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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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New York Scouts Dinner and A Memorable Basketball Saturday

The annual Hot Stove League dinner sponsored by the New York-area baseball scouts has always provided many memorable moments. Last Friday's 52nd annual gathering at Leonard's of Great Neck maintained the fine tradition.

Several ovations were deservedly bestowed upon dinner organizer Billy Blitzer whose 35 consecutive years with the Cubs were finally rewarded in November. But emcee Ed Randall, who joined Billy in donning a Cubs World Series shirt, couldn't resist telling some jokes that no longer apply.

My favorite: "What would Jesus tell the Chicago Cubs?" Answer: "Don't do anything until I come back."

Guest speaker Art Shamsky called his experience on the 1969 Mets the highlight of his career. He said the team's success permanently inscribed his name in the book of New York heroes. He added that he didn't mind having a dog named for him in the "Everybody Loves Raymond" TV show.

Shamsky shared some tales of earlier Mets teams. After beginning their first two seasons losing 9 and then 8 games in a row, the Mets were rained out the following year in their first series in Cincinnati. Before their home opener, announcer Ralph Kiner quipped, "The Mets are off to the best start in their history."

Cincinnati scout John Ceprini, the winner of the group's prestigious Turk Karam award as Scout of the Year, was moved by Shamsky's appreciation of his career. Ceprini paid homage to the mentors who had encouraged him on his path towards scouting.

San Francisco Giants scouting honcho John Barr, who was awarded the Jim Quigley award for service to baseball, concluded the evening with some indelible insights into the scouting profession.

"Listen to the sound off the bat," George Digby, who signed Wade Boggs, told him.

"Who can help us win?" asked Joe McIlvaine, who was with the Mets when Barr started in his career in the 1980s. (Barr went on to work with the Orioles where he signed number one draft picks in Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.)

"Sit on a guy . . . See him when he fails . . . See him in another sport where he is not so dominant. . . . How comfortable does he look?"

No need to attribute these quotations to anybody. They are eternal truths - if only the number-crunchers and "advanced metrics" people would understand.

I do take solace in the great saying - "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care about who gets the credit."

Before I close, I must kvell a bit about my dream basketball Saturday. All three teams that I follow closely won games and I saw two of them in person.

My girl friend's alma mater Davidson, avenging a loss at home earlier in January, walloped Fordham at the marvelous oldest-in-country Rose Hill gym in the Bronx.

My alma mater Columbia held on to beat Harvard on Morningside Heights and improve to 3-1 tied with Yale and Harvard and 1/2 game behind Princeton.

And my graduate alma mater Wisconsin rallied to beat Rutgers in overtime at Madison Square Garden. The Badgers are living on the edge in recent games but they sure know how to win.

Redshirt sophomore center Ethan Happ, first cousin of Blue Jays LHP J. Happ, scored 32 of Wisconsin's 61 points. He only went 8-16 on the foul line and that shortcoming remains a major problem. Yet all other aspects of his game - footwork, quickness, willingness to learn, and will to win - Happ inspires hope!

To make Saturday January 28 a day to live long in Wisconsin annals, the hockey team also won an overtime game at the Garden over Ohio State in the evening.

And here's one more overtime story - the Columbia women's basketball team, picked for last in the Ivy League, beat Dartmouth in FOUR overtimes on Friday night. They lost by only 2 at Harvard the following night. As an unrepentant puller for underdogs, these developments are most promising. (I attended Columbia's other 4-overtime win about a quarter century ago.)

I wish the Knicks well but I cannot lose sleep over THEIR four-overtime loss on Sunday to the Atlanta Hawks. Until there are changes in ownership at the Garden,
I fear the Knicks will be spinning their wheels.

Well, that's all for now. Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks, tournament time nears in basketball, and the days are getting longer. A really exciting time of year in spite of all the political uncertainties.

So always remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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