Formalising what people of heart, soul, and mind always knew

Monte Irvin and Willie Mays—major leaguers as Giants and as a Newark Eagle (Irvin) and Birmingham Black Baron (Mays).

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he kept it short, sweet, and shameless. One moment, Williams gave props to Willie Mays, who’d passed him on the all-time home run list days earlier: “[H]e’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘Go get ’em, Willie’.” Then, the Splinter hit a grand slam:

Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.

Gibson didn’t quite live long enough to receive his chance to play major league baseball; he died before Branch Rickey finally began the undoing of what should never have been done in the first place. But he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a baseball immortal in 1972.

Paige did get his chance. Among other things, he kept Williams to a .222 hitting average and slugging percentage but a .364 on-base percentage, after joining the American League with the Cleveland Indians and in due course the St. Louis Browns—in his forties.

Unlike Gibson, Paige did live long enough to see himself inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first Negro Leagues player so inducted (in 1971) after a special committee was formed to determine, as best they could with what they had, whom among the Negro Leagues’ best belonged in Cooperstown.

Not long before then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn formed the committee, his predecessor William Eckert convened another committee to isolate which among the earliest professional leagues merited official major league status. Four leagues were given such formal recognition by that group: the American Association of 1882-91, the Union Association of 1884, the Players League of 1890, and the Federal League of 1914-1915.

The Negro Leagues weren’t even a topic then. Boy, are they a topic now, with commissioner Rob Manfred having pronounced that the seven professional Negro Leagues which played from 1920 to 1948 shall henceforth be known as major leagues. Did I say seven?

Manfred conferred formal major league status on the first Negro National League of 1920-31, the Eastern Coloured League of 1923-28, the American Negro League of 1929, the East-West League of 1932, the Negro Southern League of 1932, the second Negro National League of 1933-1948, and the Negro American League of 1937-1948.

That’s the formality. Any baseball fan with heart, soul, and mind coordinating properly didn’t need a formal proclamation to know the Negro Leagues were as good and sometimes better than the “official” major leagues. They knew down to their bone marrow that Ted Williams was dead right in his implication that the “official” Show’s pre-1947 segregation denied those leagues and a good number of their players their propers.

Why the 1948 cutoff? That was the year of the final Negro World Series, between the Homestead Grays of the NNL and the Birmingham Black Barons of the NAL. (The Grays flattened the Barons in five, despite the Barons’ sharp center fielder—a child prodigy named Willie Mays.) With Jackie Robinson having cracked the old, disgraceful major league segregation line a year earlier, and National and American League teams beginning to scout and sign Negro Leagues talent, however incrementally, the Negro Leagues’ days were numbered.

After that Series (the Grays won the last such major league-level championship in Washington until last year’s Nationals), the Negro National League folded, followed by the Grays themselves in 1951 after barnstorming proved financially untenable. With the two then-solely recognised major leagues continuing to bring black talent aboard, the Negro American League fell back to the equivalence of the highest minor league before folding in 1958.

Bob Kendrick, a man of impeccable intelligence and sensitivity who presides over the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, knows the difference between conferring historical merit and validating the Negro Leagues and its players as major leaguers. “[T]hey never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them,” Kendrick tells MLB.com writer (and author of the splendid A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics) Anthony Castrovince.

But for fans and for historical sake, this is significant, it really is. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement. And for us, it does give additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field.

A writer for The Athletic, Marcus Thompson II, sees and raises. “‘Oh, so now they’re good?’ was my initial reaction,” he writes in a forum convened by the journal to discuss the Manfred pronouncement.

Josh Gibson doesn’t need validation from Major League Baseball. Oscar Charleston doesn’t need validation. Pop Lloyd ain’t suddenly legit now because MLB basically decided to include him in the fold. It reeked of baseball’s arrogance. It wasn’t so much the inclusion of Negro League players, but the idea that somehow they are being officialized by this inclusion. This, obviously, should have been done a long time ago. But the pretentiousness of believing this to somehow be an elevation of those players, as if they’re being knighted posthumously, is insane and offensive . . . Satchel Paige was already a Major Leaguer by every other possible definition. Cool Papa Bell’s been official. His name is Cool Papa Bell.

Did we really need Rob Manfred to tell us Satchel Paige (left) and Jackie Robinson were major league level in the Negro Leagues?

Indeed. And, what do you know, just one prowl of social media delivered enough of the half-witticisms of those who think any thought of the Negro Leagues as “official” major leagues carries the whiff of political correctness. One such miscreant sticks uncomfortably in my mind: “[T]hey didn’t play against ball players like Bob Feller and Ted Williams sooooo… they didn’t play against major league talent.”

Well, now. I’d have loved the miscreant to explain what he thinks of the Show’s willful exclusion of non-white talent prior to 1947. (Fair disclosure: I zapped him by answering his foolish remark with the aforequoted Williams valedictory. As I write, he hasn’t offered an answer.) Do he and others of (I hate to use a four-letter word when ladies might be reading) like mind think such “major leaguers” as Robinson, Mays, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks were just another bunch of minor leaguers before “organised baseball” deigned to invite them aboard?

Those of us who love the game and share the concurrent strain that its statistics are its life blood face a pretty pickle, too: How to finalise the true statistics of Negro Leagues competition. For one thing, it was known long enough that the Negro Leagues didn’t keep complete statistics for assorted and largely unpleasant reasons tied in large part to the unconscionable segregation of the so-called National Pastime.

The legends yielded by the Negro Leagues have been fun as legends but problematic as statistical analysis. Josh Gibson hitting eight hundred home runs plus in his baseball life is great fun as a legend, but how many did Gibson actually hit in Negro Leagues competition against how many did he actually hit on the barnstorms?

Castrovince observes that Negro Leagues statistics from leagues competition in 1920-1948 will be the ones brought to account, for a couple of very good reasons: Trying to develop the leagues before 1920 weren’t successful “and lacked a league structure.” Fans black, white, brown, and paisley alike may be disappointed with the net result because the barnstorm and exhibition stats won’t be included.

It won’t be simple, says another Athletic forum participant, Marc Carig. “[T]here are still games missing from the historical record,” he begins.

As of now, researchers have documented 73 percent of Negro League games contested in the 1920-1948 window of inclusion. That figure will keep climbing. More and more newspapers are getting digitized, making it easier to search for documentation. But it is still unlikely it will ever get to 100 percent. That can be a challenge. Now begins the work of figuring out how to incorporate that existing data into the official records. That’s the next step in the process. It’s not an easy one. But it’s worthwhile.

Forget about whether Gibson knocks Aaron and Barry Bonds out of the home run record books. He’ll probably still look like the great bombardier of his legend. And, since Aaron’s Negro Leagues play came after 1948, any home runs he hit before joining the Braves’ organisation won’t change his career home run total. Or the magnitude of his career and of a certain night in April 1974.

But Mays will see some changes. Let’s look. He had 73 plate appearances for the 1948 Black Barons, with sixteen hits including two doubles, twelve runs batted in, and twelve walks.He hit .262 with a .384 on-base percentage but a .295 slugging percentage with the ’48 Black Barons. His OBP won’t change, but his hitting average (sorry, the traditional batting average is incomplete and mistreats hits) will fall . . . one point, to .301. His slugging percentage will also fall . . . one point, to .556.

Another Athletic forum participant, Jason Jones, understands the concurrent late symbolism and undercurrent shame in Manfred’s pronouncement. “[I]f it took this announcement for you to believe Josh Gibson was one of the best to ever swing a bat, shame on you,” Jones says. “This is clearly long overdue. I wish those players were here to see baseball finally do the right thing.”

It shouldn’t have taken us that pronouncement, either, to believe Satchel Paige was one of the best ever to take the mound. (Casey Stengel would hector his Yankees when he saw Paige throwing in the bullpen, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming!” That was when Paige was in his 40s and not exactly in his prime.)

Or, that Buck Leonard was one of the best ever to play first base.

Or, that Monte Irvin may have been the actual best of the Negro League talents to cross into the Show when he finally did, and that he might have given the Show another decade of his best before an ankle injury compromised him while with the Giants. Among others. (Irvin’s lifetime major league hitting average might jump to .304 when the records are adjusted.)

Said Manfred in a formal statement, “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

Where they always belonged.

Now, if only Manfred and his minions would take things from there to send the Show on a real, substantial mission to rekindle deeper interest in baseball among black youth around the country, whether inner city, suburbia, or the country life. Black people have elevated the game as men and as players, coaches, managers, and executives, even if the number  among the last three of those remains terribly low.

Today’s young black aspirants deserve to know the game belongs to them, too. Numerous localised organisations carry that mission splendidly. It would give them a badly needed lift, and further honour the Negro Leagues legacy, if Manfred and his get off the schneid and onto the hunt. It’d mean as much and maybe more than how Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque would look with the addition of his seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs.

On roasting Manfred and redeeming Kershaw

How sweet it is for Clayton Kershaw at last.

Above and beyond the obvious, two sights and sounds in Globe Life Field tended to out-shine the rest after the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series. In order, they were commissioner Rob Manfred being booed while he spoke during postgame ceremonies, and Clayton Kershaw hoisting the World Series trophy with the biggest grin this side of Teeth Malloy.

Getting a season in at all in the time of coronavirus was somewhat miraculous, even if Manfred and his overlords did just about everything in their power to make it difficult, impossible, and don’t-even-think-about-it. Would it have been better to live without the Show at all this year? We’ll never know now.

Then Manfred and his masters decided to impose the sixty-game irregular season. And they couldn’t resist tinkering like the nutty professor going a hundred miles backward to go one mile forward. Manfred may be seen as just the owners’ messenger boy, but his office also allows him liberal latitude to act on behalf of the good of the game.

The good of the game does not include a free runner on second to start the extra innings. The good of the game does not include a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers except when they were brought in during disaster and got out of it. The good of the game does not include a postseason array that actually made room for two losing teams to even think about playing for a championship.

One out of four ain’t bad. The universal DH needs to stay. Period dot period. That one Manfred gets right. It only took 129 years for the National League to be made to catch up to the NL owner who thought of it in the first place because the pitchers in his day couldn’t hit, either.

God help us if Manfred decides the 29-31 Houston Astros getting to within one game of winning the pennant says, “See? We told you! Letting the losers in didn’t stop the cream from rising!” Even allowing the irregular, truncated regular season, there was only one reason to pray the Astros got to the World Series: if the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers somehow got there, too.

It would have made Manfred and his masters look like the fools they would have been if American baseball’s annual crowning achievement had been decided between (ir)regular season losers. Not that they needed that to look foolish, of course.

Pray that even one among the owners to whom the common good of the game is, was, and always will be making money for it otherwise hits Manfred with the wake-up-your-brain two-by-four. And, that 2021 will see a return to some semblance of normalcy. Just some will do. Would Steve Cohen, the brand-new owner of the New York Mets, like to be that stand-up guy? He’d make Branch Rickey the proudest man in the Elysian Fields.

Enough of that for now. Manfred getting booed is only a transient pleasure. Kershaw hoisting that piece of metal is transcendent. Especially after he pitched like the Hall of Famer-to-be that he is all postseason long. Especially after his manager finally figured out how to keep him from situations in which even the Greatest Pitcher of His Generation could get bushwhacked, bastinadoed, broiled, and basted.

The narrative of Kershaw looking like Sandy Koufax in his regular season career but Crazy Schmit in the postseason was always a little on the ridiculous side. It finally got exhausting to remind people that you could probably win a pennant fielding a team full of the Hall of Famers whose regular seasons put them in Cooperstown but whose World Series gigs compared to Blooperstown, often through no fault of their own.

Juan Marichal only got to appear in one Series at all and barely had the chance to strut his real stuff. Willie Mays had The Catch in 1954 but nothing much else to show for three Series. Ted Simmons reached one Series near the end of his career and showed the beginning of his decline phase. Ted Williams reached one Series, was throttled by an elbow injury, and never got another chance. Robin Roberts lost a tough game in his only World Series and never got another chance to try. Joe Morgan had the occasional moment but a modest overall Series jacket.

To them add these Hall of Famers: Luke Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, and Billy Willams never got even a single taste of Series play.

“Baseball executives like to talk about how variance dictates the postseason,” Andy McCullough writes in The Athletic. Kershaw has pitched long enough in October to live that truism. It would be disingenuous to say his bad numbers stem from bad luck. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the breaks.”

Once upon a time, Kershaw’s handiwork got wrecked through little enough fault of his own. This time, whenever Kershaw needed the breaks the most he got them. Breaks like Cody Bellinger’s stupefying, back-to-the-wall, rising theft of a go-ahead bomb by Fernando Tatis, Jr. Like the Braves’ Austin Riley tripping into a key out. Like Victor Gonzalez in relief ending a troublesome inning by palming Mike Zunino’s speeding bullet.

Kershaw is a man whose teammates describe him as playful and a little goofy on the days he doesn’t pitch. He’s so unapologetically footloose when playing with his young children at the ballpark and elsewhere on his days off that it’s easy to ask who’s more fortunate, Kershaw for having such agreeably charming children or the children for having such an agreeable father.

He also prizes control of his work and his personal environment on the days he does pitch. Especially the past two seasons, when he’s had to remake his approach in part because of persistent back issues and in part because of the onset of baseball age. But he appreciates when he gets those little extras in a game that so often prove the equivalent of the World War II fighter pilot having nothing but a turning propeller between himself and disaster.

This time around, Kershaw didn’t have to be the most powerful engine on the Dodger aircraft. He just had to do what he could do with whatever he had. The Dodgers entered Game Four believing they’d finish one game from crossing the Jordan and ended up on the wrong end of maybe the single most berserk loss in World Series history.

All that meant was Kershaw pitching Game Five not to get to the Promised Land but to get to the Jordan’s banks after such a surreal throwback. Kershaw’s Game Five mastery got  them back to the banks. This time, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Austin Barnes, and the Dodger bullpen rowed them across in Game Six.

“Who knows how many times I’m going to get to go to the World Series?” Kershaw has been quoted as saying. “I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there.” He also knows a lot more than a lot of people forget how hard it really is to get across from the banks to the Promised Land.

No, Commissioner, you KEEP the universal DH

Commissioner Rob Manfred, donning a mask to attend a World Series game in Globe Life Field.

If it isn’t broken, call the repairman. If it is broken, it’ll fix itself. So seems to be the thinking (using the term very liberally) of Commissioner Nero. Apparently, he’s in no hurry to keep the universal designated hitter, but he’s in a big hurry to keep permanent the over-expanded postseason.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Steinberg, whose team is now playing in the World Series and is one of baseball’s most innovative, has it right about innovation actual and alleged when he likes to say, “Break a window, don’t burn down the house.” Rob Manfred seems to prefer burning down the house to save the broken window.

The DH would have “broken” the window in 1891 if then-Pirates owner William Chase Temple had his way. Yes, I’m going there again. The concept that drives today’s stubbornly ancient-school National League fans came originally out of a National League owner’s head.

Temple was fed up pitchers being unable to hit. Not “unwilling,” unable. So he proposed what we know as the DH. Temple’s contemporary and friend Albert Spalding wanted to see and raise. Spalding thought the pitcher’s lineup spot should have been erased entirely with eight-man lineups otherwise. Window-breaking? Spalding would have busted three for the price of one.

“Every patron of the game,” wrote Sporting Life about Temple and Spalding’s thoughts, “is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.”

No need to review the history of the DH idea in detail. Suffice to say here that Temple brought it to a vote and lost in 1892. In 1906, Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack (whose pitchers hit a whole .201 that season) proposed it to see it go nowhere. The National League proposed it again in 1928 and the American League rejected it then. It took traction at last when the high minors adopted it in the 1960s and impressed Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley enough (as well it might considering his 1972 A’s pitchers hit a whopping .165) convinced his fellow AL owners to bring it in.

Looking for ways to make the pandemic-shortened irregular 2020 season as painless as possible, Manfred decided this would be an experimental season. The universal DH was one of the experiments. Would you like to know how it went? The batting slash line for major league pitchers all 2010s long is .130/.161/.165. The batting slash line for 2020 designated hitters is .231/.316/.408.

It gets better. Want to know whose DHs did the best this season? The Atlanta Braves. In the National League. With a .316/.411/.589 slash line. And, a 1.000 OPS. Hitting more home runs than everyone else (17) except the Minnesota Twins (19). Getting more base hits period (73) than everybody else’s DHs. With the highest DH batting average on balls in play (.403) by 44 points. Did I mention Braves DHs knocked in the most runs (55) of any team’s DHs?

Want to know how many National League teams’ DHs finished in the top ten for collective OPS around the 2020 Show? Six. (The Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Diego Padres, and the St. Louis Cardinals.) The top ten in DH on-base percentage is even-up between NL and AL teams (five each) with the Braves at the top. Braves’ DHs led a pack of five NL teams in the top ten for batting average at that lineup slot. They also led all teams’ DHs with 37 walks.

I’m going here, too: my Real Batting Average metric. RBA = total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches. Look how the National League’s DHs measured up against the American League’s:

2020 Real Batting Average – DHs

  PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
National League 3724 1338 366 25 26 54 .486
American League 3768 1347 377 17 26 46 .481

The National League DHs batted five points higher in RBA than the American League despite batting 44 fewer times. (They took a lot more for their teams, too, if you noticed the hit-by-pitches.)

Do you still miss those .128-hitting pitchers with their .178 RBAs? Are you ready to listen to Thomas Boswell this time, if not a) almost two years ago; or, b) when I cited him again in June?

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

If you want to yell your head off at Commissioner Nero, there are better reasons. Bawl him out from San Diego to Boston and back about that ridiculous three-batter relief pitching minimum and, even more, against that free cookie on second base to start each extra half inning.

Rant your heads off against a permanently-expanded postseason. Sure it might have been mad, perverted fun to see the 29-31 Houston Astros meet the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series this month. Only because it would have made a further chump out of Commissioner Nero seeing regular (well, irregular) season losers playing for that piece of metal.

Bellow like Falstaff that the real issue with postseason baseball’s ratings declines are and have long enough been saturation. Bad enough the era of the second wild card made for potentially-exhausting maximum 43 postseason games a year. Slightly worse was this year’s sixteen-team postseason making for a potential maximum 65 games (if each series went the distance) and an actuality of 52 postseason games so far.

Even fans such as myself who think there’s no such thing as too much baseball get wrung out by that. The good news is that, this time, championship won’t be diluted. The two best teams in 2020 baseball—when all was said and done about COVID-19 infections, disruptions and scheduling contortions—are going at it in the World Series. That’s now. Does Nero really want to risk a future full of losers playing for the Promised Land?

Or would wiser heads who aren’t sound asleep while Nero burns the house down in order to put a trash can fire out willing to suggest what I’ve suggested until I’m bluer in the face than the Rays’ jerseys. Dump the bloody wild cards. Give the winningest division champs a round-one bye and let the other division winners play a best-of-three. Let that winner meet the bye winner in a best-of-five League Championship Series. Leave the World Series best-of-seven and return it to its proper primacy.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so damn simple a child of five could do it. And, sit back, watch the tanking teams run out of excuses to tank because you either win or be gone, watch all those “competitive” teams realise they can’t settle anymore for stirring the blood and delivering the thrills, chills, and spills fighting to the last breath to see who finishes . . . in second place.

Now, somebody send for a child of five. (Thanks again, Groucho.) Then, send him or her to Nero with instructions to keep the universal DH. Which did you one of the biggest favours baseball was able to do for you this otherwise pandemically-putrid year. Even if you didn’t know it and didn’t want to hear about it.

Mediocrity might get World Series representation

Yes, let’s root-root-root for the 29-31 Brewers to meet the 29-31 Astros in the World Series. Stop snarling, there is a method to such madness.

Almost half a century ago, U.S. Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska offered a defense for Richard Nixon’s dubious Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell. It proved that with friends like Hruska the hapless Carswell didn’t need enemies. Just the way baseball proves that with friends or commissioners like Rob Manfred, it doesn’t need enemies, either.

“Even if [Carswell] were mediocre,” said Hruska, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Hruska, meet Manfred and today’s major league baseball owners. For the first time since 1981’s strike-resolution postseason experiment, at least one team with a losing record enters the rounds that will end in someone winning the World Series. This time, though, it turns out to be two such teams.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 29-31, final wild card-holding Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers. Whose joint appearance in the World Series to come (baseball law: anything can happen—and usually does) might be less hazardous to the nation’s health than a questionable Supreme Court justice.

Manfred and the owners dreamed up this sixteen-team/twelve wild-card postseason as a way to take the financial sting out of the owners agreeing to any sort of baseball season during a pandemic that’s stung the economy overall. So far as most of us knew, it would be a one-time thing.

Well, so was the postseason resolution of the 1981 strike. It put first-and-second-half division winners against each other in division series. But it also put the overall 50-53 Kansas City Royals (second-half American League West winners) into the postseason and kept the 66-42 Cincinnati Reds (neither-half National League West winners) and the best overall season record out.

Who knew then that, a decade and a half later, the owners and the players union alike would go all-in on three-division leagues and a wild card that took the first bite of championship dilution, allowing teams who didn’t finish in first place to play into the postseason in the first place?

Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, then pushed for and got the second wild card in each league starting in 2012. Until this season, only two World Series featured combatants who got into the postseason by way of the wild card, in 2002 (the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants) and 2014. (The Giants beat the Royals.) There’s an excellent chance of it happening again next month.

Almost two weeks ago, Manfred let slip that he’d like to see this sixteen-team postseason format stick past the anomaly of the pandemic-shortened season. That happened five days after Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein said she hoped as many losing teams as possible got here this time only.

The reasonings between the two couldn’t be more opposed. Manfred told a Hofstra University virtual panel that “there was a lot to commend” this setup “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape,” adding that “an overwhelming majority” of the owners agree.

Apstein called the setup a disgrace: “This setup dissuades teams from trying to be good. The clearer that is this year, the more likely it is that we can go back to normal next year.” She dares to dream, as does her SI colleague, Emma Baccalieri, who said, “In a non-pandemic-restricted year, ‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”

In absolute fairness, assorted teams this year didn’t look good for assorted reasons running the spread from aborted spring training and near rush-designed “summer camps” with a three-month-plus interruption to assorted injuries, health-related opt-outs, a few COVID-19 test panics and postponements, and the usual assortment of foul balls.

But assorted teams looked good in spite of those, too. More than a few teams made baseball fun and feel-good again. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman went from scared to death that COVID might wipe him out to likely winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. The Reds, the Chicago White Sox, and the Slam Diego Padres made friends and fans all over.

Well, at least the White Sox did until they went from letting the kids play (Tim Anderson especially) to Fun Police, drilling Willson Contreras for the bat flip of the century last Friday night. Must be something in the franchise water. The White Sox may have an apparent institutional genius for going from fun-fun-fun to phooey-on-you in practically a blink.

So why on earth should we pray for a World Series featuring a pair of losing season records?  There’s still the outside chance that the very sight of two losing records playing for the Promised Land might yank even Commissioner Nero’s head out from being so far up his ass he can give you the live play-by-play of his own root canal procedure. Might.

With identical losing records, and assuming they both get past the earlier rounds on the theory that even the also-rans can and do go nuclear for short spells, the Astros and the Brewers could make real that once-infamous observation that mediocrity deserved “a little” representation, too.

The Supreme Court can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos? Well, baseball can’t be all the A’s, the Braves, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins, and the Tampa Bay Rays, to name this pandemic season’s division winners, either.

They can’t even be all the White Sox, the Padres, the Cleveland Indians, or whoever—under normal two-card circumstances—might win a playoff game between the Reds and (surprise!) the Miami Marlins. (They’d have done it tying for the second National League wild card if this had been a normal season.)

Under normal conditions the rest of the pack, never mind the bottom of it, wouldn’t be entitled to play for a little representation before baseball’s highest court. Except in their wait-till-next-year dreams.

This year’s Astros and Brewers sank from winning 2019 teams (the Astros winning the AL West, the Brewers going to the NL wild card game) to 2020 also-rans. They were compromised predominantly by the injured list, particularly as it riddled their pitching staffs and a few key position players. If mediocrity deserves representation, their pandemic season’s records mean these two playing in the World Series would be as representative as it gets.

What if it leaves Manfred still giving the live play-by-play of his own root canal work? What if it doesn’t awaken him, and those owners he says are all-in, to the abject degeneracy of a baseball postseason that invited the mediocre to play on the same field (to open, anyway) as the teams who did overcome any and all pandemic or other disruptions to rise and shine?

What if Commissioner Nero and those supporters lack the brains to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture? Why did the Dodgers, the Rays, the Twins, the A’s, the Braves, and the Cubs fight tooth, fang, claw, and coronavirus to finish on top, just to have to run through most of the rest of the lesser pack all over again to play in the World Series?” And, “Why did we remove the real incentives for teams to compete just so we could still make money and lots of it?”

It’s tempting to pray that the Astros and the Brewers do find ways to meet in the Series. (Tough openings: the Astros face the Twins in this wild card round; the Brewers have to survive the Dodgers. David had better odds pitching to Goliath.) Just for the outrage factor alone. An outrage factor that would be multiplied exponentially considering the scandal-ridden Astros in Year One following the exposure and non-disciplines of Astrogate.

It might make the Brewers—who haven’t been in the World Series since Epcot opened, Marvin Gaye released the final album of his lifetime, Cats started an eighteen-year run on Broadway, and then-Communist Poland barred the Solidarity labour union—objects of affection far beyond the Milwaukee that made Schlitz famous.

The Astros may have only eight men left (Justin Verlander, pitcher, is gone to undergo and recuperate from late-life Tommy John surgery) from the Astrogate teams of 2017 and part of 2018. But that hasn’t stopped the brickbats, catcalls, and stadium seat cutout punkings from reminding them it’s not nice to commit espionage above and beyond the temptations handed down by MLB itself in the replay rooms.

Maybe an Astros-Brewers World Series would leave Manfred and his minions to answer why they thought mediocrity deserved a little postseason representation, too. Big maybe. And maybe I’ll win the Nobel Prize.

But maybe it should also make you pray that the Indians find a way through this mess to play in and win the Series at long enough last. If 2020 were a normal season, the Indians—whose tenacious righthander Shane Bieber looks like the absolute lock for the American League’s Cy Young Award this pandemic season—might have played a 163rd game against the White Sox to see who got wild card numbers one and two. (The Yankees, the Buffalonto Blue Jays, and the Astros would have been out.)

Well, as Casey Stengel once said, now wait a minute fer crissakes. Suppose this pandemic postseason shakes out to the Indians playing the Padres in the Series. The Indians haven’t won the Series since the Berlin Airlift. The last time they got to try, they lost a Game Seven thriller to the Cubs—who hadn’t won a Series since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

The Padres have yet to hoist their first piece of World Series metal. The last time they got to try, Jose Samarago became Portugal’s first Nobel literature laureate, Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for humour, Bill Clinton faced impeachment, and the Yankees weren’t anywhere near as inclined to roll over and play dead for the Padres as the Senate was for Clinton.

These words appear after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It almost figures that the first entry into baseball’s book of life for the year to come could make the Mad Hatter’s tea party resemble a Social Register cotillion. This time, if the proverbial cream rises to the top, a Dodgers-Rays World Series would likely do nothing but compel Manfred to proclaim validation. Told ya!

So let’s root, root, root for an Astros-Brewers World Series, no matter how you feel about the Astros otherwise. Not because mediocrity deserves a little representation, but because it might re-awaken the owners. Maybe enough to stop Commissioner Nero from consecrating the poisonous precept that a franchise doesn’t even have to try to be particularly good to earn the right to play for the Promised Land.

Intolerable weirdness

Comissioner Rob Manfred presents that piece of metal to the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals.

There it was. Sixteen paragraphs down, during Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin’s Tuesday morning analysis of commissioner Rob Manfred’s virtual panel conducted Monday night by Hofstra University’s business school. The main topic was the Show’s postseason, pandemic-inspired “bubble plan.” Then the real bomb detonated.

Sheinin revealed Manfred saying this pandemic season’s sixteen-team postseason “is likely to remain beyond 2020,” with “an overwhelming majority” of the owners endorsing it before the coronavirus world tour yanked baseball over, under, sideways, down.

“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” Sheinin quoted Manfred directly, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”

Back in February, Manfred got himself into a jam, dismissing thoughts of nullifying the Houston Astros’s illegal-sign-stealing-tainted 2017 World Series win, when he dismissed concurrently the World Series trophy itself (its official name is the Commissioner’s Trophy) as “just a piece of metal.” (His swift apology only helped a little.) Now he’s threatening to make the trophy exactly that, and not in rhetoric alone.

Last Friday, you may remember Sports Illustrated writer Emma Baccalieri saying a pandemically truncated baseball season such as this might make “tolerable weirdness” such as a losing-record team playing for a championship, well, tolerable. “In a non-pandemic-restricted year,” she said, “‘tolerable weirdness’ shouldn’t be the bar.”

Manfred has crossed the line into intolerable weirdness. It’s not that baseball wasn’t playing chicken at that line when it went to the wild card format in the first place, or when it added the second wild card in the second place. Playing chicken is one thing. Manfred wants the clucking birds to run roughshod over “our landscape.”

Baccalieri’s colleague Stephanie Apstein suggested in the same piece that having even one losing team in the postseason just might force Manfred to see how patently ridiculous the idea is in the first place. Apparently, the more ridiculous something is, the more stubborn Manfred becomes on its behalf.

Last Friday, the Astros—already trying to play through the continuing slings and arrows of Astrogate’s aftermath and the injured list—plus the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers sat within real wild card reach with records below .500 in the wild card standings. When I sat down to write this morning, the Astros had a wild card claim at precisely .500 while two National League teams (the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals) held claims with records one game below .500.

If the truncated season ended last night, those three teams would enter the postseason as wild cards. One .500 team and two losing teams. You tell me what would be wrong if that was the case at the end of a full, unimpeded regular season.

If the Show wanted to do what it could to let teams make up for the revenues lost because of COVID-19 shutting down spring training and the first almost half the regular season, you got that. But does Manfred really want to give .500 or below teams the right to enter baseball’s championship round after a full regular season that’s supposed to leave the best teams and no others going there?

Last Friday I ran down ten wild card era teams who entered October holding wild cards and ironed up going all the way to World Series wins. Some of them remained dubious even holding the trophy, and some of them actually made history to reach the Promised Land. (That would be you, O actual or alleged curse-busting 2002 Anaheim Angels and 2004 Boston Red Sox.)

Every one of those teams at least got there on winning records. Even their own fans knew in their hearts how ludicrous it was to have enjoyed the thrills, chills, and spills of watching their teams and others fighting to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . with the best second-place records in the game.

What’s Manfred looking for, really? The thrills, chills, and spills of a fight to the last breath to see who’d finish . . . as the best of the Show’s losing teams? Does he really think the good of the game is that powerfully defined by making money for the owners? Does he really hold the players in contempt so deep that he’d let them claim greatness when greatness isn’t required to have even the chance at a World Series title?

And where’s the Major League Baseball Players Association? Joining the owners in approving the coming postseason “bubble” is one thing. Why aren’t executive director Tony Clark (himself a former player), his board, and his thirty team player representatives standing up on their hind legs, athwart Commissioner Nero who fiddles while burning their game, yelling “Stop?”

Maybe the union, too, thinks the good of the game is defined that powerfully by making money for the players. Maybe the union thinks the more, the merrier, and the more postseason share dollars to divvy up. Maybe the union, like the commissioner and the owners, doesn’t think as deeply as they should.

Wasn’t the small epidemic of tanking teams bad enough without leaving them even more room to care little to nothing about competition on the field? Does anyone really think those owners with the tank mentality are going to shape up, re-discover what their fans really want to pay for, and build truly competitive teams knowing they don’t have to try all that hard to finish in . . . eighth place?

What about those owners (yes, they do exist) who don’t think like tankers? Who pour their dollars and souls into building and re-building competitive teams and systems for the long race year in, year out? Who field teams who finish seasons on top in their divisions? Who’d still have to run a small gamut of not-quites and not-belongings for the right to play for a world championship on behalf of which they busted their fannies all season long?

How useless it now feels to argue as I’ve argued for a very long time—that the wild cards must be eliminated on behalf of restoring genuine baseball championship, and that if we must have three-division leagues there’s a sensible and sane way to align a proper postseason.

That way would be to have the leagues’ division winners with the best regular season record getting round-one byes, while the leagues’ other two winners play best-of-threes, with the winner of those meeting the bye teams in League Championship Series returned to their original best-of-five formats. Keeping the World Series as a best-of-seven and leaving, ultimately, little to no doubt about the legitimacy of the team that reaches the Promised Land.

How useless, too, it now feels to argue that that would likely cure the number one issue that really dogs baseball’s postseason: over-saturation, the prospect that fans by their radios, in front of television sets, in front of Internet computers, can be exhausted by too much of a good thing.

I didn’t mind some of the rule changes the pandemic truncation invited. I’m all in on the universal designated hitter; few things warm my heart more than not having to see a lineup slot that hit .131 with a .161 on-base percentage all through the 2010s wasted on bats making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. The extremely occasional thrill of a pitcher hitting a home run isn’t. worth. it. Not even for the next Bartolo Colon.

I can also live very nicely with doubleheaders of seven-inning games each. (So can the players, seemingly.) The only problem I have with the idea is why it took over a century to consecrate.

I don’t like the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. I still notice how many managers forget that minimum and still leave the poor saps in even if they’re already getting killed. Poor saps such as St. Louis righthander Jake Woodford. He got pried for two more runs tacked onto Cardinal ace Jack Flaherty’s jacket Tuesday night and had five of his own battered out of him on the way to the Brewers destroying the Cardinals 18-3. And don’t get me started on the free cookie on second base each team gets in each extra inning.

But I’d rather be stuck kicking and screaming with those than to see even one normal regular season in which half of each league gets to enter the championship rounds no matter how little their season records argue for their worthiness. A .500 or a sub-.500 team entering the championship round consecrates incompetence as virtue.

That’s something baseball’s mal-competent Commissioner Nero, and those owners agreeing with his intolerable weirdness, appear clueless to comprehend.