The Show will go on, but . . .

2020-06-23 ManfredBallsOK, so the universal designated hitter won’t be coming just yet. That ought to settle the more stubborn traditionalists, who forget often enough that there’ve been a few traditions baseball was better off without and moved to eliminate them appropriately.

But it looks like we’re going to have major league baseball this year, after all. It also looks like it’s going to be nerve wracking, not just because of a sixty-game season by itself but because the continuing coronavirus world tour may make a few more stops baseball isn’t going to like.

The Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays have had to close their Florida camps when five Phillies-organisation players and one such Blue Jay tested COVID-19 positive. As of Sunday, according to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, forty players and/or team staffers have tested positive for the virus.

And when the Show teams return to work a quick-and-dirty delayed spring training, it looks like they’ll be doing it in their home cities instead of at their normal spring training camps in hard enough-hit Arizona and Florida. Which makes things perhaps a little simpler for most but a little trickier for the Miami Marlins, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That assumes the players can handle such a brief spring training. The Major League Baseball Players Association has until five o’clock Eastern time today to let MLB know the players can report for such abbreviated and re-located spring training by 1 July, with a projected 24 July season opening. Not exactly the (all things considered) ideal Fourth of July season opening many thought would have been big enough.

While you ponder how not-so-great both sides in the MLB impasse have looked, ponder concurently why there was such an impasse in the first place. The owners and commissioner Rob Manfred tried to renege on a late March deal with the players, plain enough and simple enough, for all the complications that followed. If you want a thumbnail sketch here and now, you won’t get much better than NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra:

The terms of that basic framework: the players earned the right to receive prorated pay for however many games played and Major League Baseball would get to decide how many games would, in fact, be played. In light of that, one might’ve assumed that when it came time to set up a 2020 season, it’d be a pretty straightforward thing: the owners, per the March Agreement, would simply say “we’ll play a season of X games” and it’d be done.

Except when the owners first spoke, and proposed an 82-game season in early May, it came with a catch: a demand that the players give up their previously-negotiated right to prorated pay and accept different financial terms. Legally speaking the owners had no right to ask for that and the players were under no obligation to negotiate that. They declined to do so and, instead, countered with various proposals on season length and did not negotiate pay rate. The owners, nonetheless, spent more than a month asking for the players to abandon their rights to prorated pay, proposing multiple alternative schemes. It was not until June 17 — after the players said they would no longer negotiate if MLB kept including pay concessions in their offers and, instead, simply demanded that MLB impose a season and be done with it — that MLB came back with its first offer that complied with the March Agreement.

In shorter words, it took the Show this long to start setting a season because the owners tried—in the middle of a pandemic scaring the hell out of a country that needed the Show to help keep morale alive when nobody knows just when the coronavirus world tour will end at last—to use it as a shield to pull a fast one on the players whose previous inconsistent unity came together the moment they smelled this rat.

Calcaterra also reminds us that relations between the owners and the players weren’t exactly friendly before the pandemic forced baseball’s limbo in March:

The owners had been eating the players’ lunch in recent years, having negotiated a couple of owner-friendly labor deals and, on top of that, putting the screws to players in free agency. In light of that there was already a lot of mistrust and, with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December 2021, each side was already beginning to mobilize for labor battle. Reacting to the pandemic and coming to some sort of an agreement to deal with it would’ve been difficult in even the best of circumstances, and the owners and the players were nowhere close to being in the best of circumstances as the 2020 season was about to get underway.

The players’ lesser cohesion between 2016 and March may have seduced the owners into thinking that, with their continuous tries at reneging on the March agreement, they “could, once again, exploit rifts in the union and get a favorable deal as a result.” Oops. The players hollered foul and stuck to it. For now.

The questions to come include whether they’ll stay so cohesive when it comes time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season. Neither Manfred nor Players Association executive director Tony Clark come out of this mess looking better.

Manfred is exposed as a commissioner unwilling to translate his express power to act for the good of the game into acting as though that good is more than making or saving money for the owners . . . who also forgot what a horrible look it would be when they spent so much time trying to trash what they agreed to in March they were seen as ignoring health implications in MLB’s return.

Clark, though, is seen now as a union leader who doesn’t always read pulses properly and doesn’t always see the bigger picture, including the prospect of recent negotiations and owners’ maneuverings leaving free agency to face what some writers call a potential blood bath.

Or, as Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted Monday, “So we gave up shares of playoff money, eliminating the qualifying offer for 2021, paycheck advance forgiveness, Covid 19 protections, and protection for non guaranteed arb contracts for next year in order to hold on to our right to file a grievance.”

Bauer had tweeted earlier that the pandemic wasn’t the right time for a battle: “If there’s going to be a fight, the time for that fight is after the ’21 season when a new CBA is negotiated. … We’re doing irreparable damage to our industry right now over rules that last AT MOST 16 months. What kind of sense does that make?”

Nothing about 2020 has made any kind of sense so far. The owners looking terrible makes the same sad sense it always has. The players’ union looking foolish now doesn’t. Everyone in and around baseball knows that.

But at least they kept the universal DH from poisoning the pond, right?

This commissioner’s time should be done

2020-06-16 RobManfredBaseballsThat was last week: Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying there would absitively, posolutely be major league baseball in 2020. This was Monday, to ESPN: Manfred saying, “Not so fast.” Never mind that the March agreement the owners are trying to walk back gives Manfred absolute authority to order the season to go.

“I’m not confident,” he told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg for a special called The Return of Sports.  “I think there’s real risk; and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is gonna continue.”

Not long from there, Manfred said . . . of course! It’s the players’ fault, for ending “good faith negotiations” that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows really means “on the owners’ terms” coming from his lips. Anyone with the same two brain cells also knows that the owners crying “good faith” equals Donald Trump closing his Twitter account.

Want to know what the players really turned down over the weekend, with an emphatic harrumph of, “Seriously?”

The owners wanted a 72-game season at 70 percent pay per game played, 80 percent if the one-time-only (we think) expanded postseason (the owners wanted the players to say yes to 22 more such games) was played to the end. The players would get a 64.5 percent pay cut taking 100 percent of the safety risks—there’s still the coronavirus on its grand tour, you know.

Ken Rosenthal, writer for The Athletic, half the team (with Evan Drellich) who blew open the Astrogate/Soxgate illegal sign-stealing scandals, thinks plausibly that Manfred—whose powers include acting in the game’s best interest but who’s employed purely by the owners to whom the game’s best interest involves making money for them first—would rather incinerate the forest than see it for the trees.

Rosenthal also thinks Manfred is beginning to get one thing: strike a deal with the players who aren’t buying the owners’ Kickapoo Joy Juice or see his legacy as a baseball commissioner go into the tank.

The threat of a billion-dollar grievance from the [Major League Baseball] Players Association has forced Manfred to reconsider exercising his right to set a schedule for the 2020 season and return to his original mission of reaching a deal that is acceptable to both sides. What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns.

Baseball’s better commissioners have been remembered among other things for appearing the next best thing to statesmen. Find me someone with skin in baseball’s game—a fan, a player, an owner (even), an analyst, a broadcaster, an historian—who’d call Manfred a statesman, and I’ll find you the last sworn-in government of the lost continent of Atlantis.

It’s been hard enough to think of Manfred as someone who genuinely loves the game after he made such remarks as the World Series trophy being just a piece of metal, trying to explain why it was one thing to discipline three 2017 Houston Astros while taking owner Jim Crane off the Astrogate hook but something else to strip their World Series championship.

Now Manfred has little choice other than that between finding and striking a deal with the players to get a 2020 season at all, or let it go and watch as nobody but the most stubborn among the tunnel-visioned takes Manfred or the owners seriously as stewards of the game any longer.

Remember: The owners are talking through their domes if they think anyone with an IQ higher than half (.064) the collective batting average (.128) of MLB’s pitchers last year buys their poverty cries. As Thomas Boswell pointed out early Monday, the average major league team value jumped by over $1 billion in the past six years—from $811 million to $1.9 billion.

Manfred’s contract as baseball commissioner is extended through the end of 2024. Assuming he doesn’t do anything else to implode the game between now and then—even assuming he finds a way, somehow, to be as Rosenthal describes, “the adult in the room, a leader with a sense of the game’s place in our society, the caretaker of the sport”—maybe it’s time at last to think of a better way to choose his successor.

There’s no reason on earth that the commissioner should be hired by and beholden to the owners alone. There’s no reason on earth a plausible candidate shouldn’t stand for election by the owners and by the Players Association through the thirty team player representatives. The commissioner should be beholden to neither faction but the consensus choice of both.

“Players come and go, but the owners stay on forever,” then-American League president Joe Cronin once told the late Marvin Miller, early in Miller’s tenure as the union’s executive director. Let’s just see about that. The owners stay only until they designate successors (think of the New York Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner or the Detroit Tigers’ Chris Illitch) or sell. Fans don’t wear team jerseys with the names of owners on their backs.

The game stays on forever. And with very few exceptions the first thing you think about when you think about the game is the men who’ve played it. You don’t think of Joe Cronin as a meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog league president before you think of him as a Hall of Fame shortstop and even a manager. You don’t think of Joe Torre as baseball’s top cop before you think of him as an outstanding catcher/third baseman and a Hall of Fame manager.

You don’t always think of Bill White as the first African-American (and next-to-last) president of the National League before you remember him as an outstanding first baseman who also helped shepherd the St. Louis Cardinals through their racial growing pains. You don’t think of Nolan Ryan as a baseball executive (including a term as the president of the Texas Rangers) before you remember him as a Hall of Fame pitcher with seven no-hitters on his resume.

You don’t think of the late, ill-fated Mike Flanagan as a Baltimore Orioles executive before you remember him as a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. You don’t think of Eddie Lopat as a snake-in-the-grass baseball executive (when a Kansas City Athletics player reminded him about a promised salary raise, Lopat the general manager shot back, “Prove it!”) before you think of him as a pitching star on five straight Yankee World Series winners.

You don’t even think of Al Rosen as the baseball executive who put a shot of rocket fuel into player salary inflation when he was the San Francisco Giants’ general manager (the once-notorious Bud Black deal), before you think of him as a powerful third baseman who swept the first-place votes as the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, but whose career was torpedoed by back and leg injuries.

But you probably think Manfred wouldn’t be able to tell you any of that. You’d probably be right. He has to go. And, among numerous other lackings, the owners need to own up and agree—whether or not they’d accept that their duplicities brought us here in the first place—that baseball needs a better way to choose a better steward. A steward to whom the good of the game isn’t always the same thing as making money for it.

The Yankeegate letter

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What further manner of extralegal sign-stealing Yankee panky might be brought in from the cold?

We’re about to learn the details of commissioner Rob Manfred’s 2017 written admonition to the New York Yankees about extralegal sign stealing. Federal judge Jed S. Rakoff has ordered the letter unsealed and submitted publicly and “minimally redacted” by both the Yankees and Major League Baseball no later than Monday. Very interesting.

That the Yankees used an illicit dugout telephone and may have used their own replay room reconnaissance on behalf of extralegal sign stealing in or before 2017 wasn’t exactly a baseball state secret, however often it was buried beneath the hooplas of Astrogate and Soxgate before the coronavirus turned most of that to one side.

The case involves the DraftKings fantasy baseball playing group suing MLB for fraud over the extralegal sign stealing scandals that jolted and discredited both the Houston Astros (2017-18) and the Boston Red Sox (2018). Rakoff ruled against DraftKings two months ago, but DraftKings thinks there was more in Manfred’s written Yankee spankee than both Manfred and the Empire Emeritus disclosed.

Beware the fool factor, though. Rakoff’s April ruling was comparable in its absurdity to Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time after agreeing to hand Hitler the Sudetenland 1938:

A sport that celebrates ‘stealing,’ even if only of a base, does not provide the perfect encouragement to scrupulous play. Nor can it be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) bodies. But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly (in the 1956 movie musical High Society), “There are rules about such things.”

As I couldn’t resist writing then, “The Chairman of the Board spoke to the future Princess of Monaco about love and war and what’s fair in both, not whether the Man of Steal* was really a shameless criminal for stealing as many bases as Robin Yount drove in runs. (1,406.)” Saying DraftKings didn’t have a case wasn’t the same thing as arguing choplogically that fantasy baseball players ought to go in with the presumption of guilt.

Remove for the moment the ongoing haggling over getting a major league baseball season underway at long enough last, the haggling provoked mostly by the owners trying to strong-arm the players into accepting a renege on their March agreement (full pro-rated player salaries, for openers) and the players saying, “We’ll just see about that.”

Absent all that, few baseball fans were unaffected by Astrogate and Soxgate. Fewer still were thrown more into internal turmoil than Astro fans and Red Sox fans faced with the actualities that their heroes, teams of excellence and (ahem) intelligence, who seemed to need extralegal espionage about as badly as the Flash needs a jet pack, were barely-apologetic high-tech cheaters.

Numerous players joined the fun in denouncing the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. No few of them were Yankees. Now the Yankees may or may not be exposed as going beyond a naughty extra dugout telephone or even their own replay room reconnaissance. No few in the social media swamp demand, too, that the hypocritical Yankees duct tape their mouths shut from this day forward.

So you thought the “what-about” style of rejoinder was limited to answering valid critiques of office holders with the comparable mischief or crimes committed by their predecessors. Must we be reminded continuously that mischief or crimes by one don’t justify those by a successor?

When I reviewed the second-edition publication of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime, I wrote that, just after the Rogue Sox were caught taking a bite out of an AppleWatch on behalf of espionage against the Yankees, a Yankee fan thought so well of sometimes beleaguered catcher Gary Sanchez that the fan decided to do Sanchez a huge favour at the plate. As Dickson told it:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

Dickson couldn’t resist adding that that may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of the ballpark for sign stealing.

(Reminder: Sometimes fans blow the whistle on the spies. It happened in Wrigley Field in 1960, when bleacher fans caught Milwaukee Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay red-handed among them, training binoculars on the home plate area and relaying stolen signs to their hitters. Those fans tipped off the Cubs’ bullpen, who relayed the word to the dugout, that Buhl and Jay were jobbing them.)

We’ll know soon enough whether there is a genuine Yankeegate coverup on our hands above and beyond what we knew already about their illegal dugout phone and possible replay room reconnaissance. The Yankees would prefer the fuller disclosure of Manfred’s 2017 letter not happen, of course. Richard Nixon wasn’t exactly anxious to have the White House tapes disclosed fully, either.

“The plaintiff has no case anymore,” says a statement from Yankee attorney Jonathan Schiller to The Athletic, “and the court held that what MLB wrote in confidence was irrelevant to the court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case. Under established law, this supports the Yankees’ right to confidentiality required by the Commissioner of Baseball.”

This isn’t an instance of compelling public disclosure of scouting information. It’s not even an instance of compelling public disclosure of team financial value, never mind that fans can never help noticing player salaries are known publicly and to the last dollar but teams’ and their owners’ financials often seem to require extracurricular excavation.

Disheartened Astro and Red Sox fans would probably want nothing more than to know who else—aside from since-purged Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Astros bench coach-turned-Red Sox manager Alex Cora, former 2017 Astros DH-turned-New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, and Rogue Sox replay room operator J.T. Watkins—availed themselves of those espionage operations.

Disheartened Yankee fans would probably want nothing less of their team, too. Every baseball fan probably wants to know that the line between on-field gamesmanship and off-field-based subterfuge won’t be crossed again any time soon.

The history books have long revealed those players, coaches, and managers who took up high tech cheating in their times. (It didn’t begin or end with the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, the 1951 Giants, or the 1961 Reds.) Do heartsick Astro, Red Sox, and Yankee fans really want to wait that long before knowing once and for all who was or wasn’t among their teams’ extralegal cheaters?

DraftKings may have no legs claiming deliberate fraud, but if the Astros and the Red Sox couldn’t escape disclosure Yankeegate shouldn’t be treated as a mere annoyance, either. Especially with the chance that, if nothing new might be exposed, everything known might be clarified further–and deeper. Might.


* – Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

Astrogate’s gut check for Manfred and baseball

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Rob Manfred must broaden the Astrogate probe, even if it means he’s a dead duck with the owners who’ve extended him only through 2024.

Baseball commissioner Robert Manfred says he’s going to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on the Astros if his investigators find they really did rig a real-time, beyond-center-field camera to a clubhouse television set to steal opponents’ pitch signs in 2017 and beyond. And then he’s really going to get mad.

Except for one little detail. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved,” the commissioner said as the owners’ meetings began in Arlington, Texas Tuesday. “We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

Not so fast, warns The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, who first exposed Astrogate with Evan Dillich a week before the owners’ meetings, when through them former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros’ illegal 2017 surveillance theft.

For one thing, Rosenthal and Dillich wrote in their first story, “Electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue.” And that, Rosenthal reminds us now, was before they even mentioned the Astros.

I’ve made the point of saying that the Astros may be just the most flagrant about it but they’re hardly the only ones trying it. Last week, I wrote, “Reality check: The Astros—or whomever among them created their [Astros Intelligence Agency]—aren’t the only such electronic thieves, merely the latest to be caught red Octobered.” The Red Sox tried it with an AppleWatch, also in 2017, and got fined for their trouble.

Manfred then said in no uncertain terms that “future violations of [that] type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” And last February Manfred announced augmented rules clarifying: no off-field electronic camera sign stealing, which was already against the rules in the first place.

Apparently, that part still needs to be made clear to a lot of people. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Stealing signs while running the bases or on the coaching lines or in the shallow outfield* is old-fashioned gamesmanship. Stealing them by way of off-the-field devices was long against the rules and amounted to genuine baseball crime. And that was before anyone though of technology beyond binoculars or spy glasses.

The new rules this year also meant no monitors in clubhouses and tunnels, and every team required to audit every in-house camera, its purpose, its wiring, and where it can be viewed. Rosenthal and Dillich exposed the Astros’ 2017 techno-shenanigans. Manfred’s investigation may well turn up 2018 and even 2019 electro-chicanery.

Astrogate shouldn’t stop with the Astros no matter how brazen their operation or how unapologetic their Twitterpated. Or, no matter how risky it might actually be for Manfred to expand the probe, discover more franchises actually doing something close to the AIA, but make enemies enough among the owners who employ him that he could be dumped in due course.

The commissioner’s official powers to act in the best interest of baseball, installed from the creation of the job in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, aren’t exactly the same as getting away with it when he does act that way. It only began when Happy Chandler’s employers cashiered him in 1950.

You never quite know which unnerved that generation of owners more, Chandler allowing the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson and break baseball’s colour line or Chandler inadvertently screwing up baseball’s first big television deal two years later: he sold World Series rights to the Gillette shaving products company for $1 million a year over six years, but Gillette in turn sold the rights to NBC for $4 million a year.

Fay Vincent eventually learned the hard way that acting in baseball’s best interest still meant his head on a plate, or at least resigning before he could be executed. The owners weren’t thrilled over his intervention in the 1990 spring lockout, his direct involvement in labour issues, and (perhaps especially) his bid to strong-arm three Yankee officials including manager Buck Showalter out of baseball over standing up for drug-troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe despite Howe’s seventh such violation.

The owners in Chander’s, Vincent’s, and Manfred’s times still share one trait: the commissioner’s powers to enforce the good of the game won’t always get past the idea that the good of the game means making money for the owners. Or not costing them serious money, if Manfred’s serious about heavy Astrogate fines for now.

There’ve been times Manfred appeared to be in somewhat over his head. He’s cracked down impressively enough on domestic violence involving baseball people, but he hasn’t exactly been a tower of strength when it comes to things like umpire accountability. But if he finds his surety enough to go all the way in finding extra-legal espionage is more rampant than just the Astros or even just one or two other teams, Manfred risks skipping lame duck status (he’s been extended through 2024) and going right to dead duck. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

“To do the job without angering an owner is impossible,” Vincent said as he left office and Brewers owner Bud Selig became “interim” commissioner. “I can’t make all twenty-eight of my bosses happy. People have told me I’m the last commissioner. If so, it’s a sad thing. I hope [the owners] learn this lesson before too much damage is done.”

Another problem is that Manfred’s bloodhounds probably can’t expose every last extra-legal sign stealing operation by every last major league team, as Rosenthal notes. “Is it possible the Astros were the most flagrant violators? Of course,” Rosenthal writes. “But the risk in making an example of the Astros is that other franchises almost certainly stole signs illegally. Baseball potentially would face accusations of selective punishment.”

Why focus so hard on the Astros in the first place, then? “[B]ecause the information we had was on the Astros,” Rosenthal continues. “We also heard—and continue to hear—about possible violations by a number of other clubs. But hearing is one thing; confirming is another. We do not report gossip. We report only what we confirm, from multiple sources with first-hand knowledge.”

To revisit questions I asked early in Astrogate, which players will come to expose which teams’ extralegal sign intelligence in Fiers’s wake? Who’ll be the Astros’ or any other teams’ Alexander Butterfield, the man who installed but subsequently exposed the Nixon White House’s taping system?

Reported whisperings from the Astros’ circles indicate a belief that any Astro espionage was nothing more than countering what the other guys were doing. If that’s why the Astros did it, Rosenthal writes, “their people need to tell baseball’s investigators what they know, or else hold their peace.”

Does it matter, as some Astro defenders suggest in various social media places, that the AIA didn’t produce a better 2017 home record than road record? That they won five less at home than on the road in ’17? That they scored only 61 more runs at home in 2017 than in 2016 against 111 more runs on the road? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Rifle through volumes of history and discover some of its most notorious crimes were committed on behalf of goals that weren’t achieved but weren’t considered crimes any the less.

The Watergate burglaries didn’t deliver the desired results, but that didn’t legalise burglary or obstruction of justice, either. Whatever the Astros wanted to accomplish as they became the powerhouse they’ve become, the rules then and now say they did it not with old-fashioned, on-the-field gamesmanship but old-fashioned, off-the-field high-tech cheating. Remember—baseball’s history is littered with teams attempting off-the-field cheating with binoculars, rifle sights, hand-held telescopes, and hidden-wire buzzers. The 1951 National League pennant race was only the most notorious until now.

Some think Manfred wouldn’t dare discipline other marquee franchises if he and his investigators discover they, too, tried more than a little applied advanced electronic theft. Except that he did just that to the Red Sox and the Yankees in August 2017 over Applegate, even if it was just a wrist slap. And, to the Cardinals a year earlier, over then-scouting director Chris Correa’s hacking into the Astros’ scouting computer database. Manfred banned Correa from baseball for life and ordered the Cardinals to hand the Astros $2 million and two choice draft picks over Correa’s hacking. (It wasn’t just a baseball violation, either: Correa also went to the calaboose for 46 months for his trouble.)

Manfred may have to walk a fine tightrope investigating Astrogate, but when he wants to be he’s not afraid to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on baseball’s marquee or legacy franchises if need be. The key is, “when he wants to be.” Whether it’s the Astros alone, or several more teams operating their own versions of the AIA, the punishments can’t be mere wrist slaps this time. Even at the risk of Manfred’s long-term job survival.

And there’s that not so little matter of baseball’s integrity. “People want the game played consistent with our rules,” Manfred said Tuesday, “and feel it’s important that we figure out exactly what happened here and take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future by imposing appropriate discipline.” Not exactly as eloquent as A. Bartlett Giamatti was about cheating, but certainly to the point.

Manfred’s suggested heavy fines as well as taking away choice draft positions and picks and suspending offenders from international scouting. He’s done it before, and in 2017 to boot. That’s when he slapped the Braves by stripping them of thirteen international prospects (a $16.48 million loss) and banning freshly resigned general manager John Coppolella for life, over illegal signing bonus arrangements and trying to sign an underage player.

So, what if Manfred and his Astrogate bloodhounds do turn up unlawful electronic sign espionage from far more than just the Astros? What if it is more than just one, two, or three other teams? What if the hounds find those culprits and learn they did it because they really thought everyone else did it? Since when does everybody doing it make it right, for the Astros or anyone else?

Talk about a gut check. Astrogate’s giving one hell of a gut check to Manfred. And, to baseball itself.

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* Sign stealing or relaying isn’t just for hitters, sometimes. Once in awhile it isn’t even for the opposing team. Just ask former Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans—now a Modern Era Committee candidate for the Hall of Fame—and former Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett . . . who were sort of stealing their own signs once upon a time.

Evans once wanted a little extra field positioning help, so he and Barrett had a brilliant idea: Barrett would relay the Red Sox’s pitch signs behind his back to Evans from second base, and Evans, knowing which way the pitch was liable to be hit, would adjust his positioning accordingly.

Except that one fine day the Blue Jays’ bullpen caught onto the Evans/Barrett positioning signals . . . and started stealing Barrett’s signs and relaying them to their hitters! This is comparable to the bank robber discovering the bank empty but the vault wide open.

Minor league contraction loses home

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Las Vegas Ballpark, 11 April 2019, taken by the author while watching a game between the Sacramento River Cats and the Las Vegas Aviators.

Minor league baseball is an apprenticeship rough as often as ready for professional baseball players, coaches, and managers alike. But for fans it’s a pleasure that still evokes simplicity and the absence of the country’s and the world’s cacophonies and calamities.

I’ve had that pleasure numerous times in my sixty-four years. I’ve had it seeing the Omaha Royals (long since re-named the Storm Chasers) in the 1980s; the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (known since 2007 as the SWB Yankees) in the early 1990s; the now-defunct Fullerton Flyers (in Goodwin Field, on the campus of Cal State Fullerton) in the Aughts; and, since 2009, the Las Vegas 51s-turned-Aviators, first in creaky Cashman Field and, as of this year, in spanking new Las Vegas Ballpark.

You watch a game and its pleasures and pangs and remind yourself now and then that you’re seeing guys do something that afternoon or evening that mean the fateful phone call bringing them up to the Show. You think to yourself that, God and His servant Stengel willing, there just might be a future Hall of Famer on that field, on that mound, at that plate.

You think that a win for your team would be wonderful fun but it won’t grant them a place in the Elysian Fields’ honour roll of eternal grand champions. But neither do you think that, when your team loses, it means what it meant to too many a Phillie, a Cub, or a Red Sox fan for too many generations—“They came for our fathers, and now the sons of bitches are coming for us.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee baseball fans have had those pleasures since the year (1909) the Hudson Motor Car Company was born. A fan contest named the team the Lookouts, after adjacent Lookout Mountain. Hudson died in 1957. The Lookouts and 41 more of minor league baseball’s 160 teams may die like Hudson (the Cars film series notwithstanding) after next season if the Show has its way.

If you saw or heard about plans to exterminate those teams and you were unamused by the prospect, as many are, you may not be happy knowing the plot was another Astros brainchild. I didn’t know that, either, until I had a gander at Bill Madden in the New York Daily News, who wrote of it last Friday morning with the same lack of amusement.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred showed major league owners the plan “a few months ago,” Madden wrote, with the approving vote unanimous. Madden wrote that  the idea was conceived by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and supported swiftly enough by two teams whose general managers once worked under Luhnow in Houston: the Brewers (Mike Elias) and the Orioles (David Stearns).

Brilliant. Not only are the Astros at the core of a scandal involving unlawful high-tech, electronic, from-off-the-field cheating, they’re at the bottom of a plan to vaporise 26 percent of grass roots baseball in four short-season rookie- and A-level leagues (the New York-Penn League, the Appalachian League, the Northwest League, and the Pioneer League) and several more at the A and AA levels.

“The rest of the [major league] teams,” Madden wrote, “apparently just said ‘OK’ without any discussion of the ramifications of such a drastic attack on the minor leagues and all these communities across the country.”

The Astros themselves stepped ahead of that particular curve after their 2017 World Series triumph, cutting their minor league affliated teams from nine to seven with the elimination of one of two Dominican Summer League affiliates and their Greenville (Tennessee) Astros in the Appalachian League.

Aside from those mentioned, these are the teams on the hit list:

Appalachian League (Rookie, advanced)—Bluefield Blue Jays, Bristol Pirates, Burlington Royals, Danville Braves, Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, Johnson City Cardinals, Kingsport Mets, Princeton Rays.

California League (A, advanced)—Lancaster Jethawks.

Carolina League (advanced A)—Frederick Keys.

Florida State League (advanced A)—Daytona Tortugas, Florida Fire Frogs.

Midwest League (A, full season)—Burlington Bees, Clinton LumberKings, Quad Cities River Bandits.

New York-Penn League (A, short season)—Auburn Doubledays, Batavia Muckdogs, Connecticut Tigers, Lowell Spinners, Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, Staten Island Yankees, Vermont Lake Monsters, Williamsport Crosscutters.

Northwest League (A, short season)—Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Tri-City Dust Devils.

Pioneer League (Rookie, advances)—Billings Mustangs, Grand Junction Rockies, Great Falls Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula PaddleHeads, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz, Rocky Mountain Vibes.

Southern League (AA)—Jackson Generals.

South Atlantic League (A, full season)—Hagerstown Suns, Lexington Legends, West Virginia Power.

Madden wrote that that, according to calculations from minor league baseball itself, would amount to disappearing over two thousand combined years of minor league baseball history. Peabody and Sherman never bypassed that much of the world’s doings and undoings on their Waybac Machine travels.

What made the Astros think about it in the first place? Analytics. The very thing that helped turn them from also-rans to the powerhouse they are. They’ve exposed the side of analytics that its critics abhor and makes even supporters of sabermetrics (like me) cringe. I can find no better description than that from Field of Schemes writer Neil deMause:

As the Astros execs’ thinking went, advanced analytics (i.e., grading players based on such things as using high-speed cameras to measure body mechanics) could replace watching young players play actual baseball, saving the trouble of having to pay so many of them to do so. (Not that this is a huge expense — an entire single-A roster can be had for about $600,000 a year—but again, the Astros are all about exploiting every advantage.) And . . . why should they have to compete against teams like the New York Yankees whose owners were willing to keep minor league teams stacked up like cordwood?

The common good of the game is seen too often as making money for it. Now comes a curlicue once the reserve of science fiction, the common good of the game reduced to applied science and reducing the volume of actual baseball games. This isn’t exactly what Hall of Fame manager John McGraw had in mind when he rhapsodised about “scientific baseball.”

Applying advanced analysis toward helping players improve their games and thus teams improve their competitive standings is one thing. So is applying it sabermetrically toward giving you, Joe and Jane Fan, the most complete possible view of players and games you didn’t get to see. (Ponder: 2,430 major league baseball games are played every season. Maybe five times that many are played in the minors now.)

But they won’t tell you about the people playing those games. They won’t tell you why baseball isn’t really a game of seventy percent failure (seek and ye shall find, I promise you) and, most important, why some baseball players know how to shake away their shortfalls and others don’t. Lessons learned or re-learned in the minor leagues, most of the time.

Minor league crowds are a far more accepting, far less judgmental lot than Show audiences tend to be. And you may also think, above and beyond the game you watch on the field, that the guys on those teams are learning things other than the play itself. Things like why some minor league teachers miss when it comes to teaching players what minor league fans usually understand, that failure isn’t mortal sin.

A minor league team that doesn’t teach those things in hand with the play of the game is a minor league team that gets overhauled, not contracted. And when they don’t teach those things, it means disaster in the Show, where to err is human but to forgive isn’t always Joe and Jane Fan’s (or Journalist’s) policy.

Do you remember Calvin Schiraldi? Once a Met, then a Red Sox. Promising relief pitcher. Came back up late 1986 as the Sox’s bullpen stopper. Imploded fatefully in the World Series. Hung with the no-heart label.

When Mike Sowell wrote One Pitch Away: The Players’ Stories of the 1986 LCS and World Series, one of the players Schiraldi, as textbook a case of self-punishment for failure as you can find from his time. Sowell probably should have won some sort of prize for getting Schiraldi to talk at all, considering the former righthander liked reporters as much as Donald Trump likes criticism.

Sowell got Schiraldi to own up to his wounding flaw, the one flaw above all that kept him from sustained pitching success: “I liked it when I did well. But when I did bad, I took more things to heart than just blowing games off. I mean, if you lose, I took it to heart. Or, if I blew a save for a starter, I took it to heart. That’s probably what hurt me the most.”

That wasn’t exactly uncommon knowledge before Sowell. But it came second hand, so far as I knew. Months after that 1986 Series ended, Thomas Boswell ultimately revealed there was one Red Sox determined not to let Schiraldi sink himself after an earlier playoff loss. “It’s Schiraldi who got so down on himself that it worried me,” said fellow Red Sox (and fellow ex-Met) reliever Joe Sambito. “After he lost . . . I told him, ‘Calvin, you’re the best we have. Put it out of your mind. You can be the hero tomorrow.’ And he was.”

Sambito referred to Schiraldi’s blown save in Game Four of the ’86 ALCS against the Angels. The following night, Schiraldi nailed the extra-inning save set up when ill-fated Donnie Moore—whose eventual suicide came from far more than just one unforgiven (by Angel fans or himself) game failure—surrendered a tying two-run homer to Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to the Series.

With the Red Sox an out from winning Game Six and the ’86 Series, Schiraldi gave up three softly-hit Mets singles in a row, the third of which brought the Mets to within a run of tying. Schiraldi was lifted for Bob Stanley. Stanley threw the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball to let the tying run score. And then came the grounder heard ’round the world, skipping through Bill Buckner’s ankle-ruined legs to score the winning Met run. “So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in [World Series] Game Six?” Boswell wrote the following February in spring training.

He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck. Ray Knight, the first batter, hit a home run.

Things like that usually get tended, treated, and re-tended and re-treated in the minors, before you get to the Show—if you get there. Bad enough that Schiraldi’s minor league coaches may have missed them. Things like that are beyond the pay grade of the most deft analyst, technician, or applied scientist, on the Astros’ or any other baseball organisation staff. If the ’86 Red Sox were that advanced, they still couldn’t have saved Schiraldi from himself.

Maybe that’s why Ken Giles went from outstanding closer to 2017 World Series failure to wreck and to Toronto during the following season. The Astros could and probably did give him every analytical edge possible to take to the mound. When Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger ruined him in World Series Game Four to break a one-all tie in the ninth, Giles was shattered.

And, maybe alone, no matter that no less than George Springer sprang to his defense after the game. “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail,” Springer said after that game. “I hope [manager A.J. Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.” Springer might have but Hinch didn’t. Giles was never seen again in that Series.

The following season, a couple of bad outings turned into a couple of bad meltdowns and Giles’s trade to the Blue Jays (for, controversially, Roberto Osuna), where he regrouped and posted an enviable 2019 despite a couple of injuries.

Don’t make the mistake of saying the pressure of the games or the postseason themselves got to either Giles or Schiraldi. Young men who don’t get taught or re-taught that failing in a game isn’t a mortal sin beat themselves no matter whether it’s a season opening series or the World Series.

Maybe Henderson was onto something when he once said, “This is a game. It’s not life and death. It should be fun.” Hell, he’d had to remind himself in that very ALCS Game Six: earlier, before his dramatic bomb, he tried snagging Bobby Grich’s fly with a flying leap, but the ball tipped off his glove and over the center field fence for a two-run homer.

Henderson wasn’t really the superstar he appeared for brief moments in that postseason; he was a useful journeyman in a respectable fourteen-season major league career. But he endured precisely because he knew failure didn’t have to be the end of the world as he knew it. And just maybe the easygoing Hendu got the proper reinforcement on that approach in the minors.

If you think that’s just a voice from the grave (Henderson died of a heart attack two months after a kidney transplant in 2015), maybe you’ll listen to Casey Mize, 2018’s number one draft pick overall. “I think failure is part of it and needs to be part of it,” said Mize—after throwing eight shutout innings at the Bowie Bay Sox for the Erie Sea Wolves (AA, Tigers affiliate)—about player development. “I see positives in being forced to fail.”

The minors aren’t anywhere near perfect. There’ll always be those players who don’t advance for assorted reasons and those reasons don’t all include analytic failure. There are injuries that curtail careers, there are boundless external issues, and there are mindsets that let the sense of fun die too soon when they realise professional baseball is the serious work of play.

One of the issues believed to be animating the contraction plan is ballpark conditions. As in, ballparks not up to major league standards. As in, the distinct whiff of potential litigation from minor league towns where taxpayers got the bill for upgrading the parks or building new ones entirely. But as Madden observed, if so many minor league parks aren’t up to snuff, why did the Show let the Cubs and the Pirates play a regular-season game in Williamsport last year? And why would they let the Red Sox and the Orioles do likewise next year?

Another may well be minor league conditions. The Show’s spinning, as Madden calls it, includes that the contraction plan is also aimed at “improv[ing] ‘wellness’ for the minor leaguers in terms of travel and living conditions,” though noticeably not in terms of their salaries, which should be redressed.

Many of the teams targeted for contraction, Madden added, “are grass roots baseball towns where most of baseball’s biggest stars passed through (and developed a forever fan base) on their way to the majors.”

An official from one of the teams in the Pioneer League, where most of the teams are in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, put it to me this way: “This is the only way people in these towns can see baseball. They can’t afford to drive a thousand miles to Seattle. And you’re talking about young fans . . . You take their teams away and baseball has lost them forever.

Dodger pitcher Walker Buehler thinks one key minor league issue is too many players there. “At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors,” he told FiveThirtyEight. “The rest of the players are there so they so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair. You are preying on their dreams.”

It may not be as simple a scenario as Buehler seems to think, that minor league teams and their major league overseers prey on too many dreams unlikely to come true. And speaking of dreams, the Show has a plan for those minor league owners who lose their teams if the contraction plan flies: what it calls a Dream League, an independent league operated by the Show at minimal cost.

Madden, however, noticed a big problem with that idea:

In addition to stadium maintenance and taxes which they’re already paying, the cost of players, managers, coaches, trainers, and equipment people’s salaries and workers comp insurance would now all fall on the owners—between $350,000-$450,000 per year. When it was pointed out by minor league negotiators there was no way these minor league owners, after losing all the equity in their teams, could then afford to own a “Dream League” team, the MLB response was: “Well, they didn’t pay all that much for their teams in the first place, so it’s only paper money.” Tell that to David Glass, who bought the Kansas City Royals in 2000 for $96 million and recently sold them for $1 billion. Or as one minor league negotiator told me: “I guess that means it’s OK they should be punished for being good business operators.”

They and their fans will be punished just by losing their teams at all. Bristol, Tennessee has been in business in the minors since the sinking of the Lusitania. (1918.) Assorted South Atlantic Leagues (known colloquially as the Sally Leagues) have existed since Hoover Dam. (1936, though the dam was born as Boulder Dam.)

The Jackson Generals were once known as the Memphis Chicks—born with the Southern Association in the year (1901) New York became first in the nation to mandate license plates and the American League declared itself a major league; producing the Southern Association’s one-armed league Most Valuable Player, Pete Gray, in 1944.

That’s just a peek at the history that stands to be lost, in hand with the pleasures of baseball itself on the field, for millions of fans who can’t reach the Show except on television or radio or the Internet.

“Baseball is quintessentially American,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti before he became a baseball official himself,

in the way it tells us that much as you travel and far as you go, out to the green frontier, the purpose is to get home, back to where the others are, the pioneer ever striving to come back to the common place. A nation of migrants always, for all their wandering, remembers what every immigrant never forgets: that you may leave home but if you forget where home is, you are truly lost and without hope.

The Show’s minor league contraction can be taken, then, as evidence that those who run it forget where home is for millions of fans, and that it takes more than scoring runs to come home.