Georgia on our minds

Commissioner Rob Manfred congratulating 2019 All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber. Did he think deep or hard before moving this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta?

Most of us, generations be damned, grew up hearing the two most certain of life’s certainties are death and taxes. Everyone has candidates for the third certainty, including that which reminds us of one thing that crosses partisan lines even if the partisans forget the other side does it, too.

Translated to baseball terminology, that thing seems to be demanding a replay review when ball four is called in election races on what they think they threw for strike three. When such a review turns into something such as a new state election law, as in Georgia, there comes a fourth guarantee: somebody isn’t going to like it.

A lot of somebodies don’t like the law. Such somebodies as former Georgia state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and President Joseph Biden. A lot of not-so-much-somebodies don’t like the law, either, and their agitation as much as any other factors have prompted among other things major league baseball’s government moving this year’s All-Star Game and college draft out of Atlanta’s Truist Park.

Abrams had skin in the game going in. She lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, who signed the omnibus bill into law earlier this month, by 50,000 votes, claiming then-Georgia secretary of state Kemp erased thousands from state voter rolls.

Kemp had skin in the current game going in, too. For the heinous offense of certifying that now-former president Donald Trump didn’t push the winning run across the state plate in the bottom of the twelfth, regardless that Kemp wasn’t exactly known to favour anyone other than Trump, Kemp faced Trump’s none-too-silent wish to see him thrown out of the league.

The most understandable result of Trump’s post-campaign campaign to overthrow his loss to Biden might have been Georgia and other states reviewing and tightening up their election laws. The only place where fury and back-and-forth charges of foul get more furious might be a baseball game decided (in truth or in allegation) by a close call for or against one or the other side at the final out.

Election shenanigans have been as common in American politics as yard signs, and they didn’t begin or end with such ancient players as New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley Machine, Kansas City’s Prendergast Machine, or Nassau County’s (Long Island) Margiotta/D’Amato Machine. Wherever you landed observing Trump vs. Biden, your least shocking revelation would have been one or another state addressing their election laws in the aftermath.

When Kemp signed the new Georgia election law, Abrams charged that it “suppresses voters, criminalizes compassion & seizes election authority from local + state officials.” That statement wasn’t half as incendiary as Biden’s prompt denunciation of the law as both un-American and as “Jim Crow on steroids.”

Georgia’s real history with Jim Crow is grotesque enough, from state poll taxes (1877) and literacy tests from which descendants from Confederate and Union soldiers were exempt (1907) to the “white primary” rule (1908) that prohibited non-white voting explicitly. Jim Crow in any southern states was (and remains) a portion of American history for which the nation can never be proud.

Now, about the new Georgia election law. Examine deeper than what you see excerpted in the press and aboard social media. Comparing it to Jim Crow is nebulous. It only begins with the fact that mandating seventeen days pre-election (two Saturdays included) for early voting—with mandatory eight-hour-minimum open times and allowance for twelve-hour (7 a.m.-7 p.m.) times—doesn’t exactly “suppress” voters.

A good number of states lack that allowance, including Biden’s home state Delaware which isn’t going to put it in place before the next Congressional election year 2022. Biden himself—with different priorities and a far less grotesque personality, he’s like Trump in showing you wisdom by standing athwart it—also said the Georgia law imposes limits on absentee voting that “effectively” (his word) deny voting to “countless” people. That’s not exactly what the law says or does.

For one thing, no-excuse absentee voting stays in place with just a couple of adjustments. I’d be hard pressed to think a voter is being “suppressed” because the absentee ballot application window is a “mere” 67 days, or because such applications you can now do online, because the state secretary of state is now required by law to offer them online. Or, because the absentee ballot must be received by election officials at least eleven days before Election Day.

Some of the new law’s critics harp about the voter identification portion, which has now shifted it from matching signatures to identification numbers from a voter’s driver’s license or free voter identification card. Lacking either, a Georgia voter can present a photocopy of a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck, a government check, or an official document that includes his or her name and address. All they have to do is include the last four digits of their Social Security numbers if they don’t have driver’s licenses or previous voter ID numbers.

If that’s “voter suppression,” I’m Willie Mays. And if that’s something designed to keep non-white voters from voting, I’m hard pressed to comprehend the 2016 Gallup survey that found 77 percent of non-white voters supporting photographic voter identification. You’d think (properly) that non-white voters have just as much stake in preventing real (not alleged) voter fraud as white voters have. And you’d be right.

The new Georgia election law also puts the famous drop boxes into law. They showed up in Georgia for the first time last year thanks to the pan-damn-ic, and now they’re legally mandatory with or without the coronavirus. The new law requires one drop box for every one hundred thousand registered voters or one for every advance vote location in any Georgia county, whichever number is smaller.

Abrams was right about one thing: the new law does “criminalise compassion,” sort of. Giving, offering, or helping give food and/or drinks to people within 150 feet of polling places or within 25 feet of voters in line to vote becomes a legal misdemeanor. Even, seemingly, when the benefactor isn’t discussing the election or particular favoured candidates.

The law also bars ordinary Georgians from photographing or recording their own votes. Guess who gets an exemption from that: the state secretary of state, whom the law requires to create “a pilot program for the posting of digital images of the scanned paper ballots created by the voting system,” with the images becoming “public records subject to disclosure.”

I’ve read about enough early proposals for inclusion in the law that were foolish at minimum, dangerous at most, and thrown out of the bill before it became a final product. But how the hell did that one slip in? How close do you think that one gets to the kind of thing you thought was reserved for the Third Reich, the Soviet Empire, and other authoritarian/totalitarian states who’ve used ballots when allowed at all against their citizens?

Kemp and any Georgia governor has a line-item veto power—but it affects only statewide and state executive budget items. Even he can’t be comfortable with the idea that his or any Georgia secretary of state can come that close to crossing the line from scanning paper ballots to making Georgians’ votes public.

You can bank it. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and his minions probably didn’t read the new Georgia law in almost any way, shape, or form. You can understand why, since the law’s volume is 68 percent (92 pages if you’re scoring at home) the length of Philip Roth’s legendary novella Goodbye, Columbus. But the mis- or mal-excerpting of the law did them no favours and puts baseball into a precarious position.

For one thing, the Atlanta Braves themselves aren’t thrilled with baseball pulling the All-Star Game out of their home playpen. Indeed, even Abrams herself has said Georgia companies shouldn’t jump all the way into boycotts but first “use the chance to publicly condemn the law, invest in voting rights expansion and support wide-ranging federal election legislation before they’re targeted with a boycott movement,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it.

For another thing, former UN ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young demurs from any such boycott, especially involving Atlanta, whatever he thinks of the new law, telling The Athletic, “Everything doesn’t depend on sports. But if you hurt the sports, you hurt the hotels, you hurt the airport, you hurt every business in town . . . [Atlanta’s] the 44th largest economy in the world — and, you can quote me, I don’t know why anybody wants to [fornicate] with that.”

Manfred and his look more like knee-jerkers than thoughtful protesters who considered the whole thing reasonably. (They look, in other words, much the way Trump looked when thundering against Maximum Security’s 2019 Kentucky Derby qualification or on behalf of Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame entry without troubling himself with the deets on both rejections.) Lacking an immediate suggestion for an alternate All-Star Game site this year is the least of Commissioner Nero’s largely self-imposed problems.

On Wednesday night, some Republican lawmakers in Georgia’s state House of Representatives voted to cancel a tax break for Georgia-based Delta Air Lines, on the grounds that Delta objected to the new election law. “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand,” said Georgia’s House speaker David Ralston. “You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Imagine the furies if Democratic officials behaved likewise. Oops . . . Lois Lerner, for openers, call your office.

Wherever you sit about the law itself, the thought of governing officials deciding a private entity needs to be punished for taking any position regarding any legislation or policy should scare the hell out of you. If they can do it to an airline, they can do it to anything, including the business of a game.

Fish fouled

Adam Duvall has just low-fives third base coach Ron Washington after helping the Braves to an eleven-run second and a 29-9 slaughter.

Not even Joe West’s umpiring crew working the game could prevent it. For all anybody knows, maybe even Country Joe himself took pity on the Miami Marlins and called the Hague–or, at least, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources—himself, to file on their behalf against the abuses they suffered in Atlanta Wednesday night.

Or, at least Marlins manager Don Mattingly might have slipped a note to Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker, asking only partially puckishly, “Brian, could we have the bottom of the second back? Pretty please? With tartar sauce on it?”

Call it the Fish Fricasee. But call the Braves’s 29-9 cleaning, scaling, and fileting the arguable nastiest combined attack of ground troops, close-cover strafing, aerial assault, and strategic bombing ever committed by them, their 29 runs setting a new franchise record.

Sure, the Milwaukee Brewers de-clawed the Detroit Tigers 19-0 in Comerica Park earlier in the day. Only they did it in gradual clips and snaps, a couple of runs here, a few there, a few more yonder. Who the hell needed that nonsense from rude guests when you had the hosts in Truist Park treating their oceanic guests like a shipment of cat food?

What started as a 2-0 Marlins lead got vaporised by fourteen Braves batters including four repeaters before Ender Inciarte showed the Fish mercy and cast his line for an inning-ending ground out to first base. The carnage only began with Dansby Swanson singling his way aboard against Marlins starter Pablo Lopez.

Lopez’s next two mistakes were back-to-back walks to Austin Riley and Adam Duvall. And then it began:

* Ozzie Albies returning from a month on the injured list pushed Swanson home with a ground out to first.

* Inciarte sent a sacrifice fly to the deeper region of left center field, tying the game at two.

* Duvall took third on the play and the Marlins called for a review to see whether third baseman Brian Anderson got the tag on the sliding Duvall’s leg before or after a) Duvall’s foot hit the pillow and b) Riley crossed the plate. The review said no, sir, umpire Hunter Wendelstedt making the emphatic safe sign.

* After Lopez walked Ronald Acuna, Jr., Freddie Freeman hit a line drive to right that diving Marlins right fielder Monte Harrison couldn’t grab, the ball bouncing under his blue glove, scoring Duvall and sending Acuna to third.

* Marcell Ozuna floated a pop to shallow left near the line that hit the grass before Miami left fielder Lewis Brinson could reach it, sending Acuna home. “And the Braves are first-and-thirding the Marlins to death,” crowed Braves broadcaster Chip Caray after the fourth run rang in.

* Travis d’Arnaud, the former Met, checked in with first and third yet again. He hit the first-pitch hanging changeup into the first empty row of the left field seats. The blast ended Lopez’s evening and it’s not impossible that the only thing the Marlins righthander could say when Mattingly came forth to end his misery was, “What took so long, Skip?”

Exit Lopez, enter Jordan Yamamoto for the Fish. Swanson greeted him with a base hit to left, then Riley shot one right between shortstop and third basemen trying to converge to send Swanson home. Then Duvall hit yet another first pitch into the right center field bullpen.

Yamamoto finally said too much was enough about the Braves’ first-pitch hitting and wrestled Albies to an eighth pitch. Unfortunately, it was finally ball three and a full count, forcing Yamamoto to throw a ninth pitch. And Albies drove it four rows up the empty center field seats.

A smooth-looking righthander otherwise, Yamamoto shares a surname with World War II’s Japanese Combined Fleet commander. What the U.S. Navy did to Admiral Yamamoto’s forces at Midway and beyond, the Braves did to the Marlins in the bottom of the second. They one-upped the ten-spot second under which they might have buried the Philadelphia Phillies two Sundays ago—but for the Phillies crawling back to make the Braves sweat out a 12-10 final.

Yamamoto the pitcher’s misery didn’t end when he and the Marlins finally escaped the second inning with what was left of their lives, unfortunately. He’d pitch two and two-thirds innings total and leave with twelve earned runs on his evening’s jacket. Making him only the second relief pitcher in seventy years to take twelve or more for the team, joining the sad company of Vin Mazzaro—who took fourteen from the Cleveland Indians for the Kansas City Royals in two and one third on 16 May 2011. He’d have had better survival odds if he was a World War II naval commander.

About the only thing the Braves didn’t do to the Marlins Wednesday night was drop the atomic bomb. Oops. Take that back. After a one-out single, a hit batsman, and a shallow base hit against another Marlins reliever, Josh A. Smith, Duvall—who also hit a three-run homer in the fifth—dropped the big one, slicing salami on an 0-1 meatball in the bottom of the seventh, for what proved the final four Atlanta runs.

Whoever files the report with the Hague, or with the Georgia department’s fisheries management, they’re going to have to include that. It might be the only time in history that a late atomic bomb did less damage and was less lethal than what happened earlier in the war.

Country Joe tosses the boss

Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, unmasked, confabs (and points to Nats GM Mike Rizzo in the second deck) with masked crew chief Joe West Sunday.

Among many distinctions, not all of them affirmative, Joe West is now the man who threw out the first general manager of the season. The Washington Nationals aren’t the only ones among the barely amused.

What a weekend for Mike Rizzo. After entering spring training with his contract status unresolved beyond his own walk year this year, he finally landed the extension he deserved when all was said and done. He barely had time to savour it when he got into West’s crosshairs Sunday.

This pandemic-truncated season hasn’t exactly gone the way the defending world champions had in mind. They’re dead last in the National League East and next-to-last in this season’s crazed wild card picture. Their tragic number for elimination is sixteen. When the only National League outfit worse is the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s enough to give last year’s self-resurrecting World Series conquerors pause going in.

Then the Nats spent the weekend with the Atlanta Braves and both sides seemed to spend much of it complaining that the umpiring was, shall we say, far less than exemplary or accurate. Rizzo all weekend was a particularly vocal complainer.

Thanks to pandemic-empty ballparks you can hear a lot more than perhaps you’d like to hear from the dugouts and even the men on the field or the coaching lines. There was Rizzo, all alone in a club box in the second deck of Atlanta’s Truist Park. Not a soul within a few hundred feet of him in either direction.

The next thing you knew, Rizzo was escorted from the premises by stadium security in the top of the seventh. That was as much a seventh-inning stretch as you could imagine in such surrealistic circumstances.

With the Braves up, 7-1 (they went on to win, 10-3), umpire Hunter Wendelstedt started pointing to the club level where Rizzo reposed and, apparently, objected to this or that call. “The umpiring crew, led by West, then went to call security,” writes Larry Brown. “The Braves’ announcers speculated that West might not have liked Rizzo complaining about balls and strikes. They also mentioned that Rizzo was not wearing a mask in the park.”

The mask issue seems a little like a red herring with no one within a hundred feet of Rizzo. Especially since a) West’s on record as thinking COVID-19 isn’t exactly a deadly enemy; and, b) Wendelstedt was unmasked while he confabbed with West, who was masked. They were probably ticked off most at Rizzo objecting to a strike call on a pitch that actually sailed in well enough off the plate while Nats infielder Asdrubal Cabrera batted.

Apparently, Rizzo kept barking over the pitch calls by the time first baseman Eric Thames batted on a 2-2 count. Then West pointed to the club boxes where Rizzo reposed and called stadium security after hollering, “You’re out! Get out!” Rizzo’s way.

“Should Rizzo be yelling at the ump audibly from his suite? Probably not, but it’s also the kind of thing that that happens every game,” deadpans Deadspin writer Sam Fels. “It’s the kind of thing that could probably be solved with a solitary look, or maybe a pointed finger. But no, that won’t due for hilljack Joe.”

You want to talk about delays of games? West held up the game so he could show Rizzo who’s boss around here. “Call security,” a voice hollered. You’d think objecting to dubious pitch calls equaled a small child refusing to go to bed when Mom and Dad so order. Unless Mom and Dad confuse proper parenting with tyranny for its own sake, they’re not Joe West.

“Joe West is the passenger on the plane who won’t let you out of the row to go to the bathroom because drink service will begin in five minutes,” Fels writes.

Joe West constantly tells the bartender when they’re low on ice. Joe West kettles protestors without informing them of curfew, then arrests them for violating curfew. It’s not so much that Joe West has to enforce the rules. He has to enforce that he knows the rules better than anyone. It’s not the order he’s after, but the acknowledgement, or more to the point the worshipping, of his knowledge and power.

West decided then and there it was time to show who knew the rules better than anyone. As His Holiness himself put it after the game, “I wouldn’t take that from a player. I wouldn’t take that from a manager. If it was Donald Trump, I’d eject him, too. But I’d still vote for him.”

Just let West try ejecting President Tweety. He’d be on the Trump tweetstorm target list faster than a base hit travels past the infield. And if West would have a GM thrown out of the ballpark for objecting to the umpiring, what’ll happen when fans—who aren’t exactly kind and gentle about questionable umpiring—are finally allowed to come back to the games?

Historically, umpires suffer neither fools nor protests gladly, even if they don’t always mind a little debate if the debator isn’t looking to show them up. The bad news is that even the best-humoured umpires lose their senses of humour when a questionable call is given.

The rules say players, managers, and coaches can’t argue ball and strike calls, and that if they head for the plate for such a protest they can be tossed. So can pitchers leaving the mound or batters stepping out of the box for such protests. But what about people in the stands, team personnel or otherwise? Umpires haven’t exactly been historically shy about throwing them out at certain times, either.

They’ve been known to eject ballpark organists or DJs for playing “Three Blind Mice” over bad calls. Or, for playing the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club. Or, for playing Bob Uecker’s sarcastic “Personally, I think we got hosed on that call” from Major League. They’ve been known to eject entire press boxes over catcalls coming down over questionable calls.

It’s one thing, too, for an ump to eject a fan suspected of doing a little sign-stealing on behalf of their hometown heroes. But good luck to the next fan who protests a pitch call by whipping up a placard that shows an eye test or performs a perfect impression of an optometrist’s business card.

Rule 4.06 bars managers, players, substitutes, coaches, trainers, and bat boys from “incit[ing] . . . by word or sign a demonstration by spectators.” (It also applies to broadcasters, technically, when fans cling to their radios in the ballpark as they’ve often done. Normally, though, such announcers escape with a mere warning.)

Rule 9.01(b) gives umps “the authority to order a player, coach, manager or club officer or employee to do or refrain from doing anything which affects the administering of these rules, and to enforce the prescribed penalties.”

Allow for pandemically empty ballparks allowing one and all on the field, in the dugouts, and even isolated singularly in the stands to hear every beef, debate, and expletive un-deleted. That said, just how could Mike Rizzo all alone in a second-deck club box objecting to pitch calls interfere with West and crew’s control of Sunday’s game?

If Rizzo was in that club box raining objections down with a full house of fans in the stands making their usual racket, only a dog could have heard it. The chances of West, Wendelstedt, and crew hearing his specific words would have been reduced to the margins and maybe further.

“We have already been in communication with the Nationals regarding what transpired during today’s game, and we will speak with the umpiring crew today,” said MLB’s government in a formal statement. “We will expect Joe West’s crew to provide a full account of their perspective, and we will follow up with them accordingly.”

Can you see the electronic strike zones and robo-umps coming a little more clearly in the rear-view mirror, too?