Power to some of the people

A Memorial Day story about baseball, unions and the coronavirus…

I started my Memorial Day by reading a newspaper, a habit shared by far too few Americans. (I could go on about the death of newspapers and why it’s in our own personal interest to support them, but if memory serves I already have.)


On page 3b of the Kansas City Star’s sports section, I hit a story about the players response to Major League Baseball’s proposal to restart the baseball season. Just in case you missed it the first time I wrote about it, here are some of the restrictions included in MLB’s proposal:

  • No exchange of lineup cards at home plate.

  • No high fives or fist bumps.

  • Team personnel will be banned from eating at restaurants on road trips.

  • Showering at the park will be discouraged.

  • Water jugs, saunas, steam rooms, pools and cryotherapy chambers will be prohibited.

  • Indoor batting cages will be discouraged.

  • Batting practice pitchers will wear masks.

  • Players cannot touch their face to give signs.

  • Teams are encouraged to hold meetings outside and keep the players spread apart.

  • Managers and coaches must wear masks in the dugout.

  • Fielders should stay away from baserunners.

  • Base coaches should not approach baserunners or umpires.

  • When traveling, the entire traveling party must wear personal protective equipment while on buses and flights.

  • Everyone must keep their distance during the “Star Spangled Banner.”

  • No spitting.

According to the same Star article, Larry Bowa – former Phillies shortstop, coach and manager – had a reaction similar to my own:

“I read all those rules and everything and I want to be optimistic, but…”

“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t play, but I can honestly tell you, as much as I love baseball, I wouldn’t be mad if this thing did get cancelled.”

As the Star’s article pointed out, if the risk of contracting COVID-19 is too high for players to take a shower in the clubhouse, maybe it’s too risky to play at all.

The owners vs. the Players Association

They’ll wave the flag and talk about America “needing” baseball and some of that’s true and a feeling shared by players, but the owners would also like to get some kind of season going so they can generate some revenue.

But the players have a strong union and have shown a willingness to stand up to the owners, so the owners need the ballplayers to buy in to their plan.  According to the same Star article, the players are looking at MLB’s proposal and after consulting their own medical experts, have a few questions and demands of their own:

  • What’s going to happen if – and more likely when – a player tests positive?

  • What’s the sanitation protocol within clubhouses and other facilities?

  • How will the teams protect high-risk players and family members?

  • And the players want more frequent testing.

The MLB proposal calls for testing “multiple times” per week, but isn’t specific about what that means. Meanwhile, Mike Trout told ESPN: “I don’t see us playing without testing every day.”

A tale of two workforces

Over the weekend the Star did a story about local businesses and what they were doing to protect their employees and customers and some businesses were doing a lot while others didn’t act all that concerned.

What struck me about the baseball story is that as businesses reopen many of their employees have no choice about coming back to work or little say in what their work conditions will be.

But when workers have some power, financial resources and access to their own experts, they’ve got conditions they’d like to see met before they jump back into the workplace.

So once again poor people get screwed, which if you know your history, is pretty much an American tradition.

(OK, that last line is totally unfair…poor people get screwed in pretty much every country.)

How about South Korea?

If you’re thinking “but they’re playing baseball in South Korea” you’re right; but according to the latest numbers I found on the internet, South Korea – with a population of about 51.6 million – has had 267 coronavirus deaths.

Meanwhile, here in the United States – with a population of about 328.2 million people – we’ve had over 98,000 coronavirus deaths.

Do the math and you can see South Korea is pretty much kicking our ass when it comes to preventing COVID-19 deaths.

Maybe that’s because South Korea has taken testing and tracing seriously, while here in the United States the Trump Administration can’t agree whether testing is all that important or whether or not the president should wear a face mask when he goes out to breathe on the public.

As other countries have shown, it is possible to handle this pandemic way better than we’ve handled it so far.

Which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that if you really want to watch some live baseball this week, ESPN is showing the Samsung Lions take on the Lotte Giants at 4:25 AM on Tuesday.

Stay safe, everybody.

The 2015 Royals and the lesson baseball hasn’t learned

Baseball doesn't have to be boring...

Last night I watched a replay of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series and was happy to see the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets again.

I was at that game, stuck in a Citi Field dining club out in left field which is where they put the extra media people not considered important enough to rate a seat in the regular press box. Despite my lousy vantage point, someone else paid for the trip so I was damn glad to be there.

We had TV monitors nearby, but the sound was turned down so I never got to hear what the TV guys – Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci – were saying about the game I was watching.

Four-and-a-half years later I finally did, and at one point I heard Harold Reynolds say he hoped the rest of baseball was paying attention to how the Royals were winning baseball games.

Here’s why Harold said that.

The influence of Moneyball

In 2003 the Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game was published and it helped change the way people looked at the game.

Here’s the short version: the book focused on the Oakland Athletics and a bunch of smart guys who crunched the numbers and decided a lot of what baseball teams had been doing for decades was dumb and there was a better, more efficient way to play the game.

In their view, defense didn’t matter all that much and stealing bases, hit and runs and sacrifice bunts were stupid because they risked outs. What really mattered were walks and home runs because that’s the best way to score a lot of runs.

A lot of fans bought into the Moneyball philosophy and wanted to know why their teams were still playing baseball like a bunch of dinosaurs when the smart guys had shown a better way to play the game.

No team wanted to look behind the times, so they started hiring number guys and forming analytics departments to advise them how play the game more efficiently.

And it seems those numbers guys were all dispensing similar advice.

So a lot of teams began to play the same kind of baseball; work walks, swing for the fences, don’t worry about striking out and don’t take any chances running the bases.

It might be boring as hell because there were fewer balls in play and a game might take four hours – you could conceive and have a child in the time it took the Yankees and Red Sox to play nine innings – but what difference did it make if you won?

Good question and it brings us to the Oakland Athletics’ lack of success in the postseason.

If you watched the movie version of Moneyball they made a winning streak the emotional climax of the film because they couldn’t show you the A’s winning the World Series. Generally speaking, those Moneyball A’s ran into trouble in the playoffs and most baseball people think there’s a pretty good reason for that.

Let’s say your style of play – working walks and hitting home runs – will win you 90-to-100 games during the 162-game regular season. Awesome, but now you’re in the playoffs and you no longer need to win 90-to-100 games out of 162; you might need to win three out of five, four out of seven or – if you face elimination – this game, right now tonight.

But the mediocre pitching staffs most likely to give up walks and home runs – the stuff you thrive on – have been eliminated from postseason play. Now you might be facing an ace and walks and home runs might be hard to come by.

When you’re facing a pitcher who’s dealing, you need to be able to advance runners 90 feet with tactics like the stolen base, the sac bunt and the hit and run; all that stuff you thought was dumb and didn’t work on during the regular season.

Waiting for a three-run homer that never shows up is a good way to go home early.

The value of athleticism

Once the Moneyball philosophy kicked in, almost everybody was interested in players who walked and hit home runs.

But a front office executive once said that most people missed the true message of Moneyball; it wasn’t that walks and home runs were good, it was that undervalued players were good and the Royals thought athleticism was undervalued.

Kansas City couldn’t adopt the Moneyball philosophy because they played in a park the size of the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to hit home runs in Kauffman Stadium and if pitchers aren’t afraid you’re going to take them deep, they’re more likely to be aggressive and less likely to issue walks.

Moneyball dismissed the importance of defense; the Kansas City Royals were forced to value it. With an outfield big enough to land a B-52, they wanted three outfielders with centerfield-type range.

So while other teams were willing to play guys with all the range of a fence post – as long as those fence posts could hit home runs – the Royals valued athleticism. And with defensive athleticism, the Royals also got speed on the base paths and good hand-eye coordination, which made those players tough to strike out.

Because the Royals didn’t walk much or hit many home runs – didn’t play the game the way the smart guys had said it should be played – critics said their appearance in the 2014 World Series was a fluke.

And then the 2015 Royals showed it wasn’t.

The 2015 World Series

What a lot of Moneyball advocates failed to grasp is that scoring runs is not the point of the game; the point of the game is scoring more runs than your opponent. If you score nine runs it won’t matter if your opponent scores 10.

As the old-school baseball guys say, there are two sides to the ball. You can put runs on the board or keep runs off the board and either one helps you win ball games.

Everybody who was paying attention back then knows about their outstanding bullpen, but re-watching the Royals 2015 postseason games it’s amazing how many times they kept runs off the board with outstanding defensive plays.

It also became clear the Mets were paying a price for putting mediocre defenders on the field.

Ignoring the swing-for-the-fences philosophy, the Royals thought they could win the Series if they kept putting the ball in play and hit it on the ground. They believed the Mets infield couldn’t handle the pressure and the Royals turned out to be right.

In the ninth inning of the deciding Game 5 the Royals scored two runs to tie the game on a walk, a stolen base, a double, two groundouts and some aggressive base running by Eric Hosmer.

The Mets couldn’t handle the pressure and the Royals won Game 5 in extra innings.

Why more teams haven’t copied the Royals blueprint

Watching the 2015 Royals reminds you how fun and exciting baseball can be when everyone doesn’t stand around waiting for somebody to hit a homerun. But four-and-a-half years later, teams haven’t exactly lined up to emulate the Royals style of play.

(The Washington Nationals just won a World Series playing a more traditional style of ball and it would have been interesting to see if their success got more teams to try that approach, but I guess we’ll have to wait until the Black Plague is over to find out.)

So why haven’t more teams copied the Royals blueprint?

Now we’re getting into theories and lucky for you I’ve got plenty to spare.

A first-round draft pick will get every opportunity to succeed because so many people in an organization have something to lose if he doesn’t. So if a team has staked its future on a Moneyball style of play, it’s hard to admit maybe it’s not working for them and they should try something else.

Which seems to contradict the main theory behind the Moneyball movement.

The whole thing started because some smart guys questioned what everybody else was doing; just because everybody was doing the same thing and had done it that way for decades didn’t make it right and it was time to think outside the box.

But now those out-of-the-box thinkers seem to be trapped in a new box of their own making.

These days it seems like pretty much every team is trying to walk and hit home runs because that’s the way almost everybody else is now playing the game. The old status quo has been replaced by a new one.

Despite the 2015 Royals success, home runs and strikeouts have continued to go up, stolen bases and sacrifice bunts have continued to go down and games take longer to play than they ever before.

Almost five years after the Royals won the World Series and Harold Reynolds hoped the rest of baseball was paying attention, the rest of baseball – with a few exceptions – doesn’t seemed to have learned a lesson.

And now I get to watch a replay of another event I attended in person; the Royals World Series Victory Parade.

It’s a gamble

Why I hope Donald Trump is right...

Time has shown that mankind – and womankind for that matter – has certain needs; food, shelter and every once in a while, the chance to say “I told you so.” People seem to find it deeply satisfying to be able to point out that you were wrong, they were right and you should have listened to them.

This is not one of those times.

I believe I’ve made it abundantly clear that I think Donald Trump is a bad president that has made a lot of bad decisions and reopening the economy because he wants to get reelected is on the list.

But in this case, I hope Donald Trump is right and I’m wrong.

If I’m treading ice water, I don’t know how much satisfaction I’d derive from getting the chance to tell the captain of the Titanic, “See? I told you we were going too fast.”

As I point out in the cartoon above, Donald Trump is gambling everything on reopening and while I don’t want to see him reelected, I also don’t want to see a bunch of people get sick so I can say, “I told you so.”

So whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, let’s all hope we miss the damn iceberg.

Stay safe, everybody.


Baseball and social distancing

Is it possible to bring back baseball and observe social distancing at the same time?

Recently, I wrote about the economy opening up and people being told what businesses were doing to keep them safe, but pointed out Major League Baseball still wanted their players to observe social distancing.

In order to get baseball going again MLB has made a proposal that includes things like avoiding restaurants and fitness centers and holding team meetings outside.

Today let’s focus on the parts of the MLB proposal that would affect how the game is played on the field…and we’ll start with a big one.

No spitting

People who aren’t around baseball make fun of players spitting and scratching, but there are good reasons for both.

Baseball can get really boring even for the guys who play it and one of the ways to stay alert is to chew tobacco. Obviously, it’s got hideous side effects and is a horrible habit, but it does give you a buzz so at some point a young ballplayer might decide to try it because a lot of the veterans are doing it and unfortunately the young ballplayer might get hooked.

(I tried it, started sweating like O.J. waiting for a verdict, felt like I swallowed an inner tube and figured it was my body trying to tell me something…like quit chewing tobacco.)

Baseball has a bad history with tobacco so they’ve tried to minimize its visible presence in the dugout and clubhouse, but a lot of guys still do it and if you chew tobacco you are going to spit.

No idea how they’re going to enforce this one.

BTW: There might be exceptions, but generally speaking what you see is not players “scratching” their crotch – it’s players adjusting their protective cups which are uncomfortable as hell. That’s why some players choose not to wear one which in my mind is like playing Russian Roulette with your testicles.

If they get baseball going again you can now add this to your viewing pleasure: when you see a pitcher deliver a pitch and finish sideways to home plate, there’s a chance that guy isn’t wearing a cup and wants to make sure a line drive back to the mound doesn’t make him a candidate for singing soprano in the Vienna Boys Choir.  

Base coaches should not approach base runners

In between pitches the third base coach gives a complicated series of signs while a runner on first base watches and the truth is some of those runners don’t know their own team’s signs. (You gotta give the Houston Astros just a little credit for being sharp enough to steal somebody else’s signs.)

It’s not the only reason it happens, but one of the reasons you see coaches lean in and whisper in a runner’s ear is to let him know what all those signs meant.

So now the players will actually have to learn the signs or (much more likely) the base coaches will have to come up with a simplified method of making sure their runners know what the hell is going on. If you see a coach blowing on a dog whistle, don’t be surprised.

When a pitch is being delivered, fielders should stay away from runners

Obviously, a first baseman is going to be close to a runner and doesn’t have much choice about it, but what about the other infielders?

When a runner makes it to second base the responsibility for keeping him close to the bag falls on the middle infielders and they do that by making moves toward second base, which forces the runner to shorten his lead so he doesn’t get picked off.

And once in a while a middle infielder will go all the way to the bag and the pitcher or catcher will attempt a pickoff and at that point the runner and infielder are on top of each other.

But if runners know middle infielders won’t get close enough to attempt a pickoff, you’re going to see some gigantic leads which is going to make it hard for a catcher to throw anybody out and when there is a throw an infielder can’t tag a runner and stay six feet away at the same time.    

And what about home plate?

If MLB wants people to maintain social distancing it’s going to be hard to keep a batter, a catcher and umpire six feet apart.

Umpires like to get close to the catcher and lots of them put a hand on the catcher’s back so they know where he is at all times. Catchers like to set their target late so a batter can’t peek back and see they’ve moved from the inside corner to the outside corner. Since catchers are the main thing between a 98-mph fastball and an umpire’s chest, when the catcher moves, the umpires want to feel them move and move with them.

Once again, no idea how they’ll fix that.

OK, one more and then we’ll wrap this thing up.

The next day’s starting pitcher can’t sit in the dugout

The next day’s starting pitcher is usually being saved for tomorrow which makes him the least likely guy to get used in today’s game, so MLB is saying why have him in the dugout.

But good ball players are always watching and talking and getting smarter and the next day’s starting pitcher should be locked in to what the other team is doing and talking about it with his pitching coach and teammates and figuring out what he’ll do in tomorrow’s game.

If he’s not in the dugout he can’t do that.

It’s also considered bad form for a pitcher to sit up in the air-conditioned clubhouse and eat popsicles while his teammates are out in the heat sweating their asses off and trying to win a ballgame.

And here’s one you’ve probably never thought about: an umpire once admitted that when a dugout was riding him and he wanted to shut them up, he’d go over to their bench and eject a starting pitcher who wasn’t going to be used in the game.

That way the umpire sent a message to everybody – I’ve had enough – and didn’t affect the game by taking away a reliever or position player the manager might need.

Worker safety versus money

MLB is desperate to get some kind of season going and generate some income, but if they play baseball under their proposed rules it’s going to be a very weird brand of baseball. Fair enough, I’m desperate to watch any kind of ballgame and it’ll be interesting to see how some of these issues work out.

But if they have to do all this stuff to keep players safe, should they still be trying to play a game?

On the other hand, when it comes to worker safety or money we know what the free market tends to value so if MLB can get the players to go along with their proposal, expect to see some baseball right up until some player gets sick and they have to shut the whole thing back down.

And if that happens, it will make me so mad I could spit.

As long as the rules allow it.


An actual, true story about baseball

Reality is way more interesting than the stuff we make up…

I read a lot so when social distancing shut down our local library I had a problem; I no longer had access to an endless supply of books. So I started looking at the books I’d stashed away on some shelf, thinking someday I’d get around to reading them and now seemed like a pretty good time to give them a try.

One of the books was about baseball and three pages in I had a head-on collision with this paragraph from writer Thomas Wolfe:

“One reason I have always loved baseball is that it has not been merely ‘the great national game’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America. For example, in the memory of almost every one of us, is there anything that can evoke spring – the first fine days of April – better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide; for me…almost everything I know about spring is in it—the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the smell of grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April.”

This is the kind of baseball writing that makes baseball players think writers are idiots.

Some literary type who probably hasn’t spent all that much time around the game or the people who play it decides to romanticize baseball and the results are usually pretty bad. And the shame of all the poetic crap being written about baseball and sports in general is it ignores reality and reality is way more interesting.

To make my point, here’s an actual, true story about baseball.

The incident

One night I was watching a ballgame on TV and the pitcher for the home team was clearly trying to hit a batter on the visiting team, but not having much success. And instead of looking angry or charging the mound, the batter looked disgusted.

Eventually, after a couple of attempts, the batter got hit by a pitch and took his base.

The next day, the first batter the home team sent to the plate also got hit by a pitch, but it was a curveball.

I thought both incidents were odd and here’s why:

When a pitcher intentionally tries to hit a batter, the batter usually gets pissed off, not disgusted. And when a pitcher wants to retaliate for one of his batters getting hit, he does it with a fastball, not a curve, because getting hit with a fastball hurts more.

I knew a couple people involved, got the behind-the-scenes story and here it is — names have been deleted to protect the guilty.

A baseball insult

If you don’t like profanity in general or the word I’m about to use in particular, my apologies, but to understand the situation you’ve got to hear what set it off. And if you want to hear the truth, the truth is there’s a lot of profanity in baseball.

So strap on your helmet and away we go…

The pitcher and the batter in the initial incident had been teammates in the past and at some point the batter called the pitcher a “pussy” and said the pitcher was afraid to throw his fastball.

I’m guessing the vaginal insult takes no explaining, but the fastball insult does.

There’s a macho thing in baseball that a pitcher with guts isn’t afraid to throw his fastball in a fastball count. Fastball counts are counts where the pitcher needs to throw a strike and because a fastball is relatively straight and easier to control, the fastball is the most likely pitch to be thrown. Think 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and depending on the situation, 3-2.

The only problem with throwing a fastball in a fastball count is hitters suspect it’s coming and gear up to hit it.

For example: in 2019 the Kansas City Royals hit .247 as a team and if you’re thinking that’s not so hot you’re right, 17 teams had a better batting average.

But in 2-0 counts the Royals hit .379, in 2-1 counts it was .352 and in 3-1 counts it was .371. Put the not-so-hot Royals in a fastball count and they hit like they were headed to Cooperstown.

So knowing hitters look for fastballs in fastball counts, smart pitchers might throw something else and when a hitter thinks he’s swinging at a 95-mph fastball and gets an 84-mph curve instead, he can look pretty goofy trying to hit it.

If you watch much baseball you’ve seen hitters strike out and glare back at the pitcher as they head to the dugout. Some of those hitters might be telling the pitcher he should quit being that word some of you don’t like and have the guts to challenge hitters with a fastball in a fastball count.

Which seems about as logical as me saying if I throw a punch at you, you should have the guts not to duck.

Whatever you think of the language and logic, bottom line: the batter on the visiting team had insulted the pitcher on the home team.

Pistols at 10 paces or a fastball in the ribs

At some point the pitcher heard what the batter had said about him and asked the batter why he called him a pussy and said he was afraid to throw his fastball.

The batter said because you are a pussy and you are afraid to throw your fastball.

The pitcher said that’s it; I’m hitting you when you come to the plate tonight.

The batter said OK, but not in the head.

I cannot tell you just how much I love this exchange.

The batter insulted the pitcher, had the guts to repeat the insult to the pitcher’s face and when the pitcher said he was going to hit the batter to avenge the insult, the batter accepted his punishment, but reminded the pitcher not to hit him in the head.

Is baseball great or what?

What happened next

So that night when the pitcher tried to hit the batter and missed, it explains why the batter looked disgusted. The look said: See? You can’t even do this right.

Now let’s skip ahead to the next day.

The batter on the visiting team had been hit, but since the pitcher screwed up and made it obvious he was trying to hit the batter, now a batter on the home team needed to get hit in retaliation.

Here’s the logic.

You can’t have one of your guys hit on purpose and not do anything about it or the rest of the league sees it and then it’s open season on your batters. Throw inside and intimidate those batters so they won’t lean out and hit pitches on the outside corner; their pitchers won’t retaliate.

So to send the message that the pitchers on the visiting team would protect their teammates, some batter on the home team needed to get hit to even things up.

What the visiting-team pitcher did the next day was a brilliant piece of diplomacy; he hit the home team’s first batter, but hit him with a curveball.

That curveball was actually a peace offering.

By hitting the leadoff batter with a curveball (a pitch much slower than a fastball) the pitcher was fulfilling his duty to retaliate, but making it clear he didn’t want to hurt anybody and the feud should be over.

Which it was.

If you pay attention and know what to look for, our National Pastime has more subplots than a daytime soap opera. The way a runner slides, the way an infielder makes a tag and the way an outfielder catches a fly ball tell their own story and it’s a big part of why I love baseball.

And it doesn’t have jackshit to do with jonquils.

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