six.

Mark well today’s date on your calendar. 11 August 2020. Until further notice, it will stand as Rob Manfred’s finest hour.

Alex Cintron, the Houston Astros hitting coach who goaded Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano into charging the Astro dugout with an expletive Latinos consider grounds for justifiable homicide at most—suspended twenty games with no right to appeal.

Laureano, who’d been hit by Astro pitches three times last weekend and twice on Sunday, then had to put up with chirping from the Astro dugout after he pantomimed a slider grip following the second Sunday plunk—six games with a right to appeal. (And he should.)

Commissioner Nero using the brains he was born with for once—priceless.

USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale broke the news of Cintron first, Laureano immediately to follow, at about mid-day today. And while you can think that a player missing six games is a lot more critical than a coach missing twenty, especially in a pandemic-truncated season that still seems more Alfred Hitchcockian than Billy Hitchcockian, Cintron hit with the heaviest hammer sends a huge message.

Several key Astros hitters aren’t exactly running the table at the plate so far this year. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and George Springer are hitting at or below the Mendoza Line. Alex Bregman is hitting more like Alex P. Keaton. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley are hitting like themselves, more or less, but those three aren’t always club carriers.

Wags, try to resist temptation to say you can’t hit what you don’t know in advance. But don’t let Cintron off the hook. A team who needs their hitting coach to hit their reset buttons at the plate needs to lose that hitting coach about as much as Mike Trout needs to lose his batting eye.

With one moment of abject stupidity, Cintron cost the Astros badly-needed resetting. Twenty games in a 162-game season is twelve percent of a long season. Twenty games in a truncated, 60-game season is a full third of a season that’s already been cast for an episode of The Outer Limits.

It’s not that charging the Astro dugout after Cintron uncorked his insult was necessarily brilliant on Laureano’s part, and Laureano knows it. But I’ll say it again: A Latino especially who knows that the vulgar version of “maternal fornicator” is a pair of fighting words to most Latino men is saying something at least as stupid as a certain American president saying the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic ended World War II.

Hurling that insult at a Latino gets you pounded into hamburger at minimum. At maximum, it can get you a shot in the head, or any other portion of your body at which the gun might be aimed.

And what the hell did Cintron or the Astros expect Laureano to do when he’d been hit by a second pitch Sunday and a third all weekend long? Send flowers? Blow them to steak dinners with all the trimmings?

We’re not exactly taking Commissioner Nero all the way off the hook just yet. His handling of the Astrogate scandal was a masterpiece of deferred accountability. He suspended a manager and general manager, fined an owner what amounts to tip money, and let every Astro player availing himself of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal electronic sign-stealing network off the hook in return for spilling the deets.

He had to know good and bloody well that the Astros versus the A’s might have potential sub-stories, considering it was an A’s pitcher (and former Astro), Mike Fiers, who finally got fed up at the absence of press interest, no matter how many reporters he and others in the know told, and blew the whistle to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

You’d have to have been either a fool or a freshly-landed exile from the Klingon home world not to think that there was even a small chance that the Astros—who were only too notoriously un-apologetic about Astrogate this past aborted spring—might feel a little less remorse than repulsed that the A’s still harboured the big snitch.

Even if the A’s rotation setting meant Fiers wasn’t going to face them on the weekend. Even if the Astros’ pitching staff is injury-plagued enough that they lean as much on rookies such as the ones who did four-fifths of the weekend plunking. (Zack Greinke hit Robbie Grossman last Friday night.) Rookies aren’t immune to persuasions from their elders that one good way to make the team’s good graces is to send little messages in manners, however wrong or warped.

And, with everyone in baseball knowing that about seven-eighths of MLB players wanted if not demanded the proper Astrogate justice Manfred wouldn’t administer, Commissioner Nero looked even more foolish suspending Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly eight games for sending message pitches to Bregman and Correa in the same inning.

Nobody disputes that throwing upside Bregman’s head was dangerous stuff. But nobody with a mind disputes that Manfred’s hammer on Kelly’s head—which is still under appeal at this writing—looked even more arbitraily punitive, with or without the truncated season, compared to the blanket amnesty he granted the Astrogaters.

He did likewise with the Boston Red Sox and their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, of course. And, just as the Astros’ 2017 World Series title became tainted forever, so does the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series title. (Managed by Astrogate co-mastermind Alex Cora, the ’17 Astros’ bench coach/spymater.)

But those who still think the Astros get an unfair greater volume of scorn should remember there was (and remains) a significant difference between the two. One more time: The Astros went a few dozen bridges farther with their Astro Intelligence Agency, either installing or altering a real-time camera to facilitate their underground sign-stealing television network.

The Rogue Sox merely used what was already made available, at home and on the road. Nobody supplied the replay rooms with multiple video monitors for cheating, of course, but those rooms amounted to handing teenage boys the keys to the hooch hutch and telling them to resist temptation until they were of legal age.

Our better angels would like to think Manfred figured a few things out after the Kelly hoopla. Not just because he soon got a hammer to drop on any future cheaters, but because the hoopla reminded him in his heart of hearts that he shouldn’t have let the cheaters in Houston, in Boston, in the south Bronx (the Yankees were merely reprimanded for some 2017 chicanery), and perhaps elsewhere, off the hook anyway.

If our better angels are right, then for once Commissioner Nero put his fiddle down and behaved like an honest-to-God, genuine leader. For once.

The adult in the room wasn’t

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Alex Cintron (right) counsels Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after a hit. Cintron’s nasty, brawl-triggering  insult to Oakland’s Ramon Laureano Sunday shouldn’t go as lightly as Cintron got off for Astrogate.

It’s a shame, really, when something like Sunday afternoon’s basebrawl is what you need to discover a particular player is a decent-seeming fellow. Even when he’s willing to call a man who goaded him obscenely into a fight a loser. Now it still remains to be seen whom commissioner Rob Manfred will suspend more heavily.

Will the hammer fall harder on Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano for charging the Houston Astros dugout? On Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron for climbing the dugout steps forward, urging Laureano to bring it, after calling Laureano something Latino men consider the most vile insult on earth?

Suspensions were expected Monday afternoon, so swiftly because the brief skirmish by the dugout violated MLB’s tightened COVID-19 safety protocols that enjoin against such rumbles no matter who did what.

By 7:30 pm Pacific time Monday, though, suspension lengths hadn’t even been rumoured, even if a host of observers expected if not hoped that Cintron would get the harder hammer drop for being the adult in the room who wasn’t.

On Monday, Laureano told reporters including ESPN’s Jeff Passan that despite being hit by pitches three times over the weekend including twice on Sunday he didn’t hold it against the Astros. Not even against Brandon Bailey, the Astros relief pitcher for whom Laureano was traded by the Astros to the A’s in the first place when they were minor leaguers in 2017.

Bailey drilled Laureano in the fifth on Sunday afternoon. Another Astros reliever, Humberto Castellanos, plunked Laureano on Friday night in extra innings and Sunday in the seventh. Laureano wasn’t exactly alone; his fellow A’s outfielder Robbie Grossman got it twice on Friday night. Laureano (five) and Grossman (four) lead the parade of A’s (fourteen) taking one for the team so far this truncated season.

The latter triggered Laureano to pantomime a proper slider grip toward Castellanos before he took first base and returned chirpings wafting from the Astros dugout. But the chirpings apparently included Cintron referring to Laureano as the crude euphemism for maternal fornicator.

“[Saying] in Spanish something you don’t say about my mother,” is how Laureano put it to Passan. In places where they don’t play professional baseball, saying that to most  Latino men can get you beaten senseless, assuming you can be beaten into a pre-existing condition. It can also get you stabbed or even shot.

Cintron being Latino himself should have known better. Suppose the reverse was true and it was Laureano who called Cintron a maternal fornicator? Would Cintron have resisted the urge to charge his fellow Latino with drawing and quartering on his mind?

We’ll never know what Laureano would have done if he could have reached Cintron Sunday afternoon. The coach who urged Laureano to bring it after the insult stepped aside and let other Astros do his dirty work. Except that Laureano’s former A’s teammate, Astros reserve catcher Dustin Garneau, tackled him specifically to keep him from getting bloodied.

The insult resonated with Laureano more than many of his peers, since his parents courageously enough sent him from the Dominican Republic to the United States alone so he could chase his baseball dreams. The chase has borne fruit; Laureano in three Show seasons has become something of a stealth star who’s thought to have the game’s best outfield throwing arm and showed some pop at the plate in the bargain last year.

Ask and he’ll tell you the only thing he hates about playing major league baseball is being away from his family. “Every day I wake up with the motivation to be with them,” he told Passan. “They sacrificed their life for me.”

They made the tough decision to let their own kid go to the States by himself and follow his own dreams. I’ve been away from my family for 10 years. It’s tough to be away from them. Any chance I have to be with them, I feel like I’m in heaven. So for [Cintron] to say that to me about my mom, it doesn’t sit well. I’ve got a fire inside me right away in that second.

A’s manager Bob Melvin swore to Cintron hurling the vile epithet at Laureano. Cintron denies he said that specific compound word. The A’s wouldn’t let Laureano tangle with the Astros alone. Their catcher Austin Allen took down Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, who was behind the plate calling every Astro pitch in the set, including the ones that drilled Laureano and Grossman.

Melvin said Monday that Laureano was remorseful about charging the dugout. “I’m a man, I’m a freaking man,” said Laureano, who accepts a suspension being likely. “Whatever happens, happens. I’ll take it. I couldn’t keep my cool and I should have. And I wasted my time with that guy.”

He even went out of his way to say he didn’t think any Astro pitcher who plunked him over the weekend did so with malice aforethought. “The other days I’ve been on base,” the ex-Astro product said, “we’ve been chitchatting, talking about life and family on the bases. Everything’s great. I get along with everybody on the Astros.”

That would make Laureano another kind of minority this season. Seven-eighths of MLB players, seemingly, wanted the justice Manfred didn’t exact when he immunised Astro players from the 2017-18 electro-cheating. Even if they didn’t dare suggest who’d be the first to deliver or how many would from there.

It might have been turned to one side over the coronavirus world tour, but then Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly served four pungent reminders to two Astros a fortnight ago. Kelly’s eight-game suspension was thought too severe and remains under appeal.

Almost forgotten, too, in Sunday’s rumble by the Bay: Cintron turns out to be suspected of being one of the 2017 men who sent the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegally pilfered sign intelligence from the monitors to the dugout and to the hitters at the plate. Like the players Manfred handed blanket immunity in return for the Astrogate deets, Cintron escaped the woodshed.

Let’s remind ourselves, too, that not a single Astro batter saw a brushback, knockdown, or plunk all weekend long, no matter how often Grossman and Laureano got dusted or drilled.

The Astros couldn’t possibly have been thrilled that A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, himself a former Astro, blew the whistle on Astrogate last November. The A’s may have been fortunate that their starting rotation schedule meant Fiers facing the Texas Rangers the night before the Astro set started and thus not scheduled to go again until this week against the Los Angeles Angels.

Intentional or no, five weekend Oakland plunks from four Astros pitchers (Zack Greinke plunked Grossman earlier in Friday’s game) was a terrible look for a team against the guys whose ranks include their whistleblower. Even if three of those pitchers are rookies.

Even if Laureano is too decent to entertain the prospect that veteran teammates or even a coach or two might have urged those Astros rooks, none of whose minor league jackets show immunity to hit batsmen, to send some messages meant to shoot the messenger’s enablers.

It’ll be a terrible look, too, if Manfred comes down harder on Laureano for charging the dugout than on Cintron for instigating the charge. But Commissioner Nero seems immune to the looks produced by his fiddling reign of error.

Houston, you still have a problem

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Drilled once Friday night and twice Sunday afternoon, Ramon Laureano (22) also wasn’t thrilled an Astros coach called him something that gets people up to and including shot if aimed at Latino men.

The question before the house to begin is, which was the worst look of the weekend now done. The answer may depend on a fiddling commissioner’s disciplinary response.

Until Sunday afternoon’s rumble by the Bay, the worst look might have been otherwise-touted Los Angeles Angels rookie Jo Adell channeling his inner Jose Canseco, letting a fly ball bounce off his upraised glove (alas, not his head) and over the fence.

Was the worst look now Houston Astros pitchers hitting a pair of Oakland Athletics batters five times total during the three-game A’s sweep? Was it Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron goading A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano into a safety protocols-violating dugout charge and brawl after his third such plunk and second on Sunday alone?

Sunday’s story should have been the A’s winning their ninth straight game with a 7-2 triumph following a one-run extra-inning win Friday and a two-run win Saturday. Thanks to the Astros, at this writing the main story’s likely to be Laureano’s punishment for deciding he’d had enough of being used for apparent Astro target practise.

Fellow A’s outfielder Robbie Grossman got hit twice on Friday night, once by well-established veteran Zack Greinke and once by rookie Enoli Paredes. Laureano got it once Friday night, from rookie Humberto Castellanos, and twice Sunday, the second from Castellanos and the first from another Astro rookie, Brandon Bailey.

The tales will include whether Laureano’s fed-up hollering from first base Sunday—he’d gestured previously to Castellanos in a way suggesting he had more to learn about pitching, indicating Laureano allowed that rookies will be rookies, sort of—didn’t turn into Cintron’s throwing an expletive to the outfielder that’s considered grounds for a beatdown at minimum in Laureano’s world.

We’ll know more soon,” tweeted former Astros beat writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz after Sunday’s skirmish, “but a person I respect has been told that the A’s Ramón Laureano charged toward Alex Cintron because Cintron mentioned Laureano’s mother in a bad way. In Latino culture, those are fighting words.”

Ramón doesn’t go there unless something completely offensive came out of the dugout,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin to reporters after the game. “And I think the league knows who that is. And that person should be suspended. So hopefully that’s the case.”

It probably wasn’t brilliant for Laureano to charge the Houston dugout in his outrage, a charge that provoked no few Astros to pour forth and mill and holler and violate the Show’s protocols on health and safety distancing and against brawling on those grounds.

But it was far less brilliant if indeed Cintron threw Laureano the crude expletive for maternal fornicator. Throwing that toward most Latino men (and no few Latino women, for that matter) usually means you come away fortunate if all you got was beaten into a pulp. People have been stabbed or even shot for it.

Cintron also resembled a craven coward for all but telling the outraged Laureano to bring it only to jump to one side when Laureano brought it. Even as Astros catcher Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano in a peacemaking bid for his former teammate.”I was just trying to stop the situation before punches were really thrown and stuff got out of hand,” Garneau told reporters. “That’s really what my whole goal was for that incident.”

“Cintron shouldn’t be suspended for being a coward; that’s just something he’ll have to live with,” writes an outraged enough San Jose Mercury-News columnist Dieter Kurtenbach.

[Laureano] had a right to be mad at Houston, and that’s beyond the sign-stealing stuff.

But the coaches are supposed to be the “adults in the room” and this “adult” was challenging a kid to a fight.

The sidebars are liable to include a little speculation as to whether even the rookie Astros pitchers who did most of the drilling weren’t counseled toward a little payback over a lot of lingering resentment that an A’s pitcher (veteran Mike Fiers) finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November.

Rookies want to impress their teams. They’re sensitive to orders or at least strong suggestions from their elders and superiors, even those that might get them into a little hot water. Even if acting on them tells their elders and superiors that they’re reliable, dependable guys who’ll go to the mattresses for the team right or wrong if need be.

Don’t discount the prospect that Castellanos, Bailey, and Paredes might have been following orders or taking strong suggestions strongly, too. Might. Managers and coaches will still deny to their deaths that they gave the orders, but they’ve been giving such orders or at least hinting very strong such suggestions as long as there’s been organised baseball.

There’s also the prospect that the trio picked up enough from their more established teammates that they might, even for mere moments, have thought about sending the A’s messages regarding Fiers. Might.

They do have rather well enough established control issues among them. In four minor league and winter league seasons Castellanos hit seventeen batters. In three college and four minor league seasons, Bailey hit 21 batters. And, in four minor league seasons, Paredes hit thirteen batters.

The Astros aren’t alone in having to lean upon still-shaky rookies in this truncated season. But five plunks in three games, two against one A’s outfielder and three on another one including two in one game, does. not. look. kosher. whether the plunkers are a trio of shaky rookies, a trio of veterans experienced enough to know better, or a combination of the two.

Unfortunately, the Astros haven’t looked kosher for long enough, either.

Their passionate enough fan base has wrestled since with the revelation that the genuinely great team they rooted for turned out to be high-tech cheaters in the season of their otherwise so-far greatest triumph. That fan base has also wrestled with knowing that it isn’t just other fan bases who think the current generation of Astros is tainted, even if only six regular position players remain from the 2017 roster.

Commissioner Rob Manfred let off the hook every Astro player who partook of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal electronic sign-stealing espionage in return for spilling what they knew. Come spring training, the Astros weren’t exactly apologetic about their high crimes and misdemeanors, provoking what seemed seven-eighths of Show players who didn’t wear Astros fatigues to demand where the justice was or threaten to administer what Commissioner Nero wouldn’t.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly answered those calls a fortnight ago. He decked Alex Bregman and dusted Carlos Correa twice each, in the same inning. It made him a Los Angeles folk hero and a nationwide object of empathy when he was hit with a severe suspension. (It’s still under appeal.) Even those Astro fans admitting their heroes were grand theft felons may think Kelly got burned a little too deep.

Astro batters have been hit nine times since this truncated season finally began. (Third in the league, incidentally.) Of those batters, five were 2017-18 Astros including 2017 World Series MVP George Springer getting it twice. In case you’re curious, A’s batters have been hit fourteen times on the season so far. Grossman’s been drilled four times, Laureano five. There isn’t a jury on the planet who’d say either was unjustified for harbouring lustful thoughts of murder.

The Astros’ new manager, Dusty Baker, has tried playing peacemaker with the rest of the game while trying to shepherd his Astros past the Astrogate stain. Elder though he is it’s not as though Baker has an easy time of such things, all things considered. In a managing career that has taken him to great enough heights and equivalent disaster, Baker this season must surely think there are times when hell would seem a tropical vacation by comparison.

But he’s old school enough to provoke speculation. Would you be shocked upon seeing any speculation, specious though it might be, that Baker or another coach ordered their rookie lancers to give those snitch-sheltering A’s a little something to think about?

(Codicil: Fiers—who actually faced death threats over his whistleblowing—didn’t face the Astros all weekend; he pitched against the Texas Rangers last Thursday and his next scheduled start is tonight against the Los Angeles Angels. The A’s assuredly were not trying to keep him from facing his one-time team over the weekend.)

On the other hand, of course, you wouldn’t necessarily be shocked if Baker knew or was told reliably that Cintron had indeed leveled at Laureano a phrase virtually guaranteed to raise a Latino temperature to nuclear level, and that Baker decided thus that there was no place in an already self-bedeviled Astro clubhouse for such a provocateur.

Especially when the provocation put both sides afoul of the safety protocols the Show tightened up after the Miami Marlins and, especially, the St. Louis Cardinals wrestled en masse with COVID-19 crises canceling games and throwing this Hitchcockian season into further reasonable doubt.

Baker says he doesn’t know if Alex Cintron mentioned Ramón Laureano’s mother while yelling at him before Laureano charged him,” Ortiz tweeted. “But Baker says he learned the hard way how different it is when you mention a Latino’s mother. He vowed to check on the matter.”

Baker might also be reminded that the A’s didn’t get anywhere near hitting a single Astro all weekend long, even when Astro arms hitting Grossman twice on Friday and Laureano once Friday and twice on Sunday might have given any A’s pitcher all the reason on earth to return the disfavour.

Trusty Dusty can be forgiven if he starts wondering just what the hell he signed up for in the first place.