Baseball Has No Love For Truth-Tellers

Mike_Fiers_on_April_7 _2016By Arturo Pardavila III on Flickr (Original version)UCinternational (Crop) - Originally posted to Flickr as "Mike Fiers pitches vs. Yankees"Cropped by UCinternational, CC BY 2.0, Link
 
By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Before her lame sorry, not sorry yesterday afternoon, Jessica Mendoza expressed loud and clear what pretty much everybody in baseball was saying under their breath about Mike Fiers, the former Astro who spilled the beans on his old organization to the Athletic last November: that irrespective of the truth of his allegation, it was the act of speaking out, of exposing the truth, that was the real sin.  For baseball has no love for truth-tellers.  They’re rats, turncoats, lowlifes, for violating the omerta of the clubhouse.  If baseball has a problem -- and yes, of course it does -- it’s not so much this sign-stealing incident, which will percolate through the next few months and then go the way of the steroid crisis.  Instead, it’s the persistent belief that there is something sacred about a Major League clubhouse.  That misguided assumption has been dragging baseball down for decades and shows no sign of letting up.

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‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (FRUSTRATED PHILLIES FAN EDITION)

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

‘Twas the night before Christmas and throughout CBP

No one was happy, least of all Girardi

The winter meetings took place just a few days before,

Where they won a few battles but just lost the war.

 

For while Didi was fine and Wheeler some aid,

Neither portended a postseason parade.

But Klentak closed shut his laptop, content to fall short,

Saying: “I’ll deal with it later, when pitchers and catchers report.”

 

When out on Ashburn Alley there arose such a clatter,

It rose Andy McPhail and all the front office waste matter.

Away to the window they flew like a flash,

Along with the owner, who tripped over his cash.

 

When what to their wondering eyes did appear,

But two Cole’s – Hamels and Gerrit -- not elsewhere but here!

And with the two pitchers were John Boggs and Scott Boras,

Agents floating about them like heavenly auras.

 

More rapid than eagles their suitors they came,

When they last pursed their lips and whistled their name:

Now Yankees, Now Dodgers, Now DC and Atlanta,

Who will pay our fair lads; become their baseball Santa?

 

The owner sighed deeply, his face wore a frown,

For the pitchers signed elsewhere and not for his town.

Aha, not so quick! Said Boras with glee,

If you promise us more, we’ll void those deals, you’ll see!

 

The owner whipped out his checkbook, thrilled at his luck,

Even though he knew well this would cost plenty a’buck.

Not so fast! so spoke Klentak, holding high his spray chart,

This Cole’s too expensive, that one’s an old fart.

 

But Gerrit's a winner, said the owner, and Hamels touches our hearts,

They’ll at least keep fans’ interest 'till training camp starts.

Humbug! Sneered Klentak, as he did not care,

"For we’ll beat out the Marlins; we don’t need this pair."

 

"Besides, we’ve got Nola, and we’ll put Kingery at third,

We’ll figure a way to polish this turd.

And what of Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin?

Our bunch is better than this kid and that has-been."

 

McPhail then piped up, swearing that he knew best,

Though it had been many decades since he’d known success.

Their twin Cole offer, he said, was both nutty and crazy,

"Besides, we’ve got two Adams -- both Morgan and Haseley."

 

So the owner said Pass! to Boggs and to Boras,

Who put their Coles back in their stockings and then tipped their fedoras.

"You’ll rue this cold evening when you had the chance,

To make your club better, to help it advance."

 

But the brass didn’t think so, for they were swimming in dough,

It just didn’t matter if they finished high or real low.

For fans bought Harper jerseys, bad food and their merch,

As if tithing to them, as if CBP were a church.

 

So as they sprang to their sleigh and gave their team a whistle,

The Coles and their agents saw Girardi shiver and bristle.

And to him they exclaimed as they drove out of sight:

Get out while you can -- call back MLB Tonight!


NOW THAT MILLER’S IN, WHAT ABOUT ALLEN?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

After what seems like an eternity, the wrong has been righted – Marvin Miller is going to the Hall of Fame.  Yes, it will be against his wishes, and it appears as if nobody in his family (Miller died in 2012) will be attending his induction ceremony (again, as per his wishes), but whatever.  A baseball hall of fame without Marvin Miller is like a Popeyes chicken sandwich without hot sauce.  There’s no zing, no zip, nothing to tingle the lips coming in and burn the throat going down.  So much of what gave baseball its style, its flash, its zesty palatability, in the last half-century lies at the feet of Miller in one way or another – free agency, offseason excitement, competitive balance: all of it is at least partially because of Marvin Miller.  So that’s great.

But what comes next?  After all, Miller didn’t achieve any of this on his own.  Nor could he, not even in the best of circumstances.  For Miller was an outsider’s outsider in the world of the baseball clubhouse – a Jew from Flatbush with a pencil mustache that recalled William, rather than Boog, Powell, everything about him screamed “interloper” the moment he walked into his first clubhouse as Executive Director of the MLBPA in 1966.  He desperately needed help from the inside in order to get anything done.  And he got it.  From a few unlikely sources, one of them perhaps unintentionally, but crucial help nevertheless.

There were three players who bridged the seemingly cavernous gap between Marvin Miller and the hundreds of players he needed to convince to stand up for themselves in order to transform the MLBPA from a backwater organization to the most powerful union not only in sports but in the entire country.  Those three were Jim Bouton, Curt Flood, and most unlikely of all, Dick Allen

Bouton was an insider who thought like an outsider.  An agitator kicking from within the penthouse – Yankee Stadium – nudging and questioning not only Yankee management but the entire power structure of major league baseball.  Why were the players constantly told to keep mum about their salaries when the clubs would trumpet the few large ones as loudly as possible, thereby giving the public the (false) impression that if a player like Mickey Mantle was making $100,000, a guy half as good was probably making at least half as much?  All the players knew that that guy was making no more than ten grand, if that, but they were all but sworn to secrecy by the salary omerta inaugurated decades earlier by the owners for the sole benefit of the owners.  Bouton broke that silence and allowed the players to find their voice.  Miller would teach them to yell but Bouton first taught them to whisper.

Flood was a man who refused to be treated like anything less.  “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” he wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on December 24, 1969, upon his trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies (For Dick Allen, of all people).  He later filed suit against Kuhn and the owners, seeking to overturn the game’s antitrust exemption.  He took both his case and his cause all the way to the Supreme Court where he eventually lost, but the sheer force of his standing up for what he knew to be right led others to find their spines as well.  Miller would lead them into free agency but Flood first showed them how to walk.

And then there was Dick Allen.  Flood’s line to Kuhn about not being a piece of property?  Essentially cribbed from Allen, who said the same thing a year earlier.  “They treat us like guinea pigs,” he told The Daily News’s Stan Hochman during spring training 1968. “They tell a guy, ‘Run into that wall.’  If he does and gets hurt, they look for someone else.”  When everyone around him was clamming up Allen was speaking out, telling anybody who’d listen that the players were being treated like property and not people.  It wasn’t right, he said, over and over.  And he wasn't going to sit around and take it.

The players might not have joined in but they were listening.  One who was listening most intently was none other than Jim Bouton, who was taking Allen’s daily struggles with Phillies management in from afar, wondering what was going on.  “This might just be a man trying to be one around people who expect something less and used to something less,” Bouton scribbled about Allen on one of the 978 sheets of scrap paper that formed the bones of what would become his landmark book, Ball Four, which subverted the game’s power structure once and for all, showing not only fans but his fellow players that the men who played the game were worth far more than the minuscule numbers on their paychecks. 018

Unlike Bouton and Flood, Allen never professed a social cause for his actions.  He had no larger agenda.  He simply demanded to be treated like a professional, no matter that he was playing a boys’ game.  His field of vision might never have extended beyond the tip of his nose but his example was there for all to see.  I will not be paid less than I’m worth.  I will not be called “Richie” when my name is Dick.  I will not do the club’s bidding unless I’m part of the decision-making process and properly compensated for my time.  Sadly, almost nobody spoke up for him.  But soon they were demanding to be treated as professionals, too. 

Miller would have been organizationally impotent without Bouton, Flood and, most of all, Allen.  Miller spoke the words, Bouton spoke the words, Flood spoke the words.  Dick Allen, however, lived them.  And it was because he lived them and told his story the way only he could that the MLBPA grew as powerful as it did.  It was Allen’s speaking up about his treatment in Philadelphia, after all, that led Flood to refuse to consent to his trade there in the first place.

You can argue Dick Allen’s numbers.  You can argue that his career wasn’t long enough or that he didn’t hit enough home runs or that his defense wasn’t Hall of Fame-caliber.  But you cannot argue that his off-field issues and controversies (and there were plenty of them) make him a lesser candidate.  Not after Marvin Miller’s enshrinement you can’t.  Not if you understand anything about what it was like to be not just a ballplayer but a black ballplayer in the America of the 1960s.  Not if you know anything about either baseball or American society.

Congratulations to Marvin Miller, even though this was about the last thing he was looking for.  Now it’s time to do right by Dick Allen and enshrine him next year when he becomes eligible for induction once again.  Like Miller, Allen's just about had it with the sanctimonious crowd who enjoy nothing more than lecturing on the many ways he's ruined the game, and isn't sitting at home waiting for the honor.  Regardless, he just might show up if elected despite everything he’s said about both the Hall and the sanctimonious crowd to the contrary.  And his would no doubt be a speech for the ages. 


Phillies, Flyers Court Fans Who Couldn't Care Less About the Phillies or Flyers

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Seeking to capitalize on the growing number of fans not in any way interested in actually watching professional sports, executives of both the Phillies and Flyers have recently undertaken bold initiatives to tap into this burgeoning market.

“We recognize that along with those fans who actively dislike our club and boo vociferously,” an unnamed Phillies executive said recently⃰ who requested anonymity lest he be relieved of his duties for stating the obvious, “there exists a larger demographic that actually prefers not engaging with us at all.”  The Phillies are one of a growing number of MLB clubs seeking to engage these non-engagers by providing a game-day experience designed to enable them to completely forget the fact that they’re not only at a major league stadium but in fact paid good money to be there.  “We try to do whatever we can to make an evening with us feel like an evening without us.  If we’ve done our job, the only time a fan realizes he’s at a Phillies game is when he is swiping his debit card.” 

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Book Review: May 17, 1979 -- When the Phillies, the Cubs, and the Wind All Blew

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Kevin Cook watched a four-decade-old baseball game on the internet and decided to write 253 pages about it.  Or at least that’s how it feels.  Although his book is officially titled “Ten Innings at Wrigley,” the first two-thirds of it screams, more appropriately: “Three Hours on YouTube.”  For Cook’s book is, frustratingly, largely as advertised: a summary of every at-bat that occurred during each half of the ten innings played between the Phillies and the Cubs that long ago afternoon.  No exceptions. 

At least Cook chose an interesting game.  The May 17, 1979 game between the Phillies and Cubs ended 23-22 in favor of the powder blues, with home runs rocketing over the ivy with abandon.  It was a fun game to watch.  I should know – I watched it in real time as it was happening.  Or at least all but the first few innings of it, as I didn’t get home from school until after the Phils had staked the seemingly insurmountable lead the Cubs would then proceed to surmount.  Regardless, it was a fun game.  The wind was blowing out, the sun was shining, and everybody was hitting.  Pete Rose, my new favorite player (having been signed away from the hated Reds the previous offseason), had three hits, Larry Bowa had five, and the Phils seemed primed to run away with the National League East once again, their fourth divisional title in succession.  For the ’79 Phillies that May, everything seemed to be coming up, well, roses.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course.  The May 17th game would be one of the last highlights of the season for the Phillies, as injuries and, probably more damaging, overall locker room grumpiness, doomed them to a fourth-place finish when all was said and done.  The Cubs, being the Cubs, could boast of even fewer highlights in 1979; they were on their way to another season in the wilderness and everybody knew it.  When the wind was blowing the right way at Wrigley, though, even they could be counted on to provide some thrills.  And on this day, it was and they did. 

Cook takes the reader through every at-bat in every inning, chronicling the Phils’ large early lead and the Cubs’ comeback.  They’d eventually tie the game at 22 before losing, of course, in the 10th on, what else, a Mike Schmidt home run.  If you’re a Phillies fan of certain vintage, you’ll probably enjoy the name drops sprinkled through the text such as Randy Lerch, Ron Reed and – wow! -- Rudy Meoli.  (If this isn’t the first time you’ve thought of Rudy Meoli in decades, you’re most likely a Meoli.)  And older Cubs fans will most likely chuckle upon encountering such long-forgotten names as Larry Biitner and Mick Kelleher.  Fans of both clubs might even do what I did – open their laptops and bring up the game itself to take in a few innings and bask in the analog nostalgia.

Which highlights a major problem with the concept of the book.  With the game itself so easily accessible, it’s unclear why anybody needs such a detailed summary of it on paper.  More problematic, those watching the game on YouTube will probably do what they’re likely to do when reading the book – stay for a few innings and then tune out.  It was just an early season game between two teams going nowhere, after all.  Not all that much to get excited about. 

I’m going to assume that Cook was not responsible for the book’s subtitle: "The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink," but it does him no favors.  Marrying the game to the idea that baseball was on the brink brings with it an expectation that at some point the larger historical significance of the game will be broached.  To his credit, Cook doesn’t go there, perhaps realizing that the game, itself, doesn’t have any.  It was just a game, after all.  A fun game, yes, but that’s about as far as it went or can possibly go.  Was baseball “on the brink” as the subtitle suggests?  Perhaps, but on the brink of what, exactly?  Cook never says and it’s not clear how this game contributed to anything more than an enjoyable afternoon for those like me who were lucky enough to have watched it. 

The book’s final hundred pages do go a bit beyond the game that afternoon, discussing in clipped fashion the 1980 Phillies, Dave Kingman, Bill Buckner and Cubs reliever Donnie Moore, whose postscript was nothing short of ugly and tragic.  These tales are interesting but have been told before, mostly in deeper dives than Cook attempts here. 

The one exception of note is Cook’s telling of the feud between Kingman and Buckner, which hasn’t received as much ink as it probably should.  As well, the hypothesis that Kingman, of all people, and as retrograde as he could be personality-wise, might actually have been a primitive version of the modern day power hitter, (a “three true outcome” hitter if ever there was one back in the ‘70s) is a fascinating one.  So, too, is the notion of the contact-hitting Buckner as, in retrospect, a portrait of the type of hitter soon to go out of fashion.  As Cook teases here and there throughout the book, Kingman represented the future of baseball and Buckner the past, and the two players hated each other largely because neither could understand the other’s approach to the game.  A study of this relationship would be fascinating.  Fingers crossed that one day we’ll get one.

Until then we have this.  Enjoyable enough on its own terms but, like the game it describes, once it’s over you’ll wonder what it was all about in the larger scheme of things.

Kevin Cook, Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball on the Brink.  New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2019.  253 pp.  Cloth, $28.00. (This review, along with numerous reviews of baseball books, will be featured in an upcoming issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture)


WE’RE ALL MANAGEMENT NOW

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

When I was six I got a Strat-O-Matic baseball game for my birthday.  This was 1972 and, my luck, the one I received came with a starter set of 1971 Expos cards.  Imagine the fevered delight of any six-year-old when he discovers he’ll have the thrill of managing from his basement the likes of Boots Day and John Boccabella for the foreseeable future. 

I can’t remember who the other team was that accompanied the Montreal cards; all I can recall is sitting in my basement watching these Expos strike out, pop out, and ground out with stunning alacrity.  In the real world, the Phillies were sending to the plate the likes of Denny Doyle, John Bateman, and Roger Freed so from where I sat, my Strat-O-Matic experience was alarmingly true-to-life.  This was baseball, I thought.  Real baseball.  And I was not merely playing it but orchestrating it.

Just as in real baseball, Strat-O-Matic offered insight if you took the time to look hard enough.  Those ’71 Expos were terrible but the more I played the more I saw the value of a player like Ron Fairly.  Rusty Staub was the unquestioned star of that club but Fairly’s card was fantastic; he seemed to get on base all the time and was maybe the toughest out in their lineup.  Ron Hunt was another player I learned to appreciate through his Strat-O-Matic card.  Soon I was batting them first and second every game even though the real-world Expos not only moved them around the order but sometimes didn’t play them at all.  Idiots, I’d say to myself.  I know better.

Strat-O-Matic begat Statis-Pro Baseball (where I discovered the deceptive magic of Paul O’Neill years before the Yankees would), which begat Rotisserie Baseball, which begat the sabermetric boom that we’re presently in the midst of.  In the process we’re all more in the know now than we have ever been before.  In short, we’re all management now, or at least we think we are. 

In the old days, when ballclubs traveled by train and sportswriters wrote breathlessly about them, we like to think that players were mythologized beyond belief – “godded-up” as critics of that era describe how they were written about.  And they were.  But along with that came a perspective that was clearly in management’s camp.  The writers of that era were working on the owners’ dole and weren’t about to do anything to screw that up.  So fans were offered a sweetened-up version of the game; one that gave them their heroes but also beat home the idea that these heroes were lucky to be there and ought not to rock the boat.  Fans, seeing the game through the eyes of management as conveyed to them by the sportswriters they read every morning, understood this implicitly.  In the process, the Yankees won seemingly every year, a few other teams tried, most didn’t, but everybody ended up comfortably in the black each October.

That perspective starting changing in the ‘60s, such that by the ‘70s and ‘80s fans were identifying more with the players than the people who paid them.  The owners were exploiting them no matter how much money this one or that one made, the players were the game, and the best ones were worth whatever it cost, were the budding narratives.  It’s no surprise that as this mindset emerged, the Players Association grew stronger and more powerful.  And in the process, baseball became more competitive.  Heroes may have become passé but stars ruled and in this star-laden era, a wider swath of clubs participated in a World Series than ever before.  And along the way clubs made more money than ever, although they were forced to spend more in order to do so.

Games like Strat-O-Matic and Statis Pro pushed back against the rising player-centered narrative, albeit inadvertently.  And fantasy baseball and sabermetrics crushed it into the dirt.  Today we’re back, if not quite where we started – baseball gods reside only in heaven nowadays – but pretty damn close.  Once again we see the game through management’s eyes, tinkering with our rosters here, looking for underappreciated value there, mixing this with that to see what might happen.  The players exist primarily as assets or liabilities; widgets of one sort or another, to be plugged in here or there, or nowhere if we might save a dollar or two in the process.

Which explains why players such as Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and Francisco Lindor are on the trading block right now.  All of these players are popular in their home cities, in the prime of their careers – 26 or 27 years of age – and on clubs seemingly built to contend next season.  Yet they very well might be moved.  Forty years ago fans in Boston, Chicago and Cleveland would be screaming bloody murder.  Today they calmly talk about “acquiring assets,” “cost certainty,” and “maintaining payroll flexibility” in giving management not merely a pass but a hearty pat on the back for reducing the likelihood that their hometown club will be able to compete for the postseason in 2020. 

Today’s fan not only sides with management, in his eyes he IS management. 

The brainwashing is nearly complete.  Baseball is not only run by bean counters; its most ardent supporters consider themselves kindred spirits.  To the astonishment of just about everybody, the accountants won.  Who knew they were even playing?

It would be one thing if there was solid evidence that the type of thinking now being sanctioned by armchair GM’s predictably worked, but for every club like the Astros (who, in any event, may very well have gotten where they are as much by old fashioned sign-stealing as new-age player development metrics) there are a large handful like the Pirates and Marlins, who sell and sell and sell while chanting breathlessly and vaguely about a future that each season seems to be another year further off on the horizon.  Now it’s not only the Have-Not’s who are doing the selling but the Have’s as well.  And still the armchair GM’s cheer.

The means have become the end.  For too many clubs the goal now is cost-control.  Achieve that and call the season a success irrespective of the results on the field.  To this, amazingly, the crowd roars. 

We’re all in our basements now, rolling the dice, flipping the cards, running the numbers.  The real games are on TV upstairs.  But the living room’s empty. 


"Sticking to Sports" is Not Just Wrong, It's Impossible

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

The demise of Deadspin has me thinking: who will be the Phillies’ fourth starter next season? 

Not really.  It has me wondering where I’ll go to get the snarky, biting, tough insight I always looked forward to every time I clicked on over to the site.  There are fewer and fewer options, it seems, for information and opinion from outside the protective bubble that is “Sportsworld.”  Sportsworld is a weird place.  Odd rules apply where some things are talked about incessantly while others aren’t spoken of at all.  The identity of the Phillies’ fourth starter is fair game in Sportsworld; pretty much anything having to do with the weird and insular world of John Middleton isn’t.  More weirdly, discussing the personal lives of athletes is usually kosher in Sportsworld, which makes identifying the boundaries of fair and foul play within the bubble particularly difficult.  In Sportsworld, cellphone videos of players behaving badly is considered journalism but the same writers who write breathlessly about recalcitrant wide receivers refer to club owners as “Mister” while putting away their note pads and taking their seat on the team plane. 

Which was where Deadspin came in.  Deadspin didn’t respect Sportsworld’s boundaries.  Everything was on the table over there.  Most of it, because it was a sports site after all, touched pretty heavily on sports but every once in a while something would be tangential or not even come within a football field of it.  No matter, Deadspin would post it if its editors deemed it newsworthy.  And that’s what made it great. 

Now it’s gone and we’re told that it’s gone because its editorial staff refused management’s mandate to “stick to sports.”  On the surface, “sticking to sports” might seem like a good idea for a website that, without question, revolved around sports, but it’s the looming presence of Sportsworld that makes such a pronouncement ridiculous and not a little bit insane.  Sticking to sports is why, until it was replaced in 2008, Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque didn’t contain any mention of the fact that he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  Sticking to sports is why people like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane are permitted to own franchises at all.  And, hey, sticking to sports is why there is still, in 2019, a professional sports team that goes by the name “Redskins.”

And let’s be real – even sticking to sports isn’t really sticking to sports.  In the midst of the Colin Kaepernick debate, public address announcers across Major League Baseball and other sports began instructing fans to not only stand for the National Anthem, but, if they were veterans, to salute as well.  Within the bubble of Sportsworld, such an instruction can very well be seen as politically neutral.  Outside of it, the mandate looks like something else altogether.  Sports talk radio likewise is “just sports” only if viewed from within the Sportsworld bubble.  Outside of it, listeners are subjected to a barrage of middle-aged white guys calling in to complain about Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens, Jimmy Rollins, Maikel Franco, Joel Embiid – take your pick -- not playing the game “the right way” according to the insular worldview of the pale demographic that apparently has Angelo Cataldi’s number on speed dial.  The suspicion that many of these same callers own red hats that don’t sport the Phillies logo isn’t one I can’t easily dismiss.  On the surface they’re talking about sports.  It’s the subtext that matters, though.  A subtext that can’t be broached if we’re all herded back into the “stick to sports” lane.

By the way, if we’re “sticking to sports,” how does Odubel Herrera’s personal life fit within that mandate?  Why should it matter what he did in Atlantic City to get himself suspended?  Shouldn’t we simply care that he’s out for the season and leave it at that?  Of course, it’s absurd to leave it at that.  More to the point, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to leave it at that.  Context matters.  And oftentimes, the context extends far beyond the foul lines.  Sportsworld would proclaim that, obviously, Herrara’s actions at the Golden Nugget last May are relevant and fair game, which makes sense.  But then, out of the other side of its mouth, it proclaims that Jim Crane's business dealings at Eagle Global Logistics – the company that provided him the wealth to purchase the Astros -- are out of bounds, which makes no sense at all.

In the end, sites like Deadspin didn’t have a chance.  The funhouse mirror that is Sportsworld always wins.  It has too much money, too much power, too much influence not to.  But it sure was exhilarating to watch these underdogs not only take on the champ but deliver more than a few staggering blows. 

R.I.P. Deadspin.  No matter what you thought of it, remember this: anything that pissed Dan Snyder off as much as Deadspin did couldn’t possibly have been bad.

 


If These Four are on the Phillies Managerial Radar, They Need a New Radar

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

If the rumors are true, then be afraid.

Be very afraid.

If the Phillies are, in fact, considering Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter and – are you kidding me? —Mike Scioscia to be their manager next year, it’s over.  Really, really, over.  Over.  Did I say it’s over? 

John Middleton dipped his toe in the analytics pool a couple of years ago and apparently felt the water to be a bit too chilly to his liking.  So he canned Gabe Kapler, neutered Matt Klentak, and, at least insofar as these four candidates suggest, decided to return to the soothing waters of the 1970s, where baseball managers spit and cursed, determined who would play by who they believed looked like a ballplayer, and -- like a blind man behind the wheel of a car -- navigated by feel.  Welcome to your 2020 Phillies.

Obviously, Kapler was a disaster as a manager and Klentak hasn’t proven himself deserving of much deference at least based on the decisions we can trace to him, so it’s not as if Middleton should be faulted for stepping in and trying to right the ship.  It’s just that these four managerial candidates, themselves, suggest that Middleton is itching to take his listing ship and submerge it completely, down into the icy depths where it’s going to take James Cameron to ever find it again.

I’m not sure Middleton understands this but analytics isn’t something one simply does or doesn’t do.  If the information is out there only a fool, or Larry Bowa, would ignore it.  The problem with the Klentak-era Phils thus far is that they haven’t been smart enough in understanding and implementing the massive amount of data that’s at their fingertips.  Data that the four teams still playing are utilizing brilliantly right now. 

For example, if one is determined, as Kapler was, to manage one’s pitching staff as though every game were the seventh game of the World Series, one’s staff better be deep enough to handle the amount of regular work the 11th and 12th men on the staff were inevitably going to get.  Klentak, however, didn’t provide Kapler with such a staff and what weapons he did provide soon wound up on the injured list, leaving Kapler with a bullpen that looked like something that would have trouble getting outs in Reading.  Still, Kapler entrusted game after game to the likes of Juan Nicasio, Ranger Suarez, and five other guys I’ve already forgotten.  That’s not using analytics, that’s being flat-out stupid.  So is throwing Vince Velasquez out there every fifth day in the futile hope that he’d magically transform into a pitcher who resembled somebody other than Vince Velasquez. And so is removing Aaron Nola in the fifth inning of a ballgame for no better reason than you think that a flowchart tells you to do so.

So blaming the last two years on “analytics,” pronouncing the entire affair a complete and utter failure, and ditching it altogether to consider a candidate such as Mike Scioscia, who takes to analytics the way boys take to showering after gym class, is a disservice to the way the game is being played -- quite successfully -- today.  Baker, Girardi and Showalter aren’t perhaps as allergic to the information out there today as is Scioscia but none of them appear to have much of a mind to take that information and put it to its best possible use.  In short, none of these four are a step forward.  And Scioscia is a plunge into the deep end. 

Kapler’s problem, and maybe Klentak’s as well, was that while he was amenable to the numbers, he didn’t appear to know what to do with them.  By themselves, numbers are just that -- numbers.  They don’t dictate anything.  It’s only a nimble mind that can determine how to make sense of them and use them to win actual baseball games.  Yes, the numbers show that batting averages today are typically higher the second and third time a starter goes through the order but what to make of that information is where the rubber meets the road.  Do those numbers mandate, as Kapler blithely assumed, that starting pitchers needed to be yanked ever earlier, thereby ensuring copious innings in crucial situations by the bottom rungs of his pitching staff – those players who spend their careers floating between the bigs and the minors?  Or might they suggest that the Aaron Nolas and Zach Eflins of the organization needed to work harder to vary their approaches early in games so they’d still have some surprises up their sleeves come the later innings?  One could look at these numbers in countless different ways.  One way would result in our seeing more of Nola and Eflin pitching in key spots in late innings; another would result in our seeing way too much of Suarez and Nicasio. 

As it turned out, Kapler wasn’t capable of the type of analytic thinking that might make the Phillies better.  Maybe Klentak isn’t either.  But this doesn’t mean that the answer is Mike Scioscia.  Or Dusty Baker.  Or Joe Girardi.  Or Buck Showalter. 

The only way out of the mess the Phillies find themselves in right now is by using their brains to find a manager who knows how to use his.  The Phillies need to think better, think different.  Sadly, it appears as if John Middleton has decided they're better off not thinking at all.

 


WHO KILLED SPORTS ILLUSTRATED? LOOK IN THE MIRROR

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

So the big question out there with regard to the recent dismantling of Sports Illustrated is What Does It All Mean?  Of course, if we’re looking at this thing cosmically, Deadspin’s Ray Ratto is, as per his usual, right on the nose: “The gutting of Sports Illustrated was pointless, needlessly cruel, stupid and thoroughly corporate. It is what we do now—from an agrarian society to an industrial one to an informational one and now to the strip-it-down-resealable-parts one. Hurray for progress! See you in hell!”

Hard to argue with that.  The downsizing of SI isn’t really all that different than the corporate downsizing of pretty much everything else we read about nearly every day.  It’s soul crushing and makes you question the tenets of capitalism, yes, but it’s not all that unusual.  Let’s face it – corporate America sucks. It’s a bottomless pit of greed, narcissism, short-sightedness, and stupidity.  And those are its better attributes.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I’m more interested in what the gutting of SI tells us, if anything, about how we watch, understand, and digest sports in the twenty-first century.  And here, I think, it tells us more about ourselves than we’d care to admit.

In order to understand why SI was ripped to shreds the other day, it’s important to understand why it was vulnerable to the soulless corporate sphincters in the first place.  And here’s where we see that, really, it was us – the American sports fans – who put the magazine in the position it found itself in the other day, not some black-hatted corporate raider.

In short, the corporate world didn’t kill SI, we did.

We did because we stopped caring so much about what it was that SI did every week.  Above all else, SI venerated the American athlete. Whether it was a snarky Frank Deford piece, a meditative Gary Smith piece, or something silly by Rick Reilly, SI was almost always about the athlete first and foremost. 

SI may have come along at a time – the mid-1950s -- when the old guard sports journalism was dying out, when those who “godded-up” the athletes they covered were giving way to those who wrote about them as human beings, but in its way, SI grabbed the mantle of the old guard, dusted it off, and carried through to the end of the twentieth century.  On the surface, a Deford piece might not have looked all that much like something Grantland Rice would have written decades earlier, but underneath they were cut from similar cloth.  Both Deford and Rice were in awe of the athletes they covered.  And that awe translated to the page.  After devouring your weekly helping of SI, you couldn’t help but see the athletes profiled within its pages as larger than before that week’s issue hit your mailbox.

By the late 1990s, however, we stopped caring so much about the athletes we were watching.  Rotisserie baseball and then fantasy football were starting to become a thing and countless numbers of us played one or the other or both.  And when we played them we cared less about the players themselves than about the number of points they’d earn us in a particular game.  Around the same time, sabermetrics started to take flight, allowing us to see the players yet again as amalgams of numbers rather than mythic gods or even everyday people we not only could relate to but care about.  What did it matter what Barry Bonds was like off the field when he could help us win our fantasy league?  And who cared how Bonds compared to players who came before him like Willie Mays or Ted Williams?  All that really mattered, metrically, was how he compared to others in the game right now. 

None of this happened overnight.  Rather, like a leaky faucet, this drip, drip, drip persisted for years until, by the day of SI’s dismantling, there was a pool of dirty water underneath the sink.  Of course it’s true that Deford passed away in 2017 and Gary Smith retired from sportswriting in 2013, but there’s no shortage of other writers who could conceivably fill their shoes, giving us writing that fleshed out as human beings the athletes we watch on TV and on our phones if only there was a public appetite for this sort of writing.

However, there isn’t.  At least not as much of one as there used to be.  So, sure, blame corporate America for this, I’m not going to stop you.  Hell, don’t look to me to stand up for that segment of the world.  But also look in the mirror.  Who really killed Sports Illustrated?  You did.  I did.  We all did.

I cancelled my SI subscription in 2004.  When did you cancel yours?


BASEBALL’S EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA THROUGH TWO ARTICLES IN 24 HOURS

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

In a span of about a day earlier this week, baseball readers who follow such things were treated to what amounted to a succinct and well-argued summation of the existential box baseball finds itself trapped inside these days.  With the start of another football season, the chorus of chants proclaiming the superiority of the NFL have revved-up again and baseball, along with its dwindling cadre of hardcore fans, is once more wondering not only how the hell the game wound up in this box but how the once national pastime can ever get out of it.

On Monday morning, baseball’s uber nerd, Travis Sawchik, dropped his latest Vulcan mind meld with MLB’s front office statheads in the form of a (really) lengthy piece on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, asking: Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?  Sawchik went on to make numerous smart and, in their way, unassailable points arguing that, as a developmental tool, minor league baseball is practically worthless.  Better, he argues, to eliminate it and focus each club’s scant resources on developing ballplayers in centralized training centers, lasering in on the better prospects and discarding the lesser ones.  Of course, the Astros comprise Ground Zero in his argument:

“After the 2017 season, [the Astros] reduced their affiliate count from nine to seven clubs. The Astros believed they could become a more efficient producer of talent with fewer farm clubs.  ‘For the baseball people, it was a feeling that it was better to concentrate the coaching resources. We were trying to support a bunch of players that had a less than one percent chance of making the major leagues,’ said an ex-Astros official.”

Sawchik’s arguments are based on pure efficiency – the minor leagues are a colossal waste of a club’s time and money.  Eliminate them, Sawchik argues, along with the thousands of minor league games played in small cities and towns across America, as a means of producing better big league talent at a lower cost. 

The following afternoon, Albert Burneko filed his reply brief on Deadspin, which was...pure Deadspin.  Snarky and punchy, Burneko clearly doesn’t give a crap about efficiency.  He just loves going to minor league games.  Why?  Because they’re inexpensive and fun.  Killing them to further enrich the sainted few who run baseball in the names of efficiency and sabermetrics is acid in the eyeballs to a fan like Burneko.  Maybe You Just Like Watching Baseball Games was the title of his piece, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about where he’s coming from and where he’s going. 

“Who exactly is minor-league baseball for?,” Burneko asks.  “The 30 big-league clubs use it as a developmental system for their young prospects, of course. Is the fact that tens of millions of people choose to buy tickets to watch affordable baseball games incidental to that, or is it the other way around?”  Baseball exists simply to exist, Burneko believes.  Reducing the number of games, or the number of people who can access the games, runs contrary to the very reason there are baseball stadiums at all.  “Professional baseball is a spectator sport that exists so that people can enjoy watching it,” he writes.  And, of course, he’s right.  He’s just as right as Sawchik.

Which is precisely how and why baseball finds itself where it is right now.  Trapped in the middle of an argument between the economists and the fans.  Pushed and pulled this way and that, in an effort to be all things to all people, baseball has somehow managed to make itself unpalatable to nearly every constituency – it isn’t nearly efficient, analytical, technical enough for the economists but it’s way too sabermetric for the (admittedly older) fan, who came to the game initially as a tonic for the type of cold, heartless analysis he was subjected to all day at the office.  Now, more and more, he’s finding it whenever he turns on a game or reads about it afterwards. 

In a way, Sawchik’s article, itself, is a distillation of baseball as we know it today.  It’s complicated, complex, fascinating in the details, but way, way too long.  You’d learn a lot if you made it to the end but you'll probably check out at some point beforehand.  After all, you've got to get to bed at some point and this isn’t world peace he’s writing about.  And in the end, his point is sort of absurd – improving baseball by playing less baseball.  Sure, it might be efficient but why not go all the way and eliminate all of the games at every level?  Simply run an algorithm each October and hand out the hardware. Imagine how efficient that would be.

Burneko’s article is more like the baseball you grew up with.  It’s sort of messy, profound in some places, profane in others.  You’d enjoy reading his rant while downing a cold one, or five, but most of it probably wouldn’t stick.  It’s a brushback pitch aimed right at Sawchik’s chin.  Above all else, Burneko wants Sawchik to know that he owns the plate; if Sawchik insists on digging in like he did in his piece, he’s gonna get drilled.  It’s old school all the way.  It too, though, borders on the absurd – contrary to Burneko’s romantic portrait of it, minor league baseball, as baseball, is typically horrible.  Not even a carnival act at this point, today it’s little more than a sideshow to the main attraction, which, more often than should be legally permissible, might be dogs racing around the outfield between innings with monkey jockeys aboard.

Baseball’s dilemma is how to satisfy both constituencies – the nerdists who see baseball as the ultimate laboratory, and the purists who see it as the purest form of entertainment on Earth.  As of now it’s doing little more than pissing off both of them.  Which is why most televisions in America last Sunday were tuned into Week One of the NFL season, while baseball’s playoff push entered its final weeks with half empty stadiums and ratings weaker than a ballpark cocktail.