Three-ball blues

The Ball

This is the baseball I landed during batting practise before Opening Day at Angel Stadium this year. (I gave it to my son who attended with me.) Who knew if it was juiced or drained?

Signing with the Mets for two years and $86 million was good with and for Justin Verlander. But it may not be the most important thing he did outside pitching the decisive World Series Game Six. The most important thing the future Hall of Famer did this year was buttonhole a baseball official before a game against the Yankees in June and demand, “When are you going to fix the [fornicatin’] baseballs?”

It’s not the first time he complained. In 2017, Verlander was just one of several who noticed and complained that balls used that postseason were a little too smooth for comfort. And it got worse instead of better. By 2021, Major League Baseball had two kinds of baseballs, one slightly heavier than the other, and thus containing a little more life than the other.

With a lot of help from Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist and baseball fan whose passion is examining the makeup of baseballs and who’s discovered the Show can’t get it straight or consistent, Insider exposed 2021’s two-ball tango. The Insider reporter who delivered Dr. Wills’s discoveries and alarms, Bradford William Davis, has now seen and raised: in 2022, baseball played its own version of “Three Ball Blues.”

That vintage blues song discussed pawn shops, the traditional sign for which is three golden balls. The lyrics include the old joke inside the pawn business: “It’s two to one, buddy, you don’t get your things out at all.” Baseball’s three-ball blues may mean it’s two to one on getting its integrity back after engaging its own kind of cheating—still inconsistent and often juiced balls.

Not necessarily in the final game scores. Davis and Wills suggest powerfully that baseball’s government wanted a little more oomph on behalf of a lot more hype, with certain events such as the Home Run Derby, the postseason, and maybe even Aaron Judge’s chasing and passing Roger Maris as the American League’s new single-season home run king.

Verlander was far from the only player to complain. Davis says Giants outfielder Austin Slater fell upon that 2021 Insider story, sought to collect balls to send Wills for analysis, and was ordered by “a top executive in the commissioner’s office” to back off.

“The warning,” Davis says, “sent in the form of text messages that Insider reviewed, came via a [Major League Baseball Players Association] official who was relaying the league executive’s displeasure.” Displeasure over what? Being caught red-handed delivering inconsistently-made baseballs about which the game’s own commissioner seems distinctly under-alarmed?

Rob Manfred told reporters before the All-Star Game that, yup, we had two balls in 2021, but it was the fault of a pandemic-times issue in Rawlings’s Costa Rica manufacturing plant: closues and supply chain issues, as Davis translates, meant MLB’s plan to stay with a new, lighter, deader ball was compromised when it had to “dip into a reserve stock of the older, heavier, livelier balls for some 2021 games.”

MLB claimed random distribution between the two 2021 balls. Davis’s 2021 reporting via Dr. Wills brought forth suspicions that MLB wasn’t just doing it randomly, that at times they were sending balls to certain places for certain series depending on what they thought might be the gate: say, a game between a pair of also-rans might get the deader ball but a game between a pair of big rivals or contenders might get the livelier ball.

Now Manfred told that July conference think nothing of it, we’ve got it knocked, we’re sticking to the deader ball, and every ball made for 2022 will be consistent. Not so fast, Dr. Wills discovered, according to Davis: “Major League Baseball did not settle into using a single, more consistent ball last season, Wills’ research suggests: the league used three.”

By the time Manfred made that statement in July, Wills had already found evidence that at least a handful of those older, livelier, “juiced” balls — the ones that the “new manufacturing process” purportedly replaced — were still in circulation. Though these juiced balls are from 2021 or earlier, according to manufacturing markings, they were in use in 2022; Insider obtained two of them from a June 5 Yankees match against the Tigers.

Over the next few months, Wills and Insider—with whom Wills exclusively shared her research—worked together to collect game balls for her to painstakingly deconstruct, weigh, and analyze. What she found was striking: In addition to that small number of older juiced balls and the newer dead balls, Wills found evidence that a third ball was being used at stadiums across the majors.

Davis says Wills’s data indicates production on the third ball began six months before Manfred promised 2022 as a single-ball season. “This new third ball’s weight,” Davis writes,

centers somewhere between the juiced ball the league phased out last season and the newly announced dead ball: It is, on average, about one-and-a-half grams lighter than the juiced ball and one gram heavier than the dead ball. According to the league’s own research, a heavier ball tends to have more pop off the bat, meaning the third ball would likely travel farther than a dead ball hit with equal force.

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge had no clue whether he’d be pitched a dead, lead, or Super Ball while chasing Roger Maris this year.

Wills calls it “the Goldilocks ball: not too heavy, not too light—but just right.” But this isn’t the Three Bears we’re talking about here. This is about the possibility that hitters didn’t know going in when one hefty swing would send a ball over the fence but another such hefty swing with the same square, powerful contact might result in a sinking line drive, a dying quail, or a long out.

In other words, Judge—who’s just signed a nine-year/$360 million deal to remain a Yankee, after betting big on himself during his contract walk year—had no clue just what he was going to hit, and I don’t mean fastball, curve ball, slider, cutter, or sinker. Nobody knows for certain whether or how many such Goldilocks balls Judge sent into the Delta Quadrant. And that’s allowing for him being strong enough to hit a clump of seaweed into the second deck.

“But we do know,” Davis writes, “that the league keeps track of information that would permit it—if it wanted—to know which balls get used in each game. According to two sources familiar with MLB’s ball shipment process, the league not only directs where its balls are sent, it also knows which boxes its game compliance monitors–league employees tasked with ensuring each team adheres to league rules–approve and use before each game starts.”

Baseball government people were handed the net results of Dr. Wills’s reseach and all but waved it away with an all but run-along-girlie-you-bother-me statement:

The 2022 MLB season exclusively used a single ball utilizing the manufacturing process change announced prior to the 2021 season, and all baseballs were well within MLB’s specifications. Multiple independent scientific experts have found no evidence of different ball designs. To the contrary, the data show the expected normal manufacturing variation of a handmade natural product.

Rawlings itself, co-owned by MLB since 2018, issued a similar statement:

This research has no basis in fact. There was no ‘3rd ball’ manufactured and the ball manufactured prior to the 2021 process change was fully phased out following the 2021 season. All balls produced for the 2022 season utilized the previously announced process change.

While storage conditions during research can easily impact ball weight measurements, a one-gram difference in ball weight would be within normal process variation. We continue to produce the most consistent baseball in the world despite the variables associated with a handmade product of natural materials.

Davis demurs. “While lighter and less bouncy than the balls used before Rawlings switched up its manufacturing in 2021,” he writes, “the Goldilocks balls have a weight profile that makes them livelier and more batter-friendly than the dead balls that the league says it now uses exclusively.”

To which Manfred says, essentially, Integrity of the game? Shut up and get back to shortening the times of games without even thinking about cutting down the broadcast commercials. Any time Manfred comes up with something reasonable—the universal designated hitter, slightly larger bases, the advent of Robby the Umpbot—he comes up with or allows about five or more unreasonable things to counteract.

Differing baseballs aren’t just “unreasonable.” They strike at the very core (pun intended) of competition at least as profoundly as something like Astrogate did, on both sides of the ball. Pitchers who don’t know whether they’ll be given a grippable ball to pitch have just as much skin in this game as hitters who don’t know whether they’ll square up a dead, lead, or Super Ball.

The men who play the game, the fans who pay to see them play, the team builders  tasked with putting the teams on the field, and the managers who have to run the games and make the moves that mean distinction or disaster, deserve as level a field as possible.

The era of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances was considered criminal for undermining the level playing field. Tanking teams are considered criminally negligent for providing something less than truly competitive product. Likewise, when it comes to honest competition, inconsistently-made baseballs should be considered weapons of mash  destruction.

Enough, already

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, shown before a Reds game in Great American Ballpark in 2018. His letter to commissioner Rob Manfred should receive a single-word answer.

Last Friday, TMZ revealed Pete Rose sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred four days earlier. Just how TMZ obtained the letter is open to speculation. Some might suspect someone in Manfred’s office leaked it; some might suspect Rose himself. Neither suspicion is implausible.

If you’re inclined toward charitable thought, Rose’s letter is a letter of apology, an acknowledgement of accountability, a plea for forgiveness from a man who’s been punished enough via the opprobrium he still receives as baseball’s most prominent exile.

But if you temper charity with realism, it’s yet another example of what The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal describes as words ringing hollow from a man who can’t get out of his own way. A man who still doesn’t get it. A man whose most stubborn remaining partisans still don’t get it, either.

“[F]or Rose,” Rosenthal writes, “untrustworthy behaviour is nothing new.

He spent the first fourteen years of his ban denying that he bet on baseball, including in his 1989 autobiography, Pete Rose: My Story. He served five months in prison in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. A secret meeting in Milwaukee with former commissioner Bud Selig in 2002, during which he admitted betting on baseball as a manager for the first time, also apparently went awry. News of the meeting leaked, and Rose promptly followed it with an appearance at a sports book in Las Vegas.

Two years later, Rose released a second autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, as the Hall of Fame prepared to induct two new members, Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Rose said the timing wasn’t his fault. Nothing is ever his fault . . .

For all Manfred knows, he could reinstate Rose and then be subjected to some other bombshell. Rose has admitted to betting on baseball only after his playing career ended. But in June 2015, ESPN obtained copies of betting records from 1986 that provided the first written corroboration Rose had gambled on games as the Reds’ player-manager. It’s always something.

In August, the proof that it’s always something reared grotesquely enough after Manfred agreed to allow Rose to take part in the Phillies’ commemoration of their 1980 World Series title. Rose made it far less about that 1980 team and far more about himself.

It took nothing more than Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey doing nothing worse than her job, asking Rose whether his presence—considering that only the statute of limitations kept him from facing consequences over an early-1970s extramarital affair with a teenage girl—thus sent a negative message to women. Saying he wasn’t at Citizens Bank Park to talk about that, Rose added, “It was 55 years ago, babe.”

“Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey,” I wrote then. “Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.”

That’s the Rose effect. He makes it all about him. In the same moment, he can and often does make it impossible to look for what he insisted to Manfred should be sought and kept under full focus.

That’s the man who hired on as a baseball predictions analyst for online sports betting site UpickTrade last year and told a presser, “For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989. That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.” (Suspended?)

Until he is, that is. “Despite my many mistakes,” Rose wrote to Manfred now, “I am so proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player—I am the Hit King and it is my dream to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Like all of us, I believe in accountability. I am 81 years old and know that I have been held accountable and that I hold myself accountable. I write now to ask for another chance.”

A man who hung around as a player above and beyond his actual shelf life on behalf of the self-elevating pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record is only slightly more hubristic than the teams enabling him to do it regardless of his actual on-field value. The publicity factor overrode the honest competition factor often enough then and still does, often enough.

Hubris often leads to tunnel vision. It did for Rose. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that he could have retired right after that 1980 Phillies world championship with a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame case even if it meant falling short of Cobb by about 632 hits. There were people (including Rose himself, sometimes) who believed he had some preternatural entitlement to pass Cobb despite his actual playing value.

Rose’s wins above replacement-level [WAR] from his rookie 1963 in Cincinnati to his 1983 World Series ring with Philadelphia: 80.4. Rose’s WAR from 1981-86, when he finally surrendered to Father Time and took himself out of the Reds lineup to stay: -0.8.*

Rose being a Hit King shouldn’t make a single bit of difference to Manfred. Not now, not ever. Rose’s pride in his playing accomplishments shouldn’t make a single bit of difference. Nor, for that matter, should any of MLB’s promotional deals with this or that online legal gambling operation. (Don’t go there, Roseophiles: Gambling isn’t the only legal activity for which your employers can discipline or fire you for indulging on the job. Just ask anyone who ever lost a job for showing up high as a kite, wired up the kazoo, or bombed out of his or her trees.)

There’s only one thing Manfred should consider. It’s called Rule 21(d). The rule against betting on baseball. The rule that makes no distinction between whether you bet on or against your team. The rule that calls for permanent, not “lifetime” banishment. The rule that prompted the Hall of Fame itself—faced with the prospect of Rose’s election despite its mandated punishment—to enact its own rule barring those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list from standing for election on any Hall ballot.

Rose “can continue pleading to Manfred, appealing to public sympathy. But Rose, to borrow a term from horse racing, one of his favorite sports, is getting left at the gate,” Rosenthal writes. “His race for Cooperstown remains permanently stalled, and it’s no one’s fault but his own.”

Accordingly, the commissioner’s sole answer to Rose now and forever should be, “No.” As for any and everyone else, the answer now and forever should be, but probably won’t be, Enough, already.

——————————————————————————————————

* By contrast, Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. pulled up on the positive side of the WAR ledger when they broke revered career records. Aaron, the year he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record: 2.1. Ryan, the year he broke Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record: 2.6. Ripken, the year he broke Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak: 3.9.

Come to think of it, when Ryan threw a bullet past Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to record lifetime strikeout number 5,000—with then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in the ballpark itching to pump his fist celebrating the milestone—he was having an All-Star caliber 5.1 WAR season in the bargain.

Ryan, of course, was an outlier even among outliers, a point forgotten often enough and conveniently enough by the ill-informed who insist on comparing pitchers since to him and wondering why simply no one has his one-of-a-kind endurance. 

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.

Bauer outage: suspended two years

Trevor Bauer

Bauer’s two-year suspension won’t ease his victims’ pain or his way back to baseball—and in that order.

In considering Trevor Bauer’s unprecedented two-season suspension Friday for violating MLB’s domestic violence protocols, under which he won’t be paid and the Dodgers will be off the hook for the rest of his salary, I can’t help harking back to something pointed out last August. That’s when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dianna Gould-Saltman lifted a temporary restraining order against the pitcher.

During the hearings preceding that lift, the victim in the case testified for twelve hours. Bauer’s legal team may have drawn some inconsistencies from her regarding secondary items, but as Cup of Coffee writer and former NBC Sports analyst Craig Calcaterra wrote then, they never discredited “the central claim that he assaulted her in horrible ways.”

Maybe that makes it harder for the accuser to recover any money from him in a civil suit. Maybe that makes a prosecutor less likely to bring a criminal claim against Bauer for fear of the case being difficult. But the central truth of this entire affair—the stuff that Major League Baseball will look to regarding Bauer’s behavior, irrespective of whether charges are brought—points pretty clearly to Bauer doing exactly what his accuser said he did. Everything else is secondary.

After 12 hours of testimony, his accuser said, under oath, “I did not consent to bruises all over my body that sent me to the hospital and having that done to me while I was unconscious.” There was zero evidence presented which explained how those bruises appeared in a way that was benign or refuted the idea that the woman was unconscious when Bauer inflicted them. That, in my mind, is all that matters. (Emphasis added.)

This past February the 31-year-old righthander found himself off the purely legal hook, after Los Angeles County prosecutors decided not to press criminal charges against him. “Those words don’t say the evidence is false,” I wrote at the time, “as much as they say getting a criminal conviction at trial would be tougher than hitting an outside slider over the center field fence.”

The Dodgers knew Bauer was a mere misogynist when they signed him as a free agent in February 2021. “The Dodgers didn’t know Bauer would be accused of sexual assault,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernández. “However, they knew he was always in some sort of trouble.

They knew how respected baseball people such as Kevin Towers and Terry Francona wanted nothing to do with him. They knew he sliced open his pitching hand repairing a drone.

They knew he threw a ball over the centerfield wall instead of handing it to the manager when he was taken out of a game. They knew of his online harassment campaign against a female college student . . . The question was never about whether Bauer would get into trouble; the question was about what kind of trouble he would get into.

But almost from the moment Bauer’s suspension was announced, defenders sprang up all around the social media universe to decry justice denied. He was cleared of all wrongdoing by a court of law! Well, not exactly. Wrongdoers aren’t always compelled to answer for their wrongdoing in the courts.

Employees from the most obscure clerk, warehouse worker, or line worker, to the highest-powered executives do get suspended and even fired from their jobs over wrongdoings that won’t get them into legal trouble at all, never mind prison time or fines. They are no less wrongdoings for lacking the weight of the law’s punishments.

Why would baseball suspend Bauer two full seasons if prosecutors decided they couldn’t get a criminal conviction against him? ESPN writers Alden Gonzalez and Jeff Passan asked and answered:

The standards in criminal and civil cases differ from those of a private business. The judge dissolving the temporary restraining order and declining to issue a permanent one does not absolve Bauer of liability within the joint policy. Neither does a prosecutor passing on pressing charges.

MLB’s imposed discipline is based on its own investigation, separate from the criminal proceedings. The league’s investigation into Bauer’s case lasted 10 months. Details about MLB’s findings have not been released, but the league’s investigators considered more than just the sexual assault allegations of the San Diego woman from last year. They looked into at least one other allegation, from an Ohio woman who sought a temporary restraining order against Bauer in June of 2020, details of which were reported by the Washington Post.

Hours after Bauer’s suspension was announced, the Post published a story about another Ohio woman who accused Bauer of choking her unconscious without consent during sex on multiple occasions over the course of a relationship that dated back to 2013. Bauer strongly denied those allegations, as he did the allegations by the other women. But the two Ohio women told the Post they cooperated with the league’s investigation, and we don’t know if others were involved as well.

What kind of sex you enjoy is irrelevant so long as it’s with a fellow human and under mutual, conscious consent. What you do while your partner is unconscious and thus unable to consent any further is very relevant when you’re being investigated formally after accusations of sexual assault, whether it’s a legal investigation or one by your employer.

There are those among Bauer’s defenders who raise the question as to why it should have been Bauer and not other known domestic violence violators to be hit with a hammer as heavy as the one with which he’s been hit. (Bauer said at once he’d appeal the suspension.) That’s not an unfair question.

Among others, Yankee relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman was suspended thirty games in 2016 for choking his girlfriend and possessing a firearm he fired into a wall. Then-Cubs infielder Addison Russell was suspended forty games in 2018—after the Cubs lost the National League wild card game—for beating his now-former wife. Braves outfielder Marcel Ozuna was suspended twenty games retroactively in November 2021 over what proved to be trying to choke his wife before throwing her against a wall and hitting her with the cast on his broken left hand.

Those were letting such crimes off the hook too easily, even allowing that those players “accepted responsibility” for their acts. But then free agent reliever Sam Dyson was suspended for the entire 2021 season after his former girlfriend accused him of rape, battery, and psychological abuse.

Some of Bauer’s defenders think commissioner Rob Manfred came down heaviest upon Bauer because Bauer’s been an outspoken critic of of Manfred’s administration in the past, before his sexual assault issues came forth. A very few of those defenders even implied Bauer’s entire domestic violence issue might have been ginned up as a way to try shutting him up.

Even Manfred isn’t that foolish. You’d have to have precisely the imaginative mind Manfred lacks to forge that kind of plot just to push a particulaly outspoken critic to one side. Even if you’re a commissioner who can be accused of abuse of power. But there is a way for Manfred to show he doesn’t care what his in-game critics say or think when it comes to certain very grave matters.

Get with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and adjust the domestic violence protocol to allow for suspending any player found violating baseball’s domestic violence policy for one full season’s worth of games minimum from now on. I phrase it that way because they won’t all come forth before a season begins, as Dyson’s did.

The bad news is that even that won’t ease their victims’ pain. But it would send forth a more powerful affirmation that baseball suffers no domestic violence benignly and that, no, Bauer wasn’t just singled out for particular punishment, for any corresponding reason.

Baseball’s unlocked. But . . .

“I believe that God/put sun and moon up in the sky./I don’t mind the gray skies/’cause they’re just clouds passing by.” So wrote Duke Ellington, and sang Mahalia Jackson, in his 1943 magnum opus reworked for 1958’s album  Black, Brown, and Beige. The lyric was part of a segment called “Come Sunday.”

Come Sunday, this Sunday, the gray skies yield metaphorically as spring training finally begins. And, early-series cancellations notwithstanding, there will indeed be 2,430 regular season baseball games played in a 162-game schedule this year. It might mean a tighter calendar, of course. But, given that, does it now feel as though spring has arrived properly at last?

Baseball’s owners’ lockout, which ended 26 years of labour “peace” needlessly, ended Thursday. Commissioner Rob Manfred called it a “defensive lockout.” Those who believe that might as well believe Vladmir Putin decided to defend himself against Ukranian “aggression.”

The owners could very well have elected to let baseball continue operating while they negotiated and hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement. The now-concluded 99-day lockout was and will ever be on them entirely. But they had the players right where the players wanted them. Sort of.

The players now have the owners accepting the largest hike in the so-called competitive balance tax—too long used by the owners as a de facto salary cap—since the tax was born after the 1994-95 players’ strike. They also have the owners accepting the largest jump ever in the minimum major league player’s salary, and a pre-arbitration bonus pool for young players emerging as early stars that’s worth $230 million new money just over the time span of the new CBA.

Yet the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vote for accepting the terms was a mere 26-12. The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich writes that it was “telling” for “roughly a third of the executive board [feeling] there was more to accomplish right now, in continued negotiations in 2022, not in the future.”

There’s the warning from Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark: The new competitive-balance tax threshold may not necessarily mean putting the “competitive balance” all the way into it:

You know those seven teams that came within $8 million of going over the [old] threshold last year? They’re likely to do that same thing this year—other than the Mets, who are already well north of it. But if all those teams spend another $20 million or so apiece, that’s a notch in the win column for players, except for one thing . . . teams that weren’t spending money before still have no incentive to spend now.

“All this does is just increase payroll disparity,” said one longtime club official. “Just because the Phillies go up $10 million doesn’t mean a team like the Marlins goes up $10 million.”

In other words, there’s still room enough for continuing tanking. Maybe that was why that one-third of the union’s executive board felt there was still more to get done now, if not yesterday. Remember Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter took a hike from running the Marlins almost a fortnight ago, saying, essentially, that he didn’t sign up to preside over the Fish only to see their “direction” resemble a killifish and not a barracuda.

What, then, of commissioner Rob Manfred, who is probably the single worst salesman in baseball and barely sold it when he proclaimed at a Thursday press conference that he was “thrilled” the lockout was over and a new deal was done?

At least three questions presented to him inquired about future mended relationships between MLB and those who actually play baseball. Manfred actually doffed his stegasaurus-in-the-china-shop cloak to admit he hasn’t been so successful at promoting “a good relationship with our players. I’ve tried to do that. I have not been successful at that.”

Gee, what gave him the clue? Standing with almost no apology for the precept that the general good of the game is making money for the owners? Allowing the owners to go 43 days worth of silent after their lockout began? Dismissing the World Series championship trophy as “a piece of metal” while not quite holding all the Houston cheaters accountable when Astrogate tainted their 2017 World Series title and outraged as large a percentage of players as it did fans?

Saying it was Mike Trout’s fault Trout wasn’t considered baseball’s face outside the game itself? Abetting the owners trying to cheat the players out of their proper pro-rated 2020 salaries during the pan-damn-ically short season? Tinkering like Rube Goldberg with the game’s play, from the free cookie on second base to open each half inning to the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers?

Manfred did at least observe that the new deal should give the owners and the players more than a little room to move on working out such things as doing away with draft-pick compensation for players reaching free agency; and, on establishing a joint committee aimed at addressing issues involving field competition. But . . .

“The committee can implement rules changes with 45 days notice,” writes another Athletic staffer, Ken Rosenthal, “and with the league holding a majority of members, Manfred can push through any changes he desires. Will he do it, continuing the league’s chest-pounding, zero-sum style? Or will he and league officials show greater understanding that players are the product, and become better listeners?”

They’ve barely understood, if at all, that no fan has ever paid his or her way into a ballpark to see their team’s owner. “Recent history suggests that when the owners give in one area, they take from another, which again leaves the middle class of players vulnerable,” Rosenthal warns. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for the league to suddenly become more benevolent to its most valued employees, though even a mildly less aggressive approach would be helpful.”

But Rosenthal points to at least one team administrator not named Steve Cohen (the deepest-of-deep-pockets owner of the Mets whom enough owners fear for his willingness to invest in his team and its organisation) who has more than a clue. “It’s paramount,” said Twins president Dave St. Peter on a Zoom call to writers covering the team, “that we as an industry do a better job of building trust with our players.”

Coming in the wake of such petty tacks as scrubbing players from MLB’s own Website early in the lockout, St. Peter’s words may sound encouraging on the surface. But it’s wise to remember a remark once made often enough by the maverick journalism legend Sidney Zion: Trust your mother, but cut the cards.

Try not to get too hopped up over the new service-time adjustments, either, which mean rookies finishing with the Rookie of the Year or in second place for the award get a full year’s service time even if he didn’t spent the entire season in the Show. “[A]ny system based on counting days is a system that can be manipulated,” Stark warns. “So why do we suspect we could be back in this same, uncomfortable place in five years, trying to remind the powers that be again that there’s something wrong with a sport that rewards teams for not putting its best players on the field.”

For the moment, we can revel in a few things. The entire baseball family, from the teams to the fans, is watching to see the swift enough movement of the game’s remaining free agents. And we’ll be spared at long enough last the overwhelming, century-plus-old futility of pitchers at the plate wasting outs (those who can hit have always. been. outliers), now that the designated hitter will be universal instead of everywhere but the National League.

At long enough last, we should see a cutback in basepath injuries thanks to coming new bases that will be—relax, ladies and gentlemen—a mere three inches larger than the bases have been in the past, but designed with more give that may mean less leg injuries taking players out for two-thirds of a season or longer.

That twelve-team postseason format? With three wild cards per league? The good news is that the odds of a team with a losing record making the postseason under it aren’t great. Since the first wild-card game in 2013, Stark says, if this format had been in play only once might a sub-.500 team have burglarised its way into the postseason: 2017. (The Angels, the Rays, or the Royals.) And, the extra-card clubs would still average 87 wins.

“So despite this expansion,” Stark continues, “the baseball playoffs will still be the most difficult to make among the four major professional sports.” And still rather profitable for the owners, who stand to pull down $85 million postseason from ESPN with the third wild card. They may also change the trade deadline atmosphere, as Stark observes: “More buyers. Fewer sellers. Less incentive for teams hovering near contention in July to hold those depressing closeout sales.” May.

Myself, I remain in favour of something else: eliminating the wild cards entirely, adding two more major league teams to make sixteen-team leagues, and doing away with regular-season interleague play. But with or without the third of those, 1) divide each sixteen-team league into four four-team conferences; 2) best-of-three conference championships; 3) best-of-five League Championship Series (you know, the way the LCS was from 1969-85); and, 4) leaving the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Goodbye postseason saturation, welcome home genuine championship.

For now, I hope, too, that the remaining 525 pre-1980, short-career players maneuvered out of the 1980 pension realignment won’t be forgotten much longer, either. The lockout also suspended the annual stipend the late MLBPA director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig got them—$625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. (It would have been paid normally in February.)

Which would, of course, require what they once called the vision thing. This commissioner and his bosses tend to lack that. Today’s players have it, but they could use a lot more depth. Doing right further for those pre-1980 men whose playing careers were short, but who supported the union in its most critical early years, toward the end of reserve era abuse, and the rightful advent of free agency, would show vision even philosophers only imagine having.