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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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Report from NYC Hot Stove League Dinners

The winter in New York is taking on fearsome qualities with no end in sight. Ice on the ground may be here indefinitely, bringing back mercifully forgotten memories of my five winters in Madison, Wisconsin during my graduate school days in the 1960s.

Hot stove league baseball banquets thus provide great solace because I have long believed that winter with its saving grace of increasing daylight reinforces the love of baseball in us defiant addicted baseball nuts.

So here are some highlights of the 92th annual NYC Baseball Writers Association of America dinner and the 50th annual New York Pro Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League dinner that took place within six days of each other in the last week of January.

A highlight of the writers’ gathering was Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw who flew in to New York from Texas where the day before his wife delivered their first child. The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young award winner gave homage to virtually all his teammates including ones traded this off-season. He also thanked the clubhouse personnel and trainers by name and ended with a tip of his cap to the St. Louis Cardinals “who taught me that I am not as good as I think I am.”

A lovely conclusion to the evening was the 50th anniversary celebration of Sandy Koufax’s last perfect game in which he bested the Cubs’ southpaw Bob Hendley 1-0. Kudos to the writers for inviting Hendley too - he allowed only one hit that night and on the dais he noted that a week later he beat Koufax in Chicago, 2-1, throwing a four-hitter to Koufax’ five-hitter. (In a fascinating side note, Hendley, who labored for non-contending teams, went 3-1 in matchups against Hall of Famer Koufax.)

For a man who doesn't like to speak in public, Sandy Koufax exudes charm and class on the podium. In introducing new father Kershaw, he announced the most important statistic: "Six pounds and ten ounces."

At the scouts dinner the following Friday at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island. event organizer Cubs scout Billy Blitzer proudly listed 11 players from the NYC metropolitan area who made their MLB debut in 2014. They included:

**Joe Panik, a World Series hero for the Giants, signed by John DiCarlo (son of the late Joe DiCarlo who signed among others Al Leiter for the Yankees)
**George Springer, a coming star outfielder with the Astros signed by John Kosciak
**Eric Campbell, Mets’ utility player signed by Art Pontarelli, and
**Nick Greenwood, Cardinals’ LHP signed for the Padres by Jim Bretz

Blitzer also paid homage to Long Island’s Jeff Biggio who starred at Seton Hall and was just elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Pride in New York-area baseball has always been a theme at the Pro Scouts dinner.
For good reason. Tilden HS of Brooklyn grad Willie Randolph received a rousing ovation. Emcee Ed Randall voiced his disbelief that Randolph has not returned to the managerial ranks after leading the Mets to the brink of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. (Of course Willie was also a key part of the 1976-78 Yankee pennant-winners and 2-time WS champs.)

Willie gave homage to scout Dutch Deutsch who signed him for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(Before the 1976 season the Yankees made one of their best trades ever by obtaining Randolph - still a minor league second baseman - and pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis
for pitcher George "Doc" Medich.)

Former Mets gm Omar Minaya, a product of Queens Newtown HS, thanked the late Ralph DiLullo for giving him the chance to play pro ball. Recently hired as a Latin American liaison for the MLB Players Association, Minaya implored scouts to always give an opportunity to players.

“I couldn’t hit and he couldn’t hit,” Minaya said pointing to Seattle Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara who was named scout of the year, “but we had a chance.”

Tom McNamara was born in the Bronx and a large contingent of his family came out to support their favorite son. In well-chosen remarks McNamara gave tribute to the late scout Bill Lajoie who advised him early on "to watch, listen, and learn."

While working for the Milwaukee Brewers, McNamara signed slugger Prince Fielder,
son of the late-blooming home run hitter Cecil Fielder. When McNamara told Cecil that he had played one year of pro ball, the elder Fielder replied, "At least you smelled the dirt."

As I listened to the heartfelt comments this evening that concluded with a final elegy to New York baseball by St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, I recalled the wisdom of one of the first scouts I got to know, the late Twins scout Herb Stein. “The moment you sign a letter he is automatically a better player because the monkey is off his back,” said the man who who inked Rod Carew, Frank Viola, and 1991 World Series-hero Columbia Gene Larkin.

That's all this time from my YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) journal. With spring training only a couple of weeks away, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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