And That Happened: Sunday's Scores and Highlights

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Braves 8, Phillies 7; Giants 3, Padres 0: You gotta feel bad for San Diego. They played above their heads all year. You also gotta feel bad for the people who were wishing for the awesome three-way tie that would have occurred had the Padres won yesterday. Braves and Giants fans are pretty darn pleased, though. 

For their part, the Braves made it way more interesting than it needed to be, frittering away an 8-2 lead in the seventh and making it into an 8-7 nail-biter in which Billy Wagner needed to throw 37 pitches — his highest total of the season — to secure the four-out save. After the game, the Braves let fans stay in the ballpark to (a) watch REO Speedwagon in concert; and (b) watch the Padres-Giants game on the big screen. It was a rough last few days for Atlanta, but they rode the storm out and now it’s time for them to fly. To San Francisco.

The Padres had all kinds of trouble scoring runs as the season wound down, and it continued until their final game. Jonathan Sanchez shut them out for five innings and five relievers pitched in to finish the job. One of them was Brian Wilson who, with that Just For Men beard, that lame haircut, his unbuttoned jersey and his orange shoes is easily the schmuckiest looking pitcher in baseball these days. I will enjoy despising him during the NLDS. Even though his home run likely sealed his Rookie of the Year award, thereby preventing Jason Heyward from winning it, I can’t hate Buster Posey. That guy is awesome, and I look forward to seeing the guy the Giants didn’t think was ready for the majors back in April lead them into the playoffs in October.

At about this time someone, somewhere, is thinking that the wild card made this a pretty interesting weekend. Query: wouldn’t it have been more interesting if four teams in three games — the Padres, Giants, Yankees and Rays — were all playing for their playoff lives yesterday instead of three teams in two games?  Just sayin!

Rays 3, Royals 2: Thanks to the Yankees’ loss it was official before this game was over, but the Rays are your AL East champs for 2010. That’s two division titles in three years, by they way. I remind you in case you’re the type that will yell (again) about how baseball needs a salary cap and realignment and all that jazz when the Yankees sign some 30+ year-old player this winter.

Red Sox 8, Yankees 4: It’s not often you see the Yankees fade late, but a 29-30 record since August 1st constitutes a fade. Still, I’m not too worried about them. Muscle memory has to come into play when it comes to the postseason with these guys, right? They go on to play Minnesota in the first round.

Blue Jays 2, Twins 1: And as you can see, the Twins aren’t exactly finishing the season on a high note themselves. The Jays hit two more dingers in this one, upping their season total to 257. That’s tied for the third most in MLB history.

Astros 4, Cubs 0: And on the last day of the season the Astros edge out the Cubs for fourth place. I’m guessing this will lead to a lot of people overrating Houston heading into next season.

Cardinals 6, Rockies 1: At various times this season both the Cardinals (April-May) and the Rockies (early-to-mid September) seemed like two of the stronger teams in baseball, destined for playoff glory. Fitting they end the season playing one-another. Jeff Suppan with six shutout innings. Where the hell did that come from? The Rockies finished 1-13. Where the hell did that come? It’s going to be a long winter in Denver and St. Louis.

Marlins 5, Pirates 2: And with this loss the Pirates tie the 1963 Mets for the worst road record in baseball history. Sweet. John Russell is probably going to get fired. Which is sweet for him too, but only in the way that a mercy killing can be sweet under the right circumstances.

White Sox 6, Indians 5: I once saw the Indians play the White Sox to close out the season on October 3rd. It was in 1993. In that game Ozzie Guillen went 0 for 1 with a walk and a sacrifice.  A young Albert Belle sealed the AL RBI title. Bob Hope sang “Thanks for the Memories” while standing on home plate of Municipal Stadium. I keyed a car in the parking lot because it parked with its bumper touching that of my midnight blue 1987 Chevy Cavalier RS, which was something You Just Did Not Do, because that car was awesome. In other words, not much has changed in 17 years.

Reds 3, Brewers 2: Jay Bruce enters the playoffs hot, smacking his fourth homer in a week. This was probably Ken Macha’s last game at the helm of the Brew Crew.
 
Tigers 4, Orioles 2: A .500 season for the Tigers. It seems like a million years ago, but they were in first place and ten games over .500 for a brief spell back in July. Baseball seasons are long and there’s absolutely nowhere to hide.

Nationals 2, Mets 1: It’s hard to think of two teams who needed their seasons to end more than the Nats and Mets did, so of course they played fourteen innings. And it’s hard to think of a more fitting way for the Mets season to end than having Oliver Perez walk in the losing run.

Angels 6, Rangers 2: Peter Bourjous hit a homer. He strikes me as the guy who’s going to get a whole bunch of feature stories written about him next spring but who won’t live up to the hype. That homer notwithstanding, I just don’t have faith in the bat. Josh Hamilton finishes at .359 after a one for four. Texas goes on to St. Pete to play the Rays.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s finish at .500. As I’ve been saying it for a while now, but they probably have the biggest offseason ahead of them out of everyone. If they load up with some bats, they’re the favorites in the AL West next year. If they don’t, forget it.

Dodgers 3, Diamondbacks 1: Joe Torre wins what will, in all likelihood, be his last major league game as a manager. It’s been a pretty uninspiring year for Torre and the Dodgers, but that will all wash away soon and we’ll remember that Bobby Cox wasn’t the only managerial titan leaving the stage in 2010.

And with that, the regular season ends.

Yes, we have a month’s worth of playoffs ahead of us and that’s wonderful, but the last normal day of the season is always bittersweet to me. Why? Because I enjoy dog day baseball way more than postseason baseball. I get
antsy when games start to truly matter, even if my team isn’t involved. I prefer games after which you can
turn off the TV and not think much about them because, hey, there will be another one tomorrow night.

To me, baseball is about hot nights. Baseball is about low leverage. Baseball is wonderful because it’s there every day.  Don’t get me wrong — the postseason is great — but it’s different, and in some important ways it lacks the stuff I love the most about the game.

And That Happened was launched in order to try and capture the “none of this really matters in and of itself, but taken together it means everything” nature of the regular season. So, even if I continue to recap last night’s games during the postseason, what I enjoy most about the feature is over until April. I mean, you guys are all going to watch all the games now, so me coming up with some factoid or bit of snark like I do about a near-meaningless Marlins-Nationals matchup in August that none of us watched won’t make much sense.  But that’s OK, I guess.

For those of you whose teams are marching on: good luck. For those of you whose teams are done for the year, I offer you the most beautiful thing a Commissioner of Baseball ever said:

It’s designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains comes, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Thank all of you for showing up each morning to read my little riffs. Let us now put on our jackets and plunge into the playoffs and beyond.

How The Players Union Got Into This Mess

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Earlier today, in the pitch clock post, I took some shots at the Players Union and its priorities. Earlier this afternoon I tweeted something about how, for all practical purposes, the luxury tax is a salary cap, with the implication that the union had, through either negligence or obliviousness, allowed the owners to impose the sort of payroll restrictions that past union leadership and membership had fought against, tooth and nail. The same can be said for other things depressing the free agency market like qualifying offers.

In the wake of those sentiments, voiced both today and in the past, people have asked me whether I think the union can or will do anything to push back in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Whether I think they’ll snap back to the footing they had in the 1980s and 1990s when they didn’t allow themselves to get outflanked on both the bedrock pocketbook issues in the game and on the smaller stuff, like the pitch clock. My gut answer: I doubt that the union can do so. At least not quickly.

First off, it’s worth pointing out that the owners beating the players in the last few CBA negotiations is not due to some sudden change in tactics or some stroke of strategic genius. It’s been gradual, with a couple of factors at work.

One factor is that, over the past several CBAs — going back to back to 2002 or so — conditions have been pretty darn good. Money has been flowing into the game and the attendant labor peace has been nice an pleasant. No one wants to spend all of their time on a war footing, and with general financial prosperity prevailing, the vigilance of the union and its membership on bedrock pocketbook issues has understandably waned.

At the same time, the owners have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the way they’ve advanced their agenda. They used to try to do pretty dramatic things in one fell swoop, such as their efforts to implement a salary cap in the mid-90s or their over-the-top threats of contracting teams in the early 2000s. The collusion on the late 1980s was some pretty amateur-level and obvious Bond villain stuff too. All of those things caused the MLBPA to go to Defcon 1, unite and fight. The owners stopped doing that stuff in the 2000s, coincidentally or not, around the time Rob Manfred’s star rose as baseball’s chief negotiator. He’s a smart dude and he and the rest of baseball’s top brass have worked incrementally and subtly to chip away at the players’ share of baseball’s bounty.

As the players have, in the aggregate, and certainly at the top of the scale, grown richer, and as the threats presented by the owners have appeared to be less existential, they’ve lowered their defenses. Part of the lowering of defenses is that they’ve moved away from wartime consiglieres, as it were. Marvin Miller and Don Fehr were blunt instruments. The sorts of blunt instruments you need when your very existence is on the line. When wars end, however, blunt instruments aren’t always welcome. As it is, one wonders how players relate, on a day-to-day basis, to a labor lawyers who are wired like those guys were wired. When you get the sense that, maybe, you don’t really need blunt instruments like them, you look to someone like Tony Clark.

I like Tony Clark. I’ve spoken with him a couple of times and interviewed him once and came away with a good feeling about him. I know some people who know him better and who have worked with him and, obviously, I’ve read a lot about him. He’s an impressive man and you can see what the players see in him. He’s smart and he has a presence and a charisma about him. You’d leave your kids with him or trust him to watch over your business affairs if need be.

I suspect — based on what I’ve read about and observed from players over the years — that they liked Tony Clark ascending to the role because he can relate to them. He was a player. He spoke their language. While Don Fehr may have been who the players needed on that wall when the enemy attacked, Clark knows, way better, how the less life-or-death issues facing membership cut. Fehr will fight about financial matters which a lot of players may only understand on a superficial level. Clark makes players feel like one of their own is watching their back when it comes to stuff like days off during the season and how many bus trips veterans have to take during spring training or whatever.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this. While I and some other looney lefties of the baseball writing world get pretty worked up about how the luxury tax operates or how qualifying offers impact a given free agent, it’s not our union. It’s the players’ union. If their priorities change with changing times, those are the priorities that the union has to address. If players are happy making the money they make, it is not our place to say that they shouldn’t give a crap about the more day-to-day issues about which Tony Clark may have more expertise and about which he can best speak with both union members and ownership.

The problem comes if and when the players do decide that the pendulum has swung too far in the owners’ favor on those big financial issues. How do you suddenly change tactics and fight back when you don’t have a blunt instrument at your disposal?

Ultimately, the players have a nuclear option: to strike. Or, at the very least, to pose a credible threat to strike. They have a seat at the table and are a part of every CBA negotiation, but striking or credibly threatening to strike is their ultimate card to play. It’s not a pleasant option. It turns the players into villains in the eyes of fans and the press, costs them money and keeps them from doing their favorite thing in the world, which is, duh, playing baseball. But that’s the power they have, and both using that power and threatening credibly to use that power has proved to be pretty dang effective for them over the years.

To pose a credible threat to strike, the union has to present a unified front. There has to be solidarity among membership with all of them, whether they relish the prospect of fighting with ownership or not, being willing to do so if certain pre-determined lines are crossed. It takes a LOT of work to create that level of solidarity and to forge that unified front. Marvin Miller worked his tail off for years, tirelessly and far-from-glamorously, to get all of the players on the same page — to get them willing to fight that nuclear war if necessary — before he could do the stuff he did in the 1970s and early 80s which made the MLBPA what it eventually became.

People who criticize Tony Clark say that he’s not a good union head because he’s not a labor lawyer and can’t fight like labor lawyers can fight. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. Clark and the MLBPA have a lot of labor lawyers on the payroll, and all of them can fight with the best of them. What they cannot do is go into a fight without that nuclear missile in their back pocket. Without the solidarity of union membership and without that unified front that will, if need be, strike or make a credible threat to strike, those labor lawyers are fighting without ammunition. If the players decide to do something about the luxury tax or qualifying offers or anything else that fundamentally alters the financial agreements between players and owners, it’ll be a pretty major change of course for them. It’ll mean disrupting the (owner-friendly) consensus that has formed on these issues over the past 15 years. It’s going to take a big fight. And winning that fight is going to require that the union have its strongest weapon available.

Nothing I’ve seen from the Tony Clark suggests to me that he could immediately and effectively muster that sort of consensus and solidarity. Rather than push the players into positions that, however uncomfortable for them, may benefit them in the long run, Clark has listened to the players and worked to help them get what they want now. Which, as I said before, is totally fine, as a union head needs to listen to membership as much as he leads. He works for the players and they have not, recently, shown much in the way of urgency when it comes to stuff like the luxury tax or qualifying offers.

To get to a place where they can fight back effectively on those issues will require changing the overall mindset of union membership, and that’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take educating team union reps who, in turn, persuade their teammates of the importance of the issues. It’s going to take players who may not personally benefit from a change to the current rules — studs who will get paid regardless and journeyman for whom a qualifying offer would represent a life-changing payday — to be on the same page and work for a common cause. At the end of that process, everyone will have to agree that, if they can’t get what they want, they’ll threaten to strike. If they half-ass any of that work, ownership will see right through them and won’t take them seriously.

I have a lot of respect for Tony Clark, but nothing I’ve seen since he’s taken over as the Executive Director of the MLBPA suggests to me that he can do that in the next three years or so before the next CBA is to be negotiated. I suspect it will take a blunter instrument. Until he can show that he can be that blunt instrument or until the players decide to hire someone who can, the status quo is going to persist.