WHO’S THE BOSS

WHO’S THE BOSS

You agree to guarantee an employee nearly 10% of your company’s valuation.  You – and your industry – put that employee on a pedestal, and for good reason, as by all verifiable measures, that employee is the best in the world at what he does.  Some fear that that employee verges on becoming larger than the sum of the company’s parts.  Management realizes that is no way to run a company.  So what do you do?

If you are the Los Angeles Dodgers, and you have committed $215 million to Clayton Kershaw, and you know that the one thing he values above all else on the team is his friend and personal catcher, A.J. Ellis, you restore order by getting rid of A.J. Ellis.  And that is what the Dodgers did yesterday, sending Ellis to the last place Phillies in return for Carlos Ruiz.

For the team, this cannot be a capricious decision.  You must have a valid justification.  If you are going to (a) risk upsetting the team chemistry while in the thick of a pennant race, (b) lose one of the most liked players in decades, and (c) irritate and potentially forever alienate the best pitcher in a(ny) generation, you damn well better have a good reason and you damn well better get it right.

When confronted with various and sundry questions about the move, Andrew Friedman stated – accurately – that Ruiz is an offensive and defensive upgrade over Ellis.  Ruiz’s OPS against left-handed pitching (which is against whom each would bat) is 214 points higher than Ellis.  Ruiz is considered a better pitch-framer than Ellis.  Ruiz has a higher WAR.

And now that Ellis is gone, Yasmani Grandal becomes Kershaw’s primary catcher.  How does that look: Kershaw has a 1.97 ERA with Ellis catching, and a 1.98 ERA with Grandal behind the plate.

So far, Friedman’s thinking seems spot on.

But if you dig deeper, you will note that Ellis has been in the Dodgers’ organization for 14 years, and is beloved by his teammates.  Ruiz is known to be a catalyst, a leader, and nothing less than a great teammate.  On paper, it’s a wash.  But can Friedman – or Dave Roberts, or anyone else – expect Ruiz to join the team on August 27th and command the clubhouse (as a back-up catcher no less) in the same way that Ellis did?  To think so would be foolhardy.

WAR, UZR, and OPS aside, this conversation neglects to mention the elephant in the room – Clayton Kershaw.  Lest we forget that, while Kershaw is under contract through the 2020 season, he has an out after 2018.  It is highly likely (a certainty?) that Ellis will not be a Dodger in 2019, but that is beside the point.  It comes down to respect and consideration.  Maybe Kershaw shouldn’t have the right to dictate who catches him every fifth day (if/when he pitches again), but he at least should have been part of the conversation.  He has earned that right, that respect.

Friedman claims he thought about getting Kershaw’s feedback, but chose not to out of fear of information leaking to Ellis ahead of the trade.  This is a dubious claim.  If you would trust Kershaw in Game 7 of the World Series, if you trust him with a $215 million contract, you could trust him to keep a secret for a few days.  Kershaw has every right to be feel hurt by the front office’s lack of candor.

Kershaw is currently on the DL; he has not performed to his standards in the post-season; and Ellis has been atrocious at the plate.  In a vacuum, trading Ellis for Ruiz makes sense.  But it certainly feels like there is more to this deal.  It seem that, at this moment, Andrew Friedman needed to show his team and his star player who is in charge.  Friedman is getting paid $7 million per year to make difficult decisions and to give his team the best chance to win, hurt feelings be damned.

In the aftermath of the trade, Buster Olney said this move will be judged solely on the results.  Win the Pennant or the World Series, all will be forgiven.  Lose the NL West or the Wild Card, everyone will point to August 25th as the day the season changed.  (And getting one-hit on your home field hours after the trade is an inauspicious start to the Post-Ellis Era.)

I rarely disagree with Buster, but I do here: Even if the Dodgers win, I don’t think all will be forgiven.  I think this decision will resonate for some time, and may play a role in Kershaw’s decision after the 2018 season, and in the free agent market in the years ahead.

Friedman will always – and, in this case, rightly so – hang his hat on making the tough trades to improve the ball club.  And players (including Kershaw) will be free to decide if that is the type of ball club for whom they want to play.

But make no mistake, by trading Ellis for Ruiz without consulting Kershaw, Friedman declared, unequivocally, Who’s the Boss.

PLAY BALL!!

NO HITTER NO MORE

NO HITTER NO MORE

A little over a year ago I wrote about what I truly love about baseball, the two strike pitch.  Nothing can really top that.

However, last night at Dodger Stadium, I witnessed a close second.  In July of 1991, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I was lucky enough to watch “El Presidente” throw a no-hitter.  It was 91 degrees that day, which is something like 200 degrees in the yellow box seats at Chavez Ravine), and yet nearly all of the 45,560 in attendance stayed until the final out.

There is really nothing like what happens at a ballpark around the seventh inning when the second column of the scoreboard reads “0”.  It doesn’t matter if it is the home team or the visitors – the crowd begins to sense history.  Each pitch, each swing, each slow roller, takes on even more importance.  If the game is close (1-0, 2-0), then every at bat has dual meaning, and fans aren’t really sure for which outcome they are rooting.

And typically, because the Baseball Gods are a fun-loving group, these games include at least one (and often more) incredible play by a defender – a play that probably would not have been made if the pitcher had already given up 5 hits; a play that could not have been made if the ball had been hit off a middle reliever.  But there is something about that moment, when the back of the seat is superfluous and finger nails become a thing of the past, that brings out the best in each competitor.  Last night was no different.

We need not even get into the conversation of the Perfect Game.  Players will tell you how nervous they are on defense – how, for the first time since Little League, they are praying the ball does not get hit to them.  Imagine a football player ever saying he doesn’t want the ball thrown to him; imagine a basketball player saying he doesn’t want the final shot.  For sheer honesty and candor, baseball players are the best.  But I digress.

ESPN has taken to sending No-Hitter Alerts to your phone.  The MLB Network will cut into games where a no-no is in progress.  But you cannot properly explain what it is like to see/feel a no hitter in person.  There have been 252 no hitters thrown since 1901; nearly two per season, so they are not that rare.  (By contrast, there have only been 4 twenty-strikeout games…in history.)  No matter.  No-hitters are still a thing of beauty.

The tension begins to build around the time we sign “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”; if you are watching closely, you will see that teammates avoid the pitcher in the dugout.  The spectators start to gets antsy, and beer lines begin to get considerably shorter.  And fans who would normally make an early exit to beat traffic, find themselves safely ensconced – in for the duration.

Last night, on one of those Chamber of Commerce, picturesque evenings above downtown Los Angeles, Matt Moore came within one pitch of adding another name to the list of 252.

“A little flair into right field, it’s gonna drop.  A bloop single to right field . . . 133 pitches, and a blooper to right . . . and so it goes in this great game.  It seems almost unfair.”  The poetry of Vin Scully.  Of course Vin Scully would be smack dab in the middle of this game; the Baseball Gods would have it no other way.  Vinny fell just shy of calling his 21st no-hitter in the waning days of his storied career.

While it was “almost unfair” to Matt Moore, it was quite unfair to these guys:

On June 3, 1995, Pedro Martinez threw a perfect game for nine innings.  27 up, 27 down.  But then Bip Roberts dropped a line drive just inside the right field line to lead off the 10th, and the perfecto was no more.

That may sting, but that ain’t no Harvey Haddix: On May 26, 1959, Haddix retired the first 37 batters he faced (37!!) before Joe Adcock doubled and eventually scored in the 13th.  No perfect game, no no-hitter, no shut out, and no win for Poor Harvey.

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But, for my money – and my memory – nothing can or will top the week of September 24-30, 1988.  Before Kirk Gibson jump-started his legs and hooked a Dennis Eckersley slider into the right field pavilion; before Orel Hershisher cemented his place in baseball lore, there was Dave Stieb.  Some made not remember the mustachioed right-hander from Toronto, but I sure do.

Coming off a 4-hit complete game shutout against the Indians, Stieb was throwing a gem at the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland on September 24, 1988.  He had recorded 26 outs, and had Julio Franco 0-1.  Franco hit a slow bouncer up the middle that took one of the weirdest hops in the history of the game (see video below), ending the no-hit bid.  Stieb then retired Dave Clark to secure the 1-0, one-hitter.

Six days later, Stieb took the hill at the old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.  He proceeded to record the first 26 outs before Jim Traber came to the plate.  At this point in his career, Traber had played less than 200 games and recorded about 125 big league hits; he wouldn’t record even 50 more.  But on this night, on a 2-2 pitch, Traber flared a ball into the no-man’s land behind first base, bringing heartache (x2) to Dave Stieb.  How could that happen?  Why did that happen?

Well, the Baseball Gods were not yet done with Mr. Stieb.  Not a year later, Stieb was throwing a Perfect Game with two outs in the 9th, when Roberto Kelly lined a double down the left field line.  The third time was not a charm.

However, Stieb was not to be denied.  In 1990, Dave finally bested the Indians and the Gods, throwing his one and only career no-hitter.

One other fun fact: After the back-to-back one-hitters to close out 1988, in Stieb’s second start of 1989 he took a no-hitter into the 5th inning, and finished his third one-hitter in four starts.

So Matt Moore is in illustrious company.  And, when he thinks back on what might have been, he can take just a touch of solace in the fact that – since 1961 – there have 148 other no hitters broken up in the ninth inning or later.  And in the last five seasons, six no-hit bids have been broken up with two outs in the ninth.

And, lastly, he can take some cold comfort that he is not Armando Galarraga:

PLAY BALL!!

A-ROD NOT THE VILLAIN

A-ROD NOT THE VILLAIN

The rain cleared, the game ended, the chanting stopped, and the door closed.  Last Friday night, A-Rod said goodbye to the Bronx; and the Bronx said goodbye to one of the most polarizing athletes in the history of the sport.

Love him or hate him, A-Rod had a storied (steroid?) career.  And while we can debate whether or not Friday night was the last time we see him in uniform (my bet: not), it cannot be denied that his final week in pinstripes was as unusual as any player in (recent) history:

  • The Yankees gave him a 5-day warning before he was fired.
  • Joe Girardi gave him assurances he could play as much as he wanted and then went back on his word(s), twisting himself into a pretzel to declare “my job description does not entail farewell tours”.  I guess Joe conveniently forgot 2013 and 2014.
  • The Red Sox fans chanted “we want A-Rod”, and then watched him go 0-5 over 2 games at Fenway.
  • Rain nearly washed away Rodriguez’s final game (Mother Nature has a warped sense of humor).
  • Girardi denied A-Rod’s request to play third base in his final game; then Girardi denied the request was even made.
  • And then, although in the lineup as DH, Alex played third base in the top of the ninth for one out (a strikeout).  He left to a standing ovation.

The curtain dropped.  And then it rose again . . .

The moment A-Rod’s odd Sunday morning press conference ended, every talking-head seized on his failure/refusal to utter the word “retire”.  Once officially released, any team can have A-Rod for a pro-rated minimum salary (as of today, approximately $135K; $507.5K for next season).  When Giancarlo Stanton went down for the year, the chattering class started in earnest, speculating whether or not A-Rod could lead his hometown Marlins to the Wild Card as a right-handed/platoon option at first base.  A-Rod’s publicist quickly kiboshed that idea, issuing a statement that he would not play for another team in 2016.  2017 was conspicuously absent from the release.

But enough about all of that.  Small forests have been felled discussing L ’Affairs A-Rod.  This guy has been pilloried and derided, battered and abused, sixty feet six inches from Sunday.

But if you are able to look past the mirror he kissed; the centaur painting; the PEDs; the makeup; the slap; the Jeter diss; the general and all-around douche baggery, you can find a moment that never gets enough coverage, and for which Alex never gets enough credit:

Before the 2004 season, Rodriguez signed a deal memo wherein he would have given up nearly $30 million of the $179 million remaining on his contract to facilitate a trade from the (then) moribund Rangers to the 5-outs-away-from-the-World Series (thanks, Grady) Red Sox.  Sure, a 16% sale at Nordstrom may not move your needle, but giving up 1/6 of a guaranteed contract for a chance to play with a contender was essentially agreeing to play more than a season for free.  The MLBPA nixed the deal, the Yankees figured out the trade, and the rest is history.

Sure, Red Sox fans (in hindsight) breathed a sigh of relief; sure, the Red Sox won two World Series without A-Rod before the Yankees won one with A-Rod, and then added another for good measure; sure Manny Ramirez (who would have been traded to Texas for A-Rod) became a legend before he became a pariah in Boston; sure Jon Lester was instrumental in two World Series championships for Boston and he would have been gone but for the MLBPA’s veto of the deal.

But sliding doors notwithstanding, one can never forget that in an era of me-first players, an era of ever-increasing salaries, an era of opt-out clauses, and billion dollar team valuations, A-Rod offered to give back $30 million to play in the harshest media market in America.  It is unfortunate that all of the negative stories (and, to be sure, there are many) will resign this story to the scrap heap of baseball history, buried in the rubble of deals that never happened, agate-type never printed.

So the next time we cheer Robinson Cano (who left NY for an additional $65 million); or Albert Pujols (who left the Cardinals for an additional $44 million), or Zack Greinke (who left the Dodgers for an additional $51.5), or Johnny Damon (who left the “Idiots” for the “Evil Empire” for an additional $12 million), remember the one guy who offered to take less – way less – just for a chance to win.  It won’t make you love A-Rod, but it might make him a skosh less hateable.

PLAY BALL!!

MOUND BALL

MOUND BALL

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Before he took some flak for assaulting/accosting a fan the other night, Joey Votto took some flak for denying batting gloves to a kid sitting behind the dugout at AT&T Park.  Votto’s told the kid that he was sitting in the front row, he is elite, and didn’t need the swag.  We can debate the merit of the response, but it got me thinking about a related topic, which got me thinking about a related topic.

First related topic: At the end of each inning, the player who recorded the last out (or his teammate as part of some bizarre lob around the diamond ritual) is now ethically bound to toss the ball into a throng of awaiting fans.  Gone are the days when fans only clamored for a foul (or homerun) ball.  Now they want the result of a ground ball to short.  I have always thought this was the classic “rich get richer” situation, where people who can afford to sit in the best seats get – in addition to better views and better food – more souvenirs.

But what about the kid sitting in the upper deck, who maybe attends a single game per season, and is in the best seat her family can afford.  Why is she left out?  Wouldn’t it do more for the fan experience if it was less about the haves/have nots, and more about spreading the proverbial wealth to kids of all stripes?  Why couldn’t a player toss the ball to an usher who then randomly selects a cute kid in the cheap seats to be the beneficiary of Joe Panik’s toss to Brandon Belt?  This seems all too easy.

Which brings me to the second related topic: The lost art of the third out ball flip.  Now, I won’t get all sepia-toned nostalgic on you – or maybe I will – but the third out ball flip was one of my (and many others’) great joys in the game.  As a former first baseman, more often than not I found the ball in my glove at the end of an inning.  If I were a current Big-Leaguer, my only (?) joy would be in finding the right fan and hoping to guide the ball to her before some horse’s ass in a Jeter Sucks t-shirt bowls her over for a 5oz. piece of a horse’s hide.

But back in the day, having that ball in your glove opened up a world of possibilities.  There is and was the age-old, pedestrian roll back to the mound.  Some players (think Howie Mandel) might have been inclined to drop the ball directly from his glove onto the mound as he made his way to the dugout.  But there were so many other great options that all sorts of players (this writer included) took advantage of.  And, because only real weirdos like this stuff, there is virtually no stand-alone footage.  Memory will have to serve:

Pete Rose was known for his ball spike.  Johnny Bench would occasionally flip an inning-ending strike out back to the umpire.  Greg Maddux, he of the 900 lifetime non-strikeout outs, often had the first baseman flip the ball to him when he made the third out.  I still love that move.

If a team was in the first-base dugout, it was always cool when the first baseman flipped the ball to the opposing team’s first base coach.  Let him (a) chew on that last out and (b) figure out what to do with the ball.

When Will Clark would make a nice pick to his glove side to end an inning, he would allow his momentum to carry him such that he had an easy toss to the first base umpire.  Always a slick move.

Some catchers would play a game – now known as Mound Ball in the “new ball every half inning era” – wherein he would try to roll the ball up the hill hoping to have it stop at the rubber.  Man, it’s the little things . . .

Now, I will acknowledge that player approbation has won out over player artistry.   But if canvass is going to be ripped from the third-out easel, let’s at least get more fans in on the fun.  And if we can’t do that, can we at least mandate that every player, at least once per season, needs to do an “Andrew McCutchen”:

 

PLAY BALL!!

MORALITY vs. IMMORTALITY

MORALITY vs. IMMORTALITY

The Mets won their first pennant in 15 years last season.  They had high hopes for this year.  And then the cornerstone of their franchise – and their infield – went down with a season-ending injury.  What is a contender to do?

The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game since 2003 (cue, Bartman).  They are the odds-on favorite to win their division, win the pennant, and win the World Series this year.  But, if they had one weakness, it was bullpen depth.  What is a team with a 108-year championship draught to do?

Winning helps a team’s valuations  Furthermore, winning in the post-season really helps bottom lines; to the tune of $20-$30M/season.

According to Statista.com, the Mets franchise value was $850M in 2014, which rose to $1.35B after the 2015 season, and their current value is $1.65B.   (For some added context, the Royals went from $457M in 2013 to $865M today, after two WS appearances and one title.)

The Mets needed a third baseman.  The Colorado Rockies had no use for the shortstop they had under contract for 2+ years and owed $38M, so they fired him.  Cynics might say the Rockies decision to release Jose Reyes was due to rookie sensation Trevor Story (who hit 14 HRs while Reyes was under league suspension).  The optimist would say the Rockies cut ties with Reyes because his behavior in a Maui hotel room against his wife was wholly unacceptable;  and an organization that doesn’t hide its Christianity wanted no part of such a player.  If the Rockies didn’t put morality above winning, they certainly put it above their bottom line.

The Mets had no such compunction.  They signed their former player, sent him to the Minors to get some reps at third base, and re-introduced him to the Flushing Faithful two weeks later.  The Mets – morality be damned – had a division (Wild Card?) to win.  Anyone who has watched the Doc & Darryl 30 for 30, or read Jeff Pearlman’s book, or Ron Darling’s book, or Lenny Dykstra’s book, shouldn’t be surprised.  As we have learned this election season, New Yorkers love “winnahs”, and how you go about “yuge” success is beside the point.

The aforementioned Cubs didn’t need a closer – Hector Rondon was doing quite well, thank you very much.  But the Cubbies are all-in for 2016.  On July 25th, according to FanGraphs, they had a 98% chance to make the playoffs.  But the playoffs aren’t the World Series, and the World Series doesn’t guarantee a parade.  The biggest “game changer” on the market was Aroldis Chapman – with his unhittable 105MPH fastball and his (allegedly) very hittable girlfriend.  Would Theo Epstein put the prospect of immortality over the simple concept of morality?  As we all know, yes he would.

Theo joined the Cubs in 2011, when the team’s valuation was $773M.  Since that time, it has risen nearly 300%, to $2.2B.

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“Wait ‘til next year” was selling tickets and moving the needle.  The team didn’t need a championship to add value.  But this move was about winning a title.  And if a few people looked askance at the player they acquired, if those people were not overwhelmed by his tepid apology after coming back from his 30-game suspension, if fans would rather “wait ‘til next year” than win with “that guy”, well, Epstein was not going to be deterred.  Break the Curse of the Bambino and the Curse of the Billy Goat, and Epstein could pick his Hall of Fame induction date. Win at all costs – potentially even your soul; remember, flags fly forever.

But one has to wonder what a parent in Queens or a parent on the North Side says to their kid when they are asked why Reyes and Chapman had been suspended, and why the Rockies and the Dodgers didn’t want these guys around, and why their hometown teams did?  All of that may be forgotten in October, when chants of “Let’s Go Mets” and “Go Cubs Go” ring in the streets, but it doesn’t make the questions any easier to answer.  I guess the answer is: “we root for laundry, and the laundry won; so, HOORAY!”

And, for better or worse, our society seems just fine with that answer.  When we plunk down our hard-earned money to go to the park to cheer for our team, we aren’t worrying about morality, we are praying for immortality.

PLAY BALL!!