Be prepared for Show over

2020-07-27 MiamiMarlins

The Marlins players—not team management, not health/safety experts—elected to play Sunday despite COVID-19 already hitting some of them. Now eleven players at least plus two coaches are COVID-19 positive. Where were the adults in the room?

MLB and the players’ union,” tweeted ESPN’s Buster Olney early Monday morning, “made the mutual decision to try to play a season this year, and those two entities share the ethical responsibility of pausing, postponing or cancelling if that’s what is in the best interests of players and staffers. The Marlins’ situation tests this.”

The Miami Marlins’ situation is that fourteen people with the team, mostly players but a few coaches, tested COVID-19 positive while the Fish opened the truncated regular season in Philadelphia. Including their scheduled Sunday starter against the Phillies, Jose Urena. The team has postponed at least their Monday home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

A series postponement may not be unlikely. Which might disappoint the Orioles purely on baseball terms, having just accomplished the unlikely feat of beating the Boston Red Sox two straight (7-4, 7-2) on opening weekend, after getting their brains beaten in 13-2 to open the set.

Exactly where the Marlins so affected caught the infections is still, pardon the expression, up in the air. They played an exhibition against the Braves in Atlanta the day before the regular season finally began, and the infected players and coaches could have been hit either in the Truist Park clubhouse or in the Citizens Bank Park clubhouse.

The New York Yankees were supposed to open in Philadelphia Monday night and station themselves in the same visitors clubhouse the Marlins just vacated. Says ESPN, “Sources told . . . Marly Rivera that the Yankees have been informed that the visitors’ clubhouse has been completely fumigated several times. The Yankees also brought their own clubhouse personnel down from New York City to work the game, if it happens. No decisions have been made yet, sources said.”

That was early Monday morning; now as I write it’s later Monday morning. A season postponement? It may happen. Major League Baseball convened an “emergency meeting” Monday in the wake of the Marlins’ situation. The Yankees-Phillies game for Monday is postponed, too. And, yes, this is getting quite out of hand.

But a season postponement may not happen yet, either. USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reports, “There will be additional priority testing for teams who have an outbreak, MLB officials say, but no serious talks as of yet cancelling or pausing the season. In the words of one owner on the conference call: ‘Obviously, the situation is fluid’.”

How brave and bold of them.

With the coronavirus world tour still playing and only too many people still treating it from somewhere between carelessness and ignorance, getting a major league baseball season going from any point this summer was going to be tricky enough. We knew that right out of the proverbial chute, when young Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested COVID-19 positive on Opening Day, though he’s asymptomatic just yet.

For all the fun and folly accompanying the season’s long-delayed opening, it’s no kind of fun when fourteen Marlins test positive over opening weekend. That followed two Braves sent home after testing positive but no symptoms showing yet.

When the Nats hosted the Yankees to open the delayed season, there was commissioner Rob Manfred sitting on national television talking more about . . . his sixteen-team postseason array. The designated hitter wasn’t even a millionth of the gimmick that idea is. It only begins with removing more than half the urgency of a regular season whose competitive urgency was already diluted by its wild card system.

Sure we’ve loved it when wild-card winners turn up the last team standing with the World Series trophy hoisted high. Including the Nationals, who did it last October after a staggering regular-season comeback. But we’re not fools. We know damn well that the wild card system has equaled asking fans to sit on edge over the thrills, spills, and chills of teams fighting to the last breath for . . . second place.

Manfred and his Major League Baseball Players Association counterpart Tony Clark have a genuine burden on their hands trying to navigate the sport through a terrible pandemic that’s yanked their country and half the world over, under, sideways, down. And the big thing for Manfred opening was a postseason array that might, maybe, probably see the sport’s best teams knocked out early and often.

“If Manfred’s judgment is this bad or if he is this pliant to the money lust of his bosses,” fumed the Washington Post‘s most valuable player, Thomas Boswell, “then what chance is there that he will have the backbone or the leadership skills to shut down this season if needed?”

Backbone? Leadership skills? Like the New York Police Department brass who sooner sent a few flunky cops to trial rather than root out the bottom-top corruption it took Frank Serpico and David Durk going to The New York Times to even try rooting it out, Manfred didn’t have the backbone to bring the powers of his office to bear and drop real hammers against the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox over their caught-red-handed, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing cheatings.

Manfred slapped three managers and a general manager—whose teams executed them without Manfred—but the owners allowing it on their watches and the players availing themselves of it got away with it. You think that’s the Manfred who’s going to have the backbone to stop the season if the viral infections metastasise among the troops?

At his bosses’ behest, Manfred forced Clark and his charges to fight a ridiculous-sounding counter-battle against the owners using the coronavirus tour’s shutdown of spring training and the regular regular season to shove a de facto salary cap for the season down the players’ throats. That’s Manfred’s idea of backbone.

“The scary core of MLB’s predicament — and soon the NBA’s and NHL’s, too — is: Playing our sport is what we do, who we are and how we make our money,” Boswell wrote. “We’re going to try to do it until the virus stops us.”

From all over the world we’re learning the lesson that this is a terrible basic assumption. You get ahead of this virus before it even looks like a problem, or it ends up crushing you. South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany, with a combined population of 325 million (the United States has 330 million) had 15 deaths Thursday. Arizona, with 7.2 million, had 89 dead.

You don’t measure disaster for a country — with refrigerator trucks lined up with corpses — the same way you measure it for a pro sport. But how do you measure it for a sport? I don’t know . . . League bosses, who are not at risk, and athletes, who think they are invulnerable, are both going to be tempted — to keep playing chicken with the virus until it makes them stop.

As most of the world already knows, by then it is usually disastrously too late.

You saw it yourself watching the games that finally arrived. Enough players, coaches, managers were playing chicken. Please. There’ve been how many ballplayers who played through injuries, “manning up,” earning their praises, and ultimately hurting their teams because they were fool enough to play through injuries? What’s trying to play unmasked and unsafe through a pestiferous pandemic, then? Supermanning up?

That was before the depth of the Marlins’ infections emerged. And now emerges, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, that deciding to play Sunday’s game in Philadelphia wasn’t decided by MLB, by Marlins team leadership, by the union, by health and safety experts, but by . . . Marlins players, by way of a group text message. Fish playing chicken. Bet the Phillies clucked, too, if not necessarily with unanimous approval.

I admit it. It was easy enough to bask in the Show’s return and either forget or keep as an aside the risk that the coronavirus would have innings enough to play among the games and the teams. Even while some of the worst ramifications of baseball’s gimmicky 2020 season experiments—the free runners on second to start each extra half-inning; the three-batter minimum for relief pitching appearances—delivered things uncomfortably between the rock of disaster and the hard place of farce.

Taking a few small but profound safety precautions doesn’t exactly mean the end of the world as we know it. No matter how many would-be God, Juniors in government from the top down really do want to use it as cover for their next nefarious real attacks on what remains of our freedom.

What a country. We were the “can-do” people for so many generations. When somebody told Ben Franklin to go fly a kite, Ol’ Ben said, “Hell, yes. Who cares if it looks like rain?” And lightning struck.

We gave the world the lightning rod, swivel chairs, automatic flour mills, suspension bridges, fire hydrants, compression refrigeration, coffee percolators, circular saws, dental floss, lathes, doorbells, lock-stitch sewing machines, combine harvesters, solar compasses, Morse code, circuit breakers, sleeping cars, ice cream makers, rotary printing presses, jackhammers, safety pins, dishwashers, fire alarm boxes, elevator brakes, burglar alarms, breast pumps, and submarines.

We gave it condensed milk, light bulbs, mass-produced toilet paper, electric stoves, escalators, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, refrigerator cars, air brakes, fire sprinklers, mimeographs, synthesisers, air brushes, phonographs, cash registers, metal detectors, electric irons, electric fans, thermostats, photo film, electric mixers, fuel pumps, stop signs, smoke detectors, and zippers.

We gave it medical/surgical gloves, mufflers, remote control, batteries, the assembly line, hearing aids, air conditioning, offset printing, the powered airplane, automatic transmission, traffic lights, toggle light switches, hydraulic brakes, toasters, polygraphs, garage doors, radio arm saws, audiometers, instant cameras, electric razors, freon, sunglasses, car audio, electric guitars, bug zappers, and the Richter scale.

We gave it programming languages, fluorescent lamps, digital computers, fiberglas, xerography, Teflon, deodorant, cruise control, microwave ovens, space observatories, Tupperware, credit cards, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cable television, and correction fluid, a.k.a. Liquid Paper. (Hey, hey, she was a Monkee’s mother!)

We gave it bar codes, the artificial heart, voltmeters, lasers, LEDs, weather satellites, jumbo jets, personal computers, microprocessors, e-mail, cell phones, the Heimlich maneuver, digital cameras, ethernet, stealth aircraft, and the Internet.

For openers.

We fought and beat dreaded diseases past, and we made a few of them extinct while we were at it. We also fought and won a couple of world wars and finally defeated the most ruthless and bloody tyranny ever to rule anywhere on earth. We also invented baseball as the world’s known it roughly since the year before one of us invented pressure tape.

You’re telling me that the “can-do” people are now the “don’t-even-think-about-it” people? You’re telling me the people who invented all the above now consecrate and abet leadership and neighbourly luddism that tries to rule us without knowing a coronavirus from a computer virus?

All of a sudden it looks easier for the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres to think about winning a World Series than it did for us to beat smallpox and polio. (You don’t want to know the bureaucratic loop-de-loops Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk would be put through today to get their vaccines to, you know, the people who need them.)

God forgive me, it was too easy to get lost in the thought that the Show was really back no matter what. Even with the piped-in crowd noise. Even with the cockamamie-looking empty ballparks other than cardboard cutouts of humans and other living creatures. It was even easier to laugh our fool heads off when Adam Duvall’s home run Saturday bopped the cutout of Jeff McNeil’s Alaskan malamute puppy right in the snoot.

Well, it was just as easy to anticipate the return and itch for major league ball no matter the lingering risks. It’s not so easy or funny anymore. As much as I might enjoy the games themselves, for all the gimmickry and all, I’d rather wait till next year than continue the risk that more than just a school of Marlins have to fight the damn virus.

Mr. Manfred, Mr. Clark, show some real backbone and be ready to just say no to the rest of the season. To pay the players their pro-rated 2020 salaries, thank them for giving it the old college try, and call it sick pay. Then—assuming more of them haven’t tested positive in the interim—to send them home to safety and their loved ones.

Don’t even think about how the owners can’t possibly afford it. Everyone from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the smoggy shores of California knows that’s only slightly less of a lie than anything out of a politician’s mouth.

We went almost four months without the Show. If we have to, we’ll survive without it the rest of the year. Because too many people still aren’t wising up and living safe just yet, and too many leaders are still using it as an excuse to play Gods, Jr. And, from the early look of it, too many players, coaches, and managers still do think or act as though they’re invulnerable.

In more than one way, the Marlins just told baseball world otherwise. “[H]ere we have it,” writes a rueful Stephanie Apstein for Sports Illustrated, “the least surprising possible outcome of MLB’s decision to fly some 1,500 people around the country, from one coronavirus hotspot to another, buttressed by a hope and a prayer and instructions not to spit, in service of playing baseball: They have to stop playing baseball.”

We have to have adults in the room. Now.

The shifts aren’t as shifty as you think

2018-12-24 JoseBerriosChanceSisco

Chance Sicso (bunting) making Jose Berrios (pitching) and the Twins very, very angry that he exploited their foolish shift while his Orioles were seven runs down.

Hark back to April Fool’s Day, and a game between the Twins and the Orioles, in which the Orioles were in the hole 7-0 in the ninth and their catcher, Chance Sisco, came to the plate against the Twins’ Jose Berrios, who was two outs from a one-hitter. The hit belonged to Sisco himself, in fact, a third-inning double. Now, with one out, and the Twins smothering the right side of the infield while leaving the left side unoccupied, in a defensive shift, Sisco bunted the first pitch toward third base.

He was as safe at first as a baby in its mother’s arms. Berrios walked Chris Davis unintentionally to follow, and Manny Machado lined one to center for a followup hit to load the bases, but Jonathan Schoop popped out foul to catcher Mitch Garver ambling toward first base before Berrios struck Adam Jones out swinging to end the game with the 7-0 win and settle for a mere 2-hitter. And Berrios was distinctly unamused over the denouement when talking to reporters after the game.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” the right-hander began, before exposing that promptly as a lie. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation. That’s it.”

The exact situation was the Orioles seven runs down, their catcher at the plate, facing a defensive overshift the logic behind which was obscure enough, in light of a pitcher two outs from a shutout, against a team doomed to a season of sub-mediocrity. Sisco ended up with a .288 on-base percentage for the season and a batting average for the year seven points below his playing weight. Writing elsewhere, I wondered at the time whether the Twins thought Sisco was supposed to take it as an April Fool’s Day joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into their packed right side making his out like a good boy.

Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, subsequently traded to the Dodgers mid-season, was a little more blunt than his pitcher. “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.” I thought then and still believe that it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre hitter was less criminal than the kid seeing a big fat hole into which to hit and doing just that.

There are those who think that way even as they join the argument now animating against baseball’s defensive shifting trend on the grounds that it’s choking offense in a generation where nobody seems to teach anyone about hitting the opposite way. If Sisco did as the Twins ordered, instead, and hit right into that packed first base side of the field, I’d have hoped as I also wrote at the time, that the Orioles’ tremendous veteran leadership would take him aside afterward, convene a kangaroo court, convict him for not making the Twins pay for such a foolish overshift, and fine him carfare, dinner, and drinks for the entire team.

Those who think the defensive shifts threaten to put baseball on life support should be counseled that, in the big picture, the shifts really aren’t as shifty as you fear. Overall, teams put those shifts on 17 percent of the time in 2018. When they did, the hitters got a lot smarter about them than when the shifts began crawling back into the game. FanGraphs conjugated that the five teams who shifted the most averaged 11.9 shifts a game and surrendered 3.3 hits against those shifts for a .277 batting average against them. The five teams who shifted the least, FanGraphs says, averaged five shifts a game and surrendered an average hit and a half against those shifts for a .300 average against them.

But Commissioner Rob Manfred talks yet again about limiting or banning shifts, and Major League Baseball Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark talks about players having no known position (his words) one or the other way about the shifts, though they’re “willing to talk about it as part of a much broader conversation.” How about letting some facts get in the way? Baseball’s .244 batting average for 2018 had far less to do with defensive shifts and far more to do with hitters trying to hit six-run homers most trips to the plate. Or hadn’t you noticed or remembered the yammering about metastasizing strikeouts, of which there were more than there were hits last season?

Now, let’s be a little more real: a strikeout is only one out, and I don’t think you’d prefer to see hitters grounding into more double plays, but it wasn’t the shifts suppressing hitting in 2018. And there isn’t a shift on earth that can prevent walks, of which there were about three per game in 2018.

Which takes us back to another early April game, in which Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, who may yet find new employers for 2019, had a no-hitter in the making against the Angels as he opened the fifth with one out, a 2-0 lead, and Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The Indians didn’t put a full shift on against Simmons, but third baseman Jose Ramirez played so deep in the infield there might as well have been a blue plate special sign sitting around his neck. And Simmons accepted the gift heartily, dropping a bunt right up the third base line.

All the hustle on the planet wasn’t going to get Simmons out at first. Kluber struck out Luis Valbuena to follow up, though not without a little hiccup when he wild pitched Simmons to second before nailing the strikeout. The next Angel hitter was American League Rookie of the Year-to-be Shohei Ohtani. On 1-1, Ohtani caught hold of Kluber’s up-and-away fastball and drove it over the left center field fence. The purists to whom the Sacred Unwritten Rules are as canonical as defensive shifts seem to be blasphemous screamed bloody murder, never mind that the game a) wasn’t even close to the ninth inning at the time of Simmons’s bunt and b) the game needed thirteen innings before the Angels’ Zack Cozart hit the game-ending home run.

Simmons committed no crime other than spotting a big defensive hole, something that should be second nature to him considering his own prowess playing shortstop, where he’s one of the best and the smartest in the business. If he’s at the plate with a chance to help his team get on the scoreboard in the fifth inning, neither he, nor you, should give two that the other guy may have a no-hitter in the making that isn’t as close to being consummated as it would be in the eighth or the ninth.

If Kluber’s defense made a mistake and gave Simmons a little too open a place to reach, whether it’s a complete overshift to one side or a big fat infield alley up the third base line, they should have spent less time raging against that rat bastard at the plate than getting it into their heads that — forget that good hitting beats good pitching, smart hitting beats it a little more often. With a lifetime .269 hitter at the plate, who doesn’t earn half the living with his bat that he does with his glove, but who gets what extra base hits he gets with his legs as much as his bat, Kluber should have wondered instead why Ramirez played Simmons as though that .269 lifetime average suggested the prospect of (lifetime .267-hitting) Mike Schmidt-style destruction.

Nobody but a purist or a Yankee fan feels terribly sorry for Joe DiMaggio losing so many home runs to Yankee Stadium’s cavernous left center field, when the right-handed-swinging DiMaggio rejected opposite-field hitting where he might have parked quite a lot of those lost bombs otherwise. “I could piss those over that wall,” DiMaggio huffed, when someone suggested he try going with more outside pitches. “That’s not hitting.” Tell that to Ted Williams, who finally got the a-ha! against what was then known as the Boudreau Shift.

If the shifts didn’t really suppress hitting in 2018, what on earth is the problem? Are Manfred and Clark trepidatious about encouraging organizations to teach batters how to go with the pitch again and quit just trying to pull everything whether or not it can be pulled? Are they, too, in thrall enough to the Sacred Unwritten Rules that they’re unwilling to say Sisco and Simmons showed what to do against the overshifts, so kiwtcherbeefin’ about smart hitters outsmarting smart defense?

They could also tell teams like the Twins and the Indians not to come crying when their guys lost one- or no-hitters regardless of the inning because they were fool enough to overshift with the chance of a smart hitter taking advantage of a big fat open spread. And they could throw in something about the courtesies due through the SUR rendered null and void when you leave a batter a hitting region large enough to send an earth mover unobstructed. But that would deprive Manfred and Clark of one of baseball’s older sub-professions, calling the repairman to fix what isn’t broken.

This essay was published in slightly different form by Sports Central.