All posts by dffreedman

WHEN SAFE IS OUT

WHEN SAFE IS OUT

Blog_Lobaton

I am an attorney.  As such, my bookcases are stocked with legal tomes, filled with confusing text, obscure events, and various and sundry arcana.  After practicing for nearly twenty years, I rarely reach for any of these dusty books, as it is often difficult to discern the meaning of anything written in them.

Among the those littering my office is the Official Baseball Rules.  This softback, covering 240 pages, is also filled with ambiguous regulations, bizarre concepts, and wacky examples.  The amazing thing is, armed with this book, not one of us could stump an MLB umpire.  Wake an umpire in the middle of the night, and he could opine on the specifics of Rule 6.01(g) (Interference With Squeeze Play or Steal of Home) before he rubs the crust out of his eyes.

But umpires are limited by what they find in those 240 pages.  So, from time to time, it is incumbent upon the MLB Rules Committee to enact some new rules to deal with the evolution of the game.  This became painfully obvious late last week.

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Years ago (before any of us were watching or playing baseball), bases were soft and billowy, filled with sand or sawdust, affixed to the ground via a leather strap attached to a wooden spike.

 

Today, bases are made of hard rubber and have a metal attachment that connects to a steel tube anchored by concrete in the ground.  Suffice it to say, today’s bases are considerably less hospitable to the players trying to reach them.

In the hundred plus years or so between the advent of baseball and the current incarnation, players – on average – have gotten about 5 inches taller (average height in 2010 was nearly 6’2” vs. 5’9” in the 1870s) and about 23 pounds heavier (190 now vs. 167 then).  Now, I don’t want to get all Sports Science here, and I certainly don’t want to start doing math or coefficients, but I think we can all agree that players today are faster than they were in the 19th century, and because they are taller and heavier, they run with more force than players from the Rutherford B. Hayes-James Garfield-Chester Arthur-Grover Cleveland era.  And yet, today’s ballplayers are required to interact with a base that has considerably less (read: no) give.  This is where many problems arise.

I have written (extensively) about the dangers of sliding head first into bases (as well as home plate), but neither José Lobatón nor the Washington Nationals care about injuries right now.  They are more concerned with basic physics.  And here’s why:

With two outs and the Cubs leading 9-8 in the bottom of the 8th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, the Nats had one run in and two runners on when Willson Contreras threw a back-pick to Anthony Rizzo at first base, hoping to catch Lobatón napping.  He wasn’t, and got back safely.  Or so we thought.

Upon further review, when all 73 inches and 205 pounds of Lobatón slid feet first and impacted the 15×15 inch rubber square that is essentially bolted to the earth, the result was not flawless.  Lobatón’s right leg hit the bag and then, ever-so-slightly, lost contact with the base.  When bodies of considerable mass make contact with immovable objects, these types of things tend to happen.  Rizzo adroitly held his tag, and the replay guys in New York were able to find a fraction of an inch of daylight between the foot and the base.  Rally over…inning  over…season essentially over.

This is not an issue of fair vs. not fair.  Those are the rules, have been since time immemorial, and Lobatón was correctly called out.  But when something like this happens, in a game of this magnitude, it just means we need to change the rules.  As players get bigger and bigger and faster and faster (either naturally or otherwise), we need to make sure that the game is in a position to make accommodations, and we need to allow for umpires to make reasonable calls in relation thereto.

Because disconnecting with the bag for a fraction of a second and being called out certainly is not in the spirit of the game, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs came up with a solution last year that he reposted again after Thursday night’s debacle in Washington.  In short, he wants a vertical “safe space” above the bag to account for these types of plays.  It is an interesting concept, and I encourage you to give it a read.

 

I would augment, supplement, or replace Dave’s idea with the following (taking out the concept of verticality or any other plane):

If a base runner, sliding either head first or feet first, reaches the base prior to the application of the fielder’s tag, and the base runner loses contact with the base, in the umpire’s judgment, for reasons other than his own volition (i.e., only due to the impact of his body to the base), and in the umpire’s judgment the base runner had no intent to advance to the next base, provided the loss of contact is for a de minimis period of time, the base runner shall be ruled safe.  The foregoing shall not be applicable to instances wherein the base runner slides past the base in question, regardless of the period of time he loses contact with the base.  In such event, provided the tag is applied when the base runner is off the base, he shall be called out.

My version of the rule incorporates Dave’s vertical concept but allows for a player to go off to the side as well.  I can imagine, without the benefit of a direct overhead camera, replay officials debating whether or not the impact caused the runner to bounce to the side of the base, in which event Dave would have him called out, or remained atop the base, resulting in ultimate safety.  I guess I am just more liberal with my body movement allowance.

Take Dave’s idea, take my idea, or come up with another.  But, sometime before the first pitch is thrown for the 2018 season, the MLB Rules Committee needs to fix this glaring omission, and get us back to what the rules intended, not what 4K Ultra HD digital technology discovered.

PLAY BALL!!

ABSOLUTION or IGNOMINY

ABSOLUTION or IGNOMINY

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Some moments are indelible.  When they happen, we know we have witnessed history.  And no matter what happens after, those moments will be lodged in our memory, forevermore.

“The Giants win the Pennant…the Giants win the Pennant…the Giants win the Pennant” is arguably the most famous moment in baseball history.  And yet, the memory of that moment is no way diminished – in any manner – by the fact that the Giants lost the Series, the Giants lost the Series, the Giants lost the Series.

Regardless of the outcome of the 1956 World Series, no baseball fan can forget Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after the only perfect game in World Series history.

New York Yankees' catcher Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen struck out the last Brooklyn Dodgers' batter to complete his perfect game during the fifth game of the World Series, Oct. 8, 1956. Racing up in the background is Joe Collins. (AP Photo)

Has there ever been a better match-up than Bob Welch v. Reggie Jackson in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series?  I have written about that match-up many times, and we all know the outcome, which is not diminished in any way by the fact that Reggie took Welch deep in Game 6 as the Yankees finished off the Dodgers winning their 22nd world title.

I would argue that the outcome of the 1988 World Series is wholly irrelevant to our reverie for Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 heroics.

And, as of Sunday night, regardless of who wins the 2017 NLCS, I don’t anyone in Los Angeles will ever forget Justin Turner taking John Lackey deep to walk-off Game 2.

But there are other moments that stick in our craw because of the ultimate outcome of the game/series.  In short, some people are granted absolution and some people are granted ignominy due to matters wholly outside their control.  I was thinking about a handful of these (I am certain there are many more) after watching the playoffs this week.  It makes me think that some people have horseshoes, and some people have bad pennies.

To wit:

If Rick Sutcliffe was able to retire Alan Wiggins, Tony Gwynn, and/or Steve Garvey, do North Siders forgive a meager grounder through Bull Durham’s legs in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS?  Does the Curse of the Billy Goat end thirty-two years earlier?

If Todd Worrell could have extricated himself from a runner on first, no out situation in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, and then didn’t give up a single (a single?!) to Steve Balboni; and if Darrell Porter didn’t allow a passed ball, and if Dane Iorg hadn’t singled; and if the Cardinals hadn’t been blown out in Game 7, would Don Denkinger still be persona non grata in St. Louis?

If Alex Gonzalez turns a routine double play on Miguel Cabrera’s ground ball, and the Cubs get out of the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS leading 3-1, would anyone ever learn or know the name “Bartman”?  Would we all now laugh at a grown man’s temper tantrum?  Would the Lovable Losers have found yet another way to rip the hearts out of their fans, resigning them to “wait til next year”.

If the Red Sox could have pushed across a single run in the 9th, or the 10th, or the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, does Grady Little lose his job for keeping Pedro Martinez in the game an inning and many batters too long?  Would Aaron “Bleeping” Boone roll off the tongue of New Englanders?

If the Rangers could have eked out a Game 7 victory in the 2011 World Series, how would we remember David Freese or Nelson Cruz?  Would Game 6 just be a blip on the radar, only important to Cardinals’ fans and David Freese’s friends and relatives?  That said, I believe Joe Buck’s “We will see you…tomorrow night” call would still be Hall worthy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GQlkLSyCTA

 

Most flagrantly, if the Red Sox had not blown a 3-0 sixth inning lead in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, and gone on to win their first championship in 68 years, would Bill Buckner have been vilified on the Back Bay for nearly two decades; the subject of an E:60 documentary; parodied on Curb Your Enthusiasm; and forced to move to Idaho?  Or would that play just been a clip on the highlight reel “Reversing the Curse” – the moment (in hindsight) when it all could have slipped away?

And, of course, we never would have even had “a little roller up along first” if Doug DeCinces’ flyball had reached the seats or Bobby Grich’s liner had fallen in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS; or if the Angels could have won either Game 6 or Game 7 in Boston.  If any of that happens, maybe Donnie Moore doesn’t take his life less than three years later.

If Jason Kipnis’ line drive down the right field line in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of last year’s World Series not drifted foul, do we spend the entire off-season dissecting every decision Joe Maddon made, second-guessing him through Christmas and into Spring Training?  Does he lose his job like Grady Little?  Jason Kipnis would have become the modern-day Bill Mazeroski / Joe Carter, as beloved in Cleveland as LeBron.  One wonders if the Cuyahoga catches fire again?

Similarly, if Jayson Werth’s flyball down the left field line in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 5 of this year’s NLDS doesn’t curve foul; or if Bryce Harper could have channeled his inner Michael A. Taylor and tied the game with one mammoth swing, do we spend this off-season castigating Maddon for trying to get seven outs from Wade Davis?  Those things didn’t happen, so Broad Street Joe gets off Scot free and lives to fight another day/series.

With the Yankees winning three games in four days against the best team in the American League, against the prohibitive favorite to win the pennant, I wonder if anyone will member Joe Girardi failing to challenge Lonnie Chisenhall’s foul tip that wasn’t?  Will the hit-by-pitch that wasn’t, which led to a Francisco Lindor grand slam, which led to a Jay Bruce homerun, which led to an Indians 9-8 victory in Game 2, be lost to the scrap heap of history now that the Baby Bombers find themselves in the ALCS?  Only time will tell.  But for now, Girardi keeps his job, Yankee fans are allowed to forget, and time marches on.

Who will be granted absolution?  Who will live with ignominy?  We potentially have fourteen games among four teams over two series to find out.

PLAY BALL!!

NARRATIVE LOST

NARRATIVE LOST

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Sometimes the horse gets out of the barn, the toothpaste gets out of the tube, the water goes under the (Golden Gate) bridge.  Sometimes the words you say are not the words listeners hear.  Sometimes people have the best of intentions, and then other people co-opt those intentions.  And sometimes, because of that co-opting, the original message gets lost in the noise that said message creates.  We live in cacophonous times.

Normally I write about baseball and how it relates to life.  And because a little-known Oakland A’s catcher, the bi-racial son of a career military officer (who Jeff Passan wrote about wonderfully), elected to “take a knee” during the national anthem last week, I have been given an opening to write about this topic.  But because it is my want, I will focus on its genesis.

Back on August 14, 2016, when Barack Obama was still President (an important note), before the San Francisco 49ers’ first pre-season game, Colin Kaepernick decided to sit during the national anthem.  He sat again the following week.  No one seemed to notice.  It wasn’t until after the third pre-season game, on August 26th, when a reporter’s curiosity was piqued, that Kaepernick addressed the issue.  He released a statement that he was sitting because of the oppression of people of color and ongoing issues of police brutality.  Two days later he met with the media and told them:

“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.  And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”

There it is, folks.  That is why Colin Kaepernick sat and then kneeled.  Anyone can now lay claim to any interpretation they want to invent; they can ascribe any meaning to this act they want to inject into the public conscience and political sphere; they can paint Colin Kaepernick as the poster boy for whichever side they want to take.

But these are his own words.  More than thirteen months ago, long before Trump, long before Charlottesville, long before Alabama, and before the NFL, corporate sponsors, and fans in the stands had their say, Colin had his.  But, as we know, we don’t always get to control the narrative.  The claim was that Kaepernick had a bad season (even though his 2016 stats pretty closely resemble his 2012 stats, when he led the Niners to the Super Bowl, but I digress), and no team wanted a washed-up quarterback who comes, standard, with a political headache.  For purposes hereof, we can put aside Kaepernick’s qualifications to play in the NFL today.  The fact is, he is unemployed, and others have taken up his cause.

Or have they?

In Week 1 of the current NFL season, four players either knelt or sat during the national anthem; the same four did so in Week 2.

And then, on September 22nd, President Donald Trump went to a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, and described football players who kneel during the national anthem as “sons-of-bitches”, and called for them to be fired.  For purposes hereof, we can put aside the First Amendment and whether or not such a firing would be a violation thereof.

Trump’s speech was between Weeks 2 and 3.  After Trump spoke, more than 200 players kneeled.  What were they kneeling for?  Did they even know?  Do we?

Do the fans who booed their favorite players and their cherished teams, do the announcers who broadcast and highlight the protests, do the pundits who landed – firmly – on one side of the issue or the other, even know the why of what is happening on the gridiron?  The obvious answer, of course, is “no”.

The players have taken a knee, locked arms, and raised their fists; but they have not spoken out.   So, because nature abhors a vacuum, social commentators, thought-leaders, craven politicians, and bombastic demagogues all felt compelled to offer their own explanations.   The upshot: the rallying cry of “stand up nation” is that the players are disrespecting the military, the flag, and the country.  Reasonable minds can differ – and have, vociferously – as to whether or not kneeling is disrespectful to any of the above.  But that discussion wholly misses the point.  No one is kneeling to intentionally disrespect the military, the flag, or the country.

However, some, nay many (from 4 to over 200), may be kneeling to disrespect the President of the United States who has chosen through words and (lack of) action, to divide this country.  People have taken to calling him the “Divider in Chief”, and I don’t think the President would dispute or condemn that appellation.  Sadly, this is just where we are.

Unfortunately, in all the noise, the message – Kap’s original message – is now lost.  To the extent this was ever about the military, the flag, or our country, it was about love of country, what the flag should represent, and the ideals that our military sheds its blood for.  The act of kneeling was not intended to be disrespectful, it was a yearning for our better selves. Ironically, Kap knelt to Make America Great.

But, again, that message has been muddled and muddied.  So players, and owners, and league officials began meeting to try to find a way forward – not necessarily a way through or a way out – but just forward, without alienating a large portion of the fanbase or a large number of sponsors.  They all felt the need to put this genie back in the bottle, but could not come up with a magic elixir.

If the players intend to continue kneeling, incurring the wrath of the boo-birds, and risking their careers and potentially their lives, without offering more than a well-written Op-Ed in the New York Times, this will end badly, if it can ever end.

In moments like this, I like to reach for the sharpest instrument in the tool box: Occam’s Razor.  The easiest solution is just to tell people why; answers their questions; appeal to their humanity; ask them to respect you, even if they don’t respect your actions.

Will this solve the problem, absolutely not.  But it will cut out much of the noise; it will mitigate people’s attempts to co-opt the message; it will provide much-needed context.  The logical next question is how?  I’m glad you asked – here’s how:

Before each Week 5 game, the captains of both teams come to mid-field prior to the singing of the national anthem.  They will deliver a statement written/approved by/with the NFL Players Association and the Commissioner’s Office.  The same message will be read at 14 stadiums before 14 games (four teams have byes), in front of an average live audience of 70,000, plus millions more at home.  It won’t take but a minute or two.  If it were up to me, I would either read Kaepernick’s original words (as set forth above) or the statement put out by the Indianapolis Colts earlier this week:

“Recently, there have been several misperceptions regarding a personal choice made by members of our team to bring awareness to prevailing issues facing our nation. To be clear – those of us who kneeled did not intend to disrespect our flag, our national anthem or those who serve our country. We all have family and friends who are servicemen and women. We appreciate and respect the incredible sacrifices they make.

But as NFL players, we have a platform. And as Americans, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our intention was to raise awareness and to continue critical conversations about real equality, the injustices against black and brown people, police brutality, respect, unity, and equal opportunity.  Our players are hurting, our people are hurting, our neighborhoods are hurting, and kneeling was a direct response to that hurt.

But what makes football so special is the way it brings people together – fans, players, coaches, all of us. We represent different races, backgrounds, and beliefs, but we come together for a common goal.  That togetherness seen on the field and in the stands when we play should resonate even when we leave the stadium.

In that same spirit, as unified Americans, we will respect all forms of peaceful protests, as they are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Some of our players may kneel, while others may stand.  But this is just the beginning.  There is much work to do, and it will take all of us.

Kneeling for JUSTICE.  Standing for UNITY.  Fighting for EQUALITY.  Showing RESPECT.”

Fans may still boo.  Sponsors may still flee.  But if the players state their case, in these fora, no one can honestly refute the ultimate goal.  No one can honestly ascribe a different meaning to the player’s actions.  No one can honestly deny the sincerity of their cause.

We are in a era of social turmoil not seen in a generation.  But we will not get through it if we cannot speak, and cannot be heard.  Every Sunday there is a captive audience – let the players use it to heal, whether or not they kneel.

PLAY BALL!!

NET OVER YOURSELF

NET OVER YOURSELF

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On Wednesday afternoon, Aaron Judge hit his 45th homer, which was followed by Gary Sanchez’s 32nd.  The Yankees cruised to a 11-3 win over the Twins, completing a three-game sweep and keeping the pressure on the division-leading Red Sox.

But the Yankees’ win was overshadowed by what happened in the seats behind the third base dugout in the fifth inning.  As I am sure many of you have seen by now, Todd Frazier rocketed a foul ball into the stands at 105 miles per hour.  The ball struck a young girl sitting with her grandparents.  Bloody and bowed, she was carried to the first aid station, and then transported to New York Presbyterian-Columbia Hospital.

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As of this writing, per her father, the girl is “doing all right”, but he could not (or would not) confirm whether or not she would need surgery for her injuries.

After impact, the game came to a halt.  Frazier, a father of two children under the age of the three kneeled in the batter’s box, shaken and concerned.  Twins’ second baseman Brian Dozier actually cried when he saw her hit by the screaming liner.  The game did not resume until the little girl was taken from her seat; she, the fans around her, and the players on the field, all the worse for the wear.

This horrific incident has, once again, brought the issue of protective netting back to the forefront.  And this one is an absolute no-brainer.  In fact, since just Wednesday afternoon, the Reds, Padres, and Mariners have all committed to extending their netting for the 2018 season.

Now, for those of you who have not followed this closely, here is a little primer: There are about 1,750 incidents of fans being hit by foul balls at Major League stadiums each season.  Put differently, in a typical season, every time Mike Trout gets a base hit, about 10 fans get nailed by a foul ball.

After the 2015 season, Commissioner Rob Manfred “encouraged” teams to extend their netting to the “near end of both dugouts”.  Let’s unpack that a bit.  Through the 2015 season, many teams only had netting directly behind home plate; and despite the rash of injuries from foul balls and flying bats, the best MLB could muster was a gentle prod that the netting be extended to the near end of the dugout?!?  In fairness, MLB did offer some guidance about extending it even farther.  Nothing was required.  In fact, the Commissioner was clear that he wanted this to be a “localized process”, with each team working with its own fan base to determine the best course of action for safety and enjoyment of the game.  What a bunch of hooey.

The truth of the matter is that baseball – and all of its teams – have been hiding behind the protective netting of a legal theory known as “assumption of risk”, and colloquially known as the “Baseball Rule”.  In short, fans come to the game knowing it is dangerous, and thus assume the risk that they may be hurt.  And for years, courts have upheld this doctrine.  But the times, they may be a changin’.

A few years ago an appeals court in Ohio reversed a lower-court ruling in favor of the Cleveland Indians in a fan injury case.  In Idaho, the state Supreme Court elected not to impose the Baseball Rule and allowed a fan at a minor league game (who lost an eye) to present his case to the jury.  A fan who was badly injured at – get this, Yankee Stadium – is currently in litigation with the team and the league regarding the fine print on the back of the ticket and this outdated legal theory.

Michael Moran, an Atlanta lawyer who has litigated these types of cases, previously stated: “The game is different now. Ballparks are configured differently than they were 20 or 30 years ago; the foul lines are closer to the stands. Pitchers throw harder. Batters hit the ball harder. All these things increase the risk.”

Are we to believe that even the most adroit fan can (and should) react to a ball that is on top of them in less than a second? If that were so, why would teams put netting in front of the dugouts?  Shouldn’t the best athletes in the park – individuals who are paid to pay attention and who don’t have the myriad diversions and distractions that are intended and encouraged for the fans – be prepared to avoid a foul ball or a hurtling bat?

The most common refrain from the teams is that fans don’t want to sit behind the netting.  Really?  The next time you watch a game and they show the centerfield camera angle, please pay attention to the dearth of fans sitting behind home plate (where there is netting in every park), and the masses sitting behind each dugout?  What, you say?  The seats behind home plate (except, ironically, at Yankee Stadium) are full; and fans have paid upwards of $1,000/ticket to sit there?  Now I am thoroughly confused.

I will acknowledge that fans find the netting a distraction…at first.  But then they get used to it.  I speak from experience, as I sit behind home plate, behind a net, and now barely notice it.  Don’t believe me?  Where do baseball executives and scouts sit?  People who are literally paid to watch and analyze the game do so behind the net; but Joe Six-Pack cannot enjoy watching Aroldis Chapman pitch through 3/16 of an inch of braided nylon?

Hockey harbored this same fear about their fans.  And then a 13-year old girl was killed by an errant hockey puck in 2002.  You know what they did?  They added netting around the goals.  And you know happened?  Nothing.  Attendance was, and remains, virtually unchanged on a year-to-year basis.

There is a reason why they stop selling beer after the seventh inning.  There is a reason why bottles aren’t allowed in the park.  There is a reason why mini bats are no longer given away.  Fan safety has trumped the fan experience for years – except in this one area.  And is there is simply no (reasonable/rational) excuse.

So here is what should happen.  After the 2015 season, the Commissioner asked the teams to do their own research.  Ostensibly, the Yankees did this.  And, ostensibly, they made a business decision that, by installing/expanding their netting, they would lose X dollars from fans who no longer wanted to sit between the dugouts.  That little girl’s family needs to sue the Yankees; and through discovery, obtain that analysis and determine the value of X.  And then a court should award damages equal to three times X.  The Yankees should lose all that they hoped to avoid losing, three times over.

The little girl should get the first X.  She is the Neil Armstrong, the Rosa Parks, the Jackie Robinson of ballpark safety.  She earned X with the damage to her tiny nose and her little eye.

The next X should go to a fund for all fans injured at the new Yankee Stadium since it opened in 2009.  By that time, everyone – including the Yankees’ brass – knew that seats closer to the field + insufficient netting = unnecessary and potential serious risk.

The final X should go to building and refurbishing baseball fields all over New York.  Show the kids of the Empire State that baseball cares about them, their safety, and their fandom.

And one last thing: the Commissioner must issue an edict – not a suggestion, not a recommendation, not guidance – but an actual rule.  Every team must install protective netting to at least the far end of each dugout prior to the commencement of the 2018 season.  Each team that fails to do so is fined $1 million per game until the same is properly installed.

We have big, complicated, unwieldy problems in this country.  Fans having to worry about their life being altered/in jeopardy in less than the blink of an eye while trying to enjoy America’s favorite pastime shouldn’t be one of them.

Enough is enough.

PLAY BALL!!

CLAYTON’S DAD

CLAYTON’S DAD

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw looks to the ground as St. Louis Cardinals Matt Adams circles the bases after hitting a three run home run in the seventh inning in Game 4 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on October 7, 2014. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Clayton Kershaw was born my sophomore year of high school. For reasons that we need not get into here, I cannot possibly be his father. However, when he takes the mound — and especially when he takes the mound late in the game — and especially when he takes the mound late in a post-season game — I may as well be.

The nerves I feel for Clayton are not dissimilar to those I feel when my own son toes the rubber for his JV team or when my daughter is astride the balance beam.  My hope for them to do well is only surpassed by my desire that they not be in that  moment at all.  I sometimes wish I had taught them that life can be a spectator sport.

I am, by nature, a pessimistic fan.  I expect the worst to happen, and am only relieved when it doesn’t.   I guess this is the product of a lifetime of Red Sox fandom and having the Arizona Wildcats as my alma mater.

I have no doubt, at 730pm Friday night, when Clayton Kershaw takes the field, in the words of Vin Scully, “in the loneliest place in the world, the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium”, I will be biting my nails to the nub.

It will be for the same reason that when Clayton gave up a lead-off double to David Freese in the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS, with the score 0-0, I got a pit in my belly.  This “dad” knew something wasn’t right.  Runner on second with no outs!?  When Kersh struck out Matt Adams, it looked like he had a way out.  But then there was an A.J. Ellis passed ball, and the air got a little cooler.  A harmless (had the runner been on second) flyball made the score 1-0, which is where it stood when the 27th out was recorded.

Who can forget October 3, 2014.  Kershaw gave up solo homers to the second and eighteenth batters he faced; he retired all 16 in between (including seven Ks).  The sixth inning ended with the Dodgers up 6-2.  “Pull Kershaw”, this dad yelled from my kitchen, where I was helping prepare the Sandy Koufax-approved Erev Yom Kippur meal.  Preserve the beauty of this performance and allow the bullpen to get the last nine outs.  Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  We all remember the disaster that was that fateful seventh inning; the inning that, in many respects, defines Kershaw’s post-season career: 1B, 1B, 1B, 1B, K, 1B, K, 2B, BB, HR, 5-3.  The top of the seventh ended with the Dodgers trailing 10-6, with Dodgers eventually losing 10-9.

But Kershaw had a chance to atone not four days later in St. Louis, and he was ready: K, K, K / BB, DP, K / 3, 5-3, K / 7, 1B, 4-3,  K / 8, 5-3, BB, 2-1 / K, K, K.  Six innings, twenty batters faced, one hit, nine Ks, one BB.  To this dad, it certainly seemed like he earned a hot shower and a cold beer.  Yet again, it wasn’t meant to be.  Kershaw trotted out for the seventh, and the pit starting forming in my belly.  Matt Holliday (he of the 295 career homeruns to that point) led off with an infield single.  By the time Jhonny Peralta knocked a clean single to center, I had a full-blown stomach ache.  Then three pitches later, Matt Adams hit a 3-R bomb to right.  Game, set, match, and season over; reputation cemented.

Kershaw had to wait another 367 days to avenge those two Cardinals games.  In Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS, Kershaw had made one bad pitch (a homer to Daniel Murphy to lead off the fourth), but was otherwise cruising into the seventh (23 batters faced, 4 hits, 1 walk, and 11 Ks).   But then he walked Lucas Duda to open the inning; and we all know about leadoff walks (I know that the actual statistics show a walk isn’t any likelier to score than a hit, but it certainly feels that way).  A ground out and then another walk, and my Spidey senses were on high alert.

Why couldn’t Mattingly have pulled him after six?  Kershaw didn’t need to be out there for another trip through the order.  Hadn’t he learned anything from the year before?  Once again, I was no longer a baseball fan, I was a dad watching his son implode – in slow motion.  In my alternative universe, this is when I would have excused myself from the stands and taken that long walk behind the bleachers, down beyond the dugout to watch this nightmare unfold in private – away from the prying eyes of the other parents, and where the coach wouldn’t hear me cursing him for keeping my kid on the hill too long.

A Jacob deGrom sacrifice bunt followed by yet another walk, and Kershaw’s night was over.  Sacks full with Pedro Baez in to save the day…fat chance.  David Wright singled in two, and my boy took the loss.  In this alternate universe, I prepared for our long drive home.

It happened again a few weeks ago, in Philadelphia.  Kershaw had retired 15 of the first 17 batters he faced, and had a 2-0 lead going into the sixth.  But then Ty Kelly lead off with a walk (see above for that pit and that irrationally useless research).  A pop-out (phew); single (uh-oh); K (nice); BB (uh-oh, again).  This is when the baseball fan in me stepped back and said: “In 103 career chances, Kershaw has allowed five bases loaded doubles, and six bases loaded walks.  But he has never allowed a bases loaded homerun”.  And then my inner monologue went to Aaron Altherr – a career .234 hitter with a total of 25 big league dingers – and I just knew Kershaw could retire the side and turn a 2-0 lead over to the bullpen.  But, the dad in me was still nervous.  Father knows best.

When Kershaw hung a 1-1 slider and Altherr hit the ball 418 feet, and four runs scored, and the Dodgers now trailed 4-2, and Kershaw had been out there a few batters too long once again, and all the other parents in the stands were consoling me, I just knew it would be another long drive home.

I don’t know why I have such a filial connection to Clayton Kershaw.  I certainly don’t feel this way about Tom Brady, or Andrew McCutchen, or Steph Curry.  I want them to do well, but I am not heart-sick about the prospect of them not.  I don’t secretly hope Brady hands the ball off, or McCutchen draws a walk, or Curry passes up the big shot – I want them in there and I want them to succeed.

Maybe it is because I believe – in my soul – that Kershaw has been the victim of bad luck, and a player of such great quality (both on and off the field) deserves better.  Maybe it is because I want the best pitcher alive to always be the best pitcher alive.  Maybe it is just because I am a fan, which is short for “fanatic”.   I have no idea.

But whatever the answer, I sit in the stands or on my couch holding the theoretical pillow, hoping to provide a soft landing for a grown man; a man with a wife and two kids; a professional athlete making more than $30 million per year.  Which begs the question: What is wrong with me?

I guess that’s what makes sports great – we love the game, and we love the players that we root for/idolize/lionize – literally – beyond reason.

And so, when David Peralta or A.J. Pollock digs in for that first pitch of the NLDS on Friday night, rest assured that my heart will be in my throat.

PLAY BALL!!

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE PARK

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE PARK

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Shortly after the first of the year, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I was clued in to an event happening in Keizer, Oregon, eight months hence.  At the time, I had little knowledge of the impending total solar eclipse; had never heard the phrase “path of totality”; and didn’t know the city of Keizer, Oregon even existed.  But the idea of travelling to a baseball game, to meet a bunch of baseball writers, and to be part of a communal event that happens maybe twice in a lifetime, was all simply too much to pass up.

After a few keystrokes, I learned that the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes – a Short-Season Class-A affiliate of the Giants – would be holding a four-day event around the first solar eclipse to run from coast-to-coast in 99 years.  The long weekend was to be hosted by the Volcanoes, baseball writers from FanGraphs, and a team of engineers and scientists from NASA.  This stood to be entertaining and educational.

I quickly contacted the Volcanoes ticket office and bought the Eclipse Package: tickets to Sunday’s and Monday’s games; breakfast at the park Monday morning; a parking pass; and a guaranty of NASA-approved eclipse viewing glasses.  Little did I know, at the time, what a global phenomenon the eclipse would become; what it would cost to travel to Oregon; and what an amazing experience this would be.  Now I know.

Last Saturday our whole family traveled to Portland.  After a night in the Rose City, we headed 45 miles south to the state’s capital.  Repeated warnings had braced us for Carmageddon-level traffic, but the ride was smooth and we got to town in less than an hour.  On Monday morning, my son and I woke at the crack of dawn to meet 5,000 like-minded fans/sky-watchers at Volcanoes Stadium.  We grabbed ballpark breakfast (think: camp) and milled amongst baseball fans and science nerds.  The air was cool, the sky was blue, and the crowd was atwitter.  We were three hours from “totality”.

Monday morning’s game against the rival Hillsboro Hops – scheduled to start at 930am – was delayed because the opponents got stuck in traffic.  (You’ve got to love Single-A baseball!)  The Volcanoes gave up four runs in the top of the first, while we sat in the stands wondering if it was the sight-lines at the stadium, the game time, or the encroaching moon, that caused the viewing experience to be less than optimal.  NASA soon answered the question, delaying the game before we reached the home half of first, due to lack of light.

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And that is when the suspense really took hold.  Players dropped their gloves and copped a squat along the baselines.  There was a buzz in the stadium as we donned our glasses and felt the air drop by as much as 12 degrees.  There was a light breeze, and we watched what appeared to be a sunset along the horizon – at 1015 in the morning.

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And then, within moments, the NASA engineers instructed us to remove our glasses, and we witnessed “totality”.  For nearly two minutes, the sun fought valiantly to overcome the moon’s obstruction, to little avail.

 

People who know of our trip have asked how it was.  Unfortunately, I am not a skilled enough writer to properly explain the experience, other than to state that I have chills just remembering it.  But, lucky for us, Ben Lindbergh was there – as part of the FanGraphs host committee – and he articulated with such prose that it makes me want to hang up my keyboard.  Please read his account.

I have joked with my sisters about Niagara Falls in 2024; and I now think there is a fair chance I will be there (April 8th, if you are planning ahead).

PLAY BALL!!

LITTLE BIG LEAGUES

LITTLE BIG LEAGUES

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On a recent Saturday night I found myself in the small town of Moosic, in northeast Pennsylvania.  Unless you grew up or went to school in the hills of the Keystone state, you probably never have heard of Moosic.  But if you are a baseball fan, you definitely have heard of the surrounding towns: Scranton and Wilkes-Barre (which, to be clear, is pronounced like “bear”).

Scranton Wilkes-Barre (S/WB) has been home to Minor League Baseball (MiLB) since 1919, and the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees since 2007.  Over the past nearly 100 years, S/WB has hosted eight different organizations (nine if you count both the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics), and played in eight different parks.  In 1989, the team – then known as the S/WB Red Barons – moved into Lackawanna County Stadium, marking its eighth and (current) final “home” for S/WB baseball.

In 98 years, S/WB has had fourteen different team names, with the Red Barons having the longest tenure (from 1989 through 2006 as the Phillies’ Triple-A club).

In 2007, the Yankees moved to town, leaving Columbus, Ohio for facilities closer to the big club (just a 30-minute private flight away).  With the switch, the Red Barons became the Yankees.  But even the most valuable franchise in baseball (second most valuable in all of sports according to Forbes) cannot maintain naming dominance forever.  More about that in a moment.

At this point it would be helpful to provide a little insight into the business of Minor League baseball.  For our purposes, let’s refer to Major League organizations as “Organizations” and Minor League teams as “Affiliates”.  Or, as I like to think of them, the MLB club is the hot dog and the MiLB team is the bun.

Here is how it works: the MLB Organization “owns” the players (the hot dog), and controls all player-personnel matters.  The MiLB Affiliate owns the ballpark, and controls everything else, including ticket sales, concessions, promotions, travel, and accommodations, essentially everything that surrounds the players (the bun).

In order to be affiliated with each other, an MLB Organization signs a Player Development Contract (PDC) with an MiLB Affiliate.  The PDC has a two-year term, and renews automatically unless the Organization or the Affiliate notifies MLB that changes are afoot.

When an MLB Organization decides to find a new bun for its hot dog, it informs MLB, and the game of musical chairs begins.  That is because there are only 160 MiLB Affiliates, and unless/until an Affiliate-owner sells his/her affiliation to another location, when one Organization moves to a new location, the displaced Organization will need a new home; as such, the MiLB Affiliate owner is always entitled to some team.

For instance, when the Astros decided to leave Lancaster, California after last season, the owners of the Jethawks were not worried…they just needed to wait for the music to stop to find out which wandering soul would land in the California high desert.  (It was the Rockies).

Which brings us back to the Yankees.  After the 2006 season, the Phillies ended their PDC with S/WB in preparation for their move to Lehigh Valley (they had a two-year stop in Ottawa while their new stadium in Allentown was built).  The Yankees seized on this opening, moving their club (the hot dog) from Columbus (the bun) to the mountains of Pennsylvania (a new bun).  Now Columbus had to find a new Organization, which they did with the Cleveland Indians.  You get the idea.

When the Yankees’ Organization came to town in 2007, they compelled the S/WB owners to plaster their moniker on everything, most importantly, on the front of the S/WB jerseys.  But this is where the Affiliate and the Organization often have differing goals and incentives.  On the one hand, why wouldn’t the S/WB owners want to be associated with the Bronx Bombers, one of the most storied franchises in the history of the sport?  On the other, there is no guaranty that the team will stay beyond the two-year PDC, so the Affiliate needs to establish its own identity in the community, regardless of the Organization with whom they are currently affiliated.

And to further complicate matters, insofar as the Organization controls all player personnel issues, determining who plays and when, promoting and demoting players on a weekly (if not daily) basis, the Affiliate cannot market and advertise any individual player, as they never know for how long or how often they can trot that player onto their field.

The S/WB Affiliate was sold after the 2012 season, and the new owners decided they needed their own branding.  Keeping with their Pennsylvania roots, the Yankees were scrapped and the RailRiders were born.  For the first time since 2006, the S/WB team had its own identity.

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Ironically, the decision to rebrand the Affiliate was made even though the new ownership group was a joint venture between Mandalay Baseball Properties and the actual New York Yankees.  But Mandalay was put in charge of managing the Affiliate, and having had great success with the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Frisco RoughRiders, the Erie SeaWolves, and the Dayton Dragons, the Yankees wisely chose to allow the experts guide the team’s marketing.

As an aside, if the name “Mandalay” sounds familiar, it is because its Chairman, Peter Guber, is a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers (as well as the Golden State Warriors).  So, after this sale in 2012, you had, in effect, the S/WB Affiliate co-owned by the Dodgers and the Yankees.  Somewhere George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin were spinning in their graves.

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Mandalay ended up selling their share of the Affiliate in 2014 to a group of local investors, who now manage the club.

And managing an MiLB Affiliate is not for the faint of heart.  It requires ingenuity, gumption, chutzpah, and a whole lot of luck.  By way of example, on a soggy Saturday night a few weeks back, the Affiliate in Moosic was faced with a four-pronged problem:

(1) Call a rainout and lose a night’s gate, as well as the concessions.  The impending rain had huge financial ramifications as it has been a wet summer, so the RailRiders have already lost a handful of games; and Saturday is one of their best attendance nights.  A rainout also raised the prospect of wasting the “bucket hat” promotion.  The team would hate to give out thousands of S/WB hats to fans who didn’t see a game and who didn’t buy at least a couple of beers.

(2) If they called the rainout, the RailRiders would be forced to play a twin-bill on Sunday (assuming the weather held), putting them in a bind with respect to pitching.  This issue was further complicated by the fact that the big club has had a rash of injuries this season, forcing players to go back and forth between the Bronx and S/WB (and Trenton, the Double-A club), which put a limit on the available arms.

(3) Their opponent, the Charlotte Knights, did not want to start the game as they feared the weather wouldn’t hold, the game would be called, and they would burn some of their valuable pitching.  So the RailRiders management had to be cognizant of their potentially unhappy counterparts, who have short fuses and long memories.

(4) The RailRiders had promised their fans a post-game fireworks show.  This one was easy; in the hour before the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown, team president Josh Olerud decided the fireworks would go off regardless – Mother Nature might scuttle the baseball, but she couldn’t stop the light show.  Again, the Affiliate knows that, oftentimes, the product on the field is ancillary to the experience at the ballpark.  S/WB has fans/customers, and the management wants/needs them to keep coming back each week and each season.

Fortunately for Olerud, the team, and the fans, the clouds dispersed and the game was played.  It turned out to be a great – if damp – night at the yard.

The ballpark itself is another area of collaboration and conflict.  Per MLB rules, a facility has to have a certain number of seats, a certain level of lighting, and a certain level of amenities to be deemed acceptable to house a Triple-A team.  But being acceptable to Major League baseball is often different than being acceptable to an MLB Organization.  So, to woo a team to its town, MiLB clubs often agree to make substantial improvements/alterations to their parks.  And the inverse if also true: if an MLB Organization wants to be in a certain location, they might entice the MiLB to sign a PDC by offering incentives to improve their facilities.

When the Yankees moved to Moosic, they were content to play at Lackawanna County Stadium – one of the largest in the entire MiLB.  And S/WB was more than happy to have the Yanks – they sold 47,000 tickets on the day the move was announced.  But changes were coming.

The first order of business was to remove the cumbersome name: Lackawanna County Stadium.  (For people of my generation, LCS hearkens back to “Milwaukee County Stadium” and Harvey’s Wall Bangers, or Dale Murphy and Bob Horner hitting dingers at Fulton County Stadium.  But I digress).  The naming rights were sold to PNC Bank, who dubbed the stadium “PNC Field” (not to be confused with PNC Park in Pittsburgh).

Within a few years, the owners decided that the stadium needed more than just a new name.  And so a $43 million renovation project began in 2012, completely modifying the look and feel of the park.  In a nod to history, the owners decided not to tear down the entire stadium and start anew.  Rather, they kept the location (as pretty as you can imagine, nestled right against the mountains), and ripped out everything but the lower bowl and the playing field.  The “monstrosity” (not my word) that was the upper deck was removed, as were many of the 11,000 seats.  In their place were installed a considerably smaller second-level with three rows of seats, luxury suites, and a stadium club.  They modified the seating in the lower level, and added group spaces in the outfield.  Part of the park reconfiguration was a 360-degree concourse, which gives fans full access to the park (and makes getting to the beer garden and BBQ pit in right field considerably easier).  The club also added grassy berms in the outfield that are utilized every day, but especially on “Dollar Dog” nights, where a ticket to sit on the lawn costs just $1, admission for your canine costs just $1, and the hot dogs around the park are just, you guessed it, $1.

“Dollar Dog” night should not be confused with “Two Dollar Tuesdays”, where lawn seats and Tallboys cost just two bucks.  Or “Wine and Dine Wednesdays”, a ladies night with a pregame wine tasting and wine specials during the game.  The RailRiders cater to the local college kids with “Thirsty Thursdays”, that have pre-game music and $1 Bud Lights.  And to make sure families are covered, there are “Kids Eat Free Sundays”, sponsored by Jersey Mike’s; and if your child is a member of the Champ’s Kid’s Club, they don’t even have to buy a ticket to get in.

As would be expected, the team has a slew of bobblehead nights, their “Legend Series” where former players come and sign autographs, as well as a handful of the aforementioned fireworks extravaganzas.

None of these promotions or marketing plays makes S/WB unique – you can get them at MiLB parks all over the country.  What makes S/WB special is that in 2013, after the remodel, PNC Field was honored as the Best New Ballpark by Ballpark Digest.  In the four seasons since, after shepherding Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, Jordan Montgomery, and Aaron Judge through the clubhouse to the Bronx, the RailRiders have barely missed a beat, with attendance figures within 2.5% of that much ballyhooed first season in the new park.

I have spent a lot of time, and driven a lot of miles, visiting MLB and MiLB and Independent League parks over the past few summers.  Not many have had the beauty combined with the amenities combined with the friendliness combined with the value for the dollar combined with the high quality fan experience, that I had at PNC Field.  But that does not mean I won’t keep looking.

There are more than five times as many Affiliates as there are Organizations, so wherever you live, there is bound to be one close by.  Take a drive, park a hundred yards (or less) from the gate, buy an unconscionably low-priced ticket, gulp down an ice-cold beer at a fraction of the typical $12, and enjoy a treasure-trove of local eats and standard ballpark fare.  The play on the field may not be ready for primetime (it might be as good as the A’s or the White Sox), but the fan experience most certainly will be.  The lines are short and the traffic is light.  I defy anyone to leave an MiLB game – whether in the heat of the California desert, or in the bustle of downtown Louisville, or in the verdant mountains of Pennsylvania – without a smile on their face.  Head on out to the Little Big Leagues and watch them…

PLAY BALL!!

THE $25,000 FINE

THE $25,000 FINE

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Baseball is a beautiful and peculiar game, filled with majesty, intensity, and a whole lot of oddity.  If you are not a dedicated fan, you may find yourself confused by the varied and arcane rules that govern the game.  To that end, one day I may dedicate an entire post just to the most bizarre and inexplicable, but today I have  in mind just one.

A few weeks back I was sitting behind home plate at Minute Maid Park (a small humble brag?), and I witnessed something I am certain I have seen hundreds of times before, but maybe not in this manner.

In fact, we have all seen it, and probably not paid too much attention.  It has become such a routine part of the game, we forget to be annoyed.

According to Major League Baseball Rule 6.05(b), a batter is out when a “third strike is legally caught by the catcher”.  The third strike does not need to be “legally caught” if there is a runner on first base with less than two outs.  Otherwise, it does.  Got that?  Don’t be shocked if the guy sitting next to you is equally confused.

How many times have we seen a Major League baseball player strike out on a ball in the dirt, and not run?  Whether out of frustration, anger, or just plain laziness, batters take that third strike – caught or not – as a fait accompli.  Why?

The comments to Rule 6.05(b) add an additional piece of color: “A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate”.  This is where my trip to Houston comes in.

With two outs in the top of the fourth inning, Gary Sanchez struck out on a pitch short-hopped by Brian McCann.  As the comment to 6.05(b) suggests, Sanchez turned left and headed for the dugout.  McCann, the seasoned (grizzled?) Astros’ catcher began a slow walk back to his dugout, ball in glove, keeping an eye on Sanchez.  I watched this all unfold not fifty feet in front of me.  As soon as Sanchez left the dirt circle and stepped onto the grass (Side Note: Minute Maid Park is a dome that has natural grass – very cool), the umpire signaled “out” and the inning was officially over.

For years I have watched Big Leaguers big league this play; and for years I have yelled “Run!” at the television or to the field.  I have always wondered why this is acceptable practice, and what Gary Sanchez and his ilk are teaching our kids about hustle and heart?  Seeing this up close got my blood boiling.

With two outs in the seventh inning of that same game, rookie Clint Frazier hit a comebacker to pitcher Michael Feliz.  Frazier hustled down the line and was retired 1-3.  But imagine if Frazier simply conceded the play.  Imagine Frazier saw the ball in Feliz’s glove, knew he was out, turned left, and headed back to the dugout.  Mike and Mad Dog (I know, they aren’t together any more) would have lit up the radio waves; Buster Olney would have dedicated ten minutes of his Monday podcast to this; Quick Pitch would have had Harold Reynolds giving us a re-creation in Studio 42; and the Daily News would have had Frazier emblazoned with something pithy like “Redheaded Rookie Too Cool to Run”.  And they all would have been right.  But, since this is just a hypothetical, none of that happened.

But nary a word was said, nor an article written, nor a segment dedicated, to a barely not-a-rookie’s refusal to run to first base.  Why?

Not a week earlier, the Angels beat their cross-town rival Dodgers on this exact play.  With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Camrin Maybin struck out on a Pedro Baez pitch in the dirt that skipped to the backstop.  Initially, Maybin, being a Big Leaguer, big leagued the play and didn’t run.  Then he realized where the ball was and high-tailed it to first base.  Yasmani Grandal chased down the errant pitch, and then airmailed it into right field, allowing the winning run to score from second.

Maybin when from goat to hero, just by doing what we expect every player on the field to do: hustle.  The amazing thing about this play is that even though the ball rolled all the way to the backstop, and even though Grandal had to chase it down, and even though Yaz had to throw the ball approximately 120 feet, and even though Maybin is one of the fastest guys on the Angels, a decent throw still would have beat him (by a lot).  It took Maybin so long to do the right thing – hustle – that he was nearly out as the result of his own indolence.

I truly believe (and I defy anyone to tell me otherwise) that a catcher – loaded with shin guards, a chest protector, and a mask – has a more difficult, and no matter what, a longer, throw to first base than a pitcher does on a comebacker.  Assume Sanchez had taken off on his third strike.  McCann would had to have corralled the ball, stepped into a throwing lane, avoided the runner heading down the line, and thrown a strike at least ninety feet.  That is no easy task.

After Feliz fielded Frazier’s grounder, he took three steps toward first base, and tossed the ball less than sixty feet with no obstructions.  And yet, Frazier sprinted down the line.  That, we expect.  That is what we demand, from Little League through college.

But we don’t blink an eye when a player concedes the out – when he’s not out.  Imagine a runner heading directly to the dugout when his teammate grounds into a tailor-made 6-4-3.  How would that go over?

Now, I don’t claim to know what penalties are assessed in Kangaroo Courts in clubhouses across the league.  However, I am willing to bet a handsome sum that not running to first on an “uncaught third strike” (the proper nomenclature) is not subject to a fine.

And it happened again last night.  With two on and two out in the top of the 9th, and the Yankees trailing the Red Sox 3-0, Chase Headley chased a Craig Kimbrel knuckle-curve that Christian Vazquez trapped.  So Headley tried to keep the game alive with a mad dash down the line, right?  He made Vazquez throw the ball – equipment and all – ninety feet with two runners on the move, right?  Headley, the twelve-year veteran provided an example to a young and up-and-coming team of how the game should be played, right?  Or he simply headed back to the dugout, allowing Vazquez to tag him for the third and final out of the game?  You tell me…

So here is my idea: Every time a Big Leaguer fails to run to first on an uncaught third strike, he is fined $25,000.  Further, the infraction and the fine are announced to the crowd.  After MLB collects the fine, the money is then donated to the Boys & Girls Club of America (the player should get the shame but not the write-off).

Sure, if you are making $25 Million, 25 large is but .1% of your salary.  But can you put a price on public humiliation?  That fine would have represented 4.4% of Gary Sanchez’s income – a hefty portion of his early-career pay.

Hit a guy in his wallet, and then hurt his pride, and see how quickly his behavior changes.  Tell to the kids at the ballpark and those watching on television that failure to play the game the right way is a punishable crime.

Have the Fenway Park PA announcer explain to the crowd that the Red Sox completed their 52nd win of the season, Kimbrel recorded his 24th save, and that the Boys and Girls Club of America is now $25,000 richer because Chase Headley chose not to hustle.  That would be the cherry on the egg on his face.

I know, I know, this is a slippery slope.  But is it, really?  There are few other instances so egregious, and so obvious.  Sure, we could fine guys for not running out a pop up, but even when they feign hustle, they still make their way to first base.  When was the last time you saw a player retired after a botched pop-up?  Had he hustled he would have been on second base, but he didn’t completely surrender the play.

This one is easy.  Join me in the quest to make “The $25,000 Fine” the order of the day.

And then we can tell Big Leaguers, just like we tell our kids, even if you strike out, you need to…

PLAY BALL!!

Postscript: After I wrote this piece, but before I published it, I watched the Sunday night highlights.  With one out in the bottom of the 7th of the Astros-Twins game, Josh Reddick struck out on a nasty curveball.  The ball skipped away from catcher Chris Gimenez.  Reddick sprinted down the line, forcing a throw.  Jose Altuve, who had been on third, took off for home on the throw to first, and by the time Kennys Vargas got the ball back to a sprinting Gimenez, Altuve had slid home with the Astros fifth run.  Brian McCann struck out to end the inning; thus Reddick’s failure to “big league” (read: play the game the right way), helped the Astros add a run they wouldn’t have otherwise scored.

 

A FIGHT NOT WORTH FIGHTING

A FIGHT NOT WORTH FIGHTING

Blog_Harper_Strickland

In the eighth inning of Monday’s Giants-Nationals game, with the Nats ahead 3-0, Hunter Strickland decided to seek revenge.  For what, you ask?  For an overly-aggressive slide into Brandon Crawford at second base?  For a little chin music too close to Joe Panik’s baby face?  How about a bat flip and slow trot around the bases by Hunter Pence.  Any of the above would be “justified” (if, by justified, we mean baseball’s anachronistic concept of frontier justice that we have seen on display all too often of late).  It would have been totally out of line, but it would have in keeping with the traditions of America’s Pastime.

If you guessed any of the above, you would be wrong.  And if you are reading this, my guess is that you already know the answer.  Back in the 2014 playoffs, Bryce Harper – he of the flowing locks and face paint eye black – hit two tape measure homeruns off Mr. Strickland.  One went about 450 feet, and the other landed in McCovey Cove.

Strickland didn’t take too kindly to Harper’s appreciation of those dingers, nor his glance back to the mound as he rounded the bases.  So Strickland stewed in his juices for 30 months (baseball players have LONG memories and short fuses).  He waited until the time was just right, and then he drilled Harper in the hip with a 98 MPH fastball.  Now Mr. Harper is no shrinking violet, and he – in his own words – “saw red”.  First he pointed his bat, then he ran towards the mound, then he flung his helmet in what can only be viewed as the worst helmet toss of all time – and then he let loose with a fusillade of punches.

 

All the while, Buster Posey, the Giants catcher and the face of the franchise, didn’t move.  When Harper started barking at Strickland, Posey made no effort to restrain him.  When Harper started running towards the mound, Posey calmly cleaned the dirt around home plate.  It was not until six seconds after the pitch hit Harper – and after the first punches were actually thrown – that Posey even feigned an interest in the melee.

So, after the talking heads got done castigating Strickland for “getting even” (?) nearly three years and a World Series title later, and after they got done making fun of Harper’s helmet tossing skills, they turned their attention to Buster Posey.  Was Posey’s failure to intervene an act of cowardice, a show of grace, a selling out of a teammate, bad sportsmanship, good sportsmanship, just good ol’ common sense, or what?

When asked about it after the game, Posey said: “Well, I mean, after it happened, I kind of saw Harper’s point.  Next thing you know, he’s going out after him. Those are some big guys tumbling around on the ground. You see, [Giants first baseman] Mike Morse is about as big as they come, and he was getting knocked around like a pinball. So … (it’s) a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.”

Posey told his truth.  Strickland was out of line and Buster was having none of it.  Some have argued that players must have their teammate’s back, no matter what.  That Posey had an obligation to at least try to slow Harper down, if not tackle him outright.  Some have argued that this was a mess of Strickland’s making, and his teammates shouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way to settle a score that had no business being settled.

Old school vs. new school.

Although the Giants have been lackluster so far this season, Posey leads the team in hits, batting average, OBP, OPS, and WAR.  He is far and away their best player, and the player they can least afford to lose.  Should he risk an injury or a suspension to defend a red-assed teammate who was first offended back when Ebola was making news?

Some say, “Yes; yes he should”.  To them, I would ask that they indemnify the Giants for that portion of the $21.4M Posey is making this season and the additional $85.6M he owed through 2021 – all money potentially at risk if Buster got injured in that scrum.  This wasn’t defending honor or getting valid retribution.  This was a case of arrested development; a player too immature to deal with another player’s success against him.

If you don’t want guys hitting the ball a country mile and then enjoying it, pitch better.  Oh, and by the way, this wasn’t some Punch and Judy who took you deep.  This was the second best player in the game, who had a 1.251 OPS in those playoffs.  And, oh, by the way (Part II), you won the friggin’ World Series not three weeks later.  Get the hell over it.  And if you can’t, don’t expect others to join you in your little Bryce Harper-invited by a 98 MPH fastball pity party.

Serve your suspension, Hunter.  And when you come back, do us all a favor and just…

PLAY BALL!!

A DAMN SHAME

A DAMN SHAME

Blog_Trout_Injury

Many people remember Tuesday’s AL Wild Card game for the six first inning runs (including three homers); or the fact that the starters recorded a combined seven outs.  For me, I will remember a little-noted play in the bottom of the 7th inning.  Aaron Judge led off with a walk, and took off for third on a base hit by Gary Sanchez.  A decent throw by Eddie Rosario gets Judge (first out of an inning at 3rd base?!), but Rosario air-mailed it, allowing Judge to take second.  What was remarkable about the player, however, was Judge’s slide into third.  Putting aside the awkwardness of the actual landing, it was that Judge dove into third base.

This is the same Aaron Judge who hit 52 homeruns, led the AL in runs, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage; who had already left the yard earlier in the game.  A player who is a lock for Rookie of the Year and is in a dead heat for MVP.  And yet, in the first game of what Yankee fans hope will be a long post season, Judge put that all in jeopardy with a head first slide.  Why?

It is well-worn territory to say that Mike Trout is the best player in baseball.  By some metrics, he is on his way to being the best player of all time.  And even though it does not seem possible, he keeps getting better.

After the first two months of this season, Trout was off to his best start, leading the league in WAR (33% better than Bryce Harper).  In fact, the early-season disparity between Trout and Harper (#1 & #2 on Fangraph’s WAR list at the time) was the same as the disparity between Harper and #20 on the list (Mookie Betts/Nolan Arenado).

Trout was second in the league (behind only the aforementioned Aaron Judge) in homers; led in OBP and OPS; second in slugging; and in the MLB Top 12 of batting average, runs, stolen bases, and RBI (if you’re into that type of thing).  In short, we were on our way to witnessing greatness squared – Trout outperforming otherwise peak-Trout.  The Millville Meteor was well on his way to another first or second finish in the MVP race for the sixth straight season (besting Barry Bonds in the process).

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  On May 28th, in completing his tenth stolen base, Trout dove head first into second.  He came up with a torn UCL in his left thumb; had surgery two days later, and didn’t return to the lineup until July 16th, after missing 39 games.  Trout made $19.2M this year, which means this dive into second cost the Angels about $6.5M of lost productivity (and, truth be told, that is a gross under-estimation of his true worth).  But, more importantly, the Angels lost their best player, their best hope for contention, their best draw, and the best reason to tune into an Angels’ game.  We as fans lost the best player in the game.  No more highlight catches; no turning on inside fastballs and hitting them to the rocks at Angels Stadium; no going from first to third on a single to left; and now no reason to pitch to Albert Pujols.

Two years ago I wrote a piece about the stupidity of sliding head first (“Using Your Head…By Using Your Feet”).  After watching Trout walk off the field that Sunday night in May, I went back to take another look.  The article was as relevant in May, as relevant this week, as it was two summers ago.  In case you missed it then, here it is again – maybe Judge can read it before he does something this stupid again.

Losing Trout for a quarter of the season (his first DL stint of his) for an injury that was self-inflicted; for doing an act we specifically prohibit kids from doing.  All you can say is that it’s a damn shame; just a damn shame!

Use your feet…

PLAY BALL!!