Goodbye, good riddance, good luck

2019-10-25 BrandonTaubman

Now-former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman.

Some time during the 1980s, I remember picking up a magazine story and seeing a university president quoted from a board of trustees meeting. Exactly how it came up escapes my memory, but his remark doesn’t. He told his board that, dammit, he wanted a school his football team could be proud of.

It’s not unreasonable now to think it’s possible that those who play baseball in Astro uniforms might like a front office their players can be proud of. One that knows better than to shoot the messenger who exposed an assistant general manager as clueless about domestic violence.

Astro fans are in the discomfiting position of rooting for their team while clutching their stomachs over the Brandon Taubman affair. Much the way they were when the Astros acquired relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while he was still under suspension for a domestic violence incident that was yet to be resolved legally at the time of the deal.

They don’t have Taubman to trouble their stomachs any longer, at least. Perhaps getting ahead of baseball government’s investigative curve, the Astros fired Taubman on Thursday.

All that remains of the affair now, seemingly, is for the Astros’ administration to fire those in the team’s public relations department who decided upon initial exposure of Taubman’s brain damage that it was all the fault of the Sports Illustrated reporter who exposed it in the first place. And, for that administration to learn at last that winning doesn’t sweep some things under the proverbial rug.

In a near-empty Astro clubhouse, following their surrealistic pennant clinch last Saturday night, and with no Astro players known to have remained at the moment, three female reporters including SI‘s Stephanie Apstein stood adjacent to Taubman when he let fly with, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!”

Osuna was rocked in the top of the ninth of American League Championship Series Game Six when Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu hit a two-run homer off him to tie the game at four. Astro second baseman Jose Altuve won the pennant in the bottom of the ninth with a more electrifying two-run homer—ironically enough, off Aroldis Chapman, the Yankee closer with his own domestic violence history.

A team executive looking to console or brace up a pitcher humiliated in a moment like Osuna’s on the mound wouldn’t necessarily thunder like that but, rather, take the pitcher aside privately to reassure him how glad the team was to have him. Or, say it while his teammates were still in the clubhouse celebrating the pennant win.

Such an executive wouldn’t wait, as Taubman did, until he was almost alone with three women doing their jobs, one of whom (who insists her name be kept out of coverage of the affair) wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelets worn by lots of people to whom domestic violence is a grotesque crime, to holler that kind of remark about a player who was guilty of it at the time the Astros acquired him.

Apstein was one of the women on the job. And to her credit, she first sought comment from others in the Astros’ front office apparatus before writing her original story about it. Only after getting none did she publish her story early this past Monday, the day before the World Series began.

A formal team statement played the fake-news card at once, calling her story “misleading,” “completely irresponsible,” and written by someone trying to “fabricate” it. But as radio host Larry Elder would say, the fit hit the shan not just from the moment Apstein’s story hit the Internet running but from when it transpired that others aside from the three women reporters happened to be there, happened to see, and happened to hear.

Including two Houston Chronicle reporters, Chandler Rome and Hunter Atkins. “The three female reporters were approximately eight feet away and one was visibly shaken by the comment . . . eyewitnesses said,” wrote Rome. “There were no players in the area and no interviews were being conducted at the time.” Atkins pounced on the original Astro denunciation after the “fabricate” accusation emerged. “I was there,” he tweeted. “Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.”

The Astros hit the damage control button faster than Altuve’s pennant-winning homer flew off the barrel of his bat. The office of commissioner Rob Manfred jumped immediately into investigating the Taubman incident, as well it should have considering the game’s domestic violence policy in place since 2015 and the controversy when the Astros dealt for Osuna in the first place at the July 2018 trade deadline.

Finally, come Thursday, the Astros had no more choice. Their formal statement probably has no better description than that by Deadspin‘s Gabe Fernandez:

While the statement offers a meager apology to Apstein, and acknowledges that the organization was wrong with its initial response, noticeably absent is any explanation for why Houston released a strongly worded comment decrying the legitimacy of the Sports Illustrated report, allowed an employee to pull the “as a father of daughters” card while offering a non-apology of his own, and based these decisions on an investigation whose conclusion proved to be far from reality. Who were those “witnesses” who lied to smear Apstein and the other reporters present as fabulists? Who crafted that first statement? What consequences will they face?

Osuna was available in the first place because the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to be rid of him when he was hit with his domestic violence suspension, involving an assault on the woman with whom he has a now four-year-old son. Astro players, particularly ace pitcher Justin Verlander, were not exactly comfortable with the acquisition when it happened.

What a surprise. Verlander himself thundered on Twitter after Astro minor leaguer Danrys Vasquez was shown on video attacking his girl friend on a staircase, for which the Astros released him post haste. And now the Astros dealt their own beleaguered closer Ken Giles to acquire Osuna?

And, yes, Chapman caused a few temperatures to run the scales when the Yankees first acquired him, then dealt him to the Cubs in 2016 (for Gleyber Torres), then re-signed him as a free agent, all after Chapman’s incident with his lady that prompted the Dodgers to back away from a deal acquiring him during winter 2015-16.

Before you suggest that the Astros simply had no choice considering Giles’s ongoing troubles with the team creating the immediate need for an available reliever who could close, be reminded that they actually had a choice if they wanted it, at or just before the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline. (The deadline is now a single one, waiver and non-waiver alike, for all season.)

Giles’s frustrations in the 2017 World Series carried over into the 2018 season and the Astros needed to move him for his own and the club’s sake. At the same time, the Orioles going into rebuild mode were shopping Zack Britton, rehorsing after forearm issues bothered him in 2017.

The same Zack Britton who pitched to a 1.91 regular-season ERA this year and performed respectably in five ALCS appearances against the Astros, surrendering no runs to them despite walking five batters while still striking five out. Compare that to Osuna’s 2.63 ERA this season, his 3.60 ALCS ERA, and getting credit for the Game Six win as a gift from Altuve despite surrendering the game-tying bomb.

The Yankees would acquire Britton instead. Osuna’s ERA was 2.63 when the Astros traded Giles to get him from the Jays. Britton’s was 3.45 when the Yankees dealt for him, but he actually looked closer to his old self in his final eight gigs as an Oriole—his ERA in those eight single-inning gigs was 0.00. And he’d had only two appearances thus far in which he surrendered any runs all season until the trade.

The Astros could have dealt for Britton easily enough without any baggage, domestic violence or otherwise, instead of Osuna whose domestic violence case was far enough from being resolved in the Canadian courts when he finally signed a legal document in which he agreed to have no contact with his victim for a full year to follow.

But they went for Osuna. He was a “depressed asset,” as so many stories about l’affaire Taubman have described. Making the Astros look to too many people as though they, too, put baseball ahead of moral and ethical considerations. Verlander was put in the discomfiting position of straining to be diplomatic about the deal, and it was also known that the Astro front office wasn’t exactly unified about the deal, either.

There were Cub fans uncomfortable with the idea of Chapman having a role in their staggering World Series run. There remain Yankee fans uncomfortable with his presence now. But no Cub or Yankee executive was ever heard, so far as is known for certain, to have thanked his Maker for acquiring a woman beater, in listening range of any reporters.

And the Cubs were caught completely flatfoot after shortstop Addison Russell’s wife, with Russell’s domestic violence suspension carrying from the end of the 2018 season into the beginning of the 2019 season, gave a December 2018 interview in which she described the gory details of what she’d suffered at his hands.

They stood by their man regardless, though with a few qualifiers, and looked just as ridiculous. And Russell’s 2019 season, identifiable by injuries and less than stellar performances when he did play, may end up making him an ex-Cub after all. Not exactly the same thing as sending a powerful message against wife beating.

Remember: there’s no inherent, God-given right to play professional baseball. And there’s no concurrent obligation for any baseball team to tolerate crimes like domestic violence for the sake of winning, whether committed by a player or appearing to matter little to those who hire him.

Firing Taubman only begins resolving the Astro dilemna. The front office isn’t anywhere near off the hook yet. And with the Astros about to face World Series Game Three in Washington and in the hole 2-0 to the Nationals, the absolute last thing the organisation needs is a front office that looked for too long this week as though domestic violence was just a nuisance instead of a very real issue.

And, like it or not, Osuna is still an Astro. Even though the way the Series has transpired so far he hasn’t poked his nose out of his bullpen hole once yet. It’s still possible that the Astros won’t go down to the Nats without a battle, and that Osuna will yet be seen loosening up in the pen for a late-game entry.

And, that Astro fans will be torn as they didn’t have to be between rooting for their team with Osuna on the mound and wishing the front office didn’t lack the common sense God gave a turnip when dealing for a woman abuser when they could have had a late-game reliever who wasn’t one.

“It would be great if this was a case of the Astros committing to an organizational overhaul in response to not just what Taubman did, but also what others around the ballclub did to protect this employee,” Fernandez observes of the Taubman firing. “But considering how much blowback had to occur before anything of substance happened, the Astros’ delay in acting responsibly should be remembered at least as much as the fact that they eventually did.”

Should be? It probably will be. Especially by Astro fans who wish with all their hearts that they had a front office their team can be proud of.

The more things change . . .

2019-09-05 JimmieFoxxFrankieFrisch

Generational debates on player “toughness” and baseball conditions didn’t end with Jimmie Foxx (left), Frankie Frisch, and a group of fellow Hall of Famers in 1954. They won’t end ever, really.

“Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

If I gave you that quote without attribution, you’d think it came from one of today’s old-school fans or analysts who think, erroneously, that baseball today lacks “toughness.” But it doesn’t come from one of today’s grumps. It comes from Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. And he said it to Sports Illustrated in 1954.

A present-day SI writer, Jon Tayler, exhumes it for a kind of state-of-the-game address. And it might be fun to look at what the other Hall of Famers still alive in 1954 said about the state of the game then. The title of that piece: “Are Today’s Baseball Players Sissies Compared to The Old Timers?” You may or may not be surprised at who said what.

“Baseball is a more aggressive game today,” said outfielder Paul (Big Poison) Waner, answering clearly in the negative. “The players can’t let up a bit. In my day we could. Today the pitcher has to throw hard to every man in the line-up. That’s the reason for so many substitutions. There are many more home-run hitters playing today. And there are cracker-jack fielders.”

Waner should only have been able to see the kind of hard throwing that was yet to come. In 1954, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were playing basketball on college scholarships (Koufax at the University of Cincinnati, Gibson at Creighton University), Sudden Sam McDowell was in middle or junior high school, minor league legend Steve Dalkowski was still in high school, and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were still in grade school.

Rogers Hornsby (second baseman), who wasn’t exactly baseball’s Mr. Congeniality (when he was canned as the St. Louis Browns’s manager in 1952, Browns players led by pitcher Ned Garver presented owner Bill Veeck with an engraved trophy), answered the headline in the affirmative. Feel like a little wager that without knowing it was Hornsby this could have been said by Goose Gossage?

“[I]t’s the fault of the managers, not the players,” Hornsby said. “They change men too often. A pitcher will be removed for one bad pitch. A left-handed batter will be removed for a right-hander, for the percentage. Would they ever have taken out Cobb, Speaker, Wagner or Frisch?”

You wonder if Hornsby wasn’t taking a jab at Casey Stengel, a product of the John McGraw school when all was said and done, but who made a dark and successful art out of changing men, playing percentages, manipulating relief pitching—and kicking the American League’s ass for most of a decade plus while he was at it—during the era Hornsby lamented.

Al Simmons (outfielder) demurred from Hornsby’s assessment. “It was soft for us,” said Bucketfoot Al. “We had no Sunday games. Besides double-headers, today’s players have to play day, night and Sunday baseball.” The doubleheader today is the exception, not the rule, but players in 2019 also have to play night, Sunday, and day baseball. Often while traveling from one coast to the other or north to south.

I bet you think the following remark could be said by any reporter, columnist, or analyst today: “Many of the players today are fully as good as most of the old-timers. But comparisons are difficult to make. One of Ty Cobb’s great assets was base-stealing; in the 1915 season he stole 96 bases . . . With the rabbit ball today, why risk an out? It’s better to wait for the long hit.”

And I bet you’re wrong. That was actually Carl Hubbell, he who wore the silks of the New York Giants while striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bucketfoot Al, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game. And Hubbell had a point if you consider it to be that there were (and still are) those who considered 1950s baseball, which some of today’s old schoolers still think was the game’s Golden Age, to be too little more than a big power game. (In 1954, Little Looie Aparicio was just about to start the real return of the stolen base.)

To the question in the 1954 headline Cy Young (there’s a pitching award named in his honour, I think, wink wink) said, “Yes. They can’t take it. I’ve seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It’s the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month.”

I don’t suppose it crossed Young’s mind that in the dead ball era pitchers such as himself weren’t oriented or taught all that much to try throwing the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves, or that dead-ball pitching’s number one orientation was inducing contact, the more the better, and that the lack of power pitchers in the dead ball era normally meant that getting hit by a pitch wasn’t liable to leave a welt or a splitting headache.

Would it be fair to have asked Young if he would have flinched pitching against, say, Bob Feller, and had to face retaliation from Feller if Young had knocked down or drilled one of Feller’s Indians? Would it have been fair to question Walter Johnson’s “toughness” because the legend has it that whenever the gentlemanly Big Train did hit a batter he’d be almost apologetic about it and genuinely hopeful that he didn’t injure the poor guy?

“Players today like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and [sic] Pee Wee Reese are as rugged as any of the old-timers,” said third baseman Pie Traynor. “The trouble is that they are handicapped by having to play day and night baseball. This shortens their careers.”

Brushing aside that Rizzuto proved to have the shortest career of the players Traynor named, and that with the exception of Mantle and Mathews all those players had playing careers interrupted by World War II service, Traynor was probably right about their toughness but not quite right about the day/night conundrum. Night ball shortened a lot of Hall of Famers’ and others’ statistics more than their careers; injuries tended to shorten their careers more.

Williams (nineteen seasons) and Musial (22 seasons) would finish very long careers the majority of which seasons were played in the night ball era. So would Feller (eighteen), Mathews (seventeen), Mantle (eighteen), Snider (eighteen), and Reese (sixteen).

In due course you would see such protracted, predominantly night ball careers, from such Hall of Famers as Mantle (eighteen years) Henry Aaron (23 years), Ernie Banks (nineteen), Johnny Bench (seventeen), George Brett (21), Lou Brock (nineteen), Chipper Jones (nineteen), Willie Mays (22), Willie McCovey (22), Joe Morgan (22), Mike Schmidt (eighteen), and Jim Thome (22) among others among the position players.

Among the mostly- or exclusively night ball-era Hall of Fame pitchers? Hello, Warren Spahn (21; “He’ll never get into the Hall of Fame, he won’t stop pitching,” Stan Musial once cracked about him), Robin Roberts (nineteen), Whitey Ford (sixteen), Bob Gibson (seventeen), Juan Marichal (sixteen), Tom Seaver (twenty), Steve Carlton (24), Ferguson Jenkins (nineteen), Dennis Eckersley (24), Greg Maddux (23), Tom Glavine (22), Randy Johnson (22), Mike Mussina (eighteen), and Mariano Rivera (nineteen), among others.

But baseball’s rolls also include too many players whose careers were compromised or shortened by injuries, especially by being foolish enough to try playing through them regardless. That kind of “toughness” gets you some immediate admiration but costs your team a useful-or-better asset and you a career.

They still talk about Mickey Mantle’s what-ifs (forgetting that what was was impossibly great regardless) despite almost his entire career being an orthopedic experiment. And, to this day, baseball fans of long standing lament the what-ifs regarding a lot of players whom injuries compromised or finished: Pistol Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (who came back too soon from one injury too many), Butch Hobson, and Kirby Puckett (who made it to the Hall of Fame anyway), among others. They’re liable to do it regarding David Wright, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey, too.

Funny that Hornsby should have mentioned his fellow second baseman Frankie Frisch. Frisch had something to say about whether players in 1954 were sissies comparied to players in his day or earlier. Which might surprise those today who remember how Frisch (and his running mate/successor Bill Terry) were so convinced nobody was as good as the good old days’ players that they corrupted the Hall of Fame by ramming as many of their Cardinals’ and Giants’ cronies into the Hall of Fame as they could get away with.

“It’s tough to say who are the tougher,” said the Fordham Flash. “Night games and the rabbit ball have changed everything. The managers seldom play for one run. And the players swing from the end of the bat. But baseball is a nicer game today. They meet you at the train and drive you to the park. TV has them hamming”

If only Frisch hadn’t concluded by adding, “But we got more fun out of the game.” Fun is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But Frisch and company in 1954 should remind us that a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson would prove right when, continuing his mastery of the double (or more) negative, he’d say in due course, “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

And the more things in baseball change, the more most of them stay the same.