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.

Who hit Manfred with the smart stick?

2020-08-11 BasebrawlAstrosAs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adult in the room wasn’t

AlexCintronJoseAltuve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quit the nonsense, Commissioner

2020-08-02 RobManfred

Rob Manfred, who doesn’t seem to grok the distinction between quitting and a strategic retreat.

The incumbent World Series most valuable player, who will hold that distinction until the next World Series is played, dealt with a nerve problem in his pitching hand, costing him one start but amplifying his sense of perspective. The long view matters as much to Stephen Strasburg as do such small details as whether to bust a fastball or a slider in on a hitter.

“To be frank,” the Washington Nationals righthander told reporters after his scratch against the New York Yankees, “this season is kind of a mess to begin with, so I got to think big picture here. It’s my career. I know that in the long run it’s important to try to make as many starts as you can, and by putting yourself in a compromising position now, I don’t really know if it’s the best way moving forward.”

A hand nerve issue in a normal regular season doesn’t cost a pitcher or his team as much as the issue does in a truncated, sixty-game season. Strasburg, however, isn’t an ordinary pitcher. He’s not just the defending World Series MVP, but he got to the career point where it became possible thanks to that “Strasburg Plan” that shut him down well before 2012 ended, in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

With the Nats headed for that postseason it seemed most of the world demanded they man up, compel Strasburg to do likewise, because who knew when they’d get another shot, right? Strasburg and his team decided a) they weren’t going to die if they didn’t go to the Promised Land then, and b) they’d get there sooner or later and they’d kinda sorta like Strasburg along for the ride.

Now it may turn out to be that Strasburg missing a little more 2020 time because of that nerve issue is the least controversial portion of this Twilight Zone of a season. Submitted for your further consideration, in case you began considering before I sat down to write:

Since last weekend, twenty-one Miami Marlins and four St. Louis Cardinals have tested COVID-19 positive, while a few Philadelphia Phillies may or may not have returned false positives. The real positives stranded the Marlins in Philadelphia after last weekend’s series, until a bus delivered the Fish to their Miami home waters at last.

They also provoked fifteen to seventeen scheduled games canceled, including this weekend’s set between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers. The latter’s outfielder Lorenzo Cain joined the list of the opting-out during the week while we were at it. So did Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz on Friday. Diaz wasn’t a COVID-19 positive Marlin but seeing so many told him some things really do come before baseball, after all.

“This has been a decision that I have discussed with my family, and I feel it’s the best one for me and my overall well-being,” he said in an Instagram post. “I will deeply miss my teammates and competing on the field. I wish my brothers the best and look forward to taking the field again with them soon!!”

Meanwhile, commissioner Rob Manfred, who rarely misses the proverbial opportunity to miss an opportunity, has channeled his inner Richard Nixon and harrumphed against quitting on whatever’s passing for this truncated major league season. “We are playing,” Manfred told ESPN’s Karl Ravech on Saturday. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”

In one sweep of his tongue Manfred implied the players who opted out of playing this season as they were granted the right to do were a bunch of quitters and implied players were to blame for the COVID-19 outbreaks among the Marlins and the Cardinals. As if the players scheduled the Fish for that final exhibition game in Atlanta, a city in a state where the coronavirus now is about as rare as oppressive July heat in Las Vegas.

Yes, a few Marlins went out on the town while in Atlanta. Not too bright if they weren’t masked and sanitising, but who put that game on the schedule and didn’t even think about calling it off when Georgia’s coronavirus presence metastasised? And who are the bubbleheads who couldn’t even think about finding an appropriate “bubble” in which to play major league baseball this year?

(Not to mention, who couldn’t even think about taking better steps to assure the Toronto Blue Jays wouldn’t have become the Show’s first strictly road team.)

For a couple of decades the Show has strained to get into what it thinks must be step with other leagues such as the National Basketball Association. The problem has been that it’s paid closest attention to the wrong things (championship-diluting, everyone-a-cookie playoffs) and ignored the right ones.

Once upon a time, knowing he’d be impeached over Watergate if he did otherwise, Nixon announced he’d resign the presidency by saying, among other things, “I have never been a quitter.” Which was jarring enough coming from the man who accepted his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race by quitting politics altogether (so we thought), saying, “Gentlemen, you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Manfred’s in no position to proclaim himself a non-quitter. He quit on the off-field-based, illegal electronic sign-stealing scandal, baseball’s biggest running story until the coronavirus world tour arrived in America in earnest, giving the cheating Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox players immunity to spill instead of ordering them to spill or be spilled no matter what Players Association grievance might have been filed.

He suspended two managers (one who’d been the Asterisks’ 2017 bench coach before managing the 2018 likewise World Series-winning Rogue Sox) and a general manager, and fined one owner what amounted to tip money. He might have bagged the Astro Intelligence Agency co-masterminds, as also the replay room operator in the Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Ring, but he still let the cheaters skate.

Maybe he thought public outrage—from victimised opponents to Astro and Red Sox fans alike who had to come to terms with their heroes being exposed as high-tech cheaters— would be punishment enough. Then the coronavirus world tour knocked Astrogate and Rogue Soxgate both into the yesterday’s news morgues.

Until Manfred dropped an eight-game hammer on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly for doing in spirit if also extreme action what the commissioner failed to do, a quarter of brushback pitches holding at least Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa to account. You don’t have to agree with Kelly throwing near Bregman’s head to get that.

The commissioner still hasn’t pressed the New York Yankees to obey a judge’s ruling that the detailed letter of reprimand over the illegal dugout phone and possible network camera sign-stealing be made public, either.

Manfred also quit on the people whom the fans normally buy tickets to see at the ballpark when, under the impetus of his bosses, the unimpoverished owners, he tried to strong-arm the players out of agreed-upon fully pro-rated 2020 salaries, for whenever a season might begin, then failed to help develop a far more reasonably safe way for the season to be played.

He quit on the game’s integrity with his bread-and-circuses rules experiments such as the free runner on second to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. When both collide in the extras, it can be (and has been, here and there) murder for the poor sap on the mound and his manager who can’t do a thing to stop the execution until after batter three.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Nero keeps fiddling while the health of the game—in the game’s actual playing terms and the physical health of enough of its players—keeps burning. No wonder Dodgers pitcher David Price, who opted out of pitching in 2020 before the truncated season began, fumed last week:

Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first. Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.

If player health was paramount, Manfred and whatever’s passing for his brain trust—if canceling the 2020 season outright wasn’t to their taste—would have found a healthier mileu than just regionally based games where certain areas in the Show are COVID-heavier than others. And he wouldn’t have slapped even by implication those players who opted out of the season for the sake of their health and their families’ health as quitters.

Manfred may want to revisit his rhetoric if not necessarily reconfigure his mind. He may not have a choice but to cancel this truncated, surrealistic, Twilight Zone-meets-penny arcade season. There’s a difference between quitting outright and making a strategic retreat, which is exactly what canceling the rest of this loopy but risky season would be.

The moment Manfred sees and understands that distinction, the less he’ll look like the  man who misread the signposts up ahead. Less like the commissioner who fiddles while baseball burns, in . . .

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Justice at last for high-tech cheaters?

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While such “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-shirts became popular instantly, MLB and the players union finally agreed to let the commissioner hammer electronic cheaters. But are there catches?

Well, what do you know. Joe Kelly’s Tuesday night messages to Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa may have proven more than just worth an eight-game suspension (being appealed) and his canonisation as a saint in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

They have gotten both MLB’s dubious commissioner and the Major League Baseball Players Association on board with punishing future Astrogaters and Soxgaters. If they’re caught taking or transmitting such electronically-pilfered intelligence, they can be suspended without pay and lose the days of those suspensions in service time.

The news comes from one of the most unimpeachable sources—Evan Drellich, one of two writers for The Athletic (Ken Rosenthal was his teammate on it) to whom former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, an Oakland Athletic since August 2018 (after a stop in Detroit), blew the whistle on the Astro Intelligence Agency in the first place.

“MLB’s rules on the use of electronics and video grew significantly in the wake of penalties for the Astros and [Boston] Red Sox, according to a review of the document by The Athletic and conversations with officials familiar with it,” Drellich writes in an article published Thursday morning.

The league has newly hired an outside security firm to police the video replay room entrance and no later than next year plans to edit out the signs from the footage players look at in-game.

But no alteration may be as significant as the league’s ability to discipline. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the hammer, although the union can always appeal his decisions.

. . . Kelly was said by some to be delivering the justice to Astros players that MLB did not.

Whether MLB could have effectively administered that justice previously is a complicated question.

Technically, Manfred could have attempted to suspend Astros players had he not granted them immunity during his office’s investigations. But the punishments might not have stood up to expected grievances from the MLBPA because the league and union never before agreed how these specific issues would be handled. In fact, Manfred had declared in 2017, well before the Astros and Red Sox investigations, that he would hold club officials, not players, accountable for sign stealing.

No one condoned throwing at a batter’s head, as Kelly appeared to do when he threw such a pitch to walk Bregman with one out in the bottom of the sixth Tuesday, when they knew without being told that Kelly did only what it seemed at least half of major league baseball’s players—knowing how un-contrite both the Asterisks and the Rogue Sox seemed in spring training after the verdicts—thought was going to be done this season.

(It didn’t exactly take forever for a rash of T-shirts celebrating Kelly’s knockdown of Bregman and subsequent breaking-ball dustings of Carlos Correa, not to mention protesting his suspension, to go on sale online. “Free Joe Kelly” and “Joe Kelly Fight Club,” with or without Kelly’s image answering Correa’s huffing with a mock-crybaby face, seem the most popular.)

Until the coronavirus world tour knocked baseball as inside out as the rest of the world, Astrogate especially and Soxgate concurrently were the number one topic and scandal around the game. At times it was tough to determine which was more scandalous, the AIA and the Red Sox replay room reconnaissance ring, or Manfred having given players immunity instead of using his office’s powers to order them, “Spill, or be spilled.”

Not only did Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant say this was worse than the prior scandals around actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Dodger pitcher Alex Wood said, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”

Wood faced such players in the 2017 World Series. He had the lowest ERA (1.17) of any Dodger pitcher who pitched five or more innings in the set. He started Game Four in Minute Maid Park and surrendered George Springer’s two-out solo home run to break a scoreless tie and end his evening; he relieved Kenley Jansen for the Game Seven eighth and retired the side in order in Dodger Stadium.

Because the AIA’s apparatus involved either installing an additional and illegal real-time camera in Minute Maid Park, or taking an already-installed camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay, the 2017-18 Asterisks couldn’t run their sign-stealing scheme on the road. (In due course, it developed that Asterisk administrators tried but likely failed to urge scouts on the road to steal signs from the stands with cameras or field glasses.)

The 2018 Rogue Sox could operate their replay room reconnaissance ring in Fenway Park and elsewhere, anywhere, because it didn’t depend on altered or extra equipment. Basically, MLB handed them the keys to the candy store. Who knows how many other teams did as the Rogue Sox did, posting someone to decipher enemy pitch signs and signal them to a baserunner who’d then signal them to the hitter.

Remember: Sign-stealing on the field is as old a brand of gamesmanship as baseball itself. That’s why nobody went more than boo when New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was recently seen as a runner on second looking as though sending a stolen sign to the hitter.

The 1951 New York Giants posted a coach in the clubhouse/offices above center field in the ancient Polo Grounds to steal signs telescopically and relay them to the bullpen from where signs were sent to hitters who wanted them. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!) The verdict on their spectacular pennant race comeback forcing that fabled pennant playoff was left to history, alas.

The Red Sox married classic gamesmanship to off-field assistance handed to them (and anyone else who might have done likewise) in a gift-wrapped box. They didn’t install an extra camera and monitor in the room so far as is known. The new protocols now include prohibiting video room operators from communicating with players, coaches, and managers; and, outside security hired by MLB to guard the rooms, one guard for now and perhaps two after the coronavirus restrictions can be lifted.

Was Kelly punished too harshly for doing only what everyone with the proverbial two brain cells to rub together knew was likely to happen sooner or later, especially when the delayed season’s schedule included the surprise of the Astros facing the Dodgers in two sets? Another Athletic writer thinks so.

“When Manfred declined to punish the Astros, whether you agree with retaliation or not, he all but ensured opposing players would take matters into their own hands,” writes Molly Knight.

The Astros escaped their first series of this pandemic-shortened season against the Mariners without incident. But did anyone really expect none of the Dodgers to seek revenge?

MLB confirmed the Astros cheated their way through the 2017 World Series, and it still took them seven games to beat the Dodgers. It was as close as Los Angeles has come to winning it all since 1988. The scars from that series three years ago are still fresh for Dodgers fans, no matter how often Astros fans tell them to get over it. It’s hard to see how Astros fans would be over it if the trash can had been banged by the other team.

Considering that Kelly has a history as an erratic pitcher who rarely lets an actual or perceived offense go unanswered, it practically figured that he’d be the Dodgers’ version of the Green Hornet, flirting with crime to take down the grand theft felons. But keep in mind, too, that an eight-game drydock in a sixty-game season equals a 22-game suspension for a full 162-game season.

“Manfred may have thought he was sending a message about vigilante justice by giving Kelly an eight-game ban,” Knight writes. “But all he did was draw attention back to the absurdity that Astros players cheated to win a World Series and justice wasn’t served.”

Now Commissioner Nero has a hammer to swing on the high-tech off-field-based cheaters. Even if he catches another such intelligence/reconnaissance operation in the act—or another Fiers blows the whistle—and swing, and the Players Association files grievances on behalf of the hammered. He’d still send the message loud and strong that any more AIAs or Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Rings are verboten.

The question is whether he really will. And, whether the hammer will be a mallet or a marshmallow.