Baseball’s unlocked. But . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye postseason saturation, welcome home genuine championship.

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

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

Baseball’s death wish?

Rob Manfred

Rob Manfred announcing the cancellation of the 2022 regular season’s first two weeks. He has made clear his vision for the good of the game is making money for the owners and too little more.

I’ve quoted it often but it all but screams now. “We try every way we can think of to kill this game,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once upon a time, “but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

That’s Anderson’s body among many now performing imitations of washing machine spin cycles in their graves, while their beings in the Elysian Fields pray today’s baseball owners haven’t pushed the game closer to its own.

“I had hoped against hope,” commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday evening, “I wouldn’t have to have this press conference where I am going to cancel some regular season games. I want to assure [baseball] fans that our failure to reach an agreement was not due to a lack of effort by either party.”

It was to laugh that you might not wish to commit manslaughter.

That was the man whom we are, as one Twitter denizen tweeted, “old enough to remember [saying] cancelling regular season games over his MLB #Lockout would be a disaster.” The disaster is of Manfred’s own and his bosses’s making.

That was the man whose bosses, the owners, compelled him to impose a lockout, just after midnight 1 December, when baseball’s previous collective bargaining agreement expired, rather than allow themselves and the Major League Baseball Players Association to continue operating the game under the former agreement while negotiating a new one.

That was the man who presided over 43 days’ worth of absolute dead silence from the owners’ side to follow. Dead silence, including nothing in the way of an offer from the owners to the players. Dead silence, but not oblivion.

Eyes unclouded by either cataracts or selectivity saw this was not dismissable as mere  billionaires versus millionaires. Eyes thus unclouded saw that Manfred claiming major league baseball franchises return less on what is invested to buy and run them was a shameless and shabby lie.

Eyes at full strength see that only 31.4 percent of the players’ union’s active major league membership earns more than a million dollars in a season, that 28.2 percent of that membership are minor league players on teams’ forty-man rosters who earn no more than $40,500.

“Player pay has decreased for four consecutive years, even as industry revenues grew and franchise values soared and the would-be stewards of the game pleaded to anyone who would listen that owning a baseball team isn’t a particularly profitable venture,” wrote ESPN analyst Jeff Passan on the day of Manfred’s first deadline for a deal without cancelling games.

Players’ service time has been manipulated to keep them from free agency and salary arbitration. The luxury tax, instituted to discourage runaway spending, has morphed into a de facto salary cap, and too many teams are nowhere near it anyway, instead gutting their rosters and slashing their payrolls because the game’s rules incentivize losing. The commissioner has called the World Series trophy a “piece of metal,” and the league has awarded the team that did the best job curtailing arbitration salaries a replica championship belt.

Eyes open wide saw that Manfred and his bosses are the (lack of) class attempting nothing short of its level best to push players further back toward what they were prior to 1975-76.

That was then: Curt Flood, in his courageous but failed bid to break the ancient abused reserve clause, proclaimed, “A $90,000 a year slave is still a slave.” And, Andy Messersmith, who finished what Flood started: “I was tired of players having no power and no rights.” This is now: Owners and their administrators, enough of whom originate in the corporate world, refer to baseball players as assets, commodities, elements, liabilities, pieces.

They wish you to forget that baseball is unlike the typical industry in which the worker bees make the products sold, because in baseball the worker bees are the product sold.

They also wish you to forget that a small market is in the eye and the adjusted ledger of the beholder. “There is no such thing as a ‘small market’,” tweeted Ben Verlander, an actor and the brother of future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander. “If you want a bigger market. Put more money into your team and make them competitive.” (The “small market” Pirates, believed among baseball’s premiere tankers, are worth $1.2 billion.)

Last weekend, negotiations dragged before Monday’s marathon sessions deep into the night enabled exactly what the players thought would occur, the owners refusing to budge more than milliliters if that far on any concessions the Players Association wanted to sign on the proverbial dotted line—and then propagating as Manfred ultimately did that by God they’d gone to the mattresses trying to get a deal.

This time, however, the players had an invaluable weapon in the PR wars. They weren’t shy about taking it to social media, any more than serious fans were shy about hitting the Internet running to fact-check any and just about every one of Manfred’s claims about the owners in serious binds. Finding them very wanting.

“If times are so tough for these clubs financially over the last five years,” tweeted Giants third baseman Evan Longoria Tuesday afternoon, “show us the financials. Be transparent.”

From the moment the lockout began through the moment Commissioner Nero announced the first two series of the regular season were cancelled—if not for his entire commissionership—he’s been very transparent about his view of the good of the game: making money for the owners, and precious little else.

Another future Hall of Fame pitcher, Max Scherzer, whose plainspokenness and willingness to put in sixteen-hour days at the bargaining table has impressed as much as he impresses on the mound, makes plain he’s not thinking purely of himself or the considerable dollars he’ll lose for every regular season day with an unplayed game.

“It’s about everybody else. I’m in a position to fight for those guys and sacrifice my salary to make this game better,” Max the Knife insisted to USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale.

We all want to make the game better for the next generation behind us, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen. The former players that fought for the game and fought for the players, I realized the benefits from that. I had an unbelievable career for all of the rights that everybody fought for, going back to Curt Flood. Now I have the opportunity to do that for the next generation.

“Scherzer and the union are fighting for pay for the young players who aren’t eligible for salary arbitration, seeking large raises in minimum salary and bonus pools,” Nightengale continued.

They are fighting to make sure that teams are actually trying to win and not to collect draft picks with a draft lottery. They are fighting to make sure that every team can freely sign free agents without a restrictive luxury tax, pointing out the absurdity of the San Diego Padres having a larger payroll than the New York Yankees. They are fighting to make sure the integrity of the regular season is not compromised, willing to accept a twelve-team playoff system, but not fourteen teams.

It would be even better if Scherzer and his fellows, and Nightengale and his fellows in the baseball press, also remembered a particular group among the former players who fought for their brethren and for the game itself and who deserve considerably more attention than either the Players Association or the owners have paid.

There remain 525 former major leaguers, playing prior to 1980 but whose careers were short for assorted reasons, frozen out of that year’s pension re-alignment, but who were gained $625 per 43 days’ major league service time in a 2011 deal between the late Players Association director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig, worth up to $10,000 a year for them depending on their actual major league time.

Those players—including 1969 Miracle Mets Rod Gaspar and Bobby Pfeil and former Rangers fresh-from-high-school pitching phenom turned mishandled David Clyde—didn’t receive those annual stipends as they should have in February, also thanks to the owners’ apparent baseball death wish.

“The owners . . . still they couldn’t help themselves, couldn’t resist going for the throat,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “They, too, could end up net losers, depending upon how much [baseball’s] place in the entertainment landscape is diminished. But they seemingly would rather take that risk than satisfy the players who pitch and hit and make teams so valuable.”

The day you see baseball fans walking about wearing jerseys with names on the back such as Angelos, Crane, Lerner, Liberty, Monfort, Moreno, Nutting, Guggenheim, Reinsdorf, Ricketts, or Steinbrenner, among others, is the day you should see swine in the colours of American Airlines.

“They may not break the union,” writes Rosenthal’s fellow Athletic scribe Andy McCullough of Manfred and his bosses. “But they will break something.” They already have. They’ve broken the heart of a nation starved for the sort of post pan-damn-ic normalcy that baseball alone might provide.

The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

DSC03222-02

Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

No tank you very much

2017-07-27 HoustonAstrosWS

So far, the 2017 Astros are one of a couple of  exceptions to the rule thus far that tanking is not a world championship guarantor.

When February got underway in earnest, I asked what you’d say if you knew each major league baseball team, rich and poor alike, is guaranteed about $60 million into its kitty before the regular season even begins. And without having to do a blessed thing to earn it other than existing in the first place.

Not to mention that each major league team would pull down about an average additional $100 million during a season through sources that only include the gate.

At that time the Major League Baseball Players Association thought aloud about pushing for imposing a tax on teams that seemed not to care less about putting even a mildly entertaining product on the field, a product showing the teams had even the mildest concern about trying to win. The MLBPA pondered such a tax costing tankers prime draft pick positions if they continued losing, or at least not trying to win all that much, beyond particular thresholds over certain periods.

Everybody with me? So far, so good. Because the redoubtable Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post‘s longtime baseball sage, has things to say about it. When tanking teams call their tanking “strategy,” Boswell calls it fan abuse:

The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 teams, 20 have never in the past 50 years lost more than 200 games in consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.

In other words, the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 World Series winners, the Cubs and the Astros, were outliers when they went into the tank to rebuild from the guts up, over three or four seasons previous, rather than retool on the fly and continue trying honest competition along the way.

Reality check: Unless you’re certain comic-opera teams of legend, or the Washington Generals, losing isn’t entertaining. Boswell notes six teams at this writing on pace to lose 98 games or more this season. In ascending order: the Mariners (98), the Marlins (101), the Blue Jays (101), the Royals (103), the Tigers (111), and the Orioles (111).

They’re about as entertaining as root canal work, southern California traffic jams, and today’s politics of demeaning. Actually, I’ll walk that back a little bit. Southern California traffic jams have occasional amusements.

Among other things the tankers are competing for that ever-popular number one draft pick. “[W]e’re watching a bull market in stupidity,” Boswell writes, perhaps unintentionally offering the emphasis on bull. “And cupidity, too, since all those teams think that they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.”

Since the draft began in 1965, there’ve been 55 number one overall picks. Four became Rookies of the Year, seventeen became All-Stars even once, and three became Hall of Famers. Historically, the draft more often becomes a case of good things coming to those who wait, on both sides of the draft tables.

In today’s terms it only begins with the game’s greatest player. Mike Trout waited until round 25 before the Angels chose him in 2009, and it took him two years to become listed by anyone as a number one prospect. And they’re already trying to figure out the language on his Hall of Fame plaque even though he has one more season to become minimally eligible.

His aging but no-questions-asked Hall of Fame teammate Albert Pujols waited until round thirteen before the Cardinals pounced in 1999. Guess who else went from the thirteenth round of the draft (in 1989) to the Hall of Fame? Does Jim Thome ring as many bells for you as he rung pitchers’ bells?

Those aren’t the only Hall of Famers incumbent or to-be who went well enough below the first round: Wade Boggs (1976)—seventh round. Goose Gossage (1970)—ninth. Andre Dawson (1975)—eleventh. Nolan Ryan (1965)—twelfth round. Ryne Sandberg (1978)—twentieth. John Smoltz (1985)—22nd.

Not to mention a passel of All-Stars who made distinguished careers even if they fell shy of being outright Hall of Famers, including but not limited to: Sal Bando (sixth, 1965), Tim Hudson (sixth, 1997), Jamie Moyer (sixth, 1984), Willie Randolph (seventh, 1972), Jim Edmonds (seventh, 1988), Eric Davis (eighth, 1980), Fred McGriff (ninth, 1981), Jack Clark (thirteenth, 1973), Dave Parker (fourteenth, 1970), Jake Peavy (fifteenth, 1999), Orel Hershiser (seventeenth, 1979), Kenny Lofton (seventeenth, 1988), Don Mattingly (nineteenth, 1979), Andy Pettitte (22nd, 1990), Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), and Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).

And don’t get me started on the number one overall draft picks who barely (if at all) made the Show or didn’t quite survive for assorted reasons. Steve Chilcott (injured severely in the minors), David Clyde (rushed to the Show for two box office-minded starts, then mal-developed and injured), Al Chambers (couldn’t hit with a garage door, couldn’t field with a vacuum cleaner), Brien Taylor (injured defending his brother in a fight), call your offices.

While you ponder all that, ponder something else Boswell points out: A complete team dismantling and rebuilding is only justifable now and then, when it “may be the best of the available rotten options.” But even that runs a risk any team looking to put an honest product on the field should duck: “Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.”

Once upon a time the Red Sox were as long-suffering as the season was long. The cause wasn’t any curse (of the Bambino or otherwise) but boneheaded (and, once upon a time, bigoted) organisational management. But even they’ve had only one season since 1934 in which they lost more than even 93 games.

Even the Cubs—the just-as-long-suffering Cubs, once upon a time—have only three 100+ loss seasons in their history. The third one happened in 2012. Three years later, they were division winners; a year after that, they won a World Series; they’ve since remained pennant competitive if not without a few hiccups that haven’t come within the same solar system as their formerly star-crossed past.

The incumbent Reds franchise has only one 100-loss season to show since they joined the National League—in 1882. Between them, Boswell reminds you, the Dodgers and the Angels have 121 seasons in or near Los Angeles . . . and only two squads between them (the 1968 and 1980 Angels) that ever lost more than 95 in a season. The Yankees haven’t had a 100-loss season since the year the Titanic sunk. The Cardinals haven’t lost more than 95 in a season since Grand Central Station’s first rebuild—a year after the iceberg.

The fictitious New York Knights of The Natural once employed a carnival hypnotist whose sole qualification seemed to be telling the hapless players, hypnotically, “Losing . . . is a disease.” In baseball, it doesn’t have to be terminal, no matter what today’s tankers do or don’t think. Though it seems that way in a place like Baltimore, where the Orioles went unconscionably from an organisation with one of the game’s most admirable cultures to one with one of the game’s most abhorrent.

As Boswell reminds us, the Orioles lost 202 in 1987-88 and went into complete rebuild; practically the only surviving incumbent proved to be Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. They’ve only won 90 or more games in any season three times since that teardown and had a fourteen-season streak of losing seasons. The franchise that was once the truly hapless St. Louis Browns only ever had a losing-season streak as high as twelve in their St. Louis decades.

The Oriole brand, Boswell knows, became so badly battered that it was no wonder major league baseball finally returned to Washington: “[T]here was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.”

“Now it is all different,” wrote one-time New York Post sportswriter and recent editor of Ball Four, Leonard Shecter, after the crazy Mets were crazy enough to win a division, pennant, and World Series in their mere eighth season of play. “Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things . . . And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.”

Beware the tanking teams saying they’re just looking to the future. They’re nowhere near as entertaining in defeat as the 1962 Mets, the last era of the Browns (when Bill Veeck owned the team), or the 1930s Dodgers.

Ask any Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Royals (never mind the rude interruption of their 2015 World Series conquest), Tigers, or Orioles fans. They’ll tell you. Losing is about as funny as a screen door on a submarine.