Sign-Stealing Scandal

The baseball world has been rocked by the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, and this week it was further rocked by the punishments handed down by the baseball commissioner.  For implementing a process to systematically steal signs and convey them to Astros batters, the general manager and the manager of the Astros were suspended for a year, the team was fined the maximum of $5 million, and the team lost first-round and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.  The manager and the general manager were then fired by the team’s owner.

tlqy3-1578949177-155192-blog-houstonastrosThere’s a lot of anger about the scandal, and the punishments.  The Astros won a World Series title in 2017, after a post-season run in which Major League Baseball determined that the Astros were cheating by stealing signs.  The Astros get to keep that tainted title.  The owner of the team wasn’t disciplined beyond paying the fine.  And even though the baseball investigators determined that the whole scandal was “player-driven,” no players have so far been punished.  The awards the players won for their performance, the hits they got after being tipped off about the pitches to come, and the accolades and bonuses and salary increases they received all are so far undisturbed.  Among some people in the baseball world, there’s a feeling that the Astros and their players got off easy, with only a few fall guys punished for an institutionalized cheating process that had to have involved virtually everyone in the franchise.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s the breadth and scope of the cheating that really takes your breath away.  To the extent that anyone still clings to the notion that baseball is the pure sport depicted in Field of Dreams, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has crushed that notion, once and for all.  And because everybody in the Astros organization seemingly was in on it, the impact of the scandal goes beyond past scandals involving individual players who might have taken illegal substances, or thrown spitballs, or flouted the rules in other individual ways.  The sign-stealing scandal also makes you wonder about things like Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I despise Pete Rose, but is the fact that he bet on games really worse than what the Houston Astros did?

Nobody on the Astros apparently cared that the team was breaking the rules, cheating, and getting an unfair advantage — and that’s pretty disillusioning.  It makes the fan wonder just how widespread  the cheating mentality, and the cheating itself, really is.  How do we ever assure ourselves that the winners won, fair and square?

Thinking Baseball Thoughts

The other day I got a welcome ping from my cellphone.  My ESPN app — after providing countless NBA-related “alerts” and “news” that I didn’t really care about — reported on the score of a Cleveland Indians spring training game.  The Tribe lost, but I didn’t care about that, not really.  I was just happy to see that spring training had begun and progressed to the point that games were being played.

1883887If spring training has begun, spring itself can’t be far behind.

Baseball is changing.  I ran across a story about how Major League Baseball has entered into an agreement with the independent Atlantic League that will allow MLB to use the league to try out modified rules and equipment changes.  Under the deal, the Atlantic League will implement new rules at the request of MLB and then provide data and feedback on how the rules changes work out so MLB can decide whether to adopt the changes at the big-league level.  And get this:  the rules changes that supposedly are being considered include moving back the mound and having Trackman — in effect, a robot umpire — call balls and strikes.

As the article points out, the Atlantic League has been an innovator in baseball, including initiatives to speed up the game and to force umpires to call the high strike — i.e., strikes that are within the strike zone but above the belt.  Now they can use Trackman to ensure that the true strike zone gets called.  And because the Atlantic League is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, it is thought that they will be better able to adjust to proposed changes in the location of the pitcher’s mound.

To be sure, baseball has changed over the years — it’s hard to imagine bigger changes than the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League and adding layers of wild card and divisional playoffs leading up to the World Series, for example — but it’s still all about nine players on a field and a guy with a ball throwing to a guy with a bat.  For spectators, though, the use of a robot ump would really change the experience.  How in the world do you effectively heckle a robot ump?

On To Baseball, And (Eventually) Summer

Today the 2018 Major League Baseball season starts.  On Opening Day, fans of every team can approach the new season with optimism that this might just be the year for their team to win it all.

1cfa76df7b9fae74e7898045efb9d360Fans of the Cleveland Indians, like Russell and UJ and me, are hoping that, on this 70th anniversary of the Tribe’s last World Series title, this might be the year that the team ends a very long drought.  With the winless streak now celebrating its 70th birthday, we think it’s time for its mandatory retirement.  And after last season, where Cleveland won more than 100 games but lost to the Damn Yankees in the playoffs, Tribe fans are hoping that the team has the pieces in place to make another legitimate run for the championship banner.

But Tribe fans are not alone, of course.  The start of baseball season is great, because every baseball fan everywhere feels inward optimism about their squad, even if they won’t admit it publicly.  Lightning can and does strike.  Sometimes teams just gel, and unlikely heroes emerge, and rookie phenoms actually pan out.  Every year, it seems, there is a Cinderella story, and at the start of the season every fan hopes that their team will end up donning the glass slipper.  The sense of hopefulness and possibility is intoxicating — but also can be brief and ruined by reality.

This year, though, at least for those of us in the Midwest and East who’ve been enduring the Winter that Won’t Go Away,  there’s another reason to celebrate the arrival of baseball’s Opening Day.  If the Summer Game is finally here, we can hope that summer itself isn’t far behind.

Messing With The Summer Game

Spring training is underway, so it’s time for the hand-wringers in the executive suites of Major League Baseball to float their latest harebrained ideas to add “excitement” to America’s Pastime.  Every year, it seems, the baseball kingpins make little changes to speed the game up — like this year’s change limiting the number of visits to the mound — and also consider other, much more disruptive, potential changes to jazz things up.

The latest colossally bad idea that MLB executives apparently are discussing is intended to make the ninth inning more exciting, by allowing the team that is losing at that point to decide which of its batters get sent to the plate that inning.  The argument for this change is that baseball is the only sport where, with the game on the line, the best players might not be on the field.  If you’re three runs behind and your 7-8-9 hitters are coming to the plate, the proponents of the rule change argue, you might as well write the game off.  Why not let the trailing team choose to have their 3-4-5 hitters come up, so they’ve got a chance of winning?

It’s a stupid idea, because it changes the game even more fundamentally than the designated hitter rule.  Why should the team that is behind get “helped” by being given an advantage?  What if a perfect game is being pitched?  What about the idea that baseball is a team game, where every player needs to contribute and strategy and managerial moves can make a difference?  For that matter, why should the ninth inning be viewed as more important than every other inning?  Why shouldn’t every inning count equally?

If MLB execs are looking for other stupid ways add more twists and turns to the game, how about these?  Allow each team to strike one player out of the opposing team’s lineup.  Only have the best five players on each team bat.  Make any runs scored with two outs in an inning count double.  Or let a midget bat, or give a free suit to any player who hits a home run that hits a bull sign in the outfield.  (Wait a minute — I think those last two have already been tried.)

Why can’t baseball just accept the game the way it has been played for more than a century — the same game that our Moms and Dads, and Grandmothers and Grandfathers, watched and enjoyed?

Dealing With This Year’s Disappointment

This morning, Cleveland Indians fans are dealing with that familiar gut-punch feeling of deep disappointment.  Last night the Tribe got bounced from the playoffs by the New York Yankees, and the magical 2017 season, which saw the Indians set an American League record of 22 straight wins and win more than 100 games for only the third time in the team’s history, is abruptly over.

cleveland-indians-world-series-game-7-lossThe loss means that, when next year rolls around and the Tribe tries again, it will be a full 70 years — 70 years! — since Cleveland last won a World Series.  It’s now the longest such streak in Major League Baseball.

The fact that the Tribe lost to the Yankees, the perennial winners who have taken home more than a dozen World Series titles since the Cleveland last hoisted a World Series championship banner, makes the loss doubly painful.  The fact that the Indians lost after leading the series 2-0, notching an improbable comeback win in game two, and putting the Yankees on the brink of elimination, before collapsing in an uncharacteristic haze of errors and offensive futility — well, that just shoves the pain into the brutal, off-the-charts category that long-time Cleveland fans know all too well.

Watching the game wind down to its ugly conclusion last night, I saw the pictures of overtly prayerful Tribe fans hoping against hope that this year the result might be different — and I knew exactly how they felt.  But when it comes to the Cleveland Indians, the fates simply are not kind, and no amount of heartfelt beseeching of the baseball gods is going to change that.

So last night after the game ended we tossed and turned and slept poorly, fretting about this latest disappointment.  It’s kind of embarrassing to react so strongly to a sporting event, when our rational sides know that it is after all just a game that pales in comparison to the really important things in life — but that’s what sports fans do. We give our hearts to a team, willing to endure the angst of losses and thinking that when our team does win we’ll recoup that investment a hundredfold.  We just can’t help feeling deeply affected by these kinds of painful losses — and with the star-crossed Indians, the celebration of ultimate triumph still hasn’t come and seems as unlikely as ever.

Time will give us some perspective, and Tribe fans will always have that wonderful winning streak to remember, just like Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.  But for now we’ve just watched another potential championship climb into a plane with the New York Yankees and fly away.  Boy, it really stings!

 

100 Wins

Yesterday afternoon the Cleveland Indians won their 100th game of the year, beating the Minnesota Twins 5-2.  The Tribe got another terrific starting pitching performance, this time from Carlos Carrasco, who pitched 8 shutout innings, struck out 14 batters, and now stands at 18-6 on the year.

usatsi_10313296_1506620201223_11256969_ver1-0100 wins is a nice round number.  It’s also an historic achievement of sorts.  This is only the third time in their 100-plus year history that the Indians have won 100 games in a season, and it took an historic winning streak to do it.  And in baseball generally, 100-win seasons don’t necessarily happen every year.  Eight teams in the big leagues have never won 100 games, and  these days the economics of  the game tend to discourage team owners and general managers from assembling the combination of talent that can win 100 games, because it’s going to be expensive and there’s a good chance that lots of the players will be moving on, leaving you to rebuild from scratch.  Better to aim for those teams that can consistently win 90 games and that you can hold together over a few years.

In our modern world, we tend to measure every athletic team by whether they won it all, and regular seasons are eclipsed by the playoffs, where short series and bad breaks can bring down dominant teams.  Many 100-win teams haven’t won the World Series, and this year — because both the Dodgers and the Indians have reached that number — there will be at least one more 100-win team that doesn’t win it all.  That’s just the way the ball bounces in baseball.

But, for the true fan, what happens in the post-season shouldn’t detract from what happens during the regular season.  Baseball is a marathon, and winning 100 games takes focus, careful management, and meaningful contributions from everybody on the roster.  It’s a true team accomplishment, because during those 100 wins different players are going to have to step up and make the big hit, or the tremendous fielding play, or the crucial pitch to allow another W to go into the record books.

2017 has been a remarkable year for the Cleveland Indians, and a marvelous year for those of us who are long-time fans of the Tribe.  Here’s hoping it continues!