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Could Something Good Arise From Baseball's Sign-Stealing Scandal? + A Report on the 55th Annual NY Baseball Scouts Dinner

I try to be an optimist or at least a glass half-full kinda guy when trying to cope with life's inevitable problems. It may be hard to find any silver lining in the revelation of the Houston Astros's high-tech sign stealing operation that places in doubt the legitimacy of their 2017 World Series triumph and deep runs in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs. 

 

Acting firmly, Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended both Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch for a year without pay, took away the first two Houston draft picks for the next two seasons, and fined the team the maximum allowed under his contract with the owners, $5 million.  Going one step further, Astro owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch and will soon name replacements. 

 

Two more casualties have been Red Sox manager Alex Cora who was the Houston bench coach in 2017 and was named 11 times in Manfred's nine page single-spaced decision. Incoming Mets manager Carlos Beltran also walked the plank.

 

Beltran had been hailed as a veteran presence on the 2017 Astros but he was intimately involved in the sign-stealing shenanigans - one of those coordinating center field camera footage with replay equipment closer to the dugout so that batters knew what pitches were coming at key moments of the game. 

 

Many people have wondered why the players who were active participants in the scheme

have not been disciplined.  The reason is that their Players Association had never been informed of Manfred's directive late in the 2017 season warning teams to cease using technology illegally. 

 

Luhnow and Hinch had received the warning and ignored it. Interestingly, Manfred reported that Hinch was annoyed at the use of electronic equipment in the dugout and twice even broke the instruments.  But he never reported his dissatisfaction to his superiors.

 

Maybe, just maybe, the harsh punishments will lead to a realization throughout MLB that unbridled technology is dangerous without practicing common sense and simple sporting ethics. The dream of winning a World Series, former MLB outfielder Doug Glanville wrote eloquently after the scandal broke, drives "every professional player, [but it] loses meaning when champions cut corners." 

 

"Small enhancements lead to big advantages in the realm of the elite," Glanville added in two similar articles in newyorktimes.com and theathletic.com .  He concluded with a stirring observation:  "In times like these, I hope we all recognize that the case full of trophies brimming with records broken, blinding us with statistical opulence, may sometimes be the one that is actually empty." 

 

Old-fashioned sign-stealing has been going on forever in baseball.  It remains the only sport I know of where a "stolen base" is built into the rules.  But it is one thing to use eyes and ears methods - tipping of caps from bullpens, hand signals, uniform tugs, and the like - and quite another to take advantage of ballyhooed technology to gain an advantage. 

 

There will be more shoes to drop soon. Alex Cora has not yet been disciplined by MLB because an investigation of possible Red Sox chicanery during their 2018 championship season is still ongoing.

 

With all the headlines going to the sign-stealing scandal, there has hardly been a word written recently about MLB's plan to cut 42 minor league teams including some entire low-level leagues.  It is a plan, not coincidentally, pushed by the Houston analytic genuises. 

 

Let's hope some more thoughtful and empathetic people arise in the MLB hierarchy to keep the worst aspects of that proposal from happening. Perceptive scouting and patient player development remain the key to baseball success (although as more and more wealthy owners come into the game, these basic truths can easily get obscured). 

 

At the 55th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League banquet this past Friday night January 24, guest speaker Bobby Valentine reminded us that analytics is not really new but there has always been room in baseball for good thinking.  As long as one didn't forget the element of luck and being in the right place at the right time.

 

The former Mets manager's own story is illustrative of good fortune.  A great all-around athlete from Stamford, CT Valentine had the rare opportunity for a high school junior to play in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League.  His manager was none other than Lou Lamoriello who went on to great success as a Stanley Cup-winning National Hockey League general manager for the Jersey Devils (and now trying to do the same for the New York islanders).

 

Valentine gave tribute to another awardee Edgardo Alfonzo who he called "the best all-around player he ever managed".  The ever-humble Alfonzo expressed gratitude for all the plaudits he received this evening. 

 

The former Mets second-third baseman led the Brooklyn Cyclones to their first-ever New York Penn League championship in 2019.  He always told his players:  "Don't ever let anyone take your dreams away."  (Inexplicably, the Mets did not rehire Alfonzo for 2020 - his replacement will be former Seton Hall player/St. Johns coach Ed Blankmeyer.)    

 

Another highlight of the dinner was Billy Blitzer's reading the names of 13 northeastern players who broke into the majors in 2019. All but three came from the seventh round of the draft or later, a sign of the talent in this area that diligent hard-working scouts have discovered. 

 

Among the 13 are Mike Ford from Princeton, undrafted but who shone at 1B/DH for Yankees.

*Justin Dunn RHP from Boston College traded to Seattle in the Cano/Edwin Diaz deal

*Anthony Kay LHP from UConn, Mariners

*Mike King RHP from Boston College, Yankees 

*Nick Margevicus, LHP from Rider, Padres

*Aaron Civale, RHP from Northeastern, Indians (Civale was honored as Future Star awardee)

*Frank Schwindel 1B and Cody Stashak RHP, both from St. Johns, signed by John Wilson for the Twins. 

 

That's all for now.  Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

 

  

 

 

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Watching Football + A Lovely Celebration of Richard Wyands's Music

Pro football's Final Four is now set.  The Green Bay Packers held off a furious Seattle Seahawks second-half rally led by former Wisconsin Badger quarterback Russell Wilson to become the fourth team to make the AFL and NFL championship games next Sunday Jan. 19. 

 

I'm not really a big football fan because the game is increasingly brutal. More and more people are now aware of the chance of permanent injury from lingering concussions and other malaises. Statistics seem to reveal that youth participation is dropping.  

 

Yet I do think "good clean violence" has a place in society. Channeling the innate aggressiveness in human beings through sports and games has a place in my opinion. 

 

The one-sided victories on Saturday were not memorable. The Tennessee Titans did pull a surprise by easily defeating the Baltimore Ravens.  Derrick Henry, a huge swift running back and former Heisman trophy winner, and a top-notch punter Brett Kern will make the Titans a worthy opponent in the march to the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.

 

The San Francisco 49ers handled the Minnesota Vikings easily in the other Saturday game that I did not watch - a good meal with a beloved was far more important.

 

Sunday's matchups were far more exciting. The Kansas City Chiefs overcame a 24-0 early deficit to win going away over the Houston Texans. Quarterback Pat Mahomes, whose father also named Pat used to pitch for the Mets and other MLB teams, excelled.  He has the little boy persona that makes him lovable and already a commercial pitchman. 

 

Green Bay used QB's Aaron Rodgers' clutch passes to Davonte Adams and Jimmy Graham to hold off spunky Seattle. Rodgers has long been a commercial pitchman and now he has another celebrity relationship going on with retired race car driver Danica Patrick. 

 

(One New Year's resolution for yours truly - try not to care about the celebrity lives of our athletes.  All I should care about - and you too! - is: do they play hard and smart and well on the field?  And not act like boors like Rodgers' defensive teammate #55 S. Smith!)

 

Russell Wilson was glorious in defeat.  I'll always remember him fondly for leading my Badgers in his one season in Madison to the Rose Bowl. He still has a lot of football left in him and he will certainly go down in history for pioneering in two important areas:  (a) using an extra year of eligibility after graduating early at NC State, and (b) showing that a NFL QB can run effectively as well as throw.  

 

As the days slowly grow longer, it means that pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in about a month.  An Oriole fan has little to hope for in 2020 with a pitching staff made out of bailing wire. And not much else either on the roster.

 

I feel insulted that they are even talking about two Rule 5 picks from the draft of six-year minor leaguers making the starting rotation.  The offense is not exactly brimming with possibility.  At least they did avoid salary arbitration and sign Trey Mancini, the one proven run producer in their lineup. 

 

I don't think you want to hear and I don't want to write these totally negative thoughts. So let me close with an elegy to a great jazz pianist Richard Wyands who was saluted in word and music before a full house at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in the Citicorp Center on New York's East Side on Monday night Jan. 6. (The so-called Jazz Church east of Lexington Ave on 54th Street.)

 

Wyands lived to be 91 years old, a cause for celebration in itself whenever a jazz musician lives that long. Wyands made the most of his time on this earth.  Born in Berkeley, California, he graduated from San Francisco State U. with a degree in music.

 

He became the house pianist at the Bay Area's legendary Black Hawk jazz club. He played opposite such piano greats as Erroll Garner and Art Tatum and also accompanied jazz singer Dinah Washington.

 

(Richard loved sports and I'd often see him on the subway coming back from Yankee games with another neighbor of mine, the great drummer from Detroit, Eddie Locke.  I never talked to Richard about Dinah Wash's husband Dick "Night Train" Lane, the Detroit Lions's defensive star, but I would guess he must have met him.)

 

Wyands relocated to the Big Apple in 1958 and he made the Upper West Side his base for the rest of his life. He toured with mellow jazz guitar great Kenny Burrell for ten years but decided to choose family life over incessant travel. 

 

He was beloved for his able and gentle musicianship. When a young bassist once asked him that he would like to try a solo on a tune, Wyands responded, "Are you going to TRY it or are you going to PLAY it?"  His daughter-in-law summed up his essence in a poem with a recurring litany - "He was cool - so cool." 

 

Fortunately, Richard Wyands lives on in our memories and in several trio recordings he made in his last decades.  They include "The Arrival" (1982), "Get Out of Town" (1996), and the best named of all, "As Long As There's Music" (2002)

 

That's all for now.  As the last of the Christmas trees are ready for compacting on many a street corner in my neighborhood but the light in days is increasing, do remember:

"Take it easy but take it."

 

 

 

  

 

 

  

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