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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 "Laura" During Astros-Yankees Playoff & Other Thoughts on October Baseball

You learn something new from a classic noir film every time you see it - it's like finding a new harmony in a great piece of music. During Game Two of the long-awaited Houston Astros-New York Yankees American League championship series, I switched during the interminable commercial breaks to TCM's (Turner Classic Movies) showing of Otto Preminger's classic 1944 film noir "Laura". 

 
I had seen the film at least a few times, but the dialogue never seemed fresher. I had long remembered early on when detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is fiddling with a hand-held ball-bearing puzzle game called "Baseball".

 
This time I picked up something else. When supercilious Hollywood gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) gets annoyed at detective Andrews for doodling with that game, Webb snaps: "Where do you get that? Something you confiscated in a raid on a kindergarten?"

"It calms me down," Andrews coolly replies.

 
I must admit, unlike Dana Andrews' detective Mark McPherson, baseball rarely calms me down. It stimulates me greatly, especially when the Orioles are playing. But in a post-season where I only really care that the Yankees' 10-year World Series-drought continues, I have enjoyed a lot of the games.

 
I am drawn in by the evident tension on the faces of the players.  This is not a time of year when "tomorrow is your best friend," a phrase I first heard from Bobby Valentine.  Every pitch is important in the post-season, and the best managers plan every game as if it is the seventh game of the World Series.

 
Obviously Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts hasn't learned that lesson.  He will return in 2020 and probably beyond because his LAD have won the NLWest division seven years in a row. But the Nats knocked out his Dodgers in the first round in a memorable climactic game in Los Angeles. 

 
Back-to-back homers by free agent-to-be Anthony Rendon and 20-year-old sensation Juan Soto tied it in the top of 8th off Clayton Kershaw, a great pitcher who is not used to being a reliever and is becoming a poster boy for October failure. 

 
Then in the top of the 10th veteran Howie Kendrick sent fair weather Dodger fans scurrying for the exits with a grand slam home run to dead center to cement a 7-3 victory.  I know it was a long game and LA fans always scurry to their cars at the first opportunity. It still struck me that the mass exit was extremely bush and insulting to the home team. 


Perhaps because I'm not emotionally involved with the Mets, I am happy for the Nats.  They exorcised their playoff ghosts by winning their first post-season series ever by beating LA.

 As I file this post, the Nats are one game away from their first World Series ever. 

 

By leading the Cardinals 3-0 in games, they are avenging their crushing loss to St. Louis seven years ago - when they couldn't hold a four-run lead in the 9th inning of the deciding game.

 
I'm someone who likes good starting pitching and Washington is loaded with great arms:  Former Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer, former number one overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg, the newly-signed free agent southpaw Patrick Corbin (who grew up a Yankee fan but wasn't offered enough $$$$ by Yankees), and the crafty veteran Anibal Sanchez.

 
If the Houston Astros can beat the Yankees in the ALCS - currently tied at one game apiece -  they also have big ticket starters in Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole (another onetime Yankee fan who chose to play at UCLA and later sign as free agent with Houston), and Zack Greinke. (Greinke suffers from a social anxiety disorder and it is painful to watch him do the required TV interviews with the press - I wish there were a way that he could respond in writing to questions from the probing scribes.) 

 

I'd rather take my chances with strong starting pitching and a couple of good relievers than using several pitchers just waiting for someone to not to have their best stuff that day. I am not a fan of "The Opener," a reliever who pitches an inning or two at the beginning and the rest of the bullpen completes the rest of the game.

 

The Yankees may do that in at least one of the upcoming games. They have not recently invested mega-bucks in starting pitchers.  It will certainly be interesting to see which philosophy wins out - the aces prepared for the long haul versus the ever-revolving door for relievers. 

 

It could be that the veteran Masahiro Tanaka and the young Luis Severino provide the innings that the Yanks will need to make their first World Series since 2009. Whatever, the old canard will still apply:  "Anything can happen in a short series."

 
Before I close, here's a tip of the cap to the Israeli Olympic baseball team that made the Tokyo 2020 competition by winning the European-African elimination tournament last month.  They beat out such amateur powers as Italy and the Netherlands.  

 

Danny Valencia, the former infielder with Twins-A's-Orioles, was perhaps the most recognizable member on the scrappy Israeli team.  I am proud to add that outfielder/DH Robb Paller, a mainstay on my alma mater Columbia Lions three-peat Ivy League champions of 2013-15, was also a key contributor to the victory. 

 
That's all for now but remember as always:  Take it easy but take it.

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