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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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The Joys of "Meaningful Games in September": Cyclones Win, Mets Come Up A Little Short, and A Final Farewell to Al Jackson

I can't recall a late summer in NYC that has been so warm and beautiful. With chances to see live baseball in this area fading like the summer light, I've been blessed to catch some great games in supremely lovely conditions.

 

Under a nearly full moon on Tuesday September 10, I saw the Brooklyn Cyclones win their first outright Short Season Class A New York-Penn League title. (They shared a league title in 2001 but because of the 9/11 attacks there was no conclusive game.)

 

With the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean visible beyond the outfield, over 3,000 fans at MCU Park cheered the home team as they won a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox farm club.  It brought a title to Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo, the outstanding and truly beloved former Mets third and second baseman.

 

The winning 7th inning rally was fueled by hits by former SEC rivals, outfielders Jake Mangum (Miss. State) who led off with a single and raced home on a triple by Antoine Duplessis (LSU). Third baseman Yoel Romero, a 21-year-old from Venezuela in his fifth minor league season, then singled home the tie-breaking run. 32nd round draft pick lefty Andrew Edwards notched a two-inning save. 

 

Although it is only the low minor leagues, Brooklyn can now claim its pro baseball title since Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series. Cyclones starter Nate Jones, Matt Allan (the Mets 2019 number one draft pick), and eventual winner Mitch Ragan who preceded Edwards all pitched effectively.

 
Lowell used two top Boston prospects from New Jersey that were both drafted out of high school.  Recovering from Tommy John surgery, starter and top draft pick Jay Groome (Barnegat) worked only 2 2/3 innings but showed good mound presence and struck out three despite giving up two runs.  He left to a warm reception from his home town supporters.

 
Right fielder Nick Decker (Seneca HS, Tabernacle NJ) walked a couple of times and was pitched very carefully.  In his last AB, he was hit by a pitch which left him more than a little peeved. He was removed from the game as a precaution against injury and perhaps to cool him down a little.  To me he showed the spunk that makes him someone to watch.

 
Who knows what the future will hold for any of these players?  It is one of the charms of watching baseball on the lower levels.  Pat O'Conner, the head of the minor league ruling body the National Association, likes to say that he guarantees you'll see at least one future major leaguer at every MiLB game. The challenge, of course, is to identify who that will be.

 
Here's a special tip of the cap to Jada Bennett, a member of the Cyclones dance squad who sang the National Anthem beautifully both at the final game and before the semi-final victory over the Hudson Valley Renegades.  She brought the song home in tune in not much over one minute and thirty seconds without unnecessary flourishes that far too often make the performance about the singer and not the song. 

 
The parent Mets were not as fortunate as the Cyclones in their Sunday September 15 rubber game against the Dodgers. It was unfortunate that ESPN forced the Mets to move the Sunday Family Day to a 7p start.  So there were far fewer fans in attendance than the announced 31,000+

 

On a warm low-humidity evening, I saw a very well-played game dominated by the starting pitchers, the Mets Zack Wheeler and the Dodgers Walker Buehler who went only five innings but five relievers held the Mets to three hits, only one after the second inning.

 

(Buehler is another product of the Vanderbilt University pitching factory that has also produced David Price and Sonny Gray who has flourished in Cincinnati with his college pitching coach and away from the bright lights and 24/7/365 intensity of NYC). 

 
As all good teams do, the Dodgers rallied in the late innings once Wheeler left the game after seven strong innings.  He had only thrown 97 pitches but had worked out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings, getting his last five outs by strikeout. 

 
I hope I live to see the day when starting pitchers are encouraged to throw more than 100 pitches.   Maybe baseball life would have been different if 120 had become the magic number not 100.  But generations of pitchers have grown up feeling that seven innings is the outer limit for their efforts. 

 
Kudos to Wheeler and his starting mates Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz who have done their job, along with a revived offense, in fueling the Mets' surprise comeback from 11 games under .500  in July. 

 

Losing a series to the Dodgers, a World Series favorite, is no embarrassment.   Too bad they dug such an early season hole. I sure hope the tearful young fan wearing a Pete Alonso jersey who I saw crying in the elevator after the game realizes it hasn't been a lost season for the Mets.  I just hope the Mets keep that core of pitchers together in the off-season.

 
In closing this entry, I want to say a few more words about the loss of Al Jackson, their longtime organizational pitching coach who died in late August at the age of 83.

(There is a tape of a WFAN interview I did about Al on the home page of this website.)

 
Despite coming up the hard way in the years of segregation and partial integration, Jackson was such a positive presence.  You couldn't help learn valuable baseball and life lessons by being about "the little lefty from Waco". 

 

Among my favorite of his aphorisms:  "Shower away the day" - leave the last game in the shower whether you've won or lost. When you are toweling off, think of the next game.

 

"Know the difference between hitter's strikes and pitcher's strikes." 

 

"Don't get beat with your third or fourth best pitch."  

 

The youngest of thirteen children and the last survivor, Al Jackson was buried in his home town on September 7.  As Mets former PR chief and current team historian put it so well, he was "our national treasure" and should never be forgotten.

 
That's all for now.  Next time some more thoughts from my pal Teny Ymota who loved the Linda Ronstadt documentary and will be hearing Kelli O'Hara sing this Wednesday Sept 18 with the New York Philharmonic one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer 1915" inspired by the prologue to James Agee's memoir, "A Death in The Family".

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

 

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